Is Talent Irrelevant?

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, 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.

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3 Responses to Is Talent Irrelevant?

  1. trafficarte says:

    I agree, and musicians smartest than me agree too…

  2. PaulT says:

    This resonates with me. To take another angle: As a musician who’s been playing and performing in bands for almost 20 years, what I see happening is that electronic music and DJs are taking a larger and larger share of the live entertainment pie. For example, a DJ club will have a line of people around the block waiting an hour to get in and pay $20, to hear a DJ simply choosing records and aligning their tempos. Meanwhile, down the block is a live band, guys who’ve been training rigorously for most of their lives to hone their craft, and working through the teamwork challenges of writing the songs, etc- and there might be 15 people there.

    The amount of practice and rehearsal and study and effort it takes to write, peform, and sing a live piece of music- not to mention finding and assembling a band of guys, of forging and maintaining those human relationships- to work together, rehearsing weekly to make the music tight and smooth- it takes a lifetime of dedication, regular rehearsal. It is a true act of love. And this level of craftsmanship does not seem to be of interest to the average music consumer. People increasingly do not seem to appreciate the human element. This trend seems to be progressing. It’s hard not to feel frustrated by it.

    As I grow older, music made by computers sounds infinitely more shallow to me, and increasingly, the people and friends in my life simply don’t relate.

    We held a house party recently for friends. I put together a play list of music for the party, consciously deciding that all music on this play list would be recordings by actual musicians (no electronica.) I chose some really good, upbeat (and not overplayed) funk, soul, bop jazz, etc for this playlist.

    As soon as our friends arrived, people wanted to plug in their iPod and play their electronic music instead. My play list never got a chance. Music made by people seems so unpopular, and so antiquated, that it would appear “uncool” to play even at a house party.

    I guess this is where things are going! And musicians are finding a way to reconcile with their art and thinning audience in this environment. It’s a challenge and I don’t have the answer, other than to recognize and accept this is what’s happening. Technology replaces craftsmanship… it’s been happening since the bronze age.

    • midiguru says:

      Thanks for the comments, Paul. You’re right that the whole DJ thing spells big trouble for musicians.

      On the other hand, I happen to like electronic music tools a lot — for one thing, I can create full band arrangements in my computer, and edit each note until I’m please with it. Since I’m not in a band at the moment, I would indeed be hamstrung if I didn’t have a computer and synthesizers!

      The trouble is, these same tools can be used by people who have not the faintest clue about good melodic writing, chord progressions, or anything else. And the results will sound superficially plausible, because so few listeners are equipped to hear the difference between real music and processed imitation music substance.

      If school music programs weren’t the first to suffer budget cuts (God forbid we should cut football), more people would learn to play instruments, and they’d have a greater appreciation for the skills involved in music performance.

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