Saturday, March 17, 2012

What's So Special?

I was mixing a battle of the bands the other night and saw something happen that I've observed so many times now that it got me to thinking.  A jam band lost out to a band playing pop tunes.  So how is it that a group of people who are clearly better musicians can loose out to some kids with cheap instruments who don't play all that well.

Here's the fact, playing good music is only half the show, in fact sometimes it's not even that much.  I remember back when I was mixing a lot in clubs there was this punk band called The Hoax that was just terrible.  They had cheap instruments that didn't sound good and their songs weren't all that special.  But that was kind of the idea.  Kids would turn out in droves to see these guys play and it was a blast.  They had great stage presence and they were clearly enjoying themselves and that was truly contagious.  (I should also add that jam rock has a narrower audience and so the number of people willing to vote for a band of that nature in a given room is smaller.)

Which brings me to another idea that's been rolling around in my head.  With all the progress made in both the digital and analog worlds of audio production why do people settle for listening to bad recordings?  I don't mean poorly made ones, I mean low bitrate MP3s and cell phone audio. The simple reason is this, if a performance is compelling you'll listen to it on just about anything.  So there's more to the enjoyment of music than a pristine listening experience.

In the audiophile world there's just a ton of money being spent.  People are after this outrageously expensive gear and pursue lossless files or pristine vinyl.  Take a look around and it's not hard to find single components in the six digit price range.  And all that is truly tremendous, both that someone made it and that people will buy it.  I've had the opportunity to listen on some great stuff and while it is nice, I think back to what I was listening to in high school.

Tape was the medium of choice.  Vinyl was out and CDs were just starting to creep in.  Hiss was a part of the listening experience even on good gear. When a hot song was out and we just had to get our hands on it the dual well decks were spinning overtime and you had copies of copies of copies of stuff that was taped off the radio floating around for gosh sakes!  We were so nuts to hear the Chilli Peppers' "Give It Away" that we stole an official's megaphone at a track meet and held it up to a kid's walkman headphones so we could all hear it.

It was compelling.  It had a life of its own that was outside of the medium.  Listening back years later on CD on a good system my joy is increased for being able to hear all the craftsmanship that went into that record, but it's never quite as exciting as when I was trying to amplify half inch speakers just so I could hear that guitar hook.  

I don't know what this will contribute to your technique but it's interesting to think about.  When you look at a music scene, whether it's pop, country, Scandinavian viking metal or what have you, the patterns you see developing are because somebody had a good idea and somebody else liked it.  There's a Christina Aguilara because there was a Janet Jackson because there was a... so on and so forth.  If an eighty year old came out with a hit, inside a week all the labels would be looking for other octogenarian song writers.  The first one would be a hit for doing something new and good, the rest possibly but not definitely.

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