Supersonic Shapeshifting: Alan Cross on How Music is Changing and Why it Matters

Wednesday 10th, July 2019 / 12:00
by Yasmine Shemesh

Alan Cross is at home in Oakville trying to open iTunes on his computer. The music historian, radio broadcaster and host of the long-running The Ongoing History of New Music documentary series is checking what the first song he downloaded was. But the now-defunct music application is frozen.

It’s fitting, considering Cross is in Vancouver this month hosting a discussion on how music is changing. An observer and passionate commentator on the intersection of music and technology, he’s well-versed in the topic.

Of course, iTunes, in 2003, marked a gargantuan change in the way we listen to music by allowing the purchase of individual songs instead of a full album. It was the start of a new era, leading to development of streaming platforms like Spotify where consuming music is now expected to be convenient and fast.

“People are choosing to gain music through access rather than through possession,” Cross says. He looked up the statistics this morning: CD sales are down 30% from this time last year and streaming is up 36%. And our need for accessibility is not just impacting format and sales. More importantly, it’s affecting the physical nature of music and our connection to it.

“Music conforms to the technology and the technology is responding to the way that we listen to music,” Cross explains. Songs, in turn, are adapting structurally in order to match what intelligence data says we want, getting shorter to hold our attention — because Spotify only pays artists if a stream lasts over 30 seconds.

“If you are a band like Tool who writes 10 minute epics, you’re not going to get any more money on a 10-minute song than another band does for a song that runs one minute and 27 seconds,” Cross posits.

This is nothing new. It’s another step in the evolution of the relationship between music and technology. “I mean, the reason we’re comfortable with songs that run for about three and a half minutes is because that was the ultimate capacity of a 78 RPM record,” Cross adds.

“Oh, god. It’s still chugging away here.”

Cross sighs. iTunes is still frozen. He says the first track he downloaded was probably a Radiohead one, though — “Everything in its Right Place.”

Nevertheless: as a consequence, convenient consumption has muddied our connection with music. As we’ve known it to be, at least. When you paid for a CD or record, you made a financial investment. Further, listening to an album over and over again and getting lost in cover art and liner notes fostered a special intimacy.

“That doesn’t exist anymore,” Cross says. “Because if you’re paying $10 a month, or sometimes nothing, to access over 50 million songs, where’s the financial relationship with the artist? And that is making music more disposable. That’s changing the way we value music. The cheaper music becomes, the less we value it. Now, that doesn’t mean to say that we don’t love music. That’s not what I’m saying at all. What I am saying is that it is our relationship has changed to the point where we don’t feel [the] financial tug or personal investment we used to.”

If those things aren’t there, are we truly connecting? It’s certainly more complicated. There’s no context with things like data-driven recommendations curated to your tastes. It’s a passive experience. For some listeners, that’s enough. But for others, it leaves a gaping void. So, what to do? As with any format, we adapt. Find other ways, whether that’s being conscious about who we stream or supporting platforms like Bandcamp. It’s up to us, really.

“It’s a continuing evolution that music and technology have always been involved in,” Cross says. “It’s this dance. Once affects the other. And we’ve entered a new era and it will be interesting to see where it goes in the future. It all depends on the way we choose to consume the music.”

Alan Cross / July 17, 2019 / TILT Curiosity Labs at HCMA Architecture + Design / Tix: