Rock Formation

Music, Technology and Mass Communication

by Steve Jones (

This excerpt is chapter one from the book Rock Formation from Sage Publications
(Newbury Park, CA). It is © by Sage Publications and Steve Jones, all rights reserved.


Without technology, popular music would not exist in its present form. Obvious as it may seem, such a statement (like many other obvious ones) deserves closer scrutiny. On the surface, it would appear obvious that without tape decks, stereo systems, CD players and the like, we could not listen to popular music. Fair enough. But, as I will argue throughout the course of this book, it is the technology of popular music production, specifically the technology of sound recording, that organizes our experience of popular music.

Without electronics, and without the accompanying technical supports and technical experimentation, there could not be the mass production of music, and therefore there would not be mass-mediated popular music, or its consumption. But beyond production and consumption, there would also not be the composition of popular music, for popular music is, at every critical juncture of its history, determined by the technology musicians use to realize their ideas. Of equal importance, without technology there could not be the creation of sounds that are today intimately associated with popular music. This is particularly true in the case of rock and roll, as technology
often drives innovation in composition.(1)

Chapple and Garofalo (1977) note the importance of rock and roll as the primary form of popular music:

Rock music is the most important cultural expression in the
United States today. Rock music, which accounts for more than 80
percent of all record and tapes sold, is also the core of a $2
billion business that dwarfs other entertainment industries. (p. xi)

Of the types of music purchased, rock music far outstrips every category defined by the Recording Industry Association of America:


% of dollar volume

















Type of Music Purchased expressed as percentage of dollar volume. 1989 Update. (1989) Washington, D.C.: Recording Industry Association of America.

Most professional recording studios are used for all types of music, from classical to rock. But popular music, in the form of rock recording, keeps most (non-jingle/advertising) studios booked, and most music technology is used and designed for it.

The bulk of the popular music industry revolves around, and is financially sustained by, the production and sale of recordings. Record and tape sales in 1972 accounted for $1.924 billion in revenues and expenditures, according to Chapple and Garofalo (1977, p. 172). By contrast, in 1972 live popular music production accounted for approximately $150 million (pp. 149, 172). By 1975, record and tape sales accounted for $2.36 billion (Sterling, 1978, p. 38). In 1972, 968,828,500 recordings were manufactured in the United States (p. 40). In 1976, 600 million recordings were sold in the United States (p. 190). By 1988, when that figure included compact disc sales, the number of recordings sold in the United States reached 706.8 million, for gross sales of $5,567,500,000 (1988 Update, 1988, p. 9).

Moreover, popular music is the music of television, of radio, of advertising -- of everyday life. Many claims are made for its economic primacy, or for its power as a social force. But its power lies in its pervasiveness. Few people in industrial and developing nations are unaware of it. Most media and public events, from film and television to sporting events and fashion shows, include popular music as (at least) a subtext.

It is most often the consumption of recordings that is studied, and rarely popular music production. Both are, of course, profoundly technological. But most writers have pointed out the dependence of popular music on technology by examining the technological objects that mediate recorded music, usually from the point of view of the popular music listener. Edward Kealy (1982), though writing about the work performed in recording studios, predicates his analysis by viewing music as:

an impersonally mediated experience. Instead of being with
musicians and hearing them sound an instrument in an
aesthetically pleasing way, they (the audience) listen to a
speaker system. (p. 100)

Though true for the audience, this is not necessarily the case for musicians themselves.

Occasionally, as in Geoffrey Stokes' (1976) Starmaking Machinery, the relations of production are examined as they apply to creation of recordings. The emphasis remains, however, on popular music consumption rather than production. Of the 13 articles in The Phonogram in Cultural Communication, (Blaukopf, 1982) only two concern the recording process.

Barry Truax (1984) explores the relationship between sound and technology, as mediated by listening, and calls technology an "interface between the individual (listener) and the environment" (p. xii). But it is also an interface between the musician and the environment, and the musician and listener.

