Going the Way of the Victrola
February 11, 2001
By GREGG WAGER
THE home computer revolution may soon chalk up another casualty: the
recording studio ^× that shrine where many a music legend has been
born. The old legends relied on their talent but also on record
companies to cover the expense of the studios. In exchange, the
labels had a say in the aesthetic direction and distribution of the
final product. New talent won't need this help. The personal
computer is freeing it from the need of both a recording studio and
a record company ^× and, maybe, from traditional musicianship
Of course, saving money is behind this latest trend to mothball
the recording studio. In addition to its "state of the art"
recording equipment, a good recording studio also requires
musicians, engineers, secretaries and janitors, not to mention
interior decorators, limousine service and snacks for hungry
artists, all of which means additional expense.
Now look at the home computer. Improved music-making technology on
the PC goes hand in hand with what could be called the "Blair
Witch" phenomenon: using advanced technology to drastically reduce
the costs of creative projects, some day maybe even bringing them
down to next to nothing. High-tech becomes low-tech. With the right
software (some of it free off the Internet), composers of the
future won't need a big wad of cash to develop a project. Their
home computer, equipped with a built-in CD burner and software for
MP3 conversion, sequencing and sampling functions, will still cost
less than any decent electric guitar, synthesizer or drum set ^× let
alone a Stradivarius violin or a Bösendorfer piano.
The same expanding technology that improves the capabilities of
the PC also shrinks the size of the old recording hardware. Singers
can use tiny microphones made of lightweight plastic. The sound
quality will get better and you'll soon be able to buy them
wherever batteries or blank cassettes are available. The daunting
multitrack tasks that once could only be accomplished in the
recording studio are now possible at home using innovative music
software. Computerized mixing boards can already do more than the
giant, complicated boards still found in most recording studios.
The art of sequencing and sampling might well become a substitute
for musical instruments, requiring a new sort of virtuosity.
Still in an embryonic stage, the making of music on the PC should
eventually produce work rivaling that made by today's recording
artists and composers ^× even surpassing them. The use of the PC
isn't just a hobby anymore. The musical geniuses of tomorrow won't
even have to leave their homes.
The new sounds they create may at first imitate the orchestras,
jazz ensembles and rock bands of yesteryear, but in time these
artists will find forms of expression to please aficionados of the
future ^× who will, of course, be as fickle as ever in choosing
their heroes. Early champions of the home computer have already
given us a glimpse at what the future might look like. Composers
like Carl Stone have been creating music with little more than
sampling equipment for the last 25 years. Until now, the world of
electronic music, pioneered by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Morton
Subotnick, had the mystique of a complicated technology. By
comparison, Mr. Stone and his peers are the new folk musicians,
using the new machinery in a simple way and with no illusions about
having a vast technological knowledge. John Cage predicted shortly
before his death 8 years ago that the newest breed of composer
would be a sort of troubadour, making music on the run with
portable equipment suitable for anything from carefully plotted
composition to fly-by-night improvisation.
Under the category "Electronica" in record stores, one finds
veterans like Kraftwerk or Tangerine Dream as well as D.J.'s who
have traded turntables for the sampling capabilities of the home
computer. The English D.J. Norman Cook, a k a Fatboy Slim, has
already had at least one international hit with a recording that,
he has said, cost "only the cigarettes and vodka consumed while
making it." His success exemplifies the "Blair Witch" phenomenon.
D.J.'s like Paul Oakenfold and Junior Vasquez have similarly
transformed the PC from a substitute for a turntable into a musical
instrument. They set up computerized equipment when they perform in
clubs. Going to a club to watch a D.J. type on a keyboard and move
a mouse might not seem as if it's worth the price of admission, but
in the hands of a skilled D.J., such computer-generated music can
be as exciting as any other kind. In this setting, the computer
nerd becomes the computer star.
The club scene in cities like New York is stronger than ever but
the virtual clubs springing up in chat rooms on the Internet offer
two advantages. They are free and afford participants complete
anonymity ^× something akin to masquerade parties. Everything is
provided except human touch. Some young composers already use these
chat rooms to test their musical creations by making their music
available to anyone in the room who will listen.
This type of easy production, distribution and even public
relations is what should really worry the recording industry. Soon
it will have to fight back. A new aesthetic will be born under a
crossfire. On one side will be the composers that record company
executives say lack commercial appeal. Such composers now have
access to technology that will allow them to take bigger artistic
risks since the financial risk has become miniscule.
On the other side, the recording industry will wage a losing
battle at the distribution level of the music business: suing
Napster and developing what is known as watermarking technology,
coding that prevents MP3 and other sound files from being
duplicated without a password. The industry appears to be in a
state of denial about the lock it once had on the production of
music. So long as profits remain feasible, the record companies
will continue to send out their scouts to recruit new talent. But
once the PC musicians flood the market with their homemade product,
the old ways of honing recording talent will become too expensive
and even outmoded by comparison. Once the recording industry
develops the watermarking technology, it may be handing the PC
musicians exactly what they need to make a profit, since they can
protect their own intellectual property as well as a record company
All it will take is having a home musician attain real star power,
and today's recording industry may find itself groveling to talent
it did not nurture ^× and being shunned. The working-class hero myth
that is a central tenet of the pop-music ethos gives an advantage
to the PC innovators.
The recent demise of many dot- com businesses is a reminder of how
the economy shakes out weak enterprises, leaving the fittest
dot-comers to challenge mainstay companies. The fittest of the new
PC artists will also survive after a massive, mad scramble, and
those that survive will challenge the once indefatigable recording
In light of computer animation like that in George Lucas's
groundbreaking film "The Phantom Menace," even Steven Spielberg has
prophesied the demise of the film studio as we know it. With the
momentum that MTV created in the last 20 years marrying music to
the moving image, the new talent may not only make music but also
films. Computer animation that creates virtual conductors, lead
guitarists, jazz trumpeters and rappers may enhance music with all
the charisma and sex appeal of Lara Croft, the acrobatic,
gun-slinging protagonist of the Tomb Raider video games.
When Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, he couldn't have
forseen that he was setting in motion the entire recording industry
of the 20th century, from Enrico Caruso to Eminem. In the past, the
expense of the technology always meant that the artist shared
control with the investor who foot the bills. Therefore, a
businessman's wisdom or hubris dictated the content of music
everyone listened to. Artists like Bing Crosby, the Beatles and the
Spice Girls became big sellers under such guidance, but the record
industry control also extended to classical music, rhythym and
blues and other categories geared for loyal but smaller audiences.
Remove the investment risk and free the content.
Of course, there will be those who will refuse to appreciate the
new technology ^× call them the new purists. For them,
conservatories to preserve the recording studio might be in order.
For the rest of us, there's nothing like an upheaval to liven
Gregg Wager is a freelance composer and adjunct professor in music
composition at Purchase College.
Strike the Band: Pop Music Without Musicians
February 11, 2001
By TONY SCHERMAN
More and more pop music is created not by conventional musicianship
by using computerized tools to stitch together prerecorded sounds.
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