Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Music, has it a future?

It has been a long time since I've been able to sit and start writing something on my blog. As always time seems to fly and one puts other things first, in my case album reviews for Free Jazz Blog along with putting up shelves, working on a pure data project which has to be presented in February and at the same time trying to wonder what is going to happen to the musician in the future - if what's been happening (politically) in my neck of the woods is anything to go by. 

Belgium, where I reside, is feeling the effects of the Euro crisis, and as always it's never the people responsible for the problems who actually have to answer for them. Here in Belgium the government, like everywhere, is eager to reduce figures and is starting to pick on various groups of people who are technically unemployed hopping to get a few extra pennies in there pockets which (they hope) will miraculously save the day. 

Musicians, and some other artists, enjoy a special status known as 'artists status', which basically means they have the right to unemployment (under particular conditions) on the days they don't work. I should add that they are expected, and do, pay taxes at the end of each year based on what they earn. But now the government has decided to make musicians 'prove' they are musicians ..... which is reasonable enough if the rules are fair. In the future musicians will be obliged to hand in proof of there musical position including ; posters, CDs, videos, contracts, newspaper articles, web articles, among other things. However, what interests me most is the effect it's going to have on the musical community at large, and more importantly brings up an important question concerning the future of music, musicians and live music.

30 years in full time employment at the Esterházy court for Haydn, 
something which would unthinkable today outside of academia. 

In times gone by employment for musicians was as readily available as any other job and there were of course no mp3, Fairlight CMI's or DX7's to replace the real time musician, lessening their employment field. There were certainly plenty of teaching jobs around although just one option (and a good one) among many others for professional musicians. In fact one could speculate that until the mid 1970s there was a possibility to be a full time employed musician. Teaching (as already mentioned),  studio work, arranger, live bands on radio programs or later television, studio orchestras linked with film studios (all studios had their own bands/orchestras). Even areas (or regions) of countries had orchestras such as the Northern Philharmonic, based in Huddersfield, UK, or of course the famous Berlin Philharmonic which has featured throughout the years on so many treasured recordings. But these permanent music jobs no longer exist, and with the decline of the record companies there are no real patrons in the music business any more.

I still buy them, but many foolishly sold them ... and regret it?
The music business - and it's decline.
Sadly the music business has shrunk in size dramatically since the late 80s. With the development of the CD and it's digital copying possibilities, record companies signed their own death warrant. It's strange to think how these large companies pushed people to dump their treasured LPs in favour of the new technology (as they did with VHS and the more interesting Betamax), promising better sound quality and a few other user friendly arguments. However, what the record companies had not forseen was the invention of the internet and what we now know as 'piracy' and all the possibilities of digital sharing and copying. Sadly the general public has not really understood and excepted their part in the destruction of the music industry, and that includes the life of a musician.

Musicians in the business - and their decline.
Since recording studios and record companies worked close together up until more recently, the life of a musician revolved around building a career within the various fields on offer. Rock musicians such as bassist John Paul Jones started life as arrangers and studio musicians, as did hos colleague Jimmy Page! In fact many a budding rock musician from the 60s and early 70s has come from the full time employment of the studio to become a fully fledged hero in the pop business. But one should not forget that major employment for all types of musicians including jazz musicians for big bands, horn sections and of course soloists (*) in their own right on or off recordings. One look at the names of musicians on records from these periods will reveal a rich and interesting list of musicians earning their livings in the studios and on the road. Horn sections such as the Tower of Power or Blood Sweat and Tears worked extensively with dozens of artists whilst maintaining their own working units. Towns and cities had cliques of musicians that could be found on nearly everybody's record from that town.

Leland Sklar - see Wiki link below.
 In L.A no record was complete without the likes of Leland Sklar, a bassist who could be found on everyone's record. If one takes a look at Leland's credits you can start to see, and understand, what he must have done between 9h and 23h seven days a week. Many more from the same group of session musicians  in LA such as Russ Kunkel, Danny Kortchmar, and Craig Doerge (to name but three) made very good livings playing in the studios. Of course they also worked as musicians out on the road also. One has to be aware that the rise of these studio mafia (as they were called), also brought about a sort of musical apathy which eventually gave birth to the punk movement. This was due to a sort of wall paper music attitude to sound/record production in the mid 70s leading to the term MOR(**) short for 'middle of the road', or what is probably known as adult rock music. This was also an important turning point in the production of popular music leading to the beginning of Punk music and the development of small independent record labels which meant a certain autonomy from what was seen as the evils of the large music machine. However, many of these small labels needed the larger corporations for distribution and other services, but it did sow the first seeds of discontent into the system regarding royalty distribution, market share, lobbying (mainly on TV and radio) which required money. Of course as small names became big names, they also (generally) moved away from smaller companies needing to benefit from the riches that could be brought about from fame. 

