Posted on February 4, 2013

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“Music was so much better back in the day…”

I hear this statement quite often, not only from older generations, but also from people my own age and younger. This is of course the nice way of putting it, because usually I hear it as: “Music today just sucks,” or something of that sort. To be honest, this statement is a bit of a pet-peeve for me. Though I agree 100% that you are entitled to your own opinion and that you don’t necessarily need to agree with me, I truly believe that this is a rather silly statement. It’s like exclaiming to the world, and standing firmly by it, that Red is the best color. Surely, you can choose to like the color red over any other color, say, blue or even yellow. But to define the color red as “better” than all the others is just – well, let’s just stick with the word silly as to not offend anyone 🙂

Allow me to dissect this a little bit to show you where I’m coming from. I’m not disagreeing with the fact that good music was made in previous decades from previous generations of great artists. In fact, my favorite genres of music come from the late 60’s to mid 70’s. I love Motown, R&B, soul, and the classic sounds of blues and Rock & Roll. So yes, I would agree with anyone who says that the music of “yesterday” is better than most of what is being made today, simply because I like the old stuff more.

HOWEVER, do not confuse my opinion with something else; I do not think that the music being made today is bad, I simply prefer the older stuff. I don’t think that red is the best, I just like it more than all the other colors. Do you see the difference? I’m simply stating an opinion, not suggesting that my opinion is based on fact.

Because that’s the real problem with saying that music was better “back in the day.” It’s not fact. There are no such facts that can support this idea. And I love hearing people’s reasoning for defending this claim:

– “They didn’t use Auto-Tune”
– “They played real instruments, not computers”
– “They didn’t need to chop it all up and make it sound perfect”
– “They only used one mic!”

I could keep going and going, but none of this “evidence” proves that the music and the production techniques from yesterday are better than ours today. Rather, this is only evidence that artists and engineers did the best they could with what they had at the time. Likewise, the styles and levels of difficulty of these songs will be directly affected by the available technologies of any time period.

Let’s go back a few hundred years, to the mid 17th century. Baroque music was the genre of the period, characterized by a very complicated and mechanical sound, and it can clearly be heard by observing the works of J.S. Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Scarlatti, and many others. Interweaving counter melodies and complex harmonizations, among many other virtuosic compositional techniques, were used in this time period. Now, compare that to the music of 100 years later in Mozart’s day and you will see that the music got quite “dumber.” Not worse – just easier. The mechanical intricacy of baroque music disappears and is replaced by Classical music; music that is easy on the ear and easier to play. Not to say that the music Mozart wrote was easy to play, but the genre he composed in was much less sophisticated than that which Bach composed in.

Why is this? Why did the music take a “turn for the worse?” Quite simple: technology happened. You have an industrial revolution that takes place in the early 18th century that allows for affordable instruments to become available to this new growing concept called the “Middle Class.” Before, only rich people could afford instruments and lessons. Now – you have lesser-wealthy families owning pianos and violins, so naturally the composers begin composing music for them, i.e. their new clients. Supply and demand; it’s the basic concept of business. You cater your work towards your audience, and if they want something that they can excel at you’d better give it to them if you want to survive.

So look at this past century and compare: even if you just look at the last few decades it’s easy to see how this technology revolution has affected musicians and music audiences alike. You no longer need to go to a recording studio and pay thousands of dollars for a quality recording; you can do it at home for a fraction of the price, on your own time! Why go to a music school when you can just look at free videos on YouTube? No need to go to the local guitar shop and seek the salesman’s advice, just have Amazon deliver a new axe based on great user reviews that you read at an online forum – it’s okay because you can ship it back if you don’t like it.

Now of course the real recording studio isn’t outdated, music schools are fantastic for expanding your music education, and local music shops are great places to try out new gear. But do you see how many OTHER options you have now? You didn’t have these options in the 80’s or the 70’s, or in the Classical era or the Baroque era. Times are changing, people are changing, technologies are changing, and thus our music is changing as well.

So don’t get down on music for not being as “good” as it was, because it is an ever-changing (actually, evolving is a much more appropriate word) art that will ALWAYS reflect the culture, economy, and available technology of the given society and time period. And the best part is that you can always go back to the way it was. Lot’s of artists today are reverting to the classic recording styles, vintage instruments and recording gear is in high demand at the moment, and many nostalgic bands are appearing with that old-skool look. There’s nothing wrong with that at all! But to be honest, if you were to ask Beethoven whether or not he’d use a sample library to score his music, I’d almost 100% guarantee you that he’d say YES! I’m pretty sure any band in the 70’s would have loved to have been able to comp the ultimate drum take from 5 different passes on the song, or double their vocal without needing to record it a second or third time…

I think you see where I’m going with this. Music isn’t any better or worse than it has ever been. It’s different, and you can choose to appreciate that difference or not. What do you think?

Next week we’ll continue this discussion by applying it to the current state of the music industry, and how we can look at music business through this same lens 🙂


Comments (02)

  1. The dawn of music industry always seemed more appealing to those who were there to expierience the Beatles, Hendrix and multi track recording. They were seeing and hearing history being made and it was a buzz for sure, because it was all new. Things do get boring after a while. Now, thats all old hat and the likelyhood of someone like Hendrix or Jimi Page making it today would be laughable. The older folks love to re live those moments and perhaps thats why there is such a resurgence back to classic rock.
    The industry and technology has now gone through the growing pains and worked out the bugs as far as recording access goes. Now most anyone can be creative and with the internet learn a lot quickly and express thier art. This is a good thing as it widens the genres of interest and makes available options for listening enjoyment.
    Imagine seeing someone like Jayme Lewis in the 50’s as he is now. Back then bass players stuck to the root or did little walks but nothing like what you see Jayme doing in this modern day.
    The human race is actually evolving and i believe there is a lot of great new music that reflects that, allthough ,you may have to weed through piles and piles of crap to find the one in a million. It was the same back then except the record companies did all the weeding out for you and they weren’t great at it. Now your music entertainment options are many and there is something for everyone.
    I have run a studio in Toronto for 26 years now and i am always amazed by some of the kids that come through and how musicly developed they are so early in thier lives. I did say SOME LOL.

  2. I agree, within reason that liking a piece of music is a preference similar to you like chocolate, I like vanilla.

    I say within reason because technology can get in the way of the art… technology can take away or distract from the art.

    Also… easy access to recording software, etc. makes it easy for nearly anyone to record a song which reduces quality.

    And… years ago music was the entertainment of the day. Now there are big screen TVs, computer games, etc. There is a lack of venues and fewer musicians as a result and the easy access to music through downloads, etc. makes it valueless to people. Rarely will anyone pay for live music today… they will pay big bucks for an entertainment experience which is (now days) very different.

    Times have changed. With all the virtual reality today (relativism and post modernism) everything is just a preference. There is the whole consumerism thing in the west (addictive society) which complicates things.

    It’s a complicated time we live in!

    I personally still think there is such a thing as “good” and “bad” music. When it comes right down to it music is a language. Some are better at speaking than others because they’ve developed their natural talents through hard work and some just plainly have more interesting things to say than others. Having one or the other makes them good… having both makes them great!

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