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.
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.