How Technology Has Ruined Music

I spend a lot of time driving my not-quite-16-year-old son around, and I hate it. It’s not the time spent in the car; it’s the fact that he insists on playing his choice of music while we drive. I’ve been trying to figure out why this sets my teeth on edge, and a talk radio station in Boston summed it up for me today: Technology has ruined music.

Before you start blasting me with comments, I don’t mean the technology that allows us to buy one song at a time, download it to a portable device, and play it anywhere we want. That technology I love. The technology I hate is the stuff that allows a way-below-average singer to sound like Sinatra; sound effects (like a vinyl record being scratched by a stylus); an incessantly repetitive beat; and a million other electro-mixing and -editing technologies that I can’t even explain.

Here’s what set off the discussion: It seems as though today’s teenagers are downloading classic rock at an unusually high rate. Why? The radio audience figures classic pop music is simply better because of all the work and sweat that went in to it. Not only did bands and singers have to come together and collaborate hundreds of times, but music was test-driven in front of live audiences over and over again. Lead singers had to belt out songs from a stage, minus the editing and sound studio. You didn’t hear much about lip-syncing before the 1990s. (Milli Vanilli being the exception, of course.)

I also think the excesses we see on stage now are designed to draw attention away from the fact that many current artists have marginal talent. Yes, my generation had guitar-smashing, animal torture, pyrotechnics, gold parachute pants, and really, really bad hair. But it’s interesting to note that Adele — easily one of the greatest voices of our day — does nothing on stage but sing and sells out every show. As much as I like what Lady Gaga stands for, I can’t even sit through one of her videos.

I have tried to understand and appreciate my son’s choice in music, but repetitive, lightning-fast lyrics, electronically created rhythms and sounds, continual rebranding (Snoop Lion — are you kidding me?), and other shtick just don’t do it for me. And this isn’t limited to hip-hop: Most 'tween pop stars have the same limitations. You start with “the look” and then backfill with music. (I know this isn’t unprecedented — hello, Osmond Brothers — but still… Britney Spears?)

But I guess you can’t have it both ways. Digital music has enabled Napster and iTunes the same way it has enabled some person that dresses like a crazed mouse. The biggest upside, I guess, is that you can still turn the radio off, and you don’t have to buy an entire album for one song. The biggest downside is, the alchemy that brought The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who together just doesn’t happen that much anymore. Nowadays, if your drummer dies, you can always replace him with a computer. (Thank you, Spinal Tap.)

16 comments on “How Technology Has Ruined Music

  1. t.alex
    August 2, 2012

    Well it's a different world now. Singers still sing as long as they have customers who still buy and listen to them. If you ask some young kid nowadays to try Frank Sinatra, would they bear with it :)?

    August 2, 2012

    Thanks for the entertaining post Barb.  This is exactly what I say to my kids and what my dad said to me and what my grandpa said to my dad…….you get my drift?

  3. Barbara Jorgensen
    August 2, 2012

    All too well, FScot 😉

  4. Barbara Jorgensen
    August 2, 2012

    talex: You know, Sinatra is better accepted by kids than other singers of his generation…out here on the US East Coast, for example, Italian Americans of all ages are brought up on Sinatra and you hear his music on a lot of youth iPods.  Songs such as “New York, New York” are adopted as theme songs…so maybe he wasn't the best example. Let me think on that one some more 🙂

  5. Cryptoman
    August 2, 2012

    Digital Signal Processing (DSP) technology has transformed music as well as many other domains that include bits and bytes. DSP equipment has also become much much cheaper. Nowadays you can easily put together a respectable home recording studio for under $5000, which means almost anyone can produce “music” quickly. You can modulate your voice to sound like whoever you want to sound like. If you sound no better than a crow, don't worry for the digital dials and switches on your screen will help you get the thumbs up from all judges in X-Factor!

    This ecosystem of fast music production has brought fast consumption with it. The fast consumption of music is down to the weakness of the artists and the songs. No sound track is as memorable anymore. The life expectancy of tunes is very very short these days. If you compare Frank Sinatra's or Nat King Cole's legend to what we have today, it would be like comparing apples with oranges. Artists such as them have stood against the test of time. Their songs and velvety voices are still appreciated albeit by a small audience today. This is not because they are obsolete and are not good but this is because the musical appreciation of the younger generation has fallen victim to the consumerism culture driven by the music industry.

