Not so long ago I was a columnist for a great magazine devoted to “world music,” called The Beat
. I put world music in quotes because it was a marketing phrase coined in the early 1980s to cope with the explosion of music being published from Africa to the Caribbean to Bulgaria. It’s a nearly useless label because it includes such diversity, but it is also a tad xenophobic because it lumps all music not from “America.” Absurd, when you think about it; but I digress.
My Beat column covered music from Africa, an immense source of diverse culture and, for me, the foundation for almost all of the world’s music. I usually wrote about the latest developments in African pop music, often highlighting important innovators who captured global interest and fame. Frequently, though, I would receive traditional or historic field recordings to review, and I would write about how important they were because they preserved music that was extinct or barely surviving the onslaught of globalized commercial culture.
Today I am writing about endangered music at a different scale. I believe ALL MUSIC IS ENDANGERED, at least music as most of us have enjoyed it since before iPods were invented. How can I say that, when today it is easier to acquire music than ever before, with a few clicks on the computer, and when any music talent can create complex recordings at home?
The emerging problem with commercial music is the way it is distributed. Technological change continually revamps how musicians (and their marketers) deliver their music. A century ago strictly live performances were recorded onto records, and music distribution was revolutionized. Everyone who could afford it, could listen to their favorite music in their homes. The vinyl LP record evolved to become the dominant distribution medium, withstanding challenges from reel-to-reel, eight-track, cassette and digital tapes, until compact discs became the world’s favorite musical consumable. Compact discs did not eliminate LPs, however, because many audiophiles and others recognized that despite surface noise, something about the analog music on LPs seemed more real than the same music digitized. Often this rather esoteric debate has centered on musical space, something impossible to describe beyond saying that with headphones on and eyes closed, it is easier to believe you are in the room with the musicians when listening to an LP. Digitizing removes some essence of music.
Yet digitizing of music has improved over time, and the convenience of digital music has outweighed the slight audible compromise for most music enthusiasts. Many have abandoned libraries of LPs, while building collections of CDs. Today many people are ripping their CDs onto their computers to put onto iPods or cellphones, and new music purchases (if there are any) are most likely made through iTunes or Amazon online stores.
The result has been dramatic in two ways. First, as online purchases and especially music piracy have grown ubiquitous, many independent music publishers have closed their doors; huge music corporations are on the ropes. The market for CDs is evaporating, causing profound repercussions for musicians throughout the world.
The second aspect of digital online music is that almost all of it is compressed. You are aware that you are buying an MP3, but did you know you were purchasing only part of the music? This is how compression works. Digitally recorded sound is routinely sampled at around 1400 kilobits/second. CDs conserve all of that data, and when you listen to a CD you hear the complete mixed recording. A full “CD quality” recording uses about 600 megabytes of space on a hard drive, which used to be a considerable percentage of a hard drive’s memory. So when people began ripping CDs onto their computers, their ripping software (iTunes, etc.) would by default compress the music into 128 kbps MP3s (or AAC), in order to fit more music onto the computer (or iPod, or whatever), shrinking an album to 50 megabytes.
Compression of a sound file basically removes part of its data. In the case of 128 kbps MP3s, about 91% of the musical information is discarded. Even those with diminished hearing should be able to hear the difference between a typical MP3 and the CD version of the same song. Listen to cymbals! Lossy MP3s in general sound dead to me, a muted parody of the original music. The slight musical space lost when going from analog to digital recordings becomes a universe of space lost when compressing digital files. Imagine removing 90% of the essence in a glass of wine. How would it taste?
Online music distribution began with rampant piracy enabled through file-sharing software like Napster and LimeWire, and most people who shared their music shared compressed MP3s. When the iTunes store was developed to compete with illegal file sharing of music, it distributed music as compressed MP3s. iPods were marketed by the number of songs that they held. Low quality MP3s became the standard and dominant music product exchanged or sold throughout the world, and it is the only music that most children ever hear.
Unsurprisingly, the market for CDs has collapsed. As a result, like 8-track and cassette tapes a generation ago, CDs are becoming an endangered species. Now many recordings are available only online. Recently I tried to find the newest release from one of my favorite African musicians, Pierre Akendengue, but I could not find it anywhere in this country. I might have purchased the album through iTunes, but I could not stomach paying for his music, degraded. Eventually I found a CD through Amazon UK, and had the disc shipped from England. That event convinced me to identify holes in my music collection, the handfuls of CDs I’ve lusted for, and collect them before they are gone. The way things are going, they may be the last copies of the rich, full music that musicians create.