Does Modern Music Suck?
A look at the history of music and technology that got us here
[Special Thanks: to Everyone who reported back about typos. To save us all time and trouble with this, I’ve brought on board an historian of all things rock’n roll, Ian Mitchell, as the Official Editor of the Audiotastic Podcast.]
Click the video to hear Jef Knight read this weeks episode.
"Does Modern Music Suck?" Do you think that's true? If you do you're not alone. Many people believe that modern music is "objectively" bad. A quick search will reveal that there is an entire genre of writing and video devoted to this subject.
Let's look at the history of those who disliked modern music through the ages.
In the 1920s and 30s it was Christians and other morality police types. Church ladies, Souther preachers, civic leaders and media allies fought tooth and nail to prevent certain styles of modern music from being performed. Jazz music, played predominantly by African-American musicians, was called the Devil's music. It was demonised as being the thing that was destroying the minds and ensnaring the souls of otherwise wholesome teens of the era. It should come as no surprise that pretty much everything the church ladies hated was being outlawed, eventually leading to a long an violent era of alcohol prohibition.
From 1939 to 1945, North American society had more pressing concerns than prohibitions on teenagers' entertainment choices.
Then WW2 ended and along came the post-war era and the 1950s, and with it came a renewed vigour to censor and demonise those elements of teen pop culture that the moral outrage brigade viewed a sinister plot by Satan himself to undermine decent, God-fearing society.
Swing bands and dance contests were a popular feature of the post-WW2 era. But it wasn't long before all that gyrating on the dance floor was strenuously opposed by authorities. All-white, church-picnic oriented groups demanded that all things sexual in music was the fault of black musicians and jazz leading the youth astray. Black music, blues and jazz, was becoming a potent influence on the entertainment scene, as it still is. Soon white musicians began emulating their African-American counterparts in producing and performing what came to be known as Rock'n Roll. But the morality police were having none of it. What ensued over the next 20 years was a moral panic over the mixing of race, sexuality and music.
The famous radio DJ Alan Freed popularised rock'n roll on a number of East Coast radio stations during this era. This caused a huge uproar among authorities who saw the music, and the raucous, energetic dancing that accompanied it, as a threat to civil society and public order, culminating in many teens being arrested for dancing. Some cities, notably Cincinnati, even went so far as to make it unlawful for people under the age of 18 to dance in public. Musicians were under the watchful eye of law enforcement and many shows were cancelled. It was the early days of what today is known as cancel culture. Authorities and their hall-monitor minions suppressing society to assuage their moral anxieties.
By the 1960s, those who thought modern music was bad were mainly people who grew up in the 40s and 50s on big band, pop and classical music, or worse, WW2 era radio songs from performers such as Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. These twenty-somethings now had kids of their own and were determined to raise them right, free from the pernicious influences of rock music.
They all proclaimed loudly that modern music was the worst music ever written, having been brought up, mainly, listening to horns, woodwinds, pianos and smooth, soft spoken crooners. The sound of modern electric guitars, drums and raunchy vocalists seem like catterwalling of the worst kind to them. This unpalatable noise was leading the youth of the 60s away from church oriented social activities and on to free-love, marijuana and rock music. Many articles, TV news segments and social commentary segments were produced during this time reinforcing the idea that "good people" don't want rock music ruining their kids lives.
In the 1970s, parents who were out of touch with modern culture, accompanied by those who thought that 60s music was "the only good music", were decrying everything from so-called acid-rock to glam, punk and progressive rock as "not music", just noise, but by this time the rock music business had become an unstoppable behemoth, producing the biggest acts of all time. Parents, regardless of how much they disliked the music, had to put up with society's acceptance of rock music as a staple of teenage life. There were still hold-outs, though. In our family's house rock was still the devil's music leading us all down the path to sin and perdition. My parents actually had a minister attempt to do an exorcism on me to drive-out the demons of rock music that they were certain were inspiring me to play rock guitar. I knew many other kids whose families all hated modern music, making life difficult for all concerned. And in case your wondering, their little exorcism didn't go as well as they'd imagined.
