Friday, 8 February 2008

'Creative Destruction' - A Few Questions

Having had some time to consider my initial blog on the relationship between 00's music and the internet. I have a few questions.

In an age of transferable media and 6 song MySpace profiles is the Album an appropriate format for music?
Many believe that the album is a dead format. If the future of music is going to be on the Internet does it make sense to stick to a format designed for a physical form? The recording of a whole album is long process. It can often take more than 6 months from recording the album to it actually arriving in the shops (or in the itunes store). Eric Beall (Music Writer, Making Music Make Money) in his blog 'Creative Destruction' argues that "Like every other business, the music industry is going to have to come to grips with creative destruction. Either we destroy the old dinosaur, and get creative about building a new model– or we watch the old dinosaur destroy a once creative business.". Beall believes that labels should focus on producing "one song at a time" in the same way unsigned artists add a few songs to their MySpace profiles every few months as a way of attracting people to visit their webpage regularly. However this seems to create more problems than it solves for the music industry. It has always been the case, especially with Rock music, that singles are a promotional tool to sell albums. This way record labels may be depriving themselves of any product whatsoever. This approach is especially problematic when you consider that many modern genres such as Progressive Rock are inseperable from the album format. The 'Single' can only work for artists who use short, traditional songform and is too restrictive for most modern artists.

Destruction of the art of engineering?
One of the concerns often expressed is that the digital revolution certainly hasn't helped the quality of audio. Such is the need for audio tracks to be archived that lossy formats such as MP3 are used that often diminish the quality. With so many audio files now coming from peer-to-peer networks, myspace and legal downloading, there is legitimate fears that audio engineering is a dying art form. What is the use of producing high quality audio if it is seldom ever heard at that quality?

In a January 2007 edition of The Guardian, writer Tim Anderson reported on an ongoing trend in music production to use heavy amounts of compression when mastering in order to achieve the loudest possible volume. In this article remastering engineer Steve Hoffman claimed:

"Now you have digital workstations that mercilessly zap all the dynamics out of music. The other problem is overuse of equalisation. Equalisation done digitally is very harsh, and most mastering engineers tend to overuse it. You just crank up the EQ and then you compress it digitally so everything sounds like a machine gun...It doesn't sound loud any more. The only way that something can sound loud is if there' s something quiet that precedes it, or else there's no frame of reference"

Perhaps the problem is that the freedom and ease in which music is available and can be shared (for the time being at least) means there has to be a compromise in sound quality. However the biggest risk is that music fans get used bad quality at except this as the norm.

Musique Concrete and a Brief History of Sampling

In 1948 Pierre Schaeffer composed 'Etude aux chemans de fer', a piece that is widely credited as being the first 'Musique Concrete' composition. Schaeffer used tape manipulation as a method of creating sound collages. His technique involved recording individual sounds on to seperate pieces of tape , which he then cut into even smaller pieces, mixed up and spliced together, sometimes these were interspersed with pieces of blank tape to unusual create rhythmic patterns. He then would occasionally speed up, slow down and add reverb to the tape for added effect. Like the dance and Hip-Hop Dj's that came after him Pierre Schaeffer was interested in expanding the boundaries of music beyond instrumental playing and creating performances that were not dependent on human performers. Unsurprisingly Schaeffer was not himself a musician. Several prominent composers based a great amount of their early work around Schaeffer's ideas most famously Stockhousen and Reich (who became one of the first to merge tape loops and live performance in his early 'Phase compositions').

However it wasn't until the late 1960's and the introduction of avant-garde and experimental elements into popular music, that the concept of Concrete became popular. Most notibly Concrete was used frequently in later Beatles recordings such as Tomorrow Never Knows and Revolution 9.

