Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Cheap Seats 4: The (Un)Happy Accident

Signal to...1, 0 or some combination thereof
The previous Cheap Seats installments have mostly focused on my own recent creative experiences as an independent musician recording a new album.  Please permit me (in an effort to gradually expand the scope of the discussion to a realm that involves all musicians and listeners alike) to get a little bit macro.  Today's focus is the single most powerful determining factor affecting the distribution of any artist's music as well as the top force that dictates the ebb and flow of today's commercial music marketplace--I'm talking about the advent and full scale implementation of digital music recording

I'm sure when Sony and Philips designed and released the first CDs in 1982 they were mostly thinking about the obvious benefits CDs possess in comparison with the analog music media of the day--unlike vinyl and tape, CDs are sturdier and less easily damaged, are smaller and more lightweight, last much longer and are not degraded by use, and have ultimately become as inexpensive (or more) than the other available options.  In the intervening 30 years, though, the simple twist of converting source analog audio recording data to the universal binary 1's and 0's of the digital vernacular has had far-reaching implications for the music world.  On the consumer end, the introduction of CD-R technology first allowed easy copying of any audio files, while the increasing capabilities of home computers and the internet have gradually made the distribution of audio files (the size of which has more or less remained the same) easier and easier, providing music consumers with innumerable sources to acquire recordings for purchase or for free.  This increasing broadening has significantly diminished the sales of traditional physical recording media, not to mention how it's made it more and more difficult for copyright holders to keep track of and protect their intellectual property. 

On the "industry" side, not only has digital music technology changed the shape of music as a product, in the last 15 or so years it's also replaced analog recording as the most accepted method for the very creation of recordings.  ProTools has both become the industry standard software for recording studios, but its relative ease of use and availability (as well as the availability of similar free and inexpensive recording software) has meant that the average person potentially has the ability to record and edit digital music in much the same way (and with many of the same tools) as a professional recording studio--and when the product's finished, the aforementioned home computer technology and internet advancements have made it possible for artists to distribute their recordings without any of the record label, distribution and promotional infrastructure that was compulsory before digital recording dominated the market. 

Like most of the issues I'm trying to wrestle with in this series, digital recording is the quintessential double-edged sword.  Music listeners now have unprecedented access to almost any music they'd like to hear--gone are the days when local record stores could only mail-order expensive imports of cult artists whose distribution was too poor to make the music widely available, and the realities of file sharing mean that most recordings can be found and downloaded for free without risk of punishment and regardless of the recordings' copyright status or availability for sale through mainstream channels.  MP3 players allow consumers to consolidate a nearly limitless library of digital music that can be accessed instantaneously and portably (my personal favorite!).  Up-and-coming artists are no longer necessarily forced to demonstrate popularity in order to make their first recordings (a chicken-and-egg scenario that imploded as often as it succeeded).  It's never been easier to find out about and sample new music, and there's more music being recorded than ever before. 

For the recording industry, the sword mostly cuts viciously in the negative direction--though digital music does offer even more avenues for sales, when offered the choice, "You can either pay us and download the recordings, or search Google and download the recordings for free," consumers have by and large chosen the second option.  Promotional power still rests in varying degrees in the hands of record labels, but it's often limited in the case of independent labels and diminishing sales have scared the big labels into a policy of recording and promoting only guaranteed money-makers, which, as you can imagine, does little to further the spread of non-commercial music, impairing the strength of music as a product one degree of blandness at a time.  For independent musicians, it may indeed be easier and cheaper to record music, but when it comes to standing out amongst a constantly-swelling sea of competition, there are few promotional tools that seem to be worth the time or monetary investment. 