Pop music critics like Dave Marsh, Rick Johnson, and Robert Christgau have difficulty reconciling modern technology and the inherent desire for "authentic" music. Marsh's (1979) notion of authenticity is most closely allied to the one held by rock fans. In his first biography of Bruce Springsteen, he writes:

...over the past decade, rock has betrayed itself. It gnaws at
my marrow to recall a hundred sellouts, from the rock opera
movies that were all glamour and no heart, to the photos of rock
celebrities with international jet-set fugitives. The inevitable
result was records that were made not with feeling but because
there was a market demanding product, and concerts performed with
an eye only toward the profit margin. Rock became just another
hierarchical system in which consumers took what was offered
without question. Asking who was fake and who was for real used
to be half the joy of the thing. (Italics mine) (p. 6)

For Marsh, as for many rock fans, it is the idea of "feeling" that is at the heart of experiencing rock music. But how does one determine who is real and who is fake? Lester Bangs (1987) had a view of authenticity similar to Marsh's, but with added insight into the complex interplay between technology and popular music creation. In a review of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks LP he wrote:

The whole ensemble -- Larry Fallon's string section, Jay
Berliner's guitar...Connie Kay's drumming -- is like that: they
and Van sound like they're not just reading but dwelling inside
of each other's minds. The facts may be far different. John
Cale was making an album of his own in an adjacent studio at the
time, and he has said that "Morrison couldn't work with anybody,
so finally they just shut him in the studio by himself. He did
all the songs with just an acoustic guitar, and later they
overdubbed the rest of it around his tapes." Cale's story might
or might not be true -- but facts are not going to be of much use
here in any case....What Astral Weeks deals in are not facts but
truths. (p. 23)

Bangs's position is not far removed from that of critics like Larry Grossberg, Dave Laing, Simon Frith, Craig McGregor, Franco Fabbri, Chris Cutler and Iain Chambers. Cutler and McGregor
distinguish between two forms of popular music, rock as folk music and rock as mass culture. Cutler (1985) distinguishes between the "folk mode" and mass form of popular music, and criticizes the value of recording as "only commercial,...leaving the profound and innate potential of the medium for cultural and aesthetic expression still undeveloped" (p. 142). The problem with dividing popular music in such a fashion is that the folk mode is predicated on live performance and mass culture on recording. But the widespread use of inexpensive multitrack recorders and the spread of homemade cassette networks are giving rise to another form of folk music which fits neither category. Likewise the use of turntables and microphones in rap music contradicts the easy combination of recording and mass culture.

Grossberg (1984) puts forth a similar argument, distinguishing between two forms of rock and roll product: music and records. Music, he writes, "is produced locally, out of a local community with a set of shared experiences and perhaps, a shared albeit unconscious ideological representation of the world. Hence, as music, there is a real sense in which rock and roll must be seen as folk art" (p. 228). What "gives rock and roll the appearance of mass art" is its "reproduc(tion) as an object" (p. 229). Grossberg qualifies his argument by adding the word "appearance," and later writing that the "issue is not mass production and consumption, but the determinations operating upon
the production and reception of the music" (p. 238). The distinction between production/consumption and production/reception is difficult to make though, and may not even be useful. For Grossberg concepts of authenticity and creativity are outdated because popular music is constantly technologized. New forms of rock and roll arise from new technology and it is the ability of different audiences within rock and roll to use technology and be empowered by it that Grossberg welcomes. Iain Chambers (1988) sums up this position well:

The fact that the recording studio, with its technology and
accompanying financial requirements, is the central site of pop's
sonorial production by no means implies a simple technological
determinism. This history of pop reveals other, of unsuspected
tendencies, among them the story of a continual appropriation of
pop's technology and reproductive capacities. This has resulted
in diversified cultural investments, involving different
fractions of white metropolitan youth taking up guitars and
synthesizers and adopting various imported sounds, as well as
black youth "resignifying" the use of the microphone and the
turntable....Both maintain the fruitful paradox of subordinated,
frequently oral-centered cultures mastering and extending the
electronic medium of pop and, in the process, re-presenting their
"selves" in the heartlands of contemporary urban life. (p. 609)

