Music, Tech and the Future

Music, as a manmade phenomena, goes back at least thousands and thousands of years to when we've found artifacts of the first flutes and drums. Music has always been a community affair–something done in groups to help bring people together. Funny that now I've been working on music alone in my apartment the last few weeks. (NOTE: I'm a composer and musician myself, and it seems more and more the life of a composer looks more and more like the life of a hermit. But I also have this connection to the group aspect of music. I'm a drummer, and nothing gets me going more than playing drums with others. It's a blast.)

The last hundred years or so has changed almost everything about human society. Music could be recorded and enjoyed at any convenient time in any convenient location–not just the concert hall, the bar or the living room around the family piano. To hear great music you didn't have to be a great musician or have one in the family. This accessibility raised the overall level of “quality” and “musicianship” all over the civilized globe–students had access to better resources and tools and themselves became better musicians than those that came before. This cycle continues to this day where kids using a sequencer can make professional-quality sounds that would've taken weeks to create in a high-end studio twenty years ago. I mean, yeah, the sounds won't necessarily be as “warm” or “mature” sounding, but kids today (me included) are easily making lots of sounds that producers struggled to make (or didn't even dream of making) in the 80s and 90s.

As a product of this wave of technological accessibility, I am of course in favor of all these developments. It's a good thing that great music can be accessed so easily and so cheaply using services like Spotify, rdio, Pandora, iTunes (and BitTorrent). It's a great thing that people with no musical training or background can pick up iPads and start jamming together using scale-locked touchpad interfaces. It encourages people to learn and experiment with music, advancing sounds forward and making music a more easily enjoyable part of life. It's how I discovered the fun and joy that comes from listening to and creating music as I was growing up.

On the flip side, now that I'm joining this force of professional music-makers, I have my well-being to worry about. I want to make music for a living, but how can I make a living doing something I believe should be intrinsically free and open? Should I do gigs for free and sell advertising space to put in the lulls between songs? Should I preface each new track I make with announcements like, “this track was made using Spectrasonics software?”

This fairly new notion of “popular music” is going away. It was just a century-long fad, starting and ending with the rise and fall of radio and television. Everyone watched and listened to the same 3 or 4 channels and everyone knew who Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Madonna and N'Sync were and could sing their new hit songs (I loathed N'Sync and the Backstreet Boys growing up, but I can still bust out a rousing rendition of “I Want It That Way” on command.) In the last ten years, even die-hard music fans can't keep up with all the new cutting edge artists and genres offering their music for free online. Obscurity has become cool, popularity uncool (unless you're Justin Timberlake, of course. That man can do no wrong.) With so many new artists and genres arising, it's hard to attach yourself to any one band and still be up-to-date–and it's only going to get harder. Fair weather fans are the norm. Die-hard fans that know the word to every song--not just the hits--at a concert are becoming scarce for any band that became popular after 2003.

Where I think this is leading, then, is back to how music was before the rise of mass media--that is, little media. Local culture. Community entertainment. Local music scenes have always been a thriving thing, and they're not going away anytime soon. People want to see live music because it's awesome and pretty soon–once all the big stars from the 70s, 80s and 90s have died or retired and can't do big reunion tours–people will get fed up with paying $100 to Clear Channel or LiveNation or Ticketmaster to see a show by a band they only sort of know. There will of course continue to be divas and culture icons, but they won't be famous only for making music (as has always been the case). The music business as we know it–record companies and the like–is falling fast and hard, already shrinking into a shadow of what it was in the 90s. There's no way of saving this model of entertainment. It thrives on radio plays, music video countdowns and talk show appearances, all of which are becoming less and less relevant in today's world.

I believe that well-made, great-sounding music has a price and those that make it should be compensated for their efforts somehow. Maybe they should be funded by the government as cultural ambassadors like they do in Cuba, or by wealthy patrons and royalty as has been the model in the days of Mozart. Either way, it will be a rare thing indeed for anyone in music to make as much as The Rolling Stones has. There was never much money in music before the industrial revolution (Mozart didn't exactly leave much to his kids, did he?) and perhaps modern standards will go back to that. Kind of a bleak picture for me, trying to be a composer and all, but I'm a realist, too.

Music is a fun, necessary and essential part of human life and culture. As a people we're better for the open access to listening and making music as has never been available before. Yeah, it's true there's more shit out there than ever before as well, but it's the easiest thing in the world to turn it off and listen to something better. What does this mean for the music industry as we know it? Well, it certainly won't be “as we know it” for long. What does this mean for you and me? It means it's easier than ever to rediscover the joy in music, whether its listening to it alone, creating beats online with a friend, or getting together and jamming on iPads. It means music isn't so serious anymore. It's more fun. It's more personal and at the same time more community-driven. You don't have to be a prodigy to jam with friends. You don't have to study music theory for years to create a song that expresses what you feel and share it with the world (or at least those that spend all day scouring bandcamp.com and SoundCloud for new music). Music is its own reward, as it always has been. Enjoy it.