Thursday, April 19, 2012

Counterintuitive Twenty-First Century Hipster Luddism

I love vinyl. I'm an Edison man. Everything
after 'Mary had a little lamb' was kind of derivative.
Stephen Colbert

Last week, two articles on highly successful musicians provided contrasting glimpses into the technology behind music production in our times. First up was an interesting piece from The New Yorker on what we might call the new Brill Building or the new Tinpan Alley: the dozen or so teams of song producers and writers that are responsible for the vast majority of the hits that dominate the American pop music scene. Fifty years ago, popular musicians didn’t write their own stuff. Their managers simply had them sing songs that professional songwriters churned out like sausages in places like the Brill in New York. Look at the first Beatles and Rolling Stones albums: not a single original composition. That is the world that Bob Dylan blew away. Carole King is the sole survivor of that bygone era. She began as a gun for hire with her husband and later successfully made the transition into the singer-songwriter era of the sixties and seventies who sang her own material.

Now, in the era of the Content Tsunami, "the times they are a-changin' back." A tiny group of twenty or so professional songwriters is once again churning out the Top 40 hits that account for the bulk of music sales. They use very simple formulas:’s Top Forty is almost always machine-made: lush sonic landscapes of beats, loops, and synths in which all the sounds have square edges and shiny surfaces, the voices are Auto-Tuned for pitch, and there are no mistakes. The music sounds sort of like this: thump thooka whompa whomp pish pish pish thumpaty wompah pah pah pah.

The songs are written according to a template that relies heavily on so-called “hooks,” the repetitive parts that captivate the listener—who apparently has the attention span of a fruit fly. As if older pop music was not repetitive or catchy enough. (Seriously, how much more catchy will pop have to get in the future? I imagine a couple of hands reaching out from a smartphone screen, grabbing you by the lapels and shaking you while a voice shouts: “Dance, bitch!”):

The producers compose the chord progressions, program the beats, and arrange the “synths,” or computer-made instrumental sounds; the top-liners come up with primary melodies, lyrics, and the all-important hooks, the ear-friendly musical phrases that lock you into the song.

In this age of alleged media diversification, a handful of individuals are responsible for the listening pleasures of millions. In fact, so tiny and influential is this elite that one song written for Beyoncé, “Halo,” ended up being used by Kelly Clarkson (“Already Gone”) before the duplication was noticed… and both became hits!

The process of writing cookie-cutter songs, unsurprisingly, relies heavily on high technology:

Eriksen worked “the box”—the computer—using Avid’s Pro Tools editing program, while Hermansen critiqued the playbacks. Small colored rectangles, representing bits of Dean’s vocal, glowed on the computer screen, and Eriksen chopped and rearranged them, his fingers flying over the keys, frequently punching the space bar to listen to a playback, then rearranging some more. The studio’s sixty-four-channel professional mixing board, with its vast array of knobs and lights, which was installed when Roc the Mic Studios was constructed, only five years ago, sat idle, a relic of another age.

For a contrast, last week also saw the publication of a New York Times feature on Jack White, formerly of the White Stripes, a major figure in the rock’n’roll that was displaced by this resurgence of the Top 40s hit machine.

White sounds like a post-industrial romantic who is knee-deep into the resurgence of vinyl. His record company’s slogan is that “Your Turntable’s not Dead”:

“It’s a really beautiful process,” White said. At the labeling station, an employee handed him a pressing of an old Robert Johnson LP that was being rereleased, and he weighed it in his hand. “That’s killer,” he said. “It’s not as heavy as mine, though. I’ve got the real one.” White calls LPs “the pinnacle of musical expression.” “I was talking to Robert Altman before he died,” he said, “and I asked him about an interview where he said that he would never switch to videotape, that he would always stay in film. He said: ‘I know what that is. It has a negative. It has a positive. With videotape or digital, I have no idea what’s going on.’ That’s how I feel about vinyl. The left wall is the left channel, the right wall is the right channel, and you’re just dragging that rock through the groove. Watching it spin, you get a real mechanical sense of music being reproduced. I think there’s a romance to that.”

Later on, the author of the piece describes White’s radically retro style of song production:

White thinks of computer programs like Pro Tools as “cheating.” He records only in analog, never digital, and edits his tape with a razor blade. “It’s sort of like I can’t be proud of it unless I know we overcame some kind of struggle,” he said. “The funny thing is, even musicians and producers, my peers, don’t care. Like, ‘Wow, that’s great, Jack.’ Big deal.”It’s easy to overlook amid the stylistic trappings, but White is a virtuoso — possibly the greatest guitarist of his generation. His best songs, like “Seven Nation Army,” are firmly rooted in the American folk vernacular, yet catchy and durable enough to be chanted in sports arenas worldwide. That he does it with such self-imposed constraints — for instance, his favorite guitar in the White Stripes was made of plastic and came from Montgomery Ward — makes it all the more impressive.

