Another in a 2014 guest column series which builds on the one in 2009 where 50+ had written about how science/tech has evolved their hobby/interest.
This time it is Brad Callahan with a career in enterprise software as senior executive at Microsoft, Lawson and Ernst and Young among others. He is a composer, arranger, performer, and bandleader and can be seen regularly playing baritone saxophone for The Good, The Bad & The Funky. His passion for music in all its dimensions comes roaring through in this longer than usual column as we get ready for the Grammys.
Maybe it’s become a hackneyed term, but music is not what I do, it’s who I am. I don’t remember a time when music wasn’t who I was. I didn’t come from a musical family (my mother played a little piano), but somehow I was bestowed with the gift of an insatiable love for all things music. I remember my first Broadway musical (The King and I), I remember the first song that stopped me in my tracks (I Want To Hold your Hand) and I remember the first live musical performance that changed me (The Buddy Rich Big Band live in Fargo, ND.) And I could probably regale you with hundreds of music stories since then if you were prone to boredom. I have also been blessed to be able to co-exist in the worlds of technology and music (worlds which, of course, often intersect) for several decades and am certain about two things: a) technology will continue to be the catalyst for advances in both music and experiencing music, and b) nothing will ever replace the experience of live music.
I won’t recount the well-told story of how technology has changed music and the music industry (and the two are not the same thing). Of the many chroniclers of that journey, there may be no one more spot-on that Bob Lefsetz in the Lefsetz Letter.
I’ll instead share three personal experiences. While my music self will serve as the primary narrator, my technology self won’t be able to keep quiet the entire time.
I was privileged to be living in Nashville (2006-2008) when the music business world seemed to change overnight. Napster, iTunes, and the lack of foresight from pretty much every music-business executive on the planet were the catalysts. Everybody in Nashville was impacted – artists who depended on stable annual album/CD sales, studio/touring musicians, songwriters, publishers, etc. My songwriter friends who had become accustomed to getting royalty checks for thousands of dollars a pop were now getting royalty checks for pennies based on digital downloads (and those were just the ones legally downloaded.) Unconfirmed but fairly solid rumors are that the annual salaries for studio musicians dropped by as much as 50% between 2007 and today as the CD-based economy crumbled (why would a consumer buy a Greatest Hits CD when they could assemble their own on iTunes or for free?) And, of course, Nashville was a microcosm of what the world was experiencing. Perhaps somewhat like the Industrial Age sneaking up on an agricultural economy, technology changed the fundamentals of an industry whose manufacturing (songwriters and studio musicians), supply chain (music agents and publishers) and retail outlets (the artists) had been essentially existing in a closed and controlled world for decades (with a healthy cash infusion along the way thanks to the advent of Compact Discs and millions of people willingly relicensing the same music in a new medium). Seemingly-suddenly, the consumer was liberated from the old world, introduced to the new, and the perceived value of music (i.e., the intellectual property) went from $15 (the price of a CD), to $.99 (hello, iTunes), to free (YouTube’s dirty little not-so-secret.) It’s somewhere between tragic and fascinating for me to witness myriads of people still producing albums (I use the term generically, not about vinyl) today when the need/desire for a 10-12 song compilation makes economic sense only for the hugely popular or cult artist whose fan base will buy anything the artist produces, and/or the live touring musicians who can take advantage of impulse buys at the “merch” table. I know this from personal experience, too (I “sold” many more individual songs through digital distribution than physical CD’s from my most recent album). Equally fascinating for me is how Apple and Amazon appear to have completely missed the future of digital distribution/licensing (streaming) and we are witnessing Spotify, Beats Music, and maybe Pandora duke it out for the future while the “record labels” sit on the sidelines hoping it all goes away. And, tragically/humorously, Microsoft had the distribution and licensing to be a dominant player (Zune and Microsoft Music), but appears to have had the answer early and completely missed the boat.
What are my technology self’s takeaways from all this? I believe the upheavals to the music business are the precursors to all things software, including Enterprise Software. I believe songs are the first consumable piece of “intellectual property” (‘not sure that term is even still relevant) that have driven a new model for which we were all unprepared (except the consumer whose challenge now is too many choices – many/most for free if you want – and too little time.) You can argue that art (paintings, drawings, etc.) was first, and that argument is partially plausible, but the “only one copy” of a physical piece can’t truly be digitized with a like experience, whereas a recorded song easily can. Books (what is a book?) are, arguably, in the same camp as songs with one primary difference – books still have an audience (albeit a shrinking one) who demands/appreciates the physical experience of holding a book and turning pages, where the majority of music consumers are generally happy to experience a song on the go without the experience of holding a physical CD or vinyl album. And, of course, we are experiencing the new rationalization of movies/TV shows (and, really, what’s the difference anymore?) and those advances are still, but temporarily, governed by bandwidth as Hollywood and the likes struggle to avoid the mistakes of the music industry as we knew it.
The possibilities for creation of songs (I’ll use the term loosely to describe any single-stream music experience vs. albums of several different experiences) is seemingly endless. With Apple Logic, my favorite plug-ins and some modicum of magic, my ability to create is limited primarily by my talent, creativity, time, and computing power. On the one hand, the experience of creating music in my home studio is incredibly fulfilling. And, thanks to modern technology (Autotune is sooo 2003), I can make it sound pretty darn good. What does my system lack? A filter. I can assure you that every time I finish a new/original song, I am temporarily convinced it’s a masterpiece (as the Nashville saying goes, “What are the three best songs ever written?” Amazing Grace, Bridge Over Troubled Water, and the last song I wrote.) Artists are often blinded by their soul-baring processes and need filters to help them sort out the nuggets of gold from the stream of songs.
