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1980s

Only 430 pages left on your journey to becoming a rock star!

The 1980s was the decade when things started to go terribly wrong, even if this was not yet visible on the surface and if there was still tons of good music. This means that we should take a closer look at the emerging problems if we want to understand the causes of today’s trouble.

If you take a look at the numbers from the Rolling Stone Magazine’s Top 500 songs list, then you’ll note a drop from 28.2% to only 11.4% in the 1980s – which is considerable, as this means that music quality dropped by a factor of almost 2.5 within only 10 years.

What seems quite surprising is the fact that a lot of people – including many of today’s young people (I’m talking about 18-25 year olds, not kids) – say that the 1980s is their favourite decade when it comes to music. The reason is probably that there was a huge amount of really good and original music in that decade, even if those songs never made it into any “best of” list.

During the 1980s – especially in the second half of the decade – really great music started to become a bit rare, but there was still tons of good and acceptable music.

The 1980s started right after the demise of disco music, partly caused by the Disco Sucks campaign launched in mid 1979. It was the first time an entire genre had been killed off intentionally, and the empty space was soon filled up by dance music and new wave.

But in the early 1980s things still looked quite good for the industry, at least when it came to making lots of money – it started with the reinvention of Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, the superstardom of Prince, and the emergence of Madonna, Whitney Houston, and Janet Jackson – who were all the most successful musicians during that time, and who all made sure the industry was still making tons of cash. Their videos became a permanent fixture on MTV and gained a worldwide mass audience.

Michael Jackson was the first African American artist to have his music video aired on MTV. Jackson’s Thriller (1982) is the best-selling album of all time, selling an estimated 65-110 million copies worldwide.

Madonna was the most successful female artist of the decade. Her third studio album True Blue became the best-selling female album of the 1980s.

While some artists such as U2, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Michael Jackson, Madonna, The Police, or Depeche Mode produced great albums, and while there was a huge number of quite good mainstream stuff, there was also a growing mass of low-end music projects that started flooding the charts and that finally became quite dominant in the late 1980s.

The music industry had finally recognized that the majority of the population (aka “the masses”) didn’t care about music quality at all, and that selling crap could be just as lucrative as supporting great artists.

The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way), a 1988 book by The Timelords (better known as The KLF), made it clear:

Everyone can have a No.1 single with no money, no talent, and no musical skills.

This has become the music industry’s mantra since. 

The Manual had a great impact on the music industry, as it offered step by step instructions that could not only be used to create hits without much talent and effort, but it also allowed to easily fill the charts with low cost dance and pop music while dumping the much harder to manipulate and the much more expensive “real” artists.

This is just what many industry executives had been waiting for:

A simple solution that would allow business to go on, making billions every year, while getting rid of those expensive and unpredictable artists.

A simple recipe that would allow to fill up the charts with cheap-to-produce teen pop and dance music created by producer / puppet combos.

What seemed to be a great plan for the music industry at the time may finally have led to its demise later on.

Music quality had been dropping since the end of the 1960s, but sales number remained so high that nobody really cared.

This illusion was kept alive by CD sales until the end of the boom in the late 1990s, when the system suddenly collapsed. It reminds me of the anecdote of the boiling frog*, and the industry was starting to considerably turn up the heat in the 1980s.

*) The boiling frog is an anecdote describing a frog slowly being boiled alive. The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. – Wikipedia

Technology

Professional recording studios mostly updated to computer controlled mixing consoles such as the Solid State Logic SL4000 (or similar consoles by Neve or other manufacturers), offering high end compressors and parametric EQs on each of their 32 or more channels.

Computer controlled consoles also allowed to automate the mix, initially using VCA automation, and later on by offering motorized faders.

The SL4000 started at 32 channels with a price tag of about $250,000, but recording studios could easily afford such expensive gear as the business was going really, really well, and recording budgets were quite high.

The use of 2” tape machines allowed to record 23 tracks of music (24 tracks minus one for the sync timecode), using two machines even allowed using up to 46 tracks.

Such tape machines usually included high end noise reduction (the professional Dolby A, not the cheap Dolby B / C consumer version), and they were quite expensive – you had to pay about $100,000 for a good 2” tape recorder in fact.

When listening to 1980s music today, we often notice that it feels cold and cheap, which is the result of both style changes and technological advances of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

But technology alone was not the problem, it was the way technology was being used.

In the 80s, everything new was embraced and experimented with – which is basically not a bad thing, but there was a lot of technology that seemed to be cool back at the time, but it really was only garbage. Just think of all of those cheap synth sounds and electronic drums that make lots of 80s songs sound so horrible.

Most of the 1980s chart music was recorded and mixed on SL4000 consoles, which were also partly responsible for the 80s sound, thanks to their stereo bus compressor and their side chaining features on all channels.

While the SL4000 is an awesome console that still has a cult following today, the way it was being used in the 1980s led to a highly sterile sound that doesn’t sound warm at all, which makes the music sound very different from most of the music recorded in the 1960s and 70s.

In the 1980s there was a trend to produce “perfectly clean” records, but those records then often also lacked soul.

From today’s perspective, a lot of 50s, 60s, and 70s records actually sound a lot better than most music from the 1980s.

Synthesizers, samplers, and MIDI became omnipresent in professional studios, and the Atari ST and the Apple Macintosh made MIDI popular in home studios too. The ST even had a built-in MIDI interface, which made it very popular among musicians.

First sequencers were developed for the ST and Mac platforms, and those programs would later become the professional DAWs we all use today. Cubase and Logic were originally applications developed for the Atari ST platform in the mid and late 1980s, while Pro Tools was developed for the Apple Macintosh around the same time.

On the consumer side, vinyl remained the number one medium in the early 1980s, although the music cassette became a lot more important as new portable players became popular. Ghetto blasters (aka “boomboxes”) had been available since the mid 1970s, and the Sony Walkman had been introduced in 1979, which also explains the growing popularity of the MC.

Music piracy remained popular too, and people continued the 1970s trend of copying LPs and recording songs from the radio.

Many teenagers and young adults owned huge collections of self-recorded music cassettes, and the MC became even more popular thanks to Sony’s Walkman and radios featuring cassette players becoming standard in cars. 

The Compact Disc (aka “CD”) was introduced in 1982, and by the end of the 1980s both CDs and MCs had almost completely replaced vinyl records. The CD was much more robust than vinyl discs, it was much smaller, and it seemed to be a future-safe investment so that many people also started to replace their beloved vinyl collections by the new medium.

This led to a boost of album sales, as people started to spend more and more money on music, which covered up the emerging quality problems of the industry.

By the end of the 1980s, the industry was making money like crazy selling a low quality product, and nobody was aware of the fact that the system was soon about to collapse.

But let’s start with a short review of all of the good or even great music that was released in that decade…

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Chapter 3.4   •   Page 1 of 16

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