/> THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING BAND-A Degradation Theory | Ear To The Track

THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING BAND-A Degradation Theory

historic music groups

Thinning personnel of musical outfits over the past 100 years (starting from the upper-left): The Philadelphia Orchestra (1916), The Duke Ellington Orchestra (1937), The Dave Clark 5 (1964), The Ramones (1977), LL Cool J (1986), DJ Pauly D (somewhere in Miami Beach right now)

“…my music is perfect, you could go back to Beethoven and s***, but as far as this lifetime, though, this is all you got.” -Kanye West

Since the Second Industrial Age began in the late 19th century, human civilization has been continuously shaped and reshaped by notable advancements in technology. With every relevant invention or improved method of production, merchants scurried for the latest competitive edge while their customers rushed the market in search of goods that made life more comfortable and convenient.  As horse-drawn buggies gave way to Volkswagen Bugs and telegrams became text messages, the music business also updated its methods for delivering songs to listeners.  Starting with Thomas Edison’s phonograph in 1877, recorded music has been continuously manufactured for the public in constantly updated and increasingly cost-efficient forms.  From wax cylinders to vinyl discs to open reels to cassette tapes to compact discs to MP3’s, the means by which we listen to music has become less expensive to manufacture and easier to access.  While most of us love cheap and easy, it might be worth asking what, when it comes to our music, we may have given up for the sake of expediency.

Again, it would be difficult to argue that things, particularly in the Western world, have not improved significantly over the past 125 years.  Who can imagine life without refrigeration, indoor plumbing, automobiles, moving photography, telephones, airplanes and, maybe most importantly, countless breakthroughs in the field of Medicine?  Living conditions which would have been the norm for our great, great grandparents, are, for us, considered abject poverty and while almost everyone appreciates the favorable circumstances we now enjoy, one could argue that, when it came to music, our forefathers got the better show.  Is it possible that the very technological innovations which took us to the moon and cured Polio have, through a long cycle of events, robbed us of a healthy and vibrant music culture?  Have we, without realizing it, traded in Gershwin for Guetta and ‘Duke’ for Drake?  Did we lay off an orchestra and hire a drum-pad?  Is it possible that our tastes are deteriorating to the point where we choose mumbling over melody?  Go look at the charts

guetta

DJ David Guetta literally “playing” a show

Have we traded in Gershwin for Guetta and ‘Duke’ for Drake? Did we laid off an orchestra and hire a drum-pad?

 

TALENT TAKES TIME

As someone who works in the recording business, I am well aware of my own limitations as a musician.  Fortunately, I have, at my disposal, software programs which allow me to arrange, tune, edit, rearrange, duplicate and EQ any sound I’m able force out of a keyboard.  I can also fabricate the texture and character of a variety of instruments (particularly drums, bass and keys) without having to actually play them, making it possible for me to present relatively fleshed-out, full-band arrangements for industry consideration.  I have never studied theory, I cannot read sheet music and I barely know what chords I’m using when I put together a track yet, believe it or not, I have composed critically acclaimed material for film, stage and television.  Now, this does not necessarily mean I’m without ability or imagination, it simply confirms that technology has allowed me to skip steps that would have been unavoidable for artists of the past.  While this is convenient for me and delightful to executive producers seeking to address their budgetary issues, it’s reasonable to conclude that listeners may not always get the highest quality output from such a process*.

early studio 100 years ago

A recording session from 1914 when an EQ adjustment meant telling somebody to move further back from the funnel

THE BOYS IN THE BAND 

I might not need collaborators to record a song but there was a time when do-it-yourself productions would have been technologically impossible, and some might argue that this was not a bad thing.  In the early days of recorded music, singers and musicians would crowd together and perform into a giant, conical horn (see photo) in hopes of capturing the vibrations of a tune on a crude, wax cylinder.  As the studio improved and increased audio fidelity was achieved, bands grew larger in size to supply full, lush sound for listeners.  Songwriters and arrangers employed the various ranges and tones of instrumental options to weave together a rich tapestry of sonic quality.  On stage, there weren’t, up until the 1960’s, appropriately sensitive PA systems for live concerts so orchestras played under band shells or in acoustically tuned auditoriums designed to create enough to volume to stir emotions and move a dancefloor.  It’s hard to argue that an ensemble group filled with skilled musician wouldn’t put on a more dynamic, higher caliber show than a small Rock band or DJ but, on the other hand, paying for the LA Philharmonic’s 60 rooms at your local Ramada is not particularly cost-sensitive.  As PA systems and amplification techniques improved, less guys could drum up the same amount of noise as a big band which made larger outfits overpriced and unnecessary but, again, was it detrimental to the overall quality of music?

WE ARE CONDITIONED

Cute-baby-with-bigg-headphones

Mommy, why do Pop stars always sing about babies?

The environment in which we were raised and groomed presents us with sights, sounds and smells which quickly become familiar and comfortable. Our figurative and literal taste-buds are molded by the sensory data we collect during our maturation process and this, in turn, affects how we participate in any sensory-related activity.  More simply, we typically crave the foods we were raised on, speak the slang of our culture and the dance to the music played amongst our social group.  Now, this doesn’t mean we’ll mindlessly accept anything thrown at us but we are highly influenced by our atmosphere and, more importantly, we can only choose from the options with which we are presented.  When I began to discover music in my early years of elementary school, I was inundated with New Wave Pop, Heavy Metal, and Hip-Hop/Soul (the biggest stars of that time skilfully combined those trends) so it would have been very difficult for other musical genres to sink in.  To go even deeper, I developed a taste for synthesized sound, distorted guitars, drum machine rhythms, rap vocals and programmed instrumentation, all of which were intolerable for my grandparents who enjoyed the sensibilities of classically trained pianists, swinging trumpeters and melodically polished crooners backed by symphonic arrangements.  Now, Frank Sinatra’s ‘Under My Skin’ may not be, as a composition, so much different than ‘Human Nature’ by Michael Jackson but the instrumental arrangements and vocal approaches are nearly opposite and reflect the eras from which they came.

