John Szinger, 1993

I.  The Classical Age

Throughout history, technological advancement has, as much as any social or political force, changed the nature of music and how it has been made, distributed, listened to, and how it has moved listeners across the ages. This inevitable march (or perhaps waltz) of technology has also had a considerable, if less obvious, impact on the issue of free speech from the point of view of the musician, and of various positions in the recording industry.

Music, of course, existed long before there was such a thing as a recording industry, or for that matter such a thing as recording. Music was ephemeral, and existed only in its momentary performance or in the memory of a listener. In the age of Gutenburg, the nature of the musician's role was much different than today. By and large, music was essentially an "oral" tradition, with the musician primarily engaged in learning the popular songs of the day by listening and practicing, and traveling around playing them to different audiences. The music was fairly easy, so that the minstrel could carry as large a repertoire as possible in his head, and was generally entertaining with lyrics relating heroic or humorous tales. Any musician was free to create his own music or lyrics, which is how new songs were produced. If popular, the music might be widely imitated, but in general songwriters received little recognition for their efforts.

Alongside this folk tradition of music existed a more "serious" tradition in which the musicians were more trained, and the music they played more deliberate in its compositional intent. The bulk of this school was concentrated under the Church, and at the time of Gutenburg most composition was liturgical in nature. It is interesting that, for centuries, the pipe organ represented the state of the art in musical instruments, and was truly empowering as a vehicle of expression for the individual who mastered it. However, the price of this empowerment in terms of free speech was great: pipe organs existed only in churches, and the content restraints demanded by the institution were formidable. Despite this, the Church, due to its wealth and power, attracted a great number of talented musicians who produced many masterpieces under these conditions. To be sure, the necessity of writing and performing music exclusively for the Church wasn't always viewed as limiting by the musicians, so ubiquitous was the Church's influence in renaissance Europe. Johann Sebastain Bach, who was employed his entire career by the Church, was devout in his religious beliefs and viewed Music as being deeply spiritual.

When I was a college student, I had the opportunity to assist in the assembly of a pipe organ. It was enormous, taking four semi-trucks to deliver and costing six million dollars. Once the basic assembly was done, in about a month, a crew of experts required an additional eight months to fine tune and adjust the pipes to the acoustics of the hall. This was after it had been completely built, disassembled, and packed at the manufacturer's shop. As pipe organs go, it wasn't even particularly large, with only about 6,000 pipes. I include this anecdote to give you some idea of the magnitude of effort, expertise and craftsmanship involved in the making of a single pipe organ in modern times. In the renaissance, the expense was proportionally greater, since they did not have our current manufacturing technologies. The reason all pipe organs were in churches was that no one else could finance the construction of one.

As the renaissance ended and the industrial revolution began, the Church lost much of its monopoly over the minds and wealth of the population. Conservatory music became more secular as a consequence, and the symphony orchestra evolved in response to the demands of audiences congregating in larger and larger public concert halls. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the design and technology of construction of musical instruments was much improved, as were the instruments' clarity, intonation, and projection. Many instruments were specially created during this period for the demands of the symphony including the clarinet, saxophone, and piano. This was of course a boon for the musician, who could play with facility impossible in previous generations.

The evolution of the symphony, however, did little to increase the free speech prospects of the musician. As the orchestra grew, the role of the individual musician diminished. He was reduced to reading notes of a page to support the musical vision of the composer. Even though some exceptional musicians and conductors had music composed especially for them, they remained reciting passages conceived by someone else, and their individual expression was limited to faithful interpretation of another's thoughts. Typical of organizations of the Mechanical Age, the orchestra was strictly hierarchical, with the composer holding the power, and the performer being just a cog in the machine.

II.  The Jazz Age

The invention of the phonograph was undoubtedly the single most important significant technological influence in the future of music. Music, so fleeting and instantaneous, like a changing mood or passing day, could be captured and preserved forever, frozen and fossilized and re-experienced again and again. This changed fundamentally the way people experienced, made, and appreciated music. Music could be analyzed, and examined as never before. Performers could write and play more complex passages and expect their fans to respond to them, having been conditioned by previous hearing. For the first time, music could be heard in private without a band being present. Music was beginning to move from the public to the personal realm.

It is ironic that one of the early consequences of the phonograph was the popularizaton of jazz. Perhaps part of the reason that jazz became popular on recordings is that it is by its nature more intimate than symphonic music, played as it is in small clubs by small combos, as opposed to huge orchestras in large concert halls. Another reason was that jazz music fit into the three-minute limit of early recording media much better than the much longer classical works for orchestra and military bands that were prevalent in the late nineteenth century. Jazz, however, is quite unlike classical music in that it is based on improvisation instead of composition. The performer is the composer, spontaneously re-creating the music each time he plays it. Classical music strives to be identical in each performance, whereas jazz is based on improvisation and continual re-creation and, therefore, loses much of its essence when recorded, since the performance of the music is more important than the music itself. The groove is more important than the notes on the printed page. So, with the advent of recording, the performer could for the first time reach a wide audience with his own original thoughts, even if indirectly.