And it wasn't just parents. By now society was beginning to fragment into competing factions of musical taste. Metallers didn't like punks, Punks didn't like preppies and nobody liked disco.
Disco music was one of the biggest musical styles of the 70s. It was an urban dance club phenomenon that gained little traction among rural audiences. Even discos out in cottage country were still playing Aerosmith. You could buy a "disco sucks" t-shirt pretty much everywhere.
Yet disco produced some of the great songwriters and artists of that generation, like Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, ABBA, the Commodores and Lionel Richie and a lot more. I secretly loved disco, but because I was playing punk AND metal at the time, I couldn't tell anyone my secret passion for a great dance beat.
Consequently, by the late 70s, just as today, articles began to emerge whining about how pop songs only have 3 note melodies and that "beat boxes sound like garbage". Oh, how musicians hated drum machines.
Then along came the 80s. There was a cultural explosion of rock and New Wave music, spawned by promoters such as MTV. Everyone from the 60s and 70s hated 80s music. "Synths and drum boxes ruined music" was their battle cry. These folks believed that guitar was the only "real" instrument and rock was the only "real" music.
Because of that, guitar rock made a short-lived comeback in the mid to late 80s, when the industry churned out a glut of big-hair bands that cranked out hundreds of similar sounding albums of distorted guitars and huge, gated drums. Critics were now complaining that 80s rock music was "over produced" and had no "soul". It was demeaned as "sterile and unimaginative" and that bands were more about image, looks and good-hair than about good music. Whether it was leather bound dude-looks-like-a-lady types grinding out metal-pop or androgynous fashionistas with synths and drum machines, the critics and social-tinkerers dismissed it as being "not music". And, like all generations that came before this, it wasn't "their" music, the music of their teen-angst experiences, so it wasn't music at all.
And let's not overlook the tradition-nostalgists who hated the 80s because of the new trends in country music. These folks had pictures of Hank Williams Sr and velvet paintings of Elvis Presley on their living room walls and insisted that "new country ain't country, it's crap!". I lived in the boondocks and played in a county-rock band at the time and that's all I heard everywhere. Everyone hated everything new.
By the 90s these old timers, now in their 40s, had nothing good to say about grunge. I mean, they "really" hated grunge. They loved the Beatles and the Stones and Neil Young, but there was no room in their hearts for anything that the 90s had to offer. Unpolished, unsophisticated and untalented were the epithets tossed around in the early days of the internet by this ageing mob of out of touch boomers.
During all of this, it was urban, African-Americans musicians that got their asses kicked the hardest. I could devote another 100 hours to talking about the demonisation of not just early African-American music, but to the bad-rap that good-rap music got right from the start.
Rap and Hip-hop artists were censured, legislated against, arrested and killed, all in the name of some ridiculous moral panic aimed at them. Remember in the 80s when the US Senators' wives had a hissy-fit about lyrics (and that's why we now have Parental Advisory stickers on albums)? That was all fuelled by white-lady hatred of African-American music and the fear that it would become a pernicious, by which they meant sexual, influence on their lily-white daughters.
From the moment I first heard rap and hip-hop I was sold on its incredible artistic merit and amazing beats. But I've spent 40 years listening to nothing but arrogant, racist condemnation from closed-minded people I know in the music community denouncing this incredible music.
The next victim of progress was the humble CD. CD's, as a reproduction medium, are fantastic and sound great. Much better than vinyl, in my opinion. Yet, "CDs sound like crap" was heard in venues and stereo shops across the land. "Vinyl rules!" was their anthem because to these aging hippy boomers having that snap-crackle-pop of a plastic record gave them the warm-and-fuzzies, nostalgically taking them back to their 10 dollar record player and their first whiff of weed.
Then it was computers. "Modern music is sterile" , "computer music has no soul"...these were the most overused phrases in the late 90s and early 2000s, and still can be heard is some cob-web filled corners of the internet.
