I Hate My Mp3

Mp3s and iPods have made music disposable. Now, it's time to take it back says Damien Morris.
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Mp3s and iPods have made music disposable. Now, it's time to take it back says Damien Morris.

The place where high art and the marketplace consummate their squalid, secretive affair should be in the harsh light of the auction room. In truth, though, that is where speculators hedge their bets on taking ownership of something which has limited distribution, or ideally no distribution at all. They are trading on rarity, uniqueness and its implied value. The financial result, the sale price, is largely irrelevant, even when it is the £65m Giacometti’s L’homme qui marche raised, or the £100m the Hirst auction took. Artistic and financial value at this rarefied level are completely meaningless. They don’t even acknowledge each other’s existence. These sales are about return on investment, risk exposure and billionaires’ cock-blocking games.

No, where high art and the marketplace get to grips is at haute couture catwalk shows, in the kitchens of Ferran Adri and Heston Blumenthal, or at concept car shows – calling cards from the fashion, food and motoring industries, signals saying ‘well, we can do this, so let us try that…’ High art meets the marketplace with scientists gruelling away in laboratories - just as complex maths becomes philosophy, at the furthest reaches of science is art. High art, high culture is just low culture with the patronage of an investment fund looking to bank a return when the art makes the move from the margins to the mainstream.

The problem with music is that it never found its high art. It never found a way to make its calling cards seem glamorous. We've all heard about home cinema set-ups, and sometimes even experienced them, but the closest we usually ever come to recreating an external musical experience at home is trying out that horrible 'concert hall' option that makes everything sound like an echo of a whisper of a strangled cough. Yes, we all need clothes; we all need food and lots of us seem to think we still need cars, but do we really need music? I do. I'm willing to bet you do. Why isn't anyone reminding us of this? Where is music’s calling card? The problem is that the music industry found it so easy to find scale in the mass market that it never had to look after the top end. It never remembered to fight its case.

Recorded music, in a media-rich environment like 21st-century London, is just not a disruptive medium. It's background, side dish, filler. Its perceived value is collapsing. Sure, live music still has the ability to enthrall, and in the last decade, has cannibalised the disposable income now no longer spent on CDs, vinyl and cassettes. If you bought a ticket for Glastonbury’s 30th anniversary, it cost you £89; this year’s 40th costs more than twice that, while the cost of buying a CD has fallen around 25% in the same time.

Recorded music will always be necessary, but it will never again be as revolutionary as it has been in the 75 years since its founding myth, of bluesman Robert Johnson tempted by Satan at the crossroads, first captured the imagination of credulous, god-fearing Americans. The game has changed. Think of it like this. If your boss at work changes, it is inevitable that your work and your attitude towards work will change, sometimes subconsciously, sometimes overtly. Musicians who gain the largest part of their pay from ‘synch’ (soundtracks for adverts, film and TV) deals will begin writing with the screen in mind; the rare musicians who can make a living touring will suddenly take a greater interest in merchandising and sponsorship. The recorded music industry in the form that we know it is a relatively recent innovation and now it is in the midst of its Darwin moment; adapt or die.

Canadian rocker Neil Young said last year 'Apple has made music into wallpaper'; this is the sort of horrible lowing moan that dinosaurs make when they die. You can't blame the drug for the junkie. If anyone is making music into wallpaper, it's you, me, us, the consumers. There is too much competition for our time now to truly concentrate on an aural medium. Often people invent things with no idea of its popular usage -aspartame, text messages, LSD. Answers without questions originally, and then the market adopted and decided.

The people who created the MPEG Audio Layer 3 (MP3) knew exactly what they were doing - denaturing sound by shearing away over 90% of the information in the original, uncompressed data file, in order to make it easy to transmit over a telephone line. I love the full, sensuous, analogue sound of music on vinyl, but who cares about that when they’re travelling by Tube? The MP3 has become hugely popular because it's so portable, so accessible, even if it makes music sound more one-dimensional than at any point since the death of the wax cylinder. And this is happening at exactly the same time that visual media is becoming more expansive and three-dimensional, to create a point of difference in quality – gorgeous e-book readers like the iPad, films like Avatar and Toy Story 3, high-definition and 3D television delivered by satellites. Madness, no?

In these days of digital distribution, Hollywood has alighted on 3D as an escape from the problems of the music industry. One day this decade, household connections will be quick enough to download a full-length film at the speed you’d download an MP3 today. For the film business, Avatar's $2bn take proves that 3D is the point of difference which will keep us going to the cinema for pure spectacle when that day arrives, because it will be a long time before 3D (without those annoying glasses) replaces HD as the new home gold standard. Could 3D provide a similar boost to the music business?