TALKIN’ ‘BOUT MY G-G-GENERATION

Because of the age divide I just referenced, it’s understandable that a person who grew up in any particular period might favor the music of his or her time but these generational preferences became more intense with the post-war Baby Boomers of the 1950’s and 60’s.  During those years, Western society’s affluence gave birth to a consumer market for teenagers who, when asked, demanded a culture all their own and the angst-filled, high-energy, romantic naivete of Rock’N’Roll became the soundtrack.  From that point to today, adolescents have held firmly to the style and attitude of their upbringing and, generally, rejected anything else regardless of its quality.  This phenomenon has resulted in a music business determined to supply the demands of its youngest customers which typically results in the promotion of less mature material released at a rapid pace for buyers with finicky, short-lived urges.  As I wrote above, “talent takes time” and patience is rarely a virtue of the youthful. 

madonaa

The Material Girl holding on for dear life

To walk the matter a step further, this Western affluence and youth-driven culture I just described has often encouraged older artists to maintain juvenile attitudes well outside of their teenage years.  We’ve all witnessed aging Pop stars desperately and pathetically clinging to their youth via plastic surgery and buckets of mascara, for the sake of achieving commercial relevance in a youngster-dominated marketplace.  Decades earlier, stars like Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald were scoring top-ten hits well into their 50’s and they weren’t forced to act like they were still in college.  Again, a less mature public will almost certainly demand and produce less sophisticated art so it might be reasonable to assume that the audience of today is getting exactly what they want.  This makes the situation I am describing all the more disturbing.

BACK TO THE STUDIO

Possibly the most odd and counter-instinctual explanation for artistic decline is the improved recording equipment which, as I previously mentioned, has been so useful to my career.  As studio technology advanced over the decades, audio fidelity improved and multi-track recording allowed for overdubs and embellishment.  By the close of the 1960’s, groups like the Beatles, who began their career with a single-track, mono album completed in one night, now spent months crafting an LP with all the bells and whistles that Abbey Road had to offer.  But while this was a happy reality for the Beatles, the Fab four were one of the few bands who could actually afford such a luxury because while new recording equipment enabled countless possibilities, the process was still incredibly pricey and time-consuming.  About ten years later, digital recording began to blossom and this development set the entertainment business off in an entirely new direction.

abbey road session

“Which one of these knobs turns the bass guitar up?”

Before long, sound waves could be captured and released to the public in the form of compact discs which were a bargain to manufacture, this enabled the industry to increase profits like never before.  20 years after that, CD’s disappeared from sight and songs flowed freely over the internet in the form of digital information; bad news on the business end.  Around this same time, inexpensive, digitally-based recording equipment was made widely available and studio work became so convenient that almost anyone could release an album.  All of this freedom must have led to a rebirth in musical creativity, right?  Not exactly.

“I’m using Rekordbox and Pioneer to play, and before I saved my playlist to my SD card, my computer crashed. So I just had to put all my music in a random order on USB sticks at the last minute, doing it really old school, scrolling to look for the records I wanted to play next.” -David Guetta (2015)

monalisa_selfie_slide

I just got a text from ‘The Scream’

PHONES

Rather than unleashing a modern revolution of music-focused enthusiasm, the advent of digital technology seems to have, for the most part, resulted in a listening public who considers all media to be disposable.  It didn’t happen overnight but eventually, Popular music degraded to the point where it primarily exists as a backing soundtrack to promote a given celebrity performer’s brand.  Music consumers use Smart Phones for nearly every form of entertainment and interaction so with 10 million media choices in one’s palm, folks don’t usually spend a great deal of energy on any particular artistic form.  Just think about all of the content you have viewed over the last week and consider how much of it you will see more than once; 10%?  5%?  Less than that? 

When it comes to art, anything great was not designed to be experienced on only a single occasion.  So, with that last sentence in mind, what will be the result of a general audience with little to no attention span?  It stands to reason that when so few people are willing or able to invest any time on high-level art, there will soon be a smaller market for this kind of work and, therefor, less and less artists will be inclined or able to produce classics.  At some stage, the skills required to create a musical masterpiece may become so useless that the entire trade will find itself in a museum.  Remember, the remarkable abilities of Renaissance masters were at one point contemporary and relevant, now historians can only guess at how they accomplished such fantastic results.

DEGRADATION

kaney sampler

The new Beethoven

In an age when modern technology allows for virtually unlimited artistic innovation, our society’s art has become largely simplified, often cliched and arguably “low-brow” which might tell us more about human nature than we care to know.  Is it possible that creative obstacles are a necessary ingredient for achievement?  Could it be true that while a typical audience may value and appreciate exceptional work, they’ll settle for mediocrity if it’s served up fast and easy?  It is my humble opinion that art suffers when it’s undertaken in overly convenient circumstances and the technical challenges of recording in previous times led to artistic ingenuity and dynamic thinking, attributes that are often overlooked when former methods of production are declared antiquated and made redundant. 

So, in the end, is there a fix for the problem or a way back to greatness?  No.  If that’s the case, was there any point to this article?  Not really, but if it’s worth anything to you, I prefer to know why there’s no hope rather than sit around waiting for a solution that will never present itself.

 

*in a artistic landscape of rapidly depleting standards, my music is an unlikely exception (wink, wink)

 

 

 

 

Posted on by andycooper in ANDY'S ANGLE, Uncategorized

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