Which brings us to today. Nothing has changed. and people who dig old timey music and bands generally hate modern music. But here's the thing: if you ask them why, they almost invariably tell the same tale; it's too sexual, kids are being harmed and society is made worse by modern music, to which they justify their beliefs with; "modern music is made by people with no talent, who don't write their own music, who can't play their own instruments and who use studio trickery like pitch correction, quantisation and other studio tools to achieve their sound." All of which is deemed to be, somehow, sonically, stylistically and even morally defective, literally the very same arguments that people have been making for most of the history of recorded music.
The common thread running through all of this, that ties it all together, is that it's all bullshit.
Music is great no matter which era it's from, all the nostalgia-mongers notwithstanding...
I'm going to re-coin an old aphorism to properly express my sentiments on this topic: "If you hear a song in the morning that is terrible, maybe it's just a terrible song, but if you come home at night and all the music you heard all day is terrible, maybe it's you that's actually terrible". Maybe you're one of the hundreds of thousands of people who just don't care much for music.
Let's take a look at the real problem here and see if we can determine the solution to why people think they dislike modern music.
There is a common myth among modern commentators that music today is sterile and "too perfect" (as if that's even a thing). They see bands from history as being somehow magically wonderful because of all the imperfections in the recordings and their use of "real" instruments.
Now, don't get me wrong, I think there is an argument to be made for making music a bit looser. But that's not what's going on here.
The notion of modern music being "too-perfect" is a made-to-fit-the-argument way of approaching the subject. Most bands were, indeed, not perfect, but the audio engineers of the day used a lot of tools to try and get them as close to perfect as they could so they could get the record completed within the allotted time and within budget.
It has always been the case that audio engineers absolutely had to come up with ways to stay within budget. True then, true now. If the band was paying out of pocket, almost inevitably, the day would come when they showed up at the studio and the engineer tells them, "Sorry, guys, you've run out your budget" and the band would be, like, "But we're not finished!" and the guy would have to tell them, "Well, ya better get some more money then".
If the studio time was funded by a record company, then there was a producer and some suits from the label making sure the album came in on time and within budget. If not, the project got canned, shelved, and the band usually languished in obscurity because, essentially, they sucked at making records. There was no money, for most bands, to do unlimited numbers of takes or spend exhausting amounts of time doing drum tracks.
Audio engineers, producers and record labels all had a vested interest in having music in the can and out the door in the highest quality, shortest time, lowest budget possible. Sometimes the lawyers for the big acts could negotiate for more time or money, but for the vast majority of bands it was "get it right, quickly" or die.
It was to this end that audio tools for pitch correction and track editing were invented.
If you've ever looked at vintage photos of bands in the studio you may have noticed that they are often wearing headphones, especially the drummer. Some drummers even gaffer taped their headphones onto their heads so they wouldn't fly off. What do you suppose they were listening to? They were listening to a metronome or click track.
It's a common myth that bands from history had "great timing" because they were somehow magically better musicians than today. Sure, many musicians did have great timing, and good ones still do, but it was far more common that drummers would speed up and slow down in ways that were incongruous with making a great record.
Because of this, recording drums became the running joke and consistent problem in the recording industry. Stories of having to take months to get the drum tracks right are a staple of music history. It's why, in many cases, ringers were used. These ringers were highly skilled professional drummers who would come in and replace the drum track on a recording, after hours and unbeknownst to the band. It saved time and money, and the record got finished on time and within budget and the recording was excellent.
This little trick was even used by many studios and producers to replace the entire band on recordings, mainly because the band was too drunk or stoned or bad at their craft to make a recording that didn't suck. The Wrecking Crew famously did this on many of the greatest hits of the day. For instance, the Beach Boys were great live, but their greatest album, Pet Sounds, features a lot of performances by members of the Wrecking Crew. If you think autotune is cheating, what the hell do you say about this tactic?
Remember, it's the Music Business, not the Music Mutual Appreciation Society.