These ideas are especially valid when one considers reggae, rap, hip hop, and other forms of non mainstream popular music. Dick Hebidge's (1987) analysis of these forms is on target, especially in regard issues surrounding the penetration of music technology into the home:

When looking at Two Tone (Records), the point to remember is not
that it was, as some rock and reggae purists have suggested, a
"media-created hype" (less "authentic" than the original 1960s
ska movement)....what's important about Two Tone is that Jerry
Dammers realised that when dealing with the popular music
industry, the important issues for the artist have less to do
with staying "honest" and "authentic" and refusing to "sell out"
than with grabbing and retaining control of the product at every
stage and in all its forms. (p. 107)

Hebdige is less concerned with what is and is not authentic than with who is responsible for the creative activity. It is thus important to simultaneously consider the changes in technology which have blurred the roles of producer, engineer and musician.

One can categorize these debates and place them along a continuum: Cutler and concepts of folk culture on one end, Hebdige and acceptance of technology on the other. Simon Frith falls in the middle of this debate. Frith (1985) best examines the aesthetics of popular music from both a production and consumption point of view. He writes that popular music "exist(s) because of a series of decisions, by both producers and consumers, about what sounds good" (p. 82)

Frith, throughout much of his writings, has tried to reformulate an understanding of popular music by asking "how music works to construct a people, a culture, an creates our understanding of what popularity is" (p. 6). Similarly, the technology of sound recording creates what our idea of the popular sound is.

The development of recording technology has run parallel to a reorientation in popular music production. The goal of getting a good sound is no different now than it was when the first recordings were made, but the idea of what a good sound is and how it should be achieved are radically different.

Few of these writers thoroughly examine the technological changes in recording equipment over time, and they rarely mention the sonic and compositional limitations of equipment used for the fixation of sound. The effects those limitations have on the composition and realization (fixing of sound in a specific medium for later consumption and/or manipulation) of music play a critical role in the production of popular music. Therefore, I believe it is at the level of composition and realization that one should begin to analyze the relationship of technology and popular music, for it is at that level that popular music is formed. As the printing press enabled production of mass-circulation newspapers which consequently affected newspaper content (i.e. the inverted pyramid news story, the objective account, etc.), music technology affects the content of music during its creation as well as its consumption.

Music technology has also had a far-reaching impact on the music business. First, it has allowed for exploitation of copyright by way of airplay royalties, mechanical royalties (for the rights to manufacture recordings), and sales of rights. Second, it has provided a new source of songs, superseding the pop "factories" of Tin Pan Alley, and, along the way, altering the scheme by which songwriters, musicians and groups are discovered. Today, record company artists and repertoire (A&R;) staff, those responsible for discovering and nurturing new talent, spend much of their time "working" in their car, or anywhere there is a cassette player. New artists come in almost exclusively by way of the demo, or demonstration, recording -- which is easier to make thanks to the penetration of sound recording technology into the home.

In the realm of music, technology takes basically two forms. First, it is "an activity which immediately produces artifacts" (Mitcham & Mackey, 1972, p. 2). It includes the creation of music as well as the creation of musical instruments and equipment. The second form of technology to be considered is "know-how" (Jarvie, 1972, p. 54). In music, technology, as Jarvie (1972) writes, "contains within it both pure tools and all knowledge" (p. 61). It both enables and restricts realization of ideas by providing knowledge of how to do things and tools with which to do some things and not do others.

As an example, the musical equipment industry -- manufacturers of musical instruments and recording devices -- directly affects the options available to a composer, recording artist or producer by deciding to include or exclude certain options when designing a piece of equipment.

Many of the technological objects in music are initially created as producer, not consumer goods, and follow a very roundabout development. For example, impetus for the development of magnetic tape recording in Germany was not music recording, but Hitler's desire to record his speeches (Chapple & Garofalo, 1977, p. 20). The end result, the tape recorder, eventually found its way into music production, then into the consumer market and eventually was manufactured to meet the needs of those markets. Similarly, the music industry, from record companies to instrument manufacturers, is currently manufacturing equipment geared toward the western popular music market, even while, ironically, many manufacturers are not based in the west but in Japan.

