Technology in Music – The Wave of the Present

Ask any musician who is ten years older than you how business is, and he or she will probably say, “It’s okay, but it was much better ten years ago.” If that same person asks the identical question to another musician ten years older than he is, he will probably get the same answer. “It’s okay, but it was much better ten years ago.” Why was it always better ten years ago than it is today? A possible answer is that the music business constantly evolves, and the person who was busier a decade ago may not have moved ahead with it. Perhaps this person has skills that were well suited for yesterday’s professional musical environment, but not for today’s.

In my lifetime alone I’ve witnessed several major changes in the music business. In the 1970s and ’80s our Eastman graduates who wanted jazz careers often did their “graduate school” in the bands of Buddy Rich, Count Basie, Woody Herman and Maynard Ferguson. At the same time symphony orchestras were finding increased support from foundations. They expanded their seasons. They were growing. In New York City, Broadway was a convenient thing to fall back on, but the best gigs were freelance recording. That is, until synthesizers and samplers appeared on the scene.

Synthesizers changed everything in the music industry and made it possible to have a very high-end product, at least to the undiscerning listener. Those musicians who embraced technology and moved with it could hope to remain relevant, but those who continued to do what they had always done probably woke up one day to find that time had passed them by. The industry had evolved without them.

As stated earlier, technology has changed everything on the nonclassical side of the music business. Synthesizers have found their way into practically every genre from Broadway shows to the one-man band playing tunes with play-along tracks at the local restaurant. Forward-thinking musicians have recognized that synthesizers and samplers are not just a passing fancy. Take drum-set players vs. drum machines. An enterprising percussionist would realize that just because a machine can sound acoustic doesn’t mean that every person who buys one can make it sound believable. It still has to be programmed! And guess who is most familiar with what a drum set should sound like? You guessed it—percussionists. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

When I graduated from college an engineer friend of mine who was also graduating told me he was going to go to work for RCA. (It’s interesting how one remembers these isolated incidents from the past.) RCA was a major electronics company in its day, and my friend was going to be involved with computers. He explained to me something about computers working with 0s and 1s, and punch cards that were used to input data. I also knew that they were very large and took up a lot of space. That was in the mid-sixties, and much has changed since then. It is definitely an understatement to say that computers, the Internet and the World Wide Web have changed the way musicians do business!

Electronics—with its synthesizers, samplers, drum machines and sequencing—has surpassed the piano as the composer’s most valuable tool. Music engraving programs now make the all-night part-copying session a thing of the past. The Internet and its search engines save us valuable time in research. We can get answers to just about anything in a matter of seconds. And if my German publisher sends me some music to edit, I can do it and get it back to her the same day. Social networks like Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and Twitter keep us connected and expand our reach if we want to use them for commercial purposes. We can easily get the word out when we want to promote a concert, and our personal websites provide a place for us to offer our wares for sale. Recently, I was considering the clarinet part on Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto that I would be playing soon in a concert in Rochester. I hadn’t heard it in a while, and I wanted to see how much I would have to practice in order to sound decent on it. Ten years ago I would have gone to the library. But I found a recording on YouTube and the music on the Web in probably less than ten seconds.

If you are old enough to remember this, think back to when telephone answering machines first came on the scene. It was very annoying to have to leave a message. Nowadays if we make a call and no answering machine picks up, we’re bugged! But who makes telephone calls anyway? I do all my contracting of musicians through email and Facebook. Maybe younger people take this kind of information at your fingertips for granted, but it still amazes me. It’s like we’re on a moving train and it’s accelerating!

When I was a doctoral student, I was in a class that had an assignment that asked us to think into the future 20 years and forecast what the music profession would look like. I wish I still had that paper. It would be fun to see how far off I was. Anyway, one student was very frustrated with the assignment. She just couldn’t get into it. I remember one of her comments. “What should we do? Take LSD to help stimulate our imaginations?” Okay, it was the ’60s. But talk about inside-the-box thinking! She was all about what was going on in the present and pretty short on imagination! That student not withstanding, it’s kind of fun to think about future trends.

Here is a thought I had just today. I have a student who is finishing his doctorate in jazz studies, and he is writing a dissertation. I’m not his primary advisor, but I’m on his committee and so I have to read this document, make comments and edits and when it is in good shape I’ll sign off on it. There are three of us on his committee. As I read his dissertation today I thought, “The content is great, but the delivery system is very antiquated. It has a footnote about every other sentence, and because it is about music it has tons of musical examples.” I’m thinking that this is the same format as 40 years ago when I went through the identical process with my dissertation. Why can’t this be done in an electronic format with links to the footnotes and embedded musical examples? It would be so much more user-friendly. The reader could hear the examples while looking at the music. I know that the technology is there. In our website,, we embedded sound files in one of our articles four years ago. Maybe there is no need to do this for a dissertation (if you assume that it will never be read again except by a handful of scholars), but I will wager that 10 years from now more books will be published in electronic format than hard copy, and that they will have all sorts of interactive add-ons available. The publishing industry is already firmly headed in this direction.

The point of this cursory look at these technological advances is to remind you to embrace the future—technology in this instance—and change. In the current social and economic climate it is definitely “adapt or become irrelevant.” In envisioning the future, I am reminded of this quote that is attributed to hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. It’s a good one. When asked how he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, and consequently scored more goals than others, he replied, “I don’t go where the puck is. I go to where the puck will be.” Try to be like Gretzky.



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Ramon Ricker

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