20 September, 2013

THE STATUS OF LIVE MUSIC

I feel uniquely qualified to author this blog entry given that I've invested the better part of 40 years trying to eke out a livelihood in this business.

The music biz wasn't always difficult. When I began my career there were not that many artists in the marketplace and fewer musical styles as well. It was easier to find a commonality with the listener; easier to learn and perform songs that everyone seemed to enjoy. Many of those 'new' artists are still with us today like Santana and James Taylor and Elton John.

I suppose the first blow to live music arose from the popularity of Disco. Most disco songs were not musically interesting apart from a few breakout tunes. The true star of disco was the dancer / listener. It was their style, their moves and their need to be expressive that brought disco to the pop charts. The actual music was largely repetitive but that mattered little.

Then MIDI came along. MIDI is a technology that allows a musician to create mutli-track, digital recordings. It can be an expensive pursuit in that you need a large array of gear ( sequencers, drum computers, synthesizers, sample players etc ). Using MIDI a musician can generate drum, piano, string tracks and much more using only their own skill set. In this way a musician can literally become the only person in the band. Once you assemble enough tracks to fill up a night you're on your way. That is if you can hold your own as a personality.

MIDI reduced music to math; note 32 is a kick drum, note 33 is a rim shot, note 44 is a ride symbol etc. The music produced became ( as my friend Joe would say ) 'stiff'. We can thank disco for this looped repetition. MIDI is actually responsible for two blows to the performance of live music. The first is that we now see generally non-traditional instruments ( brass, woodwinds, percussion ) performing as solo acts. They no longer need a band as long as they have tracks performing the body of a song. And then came Karaoke...

Minus tracks. The entire body of the song is present in a karaoke recording apart from the vocals ( melody ). Again the premise is to feature the dancer / listener as the star. The end singer can sound really professional without even the discipline to learn the words! Lyrics magically appear on the video screen. A talented and prolific studio musician can turn out ( sequence ) two or three karaoke tracks a day at $100 each.

Today the sounds of music have become very complicated indeed. Countless musical genres exist in the marketplace. That's way too many popular tunes for one group or one person to embrace in a repertoise. Prolific artistic diversity. That leads us to yet another impact on live music... the DJ. A DJ requires no musical training and very little expertise. A DJ delivers the recordings of actual musicians rather like a popular event from the fifties... the 'sock hop'. A DJ was once required to haul a great, bulky, crated library of recordings so they could fulfill any request. With the advent of MP3 files all they really need now is a capacious hard drive on their laptop and a big sound system ( even the iconic 'scatching' sound is digitally sampled ). Any required musicianship is present only on the featured  recordings.

Now we have prime time 'talent' shows like 'the Voice' and 'American Idol'. Again the musicians playing live are unseen while the contestant ( read 'singer' ) struggles to impress the judges and to wow the viewer. If the reader believes these shows are popular with working musicians they would be mistaken. It's fair to say that if Bach, Beethoven and Mozart were to appear before Simon Cowell he would help you choose a winner!

And lastly we have to include the recent economic down turn. Live music has always been dependent upon patronage. It was true in the 17th century and it is no less true in the 21st century. Sometimes patrons are local pub / venue owners. Sometimes a patron is a private party or an appreciative listener who tips. Without patronage the performance of live music is extinguished. Most small venues struggle to survive. You might encounter a ( 9 pc ) orchestra these days on a ship at sea or perhaps in a gambling mecca like Vegas or Atlantic City. Symphonic orchestral music lurks sporadically on the cultural fringe.

Even iconic producer Quincy Jones has voiced his misgivings about the future of the music business. You may have noticed that plenty of newly released tunes are built around digital samples of timelessly popular hit songs. This is not an homage, this is theft.

I think we can all agree that there are few things in life better than live music. It is the rhythm of our day. A snapshot in time, a captured moment or sentiment. It gives voice to our feelings and generates an emotion uniquely individual. It's real. It's happening now... and it's very cool!

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