Ask any musician who is ten years older than you how business is, and he or she will probably say, “It’s okay, but it was much better ten years ago.” If that same person asks the identical question to another musician ten years older than he is, he will probably get the same answer. “It’s okay, but it was much better ten years ago.” Why was it always better ten years ago than it is today? A possible answer is that the music business constantly evolves, and the person who was busier a decade ago may not have moved ahead with it. Perhaps this person has skills that were well suited for yesterday’s professional musical environment, but not for today’s.
In my lifetime alone I’ve witnessed several major changes in the music business. In the 1970s and ’80s our Eastman graduates who wanted jazz careers often did their “graduate school” in the bands of Buddy Rich, Count Basie, Woody Herman and Maynard Ferguson. At the same time symphony orchestras were finding increased support from foundations. They expanded their seasons. They were growing. In New York City, Broadway was a convenient thing to fall back on, but the best gigs were freelance recording. That is, until synthesizers and samplers appeared on the scene.
Synthesizers changed everything in the music industry and made it possible to have a very high-end product, at least to the undiscerning listener. Those musicians who embraced technology and moved with it could hope to remain relevant, but those who continued to do what they had always done probably woke up one day to find that time had passed them by. The industry had evolved without them.
As stated earlier, technology has changed everything on the nonclassical side of the music business. Synthesizers have found their way into practically every genre from Broadway shows to the one-man band playing tunes with play-along tracks at the local restaurant. Forward-thinking musicians have recognized that synthesizers and samplers are not just a passing fancy. Take drum-set players vs. drum machines. An enterprising percussionist would realize that just because a machine can sound acoustic doesn’t mean that every person who buys one can make it sound believable. It still has to be programmed! And guess who is most familiar with what a drum set should sound like? You guessed it—percussionists. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
When I graduated from college an engineer friend of mine who was also graduating told me he was going to go to work for RCA. (It’s interesting how one remembers these isolated incidents from the past.) RCA was a major electronics company in its day, and my friend was going to be involved with computers. He explained to me something about computers working with 0s and 1s, and punch cards that were used to input data. I also knew that they were very large and took up a lot of space. That was in the mid-sixties, and much has changed since then. It is definitely an understatement to say that computers, the Internet and the World Wide Web have changed the way musicians do business!
Electronics—with its synthesizers, samplers, drum machines and sequencing—has surpassed the piano as the composer’s most valuable tool. Music engraving programs now make the all-night part-copying session a thing of the past. The Internet and its search engines save us valuable time in research. We can get answers to just about anything in a matter of seconds. And if my German publisher sends me some music to edit, I can do it and get it back to her the same day. Social networks like Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and Twitter keep us connected and expand our reach if we want to use them for commercial purposes. We can easily get the word out when we want to promote a concert, and our personal websites provide a place for us to offer our wares for sale. Recently, I was considering the clarinet part on Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto that I would be playing soon in a concert in Rochester. I hadn’t heard it in a while, and I wanted to see how much I would have to practice in order to sound decent on it. Ten years ago I would have gone to the library. But I found a recording on YouTube and the music on the Web in probably less than ten seconds.
If you are old enough to remember this, think back to when telephone answering machines first came on the scene. It was very annoying to have to leave a message. Nowadays if we make a call and no answering machine picks up, we’re bugged! But who makes telephone calls anyway? I do all my contracting of musicians through email and Facebook. Maybe younger people take this kind of information at your fingertips for granted, but it still amazes me. It’s like we’re on a moving train and it’s accelerating!
When I was a doctoral student, I was in a class that had an assignment that asked us to think into the future 20 years and forecast what the music profession would look like. I wish I still had that paper. It would be fun to see how far off I was. Anyway, one student was very frustrated with the assignment. She just couldn’t get into it. I remember one of her comments. “What should we do? Take LSD to help stimulate our imaginations?” Okay, it was the ’60s. But talk about inside-the-box thinking! She was all about what was going on in the present and pretty short on imagination! That student not withstanding, it’s kind of fun to think about future trends.
Here is a thought I had just today. I have a student who is finishing his doctorate in jazz studies, and he is writing a dissertation. I’m not his primary advisor, but I’m on his committee and so I have to read this document, make comments and edits and when it is in good shape I’ll sign off on it. There are three of us on his committee. As I read his dissertation today I thought, “The content is great, but the delivery system is very antiquated. It has a footnote about every other sentence, and because it is about music it has tons of musical examples.” I’m thinking that this is the same format as 40 years ago when I went through the identical process with my dissertation. Why can’t this be done in an electronic format with links to the footnotes and embedded musical examples? It would be so much more user-friendly. The reader could hear the examples while looking at the music. I know that the technology is there. In our website, polyphonic.org, we embedded sound files in one of our articles four years ago. Maybe there is no need to do this for a dissertation (if you assume that it will never be read again except by a handful of scholars), but I will wager that 10 years from now more books will be published in electronic format than hard copy, and that they will have all sorts of interactive add-ons available. The publishing industry is already firmly headed in this direction.
