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What’s Valuable To You?

December 5, 2011

 

Before I go any further I want to prelude this particular blog by saying that I do not, in any way, shape or form believe that innovation needs to stop or slow down (spoiler alert). To everyone striving to innovate, re-create or make our lives easier I salute you!

 

Think about the last time you employed a professional/specialist to do a job for you. Now, ask yourself, is there a machine or piece of software that could be invented that could replace that professional and their service? Robotic monkey servants anyone? As usual conversation spawns a lot of these thoughts and rants I have. They honestly keep me up at night and leave me feeling a little in awe of how we’ve not only evolved as a society, but also leave me a little disheartened.

 

While in a meeting with the band this weekend Randy was talking about how the industry has changed and we simply need to accept that certain truths are now standard in our industry. Gone are the days of bands touring with a road manager, a full lighting system, lighting man, sound system, sound man etc etc. Yes, if you’re one of the few lucky enough to have big label support you still exist in a world where these things are commonplace. I use the term ‘lucky’ rather loosely as most bands fortunate enough to have these things worked EXTREMELY hard to get to that position and so I give them plenty of praise in that regard. But, for the rest of the working class musicians out there this reality is long gone like the dinosaur and looks like it will never return. How many jobs were lost in the process? A sound man in Toronto now a days, more often than not, is not really a sound man. It’s not his profession. It’s his hobby or part-time job. I don’t mean to insult anyone who might read this who does sound for someone somewhere, but unless you’re being paid to travel from place to place doing sound on a larger scale and can say that the majority of your income comes from running a console somewhere then you know this to be true. The art of being a sound engineer is owned, and never to be relinquished, by a small number of trained and seasoned professionals who until they untimely pass away will never need to be replaced. This leaves very little room for the up and coming sound crafter. It’s not like other jobs. A teacher can go to school, train and work up the ranks until they eventually, through great pain and suffering, acquire a full-time teaching gig! That job is always needing to be replenished and continues to grow in number every year with a growing population. A sound man? Not so much. And why not? Because innovation has allowed this job to fall by the way side. Let me explain…

 

How many of you reading this know what Photoshop is? How many of you ‘own’ it? How many people have Garageband or Pro Tools installed right now and can use it to make a recording of a song? Imagine if you will.. *insert twilight zone music* .. a band. And this band needs to record an EP or single on a budget. Back in the 70′s if you were lucky enough to KNOW someone who owned a studio then you MIGHT have gotten your recording without working your ass off at a part-time job somewhere to raise the money to get into the studio. Recording time was generally saved for the privileged few who played gig, after gig, after gig in smokey, run down caves one would call a club, touring the country and playing endlessly for very little money before building enough buzz to possibly be given the remote chance of maybe, kinda, sorta being offered a record contract. This was the one and ONLY way to record anything without buying huge amounts of studio gear yourself. Now, fast forward. I’m sitting at Starbucks writing this blog on the same piece of technology that I could record an ENTIRE album with as long as I had a guitar and microphone. Obviously the quality is going to vary depending on your experience and the equipment you pair with it, but the fact that it’s so accessible is incredible when you think about 40 years ago. How many jobs were just taken away in the process? How many middle men does this technology make obsolete? How much hard work, touring and professional “dues” have just been removed from the equation?

 

Our perception of value is huge. We perceive a job or profession or even a product as having a certain amount of worth or value to us personally by how we can use it, how it lasts, how well it’s been made and where, but, arguably, most importantly by one simple question. Can we do this ourselves? DIY (do it yourself) is now standard practice for anyone with their own business. Understandably so given how expensive it is to own, operate and succeed with any business. So, when I started my business I learnt how to use Adobe Illustrator and, given my already accumulated knowledge of Photoshop and other programs, with a few online tutorials I succeeded in creating a business logo, letterhead and even carried on to use Dream Weaver to make a website. HAZZAH! When I want to record a demo I pull out my laptop at home and a mic and guitar and do it myself. Drums I arrange through other programs and loops I’ve downloaded and found. Five songs done in a couple of weeks or even days. Who wants em?!? Look at a local indie act the same way. Low budget, lots of time to themselves (typical young, motivated folks) and endless amounts of ability to record and make anything they want. No recording engineer needed. The ability to DIY for the average person on a daily basis has made it so that not only could they learn and succeed in their ventures, but in the process has also removed the need for a professional to do it for you.

 

This in turn has done the following…

 

So many people have now succeeded with DIY approaches that a large portion of what we interact with in various platforms now is amateur. If a professional looked at my website they’d notice obvious flaws and areas of improvement. But, the average person just see’s a website. It’s functional and succeeds in solving my need to have a website. It offers an area for customers to inform themselves of my product, it’s benefits and even the ability to instantly purchase the product. No professional needed. In the case of a band, the music industry as a whole has become flooded with DIY bands. Their standard of professionalism is varying and often lacking. Their performance is mundane, their tunes are obviously amateur and arrangements inexperienced. So, the expectations of the customer (the fan) became lower and lower. People stopped going out because the quality, the standard of what’s normal and expectations of the customer were now significantly lower. People wanted more for their money and were getting less than they expected. Cuts were made and now pro sound and lighting guys are being looked at as expendable. Enter now the modern sound man who has some experience using a sound console and has his own band and will work for significantly less money in a time where profit is hard to come by due to this lack of customer interest. The pro is out of a job. The standard drops again. Even fewer people start attending shows. Costs get cut again and now it’s the bands who take the hit. The bands in turn spend less time working on their art as time is money and so the standard is lowered again. Quality suffers as costs are cut and profit is hard to come by, for all parties involved.

 

The same can be said for instruments themselves. Professionals who used to take their time to sculpt, craft and design a guitar  are now few and far between. A luthier who makes a guitar, a fantastic car, a computer even are still sought, but higher in price as their profession is rare and so the professionals profit margin has to be larger to succeed and make a living. A CNC cutting machine can now churn out guitar bodies quickly and inexpensively removing the work of several woodworkers and reducing costs significantly for the manufacturer. The quality of instruments decreases due to a lack of attention to detail and cost cutting, the sound becomes ‘less-than-good’ and this process continues over time eventually affecting the sound the music makers themselves choose to use while making a record. The music instrument market in turn becomes flooded with other companies believing they can also make a profit given how easy it is to manufacture and under cut the competition and so the standard again becomes lower and lower. Music on the radio is now made of this lowered quality and heard by society bringing a new perception of what music should sound like. Innovation in turn has lowered our perception of value and instead we now have a constant price war where we expect more for less. Business has succeeded in this by gradually lowering our expectations as they lower the price. So now, we get the absolute most for the dollar we spend. That much is true. But, the standard of quality and thus the value we receive in return is substantially lower as our expectations for what we’re getting in return is lower and so jobs are less available for anyone with a passion for producing such products.

 

It’s amazing how often this observation is true. I see it every day in all facets of life. It’s predominate in the music industry, retail, and service professionals alike. I’m not saying that I’m any better than anyone else. Obviously, things need to get done and things need to get done cheaper, but there’s hardly a single person removed from this problem because of it. We’re all guilty of it to some extent. Next time you watch something on YouTube try to consider the video quality, sound and post production (if any) you’re watching and what you expect in return versus watching the high quality acting, story line, music composition, orchestration, cinematography and writing that went into making a classic like Cassablanca or Led Zepplin II. If our perception and our expectation of what value is really has been lowered so significantly then it’s quite possible that in twenty years we may never see another classic film, historic band, inspiring artist, or read another captivating novel ever again.

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