Musical equipment designers do not include features that are often used in popular music recording and performance. Manufacturers may design equipment in anticipation of its own effect, thereby perpetuating the market's values. Predicting its effect, though, is difficult, especially when that equipment ends up in the hands of creative individuals. The uses equipment is put to are often independent of the uses the manufacturer intends.

Among the compositional considerations affected by equipment used for fixing sound to a medium (including the phonograph, wire recorder, tape deck and digital recorder) are;

1) dynamic range (the span of volume between the loudest and softest sounds),

2) noise (as measured by the signal-to-noise ratio, the range between a recording device's signal intensity and its accompanying noise content),

3) frequency range (the span of frequencies the equipment will pass or reproduce without substantial loss),

4) noise (such as tape hiss, hum, pops and clicks),

5) time (length of composition),

6) distortion (audible or measurable differences between the input signal intended for recording and the actual recorded signal),

7) editing (ease of splicing),

8) multitracking (ability to record more than one discrete channel of sound simultaneously),

Auxiliary recording equipment, such as echo and reverb units, equalizers, mixing boards, etc., also play an important role in the recording process. Each of the above parameters, and the ways in which sound recording equipment allows for their manipulation, play a critical role in the way music sounds during its composition, production and consumption.

The role of the recording engineer in popular music is very important; the engineer can play a very big part in the realization of a composition by deciding what technology should be used and how to use it. Interplay between the musician, record producer and engineer is critical to the recording process. However, what the recording engineer eventually fixes to tape must first be composed around the limitations of the available technology. Thus the most direct interactions between music and technology occur during composition and realization.

These interactions can best be analyzed by examining the ways that technology has affected compositional technique and vice versa, and by examining the discourse between musicians, composers, engineers and equipment designers, and the culture within which music technology is developed and used. To quote Grossberg again, the "issue is not mass production and mass consumption, but the determinations operating upon the production and reception of the music."

Such determinations regarding sound and music are affected by the use and design of technology, and by the culture within which technology is produced and consumed. To borrow from Mumford (1934), "(b)ehind all the great material inventions of the last century and a half," Mumford writes, "(there) was not merely a long internal development of technics: there was also a change of mind" (p. 3). A change of mind is currently underway in popular music as new technology both enables and restricts the creation and realization of music. The change of mind includes what Mumford identified as a "reorientation of wishes, habits, ideas, (and) goals," (p. 3) and an understanding of it is critical to a complete awareness of the evolution of popular music.

Such an awareness requires an understanding of the complex and often contradictory roles technology plays in popular music. For instance, it can be at once liberating and restricting. Frith (1981) wrote about the central role of the producer:

Record producers, who are responsible for what happens in the
studio, play...the crucial rock role: they act as the link, the
mediator, between musicians as artists and their music as
commercial product....This means musical as well as
administrative decisions: in planning a recording session the
producer is determining how the potential material will be
arranged and embellished... it is the record producer who is
responsible for getting the sound that is the essence of a
record. (p. 111)

Yet with the increased penetration of sound recording technology into the home, and the concomitant increase in home recording studios, the producer's control is challenged; the producer is not the only one with knowledge and experience in the studio. Yet it is technology also enables the producer to play a major part in creation and realization of a piece of music.

It is true that recording sound requires a good deal of knowledge, about everything from microphone placement to level setting, equalization, and a myriad of other technical details. Indeed, to compose on any instrument one must know a certain technique. It certainly takes some time to master an instrument, acoustic or electric, ancient or modern, and to master a musical language, and it takes time to master recording equipment as well.

