The upside of lo-fi

By Felix Salmon
December 12, 2009
Tyler Cowen is weeping over the fact that younger listeners now prefer the sound of degraded-quality MP3s to that of CDs. Nick Spence has more, pointing out that this is just a 20-years-on reprise of the CD vs vinyl debate; his story ends with this quote.

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Tyler Cowen is weeping over the fact that younger listeners now prefer the sound of degraded-quality MP3s to that of CDs. Nick Spence has more, pointing out that this is just a 20-years-on reprise of the CD vs vinyl debate; his story ends with this quote.

“What you are hearing is that everything is being squared off and is losing that level of depth and clarity,” said producer Stephen Street, the man behind hits from The Smiths, Morrissey, Blur and Kaiser Chiefs. “I’d hate to think that anything I’d slaved over in the studio is only going to be listened to on a bloody iPod.”

The fact is, of course, that consumers never have listened to uncompressed digital music files played through high-end studio monitors, and they never will. Meanwhile, Lou Reed dreams of a world where people who try out an MP3 then go out and buy a version they “can actually listen to”.

In the real world, something similar but more exciting is happening: people try out an MP3 and then go out and listen to the artist in question live. We’ve left the world where recorded music tries to replicate the live experience with maximal fidelity; we’ve entered a world where recorded music is its own art form, as well as acting as an advertisement for a separate-but-related art form of live music. The bifurcation has created some interesting epiphenomena, such as the auto-tune craze; it has also helped to create what is arguably the largest and most vibrant live-music scene of all time.

The losers in this game might well be the likes of Stephen Street: there are fewer mega-artists willing and able to spend millions of dollars producing and polishing studio albums. Indeed, even the likes of Radiohead have decided that the whole concept of the studio album is outdated and have said that they will not record any more of them. But live shows will continue to improve, and music of both kinds will continue to be made and consumed by more people than ever before. So me, I’m smiling, not weeping.

Update: D^2 has some trenchant words for Mr Reed.

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