Martyn Ware formed a few Sheffield bands in the 70s. Dick Velcro and the Astronauts. The Underpants. Dead Daughters. The Future. Two more - The Human League (formed with schoolfriend Phil Oakey) and Heaven 17 (alongside Dick Velcro’s singer Glenn Gregory) became so well-loved in the 80s they're still going now. Martyn left the League 30 years ago, but is still touring with Gregory as Heaven 17 – recently recording a BBC session with super-quiffed siren La Roux. When Heaven 17’s chart success subsided, he moved into production to pay the bills, including work on Erasure’s 1992 album, I Say I Say I Say, which began his friendship with Erasure’s electro-pop genius Vince Clarke. For the last 10 years the pair have run the Illustrious sound design company – and they've become evangelists for 3D audio ever since accepting a commission to work on the 3D sound auditorium at the ill-fated millennium project Sheffield National Centre for Popular Music. They've even made two 3D albums

“I became fascinated with creating compositions for physical spaces,” Martyn recalls. “We went to the University of York and we tried a special soundfield 3D microphone which records live environments in 3D. We recorded York railway station and played it in a ring of eight speakers - it was one of those epiphanal moments which convinced me this was the future. It simulates the way that sound works in the real world.

“If you stand in the middle of a park [you might hear] helicopters, children, that bridge with traffic moving beneath and above, but we don't consciously process it. If you have a piece of software that enables you to move sound around, and control the location of sound in space, you can trigger a sense of reality, a thrill unobtainable by any other means. We can all listen to surround sound in the cinema, but it's not a real environment. We've presented the technology to Disney and Dreamworks but, if you forgive the pun, it went right over their heads. The individual sounds appear in mid-air in ghostly fashion? We might as well have been talking Martian...”

The main difference between, say Dolby 5.1 at the cinema and Illustrious’ 3D is that the former will drive the main sounds (speech, music) only from the front speakers and use the back or ‘surround’ speakers for ambience and sound effects. 3D creates an immersive, real-word soundfield which is just as noticeable and compelling wherever you are in the field, and thus is useable in more interactive environments, where you’re not stationary all the time, which might make it more attractive to the home user. At the moment this sort of sonic architecture requires a lot of equipment and cabling - it’s not practical for use in the home, so to date it’s been largely reserved for sound art installations (Illustrious have exhibited at the Venice Biennale) and even more important uses such as nurturing disabled kids. “If you have a special educational needs school teaching severely autistic children, people with cerebral palsy,” says Martyn, “you can use a sensory studio with 3D immersive sound, LED lighting and proximity heat sensors, to create new responses from unresponsive children.”

Nightclubs are also adopting the technologies. Before Fabric’s sister club Matter opened in 2008, head soundman Roberto Pieroni helped plan and install a new, virtual-3D, soundsystem to move music around its main room using 11 separate speaker locations. At the moment Matter’s system limited to a few pre-programmed special effects, such as allowing the DJ to move just percussion like the hi-hats all around the room. It’s much easier to move the upper frequencies as the bass tones will reflect and cancel each other out in a confined space like a nightclub, and as those are the ones which keep people dancing, they need to be anchored to one place. “Fabric is smaller than Matter so it’s easier to get a great sound in Fabric,” says Roberto. “Matter has very high ceilings. But 3D sound makes the room seem smaller.” What he plans is to enable true-3D mixing at Matter which will manipulate the sound live, like the Illustrious installations.

“If you're [a DJ] crossfading, you can crossfade in space and volume,” enthuses Martyn of 3D soundclashes, “so you can throw your mix into the face of the opposition. You can use joysticks, Wii controllers, anything that can translate three axes of music.” Ideally, Roberto says, he’d install a super-tall, ceiling-to-floor, speaker stack at Matter allowing sounds to ‘travel’ from the upper floors down to the main room.

”It’s so much more exciting than stereo,” says experimental electronic musician Chantal Passamonte, aka Mira Calix, and is regularly commissioned to work on sound installations at dramatic venues like Durham Cathedral. “it makes you look at space in a different way, and it’s becoming more normal.  Imagine if you had an installation with a choir of 100 people. You could isolate one voice at each end, and then you realise the duet’s happening in the middle of the room. Or it would be nice to see Radiohead play in surround sound and then in 3D, wouldn’t it?," says Chantal. "At the moment it costs so much money to build these things, so there’s only three big, 48-speaker systems in the UK. University and research places have them, but then you’ll see it go to the commercial world. The geek squad are inventive, then Jay-Z does it at Madison Square Gardens.”

Three-dimensional sound intensifies the live experience of electronic music, which too often suffers from dearth of personality under the big stage spotlight. No-one's ever made a keytar as cool as a Rickenbacker. It could also transform home 3D audio - of course, virtual worlds and computer games would benefit from the immersive soundworlds it could provide, and revolutionise the experience of playing games like Guitar Hero by creating the entire atmosphere of a gig around you. The music business needs to let go of traditional sales streams and recover its innovation and ambition to survive.

Yes, we have a primarily visual culture but music is the universal language. That makes it more important than talking or writing. Either we let it fade gently into the background to become a subsidised add-on to everything else or hope music finds its Avatar moment and redefines what it can mean in the cultural space. I trust you know which side you're on.