On Engineered Obsolescence in Music Today

This afternoon, a music professor from my university took a few of us out for lunch. I was invited along because I’d edited the biographical info for her new CD’s liner notes; the other two professors had translated the lyrics of some English-language songs on the CD to Korean for the liner notes, and coordinated the whole process. Anyway, she took us out for lunch at this amazing little place in Bucheon, the name of which I will have to get. The food was all made with special herbs and leaves and plants grown in places like Kangwon Province and Ulleung island, some of them especially for that restaurant. It was amazing food, great company, and my comprehension of the Korean-language portions of the discussion was better than I’d expected, consider the range of discussion topics.

What was cool was the passion this singer, a coloratura soprano, felt for the music. And the intellectual interest in the intersection of music, culture, and history. Music as art. How often do you get to sit at a table with people who feel that way about music? That it matters?

So anyway, after lunch but with that still hanging thick in my mind, I headed home, wrote an email, and then walked down to my favorite local coffeeshop to grade some student work. Specifically, the last pile of panel discussion reactions, dealing with User Created Content and with the discussion I titled, riffing on a course title by Cory Doctorow, “Are You a Copyright Criminal?”

It’s not rare that I feel I’ve learned something from my students’ reactions. With so many bright minds all plowing into a single topic at once, there are always nuggets I carry off with me. (Which is one reason I want to make the whole “discussion/reaction” thing so much more communal. I need to find a way they can share their reactions and thoughts in a more interactive way, while still writing responses of the quality and length that they’ve been doing so far.

Anyway, someone was writing about copyright and she pointed out that the main reason she doesn’t feel obliged to pay money for music is that she actually gets sick of most popular songs relatively quickly. She raised the question of whether the inclination to downnload without paying for songs might be linked to a decline in the qualityb of popular music in Korea, and something clicked in my head, with regard to all pop music industries around the world. That is: planned obsolence is a killer when suddenly free (or potentially free) alternatives pop up.

In my response to her comment, I wrote, “Well, they don’t make music to last like they used to in 1950… or 1750, that’s for sure.” And it’s true: certainly, the music industry isn’t the only culprit behind the utterly planned, institutionalized obsolesence of popular music today, but at the same time, it’s not blameless. People would be much happier paying for songs if they felt like they would get the same joy from them months, let alone years, later.

Which is not a defense of considering copyright in a blasé manner, but it certainly must go some small way towards explaining why so many people feel so little guilt about downloading songs. In a sense, it’s only a kind of time-reshuffling of the same constancy of exposure to songs that one finds in the rest of their environment. I hear Korean pop songs on the street, on TVs in shops, online, all the time. What’s the difference if I’m hearing them on my MP3 player as well? People will be leery to pay for a product that effectively saturates their environment already, especially when they know they will be sick of it in a few weeks or a month.

And this is not to say that all pop music is disposable crap. This is something I learned only in my 30s, basically, but I’m as willing to pay for quality pop music — stuff I think I will love years down the road — as I am to pay for jazz, for classical music, for any other audio media. but the majority of stuff out there is utterly disposable, and in a way that is necessarily engineered into the music, as well as into the distribution and publicization system. No effort has been made to seek out and bring forth products that will mean as much to someone ten, twenty, forty, or more years later in life.

Art? Sorry, but the whole aspiration to art has been tossed out the window. I’m sorry, but as someone who has looked at and listened to a good sample of the last thousand years of music in the West, and good chunks of non-Western music as well, I can say this with complete confidence: most of what people listen to these days — and take for granted as what we talk about when we talk about music — is a sad case of, “They don’t make ’em like they used to.” I’m not saying what I like is best. I’m saying some music use to be built like cathedrals or teetering human pyramids, but now a lot of it is designed to be more like Dixie Cups. While not a moral or even necessarily an ethical problem, it is bound to impact on the business of music, and its sustainability…

So when the turkeys come home to roost, who’s going to cry?

I say we build something better on the ruins.

7 thoughts on “On Engineered Obsolescence in Music Today

  1. Oh, this is always a fun little topic.The American comics industry is facing the same problems due to digital distribution.

    The problem is not the downloading. Nor is it the quality of the songs. Even the big band jazz songs we consider classics today were considered disposable shite back in their day.

    The problem is in the alternatives to illegal downloading. CDs are vastly over priced, and do not give good value for money. iTunes is a massive success because it provides the music at the perceived value.

    A $20 – $30 CD does not match it’s perceived value.

    But not everyone has or wants an iPod, so the rest are stuck with the option of paying for a criminally over-priced CD (or worse, an even more expensive CD/DVD bundle), some lousy DRM-saddled/ spyware-riddled wav file, or getting an MP3 for free on bitorrent.

    The old way of doing business is pretty much dead. The entertainment industry is NOT adapting very well. People will pay for something if they think the price is right. And the price simply isn’t right.

    Then again, with their long history of stealing from creators, I’d say this is well deserved comeuppance.

