Are computers good for music?
There are two ways to view the influence of computers and the `net upon music.
The first perspective is that computers and the `net are bad because anyone can make and publish music, bypassing the taste makers and gatekeepers and subjecting us all to a lot of music that wouldn't pass muster in the pre `net days.
The second perspective is that anyone can make and publish music, bypassing the taste makers and gatekeepers and giving us all a chance to hear music which would otherwise have been filtered out by the taste makers and gatekeepers.
I personally favor the second perspective. Music has always been subject to control by someone in a position of power: patrons in pre-recording days, record companies since the introduction of sound recording. At the same time "folk music" - and I'm using the term very broadly to mean "music of the people" - has always existed outside of economic bondage, but has remained until very recently a local phenomenon.
The way I see it, the `net has given "folk" music (using the above definition) a global reach. Musical communities become and remain viable thanks to being able to reach a far greater number of like-minded musicians and fans than would have been possible otherwise.
That's the good news. The bad news - at least from the perspective of those who would treat music as an art or an avocation - is that the sharks are circling, looking for a scene to "crawl out of the muck" and become exploitable.
As to the record companies losing their power base: too bad for them if it actually comes to pass. I wouldn't call the game against the record companies just yet. Desperation leads to desperate acts. If they really think they're in danger of disappearing, they're going to find a way to leave behind some scorched earth on the way out. This is why net neutrality is absolutely critical to musicians and music fans alike.
But what about the negative aspects of computers? Is the widespread availability of low-cost recording gear leading to a preponderance of underqualified recording engineers, leading to an overall reduction in the quality of recordings?
Engineering is not music. Engineering is a part of the process of turning music into a product.
I won't argue that I prefer today's recording aesthetic to the more subtle and refined approach of four decades past, or even to the lo-fi archivist's approach of eight or nine decades past. The modern recordist is (at the risk of overgeneralizing) a control freak in the worst sense. The obsession goes far beyond accuracy. The modern recordist has inserted himself into the process of making music. That's where it all goes wrong.
The way I see it, there should be a division of labor between the talent and the engineer. The talent should create the music. The engineer should focus his attention on recording the best possible sonic representation of a musical event. That doesn't mean that every recording has to be a live recording. I have no problems with overdubs, multitracking, inserts and the like. But the resulting recording should sound like the artist sounds, not some time-aligned, beat-synched, Autotuned, BBE'd, brick-walled, plastic-wrapped idealization of what the artist might sound like reincarnated as a computer.
There is in fact a creative aspect of engineering. But most of the things that I don't like about modern engineering are driven by business, not creative, concerns.
When one steps away from music that is constructed as a product, one finds a lot more variation in the aesthetics of the engineering and even some really creative work that supports and enhances the artist's musical vision.
Commercial engineering, in thrall to the business of selling a musical product, has indeed taken a steady turn for the worse in the past three or four decades. But the availability of recording tools at hobbyist and prosumer (I hate that word, but it gets the point across...) prices has brought recording to the masses. Yes, there are a lot of hacks. Everyone has to start somewhere; some never progress past being a hack. But there are some extremely gifted amateur recordists, too. I have heard amateur recordings that I would put up against the cream of the crop of the `60s or `70s.
Don't forget that most of the recordings of the past were dross, not cream... Time has a way of making the "good old days" seem better than they really were.
One thing that I do think is true today is that, on average, the talent is not as well-rehearsed as it was in the past. When the machinery to make a recording was made available only with the support of a large business, you know that the talent didn't get to see the inside of a studio until they could nail their material in their sleep. Now that we can buy a recording studio at WalMart, the "talent" doesn't have to jump through any hoops. In the world of music as a product, secondary attributes (personality, appearance, age) are now viewed as more important than musical talent.