How Earbuds Have Changed The Sound (And Business) Of Pop – Forbes
On March 26th, Zack O’Malley Greenburg broke an exciting story for Forbes: When Wu Tang Clan releases The Wu – Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, it will be a singular piece of music in the truest sense of that word, as only one physical copy of the album will exist.
The plan is to take the LP on a museum tour across the world; a few paragraphs into his article, my colleague divulged a piece of information vital to that plan: anyone attending a listening exhibition of the LP will “likely have to listen to the 128-minute album’s 31 songs on headphones provided by the venue.”
This snippet of information could wind up being the lynchpin of the whole operation, for museum headphone are typically lack-luster in quality.
Cheaply made, tinny of sound, uncomfortable to wear, and often malfunctioning in one ear, museum headphones are probably the worst delivery system for Hip Hop, short of a tin can and string cupped to your ear.
Of course, the museums may offer something better for the Wu. The super-group might very well insist that they do. Nevertheless, one statement remains fact: for an audience vying for their only opportunity to hear a landmark record, the choice of headphone is paramount. In this case, it is literally all about the headphones.
Take a closer look at the history of pop music though, and you’ll see it’s been all about the headphones for quite some time.
Headphone technology has undoubtedly changed the way we listen to music. But more than that, it has changed the way music–particularly pop music–is produced in the first place.
Take this to its logical conclusion, and you’ll see that the evolution of headphones has had a direct impact on the business of pop—and I’m not talking about celebrity-specific stunts like Beats By Dre. I’m talking about sonics: the sonics of headphones has changed the sonics of the music we buy.
The results of this are cumulative: as the music we buy becomes more and more influenced by the headphones we listen through, songs which do not sound good in headphones have a harder time succeeding in pop arenas.
Here’s an example that’s easy to understand:
Ever listen to an old Beatles CD through headphones? Notice how off-balance they could feel, with the drums blasting through one headphone and the vocals chirping through the other? Well, the fact that you noticed is a testament to how thoroughly headphones have influenced your perception of music.
See, the first stereo mixes were designed to be played in physical locations—such as your living room—where pushing the drummer off to one side wouldn’t sound jarring, but instead, true to life: on a stage, one band member might stand to the left, another to the right, and the first stereo mixes were intended to represent such a stage plot.
But in the private arena of headphones, the experience of hearing a drummer blast through one solitary ear is entirely disorienting. It’s a matter of balance, a matter of symmetry—the ear is taking a pounding from one side but not the other; something inevitably feels off.
These days, a record mixed in the old fashion—with the drums pushed to one ear and the vocals towards another—feels at best retro and at worst crude; sporting such a sound, a song can only hope for success in niche markets. It would be far harder for a tune mixed in such fashion to achieve global appeal in the marketplace, as the marketplace has been conditioned to expect an altogether different sound.
That was an example out of the distant past. Here’s a much more recent one:
In 2001, Apple Apple introduced the iPod, and with it, their (now ubiquitous) earbuds. Because of the iPod’s documented proliferation, audiences have been pumping noise into their ears through those earbuds for almost fifteen years. This has had an undeniable effect on the way consumers process music, and in turn, how producers craft their records.