This is a legacy blog. It was about the intersection of music and digital audio technology, and was called 'The Verge'. Today, of course, the existence of a much more famous blog of the same name precludes my use of it.

The main focus of this weblog was to assess digital technology as both an enabler of, and an obstacle to, musical progress.

While the tech press usually fixates on exciting new trends, I have always been more interested in trends of a longer scale: in the large scale cultural implications of digital music production and distribution as a whole; and in the effects that these developments have had, or might have, on the nature and evolution of musical culture specifically.

All of the statements of opinion anywhere on this page, reflect my views and only my views.

* * *

The Problem of Musical Ignorance

My Position Regarding Internet 'Piracy'

How Global Capitalism is Good for Music

Actually Mr. Masnick, Original Art is not a Myth

The Invisible Revolution (Part 1)

The Music Industry is Controlling your Mind

A Rant About Musical Ignorance

Roger Scruton's Ear (Part 1)

The Confluence

What Has Happened to Music?

The World Inside an SM57

A Skeptical Response to the Cynical Musician

Music and the Internet

Traditional Musicians and Remix culture

The Power of Cheap (and Free)

Older blog posts:

The Unintentional Empowerment of the Composer Part 3
Part 2
Part 1

The Digital Audio revolution: A primer

The Problem of Musical Ignorance

September 2, 2012

A while back I started a post by writing:
"No One Knows What The Fuck Music Is".

A bit later in the post I wrote that:
"People who write about music for a living are, almost without exception, completely full of shit".

Finally, I concluded with:

...uncertainty is the one absolute certainty about musical culture in our time. Any position other than this, any claim to knowledge about music that is less tentative than this, is either a deliberate pose, an ignorant assumption, or sheer arrogance.

I was trying to start a fight. I wanted someone to tell me that I was wrong, so that I could have the opportunity to argue with an actual person, rather than a general tendency. But I seem to have failed, because this article has received more positive comments than anything else I have written here, without generating a single piece of hate mail.

I am not fatuous enough to believe that a handful of positive comments indicates some sort of larger consensus of agreement. But I do find it interesting that not a single person came to the defense of the writers that I dismissed as "almost without exception, completely full of shit". I think that people may be starting to suspect, on some sort of instinctive level, that there is something rotten hidden behind the smirking facade of musical journalism.

The problem is that the 'something rotten' is hard to get at. This isn't because of a conspiracy. No one is 'lying' or 'hiding the truth'. The problem is not deliberate deception or willful ignorance, it is an illusion of knowledge.

This illusion of musical knowledge is hard to get at because it doesn't call attention to itself. Illusions that do call attention to themselves can be spotted fairly quickly. If some guy on a street corner is talking enthusiastically to his imaginary friend people tend to notice. But if he and his imaginary friend are wired into an imaginary telepathic Bluetooth, how are you going to know when they are 'talking'? This is the kind of illusion we are dealing with.

This might sound far-fetched, but such illusions have in fact been uncovered. One dramatic illustration from history is color blindness. While color blindness effects nearly 4 percent of the human race, it wasn't mentioned by anyone until 1794. Before this (i.e. for 96 percent of human history), approximately one in twelve men saw a world very different from everyone else, without anyone noticing it.

The illusion of musical knowledge mentioned above isn't as elusive as color blindness, though it is still quite easy to ignore unless you look at in the proper context. But if you do, you can see it everywhere. You can see it, for instance, in this randomly chosen article from what appears to be a respectable journal, especially in the following passage:

In my day -- at least in its earliest hours, now hurriedly receding from view -- the notion of devoting any public space to the music of a pop star (I said "music," not sociological impact, which probably qualifies as news fit to print), would have been considered ludicrous. Until Tom Wolfe ID'ed Phil Spector to the masses (1965), the larger world barely knew or cared about pop's machinations. Sure, alerts like "Jack Nitzsche Will Helm Sonny and Cher LP" or "Mickey Most's Playboys to Open for Gene Vincent in So. Africa" would have appeared in Billboard or NME. As for Sontag-ian exegeses on the texts of the Turtles or Showaddywaddy, forget it.

The advent of rock journalism was the first tub-thump on the tribal drum, relaying to 'our' community of interest news and information that barely rated a blip on mainstream radar. It necessarily legitimized music that had taken its knocks as unserious and insubstantial. But it's fair to ask, I think: Has something gone astray in the four decades since everyone (rightly) acknowledged Dylan and (insert your own pop worthy here)? Now, precious print and virtual real estate is routinely given up not just to recounting the naughty exploits of stars (that's been grandfathered into celebrity coverage since the Twenties) but to performing deep-tissue analysis on the music of every last act who charts

If you look past the rambling presentation and the lazy coinages, you can see that Mister Sculatti thinks that what he and his colleagues do is write about music. He says this, explicitly. And he is annoyed by the fact that supposedly serious writers are failing to live up to the standards of their august calling.

I am sure that Mister Sculatti has the best of intentions here. 'Stop covering all this trivial pablum', he appears to be saying, and more power to him, because the Times article he references is indeed painful to read. But what he clearly doesn't get, at all, is that there has never been anything remotely worthy of being called "deep-tissue analysis on music" in any rock journalistic publication, ever. The fact that he can casually use this phrase to describe what is essentially a celebrity puff piece shows just how distorted popular conceptions of music have become.

What Mister Sculatti calls 'deep-tissue analysis on music' is really just one person describing his impression of music. And that is just about all that rock journalism is. At its best, it's a memoir, written by a reasonably articulate person who was 'there' when 'it happened'. At its worst it is the nadir of professional writing, completely devoid of information:

This album's most dance-oriented and least successful moments illustrate just how hard it is for one artist, even one with the impact of Mr. Bieber, to shape the sound of pop music alone. He's a big wave, but he's not the whole ocean. And besides, the real experimentation and innovation is happening on the female side of pop, in the music of Katy Perry, Kesha and Rihanna. Mr. Bieber is moving slowly by comparison -- and given where his strengths lie, wisely so.

Now take a moment to ponder: how did such a ridiculous paragraph get printed in the pages of what is supposed to be a serious newspaper? THE serious newspaper? The problem isn't, or isn't just that the subject is a trivial one, which is what Mr. Sculatti takes issue with. The problem is that the coverage in this article is so superficial that it reads like a slightly more highbrow version of an article from Tiger Beat. Is the writer really not aware that pop stars like Justin Bieber and Katy Perry are figureheads for a sizable team of writers, producers, engineers and image consultants? Does he really not know that all of these people contribute to and oversee every stage of the record-making process? Because his article gives no hint of it. The writers, producers, engineers and image consultants who 'collaborated' with Justin Bieber to create the product that bears his name are mentioned nowhere in this article. Isn't a journalist supposed to look behind the scenes, instead of making bland and almost meaningless generalizations about surface images?

But wretched as that Justin Bieber article is, it is not what I really want to call attention to. No, what I want to call attention to is an illusion of musical knowledge.

An illusion reflected in the fact that the New York Times printed this empty and nearly meaningless verbiage, not under the heading of 'Celebrities' or 'Entertainment News' but of 'Music'.

An illusion reflected in the fact that a concerned independent writer like Mister Sculatti can describe this fluff as 'deep-tissue analysis'...of MUSIC; excoriating the triviality of the subject matter without even noticing that the coverage itself is as bereft of musical information as the Plumber's Field Manual.

An illusion reflected in the fact that for 46 years, rock journalists have thought that they were somehow writing about music...

  • without describing chord progressions, melodies, or rhythmic patterns in any detail;
  • without using musical examples or TUBS diagrams to describe particular passages;
  • without describing the rehearsal habits and creative procedures of musicians except in the most vague and general terms;
  • and without even trying to develop a meaningful vocabulary capable of describing the unique sonic qualities of the music they are supposedly experts about.

And that is the aspect of the matter that is the most galling. The fact that for some incomprehensible reason rock journalists are consulted as experts. Experts on MUSIC. Respectable academics in other fields consult them when they are writing papers about the quality of new music. Not musicians, not composers, not professors of music, but rock journalists have somehow become established as the default authorities on music.

This perverse state of affairs would be unthinkable were it not for the underlying illusion of knowledge. And that illusion is a direct result of the widespread confusion between "Music" and "Commercially Produced Musical Entertainment". A confusion noted (pdf) back in 2001 by Milton Babbitt:

The New Yorker just did an issue on music....it was called the music issue of The New Yorker, which takes itself very seriously. It had not even the lip service of a sentence to what we call our music, be it 'classical', be it 'serious', be it 'elitist'. Not a word. It was rock and it was hip-hop and it was--not a word! So we're apparently not music anymore. The music issue of The New Yorker, which never would've done that with literature or with poetry, had not a single reference to not even serious contemporary music, but any, what I would call, serious music.

Milton Babbitt was a pioneer in electronic music, being one of the founding members of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. He was also a gifted and exceptional musical thinker who taught composition at Juilliard for over 30 years. And yet, a supposedly serious publication like the New Yorker, releasing an issue especially about music, doesn't even mention him, or his colleagues, or the musical civilization that they represent.

I am not against popular music, as many people seem to believe. And if writers want to write (and readers want to read) vapid generalizations about the celebrities who make this music it is certainly none of my business. But when economists, law professors and technology writers confuse this writing with a serious discussion of music; when they impute to it a scholarly status that it simply does not deserve; when they cite it as 'evidence' of anything other than the opinions of a handful of people with no proven musical expertise, while completely ignoring the words of people with a great deal of musical expertise, it becomes the concern of anyone who takes music seriously.

There is a name for the tendency to disregard the words of educated people while praising the wisdom of the ignorant: anti-intellectualism. And while this tendency is deplored by academics in most contexts, it has become the norm with music. It is the most pernicious legacy of the music industry, and it will survive long after the industry itself has been forgotten. It is a wretched form of cultural provincialism that pretends to be sophisticated, and it gets away with it because we humans are shockingly ignorant about this most awe-inspiring accomplishment of our species: MUSIC. Because we don't even know what the fuck it is. Because many of the people who could help to figure it out are marginalized. Because there is very little dialog between the various musical communities of the world. And because it is not in anyone's financial interest to change anything.

Luckily it doesn't really matter. Music, enabled by technology, will continue to thrive and evolve, leaving an ever-growing legacy, regardless of our failure to understand it.

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My Position Regarding Internet 'Piracy'

March 25, 2012

I recently received some hate mail.

I Googled the name of the person who wrote it, and he actually seems to be a professional musician of some note. I will not reveal his name, because he didn't give me permission and I didn't ask for it, but I will quote his short letter in its entirety.

It refers to my post: A Skeptical Response to the Cynical Musician, as:

"Simply the most insulting thing I have ever read.

Our complaint: People are stealing our music without paying for it. Your advice: We should be ashamed for asking for money.

The idea being that only technology companies are allowed to make money off the internet? Musicians shouldn't? Preposterous.

I say that Apple should give iPods away for free to help us sell more music, rather than Apple lobbying us to give away music for free so that they can sell more iPods.

You are a tool of the corporate overlords."

Now I have no idea how someone could arrive at such an interpretation of what
I have written, but clearly at least one person did. And so, I will take this opportunity to clarify my thoughts on these issues.

While I am sorry that this person feels insulted, I think that he might have misunderstood something. I am not a 'Them', I'm an 'Us'. I am a formally trained musician who has been playing drums for going on 30 years, and who has composed everything from simple pop songs to pieces for chamber orchestra. I have earned decent money off of my musical skills, and I have taken this money without shame.

But while I see no shame in musicians making money off of their skills, I find it both boring and depressing that this is all anyone seems to want to talk about. Mike Masnick or some writer at Hypebot says 'Musicians can earn more by giving away their recordings as a promotional device'; and the Cynical Musician or someone on Copyhype responds 'Bullshit, the internet is killing music because it is stealing from musicians.'; this elicits the response that 'Studies show that there is more music being produced now than ever before', which in turn elicits 'Yeah, but it's all just a bunch of remixes made by no talent hacks', and so on. This argument is repeated ad nauseum throughout the blogosphere and even in the mainstream press, usually in connection with hot-button policy issues like SOPA or ACTA.

Now this the-internet-is-good-or-bad-for-the-music-business argument bores me because I really don't care what happens to the music business. And its ubiquity depresses me because it shows just how many people's minds are trapped in the past. For everyone continues to talk solely of the music business, while MUSIC itself, whether construed as an art form, a means of communication, or a window on certain aspects of human consciousness, is left in the shadows.

Admittedly, music in itself is hard to discuss. Not only does music take place over time, making it hard to 'point at' individual bits and pieces of it; it is, moreover, an increasingly vast and complex phenomenon that no one really understands. More than this, it has been my experience that very few people have any interest in understanding music at all, preferring instead to revel in misinformed, half-informed or downright irrational conceptions of it.

Music is uniquely able to support all of these conflicting interpretations because it is a radically ambiguous form of communication. You can see examples of this ambiguity everywhere. One mundane recent example is Michelle Bachmann's campaign staff using Tom Petty's 'American Girl' as a theme song. Now clearly, Tom Petty did not write this song in an effort to appeal to people like Michelle Bachmann. And yet, clearly, it does appeal to such people, and there is nothing that he can do to stop this. His task would be even more impossible if he wrote instrumental music, because he couldn't use the denotative power of words to offset any of the music's natural ambiguity.

Now if Tom Petty is helpless to keep Michelle Bachmann from liking his songs, music itself is much more helpless to keep people from speaking nonsense in its name. Its vast complexities are subtle, and therefore easily ignored. And so, music is mute to defend itself against those who are forever trying to fit it onto their own little procrustean iBeds. Of course, there is nothing wrong with people doing this personally. We are all free to like, or hate, or ignore whatever we wish. But when people mistake these truncated fragments of music for MUSIC ITSELF, they are deceived. And when these deceived individuals have cultural influence, their personal self-deceptions can assume a pernicious life of their own.

The crux of the issue is that music is consumed (and talked about) by almost everybody, while it is understood by no one. In the absence of this understanding, the consumption of musical products has created its own culture, which has replaced actual music in the public consciousness.

