Front Page Reviews & AIR
The Flattening of Professional and Amateur
I've spent the last nine years writing about bands that no one writes about. I don't mean “under the radar” bands; I mean bands don't have press sheets or PR guys or even passable recordings, sometimes. As editor of the music blog Independent Clauses, I write so that musicians can get what might become their first press quote. I am part of the first line of defense when it comes to praising or deferring musicians that you might someday hear in a different band with a better name. However, over the past few years I've seen production values in recordings dramatically increase, which has blurred the line between “hobbyist” and “aspiring professional.” And this technological shift could change the way we view local music and alter what music we categorize as “good music.”
When I started in 2005, I could expect to hear shoddy recordings daily. I would sift through all the hiss and muffle and clank for nuggets that could be praised in a process akin to panning for gold. In most cases, the grimy aesthetic wasn't intentional; it was simply all that could be afforded. When a sparkle of songwriting talent shone from the bottom of the pan, what rejoicing was had!
Today, I don't get very many submissions with truly bad sound quality: tape hiss, live mistakes, band chatter, muffled parts, odd mixing, shoddy mastering, and incomprehensible sounds have almost disappeared from my inbox. Instead, I’m usually dealing with astonishingly average material surrounded by far more “polished” sounding production. This can be traced to the relative ease of obtaining advanced recording equipment (or time with such equipment), the simplicity of self-releasing an album online, and the ability of individual artists to take part in the same money-making process that labels take part in via digital distribution. Artists in 2012 can do a lot more with a lot less start-up costs than bands in, say, 1991 could. This allows musicians that would have never been picked up by a label to keep making the music they want. I think this is an unqualified positive thing for art in general: more people doing more art.
Your local folk band that I'm hearing probably still doesn't get covered by large, national blogs like I Am Fuel, You Are Friends until they've done a ton of work to get noticed, even if their first recordings are amazing. But it's a far more likely thing that your local folk band has average songs that sound amazing, because of the ability to get recorded on the drummer's Pro Tools set-up, throw it on Bandcamp, and start accepting “pay what you want” money for the release. Good sound quality and good songwriting are two completely different things, but songs that are recorded well don’t immediately set off “bad” alarms in the same way.
But while the production quality of music that I hear on a daily basis has gone up dramatically, the experience level of musician that I cover has not. Young or new musicians that previously would have had terrible recordings have gained access to better technology and improved sound quality, but they have not made correspondingly dramatic leaps in songwriting skill. As a result, good musicians no longer stand out as much. By “good,” I mean music made by committed, experienced musicians who think deeply about their craft, work feverishly at producing great tunes, and get them recorded well. Those musicians are still putting out high-quality work, but they were already excelling; there’s no easy technological way for them to improve. I’m not saying that average bands can’t become good or that prodigies don’t exist, but that the recordings of average bands now have the audio hallmarks that usually tipped me off to a committed band (which often, but not always, translated to “good”). The gap between the sound quality of the good stuff and the average stuff has significantly decreased, when the gap in the songwriting quality that comes with experience has not. That relative leveling of the playing field makes the good stuff that much harder to recognize. Diamonds in a pile of gravel are easy to spot. Diamonds in a pile of cubic zirconia are not.
This flattening of the difference between pro and amateur sound quality is compounded by another problem: currently, hobbying and gunning for the big time can swap back and forth depending on the season in a person's life. Add in the various ideas of what “making it” means in 2012, and my old reviewing goal of helping bands that are trying to make it seems outdated; the old, linear path of going from a garage to a stadium stage as “making it” doesn’t make as much sense these days, after all.
I suppose this seems esoteric, perhaps even a bit rambling. Who really cares what one blogger who purposely covers other cities' local music thinks about the state of amateur music? Here's the takeaway: I suspect that this flattening of the gap between amateur and pro sound quality (the qualitative factor) will factor heavily in what we consider “good music” (the quantitative factor). With the high threshold of average sound quality, we'll be less inclined to seek out and pay for the good stuff—where “good” goes beyond sound quality into lyrics, arrangements, and the laborious work that so often produces the x factor we call “genius”—when a similar-sounding, cheaper alternative is easily available. And if we don't pay for the good stuff, the good stuff doesn't have the funds to exist. Then, maybe, that person who was making the good stuff as a professional musician has to drop back to being a part-time musician and full-time something else. That person becomes a local musician again, sharing prodigious talent with a smaller community. Maybe that musician’s work becomes more average, because of the lack of time available to give it that extra oomph.
Someone might counter that there will always be the likes of Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, and other national bands which are both popular and good. Well, yes. But I suspect there will be fewer and fewer of them, as the sounds that captivate our minds will increasingly be made locally by musicians who could have been national artists in a different era. In other words, because “average” music sounds as polished as the great stuff, greatness is harder to recognize, and we might end up with more average local recordings and less transcendent national music. From an egalitarian point of view, this could actually a boon for local bands: we could be approaching a renaissance of local music. And if this happens, it's about to get confusing in here for elitists, tastemakers, and those of us who write about music: the number of national bands will shrink at the same time the number of local bands rises. There will still be opportunities for good musicians, but only for those musicians and writers who are willing to change their idea of what they do to meet the new situation.
This stuff is only starting to happen in the wider scene, but the change is starting now. I thought I’d mention that, because I'm the guy who covers the musicians that you'll hear in a few years, in a different band, with a better name.