Saturday, June 09, 2007

The music *IS* getting louder

As has been known by people in the A/V gear sales industry for decades, people tend to associate louder/brighter with "better" when comparing sound systems or video displays (at least to a point, all else being equal). Back in the 70s when audio gear was becoming all the rage, it was considered news in the audio magazines that stereo dealers would often find a way to crank up the volume on the system they actually wanted to sell to a customer who was comparing various systems in a showroom. The audiophile magazines of the day (and probably now) would routine "expose" this somewhat deceptive practice.

Likewise, it has long been a matter of routine for vendors of background music (Muzak, etc.) to heavily compress their audio tracks and generally omit any attention grabbing transients altogether. (When is the last time you heard any kind of drum solo in your dentist's office or on an elevator in a stuffy corporate office building's elevator?) Recycled Beatles tunes are common, but when turned into background sound, the beat is gone as well as most of the dynamic range.

The article,Why music really is getting louder, explains a lot of things we all observe but may not put together. Just as advertising on city streets tends to get bigger, brighter and often louder in the face of intense competition, so too are many forms of consumer entertainment and consumer products in general. We all know that many of today's R-rated films would have been given the kiss-of-death X-rating back in the late 60s when such ratings were introduced.. Now, many studios pump up the sex and violence in their PG movies to obtain a R-rating because their target audience thinks of G and PG as "kid's stuff". DVD's are released in "unrated" versions that are now common even in relatively tame outlets such as Wal-Mart.

It is quite enlightening to look at consumer goods these days and try to determine a sort of form/function ratio for them. Take for example a lot of today's trendy SUV's and pickup trucks. We know that the vast majority of people who buy and drive them will never intentionally take them off a paved surface, much less go off-roading for fun or work, so the idea of putting very low profile tires on a set of wheels with 18" rims on a pickup truck doesn't seem absurd to folks who aren't old enough to remember Jeeps, vans, and pickups as commercial/work vehicles. The same is true of a lot of today's trendy luxury cars: small greenhouse (tiny, gun-slit like windows over large body panels that look almost like armor), big wheels inside low-profile tires (that do little to promote the old notion of a luxuriously quiet, smooth ride), and a generally aggressive, intimidating, urban, "gangsta" look to them. It is rather amusing to see an elderly, wealthy, law-abiding couple driving around in a Mercury or Cadillac that one normally associates with the kind of vehicle driven by the meth-dealing pimp as he cruises around the 'hood selling his product and bitch slapping the night's proceeds outta his crack hos in the movies (and often in real life).

But, let's not digress too far! Think about family restaurants, or places you might want to take a serious date for dinner before going to a show or party. It used to be that one could find a lot of reasonably good eateries what were definitely not fast food joints or bars where one could have an affordably upscale meal (realistically, taking a date to Mickey D's or KFC is tacky if one is old enough to drive, not to mention unhealthy; and most young people can't afford fine dining establishments except for the occasional homecoming, prom, promotion, engagement, etc.).

Today, young people and families often end up going to what are sometimes called "fast casual" restaurants, typified by the likes of TGI Friday's, Appliebees, Bennigan's, Ruby Tuesday's, Chili's, Chedders, steakhouses ( e.g., Texas Roadhouse, Lone Star, Outback, Ned Kelly's, etc.), or pizza places that have substantial seating (not Dominoes, Papa John's, or Pizza World, for example). While many counterexamples exist, the general trend is for these establishments to play some form of pop music in the background, and often so loud that one has to raise one's voice to be heard even if the restaurant is nearly empty. (This is supposed to make the place seem busy, happening, exciting and fun...even when it is anything but). Given that intelligent conversation is a decreasingly important part of a successful date or family dinner, the fact that many of the restaurants mentioned above just turn up the volume to make them seem "vibrant" is hardly surprising. One has to wonder when the patrons have to shout their drink and dinner orders to waitstaffers standing no more than a meter away... Then there is the visual noise created by all the monitors many of these reastaurants (and sports bars) would suppose that peeps just can't survive for very long without a busy video display or ten within sight.

Think about the actual quality and nature of the music one is exposed to in these places and you will discover that the music itself really is getting LOUDER, just as the aforementioned article says. But is it any better, despite all the advances in recording and sound reproduction technology and all the interesting sounds and miraculous effects modern electronic musical instruments are capable of creating/reproducing for cheap? Or is it all becoming, as Frank Zappa (formerly the World's Greatest Living Musician) would say: STRICTLY COMMERCIAL.

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