Although the original phonograph was a purely acoustical/mechanical instrument, soon electric technologies improved the phonograph and spawned several other inventions which became indispensable to the fledgling recording industry. Chief among these were the microphone, amplifier, and loudspeaker. Apart from making possible electric phonograph and tape recordings (and thus giving rise to the entire consumer electronics industry), they eliminated the need for large and unwieldy ensembles of instruments to produce large volumes of sound necessary for many public performances. This meant the end of the symphony with its conductor as the standard musical unit. A spin-off of these technologies was the juke box, which made it possible to have music in a bar or nightclub without having to hire a band. These inventions eventually put scores of musicians out of work, and made it impossible as a practical matter for most musicians to earn a living playing in ensembles at public performances. Those that remained could not ignore recording as the key to earning wealth and fame.

Radio came to maturity in the early 1930's and brought with a new set of relationships among musicians, audiences, and the fledgling recording industry. Hearing a song on radio somehow legitimized it to an audience (and still does), and musicians quickly became aware of the medium's power to make stars, tailoring their material to acceptable radio formats. Due to radio airplay, records began to earn heretofore unprecedented sales, and copyrights and royalties became acute issues as soon as it was realized that a person could retire in comfort with the royalties to just one hit single. Although the copyright laws in this country in music are designed to favor the musician or composer, many musicians were unaware of this fact and have been persuaded to yield the rights to their songs in exchange for recording contracts. Countless artists have gone to grave poor while A.S.C.A.P. and B.M.I. have laughed their ways to the bank. Just is in the renaissance, the Church owned the pipe organs, in this century, the Record Companies own the recording studios, distribution networks, and radio playlists. It was at this time that the recording industry as the juggernaut we know today emerged, with large corporations controlling the public forums and providing art as content for consumption. No longer a slave to his conductor, the musician could easily become a slave to his record company. One way or another, the emergence of the recording/radio industry ad definitely changed the staked of the game.

One bizarre quirk of the copyright industry is that it is against the law to photocopy sheet music (I guess this comment should wait until the invention of the Xerox machine, but it's also illegal to transcribe it by hand, because, before recording, royalties could be earned on published sheet music). So, the Jazz age saw the rise of illegal "Fake Books" containing lead sheets and cord changes to hundreds of standards: an invaluable reference to the jazz musician which would otherwise cost hundreds of dollars. At fifteen bucks they remain one of the best buys in New York City.

III.  The Rock'n'Roll Age

Just as jazz with its casual directness and freedom of expression, supplanted classical music, it too was supplanted in a turn of the technological tide.

Even while the recording industry grew in its power and ubiquity, live music performance remained an essential element of the equation, both for connecting audiences directly with the music they enjoyed on records and the radio, and (at least until recently) the primary forum for experimentation and innovation on the part of musicians. As jazz grew in popularity, the instruments involved in response to the available technology. The drum set was consolidated at the beginning of this century to make possible the essential jazz combo. As the combo evolved into the big band the electric guitar was invented to compete with the loudness of large horn sections, although it never gained much of a role in traditional jazz. However, just as the saxophone was considered too garish sounding for the orchestra, and subsequently became the cornerstone for the jazz idiom, so it was with the electric guitar, which as much as anything else made possible the invention of rock.

Like jazz, rock grew out of black folk blues traditions adopted by white musicians, although in this case it was Northern urban blues instead of Southern rural blues. From the beginning, the electric guitar was an essential ingredient. Also from the beginning, image was an essential ingredient, with rock'n'roll being as much about rebellion and youth as loud guitars. Rock was ideal for the then-developing medium of television, which did as much to plant it the American mind as the dominant musical form as the radio did for jazz decades earlier. With television, record sales again increased by orders of magnitude, as did the popularity the new rock stars. When John Lennon said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, he was probably right.

Several other technological innovations occurred in the fifties and sixties which caused a great explosion of musical creativity and free expression in that era. One of these was the invention and widespread application of multi-track recording, which allowed an artist to record, build and manipulate a song in layers instead of having the band simply play "live" into a microphone. Effects such as delay and reversed time could also be achieved. At this time electric effects such as distortion (which originated from driving speakers with an amplifier turned up too loud in a quest for volume suitable to rock music) came into being. Perhaps most portentous was the introduction of the synthesizer.

Another innovation was the LP record, which removed the long-standing three minute restraint on popular recordings. Artists, armed with their new tools, soon developed longer forms and more experimental and involved works of greater depth. For the first time it appeared as popular music had a chance to do things approaching the scope and magnitude that classical had music had had centuries to develop. FM radio conveniently emerged to give a forum to all this new music. FM radio was very experimental in its formats at the beginning, and its hunger for material provided an impetus for ever greater experimentation.

At the same time, technology in amplification was developing to the point where bands could play to audiences of tens or even hundreds of thousands, and promoters were finding that they could fill huge football stadiums with paying fans. All of this had a huge impact on the relationship between the musician and the audience.

