A brief history of why artists are no longer making a living making music

Today’s column from veteran Canadian singer-songwriter Ian Tamblyn is adapted from a speech he gave at a symposium at Trent University.  It’s a long read, but we decided to post it here all at once it its entirety because, well, it’s just that good.  I would like to begin this talk on the future of “popular” music with a few cautionary notes about our ability to see into the future clearly. The fact is, it would appear we are not very good at it. Somewhere back in our Savannah DNA, we got very good at reacting to danger when it presented itself — say a lion or tiger. However, it seems we are less capable of looking ahead to avoid danger. In other words, we are a reactive rather than proactive animal. The contemporary analogy in relation to climate change is that we are similar to the frog in a pot of hot water who does not have the sensors to recognize the increasing temperature and the fact that he should get out of the boiling pot. Yes, there have been a handful of futurists – H.G Wells, Aldous Huxley, and given the state of many current governments I would grudgingly include Ayn Rand. Probably the most successful futurists in our lifetime may have been Marshall McLuhan and Stanley Kubrick, but even so, all of these writers and film makers have been only partially successful gazing into the crystal ball. Given that the past is no more fixed than the future I begin this conversation with you. What I hope to discuss in this time with you is the relationship between technology, the gift of music and the commodification of that gift and how that gift and the commodification of the gift has been eroded in the digital age, and as I see it, could continue to be eroded well into the 21st century. The golden age of recorded music I would like to start by going back to 1945, the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the baby boom generation. By the end of the war, there was a “golden age” of music, the big band era, the beginnings of bebop, the great songwriting partnerships, Broadway musicals, and even the early stirrings of rock n’ roll, as blues came up the Mississippi from the Delta to St Louis and Chicago. It was also the populist height of the music borne of the Depression, the music that came out of the hobo camps, the dust bowl farmers, Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Tennessee Valley Act and so on. It was the music of Woody Guthrie, Jimmy Rodgers, Bessie Smith, Leadbelly, and the Carter Family. It was the time when audio technology served this renaissance that came of struggle and war, and this technology came as a result of the war itself. Quickly told, the Germans created great microphones so that their leader could be heard in the stadiums. The English built great speakers and listening consoles so they could hear what the Germans were saying. The Americans in turn created excellent platforms (tape recorders) to record what they heard. Though they developed this technology separately and quite secretly, the apex of these technologies would find themselves together in the recording studios around the world soon after the war. The British and Americans found out how good the German microphones were and how they could be used with British speakers and American tape decks. The Germans were quick to listen through British sound systems. To give you a quick example, the Neumann U-47 was first designed in that year and is still considered to be one of the best vocal microphones ever created. It is sought by collectors throughout the world. The microphones used by Ry Cooder and Buena Vista Social Club were U-47 s found in an old studio in Havana. Time was on our side It took the next ten years to tweak the technology, but by the mid 50s and the height of the bebop era, the engineers had become artists of this technology, and the results were some of the best recordings ever. With the addition of multi -track recording, invented by jazz guitarist Les Paul, another golden age of recording began. As a side note, it has been said that the best live recording of the bebop era was recorded at Massey Hall with Charlie Parker – on a plastic saxophone he borrowed for the gig – Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Mingus, Max Roach and Bud Powell. The album Quintet marked the only time these giants of the era played live together. It was also the period when Deutsche Grammophon began its run as the premier recorder of classical music. The long playing record appeared, and we entered the age of the album. What is important to this look at the future through the past is the fact that the engineers had enough time to understand their technology, to begin to use it artfully, because later in the century, this essential process would be lost, and with it much more. Time moves on and into the 60s, a period you all know well, and you can run through your own favourites. However, the essential point is that the platform of microphones, equalizers, limiters and compressors and magnetic tape decks remained basically the same. Multi-tracking and stereo came along, but the engineers were using the same transport systems. There were, of course, bumps in the road, but at the same time, there were great recordings like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Beatles’ Revolver and Sergeant Pepper’s, Who’s Next – jazz recordings, particularly on the ECM label, emerged, and then in the 70s along with 48 track recorders, Supertramp’s Crime of the Century and one of my favourite recordings sonically: Roxy Music’s, Avalon. The producers and engineers were experts in the studio, and their names were almost as famous as the artists: George Martin, Phil Spector , Glyn Johns, and Phil Ramone to name … Continue reading A brief history of why artists are no longer making a living making music