The 80s and onwards
From the mid 80s and onwards the development of stars who were considered 'grass roots' or alternative originally suddenly started to change. This also meant that employment possibilities also changed. With the move away from guitar based bands towards the synthesiser (see DX7 and Fairlight earlier) groups such as Frankie Goes to Hollywood, The Art of Noise and also jazz musicians Herbie Hancock or Pat Metheny were all moving towards a different model of music making, using the computer as a starting point. Digital technology was developing fast and soon the appearance of the Compact Disc, or CD in 1976 spelt, if unknowingly, the beginning of the end of the music business as we knew it. Before copying meant listening and recording onto a cassette in real time and any imperfections had to be manually erased, chosen or moved. This also included more importantly the recording studio scene. After all tape machines were large - 24 and 32 tracks being the norm - and it was expensive, and rare to find people with such machines in their own living rooms, although not unknown! To record one needed to hire a studio which included an engineer or two. If you wanted to save time session musicians or friends could be used to add the tracks, or of course synths which had developed considerably since their early arrival in the 80s - see synthpop and it's earlier friend, the experimental Krautrock. Of course you could opt for the Mike Oldfield model of do-it-yourself. But by the end of the 80's computer software for recording was already starting to be developed enabling musicians to side step studios. Of course the first programs to be usable actually appeared in the early 90s - an album recorded by the Beach Boys (no less!) using Pro Tools.

Dancers at Wigan Casino.
The Disco
The disco's roots go way back to the early 1900s and what were rent parties, honky tonks, speakeasy bars and other private events where people met up to dance together usually to a jukebox, or maybe a lone piano player. What's interesting is that these events were often 'private' and hidden from the authorities. I suspect that they also didn't impact on the live music scenes at the time, maybe even the opposite. In the war years in France (as an example) the Nazi's banned jazz and bebop hence driving members of the public and the resistance to dance in secret! Of course the more 'upmarket' clubs even promoted live music, even if only for personal gains such as the famous Cotton Club. But the modern trend really developed from clubs such as the Whisky a Go Go in Paris and later in the 50s Chez Régine (also in Paris) which became a new model for clubs which would later be founded in the 60s in London where (often immigrant) people could meet up and dance, and of course gradually young people in general. In the 1970s disco really took on a new meaning and actually developed itself as an art form. DJ's became something of celebrities and so drew crowds just on their names alone. The disco craze - from the 70s onwards - also seems to have been the beginning of competition between live music and the record dancing public with the introduction of turntable spinning geniuses with plenty of original music that only they featured. But with the development more recently of electronic dance music and styles such as House, Jungle, Breakbeat, Electroflow etc live music is not so much threatened but is now in direct competition. What has really impacted on the music scene up until present times is the difference between hiring 1 person who makes 1000 people dance and of course a live group of 5 (or more) musicians to do the same job. Of course some music styles (as already mentioned) cannot be easily copied by live bands, but the prohibitive cost of working with live musicians has been a major factor in the downturn in 'mass' live music in popular dance venues.

Greg Wilson, one of the modern fathers of electro disco in the UK.
When talking about DJs one should not forget their importance as individual innovators, and so their important influence on the music scene. DJs such as the above Greg Wilson, Afrika Bambaataa and many others have been hugely influential on many styles of music, even if their talent comes (originally) from taking records and 're-thinking' them as dance music.  

Other areas of employment affected by the downturn in live music
Although it isn't often mentioned there are - like in all areas of business - many other areas that have suffered through the downturn in live music.
Engineers, Acoustical Engineers, Architects : Studios which were once individually designed 'acoustic' areas are mostly small garage like rooms which are often acoustically dead, as modern computer programs can produce the necessary acoustic images without playing in a acoustically perfect room.
The Record Shop :  Probably the area that has been most notably hit by the downturn in live music and the rise in on-line and digital sales. Whereas once the record shop was central to youth culture and a place of knowledge (W.H.Smiths and Boots being exceptions to the rule) when looking for new records, versions of recordings and other related areas such as styluses, record decks and cleaners.
Sheet Music : Although classical music still uses this medium, and to a certain extent jazz also, with the introduction of CDs and computers it has been possible to produce play-along media which is not only fun, but beneficial in the learning process. Although play-alongs (Music Minus One and Aebersold) have been on the market for years and a success, more recently programs such as Band in a Box  and Wii's Guitar Hero are easily available and so it is no longer necessary to read music to be able to enjoy copying your favourite pieces as everything is brought to you care of your screen.

