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Has the over reliance upon Digital Audio Workstations (Gods) ended the era of acts that can fill stadiums?

In this post, I am submitting the argument that the spread of digital audio workstations can be correlated to the complete drop-off of new artists that have the ability to sell out stadiums.  I am also suggesting that the reliance upon engineer/producers using DAWs have made artists a bit lazy, and/or that this crutch has enabled artists to focus on things that are less important than making great songs.

My friend, Roger Lavallee, one of the most knowledgeable engineer/producers I know, argues otherwise at the bottom of this post.

I am asking readers of Music Think Tank to weigh in.  This is something I am eager to learn more about. 

I originally wrote a longer version of this post in 2007.  (The reason I put this post on MTT Open...)

The U.S. population has grown by 50,000,000 people since 1990 and the number of new album titles is now doubling every six years, but it’s the much older and established acts that are generating all the sales and touring revenue!  What gives?

I culled this information from Billboard Magazine:

  • 6 of the top 10, and 11 of the top 25 tours of 2006 feature acts that will qualify for Social Security within ten years, and among the top-grossing acts of the last decade, Dave Matthews Band is the only one that broke in the 1990’s or later.
  • The class of 1994 was the most prolific year for developing artists; artists that broke in 1994 have produced 102 more career platinum and 57 more multi-platinum albums than any other class.
  • The lack of new shed-filling acts is so bad that both AEG Live and Live Nation are now focused on building smaller venues for acts that have limited draws.
  • The number of new album titles doubled in the last six years to almost 76,000 new titles in 2006.
There are a lot of theories as to why older acts are more popular than newer acts; including: market fragmentation caused by the Internet, competition for consumer mindshare, the aging of the population, a lack of investment and short-term thinking by labels, hormones in our dairy, and global warming.  I want to offer the following theory:

Plot the spread and adoption of Digital Audio Workstations (SoundTools released 1989, ProTools released 1991), both new and used systems, against the growth of new acts that chart but FAIL to elevate into the top tier of revenue producing acts that CAN NOT consistently sell out arenas or stadiums, and you will begin to understand why older / established acts are generating all the sales and touring revenue... 

First though, you can’t blame technology.  ProTools didn’t cause anything; it’s actually one of the coolest systems I’ve ever seen.  No, the inability of new acts to move into the upper echelons of the industry is due to the chronic reliance upon audio engineers, affectionately called by me: The DAWGs or Digital Audio Workstation Gods.

When Digital Audio Workstations became more and more accessible, as prices dropped, The DAWG ascended from the sonic heavens.  Now the DAWG and his Rig is the vinyl that every record on earth is pressed upon.  The DAWG is so powerful, and the job is so interesting and integral, that I want to be a DAWG in my next life.  In fact, the DAWG has become the artist, and the artist is just a breathing instrument of the DAWG.

Over the last twenty years, like a frog that unknowingly boils to death in water, artists everywhere have grown to depend on the DAWGs to make their songs, and this addiction is sucking the life out new music.

Consumers can smell the flesh of the frog.

It’s not because DAWGs are not brilliant or creative.  No, it’s because artists are using DAWGs like a farmer uses a tractor.  A machine does the heavy lifting; new seeds (tracks) are planted mechanically; everything is plowed perfectly; and there’s minimal blood, sweat and tears.  Just like farmers that plumped up while sitting upon tractors, artists no longer toil in the fields prior to making an album.

Sticking with the farm analogy: music no longer sounds organic; it has a genetically modified, mass produced sound to it.  

The DAWG has enabled the artist to quickly make his music and then focus his energies elsewhere.  Work energy has been shifted from performing in public to friending on MySpace; from collaborating with humans to selecting digital loops and synthetic instruments; from subjecting himself to fan feedback to hiding behind a flat screen; the list goes on…

The DAWG has also dramatically driven up the number of choices for consumers to sift through.  Consider the number of new titles released each year between 2000 and 2006 (Source: Billboard: 35,516, 31,374, 33,443, 38,269, 44,476, 60,331, 75,774).  With this much competition, it’s easy to see why artists and labels feel more compelled then ever to focus on promotion instead creation.

