Hot off the Press

When Technology Means Independence

by Alissa Ordabai
Staff Writer —

If there is one thing technology has done for regular music fans over the last 10 years, it’s made them more independent. Or at least less subordinate to the labels, the music press, TV, and radio – the traditional bastions of control of almost all access to music and musicians just a decade ago. Now with YouTube anyone can be a content contributor or a program director, and you hardly need the print mags to discover new music or catch up on your favourite bands. You don’t need an A&R man, or a music critic, or a TV boss telling you what you are supposed to listen to, when, and how.

The same now goes for those who are learning a musical instrument. You don’t need a tab section in a guitar mag telling you what to play and how to play it. Who needs to fork out a fiver for a chance to peer over a sheet of tablature, simultaneously trying to hit the start / stop button on your CD player at the right time, replaying the same passage till Doomsday, while struggling to hear apart the bass and the lower register of the guitar?

No one has time for this since the launch of Jammit – a simple app with a cursor going over the tab and the waveform on your screen while it plays the original track, while allowing you to isolate any instrument you like. You can slow them down without changing pitch, fade them in and out, and play along with the original recording. No more hunting after tabs, no more worrying if they are accurate, no more arguments with your guitar teacher who wants you learn a Wes Montgomery piece this week while you are dying to learn Pantera’s “Walk” or Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”. Virtuosos from Steve Lukather to Richie Kotzen are saying they wish they could have this software when they were learning to play. “It would have saved me 13 years of learning how to play the guitar,” Lukather recently said.

This may sound like just another nifty landmark in our collective progression to the music tech dreamland, but just some 10 years ago music fans were sacrificing a bit more than two bucks per song to be able to hear music this way.

A friend who in the early Nineties worked for a major recording studio in London wouldn’t quit his minimum-wage job precisely because it gave him this kind of access to music. His hours were day-and-night, the pay was rock bottom, and the prospect of progressing from tea-making duties to becoming an assistant engineer in two years’ time was vague.

But far feeling sorry for Ed, everyone around him was acutely envious. His most sacred talisman of belonging (albeit circumlocutorly) to one of the most glamorous, hard-to-get-into industries in the world was a set of keys to a storage room where the studio kept its master tapes of some of the best albums in the world – from Pink Floyd to Beck. His bosses referred to it as “the treasury”. So did Ed. And so did we – his friends, who under absolute secrecy, when no one was around, would sneak in – aided and abetted by Ed himself – to give a spin or two to those precious masters through the mixing desk, fading in and out the guitar, the bass, the drums, and the vocals, listening to the isolated parts, marvelling at the sheer awesomeness of being able to hear what no one else could.

We would also joke that Ed was sitting on a very tangible and a very convertible asset, and that if he chose to break the law, copy and sell on those tapes, huge amounts of money could have been made, with the potential clientele ranging from DJs to professional musicians. Ed knew this, but was an honest wage-earner.

These days anyone can have access to what then felt like a huge privilege. No one in their right mind would slave for a tiny wage just for the opportunity of being able to hear the details and the nuances of David Gilmour’s guitar isolated from the mix. Now you can hear it all by touching a button on your i-Pad, and you don’t need to belong to the in-crowd, a certain profession, or to “know” people.

We’ve become more independent, so no wonder young people don’t buy into the old 19th century alarmist argument that technology enslaves. If anything, it enables, as we depend less on individuals deciding what kind of access we can or cannot have. These days you can learn what you choose to learn without having to depend on anyone. You don’t even have to network they way you had to 10 years ago. And the more independent we are, the more creative we become.

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