A trombonist masters an instrument and is considered a musician. A music lover masters a beat machine and is considered a producer. Both individuals become adept at their craft and produce amazing sounds after years of practice. What, then, qualifies one tool as a musical instrument and the other as a piece of equipment? The definitive answer is not simple, and though it may exist, does not necessarily reside here as much as it does in semantic arguments. What remains constant is that whether the tools born of technological advancements in sound are used as standalone workhorse modules or in concert with live instruments and other electronics, the individuals forging sound from them will continue to be musicians in their own right and on their own terms.
Technological innovations in sound creation, recording, and peer to peer file sharing have led to a major shift in the sale and consumption of music, such that the business of music has eroded rather publicly into a shell of its once formidable self, and artists have been forced to acquire the acumen necessary to take a more hands-on approach to individual success in order to survive the tightening of the industry’s belt, provided they are amongst the few to have been afforded major label assistance to begin with. Record labels have had to fold, redefine purpose, and refine professional practices in order to address the ebb and flow of evolving social media platforms and what those outlets mean to their growth or rumored demise.
Artists have been forced to embrace performance in practice and theory, as a clearly defined means of survival when the business is the show and if that show does not go on, there is no guarantee that the windfall profit so many expect from a career in entertainment will ever present itself. With digital and physical album sales lagging in the era of the free media free-for-all, the tour is where the substantial profit in music making still lies, all intangible rewards not withstanding. Artists have never historically received large percentages of profits from record sales, so perfecting the live show makes sense. Before that dynamic returned to public favor, there was the DAT tape and the band-as-prop dynamic during the early nineties, which featured a pre-recorded track accompanied by a live band or a group of people posing as a band danced around with instruments as music played and the featured artist performed, lips and bodies synched to the beat.
At some point, the cost of hiring a full orchestra suffered the fate of operations in other booming industries. Employing live musicians became a luxury for artists and a bane for companies looking to spend less for more in the studio. The jobs of studio musicians and sometimes touring bands became less of a necessity as advances in sound manipulation and technology led to the creation of one-stop shop modules for producers interested in capturing the band dynamic without actually having to pay the band. While people reminisce fondly about Motown’s Funk Brothers and Philadelphia International’s MFSB, the 12-bit and subsequent digital eras created by people nurtured on that aesthetic is what aided the death of the house band outside of the realm of late night television.
The novelty of technological advances and the prospect of abandoning the old model for a new toy continually informs musical trends. Many musicians’ instruments have been put out to pasture at least once in favor of a strictly electronic production philosophy. From the invention of the Moog to the rise in popularity of artists like Kraftwerk and Afrika Bambataa, popular music has been indelibly altered by the presence of electronic instruments and other machinery built to manipulate sound; space is the place Sun-Ra encouraged and students of his aesthetic willing to explore technology as a viable component of musicianship actually saw well beyond the edges of the gaping abyss.
Electronic production came into favor and was allowed to proliferate because it was an exciting prospect to dive into, but also because many of the people employing that outlet were individuals who had always been musically inclined but had not been fortunate enough to be able to afford the cost of acquiring and learning an instrument. This set of circumstances has not killed the instrument as a viable and ever-present component of songwriting and performance. It has instead, forced our conceptual understanding of the word instrument to redefine and expand itself to the all-encompassing umbrella beneath which present-day standards like computer software, beat machines, synth stations, futuristic sound banks, and auto-tune exist. Music will never stop evolving and certainly will never cease to be made, but it will always be forced to adapt as it has done over time, to the climates informing it.
Changes in the paradigm have led to circumstances where people can collaborate with nothing more than the ambition and an Internet connection. This cooperative platform has given rise to innovations in sound and the space for curious musicians to discover and work with each other outside of the confines of their familiar, whether that be an orchestra performance, nightclub, or bedroom closet. The tools with which to promote the instrument have changed, so why not the instrument itself? Before instruments were defined objects, they were nothing more than the sum of their parts cobbled together in a manner that allowed people a medium with which to express themselves outside of the confines of basic human emotion; this was that set of overwhelming feelings channeled into something voluminous and attractive to the ear. They were the found objects with which to convey life in ways that words could not express, and for that reason they will remain present in all of their iterations, whether they require electricity to operate or an impressive lung capacity. The difference between an enjoyable recording and a live performance of that piece is the energy conveyed onstage; a factor created as much as it is imbued by the presence of skilled musicians, the components they employ to enhance their sounds, and the passion with which they perform.
Words by Karas Lamb