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Publication: Dazed & Confused, 2004

The Shape Of Things To Hum: How the history of formats has shaped the way we listen to music

It probably began in Africa, like the Chemical Brothers suggested, and it probably involved wailing souls giving primitive voice to what we now call The Song - an emotional glue that holds communities and articulates the feelings of the mass-subconscious. At other end of the history, it exists as revolving seven-inch, 12-inch or 12-cm plastic discs, or as bits and bytes etched into the circuitry of an iPod, mobile phone or laptop.

For thousands of years The Song has remained essentially the same - melody, harmony and rhythm articulating responses to love, loss, lust, pain, belonging and loneliness of varying emotional sophistication that have barely changed since Plato. Aesthetic changes in the culture surrounding music - singers, scenes, genres, location, moods, tempos, causes and effects - have come and gone. But what determines more than anything our experience of the song is its physical format. With each technological innovation - 78, 45, LP, CD, minidisc, MP3, ringtone – we consume music in new ways, and it goes without saying that the most radical of these by far of these is MP3 - the first non-format format, an ownable digital encoding that is transforming the way we enjoy songs. For anyone scanning the horizon for the new cultural revolution after rock & roll, hippy, punk or acid house, MP3 is it: an upheaval not in the kind of music we listen to, but in the way we listen to it. It is a paradigm shift neither in the hand nor on the turntables but, like its precedents, in the head of music fans. This time, the revolution will be digitised.

For the many who argue that format is the natural enemy of music, an innovation such as MP3 has been a long time coming. In 150 years of a mass recorded music culture, the song has been imprisoned by a succession of formats conceived by the music business to impose commercial value on something that intrinsically has none, a process akin to bottling fog. The multitude of formats have established music as an ownable object like a book, a picture or toothbrush. Yet in its natural state music has no physical presence other than as waveform: at its most basic level the song exists as a state of change in a host presence, invisible frequency modulations in the everyday air that belong neither to the performer nor the audience. For hundreds of years until 1887 when a German immigrant to the US, Emile Berliner, patent a system for recording music onto a revolving disc, we have consumed music without the need to own it. The only way to experience music was to listen to a performance or purchase it in printed form and play it ourselves, an activity limited to an educated and wealthy social elite. Berliner's invention changed all that, kick-starting a process of commodification that has determined more than anything the shape and sound of music, and our experience of it.

Hence MP3 looks likely to prove the champion anti-format that re-establishes the emotional primacy of the song and dismisses all the other conventions - genre, provenance, age, style, price - that have evolved as methods of selling music. In the playlist of an iPod or on a Limewire platform of a PC desktop, a song exists merely as a name and a computational algorithm - a state of equivalence that demands each song be is judged entirely on how good it sounds to the listener. For the first time in 150 years, MP3 proves that it all really is about the music.

Which isn't to suggest that a 150 years of formats have been entirely negative. Without the assortment of evolutions, there would be no 'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band', 'Blue Monday', 'The Grey Album' or 'Music Sounds Better With You'. Patterns of both production and consumption of music have been determined by successive innovations in formatting, and the history of pop music is informed by a string of accidents, coincidences and mistakes that has lead to the current distinctions between single and album, vinyl and CD.

The first mass-market music commodity was the 10-inch 78 rpm disc, marketed by Columbia around the turn of the century. The 78 established the preliminary distinction between 'classics' and 'pops', the standard works by classical composers and the more accessible vocal works by popular singers of the day. Despite its drawbacks - it could contain only five minutes of music per side and was prone to breaking - the 78 endured until 1948 when Columbia began manufacturing a 12-inch polyvinyl chloride ‘Long Playing' discs capable of playing 25 minutes per side at the slower 33/3 rpm.,

A 'format war' duly broke out, germinating the split between 'single' and 'album' which remains today. Columbia's rival RCA Victor began marketing seven-inch 45 rpm records which could hold as much sound as the 12-inch 78 rpm discs. Their compactness, portability and cheapness gave them instant appeal to a huge but hitherto unidentified demographic - 'teenagers' - who, in the affluent postwar Fifties, channelled disposable income into the emerging rock & roll.

'The LP and 45 were marketed against each other,' notes A&R consultant Dean Rudland. 'It's crazy to look at now, because they're so clearly useful for different concepts, but Columbia and RCA were trying to drives sales of hardware. What the 45 gave you was a three minutes time limit, and it made music more consumable. So the whole thing became very instant.’

The 45’s physical limitations forced a similarly taut approach to songwriting, and etched out a template of the hook-laden, adrenalised emotional immediacy of pop – a dynamic of build, sustain and release instinctively understood by every successful songwriter and producer from The Beatles, Burt Bacharach and Berry to Pete Waterman, Kurt Cobain and Pharrell Williams - that endures in the Top Ten to this day.

The KLF, in particular, understood the three minute-rule, and expounded fully on ‘The Golden Rules’ in their 1989 publication ‘The Manual’. ‘It must be no longer than three minutes and thirty seconds (just under 3' 20 is preferable),’ Drummond and Cauty knew. Additionally, ‘…it must consist of an intro, a verse, a chorus, second verse, a second chorus, a breakdown section, back into a double length chorus and outro.' Name a number One record, and the chances are they will conform fully to the rule of an archaic format.

As pop – as in ‘popular’ – music duly became the global language of the young, the ‘long-playing’ record at some point metamorphosed into ‘the album’, conjoining the previously distinct duties of singer and songwriter together in a more cohesive, adventurous and visionary expression of musicianship. Previously the long-player was just that – a singer’s singles and b-side extended with a disposable assortment of cover versions.

