NEWS FROM THE WOODS
By Bob Ketchum
Originally Published May 5, 2012
"The SOUL of Music"
Last night was PERFECT! I had just finished a video job in town and was driving back home about 9:30 PM. I had the top down on the Sebring. It was warmish, but the air was cool as I motored my way out of town. I had Marc Cohn's first album on my CD player, which was the perfect compliment to this gorgeous evening. The car seemed to be gliding on air (maybe the new tires helped) and moving almost in slow motion, as if to punctuate the mood music pouring out of the cranked up stereo.
As I came down the "big hill" towards the Hwy 62 bridge across Lake Norfork I saw the moon in all its splendor, just sitting there as puffy clouds slowly drifted by. It was breathtaking. Marc's song "29 Ways" came on the stereo. It was the first time I'd ever heard the song, and it just grabbed me! Time seemed to stand still, and I got chill bumps, now remembering all those times I heard a song that touched me personally. Whenever that happens I seem to remember everything about the moment… the sights… the smells (honeysuckle)… it is almost like a Déjà vu.
In that 3 minutes that it took to go down the hill and cross the bridge, a lot of thoughts crossed my mind. It felt so nice I didn't want it to end, and pulled over to the side of the bridge, about in the middle. I grabbed my Droid phone and cranked up the camera function, wishing I had my "real" camera at this moment. I took several shots of the moon and sky, but of course I discovered later on they just didn't come out good enough to post them on my Facebook page. While sitting there in the dark on the bridge with the entire night sky above and around me, it dawned on me why music is so important in people's lives.
Those of you that know me well understand when I grouse online about how the music industry has gone to hell. I know I have said many times that music today is being ruined by a number of factors. First, MP3 files have caused an acceptance by the public to embrace a lower standard of technology. AS a professional recording engineer, I have spent the greater portion of my career pursuing an excellence in sound quality. We spend HOURS and HOURS pondering over the creation and archiving of music (songs). We use all sort of wizardry creating just the right soundscape for the music vehicles of artists that record in our facilities. We take great pains to make sure everything is balanced and sounds like it does in our heads, using very expensive and complicated equipment to "make it happen". And THEN what happens?? The entire mix gets "squashed down" to a compressed MP3 file so it will download faster on the Internet. Let me say her that I understand today's MP3 files are MUCH better quality than they used to be. Technology is driven by the wishes of the masses. And I will also admit that to my hears it all sounds good, but when you consider that an uncompressed .WAV file (the industry standard) that is 45.1 MB winds up as an 8.19 MB MP3 file (in 256Kbps)….. SOMETHING in the sound has to be missing!!
But that's not REALLY the problem………
With the technology available to us today, thanks to software like Auto Tune and Melodyne we can alter, manipulate and correct all those "human imperfections". We can turn a flat-voiced ninny into a Beyonce. We can remove a sour instrument from a mix and "fix" it. We don't need no steenkin' drummers (and their bitchy girlfriends)… we can just record a drum machine or sequencer - which, incidentally has a built-in feature called "humanize" which will slightly vary the meter, making the drum track sound more like it was played by a real drummer. We c an reverse clips, cut and paste, and move music segments around to create entirely NEW segments. There is simply no end to the ways we can "massage" a song these days.
But THAT'S not the problem, either . . . . . . .
Give a musician/artist/songwriter $500 and tell them they can spend it in one of two ways: Either they can take the $500 and go to a professional studio and spend it on recording time, or they can take that $500 and buy a laptop with the software to do it themselves, and I will bet a dollar to a dime they will choose door #2. ALL musicians want control over their intellectual property, and the surest way is to DIY. Of course few fail to consider that equipment alone cannot make your music sound good. You not only have to develop a good set of ears, but you have to learn what all that software does, which takes years without attending some kind of recording school. Even then, you may become technically proficient at twisting knobs and moving sliders and still have absolutely NO sense of music.
No… even THIS isn't what bothers me……….
It came to me in a flash while sitting there on the bridge. It is music itself that is suffering. The industry has commercialized music to such an extent that it has become a common commodity. This has gone beyond the fact that the kids of today EXPECT to get their music as cheaply as possible - even FREE. There are no album liner notes to draw the listener into the artist's life. Aside from physical CD's (which are fast becoming extinct) there is nothing that a fan can hold onto and pour over which would allow the fan into the world of the artist. The industry no longer "invests" in an artist's career. That is partly because in the industry today there are no more A & R people. Musicians themselves, these people were once the touchstone of new types of music. They understood music and therefore had an insight into the potential for new artists and would recommend these newcomers to their bosses, the record moguls themselves. Today the position of A & R has transmogrified into the title of "Music Director". Their job primarily consists of assigning music to TV shows and movies. They no longer scout for new talent. Why do they need to? There are SO many new artists out there banging on every door to the industry, trying to get it, there is no need to search for real talent. They can pick and choose whomever they figure is a good act or group to exploit. If they lack experience (or even talent in some cases) it's no problem… the industry just uses the new technology to MAKE them sound good! Since the bottom line is all-important to today's industry "professionals" (bean counters, actually) if an act doesn't sell well they just drop them like a hot potato and move on to the next promising young band. And it's SO EASY to exploit new talent because most of them would sell their soul to the devil to become "rich and famous"……
I think the "rich and famous" part started with my own generation to be brutally honest here. Back when I was a kid just starting out in music, the ONLY reason I was playing music was because IT WAS FUN. I enjoyed entertaining people. My band mates and I did not have stars in our eyes (at that time). We were in front of an appreciative audience of folks who could FEEL the communication between them and the players on stage. There were no pretences. We weren't trying to prove anything other than we had an ability to communicate with our audiences and entertain them. It was much later (for me)… In the 70's when I began to entertain thoughts of writing my own material and trying to get the attention of an industry FAR removed from my mid-America location. But even then, there were so many bands out there by that time that A& R people only had to open the front door and let them in to audition. But at least the music was still the important thing back then. A song had to be GOOD, or an novelty, or the artist must be recognizable, to become an accepted part of modern recording history.