This is an important point, so let's amplify it:

The consumption of musical products has created its own culture. Most of what people are talking about when they talk about 'music' are these products, the people who make these products, the sales figures of these products, the incomes of the people with the greatest sales figures, and the lifestyles that this income affords them. Even musicians who define themselves in opposition to this culture are easily subsumed by it (e.g. the 'subversive' movement that called itself punk rock was greeted with a number 1 chart position and a gold record right from the gate).

That this culture of consumption should replace actual musical culture is not really that mysterious. It is easy to see how it happened if you consider that music itself is quite difficult to define and discuss, while celebrities and sales figures are easy to define and fun to discuss. And of course, some of the music that has come out of this culture has actually been kind of good. But people don't talk about this music, they talk around it. And this is the normal state of affairs. A huge number of people think that 'talking about music' is identical with 'talking about famous musicians, their lifestyles, and the sociopolitical meaning of their lyrics'.

This subtle but pernicious confusion trivializes the complex and infinitely ramified subject that we call MUSIC. Which is why even educated people can blithely make huge and misleading generalizations about it without seeming presumptuous or arrogant.

Take this example, from a book called 'The Public Domain' by James Boyle (William Neal Reynolds Professor of Law at Duke). He is writing about the nature of copyright law and how it effects various forms of culture:

But regardless of how well we think the image of individual creativity fits literature, it fits very poorly in music where so much creativity is recognizably more collective and additive, and where much of the raw material used by subsequent creators is potentially covered by copyright.

So how does the accretive process of musical creativity fare in the modern law and culture of copyright? How would the great musical traditions of the twentieth century-jazz, soul, blues, rock-have developed under today's copyright regime? Would they have developed at all? How does the law apply to the new musicians, remixers, and samplers who offer their work on the Internet?

The words in bold above all exemplify the thoughts of an educated person blithely making huge generalizations about music based on a false equivalence between musical culture and the culture of musical consumption. If he had but inserted the word 'popular' in a few places (e.g. 'the accretive creative processes of popular music'), things might be different, but the qualifier is, as always, conspicuous in its absence. It's almost as if Professor Boyle is ignorant of numerous key figures in twentieth century musical history.

Now this might seem like a simple example of a specialist not fully understanding something outside his scholarly purview. But the issue is much bigger than this. Many people regarded as specialists or 'experts' on music are guilty of the same sort of generalizations. Milton Babbitt called attention to this in an interview. He was discussing a conference about music held at the Smithsonian:

And something they called classical music was assigned to a tiny corner. The three people involved were a historian, a music critic, and I was the composer. And then there were people in the audience and Wiley Hitchcock was one of those.... So we were there, talking and immediately the historian, who was Richard Crawford from Michigan said "Look, I can't stand this being classical, we have to do something with the word. It just offends me as an historian." I said, "Fine. It offends me for other reasons. What are we going to use?"

So then the discussion began - you can imagine what the discussion consisted of. It consisted of, first of all, the assumption that we were calling ourselves serious musicians. But then other musicians would say, "We're just as serious as you are"...so we can't call it serious. And then there were people that would call it concert music, which is what the Performance Rights Societies were calling it and then saying, "Well, we can't call it a concert because every little rock group now gives concerts and they get 50,000 people and we're lucky to get 50. So who are we to use the term concert?"

So it went on like that quite literally and tiresomely for a long time, then finally...I said, "I don't mind one of Hitchcock's terms, which is cultivated music." Well, you can imagine what that induced: the scream of elitism and we just gave up.

But the best example of that is a magazine that...likes to call itself sophisticated, The New Yorker. It was called the music issue of The New Yorker, which takes itself very seriously. It had not even the lip service of a sentence to what we call our music, be it classical, be it serious, be it elitist. Not a word. It was rock and it was hip-hop and it was - not a word! So we're apparently not music anymore.

And this is all just normal. Music that doesn't have enough fans, even if it is written by a bona fide musical genius like Milton Babbitt, simply doesn't show up on anyone's radar unless they are at an academic conference. And this is because we live in a world where the culture of musical consumption has replaced the culture of music. There are even a few who seem to think that if music doesn't have many fans then it can't really be very good, apparently because consumers are born with an innate sense of what is or is not good music.

Now some of you might be wondering, after 1500 words or so, what any of this has to do with my position concerning piracy on the internet. But the fact is that I simply don't give a shit about piracy on the internet. What I do care about is the creative and communicative power that the internet and cheap digital technology have put into the hands of people with real musical talent. I don't glory in the democratic distribution of this power because I think that everyone has something important to say. I glory in the democratic distribution of this power because it is the best way to make sure that real musical talent is recorded, preserved for posterity, and distributed throughout the world to anyone who might have an interest in it.

And it seems a little odd to me that so few seem to look at digital recording and internet distribution in these terms. Unless you are naive enough to think that the music business has always found and recorded all of the talented people in the world, it is pretty obvious that digital recording and the internet are going to help preserve much more musical culture than an industry that is trying to sell as many copies of the same thing as it can. How anyone can think that such an industry is a proper custodian for our global musical heritage is something beyond my ability to imagine.

What many people don't seem to take into account is that throughout most of human history, music has been a perpetually forgotten heritage. With the exception of (some of) the religious and aristocratic music of modern Europe, most of the world's music has perished with its creators. Yes, there have been transgenerational folk melodies, rhythmic structures, and other orally transmitted traditions, all heroic fights against the ravages of time, to be sure. But the fact is that the voices, improvisational skills, and compositional imaginations of countless past musicians have been lost forever.

Victor ad

This advertisement from the acoustic era of the music industry,
though melodramatic, is nonetheless quite accurate.

Recording technology offered a way out of this impasse, but for a long time its great expense allowed the music industry to hold a de facto monopoly on its use. The music industry quite naturally doled this technology out to serve its own needs, not the needs of musical culture, which of course never concerned anyone for a moment.

Today, at long last, technology that not only records but fosters musical creativity, and technology which offers easy and instant worldwide communication of musical works and ideas, have both become as commonly available as television. This is a miraculous thing, for never again do the voices, improvisational skills, and compositional imaginations of past musicians have to fade into nothingness. Musicians of all kinds can now take place in a vast transgenerational conversation, allowing future generations to hear a greater variety of music than our grandparents could have imagined.

And if any of this happens to make life difficult for commercial musicians to ply their trade, or for confused consumers who are paralyzed by the 'Paradox of Choice', all I can say is that progress has its price, and someone has to pay it.

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How Global Capitalism is Good for Music

December 26, 2011

Creative people, especially musicians, tend to view capitalism as an enemy. From Paul Robeson to Theodor W. Adorno, from Billy Bragg to Rage Against the Machine, capitalism has long been treated with hostility by musicians and music lovers.

I think that this hostility is essentially misguided.

At one time, not very long ago, it was understandable. To most people Capitalism + Music = 'the music industry', and lets face it, that institution has never been motivated by a commitment to musical excellence. On the contrary, the tendency has always been to cater to the lowest common denominator of musical taste, to offset the risks involved in selling the fragile and hard to manufacture objects that recordings once were. At the same time, stories of hapless and innocent musicians being exploited by unscrupulous businessmen, stories which have been common from the earliest days of the industry to the present, provide a darker counterpoint to this mundane example of a common mass market business strategy.

So this is a clear case of capitalism harming music, right? Well, it might seem like it, until you consider that the whole idea of recorded sound was a capitalistic enterprise from the beginning. Recording technology wasn't created by historians or archivists or musicologists working in the public interest, it was created by a very greedy businessman named Thomas Edison. The greed of people like Edison and Emile Berliner and Eldridge Johnson and the Pathé brothers is what allowed the concept of the audio recording to grow from being a curiosity to a well established institution.

Bartok Recording Folk Music

Bartók recording folk musicians in Transylvania in 1910.

And while the story of the music industry might be less than edifying, this shouldn't blind us to the achievements of people like John Lomax and Bela Bartók, who used early recording technology to perform a vital scholarly service: preserving musical forms and ideas that might otherwise have disappeared from the historical record.

But whatever you think of the music industry, the conditions that brought it into being no longer obtain. As I pointed out here (paraphrasing Clay Shirky):

"The core problem that the music industry solved - the difficulty of making and distributing audio recordings - has stopped being a problem"

Of course, the music industry does more than just make and distribute audio recordings. These ancillary 'star making' aspects of the industry have always been more visible, because celebrity 'news' is of much broader interest than audio engineering or distribution networks. But the making and distributing of audio recordings is still the core function of the industry. Clearly its representatives wouldn't spend so much time and money lobbying for ever more severe 'anti-piracy' legislation if it were not.

But no amount of industry friendly legislation can really do anything about the central fact that is causing all of the trouble, which is that the means for creating, copying, and distributing audio recordings are no longer controlled by the industry.

I have discussed elsewhere how difficult and expensive it once was to make and distribute your own recordings, and how much this situation has changed in recent years, due in large part to the digital audio revolution.

Today, any musician who has about a thousand bucks to buy a netbook , an interface, a couple of microphones, some quality earphones, and the materials to make some simple room treatments has all of the stuff necessary to make quality recordings. There are, of course numerous other configurations that 1000 dollars worth of cheap audio gear could assume. You could skip the microphones and earphones and buy some near field monitors. You could buy an older computer for less than 100 dollars on Craigslist and get some more microphones and a mixing board. You could skip the microphones and mixing board and buy a composition tool like Finale. The creative and communicative possibilities that this cheap gear provides to independent musicians are quite endless.

And these endless possibilities have all been provided courtesy of global capitalism. The fact that, e.g. sampling technology has improved enormously, while it's price has dropped from 20,000 GBP in 1980 to less than 300 GBP today, has nothing to do with governmental regulations mandating 'affordability' or 'innovative excellence'. It happened because of the independent actions of myriad clever people competing in a free and open marketplace: hardware manufacturers, software engineers, materials scientists and a cast of thousands, all working independently to make things cheaper, smaller, more efficient and more useful.

It is hard to give a sense of the immense changes involved here. Very few people truly understand how much it used to cost to make recordings even of average quality. A small clue can be found in the fact that in 1977, professionals were willing to pay over 150,000 US dollars for a 16 track digital recorder with an old fashioned analog transport. And this is just for the recorder. The console that you would have needed to use this recorder would have been equally expensive. By the time you figure in the costs of all of the cables, patchbays, surge protectors and whatnot you will have arrived at an astronomical sum. I mean, we're talking more-money-than-a-luxury-house expensive here. And we haven't even bought any microphones yet.

Today, almost all the functionality provided by that extremely expensive collection of gear is available in software as a 4 MB download that is legitimately available for free.

From more money than a house, to freeware that runs just fine on a 200 dollar computer, in less than 30 years. And again, this has all happened in a free and open marketplace. The people who designed the free software were being generous on one level, but simply smart on another, because it resulted in a major business opportunity for them.

Now there are people, especially professional audio engineers, who will object to comparing a well outfitted professional studio with a cheap computer with some freeware installed on it. The audio engineering profession came out of a world in which recorded music was created according to what David Morton has called 'a complex and capital-intensive ritual of musicians and machines, solemnly overseen by a priesthood of specialized technicians'. Priesthoods are rarely friendly toward historical forces that threaten them. And cheap audio technology definitely threatens large segments of the engineering profession. Then, too, many of the engineers who denigrate cheap technology will quite rightly point out the atrocious sound quality of many of the recordings made with it. But unless they insist on completely ignoring measurable specifications, they will have to acknowledge at the very least that even the humblest digital audio interface has a larger dynamic range than even the best analog tape recorders. Digital audio allows independent musicians to eliminate noise and distortion to an amazing degree, and it is the presence or absence of this noise and distortion in a recording that has traditionally provided the benchmark for evaluating it's quality.

It is important to keep in mind that the goals of most creative musicians are circumscribed and adaptable. Give them enough toys that allow and inspire them to exercise their imagination, and other limitations become meaningless. The issue isn't whether or not a cheap computer based music recorder/production environment is on a par with a professional studio in some sort of abstract sense. Clearly, it is not. The issue is the efficacy of the cheap computer based recorder/production environment as a means of capturing or enabling musical creativity.

So, to conclude:

  1. If it is a good thing for music that more musicians than ever before can create and share their music independently,
  2. and if cheap technology is directly instrumental in allowing musicians to do this,
  3. and if global capitalism and an open market is what allowed this cheap technology to exist,
then it follows that:

Global Capitalism is Good for Music
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Actually Mr. Masnick, Original Art is not a Myth

October 16, 2011

Every now and again, Mike Masnick or someone else over at Techdirt will pronounce original art or rather, 'content' to be a 'myth'.

In the article called "The Myth Of Original Creators" he states that

"...taking the works of others and doing something with them to make them new and wonderful seems to be an anathema to the "true believers" in copyright, who insist that creativity is about being wholly original, and almost never about building on the works of those who came before. Yet, there's almost no evidence to support this."

In another article called "The Myth Of The Original Content Creator", he commits himself more explicitly:

"All works are built on those that came before. All works are inspired by and use bits and pieces of what they've learned or what they've seen, heard and felt. Pretending that there is a true original creator who deserves credit, money or control is a problem -- because it means no new creative works could be done without getting permission."

While I am perfectly willing to disregard the 'true believers' in copyright, their self-interested appeals to original creators don't vitiate the concept of originality. The fact of the matter is that these copyright supporters (e.g. music industry representatives) who use originality as a rhetorical device are guilty of the worst kind of cynical duplicity. True creative originality in, say, music, is almost always worthless in the financial sense. What these people call 'originality' is a trivial, sanitized simulacrum of real originality.

