Saturday, January 26, 2013
Show the Waveform Graphs!
This is one of those ideas that's so brain-dead simple, I'm astonished that it hasn't yet happened: All music reviews shall feature a waveform graph.
We've been complaining for years about the Loudness War, the music industry's mad pursuit to crush and destroy popular music in the quest to make everything "louder." But it can be difficult to educate and inform the public without visual aids, or direct comparisons. Since I cannot wheel my stereo equipment with me everywhere I go, the waveform graph is the best illustrative tool at our disposal.
I don't believe most people are consciously aware of the Loudness War, but they do intuit that something is terribly wrong with the music, and they have turned away in great numbers. For me, this process was gradual, beginning at the end of the 1990s and during the turn of the century. I had assumed that I was simply growing older, and losing interest with new music was a natural extension of that. All I knew is that nothing sounded good anymore, and music that I had previously loved - now played on "remastered" CDs and MP3s - was being ignored. When you stop listening to Jimi Hendrix, something is dangerously wrong.
It was only after I re-discovered vinyl records that I came to realize what had happened to the music, and how the music business came to destroy their own product. Once the story of the Loudness War was told, it made perfect sense, and everything fell into place.
Music reviewers and publications are doing no favors by ignoring the Loudness War and how it affects modern music. This single gesture - Show the Waveform Graphs - will change hearts and minds among the public, and shame the music industry, more quickly than any other action. What else can we do? Knock on the doors of every recording artist and harass them over their brickwalled CDs?
That waveform at the top comes from the 20th Anniversary remaster of Rage Against the Machine's classic debut album. It is a crushed and brickwalled wreck, a lo-fi mess of clipped static that should embarrass everyone involved. "This is what the kids today want," they say. Wrong. "This is what the market wants," they respond. Wrong. "Louder music sells," they insist. Prove it.
Here's my evidence - the music industry sales through 2011, adjusted for inflation. The CD market has been in decline since the year 2000, and if you're really careful, you'll discover this decline really began in the mid-90s, right when excessive compression and limiting took off. There are also other factors during this period that are seldom mentioned, like the end of CD singles (forcing you to buy a $15-$20 CD), corporate consolidation of radio and end of music videos, the rise of manufactured starlets and boy bands, the decline of innovative music, or anyone with any real talent.
Internet file-sharing is an issue, this I will not deny. But I feel this is a red herring, an easy excuse offered by the music industry. When I was growing up, we all copied and traded cassette tapes, and popular music didn't disintegrate. Home Taping did not Kill Music, after all. It was how we discovered new and interesting music, turning us into homebrew sampling and remix artists. I strongly suspect today's file-sharing fulfills much of the same need.
People love music. It's the oldest form of human communication, older than spoken language. We can't get enough of it. The music business is failing to provide that need, end of story. I submit that the crushing and sonic destruction of popular music is the primary reason for this collapse. We need better talented musicians and better sounding songs. And we, the writers, need to play our part by educating the public, and shaming the industry hacks and clueless artists.
Show the Waveform Graphs. It's the easiest thing you can do to bring back high fidelity music.