Modern sampling uses much the same techniques as Musique Concrete, albeit with far more sophisticated digital techniques. The emphasis on modern sampling is no longer just non-musical sounds (although even Schaeffer and Stockhausen experimented with altering the sound of traditional instruments). Certainly modern sampling is used to far greater melodic effect than its avant-garde counter-part.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

The Future Is Now - The 00's and The MySpace Generation

One of the most common discussions had between musicians, ethnomusicologists and music fans alike is that of the 'Golden Era' of Popular Music. Which decade was the most influential? Which decade is responsible for the greatest contribution to Pop Music as we know it? The problem with all these questions is that they all fail to take into account that music is a constantly evolving medium. To point to one period of time in which all popular music as we know it stems, does not do justice to the complexity of cross-pollination to be heard in music. Often such discussions end in a stalemate in which all parties are forced to agree that each decade has its own merits and shows a continuation and development upon the ideas of the previous. Interestingly the starting point is always the 1950's, the decade that arguably was the beginning of the 'recorded music boom'.

However it's not hard to see why people look back at previous eras with such nostalgia. In a decade in which music engineering has, in many respects taken a backward step, with lossy MP3 files and the overuse of compression to achieve ever more louder recordings at the expensive of the music's dynamic range, its easy to look back on past filled with quality and innovation. Watching music television and listening to the radio, its often difficult to imagine a time in which musicians looked so longingly to the past for inspiration. Bands like The Darkness are a perfect example of musicians, not just taking influence from the past but actively trying to recreate it. However I want to argue that such a view is inherent in a medium that has existed for as long as popular music. In looking to the past with such nostalgia we often forget about what is happening right here and now. If we are looking for a golden age of music (if such a thing is possible) it could well be in front of us or indeed with us at this very moment.

The last few years have seen the biggest shakeup ever to hit the music industry. Peer-to-peer sharing, YouTube and MySpace have all contributed to change everything from the way music is marketed and distributed, to the very process of making music itself. Interestingly this has done nothing to slow down the actual creation of music. Quite the opposite. The current climate allows for more intrigation and creativity than ever before. So often we hear about the decline of the music business and how the internet is to blame for its destruction, that we can forget about the overwhelmingly positive impact it has had. In 2007 the BBC reported that global music sales fell by an estimated 10% in 2006. However in 2005 Jeff Leeds of the New York Times reported that Independent record labels saw an 18% rise in album sales. Marketing practices developed by the music industry since the 1950's now seem ever more irrelevent. When EMI announced cutbacks in the region of $392 million in January of this year it became clear that major labels were struggling to adapt to the changes brought about by the free exchange of music and video that Technology now allows, changes that independent labels embraced whole heartedly. Perhaps the problem is that companies such as EMI have everything to lose and the independents have everything to gain. Never has it been so easy to record, market and distribute music so successfully.

New technological advances in Audio Synthesis software have made it easier for all musicians to record music. Demo recordings (often nearing studio quality) can be made, uploaded to MySpace or other similar sites for free, allowing your average 16 year old to have his or her music exhibited on a site alongside major label acts like The Rolling Stones and REM, such is the democracy of the internet community. Easy access to resources and technology is undoubtably going to have a profound impact on the development of musical styles. Social networking and media sites encourage users to find music for themselves, network with musicians and intrigate as a community. If anything has the potential to drive further cross-pollination in music it is this.

It is important to acknowledge that these new technologies are still in their infancy. Such is the state of flux within the industry that the future often seems uncertain. This does not mean we should take the present for granted. Far from being stagnant, the 00's are a defining decade for music, perhaps the most important for paving the way for what music is to be in the future. The Future is now...

