Why music is better now than it ever has been.
Received wisdom states that music gets worse over time, that ever since Beethoven / Robert Johnson / Elvis / Kraftwerk / Miley Cyrus (depending on your point of view), music has entered into an inexorable decline, destined to reach its nadir right about now in an unlistenable mush, at which point we’ll all just have to move onto something else not involving sound at all, like avant garde smell–art or something (sound is so last millennium — I’ve already trademarked the phrase Smell On Smell for a magazine).
Speak to pretty much any muso and they will tell you the same: it’s just not what it used to be. Guitarists can’t play guitar as well as the guys from the ‘60s and ‘70s, composers can’t compose as well as those 18th-century dudes, and producers are all just grabbing at the coat–tails of the geniuses of yore like badly trained puppies.
I put it to you, though, that this is not the case. On the contrary, music now is, on average, better than it ever has been. Judged on results alone, composers are better at composing, producers are better at producing, and guitarists are better at guitaring.
Before you have me strung up with ukulele strings and forced to listen to back–to–back badly recorded One Direction YouTube clips, consider this: fifty years ago, around the time the Beatles were first moistening undergarments, the barriers between musical inspiration and the end product were huge.
First, you needed to buy an instrument; not easy considering the huge relative cost and minuscule relative quality compared to what is available now. In those days, a usable guitar would cost several months’ salary; nowadays you can get an eminently playable instrument for under £100.
Second, you had to learn to play the instrument. Good luck finding a friendly local ‘rock school’ or masses of free online tuition courses delivered by world–class musicians. You’d be more likely to have a wooden plank shoved down your back, and be forced to sit in a cold, damp room inscribing polyphonic madrigals.
Third, you had to get yourself recorded. This could be the subject of a whole other article, but suffice to say that the technological firepower available in your phone is not that far off what was only then possible in the largest, most expensive recording studios.
Fourth, you had to get that recording released. Even once you had negotiated Hunter S Thompson’s “cruel, shallow money trench” to convince a nepotistic A&R bod to give you a chance, you probably still would have gotten fewer listens than a well–promoted YouTube video nowadays. And that would only be in exchange for a contract that specified eternal ownership of your soul and the souls of all your loved ones.
The technology we have now sweeps obstacles aside. Want a complex glitchy edit of your drum track? Whack a plug-in on it and turn up the ‘complex glitch’ setting. Need a crunchy British valve tone on your amp? Turn the knob to ‘crunchy British valve tone’. Can’t be bothered to learn how to play the keyboard? Choose your scale, turn swing quantise on, and headbutt the keyboard while spasmodically flailing your arms about.
Every month, new technology is released that makes the music–making process quicker and easier. Ableton Live’s incredibly intuitive UI not easy enough for you? Here’s a controller that makes it even easier. Can’t understand the principles of gain structure? Let your interface do the job for you.
My point is that it’s now easier than ever to make and release well–mixed, well mastered, musically competent and professional-sounding material. Every stage in the musical creation process has either been simplified, automated, or completely removed.
The boundaries between inspiration and end product have fallen; 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration has become 1 percent perspiration and 99 percent inspiration. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants, and we’ve got better apps than them. Music has been democratised, so surely the end result must be better now than it ever has been. And if not, why not?
Alex Marten runs London and Edinburgh–based musical equipment retailer Red Dog Music. He enjoys the unique torture of having unlimited access to two shops worth of cutting-edge musical equipment, but never having the time to actually use any of it.