This is how the system worked prior to 1995: Everything was recorded to tape and artists had to be rich or altogether prepared to record in a major studio.  New artists were selected to participate in this expensive process because their music was fully baked and lines formed out the club door and two hundred feet down the sidewalk.  Now, microwaved music is put on the Internet prior to public performances and labels pluck bands when they score a promotional coup d'état that has nothing to do with the durability of the music.

For more evidence, look at follow-up releases by known contemporary artists: after these artists chart, only 14.8% sell a larger total on ANY subsequent album, whereas 30.5% of the artists from the class of 1994 had a better selling subsequent album; and this isn’t all from falling CD sales (Napster peaked in 2001 – think prior).  Now when an artist charts, he finds the badest DAWG he can afford to make his second album.  There’s minimal rehearsing, almost no fan feedback, and very little close-proximity collaboration between humans that play instruments.     

The interesting thing about the phenomena of the DAWG is that it worked prior to 2003; it wasn’t until everyone decided they could and would try music prior to buying or stealing it, that the over reliance on DAWGs began to hurt labels.  Prior to 2003, you could produce, package and promote, and probably make some money.  Now, labels are looking at 360-degree deals as the way forward to higher margins, and this model relies on artists becoming less reliant on the DAWG (I think?) and more durable, enduring and timeless all together...

Rebuttal from Roger Lavallee

Bruce, while I admire your well-researched theory, I think you've been reading too much Orwell.
I certainly have my opinions of what sucks the life out of music. I agree that DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations/computer-based recording), which give you the quick and easy ability to visually edit and "correct" your music into oblivion, can facilitate and even encourage one to make lifeless music, you're looking at the train and blaming the caboose for running over the damsel tied to the tracks.
Let's forget about the dawn of the vinyl LP and radio which let music fans enjoy music at home instead of going out to see live musicians. Let's just go back a few years to the early 80s. The same sort of things could be and have been said about the invention of digital sampling, MIDI-connected and synchronized electronic instruments, and electronic sequencers/drum machines themselves. I remember when the Synclavier digital sampler/audio workstation was first released in the very early 80s. Yes, you too could be a one-man-band with the investment of a mere $300,000.
In the early 80s, we had spent the last 5 years inundated with the most banal, cookie-cutter dance music which became of the fantastic soul, funk and pop music that was made in the early 70s. Save for a few worthy classics it was not so much about songwriting as it was about keeping the beat going for another five minutes. A good example of major commercial use of "lifeless" electronic music is the many cheesy movie soundtracks done by Harold Faltermeyer in the 80s. You know "Axel F" from Beverly Hills Cop by heart and you love it. Faltermeyer probably put a hundred musicians and songwriters out of work between him and his Drumulator.
Blame synthesizers and drum machines for that. Blame cocaine. Blame Barry Gibb.
The funny thing is, at that time were weren't complaining about how the music industry was losing money because people were just going to dance clubs, not sitting at home listening to Jim Croce records, but we were complaining that they were putting musicians out of work. No one wanted to see live music, they wanted a DJ. Drummers were running for their lives for fear that the Linn Drum would put them all out of work. (By the way, the axe that the music industry had to grind at that time was home taping of vinyl records was cutting into their sales. Kind of ironic that nowadays a company like Sony is both a major recording label and manufacturer of what few cassette tapes there are still available).
Being a recording engineer, I have a unique perspective to debate whether DAW-based recording has affected the quality of music or not. If you were to ask me what I thought was the major contributor to the proliferation of what one might consider sub-par music, I would be looking more toward computer culture in general. The fact that in the last 10 years, we have seen the cost of blank CD-Rs go from $35 a disc to pennies, and I don't think I know anyone who isn't tied into the internet, at least at their work, and at most on their hand-held Iphone.
People have been making bad music as long as sound has existed. You used to have to play it live in someone's living room. Now you record it in Garageband and post it on Myspace. Because of the Internet, it's way too easy to self-publish your music, without the filter that record label A&R departments once had. That used to be the barometer for what music was "good" (or at least, "ready for consumption") and what was "bad". Of course there is endless debate on that subject, as most mainstream music that is released by major record labels is arguably not "good" to many music fans. At least there was some sort of filter to separate some of the prime-timers from the basement hacks.
The major motivator in any industry is money. That's a given. The fact that recording and self-releasing music via the computer has gotten to a price point that there is sometimes no monetary investment involved beyond purchasing your home computer and paying your monthly internet access fee is hard to argue with. The gates have opened to pretty much everyone.
I have been an engineer and musician for long enough that I have worked with every format from my old Panasonic mono tape recorder, 2" 24 track analog to DAW-based recording on a laptop. I see young musicians and engineers who have never even touched a cassette tape, let alone an analog mixing board and all they know is working completely in the digital domain, clicking a mouse instead of plugging in a microphone. This is no better or worse than the fact that I didn't "have to" cut my teeth recording straight to a wax cylinder in 1930. You use the tools that are available.
I see life being snuffed out of music every day. The many contributors include the DAWs ability to copy, paste, tune, quantize and simulate almost any instrument. They also include bad taste and laziness and simple economics. Why spend another two hours singing 8 perfectly tuned vocal harmonies on the second and third chorus when I can just copy and paste the first one? Time is money, especially when you're a major record label conglomerate and you're not into this to make art, you're here to get rich.
So think of this when you're complaining about the fact that it's too easy to "correct" things that may already be perfect in their imperfection when you're in the DAW world: You're probably typing on a computer right now, and not an old Smith Carona without any correction fluid/tape. Thank god for spell-check, right? This Christmas, while you're drinking your eggnog by the warmth of the fire, think of all the poor proofreaders who have lost their jobs.
The bottom line is that just because you have the ability to do something, be it quantizing a drum track or driving head-on into oncoming traffic, doesn't mean you have to do it. You always have the discretion to work the way you want to work. There is "misuse" of the power of DAWs everyday, if you choose to look at it this way. There is also a 15-year-old kid in Billings Montana making the greatest song ever heard on his parents' laptop right now.

