Technology: The New Artist’s Liberation?


brokenchain

breaking_the_chains

Hands down: I love to talk to people from all over the world via the web or more specifically: Social Media platforms like e.g. Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and Co. as well as via video-meet-ups on Skype – that is awesome! I got “hooked” on what is now known as “the Internet” (technically: the World Wide Web) when I was a college student in the early 90ies: I would usually log on to the faculty-wide LAN and enjoy the blazing speed of a 34 Mbit backbone to do my book research, place a request with the campus library from the convenience of my student appartment, do related research, type up my lecture notes (as a means of memorizing them as I typed and to have a neatly looking folder of reports to look up later), print reports and so on. The “bottleneck” in terms of speed was my 14.4 kbps modem – any household internet connection in this day is about 100 to 200 times faster than that… But regardless of speed: There was this one defining moment, when I had logged on late at one night – and this would have to happen by means of sending a series of command lines to the terminal application – when suddenly and if by magic a prompt appeared after my log on procedure, which said something like “type ‘talk’ and press ‘Enter'”. Curious to find out what would happen I heeded the prompt. Upon hitting the Enter key… the screen divided and my high school buddy from back in the day – who had earned himself a scholarship with the prestigious Harvard University – would “talk” to me… i.e.: He’d type his messages in one half of the screen, upon which I replied via “my” other half of said screen – I was stoked!!! So, again, technically speaking: This was my first chat experience (no graphic user interface, no smilies, frownies, rolling smilies or other emoticons, either – no sound and surely no video image! But… there I was, in my tiny studio appartment, separated by roughly 5.000 miles of mostly water and yet – him and I were communicating in real time and – which was a crucial element at the time and ironically is again LOL – at no extra charge!! (I had a student library card at the expense equivalent of a Caffé Americano at your local Starbuck’s) It was awesome!

So: I will admit that I may have a tiny geek living inside of me. Maybe it’s even a bigger one in light of having had a career in Information Technology in the past 20 years. But… – and this is the important bit! – I don’t necessarily consider myself a real geek. Without going into a longwinded debate over what makes or breaks a geek, let’s just say that technology seems to amaze and frustrate me in equal parts. However: I’ve always been loving the useful application scenarios technology provides. And now… eventually I’m cutting to the chase: To me… the main point in using and learning to handle technology has always been the question as to what extent a given gadget or technology helps me do something better – or at all, to begin with. With this being said, I often ponder today as to what degree affordable availability and access to the latest technology is crucial to an independent artist’s success. Please allow me to explain this at greater detail and by looking at all the – IMHO crucial – infrastructure I’m using today (where I take it this “infrastructure” will be largely similar for most other independent artists, regardless of the type of art they specialize in and minus some devices specific to making music).

1. The Computer

In a nutshell: My second or “electronic” heartbeat. Simple as that. No computer, no life (well… not the same life anyway). I have been using desktop “boxes”, and there machines by Apple Inc. mostly during the past 20 years (but I do know my way around other systems, too), but have migrated to laptops in the past 5 years, figuring I might want to or have to take my work to clients or collaborators and didn’t want to use clumsy backup drives or other “immobile” equipment. I record and edit music, I browse the web, I write this blog post on it, I pay my bills, do my taxes, keep my contacts, write and print regular (snail mail) letters on it, do some minor graphics work, code web pages (for clients previously, now only my own), record and edit videos, do video conferences using Skype, keep a calendar of todos, take notes of sudden “flashes of insight” and/or to collect ideas as far as music or web-related issues (marketing). I listen to the web radio on it, convert recorded music into MP3, store and listen to recorded and purchased music, record screen movies (to be used as instructional segments in my videos) and mostly: Do a lot – a lot.. say again: A LOT of research on virtually anything that crosses my restless mind (where wikipedia is always a good starting point to take it from). Oh and… I hang out on Facebook most every day on it.

2. Internet Access

Well… where would I be without that? I once had a computer “outage” for a week from a hardware malfunction (disk drive) and all I had to connect to the web with was my 3G capable phone – no, NOT the iPhone! I will starkly refuse that device for as long as Apple force me into a contract with a provider of their choice . That one week – I was barely able to function… Apart from hanging out on Facebook as mentioned in above paragraph, I check the weather forecast, do that said research on all things of interest, check train connections, traffic conditions, look through webcams in the vicinity before taking a little bike trip, shop online, pay my bills, find out about new contacts I’ve made, check incoming traffic at my sites, check other statistics related to my latest endeavour of coming back to the world of music, listen to music, video-conference, do phone calls (via Voice-over-IP), write and receive emails, of course, educate myself, check music or technology specific discussion boards and other resources … practically everything relevant to the list of todos happens via Internet one or the other way. No Internet, no life (or a life-style very different from the current one).

3. Computer Software (e.g. Graphics Design Suite, Photo/Video Editing, Audio Recording, Educational etc.)

Actually… the piece of software I’m using sparked this article: It allows me to do everything I had been dreaming of doing musically some 20+ years ago – and was only able to do in a very limited number of cases due to the fact that I lacked the financial resources, which were required at the time to have access to the kind of technology I would have needed. To give you an idea: The mere equivalent of sounds that comes preinstalled with this software would easily have cost tens of thousands of dollars back in the day. Not to mention backup media and digital recording not having seen the light of day until the early 80ies. Those, who were lucky enough to either have those resources due to the fact of coming from a wealthy and supporting family or due to the fact that they knew how to network their way into getting that access – weren’t too many and they’d usually get bugged out to Kingdom Come by guys like me (minus myself – I never felt like “sucking up” to someone I didn’t like only because they had something in material terms I badly wanted. In other words: I wouldn’t sell my soul for it). I have minimal “outboard” gear, but enough – for now – to write and produce the kind of music I had meant to write as early as in my late teens, early twens. I feel – free to do what I want to do and express myself in ways I have never been able to express myself before. So to me – the answer clearly is yes!

