Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go Back In the Studio…

June 21st, 2005

Many years ago, a friend of mine gave me what I thought was excellent advice: “Don’t record an album”, he said, “unless you think you can sell it”. This is no longer excellent advice. In fact, it is essentially an exhortation to enter, unarmed, a room populated with AK-47-toting three-year-olds. That’s what the digital revolution has done to acoustic music.

It seems such a long time ago when it cost actual money to record and reproduce an album. No longer. The cost of replication and duplication has plummeted. A well-respected local duplication house will do 1000 CDs, full color package with a single-panel insert, shrinkwrapped, the whole schmear, for $1500. If you want a short run of 100, it’s about $450. And while studio time isn’t any cheaper, well, just fire up Garageband on your Mac, which costs all of $80, and plug yourself in. All the digital effects you think you’ll need are right there. Grab some mikes, a drum machine, and bingo, instant music studio.


Except it takes more than a studio and a pile of songs to produce a decent album. If you think you can record yourself, well, most likely you’ll get what you pay for. Here’s the first dirty little secret of the digital revolution. The tools don’t give you any skill – they just create the illusion of competence. I call it the myth of disintermediation. Give a gal a search engine, and she thinks she’s a librarian; give a guy a blog, and he thinks he’s a journalist; give a gal a list of airline flights, and she thinks she’s a travel agent; give a guy a digital studio, and he thinks he’s a producer. These tasks require real skill, and those skills are going to disappear, or at least become vastly more expensive, because so many people have decided not to pay for them.

Let’s take digital recording, just as an example. It’s my favorite example, because it’s so amazing. You can record three million takes of your guitar solo, pick and choose the bits you want. You can tone-shift those awful vocals that keep reminding that you have to get around to taking singing lessons, someday. You can create an astonishing illusion – a performance that never happened, or never could have happened (at least, one you weren’t capable of producing). And it’s easy. I’ve done it myself; my album “Life is Like a River” was recorded almost entirely in my living room, and sounds, in places, like it was competently done. And if I’d wanted to take the time, it would have sounded even better.

Now, I recorded “Life is Like a River” for a particular purpose: I wanted to archive everything that I’d written, for friends. It just so happened that because of digital recording, I ended up with something I could sell with a straight face. That never would have been possible before the digital revolution; getting the appropriate degree of noise reduction wasn’t trivial, and you needed at least one outboard unit for digital effects. It cost a lot more money, and the results were a lot harder to achieve.

Now, if I actually wanted to shoot for airplay, or a real product to sell on iTunes or cdbaby, I’d spend the time and money to go into the studio. This cost hasn’t really changed much, except that now that the cost of the surrounding technologies has dropped, people expect more out of your album. Vocals and guitar and a little piano in the background isn’t good enough. Even those of us who never, ever, ever perform with a band are expected to have a full band behind us, of some sort. And while this can sometimes be an enriching musical experience, it’s almost always an impoverishing financial experience, not to mention more time-consuming, more tedious, and, yes, more prone to disaster.

Because there are two separate roles you need filled when you record an album, besides the musicians. You need an engineer, and you need a producer. If you’re lucky, they’ll be one and the same. If you’re even luckier, the producer will do a good job. But don’t count on it. Y’see, it’s not enough to add the instruments; you have to do it right. I’m very tempted to start announcing an annual Boston Moozik Award for the Most Gratuitous Use of a Hammond B3 on a Folk Album. I just heard a new album from an artist I like very, very much, where that was the first thing I noticed – not the songs, not the lyrics, not the musicianship, but that damn Hammond in the background, oomphing away with no particular point.

The wrong producer can wreak havoc with your album. There’s another artist I like very, very much (don’t think for a second that I’m about to name names here) who recorded an album with a well-respected producer who clearly didn’t understand this artist at all. The album sounds generic – it could have been anybody’s songs, it could have been anybody’s voice. This disaster stands in sharp contrast to someone I will name – JP Jones – whose albums all sound like, well, JP Jones. You put a JP Jones CD in your CD player, and all of a sudden JP Jones is in your living room. There’s a band there, but it’s the right band; there’s an arrangement, but it’s the right arrangement. I could kiss the man on both cheeks for getting this right, because when I put a JP Jones CD in my player, I want to hear JP Jones.

When this sort of thing goes off the rails, you’ve frankly got no one to blame but yourself. Because clearly, you don’t know enough about your own act to know what you sound like, or what’s important about what you sound like. The producer works for you, and there are too many artists – and producers – who forget that. If you know what you sound like, and a producer isn’t delivering it, either get him to deliver it, or can his ass. If you let him make you sound like less than you can sound, or different than you should sound, shame on you.

So now, you see what the digital revolution has done to acoustic music. Because the technology makes it relatively cheap, you need an album. It’s gotta be shrink-wrapped, and it’s gotta look professional. And you’ve gotta have a band on it, because it’s now easy to make that happen. And that means that either you gotta be a producer and an engineer and an arranger, or you’ve gotta be able to evaluate how well someone else fills those roles for you. And so we’re drowning in badly-produced, badly-arranged disks that, mostly, should never have been recorded, and in a lot of the cases, I’m betting, the artist never wanted to record in the first place, but felt like she had to because everyone else was.

Welcome, my friends, to the folk arms race.

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