Now, I am not saying that isn't still happening today. There ARE still good players…GREAT players… who are worth shelling out $$$$ for tickets to a concert. But… IN GENERAL…. The "art" of music is giving way to the "business" of music.
But, what IS "music" ???? Back in the Stone Age, it was probably two or three men banging on logs. Soon, stringed instruments were invented, and then instruments one would blow into in order to make sounds. After a millennia, entire performances and groups of players would "band" together and sooth the hearts of the savage beast (man). Why did this all occur? It certainly wasn't a commodity THEN. No…. there was something else going on……. Something inside the body……… Something intangible, and yet it could be felt by everyone in the gathering.
Plainly put, music touches something inside of all of us. We don't even have to have one ounce of musical ability to feel it, either. My wife could not carry a tune in a bucket, but she CAN tell the difference between something that moves her and something that sucks. Just look at how many posts on Facebook every day is a music clip. YouTube is a GIANT on the Internet, largely because you can find almost any song, artist, or performance easily, no matter HOW obscure it may be. That, in itself, is simply amazing to me. How many songs have been recorded over the past 40 years alone? Millions! As an experiment I chose a single year… 1962…. And found the Billboard Top 100 list from that year online. I then went to YouTube and, starting at the top, I entered the title and artist into the search window. Without exception I found the exact song I was looking for within the first four listings. I finally gave up after reaching #65.
Just think about that for a moment.
A popular song stays in the collective consciousness LONG after it has ceased to be popular with the masses. Why? Because each and every song strikes a chord within a persons being ("soul"?) and stays there pretty much throughout their life. When that "favorite song" is played in their presence, they are propelled back into time and sometimes can recall the sights, sounds, smells, and memories of when they were first impressed with it. Now multiply that against how many favorite songs exist in your mind and you start to get the picture.
I do not believe many of the songs and even groups of today are having that kind of impact on us as a society. Sure, you will probably remember a particular song but can you really say you recall where you were when you first heard it? What you were doing? Who you were with? If so… then I think you may be an exception to the rule. Will Beyonce have the longevity of The Beatles? Will Slash's guitar sell on eBay for as much as Jimi's?
Now, before you protest, I will say that at 65, I probably AM "over the hill" as far as today's music is concerned. However, in my defense let me remind you that I have been a professional in the music business since the sixties. And not just as a player, either. I was in broadcasting for fifteen years during the Golden Age of Radio. I have been a recording engineer (taught to respect EVERY type of music that walks through the door of the studio) since the 70's. And even before THAT, as a child I was weaned on the music of the 30's and 40's, as my mother was a professional entertainer during those days, and while growing up I heard my mother play all the "old standards" every night. I have learned how to appreciate ALL kinds of music, even show tunes, opera, barbershop and Weird Al ! I am a long time lover of good music, no matter what the genre is or where it originated from. I believe I DO still have the capacity to detect crap when I hear it. And lately, I've heard a lot of it. So much so, that instead of listening to radio anymore, I carry my own music with me. If I get bored I tune in an oldies station. It's not because that's "my" music… it is because I can depend on it to satisfy my need for some "soul stirring".
Occasionally I do try to tap into the popular music of today, and to be sure, there are some really great new groups and tunes out there. It's just that the ratio has dwindled to one good song for every ten bad songs heard. Life is short, and I don't have the time to wade through so much fodder just to hear the new tune that actually reaches me. These days, I depend on my friends (that know my personal tastes) to bring something worthy to my attention. That is how I discovered Marc Cohn. I DID like the single "Walkin' In Memphis" when it was released (heard it on the radio) but had no idea who the artist was (they never mention that on the air anymore) until my friend Randy Keck came to the studio for a session and brought three albums by Marc Cohn to my attention. After listening to them I have realized that as an artist, his music is the kind I like. It is well constructed, well performed, and well recorded. AND….. the songs are strong and leave a mark in my mind for the next time I hear them.
My own personal music that I play for my own enjoyment is STILL 85% "classics", but Mr. Cohn now joins the ranks of "new artists" in my collection, along with Black Country Communion, Rascal Flatts, Bruce Hornsby, Sheryl Crow, Alicia Keys, Nora Jones, and Maroon 5. The real shame is that it took wading through hundreds of albums and artists just to discover those.