Dynamic range compression isn’t “the problem” with music

Writers like Milner and a music business that still focuses on Top 40 charts are.

In a recent New York Times piece, Greg Milner argues that the “loudness wars” and “listener fatigue” are the reasons that music isn’t as good as it used to be. Here are some reasons why he’s wrong:

  1. Milner’s greatest offence is devaluating the work of thousands or hundreds of thousands of musicians making incredible new music, with less financial support and backing than ever. We are living through a “golden age” in more genres than I can possibly name or count. Go out and find the good music. There is nothing stopping you.
  2. Any analysis of any cultural phenomenon that explains it with a single causal factor is always wrong.
  3. If you were to actually look at the pop music charts from any of the years of the golden oldie hits references by Milner, you would find most of the music didn’t have the staying power or meaning he ascribes to the songs he uses as reference points.
  4. Any study of popular music today that uses top 40 charts and ignores the vast swaths of creativity one can find elsewhere–bandcamp, soundcloud, YouTube–has no right to say anything about the state or quality of music.
  5. An analogous argument about harmonic distortion and excessive studio production could have been made by fans of 1940s big band music, Mambo or Sinatra decrying the rock and pop that Milner celebrates.
  6. “I don’t understand hip hop” is not a convincing argument. Neither is “get off my lawn.”
  7. The listener fatigue argument is pseudo-scientific at best. Commercial success does not mean aesthetic merit; there are exactly zero reproducible psychology studies that connect musical pleasure in all people with specific sonic effects. Musical sound is only meaningful in context. The perceptual situation of someone listening on earbuds on the train is wholly different from that of someone paying attention in their living room with better speakers or headphones. That today’s most capitalized recommendation engines–Spotify, Google, etc–mostly rely on factors other than musical sound for their recommendations should tell you that little inherent meaning can be gleaned from tone or timbre alone.
  8. “There are millions of people in the basements, waiting to blow your mind.” — Vernon Reid.

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