The era of electronic music

I’ve long loathed the pretentious writing of New Yorker music writer Sasha-Frere Jones. I’ve spent considerable hours envisioning his screaming body being dipped into a vat of boiling hot AIDS. Nonetheless, he has a pretty good recent post about the challenges for musicians in the Spotify fueled era of free music.

What about an excellent, working band like Dawn of Midi, whose new album, “Dysnomia,” received a score of 7.9 in Pitchfork this week? (I’d say 8.9 but who’s counting?) This band uses a grand piano, an upright bass, and a drum set to make their music; touring means they either play venues with grand pianos on site (relatively common) or that they rent a very big van (uncommon, if we’re talking about small bands trying to drag around a grand piano). More to the point, their music needs to be recorded in a well-equipped live studio by a skilled engineer; Garageband and other popular home-recording software programs are of no use in properly capturing a mechanically traditional band, that is, despite an advanced aesthetic vision. Some kind of business model needs to remain in place, or we won’t have albums like “Dysnomia.”

This makes a point I’ve been thought about. In this new era, where the music is essentially a giveaway (hopefully to build audiences for live shows or increase t-shirt sales), music produced electronically has a distinct advantage. If you have even a bare bones digital music recording set up (such as Garageband which is free with Macs) and some good samples, it’s not that hard to produce good sounding music. (I’ve recorded plenty and posted it here. You can argue about the quality, I suppose, but some of it has gotten on television and in short films.) All you really need to invest is time. But if you want to record live instruments (guitars, drums, tubas, voice, etc.) you need space to record them (ideally space designed for proper acoustics), expensive mics, maybe some amps, etc. The proposition gets a whole lot pricier.

Here’s a scenario that illustrates the issue. Let’s say you’re doing a film score and the director says, “I want some slow, soothing chords over this scene.” You could write out some music for four cellos, hire the players, rent a studio, mike the instruments and record them; this might take days. Or you could sit down at your MIDI keyboard, find a “soothing” patch and knock out a minute’s worth of music. This could be done before lunch.

Now I would generally agree the first option is going to sound better but’s going to cost a lot more.

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