The musical journey from vinyl records, cassettes, CDs, minidiscs, mp3 to music streaming services has come full circle as many music lovers return to vinyl. But how did we get here?
The excitement around the arrival of Apple's iPod 20 years ago saw many unwittingly begin to trade sound quality for the convenience of being able to carry their entire music collection in their pocket.
In a world of high-quality 4K video, audiences are routinely choosing to watch their favorite TV shows or movies in at least HD quality and will shun anything that is too grainy. Every new smartphone will also have the ability to capture the highest quality videos and photos. But, the internal microphones seldom improve with each new generation of devices. Equally, music streaming services such as Spotify provide audiences with highly compressed music.
Neil Young famously blasted Apple by accusing the MacBook Pro of having 'Fisher-Price' audio quality and even boasted that Steve Jobs once told him, "We're making products for consumers, not quality." Young has criticized streaming giants for years and once told the New York Times, "When you hear real music, you get lost in it, but Spotify sounds like a rotating electric fan that someone bought at a hardware store."
"Steve Jobs was a digital pioneer, but when he went home, he listened to vinyl."— Neil Young
Audiophiles have long spoken about their frustrations with the audio quality of Spotify. Many of the lossy and low-fidelity audio files that we listen to via a pair of true wireless headphones from our smartphone sound inferior to the original recordings. But it's not just the audio quality that is the problem; our throwaway attitude to music has altered the entire creation process.
The death of the instrumental intro
In the Disney Plus documentary, The Beatles: Get Back, we were treated to a glimpse behind the curtain and how the creative process worked in much simpler times. Then, creativity was considered an organic process of trying different things, examining the results before changing and improving them further without thinking about cramming everything into the intro.
As music became more portable and we replaced albums with playlists, we also unwittingly altered how popular songs are made. Looking back at your favorite songs from over a decade ago, you will notice that instrumental intros and a slow build-up to the chorus were the norms. By contrast, most new music will begin with the hook or chorus, and our listening behavior is largely responsible for this change.
Streaming services such as Spotify famously only pay artists royalties after a user has listened for 30 seconds. As a result, artists have changed how they write songs and will try and pack the hook and chorus into the intro to prevent the listener from hitting skip to ensure they get paid. The result is often a quick fix and a short attention span which means we flick between a greatest hits selection rather than investing time into one album by an artist.
The rise of musician website builders promises to enhance how artists are seen and heard online. Meanwhile, Spotify dared to drift into the creepy territory by exploring how it can recommend songs based on the speech patterns and emotional state of its users. But thankfully, the rebellious Rock 'n' Roll spirit remains alive and well as The Pocket Gods dared to release a 1,000-track album where each track was 30 seconds long in protest against Spotify's royalty rates.
Why focus groups stifle creativity and innovation
How many innovative and game-changing ideas began with a group of people sitting around a table? Despite the knowledge that focus groups stifle creativity and innovation, the content we hear on radio stations and view on our screens will have been through so-called focus groups to ensure artists give audiences more of what they want.
"Albums are made by committee and focus groups. The consumer is king. So, the consumer gets what they want. But as I understand it, the consumer didn't want Jimmy Hendrix, but they got him, and it changed the world. They didn't want Sgt. Peppers or the Sex Pistols, but they got it."— Noel Gallagher
One of the most common ways of discovering new music is through hearing brief excerpts used on social media videos. It's no longer just about our collection of music. Collaborative playlists also mean that our friends can join us in curating playlists, and anyone can add or remove tracks. What is hot this week will be deemed annoying within a couple of weeks, and the permanent collection of life-defining tunes has been replaced by disposable pop and indie landfill. All of which leaves many music fans wondering what will happen to their playlists when they go to the big gig in the sky.
Rediscovering your love of music
The way we discover and listen to music has evolved, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Video never killed the radio star, and home taping never killed the music industry either. In a digital age, the artists are back in control of their art, and record labels or other intermediaries simply don't need to exist anymore.
In a world of $300 headphones, music lovers are increasingly demanding sound quality over the choice of 82 million tracks, which leaves Spotify in a vulnerable position. The battle to become the best high-quality music streaming service to offer hi-res streams is gathering pace as Tidal and Qobuz continue to lead the way with high-end CD-quality and hi-res streaming. Elsewhere, Apple Music's 75-million-strong music catalog is available in CD quality, and Amazon Music HD also offers hi-res audio for those on a budget.
However, one of the most significant changes in the industry is how we listen to music. It used to be something that people used to sit down and enjoy. Fans would relax and focus on enjoying an entire album picking up every nuance of the record. But the portability of music changed everything. It’s no longer something where we concentrate all of our attention. In many ways, music has become background noise while we are doing something else, such as exercising, cooking, or on a long journey.
As we begin to fall back in love with audio quality with the resurgence of vinyl and HD streaming, maybe the biggest casualty of the digital music scene is our attention span. With an almost limitless choice of music at our fingertips, we are like kids in a candy store who want to sample everything rather than genuinely enjoy and appreciate anything.
Although we originally sacrificed fidelity for portability and convenience, we have been given a second chance. So, the next time you find yourself skipping your way through a playlist every 25 seconds, maybe it's time to put your phone down and get back to enjoying the soundtrack to your life free from distraction. It's time for everyone reading this to rediscover the art of daydreaming far away from the algorithms designed to keep you endlessly scrolling.