Vocals were another source of hardship for engineers - great performances ruined by a few pitchy notes. So, engineers, at the behest, and by behest I mean, "constant threat-based financial pressure from the suits who represented the record labels", had to figure out how to fix those problems. Often this was done by working on solutions all night long, after the band had left. Engineers crafted some of the cleverest solutions to the problem of vocal pitch correction.
These tools were essential to music recording because music is about emotion, feel and those other intangible properties that make a recording great. To that end, are you going to scrub a really great take because it's pitchy? The singer might not ever be able to recreate that take and you can spend a week trying, but who's going to pay for that? It's far better to be able to tweak a great performance, than chasing some imaginary ideal of perfection.
The earliest story of pitch correction that I have found dates back to the early 1960s and stars Frank "I only do one take" Sinatra. As the story goes he was recording a song and despite his "only do one take" mantra, was on Take 32 before he gave up and left the studio. The engineers were left with lots of material, but it was not Frank's best work. So they devised a way to correct the pitch using multiple tape machines, manually working the capstan motor speed and "flying in" the new, pitch corrected, vocals and it worked. Once that little secret got out other engineers started experimenting with it.
I'm not going to go into the entire history of pitch correction, but by the late 1960s, electronics engineers were working on, and producing, some early versions of time-based correction devices that became sought after studio gear, if you could afford it. The 1970s ushered in a new era of gear that could micro-tune vocals, saving the engineer a lot of time and the label a lot of money.
Most studios could not afford this exotic gear, hence there are a lot of recordings with pitch and timing problems from that era. It's not precious, endearing or magical that these bands were loosey-goosey. Everyone in the recording industry hated it and was trying really hard to invent tools to "fix" these bands so they sucked less.
If you move much beyond the 1960s, you can noticeably hear that music became "tighter" and objectively "better". Bands routinely used metronomes. They also "cheated", as do most modern artists, by tracking the basic bed tracks of the song, then every individual went into the control room and sat with the engineer and re-tracked their parts to perfection.
This was so common it became a running joke. There are thousands of photos from history showing pretty much every major act re-tracking in the control room. How is that any different from today's music that is layered track by track in somebody's bedroom? The net effect is the same.
By the 1980s, half the bands in the world were using drum machines, and sequencers for bass and keyboard lines - the same as today's MIDI environment - the only difference being that today we have "presets" for sounds and back then they had to dial in every sound they used, every time they used it. They had binders full of secret synth-sound recipes they carried around with them.
By the late 80s, as reported in Modern Drummer magazine, which I read faithfully every month, articles were being written about how "real professional drummers" would sample their kit and bring a disc with samples to their studio sessions.
They had to do this because budgets were tightening from record labels and studio costs were at an all-time high. These drummers would show up and play either their own kit on which MIDI triggers were mounted, or a studio kit that was already equipped with triggers. The would play their parts, with a metronome, then use those MIDI tracks to trigger a sampler loaded with their own drum sounds. You never knew the difference.
Much of your favourite 80s music was done this way. It was exactly what audio engineers had being having wet dreams about for two decades. They now had a great drum performance and great sounds without spending a month getting a decent drum sound, and had the ability to edit the drum track without an X-acto knife.
That's right, an X-acto knife. That was how music was edited since - forever. Don't like the second chorus? Make a copy of the first chorus on a second tape machine, then cut/splice that new chorus into your song and BAM!, song fixed. You can imagine how tedious and nerve wracking this was for those engineers.
Joe Satriani, in a guitar magazine interview for his Surfin' With the Alien album, said that his engineer, John Cuniberti, made extensive use of physical cutting to create that album, as well as his first album, Not of This Earth.
Frank Zappa was an xacto knife specialist. He could cut out just one, thin, guitar solo track on a 2 inch tape and put it in another song. Now that's dedication. It's no wonder he became one of the first composers to use digital recording devices. They are simply labour saving tools.
Audio engineers always dreamed of better ways to edit recordings. Computer programmers and hardware engineers, who were often also audio engineers and musicians, were working hard to come up with ways of digitising audio so recordings could be more editable.