To avoid confusion, let's start with a look at the meanings of the adjective 'original' as listed in the American Heritage Dictionary:

1. Preceding all others in time; first
2. a. Not derived from something else; fresh and unusual
2. b. Showing a marked departure from previous practice; new
3. Productive of new things or new ideas; inventive
4. Being the source from which a copy, reproduction, or translation is made

Now clearly, at least some of these adjectives apply to at least some art. So this, right off, tends to cast doubt on Mr. Masnick's assertion that original art is a 'myth'. But rather than being stupidly literal, let's acknowledge that what he seems to mean is there is no art that is not derivative to some extent. And although this is no doubt true, considered in the most expansive sense, it also tends to paper over some rather important distinctions.

One of these distinctions is between popular art and everything else. Popular art, by which I mean 95% of everything that is daily consumed as 'artistic content' in our world, rewards un-originality to such a extent that even the most trivial alterations in it's standardized patterns can seem strikingly original, or even daring, by contrast.

This dumbed-down conception of originality pervades discussions of popular music, and is most strikingly illustrated in the pages of a magazine like Billboard. Here we see the bassist for the band Jet referred to as 'a songwriter of intense originality'. Here we see the first album of country music artist Blake Shelton referred to as 'an earnest debut full of lots of promise and originality'. Here we see someone wondering whether the 'originality' of a singer's performance of a top 40 song by Rihanna in the style of Frank Sinatra 'would work commercially'. And here we read that a punk band called 'the Vandals definitely display some real originality' on their album 'When in Rome'

To place all of this in perspective, let's travel to a place and time where a rather different conception of originality obtained.

The work in the video above is the opus 6 of Anton Webern. I wish to call attention specifically to the fourth of the 6 pieces, which starts at 3:45 and ends at about the 8 minute mark. This piece, written in 1909, someplace in the Austro-Hungarian empire, is without historical precedent. Though Webern was well versed in music history, and was a student of Arnold Schoenberg, you will find nothing written previous to this work, by Schoenberg or anyone else, that sounds remotely like the subtle cacophony of its 4 minute descent into nightmare.

Now let's travel to another time, just two years later, and another place, also in the Austro-Hungarian empire:

This work, which is still considered a bit of a daring piece to include in a student's piano recital, uses the instrument in a loud and percussive manner that offended many of Bartók's contemporaries. The harmony also managed to offend contemporary taste, by being both too primitive and too 'modern' at the same time. And this was true quite generally. Though Bartók was an impeccably trained musician, and he was Professor of Piano at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest for many years, most of his mature piano pieces sound strikingly different from anything in the repetoire that he was so well versed in; a fact which doomed them to obscurity for many years after the composer's death.

Now we'll jump forward about 20 years to the following work, written in Paris and New York City:

Needless to say, the composer, Edgard Varèse wasn't all that popular with contemporaries, who described his music as 'an abortion of sounding madness', or as 'senseless tonal piggery' that was 'devoid of spiritual discipline and artistic imagination'. One thing that no one ever said, though, was that Ionization was bad because it was derivative of the music of someone else.

Finally, let's head south, to Mexico, where an American expatriate named Conlon Nancarrow spent over a quarter of a century, starting circa 1947, doing some rather odd things with a player piano. Things like this:

And again, I feel safe asserting that although many unpleasant epithets have been hurled at the player piano pieces of Conlon Nancarrow, 'derivative' is not among them.

Now it is true that none of these composers lived in a vaccuum. None of them invented the instruments that they used or the tunings that they employed. And all of them were familiar with, and influenced by, the music of their contemporaries and predecessors. But to deprive this music of the adjective "original", simply because its creators didn't live in some sort of cultural clean room, is to deprive the adjective "original" of all meaning. For these are all examples of music that 'showed a marked departure from previous practice'; that were 'new'. This music was 'original content' according to any reasonable definition. And although I could have added many names to this list of original composers without stretching the definition at all, I think that these 4 prominent examples are more than enough to demonstrate that the assertion: 'original content creators are a myth', is itself a myth; or at the very least, a vast oversimplification.

More than that, it is an injustice. To write as if the music of Conlon Nancarrow, and the facile pop-cultural juxtapositions of an artist like Girl Talk are on some sort of plane of innovative equality, because 'all works are built on those that came before', and 'are inspired by and use bits and pieces of what they've learned or what they've seen, heard and felt', is to ignore musical distinctions that are far from trivial. For the one used older technology to expand the bounds of musical possibility beyond the comprehension of most mortals, while the other uses newer and much more sophisticated technology to create fun and familiar music that makes people want to shake their asses in a nightclub. I don't insist on the one being 'better' than the other in some sort of metaphysical sense, but I do insist that it is different, and that it deserves to be recognized as such.

Originality is not a myth. It just seems like it, because no one really likes it very much.

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An Apology to My Readers

August 28, 2011

The time has come to apologize to my small but loyal body of readers, for the way that I have neglected the Verge in recent months. I feel especially bad about the way I have failed, twice, to provide conclusions to posts that promised them.

The fact is that my life simply hasn't allowed me to write the kind of 2000 word essays that my blog posts usually seem to turn into. My responsibilities as a musician and as a human being have been consuming too much of my time and mental energy to allow for such self-indulgence.

I have been trying to find a way to adapt this blog to changed circumstances, and I think that I might have found it, as I hope to demonstrate in the coming weeks. The Verge is going to start looking a bit more like a normal blog, with shorter posts, fewer references, and a somewhat more polemical tone. There still won't be a place for readers to comment, but as usual I will be active on numerous message boards if anyone has a deep need to 'call me out'.

Thank you for your patience.


John Gump

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The Invisible Revolution (Part 1)

March 28, 2011

Note: This article was originally intended for publication elsewhere. Various things caused me to miss the deadline for the project, and so it finds a place here on the Verge. Part 2 has already been written, it just needs to be formatted. Part 3 on the other hand....

A cultural revolution has taken place, a revolution with deep and largely unexplored implications. This revolution has taken place slowly and incrementally, stretching out over more than a hundred years, and throughout the civilized world. The cause of this cultural revolution has been what I am going to call audio technology. And the area of culture that it has revolutionized is more or less all of what is commonly known as 'music'.

Examples of audio technology are ubiquitous in our world. The most familiar such examples are the consumer electronic devices that have become household objects: mp3 players, CD players, smart phones, home entertainment systems, car stereos, clock radios and so on. But there is much more to audio technology than this.

In the first place, all of the music that we hear on our mp3 players and home stereo systems was made with audio technology. Whether it is a studio session recorded at EMI's Abbey Road studios, a choir recorded in a church, a DJ set recorded at a club, or a field recording of bird songs, all of the tools used in the process are examples of audio technology.

Then, too, we must consider the fact that all movies and television programs have sound. The technology used to record, process, and reproduce this sound is also audio technology. This isn't a trivial matter. There has been a continuous and vital exchange of ideas between the engineers who work on film and video sound and the engineers who work in the music industry. The concept of stereophonic sound was first investigated in the context of making film soundtracks more realistic. And the first significant commercial application of 'high fidelity' audio was the Fantasound system used when the movie "Fantasia" was first released.

The public address systems used at concerts and media events are also forms of audio technology, as are the humbler versions of these systems that are used to amplify sermons, press conferences and business presentations. Even the background music/paging systems used in hospitals and shopping malls are sophisticated examples of audio technology.

And there are, hidden within all of these examples, the countless inventions, scientific breakthroughs and standards that make them possible: the superheterodyne receiver concept that is the basis of all AM and FM radio; the pulse code modulation method of A/D conversion that lies at the heart of every compact disc; the manufacturing standards both visible (e.g. RCA plugs, XLR connectors) and invisible (e.g. line-level, mic-level) that allow all kinds of audio equipment to work together; the various audio codecs that are used to encode the untold millions of song files that fill up the millions of iPods and other portable listening devices in existence.

Finally, there are many technological developments that aren't part of audio technology per se, but which are functionally related to it. The obvious example of this is the internet, which allows instant world wide distribution of musical recordings and derivative works, essentially placing many of the functionalities of radio and television into the hands of ordinary people.

What all of these things have in common is not just technological, but functional; not just how they are made, but how they can be used. Audio technology is defined by it's functions, and it is important to remember that these functions are not just a result but a process; an ongoing process involving inventors, scientists, manufacturers and users of audio devices ranging from iPod Tadpoles to the Neve 5088 series. In a very real sense, audio technology does what we, it's users, tell it to do. It is our servant.

But audio technology is a powerful servant. And just as Hellenistic Greece, conquered and enslaved by Rome, ultimately came to dominate Roman culture, so too has audio technology come to dominate the global musical culture of our own time. This gradual process of cultural conquest is what I am here referring to as the Invisible Revolution. Not only because music is invisible by definition, but also because, as I wrote earlier:

Recorded music conquered the world by stealth; becoming part of modern life as a humble domestic servant, and assuming a position of cultural leadership while no one was looking.


It is common knowledge that Edison's Phonograph was the first method in history of recording audible sound. But it was not the first method of recording music. The latter distinction, of course, belongs to musical notation. By this we mean all forms of musical notation, but especially the polyphonic notation of the western musical tradition that stretches roughly from 1320 to the present.

The very idea of musical notation is inextricably interwoven with the history of western music. On one level this is obvious: notational artifacts constitute the lion's share of the primary sources used by music historians. But there is more to the relationship between notation and music history thanbr / mere convenience or coincidence.

In the first place, the role of notation in music historiography is an example of what Daniel Boorstin has called the 'Biases of Survival'. These biases can "skew our vision of the past, exaggerating certain kinds of human activity, concealing or dissolving others". The applicability of this statement to notation is obvious: for a period of over 500 years, this graphic system of recording complex musical ideas called notation was employed by various communities of musicians. During this period of time, there was also a great deal of music, from every corner of the world, that was created by musicians who did not employ this graphic system. The work of the former has in many cases been preserved to be evaluated and enjoyed by later generations, while the work of the latter can be remembered dimly at best, and at worst has been forgotten completely. Clearly this is a distorting lens that 'skews our vision of the past' by 'exaggerating certain kinds of human activity' and 'concealing or dissolving others'.

But notation is not merely a way of recording musical ideas. It also influences the forms that those ideas are likely to assume. Gustave Reese discusses how Phillipe de Vitri's four prolations show "a system of notation, called into being by the requirements of musical creation, may sometimes suggest to such creation, in turn, steps it would otherwise probably not take". As an example of this he poiints out how, in a modern mensuration canon,

...the various parts, beginning simultaneously, give forth the same melody, but in different time values, the values in one part bearing a fixed relationship to those in another (e.g., being in one part consistently double those parts in another); such a procedure fits naturally into our system of notation. In the ars nova notation, however, evolved by de Vitri out of the older Franconian system, more interesting relationships-possible in our notation, but not likely to occur to a composer using it-suggested themselves quite readily.

In addition to this specific type of ideational influence, notation also exercises a more general influence over traditional forms of musical creation. Chris Cutler has noted that

...the inherited paradigms through which art music continues to identify itself have not escaped their roots in notation, a system of mediation which determines both what musical material is available and what possible forms of organisation may be applied to it. The determination of material and organisation follows from the character of notation as a discontinuous system of instructions developed to model visually what we know as melody, harmony and rhythm represented by, and limited to, arrangements of fixed tones (quantized, mostly 12 to an octave) and fixed durations....

All of these considerations highlight the fact that notation is an integral part of the traditional value system of occidental music. This value system is still quite powerful, though it might rarely be expressed consciously. It is tacit, a 'natural way of thinking' about music.

Susanne K. Langer has written of these 'natural ways of thinking' that lie implicit in our conceptions of things:

Such 'ways' are not avowed by the average man, but simply followed. He is not conscious of assuming any basic principles. They are what a German would call his "Weltanschauung", his attitude of mind, rather than specific articles of faith. They constitute his outlook; they are deeper than facts he may note or propositions he may moot.

She then goes on to quote Whitehead, from Science and the Modern World:

When you are criticizing the philosophy of an epoch, do not chiefly direct your attention to those intellectual positions which it's exponents feel it necessary explicitly to defend. There will be some fundamental assumptions which adherents of all the variant systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose. Such assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them.

The value system of occidental music is rich with many such 'unconscious presuppositions' that have been engendered by musical notation. Chief among them is the idea of 'the composition' as the unit of musical accomplishment. While famous singers and instrumentalists of the past are historical footnotes, composers and their work are the very substance of musical history. Just opening up a dictionary of music at random provides a demonstration of this, for while the popular and respected singer Jenny Lind is given an entry that takes up a quarter of a page, her contemporary Liszt (who was famous, to be sure, but certainly not more so than "The Swedish Nightingale") is given an entry fully 5 times as long, almost half of which consists of a list of compositions.

This tendency can be seen again and again, in reference works and in historical narratives of every age. Almost all of the standard scholarly histories of music are by and large histories of music composition. This is true for unimpeachable reasons: compositions in notated form may have many shortcomings, but they have the virtue of actually existing. The notational artifact has a tangible reality that has the ability to outlive it's creator. Musical events in themselves are, to the contrary, fleeting and evanescent things. They are difficult to discuss or to evaluate except as vague and subjective impressions, and are directly available only to those who were there when they occurred. Scores and sheet music and part books freeze these events into the form of a document; a form that allows them to be examined, quoted, indexed, annotated, and compared to each other. Because of their tangible nature, these documents can seem more real than the music they represent. The awesomely complex epistemological ramifications of this rather odd state of affairs beggar the imagination. And yet they have been invisible until recently, simply because this rather odd state of affairs was all that seemed to exist.

But today, we can see otherwise. A new world has been opened up by the fact that musical events, however fleeting and evanescent, can now be frozen into much more precise forms than any notation could hope to compete with. Here we are of course referring to compact discs and cassette tapes, to Edison cylinders and long playing records, to wav files and flac files and ogg files and mp3 files; in short, to the many different things that are called audio recordings.

End of Part 1

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The Music Industry is Controlling your Mind

December 3, 2010

The music industry (a more precise term would be 'the recording industries' but you can't fight the god of usage) has a deep hold on people's conceptions of music. Many people who believe that they have freed their minds from its grip are actually mistaken about this, and they show it repeatedly, as they fall again and again into the same mental traps whenever they appear. As discussions of the music industry and its impending demise have come to pervade the blogosphere, the power of these mental traps has become more and more evident.

