Being an insider in the music technology community has a hidden down-side. A couple of years ago I had occasion to be discreet about my feelings. Richard Boulanger, whom I greatly respect for his work championing Csound, was raving about the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program. After looking into it a bit, I concluded that OLPC was a pathetic farce and a boondoggle. But I didn’t want to offend Richard. I think I may have written a blog post about it, but I certainly wouldn’t have said anything to him directly.
This week I got an announcement from a friend, Peter Gorges, about his new venture, ujam.com. I like Peter and have the utmost respect for him as a music technology expert. (Peter headed the AIR group at Digidesign for several years.) But here’s what the shiny new ujam website says: “Now everyone can make great music.” Then it says, “Compose — no musical skills required. Sing a tune or follow a simple step-by-step process to produce a professional-sounding , impressive piece of music.”
We can interpret these outlandish claims in one of several ways. Perhaps the entire community of professional musicians has been slacking off for the past 20 years, so that an untrained amateur can actually sound as good as a professional. Or perhaps the technology has gotten so advanced that talent and skill can be entirely automated.
Having raved, in print, about some of the advanced percussion software that Peter had a hand in developing, I’m quite willing to admit that some aspects of musicianship can indeed be automated. But the fact that you can twist a knob labelled “groove” does not mean you no longer need to exercise your own taste and expertise.
Far more likely, these claims are designed to appeal to people who are so clueless that they don’t know what benefits talent, skill, and years of dedicated study would confer. There are, I’m sure, millions of people who are intimidated by the whole idea of talent. These folks will be delighted by the idea that they’re just as good as professional musicians, because this means they don’t have to feel insecure and inferior.
That’s a pretty good-sized market, isn’t it? Peter is a real musician, and surely knows that these claims are hogwash. But he’s also a savvy entrepreneur. He knows how to use the technology (which is, let’s admit, pretty spectacular) to sell a silly dream to a lot of gullible people.
Apple does the same thing with Garageband. It’s not as if he’s in uncharted territory here. What’s the harm?
The harm is that the work of real musicians is cheapened. People like Jeff Lorber, Richard Souther, and Mike Lang (all of whom are, like Peter, my Facebook friends, and I’ll stop name-dropping now) have worked for years — for decades — to achieve and maintain standards of artistic excellence. To imply that anyone can sound as good as Jeff or Richard is just preposterous.
What’s worse, when ordinary people buy into that kind of thinking, it gives them a better excuse for pirating professionals’ recordings. Hey, if anybody can sound that good, where do these guys get off telling me I can’t rip their tune?
Call me an elitist if you like. I’m happy with the term. There are elites — people with special qualifications that they have acquired through years of patient and painstaking effort.
I wish Peter would rethink his claims. But I guess maybe I won’t say anything. I’ll just mumble a little, scuff my feet unhappily, and shuffle off into the sunset.