The Elton/Hootie Line

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  1. on a lighter note, i suppose thats why all the music after 2000 pretty much sucks…it always amuses me that the tracks everyone gets up and dances to are from the 1970s-1990s. especially the kids today who weren’t even born then…

  2. Great note. And aside from dealing with the here and now, and offering a prescription (the hardest part, I think) that can get people engaged - I have kind of an “academic” question: Why are we now living in the “widening gyre,” and the “long now,” or why have we fully embraced the volume/compression matrix in society and politics? If you look at all sorts of measures it looks like something “breaks” in the late 1970’s and then continues growing through the 80’s and then accelerates starting in the early 90’s. I wonder if you have a view on “why” this has happened (or an essay you could point me to). Do you think there are feedback loops to the way we measure things as well?

    Just musings, I suppose (I’m not demanding explanations).

  3. Rusty, great post. It’s hard to find people who believe in something that contains more than lots of calories and no nutrition. From “A Note On The Music Industry”: “According to Pollack, this diversion is a compositional device commonly used by Lennon and McCartney, which he says is, ‘deferred gratification.’ Pollacks’ choice of words to describe the song is an interesting counter-point to more recent generation that seems obsessed with instant gratification.”

  4. Thanks for sharing this. I really enjoyed that writeup.

  5. I think you could do worse than to pin it all on the fundamental transition of social interactions from mostly bilateral to mostly crowd-watching-the-crowd over that time. That fundamental shift makes loudness - which is often explicitly but sometimes implicitly designed to exploit common knowledge - a dominant strategy that forces others to play too. Or lose.

  6. Hah. Well, of course I agree. In honestly, I think that feeling is partially nostalgia (everyone thinks this about new music!). But I DO think it’s partially reflective of the second order effects described above: “What music would you make if music were really about this?” And if that’s “sounding good on the radio so people buy records”, you’ll do X. And if it’s “Make the most money on Spotify” you’ll do Y.

    And those things are cartoons, not nearly the same as “music people will enjoy the most”, much less “the best music”, if such a thing can be argued to exist.

  7. Worth the wait.

    ‘Nuff said

  8. Ha! And there I was, convinced that my “real” guess was the correct one ? !! Very excited for the ET swag, thanks guys!

  9. I’d love to learn more about how and why optionality disappears in the transition to Competition Games.

  10. Noted. We can absolutely explore this specific dimension a bit more.

  11. Several points worth pondering. Perhaps. The digitization of music coincided with the ubiquity of ways to enjoy it. The Walkman ™ did not allow 45’s to be carried in a pack, let alone albums. Mass consumption of music practically demanded that it be made portable first cassette then CD. As we moved from analog reproduction to digital, vinyl to tape to bits to compression, there has been a corresponding increase in synthesized voices, and tones (dare I call it music?) manipulated through the devices that create and the ability to play them. BTW, I recall that all Beatles songs have vocals out of one speaker and music through the other. Did I just not get that? I saw Hot Tuna acoustic live a few months ago and nothing compares to guitars and string instruments live.

    The compression and synthetic nature of music as well as its omnipresence through streaming services mirrors the polarization of the rhetoric of the two main political parties in the U.S. The midpoints have diverged over time, and it shows by the silos one chooses to obtain fiat news from in this digitized world. The discourse has both widened and flattened, from the anti science, Covid19 is no big deal, no worse than the flu and denial saying it’s the Democrat/MSM/whoever’s fault, to the musings of Ben and Chris Martenson, both sober (most of the time, I think) and thoughtful, analytical people, as well as what the experience in the rest of the world shows. Music compression and lack of range mirrors the diet of fiat news we get. it’s flattened and compressed. John Oliver devotes a deep dive into issues that barely get 30 seconds if anything, as does Vice and some other outlets, but none have the ratings of say, Hannity.

    We live in a post-truth world, and post-music world. There no truth anymore in the US only what we believe, as pointed out by Karl Rove and Stephen Colbert in his inaugural show on The Word, “Thuthiness.” The truth is whatever I believe. The line has been crossed and a few intrepid souls are actually producing and buying analog records. Just don’t plan on driving cross country or working out to it…

  12. Avatar for Tanya Tanya says:

    Out of curiosity I ran this past a friend who is the chief engineer at one of the most well-known studios in the world and has been in the business for 35 years, and he completely agrees.

