Don Was co-founded the eclectic ’80s band Was (not Was) (hit single – Spy in the House of Love) before becoming a highly regarded record producer having produced Bonnie Raitt and the Rolling Stones. Mr. Was has been writing a blog for MetroTimes in Detroit amongst other things.
Was’s blog post celebrates records. Vinyl LPs. He celebrates not only the fidelity of LPs but also their artwork and the space they allowed for the artist to give credit to those involved in the making of the record. He uses Frank Zappa’s 1966 release of the Freak Out! LP as an example.
It was a double album with an amazing gatefold jacket that retailed for $4.99. Inside there were extensive liner notes written by Frank Zappa that changed my life. In a subsequent interview, Frank said that the Freak Out! album package was designed to be “as accessible as possible to the people who wanted to take the time to make it accessible. That list of names in there, if anybody were to research it, would probably help them a great deal.” He was right: The first time I heard of Charles Ives, Willie Dixon, Captain Beefheart, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Eric Dolphy was when I read that list of 150 random notables.
The article underlines what recording used to be at its best – what records used to be at their best. How an album could be its own art form, not just a loss leader or a promo to get you to go to the live show and buy t-shirts. The album – the music, the artwork/design and packaging – could be its own artistic experience.
Was celebrates how albums of the past listed all the people that worked to create the project. Much like a movie that lists its credits at the story’s end, the LP had the room to print not only song lyrics but also the recording studio and engineer, the mastering studio engineer. I can remember reading the names, Hit Factory, Record Plant, Power Station, as a kid. They seemed like far-away temples to me.
The digitization of audio was originally lauded and welcomed by musicians and audio engineers alike. It seemed to make the work of recording so much easier. But today, 25 years into digital audio, there is a different perspective amongst many musicians and audio engineers. There is an on-going argument about the fidelity of digital recording and the use or over-use of digital audio techniques (i.e. brick wall mastering). Most devastating to the actual commerce of the recording industry, digitization has allowed exact copies of recordings to be freely copied and the Internet has made those copies available to millions.
Downloading music has also affected the album as an artistic entity. Here’s Dan Was again.
If Zappa released that same music today, we’d browse the 30-second samples on the iTunes store without the benefit of reading those mind-blowing liner notes. There’d be no context or depth to the whole experience. It’s no wonder that kids don’t wanna pay for music anymore – downloading a file of zeroes and ones for 99 cents has the same cultural allure as ordering a Ronco Veg-O-Matic from an 800 number.
It’s tough to find out who produced and engineered the music and you can forget about finding out who did the cover art (that cover art having now been reduced to 2 inches square at a resolution of 72 dpi)
Digital audio and electronic delivery have transformed how we consume music. There are great benefits to digital. Ease of storage is one. But we have traded a lot for that. Sound fidelity has been cheapened along with the whole experience of what an album is.
I had a talk with a young man recently and he was telling me about the 1000s of songs and albums he had downloaded mostly through file-sharing sites. These included several modern classical albums like performances of Steve Reich’s “Music for Eighteen Musicians” and some Philip Glass instrumental works. I thought to myself, yes, but how well do you know this music. How many times have you listened to it?
In fact, it takes time to really listen to music. Especially challenging music. It’s an investment of time. Really digesting 1000 recordings should take years. We seem to have become very good aggregators of music but we have forgotten or we simply don’t have the time to be good listeners. For me, it’s more important that someone really know the music on 25 albums than to sport a library of thousands of recordings.
“What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” – Hebert Simon – Recipient of Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics and the A.M. Turing Award, the “Nobel Prize of Computer Science”
(I took a cognitive psychology class with Prof. Simon while at Carnegie Mellon in 1978)
I have a slight connection to Mr. Was in that I am originally from Windsor, Ontario (Canada) just across the river from Detroit. It was a cool place to live in the early-1970s. That area of the country now gets a lot of bad press, even from its own local media, but it has a great history and, to me, is one of the hidden gems in North America (the Detroit River!) – but that’s another story.