Thursday, September 4, 2008

Thoughts on Leaky Music

There's been a lot of talk lately about unfinished music leaking across the internet, and I think the conversation started up again after some of the Guns 'N' Roses tracks from Chinese Democracy (their new album) got loose. At first I thought, "Who cares?" But after seeing some reaction, I began to think about it more, and from the artists perspective as well as the fans.

Let's start from the fans' perspective. If you really love a band, chances are you want to know what goes into making their music. Where do they get those ideas? What would it be like to hang out with them? What are they like in the studio? Hearing unfinished music gives you a piece of that. It's like the bonus features on a DVD that have outtakes or commentary. You get to humanize the artist. It's pretty cool, right?

From an artist's perspective, I would love to share the process with you, but within context of my vision. You have to understand that making music is HARD. When I practice, I'm either messing up a lot going really, really slow 99% of the time before I get things right. I also write or play a lot of bad ideas to get them out of my head before I get to the good ideas. I don't want you to hear this stuff, at least not without my consent. So let me show you that I can get it right and then I'll reveal the painful part. Then I know you understand the context, and no matter who hears me messing up, I know they have probably heard me getting it right. This is why outtakes are shown at the end of movies. They're funny because you know the actors eventually said their lines correctly.

Technology plays a big part of this discussion. Advances in recording techniques can fix about anything. Because of this, the quality of talent has dropped. Clearly, if an artist can't really sing or play like the finished product, I would expect them to freak out if the public hears it. On the other hand, it is pretty amazing to hear an unfinished vocal track of somebody that can actually sing. I heard an unedited David Lee Roth track, vocal only with a little bleed from the headphones, and I had new respect for the man. Even more so, listen to someone like Etta James. You think they had to auto-tune her vocals?

In general, recording is a lot less romantic today than it used to be. Music used to get picked up by a microphone and hit the tape pretty close to how it would sound on the record. But today stuff gets recorded very, very raw. Where studios used to use the acoustics of a room to capture natural reverb, today it is a lot easier to record very dry and add reverb later, by running the track through analog or digital processors. Almost every instrument can sound awful in a rough mix. It's very easy for people to perceive ugly sound for lack of talent. Even the best A&R guys can have trouble hearing talent through a poor mix.

Ultimately, this should be an artistic decision. The public does not have a right to hear whatever they want. Many fans believe they have this right because of the transparency of the internet. People, including many artists, share a lot of themselves on blogs, social network sites, YouTube, and personal websites. In fact, doing just that is a GREAT way for artists to reach more fans. I know several people who do this successfully. But at the end of the day, they have artistic control over what is released because they know context is key.

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