    Nowadays popular tracks need to be very repetitive, they need to have 128 bpm as well as the familiar thumping bass 'on the foreground' and they need to fit in a certain stencil to be listened to. In other words, music needs to be easily digestable and easily understood to impress the masses. Lyrics should be easily memorisable. Sophisticated lyrics are 'out' because they require the listener to think and interpret in order to appreciate.

    What has the world come to? (sigh!)


  6. Barbara Jorgensen
    August 2, 2012

    Cman: awesome technical assessment of what I couldn't quite articulate. The formula of songwriting (song engineering?) to capture the flitting attention span of current listeners. Never quite thought of it that way, but one can measure and assess anything and everything these days and then reverse engineer it. It is the dumbing down of music, just like we have had the dumbing down of politics, news, and anything else that makes one think.

  7. Kevin Jackson
    August 2, 2012


    Well said Barbara!

    My pet peeve is excessively compressed music.

    A friend gave me a few tunes on recordable CD (how old fashioned that sounds already!). One of them I really liked and heard on old fashioned FM radio one day. Wow – It sounded like a completely different song! I checked the CD later and found the file had a very small file size – you really do lose something.

  8. divide_by_zero
    August 2, 2012

    The Economist has an article on its web site called The Science of Music – Same Old Song on this very topic.

  9. William K.
    August 2, 2012

    Barbara is certainly correct about the millisecond attention span that so many people have today. It is hard to explain something to them if the explanation takes more than a minute or two. They totally lack the ability to focus on anything for an extended period of time, like five minutes.

    Of course there is also a huge lack of talent, and it is most demonstrated by “music” that can't stand on it's own, but that must have all sorts of show to complete “the experience.”

    Of course, I have a theory that the training of a whole generation to be unable to focus or pay attention is part one of a plot to enslave them all, since they will not be able to concentrate long enough to realize that they are not free any more. Interestingly, this idea has not yet been challenged as unreasonable.

  10. Barbara Jorgensen
    August 2, 2012

    Kevin: That's something I never heard before…do you have any idea how that works? I know there's a lot lost in analog to digital translation, but I thought that could be compensated for becuase digital can be edited so easily.

    I have a confession: I listened to music on vinyl records…45s and 78s.

  11. Barbara Jorgensen
    August 2, 2012

    Not unreasonable at all. How else can we account for the on-demand 24/7 everything that's available now?

  12. Kevin Jackson
    August 3, 2012

    Hi Barbara,

    I don't know much about this world but if you open Windows Media Player, select the Rip tab, under format choose MP3 format and then look at Bit Rate you'll see these choices:

    128 Kbps (Smallest Size)

    192 Kbps

    256 Kbps

    320 Kbps (Best Quality)

    Perhaps another reader could educate us a little.

  13. Clairvoyant
    August 3, 2012

    Higher bit rates mean better quality. Quality between an analog recording and digital recording at a high bit rate is not discernible to human ears. More information on this topic can be found here.

  14. Barbara Jorgensen
    August 3, 2012

    Thanks Clairvoyant. That makes sense.

  15. Jay_Bond
    August 7, 2012

    I agree completely. We now have music “stars” and I use that term lightly, who were born from reality TV contests and social media. It is amazing how little some of these people have talent. Thanks to technology, singers that would of been laughed at back in the day sound perfect. These are also the ones that lip sync at shows so they can put on a display. The more people that are drawn to the stage show, means less people paying attention to the actual singing or instruments being played.

    What happened to the days of playing clubs relentlessly and travelling in a beat up van to play gigs just so you could build up an audience and get some record execs to listen to you? Apparently times have changed, and I don't think for the best. At least when it comes to producing great music.


  16. mike_at_DCA
    August 10, 2012

    Hahahaha! Yes, this has been a topic of conversation between my friends and I for decades. As we have observed technology simultaneously make it easier for anyone – even me – to lay tracks down and cheat on just what it takes to be a “real musician”, it has become more and more difficult to find new music that shows evidence of real talent. It's becoming harder and harder to feed one's audiophiliosis!

    Even musicians with “real talent” can now fake it. Vocal enhancement technology enables aging rockers like Joe Walsh and Roger Waters to hit notes they otherwise have lost the ability to hit. Drummers are begging for gigs on the side of the road: “will drum for food”. Keyboardists now play the QWERTY keys instead of the ol' black & white.

    The one really good invention is headphones, which is what my kids wear when they're listening to music. I like it, and they don't have to listen to my music either. Win-win.

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