Is Technology Killing Music?

Few people would argue that technology isn’t changing music – but is technology actually killing music? Certain excerpts from Mark Katz’s book Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music seem to express the view that the commodification of music is fundamentally damaging to music as a social and cultural artform – and it all began with Edison…

Music in a Technological Prison

Many audiophiles are deeply disturbed by the proliferation of low-quality mp3 as the medium of choice for the majority of music listeners. While it is true that low-bitrate encoding is very unflattering and often unpleasant, encoding technologies are continuously improving. It is worth noting that when the CD was first introduced, its sound quality was much worse than it is today. With the mp3, we have now moved up a notch in terms of convenience, but have taken a step back in terms of audio quality. Nonetheless, it is only a matter of time before the fidelity of the dominant file format increases to match or exceed that of the compact disc.

Capturing Sound
suggests that music, as an artform, needs to have a balance between live performance and recordings in order to remain a living force. I would certainly agree with this, as music fulfills many important social and cultural roles which are more readily expressed via a live performance than through recordings. He also suggests that live music is “the smaller part of the equation” – however, recent evidence suggests that live music is actually surging in popularity, to such an extent that artists such as Prince are willing to give away albums to promote their upcoming tours.

The Changing Faces of Music

Looking at the music scene today, it doesn’t seem that digital distribution is killing off people’s desire to congregate and celebrate their common love of particular artists or genres in a live performance. In fact, it may well be that increased access to music is fuelling this desire – and I would believe that live music performance is something so fundamental to humanity that no amount of technology could ever suppress it (although a traditionalist might point to the ‘laptop gig’ to counter this).

The idea of technology damaging musical culture goes back a lot further than the advent of the mp3 or CD; the phonograph was accused of the same thing. It is true that such technology changes the way we view and experience music, but, as in all things, change is inevitable. Here’s an interesting excerpt, as taken from Furdlog:

“The principal irony of phonograph history is that the machine was not invented with music in mind. Edison conceived of his cylinder as a tool for business communication: it would replace the costly, imperfect practice of stenography, and would have the added virtue of preserving in perpetuity the voices of the deceased. In an 1878 essay, Edison (or his ghostwriter) proclaimed portentously that his invention would “annihilate time and space, and bottle up for posterity the mere utterance of man.” … Recording broke down barriers between cultures, but it also placed more archaic musical forms in danger of extinction. In the early years of the century, Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, and Percy Grainger used phonographs to preserve the voices of elderly folksingers whose timeless ways were being stamped out by the advance of modern life. And what was helping to stamp them out? The phonograph, with its international hit tunes and standardized popular dances.”


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