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Is professionally produced music important anymore?

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

I’ve had no problem getting work as a music producer, even in a recession. I’m working on 6 albums and keep getting calls for more, but then I’m cheap as far as many music producers go with my experience. Most of my clients hire me because I also compose and engineer in my own studio, so I’m a one stop shop.

This regular work has in no way filled me with delusions about the importance of professionally produced music to the general public though. I have found myself asking more and more, what is the point of what I do for artists anymore? Is there a future in professionally produced music? Do the majority of people care?

Before you scoff at this question, peruse these valid issues that have partially led to it, such as:

  • The decline of record labels and shift of the industry into the hands of DIY artists with limited budgets
  • The proliferation of affordable music production equipment and software allowing artists to Do It Themselves at home
  • The popularity of live, reality ‘Idol’ type music shows and Youtube
  • The proliferation of poor quality music formats like 128 kb MP3 files
  • The popularity of poor quality music playback devices like iPods with headphones
  • The question of the value of music in a world of free downloads

One could argue that people are used to professionally produced music, and so they will still demand it, despite the shrinking budgets for artists and music lovers. There is no question that the world is shifting towards enjoying more music than ever before, and that music is increasing in popularity.

But my most significant argument for the rapid decline in value for the music producer is, given the above, can the average person even tell the difference between music with no producer and that which is professionally produced? Will they be disappointed with acoustic versions of songs?

Tests I’ve done have proven the answer is no. Most listeners primarily want to hear the singers voice, and the melodies sung with simple instrumentation, and everything else seems superfluous.

I think a producer contributes significantly not just to the quality of sound of the music, but to:

  • The performance, emotion, and confidence of the performers
  • The arrangement of the song, including lyric phrasing and song structure
  • The melodies and musical instrumentation of the song
  • The accuracy of pitch and timing and sonic quality of the recorded parts
  • The range of tone across the frequency spectrum of the music
  • The mood, feeling and energy of the song

But of course, I’m biased! And as illustrated, these are decreasing in importance to the general listener.
In industries like film, TV, and advertising, these elements have become standard, so there is no question that they will require professionally produced music.
For music in general though, the question remains, given it is proven most people can’t hear the difference, is there a future for the professional music producer?
Will a shift in the importance of the arts and education in society affect the demand for musical perfection only an experienced producer can provide?

recording in bedroom

The Importance Of Music In Society

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

This is my 100th blog post, so I wanted it to be a good one! I’ve been saving this Welcome address to freshman class at Boston Conservatory given by Karl Paulnack, pianist and director of music division at Boston Conservatory for just such an occasion. In an age of free downloading when many question the value of music, It is long, but a must read for everyone:

“One of my parents’ deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not
properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn’t be appreciated. I had very
good grades in high school, I was good in science and math, and they
imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer, I might be
more appreciated than I would be as a musician. I still remember my mother’s
remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school-she said,
“You’re WASTING your SAT scores.” On some level, I think, my parents were
not sure themselves what the value of music was, what its purpose was. And
they LOVED music, they listened to classical music all the time. They just
weren’t really clear about its function. So let me talk about that a little
bit, because we live in a society that puts music in the “arts and
entertainment” section of the newspaper, and serious music, the kind your
kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with
entertainment, in fact it’s the opposite of entertainment. Let me talk a
little bit about music, and how it works.

The first people to understand how music really works were the ancient
Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you; the Greeks said that music and
astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study
of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music
was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden
objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside
our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside
us. Let me give you some examples of how this works.

One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the Quartet for
the End of Time written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940.
Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany.
He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940, sent across Germany in a
cattle car and imprisoned in a concentration camp.

He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a
place to compose. There were three other musicians in the camp, a cellist, a
violinist, and a clarinetist, and Messiaen wrote his quartet with these
specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for four thousand
prisoners and guards in the prison camp. Today it is one of the most famous
masterworks in the repertoire.

Given what we have since learned about life in the concentration camps, why
would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing
music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water,
to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture-why would anyone bother
with music? And yet-from the camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have
visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people
created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on
survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must
be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope,
without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were
not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit,
an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we
say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”

On September 12, 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. That morning I reached
a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world. I sat down
at the piano that morning at 10 AM to practice as was my daily routine; I
did it by force of habit, without thinking about it. I lifted the cover on
the keyboard, and opened my music, and put my hands on the keys and took my
hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter?
Isn’t this completely irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what
happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless.
Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a
piano player right now? I was completely lost.

And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of
getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact I
contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again. And
then I observed how we got through the day.