    Thanks to the internet, DIY bands don’t need to deal with them to make a good living.

  2. Yo, G-man,

    Hey, I agree with a lot of what you say, and I just want to say that I don’t think engineered obsolescence is the ONLY reason the house of cards is collapsing. But it certainly is one reason. A $20 – $30 CD does not match it’s perceived value because most of it, if not all, is crap nobody will want to listen to a few months later.

    And on the fact that it is a kind of payback for ripping off creative people for ages, oh yes. I kind of attack that angle in my story about jazz and aliens, “Lester Young and the Jupiter’s Moons’ Blues,” actually.

    Up with the Internet. Down with the modern day dinosaurs. And may we all find a better way through the maze. :)

  3. It’s worth remembering that there is still considerable profit in commercial music (mostly to the producers and distributors, very little to the performers themselves), and anything that will guarantee a steady flow of new purchases assures if not increases that profit.

    The problem RIAA have with free downloading/sharing is that it reduces their profit margin, not that it’s any actual threat to the business ..

  4. Bruce,

    Yeah, good point, though you should see the numbers for the Korean pop music industry. (ie. CDs just don’t equal money anymore here, if the figures are to be believed… and I suspect they are, which is why the business model is so different here, like with talent companies like JYP.)

    Once you have the same kind of cultural internet-saturation in the West, I suspect you’ll have the same problems, too… and the companies will either adapt or crash.

  5. I still buy few dozen CDs a year, but looking back on the list of CDs I bought this year, about half of them are catching up on the old stuff (e.g. Elvis Costello, Kinks, Stevie Wonder) or old-school music (new albums by Springsteen, U2). The last Korean CD I bought was about 15 years ago (Cho Yong-Pil). Almost all the stuff I bought this year is American or British rock.

    Couple of things I noticed:
    New albums have some good songs, but as albums I don’t listen to them very much. It’s like we have gone back to the days of 50s and early 60s singles. Very few acts seem to make balanced and coherent albums anymore. (My examples of “balanced and coherent” albums -. The Who “Quadrophenia” Beatles “Abbey Road” “Sgt. Pepper”, Dire Straits “Making Movies” “Love Over Gold”, U2 “Achtung Baby”, Springsteen “Born to Run” “The River”) As a result, CDs are probably overpriced for the value they deliver.

    (I’ve gladly paid $60 for the Kinks box set earlier this year; and I will probably gladly fork over $200 later this year for the Beatles remasters, but will I fork over the same amount for most of the newer bands? Probably not)

    Maybe the CDs are too long – at 74-80 minutes, compared to all the albums I’ve listed above which are 35-50 minutes. It encourages fillers.

    Three observations:

    In Eric Clapton’s autobiography, at the end of the book, he basically points out that Sturgeon’s law applied to music when he began his career, and today as well. (90% of stuff is crap, 10% is ‘real’) and the good stuff will get around no matter what the distribution system is, or becomes.

    Second, I was flipping through the channels on TV when I saw one of Korea’s (too many) girl bands singing a “song.” They were perfectly choreographed, and the expression on their faces seemed to be those of robots. There were no musicians on stage, and everything seemed programmed on a synth. I took out a DVD of the Police “Certifiable” – to see just three guys playing the music themselves without doing anything else, to get the bad taste out of my ears. The next day, I heard The Killer’s “Human” where a line in the chorus goes: “Are we human, or are we dancers?” Reminded me so much of that girl group. It’s currently the second most played song in my IPod this year. (Though again,the album as a whole wasn’t that hot). I wish Korea would just publish “Playboy” so I can look at these girl groups without listening to them.

    Spider Robinson’s short story “Meloncholy Elephants”

    [spoiler warning]

    The story notes that compared to Bach or the Beatles, the amount of music created and released by artists (in the mid 1980s when the story was written) fell amazingly. He attributes the reason to intensified copyright laws – especially where it applies to basic melodies, chord structures for music and basic plot ideas for books and stories. Could this be one of the contributing factors for the decline in the quality of songs?

  6. Bah, there’s plenty of awesome music today. Dancing occurring in a music video or not. (You gotta be pretty limited in your tastes to refuse to admit that this was a pretty tight pop song)

    The concepts of “I like” and “I don’t like” are not the same as “Is good” and “Isn’t good”. Even the Beatles were (and in some corners, still are) considered a shitty band of posers by some. I remember seeing Canuck TV personality Ed the Sock call them “The Backstreet Boys of the 1960s”.

    Art is annoyingly personal like that.

    And really, it’s no more disposable than it was since the birth of the recording industry in the 1920s. Hell, even the great plays of Shakespeare were intended to be ignored once the next one was presented.

    I’m maintaining that it’s 100% in the delivery medium, not in the quality of the music itself.

    CDs should NOT be $20. Especially when you can fit someone’s entire discography on a single DVD… that doesn’t even cost $20 to produce.

