The Hard Way

by John Q on January 26, 2004

My summer holiday activities over the last couple of months included a lot of work on my music collection (I’m slowly transferring from vinyl to MP3/AIFF) and rereading Nick Hornby. So, I was naturally struck by how rapidly the skill of making compilation tapes, a central theme of High Fidelity has gone from the esoteric to the everyday. Not surprisingly, not everyone is happy about this. Joel Keller, writing in Salon, says

Putting together a home-brewed compilation of songs used to be an act of love and art. Now it’s just too damn easy to be worth caring about.

and much more in the same vein, though his conclusion is more elegiac than polemical

When making the decision between practicality and artistic merit, I’ll choose practicality more often than not. I may be wistful for the old days, but I’m not an idiot.

So let’s have a moment of silence, for the mix as we used to know it is dead. Technology has overtaken the experience and made it cold and impersonal. But it’s time to look forward, as the Internet has allowed us to trade and download more varied types of music, making for better-sounding, albeit more antiseptic, mixes. One of these days, Nick Hornby should do a sequel to “High Fidelity” and list Rob’s Top 5 music downloads. I’m sure it’ll be a nice read. But it just won’t be the same.

The first time I heard this form of argument, it was from my Grade 4 teacher, lamenting the arrival of the ballpoint pen, and its adverse effect on the quality of handwriting. Possibly since I never mastered the steel nib/inkwell technology still favoured by the South Australian Department of Education in the 1960s, I was not impressed. Since then, I’ve seen the same argument applied to calculators, word processing and desktop publishing. And of course, the argument wasn’t new when I first met it – in one form or another, it’s been applied to almost any technical innovation that replaces a complex skill with an easily usable machine. (It’s separate from the income-distributional arguments that apply when skilled workers are displaced by unskilled ones, although the two are often entangled).

Before defending modernity on this , let me extract what I believe to be the core of validity in this argument. If the production of an item requires substantial skill and effort, the average quality of the items produced will be higher. This is for the same reason as (I have been told) some Japanese stores giftwrap their fruit – given the cost of a piece of fruit, giftwrapping makes sense. If making a compilation tape at all takes hours of work, and requires skills that only a music enthusiast will bother to acquire, a lot more effort and judgement will go into the selection and ordering of the tracks, correction of the levels and so on, than if a 14-year old can put together a CD in five minutes, as is now the case.

Similarly, when WYSIWYG word processing first became feasible, it was asserted that the quality of writing declined because students were spending too much time on flashy presentation. While this is possible, I suspect the truth is that the total input of time declined substantially. Students judged (probably correctly at first) that an essay that looked professional, contained no spelling errors and so forth would get by even if the content was pretty weak. Moreover, cut and paste made it easy to produce an apparently final version without rewriting. In this case, the problem is that those setting the essays wanted to elicit some amount of work from the students but (with the exception of those students who actually wanted to learn something) the student’s objective was to minimize the effort required to do the job. At least until teachers learned to disregard cues like good presentation, the result was a decline in average quality which (if you agree that Teacher Knows Best) made everyone worse off.

Another case where average quality declined with bad effects, following an increase in ease of use, was that of Internet newsgroups. These were useful forums as long as the skills and effort required to use them confined access to those willing to make serious contributions. When they became easily accessible (roughly when AOL merged with the Internet) the newsgroups were flooded with garbage. It’s only since the rise of blogging software that the old vision of the Internet as a forum for debate that could bypass media monopolies has reasserted itself.

In most cases, though, (including that of blogging) a decline in average quality is quite consistent with an improvement across the board, in the sense that more and better good quality outputs are produced, even while the average is dragged down by people who would previously not have produced at all. People like Sal Tuzzeo, quoted by Keller may sneer that

On the subways you see people with iPods. They have, what, a thousand songs on them. Ten thousand, even. They stare random-glared into oblivion. [R]obots with shitty music taste and too much money to spend on music-listening hardware and shoes, in that order

but why shouldn’t people be free to follow their taste, shitty or otherwise? Keller argues that

Fewer people who are connected to the music they listen to translates into a less critical and picky audience for the crapola that the record companies and radio stations promote. The quality of music overall goes downhill.

but, again, why should anyone care about average quality or what is promoted on radio stations? People who are critical and picky, but don’t have the time or skills to make compilation tapes, chase down obscure records and so on, now have a much better capacity to find good music and reward those who are producing it.

By the way, talking of innovation, this post was produced using Ecto, a blogging client for Mac OS X currently in version 0.2.1, but already a big improvement on anything else I’ve used. Thanks to Brad DeLong for the tip.

[Posted with ecto]



James Russell 01.26.04 at 8:10 am

I saw this article linked from another message board, where someone described it as “a load of innacurate, snobby, elitist shite”. I see no reason to disagree with that. Keller’s mixes are probably shit anyway.

CD-Rs haven’t made the mixing process any easier for me, at least. Any time I make one I do it in much the same way Keller says he used to make tapes; I constantly have to reorder tracks, drop tracks, work out what other tracks, can I fit another one in there or will it make the CD too long, what can I get rid of to let another song stay, etc. Can take days to work out.

Just whacking tracks onto a CD is something any dickhead can do, sure enough. But if you’re going to do it properly, it requires more effort than Keller seems willing to allow.


ahem 01.26.04 at 8:12 am

Biting at the heels of the mix-tape (and yes, there’s something to be said for the effort in cueing songs, calculating how much you can fit onto a C90, etc) you have the mashup/bootleg, in which songs aren’t just mixed from albums and singles, but transmuted. (‘A Stroke of Genie-us’, for instance.) Instead of the tape-to-tape stereo system, we have CoolEdit and GarageBand and all manner of cool stuff, with dozens of sites devoted to it.