Most of these traps arise from the artificially inflated importance that popular music is accorded in contemporary culture. This has become so widespread that most people don't even acknowledge the existence of music that isn't some kind of pop music. "Music" and "Commercially Produced Musical Entertainment" have come to seem synonymous.

What makes popular music popular is its fans. But the importance of fans in the world of pop music is not only, or even primarily, cultural. Fans are important because they are customers, or at least potential customers. Fans can power the creation of entertainment empires if their energies are properly harnessed. But fans are a special kind of customer. There is an element of image-based irrationality in their buying decisions that complicates matters. This image based irrationality is at the heart of celebrity culture, and it is the X-factor that determines success or failure in the world of fashion.

Now music got sucked into this celebrity culture bullshit because of the nature of the pre-internet music industry. The early years of this industry were shaped by the difficulties inherent in making and selling cheap and consistent little objects that had musical recordings etched into them. It wasn't an easy business, and it wasn't the business that the talking machine companies had intended to get into in the first place. They had really just wanted to make talking machines and have people amuse themselves with them. But the public proved to be stubbornly passive in this regard, being much more interested in listening to pre-made recordings than in making their own.

Edison's early recordings prominently featured his own name, with the name of the performer relegated to a slip inside the container. But he soon discovered that the public didn't care about his input at all. They wanted their recordings to feature 'stars', i.e. celebrity performers. In the early days these were traditional performers like Enrico Caruso and Nellie Melba. But as the industry grew, it was discovered that music and performers from outside of the European tradition could sell, too. Recordings of pioneering performances by people like Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson and Duke Ellington gave the world a first taste of a burgeoning Afro-American musical culture, and created an international market for blues and jazz recordings.

From the very beginning, there were all manner of imitators presenting this music in various dilutions and bastardizations, performed by people who were more, well, white. Thus was born what we call pop music: a child equally of popular melody, Afro-American rhythmic creativity, and the imperatives of the music industry.

Spontaneous, vital, and potentially commercial musical trends were thenceforth seized upon, stripped of any unseemly details, and presented in a shiny package by the prettiest available face. Not all of these faces became stars, mind. In fact, only a handful of them had any hope of 'making it', for the X-factor necessary to create a first-class musical celebrity is a protean quality that defies rational understanding. But no amount of failure has ever created doubts about the 'star system' itself. This system was already in place in the late twenties, and it is still in place over 80 years later. Of course, today the performer doesn't have to be white to make a great deal of money.

Now in the early years of the music industry, it could have been argued that things had to work this way. Recordings in those days were a difficult kind of merchandise to deal in. They were tricky to create and problematic to mass produce. They were fragile, heavy to ship, and bulky to store. They were expensive to make, yet they had to be sold at prices that anyone could afford. As a result of these complications, the industry developed a lowest common denominator approach to the material it released. The costs imposed by the medium were offset by the practice of releasing music with the widest possible appeal. This by itself explains 90% of the history of popular music in the 20th century.

But today the medium has evolved into something that has almost none of the complications listed above. Recordings today are much easier and cheaper to create, and they are effortless to mass produce. Today, recordings are weightless, and can be 'shipped' almost anyplace in the world, instantaneously. Today, common devices smaller than a cassette tape are capable of storing hundreds of hours worth of recorded sound.

Now the sad fact is that various by-products of this evolutionary process have made it difficult to make money from selling copies of recordings, which is essentially what the music industry does. In fact, there is every reason to believe that the music industry as it existed in the twentieth century is hopelessly moribund. As a result of this, a huge argument has raged between representatives of the beleaguered music industry on the one side, and proponents of new, 'free' based business models on the other. And as these people argue about the legal and technical details of making money off of recorded musical 'content' (whether directly in the form of cd/digital download sales, or indirectly as a promotional device), BOTH sides show their conceptions of audio musical culture to be trapped in the past.

Because the truth is that while there are many reasons to celebrate the liberation of recorded music from the stranglehold of the music industry, the commercial benefits to musicians are among the smallest of them. Making money off of original music has always been absurdly difficult compared to a thousand more stable professions, and it has only gotten more difficult as the skill level expected of musicians has been lowered again and again, exponentially multiplying the number of musical entertainers vying for people's attention and money. Many advocates for free culture seem to miss this in their enthusiasm for new, internet-enabled business models.

No, to see (or rather, hear) the true musical benefits of digital audio and internet distribution, you have to look at (or listen to) music that isn't commercial. Because of the internet, music by oddball geniuses like Conlon Nancarrow can finally find a substantial international audience. The same goes for serialists like Milton Babbitt and Jean Barraqué, Just Intonation enthusiasts like Lou Harrison and Harry Partch, pioneering electronic musicians like Pierre Schaeffer and Otto Luening and Pauline Oliveros and Delia Derbyshire. A quick look through any history of modern music will reveal dozens, indeed hundreds, of additional names: names of talented and innovative musicians who were completely overlooked by the music industry.

Now I, for one, do not blame the music industry for trying to be profitable. Making a profit is the first function of any business that wants to stay in operation. And I understand that the music industry as it existed in the 20th century could not have survived with a catalog of artists like Milton Babbitt and Conlon Nancarrow. This is precisely why musicians in the age of the internet and digital audio are so lucky: the tension between the needs of art and the needs of commerce, a tension that has existed since the beginning of recorded music, has been resolved; and it has been resolved in favor of the needs of art.

To see how true this is, it really helps if you happened to have been interested in any of this 'non-pop' music in the years before the internet. If you weren't, the short version of the story is: "It sucked". In, say, 1985, none of the above mentioned artists had recordings that were at all easily accessible. Even classics by long dead composers, from Anton Webern all the way back to Josquin Deprés, were quite difficult to find. In my city (Minneapolis) there were only two places to buy recordings by these less popular composers, and neither of these places had anything like a complete catalog of any such composer's work. The local libraries were even more disappointing. And this was in the heart of a large industrialized nation, in a large metropolitan area with several major universities.

Today, recordings of, and information about, the music of all of these composers and thousands more are instantly available to anyone who has internet access. And the same goes for the music of artists from other cultures across the world, from Afrocuba de Matanzas to Bozart; from this amazing Gamelan Gong Kebyar to Fantomas; from Merzbow to Joan of Arc. All of this music is as quick and easy to access today as the most crassly commercial mainstream top 10 hit.

From a 1985 perspective, the world described in the preceding paragraph sounds like science fiction: an obscure utopian fantasy where the musical freaks and weirdos get almost everything they could ask for, while the short-sighted businessmen go to an ignominious demise, looking satisfyingly foolish all the way down. It's like watching your favorite team of underdogs crush their cruel and arrogant opponents over and over again: it just never gets old.

But this tale of victorious optimism is not one that many people can fully appreciate, because they don't understand the nature of the victory. And this is because very few people are actually interested in music that isn't commercial. As I wrote at the beginning of this post, "Music" and "Commercially Produced Musical Entertainment" have come to seem synonymous. The idea that you would have to study or educate yourself to understand a piece of music from an unfamiliar culture is as strange to most people as the idea that you should educate yourself to understand a carnival ride. What's the fun of being a fan if you have to, like, learn stuff?

To most people, music isn't really an art, it's an everywhere-all-the-time lifestyle enhancement device: a daydream soundtrack that is instantly and instinctively understood on an emotional level by its fans. This conceit is at the heart of how the music industry controls your mind. It's a flattering form of musical populism that doubles as an effective and malleable marketing strategy:

  • "Are you a young black male who wants to have sex with all kinds of unattainably hot chicks? Then we have just the music for you!"
  • "Are you a young white male who wants to have sex with unattainably hot chicks, but who has trouble getting ANY chicks to come home with you? Are you starting to get really fucking angry about this? Then we have just the music for you!"
  • "Are you a sad young girl who knows that deep down inside you are really a princess? Are you treated unfairly by just about everyone? Do you need someone to sing to you like they know all of your secrets and love you for who you really are, even though you've never met? Well then, we have a whole line of products for you!"
  • "Are you a slowly aging very hip young person who likes deep cuts from albums by soulful and mature artists who defy genre stereotypes by sounding almost, but not quite, exactly like all of their predecessors? Then kick back and warm up that lava lamp, because we have just the music for you!"

Everyone falls for this kind of bullshit at some time or another. This is to be expected: humans are gullible, especially when they are young and enthusiastic. And it's harmless when kept in check. But clearly, it hasn't been kept in check. Because the music industry has convinced everyone, even people who ought to know better, that "Music" and "Commercially Produced Musical Entertainment" are one and the same.


Don't fall for it.

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A Rant About Musical Ignorance

October 10, 2010

We interrupt our regularly scheduled series of sober and painfully reasonable articles for the following rant.

The topic of today's rant: The fact that no one knows what the fuck music is.

Actually, let's add a few capitals for emphasis:

No One Knows What The Fuck Music Is.

No, that still isn't enough. We need to employ the nuclear option:


Seriously. This is the truth. It might seem counter-intuitive, but it's veracity is rock solid. I am going to prove this in due time. But before I do, I am going to spell out the implications, because if there is one thing that I have learned in the past ten years on this here interweb thingie it is that people don't 'do' implications. They want things spelled out in stark, simplistic terms that steamroll the complex reality of our world into flat little packages that they can print on a t-shirt or hang on their refrigerator door with a magnet.

Implication 1: People who write about music for a living are, almost without exception, completely full of shit.

Just so there are no misunderstandings, I will spell this out as well. When I say that 'People who write about music for a living are completely full of shit', I mean journalists who write about music. People such as:

  • All of the writers at Pitchfork
  • All of the writers who have ever worked at Rolling Stone or Spin.
  • All of the writers who worked at Trouser Press or Creem
  • All of writers at the L.A. Times music blog
  • All of the music critics who have worked at the New York Times or the New Yorker in the past hundred years
  • All of the music critics working at all of the world's local newspapers
  • And all of the people who write about music for any of the thousands of other publications that it would be too boring to list.

I am not saying that these people are wrong about everything. Some of them might even be experts: about orchestras and their administration; about ballet impresarios and operatic prima donnas; about the careers of pop musical celebrities; about punk rock bands and heavy metal bands and synth pop bands and rockabilly bands; about jazz combos and big bands and soloists and arrangers.

No, what I am saying is that whatever the expertise of these people, when it comes to the supposed heart of the matters that they write about: music, not one of them knows any more than Joe the tone deaf plumber.

In most cases, the real subject of these people's writings is not music at all, but rather the social context of music. Some of them might even claim that music is 'essentially social', and that there is no 'heart of the matter' outside of this social context. In most cases, no specific mention is made of any particular musical events or passages, although lyrics are sometimes discussed, often in a political context.

Implication 2: Musicians are only marginally more likely to know what music is than everyone else.

Now this doesn't mean that musicians don't understand how to make music, because some of them at least seem to. The knowledge I am talking about isn't 'how to' knowledge, but rather 'how it all works' knowledge. It's like the difference between language and linguistics: every normal healthy human being is born with the nascent ability to construct sentences in their native language. As one writer put it: "...all speakers of a language above the age of five or six know how to use its complex forms of organization with considerable skill". But obviously this doesn't mean that these language users have a scientific understanding of these complex forms of organization, for the number of living professional grammarians is a vanishingly small percentage of the world's population.

The same situation obtains with musicians, only in their case there really isn't any scientific understanding to be ignorant of. Which brings us to...

Implication 3: No, music theorists don't have the answer, either.

I hesitate to state that 'music theorists are full of shit', because I have slightly more respect for them than I have for music journalists. But they often do come close to being worthy of that characterization.

Music theory started as a mystical fixation on certain mathematically pure harmonic intervals. Today the purity of those harmonic intervals has been severely compromised, and yet the mystical fixation continues. As I wrote last month, 97 percent of a typical music theory text consists of a discussion of pitches: tones, intervals, scales, chords, keys and so on. The more advanced texts are even more extreme in this regard. It is telling that Walter Piston, whose textbooks 'Harmony', 'Counterpoint', and 'Orchestration' are all classics, has never written a book called 'Rhythm'.

Consider the ramifications of this situation. The 'theory of music' taught in college level courses has almost nothing to say about rhythm. If you were to ask for an analysis of the rhythmic patterns played by the Bata drums in the Afro-Cuban Bembé Ceremony, all your theory teacher could tell you is that the patterns are played in compound duple time, and that many of them are syncopated. If you were to ask for an analysis of the rhythmic patterns in a performance of the Balinese 'Ketjak', a song by the Dave Holland Quintet, or even a song by a metal band like the Dillinger Escape Plan you would be given a similarly useless answer.

A quick look at one of the few serious theoretical attempts to discuss rhythm in the past 50 years will show some of the difficulties involved. The very first of the 'Definitions and Principles' listed by Cooper and Meyer is the phrase 'Architectonic Levels'. And in that fact alone we can see that this book is written quite specifically as an explication of the classics of the European common practice period, an intuition borne out by a look at the Index of Music. Note, though, that their book is not labelled as such. No, it is assumed without saying that a book called 'The Rhythmic Structure Of Music' is obviously going to be about the rhythmic structure of the music of Bach and Beethoven and Brahms and Chopin and Mozart. I suppose we should be grateful that Stravinsky and Bartok are each given a musical example.

Even more striking than this fixation on the architecture of the hoary classics of western music, though, is the complete omission of any discussion of musical counting. Instead, the authors identify the elements of prosody (i.e. iamb, anapest, trochee, dactyl, and amphibrach) as their fundamental rhythmic groupings. Why they do so is not explained. As a practicing musician, this seems to me to be the height of frivolity. I have never met nor heard tell of any musician that learned how to execute any rhythmic pattern, whether simple or complex, by using anapests and amphibrachs. Furthermore, it is really, really easy to find rhythmic patterns that simply can not be analyzed meaningfully into any of these elements.

If this is the best that music theory has to offer on the nature of this most fundamental aspect of music, then we can clearly see that it presents us with no convincing exception to our general rule, which, again, is:

No one knows what the fuck music is.

