Music in context
Is music a product, or a means of human expression? This really gets to the heart of "what is music"?
Of course music is often both a means of expression and a product. Some music is more of a product, other music is more intimate and personal.
My own preference has shifted over the past twenty years or so toward music which is more personal and less commercial. It's an ongoing process. Along the way I've learned not only to appreciate a broader range of music, but also to listen more for the music than for the "sound". So much commercial music is sold based upon having the "right sound" that we tend to forget that the music comes from people. Technology only serves the music-makers (or their delegates in the production process).
So what about technologies used to improve a performance? Autotune, for example, is used to process vocal perfomances both live and in the studio? Is this desirable, or is it "cheating"?
It's all a matter of degree.
Using autotune to save an otherwise great take by fixing a note or two is not different in any sense from doing a punch-in or other lower-tech approach. It's a judgement call. Do you allow that vocalist to be tortured with the knowledge that 50,000 copies of a recording will be sold with one missed note that he knows he can normally hit, or do you apply a bit of studio magic to create a "perfect" performance out of one that's really, really close to being perfect in the first place?
Conversely, autotune used as an effect on a voice is no different in principle than adding an effect to a guitar or keyboards.
A guitar through effects no longer sounds like a guitar. It becomes a new instrument. The effects change not only the sound, but also how the guitarist plays the guitar. Turn off the effects, and the magic evaporates (unless the guitarist also knows how to express himself convincingly without effects).
The way I see it, the backlash is not against the use of a tool. The backlash is against creating a singer out of someone who can't sing well. We've had over a half a century to accept processed guitar sounds and almost as long with respect to processed keyboard sounds. We've come to recognize guitarists for their ability to create sounds using effects irrespective of their musical skills or taste.
Vocal processing as an effect is relatively new. We're still in the days where there is not an accepted cannon of usage. In other words, the users of vocal processing as an effect are pushing some boundaries. To put this in perspective, imagine yourself back in the late `50s listening to a Strat played through a modern pedalboard. You've never even imagined that such sounds could come out of a guitar. You have no idea of the meaning or concept of "flanger", "phaser", "ring modulator", "harmonizer", "pitch shifter", "chorus", or "fuzzbox". Modeling? That's something that a person does... What would you think in this situation? My guess is it'd be something along the lines of "that's different, but it's not a guitar".
I'm learning to appreciate recordings that are "documentary" in their approach. I want to hear exactly what was played. If there was a flubbed note, so be it. That recording was one moment in time; there will be others.
On a personal level, I don't want one of my own recordings to misrepresent what I can play. I want to have good acoustics, a good soundstage, clarity, etc. But if I stumble: either do it over or leave it alone.
I don't agree with the notion that a performer - especially one who will at some point perform live - should "put their best foot forward" by manufacturing an artificially-perfect recording. If you can't deliver, the truth will come out as soon as you get in front of an audience. Also, I've found that I actually prefer live performances - with their rough edges and "energy" - to the sterile, refined presentation that many bands strive to attain on their CDs.
Also (and my thoughts on this are not well-formed) the rules may be changing... With recording ability in the hands of virtually every musician, and the cost of distribution (that's distribution, not promotion) being effectively zero, why should we even be thinking about attempting to create a single "definitive" performance when it's so easy to take the "documentary" approach and release multiple performances of the same material?
Ensemble playing is tricky at best. You have have to find good musicians and convince them to appreciate (or contribute to) your vision of how the song should be performed, then provide a competent (preferably inspired) reading of their part for the recording.
So many variables; so many things that might go wrong... (The upside, of course, being that you and your collaborators luck into some kind of synergy...)
On top of all that you'd like the song to have a life of its own independent of who you get to play the different parts. You want to inspire others to appreciate the craft behind the song itself, without the distraction of imperfections in the performance.
The thing that colors my perceptions and prejudices toward the recording process is that I view myself as an improviser more than as a writer. Yes I have a (fairly deep) well of motifs from which to draw when I play. And there are set pieces - at least structurally - within the improvisations. But the important thing to me is how a particular improvisation unfolds. It's the spirit of the moment, rather than of the song, that's important to me.
That viewpoint definitely colors everything I have to say with respect to the recording process and the music business. I've thought this through enough times, from enough different angles, that I tend to forget that it's a minority viewpoint.
I reason about the process of making music from more of a "folk" viewpoint. Not in the sense of "old-time traditional" music, but in the sense of being "music of the people". I draw upon many sources for inspiration and play music that inspires and challenges me. My objective is to play music with which my listeners are almost certainly not familiar but might enjoy hearing. Many of the elements of my style are familiar; that familiarity creates a connection that gives me the freedom to take the listener somewhere unexpected. One of my listeners wrote, "David creates his own musical world, then takes you inside."
The fundamentals of recording per se are not difficult to learn for a reasonably intelligent and methodical individual. Recording is a huge industry with lots of support in terms of books, online tutorials, forums, and (in many cities) local classes.
The real challenge (I think) for a home recordist is to avoid the overlap of the analytical and creative processes while performing for one's own recording.
I would be unlikely to shell out significant amounts of money for a documentary recording. But I'm assuming that a different business model will apply. I'm not exactly sure what form that business model will take. I'm certain, though, that it won't be the status quo of paying $17 per disc or even 99 cents per track.
Some of the industry pundits believe that the future value of all recorded music will tend toward zero. Not just amateur recordings... all music.
To paraphrase (rather awkwardly) their argument: music is becoming the sizzle that sells the steak. Musicians are not in the business of selling recordings, but rather in the business of establishing - through their recorded output - a relation with their fans that encourages the fans to support the artist in various ways. Now that musicians can effectively interact with their own fans, the role of the record company as taste-maker, bank, producer and distributor will remain in play only for a declining segment of the musical marketplace.
I don't agree with all of the nuances of this anticipated "new world order", especially not with the viewpoint that commercially-published music will have a future value of zero. I do see some trends and individual examples which support the viewpoint that some artists will manage to support themselves in a musical career without "old-world" organizations for production, promotion and distribution.
I believe that "documentary" recordings will become a viable and important product as the music industry changes. The production and distribution costs are infinitesimally small, allowing for frequent production and distribution either at some token price or for no charge at all. Marketing is all about getting your message out frequently. Since music is the message that musicians are trying to communicate, it seems to make sense that frequent releases will help artists to maintain a connection with their fans.