Posts Tagged ‘Bill Haley’

Part 2: Fractals – How the Medium Can Be The Music

A fractal is simply a sub-part of a whole, a piece that by itself holds little value. However certain combinations of fractals can have a profoundly greater value than the sum of the individual parts. The formula for gunpowder is 10 parts sulfur, 15 parts charcoal and 75 parts saltpeter. It’s an explosive combination but only in that specific ratio. Now this is a simple formula with only three fractal relationships (sulfur & charcoal)(sulfur & saltpeter)(charcoal & saltpeter). If there were a fourth element, the number of relationships rises to six, a fifth element creates ten relationships. Chimpanzees share 96% of the same DNA as humans, however that 4%, even if there were only 100 parts in total, is a difference of 394 relationships.

This sequence 3 =(1+2), 6 = (1+2+3), 10 = (1+2+3+4), and so on, are known as triangular numbers because each number adds another layer to an equilateral triangle.

Music in some form or another has likely been around since the time humans and chimps first deviated from a common ancestor. It has evolved over that time much like a living species. However the phenomenon of hit song is a relatively recent creation as the ability to sell prerecorded music has only been available since the late 19th century invention of the gramophone. Prior to that artists were limited to an audience within reach of their voice. Not surprisingly the first person to sell a million records had a very powerful voice. It was Enrico Caruso, a turn of the century opera singer.

To this day, the average hit song is around three minutes long. While that may seem arbitrary, it actually matches the physical limitations of the wax phonograph cylinders which were the first form of recorded media. Over the next hundred years whenever there was a dramatic change in musical style it was always driven by an outside environmental force in much the same way that it took a meteor to wipe out the dinosaurs and accelerate human evolution. On the eve of the Great Depression there was a confluence of three big developments.

The biggest star of the 1920’s was Al Jolson, in the 1930’s it was Bing Crosby. Al Jolson was known for wearing black face and having an over the top, exaggerated style, Crosby had a more subtle, soothing style. The style that made Bing Crosby famous wasn’t possible any earlier because it required the use of an emerging technology, a microphone. Bing Crosby would go on to sell far more records than anyone had ever done. A feat no doubt assisted by the fact that recorded media, which had been in flux for a number of years, finally settled on a consistent format, the 10-inch, 78 rpm disk. They were cheap to manufacture, and the record players themselves were inexpensive, thus the masses could afford them even in the depths of the Great Depression. Crosby became the most famous recording artist the world have ever known, a reach no doubt assisted by another emerging technology, broadcast radio. I doubt neither his talent nor his hard work in achieving that success but it’s hard to imagine that he would have been able to accomplish all that if he had been born ten years earlier, or conversely ten years later when he would have competed against Frank Sinatra and many other similar talents.

The next big change in the music scene was the extinction of the big bands, which many attribute to a hail of Comets. While Bill Haley’s version of Rock around the Clock was certainly the tipping point for Rock and Roll being accepted as mainstream, the demise of the big bands was already in the works. Much of it was due to economics, as Bill Haley with six Comets was a less expensive act to produce than the Bill Haley’s Orchestra would have been. However part of the answer lies in another emerging technology, in this case it was the 7″, 45 rpm records which fit nicely into a Seeburg Jukebox. By the mid-fifties these Jukeboxes had a capacity of 50 records (100 songs) thus providing an outlet for musicians free from the payola schemes and conservative corporate advertisers that controlled broadcast radio. A jukebox hit was a serious threat to these entrenched interests. The Billboard Magazine charts came about after people began to question the validity of industry produced Hit Parade charts.

Billboard’s Hot 100 chart didn’t appear until the late fifties, by then interest in jukeboxes had waned, rock and roll had fully integrated onto mainstream radio and even African-American music had slowly gained acceptance to the point that Race Records (as they were called in the 40’s) merged onto the main chart in 1963. Meanwhile Billboard also started charting the sale of a new record medium, the vinyl 33 rpm album. Despite having a debut before the 45rpm record they didn’t catch on immediately as the idea of having 45 minutes of original material released all at once was a completely alien concept to the record companies of the fifties. In 1955 the chart listed 15 records, it wasn’t until the sixties that it expanded beyond 50. The other emerging technology of that time was multitrack recording. Stereo sound was invented in the forties, but it wasn’t widely used until a decade later. Les Paul was one of the early innovators, both with three track recording, and more famously, with the electric guitar.

All these little tidbits are fractals, and they can be further divided into three groups. Much like gunpowder some are fuel, some act as a catalyst, and a some as a source of ignition. In music the fuel is an untapped market, the catalyst is the emerging technology and the ignition is something truly unique that sparks the revolution. In 1964 there was a massive untapped market, teenagers from the post war baby boom who were just emerging as a cultural juggernaut. Four track technology was available by then and it opened up whole new world of possibilities for songwriters. 1964 was also the year that John Lennon and Paul McCartney arrived in North America.

In Outliers Malcolm Gladwell argues that it was their unusual, grueling apprenticeship in Germany that helped to make the Beatles that much more successful than any other group of musicians. While it is indeed a fractal, I wouldn’t outright assume that they just weren’t both born with extraordinary talent and by pure chance grew up in the same town and found themselves together in the same band. While this seems improbable on the surface consider the Birthday Problem. If there are over 23 people in a room, odds are better than not that two will share a common birthday. Consider this, since the war there have only been a small number of hall of fame caliber baseball players, fewer in fact than musicians who have been inducted into the songwriters hall of fame in that same time frame. Two of them have a birthday on November 21st. In addition they are both left-handed, played center-field and were born in Donora, Pennsylvania. Donora has a population of 5000 people, Liverpool has over a million.

The aftermath of the explosive changes that took place in the sixties was a fractured musical landscape with an audience segmented into a multitude of sub-genres. The success of the LP (Long Play album)finally freed artists from the tyranny of three-minute singles. This in turn lead to the seven minute anthems, endless guitar solos, live albums, and other excesses of the arena rock bands. As a counter point dance music also gained in popularity and became just as excessive. Then suddenly everything changed, and New Wave emerged, with a pattern that was entirely predictable.