Now the thing is, 'no one' applies to everyone, myself included. I am not completely sure that the prejudices of music theorists are completely wrong. Their studied disregard of all the music outside of the European common practice period might ultimately prove to be a wise course of action. Perhaps there simply isn't enough in common between the 'music' of Bach, the 'music' of Indrajit Banerjee, the 'music' of Einsturzende Neubauten and the 'music' of Slayer to support our practice of referring to all of them with the same word. Perhaps there is no Confluence in the sense that I have been discussing it over the past few months. Or rather, perhaps it is nothing more than a corrosive cesspool, where the properly distinct musical traditions of the world are reduced to meaningless noise. Not an international jam session at all, but rather, a cacophony similar to a radio picking up 20 different stations at the same time.


But there are some rather powerful counterexamples, starting with this one from the composer Colin McPhee, describing his first acquaintance, via recordings, with the Balinese music that was to change his life:

I was a young composer, recently back in New York after student days in Paris, and the past two years had been filled with composing and the business of getting performances. It was quite by accident that I had heard the few gramophone records that were to change my life completely, bringing me out here in search of something quite indefinable - music or experience, I could not at this moment say. The records had been made in Bali, and the clear, metallic sounds of the music were like the stirring of a thousand bells, delicate, confused, with a sensuous charm, a mystery that was quite overpowering. I begged to keep the records for a few days, and as I played them over and over I became more and more enchanted with the sound. Who were the musicians? I wondered. How had this music come about? Above all, how was it possible, in this late day, for such a music to have been able to survive?

I returned the records, but I could not forget them. At the time I knew little about the music of the East. I still believed that an artist must keep his mind on his own immediate world. But the effect of the music was deeper than I suspected, for after I had read in the early books of Crawfurd and Raffles the quite fabulous accounts of these ancient and ceremonial orchestras, my imagination took fire, and the day came when I determined to make a trip to the East to see them for myself.

This testament to the kind of unexpected imaginative obsession with a distant culture that can be awakened through the medium of recorded music is a perfect example of why I think that the Confluence is the very beginning of the future of music. And if this is true, then the petty certainties that characterize the conclusions of so many of the people who write about music are worth less than the paper that they are no longer printed on.

We are at the beginning of a new era in music history. While I don't think that music is, right now, a universal language, I think that it might well be on it's way to becoming one. But I might be wrong. Either way, there is no way that anyone can know how it will turn out. This uncertainty is the one absolute certainty about musical culture in our time. Any position other than this, any claim to knowledge about music that is less tentative than this, is either a deliberate pose, an ignorant assumption, or sheer arrogance.

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Roger Scruton's Ear (Part 1)

September 28, 2010

I have described the Confluence as "the context in which the global musical culture of our time exists". I also wrote that

Unfortunately for our understanding of this culture, few people seem to realize this. People interested in one variety of music insulate themselves from exposure to other varieties. The consensus makers of popular music have little interaction with the consensus makers of jazz or 'classical' music; and the rest of the world's music receives even fewer 'crossover' listeners. The ease with which we can listen to whatever we want also makes it easier than ever to ignore everything else. And so the forest remains unseen because everyone is busy building and personalizing their own tree-houses within it.
This tendency to 'insulate ourselves from exposure to other varities of music' is a natural, and indeed an unavoidable tendency in a world with such an abundance of potential listening material. But if one wishes to bring a scholar's eye to bear on contemporary musical culture, ignoring the Confluence can be hazardous, leading to all manner of erroneous conclusions.

Roger Scruton is most definitely a scholar, with a scholar's eye; and as luck would have it, he has recently written an article about contemporary musical culture; and yes, sadly but conveniently, it does in fact ignore the Confluence completely. The article is called The Post-Modern Ear, and as the reader might have guessed, I disagree with it, or with a lot of it, anyway.

Before I begin, I would like to note that I am not unsympathetic to what I understand of Dr Scruton's perspective. I think that the Western Tonal Tradition, which forms the locus of Dr Scruton's musical interests, is certainly worthy of profound and continued respect. The tradition that gave birth to the music of Bach, Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms is a chapter of cultural history on the order of Elizabethan drama, Greek geometry, or Roman architectural engineering. Sadly this implies that, like the rest of these cultural landmarks, the Western Tonal Tradition is a thing of the past.

As I noted here, musical culture has undergone a fundamental change. A change from a world of insular, geographically bounded musical traditions (of which the Western Tonal Tradition is one), to a world where audible musical events from all of these traditions are available instantly and everywhere in the form of audio recordings. This change has been driven by technology, and is therefore external to the musical cultures that are effected by it. This has made it difficult to see and easy to ignore, for modern scholarship is often stubbornly immune to interdisciplinary influences. And yet it is a change at least as fundamental to musical culture as the printing press was to linguistic culture.

Now what is confusing is that during the same years (circa 1880-1945) that a global musical culture was brought into being by this fundamental external change (i.e. recording technology), the Western Tonal Tradition itself was undergoing a relatively momentous internal change. This change was a result of internal developments that we shall discuss presently, and appears on the whole to be unconnected with recording technology. Dr Scruton, following a venerable humanistic tradition, refers to this change as a 'crisis', and begins his article with a discussion of it.

Towards the end of the 19th century, and in the wake of Wagner's achievement in Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal, the musical language which had been common property of Western composers since the Renaissance, underwent a crisis.

What we now know as tonality, which is the system of keys and scales, and the harmonic progressions, which had been accepted by audiences since at least the end of the Middle Ages, entered a kind of flux. Keys were no longer stable; dissonances began to resolve onto other dissonances (as in the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde), new harmonies began to insert themselves into the old sequences, and the scale expanded from eight notes to the twelve-note chromatic scale, using notes at random from other keys, and constructing sinuous melodic lines that seemed more adapted to dark and solitary emotions than to the cheerful day-light exuberance of choral song.

Notice that the whole concept of a 'musical language' is assumed to be identical with a 'system of keys and scales', and with 'harmonic progressions'. This assumption is an extremely common one, in theory texts, and in traditional musicology generally. It is, as Suzanne Langer would have said, a 'natural way of thinking'.

To see how deeply entrenched this assumption is, consider the example of this book, a standard outline course in music theory. It starts with a discussion of 'The Two Axes' of music, 'Time and Pitch'. But of it's 300 plus pages, only 8 of them, less than 3%, discuss the time axis specifically. Other than that, the whole thing is about pitch related phenomena. Of course, melody involves rhythm, so the section about 'Melody Writing' has a few passing mentions of rhythm and meter, but other than that it is all about pitch, as is indicated by the chapter titles: 'Tonality and Key Feeling', 'Four-Part Vocal Texture', 'Chord Connection', 'Chord Choice', 'Harmonizing a Melody', 'Nonharmonic Tones', 'Seventh and Ninth Chords', 'Altered Chords and Chromaticism', and 'Solving Figured Bass'.

Now obviously Dr Scruton is not responsible for a book written on another continent in 1974. But his view of music coincides exactly with the viewpoint exemplified by this book, and virtually any 'music theory' book in common use. This view of music, for which we will coin the term "TONICENTRICISM", is a defining characteristic of the Western Tonal Tradition. It has a history that reaches deep into the ancient past; all the way back to the semi-mythical figure of Pythagoras.

Pythagoras is credited with the discovery of the fact that the most basic concordant harmonic intervals (i.e. the octave, the fifth, and the fourth) correspond exactly with the first 3 superparticular ratios (i.e. 1:2, 2:3, and 3:4). This discovery made quite a splash on the ancient Mediterranean intellectual scene. We are still feeling the ripples that it created. To quote Edward Lowinsky:

When Pythagoras found that musical intervals that strike the ear agreeably have proportions of great simplicity...he made an extraordinary discovery, something that Goethe called an "Urphänomen" - a phenomenon so fundamental as to be incapable of reduction or explanation.
You don't have to be a mathematician, a musician, or even a believer in metempsychosis to realize that this was pretty exciting, as far as ancient scientific discoveries go. There is a definite 'wow' factor involved, especially when you consider that Pythagoras had no scientific instruments to speak of.

Because of this 'wow' factor, because Pythagoras was very influential, and also because his followers were associated with all kinds of mystical religious beliefs, these harmonic facts gained a vague but profound significance. This is how music became one of the four mathematical 'arts' of the quadrivium. This is how 'music theory' was born, with it's vague but powerful authority over musical practice.

Today this authority is relatively weak, but once upon a time it was quite powerful. For over a thousand years, European musicians, inhibited by Pythagorean dogma, had shunned the harmonic interval called a third. While musicians couldn't avoid them entirely, they didn't accept them as stable consonances like the octave, the fifth and the fourth. Even today, when musicians use thirds as commonly as cooks use salt, music theory texts refer to the octave, the fifth, and the fourth as 'Perfect' intervals, while the third and the sixth are merely 'major' or 'minor'. One finds these kinds of epistemological ghosts throughout music theory, vestigial organs from a time when harmonic theory was considered more important than musical practice

Now what complicates all of this is that the perfect world of Pythagoras wasn't really perfect.

It's like this: If you start at the pitch called C-1 and ascend by 12 fifths to C6,


it should be the same C6 you would get if you started at C-1 and ascended by 7 octaves.



Wrong. The circle of fifths is just slightly out of tune with the system of octaves. This apple of discord, this grain of sand in the divine harmonic machinery, is actually quite small: 24 cents (i.e. less than 1/4 of what we call a semitone or half step), and it too is named after Pythagoras: it's called the Pythagorean comma. And small as it is, it is quite noticeable.

Now you may have noticed that it would be impossible for C6 on a piano keyboard to be different from C6 on the same piano keyboard. It would violate the principle of excluded middle among other things, and we sure as hell wouldn't want to do that. And yet there are, demonstrably, thousands of perfectly usable piano-style keyboards in the world. How is this possible? It's possible because of tuning techniques known as temperaments.

A temperament is essentially a way of tuning a keyboard (or any other instrument with fixed pitches), that attempts to distribute the Pythagorean comma inaudibly across all the pitches in the instruments range. For the past 200-odd years a system called 12 tone equal temperament has been used throughout the western world, and today the vast majority of contemporary musical instruments, whether made in the US, the UK, Germany, Japan or China, are designed to play in this temperament. The 'crisis' of tonality referred to by Dr Scruton took place in a world that used the 12 tone equal tempered system exclusively.

But here's the rub: even though most people don't notice the imperfections of our modern tuning system, this doesn't change the fact that these imperfections exist. And to anyone trained to hear these differences, they are both obvious and unpleasant. For instance, a pure or 'just' major third corresponds to the ratio 4:5. This interval is a full 14 cents away from the tempered major third that we hear every day. In fact, of all the consonent intervals (i.e. octaves, fifths, fourths, major and minor thirds and sixths) only the octave is accurately represented in 12 tone equal temperament. All of the rest of the intervals are mere approximations of their acoustically pure or 'just' counterparts.

While there is nothing wrong with this as a practical matter, from a theoretical standpoint it's a disaster. As David Doty has said:

Later theorists, most notably Jean Philippe Rameau (1683-1784), appropriated the harmonic series as further support from "nature" for the primacy of whole number ratios as the source of consonance. It apparently did not strike most of the theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as problematic that, although they formed the theoretical basis for the whole of contemporary harmonic practice, simple-ratio intervals were gradually being purged from musical practice in favor of tempered approximations. (emphasis supplied)

Now let's be clear here. Music theory is supposed to be as close to 'science' as the Western Tonal Tradition gets. And yet it's whole raison d'être is based on unacknowledged approximations and fudged data. Music theory today is a bastard child of ancient Pythagorean science and some very odd fantasies that are taught as if they were fact. With such a shaky 'foundation', it is no wonder that the Western Tonal Tradition had a crisis.

To Be Continued.....

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The Confluence

July 3, 2010

Last month, I wrote that "We live in a world in which ancient and modern musical traditions from across the globe have suddenly found themselves to be confluent with each other" and that "This confluence is the context in which the global musical culture of our time exists." It is time to explain what I mean by this.

Music has been a localized phenomena throughout most of human history. Whether you were listening to Irish fiddle music, or Indian classical music, or Balinese gamelan music, or the polyglot European art music of the 19th century, what you were listening to was the product of a cultural tradition that was limited by geography. There were only two ways for music to get outside the region it was made in: either the musician had to travel, or someone had to write the music down in some form of musical notation and get it published.

Neither travel nor notation ever did much to transcend geography, at least not by the standards of our own time. While it was not uncommon for musicians to travel, say, within Europe, there were few if any musical pilgrimages to other parts of the globe (with the exception of American expatriates to Europe like Louis Gottschalk). Nor did the advanced musical cultures of the East draw on the practices of Europeans. All in all, musical culture in 1876 was as geographically limited as it had been in 1376. And then, in 1877, Thomas Edison invented the Phonograph. And nothing about music was ever to be the same again.

Of course, this is an exaggeration. Edison's invention was regarded as a marvelous curiosity to be sure, but few saw it as being anything more than that at first. Many years were to pass before the full effects of this invention were felt, and by the time they were, it was no longer a marvel, but an unremarkable household object. Recorded music conquered the world by stealth; becoming part of modern life as a humble domestic servant, and assuming a position of cultural leadership while no one was looking.

Some aspects of this cultural leadership are well-known: the celebrity music machine, for example, has been one of the most visible parts of modern culture since a recording of Caruso's voice sold a million copies in 1907. But many of the less visible aspects of the recorded music revolution are shrouded in obscurity. The Confluence is the greatest of these.

The Confluence results from the fact that actual, audible, repeatable musical events can be created anywhere in the world and sent to anyplace else in the world. The ramifications of this fact are beyond counting, but a few of the more salient include:

  • The formative influences available to musicians have multiplied exponentially.
  • Musical syncretism, once the province of an educated minority, has become the norm, as musical cultures incorporate elements of music from around the world into their art.
  • The historical, geographically bounded traditions within which music has been created throughout most of it's history have become attenuated as they have intermingled with other traditions.
  • New traditions, defined not by geography but by the preferences of musicians and listeners, have come to dominate people's conceptions of music.
  • For the first time, notationally illiterate musicians can preserve their art for future generations.
  • Conversely, the musical knowledge-stream has been enriched by the permanent addition of the sounds created by the myriad musical cultures without a notational tradition.

