Sunday, June 30, 2024

The analog kid—some reflections on music and technology and Into the Void

Spiraling into a (digital) void...
I recently finished Geezer Butler’s biography Into the Void. A fun and interesting read for many reasons. It’s mainly as you’d expect a detailed look into Geezer’s time with Black Sabbath, in which he served as bass player and principal lyrics writer. Geezer experienced a wild rock and roll lifestyle, including a roller coaster ride to the top in the early to mid-70s and subsequent plunge to the bottom in the late 80s and early 90s. But along the way Into the Void offers some interesting commentary and a glimpse into how radically the music industry has transformed from 1969-today. Largely due to the rapid adoption of new technology and the corresponding shift from analog to digital.

I am of Generation X (born 1973) and have the benefit of living in two worlds. I grew up in an analog era of tapes and stereos, but also had a front seat to the rise of computers and digital music, and later Napster and YouTube and Spotify. I rode that lightning. 

With that perspective I’ve come around to the belief that technological adoption results in both progress and regress. It is not a universal good, each step an advance toward some Star Trek utopia espoused by deluded techno-utopians like David Brin. Nor is it an evil, each advance in technology removing us further from some mythical Garden of Eden and closer to a digital Hell. 

It is just Change, for better and for worse.

Music used to be harder to access. You had to plunk down hard-earned coin to buy it. There were fewer options, no carefully curated song lists built around your mood or vacation destination. Unless you wanted to go through the considerable trouble of making a mix tape.

But analog music was (and remains, with the right equipment) of a better sound quality than compressed digital, richer and more resonant. And friendlier to the collector. With your analog purchase comes physical art, albums with foldouts and liner notes and the like.

Many things got better for music with the advent of digital. With Spotify Premium ($10.99/ month, soon to be $11.99) I have access to essentially every piece of music ever recorded. I can go to YouTube and watch any music video I formerly had to pray Headbanger’s Ball might play. I can watch hundreds and thousands of concerts I’ve never been to, and documentaries and fan videos, when before the only options were to buy a VHS copy of Live After Death or take a gamble on a bootleg.

Tapes were never a great way to preserve music, and records and CDs can warp or scratch. Digital is “forever” (as long as you pay the monthly fee).

In short, digital was great for me, the fan and consumer, in many ways. I benefit it from it in a small way here on the blog, with my ‘Metal Friday” posts where I can link to videos and share them with like-minded metal fans.

Nevertheless, I prefer the way the music industry used to work. Or at least, enough of it to tip the balance toward the analog era. I’m aware I’m a trader in nostalgia, but like Geezer Butler I believe have some legit arguments to back me up (which makes us both geezers, I suppose).

In the pre-digital age recorded music was not a commodity. It had to be committed to physical objects—records, tapes, CDs—in order to be distributed. Albums had controlled pricing and were marked up to create profitable margins. And because artists could and did make real money on album sales, that meant live shows served a different purpose. They were a way to promote new albums and drive records sales. They were cheaper. 

But for the artist, digital distribution is a nightmare. Butler in his book scoffs at the royalties he receives from Spotify, despite the fact Sabbath has sold more than 75 million albums. Says Butler:
While bands in the sixties and seventies got robbed by dodgy managers, modern artists and groups get robbed by streaming services like Spotify, who pay a fraction of a cent per play. It’s not even worth looking at Sabbath’s income from Spotify, it’s so small.
The only way to make up for the loss of album sales is through touring, which has led to exorbitant concert prices.

Some will argue that the unlimited choices offered by Spotify and YouTube are an unmitigated good for the consumer. But I don’t necessarily see it that way, even though I have found bands on these platforms. Research has found that people like choice, but from a limited, selected set of options. Unlimited choice is crippling, which is why we need curation. Kerrang or Headbanger’s Ball served this purpose back in the day, but today who are the arbiters of taste? It’s harder to find new music when there’s no curated selections in record stores. It used to be a handful of your local rock radio stations would bring you the latest bands, now you have to subject yourself to the whims of algorithms or corrupt search engines.

But access to music just scratches the surface of the massive impact of digital.

