Wednesday 21 August 2019

Why has music become more depressing?

Donna Summer is probably the best tester for dirty analogue synth
Donna Summer is probably the best tester for dirty analogue synth
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

My past has been compressed. My memories have been flattened, made two-dimensional. The life, the oomph, has been taken out of them.

Someone told me that Tidal is the music-streaming service of choice for serious muso-heads now, and for the guys who DJ at rollerskating shindigs, which are apparently quite a scene among old ravers. Apparently on the big speakers you can tell the difference between say, Spotify and Tidal. If you don't know what either of these are then you are possibly even older than me.

Spotify was the first big mainstream music streaming service. So I pay €10 a month and have access to most of the music I can think of and pretty much all the new music that comes out. I believe David Bowie predicted this a long time ago, that one day we would no longer feel the need to own music, we would use it like a utility, like water. It seemed like a daft notion back then, and the idea that you wouldn't own it was vaguely unsatisfying. For some reason, it seemed important to own the music.

Now of course none of us really care about owning stuff anymore; we are all about just having the experience. So I have adjusted very quickly to not buying music anymore, instead renting the experience. But I'll admit, it doesn't seem the same. Music doesn't matter as much when you don't invest in it. When you used to buy an album you would listen to it a dozen times until you started to like it, or like half of it anyway. You rarely bought a dud because you did your research before committing.

Now you don't commit, it's all there. New stuff comes on stream every Friday. You can have it all, and in a curious way you don't want any of it. Because it feels a bit like a utility, it feels a bit like a service. Maybe it is the lack of something to touch, of liner notes to read, but the whole music thing feels slightly diminished for me. Sometimes I wonder if it's just because I'm old now and new music will never blow me away the way it did at a certain point in my life. But then I go into the archives and listen to old music, and sometimes even it seems to have lost its power.

But then I decided this Tidal issue could be the answer to my problems. Maybe this alleged superior sound quality was what I was missing. Maybe Tidal would give the oomph I was missing. Tidal is a streaming service owned by Jay Z and some other billionaires. As far as I can work out it is also more than twice the price of Spotify. But I took the free month. And I listened, and I imagined that the music sounded better. There was more bottom to it. They weren't compressing the files as much, I told myself. They hadn't flattened my memories and my experience as much.

Then I started tinkering around with Spotify and I realised that they have a high-quality setting you can put on. So I switched to that and I started comparing. I decided I needed to compare Tidal and Spotify across a range of music to see if I could tell a difference in the richness. I tried a bit of Bob Dylan first to get that organic, valve-amp 1960s/1970s feel. By switching quickly between it on the two services, I decided that Tangled Up In Blue sounded slightly richer on Tidal. Or else it was all in my head. Then I went for some bass-driven music. Donna Summer's I Feel Love, the song with which Giorgio Moroder invented electronic disco, is probably the best tester for dirty analogue synth. Strangely, I imagined that this sounded better on Spotify. Then it struck me that if I was having this much trouble telling the difference maybe there was no huge practical difference. Then a piece popped up on saying that "New research has found that listening to music in low-quality digital formats can dampen its emotional impact" and digital files actually make music more depressing. But then, it's probably so subtle your conscious mind doesn't even know that music is quietly dragging you down.

I met Marty Whelan the other night and he gave me a vinyl gatefold copy of his new album Marty Recommends...Christmas. It was heavy, and it felt nice, and it gave me joy even to hold it. And I was excited about getting it home and hooking up my old stereo and putting it on. And it made me realise that maybe we have lost something along the way.

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