The point of this cursory look at these technological advances is to remind you to embrace the future—technology in this instance—and change. In the current social and economic climate it is definitely “adapt or become irrelevant.” In envisioning the future, I am reminded of this quote that is attributed to hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. It’s a good one. When asked how he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, and consequently scored more goals than others, he replied, “I don’t go where the puck is. I go to where the puck will be.” Try to be like Gretzky.
At the end of this blog is a letter to the editor that was published in the December 13 Louisville Courier-Journal. In it the writer laments the absence of an orchestra at this year’s Nutcracker performance. The tone of her letter is typical of what I had read in the past when ballets have opted to use recorded music instead of live. The experience just isn’t the same.
Coincidentally, during the same time period I was playing the national touring company production of the Broadway show, Billy Elliot. The basic instrumentation (not accounting for doubles) was conductor/keys 1, keys 2, guitar, bass, drums, horn, trumpet, reed 1 and reed 2. In this particular production only the conductor/keys 1, keys 2, guitar and bass were in the pit. The four “horns” were in a separate, very large, room behind the pit. Our space was delineated by curtains on pipes. We had our “clubhouse.”
The drum set was also in this large room but he had a special little glass “house” which was about 20 feet from us. We all had our personal video monitors, which broadcast the conductor, and a mixing board that we configured in any way we wanted.
It seems that this set-up was chosen to better control the sound. The instruments that were in the pit we all electronic, and their sound went directly into the house sound system. Therefore no sound actually emanated from the pit. As they explained to us, if the acoustic instruments were in the pit, they would be mic’d, but some acoustic sound would naturally be present. The overall sound experience for the audience wouldn’t be as good, since the sound engineer would not be able to totally control the mix. The orchestra or parts of it in a remote location is an option that has been used for several years now by Broadway shows.
Sorry for the long-winded set-up just to get to the point of this blog. . . and it’s not even going to be about electronics taking over the music world.
My point is that the four “horns” didn’t feel part of a performance. Don’t get me wrong. I was happy to have the gig, and the four of us in our little clubhouse did form a bond over the two weeks. We had a good time and played well, but even though the pay was very good, it was somehow unsatisfying. We were literally “phoning our parts in.” We came to the theatre in street clothes. Sat down, did our thing and went home. It was like a recording session, but with no second takes. During the bows the conductor would motion to the four players in the pit. We wondered if the audience asked themselves, “where are the drums?” What concerned me was that the audience didn’t see half of the pit band, and had no inkling that we were even there.
I began to think that by playing our parts in a remote location, our importance to the overall show experience was devalued. The sounds that came from our instruments were anonymous. For all the audience knew, we could have been a recording.
Then I read the letter to the editor that is at the end of this post.
In a way, what we were doing is a step in a progression to using total pre-recorded music. A musical experience is always better in a live situation. I don’t think any of us has given our favorite CD a round of applause upon its completion. The feelings the writer to the Louisville newspaper expressed, were similar to what we felt. Live is definitely better.
The following letter is from a reader and was published in the Louisville Courier-Journal on December 13, 2011.
A Tradition Muted
What a very sad Christmas story tonight. Like so many years prior, my family was very excited to attend the preview performance of “The Nutcracker” Friday evening. The energy and richness of years past was replaced by a more hollow experience.
Gone is the pre-curtain excitement and anticipation that mounts as the musicians tune their instruments. Gone are the shadows of light and movement as the musicians lead the way for the dancers. Gone are the lingering notes that transition one scene to the other with the tenderness of a conductor’s lead.
I had no idea how much the emptiness of the orchestra pit would impact the experience, especially from the balcony. I was so distracted by the vacant lifelessness of the pit, like a toothless mouth, the transitions of music to OFF, the frequent speaker feedback which plagued the second half of the show (my heart breaks for these technicians trying to replicate an orchestra). I felt so sad for these dancers who have invested their bodies, souls and lifetime of work into the thrill of performing live, and they now dance to canned music with feedback (hopefully resolved after the preview).
Should we prepare for an eventual recording of the dancers on stage, too, as the quality of the ballet experience becomes additional carnage? We could run a “Nutcracker” recording from years past and save the trouble of performing it live. Is anyone going to take the lead and figure out how to undo this orchestra train wreck?
This was my first experience of the great loss for our city and of all of the artists, technicians and patrons enduring the consequences. Bah, humbug!
KRISTIN CRINOT Louisville2 comments
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