But now the representation of music is changing through technology (from standard music notation to visual representation by digital means). Therefore technological language becomes increasingly important for the creation of music. As a result, it becomes even more difficult for those who simply wish to sit down and improvise music without any formal knowledge of music or of a specific instrument. One now often needs knowledge of a technological nature (such as the language associated with electronic signal generation) as well. And it is people without a great deal of formal knowledge who have traditionally played a large creative part in popular music. Popular music is termed "popular" not only because it appeals to a mass audience. It is popular also because virtually anyone can make popular music, even though not everyone can "make it" (financially, creatively, etc.) in the field of popular music. As Donald Hughes (1964) wrote, "It needs considerable imagination today to realize how difficult it was for anyone interested in music at the beginning of the century to follow up that interest" (p. 152).

Following up that interest is simpler now, and people without technological knowledge are using technology in creative ways. It is allowing for creation of sounds, quick and easy editing, and low equipment prices. It may be enabling people to create and realize their music without spending large amounts of money renting time in sophisticated recording studios. And it is central to the birth of new musical forms, including rap.

Some, like the International Communication and Youth Consortium, believe that new music technology offers "opportunities for the democratization of popular music production" (Robinson, et al, 1991, p. 55) and the opportunity for "a new era of music production in which musical creativity will flourish" (p. 248). The danger in such statements is that one may believe that the music industry may significantly change. While this book will show that creativity and production are changed and changing as music technology changes, such evolution has so far had little impact upon the music industry's longstanding policies and practices.

In any case, technology (and its experience by the musician) is changing the relations of production of popular music. As popular music has evolved from the early 20th century and Tin Pan Alley days to rock music, it has become sound -- and not music -- that is of prime importance. Though it will be discussed at greater length in a subsequent chapter, it should be noted at the outset that the primary impact of recording technology has been to make the sound of a recording its identifying characteristic. One can refer to the "Phil Spector" sound, or the "Motown" sound. Prior to the advent of recording, musical passages were the identifying characteristic. In some cases they still are -- much of pop music relies on the "hook," the instantly memorable musical phrase. But the overall sound of a record is a means to identify the performer(s) within the first few bars of a song. As Dick Clark once mentioned in an interview, "(The sound is) what the kids listen for...the more
different, the more original, the more unique the sound is, the more chance a record stands of becoming a hit" (Aronowitz, 1963, p. 91)

Musicians have consistently been interested in the sonic capabilities of technological objects. Recent technology has enabled musicians to create sounds they had previously not been able to create, with a clarity not previously possible. However, as music technology has become more complex, the mastery of it has become as important for the composition and realization of music as musical knowledge. Although one need not know the operating system of a synthesizer to be able to make music with it, one must understand it to create timbres with it. Currently, a class system with three categories is developing -- performer, programmer and performer/programmer. Performers play synthesizers, programmers create sounds with them, and performer/programmers do both. Stratification has come with this class system, and the ideas and ideals that permeate popular music permeate its technology too. The concepts of authenticity, honesty and sincerity, long used by pop fans and critics, become woven into the mesh of music and technology. This book is therefore not only concerned with the interaction of music and technology, but more broadly with the evolution of popular music, its ideology and capacity.

It is the technology of sound recording, the instruments used for fixing sound, that is the driving force behind this evolution and the concurrent change of mind among musicians, composers,
producers, and all involved in the creation (and consumption) of popular music.


1. I define popular music as music that is mass-mediated, that reaches a large number of people via specific electronic media, be it radio, records, tapes, television. In "The Politics of Youth Culture: Some Observations on Youth Culture in America," an unpublished paper, Lawrence Grossberg avoids the distinction between "rock and roll," "rock" and "rock 'n' roll" because he is "concern(ed)...with identifying the broad range of historical experiences, functions and effects of the music." Throughout I use popular music, rock music and other terms interchangeably, because they signify an artistic, aesthetic medium as much as a musical form. Music technology is designed and marketed for popular music, but the technology is used for virtually all forms of music. My focus is primarily on the music for which it is designed, although I will draw from other forms of music to illustrate the effects and uses of music technology in music at large.

Steve Jones is associate professor and chair of the faculty of communication at the University of Tulsa in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Copyright ©1992 Sage Publications. All Rights Reserved. Reproduced by permission.

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