All what I said yesterday about the economics of content applies in spades to music.Â US recorded music sales (CDs, streaming, and LPs) are down about half in real dollars since 2006. Musicians depend on live performance, and treat their CDs as advertising for concerts: live performance revenue is about double recording sales.
What this means is that the music itself has to change: every gig is under pressure to get as many people in the seats as possible. Some music is designed for this: it’s simplified to survive amplification in a stadium,Â where what you see from distant seats is out of sync with the garbled auditory signal, and it can be improved with fireworks, lighting, and I guess ecstasy distribution.Â Some music is not suitable for this kind of venue, but a series of club dates or performances in 500-seat halls with good acoustics cannot support a band, or even a soloist. The relentless pressures resulting from the impossibility of monetizing nearly all person-hours of music listening (recorded content) leads to ridiculous, absurd events like the concert for which I just received an ad from Cal Performances: Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile (great, wow!)…at the 8500-seat open-air Greek Theatre at Berkeley.Â At the what??!!
These guys are virtuosi of acoustic instruments, none nearly loud enough to be heard in that space. Their musicianship comprises the subtlety of fine distinctions in timbre,Â intonation, and rhythm, absolutely none of which will be audible potted up for that venue and bounced around in it, not to mention that from most of the seats (toward the rear), Ma’s right arm will zig while the sound he’s making zags.Â How is a pasticcio like this a better experience than hearing the same performance as recorded in a good studio, perhaps as a video? Nothing wrong with big crowds getting together for a social event, but this is a truly bizarre sound track to accompany that.
What about dynamics, if timbre, pitch and rhythm don’t work? Well, another interesting thing has happened to music, more gradually, over the last century or so. Once upon a time, loudness was the most expensive element of music with which to get a big effect: to sound twice as loud, you need ten times as many musicians, which is why the chorus at the opera doesn’t sound anything like fifty times as loud as the soloist.Â Now, dynamics is the cheapest element; just turn up the pot on the mixing board (or your iPhone)!Â At the same time, the relative (to everything else) cost of excellent musicians and singers for live performance has gone up enormously because they have seen none of the productivity improvements that have made almost everything else cheaper–it still takes two person-hours of trained talent to perform a half-hour string quartetÂ Â same as it took in Mozart’s time.Â So: make it louder, enough louder that an audience accustomed to really loud will think it is hearing something special. Sound levels, in earphones and at venues, drive a positive feedback loop that has measurably deafened the audience with volumes OSHA would forbid in a workplace: they can’t hear subtleties at higher frequencies, so the only thing to do is…louder still!
If Ma and his pals could make a living from recordings, they wouldn’t have to collaborate in deeply anti-musical outrages like this concert. Fewer people would be able to attend live concerts, but those who did would actually hear the music.Â How to allocate the scarce resource of small-hall seats at top-level talent events, other than by price and scalping, is a legitimate problem, but making a hash of this kind of music through zillion-watt amplification in a stadium isn’t distributing the experience.