Electronic drum machines and autotuned voices massively lowered the bar for who could record an album. It undercut raw ability and negated craft gained through sweat equity, trading it out for dance moves and good looks. Manufactured music gave birth to the rise of pop performers who captivated audiences through sex appeal and dance moves. This kicked off at the turn of the new millennium with the rise of Britney Spears, N’Sync, Backstreet Boys, and the Spice Girls, and continues unabated today.

Before the advent of digital, record labels gave bands like Rush and Black Sabbath several albums to find their sound. It was a risk, but a calculated one, because these bands had paid their dues in clubs, built followings, and could perform. They were talents that then required promotion. 

Of course there were exceptions. Record labels were and are out to make money and signed many shitty bands purely because they were part of a hot music movement. But in general the labels had a longer leash and more patience for artists. When the emphasis is on the music, who cares how the band members look? 

If four ugly dudes from Birmingham England with an experimental new sound that didn’t follow pop formula (and certainly could not dance) were born in 1999 rather than 1949, could they become rock stars? Does anyone think we’d have had Black Sabbath today? Butler doesn’t:
People tend to ask me: Could Sabbath happen now? The truth is, probably not. The odds of four working-class lads coming together in a rough place like Aston, writing very heavy songs about their gritty reality and making it in the music industry are slim to none. They wouldn’t look “right,” they wouldn’t sound “current” and they’d be too much of a risk for major record companies.
Digitalization renders music into a commodity, cheap and disposable, no longer holy. We don’t have to queue up and wait for the new Guns and Roses albums as we once used. My daughters love Taylor Swift and pay big $ to see her in concert but don’t own her albums. The entire concept of an “album” is practically meaningless.

I don’t believe this is better, or healthier, for music. 

I am heartened that analog still has a place. You can still find music stores and new records for purchase. I smile when I see young kids buying records and admiring the artwork, and enjoying the look and feel of a physical object in their hands instead of a vaporware download. But buying physical music is a novelty, not a necessity.

While something was gained in the switch to digital, something was lost along the way. 


Ian said...

Even though I'm younger (I'm a Millennial, born in 1991), I share your sentiment. I was lucky enough to experience the tail end of the physical era. I can't tell you how exciting it was for me to buy a CD copy of Metallica's Ride the Lightning and to listen to it when I got home. Even to this day, I buy all my albums, physically when possible, but digitally if that's the only affordable option. I especially like platforms like Bandcamp, where there's often the option to buy albums in a physical format while also getting a digital copy to listen to on the go. I typically only use streaming services for sampling music, determining what I like enough to purchase. And there are also some sites that provide curated recommendations as well, my personal favorite being Ride Into Glory:

Travis Miller said...

I go to underground metal and indie rock shows a couple times a month. What I see there sort of matches, in it's way, the self and small publishing world. There are a few bands, who are figuring out how to be their own record company and while they aren't getting wealthy doing it, they are able to make a decent living, tour around and make interesting music.

It's slow because they aren't getting massive plays on Spotify but they do get attention from bloggers, YouTube channels, and other niche commentators in the scene. It's hard work and many of those bands are still doing their day jobs but the better ones are doing OK and slowly growing a following.

One of my favorite examples of this is King Buffalo. They and their families do everything. Recording, promo, merch design and sales, and most of their own recording work. Right now they are building a recording studio themselves. As in swinging hammers and putting up dry wall themselves.

I think we will see more of this sort of things happening and I hope to see more bands become moderately successful and not have to deal with the major music companies which allows them to own their music, decide how it is played (mostly) and have creative control and not have to write a crappy ballad because that is what some executive thinks they need to do.

Matthew said...

It doesn't say anything good about the current state of the music industry that Sabbath could not happen now.

Brian Murphy said...

Ian: I still buy physical copies too (though I noticed I slipped on the latest Priest album, which I have consumed purely through Spotify, so must rectify that). Have not checked out Ride Into Glory so thanks for the recommendation.

Travis: That gives me hope. I know there are good bands out there making good music, it's just that the ecosystem has changed so drastically and must be relearned (as you seem to be doing). I do hope it leads to the best of these bands able to make a living from music as the likes of Sabbath once did, not merely eking out a few sales while the likes of Spotify and YouTube capture the lion's share of revenue.

Matthew: Agreed... of course Butler doesn't know this for certain, but the conditions are not favorable.