And, to state the obvious, millions of others around the world have used said technology to create more music than I think we’d all agree the world needs – largely without any filters except mothers, lovers, and friends. To some degree, the old closed system – based on a finite number of products, radio stations and TV shows…and an economic model that served as a natural filter for many wanna-be’s – was our friend. We outsourced our choices to the system and zeroed in on the few we either chose to love or were spoon-fed until we accepted (was Mony, Mony really a good song or was it just drilled into our heads via the payola of old?). Now, our problem is the barrage of music available for free. We need to and want to depend on our trusted systems (friends, social media, venues/promoters) to help us sort through the clutter. And, it’s a challenge. We either stumble upon the novelty phenomena we literally can’t avoid (Gangnam Style, What Does The Fox Say?), occasionally succumb to the marketing systems of old to discover the new (Adele, Kanye, Taylor, & Kei$ha), all too often take refuge in our comfort zones of old (insert favorite artists from the 60s, 70s, 80s or 90s here), and too rarely adventure out to see the new, undiscovered artist who speaks to our souls….more on that in a minute. So, with so much available, I find myself constantly turning down free music (I am amazed by how many people want to send me their CDs (yes, I mean CDs) for free just to be listened to), and I find myself more and more using my social media networks and trusted music venues to discover the new – or the new from the old (it’s not like my favorite artists from the past several decades have all stopped making new music.) When I say “you couldn’t pay me to listen to that music,” I actually mean it. While XM Radio and Spotify show the most promise of introducing me to new music, the filters I have to select in order to discover are generally pretty narrow and my experience so far is that the “music curation” to help me discover new things I’d like is, at best, in its infancy.
My technology self butts in….IMHO, the Eagles, Paul McCartney, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Rosanne Cash, to randomly name just a few, have produced excellent albums (yep, compilations of 10-12 songs except for the Eagles’ double-ouevre, tragically-except-for-economics exclusively distributed through Walmart) in recent years – maybe as good as they’ve produced. And no one, save the faithful, cares. Album/CD sales (the wrong measure of anything relating to success) and digital distribution (a better measure, but void of YouTube views) were anemic. Did they help the artist sell more concert tickets? There are no facts to the affirmative. I don’t necessarily believe it’s the age/vintage of the artists, either - though, of course, that’s part of it. I believe they tried to leverage an old model and all of its economic glories into a system that had largely died (the Eagles did fine, but only because Walmart underwrote them as a sponsor, not because of sales.) And, you can bet that each of these artists had “record company” executives egging them on and convincing them that the world was wrong and their next album would set the record (pun fully intended) straight. On the other hand, I am close to a vintage band whose name you would recognize. When they produce a CD (yep, still), they can pretty well predict within a couple thousand how many they will sell physically and digitally (the faithful and a handful of the curious will pony up $10-$20 and no one else will notice or care) and can plan their production costs to make the process economically successful – sort of their own built in filter. Smart.
My music self concludes with the third personal experience. There is one certainty: nothing is the same as or will ever replace the live music experience. Nothing. Perhaps live theatre/opera comes close, but that is largely a reinterpretation of an existing work (like a musical artist doing a cover song – potentially cool, but you know how it ends). Speaking at least for me, there is, and never will be, any substitute for either performing music live (something I have been fortunate to be able to do since I was a teenager) or experiencing music live (ditto.) There is nothing in the world I can compare to sitting quietly (it’s the rules!) in Nashville’s legendary Bluebird Café with 99 other like-minded people and hearing a masterpiece from the soul, mouth and guitar of the songwriter who bared his or her soul to write it. There is nothing like experiencing a new-at-least-to-you artist at an intimate club like Minneapolis’ world-renowned Dakota Jazz Club for the first time…or a trusted-by-you artist create his or her craft as it will never quite be created again (I can assure you from personal experience that no two club shows by the likes of Roberta Gambarini, Shawn Colvin, Joey Defrancesco, Tower of Power, Jimmy Webb, or Bettye Lavette are ever the same.) Yes, after I have paid my $10 a month to Spotify to listen to all the music I want whenever I want (the Beatles will be there eventually, but that’s a minor inconvenience), my “entertainment dollars” (quotes because it’s much more than entertainment to me) go to support live music. Call me Pollyanna, but I believe it changes people and lives. It brings people together in a way that no other medium does or can, and it challenges the mind and the soul. For me, it’s life-school and inspiration. Is every performance great? Of course, not. If it was that predictable, I’d probably seek out other experiences. When it’s great, does it more than compensate for all the others? I think you know the answer by now. Do I go to arena concerts? Yes, but for a different purpose. I go to see the Eagles or Chicago or Aretha Franklin to hear the hits and feel young again (that is, if I can avoid looking too long at the equally-aged fellow concert goers, who somehow have aged much more rapidly than me!) I much more frequently venture into my intimate and trusted club venues to hear new or evolving artists who make me feel new and evolving. And challenged. And part of something – part of the “club” that uniquely experienced that experience with you. Part of something that will never be repeated.
What does my technology self think about all of that? He thinks you should listen to my music self and go experience some live music.