Technology and Music
“Technologies progress has merely provided us with more efficient ways for going backwards” – Aldous Huxley
When I first read this quote I took it as a negative. The more advanced technology gets the more backwards we become? Then I started to realize there are plenty of examples of this, such as; with so much knowledge at our fingertips we don’t have to memorize facts and spend time learning from books. You don’t know how to change a tire? Just pull it up on YouTube. But the more I thought about what Huxley was trying to say the more I saw it as a two edged sword, good and bad. In the constant yin and yang of the universe technology can improve our lives as well as challenge them. GMO’s allow for more food to be produced, but is it a good thing? Improved music technology has made it possible to create sounds and methods of distribution and performing that weren’t possible in the not too distant past. But at the same time that same improvement in technology has made it possible for artistic works to be accessed without compensation to the artist and for the listener to not be as invested in the music. Do you know of any artists who don’t want to invest the time and effort in creating new material because they feel it will just get bootlegged?
Technology in music has been around since the first person hit something with a stick. Every evolution in music was a jump in technology. In the digital age technological advances are happening at an ever increasing pace. As Alvin Toffler predicted in his 1970 book Future Shock the pace of technology will increase to the point where we will have a hard time keeping up with it. Is that a bad thing or a good thing? Look at the social media apps available. As soon as you embrace the latest app it is already stale and there is something else vying for the flavor of the moment. In music we see this now with the ease in which a person can create music, distribute it and have it listened too without the need of the apparatus that used to be required, record companies, studios, sound systems, etc.
The technology used to create music has advanced to the stage where an artist can layer individual instrumental tracks on nothing more than an iPhone. Check out the works of Steve Lacy, he does everything from guitars, bass, drums and vocals on his phone using Apple’s GarageBand app. From there it is a simple step to upload it to his music sharing site of choice and to his fans ears. For those who want a bit more control and flexibility in the recording process there is a free version of Pro Tools called Pro Tools Lite that they can download to PC or Mac. The means to produce music has become very democratic and universal with the advent of digital technology. Anyone can create music with little or no cash outlay. The downside of this access is that, as Huxley inferred, just because a person can create music doesn’t mean it would be something someone would want to hear. But does that really matter? The object of music creation should foremost be to express oneself and tertiary to that would be to benefit from it. Of course the reality is that to create, you must be able to eat. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from school? But the real issue to me is how to hear the quality material without having to wade through the detritus? How can I discover the music that will satisfy me without having to read multiple critics choices, listen to dozens of curated playlists and ask everyone I can what they think I would like. How do you find the good and ignore the bad?
A quick history lesson. In the past the barrier to entry was high. A person would have to hone their craft in private, convince a venue to let them perform by convincing the venue it would make money, generate interest from the public and continue to do that while sending demos to labels. Then, an artist had to be signed to a record label. A label that expected to make a profit from the artist. At this level music is a business, a business that runs on money. Record companies would pay people to forecast what the public wanted and other people to “discover” artists to fill that role. History is full of comically bad errors in this regard, like when Joan Jett couldn’t get signed to a major label and created one herself. The good thing about this filtering was that generally the quality was good. The bad thing (that yin and yang thing again) was that someone else was deciding what was considered good, not the listener, and historically the people charged with this responsibility have been behind the curve of what the public wants. Popular taste is driven by youth culture. Business decisions tend to be made by more experienced (read: old) people. Remember when Rock ‘n’ Roll was considered a fad? Or when Hip Hop was just an ‘urban’ thing? The age old paradigm of those in charge of deciding what’s popular having less of a clue to what the youth want to hear. With the advent of the internet and social media that paradigm has blown up. Anyone can post songs to YouTube, SoundCloud or a host of other distribution sites. It is then for the listener to discover at their leisure. But with SoundCloud increasing by 1.5 million users per month (!) how do you find that which is good? Seriously, I’m asking.
The good news is that some things are good just the way they are. Word of mouth carries a lot of weight. It’s sort of a domino effect. If a lot of people feel a musician or singer is good they will start the buzz, organically. The media is always on the lookout for “the next big thing” and pays attention to what people are listening too, what is getting streamed, which tours are selling out, etc. It’s always a gamble to a record company to sign a new artist so they do everything they can to make sure their investment will generate a return. This all leads to the best becoming ubiquitous. A good example would be Adele. It would be hard for anybody to say that Adele does not have the talent to be the success she is. Her label does everything it can to make sure that when she releases an album it is successful, so far they have succeeded. Now think of the person who won American Idol in the last few years. Do you remember who it was? Me neither. They have a hard time getting noticed because there isn’t enough interest in them. Sure, they are fun to watch on TV but do you really want to hear a full album of their music?
Algorithms. Have you heard of algorithms? They are computer code used by streaming services to determine what you want to hear. Spotify uses a thing called The Echo Nest to curate personalized music recommendations based on the users listening habits and uses it to predict what music the listener would enjoy the most. They aren’t the only ones using The Echo Nest. MTV, Rdio, Clear Channel and BBC are just some of the others who use it. As the technology gets better and faster it takes algorithms to keep up. Future Shock again. Human tastemakers can only suggest what they feel would interest the listener. The algorithm can do it in a fraction of the time, and more importantly, make recommendations depending on which songs are listened too and liked. Is that better than listening to critics opinions? Not better but easier and quicker. If you don’t like a song click on to the next one. The algorithm makes an adjustment and you get songs more to your liking. Should you ignore opinions completely? Of course not! Your inner circle has been listening to what you like and don’t and may have something for you to hear that they feel you would like that isn’t like anything you have ever heard before. That is a major philosophy here at Power Chord TV.
To paraphrase Charles Dickens, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” as far as music goes. We have been given the means of production, distribution and experience. There will be great music created but there will be just as much that should never have been. Let us know how you discover good new music, so that we can all benefit from each other’s experience.