Perfect Sound Forever

The Creation and Reception of Music over Time


Waywords (middle) image by image by Robert Berry

Private Listening, 21st Century Technology, and David Byrne as Musicologist
by Derek Pyle
(October 2015)


David Byrne fronted the 1970's/1980's art pop band Talking Heads, and as revealed in his 2012 book How Music Works, Byrne is also something of a musicologist. Elaborating on how context shapes creative expression, Byrne runs through how various sonic palettes emerge as a result of different contexts: "context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed" (p. 13).

Bach played in smaller churches and his music, says Byrne, works best in those spaces, where long sustained organ notes reverberate and layer. Percussive polyrhythms would not work in such spaces. It may sound obvious, but Bach also needed to play organ music in churches because, well, that's where the organs where located. To say that Bach's work was shaped by such performative context is not to discount the man's innovations. Rather, innovations appear all the more mightier when we consider how an artist must overcome a myriad of constraints.

Wagner certainly thought about how venues affect performances, famously building the Bayreuth Festspeilhaus in the 1870's – a very unique music venue designed specifically for performances of the Ring Cycle. But all modern symphony halls actually shape creative expression, and also alter how audiences receive the music. According to Byrne as well as music critic Alex Ross, prior to the late 19th century concert halls were noisy, raucous places, full of eating and chatter. As the halls changed – due to various artistic as well as social factors – composers and performers became able to create in new, previously unavailable ways. Just as a performance of John Cage's 4'33'' would go unrecognized in New York's Port Authority, Stravinsky's dynamic crescendos can only exist within a silent music hall. The occasional cough not withstanding, the concert hall is one of the only places where entire audiences hear the music, and only the music.


Private music

Prior to the 20th century, the "art" of creating music was almost exclusively dependent on real-time performance. Yet as editing processes became incrementally better as well as simpler following the post-WWII advent of high-quality multi-track cassette recording, Byrne writes, "the elements of a ‘performance' no longer had to be rooted in contiguous time or space" (p. 100). As Byrne briefly mentions in his book, the renowned pianist Glenn Gould declared in his 1966 manifesto The Prospects of Recording: "the public concert as we know it today would no longer exist a century hence... its functions would have been entirely taken over by electronic media." This wasn't merely an abstract assertion for Gould. Two years prior, Gould had abruptly retired from concerts, preferring to create unblemished audio recordings rather than risk blunders in live performance.

If the advent of editing allowed for a new way of creating music, denuded from the temporality of performance, one of the biggest shifts in the listener's reception of modern music is the personalization of sonic experience. Where once you had to hear music live in order to hear it, now you can listen to the recordings instead.

Available commercially in 1979, the Walkman created an even more personal – and private – form of listening. With headphones, deeper listening became possible. You could scrutinize the interplay in heady Grateful Dead jams, or hear the totality of orchestral texture in classical music. Private listening likely helped create a larger audience for edgier, counterculture music. In the 1980's, teenagers could also listen to Slayer and Judas Priest on Walkmans, without their parents knowing.

Extremely aggressive and perverse creative music likely peaked in the 1990's – partly because in 2015, most hateful and anti-authoritarian music feels stale and clichι. Whether anyone would celebrate the album as an achievement of private music, certainly nobody would ever listen openly to Marilyn Manson's 1995 release Smells Like Children – which intersperses sampled movie clips from Willy Wonka and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with actual audio from a teenage girl describing how she sexually molested her seven-year-old cousin. Interscope Records refused to release this heinous material, and a more sanitized EP was released instead. The original unreleased version of Smells Like Children has made the rounds, however, thanks to modern era technology: the uncensored album was eventually distributed peer-to-peer, available to anyone daring – and sick enough – to listen. Beginning with Napster in 1998, the Internet became a place where people could subvert records labels, for all sorts of reasons.


The music industry

Another contribution of Byrne's book is his thorough analysis of the current music industry, and its alternatives. In a 50-page chapter entitled "Business and Finances", Byrne outlines changes in the industry over the last 50 years. Previously, major record labels signed very few acts but invested considerably in those acts because the occasional hit record could paid all the bills, big time. In 2015, record sales are comparatively infinitesimal, and very few people are making money off record contracts – whether signed to a major label, or an independent one. To illustrate these changes, Byrne is surprising frank about his own expenses and income, detailing through charts and graphs the various costs of production and distribution.

