The Loudness Wars

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“Effective communication will always require some degree of irrationality in its creation because if it’s perfectly rational it becomes, like water, entirely lacking in flavor… Quite simply, all powerful messages must contain an element of absurdity, illogicality, costliness, disproportion, inefficiency, scarcity, difficulty or extravagance—because rational behavior and talk, for all their strengths, convey no meaning.” Rory Sutherland

Grabbing the valuable attention of people in a busy media landscape requires being loud. Everything has to be exaggerated.

Good is not enough, it has to be the best. Disagreement bores, it has to be war. Inconvenience is forgotten, torture is remembered.

This trend toward the extreme happened in some way in the music industry as well. When, as early as the 1940s, producers and music executives realized that louder tracks got more attention from listeners, and therefore more sales, they began an escalation known as the Loudness War. Musicians wanted their tracks to be loud enough to stand out among others, leading to a sharp general increase of the audio level of recorded discs overall.

Loud tracks may get more attention, but there is a tradeoff: a loss of dynamic range. In other words, the difference between what’s quiet and what’s loud decreases. Nuance decrease. But there’s art in the nuance. Suspense, intensity, and subtlety disappear when the dynamic range flatten.

Making things louder attracts more attention, but preserving some nuance adds depth to the experience.

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