Saturday, July 09, 2011


Sound recording and reproduction and duplications technologies are amazing. An artist can provide the 32'nd run through that turned out perfect, and let that represent his work forever. A poor child from Middleofnowhere can hear the greatest performance ever of Aida, even if the singers died before she was born. Never mind the dreck--great stuff is available cheaply almost anywhere.

The unfortunate side effect of this is that each new musician competes not just with the others in his town, but with musicians around the world and for decades before. Should I listen to the Sun Prairie outdoor concert's rendition of part of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik or hear the definitive performance (with no dog barking) from the finest orchestra? Maybe I'll buy the CD of a friend, but am I going to hear about the wonderful singer in Eau Claire? More likely I'll hear about the national names, even if they're only marginally better.

The stars, be they lucky or just a hair better than the rest (or puffed to prominence) have global scope for their talent, but the less celebrated are much more confined. A singer who a century ago would have been a star in her state is probably only known in her own hometown now.

The stars can rake in bucks from sales (not as largely as the distributors, of course), but the "almost as good" bands make what living they can from gigs--everybody else needs day jobs. The star's global scope is "nice work if you can get it" but it takes the oxygen out for everybody else. (It isn't like that in all fields: Starbucks innovation and global scope opened the field for plenty of competitors.)

I can sigh and count it as the cost of bringing high culture to the millions (and low culture and pure puff), or I can agitate for local music, or I can try to come up with some government scheme to enforce on everybody. Just for laughs, let's think about the latter.

Practical government schemes are those that benefit either big contributors, big voting blocks, or bureaucrats. The only big contributors in this mix are the music distributors, so you'd want some regulation that compelled the purchase of a lesser-known group's CD every time you bought a Lady Gaga CD. That's intrusive, benefits the powers that be, lets the enforcers feel like they're doing good, and requires an additional bureaucracy--win win win win. But it would probably accelerate the growth of MP3 pirating, and so might not be all that helpful.

One "impractical" scheme is local, as befits the problem. Require that dance halls and bars beyond some size provide 14 hours of live music per week (no karaoke) to keep their liquor license. Gigs for locals aren't as good as million seller recordings, but it keeps locals working. It is also intrusive, raises costs of visiting the establishments, and who knows, maybe some people don't want live music at a bar, because they can ignore canned music but have to acknowledge a band in some way. (I want to keep talking and not have to stop to clap when the song is over.)

I don't really recommend either approach, of course. If tastes change to more public music local groups will benefit. If the economic equation changes due to new technology who knows what will happen--but music is already dirt cheap and people feel entitled to get it that way. It is very hard to ratchet back a sense of entitlement.

I've heard Verdi's Requiem on LP, CD, and live. Live was much better. But I've only heard it once that way, and that will probably be the only time I ever do.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yet more people make a living in the music industry than ever before - certainly more than did, say fifty years ago or a hundred years ago.

james said...

I hate making statistics-free statements like this; but I read that in the 19'th century most middle class homes in the US had a piano. Now we have far more music sources, but we don't typically produce music ourselves--not even whistling.

We tried to make it a house rule that all our children had to learn the piano well enough to accompany themselves singing, and after that they could do as they pleased. I think they turned out musically well, though the temptation to rely on recordings is still there--not least because it is difficult to reproduce German techno or mbalax on a piano (now with a bad key).

(When I sing at home I am frequently asked to stop. By Youngest Daughter, whose ear is trained better than my voice. At church I pick a key that's close and have at it, and nobody has complained yet.)