Staying a step removed from the record label also has its perks. In 1950's and ‘60's Nashville, record label executives dictated every aspect of music making. They told artists what, how and where to play. Record executives even dictated what musicians were allowed to wear! When Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson decided to make music without the backing of these mainstream labels, it was truly "outlaw."

In the 21st century, this is no longer outlaw but law of the land. Working on a computer these days, you don't even need any musical instruments to make music! With Logic, Pro-Tools and relatively inexpensive home recording equipment, everyone can record their own music and share it with the world via SoundCloud. Whether anyone actually cares about what you put on SoundCloud – and more subjectively, whether you have any thing original to express – remains the largest barrier.

While the music executives of today worry that the Internet is killing the music industry, in the words of Tim O'Reilly, "obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy." Unfortunately, success is not always awarded on the merits of originality and as some generic artists get popular, some truly inspired artists remain obscure.


21st century music

Despite whatever may or may not be popular, creative works are often interesting when they express something in an original or unique way. When these innovative ideas are really exciting – or really profitable – other people often get inspired and copy that new idea. Occasionally something original is so influential as to become par for the course; for a lot of younger listeners it is hard to hear retroactively what made Chuck Berry, and later the Beatles, so special because they're so ingrained into our musical fabric now.

Copying has always been a part of the creative process. As Byrne notes, with recording technology it became much easier for aspiring musicians to learn to mimic their heroes, by listening to the same track over and over. Artists learn by copying other artists, and for many centuries creative merit – from Homer and Shakespeare to folk ballads and the blues – was not necessarily about saying something new per se, but expressing an old story in a new way.

In the 20th century, a newer literal form of copying became available to musicians. Sampling – the remixing of sounds to create new aural media – became feasible with the advent of cassette and vinyl recordings. In the 1950's, Luciano Berio experimented with cassette sampling, while Jamaican dancehall and American club DJs re-worked vinyl records in the ‘70's and 80s. By the 1990s, technology had evolved so far that one no longer needed to use pre-existing sounds to create new audio mish-mash. As Byrne writes of contemporary hip-hop, "there is now often no relationship between a composition's backing track and a simulation of a live performance by musicians in the traditional sense" (p. 132).

Following a thread more beget by Kraftwerk than Kool Herc, Nine Inch Nails revolutionized alternative and industrial music in the 1990's, in part through an innovative use of sampling alongside original production. While Trent Reznor's musical creativity may have peaked with his 1999 release The Fragile, Nine Inch Nails explored some incredible, truly 21st century forms of music distribution in the 2000s- given Reznor's long history of innovation, it's surprising Byrne's book doesn't even mention Nine Inch Nails.

In 2007 Nine Inch Nails fans discovered a hidden message in one of the band's T-shirt, which prompted fans to the domain iamtryingtobelieve.com. A number of additional websites were soon discovered, each site documenting different aspects of an imagined post-apocalyptic totalitarian world. Talk about a new way for audiences to receive music. Over the next two months, fans were encouraged to discover clues and codes in order to participate in an elaborate alternative reality game. USB drives were hidden in the bathroom stalls of select Nine Inch Nails concerts, containing "leaked" tracks from the forthcoming album.

Reality and fantasy merged as fans entered into a unique science-fiction world; websites provided phone numbers to pre-recorded messages, while users dissected the meaning of each message via hidden Internet forums. Users could join revolutionary rebels groups such as Art is Resistance, and fans were invited to create protest actual artwork denouncing the fictional governmental regime. The band even arranged for some of that art to be printed, through various newspaper sources like the Village Voice and LA Weekly.

One astounding aspect of Year Zero is the project's impermanence. Most of the website URLs and hotlines no longer exist, although Wikipedia and NIN.wiki both detail the project fairly well. Yet the experience of hunting clues and discovering secrets is ultimately impossible retrospectively. One reason for this impossibility is the lack of referents for comparison. Maximizing the possibilities of 21st century technology and creativity, Year Zero is unprecedented.