This is where the pros and cons of digital recording become even subtler.  For cash-strapped musicians, free recording is often a deal that's difficult to pass up, but the benefits of using a professional recording studio (high quality microphones and other recording equipment that most musicians don't possess, and especially the technical expertise of recording professionals) are often noticeably manifest in the quality of the finished product.  Then there comes the role of the recordings themselves--are they designed as a promotional device, to be given away at no cost to spread the word about the artist and hopefully convert more fans?  Or, is the artist hoping to offer the recordings as a product for sale?  I've heard again and again that music recordings "are free" and that the only way for musicians to make money these days is through live performance.  While I don't want to diminish the value of live performance, this argument denies the fundamental fact that regardless of the recording, somebody is investing a certain amount of time and/or money into its creation, and investments with virtually no chance of return are utterly unsustainable.  Since this entry is not supposed to focus completely on the financial aspects of independent music, I'll leave further development of those points for a later date.  Additionally, the choice to give away recordings is a difficult decision for reasons unrelated to finances--what message does it send a potential listener if you're willing to give up the fruits of your hard work in exchange for nothing?  There is an intangible degree of integrity lost when you tell listeners that your recording is worth...nothing...even when your decision is motivated by a desire to acknowledge the inevitability that your recordings will be pirated.  In such a competitive music marketplace, I've repeatedly found that the most difficult accomplishment is to simply get people to give your music a chance and listen to even one song all the way through (let alone a whole album).  Can unknown musicians afford to devalue their work at the very outset?

Likewise, for listeners, digital music has made it easy to react in a knee-jerk fashion, skipping or abandoning a recording if it doesn't instantly gratify our spoiled ears and robbing us of that crucial repeated exposure that so much great music needs in order to sink in and sound great to our often inattentive ears.   Similarly, the art of a cohesively-crafted album has been all but lost in the mainstream, with consumers able to pick and choose tracks selectively without hearing them in the intended context.  There is indeed more music than ever for listeners to choose from, but it's also becoming increasingly difficult to find out if it's actually good (of course, by "good" I mean relative to each listener's tastes and musical ideals).  How does the average listener navigate the swarm of hopeful independent musicians without help and without becoming cynical?  Do the types of algorithms that govern internet radio stations like Pandora actually succeed in steering us toward new music we'll eventually love, or do their fixed formulae actually rob us of the chance of hearing something new or different that might actually expand our tastes?  On a hopeful note, there does seem to be a kinesthetic aspect to recordings that cannot be digitized--many people believe that the added dimension of a physical package that comes with a CD or LP isn't sufficiently conveyed by a digital scan of the album art, and the artistic possibilities that come with mixed media can enhance the music and facilitate the development of a special relationship between listeners and the musical thing they're holding in their hands that's simply not possible with an intangible digital file.  Additionally, the "warm" analog sound quality, enhanced art and retro chic of vinyl records has recently experienced a resurgence among aficionados, probably for very similar reasons--still, the challenge of dealing with the rest of the potential market persists!

As an independent musician on the verge of releasing another recording, I wish I had answers to these questions--the more I think about it the more I realize that the digitization of music recordings is neither good nor bad, but that it's at its root a coincidental reality that further complicates an already complicated endeavor!  Printed text will likely remain a viable physical product in books and magazines because it can simply be unpleasant to read text on a computer screen for extended periods of time; digital reproduction of physical art like paintings and especially sculpture never comes close to capturing the physical dimensions apparent in person; television and movies may be easily digitally-reproduced at home, but live theater, dance and movie theater screenings offer an experience that cannot be digitally reproduced to come anywhere close to the live experience.  In our increasingly digitized world, recorded music has been the perfect victim of an unhappy accident insofar as it's easily reduced to digital form and sent down the waterfall into the world's digital information collective.  The issues of promotion and the value of music recordings will be further developed later, but for now I pose these questions:  What's your relationship with digital recordings?  If you're old enough, how has your relationship with music changed as digital has become standard?  Do you think the digitization of music recordings is a good or bad thing for musicians and listeners, and why?  Comments welcome and appreciated!

Cheap Seats Part 1
Cheap Seats Part 2: Non-Commercial Music 
Cheap Seats Part 3: A Day in the Studio


Marta said...

Great post Elliot!
It's strange that in our lifetime, music has changed formats every few years. Each format has its benefits and drawbacks (mix cd's seemed unholy after I had finally developed the craft of the mix tape). But each format also has a specific nostalgia attached to it...now you see ipod cases that look like cassette tapes...and I wonder if a 12 year old would even know what to make of it. I've always been a heavy consumer of music, but now instead of keeping a blank tape in my stereo so I can record off the radio, I can access what I want to hear on spotify or last fm and learn more about that band and hear the songs that aren't played on the radio. Sure, the formulaic internet radio stations may miss the mark occasionally, but traditional radio has become so homogenized that there is really nowhere else to go. And I still purchase physical recordings, mainly albums, at the rate allowed by my meager income, because I think they sound better and I like the pretty pictures.

