Whippin’ a Dead Horse

Dead_horse_mongoliaI read a lot of posts on social networks by fellow musicians who complain about how digital media is destroying their livelihoods and changing their way of life for the worse. In the near future it might become impossible to make a living as a musician or songwriter. I’ve shared their lot most of my life, and I think there’s a lot of truth to this.

However, I also realize that a great deal–the vast bulk, as a matter of fact–of our current collective society and culture is centered around 2 technological advances of the 20th century: the automobile and the advent of electric mass media.

The car standardized our world, gave us homes that look and function alike, pushed our cities out into suburbs, separated our workplace and our homes for the first time in history, and created a brand new class and culture: teenagers. The word “teenager” wasn’t even invented before the car, and there was no such thing as “teenage” or “adolescent” culture before we took to paved roads in our new rides. teens carThe automobile allowed us to escape our parents, to congregate at places away from our houses at night. It created a brand new culture. And as we’ve grown older (and grown OLD…), we all still cling to that culture desperately. We still want to rock. We still want to be in a band, or go to a gig, or play the music of our youth. It’s who we are, and it started sometime back in the 1910’s or 20’s.
recording band with horn
The recording studio had a great deal to do with the evolution of this mass media culture of ours. The record, for the first time in history, separated the audience from the performance. The same thing occurred with movies. And when the recording studio evolved into a multi-track environment, the musicians themselves recording isolationwere separated, from each other. It didn’t take long for the rise of the producer and the engineer to come about, and they in turn separated the artist (and the musicians) from the finished product. From about the early ’60s onward, they have actually had more influence upon the finished recording than the artist has had. They have, in fact, taken the act of composition and performance away from the composer/arranger, and have stolen live performance from the artist, by usingĀ  their ability to edit and comp tracks in the studio. They are the ones who actually create the finished, recorded performances that we hear.

I don’t hear many artists, musicians, composers, arrangers, or others complain that their livelihood was destroyed by a recording engineer, even though it may have been. Final decisions in the studio don’t come from the artist… they come from the engineer, the mixer who actually renders the final audio file, and who tweaks each track so that it fits his–or a producer’s–vision of what the song should sound like. The artist might in fact BE the producer, and the engineer… But if so, then they may have taken away someone else’s job, haven’t they?

But back to digital media. It’s a thing that fosters–even REQUIRES–the participation of every interested party. Not only do the functions of each participant blend together, but they blend with those of the consumer, as well. In mass media, the music amateur bandindustry directed its consumer from above, in a top-down, one-directional way. Now, that’s no longer possible. Consumers get to talk back. They get a say in the creation of music, and are not simply passive consumers, they’re now creators. Brian Eno talks about how we “…stop regarding things as fixed and unchangeable, as preordained, and we increasingly find ourselves practising the idea that we have some control.”

The consumer now has the power. It came about through changes in technology, as did the changes stemming from the automobile, the movie camera, and the recording studio. We can complain about it. We can employ Draconian methods of protection in order to retain our status quo. We can implement restrictions on digital content, through programming and hardware tools, in order to direct the consumer in ways we feel are appropriate. We can do all of these things and more, but I doubt it will succeed in turning back the clock. We can hardly complain about someone appropriating our intellectual content at the same time we’re photoshopping someone else’s photograph and posting it on Facebook.

Digital media is itself a very different thing from fixed artifacts such as records, books, movies, and photographs. Anything rendered in digital format is, in fact, NEVER FINISHED. We always have the Horse & Buggyoption of tweaking it, no matter what it happens to be. An E-book is not a BOOK…it is a FILE. An MP3 is not a RECORD….it is a FILE. We shouldn’t mistake one for the other.

I don’t know the answers to the problems and questions my colleagues and friends have about this changing world of ours. All I can recommend is to study the evolution of the buggy whip maker from about the time the automobile came on the scene. Because we’re probably all headed in the same direction.