Technology isn’t just changing the way we listen to music, but the way that we make it.
We’ve all heard about how technology has completely demolished the traditional music industry. After being crippled by the introduction of MP3s and the rampant piracy that came along with it, the proliferation of low-cost streaming platforms like Apple Music and Spotify delivered the final blow, killing off major labels left and right. This digital coup has crushed any remaining hope for a record sales-based living — minus the Taylor Swifts and Beyoncés of the world, as Forbes emphasizes.
But there’s another, less talked about side of the music and technology conversation: the fact that the digital age has completely leveled the playing field in the world of audio recording, and democratized (to some extent) the music industry in the process.
Digital Age: The DIY Musician
There’s probably not a moment in your day that you’re not in the presence of someone fiddling with an iPhone, iPad, or MacBook. Practically every piece of consumer technology can today be outfitted into a semi-professional recording studio, and at a relatively affordable cost.
Art Tavana of Pitchfork terms this the “age of digital DIY,” in which we have unprecedented access to affordable creative software like GarageBand and Pro Tools First. Turn on your laptop, open the application, and you can immediately record a song — something that was unthinkable just ten or fifteen years ago.
But these DIY music production platforms aren’t just for amateurs: you’ve probably heard Rihanna’s chart-topping hit “Umbrella,” but did you know the song’s beat was created by one of GarageBand’s loops, as you can see here on SoundCloud?
Armed with these creative tools, artists are taking advantage of free social sharing sites like SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and Facebook to broadcast their music to millions of potential fans across the globe. Today, countless musicians are being launched from the bedroom directly into the mainstream.
Take Adam Young, or as you probably know him, Owl City. According to the New York Times, he started recording music in his parents’ basement and posted his songs to MySpace and iTunes. Eventually, his massive electro-pop hit “Fireflies” reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and has since been downloaded millions of times. Meanwhile, indie sleepers like Elvis Depressedly are able to garner industry praise without toppling into the mainstream.
Too Much Noise?
Recent technological innovations have certainly enabled more people to write and record their own music, but not everyone is pleased with this development. Traditionalists argue that the music industry served as a mechanism for quality control, filtering out material “unsuitable for human consumption.” To them, the increased accessibility simply leads to more mess in a world already hyper-saturated with lowbrow artistic content.
Andrew Garver, a Grammy-nominated mastering engineer who’s worked with the likes of U2 and Madonna, explains how there’s been “a devaluation of audio engineering”: “Anybody who thinks they can write a song can do it now,” says Garver, “and a lot of the time, they’re pretty sh***y songs. It’s hard to find those gems.”
Perhaps, though, there’s merely been a devaluation of any audio engineering that results in new U2 and Madonna albums. The argument that the old music industry was a flawless metocracy is in Garver’s case a pretty self-serving one. Having to separate the great artists from all the noise is still more appealing than only getting shown what a few labels were willing to sell.
Noise Can Be a Beautiful Thing
If you’re someone who thinks of this recent wave/onslaught of DIY music as irritating noise, it might be worth expanding your definition of “music” to be more accommodating. As groundbreaking composer John Cage said, “The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.”
With more doors opening, the better the chance for interesting, new ideas to break through and come to the surface — and at the end of the day, these new ideas are the key to music’s continued progression and ability to stay relevant. And besides, within all that “noise,” there’s bound to be something beautiful worth listening to.