I read Sam’s piece about streaming with particular interest because, although I don’t have that strong an opinion on the virtues or evils of streaming, I can see that it’s a situation that’s mirrored in the production of music too.
I’m a music maker myself. I’ve been doing it, in one way or another, for more than 20 years now. I started with the single inbuilt mic on a cassette recorder, then moved to a 4-track tape machine, and so on, until I got to the point where I have created songs with perhaps 40-50 layered parts: synths, bass, guitars, drums, strings, vocals, etc., etc.
To be clear, it’s not a cheap hobby. When I was a teenager that 4-track cost me hundreds (in 90s money too!), and now the computer I make music on is thousands. Over 2 decades I’ve probably spent more on this stuff than some people do to get a cheap run-around car. As many amateur music producers will tell you, it’s a bottomless pit of additions and upgrades.
All that said, I’ve also worked in a couple of recording studios where their professional (though not world-class) equipment was worth at least half a million quid. And here comes the paradox, and the problem that I’m both creating and lamenting:
Making music is cheap.*
The mass of Spotify tracks, massive quantities of which are never listened to once, are just the output of an army of home producers making things on laptops. We flood the market. We are almost all dreaming of a break that will never come, and in the process we are the noise that makes it harder and harder to discern good music from dross (unless you are lucky enough to have filters like the PBs to help you, of course).
On the other side, music makers around the world have access like never before to a thrilling, (slightly) more egalitarian creative space. Before it took a leap of faith to conclude that the bands we heard about from major label releases must surely be the best music out there – trust in the meritocracy of labels.
I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t now. There was great music in those times, of course, but who can say what else was out there, silenced by a system that gave chances to the lucky few?
Now some of those silenced musicians have a voice I suppose, and I’m lucky enough to be one of them. But I don’t work in studios any more, partly because it seemed to me that that world was collapsing with every device sold with Garageband or Fruityloops, or whatever else from that long list of musical tools. Is it worth 20 times the cost to get perhaps 20% or 30% better quality? I spin around these questions, over and over.
One thing I do know is that I found the message of films like Dave Grohl’s Sound City pretty fucking irritating, to be honest. A lost craft, it cried, and the pretenders of digital music making it just too much of a free for all. In case you hadn’t noticed, Dave, you’re one of the richest musicians on earth, so much so that you can afford to buy and move a million dollar recording desk into your (literal) garage. I respect the professionals skills, and the incredible sonic quality you can hear in music produced by bands I love like Elbow (where money is no object), but if I really had to choose, I’d let go of Elbow et al, and wave all you untrained wannabees over to join us here, making all the noise.
*I know there is a big difference in quality between a pro studio and Garageband, but let’s not be pedantic – the quality of home recording is MASSIVELY better than ever before, and improving all the time (and at a faster rate than pro gear is improving, too).
Words by Nick Parker