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The Music Technology Trap

The-Thinking-DrummerThe technology now available is extraordinary. What is possible with just a laptop computer makes very high quality recording available at one’s fingertips. I find these advances inspiring and enabling. It is much easier to create high quality music than ever before. But it is only easier in the realm of TECHNOLOGY. Let me explain.

The new technology allows me to hire a song writer and have him deliver stunningly high quality demo recordings that he created in his living room studio. It allows performers to bring their laptops to a gig and, with the push of a button, play tracks created with unlimited layers of amazing sounds and processing as their backing bands–again, possibly created while sitting in their apartment.

However, there is a paradox. If the songwriter creating the music for me in his living room hasn’t put in the time and work to write a good song, all is lost. In addition, if he hears guitar on the recording, he either needs a skilled musician to come and play for him or he must be an accomplished guitarist himself.

The laptop artist performing live and accompanying his computer tracks still has to be a strong performer and singer, guitarist, or other instrumentalist.

The skill required to sing, write a good song or play any instrument at a world-class level remains the same as ever before. The existence of the new technology doesn’t change this. Actually scratch that. The technology means you have to be better than in the past to compete. That’s right. The level of skill required to perform well as a top musician is actually HIGHER than ever before in the history of recorded music. Why is this?

There are several reasons.

1) The new technology has removed all barriers to entry. This means anyone can make and distribute music. This means that you have to be much better than ever before to stand out from the massive amount of music out there.

It used to require a lot of money to rent a studio and record. No longer. Distribution used to require a record company gate-keeper to anoint you so you could have your music get out into the world. No longer. Distribution is essentially free.

But the problem is that the removal of all the barriers to entry means that everyone thinks they can be a recording artist. Well, in fact, anyone CAN be a recording artist. And because of this, there is a huge amount of new music being made all the time. Much more than ever before. Unfortunately, most of it is crappy.

You know why? Because people learn how to use Ableton Live or Pro Tools and create tracks and sounds. But they don’t spend the time learning how to write a song, sing or play an instrument well.

And those skills are what separate the crap from the fantastic. It’s great that we can make music “more easily.” But in reality, you still have to practice your ass off to be a good pianist, guitarist, drummer, singer or songwriter.

So, the technology won’t save you. And “The Music Technology Trap” creates a situation where many aspiring musicians are forsaking the work needed to become a skilled musician or songwriter and becoming good at the technology end instead. But the trap is that you need BOTH.

2) The technology makes everything sound so good, that if your playing and sound on your instrument isn’t at least as good as the tracks you can create with your computer facility, you’re weaknesses are exposed immediately. This is the second part of “The Music Technology Trap.”

I’ve recently seen a bunch of live music where people relied heavily on their laptops onstage. The double-edged sword of the technology became apparent quickly. I’ve seen some incredible musicians, highly skilled at their craft, use technology to supplement what they do and achieve amazing results. It worked for them because they were already amazing at their instruments. Add to that the power of technology and what can happen is astounding. This is one possible outcome and its the one we hope for.

However, I’ve also seen the reverse. Up and comers will go on stage and have amazing sounding backing tracks. But then they start singing on top of it. Or playing their guitar. Or playing drums. And the skill and sound exhibited with the craft of playing those instruments is not on par with the skill and sounds of the technology.

And then, all is lost. The guitarist who does not have a good guitar tone or stunning technique is exposed as a charlatan because the rest of the music,the computer programmed stuff,sounds so good. But the guitar sound and playing can’t live up to it. It’s a trap. And the musician in question has walked into the trap himself, knowingly and willingly and most likely naively. He just didn’t realize that his weakness would be so easily exposed. More likely, he did not consider or understand that the weakness existed.

I’ve seen this with some frequency over the past few years. I’ve seen a drummer who is just OK play on top of a track that sounds pretty good, but his drums just sound so bad. And that great track behind him magnifies that disparity greatly.

I love new technology. I love what it makes possible. But you still have to be able to play your instrument,-and you must be able to play it even better than before the technology opened up all of these doors. You have to be able to write a better song than ever before. That’s “The Music Technology Trap.”

Can you use technology to make your music sound great? Yes, but you better do the work on your primary ax. Go practice. Then make some music. Then go practice some more and make some better music. Record yourself and criticize your performances, then improve and do it again. If you do this, maybe you’ll get some people excited about what you create.

Just be aware that the technology can potentially expose your weaknesses, so do the work. There are no shortcuts.