Is the World of Music Better Now or Better Then?

Steve Wiley is Up on the Sun's resident Record Store Geek. He shares stories of great music and wacky characters from his continuing 27 years in Valley record stores and the always zany music biz.

I'm closing in on a half century of existence -- an existence immersed in the world of entertainment -- and sometimes I just sit back and marvel at technology. My phone is a computer. I can fast forward commercials. I've got music and movies and everything in between right at my fingertips.

We've got it pretty good.

Notice I didn't say, "You damn kids don't know how lucky you've got it." I haven't hit that stage yet.

Of course, I may not go that way at all. I may end up being the old guy that says, "Things were a lot better in my day."

I'll try to decide logically. Right now. Starting with music. Join me for a quick review of what's better about music now and what was better back then (and what has stayed the same).

I have more or less embraced most of the changes that have evolved in my passion, my addiction, and my industry (all one and the same) over the years.

So I have no problem saying thing in the land of music are better now.

If they are.

I guess we'll see. Let's analyze 'em in threes.

Better Now: Tools for musicians.

Like every other area of entertainment and art, technology has made it easier to create. It doesn't necessarily mean better creations, it just means they're easier to create.

Better Then: Musicianship.

Because the tools are better, musicians don't have to work as hard. I read something in the Lefsetz Letter (the only industry blog I read) yesterday about some music biz honcho saying that "the 79th best band of the '70s is better than the best band of today." Like Bob noted, it's hard to argue with that. I won't.

The Same: Impact on the soul.

Music, new and old, still hits me with the same force as ever. I see it massively influence my sons and daughters as well. Thank God.

Better Now: Sound quality.

Yeah, I know, Freaky Vinyl Fan, nothing sounds as good as a record. Perhaps with an ultra-clean record on your eight zillion dollar system, but not in the real world. Thanks simply to durability, CDs have always been a lot cleaner sounding than the average listener's records (now or then), and while compressed digital music doesn't compete with either, it still blows away 8-track and cassette tape.

Better Then: Album length.

Back in those days, the constraints of the LP kept artists to 8-10 songs. In my book, which is an album advocate's book, that's all you need from any artist in any one sitting. CDs fucked that up. Labels charged more, so fans demanded more music, so the labels added the filler B-sides. Too long. Too much. Diluted results.

The Same: Glorious artwork.

I am an avid fan of the art of the album. I am floored by today's gig posters, as well as the classics of the bygone eras. There's more of it now, so I almost went with "better now", but you have to give it up to the pioneers in art department as well.

Better Now:Learning materials for fans.

This isn't even close. Finding out information about your favorite artists and albums back in those days (especially in a small state like North Dakota) was nearly impossible. It could be done, but it took work. Nowadays, I can call up Spotify to hear anything... Youtube to see the band live... allmusic.com to read the bio, as well as reviews of album.

Better Then: Cultural influence.

Back in the '60s and '70s, a lot more artists used their amazing powers for good. It's still happens today, but not nearly enough. These days way too many artists let their managers and PR people do their thinking, they refuse to stand up to labels, and they end up worrying more about their images than taking a stand.

The Same: Live music.

Musicianship in general may not be as tight, but there are still tons of great live bands playing all over the country. It's still just as fun to go out and catch 'em and have a few brews and hang with friends. It's probably been that way since sticks and stones.

Better Now: Artist opportunity.

It seems to me that in this day and age, while it may not be any easier to get popular with the masses, you at least have the ability to reach them. I can't speak as a musician, but as a writer, it's completely true. In the old days, if I wanted you to read my writing, short of being published, there wasn't a way. Now, I can at least post it on a blog, or social feed, and give people the option. The same is true with music.

Better Then: Artist development.

You can thank SoundScan (and label greed, of course) for this one. At some point, everything became about first week sales and ceased to focus on long-term artist development. Legends like Joni Mitchell and Rush would have been dropped before they even got started these days. Back then, they were given more time to develop, and develop they did.

The Same: Record label greed.

I could give you eight other examples, but the biggest greed-driven-biz-killer has always been high prices. Prices were too high back then on LPs and tapes, and they got worse during the CD era. Now they've moved on to overpricing downloads. And they are back to overpricing LPs. Ask any retailer, they will back this up.

Better Now: Access to music.

Not even close. You can get it how you want it Digital. CD. Vinyl. Streaming. In the old days you had to buy it, tape it physically from someone else who had it, or wonder what it was like.

Better Then: Reaching the masses.

Interestingly enough, although the delivery options and access are way up, I think it's harder to reach the masses. That's because it's easier to avoid what you don't dig. I literally do not know one Beyonce song. There's was no way my mom could have made that same statement about Madonna... or Michael Jackson... and even a mid-level MTV/radio star, back in the '80s.

The Same: Passionate fans.

It may be a lot more segmented, but people are still nuts about their favorite music. If this ever changes, our society will be in seriously bad shape.

Better Now: Great value.

It isn't like music is actually free. You at least need an internet connection, and some sort of handheld device, and any bill-payer knows that ain't cheap. But you needed those anyway, and with them, you never have to pay another cent for music. As a collector, that's not the way I do it, but it's certainly an option that wasn't available in my youth.

Better Then: Great albums.

I just don't even think this is close. Maybe it's because it's harder to break new ground. Maybe it's because the art form of the album isn't as important. I suspect it's because of the superior musicianship and individuality of the pioneers. For whatever reason, the past offers an array of albums that will not be matched.

The Same: Great songs.

I still hear great new songs. I suspect that will always continue. However, songs don't hold nearly as much weight as albums -- just ask the landscape of one-hit wonders throughout all eras -- because very few people can write a whole grouping of good ones.

So What's Your Verdict, Geek? Then or Now?

Well, it's pretty damn great now, and it was pretty damn great then, so I could just call it a tie and go listen to some music.

But they don't pay me those big blogger bucks to sit on the fence.

So I'm going to say that music today, in spite of all it's access and technology, is not quite as good as music "then."

Not enough to prepare my "things were better in Grampa's day" soapbox...

... but I'm still going to say, "You damn kids don't know how lucky you've got it."

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