At least in my neighborhood, we didn’t shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We
didn’t play cards to pass the time, we didn’t watch TV, we didn’t shop, we
most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I
saw in New York, that same day, was singing. People sang. People sang around
fire houses, people sang “We Shall Overcome”. Lots of people sang America
the Beautiful. The first organized public event that I remember was the
Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York
Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first
communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the
beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the
airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that
very night.

>From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is not part
of “arts and entertainment” as the newspaper section would have us believe.
It’s not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our
budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic
need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives,
one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way
for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds.

Some of you may know Samuel Barber’s heartwrenchingly beautiful piece Adagio
for Strings. If you don’t know it by that name, then some of you may know it
as the background music which accompanied the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, a
film about the Vietnam War. If you know that piece of music either way, you
know it has the ability to crack your heart open like a walnut; it can make
you cry over sadness you didn’t know you had. Music can slip beneath our
conscious reality to get at what’s really going on inside us the way a good
therapist does.

I bet that you have never been to a wedding where there was absolutely no
music. There might have been only a little music, there might have been some
really bad music, but I bet you there was some music. And something very
predictable happens at weddings-people get all pent up with all kinds of
emotions, and then there’s some musical moment where the action of the
wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute or something. And even if
the music is lame, even if the quality isn’t good, predictably 30 or 40
percent of the people who are going to cry at a wedding cry a couple of
moments after the music starts. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us to move
around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides so
that we can express what we feel even when we can’t talk about it. Can you
imagine watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue
but no music? What is it about the music swelling up at just the right
moment in ET so that all the softies in the audience start crying at exactly
the same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with the music
stripped out, it wouldn’t happen that way. The Greeks: Music is the
understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects.

I’ll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of
my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a thousand
concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were
important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it
made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played
for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers,
foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took
place in a nursing home in Fargo, ND, about 4 years ago.

I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began,
as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during World
War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was
shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the
pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program
notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we
decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out
and play the music without explanation.

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the
front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was
clearly a soldier-even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair,
square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in
the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to
tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t
the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the
concert and finished the piece.

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk
about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances
in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed
pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had
to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again,
but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in
an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched
my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes
which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute chords
so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop
away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about
this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this
memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I
didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came
out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost
pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that?
How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?

Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between
internal objects. This concert in Fargo was the most important work I have
ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect,
somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost
friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is
why music matters.

What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year’s freshman class
when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I will charge
your sons and daughters with is this:

“If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing
appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would
imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your
emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my
friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and
bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that
is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you
do your craft.

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell
yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician
isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevies. I’m not an
entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue
worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a
spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works
with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come
into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I
expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this
planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of
equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a
military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the
religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war
as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is
to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit
together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do.
As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the
ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.”

– Karl Paulnack, pianist and director of music division at the Boston Conservatory

Playing For Change: Song Around the World “One Love” Video

Monday, April 20th, 2009

Playing For Change: Song Around the World “One Love”:

“The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens. So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth.”
— Bahá’u’lláh

Download my old original Christmas music

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

Everyone likes Christmas music during the holidays, so here’s a link to my post from last year with some of the few original Christmas tunes I’ve done over the years:
Some Old Christmas Songs

The difference is, this year, as a Christmas gift, you can download & do whatever you like with them:
www.jarome.com/downloads/

For a limited time only!

We’ve had a lot of snow in Vancouver, and across Canada lately, I posted about ‘The sweet serenity of snow’ last year as well.

China trip and the launch of Pro Soul Alliance

Saturday, November 29th, 2008

I’m back from an amazing and productive trip to Beijing where I got to meet and work with some fantastic new artists as well as the immensely talented Elika Mahony. I blogged all about it on the new Pro Soul site, where I will be posting a lot of my music business entries from now on: www.prosoul.com

Yes, that’s right, Pro Soul Alliance, the new innovative 21st century record label is now live and ready to take on the artists of a new music industry! It’s a very exciting accomplishment, and we’ve put countless hours of research and effort into creating a truly ground breaking solution for artists everywhere.
We’ve assembled an amazing international team that is consistently expanding to provide an incredible range of services and research to assist artists of all genres from all over the world to connect with their audience and monetize their music in new ways that reflect the changes in the way people want to hear music.
There is really nothing like Pro Soul out there for artists and you will undoubtedly be hearing more about it in the near future! Would love to hear your comments and feedback.

It sure has been an exciting year, and things are just getting going! Hard to beleive it’s almost December.

Music Production For Worthy Charity

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

I am very selective about doing charitable work because of the amount of free time I have, but I have done my share philanthropy through various productions for organizations helping those in need primarily through education, more recently for a CD in Mandarin to help children of all backgrounds throughout Asia learn spiritual attributes and virtues.

