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The Day the Music Died

Don McLean’s “American Pie” is being used in a Chevy commercial. Again. Another thing I see on my New York late-night TV screen is an ad for “Fresh 102.7,” the latest programming gambit on an FM frequency that used to entertain me for hours every day. The two of them together make me ache.             Why? When I first heard “American Pie,” 102.7 FM was the NYC-area home of WNEW-FM. Owned by Metromedia, WNEW-FM was one of the pioneering freeform radio stations of the late 1960s and ’70s. Unfettered by playlists, the DJs played whatever they wanted, exposing me to an incredible variety of rock, pop, and soul. On Friday afternoons I’d be tuned in to Scott Muni, playing the latest releases from the U.K. Alison Steele, whose late-night shift opened with a spooky flutter of flute, gave airtime to progressive rock. I’ll never forget the day when velvet-voiced early-evening guy Jonathan Schwartz declared that he loved Frank Sinatra as much as he did the Rolling Stones and proved it.             Along with my older sisters—who got me hooked on the Beatles—WNEW-FM formed my identity as a music lover. My apartment is still stuffed with the vinyl I bought as a kid including Jeff Beck, the Bonzo Dog Band, David Bowie, the Byrds, Cream, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, the Doors, Nick Drake, ELP (still a guilty pleasure), Brian Eno, Fairport Convention—and that’s just a partial list of what’s on the A-F shelf. Today a lot of it would be called classic rock. But comparing the golden age of freeform rock radio to the buttoned-down classic-rock format of today is like comparing fresh vegetables to canned mush.             By the time I got to college in the mid-’70s, the end was in sight. WNEW-FM’s management forced their first playlists down the throats of the DJs and my boyhood heroes began drifting away from 102.7. The station adopted a bland AOR (album oriented radio) format that was a mere ghost of the freeform goodness I loved. I stopped listening to it and burrowed deeper into my ever-expanding music library.   Following various changes in format, including an ill-fated foray into talk radio, the station is now operated by CBS and has recently changed its historic call letters to WWFS. On the Fresh 102.7 website a few weeks ago was this quiz: “Which Fresh artist is your pick for record of the year?” The choices were James Blunt, Mary J. Blige, Gnarls Barkley, the Dixie Chicks, and Corrine Bailey Rae. Some fine musicians there, but the sum total of them is not for me. The new logo festooning the station’s website and TV ads looks like something you’d see on a box of laundry detergent.   How Listening Has Changed   Don’t you just hate clueless old people who say their generation’s music is the best and close their ears to anything new? I don’t want to become one of them, but from where I sit, in my cranky old man’s armchair, it’s easy spot the ways in which the music industry makes it harder to love rock today. It goes beyond the destruction of commercial freeform radio. Here’s a partial list:             The transition from analog to digital has degraded the listening experience. And the transition from digital to compressed digital has only made it worse.             Lack of exposure to good gear impoverishes listeners. Though the audio industry and some musicians have banded together to rebel.             Good music requires an involved listener to appreciate it. Technologically and demographically driven changes in listening habits have driven down the quality and intensity of listening.             And good old music industry greed continues to drive talent out of the music business. Celebrate the musicians who have made it, or at least made it onto the Internet, but weep for the ones you’ll never get a chance to hear.   The Latest Threat to Musicians and Listeners   Guess what? There’s a new struggle for the soul of music. And guess what else? The good guys are losing.             The issue is the loudness war. I’m not talking about the volume buttons on your iPod or the state of your hearing. (Go easy, though—your ears are your greatest asset as a listener. They can never be replaced!)             Though labeled as loudness, the issue is really dynamic range. The problem is that the ratio of soft to loud sounds is inexorably shrinking as the music industry competes to get its product noticed in various low-fi distribution channels. Excessive compression not only deprives any kind of music (definitely including rock) of its emotional power. It also gives our ears less time to rest between blasts, making listening to music more physically fatiguing.             To get a handle on the issue, read this British newspaper report, then check out this video on YouTube. More details here and here. What you learn will horrify you.             There is good compression and bad compression. “Riding gain” is part of a recording engineer’s job. He needs to keep the signal above the noise floor and below the point where the recording medium distorts. In classical music and other audiophile recordings, this is done as little as possible. In well-recorded rock, compression is used a little bit more, and that’s OK—it keeps you from having to adjust volume repeatedly. Even the freeform radio stations of yore compressed their LP- and 45-generated analog signals a little bit to boost soft sounds above the everpresent hiss of FM noise.   But today’s digital mixing and mastering tools are being used as meat grinders to squash dynamics almost completely, literally turning music into noise. This stuff takes more out of you than it gives back. Is it any wonder that you drift away, as I drifted away from my teenage radio roost, and go play a DVD or a video game?   Musicians are not at the root of the problem. And neither are producers and engineers, though the blood is on their hands, and the better ones feel bad about it. It’s the music industry executives who have forced the people who record and master music to kill dynamics. It is they who are driving the loudness war.   How much longer will the music-industry mandarins go on butchering their own product, and watching sales wither, before they wise up? What will it take to make them realize that good sound is crucial in the bond of listeners to the music we love?   Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater, audio editor of Home Theater Magazine, and tastemaster of happypig100.com.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.