However… where there’s light, there must be shade:

4. Time

The amount of time I find myself spending in front of “the machine” is – simply ridiculous. If you didn’t know, what I was doing… you could actually call me “obsessed” or “addicted” with , Twitter, Reverbnation, iLike and Co. Where I believe to eventually come to know what I’m doing… others will just see the stale face glued to the screen. The amount of time I spend on all the things listed above – easily goes anywhere near 12+ hours every day. That’s right: Currently, this is the amount of time I spend on that thing. Easily. Recently, I average on three to four hours of sleep per night and maybe one or two hours of outdoors activity plus another hour for eating and personal maintenance – you do the math…

5. Expense

While I said something about technology being affordable, that doesn’t mean for free, of course. I would assess the net value of my gear anywhere between 3.000 and 4.500 dollars. Probably not much more. But that is 3.000 to 4.500 bucks you must have first. Might not be too much, when you’re holding a fairly decently paying job. But it’s different for – say – a college student, someone just having graduated from High School, a single parent, someone currently not holding a job or anyone not being able to rely on a steady influx of money.

6. Technical issues / Dependency

If one of the means listed above fails – the “value added chain” of the artistic process is broken. You might say or think, I won’t need internet access to record music. Yes and no. Let’s take the recent situation for example: I ran a system upgrade, trusting I could only benefit from it and the update coming from a trusted source. I also upgraded the software I’m using along with it – only to find that a much needed “plug-in” I use for sounds didn’t work anymore afterwards (and yes: I always read release notes first before installing. I’m very, very cautious bordering on paranoid when it comes to “tampering” with a running system). I was in the midst of recording or actually finalizing the Naiad Theme – not being able to use said plug-in from one day to the next at first felt like coming to a screeching halt. Of course, coming from a technical background, I have learnt to improvise and be creative in difficult situations. So I mimicked the sounds I had been using via built-in/functioning sound generators. But of course… they weren’t the same as before and it took some time to emulate the sounds I had used previously. I also researched possible solutions by resorting to the usual sources on the web, e.g. discussion boards and such. When I didn’t find my scenario reflected or sufficiently answered – I turned to the company’s tech support as a last resort (a big thank you to Native Instruments in that regard! Their helpdesk rocks!). But you get the idea: Massive overtime! Had I been working under a tight deadline… situations like this tend to have “nightmare potential”…

Conclusion

So, again: Is access to and use of latest technology a liberation? I personally strongly lean towards answering that with a pronounced “Yes”! Apart from me – and I think, I’m safe to speak on other artists’ behalf here – I get to express myself in any way I want. You might say, I don’t need a computer to write a good song. And I would agree on that. But other than singing it to a bunch of passers-by at a train station or near an inner city mall, how do I get the song/word out? Word of mouth? Ha! Exactly! Social Media Platforms are the exact New Millenia equivalent of that: Networking 24/7 and internationally! Marketing? I do that myself. By studying what has worked for others and selecting the bits and pieces that look most promising and which I’m comfortable in employing. Press contacts, press clippings, marketing materials of all kinds? Done by myself. Scheduling my activities and following through with them? The calendar application plus attached notes and files. Money? Well… LOL – whenever revenues build to where they actually merit that very term… I have a list of applications just waiting to crunch numbers.

The main point: While all of the above might as well be read as a geek’s manifesto, who’s simply in love with his toys – the most important potential outcome to me is this: There is a previously unprecedented window of opportunity – for artists and consumers alike! The established recording industry haven’t been doing much more, but lament their losses over dwindling CD sales for the past decade. I’d say – 10 or more years are by far a long enough time to reassess existing business models and come up with something better adjusted to modified audiences’ “consumption” needs. To this day… I have not seen one valid approach of the established recording industry to meet their customers half-way. Hence: It was on the pioneers and early adopters aka those, who embraced technology and realized that opportunity to rewrite the rules of the formerly established business in any way you – the audience – want it to be! But we will need your help with this! Don’t hand the control you now have back into the hands of those, who you were previously controlled by! Make an informed decision on whom you listen to, in other words: Whose records you buy or whose concerts you see. Demand those artists to come to a city near you. Help them spread the word (I am very grateful to now have a loyal and very supporting group of friends and fans, who cheer me on any way they can). Most importantly: Don’t think, stealing was o.k. As dire straits as I might be or have been at some point… I buy the records of those artists I want to listen to, regardless of whether or not I might get their music for free (e.g. by simply asking them). After all: You might be hurting us, but we have gotten by before and might get by in a different walk of life again (not as happy, but getting by). No. It’s not so much about the artist. It is about you,the consumer! You might eventually hurt yourselves… as indie artists will have to fold and give in to the overpowering budgets, legal power and almost brute force of established labels (where I slightly overgeneralize now, I’m aware of that). When “we” disappear again – let me rephrase that: If we are denied access to the music market – you’re gonna be, where you were before: With a dimly thinned down selection of music to choose from and pricing policies that will leave you in a “eat shi* or die” position. But then… some might have found that convenient… If you don’t fall into the latter category: Help us help you🙂

Peace.
wesbound, May 2010

P.S.: I might discuss the issue of quality in another article.

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