Fifty years ago, in 1964, Marshall McLuhan wrote one short sentence that rocked the world: “The medium is the message”. It was the major thesis of his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, and what he meant by it was that the way a message (which could be any content at all) is delivered is a part of the content, and is (at least) as important as the content, itself.
Although he traced his theory back through the print media, television was the medium McLuhan was most concerned with, and, as he told it, the fact of television — of being able at any time to immerse oneself in a particular kind of multi-sensory, non-linear, sight-and-sound experience, was changing society and changing the people who live in it.
Whether or not influenced by Marshall McLuhan, science fiction writer Norman Spinrad, in his 1969 novel, Bug Jack Barron, had the title character, Jack Barron, a television talk show host, think something much along the same line — that, to his audience, which he regarded as “a bunch of do-nothing couch potatoes”, his TV show was more real and of greater consequence than their own real lives.
Frankly, I think McLuhan had a genuinely brilliant understanding of media, but not the one that he wrote about: Instead, I think he understood perfectly how to coin a phrase and to create an idea that was just radical enough and just perverse enough that, like the Zen koan “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” it would grab people by the head; cause them (just as the victims of con men and hucksters always do), to believe that he had communicated to them some Great-Knowledge-With-Which-To-Comprehend-The- World, and, despite the fact that it had no real meaning or real-world application at all, to make him so famous that I would be writing about him even today, half a century later.
In short, I disagree with McLuhan’s theory. I think that the MESSAGE is the message, but that doesn’t mean that his catchy words have no application – especially to audio and audiophiles.
As I talk with people and read the media, whether print or online, what I keep finding is people who tell me that they are music lovers; that “It’s all about the music”; that their systems or, if they’re manufacturers, their products, exist “only to serve the music”; and that, beyond the music, nothing else matters.
Bullsh*t. If the music is really all that matters, why don’t they listen to it on a table radio or some fifty dollar “Hi-Fi”? If they did, would the music of the Beatles, Beethoven, B.B. King, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, or Garth Brooks be even one word or one note different? Of course not!
]]>For that matter, do audiophiles really have such unfettered musical tastes that they actually do encompass everything from Cantate Domino to The Sheffield Drum record, to Jazz at the Pawnshop, to Casino Royale to the sound (on the Hi-Fi News & Record Review Test Disc [HFN003]) of somebody banging (really quite thrillingly) on a metal garage door? Those were all CES and dealer demo favorites at one time or another and LOTS of people bought them just for their sound quality. How about you? If you’re an audiophile, can you honestly say that you’ve NEVER bought a recording of something just because it was brilliantly recorded or had world-destroying bass or imaged like nothing you’d ever before imagined possible – regardless of what kind or how good the music was? Or even whether it was music at all?
The fact of it is that a lot of audiophiles really are just that: AUDIO-philes – lovers of recorded and reproduced sound just because it IS recorded and reproduced sound, and that, to them, the music is just something you listen to in order to hear a great recording job or great sound reproduction. When I owned XLO, I even had one dealer tell me outright that he didn’t really like music at all, but LOVED all the wonderful equipment that, as a dealer, he was surrounded with every day, and that the greatest fun he could think of was when he was helping his customers put all those terrific toys and goodies together to make the best sound possible.
Personally, I’m a music lover AND a Hi-Fi Crazy, and I love all of it: I love the music – practically any style, genre, or period you can think of, played on practically any kind of instrument, or even just “a capella”, with no instrument at all. I love the performers and the performances; and the fact that the same piece of music played or sung by different people (or even by the same person at a different time) can sound wildly different. I also love the equipment – buying it; designing it; owning it; and, just like that dealer, assembling it to produce great sound.
For me, both the music and the medium – the recording and playback process that delivers it to me — are “messages” in McLuhan’s parlance. Each has its own place and its own significance, and each, depending on the time and the circumstances, can move me, entertain me, inspire me, make me want to dance, or to get out my soldering iron or my calculator, or maybe even write an article.
McLuhan got it wrong: The medium ISN’T the message. There are LOTS of messages — at least as many as there are audiophiles, and certainly more than enough to go around! Pick one or as many as suit you, and ENJOY!