On the one hand, a musician was probably freer to express himself than at any previous time in history, both in terms of the means available, and what the audience would bear. On the other hand, the escalating stakes of the music business meant greater effort and commitment to make a given record or play a given concert. Also, as recording technology increased, fewer musicians understood the equipment and their recording sessions became more and more dominated by their producers. It didn't take long for the record companies to catch up with creative surge of the 1960's. FM radio formats were quickly consolidated and the barriers for artists, especially new artists, were re-erected higher than ever. Contracts became more complicated and the recording industry returned its focus from music to sales.

There has always been a certain absurdity in rock and roll, one which has escalated as the idiom has "matured", and it is this: rock and roll is founded on an image of rebellion and iconoclasm, and yet it is a carefully crafted and marketed product used to sell everything including itself, so that when you buy a rock album from a major record company you are buying into the establishment against which rock so gallantly postures.

IV.  The Hip-Hop Age

In the 1980's there began another wave of technological achievement that is still going on and may have an even greater impact on the art of the musician than even the advent of recording. Synthesizers have improved steadily since their inception, becoming increasingly malleable in their ability to manipulate sound, and faithful in their imitation of "real" sounds. They are also increasingly sophisticated in terms of expressiveness and control.

A key development in electronic music was the introduction of MIDI, the Musical Instrument Digital Interface. This is a hardware specification and software protocol which all manufacturers of electronic instruments employ. It means that instruments can talk to one another, use each other's sounds and other data. It also means that music can be composed electronically and sequenced, which is to say that a computer can memorize the notes of a song and play them back just as they were input. Today, any musician can, for a few thousand dollars, set himself up with a MIDI home recording studio, and literally produce studio-quality recordings. No longer does he need to spend sixty dollars an hour in a recording studio (with even a simple song taking him twenty hours to produce), having to worry about acoustics, levels and mistakes. MIDI is a remarkably efficient in its use of data (the actual sounds are not stored, just when and how to play them) and flexible in its application. To the individual musician it represents a great degree of empowerment never before attainable in his art.

Perhaps more remarkable still than the development of MIDI was the development of digital sound. An early application of digital sampling was in synthesizers, in which a sound would be digitally recorded and manipulated, and playable as a patch. Another application was the compact disc, which offered audiences a new level of clarity and fidelity in their music. The CD was as revolutionary as the LP, and now musicians, no longer restricted to twenty minute album side and the obsolete analog tools of a few years ago, can really go wild. Unfortunately, he constrained by the dynamics of the industry even more now than he was then.

DAT, or Digital Audio Tape is a simpler application than the CD, but record companies have yet to bring recordings on DAT to market (and probably never will) because of their own greed. They are fearful of the ease with which people can make recordings of their own, for currently they are the gatekeepers of public access to music. DAT would cause that status to erode. A few years ago, there were plans to bring to market in America DAT decks in which a portion of the audible spectrum would be used for control and security signals, resulting in a medium with poorer sound than a high quality analog tape. This idea was eventually discarded, but to this day you cannot go into a record store and buy your favorite record on DAT.

Digital audio has changed they way in which records are made. Producers are replacing musicians as the primary creative force. More and more, musicians are being replaced by canned sounds, and in fact a whole new genre of music has emerged based on the clever re-assembly of "appropriated" material. There have been numerous copyright infringement suits brought against such producers in the last ten years. Ultimately it was ruled that a record producer could sample seven bars off another's recording without infringing on their copyright. This ruling, which saved record companies millions of dollars in royalty payments, stemmed from a clause in the old copyright laws stating that a composer could make a reference to a recognized motif without infringing on that composer's copyright. This clause was originally aimed at jazz musicians, who often are fond of quoting a brief musical segment in an improvised solo. This loophole has been exploited by record companies and made possible the rise of rap and hip-hop music.

Just as jazz had radio to bring it into public consciousness, and rock had television, so hip-hop has cable, and especially MTV. In music videos, motion and image have an importance as never before, and the video has given rise to a whole new pantheon of stars and idols. Like no other medium before it, MTV is exclusive and limited in terms of access. There have always existed independent radio stations and record labels dedicated to supporting the non-mainstream, but MTV is a monopoly of its kind, and very influential in terms of its power of suggestion on mass consciousness. It represents a singularity of viewpoint for which there is no counterbalance in the marketplace of ideas.

In a sense the unaffiliated musician is both closer and further away from his goal with the present state of technology. He has an incredible array of tools at his disposal with which to bring his music into existence. At the same time he finds it harder to get his material heard or distributed to a mass audience. When the printing press was invented, it broke the monopoly on the written word by the Church and political powers of the day, and delivered to the hands of the people. At the time of the American Revolution, printing was not a big industry. In fact most printing presses were run by individuals wishing to express their viewpoint. Not only the first amendment, but a whole body of subsequent laws were written to ensure the continuation of such a tradition. It is my hope for the future of music that digital audio and other technologies may in this sense become the printing press of music an enable the individual with something to say to be heard loud and clear, far and wide.