The Key

I haven’t been writing much about music technology for the past few months. The magazines are getting skinny, so I haven’t had many calls — but also, I’m feeling pretty bored with the whole subject. Another sequencer? Another workstation keyboard? Another synth plug-in? Been there, done that.

Plus, I no longer have a sense of mission in writing about technology. There was a time, not so many years ago, when helping musicians understand technological developments was an important job. Having the right gear and knowing how to use it were vital to your career. Today, though, there’s so much great gear, and so many musicians who are reasonably current on how to use it, that giving a hand up to players who are behind the curve is really just an exercise in vanity. If they’re behind the curve, they’re not going to get ahead of the curve by reading a couple of magazine articles.

In 1980, every working keyboard player in L.A. had to have a Prophet-5. If you didn’t have a Prophet, you wouldn’t get the calls for sessions. In 1984, you had to have a DX7. Programming your own sounds on the DX7 was not easy, and it was conceptually very different from programming a Prophet or any other synthesizer, so the cats that could master it were in high demand. There was a real need for articles that explained the DX7, and I wrote and edited a few of them.

Today? Today you can buy a great workstation synth from Yamaha, Korg, or Roland, any of them equipped with literally hundreds of highly polished sounds. Knowing how to program your own sounds is not going to separate you out of the pack.

Perhaps this is only my personal bias talking, but it seems to me that what musicians need to learn today is not, “What’s the coolest piece of gear, and how can I use it?” What they need to learn are two things: “How can I improve my musicianship?” and, “How can I get gigs?”

These skills are not easily taught in magazine articles. They’re complex, many-faceted topics — and they’re not sexy enough to attract advertiser dollars. The advertisers want (and yes, this really is a term I’ve heard used in editorial meetings) “love.” I prefer to call it “stroking,” because that term hints at a more graphic image. But whatever you call it, it involves endless pages devoted to product placement. Which is why the music technology magazines are mostly so boring to read. This type of content is not, in 2008, actually helping musicians learn what they need to learn.

Really, the best way to improve your musicianship is to take lessons from a good teacher. It’s expensive and time-consuming, and of course we’d all prefer a solution that’s cheap and quick, but buying a DVD that is supposed to turn you into a guitar or keyboard whiz is really just taking a whiz. It ain’t gonna get you there.

When it comes to getting gigs, you can sign up for a website that will network you with other musicians. But the cats you’ll meet will probably be in Arkansas or Mexico City, because the Web is inherently non-local. My advice: use craigslist. It’s free, and it will hook you up with people in your immediate area, people you can meet, audition, and rehearse with face-to-face. That’s only the start of the process, of course. Finding the right people, conducting rehearsals, working out arrangements, promoting your group to get gigs — it’s a long road with few or no shortcuts.

I’d love to write a book about it. But the crappy way Hal Leonard distributes my existing books does not leave me feeling very sanguine about my future prospects in the book publishing industry.

Maybe I’ll just put an ad on craigslist and start looking for gigs.

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