My latest such production is with talented musician and writer, Alicia Cundall who wrote a theme song for the charity organization Red House called ‘One Story’ Which I did backing tracks for, recorded, produced and mixed.

RED House is a non-profit, non-governmental organization in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania that provides educational programs for disadvantaged and orphan children, ages 3 to 18.
Here is a video to give you a more of a sense of Red House:


Here is the website for Red House with the full length song:

http://redhousetanzania.org

It was great to help such a worthy cause that is helping youth through education. If your in Washington DC, attend the fundraiser and you can see Alicia peform this song along with a number of other talented performers.

New royalty for music played online

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

On September 23, 2008, songwriters, publishers, record labels and digital music services announced they had finally reached an agreement on mechanical royalties for songs played on online music services. It only took about 8 years for them to figure it out…

Called a “breakthrough that will facilitate new ways to offer music to consumers online,” the voluntary agreement crafted by the Digital Media Association (DiMA), the National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA), the RIAA, the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) and the Songwriters Guild of America (SGA) ended the longstanding dispute about mechanical royalties for interactive streaming and limited downloads.

The agreement must be still be approved by the Copyright Royalty Board to take effect, and states that limited download and interactive streaming services will pay a mechanical royalty of 10.5 percent of revenue, less any amounts owed for performance royalties. In certain instances, royalty-free promotional streaming is allowed.
The agreement tries to solve the dispute about what invokes a mechanical royalty in the digital environment, and permits certain kinds of promotional streams without payment, and agrees that webcasters will not owe mechanical royalties for non-interactive, audio-only streams.

The statutory mechanical royalty rate is currently 9.1¢ per song, unless you negotiate with the publisher directly and come up with a different rate.
With physical product, calculating the mechanical royalty using the statutory rate calculated by: # of songs on CD x # CDs manufactured x 9.1¢. But calculating mechanical royalties in the digital environment is more complicated because of considerations like what type of use (download, live stream, etc.) and how each is determined online.
The agreement states that all parties agreed to a “percentage of revenue” calculation so interactive audio-only webcasters and subscription services will pay 10.5 percent of their revenue to songwriters and publishers, minus any performance royalties already being paid to labels.
If a songwriter has a publishing deal with a publisher who’s a member of Harry Fox, the royalties should go from the music service to the publisher through HFA, then be passed along to the songwriter/composer as per their deal. For self-published musicians the royalties should go from the music service to a digital aggregator, which then would pass them on to either the musicians’ indie label, or directly to the musician.
The agreement primarily affects Rhapsody and Napster, for both their on-demand streaming services and their “to-go” services that allow subscribers to put music on portable players. But it will also affect other major services like MySpace, imeem, iLike and others for their interactive streaming options they want to provide.

However, this agreement is not the answer to the ongoing digital performance royalty fight between SoundExchange and webcasters like Pandora and soma.fm. That’s another issue, related to a different copyright. As i’ve mentioned many times, the music industry is unequaled when it comes to beauracracy… According to the press release, the parties agreed that non-interactive, audio-only streaming services like Pandora and soma.fm do not require a mechanical license. This means webcasters no longer have to worry about paying the publishers both for a performance and again for the cache and buffer copies made to enable that performance.
However, this agreement does not solve the debate between webcasters and sound recording rightsholders, which has to do with the non-interactive public performance of a recording on a digital platform. To keep it simple, I’ll just say that the disagreement about this digital performance royalty rate is ongoing. Hopefully a settlement will be reached soon, before it kills internet radio and brilliant musical innovations like Pandora.com

There are many parts of this agreement, like the acceptance of a percentage of revenue calculation that make a lot of sense. Hopefully it will influence and allow new business models to continue and flourish and allow musicians to benefit from increased access, exposure and revenue, and let music fans discover more music.

Poor Quality Sound: Now Standard!

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

In my last post I talked about how the quality and natural dynamics of music is being destroyed through digital software technology that allows unnatural processing of audio.

But there is a much greater threat to the quality of audio that has been the subject of my thoughts for some time now: The way we listen to sound.

