Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The New Professionals

The one new musical profession that I have never quite been able to wrap my head around is that of DJ. It is a niche that comes entirely out of the automation of music. The first stage was the ability to record sounds which has evolved from wax cylinders over a hundred years ago to digital flash drives now. The ability to manipulate these recorded sounds has evolved in even more complex ways. In the beginning the early vinyl 78s had just a few minutes per side and there was no option for editing. One take, cross your fingers and hope for the best! The longer-playing LPs (hence the name) made use of the 20 to 30 minute playing time per side and the development of magnetic recording tape around the Second World War enabled simple audio editing. Basically you cut the tape at an angle with a razor blade and tape it back together. It worked pretty well--one of my first recordings used this kind of editing. Then in the 80s digital audio tape and digital editing was available and this led to the kind of sophisticated processing of recorded sound we have today.

Once you have a take in the can what you can do with it is almost unlimited. The analogy is to word-processing. Once you have typed in (or even scanned in) some text, you can manipulate that text in a host of ways. You can change the formatting to bold or italic or ALL CAPS. You can format the paragraphs



You can use different fonts or sizes. But the ways of processing sound are much more extensive. You can add various kinds of reverberation to mimic the echo of different kinds of concert halls, even ones that don't exist. You can alter the strength of different frequencies, called equalization, that change the timbre of the  sound. You can alter the tuning with software called Auto-Tune, you can re-align the beats to a fixed click-track, you can compress the amplitude, making all the sounds loud and a host of other kinds of effects. Particularly important has been the use of drum machines and sequencers that enable you to pre-program a percussion track. This, along with the use of synthesized sounds has led to the existence of an entirely new kind of musical profession, that of the DJ.

"DJ" stands for "disc jockey" or someone who originally spun discs, vinyl records, on turntables. The ability to manually manipulate them or "scratch" was an early kind of synthesized music. This was followed by the use of completely synthesized musical sounds by people like Walter/Wendy Carlos in the 1970s. Another variety of artificial sounds was created by "sampling" the sounds of actual instruments and then manipulating them with computers. The musical software I use for composing, for example, is able to "perform" the compositions, even ones for orchestra, using its library of sampled orchestral instrument sounds. I can even add dynamics, different accents and ritardandi.

The profession of DJ, making sophisticated use of the whole array of synthesized sounds and sequencers to control them, has become a hugely professional and profitable business. The Daily Mail has a piece on the new Forbes list of highest paid DJs which is topped by one Calvin Harris, who made $48.5 million dollars over the last year. This level of income is only topped by the big pop groups. This past year U2 earned $195 million and Bon Jovi $125 million, followed by Elton John at $100 million and Lady Gaga at $90 million.

Forbes doesn't seem to do a list of highest-paid classical musicians--too embarrassing?--so we have to turn to an old Guardian piece by Tom Service to do some comparisons:
Great article in yesterday's Chicago Tribune, on the almost football-player- level of salaries that the conductors and administrators of the big American orchestras receive. OK, so we're not talking – quite – John Terry or Cristiano Ronaldo figures here, but $2.2m (£1.4m) isn't bad for Lorin Maazel's job at the helm of the New York Philharmonic in 2006-7 (the last year for which figures are publicly available), and neither is Deborah Borda's $1.2m for her duties as CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. There is still a ridiculous iniquity in the way classical musicians are paid. Stellar conductors can earn a fortune, soloists can charge between $30,000-$70,000 in the States [that's per concert], while the average wage for an average player in the grandest bands in the US is just over $100,000.
Classical superstars like Herbert von Karajan or Luciano Pavarotti were rumored to earn up to $6 million a year, which is like a rounding error compared to popular music earnings.

Let's listen to a little of the musical production of Calvin Harris, topping this year's list of highest-paid DJs. I have to preface this by noting that a few years ago EDM DJs like deadmau5 were showing up for gigs and then basically hitting the space bar on their laptops, launching a pre-programmed musical set that just played itself out. But now there is a convergence between the DJs and the pop stars. This song, "Feels" enjoys a full-blown video production, uses pop singers and rappers (Pharrell Williams, Katy Perry and Big Sean) and actual musical instruments (Calvin Harris is seen in the background playing an electric bass). It feels a lot like a standard pop song, but there is no "band" as such as all the tracks are created separately and united with a click track. So the foundational aesthetic sensibility, if I can call it that, is based on EDM (electronic dance music). Let's call it electronic pop music. For some weird reason, Blogger won't embed, so just follow the link:


Will Wilkin said...

DJ was the guy on the radio who put on the 45's we'd call in to request off the "top 40" list. Perhaps the more recent version of DJ you describe is a step up in skill for that "profession," but certainly synthesized and automated music is not to my taste.

And to give a little perspective on the pay for musicians, although you can point to celebrity "super-star" rock and pop artists who make astounding amounts of money, that is a tiny elite sliver of the small fraction of rock musicians who make any money at all, considering that every town has at least a few garage bands and a few bars where work-a-day people can play on a friday or saturday night, maybe for $50 or $100 and a few free glasses of beer. Not so different from the high pay for a few professional basketball players while every schoolyard and park has a dozen kids playing for free.

Now I wish there were more amateur classical musicians bad enough and local enough for me to play with out of sheer love of music. I'd love to join a garage string quartet!

I've got a feeling that actually making a living in music is a very competitive and unreliable profession, sure to be discouraged by any practical parent unless the youth shows amazingly special talent AND drive.

Bryan Townsend said...

Agreed, Will. I tend to think that instead of you choosing music, it tends to choose you! But yes, if you want a prosperous life, the odds are much better doing almost anything else. I think that the earnings of the superstars in music have skyrocketed in recent decades while the middle-rank players make less and less. Mass media amplifies earning power.

Will Wilkin said...

Musicians pension fund going insolvent too.