Time Waits For No One – how tech has changed music forever

The 12” Single

Heyday: 1976 - Present

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Technical description: The 12” was invented by accident. The first '12-incher’ (actually a 10” disc) was cut in 1974 by engineer José Rodríguez so that  DJ Tom Moulton could play out a rough mix of Al Downing’s I’ll Be Holding On to test crowd reaction. Cutting a single song on a an album-sized platter has a number of advantages for a DJ. First, it enables the cutting engineer to cut a deeper, louder groove. Second, it makes it mush easier to discern the different sections of a song from the appearance of the grooves. That helps a lot when you’re trying to drop the needle on a great drum break or instrumental section. Third, a big box of records makes you feel more like a proper DJ rather than someone who’s just turned up to a party with a box of T.Rex singles. Oh, and of course fourth it allows for longer playing time which is handy if the DJ needs to pop out of the booth for a wee.

Cultural impact: The 12” single helped create a club culture that persists to this day. It’s just about possible to imagine the late Seventies Disco scene without 12-inchers but the paradigm-shifting influence of Acid House depended almost entirely on twelve inch singles. And without Acid House we probably wouldn’t have half of the current Top 40.

Key Stones Recording: The 12”  "Special Disco Version," of Miss You was the Stones' first 12” single, and probably their best. It helped the song to the US Number 1 spot in May 1978 and was a turning point in the band’s career as they reinvented themselves in line with Mick’s espousal of the Studio 54 crowd.

The Compact Cassette

Heyday: 1979 − 1990

Technical description: The Compact Cassette is something of a poor relation to the LP, often considered an afterthought by marketing departments and artwork designers. The tiny box of magnetic tape reached its real peak long after its mid-Sixties introduction with the introduction of the Sony Stowaway…or, as it became known, the Walkman. In the Eighties cassettes were outselling vinyl records. So popular was the format that labels even started issuing singles on cassette. Remembered now because the word ‘mixtape’ — a home-made compilation of carefully-chosen songs — has entered the pop culture lexicon. Ironically just as the word ‘cassette’ has been deleted from the Oxford English Dictionary to make room for newer contenders.

Cultural impact: The real impact of the cassette was in the home taping arena. Crudely-assembled collections of favourites from the Top 40 recorded from the radio, romantic collections crafted by loving swains for their paramours, hope-filled demo collections destined for the snowdrift of tapes on an A&R man’s office floor: the cassette was all of these things and more.

Key Stones Recording: It’s hard to think of a Rolling Stones record that was shaped by the cassette medium. But it’s illuminating I think that when I researched this piece I could find a couple of Mick Jagger solo singles on cassette — for example 1993’s Rick Rubin produced ‘Sweet Thing’ — but no Rolling Stones cassingles. I don’t think Keith would allow anything so daft.

More after the break...

The Compact Disc

Heyday: 1985 − 2005

CD

Technical description: The introduction of the CD represented a complete break with the lineage of the wax cylinder. Instead of a groove shaped with an analogue of vibrations in air the CD carries microscopic pits that are read as 16-bit, 44.1kHz digital information by a laser. The discs promised superior audio fidelity —  which was certainly true on all but the most audiophile of systems — and near-indestructibility. Which wasn’t true at all. The pivotal CD recording was Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms. A huge seller, it became the de facto demo disc for hi-fi shops and mini-system showoffs for the better part of a decade.

Cultural impact: One of the key things that the CD offered, in creative terms, was an embarrassment of running time. A vinyl album has room for about 40 minutes or so of audio. Much more and the cutting engineer’s job gets very tricky, and the resultant disc is underwhelmingly quiet. A CD can handle a shade under 80 minutes of audio. And of course if it’s there, artists feel pressured to fill it. Some songwriters have the kind of creativity that can cope with those vast digital vistas. Mick Jagger’s pal David Bowie, for example, came up with enough material to fill five vinyl albums in 1972 and ’73. Each one an acknowledged classic.

But not everyone has that much talent to spare – which is why a lot of CDs were padded with ‘bonus’ 12” mixes, skits, b-sides and other assorted that that should never really have seen the light of day. The high water mark for the bloated excess of the CD era was surely Guns N' Roses' simultaneous release of Use Your Illusion I and II in 1991 – a whopping two and a half hours of guitar solos, dolphin noises and orchestras.