Street Musicians ***
Finally, live music?
One has to wonder what happened to live music, which has not disappeared, but has certainly not the same importance in our society as it once did. There are few cafés and bars with live music whereas once every village had live music in one of it's bars/pubs. Weddings and other live parties rely less on musicians, which were once a central part of their organisation.

Music education is taking away the real essence of 'learning and discovering music' with your peers. We now even teach popular music in Rock and Pop schools, something of a contradiction when thinking about the roots and meaning of such a music. Nearly all the famous bands of popular music history came about through a mixture friendship, a garage to practice in (just an image), learning music (mostly) from scratch, copying their favourite records, the bar-e chord, a local pub, and plenty of energy and imagination. The result of this mass music education is being felt in several ways such as :
a) Less private teaching work. This has brought about a rise in teaching degrees and posts in Conservatories and academies for 'popular' musicians, the result being fewer practising musicians. Originally a living could be made generally by playing live music, however the goal is now recognition and financial stability in academia.  
b) The rise in music qualification in popular/jazz music, BA, MA and Doctorate. As mentioned above some of the effects are due to financial stability. Other negative aspects are the fixing of what is now 'right' and 'wrong' in music, a dangerous thing when talking about an ever shifting or developing art form. Whereas before your influence was only as important as your reputation for music or composition produced, now teachers are fixed in institutions for years with no real reputation or background (your credentials) .... except a qualification. Jazz - as an example - is now being fixed in time as classical music was. You can now see the result of this in small clubs where dozens of conservatory trained kids can play amazingly well, yet without any history or love of the music. Important names and records are often mp3 files that friends have passed on, and often not even the original versions. As with Chinese whispers these 'falsehoods' often continue to be passed on to other students who then become teachers.
c) Downturn in wages? Due to the glut of young musicians flooding the market festivals, bars, clubs, and other institutions are being overwhelmed by demand. There is not enough work for everybody, and in a free economy the lowest bidder always wins. Wages have dropped as younger players are prepared to play for little money, often due in part to the fact that nowadays students live with help from their parents (and why not). Of course the thirst to play music is also an important factor in their excepting to play for less, that's what drives people to play music, not money, for that one should be a banker or a business person. However, they need not insist on correct rates which in the long term does not help the market as a whole.

In conclusion
The future of live music seems to be uncertain when talking about financial stability and prospects in the real world of music. As mentioned academia seems to be the safest haven for players nowadays. It is a sad fact that politicians are unable to help promote music (and the arts) for what they really are, something of vital importance to our society. Until the general public is made aware of what all this means to their daily lives it seems that the future of musicians as an important section of our society will diminish towards museums and conservatories to be discussed and intellectually developed. Sad really when back in the days of J.S.Bach and Haydn music was a respectable and viable career move. 

Finally .......... If you got this far, thanks! As usual I ended up writing about a topic which should actually be a Doctorate or thesis at least. There is A LOT of information and facts that I haven't touched on, included or discussed at all, due to space and of course the context (a blog). Hopefully I will one day tackle this subject in the way that it deserves including quotes, interviews, real hard facts, and much more scope to explain the effects of music on our society and maybe some of the reasons for the neglect (and disrespect) that the general public has for it and the musicians that play it.

* = An article on hidden soloists that 'made' records could be added, but it would be very long, but certainly interesting. A couple of names that pop into my head are Lou Reed's Walk on the Wild Side (soloist Ronny Ross), Gerry Rafferty - Baker Street (soloist Raphael Ravenscroft), The Beach Boys Pet Sounds (numerous soloists include - Barney Kessel, Carol Kaye, Plas Johnson,  Hal Blaine etc) and finally Billy Joel's - Just the Way You Are ( soloist Phil Woods) oh there's also Jimi Hendrix hidden career as a session musician with the likes of The Isley Brothers, Little Richard and King Curtis. The list is endless and any additions would be most grateful as a researched article on the 'hidden soloist' could be very interesting! See this link on session musicians to get a picture of the working life of the studio musician.

** = MOR. Many musicians and public alike seem to think that the MOR scene was responsible for produces faceless popular music. However, if one takes into consideration the popular music scene today one realises that nothing has changed, in fact it's only got worse. Jazz schools and now rock schools are all responsible for not encouraging individuality fired by heavy lobbying on the part of the music industry and the general public's general refusal to accept more daring forms of music - avant garde jazz, electro acoustic music, contemporary classical music, atonality and the list goes on.

*** Street Musicians = I couldn't find any reference for this photo, so excuse me for using it and anyone who knows who it belongs to I would be most grateful for some information.

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