Monday, January 4, 2016

Music and Life, Recorded and Live

I can't rightfully call myself a musician anymore. I write that sentence with feelings of sadness, and a bit of both shame and guilt. After all, I spent many years thinking of myself primarily as a musician. Right up until the arrival of my first son, and even for some time after that, I saw myself as a musician, and whatever job I had as a way of making money until music worked out. Admitting that I am not a musician anymore is a little difficult, but it is also obvious. These days, most people who meet me are surprised even to learn that I once was a musician.

In truth, "musician" was never a fully appropriate word for me. I played keyboards a bit, but playing music was never central to my experience with the art. First and foremost, I always considered myself a composer. And, I'm happy to say, that part of me still exists, although no one can hear the music I write these days. Lacking the means to record it (due to physical space limitations and the time restrictions involved in being a single parent), everything I write these days stays in my head. But I still think up new music all the time.

Most people probably think of music as a live art form. Throughout most of history, the only way for music to be heard was if people played it live on instruments. Only with the innovations in recording sound near the end of the 19th century did that change. By the latter part of the 20th century, one could purchase recorded music of such quality that it could sound crisper and cleaner than even live music could.

Similar innovations around the same time came in film. Before the late 19th century, actors were people who performed live in front of an audience. When movies came to prominence in the early 20th century, film was an art form that grew very much out of theater. Early movies were essentially filmed plays. It didn't take long, though, for filmmakers to experiment with new techniques that would set film apart from theater. Even in its very early days, special effects brought images to film that could not have been shown on a stage. A Trip to the Moon, a famous 1902 French silent film directed by Georges Méliès, is an amazing work for its time that showed the world what possibilities film held.

Over time, film became its own art form, distinct from theater in many meaningful ways. The use of camera angles and special effects were the two most obvious, but even the acting styles changed. Film actors do not need to project their voices for an assembled crowd, and they can use nuanced facial expressions in ways that would be invisible on stage. Film is a much more visual art form than theater.

What is interesting to me is how the same thing did not happen with music. As with film and theater, the innovations allowing for the recording of music led to techniques that could only be applied to recording. We got the ability to record on multiple tracks, allowing musicians to record together asynchronously, without even meeting. As recording quality improved, more details could be added to the music. Quiet background noises that would have been drowned out in live performances could be added to recorded music. Sound could be manipulated post-recording. We would eventually get pitch correction and the integration of computers. Nowadays, you can directly edit waveforms on a simple personal computer. In a sort of meta twist, sampling - essentially, recordings made from other recordings - became popular in the 1980s, particularly in hip hop music, which is itself a genre born almost completely out of the manipulation of recorded music.

Still, people tend to think of recorded music and live music as two modes of the same thing, whereas theater and film are different. With rare exceptions, people don't go to see live versions of the movies they love. The actors don't follow up a film with a tour of performances. And we don't expect even the most popular plays to produce a film version with the same set of actors. Yes, there are film versions from time to time, but they are always quite different in flavor and feature a different set of creators.

There are bands that do not record their music, to be sure, but generally speaking, recording your music is considered to be an essential part of making it. Likewise, there are certainly people who only record music and don't play live, but it's not anywhere near the standard. The expectation in music is that you will have both a live and a recorded product, and that they will reflect one another. Ideally, the musicians involved in both versions are the same. 

Nowadays, of course, it's not really possible to make a living purely on recorded music. And that is one of the big reasons (among a few other big reasons) I gave up when I did. I never had any drive to play live music. I was always much more interested in recording it, in playing with waveforms on computers and fooling around in a room to come up with new music. When I was younger, I dreamed of making a career of that. Not of recording other people's music, mind you - that job exists in the form of a record producer. I wanted to make my own music, send it out there, and let the money roll in.

Of course it doesn't work that way. Music is not like film. Nowadays, if you are not a top pop singer, you aren't making money on recorded music. In fact, if you make it, you're probably losing money or breaking even. It's hard to sell recorded music because it's just so easy to make a perfect digital copy.

This is a shame to me. I think of recorded music as a distinct art form. I enjoy it far more than I enjoy live music, and that feeling has only increased as I've gotten older. I realize that I'm very much in the minority on this, but music, for me, has always been best experienced in headphones. I can hear all the details, all the background stuff, all the texture. Live music sounds muddled and messy, and while I do enjoy that from time to time (especially if performed by highly skilled musicians), it doesn't bring me the joy that listening to a really good recording does.

I'm not even what you'd call an audiophile. I don't collect vinyl, and mp3s are usually clear enough to me. I don't make minute adjustments to graphic equalizers for different albums. I just like the experience of hearing recorded music.

When I was recording music myself, I made music that I wanted to hear. I made it to be listened to in headphones. But that's not something that can be a career anymore. Given the other elements that led me to abandon music as a career path - my parental responsibility, my lack of affinity for self-promotion, maybe my self-doubt, etc. - this was by no means the only thing that led me to give it up, but it was certainly a contributing factor.

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