The earliest form of digitising devices was called Soundstream but it was an esoteric, hobby-shop level of experimental gear, as were other digitisers of the early-to-mid 70s. The first digital recorder that was broadly commercially available was the Sony PCM. Frank Zappa, famously, had the one of the first and largest Sony PCM rigs in North America, in 1979. Rush was also an early adopter of digital recording.
I worked for a company in Toronto where I had the pleasure to meet some of Rush's tech crew. They claimed that as early as Hemispheres Rockfield Studio in Wales, where it was recorded, was using digital multi-tracks to import some of Alex Lifeson's guitar parts and "fix some notes here and there". Zappa used them for the very same reason, getting it exactly right without the need to do take after take or use a knife.
Add to all of this the fact that, by the 80s, the average musician or band could now set up a small but fully functional recording environment for about the cost of a used car.
The home studio revolution started in full when Fostex and Tascam began producing open reel 8 and 16 track recorders and 4 track cassette recorders around 1980. Outboard effects such as reverbs, delays and compressors became affordable by the mid 1980s, as did monitor speakers and other ancillary studio gear.
Electronics manufacturers saw a great market demand for better audio converters and signal processors with less noise and artifacting and greater frequency response. And with the entry into the market of the Alesis ADAT recorder in 1991, the age of modern, digital music had fully arrived.
In the early 1990s, software for the personal computer was released that allowed engineers to fully track and mix recordings in the digital domain. There were two competing products: Pro-Tools and PARIS. While the PARIS system, made by Ensoniq, was a far superior system, the company was more of a cutting-edge hobby shop and failed to create a market for themselves. Pro-Tools, on the other hand, became the industry standard simply because they gave away entire computer systems, rigged with their software and hardware, to many of the major studios. If they hadn't done that, there's a good chance it would not have become the "industry standard" (and, by the way, "industry standard", that's not the recording industry saying that, it was the merely the Pro-Tools marketing slogan that could be seen on their print ads, "Pro Tools - the Industry Standard).
Back in the day Pro-Tools was hated, despised even; because it was hard to work and, for technical reasons such as low resolution, early version digital converters, and slow, low bandwidth hard drives, Pro-Tools was used only as a recording system of last resort. It was universally calls an ALLSIHAD's, because engineers only used if it was "Alls I Had".
PARIS continued with a robust community of users until Ensoniq sold it to E-MU, who sold it to Creative Labs, the guys who made Soundblaster audio cards for the PC, who eventually killed the system, leaving Pro-Tools to become the industry standard by default.
By this time Cubase, Cakewalk and Logic all were becoming software that was capable of handling the entire recording chain.
With these advances, pressure was mounting from both the audio and video editing industries for computer hardware manufacturers to produce hard drives with higher RPMs and greater bandwidth and throughput. Computers as recording studios were becoming the norm.
And they were becoming affordable. Time was that, if you wanted to record music, you had to go to a very expensive studio. This was out of reach of all but a few, well funded, bands and songwriters. Advances in affordable electronics launched a home recording revolution that allowed musicians to record all their music effortlessly and economically. Back in the day, the gear alone for a professional recording studio in, say, 1995, that cost two million dollars could be had in the year 2000 for less than a tenth of that. By 2015 you could put together a fairly decent studio in your basement for 10 to 20 grand. Today, even less.
Along the way from the 60s to the 2000s, audiences were slowly fed more and more music that was becoming less and less sloppy and pitchy. Their ears were becoming used to hearing well timed and correctly pitched performances.
There is no turning back. Well timed and pitch corrected music is here to stay. Today's music is, objectively, better written and better mixed than in any previous era. The musicians are more talented and better trained, audio engineers and music mixers are making tracks that sound incredible and audiences, for the most part, are eating it up.
So, regardless of what style of music you play, make full use all the tools that the industry has worked so long and hard to create. You've been blessed by the gods of gear to be able to do things that audio engineers of the past only dreamed of.
Modern music no more sucks than the music of any other era. Maybe it's different than what you grew up with, but that's on you. For most people, the of music today is, without a doubt, some of the best music ever recorded.
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