Elliot Knapp said...

Thanks Marta,
Funny that you mentioned the radio--that's why I was hoping I might get a few comments, since I didn't even think to mention radio! It seems like if your goal is to find something you've never heard before, most radio stations aren't much use, though if you're willing to sacrifice production values independent and college radio can be pretty good. I also love the mention of keeping a blank tape in the stereo--I remember doing that so I could get a copy of "Secret Agent Man" from oldies radio when I was 9 or something...awesome.

Patrick Flynn said...

Q1: I have a happy relationship with digital recordings (I include CDs in the digital category but I understand Elliot's point). For me, digitizing recordings has allowed me to discover many hard to hear artists that would NEVER EVER be on the radio (even college radio) or even at many record stores. As an example, a friend introduced me to an independent artist and they are now one of my top favorite bands. So much so, that I ended up buying their most recent record FOUR times. The same album! But, not everyone will go that route to supporting an artist, so I see this issue being like a myriad of other modernizations in technology and information(e.g. Software Piracy): are you willing to pay money for that person's hard work? I choose to pay money for that new awesome record I just listened to hoping that the next one will be just as good or better!

Q2: My first experience with personally buying music is when I was about ten years old and I bought a Sony Walkman and Green Day's Dookie on tape in the L.A. area. It was awesome and I remember being so happy listening to uninterrupted music while walking around. Not long after that, I bought Metallica's Master of Puppets (blew my mind) and have been a serious music listener for the many years since then (I wish I still had it!). I remember it being a big deal when I got to buy a CD Walkman when I was a teenager and how rad it was to skip tracks forwards or backwards instantly. I didn't have to wait for the tape to fast forward, play, then rewind, play, forward for a second, play, then listen. Then, Napster totally exploded in the public space. Hell, I remember my classmates and I downloading songs on the public school computers! It was like magic, clicking a song title and within moments you're listening to an unreleased track from the new Metallica album (Lars Ulrich HATED that!) for FREE. I definitely pirated my share of music and bought an iPod and enjoyed instant access to tens or even hundreds of albums. But, I started to think about the artists I really like who aren't established like Metallica, or Rush, or Radiohead, etc. and realized I wanted to help in the best way I new how: BUY their records with paper money or digital money! I don't know if this makes me a jerk, but I do resort to some random dot-blogspot-dot-com website to get certain records that are simply out of print and used copies are going for $35 or even $100+ USD (Check Amazon for Dawn - Slaughtersun (Crown of The Triarchy) and see what I mean). I can't spend that much money on records at the rate I would like to buy them.

Q3: I believe overall that digitization is more of a benefit than a disadvantage for artists and consumers. It's pretty damn close to a "free market" as we'll ever see I think, certainly with the negatives that go with it (rampant stealing). Again, I believe that the onus is on us, the listeners and consumers, to buy the music or merch or go to a show, whatever. There are musicians out there making music every day and I don't have a problem doing most of the leg-work to find them instead of waiting for a record label or radio or television to do that. However, I do recognize that the giant shit-mountain named Popular Music (which gets into subjective personal tastes), that really soaks up a lot of the money, is out there too. So that makes it pretty tough for someone like, say, Elliot Knapp, just to be seen or heard amongst all of the other independent musicians. Despite the negatives, I still think it's "good" because it allows access to more information and allows us to bypass many of the hurdles that are in place trying to seek out new and independent music.

Elliot Knapp said...


Thanks for the thoughtful response. We're in agreement regarding out-of-print music; I think that's a case of defining a realistic value to a copy of a recording, and if it's a matter of preserving interest in a certain artist, sharing and maintaining enthusiasm is better than sitting waiting for a purchasable release!

I agree that digitization capitalizes on the ease of information flow that the internet offers--certain resources like internet radio, review aggregators and sites like RYM make discovering more music easier than ever, but I worry about the rigidity of the parameters used by many of those resources. From a programming perspective, RYM's "Genre" tag function is relatively simple; though genre assignments are decided upon by users, there's still that harsh IS/IS NOT protocol in action that might separate you from something you might be interested in. And we shouldn't forget the random and broadening influence associated with organic recommendations from people whose tastes you trust--giving something that doesn't fit into your preexisting programmable parameters is an exercise that often results in our growth as listeners and can be one of the most important ways to keep music interesting and keep the search for new sounds from fizzling out!