¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Up till now, I’ve discussed the music industry’s love/hate relationship with technology in terms of distribution platforms. Innovations in broadcast and storage formats are both welcomed and feared for their disruptive potential, and both processes are driven in part by the push-and-pull dialectic between industry and consumer power. But there is another important field in which similar dynamics apply: namely, the ever-evolving world of music production technology.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 As I’ve argued in this book and elsewhere, the entire edifice of the recording industry is built on the premise that its value resides in delving into the muck of our shared culture, discovering sonic diamonds in the rough, then polishing them up and bringing them to market. This questionable premise is reinforced through television shows like American Idol and The X-Factor, through countless boilerplate rags-to-rock puff pieces in the music press, and through a never-ending stream of self-congratulatory public relations events and communiqués, culminating in the annual Grammy awards, watched each year by approximately 40 million simultaneous viewers. But the most powerful symbol of the music industry’s assumed superiority to the broader musical culture resides within the music itself – specifically, in the persistent audible gap between the aesthetics of professional and amateur music production.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 In the early years of the industry, the very fact of a sound recording’s existence was enough to establish professional provenance. Unlike radio, which was fueled in its infancy by so-called amateur users, early recording equipment was expensive and complex enough that only a handful of professional institutions possessed the resources to generate a saleable volume of recordings. And from the beginning, the circumstances of studio recording began to alter the aesthetics of popular music, as performers, composers and producers adapted their arts to the music industry’s technosocial requirements, and as the industry self-consciously privileged and celebrated aesthetic innovations that would emphasize the superiority of a professionally-recorded performance. For example, music theorist Mark Katz has extensively chronicled the ways in which innovative musical aesthetics ranging from classical violin vibrato to Ellingtonian jazz instrumentation to the “crooning” style of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby can be understood as “phonographic effects,” or the product of the complex relationship between recording technologies, economics and cultural forces.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Over time, as the cost of recording equipment fell, an increasing number of independent and “home” studios appeared across the country, undermining the privileged role of the major record companies. While they solidified their economic positions by cartelizing distribution channels to retail stores, they also needed to revamp their aesthetic styles in order to emphasize the difference in quality between their own products and independently produced music. Thus, a kind of cat-and-mouse game developed, whereby (a) innovations in studio technology would emerge, often from outside the industry; (b) the industry would adopt and refine these innovations, investing in the capital to mainstream a “polished” version of the sound; then (c) the cost for independent record producers to adopt a given innovation would drop to accessible levels, and it would become ubiquitous; whereby (d) the cycle would repeat itself.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 There are countless examples of this process in action, and an entire book could be written (and should be written) on this subject alone. For now, a few paragraphs will have to suffice. An interesting case, to which I’ve already alluded, is overdubbing. Prior to World War II and the introduction of magnetic tape in the US, overdubbing was so difficult and expensive as to be something of a novelty technique. Multi-instrumentalist Sidney Bechet used overdubbing on a few recordings in 1941, playing six interlocking parts on songs such as “The Sheik of Araby” (which took three months to record and edit). The technique was sufficiently new that Time Magazine called it a “unique stunt” in its review later that year. It was also instantly perceived as a threat to working musicians – after all, Bechet hired no sidemen for the recording. Consequently, the AFM (the same group that would “nix” FM stereo a few years later) called for a ban on the technique, and imposed a fine on Bechet’s record label for what it perceived as exploitative labor relations. As he relates in his autobiography, “the newspaper men . . . raised so much hell that the union made the company pay me for seven men, and it was forbidden to do it again!”
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 By the end of the decade, the war was over and magnetic tape was widely available. Experimentalists like Les Paul in the US and Pierre Schaeffer in France began to adapt the technology specifically for the purposes of multilayered sound composition. Although there were some early market successes (such as Paul’s “Lover (When You’re Near Me)”), it wasn’t until the 1960s that major labels adopted it as a standard element in studio recordings. Throughout the next two decades, stereo, multilayered sound became the hallmark of professional recording; it was one of the sonic factors that would immediately distinguish an independently-produced “demo” from commercial products. By the end of the 1970s, producers like Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan had carried the technique to its logical extreme, crafting meticulously-constructed recordings featuring opulently overdubbed instrumentation and vocalization (such as Michael McDonald’s virtuosic background vocals on “Peg”).