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Sampling: the Art of Appropriation and Theft

"In truth, in literature, in science and in art, there are and can be, very few ideas if any which are in an abstract sense, strictly new and original throughout. Every book in literature, science and art borrows, and must necessilly borrow, and use much which was well known and used before"
Emerson Vs Davis , 8 F. Cas 615, 619 (no. 4,436) (CCD Mass. 1845)

Sampling more than any other modern compositional form or device has become a deeply contested issue. Perhaps this is because at its heart it raises (perhaps deliberately) many questions that have as much to do with copyright law and art theory as they do music. Many people believe the use of samples as a sole ingredient for the creation of music to be cheating, theft and have called into question the legality of using sections of recorded music often without the express consent of the copyright owner. The question however is to what extent should art appropriate and innovate? Art has always been a reflection of the world and by extension a reflection of the creativity of others. It is self-evidently impossible to attempt to take a picture or indeed paint a picture of Venice without including the many architectural monuments designed by others. Art, be it music, sculpture or film has always been the intended restructuring and appropriation of natural and synthetic elements. How is sampling any different?

Perhaps the biggest difference is the technical process. Where most other art forms are influenced by abstract ideas, unavoidable osmosis, social and cultural trends, often difficult to pin down, sampling just takes directly from an already existing piece of music. Sampling involves the cutting up and reprocessing of an artist's work. Often such is the treatment of the samples that its near impossible to recognize. However it does raise the question how much is too much?

Another important argument could well be that sampling and the subsequent influence it has had on music since the 1980's is fundamentally regressive. It has been noted that most of the samples used on dance and hip-hop records originate from the 1970's and early 1980's, the most famous example being Vanilla Ice's use of the bassline from Queen's Under Pressure in the song Ice Ice Baby. Surely such a post-modern approach to writing music is symptomatic of a lack of creative progress. Influential artist DJ Shadow acknowledges the limitations of sample based music but also how these limitations help the creative process:

"Producers like Organized Noize mix samples and live instruments really well, but for me, it almost feels like a cop-out, because i'm a collage artist, it's like 'Damn, if only I could find this one part', well maybe if I had
someone paint it and then put it out ...Sometimes I wish I could have somebody come in and do what I want him to do on a bass line. It would be so easy. But what I do just keeps things more challenging I guess"

Whilst Hip-Hop and dance artists claim that sampling is a legitimate creative form that involves skill and discipline, what is most interesting about sampling is the samples selected by the artists. Public Enemy's Fight The Power contains an array of samples cleverly appropriated from other Black artists such James Brown and Bob Marley. In this case the choice of samples are not merely just aesthetic, but convey a political message about the cultural and creative impact of African-American culture. In many ways sampling in the 1980's allowed for a re-evaluation of popular music. Much of which would have been lost if it wasn't for the almost archaeological approach DJ's during this period took towards the obscure and unusual. As Adam Yauch from The Beastie Boys explains:

"Again, it's a context issue, because not every sample is a huge chunk of a song. We might take a tiny little insignificant sound from a record and then slow it way down and put it deep in the mix with, like, 30 other sounds on top of it. It's not even a recognizable sample at that point. Which is a lot different than taking a huge, obvious piece from some hit song that everyone knows and saying whatever you want to on top of that loop."

One of the most famous legal cases concerning sampled material was that of 'Folsom v. Marsh' in which Hip-Hop act 2 Live Crew were sued for unfair use of Roy Orbison's famous 'Oh Pretty Woman' bassline. Interestingly the Supreme Court believed that the United States consititution supported the fair use of appropriated elements of music. In what is perhaps the most considered approach to the sampling issue the Supreme Court ruled:

"Look to the nature and objects of the selections made, the quantity and value of the materials used, and the degree in which the use may prejudice the sale, or diminish the profits, or supersede the objects, of the original work."

Friday, 11 January 2008

Hey Welcome

Hey, Welcome to my new blog.

This blog has been designed specifically for the purpose of blogging entries for my Music Technology, Repertoire Techniques module. So all comments, debate and criticism (constructive if possible...but if you feel like ranting go ahead) are very much appreciated, except from when they are not, in which case fear your life.

This Blogspot is dedicated to Mr Matthew Smith, the Godfather of modern blog. May you forever Blog in your heart, thrive and let your rhetoric fly high, free from the constrants of peer review...I believe you, Mr Clarkson might not.