This list, which could easily be extended, is enough to demonstrate that recording has changed music fundamentally. Any musical sound can be recorded. No matter how obscure the creator, no matter how remote the culture, no matter how different the tuning systems employed, no matter how complex the rhythms involved, if the result is an audible musical event, then it can be recorded.

And if it has been recorded, then it will become part of The Confluence.

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What Has Happened to Music?

May 31, 2010

One of the things that makes a reasonable discussion about music such an unlikely event in our time is the fact that our knowledge of this thing we call 'Music' is profoundly limited.

In the past 100-odd years, 'Music', however understood, has undergone all manner of changes. To call the cumulative effect of these changes 'revolutionary' understates the matter, for revolutions can be seen in vast profusion wherever one looks:

  • The Phonograph was revolutionary.
  • Radio was revolutionary.
  • Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was revolutionary.
  • Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire was revolutionary.
  • The Cassette Tape was revolutionary.
  • Professional Multi-track tape recorders were revolutionary.
  • The Condenser Microphone was revolutionary.
  • The 1925 recording of St. Louis Blues featuring Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong was revolutionary; and the same could be said of Duke Ellington's 1932 recording of It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing).
  • There are many who would say that the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's album, and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon are both revolutionary. And of course there are others who would say that these albums are horribly overrated, while truly revolutionary albums like Pet Sounds and The Madcap Laughs are neglected, and so forth.
  • There are some people who would point out the revolutionary artistic implications of the work of people like John Oswald or DJ Shadow. Others regard these artists as being revolutionary only because of their anarchistic disregard for intellectual property rights.
  • And of course, the celebrity revolutionary musical change-maker of the moment is THE  INTERNET, which, depending upon who is talking, is either the coolest new thing ever, or the end of everything that was ever good about music.
Such examples could, of course, be multiplied indefinitely, but I think the point is clear enough: a great many major changes have taken place in the world of music in the past 100 years.

Now it is certainly true that false claims to 'revolutionary' importance are common in our culture. When a word that once referred to the violent overthrow of a nation's government ends up being used to describe vaccuum cleaners and telephone interfaces, you know that it has lost some of it's original power. But if any cultural development deserves to be called revolutionary, it is the history of music from the Phonograph to the internet. Musical culture between 1900 and 1999 was subject to more technological changes than it had been for the entirety of it's previous history. And while the history of this technology is well established, it's effects on music are obscure: shrouded by ignorance and neglect.

Sadly, we are not humble in our ignorance. On the contrary, the vast majority of people seem to think that they understand the nature of music instinctively, without difficulty. This is not a matter of pride or achievement. It is, rather, an unthinking assumption. Nor is it a belligerant assumption; we aren't dealing with people refusing to look into one of Galileo's telescopes because they already know the real truth. No, it is more a matter of seeing things out of context, simply because no context has been provided.

We live in a world in which ancient and modern musical traditions from across the globe have suddenly found themselves to be confluent with each other. That this confluence has taken place has nothing whatever to do with these musical traditions themselves, but is rather due to the impingement of independently evolving technological forces. At the same time, these same technological forces have given birth to new musical traditions. These traditions are unaware of what makes them different from older musical traditions, for they are an organic part of the same confluence that has subsumed these older traditions. This confluence is the context in which the global musical culture of our time exists.

Unfortunately for our understanding of this culture, few people seem to realize this. People interested in one variety of music insulate themselves from exposure to other varieties. The consensus makers of popular music have little interaction with the consensus makers of jazz or 'classical' music; and the rest of the world's music receives even fewer 'crossover' listeners. The ease with which we can listen to whatever we want also makes it easier than ever to ignore everything else. And so the forest remains unseen because everyone is busy building and personalizing their own tree-houses within it.

It might seem presumptuous to assert that such revolutionary change could have occurred without attracting the notice of the relevant experts and cognoscenti, but such a situation is not unprecedented. A quick look at the work of Elizabeth Eisenstein on the cultural influence of the printing press provides us with an example of the same kind of phenomena taking place on a much larger scale:

According to Steinberg: "The history of printing is an integral part of the general history of civilization." Unfortunately, the statement is not applicable to written history as it stands, although it is probably true enough of the actual course of human affairs. Far from being integrated into other works, studies dealing with the history of printing are isolated and artificially sealed off from the rest of historical literature. In theory, these studies center on a topic that impinges on many other fields. In fact, they are seldom consulted by scholars who work in any other field, perhaps because their relevance to other fields is still not clear.....
The effects produced by printing have aroused little controversy, not because views on the topic coincide, but because almost none has been set forth in an explicit and systematic form.
If 500+ years have not been enough to integrate the history of the printing press into the rest of European history, it is hardly surprising that the history of audio technology has yet to be incorporated into the history of music. The nature of the relationship between technology and the evolution of music is likely to remain obscure for some time to come.

Nonetheless, we will be exploring this relationship over the next few months. These explorations may well be rather tentative, more a matter of making suggestions for future research rather than trying to come to any definitive conclusions. But one has to start somewhere.

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The World Inside an SM57

April 26, 2010
The Shure SM57 is probably the single most common piece of professional audio equipment in the world. It is used on every kind of sound source, every day, in live music venues everywhere; it has been used on drums and guitar amps in countless recordings; and it has been on the lectern of every US president since Lyndon Johnson. Steve Albini hates them, of course, but the rest of the world uses them with abandon, and as a result they are as common as dirt and almost as cheap, being available for as little as 75 US dollars on Ebay.

What few people realize is that this humble bit of kit embodies a staggering amount of scientific knowledge and technical know-how. Everything about this microphone, from it's tailored frequency response, to it's ability to work safely in earsplitting high SPL applications, to it's durability, small size, light weight, and low price, is a collective result of the disparate knowledge of countless people: electrical engineers, acousticians, materials scientists, machinists and manufacturers. The hours of research implicit in every SM57 are beyond counting.

The SM57 is an example of what is called a 'moving coil' or 'dynamic' microphone. There are, generally speaking, three kinds of microphones in common use: condenser microphones, ribbon microphones, and dynamic microphones. There are other kinds of course, many of which have been designed for very specific purposes, but the vast majority of the microphones used for musical applications such as studio recording or live sound reinforcement belong to one of the three categories listed above.

All three kinds of microphones were first developed in the early years of electrical audio engineering: the condenser microphone was patented by E.C. Wente in 1916, the ribbon microphone was invented by Walter Schottky in 1923, while the first dynamic microphone, initially called the Marconi-Sykes Magnetophone, was put into use by the BBC in the same year. This 'Magnetophone' was an amazing piece of work. It was known as the 'Meat Safe', because it "required an enormous (6ft x 4ft x 2ft) 10 valve amplifier" to operate. Even more imposing than the amp was the fact that it required an immense electromagnet, consuming 4 amps from an 8 volt battery (pdf), just to create the microphone's internal magnetic field.

Now what we call a dynamic microphone today consists of a diaphragm that vibrates when sound waves hit it, that is attached to a coil of wire that is suspended in a magnetic field. This concept was first developed by E.C. Wente and was awarded US patent #1,766,473 in 1930. Reading this patent, with it's description of an 80 year old technological concept, is quite humbling. This passage, describing part of a method of negating the natural resonance of the diaphragm, is typical:

To simplify greatly: the device described in this patent works by an action that is analogous to the action of a loudpeaker in reverse. The magnetic energy necessary to make this kind of microphone work is very great considering it's size, which is why the commercial development of these microphones lagged behind the development of condenser and ribbon microphones. The only way to get that kind of magnetic force in the 1920's was to use large electromagnets, which were bulky, heavy, and altogether inconvenient.

What changed this situation was the development of more powerful permanent magnets. The first of these were developed around 1930 and were made of Alnico (aluminum-nickel-cobalt). Alnico allowed Shure to introduce it's Unidyne series of microphones, which were, as the catalog stated (pdf) "The first high quality, low-cost moving-coil type dynamic [microphone] with true cardioid unidirectional characteristics". This might have been true, but the 55A still cost just under 43 US dollars in 1940, which amounts to about 660 dollars in 2010 when adjusted for inflation. This is not a low price for a dynamic microphone in today's market. The direct descendent of the 55A, the 55SH, today lists for just 200 US dollars. Shure's SM7, a first rate microphone used on hundreds of classic vocal tracks, lists for just 436 dollars. And the humble SM57 bottoms out the list with a MSRP of just 124 dollars, which would have been a mere 8 dollars in 1940.

What has caused this drop in price? Well, what hasn't? After the advent of Alnico magnets came the development of barium and strontium based ceramic magnets in the early fifties, samarium-cobalt magnets in the seventies, and neodymium-iron-boron magnets in the early eighties. Each of these developments allowed new levels of performance to be achieved, or allowed the same levels of performance to be achieved more conveniently, or for less money. These magnets have been exploited not just by makers of dynamic microphones, but by makers of loudspeakers, headphones, and phonograph cartridges as well.

Then, too, the other components of these microphones have undergone a similar evolution. The duralumin diaphragm employed by Wente has been replaced many times over, as can be seen by looking over this patent, assigned to, you guessed it, Shure Brothers, in 1993. It cites 7 other patents, one of which describes 'Multiple layer packaging sheet material' of all things. This patent in turn cites about 40 other patents, ranging over a hundred years, which describe things like methods 'for making a polyvinylidene chloride coated biaxially oriented polyethylene terephthalate container'....

Layers and layers of mind-numbingly complex technical and scientific insights, all to explain some packaging material. Packaging material which, apparently, is useful in the manufacture of microphone diaphragms.

This ramified repository of knowledge presents itself no matter where you look: magnet, diaphragm, voice coil, voice coil cartridge, methods of assembling voice coil cartridge, materials used in housing of voice coil cartridge....all reach with a million roots into the knowledge of the past; all are constantly being refined and improved upon.

And of course, much of the actual manufacturing is done in places like China and Mexico, where wages are lower. This sort of thing often creates a great deal of anger at places like gearslutz, but this is a short sighted anger. All products of modern manufacture involve components that come from across the globe, as Leonard Read pointed out in 1958. And what exactly is being implied when complaining about things being made in China, anyway? Are Chinese people worse at quality control for some reason?

In any case, if you sit back and think about it, the whole thing beggars the imagination: centuries of scientific knowledge; countless man hours of research and testing; manufacturing procedures taking place at facilities across the globe, using materials from across the globe, to be shipped across the globe. And all of this is taking place just to create a humble, low cost microphone; one that is cheap enough for musicians and club owners to afford, and yet is good enough to be used by the office of the U. S. President.

Its kind of miraculous, really.

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A Skeptical Response to the Cynical Musician

March 13, 2010
There is an interesting post from January over at The Cynical Musician called The Paradise That Should Have Been. It is well written, and it seems to be reasonable. The author of this post is "deeply disillusioned about how it (i.e. the internet) turned out". The post is an elucidation of this disillusionment.

Now straight off we have to point out that it is impossible to speak reasonably about how the internet 'turned out'. The author is apparantly trained in economics, but seems to know little of economic history, for even a cursory glance at it's pages would show that there has not been enough time since the internet's inception to be able to discern how it will, eventually, turn out. One need only look at the early years of the phonograph to see an example of why this is so.

Ten years after Edison invented the Phonograph in 1877, no one yet had any conception of what we call the music industry, and there were still many who envisioned the phonograph's future not as an entertainment device, but as a business machine. Ten years later, Edison himself was still referring to phonographs as 'talking machines', and many records still came in packages that featured the name, not of the performer, but of the manufacturer. It was not until thirty years had passed, when Caruso sang on the the first ever million selling record, that the music business as we know it today could be said to have come into being.

The world wide web is just about 20 years old, and it's usefulness as a music distribution system is younger still. Many musicians still have no idea how to take advantage of what the internet already makes possible, and even the most tech savvy people in the world are powerless to say what it will make possible in the future. It is sheer hubris for anyone to claim that they know how it will turn out.

Moving along, we come to the author's main complaint about the internet, and it is a familiar one: he isn't making enough money off of it:

"The Internet should have been a godsend to musicians and creators of replicable works in general, for two reasons:

1. The two biggest problems an independent creator faces are distribution and promotion, which in the past meant the need to deal with publishers (and all associated creative and financial trade-offs). The Internet has enabled even the smallest business to reach a potentially global consumer base.

2. Creative works such as books, movies and music are pretty much the only products (others include software and news) that can be delivered on-line and as such seem custom-fitted to e-commerce.

Looking at the two points above, we see that the Internet should have opened wide new vistas for the creative sector and enabled thousands of independent creators to flourish without the need to court big business. So why didn't it pan out that way?"

Here again we see the same unwarranted certainty concerning how things 'panned out', as if one could take a snapshot of a transitional process and make final statements about it on the basis of such a snapshot. But the real problem is a more subtle form of confusion. The author bemoans the fact that the internet failed to 'enable thousands of independent creators to flourish without the need to court big business'. The existence of this failure is taken as self evident. The possibility that thousands of independent creators already are flourishing is one that seems not to occur to the author, which is odd, as this is quite obviously the case.

This confusion is probably due, at least in part, to the ambiguity of the word 'flourish'. The first sense of the word: "to grow luxuriantly; thrive"
is quite distinct from the second: "to achieve success; prosper".
This is a telling ambiguity. It represents two different ways of looking at musical culture. The first simply requires that the culture itself be thriving, the second requires that it make people prosperous and successful.

Now the cynical musician clearly believes the latter. Furthermore, he appears to believe that these two senses are more or less the same:

"The trends on the Internet are such, that it is becoming harder and harder to pursue recording music as a career. If recordings aren't a money maker, they'll be treated as one of three things: advertising, a hobby or not worth the bother. But we still want recorded music, don't we?"
'Advertising, a hobby or not worth the bother.' Cynical indeed.