    The public may be stupid as posts most of the time, but they don’t stay stupid forever. Everyone knows that CDs are already as out-dated as 8-track tapes. That’s why they all have MP3 players: They provide the best value for money available right now.

    The music industry wants to save their profit margin: Drop the album. Stick with selling low-priced singles a la iTunes.

    If a band has enough popular tracks to release as a compilation, then good. More money that way.

  7. Junsok,

    Well, of course, I want to be careful and note that some study suggested people tend to like the kind of music they liked when they were 21. That can’t be completely true of everyone — I like all kinds of stuff I sneered at when I was 21. But people do tend to like stuff that’s familiar, and feel it is, subjectively, better.

    I spent an ungodly amount of money recently getting all the albums put out by Capsule, a shibuya-kei band that I really like. (Ungodly.)

    But anyway, I agree about album length causing some problems. When we were making an album, and it was less than 40 min long, we felt a little bad and expected people buying the CD would too. I think we even came up with an extra song to lengthen it, though my memories are hazy (this was the first album in 2002… which you can get here).

    I think one of the things that might be lacking, say in those girl groups, is a degree of personal involvement. JYP and the others exist as money-making entities, and the girls are too young to have the kind of guts and hunger to want to be the best &#^$ing musicians ever. The kind of thing that drove Bach, Stravinsky, or Coltrane, or Billie Holiday, or Miles Davis, or I imagine Jimi or or others. These are kids being put onto stage to make money for a company. And they do it rather well. But that’s not art, and it never will be.

    (Not to say money taints art: money lets people eat and I hate how hungry so many artists have to be. I’m just saying when money becomes the motivation, the music will be doomed not to have an edge that drives it from sound to art. Same goods for books that are telephoned in versus books that authors struggle to write so well that nobody will ever tell that story better.)

    As for copyright — well, yeah, and some of the best artists in history have been rampant thieves, though they also “remixed” heavily. But the fast-and-loose-with-copyright approach in the Korean pop music scene isn’t helping, is it? It seems more stifling than helpful to me, because it’s a little too easy, and because I get the impression the songwriters (who are largely not the performers) have no real shame about doing it… and little or no drive to be the best damned songwriter ever.


    Ha, you know, hearing that one song, I sought out a bunch of other Ne-yo stuff. Not sure what I think of the rest of his music, but I am happy to agree that song is *damn* tight, and very good. Thanks for mentioning it!

    As for the disposability of wat we now call great art… hmmm. Shakespeare’s work was, as far as I know, copyrighted when it was published in folios for the public. That doesn’t sound quite like disposable, though of course piracy and whatever was unavoidable (like today) and maybe people were a little more pragmatic about it then. I don’t know so much about Shakespeare’s copyrights and so on, but I do know this: the music of a composer like Bach, or Wagner, or Stravsinky, or Debussy, or Satie, have an enduring freshness that speaks to the human soul one or more centuries after their greatest works were penned. Even people who aren’t “into” that music, but have an open mind, can sit down and listen and be carried away. That shit was built to last.

    Building shit that ain’t built to last isn’t a bad thing, mind: I write (primarily near-future) SF, and that is literature that dates more quickly than any other, right? It’s pop literature, with an expiration date stamped hard on its surface. I’ve made my peace with the fact that, unlike Dostoevsky and Bulgakov and Kafka and even Larry McMurtry, I’m unlikely to be read a few centuries hence. I mean, nobody can see Coltrane live these days, either: some art forms are of the moment, and burn bright for a shorter time.

    So I have to disagree. Yeah, some of it is pricing and medium. But I think it’s also the perceived value of the songs. The music industry has created a world where the kind of young adult I was — listening to The Rite of Spring daily, immersed in the piece for a full year at one point — is an absurdity. Now, the name of the game is pump and dump, and it’s changed our aesthetics… to the point where what would have been a miracle to people 200 years ago — this ability to listen to any song we want at any time — is transformed into a drudgery because most of the songs we already have lack the staying power to matter to us. Almost nobody — even contemporary composers — builds music like a cathedral anymore. This is probably inevitable given the world we’ve entered, but it also inevitably impacts the way the business operates — and engineering disposability into songs (or the experience of songs, via media saturation, for example) as a definite feature of the form is definitely something I think had to happen for the industry to take the shape it has taken.

    (Which was the point I got from the student’s paper: she said essentially that even songs she likes annoy her after a few weeks.)

    I’d be interested in hearing how this applies to comics, since that’s something you know TONS about, and an area I don’t know much about at all.

    As for CD pricing — ha, I think we’re probably toppling toward a world where musicians release tracks as promotional efforts to draw audiences to shows. But scarily, this is also the world towards which writers are tumbling, and I don’t know what writers will be drawing fans to. Maybe I should start taking voice lessons? Or pumping iron? :)

    Or maybe I should start working on those academic papers I’ll need to write to hold onto my day job. :)

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