The Fall and Rise of Technology in Music
Steering this magazine through the '80s made Dan Goldstein a prominent character in the music industry. Putting aside 90 Minutes he gives a personal view of the last decade in music, technology and Music Technology.
Dan Goldstein guided MT from its beginnings as an electronic projects magazine to its establishment as the definitive hi-tech music monthly. Four years after his departure, he offers this perspective on the events of the last decade.
TEN YEARS AGO, almost to the day, Kraftwerk were on the cover of Electronics & Music Maker - the direct ancestor of Music Technology. The band were in Britain to promote a new album, Computer World, a record which confirmed their transition from wacky experimenters to the disciplined creators of some of the best dance beats around. I have a clear and durable memory of going to see Kraftwerk at the Hammersmith Odeon that year (1981), and after over two hours of some of the rawest, punchiest music and one of the most glittering stage productions you could wish to witness, I emerged thinking they were one of the best live bands I had ever seen. They still are.
The same cannot, of course, be said of most of Kraftwerk's successors. With the exception of the odd rapper or three, many of today's dance acts can scarcely bring themselves to mime for Top of the Pops. In the absence of gigs, the application of new technology to music has become an occupation confined almost entirely to the studio - a point made several times by this magazine over the past year or so. It is significant that, while the band has not returned to the live stage since 1981, the influence of Kraftwerk over modern music-making has grown, not diminished. And their most recent remix album, little more than a curiosity item in its own right, confirms the suspicion that in every important department - sound creation, arrangement, rhythm programming, signal processing, not to mention the ability to write a bloody good tune - their prowess remains unmatched.
It is also significant that Kraftwerk were the first musical act to take centre-stage - literally - on the front cover of Electronics & Music Maker. Before then the magazine, unsure of its market or its voice, was wont to confuse the electronic means with the musical end, and it wasn't uncommon for ground-breaking musicians to share front-cover space with a new soldering iron or a car burglar alarm.
Yet within three months of my arrival in the editorial offices as an acne-ridden and sweaty-palmed teenager in the Summer of '83, the car alarms were gone forever. Times had changed. We found ourselves reviewing synthesisers of amazing potential that cost little more than a decent secondhand electric guitar. We found ourselves opening up the cases of instruments to reveal not the readily identifiable array of electronic components, but bank upon bank of custom chips, programmed by unique software and unavailable in the shops of the Edgware Road. (Yes, the soldering irons would have to go, too.) And we found ourselves talking to a host of musicians whose work was either dominated or heavily influenced by all this new technology: Simple Minds, OMD, Blancmange, The Human League, Ultravox, Vince Clarke and Cabaret Voltaire, among many others. It may sound like a list of dinosaurs now, but in 1983 and '84 they were all embracing new methods of sound production and arrangement the way footballers embrace a team-mate who has just netted the winner. It was dirty, it was sweaty, it had a lot of rough edges. But it was also fun to watch and listen to, and it inspired thousands of people - many of whom had never dreamt of being "musicians" before - to take the plunge and buy a synth.
Could it last? No, it couldn't. In retrospect, there were three reasons why it couldn't. The first was technological. The most successful electronic musical instrument of the mid-1980s, the Yamaha DX7, had spawned some much cheaper but almost as powerful machines. The presence of these keyboards - along with competitors from other manufacturers - continued to encourage young people to take up music when they might otherwise have taken up insurance. But these smaller machines were not particularly profitable, and as time went by, they were withdrawn from the market with nothing directly to replace them. When the next wave of innovative instruments arrived in 1986/87, with the Roland D50 in the vanguard, they were priced out of the reach of anybody just out of school or college. In short, they were old men's instruments, just as the first analogue synthesisers were at the start of the '80s.
To cut off a section of young, enthusiastic and impressionable consumers from your product line is to stifle your market at birth. But nobody in the musical instrument industry seemed to realise that until it was too late. Today, the people walking into music shops and trying out the latest technology are older than they were in the early '80s. Some of them are also wealthier, which is why there are still plenty of synthesisers being sold for more than £1500. But the crucial point is that there were substantially fewer younger spirits to follow in their footsteps in the years to come.
The second reason for the decline of the late '80s was musical. The general public, enthralled by the sound of synths at the start of the decade, grew tired of it as the years went by and rediscovered "rock 'n' roll" - the crash of guitars, the pounding of drums... you know the score. Now, with the exception of drummers, many of whom have since switched back to acoustic kits anyway, most non-keyboard playing musicians had been unimpressed by the technology industry's attempts at wooing them into the wonders of MIDI, modulation and mains (can you name a successful guitar synthesiser?). So with their rock 'n' roll credentials intact, they were only too happy to ditch whatever electronic accoutrements they had acquired and, quite literally, jumped on the bandwagon.
Faced with this U-turn in musical fashion, techno fans were faced with three clear choices. They could throw in their lot with the burgeoning dance music scene - almost the only field in which musical innovation was still highly prized, and one which, with its alternative record shops, clubs, fashions and magazines, offered other artistic outlets as well.