And I still make mix CDs, and treasure the ones I receive. The art of the segue hasn’t been lost. And if anything, it’s harder, because you don’t always have the instant feedback that you’d get from the clunky old tape recorder. (As james russell has said: it’s not just rip, mix, burn… if you want your friends to remain friends.)

That said: a friend who works in a law firm noted that there’s a section of the archives — dating from when WordPerfect started handling multiple fonts — which looks atrocious: the classic ‘five fonts on one page’ thing we’ve all done when first exposed to a word processor.

Ted Hughes wrote about judging a children’s fiction contest, and complained that in the age of the word-processor, the entries got more profuse and elaborate… and dull, and cited the way that pen-and-paper writing remains a primal kind of experience. (Personally, I always go back to the pen when I’m blocked, or when I’m overly stuck in the world of cut-and-paste and need either to make progress, or see the work-in-progress as a whole, rather than a few zoomed-in grafs.) And Tufte talks about the evils of PowerPoint.

But you’re right about Keller: if he’s complaining about the standard of ‘today’s music’, then he’s really not looking in the right places for it. It’s out there waiting for him. Music isn’t a zero-sum game: all the crap on corporate FM radio doesn’t prevent other, good stuff from being made. Especially now that in the age of online (and gig-based) digital distribution, you’re not likely to lose your musical outlet to the public because re-signing Vacuous Popstrel empties the record company’s pockets.


dave heasman 01.26.04 at 10:35 am

I don’t think anyone who’s used Sibelius would go back to manually writing music.


Belle Waring 01.26.04 at 10:46 am

This guy is full of it. The mix-making capability of iTunes is my favorite part, and the fact that I don’t have to sit there with the tape cued up futzing around with the levels just means that I can make even better mixes, and more of them, and easily duplicate them for all my friends. Our external hard drive started having problems recently and it looked like we might have to re-input all 18 days of music, and I told John I’d rather do that than lose my mixes…The fact that some 14-year-old can make bad mixes featuring the Offspring and Evanescence doesn’t appear to have had any impact on my life so far.


Matt 01.26.04 at 10:59 am

And, after the apocalyse, we’ll be back to sliderules, at least.


Grant 01.26.04 at 11:27 am


If necessary, group things together into a playlist and randomise. Hours of varied entertainment, within genre controls if desired, with automated track merging and pleasant surprises along the way. (“Hey, I’d forgotten about that one …”)

Don’t like what’s playing? Hit the Skip button.

It’s like favourite radio with better quality and without the ads and inane chatter. Also without the tracks you don’t like much. 21st century stuff.




Dave F 01.26.04 at 12:56 pm

He has completely missed the point. As the narrator makes clear in the movie, the art of it is making a compilation tape that will work for someone, not just the hard labour of sifting through records and taping bits. I think John Cusack actually says “for someone you care about”, but I could be misremembering. CD-R/W just takes some of the drudgery out of it so you can concentrate on the art, as word processing has done for writing poetry (or whatever).


Dave F 01.26.04 at 12:58 pm

However, moving your collection from vinyl to MP3 is transferring from the sublime to the ridiculously compressed. Still, more precious vinyl for the rest of us.


Jeremy Osner 01.26.04 at 4:31 pm

No audiophile, I can’t speak to the issue at hand; but I want to make a suggestion that people who read this post of Dr. Quiggin’s and find it interesting go into Mr. Davies’ archive and read his post on The Economics of Pound’s Canto XLV.


Sebastian Holsclaw 01.26.04 at 6:44 pm

“If making a compilation tape at all takes hours of work, and requires skills that only a music enthusiast will bother to acquire, a lot more effort and judgement will go into the selection and ordering of the tracks, correction of the levels and so on, than if a 14-year old can put together a CD in five minutes, as is now the case.”

I think you are correct about this being the key. As someone who has taken great pleasure in making mix tapes for more than a decade (and I hope they have been enjoyed by those who received the tapes) I still must admit that my sister’s musical sense of the flow of a tape is better than mine. The fact that I had a good sense of music, good technology skills, and a willingness to spend hours using them doesn’t mean that my sister can’t make better tapes now that she has the ability to do so in a fair amount of time. The fact that people who are worse at it than her can do the same doesn’t mean that the technology shift hasn’t made things better for her.

This article is basically making the argument akin to ‘the average quality of books has gone down since the invention of the printing press’. That may be true, but the absolute number of truly excellent authorial works available each year has gone up greatly. And I wouldn’t trade that away for a higher average.


Sigivald 01.26.04 at 11:33 pm

Likewise with the snotty iPod remarks, sebastian.

Mr. Tuzzeo apparently thinks that having severeal thousand songs at hand while not at home is somehow a bad thing because someone might listen to music that he doesn’t like.

And, further, viz. Killer that a larger market for music will somehow keep good music from being produced… as if, seriously, there was ever a time when most music was not crap. He should try getting XM and listening to the 50s/70s/70s/80s channels. Most music is crap and always has been, and the only reason people recall [insert decade here] as “the time of good music” is because they have emotional investment in the music and forgot all the bad stuff.

Cry me a river, Sal.


ahem 01.27.04 at 4:29 am

However, moving your collection from vinyl to MP3 is transferring from the sublime to the ridiculously compressed.

FLAC is your friend. Or WAV, to be honest, given that today’s hard drives are big enough to cope with uncompressed versions of those albums that really matter to you.


Sam Dodsworth 01.27.04 at 12:04 pm

I am surprised to learn that I and all my friends were, from the time that we first got access to a tape-to-tape deck (around age 15) to the point when we became able to afford to buy CDs instead of copying music from each other, practicing an art form requiring immense skills. We thought we were just making lists and then turning those lists into tapes.

Does Joel Keller sport a jazz haircut, perhaps?

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