Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.
“Who would have thought that the challenge with listening to any song ever recorded wouldn’t be finding it, but just remembering to do so?”
–Online forum poster, early 2000’s
This column’s theme: Audio files for audiophiles – how digital music changed everything.
While many new technologies get labeled “disruptive”, the music industry in the late 90’s early 00’s was discovering that the one two punch of the mp3 audio format and the Internet really were shaking things up. Now while the affect this had on listeners, bands, engineers, and record executives varied, one could safely say that once all the music you ever wanted only cost as much as a monthly Internet connection, it was guaranteed to delight the listening segment of the population, while doing quite the opposite for everyone else involved. Nowadays it is both obvious and inevitable that free music creates the need for a new business model, but getting to that point turns out to be a lot more complicated than it appears, as shown by these three books that ask what it means when anyone can have a recording, and how that ubiquity affects bands just being signed…
So if you like
Technology that is truly disruptive
Music for nothing
Sticking it to the man
Understanding how digital piracy works
You might like
How Music Got Free, by Stephen Witt
Witt covers how several very different groups used the mp3 audio format and the Internet to disrupting everything from music industry profits to how we listen to music today.
As I was browsing through my enormous list of albums one day a few years ago, a fundamental question struck me: where had all this music come from, anyway? I didn’t know the answer, and as I researched it, I realized that no one else did either. There had been heavy coverage of the mp3 phenomenon, of course, and of Apple and Napster and the Pirate Bay, but there had been little talk of the inventors, and almost none at all of those who actually pirated the files.
My assumption had been that music piracy was a crowdsourced phenomenon. That is, I believed the mp3s I’d downloaded had been sourced from scattered uploaders around the globe and that this diffuse network of rippers was not organized in any meaningful way. This assumption was wrong. While some of the files were indeed untraceable artifacts from random denizens of the Internet, the vast majority of pirated mp3s came from just a few organized releasing groups. By using forensic data analysis, it was often possible to trace those mp3s back to their place of primary origination. Combining the technical approach with classic investigative reporting, I found I could narrow this down even further. Many times it was possible not just to track the pirated file back to a general origin, but actually to a specific time and a specific person.
That was the real secret, of course: the Internet was made of people. Piracy was a social phenomenon, and once you knew where to look, you could begin to make out individuals in the crowd. Engineers, executives, employees, investigators, convicts, even burnouts—they all played a role.
This is a fascinating look at the consequences that came from being able to access music online. Witt digs deep to create a full picture of both how digital piracy worked and how the record company’s coping strategies didn’t. In this, he discovered upload groups fighting with each other to see which could leak a new album first, engineers discovering the unintended consequences of combining this new digital format with the Internet, and a majority of record company executives having absolutely no idea of how truly disruptive this technology was going to be. Consequently, this book should appeal to technical types, musicians, sociologists, and anybody that likes seeing big corporations fall on their faces.
Or if you like
Finding out why every song today is so damn loud
Explaining to everybody why vinyl is better than streaming
Why creating a recording is way more than just pressing a button
You might like
Krukowski takes what you’d think would be a really dry, straightforward discussion of the differences between analog and digital information, and produces a fascinating study of how the tradeoffs inherent in these two approaches have all kinds of unintended consequences
I began work on this book as an effort to understand better the terms of this change in the media I know best: sound and music. Digital life has no lack of keen critics, including many more scholarly accounts of its economic, social, and political ramifications. My focus is on our aural life and its cultural implications. Because for all the angst and boosterism surrounding the shift from analog to digital in the music industry, I feel the meaning of it has yet to be adequately described. It’s as if we lack a vocabulary for articulating the changes I have experienced as both a producer and consumer of music—one of the reasons, perhaps, our conversations about it so often resort to unhelpful dichotomies of old v. new, or pro v. con.
To address this problem, the following chapters take up a series of processes that have changed for producers of recorded audio with the shift from analog to digital. Each of these is mirrored by a change in our relationship as consumers to the technology of sound. And each, I believe, has implications for our communications at large in the digital age.
“Headspace” looks at stereo hearing and raises the question of location—how we use sound to situate ourselves in analog and digital space.
