Ask 411 Music 11.14.12: What Is The Single Most Important Year In Modern Music History?
Ask 411 is back after a week off? Did you miss us? Did you even notice we were gone? Well regardless we’ve returned and we’ve got our first ever two-part edition.
Why two parts? Well, simply put, I have two answers to this week’s question. The answer I’m going to give you today is the answer I 100% believe in. The problem is the question is asked in a certain spirit (to discuss big musical breakthroughs, albums and releases), and while my answer is honest, it isn’t based on those criteria (this will make a lot more sense in a minute).
So what’s the question I hear you cry:
Disclaimer: I’m going to reveal and explain my answer in a second, but first, I want to make clear that next week I’ll be tackling the same topic from a different perspective – and I want your help. I’d love to hear your views what year is the most important and why, because I’m going to spend a week really thinking hard about this question.
1993: I’m sure a few eyebrows have been raised. I’ll admit when this question was initially posed 1993 didn’t jump into my mind, but I sat back and thought about the term “important”. The year I chose had encompass a crucial happening: something fundamental, a shift in the landscape, something that made an indelible mark on the music industry and pop culture at large. Something that changed how we conceive, consume and understand modern music.
While I don’t support every assertion he made in his long career, I am a firm believer in the philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s central assertion: the medium is the message.
This is one of the most misunderstood quotes in human history. Despite making a huge impact in in the 1960s, McLuhan was often sarcastically asked to talk to commuters and telephones, in the hopes of explaining their messages. Sure it was funny, and Marshall played along, but it missed the point.
The way we live, interact, consume, understand, and even think is deeply linked to our communication technology. Recent breakthroughs in neural science have helped us understand how everything from commuter use and deep reading to the introduction of clocks and taxi driving can mold our infinitely malleable brains. New technology effects how we think, it changes, enhances, and even detracts from our innate skill set: changing our behavioral patterns in very complex ways. It also shapes the media – how we consume, take on, understand and enjoy information. Simply put, the technology we use changes the way we think and act in a very literal sense.
What does this have to do with music? We’ll the history of popular music is very much intertwined with technology. Why did pop music obliterate opera and classical music (which had dominated the west for decades)? Well the radio came along. Music was beamed to millions of people, and we soon discovered that you could make a lot more money if we inserted adverts/commercials. Suddenly, 20 minute classical pieces didn’t cut it (where’s the margin, it didn’t jive with the medium), we needed something shorter, quicker, punchier, and to the point – something that lasted about three minutes and kept people coming back. Sound familiar?
Now don’t get me wrong I’m mad about The Beatles, I love Bowie, I think metal is amazing, and I love crazy abstract electronic sounds, but while pop might be quite different without the records released in any year between 1960 and 1993, I couldn’t say any one year was truly more important. Once the Radio (and later music television) ruled the roost, the wheel had been set in motion, and the structure reinforced. The sound, shape, and evolution of the industry had many twists and turns, but the essential aesthetic of pop was set in place and it grew tremendously (admittedly in many brilliant but unforeseeable directions).
When I thought about this question, I want to pick a year that set about a precipitous change. One that leveled the playing field, de-stabilized the industry, questioned core assumptions about singles and LPs, and made us consider what the future of the music industry would be (and no “Tomorrow Never Knows” didn’t quite cut it).
Well there were plenty of contenders. I could have picked the year when the internet first came into popular usage, but that was too limited and detached. I could have selected 1999, the year Napster was founded and rock stars started panicking. or 2001. when iTunes launched, but they were inevitable symptoms, not the root cause. The creation of the world wide web was too distant and the arrival of internet piracy was too far along the line, so I picked 1993 – the year the MP3 was invented/brought into popular usage.
Make no mistake, this isn’t purely about piracy, downloads, tumbling profits, and 180 degree flip of the traditional promotional model (although that’s hugely important) – this is about the end of breakneck progression.
Up until the mid-90s, the specific year is unimportant, pop had to look foreword. The industry couldn’t stand still. Evolve or die, and all that. Record Stores across the world had limited storage space, they sold what was hot, what was new, and they moved on. Trends came and went, and old stock was mercilessly replaced by the new. Even the most beloved bands fell out of fashion and were resigned to music history. It sounds utterly alien to us today, but there was a time where if the record store (big or small) didn’t have it, you didn’t get it. Only two Bowie records and not the one’s you want? Tough.
The MP3 changed all of that. It quickly became the most popular medium in the world, and it allowed sites like Amazon (1994 was also considered), iTunes, and practically every business and every buyer to store unlimited amounts of music, and sell it in whatever manner they saw fit. Sure the change took time, but the moment the MP3 came into circulation the idea of choosing between the hot releases and a couple of reissues was over. Everything would become available, anytime, from anywhere. We know longer had to push things forward, we could all collectively look back.
Today’s record buyer isn’t choosing between Kanye West and Taylor Swift, they’re picking between Kanye, Taylor, The Beatles, The Feelies, Woody Guthrie, Nas, Daft Punk, and anyone else’s name that happens to pop into their heads. The change has been monumental. A trend emerged. New sales receded, album sales dive bombed, and catalog sales (old music) grew at a rapid rate, to the point where, in 2012, old music outsells new music.
I’m sure everyone reading this column understands the impact of electronically stored music. We’ve all read the horror stories about the profit lines of record companies, the mergers, the collapses, and the death of the traditional mainstream. The MP3, along with the internet, opened and closed doors. It allowed a new generation of artists to sell their music to fans all over the world instantly. It allowed the nichification of the music industry, where weird bands could self market, finding sustainable audiences the radio would never have allowed them to reach. It’s also had a devastating effect on the lives of artists who struggle to break even.
Look, I can’t explain the effect of this change in just one column. It’s too big, too subtle, and in some cases too strange. It would take an entire book! In fact, it’s taken more than that, Simon Reynolds, Nicholas Carr, and a whole host of writers have attempted to broach the impact of the MP3, ultimate storage, and the internet on both our consuming and most basic human habits without comprehensive covering everything.
It’s been 20 years and the impact of the MP3, the internet, and ultimate storage space is still being felt. Music bosses are still panicking, the album format continues to falter, musicians struggle, and, for the first time in 50 years, we really don’t know where the music industry is headed. It was tough to pick just one year, but 1993 was the best symbolic choice.
It was the year when the track of one way progression initiated by music radio split of suddenly – the cozy direction of travel was altered permanently, as modern music made its next great evolutionary leap. And you know what? It’s bloody exciting.
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