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April 23, 2007

Filed under: music»business»distribution

Burying Caesar

To the surprise of even myself, I'm going to say nice things about Myspace.

In a recent conversation over in the bass forum, I got into a kind of genial alteraction about the nature of music production. Some poor, helpless guitar player wandered over and wanted to know how to buy a bass for recording "professional results." After a few of the usual answers, a forum member who works as a session bassist in LA stepped in with a more complicated--and much more expensive--answer.

For real professional results, he said, you should be running through a good DI and preamp, proceeding to name preamps that run in excess of $3000 each. At the very least, the recommendation was a Universal Audio unit that starts at $700. In further posts, much was made of the barely-audible differences between analog, tape-and-tube recording versus digital recording, even at very high sampling rates and resolutions.

Now, this rubbed me the wrong way. Part of it was just the invalidity of the argument--clearly, a great album can be made without spending money on ridiculously expensive components. But another part was the elitism of it all: your music isn't "professional" unless it's gone through one of these preamps, or been recorded in a certain prescribed way, or distributed on vinyl (last refuge of music snobs, despite its limited dynamic range and high noise floor).

I know that I never shut up about how bad .mp3 and other compression sounds to me, or how ugly and misformed Myspace is. But at the same time, let me praise these two technologies for how they have immeasurably improved the state of the small-time musician, and how they have democratized music. While Myspace in particular hasn't lived up to the hype--with one or two widely-publicized exceptions, nobody has been able to use it to bypass the studio distribution system--for "local bands" and other unsigned musicians, it has opened new doorways for the hobby. You might be able to get 500 people to buy a homemade CD, but it's easy enough to get 1500 friends on Myspace to listen to at least one song, and it beats putting up fliers on lampposts to announce gigs.

Privileging "professional" production and distribution methods is a way of locking out the poor or the unprepared from being "real" musicians. Digital production and distribution, which make it possible to write and record music cheaper and faster while still maintaining a basic benchmark of quality, threatens that heirarchy. It won't necessarily produce superstars, but it forces us to ask: what does "professional" even mean? What do we value in music? And how successful do we really want to be?

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