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Sounding Off: Musical Values

Christopher Budd By Christopher Budd
Published September 2006

Has the computer changed our musical values?

Some years ago, it became apparent that affordable computers and powerful software would soon give the owners of even modest project studios the ability to make professional-quality recordings. Naturally, there was some scepticism in the music media. Some feared the imminent dumbing-down of recorded music, but others felt that the deluge of badly produced material that was surely going to result would just highlight the fact that technology alone didn't make one a producer, and without study, application and above all talent, the technology is merely a toy.

Sounding Off

Fast-forward a few years and this argument had all but disappeared from editorial columns. It seemed that although we all had access to powerful recording equipment, the sceptics had been right, and little had changed in terms of popular music. These kinds of musings had been superseded by growing concern about how illegal file-sharing might damage the recording industry. Since the legitimisation of this area (and appropriately it took a technology company to create a workable model where the record companies had failed), file-sharing is a bit of a passé subject these days. Make no mistake though, it still exists, and is perhaps as popular as ever.

With hindsight, it seems to me that these two disparate developments in our industry — the sudden accessibility of desktop music production and the controversial popularity of file-sharing — are more closely linked than you'd imagine, and actually point to a wider problem: Technology has apparently created a generation of music producers and consumers who don't seem to value music at all. How can they value something that's free to anyone with a bit of savvy and a broadband connection, especially when they own the very tools of its production themselves?

But it goes much deeper than that. If you spend all your time in front of your computer, laboriously writing, recording, mixing and mastering your concept album, only to find that actually nobody is interested in it beside a few close friends who are prepared to sit through it (again), then it's very easy to learn the wrong lesson — namely, that your music is worthless. Under these circumstances, it's not difficult to create a justification for downloading other people's music for free — 'Nobody pays for my music, why should I pay for anyone else's?'

But to simply download music for free and shove it on your iPod, without ever knowing what it is, is to miss the point of music — that it's created by people. It's not just the soundtrack to your train ride; it's the product of someone's labour, someone's creativity. I've met people who don't even know what half the material on their iPod is, and to me that's the real crime.

When did we stop being interested in music? Certainly, at some point a large swathe of us ceased being interested in who created any particular piece of music and why, who played on whose album, who produced whom, and so on. To me, this fundamental context is what makes music interesting and meaningful beyond the simple, visceral level; it's what makes the music a living thing, rather than just a commodity. It's also the thing that is immediately missing from a collection of music that you've simply gathered up off the Internet. Perhaps not everyone enjoys the mildewy smell or the scratchy throat you get when you've spent all afternoon in a dusty shop reading the sleeve notes of old vinyl albums, looking for something you'd never discovered before. But to me that's what being interested in music, and being a musician, is all about.

I suspect the people I am most critical of here aren't actually reading this column. They're more likely to be on the 'net, bloodshot eyes and skin like wet cheese, pulling down a few hundred MP3s. That's their loss though. It's important that we remember why we liked music in the first place and try to carry over some of that feeling into the work we do, without getting sidelined into the bitterness of the industry, or our own feelings of worthiness in a marketplace which seems to have lost its collective mind. Car salesmen and merchant bankers deal in commodities, but we deal in something far more valuable; creativity. Our industry isn't like other industries, it's one where you can spend a whole lifetime working for absolutely no financial reward, and never get the break you deserve. So you'd better make sure you enjoy it. 

About The Author

Christopher Budd is a lecturer, writer and media composer. He recently scored a documentary called In Search Of The Valley, which is out imminently (www.insearchofthevalley.com).

Published September 2006