    I also definitely see the loudness and compression of discourse these days, and your realization that the way to fight it isn’t to try to change the existing system but to build a new system outside of it is eye-opening.

    A truly outstanding post all the way around. Thank you Rusty!

  13. Avatar for ABE40 ABE40 says:

    guys, you couldn’t be more wrong about the music today…first of all, the music videos are NOT all the music …and the loud definitely is not all the music either Have you listened to Billie Eilish or Ed Sheeran for example…Yes lots of noise around but def NOT all noise…unfair…

    as for 1995 as the demarcation between music and loud…you guys must be very young…did you completely miss the 70s? led zep for example…loud started with the big speakers in the 60s and eventually the music caught up…1995…good lord…like saying alaska was one of the original 13 states…

  14. Ben,

    Great great great analysis, and goes a long way towards explaining our cultural “deafness” in so many ways. You point to the Vinyl reboot as a counter to the Loudness Wars, but it’s also worth noting theres a real generational shift. In the indy-music/bedroom pop scene, Compression is evil and there’s a really strong new movement for difference: Billy Eilish’s last album averaged a 7 in DR (with many songs over 10), and some folks (Green Day in particular) are targeting all their releases and rereleases over 10. (OK, I pay too much attention to this issue, but sound engineering is a hobby). The challenge is once these originals go into “the machine” that feeds streaming services, SiriusXM or video, they get squashed back in. Hence: Vinyl.

    Finding the places where you can get to the source is key. And inspiring a younger generation to care.

  15. I think you could blame technology. If I had to pick one, I’d go with the Sony Walkman. Prior to the 70’s and 80’s almost everything was communal. TV was watched as a Family, Music was experienced together. When you were out in public, you experienced other people. Riding the train or the bus was a communal experience. Flying was communal. Late 70’s, into the 80’s, we started to separate. Head phones, portable music players, miniaturized electronics, small TV’s, even portable game consoles (Yes, I’m calling out the Game Boy) allowed us to customize our environment to our personal preference. As the technology got better, we could customize more. With the rise of Cable TV and the Internet, we don’t even have to see the same news. It is possible for 2 people to live in entirely different realities because they never see the same information presented in the same manner. This can happen even if they live in the same apartment building.

    I watched Apollo 13 for the Nth time this weekend. One of the things that always stands out is how the public was given information about the event. Early into the mission, the Astronauts were living in a reality where they thought that the Public was interested in what they were doing. The public wasn’t, the footage was never broadcast. (The astronauts were going to be told this after they landed.) After the accident with the O2 tanks, everyone was tuned in. They only had 3 channels and the channels all showed the same footage. The only difference between the broadcasts was the Anchor. (Cronkite was probably the most watched.) Compare that national event to reporting on the Cronovirus. The number of different information streams is massive, especially if you count the non-traditional news sources. As a philosophical question, if someone is getting completely different information that creates a different opinion / point of view / conclusions do they exist in the same plane of reality as you do? Are they living in a different world? If perception is reality, does different perception put you in a different reality?

    My $0.02

  16. I don’t think that mass consumption of music required the cassette tape or the walkman. I think Mass Sales required that. The industry needed to get people to listen to music on their own in order to increase the number of copies sold. Without head phones and the ability for several people to be listening to different music simultaneously, while still in close proximity to one another, you would never get the level of sales that you see today. (Or the number of streams) After all, if everyone in a house needs to listen to the same thing, you only need 1 LP or cassette or 45. How was the iPod introduced? (1000 songs in your pocket) Unless you were pirating music everyone needed to purchase a copy. With streaming, everyone needs a subscription. You can’t have people partnering up and still hit your sales targets. Why is the streaming industry starting to crack down on sharing logins? It’s what the need to do to boost sales.

  17. Newbie on the block. Can’t comment on the music analogies - in my teens in the '60s, I used to listen to Maria Callas in Carmen at full volume so I could feel it in my bones - she had that quality of voice - but as I got older my capacity for volume collapsed. We retreated to the country, first, just outside Montreal, through a large lot south of Vancouver, and now a tiny island off the west coast. Pop 350 - we all like quiet. BUT we also have the mental and communal space for uncompressed variety in points of view (definition of an island - a disagreement surrounded by water). And a significant volunteer culture to create the community and interdependence we want. Not totally cut off from the rest of the world, but picking and choosing. So there are parallel universes out there. The loud voices don’t totally define everything.

