Occasional Series: LJC Conversation Pieces –
An experiment, sound off about topics related to the music we love and the things around it we love to hate, or anything else reasonably on-topic for that matter.
It is always interesting to hear the thoughts of Michael Cuscuna, who probably more than anyone is responsible for having maintained the Blue Note legacy over the last four decades
A link to a recent interview by Fred Seibert with Cuscuna – “Seven Questions” – popped into my maillbox today, you can read the whole thing here – but I thought I’d take the liberty of reposting his answer to the last and more interesting question, number 7, as a thought starter (Forget the interviewers standard opening question, a variant of How did you get started in this business?)
Fred: You’ve produced during every format era except 78’s. Vinyl LPs, cassettes, CDs, MP3s, and streaming (I’m skipping right over direct-to-disc and super audio CD). Any comment on any of them –or their business implications– for us?
Michael: “In the early part of our century, recordings for the home (as opposed to radio broadcasts) were made and sold in 3 to 5-minute doses, regardless of genre. When 10” and later 12” LPs were introduced in the early ‘50s, only the genres suited to limited budgets, jukeboxes and AM radio retained a substantial singles market (rock, pop, R&B and country).
As the LP became the norm, the record business upped the dosage to 18 to 21-minutes per LP side. With the advent of the CD, the dosage grew to a single wallop of 60 to 78 minutes. Territorially, the space for self-indulgent material or second-rate filler grew with each format change.
I think listeners sensed the physical (from digital media) and mental (from content) fatigue of the listening experience for recordings at home. I think this has led younger buyers to MP3s of singles and EPs, in other words, the cream of the crop in a much shorter time span. It has also pushed an older demographic to stop accumulating CDs or LPs and to chase the convenience of playlists and streaming, again to get the cream of the crop and move on to the next artist.
The CD essentially saved the record business in the mid ‘80s. The industry had shrunk severely in the late ‘70s and there were not enough hits and viable artists to sustain the level at which the industry functioned. The CD raised the quality of sound reproduction (though a lot of mistakes were made in the early years), increased the amount of music one could issue and was far more convenient than LP. And labels soon discovered that they could entice the record buying public to replace their entire collection in the new format. So old best sellers became new best sellers all over again.
For me, at the beginning of reissuing the revitalized Blue Note catalog, this was a boon. Rudy Van Gelder’s sound was ahead of its time and suited to the new medium. All my research into the Blue Note vaults paid off because I had room to add extra tunes or alternate takes of merit to an original album.
Digital recording and the CD delivery system were launched too early to a desperate industry. Limited by a 16-bit system and without any of the great analog-to-digital converters that came in the ‘90s, the audiophile segment of the music market began to return to the LP, mastered in analog throughout the process onto 180-gram thick virgin vinyl.
With so many improvements in CD and LP sound, I find it very discouraging that the squashed MP3 file played through computer speakers or a phone is the new standard for this generation. The ease of sharing and the scorn for intellectual property that so many people have harmed the creators and what they create. It’s not a rosy outlook as far as I can see.”
Cuscuna’s musical knowledge and understanding of the recorded Blue Note legacy is unparalleled. However his “view from the bridge” is not one I share in every respect, especially as a member of his “older demographic”. He needs a closer look at modern vinyl home listening technology, but then if you spent your life listening to the original tape from the vaults, why would you?
Where he touches on something more significant, my words not his, is the modern problem of infinite choice and reduced attention span, which converge in what he concludes is a rush to the “cream of the crop”. Like, anyone knows what the cream of the crop is, especially if they are in a hurry: someone elses pick, maybe?
Though I give digitally produced music a hard time, and deservedly so, the real problem with it is not so much to do with inferior audio quality, that may be resolved over time, but to do with The Playlist, and the buttons on the handset that invite pressing. Combine Fear of Missing Out with Infinite Choice, what the heck do you listen to, without constantly moving on to the next track and the next artist, in search of (but never finding) “the cream of the crop”?
Though you can get 80 minutes of music on a CD, and only 20 minutes on one side of an LP, but less than half that LP side gives sufficient space to work through most of the musical ideas in a composition, with a quartet, quintet or sextet at work. So two maybe three tracks an LP side seems to provide a natural satisfying listening session experience. This is the formula that Cuscuna has spent four decades curating, not 80 minute tunes. What is the right length of a piece of recorded music? If there is one there one, it’s eight minutes. With exceptions, of course.
I’ve been watching a bit of Masterchef (Mrs LJC’s choice) got me thinking. We are familiar with the three-course meal, each course consisting of three or four main ingredients. Six courses is not twice as good as three, fifty ingredients doesn’t make something ten times better, quantity is not a substitute for quality. We get it with food, food that meets our nutritional needs and the size of our digestive capacity. Isn’t that how it works with music too?
MP3 and Playlist is just snacking. Filling yourself up with snacks gives you bad skin, pasty complexion, and energy you don’t need turns into restlessness. Sitting down with an LP is like dinner at a top restaurant.
Your usual table, Sir? You don’t hop from restaurant to restaurant, LP to LP, like a playlist. You sit where you have chosen, your artist and LP of choice. Each course or tune arrives, mixing interesting and harmonious flavours with textures and body. The sommelier has paired the a matching wine. And at the end of a satisfying meal, you are left with a thumping great bill. That’s how vinyl works, and why it works, or works for me, may be your dietary needs or cullinary tastes differ. I like to listen to around three LPs in a row, both sides.
Perhaps we all use music for different purposes, in different ways, at different times. Cuscuna, apparently, says he likes listening in his free time to ’60s soul music, Ray Charles and the like, and I suspect not on vinyl. Which is a shame, as I warrant it would sound very very good.
Floor is open, dinner is being served..