Way back in the day, I had the great fortune to watch Prince one night doing his thing as a young man all alone in a Minneapolis studio. The talent the guy had was palpable. And the fact that he not only sang like Prince,Â played like Prince, but could also run a complex studio? That was really something. No amateur could do that back then. You had to pay your dues simply to learn to get a proper sound on tape.
It’s technically a lot easier to do it yourself nowadays.Â The past decade has delivered the same revolution in audio computing that occurred in the mid ’80’s with desktop publishing. The parallels are many and in fact, I would describe most music software programs as something like ‘Desktop Music Publishers’.
Like DTP, DMPs make it very easy for pretty much anyone with the right hardware to create something that kinda/sorta looks ‘professional’. Kinda. Sorta. And like DTP, the output devices have been dumbed-down which can make it harder see the amateur-itude of it all. For DTP, the movement to plain paper, the wide availability of ‘templates’ and the low-res web masks much crummy technique. For music software, MP3s tend to obscure sound quality. Loops can make almost anyone sound like, well… almost anyone.
This has happened just as the record industry has changed from being a farm system, that hired talent and worked it through a system, grooming talent up to The Big Leagues, to basically something resembling Hollywood–you find a way to make your work of genius on your own and then they help with the distribution. Period. So you have to not only write the great song, you have to make the great record and build the fantastic fan base on your own. Frankly, they are nothing now but financiers.
I dunno if the two trends are causally related, but it’s sure a good thing the technology improved when it did.
The bad news is that DMP, like DTP has created so much bad output that it’s gonna take quite a while I fear before the world learns to recognise The Good, The Bad and The merely Ugly. When anyone who can run a PC wants to make a record real bad. There are going to be a lot of real bad records. And with no record companies to act as gate-keepers of some minimal level of professionalism? Oy veh.
You can say what you want about the evil record companies, but at least when you used to get a ‘real’ record, you were pretty much assured of some basic level of performance and production. I was listening to the Sex Pistols the other day. I seem to recall a lot of attention being paid at the time to how crappy the record sounded. Distorted. Out of tune.Â Serious problems with details like a time signature. In other words, it just wasn’t professionally recorded from a basic production standpoint. But we loved it.
The funny thing? When I listen to Anarchy In The U.K. now, the recording quality sounds positively pristine when compared with a lot of the home-brew stuff I routinely wade through on the web. I wonder if the guy in his bedroom can tell why Never Mind The Bollocks is good crappy production and his chef d’ouevre is bad crappy production. Or, put another way, why are Jackson Pollock’s speckles worth $1,000,000 and your bedroom painting accident is only worth a quick laugh on a home movie.
The answer sounds impossibly snobbish and elitist, but the difference between my bedroom production and some other guy’s bedroom production is that I know the difference so the tools don’t matter. I’m not blinded by the gee-whiz vanity of ‘Wow, I’m making a record. Check me out!’ Does that matter? I hope so, insofar as it makes a difference in the end product. I hope one can actually appreciate the difference in. I know one can hear the difference. But appreciate? That’s a toughie, alright.