Key Stones Recording: The Rolling Stones were as prone as any to content inflation. Tattoo You, Undercover and Dirty Work — released between 1981 and 1986 — averaged a shade over 40 minutes each. Steel Wheels, from 1989, edged up to 53 minutes and their next three albums; Voodoo Lounge, Bridges To Babylon and A Bigger Bang, were all comfortably over an hour long. The dilution of their creative force hasn’t had an appreciable effect on chart placings but it’d be a devoted fan indeed that suggests the last three Stones records are the best ones. Voodoo Lounge, the band’s 1994 release, was followed a year later by an ‘enhanced’ CD-ROM version. It’s an initiative that a few bands have tried. None with conspicuous success.

Digital Downloads

Heyday: 2000 - Present

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Technical description: Once a piece of audio has been digitised at sufficient quality, there’s really no reason for it to exist on a dedicated disc (or cylinder) at all. It can be delivered over the internet to whoever wants it as long as they’re willing to pay the price. Or, in many cases, even if they’re not. MP3s were originally small files — typically about 4MB per song as opposed to the 40MB of a CD-quality AIFF or WAV file — with brutal compression (down from 1411kbps to around 128) that made for a pretty grainy sound. With fast internet connections becoming increasingly common and large capacity hard disks getting cheaper all the time we’ve become much less careful with file size. A typical 320kbps MP3 or iTunes AAC for a 3-minute pop song can be upwards of 8MB; a 'lossless' FLAC file about 20MB; an uncompressed HD audio track at CD-slaying 24-bit, 96kHz quality at over 100MB. 

Cultural impact: Digital downloads have done a lot more than eliminate the retail middle-man. The demise of high street record shops may be the most obvious sign of the digital revolution but there are myriad other changes too. Increasingly, with revenues falling (whether you blame illegal downloads, CDs that are too full of filler tracks or the ubiquity of Simon Cowell) record companies have tried to leverage 360 degree deals that take in concert revenues and merchandising as well as record sales. Bands such as the Arctic Monkeys used the simplicity of digital dissemination via social networks to score record deals; equally, acts that already have a profile are dispensing with the traditional record company and connecting with their fans directly. Downloads mean they don’t need a complex distribution network – just an office.

The likes of Jethro Tull are getting along fine as 21st century minstrels, selling their songs direct to the people that like them. Taking the long view, before Edison musicians earned their keep from live performances; in a few decades that – and merchandising – may be the principal revenue stream again. Indeed, forward-thinking acts like Nine Inch Nails are giving away their songs for free and selling increasingly elaborate deluxe editions of their albums, packaged with books, photos and other ephemera – a throwback to the days of Sgt. Pepper, where the packaging of the album was as much of an experience as the songs. 

Key Stones Recording: Certainly the Rolling Stones touring operation has been their big money earner since the 1980s. Surprisingly, LSE educated business wizard Mick Jagger hasn’t (yet) taken the Stones catalogue in-house. Although the band was one of the first to set up a boutique ‘vanity’ label back in the Seventies. The Rolling Stones have released their entire catalog on iTunes as part of the band's 50th anniversary celebration. Everything from 1963's "Come On" to last year's GRRR! compilation is now available for download. Interestingly, one of the purchase options is a ‘complete catalogue’ package that comes in two chunks, from 1961-1971 and 1971-2013.

Streaming Audio

Heyday: Now

The Rolling Stones iPhone app

Technical description: With ever-faster broadband and mobile internet, it’s a moot point whether anyone needs to ‘own’ music at all. Almost anything that strikes your fancy can be heard on demand through Spotify, Amazon Cloud Player, the fothcoming iTunes Radio or – somewhat comically – via a video of a 45rpm record being played on YouTube.

Cultural impact: In the future, this is probably how we will all listen to music. You probably do already, even if the quality's not as good as your HD FLACs, as the endless choice means there's no easier way to find new bands to love. The idea of someone having a record collection will soon seem as quaint as someone having a horse or a sword. Just as there are eccentrics today who ride horses to work or collect samurai swords, there will be always holdouts with libraries of slowly crumbling vinyl.  But they’ll be a shrinking minority. The far future may sound weird and uncomfortable by the standards of those of us who grew up with the Rolling Stones. But most of us won’t have to live there.

Key Stones Recording: The Rolling Stones iPhone app is an example of the way that music delivery media might evolve in the future. The members of the band aren’t getting any younger, but the band as a corporate entity will probably endure through initiatives like the Rolling Stones app  deep into their retirement. As Mick once sang: ‘Time Is On My Side.’

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