Back in the 1970’s the quality of sound recording technology, production techniques and playback systems reached a pinnacle with some of the most incredible music and sound humanity had ever known, and this became further fine tuned in the 1980’s. Brilliant, rich full spectrum sound that went beyond the range of human hearing, but influenced the richness of the sound through frequency harmonics that enhanced what we could hear with our ears.
Two things initiated the downward spiral that has led us to where we are today: The Walkman and the CD.
Very briefly, the walkman influenced music lovers to listen to music on crappy little earphones, and the CD chopped off audio at 20kHz without researching the influence of harmonics above that hearing range on sound we do hear. This is why vinyl records really are better sounding than CD’s in many ways.
From there, the convenience of sound gave way to clarity, and quality until we come to the present day world, of massively widespread use by the majority of music and audio listeners of terrible sounding MP3’s played on the worst possible sound producing devices humanity has ever experienced: earbud iPod headphones, computer laptop speakers, and cel phones! And this doesn’t even begin to cover the music and production tools and techniques prevalent with the trend of do it yourself computer production.

To a producer like myself who has spent over a decade mastering the subtle art of trying to perfect music and sound, this trend is devastating to say the least. And if you ever compared how music sounds on a really nice hi fi stereo system (you know like the ones they used in the 70’s) with a computer laptop speaker, it would make you nauseous. You lose something like 80% of the sound! But that introduces another problem- people don’t really know what sounds good and what doesn’t, maybe because they have become so used to listening to terribly reproduced sound, in my humble opinion and experience.
(Just as a benchmark, and cost is by no means an accurate measure, if your speakers cost less than $500, they are probably cheap garbage that sounds terrible!)

This has brought up all kinds of questions for me with regard to what I do as a profession… Why create great sounding 24 bit 96kHz audio if it is going to end up at 80% of what you created? For the 20% of people that like good sound?
My only answer is to become more involved in the film industry side of audio production as a sound designer, since at least sound is formatted and reproduced in higher fidelity than with music. So that is what I have gradually been doing. A film I worked on last year is hitting the theatres in September here…

I truly feel for the future of music in an environment where it is so under appreciated. It makes me wonder what the future holds for someone in a profession like myself and wether or not there will even be the need for professional producers and engineers if no one can really appreciate or notice their efforts.

For those of you reading this who don’t really know what I’m talking about, you don’t know what your missing!

The way audio was meant to be heard...

The Loudness Dilemma

Friday, August 15th, 2008

For some time now there has been a debate about how modern audio mastering techniques have created music that is louder than it usually would be at the expense of the normal dynamics of the music.
Andrew Dubber blogged about it here with a video that demonstrates the issue:

The process of making tracks louder than they usually would be without them distorting is called ‘Limiting‘.

This is something, as an audio engineer that also does mastering, that I have wrestled with for many years. I like music loud, and it bothers me when something sounds too quiet when listened to with other music. But as a producer and sound mixer, I also love dynamics in music. When others have mastered songs I’ve mixed using standard ompression, it has really ruined the song. But you don’t want the music to seem quiet compared to other music, and you want it to sound good on the lousy stereo systems most people listen to music on! Hence the Dilemma.

I think that in many ways, Dubbers argument may be pointless really. The majority of people in the world wouldn’t know good sound if their life depended on it! Even many of the talented artists I work with for whom music is their life struggle with this, and my production students certainly do as well.

I blogged more about this major issue of the poor quality audio so prevalent in the world here.

Alan Wilder of Recoil and formerly Depeche Mode wrote an excellent article about it and about other industry changes as well here

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Data proves that free or shared music files are not lost sales

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

For some time now I, along with many others in the music industry, have been going on about free music not representing a lost sale, but a gained listener.

Frequently, many music industry professionals suggest that an increase in legitimate sales must necessarily coincide with a commensurate reduction in ‘piracy’, as if this were a fact, yet, the research company BigChampagne has made no such consistent observation in nearly a decade of analyzing online data about music. Rather, it finds that piracy rates follow awareness and interest… The biggest selling albums and songs are nearly always the most widely pirated, regardless of all the ‘anti-piracy’ tactics employed by music companies.

Wired magazine talked about the factual data supporting mega rock band Radiohead‘s decision to allow users to pay what they wanted for their latest album.
All of the torrenting/free downloading of Radiohead’s of In Rainbows album contributed to the album making such a big impression on a listening public that’s bombarded with an ever increasing amount of information. Without it having been so widely traded, BigChampage’s data report says that Radiohead’s album wouldn’t necessarily have shot to the top of the charts and their worldwide tour wouldn’t have been such a smashing success, and I have to agree.

Applying economic principles to digital music, BigChamagne found that “the challenge of achieving popularity (or attention) when the old rules of scarcity (of product) and excludability don’t apply (to information goods) the way they used to, changes the monetization game completely.”

BigChamagne came to the undeniable conclusion that the music industry needs to stop thinking of shared files as lost sales, and start treating them as an aspect of reality upon which they can build part of their businesses.

You can download a detailed paper on this topic here. I haven’t studied it in detail yet so I would love to hear your insights.