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Robair Report: Let Them Make Music

During the MIDI 30-year Anniversary panel discussion at NAMM 2013, featuring Dave Smith, Tom Oberheim, Alan Parsons, Jordan Rudess, George Duke and Craig Anderton, the question was raised whether MID 3/01/2013 4:00 AM Eastern
Gino Robair

During the MIDI 30-year Anniversary panel discussion at NAMM 2013, featuring Dave Smith, Tom Oberheim, Alan Parsons, Jordan Rudess, George Duke and Craig Anderton, the question was raised whether MIDI democratized the music-making business “so that anybody can make bad music.” While it may seem like there’s already too much crap being generated, and that the noise level of new releases has far exceeded our audience’s bandwidth, Anderton reminded the panel’s attendees that it is important for people to have the ability to express themselves musically. “When you make music, you learn about yourself,” he noted. I absolutely agree.

Indeed, MIDI has helped make it possible—and easier than ever—for anyone with musical ideas to realize them, no matter how “bad” they may be. And if you consider the current slump in recording sales, what better way is there to get non-musicians interested in supporting music again than to have them experience creativity first hand. Despite the millions of products that automatically generate beats and accompaniment for anyone who can afford an app, there will come a point where the novice realizes that making great music isn’t as easy as they had originally thought. It takes talent, skill, imagination and time, and it might be worthy of financial investment.

When you give non-musicians and amateurs access to creative tools, they develop an insatiable appetite for more music, beyond what they can get through traditional distribution methods. It doesn’t master if they’re a wannabe guitarist, drummer or DJ, once they get an insight into the techniques of performing and recording, they will dig deeper to increase their own skills.

Consider all of the interactive music tools available and how we use them. Only a few years ago it seemed crazy that a band at the level of Nine Inch Nails or 311 would allow free, online distribution of the multitrack files for one of their songs. Since then, numerous bands have used the concept to encourage fans to remix their favorite tunes. With the ubiquity of multimedia editing tools on every platform, today’s audience expects nothing less than full access to session material—both audio and visual.

One only has to look at a popular service such as Jammit ( jammit.com), which offers instrumentalists access to multitrack material by well-known artists for educational purposes. Once you download the song you want to play, you can isolate the part you’d like to learn, slow it down if you need to, remove the recorded version from the mix so you can jam along, and even do a video-capture of yourself as you jam with the track. Each song costs a couple of bucks: Fun for the fans, and another revenue stream for artists and rights holders.

By the time my students are old enough to attend my college-level recording course, they already know how to use a mixer and how to source a cappella vocals from their favorite songs to create mash-ups. They’re merely taking my class to learn how a mic works and to increase the quality of their work. The technology is already second nature to them.

I’m always amazed to hear professional musicians and producers complain that “there’s already too much music out there,” or that “no one is making good music anymore.” It’s easy to feel that way if all you do is listen to Clear Channel stations or read Billboard magazine. Gain the trust of a high-schooler, and he or she might share their favorite music with you: That’s often where the innovation is. To put it in corporate-speak: There are vast populations of young people who are not being served by the music industry, so they’ve created their own ecosystem to fill the vacuum.

We all agree that music sales will never return to the way they were. Fortunately, the artists who were born in the ’90s are blissfully unaware of earlier paradigms, so they don’t carry the expectations of previous generations. They make and distribute art, period. They find clever ways to sell music and merch, play concerts in places that are off the radar of the local press, and communicate using social media that you won’t hear about for a year or two. Most importantly, they don’t think in terms of scarcity like we do. Exposure is their currency. Even if they’re just posting their mash-ups or machinima on YouTube, their goal is to put as much compelling content online as possible and use it to build an audience (while generating serious Google AdSense revenue).

It’s important to note that the concepts of sharing, collaboration and community are ingrained in these youngsters, and they gravitate naturally toward technologies that enable them. Good ol’ MIDI 1.0 remains an integral part of it.

And despite what some of the NAMM panelists suggested, there is indeed a concerted effort by many manufacturers and developers in the MI space to collaborate on the follow-up to the MIDI 1.0 spec, as evidenced by the move toward finalizing the HD Protocol Specification (midi.org/aboutus/news/hd.php). What few realize is that this project will play an important role in saving the music business by enabling innovation that helps future audiences regain an appreciation and respect for content creators.

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