Reader Comments (4)

I think I recall reading this over at your blog a while back, Bruce. Can't remember if and what I wrote there, so here's my thoughts on the subject now.

For the most part, I have to agree with Roger's view, in the sense that every innovation tends to be seen as a threat by people who are wedded to whatever it is innovating. While I cannot say whether the DAW is likely to kill stadium-sized gigs, we can probably agree that it has pretty much killed the big studio.

There is actually nothing that forces you to use a tool in any particular way, so I don't think that the "mass produced sound" of today's recordings is directly caused by digital technology, no more than digital recording media as such are responsible for the loudness war. Production standards result from people copying each other's sound (the only crucial connection is whether the limitations of the technology in hand allow for obtaining such results).

Roger made an important point regarding the removal of traditional filters (A&R) with regard to a large number of recordings. This is what makes finding new music on the net, for instance, such a dreary chore. If every kid in your town has access to industry-standard multitrack recording (a limited version perhaps, but that's usually a blessing, seeing as he won't know how to use it anyway), you're going to get tons of really dreadful recordings.

On the other hand, the fact that computer recording is cheap can do wonders for the quality of music. An example: I'm preparing to go into the studio with Viridian and record our first album. I've recently invested in some gear and software and as part of our pre-production, we'll be recording multiple versions of our songs, in order to sort out the arrangements and get some idea of the sound we'll be aiming for. We started yesterday, by making slightly slicker rehearsal recordings and we'll be moving on from there. All this wouldn't be possible to the same extent without the DAW.

By the way, do I detect the hint of split-personality in your post? ;) Usually, you discourse at great length about how bands should give away music. Now, the only way this might be a viable strategy is if the recordings cost close to nothing (as is made possible through home-recording). No one's going to spend thousands of dollars on a regular basis on studio recordings that will then be given away. Even Bill Gates would probably decide that the money could be spent more usefully.

