Don Was on Liner Notes

posted by Tom Moon on January 06, 2011 at 6:54 pm
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I just caught up to a blogpost about a subject near and dear to my heart: The demise of liner notes and recording information in the digital realm.

When music obsessives of a certain age gather, you can usually count on a few things: There will be a debate about analog versus digital audio quality, a groan or two about how what’s current on the radio is dismally inferior to the songs of top 40 radio in the early ‘70s, and yet another lament about the demise of liner notes in the digital realm.

The producer Don Was has taken that last concern public, in this short essay first published by the Metro Times of Detroit.

Of course he’s right. The generation now ascending is missing a vital part of the music exploration experience, the part that begins with questions like “who is playing that demonic guitar?” and “what were the conditions under which this recording was made?” The credits aren’t just credits – they’re portals into under-known realms. The notes aren’t just some sort of “bonus” material – they offer perspective and context, a window into the creative process.

When somebody downloads an album from most places on the Internet, what they get is a file containing fairly decent digital representation of the music and a tiny image of the front cover. For those who come to music to expand their horitons, it’s essentially a dead-end. More than that, the absence of information sends a signal: The folks who were involved in the creation of this work are relatively meaningless, just a shade more important to the end-user than the factory worker who bolted the player together. We’re basically training this generation to think of musicians and recording and mastering engineers as interchangeable parts, anonymous and easily replaced. The comments responding to Was’ post say all the usual things about how easy it is to search for this stuff; I’d argue we shouldn’t have to search, especially for personnel information. It should just be there, all the time, to spark curiosity and inspire a new quest. The fate of the guitar player who tears up some Dixie Chicks tune doesn’t matter to Apple, but it should matter to the listener. Maybe that guitar player has a project of his own, and is of course counting on his Dixie Chicks connection to spread the word about it. Maybe it’s a masterpiece. The way things are now, lots of us will never know. Oh well.

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