Friday, February 8, 2008

What Are We Going to Do?

That is the title of an op-ed piece on the last page of the February 2008 issue of Electronic Music magazine, one of several music and recording industry trade journals I receive each month as a long time member of the recording industry. The subtitle is: Reflections on the changes in the music industry. The author, Nathaniel Kunkel is a Grammy and Emmy Award – winning producer, engineer and mixer who has worked with many major artists during his career. He is some years my junior. His reflections came as a result of a week he spent with the students at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. As a side note, my son attended Berklee at one point in his educational pursuits. Berklee is highly acclaimed, much like Juilliard, Peabody Conservatory and other such institutions dedicated to music education. Berklee joins the University of Texas in Austin and Indiana University in Bloomington as one of the top three music institutions in the jazz genre.

His question is raised because, as Bob Dylan so eloquently stated back in the 60's - “The times, they are achangin'.” Indeed, they are a changing. Change is probably one of the few things in life that you can always count on. As we jumped (or maybe stumbled) into the 21st Century, change seems to have accelerated. I was learning the basics of digital technology back in college in 1963 and '64. It was most basic and primitive at that time. There were no personal computers. Computers were basically all main frame behemoths that cost huge dollars and could only be afforded by the largest of corporations and institutions. They were slow, cumbersome and balky back then. I'm sure you remember, all too often, when there was a snafu with your bank account, utility account or credit card account (how many of us even had credit cards back then) the customer service reps would always blame it on the computer being down. Well, now we can do the same thing since it's really very few people in our country and most of the developed world who don't have computers at their ready access. And with the $100 laptop initiative, the idea is to put a computer into the hands of just about every young person in the world – wherever they may be.

So, how does this relate to Mr. Kunkel's question? Simple! Audio (and video) recording and production has virtually converted from old, mechanical, analog recording machines and devices to digital systems. My own recording studio, for example, has one ¼” studio analog, magnetic tape recorder (currently out on loan to a professional colleague to transfer and digitize some very old master tapes). I use it VERY infrequently for that same purpose. I started in the industry over 40 years ago using Ampex, Scully, Magnecord, Revox, Otari and other professional tape recorders. These are now, mainly antiques and sitting in warehouses, basements, salvage yards, museums and a few “vintage” recording studios around the country who provide recording services on this old gear mainly as a nostalgia thing. Actually, to the best of my knowledge only one company still manufactures a professional analog reel to reel recorder, a Japanese company, Otari (who made the recorder I keep around). I also have one professional grade analog compact audio cassette recorder for the same reason – transferring old cassettes to a digital format. It's hard to find cassette recorders anymore, too. Otherwise, my studio is completely digital. Mr. Kunkel relates to the fact that the music business and the recording business, especially the very established studio business is flagging. It's not that there is less music being produced. On the contrary, there is more music then ever before. The issue is, that due to the advances in digital technology, artists and many recordists no longer need the large, heavily equipped, glamorous “temples of sound and recording” that were the centers of the recorded music industry just a few years ago. These studios are closing down, being torn down and replaced by parking lots or new buildings.

He says that he loves music and recording so much that he will continue doing it for free or for very little compensation – because the glory days of the big money are over. Record companies are hurting because the Internet has created new, faster, more economical delivery channels, with greater choice and instant gratification – with a couple clicks of the mouse. He suggests that since the old methods of recording and distributing music are archaic and rapidly vanishing, anyone interested in staying involved in this industry needs to focus on the “new and amazing ways to get our music to the people.” He says it is the time for new business models. In his final paragraph, he suggests that those who are in the business, in the future, for ego fulfillment and/or the “big” money – will be weeded out – and he's happy about that.

The times, they are achangin'!” And, as Tennyson said, “The old order changeth, yielding place to new.” This is happening in many aspects of our society. Things are changing in industry, education, religion – everything! If we think we can stay in the old model and stay even near the top of the pile, that's a mistake. The same technology that has made most industries and aspects of life easier, faster and more efficient, is, ironically, the same catalyst that is pulling the carpet out from under those industries. I can do things in recording today with my digital technology that costs me a few thousand dollars that I couldn't do with a million dollars of analog equipment 30 or 40 years ago. But, I also can't run a recording business the same as I did back then. If I, if you, don't look at these realities and be very pragmatic about it, we will be run over and left behind. Think, dream, live and work free. Not FOR free, but free in mind and spirit. Do what you love, the money will follow – but only the money you really need. Ultimately, you'll be happier – and isn't that better then dying financially rich, but unhappy and spiritually poor – likely missing out on so many of the really valuable treasures of life?



If you're new to reading this blog, go to the first posting: “Welcome to My World!” which will appear the beginning of each month in the archives and you'll gain some insight about what this blog is all about.

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