Simple Pleasures

A couple of months ago, I told an editor at Electronic Musician that I’d write a Master Class feature on Steinberg Cubase 5. Since then, my world has changed slightly.

For weeks I’ve been going back and forth (mostly forth, since they’re no longer getting back to me) with the Yamaha/Steinberg team about a persistent problem with the drivers for their mLAN audio interface. It just plain doesn’t work properly in my Windows 7 machine. There are audio dropouts. They have made various suggestions (up to and including, “You need to buy a PCI Express Firewire card,” which cost me $75 and didn’t fix the problem). But at this point, they seem to have given up.

My enthusiasm at the idea of supporting Steinberg by writing a magazine article about their software has, accordingly, waned. But there’s more to it than that.

For most of my life, like most adults, I’ve been doing various things that I didn’t actually want to do. Like get up in the morning and drive down to the office. Like most of us, I’ve put up with assorted indignities over the years, ranging from the trivial to the infuriating. As I glide gently toward the day when I’ll be able to start collecting Social Security, I find that I’m just not very interested in doing that sort of thing any more. What I want to do is spend all day, every day, doing things that are enjoyable. Things that are fun, or pleasant, or mentally stimulating.

Gritting my teeth and writing about Cubase is not one of those things. If I needed the money, to be sure, I’d go ahead and write the article. But I’m doing okay. I might run out of money when I’m 80 years old, depending on how the economy goes, but if that happens, the fact that I failed to earn an extra $500 twenty years earlier is not going to loom large in my list of regrets.

Rather than write about the tools with which people can make music, I find it more gratifying to actually make music.

Years ago, I heard a great line that I’ve never forgotten. A woman named Bea said (in a charming Southern accent), “I’m just about not willin’ to have a bad day anymore. I don’t get an infinite number of them.” That’s the essence of the thing: If I spend a day doing something that I dislike, I don’t get that day back at the end of my life. There are no do-overs.

When I can see that there’s a real need for a project to be undertaken and completed, the fact that it isn’t pleasant is not necessarily decisive. If I felt that Cubase users who read Electronic Musician were genuinely in need of my assorted quasi-random tips, I’d go ahead and write the piece. But that’s not the case. Cubase comes with a hefty owner’s manual, not to mention the instructional videos on the installation DVD. Plus, if you own Cubase, you can post messages in the user forum and get answers. Only a small minority of EM readers own Cubase, and perhaps a slightly larger minority of Cubase owners read EM. So an article, even if it were needed, wouldn’t actually be an efficient way to reach the people who needed it.

I’ve often been guilty of being irascible, grumpy, or whiny about music products that didn’t work the way I wished they would. I know of at least one head of marketing at a major manufacturer who doesn’t want me reviewing his products, because I make him nervous. And he’s not at Roland; I’ve given up reviewing Roland hardware on my own initiative, because it always disappoints me.

And yet, over the years, I have continued to write about this stuff. Why? Because I needed the money. I put up with a seemingly endless string of frustrations and annoyances because that was what I did for a living, and I tried where possible to write about the products in a positive, supportive way — not hiding the negative facts, but suppressing my personal feelings.

I’m not sure I want to do that anymore. There’s something soothing about being free to own my feelings rather than having to suppress them. I think it’s called integrity. It may seem odd to say that I’m showing integrity by flaking out on a magazine assignment that I said I’d do, but in this case I think I’m on solid ground.

A friend suggested, “Write the article the way you want to write it, and send it in.” But I definitely have too much integrity to do that. It wouldn’t be professional, and also it would be a waste of time, because they couldn’t publish it.

Integrity has been in rather short supply in the music magazine industry for a very long time. This is not to insult the editors I’ve worked with over the years, who are without exception great people. They do the very best they can under circumstances that are seldom ideal and often rather trying. The loss of integrity (and yes, I could give you examples, but I won’t) has been, in every case, the result of intense, unremitting pressure from the business side of whatever publishing company we’re discussing (not just Penton Media).

The editors’ job is not, I’m sorry to say, to serve the needs of the readers. Their personal mission is, in almost every case, to do exactly that, but in this mission they get no support from management. In serving the needs of the readers, the editors are on their own. The mandate of management is to pump up profit by bringing in advertising dollars. The editors’ job, viewed from the perspective of management, is to make sure the advertisers feel appreciated and supported by the magazine. One former editor for whom I worked liked to use the phrase, “We need to give [company X] some love.”

I don’t actually know whether EM is proposing to publish a Master Class on Cubase in order to show Steinberg that their product line is being actively supported by the magazine. The proposition may never have been stated explicitly by management. But that’s the underlying reality. Sure, an article of that sort might help a few musicians a bit, but that’s not why it’s on the production schedule.

The question, “What articles would be most helpful to the most musicians?” is indeed discussed in editorial meetings, but it’s always framed in narrow ways. For instance, “We haven’t written anything about Pro Tools for a while. Do we know any Pro Tools experts who can give us really great power user tips?” The question that is not likely to be asked is, “Does it serve any real purpose for us to publish a Power User Tips article about Pro Tools?”

Trust me on this; I’ve asked exactly that kind of question in editorial staff meetings, in the years when I was on the staff of Keyboard. Such questions land with a dull thud. Nobody wants to discuss them, because what would be the point? The nature of the magazine has already been mapped out. It will have Power User Tips features on popular software — end of discussion.

The next time I write about music technology (or possibly a non-technology-related music topic), I’m going to find a topic for which I feel there’s a genuine need, and I’m going to write with integrity. If I can’t do that, I’ll just kick back and play music. Life is too short to do anything else.

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