Collaborative cultures

Given Trent Reznor's status as an internationally successful even mainstream musician, his entrance into 21st century remix culture has also been unique. Dissatisfied with his major record label Reznor independently released two albums in 2008 (Ghosts I-IV and The Slip). Both albums were released under creative commons licensing, meaning fans could not only download the music for free but also remix and recreate the work without fear of copyright infringement. To aid this creative process, Reznor also released studio quality multi-track recordings and encouraged film adaptations through the creation of an online ‘film festival.'

By releasing music under creative commons and without the backing of a major label, Reznor challenged the corporate ethos of mainstream music while also raising questions about the viability of 20th century copyright law. Along with laws regulating what and how copies can or cannot be made, modern ideas of intellectual property originated in the 17th century, when the printing press provided a new form of mass reproduction.

Sampling sounds and music to create new music may be one of the 20th century's key creative innovations, but the viability of sampled music is limited by extreme fiscal constraints. An artist can only use a few samples per album, because it costs too much money to obtain permissions en masse. The powers that be obviously have a vested interest in maintaining current copyright law – creative copyrights last far longer in the United States than any other country in the world thanks to Disney's corporate lobbyists – but musicians have begun to willing forgo traditional copyright, for the sake of increased collaboration and creative exchange.

While Reznor's work remains more or less within the popular mainstream, hitRECord and ccMixter are two examples of grassroots creative commons culture. Both sites work as organizational hubs, where musicians from around the world can link up and work together to create, remix and sample music. An individual can propose a project or idea and then request responses and contributions from the community. The collaboration just builds from there. My own project, Waywords and Meansigns, utilized a somewhat similar model of collaboration to set James Joyce's Finnegans Wake to music, unabridged – various musicians from around the world each took one of the Wake's 17 different chapters. The result is a mosaic of styles and genres, all distributed freely online. The project had to be grassroots. Clocking in at just over 31-hours, no record company would approve such a project – and can you imagine releasing something like that 75 years ago, on 78rpm vinyl? Never. Whether Waywords and Meansigns will catch on as a model to be imitated seems, well, unlikely.


What's next?

Part of what makes creative commons culture unique is the prospect of collaboration occurring remotely, in the digital world. Although Byrne doesn't write about digital remix culture specifically, he acknowledges that "most contemporary collaborations, at least the ones I do, don't take place face-to-face anymore" (p. 190).

The distribution model of creative commons culture is also unique. While much of the music industry abhors the Internet because of music piracy, many musicians view the prospect of free music going viral as opportunity. Both archive.org and the Free Music Archive, for example, offer huge amounts of freely circulated media, much of it licensed under creative commons. SoundCloud and YouTube also offer a great deal of free music, for streaming as well as downloading. In the 21st century, the library has gone digital, and you don't have to return the items you check out. For some artists, online exposure eventually becomes profitable. Many jambands, for example, actively encourage their live recordings to be distributed freely on the Internet. This does not limit the band's profits necessarily, because in that scene, the money is in ticket sales. Seeing the band live – over and over again – is part of the community's ethos.

Whether profitable or not, these online venues certainly showcase that there are plenty of ways to get music out there these days, without a record label – but you still have to overcome obscurity before anyone will give a shit. You are free to create whatever you want, be it freaky or generic, but to get your music heard and appreciated, you must first learn a whole host of non-musical skills, like social media promotion and networking. Byrne highlights this latter point in his book, and it is also a major topic in Cory Doctorow's Information Doesn't Want to Be Free.

By all accounts, the 21st century appears to be an era of de-centralized music production and distribution. As 20th century ideas about copyright change over time, sampled and remixed music may come to even more prominence. From Year Zero to hitRECord, new forms of audience participation are merging with new forms of community-based collaboration. How all of this will affect the commercial music industry, in the long run, remains to be seen. Of much more interest and importance will be watching how these new forms of digital innovation, collaboration, and listening shape 21st century music in the coming decades.

See the Waywords and Meansigns project website


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