  18. Thanks, Dave!

    Personally I would have gone with Tool as the example of some moving the right direction recently, but I completely agree with everything you said. Especially the final recommendation.

  19. Ah, and Callas was SO dynamic! So much more than loud! As you mention this, I’m reminded of the Signore, ascolta! aria from her classic turn as Liu in Turandot - a perfect example of what permitting moments of gentle, peaceful quiet does to make those bone-feeling moments so much more powerful! And even then, today it is hard to find an unremastered version that captures it as much as the older pressings that I suspect would have been familiar to you in your teens.

    I love your perfect description of the qualities of an island. I also love how much you have made your life about choice. Maybe a bit envious, truth be told.

  20. I think you’re mistaking “music that gets loud” or "music with parts where cymbals and guitars get really loud sometimes " with “music for which the volume of EVERYTHING has been turned up, making any bits of instrumental dynamics completely washed out with comparably loud noises.”

    Ed Sheeran’s albums are a perfect example of what we mean by overcompressed and overproduced.

    Listen to Shape of You in any format. Try to pick out a note in his vocal that is a materially different volume from another. Try to pick out a sound from the electronic washboard and click patches that is a different volume. When the full multi-octave unison vocals come in, can you pick out parts? Individual voices? Try to find a note in the melody in which the volumes differ.

    You won’t be able to, because everything is tuned up to exactly the same volume. Even though the composition has a spartan feel (something I like about Sheeran, Lorde from a few years back, even some Taylor Swift tracks), every instrument and vocal track is dialed up to the same dynamic level.

    Zeppelin is a perfect example of the OPPOSITE.

    Listen to a good, non-remastered version of Physical Graffiti. Put on Kashmir. What I think you’re hearing is that you’ve got an immediate wall of sound from the iconic bit. Yes! But that’s not what we mean. Listen to the individual instruments. Listen to how long you get the remnant of that snare hit. Listen to how each thump of the pedal on the bass has a slightly different attack that you can discern as slightly different. That’s no Roland patch. Listen to it together, how the swell of volume has room to come together on the syncopated beat of the famous hemiola.

    Listen to Plant’s vocal decay on “time and space”, the ebbs and flows on “world has seldom seen.”

    Now listen to the brass interlude. It’s NOT a wall of sound! It’s instruments - individual instruments. Pick them out, listen to one at a time.

    Now hear after the brass interlude how the engineer allowed the bass guitar to get feisty in the mix. The orchestration to dominate the lead guitar riff this time. Now count the seconds you can hear that final crash cymbal decay into the second verse. When you get the first countermelodic riff about a minute and twenty seconds in, listen to the separation in the instruments. You hear each one, its modest intonation mistakes evidence of a string pulled ever so slightly.

    Listen to the vocals before the second brass interlude, how they trail off. Listen to them on a good, transparent amp and speakers and see how much of a mumbling vocal sits there in the background for you to find.

    And now in the bridge that Bonham made famous with that edge-of-your-seat, double-stroke from a single pedal wizardry that changed drumming forever, listen to the sparseness! The 1/8 second spans of silence, of nothing, where that bass drum accelerates into the massive snare hit. The vocals screaming, then decaying into a scratchy whisper.

    What we’re talking about here isn’t whether there are loud bits. And in Zeppelin and other music, as you point out, there are loud bits. Really loud ones! What we’re talking about is a specific feature of overcompressed music in which the levels of OTHER things have been brought up to a similar level whereby there is no room for picking out individual instruments, or dynamic swells and falls, or anything of musical interest beyond melody and meter.

  21. Callas voice was amazing - just the memory of it can still raise chills more than 50 years later. I had one of the original recordings. Just a few months ago, gave it to a young couple on the island who were in tears at the thought of hearing it. (I can borrow it back any time, but don’t have the equipment any more.) And island life (even the islands we create around us anywhere) does involve choosing distance, and takes work to maintain. I’m the editor of the local Quarterly magazine, and I put out the local private “phone” book every couple of years, and both are dedicated to underpinning our knowing each other. There are two kinds of community in my experience - groups of like-minded people joined by technology, and geographic community - anybody who lives nearby and on whom you may have to depend. Takes a different approach to make the best of the latter. But it can be a special kind of best. Hope we can keep it up. But it is enlivened by contact with the ET kind of pack - rivers of ideas flowing through. Thank you!

