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  • 'Amateurs Shouldn't Release Music' - How Home Recording Defies Industry Elitism

'Amateurs Shouldn't Release Music' - How Home Recording Defies Industry Elitism

Separating music from the music industry.

I recently watched a documentary called Recording in Progress. It highlights how professional recording studios, despite being the source of most of our favorite music from years ago and today, are quickly becoming less relevant in the music industry. (Thanks a lot, Focusrite 2i2!).

One of the engineers featured in the documentary is Vance Powell who has worked as mix engineer and/or producer for many well known artists such as Jack White, Kings of Leon, Sturgill Simpson, and Chris Stapleton.

Powell says something in the doc that made me sad.

He says, “You can record a record on your laptop in your bedroom. You can put it out on iTunes, yourself. Now, that is power…to be able to self publish… that is serious power. The problem with that is that not everybody should do that.”

This statement comes in a section of the doc where they are talking about the quality of music on the market today. He’s implying that some amateurs don’t have any business releasing music because the music is bad.

Who among us is worthy enough to be the grand arbiter of whether music is good or not?

How about Rolling Stone magazine? They know good music when they hear it, right?

Well, here’s an excerpt from Rolling Stone’s infamous review of Led Zeppelin’s first album:

“In their willingness to waste their considerable talent on unworthy material the Zeppelin has produced an album which is sadly reminiscent of Truth. Like the Beck group they are also perfectly willing to make themselves a two- (or, more accurately, one-a-half) man show. It would seem that, if they’re to help fill the void created by the demise of Cream, they will have to find a producer (and editor) and some material worthy of their collective attention.”

-Rolling Stone, 1969

Let’s not even get into their always-hotly-contested lists of “Greatest guitarists” or “Greatest albums” of all time.

Innovative music that is new and different is often rejected before it is beloved. In other words, greatness tends to look weird and scary at first. Innovative music often comes from the underground and it’s a great example of how the adoption curve works. You may have seen the adoption curve in Seth Godin’s famous marketing book, The Purple Cow, but it was created by an Ohio State professor, Everett Rogers.

Here’s how it works.

Think about groups like the Velvet Underground or music scenes like early punk..

The innovators come first — they’re well ahead of the curve. Using early punk as the example, the innovators are the scene! They’re not just open to what is new and different, they’re looking for it. 

Eventually, the music spreads to early adopters. They’re a little more selective, and thus slower to accept something than the innovators but when they do, it signifies the first big increase on the adoption curve. This might be where people from outside of the punk scene started showing up at shows.

Then comes the early majority and the late majority buying albums because the music has started to enter into the mainstream via record stores.

Finally, years later, the laggards arrive to signify the solidification of punk in our culture. Perhaps you’ve heard the Ramones playing on the ceiling speakers in your local grocery store.

It takes time for most people to come around to things that, at first glance, appear (or sound) different. To immediately reject all things that seem bad, different, or unusual would mean we’d miss out on things that turn out to be great, like punk rock, Radiohead, Electronic Music, driving cars instead of horses, mushroom coffee (trust me).

We should be encouraging experimentation. 

Record labels have historically operated like the film industry does today; as long as super hero movies continue to sell, they’re gonna continue making more super hero movies.

Geffen Records sued Neil Young when he insisted on making albums that deviated too far from his original sound. Why? Because the Neil Young sound sells.

This corporate approach to art can and often does stifle creativity. (...in both music and movies).

This must mean that access to affordable home recording tools is good for music or at least good for creativity, right?

Recording in Progress does explore this far-more-positive outlook later in the documentary. In the section titled, “Everybody Should be Able to Hit Record”. Richard Fortus, guitarist for Guns N’ Roses says, “The great thing about the way the industry is now, is we’re seeing a lot of incredible talent in bedrooms as people become their own producers and engineers out of necessity, and sometimes it’s amazing. Sometimes it’s phenomenal because its really pure and its unadulterated. It’s unaffected by labels or by producers… people telling them how things should be.”

On the topic of how easy it is for anyone to record their own music, Sunyatta McDermott of the band CaveOfSwords says, “... some people will see that as a negative thing and I disagree. I think that’s a positive thing. Nobody else has to press play but everyone should be able to at least…” Her bandmate finishes her sentence, “hit record.”

So, what’s my point?

First, let me say that I’m sure Powell is a good dude. I mean, he does have an impressive goatee. Also, I get his point. When he says that some people “shouldn’t release music”, he is talking about it from his perspective; the perspective of the modern music industry, or more specifically the recording industry as a subsection of the music industry. And from that perspective, the tidal wave of home-produced music does muddy the water for those who make music as a profession.

But, if we consider the start of the modern recorded music industry to be when Edison invented the phonograph, then the recording industry has only been around for fewer than 150 years. 

Humans have been making music for at least 35,000 years.

(I’m going to speculate wildly that we’ve actually been “making music” far longer than that… are you gonna tell me that prehistoric humans didn’t joyfully hum to themselves like I do in the kitchen. But I digress…)

Almost everything I read about music these days seems to come from the perspective of the music business. I love music too and I share the dream of every music lover to be able to make a living doing what I love.

But I think we are losing sight of the fact that sometimes music and industry can and should be separate.

Speaking of “shoulds”; every kid who discovers their dad’s old guitar or get’s an audio interface for their birthday should make music and they should put it out. And all of us, especially those in the music industry, should encourage that, just like the members of CaveOfSwords did.

Music production is a lot different than it was a mere twenty years ago. It will be a lot different twenty years from now. Hell, it will be a lot different in two years. A.I. music is here, folks!

The times they are a changin’ … some no-name songwriter said that. 🙂 Technology is always turning the music industry upside down.

That’s why it is important to compartmentalize; separate music from the music industry in your head. Then we’ll remember to encourage discovery and experimentation in music from everyone who expresses an interest. 

Something that is bad for the music industry can still be good for music.

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