It is interesting to compare this with a rather different statement:

"There is no excuse for anyone to write fiction for public consumption unless he has been called to do so by the presence of a gift. It is the nature of fiction not to be good for much unless it is good in itself.

A gift of any kind is a considerable responsibility. It is a mystery in itself, something gratuitous and wholly undeserved, something whose real uses will probably always be hidden from us. Usually the artist has to suffer certain deprivations in order to use his gift with integrity. Art is a virtue of the practical intellect, and the practice of any virtue demands a certain asceticism and a very definite leaving-behind of the niggardly part of the ego."

These words, written by Flannery O'Connor, are worth remembering today, when cultural 'content' is often created perfunctorily and consumed indiscriminately. But more to the point, they place the cynical musician's remarks in a rather damning context. "If it is 'not worth the bother' to you" one can imagine her saying, "then you probably shouldn't".

Of course, Flannery O'Connor was a literary artist, a profession with rather an older and grander tradition behind it than that of recording artist. But the recording, as a category, is no temporary fad. On the contrary, it is the most common permanent form of musical thought in our time. I see no reason to hold recording artists to a lower standard than literary artists. Unless, of course, one doesn't quite take them seriously as artists.

I suspect this is often more true than people like to admit. Even the Beatles, who as a group formed the very model of a successful recording artist, look rather silly on a platform next to Homer, Sophocles, Shakespeare and Proust. I mean, they all had the same hair cut. They wore uniforms for chrissakes. From the beginning, their popularity had at least as much to do with their being thought to be cute as it had to do with their musical talent. Melodies, even great melodies, don't make hordes of young girls want to scream your name and rush the stage and buy everything that has your picture on it. Melodies merely make people want to sing along with them. If you want all of that other stuff you need to be, not just an artist, but a celebrity.

Of course, this is what most people want. The glory of being an artist like Proust is an obscure glory: he lived with his parents until he was middle-aged, didn't publish anything until he was over 40, and died as an invalid 10 years later, leaving his life's work unfinished. Who wants that shit? Who in their right mind wouldn't prefer being rich and famous at 22? Famous for writing and performing simple 3 minute songs that everyone calls you a genius for writing, while millions of members of the opposite sex tell you over and over again how wonderful you are?

This is the dream of all prospective American Idols and their ilk: to be a rock star. And while the internet did not kill this dream, it has made everything much more complicated. The Beatles just had to show up at Abbey Road studios and play their music, and the machinery of the music industry took care of the rest. Today 12 year old kids have access to music production software that allows them to do, or at least to attempt, things that the Beatles and Geoff Emerick could only have imagined, while the internet provides methods of distributing that music throughout the world much more efficiently then even the largest old-fashioned distribution network.

And so the world is flooded with home made rock star wannabes. Many of them have no idea how to make decent recordings. Many, too, have much less talent than they have ambition. Because of these people, and they are legion, terabytes of bandwidth are consumed daily transmitting a world-wide, never-ending episode of the Gong Show...without the gong. Strangely, most consumers are uninterested in paying for any of this.

If you grew up with dreams of being a recording artist of the traditional variety, and worked hard toward that goal, making sacrifices along the way, this might well seem to be a frustrating turn of events, something akin to that obnoxious commercial for the Ladders. But it is hard to know how much the internet has actually changed things, and how much it has merely made it easier to see (or, harder to avoid seeing) things that have been going on forever. Stardom and celebrity have always been difficult attainments. They require an unpredictable and fortuitous confluence of events to take place, and there are always more people trying to attain them than have any hope of doing so. In the past, though, the activities of these people were confined to talent agency offices, theatrical auditions, Hollywood parties, and new band night. To the world at large they were invisible. The internet merely makes them visible.

Now some people are probably thinking something along the lines of: 'But I don't want to be a rock star, I just want to make a living off of my recordings'. They might even mean it. But the sad fact is that it is just about impossible to do this without being a rock star. Steve Albini explained why this is so many years ago, and today, 15 years later, he still hasn't changed his mind. An exception to this rule is licensing your music for commercial purposes, and it is noteworthy that this kind of income is to a large extent impervious to the kind of 'piracy' that people like to blame on the web. I am yet to hear of a television commercial using a pirated copy of someone's song that they found on a p2p network.

But whether the internet has damaged or destroyed the dream of being a rock star, or has merely made the hopelessness of this dream more evident, it should be remembered that there is a lot more to music than these dreams of glitz and celebrity and screaming crowds and simple anthems. And the fact is that this 'more' is widely, freely and legally available all over the web. The internet has opened up countless creative and communicative opportunities to musicians. It offers free educational resources, ranging from basic recording guides and practical music theory, to advanced audio engineering and free interactive lessons in classical orchestration. It offers easy and free access to the scholarly work of musicologists from Phillip Spitta to Colin McPhee, recordings of the music of cultures from Tuva to Indonesia, and the scores of composers from Dufay to Bartok. One can download legitimately free software that allows one to make first rate recordings; software that has the functionality of equipment that costs many thousands of dollars.

Above all, the internet allows musical artists to practice their craft with integrity; beholden to no one and nothing but their own aesthetic convictions. And that is something that no amount of skepticism, or cynicism, can call into doubt.

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Music and the Internet

February 10, 2010

In discussions of 'Music and the Internet', the locus of the argument has almost always been some or other variation on 'how will musicians get paid?'.

On one side we have the 'Everything is Falling Apart!' contingent, with it's constant demands for more stringent laws to protect it's members from what they like to call 'piracy'. These people generally seem to regard the internet as a threat, though some of them would be perfectly willing to accept it if only it could be controlled and licensed like Cable TV or Satellite Radio.

On the other side we have the 'Everything about the Internet is Totally Awesome!' contingent. These people counsel musicians to embrace the internet. This contingent consists for the most part of technological enthusiasts who are quick to notice the advantages of the internet, but who are often impatient with people who are less than thrilled about the disruptions it has created.

While this seemingly interminable argument is no doubt fascinating, one wonders if these issues really do merit their solitary place at the head of the table. For all of the talk, pro and con, about embracing new paradigms, the fact is that whichever side one is on, the whole debate has been framed by the music industry.

Think of it: the whole dialogue concerns getting paid and business opportunities; connecting with fans and giving people a reason to buy; the plight of 'fledgling songwriters who can't live off ticket and T-shirt sales'; the economics of abundance and the long tail. In other words, the whole debate has been about the financial well-being of musicians and the industries that support them; and not about the aesthetic well-being of musicians and the art that they practice.

I can not say that I know exactly what the 'aesthetic well-being' of music might consist of. But I am quite sure that I know at least as much about it as Edgar Bronfman, Lyor Cohen or Tommy Mottola. I am also quite sure that none of us deserve to determine which music will be recorded for posterity and shared with the world and which will be forgotten. And even though I respect the legacy of such visionary figures as Nesuhi Ertegun and Sam Phillips, I don't think that they deserved to make those determinations either.

But deserving or not, label executives and their A and R men did in fact make such determinations throughout most of the history of recorded sound. These people, and the industries they were a part of, acted as gatekeepers, standing between musicians and their potential audience. They didn't do this to be mean, or evil, necessarily. But the power to do evil was most definitely theirs to exercise as they saw fit.

This power derived from the essential nature of the recording industries. Before the internet, recorded music required a tangible medium to be distributed. The form that this medium took changed quite frequently: going gradually from the Edison cylinder to the 78 rpm disc, to the LP and 45, to the cassette tape and on to the compact disc. Each of these changes were in the end unavoidable. Few if any companies could survive making monaural 78 rpm shellac records when microgroove stereo 331/3 rpm records were the industry standard. The monolithic nature of this progression is probably what gave birth to our monolithic conception of 'the industry'.

There are many who love this thing we call 'the industry'. Some are enamored of the grand tradition: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Hit Parade; Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith; Bing Crosby and Elvis and Johnny Cash and the Beatles. Others are shamelessly fascinated with the glamour and spectacle, apparantly unaware that music has any other value than as a pretext for celebrity gossip and fashion talk. Yet others define themselves in opposition to the industry even as they are working within it, in that strange sort of hostile symbiosis that we characterize with the adjective 'punk'.

But whether you love or hate 'the industry', it has become an anachronism. Though it may continue to exist for quite some time in some form or another, it will be as a ghost, a pale shadow of it's former self, because it's very raison d'être has disappeared, superseded in the blink of an eye by the internet.

I have discussed elsewhere how the internet and digital audio have democratized the means of creating and distributing audio recordings, but no one could possibly describe these changes any more clearly and eloquently than Clay Shirky, whose words regarding the catastrophic changes faced by the newspaper industries are equally applicable here:

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know "If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?" To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.

With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves - the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public - has stopped being a problem.

The core problem that the music industry solved - the difficulty of making and distributing audio recordings - has stopped being a problem.
This is progress, as clearly and obviously as the advent of the printing press was progress. To anyone who really cares about the art of music as a whole, or about our ability to understand and do justice to musical traditions alien to our own, this is progress.

Whether or not anyone makes any money off of it is a trivial sideshow by comparison, one that only seems important to people because they are still allowing the industry to frame the debate.

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Traditional Musicians and Remix culture

January 8, 2010
Remixing is a recurring subject of controversy in discussions of recent musical developments. From academic publications such as Lawrence Lessig's latest book, to exchanges like the ones in this thread at KVR, to anarchic shitstorms like the comment section following this Techdirt post, discussions of remixing are as polarizing as they are popular.

Remixing as a concept presents us with many questions that are far from easy to answer. The classic discussion of the issues surrounding this concept is Chris Cutler's Plunderphonia. This article is justly famous, in no small part due to it's stark and intelligent presentation of one side of the issue. Sadly, I know of nothing on the other side that is even half as good. Most of what I have found concerns not the art of music, but the livelihood of recording artists and other beneficiaries of IP law. Although there are many who decry the aesthetic emptiness of remixed music, one senses that these aesthetic objections are merely talking points in a greater effort to vilify the unauthorized usage of copyright material.

I myself am not in a position to write a response to Chris Cutler's article from the 'other side', as I tend to agree with most of what he has written. But there are, implicit in his article, a few assumptions that I find myself in disagreement with. These assumptions are expressed, not in titles, or headers, or summations, but in obiter dicta. They are examples of what Suzanne Langer referred to as 'natural ways of thinking': things that are not asserted, simply because they seem so obvious.

While it is pointless and irresponsible to take someone to task for 'what you just know they really meant' when they wrote something, it is also important to recognize that assumptions are at least as powerful as assertions, and that they deserve to be examined at least as carefully. And so, like a good remixer, we will rip the aforementioned obiter dicta out of context, and discuss them on their own merits, without worrying about their author's intentions, or holding him accountable for our interpretations.

(Musical) "Notation does not merely quantise the material, reducing it to simple units but, constrained by writability, readability and playability, is able to encompass only a very limited degree of complexity within those units"

The idea of notation being 'limited' is both trite and true.

It is trite because it is commonly used as an excuse by insecure musicians who are too lazy or preoccupied to learn how to read music. (The ones who aren't insecure just sort of shrug it off, because really, who gives a shit?)

It is true because it is very easy to imagine sounds and musical events which would be difficult or impossible to notate, but which would be easy to create using modern technology.

But 'limited' is a problematic word. For example, a deck of cards is a very limited thing: there are only 4 suits, and each suit contains the exact same 13 'numbered' cards as the others. But limited though it is, there are in the neighborhood of 1068 possible shufflings of it. (For a sense of scale, consider that only about 1018 seconds have passed since the big bang took place.) Nor does the 'limited' nature of the deck seem to have limited the number of different kinds of games that may be played with it, nor the variations possible within those games.

Similarly, the number of musical possibilities that can be accessed by notation is rarely a limiting factor in modern music. A tiny handful of the harmonic combinations available via notation are used in popular music (and yes this includes 'underground' popular music). And almost a century after Stravinsky challenged the boundaries of notated rhythm in the Rite of Spring, the vast majority of musicians seem content to create music that uses stereotyped and easily notated rhythmic patterns in 4/4 time almost exclusively.

In one sense, whether or not a working method is 'limiting' is a personal issue. If you are an Inuit throat singer, and you want to jam with other Inuit throat singers, notation is going to be pretty damn useless to your efforts. But if notation is limiting in this sense, so is every other working method available to musicians.

All working methods are good for accomplishing some things, less good for accomplishing others. If the method is good for accomplishing what we want to accomplish we might call it 'intuitive' or 'straightforward'. But if the method is not good for accomplishing what we want to accomplish, if it's principles seem unintuitive or it's rules seem arbitrary, we are apt to call it 'limiting'.

It is easy enough to say that notation comes up short in relation to the theoretical possibilities of recorded sound manipulation. But when one compares the practice of people making music with notation to the practice of people making music by manipulating audio directly, the perception of any limitations will depend, as always, on the creativity of the people making the music.

"Old art music paradigms and new technology are simply not able to fit together"

This is just plain wrong. It might have been less wrong when it was published in 1994, but it was still wrong. Of course 'new technology' can mean many things, but no matter which of these meanings we choose, the resulting sentence will still be wrong.

It is certainly true that recording technology has changed music in ways that we are only beginning to understand. And it is also true that this technology has fostered the development of musical cultures (often referred to collectively as 'Audio Culture'), that are in many ways at odds with 'old art music paradigms'. This much, at least, seems beyond reasonable dispute.

But it is a big leap from noting the differences between audio culture and 'old art music pardigms', to asserting that they are inherently incompatible. And it is a leap that will end in a fall, because if anything, the technological developments of the past 15 years have strengthened, rather than weakened, the relationship between 'old art music paradigms and new technology'.

Because the very digital audio and MIDI technologies that have made remixing such a widespread phenomenon have also allowed an unprecedented number of people to play within those very 'old art music paradigms'. We have written elsewhere on the relationship between the orientation of a modern DAW interface and classical notation. This relationship is even stronger if one is using the DAW to control multisampled orchestral instruments.