I will not attempt to drive a ten-ton truck through this stylistic difference or to construct some facile analogy about highbrow hipster retro and mass-market, tech-driven commercialism. I am perhaps a snob, but not at least in musical terms. My tastes are pretty Catholic insofar as pop is concerned. A peek at my iPod reveals a catalogue that ranges from the artsiness of a Tom Waits to the morose dirges of an Iron & Wine to the sugar-coated superficiality of an Abba. Obviously, someone like White, who says his three spiritual dads are “his biological father, God and Bob Dylan” will be closer to my heart. But I downloaded several of the songs mentioned in the New Yorker piece by Rihanna and Nicki Minaj. While not my cup of tea, I can see the attraction. These artists are obviously the direct descendants of the Motown sound that was organized under very similar lines, with manufactured pop groups who didn’t write their own music. This artificial and commercial system nonetheless produced gems such as "You Can't Hurry Love," "Tracks of My Tears," and “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch.”

Both White and the Norwegian producer duo known as “Stargate” belong to elites that produce popular music for the masses. The only difference is that Stargate’s masses are way more massive. But there is also a second difference. White's musical experiments are much less dependent upon the hit machine. Some of his albums can flop and others will do better, but he still has the independence and freedom to fail. The Stargate duo are much more dependent upon the fickle tastes of the mass public. Their flavor of music can fall out of fashion at the drop of a hat. In fact, it already happened to them once, back in the United Kingdom: "In 2004, things suddenly slowed down for Stargate in the U.K. 'People got fed up with Stargate’s sound—things change fast in the music business—and there was no work,' Eriksen told me."

The New Yorker feature of the Top 40 wizards ends with a poignant moment when Adele's sweep of the Grammys is discussed:

But with the mention of Adele the air pressure in the control room seemed to change. Stargate knew well from their experience in London how quickly fads come and go in the pop business; a massive smash such as Adele’s “Someone Like You,” with its heartfelt lyrics, accompanied by simple piano arpeggios—no arpeggiator required—could be the beginning of the end of urban pop.

The two styles of production inhabit the same moment in time. I would also suggest that White’s last-man-standing posture of cutting physical strands of tape with a knife might not be simply the anachronism of an eccentric weirdo. Think more along the lines of Apple versus Google or locavorism versus molecular gastronomy. A Luddite retro hipster living in Tennessee like White might just be the flip side of the two Norwegians hunched over their seventeen-inch screens in midtown Manhattan. In a post-historicist society, the line between retro and futurist blurs as the past recurs over and over, and our visions of the future age faster than our furniture. They are simply two different ways of inserting yourself into the present and the future.

But, still, I am beginning to wonder whether, in some fields, technological savvy and sophistication might begin to be correlated with replaceability, and perhaps even lower wages and lower profit margins. Instead of a sine qua non for avoiding obsolescence, technological sophistication might be the tax you constantly have to pay to maintain your status as a cog in a mass-production machine. A cog that is progressively paid less and whose output becomes increasingly commoditized.

Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. To contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. Feel free to join his LinkedIn network or to follow him on Twitter.


Ivor TNT said...

There isn't really a gap between Motown and the current situation. The 80's were full of such production teams, those that gave us Tiffany and Debbie Gibson or Belinda Carlisle and the Bangles. In the 60's it was cheap labour in the form of black musicians...that became cheap means of production with digital implementation in music, giving rise to teams like Stock/Aitken/Waterman which dominated much of the 80's and early 90's (Rick Astley, Bananarama, Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, etc.), or someone like Desmond Child who provided many catchy hooks in mainstream rock in the 80's and 90's (Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, etc.)

Even in music which is apparently less mainstream, there are production trends that end up creating a 'sound' for a generation (even if they're not involved in songwriting per se): take Butch Vig or Steve Albini in the grunge/noise era, for instance.

Though I understand where White is coming from, it's not the digitalisation of the process that is killing the soul of music, but the mechanised process itself, the non-stop churning of music clones which society gobbles up without a moment for critical perspective...

right, back to translation

Miguel Llorens M. said...

Point taken that the hit-makers never disappeared, but they did take a back seat to rock'n'rollers writing their own songs in the 70's and 80's. Bangles and Bananarama may have sold a lot, but it was way more profitable to have a Bruce Springsteen or a U2 on your label. The roles have now inverted. At Glastonbury, Beyoncé gets the main stage and Queens of the Stone Age are shunted off to the left,left stage.