Technology vs. passion
I grew up with live music. Many of the adults in my mother's extended family were professional musicians who played in symphony orchestras and taught at the music conservatory. Impromptu recitals were common at family gatherings.
Although I learned about electric guitars by watching Ricky Nelson on television at about the same time Leo Fender had introduced the Stratocaster to the world, it was the guitar-driven pop of the early and mid 1960s that first caught my attention and fueled my preadolescent desire to finally learn to play a musical instrument.
I, like many of my peers, learned to play by picking up the guitar and puzzling things out for myself. At that time and place no one formally taught electric guitar, so we were grateful for any hard-won tips shared by someone's older brother.
Despite the introduction of early studio trickery by the likes of George Martin, Tom Dowd and others too numerous to enumerate, there was still a tight connection between an artist's performance and the finished recording. A studio take emerged largely unscathed in the final mix; corrcctions tended to require heroic effort in the days of razor blades and cutting blocks. It was easier to record another take and pick the most pleasing one despite any lingering flaws.
Fast forward four decades to the era of ProTools and a plethora of plug-ins designed to eliminate every bit of human imperfection from a musical performance. Every stray breath, off-pitch note, and misplaced drum hit can be eliminated with no further effort from the performer. A tempo that breathes with the excitement of the musicians can be resynchronized to the unwavering clock of the machinery in order to better facilitate rearranging the parts of the song into a copy-and- paste pastiche bearing little resemblance to an actual performance by the musicians. In this world, musicians have abdicated their responsibilities as artists; the engineers and producers now run the show with all the passion and grace of a business-school graduate.
Why? It's big business, that's why. Music has become a commodity like consumer electronics or air fresheners. It's not the art that matters, it's the balance sheet. The musical product becomes "better" year after year - all the while becoming increasingly forgettable.
Live music is increasingly subjected to the same technological "advances" as studio recordings. In order to meet fans' expectations, live performances have become increasingly choreographed and supported by sequenced tracks and sound-processing wizardry. All this technology might be artistically beneficial if it served the performance, but in practice it acts to constrain the performer in order to provide a consistent and palatable concert experience for the target demographic.
What a delicious irony: music, long a vehicle for personal expression, has mutated into a multi-billion dollar industry which assimilates and indoctrinates all manner of talent and technicians in thrall to the bottom line.
The influence of music production technologies is insidious. Economies of scale make the most sophisticated of tools available not only to big-label studios and national touring acts, but also to artists recording in a corner of the living room and performing in the corner pub. The MI trade magazines tirelessly promote the benefits of the latest products. Members of internet discussion boards enthusiastically hype the latest greatest musical tools as if they were the ultimate answer to "life, the universe and everything."
I have no objection to the use of technology for making music. Even the humblest of acoustic instruments depend upon the firm foundations of science and technology. The modern facination with top-shelf production values tends to relegate the art of music to almost an afterthought. Witness the plethora of cookie-cutter musical acts at the national level. Even at the local level we find far too many acts attempting to get "discovered" by emulating a well-known national act. This strategy succeeds often enough to have become self- perpetuating at the expense of musical diversity.
As musicians we need to focus and concentrate our creative energies upon the art and craft of performance and spend less of our time and effort obsessing about nuances of production. What really grabs the your potential audience is your passion and personality. No one cares about which plugins you used or the quality of your A/D converters. Timeless classics have been recorded on gear which is laughably inadequate when compared to the high standards of the most pedestrian of today's consumer recording gear. These songs are classics because they spoke to their audience.
If that's not enough to convince you to put down the MI gear trade magazines, consider that the vast majority of your audience will listen to your music on low-fidelity equipment: MP3 players, computers, boom boxes and car stereos. One person in a hundred thousand - should you be fortunate enough for your music to reach that many people - will put your recording under a sonic microscope. Everyone else is listening to you.