Analogue v Digital – where did it all begin (part 1 of many…)?

by | 5 Dec 2013 | Blog | 0 comments

So this whole analogue vs digital thing… What’s it all about? Why do they call it a debate? Would it be better characterised as a bicker? And is it a good thing or bad for musicians and artists? And where did it all come from?

Now I’m sure if I asked a hundred of you, we’d have two hundred different answers. So let’s just note before we start… you’ll be reading this not in the analogue domain (on paper) but on your computer/tablet/phone (in the digital domain). So you see, it’s not an issue that’s confined to the world of audio geeks. It’s also not just the world of the print magazine that has suffered at the hands of this digital malarkey. (I can see that some of you are already scratching your heads, what we are talking about is just progress isn’t it?) And to be fair there’s a reasonable discussion to be had in the audio-world about how digital affects the (subjective) sound quality of recorded music (and I’m sure that’s a discussion we’ll have another day!) But the digital era has probably done more to change the face of recorded music than either the electric guitar or the multitrack recorder. It also made life painful for recording studios and squeezed the bank accounts of the record labels almost to breaking point. So in music industry terms, it has changed really quite a lot (*understatement of the day*). And whether you are a musician or a fan, not all of that has been for the better. Now I’m sure in due course we’ll get into geekier issues that surround the “analogue v digital debate”: hardware v plugins, tape versus mp3 and which sounds better, is it subjective or objective? But for today I want to start at the macro level. Because the weakening of the original music industry building blocks: the record labels and their studios is essentially a product of the digital youngster climbing on the shoulders of its analogue parent, and kicking them in the teeth for good measure. So let’s take a closer look…

Record labels didn’t even see it coming. Napster kicked off the ‘music for free’ revolution in 1999. These monolithic businesses saw the bottom fall out of their world faster than you could say ‘peer-to-peer music sharing’. They’ve cut their staff, cut their rosters, cut their investment levels and cut their costs. Today, after 15 years of declining profits, constant reorganisation and failure to stay with the curve, they’re a shadow of their former selves. But this year, for the first time in a very long time, profits are up. Are they finally getting their arms around the digital revolution?

Due to the cost of a professional set up, recording studios were once the preserve of record labels, signed bands or the seriously rich. Pro Tools (or Sound Tools as it was called back in the day) started to change all that as it swept away first the tape machine and then ADAT. The entry to the market of younger pretenders, in the form of Sonar, Cubase, Logic, GarageBand and even Fruity Loops, accelerated the pace of change until almost everyone had a copy of a Digital Audio Workstation (the generic name for these programmes). This and the demise of record label budgets put serious strain on the recording industry with even the biggest of recording businesses being forced to drop their prices. Some of them to a price-point below cost. And while they might have been able to squeeze their costs down to the bone in the short term, in the longer term it meant no budget for maintenance, new gear or to keep the studio fresh. Inevitably that lead them down a declining path. And it’s left the studio world with a gulf between the the high-end and the demo studio with very little in the middle.

So it’s all bad news then is it? Well of course on the one hand the universities have quickly jumped on the bandwagon and appear to be quietly raking it in by pumping out around 7000 ‘music production graduates’ every year. So if you are a band you shouldn’t have any trouble finding someone to record you for pennies if not for free! If you are one of the graduates of course, chances are that you are either not working in the recording industry, or if you are, other than a notable few handful of you, you are in a minimum wage role in a demo studio with carpet and/or foam on the walls. (I’m sure I’ll rant about the cynical approach of the universities and their courses at some point but today isn’t the day).

But wait… because the record labels no longer have the money to develop talent. As a result they are no longer willing to listen to a rough demo from a low-end studio, or to see your talent through the failings of your recording. Hell no. Not only do they want a well-produced release ready record but as a band they want you to be the polished item. The problem is that the death of the recording industry means there are very few producers still willing to do unsigned and even indie label work who actually know what pushes the buttons of the record label A&R team. Yeah there are lots capable of hitting record but, if they can’t help you to hone your track, are they doing you a favour or just taking your money?

Of course the other side of this coin is that, thanks to other digital upstarts, the likes of Tunecore, CD Baby and Ditto Music, you don’t actually need no steenkin record label. This digital era means you can now get your own music up on iTunes and Amazon quicker than a knife fight in a telephone box. But how do you get it heard above the noise. Because music production and delivery has become so accessible, there’s never been so much new music out there.

The tried and tested route of course is to get your analogue ass on a stage, strap on your guitar, and rock the place out. At least until Skype Hologram (copyright of Trev 2013) hits the app store… So what are you waiting for?!?