Factory Records’ Tony Wilson argues that the ‘album’ was only born with The Beatles. ‘The Beatles invented the “album,”’ he says. ‘A self-written collection of songs like a collections of poetry. They realised vinyl technology had moved on.’

The Beach Boys ‘Pet Sounds’, Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ and the Stone Rose’s eponymous debut all marked high points in album’s evolution. Equally they illustrated as growing importance the sequencing of tracks across the rough 25-minutes-per-side as musicians grew into the format. Shuffling through the tracks of ‘Sgt Pepper’ on a iPod, for example, is to miss the point of the album completely. Far more than a crude collection of songs in a random order, ‘The album was about people wanting to express themselves fully,’ theories Frank Tope, a DJ and publishing A&R rep. ‘The album is a really good format because its spatial limitations to dovetail naturally with people’s attention span.’

Format has determined further sweeping cultural changes. In an entirely different zone of the global dancefloor, meanwhile, an obscure American DJ called Tom Moulton noticed how crowds reacted to breakdown sections of Disco records – in the early Seventies, DJs still performed with 45s – and began experimenting with extended edits of classic dance records. Noticing that bass frequencies improved with wider grooves, he cut a 12-inch acetate of Al Downing’s I'll Be Holding On (additionally because he’d run out of seven-inch blanks), inadvertently creating the cult of extended, hypnotic 12-inch mixes and, some 30 years later, a mass culture of dance music and a proliferating bedroom DJ underground that has kept vinyl alive by fetishising a format differentiated by its physicality. ‘The more space you give a groove the louder and clearer the music,’ adds Tope, ‘but really it’s so much easier to play than Seven-inch records. There’s more actual plastic to hold.’

By the time the maligned Compact Disc arrived in 1982 (13 years after a Dutch physicist Klass Compaan conceived of digitised music readable by an optical laser) a somewhat arbitrary 74-minute length was established as the new norm for no more significant reason than because it reflected the length of a Sony executive’s favourite classical overture. ‘Suddenly in the mid 80s,’ Tony Wilson recalls, ‘here comes this unfocused 74 minutes of a CD. Somehow missing the sense of completeness that the album, being in two parts, had.’

CD was nevertheless massmarketed on its merits – durability, size and capacity – which conveniently obscured its premium price point as major labels phased vinyl out. Shifting emphasis from the music to the format, it also lead to two absurdities, separated by around 70 minutes: the CD single (where the music made up around 2.5 per cent of disc capacity) and albums stuffed with filler as artist struggled to maximise the capacity.

‘Most R&B albums, for example, are utter tosh,’ Frank Tope argues. ‘The CD afforded artist too much leeway to be flatulent, and the more canny artists now go for brevity. Think of the first Strokes LP [around 37 minutes] or The Franz Ferdinand LP - all killer, no filler. No one ever asked where the bonus tracks on “Sgt Pepper” are. Beyonce is the key examples: ‘Crazy In Love’ was the best pop/dance/R&B song of 2003, yet her album was total rubbish.’

Uh-oh, indeed. The unfocussed excesses of expensive CDs are likely to be the format’s downfall, and the latest figures suggest sales continues to freefall. Even discernible in CD’s sole killer application - the compilation album, where the emphasis is on individual tracks rather than sequencing or theme – are the beginnings of its demise.

By the time Shawn Fanning’s Napster took MP3 overground in 1999, it looked like game over for the CD. An encoding innovation designed by Munich engineering organisation the Fraunhofer Institute to compress large digital music files for DVD, MP3’s timing was perfect, synchronising with a new and far broader consumer palate. Like all the other successful formats, MP3 generated a profound affinity with listeners based on more than the fact that most downloaded MP3s are free and illegal. Previously segregated definitions of genre, to which record companies eagerly marketed, where collapsing as fast as their profit margins. The trinity of formatless MP3, the iPod and download services catered directly to a new, magpie-like acquisitive lust for all types of song, regardless of genre, provenance or age. Just like every band to have appeared in the NME complaining of lazy pigeonholing, the new net-savvy generation of consumers refused to be reductively marketed into a corner.

There are other emerging formats – ringtones, the public annoyance that transformed seemingly overnight into a multimillion-pound industry after a Nokia opted to mop up handsets’ free ROM space with the Composer facility. And then there’s resurgence of supposedly archaic formats: 45s are growing in popularity for rock and indie fans, while the dominance of the DJ seven-inch continues to determine the extreme productivity of Jamaican dancehall artists, in turn dictating global tastes in urban music.

As for the future, it’s a safe bet that the iPod’s playlist function will grow to be the key format of the digital era, arranging the digital anarchy of MP3 in an intimate reflection of each user’s psychological profile. The closest we’ve come to having a format that’s unique to each us, it places further emphasis on listener experience, rather than on the pre-ordained selections of outdated institutions like the Top Forty or Chris Moyles.

In this, as in each step cycle of the past 150 years, new means of production and distribution are determining the culture around the song. The new heroes champion new formats and technologies - unlike the industry, which baulks at change. ‘The industry is scared of music,’ concludes Dean Rudland. ‘They’re in love with formats’. Put it this way: the only reason DJ Dangermouse (whose ‘Grey Album’ hybrid of The Beatles and Jay-Z’s achieved a million downloads in one week) isn’t the world’s fastest-'selling' artist is that no one has worked out how to make people pay for MP3.

Which is arguably the way should be. What’s clear, across a past century and a half of formatting, is that the song is drifting away from commercialism, from bits of plastic and pretty pictures, and towards a highly personalized and widely shared experience. It looks as if the song is slowly returning to us.

© Kevin Braddock 2004


All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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