Modern digital recording technology is as miraculous as it is still relatively new and undeveloped. From a technical and historical perspective, what could be achieved with previous recording platforms is dwarfed by what can be accomplished with current systems. The fact that there are now software programs which can alter the individual notes of an out of tune chord, speaks volumes as to what this technology has become and where it’s going. The aspect of convenience in recording has been afforded an unprecedented leg up by these and other such developments. Convenience has become an essential component of making a recording and helps generate greater overall efficiency and expediency.
And it is that convenience-driven mindset which is inadvertently motivating people in every way to make recordings of lesser quality. The process of recording, on the whole, has veered sharply away from being a creative aspect in the documentation of music. Instead, it has become a purely technical function and has replaced creativity entirely- even from the perspective of the artist and what the artist does. Historically, the technician’s role has always been to assist the artist in finding his voice and realizing his vision. For a variety of reasons, this role has begun to weigh heavily against supporting the artist (and his vision), in favor of getting a job completed. Over time, the technician’s function has usurped that of the artist and now occupies a tier of greater importance on a given recording.
Previously, the techniques of choosing an acoustic space in which to record, in placing microphones, in selecting a recording format, in choosing which equipment to record through, etc, were all done with the same intent as that which drove the artist. A recording was a personal and creative thing; the environment in which it was documented and the technique used to document it were essential to it’s story and how it was told. Each recording was as unique as the artist whose work it was designed to capture. Nowadays, there is no emphasis on artistry, performance, expression, creativity or excellence. The primary directive behind a contemporary recording project revolves around finishing it- as quickly and cheaply as possible.
In order to serve this goal, there is an exclusive reliance on technology and almost none on artistry. This means that the artist virtually becomes a spectator, a bystander at his own recording as his involvement in that recording becomes further removed and diminished. Nowadays, performers are rushed into a recording studio and songs are recorded in whatever state they currently exist- often without the benefit of pre-production or any prior prep- work. The performers are then rushed out of the studio and the studio becomes the sovereignty of the technicians. The music, (which is generally recorded to a click and gridded) is next edited to the extent where all human feeling is removed. Drums are spliced and drum sounds are routinely replaced by samples. Guitar and bass parts are spliced, edited and looped. Occasionally, the producer, engineer (or other technician) will re-record some of the instruments which were already recorded because they weren’t played well enough by the musician whose responsibility it was to initially perform them. Additional instruments are often programmed in whatever DAW program is being used. Vocals are usually recorded in one pass and then auto-tuned.
This assembly-line style of working also deprives the artist of the opportunity to put effort into his own work. As happens too frequently these days (and to us all, in so many aspects of life), the artist has his thinking and work done for him (again, there is no coincidence that the quality of recordings is worsening as the artists making them are being shunted to the side in favor of the technicians they’ve hired.). Sadly, very few of us are completely immune to working like this (or using components of this approach) and have become functionaries, at one time or another.
When we listen to an artist’s work, we are hearing the expression of that artist’s creativity. We are also experiencing and feeling a living document of the effort the artist put into making this work to the highest possible standards he himself could aspire to. What we experience through this is what the artist wanted us to perceive and how he wanted us to perceive it (even if the artist is not always consciously aware of this intent). We encounter his state of mind and the emotions he was experiencing when he was in his creative process. We feel his happiness, his sadness, joy, misery, love, hate and all the colors in between. How is it possible to come in contact with the artist’s intent when it isn’t accurately represented in his own work? How can we feel his emotions when the document of his effort is literally being constructed, re-interpreted and altered by someone other than him? Likewise, how can we fulfill our function in the creative cycle as listeners, if we aren’t being permitted to listen?
In this situation, the artist becomes a veritable talking head- all noise and no substance. Completely removed from his purpose, he has lost his reason to exist at all, excepting as a nonfunctional functionary. What would he be without all the programming which was done to make his recording sound contemporary and viable in the music marketplace? Where would he be without Autotune (or Melodyne)? What would he do without a technician to hide behind? He would have to work at his craft. Without someone to direct him, would he know how to dedicate himself to this with complete abandon?