To address the main question and conclude at the same time:
1. Great songs aren't worth anything if not promoted properly (=money)
2. The people who have money to invest are usually looking for quicker returns than the time it takes to build an artist to stadium level
3. The mianstream market has become pretty homogenous (tons of artists who play essentially the same music) due to the me-too tendency of record companies (hey, the market has become incredibly tough, so you go for what you think will sell - see 2) and therefore the number of artists that really stand out has declined
4. People are really warming to the idea that music should be free - not just the recordings, but live music as well - so draws may soon decline for everyone except the real legends
5. The musical fashions of today don't really lend themselves too well to the stadium setting. A punk or alternative band will always be at its best in a club. You need to be suitably pompous to look good at a stadium gig. ;)

I believe the above are all part and parcel of the phenomenon you indicate. The main problem is the state of the market, rather than the technology. Unless music regains a certain level of precieved value, we might see the stadium gig disappear altogether - it simply costs too much to pay out of your own pocket.

I don't go near a computer with a song until the song is already written

However, in the past when I did, no one was forcing me - I made a decision to keep the production out of the songwriting till the last minute

I now hate being anywhere near a computer, drum machine or anything other than a keyboard or guitar when I'm writing. I think I write better songs now because for all the ease of use of computers they are still restrictive in that they force you into a way of working that isn't free

When I have nothing in front of me but a blank piece of paper my minds soars. When I look at Pro Tools, I start falling into set patterns. Horrible.

I now have flights of fancy, and force the computer/production process to accept them. The end of the chorus will be when it feels right. Not in 8 bars time. Or 4. The chords will follow the melody wherever the melody takes them - and not back to the first chord I had 16 bars ago because it was easier to loop that section.

The very things that are there to make you life easier actually make it harder. It's hard enough to think out of the box without a computer forcing you to think inside the machine.

October 14 | Unregistered CommenterJulian Moore

Technology such as this is not what I would point to first. How many years has it been since myspace passed a million acts? Is it 6 million now? ten years ago would I have even considered it possible that there were millions of music acts out there, and now they're all leveraging the internet for my attention? When I was growing up if you listened to Grunge you were "alternative", and I think we've just seen massive fragmentation in mass culture and social heterogeneity that could never support another Micheal Jackson or Led Zep. They are the biggest that will ever be. Giants of a time that's passed.

It's all niches, narrowcasting and long tail now, baby.

Take protools away and you couldn't change that.

Was Soulja Boy about Fruity Loops? I don't think so.

I honestly had to stand back for a minute and say ''woah'' all these points are so valid that its scary! I have been in and around music since i was a kid, first and still as a dj then as a drummer and now i am taking my time putting my own studio together in hopes of producing some local talent. I am about to start some courses with Berklee Music Online. I am 31 now and i have seen my share of musical eras come and go, like the 80's disco and 90's grunge. As a dj in 2008 i have only one statement that i hold true,, that is,,, there are many hits made everyday but very seldom a classic. I dont really think i can say much more than what you guys have said already, i have not heard anyone say it better than what i read here. Thing is, i was googling ''are music workstations better than computer recording'' then i stumbled onto this blog. As i build my studio and save my money for equipment i have tons of questions, some of which seem to have no finite answer and some lead to other questions such as:

Workstation of computer??

if workstation, which one?? pro tools based ,,,, roland,,,,, etc ect

if computer,,, pc or mac???

Like i said , im about to start a few courses with berklee, basic music production , pro tools 101 and stuff like that, some engineers i spoke to think this is a good move in the right direction,,, can i get some input on that?

I want to make more than this era of ringtone music thats coming out,, ,yeah sure i play it in a clubs and it keeps them shaking but i want more than that to come out of my studio,,, i want to make CLASSICS for crying out loud,,, i know lots of great musicians/bands but i want to make sure i take the right steps in both the equipment i buy and the right schooling. I dont know if i strayed to far from the point you guys were making but i its clear you all know a thing or two about the recording industry and i need all the help i can get!

October 31 | Unregistered Commenterantonio ageeb

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