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Many musicians and fans at the time balked against this newly elevated aesthetic standard, complaining that Steely Dan and similar bands were, as many have described them, “too perfect.” Resistant aesthetic movements such as punk music emerged at exactly this moment as well, championing a sound that was exuberantly and adamantly imperfect. Yet many independent musicians still aspired to commercial success, and to the aesthetics of the major labels. It was to serve these musicians that consumer electronics manufacturer TASCAM released the Portastudio, the first low-cost, cassette-based 4-track recording tool, in 1979. Using a device such as this, musicians without access to professional recording studios could overdub, multi-track, and emulate the sound of the industry. Naturally, this democratization of the technology undermined its value as a marker of superiority, and the industry moved quickly on to other studio technologies to maintain its dominance in this sonic arms race, using even newer tools such as digital fidelity, sample-based drum machines, and music sequencers in the 1980s.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 This process has repeated, and accelerated, over the years. A recent example is pitch correction technology such as Auto-Tune, a digital software tool enabling producers to change the pitch of a recording, and primarily used to “fix” out-of-tune vocal tracks. When Auto-Tune was first released in 1997, it was essentially a trade secret, employed like airbrushing (or Photoshop) to cover the sonic blemishes of popular singers. Soon thereafter, the technology became incorporated more directly into popular music aesthetics, with inhuman, mechanical leaps between “perfect” pitches emerging in a range of popular musical styles, from Cher’s 1998 dance music hit “Believe” to T-Pain’s 2007 self-produced R&B hit “I’m Sprung.” Over the course of the 2000s, the technology appeared in an increasing number of independently produced recordings, and then reached ubiquity in 2009 with the debut of YouTube viral video sensation “Auto-tune the News,” quickly followed by the release (and market success) of a mobile application called “I am T-Pain,” which enabled any smartphone owner to auto-tune her own voice in real time, with a price tag of three dollars.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Predictably, with the democratization of pitch correction came its devaluation within the industry, and its waning as a mark of professional distinction. In 2009, the simmering resistance against its cyborgian aesthetic exploded into a full-scale backlash, led by some of the music industry’s leading lights. Jay-Z’s single “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)”, released in the same year, perfectly captured this reactionary sentiment with lyrics such as “This ain’t for iTunes / this ain’t for sing-alongs / This is Sinatra at the opera.” In other words, Jay-Z laments the role of pitch correction in the development of an aesthetic that privileges accessibility and collaboration (e.g. sing-alongs), and aligns himself with the music of elitism, virtuosity and professionalism (e.g. Sinatra, opera).
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Although pitch correction continues to be used on many if not most commercial tracks (including some by Jay-Z!), the backlash continues – especially against independent musicians who employ the software. For instance, in 2011, a 13-year-old girl named Rebecca Black became the subject of worldwide ridicule and vitriol (and became measurably the most-hated performer on YouTube) for the crime of releasing an amateur song and music video called “Friday” that used pitch correction technology in a noticeable but un-ironic fashion. One of her most voluble critics was Miley Cyrus, the teen pop star whose music is probably indistinguishable from Black’s by the majority of Americans over the age of 30. Though Cyrus later retracted her critique, the sentiment remains central to public discussions of the “Friday” phenomenon: amateurs who violate the aesthetic boundaries demarcating “real” musicians from wannabees will be punished and held up for public scorn as examples to the rest of us.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Paradoxically, one of the unintended consequences of the studio technology arms race has been the gradual weakening of the music industry’s claims to aesthetic exceptionalism. As the onus to produce distinguishably commercial music has shifted farther and farther from musicians to music producers to technology manufacturers, claims the industry could once have made no longer ring true. For recording artists, for instance, a strong singing voice is not as important as it was in the jazz or rock eras. While it’s true that Mary J. Blige and Adele have rich, well-trained, powerful voices, the same claim cannot be made for equally successful singers like Rihanna or Jennifer Lopez, or indeed the majority of vocalists on the pop charts. Similarly, while A&R (artists & repertoire) executives at major labels once staked their reputations on their “golden ears,” or their ability to hear a diamond in the rough, that work is increasingly shifting onto computerized music analysis services like Polyphonic HMI and Platinum Blue, which use predictive algorithms to “pick hits” on behalf of the labels. Research services then cross-index those findings with analyses of online consumer sentiment, leaving little room for surprise, intuition or aesthetic innovation. In short, by allowing itself to become increasingly dependent on studio technology to set itself apart, the music industry has lost track of its primary source of legitimacy, undermining its already tenuous foundations.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0  Inside the Hits by Wayne Wadhams, David Nathan, Susan Gedutis Lindsay; http://www.wnyc.org/shows/soundcheck/2011/apr/19/soundcheck-smackdown-aja/; Hunter, James. Recordings. Rolling Stone; 04/03/97, Issue 757, p64