November 16, 2014

SCHULMAN | This Isn’t Your Parents’ Music

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I’m nostalgic for my first MP3 Player. I got an iPod nano video with five gigabytes of memory in seventh grade right around this time of year. I was so excited. I was one of the last among my friends to get one and felt so left out. I had no idea how much music I could store on it. I doubt I used 100 megabytes of memory. The idea that I could take 15 songs anywhere with me was mind blowing. The idea that I could take 50 times that was unfathomable.

Looking back, my first MP3 player reminds me how much technology has fundamentally changed — and continues to change — the way that I listen to music. Most people have changed the way they listen to music over the past 15 years. Because of technology, our generation’s music is completely different than our parents’ music. Our artists come and go; we are less devoted to them and more open to the listening experience.

Think about the technology we use to record music — it makes it easier for artists to accomplish their vision. There’s a whole debate on whether having technical ability on vocals and instrumentals is even valuable anymore because with enough editing and auto-tuning a dying manatee can sound like the Beatles. The individual artists are less important to us because things like auto tuning didn’t exist 20 years ago; heck, they barely existed 10 years ago. Back in the day, there used to be little difference between a live show and a recording. Now, unless you’re paying to hear Ashlee Simpson lip sync — in which case there’s no difference between the actual performance and the album — live songs sound completely different than they do on the album. As a result, live music is more about the experience and less about who is playing.

Think about all the new ways to experience music that didn’t exist 15 years ago. Music today is more spontaneous and diverse. Distributing music online carries no expensive shelf space, manufacturing or shipping. As a result, every song you’ve ever wanted and tons that you didn’t are ubiquitously available and almost free. Your relationship with each song is very different from buying an album like your parents did. It is so much easier to discover new music but so much harder to commit.

It boils down to how much music is part of what we do. It gives us identity. It expresses how we feel. And it differentiates us. Our music is fundamentally different than anything that came before it in large part due to technology. And I think every generation would say that.

From jazz in the ‘20s, rock in the ‘60s, hip hop in the ‘90s and everything in between, music defines a generation. And technology is an integral part of that. Technology made rock and roll that our parents listened to different than anything their parents ever had. The whole concept of tape recorders, LPs and editing were all invented or relatively new during our parents’ lifetimes and contributed to making their music uniquely theirs. The electric guitar didn’t exist 20-25 years before our parents were born, yet it became one of the most recognizable instruments during their lifetimes. Go back to our grandparents’ generation, and they would say technology invented during their time changed their music. Recorded music, microphones and radio where basically invented right before or around their childhood and made a huge impact.

Which is why our music is fundamentally unique. We incorporate technologies that were nascent 10, 20 years into our music giving our generation its voice. My high school English teacher would say something about writing that I think relates to music; he would say a good writer makes you feel like they know you without ever having met you. That’s also the hallmark of good music; good music feels like it was made specifically for you. Technology helps artists do just that.