Alternatively, they could forget about their own musical aspirations and become "programmers" for other artists. The advent of high-quality sampling and complex computer software gave those with the ability to make new systems work quickly a built-in advantage in those other great '80s boom areas - film soundtracks, advertising jingles, library music and background muzak. If you could get the studio's new toys playing along with the old ones, with no costly system crashes in between, you were made.
Then again, you could forget the whole damn thing and go into insurance. Or rock 'n' roll, which by this time had become almost as uninteresting.
Of course, none of the above solutions were ideal. Dance music remained married to the groove, often to the exclusion of melody, structure and decent lyrics. And programming, while lucrative, is actually akin to mixing the paints for a grand master: you're involved with the mechanics, but most of the important decisions are taken by somebody else. As for insurance... well, if you didn't know how dull that could be, you wouldn't be reading Music Technology, would you?
The last factor at work in the decline of hi-tech music-making was economic and sociological. Big words, those, and not immediately relevant to the future of the synthesiser. Yet the consumer boom of the mid-1980s was fuelled by two things: an increasing amount of money in people's pockets, and the increasing conservatism of those people, which made their tastes easier and easier for the retail industry to cater for. In the music business, money that would once have been spent on singles or LPs by new acts went instead on CD versions of "classic" albums by the Beatles, the Stones, the Grateful Dead, the Doors... and anyone else who could get themselves onto the front cover of Q magazine. The shift in spending patterns was good news for the record companies, who had hit upon a way of re-marketing almost their entire back catalogue, but very bad news indeed for anyone at the other end of the chain: the people who made music and the people who supplied them with their instruments. Interest in new music, from both record companies and consumers, reached an all-time low. Up and down the country, rehearsal rooms, recording studios and live venues were closing their doors for the last time. And the personnel officers at insurance companies were busy people indeed.
So great were these changes that many of the acts who had appeared within the pages of Electronics & Music Maker and Music Technology for all the right reasons found themselves making new records for all the wrong ones. Where they continued to use new technology at all, they did it simply to replicate the sounds of other instruments (sampling) or to construct what would otherwise be a devilishly difficult arrangement in a fraction of the time it would take a group of "real" musicians (computer sequencing). The sweaty embrace had become something altogether safer and more comfortable - like a politician kissing a baby.
WHEN I LEFT Music Technology in the Autumn of 1987, things were getting steadily worse, and some would argue that the process continues to this day. I would beg to differ. Consider the three ingredients in the '80s recipe for decline I've just listed, and consider their state today.
First, technology. The race to build instruments that are ever more powerful and sophisticated is still on. But musicians seem increasingly reluctant to be caught up in it. Unlike, say, video recorders or washing machines, musical instruments are not merely "products" to be lapped up by a feature-hungry public and disposed of as soon as the next model line appears. For a new instrument to make an impact on musicians, it must inspire them, it must be forgiving of their mistakes, and it must be responsive to their every whim. If it doesn't do all this, musicians, being an obstinate bunch, will simply stick with what they know. Thus a wide range of "old" machines, from synths to beatboxes to effects units, continue to be incorporated into state-of-the-art systems, with MIDI as the key and glorious unpredictability as the musical outcome. And there are signs that the industry itself is responding to this challenge. Knobs and sliders, once consigned to the rubbish bin by "progress", have made a comeback. Long-forgotten but still perfectly useful techniques, like Vector Synthesis, are being dusted off, reshaped and given fresh life.
Second, music. The reconciliation between the "indie" scene and the dancefloor, in the shape of the ranters, ravers and rappers of the psychedelic revival, may not be to everyone's taste. But it has put meaning and melody back into the clubs, and it has also given techno fans the chance to "join a band" for the first time in nearly a decade. The live keyboard player is back - if you can hear him above the wailing and the wah-wah guitars. And there have been other welcome developments, like the shift away from using samplers as replica instruments, the advent of new genres like ambient house, and the intriguing prospect, as yet only partially realised, of some great new music being made by our counterparts in Europe - particularly the bit that lies behind the rusting Iron Curtain.
Finally, the economy. We all know what a state it's in. What we don't know is how the recession will affect this country's creative impulses, dulled as they are by eight years or more of shopping, eating, sitting in airport lounges and working in insurance. Yet it's worth remembering that music traditionally thrives in times of economic and social uncertainty. Just look at America, a country in which the most vibrant music - jazz, blues, rap - has traditionally been made by some of the poorest people.
The last time technological innovation went hand-in-hand with the musical kind, many of the people responsible - the Human League, Simple Minds, Depeche Mode - started making music because there was literally nothing else to do. The excess weight was being hacked away from Britain's heavy industry, and if you were a school or college leaver, making your own music with a few knobs, some bits of wire and an old tape machine seemed as good a career option as any.
Ten years on, the same thing is happening to our service industries. Suddenly there's no such thing as a safe career in insurance. And when the insurance companies bid farewell with one hand, the Portastudio beckons with the other.
In my book, Kraftwerk are still the kings of the road. But for how long?
Retrospective by Dan Goldstein
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