These instruments commonly come in sets that are organized in groups that mirror the organization of the modern symphonic orchestra. Such sets come in many forms: from budget packages such as the Garritan Personal Orchestra, to the immense Vienna Symphonic Library, to the over the top extravagance of DVZ. Some of these sets even come bundled with the more expensive versions of the notation software that we discussed here.

In fact, the very existence of something like Sibelius 6 is by itself enough to show that 'old art music paradigms and new technology' are perfectly capable of fitting together

"....the moral and legal boundaries which currently constitute important determinants in claims for musical legitimacy, impede and restrain some of the most exciting possibilities in the changed circumstances of the age of recording."

Ah, controversy at last.

This sentence contains a great deal of equivocation. The heart of this equivocation are the words 'musical legitimacy'.

The only musical art that is 'illegitimate' in the legal sense is anything that uses recognizable bits of copyright material without permission. Outside of this one very strictly enforced rule, musical culture is more or less a free for all. Hell, you can even write a song that is openly about your ass and nothing else but your ass, and still achieve #1 hit status.

Of course, 'legitimate' in the legal sense has nothing whatever to do with the vague sentiments that determine artistic 'legitimacy'. But really, does anyone care about such things any more? Worrying about artistic 'legitimacy' is almost something out of the Gernsback Continuum; a concern redolent of another time, and another culture; a culture of sanitized Hollywood musical biographies like Rhapsody in Blue or the Benny Goodman Story. Popular artists no longer humbly seek the approval of professors of music, whose cultural influence is a feeble shadow of it's former self. Does anyone care what Benjamin Boretz thinks of Timbaland or 50 Cent? Does anyone even know who Benjamin Boretz is?

No, one senses that this concern over the 'claims of musical legitimacy' is secondary to concern over musical legalities, i.e. copyright infringement. By conflating legal transgressions with transgressions against some imagined aesthetic straitjacket, the whole ethos of sampled music is imbued with an air of visionary artistic dignity. Sadly, it is quite possible to infringe on other people's copyrights without being remotely visionary: all one needs is a sampler and a CD player.

But the big question is: does the strict enforcement of copyright law really 'impede and restrain some of the most exciting possibilities' of music in our time?

Of course, this depends entirely upon what you find 'exciting'.

I have to confess that my first answer was 'No'. While I have long thought that the current tendency of the recording industries to respond to even the most trivial acts of infringement with a lawsuit is a good deal worse than useless, I found it hard to see how it could 'impede and restrain' artistic progress. If there were no royalty free sources of recorded sound this would have seemed different, but there are many such sources available. From the The University of Iowa Electronic Music Studios samples page, to the Freesound Project, to the immense collection at Open Source Audio, to The Lofi Sampler to our very own samples page, the internet is overflowing with free and legal sources of every imaginable kind of sound. And when I say 'free', I mean as in 'free beer'.

But again, that was my first answer. And upon reflection, I had to admit that whatever the musical possibilities of the free audio samples currently available, the fact is that they are incapable of allusion to, and outright quotation of, the many important cultural memes that are not in the public domain. Quotation and allusion are important elements in most samplist's art. In fact, one could go further and point out that allusion and quotation are characteristic devices in a great deal of modern music generally. One doesn't need to be a fan of Girl Talk or DJ Shadow. The music of 'serious' composers from Charles Ives to Luciano Berio is filled with direct quotations and allusions.

But the use of pre-existing material is much older than than Charles Ives. In fact, the parody mass, a common and commonplace musical form of the renaissance, was based squarely upon the appropration of pre-existing material. Some of the finest works of seminal composers like Josquin desPrez used this form. There can be little doubt that the forms of musical creativity typical of the Flemish renaissance would have been impossible, or at least greatly inhibited, under a regime of IP law like the one we have today. If this isn't an indictment, I don't know what is.

Quotation and stylistic allusion are extraordinarily common in literary works. There has never really been anything very controversial about this. It just makes sense that you are going to quote people when you want to discuss their ideas. And stylistic allusion has been part of western literature at least since Aristophanes wrote 'Frogs'. But while the idea of Aristophanes having to ask the estates of Aeschylus and Euripides for the right to quote them is alien to literary culture, the exact same idea is the norm in audio culture. It has become the norm, not because artistic standards demanded it, nor because artists themselves have demanded it, but because companies and trade groups claiming to represent their interests have demanded it.

Recently, more and more people are starting to doubt the claims of the people making these demands. They have pointed out that the putative purpose of copyright is, as the US constitution has it, to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries; and they have pointed out how often modern copyright law seems to be at odds with these words.

No musician is well served by a culture in which a simple act of musical quotation is fraught with possible infringement issues. It might be the case that the flagrant acts of wholesale uncredited appropriation that some artists have engaged in have encouraged this climate of IP maximalism. But whether or not this is the case, the 'cure' of ever more expansive copyright laws is much more damaging to the development of musical art than the 'disease' of uncredited appropriation.

Remixing is simply a part of modern musical life. If you record your music, and people hear it and like it, it inevitably WILL GET REMIXED.



All of the creators who can't accept this might want to start making their music in secure locations where it can't be recorded by anyone.

It could be glorious, just think of the chances to be exclusive.

Of course, there would have to be invasive searches if you really wanted to ensure that it wasn't recorded. They make some really tiny mics and recorders these days. Perhaps...hey yeah, a nudist concert event for the artistically pure!!


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Real Music Media Samples Go 100% Free

December 15, 2009
We are restructuring things here at Real Music Media. Instead of being sample developers who do music, we are going back to being musicians who do intermittant sample development.

This was necessary for many reasons, the biggest one of which is that we would rather make music than edit samples.

And so, in the spirit of community, rather than closing up shop, we decided to give our catalog away for free.

Please make sure that you subscribe to our RSS feed, so you know about any new free offers we have before we run out of bandwidth for that month.

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The Power of Cheap (and Free)

December 6, 2009
An important side effect of our culture of constantly upgrading everything is the fact that useful things are always becoming cheaper. A computer that was state of the art in 2000, with a single core cpu that has a clock speed of 1 GHz, is not at all remarkable in 2009, when computers built around quadcore cpus with a clock speed of 2.66 GHz are common. But that doesn't mean that the computer of 2000 has become useless. After a certain point, improvements are less about necessity, and more about convenience, or even luxury.

Although there are some who would argue about this, there is good reason to believe that this point has by and large been reached with the electronic devices and computer applications used for creating, recording, and distributing music. The power that these tools place into the hands of a musician of modest means is really quite impressive, especially when considered in the light of history.

In 1960, if you wanted to record some music and distribute it throughout the world, you were contemplating a major undertaking, involving at the very least a recording studio, a vinyl pressing plant, and a whole bunch of expensive postal transactions. Even if you went through all of this trouble, you could only deliver records to people you knew, unless of course you wanted to randomly mail your expensively made records to strangers.

In fact, the only real possibility was to try to get a recording contract with a company that had a distribution network. And hopefully whatever company you signed with also had contacts in radio, so people could hear your music and therefore have a reason for buying it. This was the standard procedure, and it worked fine if you were lucky enough to land a recording contract. It tended to work best if your music was catchy and singable, and it worked even better if you were young and cute and had a marketable personality.

Otherwise, you were kind of screwed.

You could conceivably have used reel to reel tape instead of vinyl, which simply required two really expensive tape machines (one to record on, the other to make copies with) instead of a vinyl pressing plant, but that would have limited your potential audience to the handful of audiophiles who owned reel to reel tape machines.

By 1970, there was another option: the cassette tape, introduced by Phillips in 1965. Cassettes allowed ordinary people to record themselves with ease. The playing/recording decks became popular quite quickly, allowing people to share their music with a large number of others. Such sharing was also enabled by the small size of cassette tapes, which could be mailed anywhere for very little postage.

But of course, you could still only send your tape to people you knew of. There were a few places where you could send them in the hopes of finding a wider audience. The KALX radio show called "The Next Big Thing" was perhaps the best known of these. But this didn't add up to much in the end: if you were lucky, they would play your tape for a few thousand people in the Berkeley area. Once. And again that's if you were lucky.

The technological advances that took place after the cassette didn't seem to favor the independant musician at all. Digital audio started out as an extremely expensive technology. The first commercially available digital recorders sold for 150,000 US dollars each in the late 1970's, which adds up to over 446,000 US dollars today when adjusted for inflation. And then the compact disc, introduced in 1980, became the commercial medium of choice in just a few years. Compact discs were made by an expensive process involving technology that very few people understood. And they were quite obviously superior to cassette tapes by any reasonable measure: they had less distortion, a wider frequency response, greater dynamic range, no surface noise, and a longer playing time. What is more, they weren't worn out by normal use, something that couldn't be claimed for any previous audio storage medium.

It seemed like a dream come true for the recording industries, who somehow managed to get away with charging a great deal more for CDs, despite the fact that they are easier to mass produce than either cassettes or LPs. And it also seemed to be a huge step backward for independent musicians, whose home-made cassette tapes were reduced to amateurish anachronisms almost overnight.

But the underlying reality was quite different. Because a corollary of turning sound into digital information is that it creates an intimate developmental relationship between audio technology and digital technology as a whole. And as anyone can see by looking at the slide show linked to at the start of this post, digital technology developed at an astonishing rate in the years after the introduction of the CD: CPUs went from a clock speed of 4.47 MHz in 1980, to 25 MHz in 1990, to 1 GHz in 2000, to 3.6 GHz in 2005. In the meantime, the inventors of the CD developed these really cool things called CD-Rs, which allowed anyone with a burner to make their own CDs (or copy existing ones). And guess what? The sound quality was the same as a normal CD. Bit for bit identical, in fact. Of course, CD-R burners were a cutting edge technology with a 35,000 US dollar price tag when they came out in 1990. But today they are a commonplace computer part that can be had for as little as 12 US dollars.

And yes, even as the cost of CD technology was plummeting, and the cost of RAM was falling, and the clock speeds of CPUs were improving continuously while the computers built around them were dropping in price, even as all this was happening, the mp3 codec was created by the Fraunhofer Society. This was destined to become the most popular of the various audio codecs that were developed around this time. These audio codecs are simply methods of compressing digital audio data so that it consumes less memory and bandwidth. What makes their development important is that it happened to coincide with yet another technological development: the establishment of this here interweb thingie by the world wide web consortium in the mid 1990s.

By the time Shawn Fanning launched Napster in 1999, it had become quite clear that the 'dream come true' of the move to CDs and digital audio generally had become a nightmare for the recording industries. Of course, it could be argued that they should have foreseen Napster and Grokster and Gnutella and all the rest of it. They certainly worried enough about DAT when it came on the scene. Perhaps if they had tried to set up deals like the ones that they have currently with Apple and Amazon, and had done so early in the game, they might have made the transition smoothly, and not watched helplessly as the whole world traded their music without giving them a cent. Perhaps.

But the troubles of the recording industries, whether avoidable or not, are not what concerns us here. What concerns us is the power that these same technological developments placed into the hands of independent musicians. In the first place, the progressively faster desktop computers built around the progressively faster CPUs made it possible for the first 'in the box' music production software packages to be released in the early nineties. ProTools, Cubase, Logic, Samplitude (pdf), and the open-source project Rosegarden all had their beginnings around this time, as did a hundred other software applications that have since been forgotten. These applications all had different feature sets: ProTools and Samplitude were designed as computerized alternatives to a multitrack tape recorder, while the others started out as MIDI sequencers (i.e. programs for controlling one or more electronic musical instruments by 'remote control' as it were). But by the year 2000, most of these applications were capable of doing both multitrack audio recording and MIDI sequencing. Today this is the norm in audio software, and there are dozens of these multitrack recorder/MIDI sequencer applications available. Some of them are extremely inexpensive. Some of them are free. All of them offer an infinity of creative possibilities to musicians of every skill level.

We have discussed some of these creative possibilities elsewhere. But it is hard to do justice to them in a blog post because they are quite literally infinite. And these possibilities are enhanced by the many cheap Chinese and Russian made condenser microphones, studio monitors, instruments and amplifiers that have become available in recent years. Of course, there are many members of the audio engineering profession who will sneer at these inexpensive tools, insisting that they are pale imitations of the expensive hand-made originals. And certainly in some ways they are right. But that doesn't change the fact that a person who sings into one of those cheap condenser microphones, sends the signal through a cheap preamp into a cheap A/D converter and records it on a cheap computer is going to hear something that sounds remarkably like their voice when they play the recording back. And if this person takes the time to reduce the room reflections in their recording space by using any number of cheap DIY room treatments, and takes the time to learn how to use a microphone properly, and above all if this person can actually sing, the recording will sound good. It's that simple.

Once this hypothetical person has made a recording that they like, distributing it is relatively easy. The first step is to make an mp3. Most computers come with software that does this conversion easily, but if by some chance it doesn't, there are numerous free conversion applications that can be downloaded. Once this is done, it's a simple matter to upload it to Last.fm or SoundClick or one of a thousand other similar sites, at which point anyone in the world with an internet connection can listen to it whenever they want. If you don't want to sign up for these services, you can buy internet hosting for very small amounts of money. One easy to use service charges 35 dollars a year for an account that has 512 MB of storage and 50 GB of monthly bandwidth. Thats enough space for over 4 hours worth of music at 256 Kbps (the standard high quality bit rate used by Amazon) and enough bandwidth for all 4 hours of music to be downloaded a hundred times over every month. And this service is relatively expensive. There are many cheaper ones with huge amounts of storage and bandwidth if you think you will need them. Of course, you will have to set up a web site, but with services like Fantastico, doing this has become falling-off-a-log simple.

So with some cheap digital technology, cheap hardware, cheap room treatments, and an internet connection, anyone can make recordings and distribute them throughout the world as soon as they have finished making them. Anyone can easily do a thing that required an immense and costly infrastructure to even attempt just 15 years ago.

THAT is the power of cheap.

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