  22. This is why I still love music on vinyl via my circa 1962 Fisher vacuum-powered stereo. It even makes modern music on MP3s sound slightly more human. Your analogy of this to politics and information is sadly true.

  23. Avatar for PaulE PaulE says:

    This note reminded me of one of my favorite distinctions highlighted in the book Perfecting Sound Forever by Greg Milner. He characterized digital music as “perfecting approximation” as contrasted with analog/vinyl as “approximating perfection.” I think about the profound difference between these two approaches to life and decision making quite often.

  24. never been born again, just barely once. I woke up to find that the world can only be saved one person at a time. Thanks for expanding my vision.

  25. Your point about the decline in lyrical complexity of popular music struck a chord with me (sorry, I couldn’t resist). My daughter is a singer/songwriter. For years she has written songs with short refrains or sometimes no refrains at all. I suspect they have a relatively low compressibility/relatively high complexity score. I listen to them and am like: “but the Economist says that you need to hit the chorus within 15 seconds or no one on Spotify will listen to them!” (

    That’s why it was so encouraging to read your list of alternative communities organizing around different values. Still - in the spirit of turning down the volume - its easy to see why artists and producers have gone in this direction. They need to put food on the table. I suppose the counter is that “true” artists don’t care. But that’s an easy statement to make as non-artists who don’t have live the daily grind of fighting the prevailing norms.

    I’m optimistic that the road will lead to a better place. After all, the quality of my life is definitely enhanced by being able to easily listen to a selection of songs on Spotify while sitting in California traffic, even if the songs are less complex and overproduced. And there are other venues - my vinyl player, live music, etc to get the richer experience.

  26. Thanks for that, I enjoyed your post and subscribed to your blog. I hadn’t realized two guys were responsible for writing so much popular music. It does feel like there are a lot more venues offering live music now vs. 10 years ago, but that could be just that I’m looking for them more now.

  27. This is good. REALLY good.
    Reminds me of

    But, more fundamentally, are we, collectively, intellectually so lazy that this is is the inevitable consequence? Does this kind of dumbing down in one facet of culture happen, and pervasively infect our entire social sphere?

    This is the first time I’ve seem political discourse framed less in terms of polarisation and more in terms of a restriction of expression. And I think it is incredibly apt.

    see also

  28. Interestingly, I still prefer the sound of more transparent digital hardware - most of my system is late-2000 Revel - when I’m listening to classical or rock, which is most of my listening. I appreciate what the vinyl-heads accomplished without actually being one myself!

  29. I had never seen that description before. It’s marvelous - and accurate. And probably something I will steal.

  30. Really good point, Kevin! I put very little blame on the artists trying to make a buck. Once the competition game has been established, it really IS rational for most to hunt the rabbit rather than go home with nothing. Given how unevenly the rewards of the recording industry are spread, it’s not realistic to expect individual artists to be the ones to try to change the game. But it is also nice to know that some are trying to create communities where you can still make ends meet by defining the rules of your own game.

    And yes, I listen to Spotify on Sonos, too! I’m no purist, I assure you!

  31. Rusty,

    My second read over two years later was so much better than the first… Thank you for what you do, my friend.

    Jim Handshaw

  32. This is a brilliant comment, I think one that shows knowledge, experience, and finesse!
    I wish I had commented in 2020 (maybe I did?)
    LedZep are amazing, (even if they copied Taurus for a few measures).
    And don’t forget about MJ (not basketball)! His command of the choir of sound (bass, baritone, tenor, alto, mezzo-soprano, and soprano) each separately and easily discerned was so refreshing, a break from loud in all registers all the time.

  33. Thanks, Jim! This was a fun one to revisit for me, too.

  34. MJ’s albums are pure pop in their production, and in many ways he kicked off some of these trends I talk about in the note. But man, in spite of this are you ever right!

    There are some places where the dynamism of vocals and instruments IS the song. The one that comes to mind for me most prominently is Dirty Diana. Sparse where it needs to be. Dynamic on vocals and instruments where it should be. On my more transparent home system, it loses so much on the remaster.

  35. No doubt!; pure pop with some definite compression and hints of over-production, but still a Thriller!

  36. I would propose that " Babe I’m going to leave you" is a great example of non-compression. My opinion is strictly as a total amateur. But in the first few guitar picks, the sound seems to be surrounding. It is a haunting sound that beguiles the listener!

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