Agony Shorthand

Thursday, May 08, 2003
ART & COMMERCE ARE AT IT AGAIN…...The battle rages between those longtime enemies art (music) and commerce (embodied by digital technology) in a very good article in this month’s PERFECT SOUND FOREVER entitled “The Technology Trap”, written by one Brian James (from The Damned?). Mr. James, while not dismissing digital/electronic advances out of hand, makes a pretty compelling case for a dismaying alteration of musical expression springing from the increasingly widespread use of electronic sound generators, digital recording, click tracks and sound effects. Let’s just say he’s not into it. From the article:

“….We have allowed this to happen because we have lost track of music's purpose. I daresay that it was not invented so that it could culminate in the shiniest, most technologically sophisticated knob that man could ever hope to twiddle, and if that’s an unconvincing reason, then I simply find such a climax unworthy of much personal investment. The simple truth is that despite the superficial alterations that garner such excessive attention, music specifically and art in general express the same things they always have. They remind us of eternal themes much more than they discover them, and there is nothing wrong with that. We need to be told the same things over and over again and yes, we need to find new ways to express ourselves, but the former part of that sentiment is kicked to the margins by those who continue to doubly delude themselves into thinking that art doesn't merely change but progresses, and that technology is the engine for this progress. Formal discoveries are worth welcoming only if they remain firmly in service of content and worthy of rejection when they eclipse it”.

James has some very provoking thoughts on the matter, so I’d recommend reading the whole thing. I’m not sure I agree with him wholly, as I still believe a case can be made for music’s natural evolution within a capitalist, free-to-choose society, in which we – the buyers – can demand our poison of choice. Those who rightly argue that the recording industry needs to update its business model to keep pace with the technological achievements of the 21st century get themselves into something of a hypocritical bind when they also argue that music itself can’t evolve to reflect society’s achievements. Just as intentionally shitty production can gussy up a song, and make it sound even better than it would live (calling MIKE REP!), so too can state-of-the-art digital production & click tracks.

That’s not to say that I don’t easily prefer the music from a Robert Johnson 78 (the example cited by James) to that of some laptop hound. I don’t personally have to like that shortcut-taking garbage, and I don’t. James himself is exercising a fundamental societal value in his protestation of it. If he swings enough minds with this piece, who knows, maybe the worship of the electronic musician that marks our era may be taken down a notch. It was interesting to read in this week’s San Francisco Bay Guardian, however, this quote from James Marlon Magus, an “electronic rocker” associated with the BULB label. He vividly illustrates exactly the mindset that James is miffed about:

"You hear a real 808 and you go, 'Ah! This is what it's supposed to sound like! That's the sound I was trying to get for so long but just couldn't do it with the 505!' " Magas says. "[After recording Bad Blood] I eventually started increasing my sound palette, little by little, basically limited by the amount of money that I had. I'd pick up one piece here and covet it. Then I'd get a little more money and another piece. It becomes almost like an obsession, gaining access to certain sounds."

“Gaining access to certain sounds”. Hunh. Forget musicianship or ability – it’s now all about filling up the hard drive!