“Proximity Effect” considers our use of microphones, and extends the question of location to the way we gauge social distance as we address one another.
“Surface Noise” focuses on sounds generated by audio media themselves, and discusses depth as an aspect of how we listen—what we hear when we listen closely.
“Loudness Wars” recounts the recent change in our use of volume, and more generally distortions of address and of hearing—the curves to our perception.
“Real Time” asks how sounds we exchange, under the different constraints of analog and digital time, make for a shared history or not.
Each of these examples is indicative of our changing relationship to noise.
I was surprised at how incredibly well thought out this book was. Sure, we all know the broad strokes of analog vs digital, LPs vs MP3s, but Krukowski pokes into the spaces around this idea and examines the consequences – aural, social, financial, historical, and a whole bunch of other ‘al’s to explore all kinds of things. For example, digital information allows the creator to decide exactly what and how much of anything goes in (which is one of the reasons why modern music is so across the board LOUD – base sounds that are perceived as quieter are now engineered up to 11), and what gets omitted. He also examines the social aspects of signal vs noise, pointing out the ‘mic check’, used by Occupy Wall Street protesters, where a group shouts back what a person is saying, grew out of noise laws in New York City that prevented bullhorns, but allowed as much yelling as one wanted. Also there’s the history, of how different recording and editing tools changed the nature of the music produced. Music nerds will not want to pass this one up.
Or if you like
Being punk AF
Understanding the music business
Watching Behind The Music
That band…that did that song…you know the one…
Rock music between the mid 90’s and mid 2000’s
You might like
What happens to make a band decide to join a major label and become the dreaded ‘sellouts’? Turns out it’s not always the same outcome for every band, and the availability of free music played a role.
No one saw Nirvana coming. When Geffen/DGC Records took a chance on the band’s sophomore album, Nevermind, in September 1991, expectations were modest, with only 46,000 copies shipping to stores in the United States. Aided by minimal marketing, it debuted on the Billboard 200 chart at number 144 and climbed steadily over that month—to 109, then 65, then 35. Once MTV started airing their video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” its momentum couldn’t be contained. After just eight weeks, Nevermind had gone platinum.
Nevermind’s meteoric rise put the last nail in the coffin of the 1980s and torched any lingering hair metal popularity. Tastemakers ravenously combed local scenes for the next Nirvana, the next Kurt Cobain, the next Seattle. Ten years of DIY culture and its entire movement had finally hit a tipping point and fundamentally changed the world. “Grunge” was now the hot new industry term, and everything in its orbit was in demand. Suddenly, the underground was financially viable, and the lines that had been black and white turned gray. Or, more accurately, green, as money started flowing into the underground from the corporations trying to buy it all up.
What followed in the wake of Nevermind has been described as a major-label feeding frenzy, an A&R gold rush, and an indie rock signing blitz. A&R reps raced one another to mine previously untapped scenes where rock music was thriving, in hopes of discovering the next breakout stars. After they’d fully pillaged Nirvana’s stomping grounds in Seattle, they searched elsewhere—D.C., San Diego, Chapel Hill—and eventually landed in San Francisco. That’s where this book begins—with a catchy punk trio from the East Bay called Green Day, who inked a deal with Reprise Records in the summer of ’93 for the release of their third album, Dookie.
The spread of bands in Sellout runs from those you’ve probably heard about (Green Day, Blink-182) to might have heard about (Jimmy Eat World, The Donnas, My Chemical Romance) to who? (At the Drive-In, The Distillers)
It’s a collection of interesting case studies as to how the nature of the bands, their outlooks, record deals, and the reactions of their fan bases affected the trajectory of the bands. What I found most interesting were the combinations of fan base hatred (or sometimes not), how the labels handled the bands, and how the bands dealt with their success, such as it was or wasn’t.
The audience for this book will probably self-filter on the title, but it helps if the reader has some familiarity with the bands, or an interest in the evolution of the music industry as streaming killed off physical sales. I’d recommend reading this one on an Internet connected device, as I frequently found myself using YouTube to look up the songs mentioned in the book from bands I wasn’t familiar with. However, if you’ve got an interest in any of the above, Sellout is definitely worth a spin.
So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts and best playlists in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column.