The trouble with music…

I just finished reading an interesting article and discussion over at Peter Kirn’s excellent Create Digital Music. I was too late to the party to make a comment there, so here ya go. The point of the article is that we are being ahistorical when we consider music piracy as having no precedent, with Peter showing how the record industry itself arose from the partial destruction of the musical performance business that it displaced. I am very interested in this long view (or listen) and am writing about it (among many other things) in a book that is way overdue that will be called either A Brief History of Hearing or Hearing History/History of Hearing so far. It should be out from University of Illinois Press soon after I finish writing it!

A book that covers the first part of Peter’s point quite well is Jim Kraft’s From Stage to Studio. He approached the advent of the recording industry as a labor problem, and it did put a lot of musicians out of work — there was an orchestra or piano player, usually union, in every movie theater before talkies for example. Others are also right that recording did make music – recorded music anyway – accessible to new people while it was putting most musicians out of work. Read the liner notes to the Harry Smith Anthology sometime if you want to see in action how that worked. The business model was to make as few recordings sell as many copies as possible. That one-to-many model has been wrecked by the Internet. For the cultural logic of why that is so, see Jonathan Sterne’s excellent article, “The MP3 as Cultural Artifact” [pdf]. As recorded music rose, it also pretty much killed off the culture of amateur musicianship, which was pretty advanced, really flowering in the nineteenth century in the US among other places. Why bother when you could hear an expert play it? The whole idea of music as something you consume, like a fast food, rather than make, like a sandwich or dinner, is a product of the recording industry. I also know from reading and from my friends in the symphony (now there is a phrase I couldn’t have imagined myself writing thirty years ago) that the technological advances from MIDI onward have had dire effects on the ability of classical musicians to make a living. To give one example, movies seldom use orchestras any more. In contrast, for a musician like me, it has been a great ride. A thousand or two people from all around the world have heard my weird stuff who otherwise wouldn’t have, using the same system of tubes that is “destroying music.” I’ll take it, and so will lot’s of people stuck in “consumer” mode too, obviously.

The print analogy Graham Metcalfe made is apt beyond his point that a lot of scribes got put out of work (repurposed, actually: I think monks had job security even if the pay was not so good).  Not only did it downsize the manuscript “business”  (not everything is all about business and profits, even now) but it took the better part of a century to figure out what had changed, as most of what they printed that first century were Latin manuscripts, only toward the end figuring out that you could write them from scratch in a language everyone in your country could understand instead of just a few monks and scholars.

Same with recording. At first it was all about making the recording sound like a performance. Records were sold for sounding just like Enrico Caruso to the extent they could, and that was the focus of the technology. It took decades to figure out such things as sound on sound and synthesis to get to the point that deadmaus made in the interview: now the “live” show struggles to sound like the recording in commercially focused performance, in fact that is an impossibility without employing recording or sequencing (how is Rihanna, shy of Tuvan throat singing, supposed to sing with herself?). We are still in the period when, as Marshall McLuhan said, the content of the new medium is the old media that it devours. Take Google books for just one example (or less controversially, Amazon OCRing everything but keeping it from us).

I see the present possibilities as heralding a return of the amateur musician (me for example!). Because the expense and distribution problems made access to recording dear, record companies made money. Those problems are solved now, that economy of scale is no more, and all the PR and new laws in the world are not going to put that genie back in the bottle even if the US could extradite Mr Dotcom from New Zealand. It has been a great ride for me, even if Metallica’s world is crashing down around them despite Chris Dodd ‘s best efforts (including, it seems, blocking web sites that notice).

BTW, or perhaps PS, because this drifts off the topic of Peter’s article, whenever music industry shills advocates mention “from the artist’s point of view” (the rest of this is a commentary on that link), I laugh bitterly. “Artist” and “copyright owner” are not synonymous. Those advances that the record companies so generously give so many artists? They go to the recording studio, touring expenses, lawyers, producers, and publicity, seldom to the artist. Tell Robert Johnson that, or any number (nearly all) the artists that the record industry has ripped off blind. Plenty of musicians besides Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse) and Vic Chesnutt died young or took their lives even when the recording industry was at its peak, so the idea that piracy killed them is, well you can figure that one out. As the industry knows, it is good for business (oops, they got caught). And the idea that the free culture movement is a corporate plot while the recording industry is for artists, well, maybe if you put “con” before artists. Corporate minds have difficulty imagining that anything can be done by people outside of corporate intent. They don’t actually control the world or the state yet though, though they have in the past. That is called something else, but I don’t want to Godwin myself.

Utterly shark infested waters that musicians used to have to swim in to get heard. I’ve always been playing (forty years now) cause I have stuff to play, just now a few people actually can hear me if they choose. The music business as it was, was never for us musicians anyway. It only takes a few years in it to figure that out out. Protecting content creators my ass. For every musician who makes it, there are thousands as good or better who languish because they never got the breaks. Those musicians now want to understand their own skills and success as special, which they may well be, and in need of protection therefore, which they are not. Artistry has always been about the dance of creative destruction. It has real implications, both positive and negative, which the recording business knows historically.