When did one style of production become the standard that everyone must follow? When was it decided that it was better to get as little out of an artist as possible (in the way of performance) and then to correct human performance issues in a computer? When did practicality and expediency become more important in this (essentially) creative medium than personal expression, brilliance or artistry? When did it make more sense on a recording to not engage the artist in his own work, to stop challenging him, to not bring his attention or his presence into the creative environment? When did it become bad form to tell an artist that his performance needs to improve- that he can, and must do better?
In part, this trend began when budgets began to shrink, due to poor record sales. However, various systematic approaches to making records started well before the present music business began to wither. People (often to their own detriment) will typically attempt to systematize anything- especially if they believe that by systematizing it, they can make more money (or if they believe that what they desire to systematize is failing). One of life’s many little ironies is that the most unrealistic people in the world are those foolish dreamers who endeavor to reinvent a creative medium by building an assembly-line to fabricate and to sell it. Perhaps, through quantifying their commodity, they feel they will finally be able to understand it’s essence.
Music (like most things) created on an assembly-line tends to become homogeneous. Homogeneity breeds dullness and to music (or any other form of expression), dullness is like a poison. There is no coincidence that people began buying less music when it became more of a commodity and started to worsen. Going against logic, the business people decided that, instead of improving what they were trying to sell (in order to make it more desirable and possibly sell more of it), they would actually try to relieve it of any final vestiges of quality (in order to continue producing something, but spending less money in the process). As a result, a vicious cycle was created and we now have a support system for the creation and exploitation of music which is literally feeding on itself as it decomposes.
This underscores another reason why popular music has become vacuous, pointless and needs to be coupled with some kind of visual (or commodity)- it has become too weak as a standalone medium. It is now consistently associated with something other than itself- a video, a picture, a sports drink, a movie. A song can no longer be (and is no longer) experienced in and of itself. It has become watered down by things external to it, the very things to which it is coupled in order to strengthen it’s appeal. This is yet one more irony in a long series of ironies.
Popular music is now a total commodity. It’s like Red Bull, The Gap or Starbucks. It’s become a lifestyle choice- no longer a way of life. When I was young, music was an inescapable truth. No one was immune to it’s power. Either you just listened to it, you were dominated by it, you hated it or you wanted to be it.
I can recall the dominion music had over me. One summer evening in 1975, I found myself in a park near my parents house in Queens, New York. I had a cassette tape of Vol. 4 by Black Sabbath and I’d brought a very old school cassette player with me- one which was too big to carry around and had an earphone instead of stereo headphones. There were other people around, but I didn’t notice them. Instead, I laid on my back in the grass, looked up into the night sky and listened to the entire tape from front to back and then again. I hadn’t taken any hallucinogens at that point in life, but as I listened to the music rage at me through the tinny-sounding earpiece, I felt as if I was encountering an altered state of reality. I heard the grass growing beneath me and I felt the sky singing. This moment was unique in time, never to come again, a single link in a chain of infinite links which built and enhanced a far richer fabric of life than any I could run my hands through.
People aren’t afforded the opportunity to have that experience of music anymore. Instead, any substance, emotion, depth or contact with the artist they might encounter is completely drained out in the recording process and the sensory work done for them, (since there is bound to be a video attached to the music they are hearing). Listening to music these days is becoming as automated a task as was creating it. No one is afforded the experience of attaching their own significance and mental imagery to music. They are deprived of the chance to dream their own dreams, while experiencing someone else’s. This goes against everything music (and any other kind of art) is meant to do. Every person needs to experience that altered state at least once- if only to get a blueprint for how to truly be alive.
As for technology- it is amazing and it is marvelous. It’s not going anywhere and it will only proliferate. There is no issue with technology, it is a tool, like any other. The issue is with how the tool is used. The issue is with the application of technology and how that application can potentially destroy the very medium it was designed to enhance. This issue opens to further consideration how technology can be married with creativity in order to form a more perfect union and for the results of that union to be unlike anything the world has yet known. How can we all be more vigilant, more creative and more expressive in the wake of this technology and an accompanying mindset which is driven by values other than quality?
In the end, it’s all about intent.