Since the majority of the DJ world switched to digital (and you kinky fuckers who stick to vinyl can stop reading here, I truly admire your commitment to an amazing aesthetic, but you’re far too belligerent for conversation) there’s been a constant clamouring across dance music for higher and higher fidelity. Fidelity snobs are everywhere. Some DJs – amongst them people I like and admire (sorry if this is you!)- will genuinely not play a track unless they can score it in ultra-high quality. It’s a ridiculous situation. Why? Well, here’s how I see it.
In those early days of the mp3, a world of digital noobs were burning precious bangers at a feeble 60-odd kbps. 128 was considered serious weight. It wasn’t a great set up. I remember being at Notting Hill Carnival sometime around 2008, and hearing- I think for my first time- a DJ play a set of mp3s, the hi hats hissing like a snake after a kicking, as feeble and annoying as only a shitty bitrate rip can be. All I could think was, Jesus, why bother? He was playing Hypnotize by Biggie, and it sounded thin. It’s not as if the record wasn’t readily available. The mp3 thing baffled me; why use technology that makes something sound so obviously rubbish? But the world rolled on and a respectable 192 – 320 kbps became pretty much the norm. Within a couple of years I had my first encounter with a DJ who had never put an actual record on an actual turntable – he was quite sweet about it- nervous that he might fuck the record up somehow if he did so. When I realised that putting a needle on a 12” had become an archaic skill, it was obvious that things had changed for good.
He was part of a new generation moving to DJing from mp3, who were, in my anecdotal experience, largely kids wanting to jump into the world of music without investing a fortune. Limeware, Napster, Pirate Bay – there was a world of records out there for the price of a broadband fee. Even if they’d wanted to buy records, shops were closing everywhere, and a whole swathe of new electronic sounds didn’t make it to vinyl in the first place. On the one hand, this lead to a brief explosion of very fucking bad DJs clogging up London clubs, people who were running broadly successful parties (in terms of footfall anyway) because they had a shit load of friends and an insatiate ego, rather than any sort of love of music. But amongst these soon-bored chancers, the switch to mp3 also encouraged a huge amount of experimentation and deviation from the wearying rules of beat matching and genre monogamy set out by previous generations. From the mid 00s onwards a host of people who could previously never have made it onto the decks have started pushing new forms of music that existed in superfast flux. The speed with which a meme can be turned into a track is astonishing - something the Jersey Club scene has exploited with glee (I know all about this, having knocked out a couple of instant remixes myself). Sounds can and are torn from low-res web sources and hacked onto frenetic beats. Was there ever anything so punky? Whilst more serious record ‘heads’ - including me if I’m honest - originally mocked young DJs showing up to play with a stack of rush burnt CDs, half of them ripping tunes direct from YouTube, I now think I was wrong. They were just doing what kids have always done, from Phuture knocking out Spank Spank on a four-track in half a day, to Skepta writing his first instrumentals on a Playstation – they were embracing the new and the immediate over the established and polished.
Now as more of those ‘heads’ play entirely digital sets, the boring bastard syndrome that always lurks around DJing is starting to come out in the chase for ever higher fidelity releases. Getting tracks from a promo source? 320 mp3s just ain’t cutting it anymore, we need WAVs dammit. And you know what? Those old 1411 kbps WAVs aren’t good enough sunshine. We need 2116! 2304! 2822! More bits! More power! MORE FIDELITY!
A movement that started off from an understandable desire; let's make this music kick more, has grown out of control. The quest for ever higher quality may still masquerade as stemming from a love of music- I think it's merely another outlet for the hording instinct. It's the same instinct that makes some record collectors equate a single's worthiness with it's rareness. It's got nothing to do with good music, only exclusivity. The thing is, barring a handful of notable exceptions, most places you’re going to play simply do not have a soundsystem set up to reveal the nuances inherent in the highest end of sound files. Yeah, there are places like Dance Tunnel, where Dan Beaumont has been fanatical about the sound quality, or Corsica Studios, where you’ll see Adrian leg it up a ladder to sort out a bassbin half way through the night. But most clubs have soundmen who are clocking on and off; they want it loud, they don’t want the levels peaking, and that’s where their role begins and ends. As if they care about revealing the intricacies in your minimal tech epic. If someone tells you they can go down XOYO and hear the difference between a high end WAV and a 320 mp3, they’re either the kind of music geek who last danced at their 4th birthday party, or they’re just lying.
I want to file the obsession with high bitrates into the same box as prog rock – pompous, self-regarding and largely the preserve of the wealthy. I can’t help but think the music released in the highest quality is rarely the most exciting music released, and the reasons are largely financial. Yes, this is a bit of a sweeping statement, and absolutely down to personal taste, but I believe that rich people are logically more likely to release bad music. If you’re skint, you haven’t got time to dick around with making songs unless you’re completely driven to do so. In the same way that broke people can’t take internships because they actually need pay to survive, they can’t spend their time widdling away on vintage synths unless they can’t imagine themselves doing anything else. That’s not to say that the poor don’t make shit tracks, or that the wealthy can’t make bangers, more that, on balance, there’s more drive and urgency in someone making music to survive rather than to pass the time. And the skint have a tendency – as part of being skint – to have slower computers with less space, and less time and bandwidth to spend uploading a 70 MB file when they could share a 3MB banger in seconds.
No doubt as technology changes, memory getsacheaper and cheaper and web speeds faster and faster, the WAV will become as normal as the mp3 is now, as the 12” once was. Til then, I maintain that the quest for bloated bitrates is the enemy of spontaneity and the preserve of elitists who stifle innovation. As such it should be laughed out of town. I’ve come so far round to this way of thinking that I’ll even drop a 128 kbps track in a club if I know that it’s a killer that has to be heard right now – with the vast majority of Afrobeats (a genre I love) rarely make it past a bitrate that enables sharing via cheap mobile phone, I’d rather play one Ghanaian killer in wack quality than 10 nu disco plodders in crystal clarity, and I'm pretty sure any crowd I'd enjoy playing in front of would agree.
Ultimately, like so many of my generation, I grew up listening to clones of clones of clones of rave tapes, shared and copied until the hectic beats had the glitch of multiple machines hissing through their sound. Those tapes still sound amazing, even ethereal. Tuning into pirates through the crackle and interference, the music was seething through the gaps in what was allowed, misshapen by the process, but thrilling nonetheless. It’s worth bearing in mind; perfection is for painted corpses, let’s embrace the rushed, the punkish, the low quality, and the alive.