Meeting Topic: How the Business of Music Affects the Sound of Records
Moderator Name: Jonathan S. Abrams, Nutmeg Post
Speaker Name: Dr. Simon Zagorski-Thomas, Reader in Music, London College of Music, University of West London
Meeting Location: NYU Steinhardt Studios, 35 West 4th St, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10012
Simon Zagorski-Thomas' new book, The Musicology of Record Production, looks at the theory behind record production. He examines both how you can analyze the sound of recorded music and the process of making it.
How does business affect the sound of records? Record companies act as the middle man. They buy creatives and sell to consumers. To buy and sell, there needs to be capital. There are four types of capital. Economic, cultural, social, and symbolic.
Which capital barriers have been erected or eroded over the history of recorded music? Tape lowered the economic capital barrier, only to later be raised by the technology advances of the 1960s in the form of larger studios. Cultural capital had shifted away from licensing to musicians via A&R departments within each record label.
As technology advanced in the 1970s and 1980s, it once again lowered the economic capital barrier of entry, allowing for the creation of home and semi-pro studios. It was at this time that a two-tiered system emerged. The top tier had the large scale studios, and the bottom tier had the budget studios.
The record that best demonstrates the changes in the business of producing records is "Bitches Brew" by Miles Davis. The label (Columbia) did not charge artists for studio time. Columbia considered studio time as part of the cost of production. Over the course of three days in August 1969, in Studio B on the 2nd floor of CBS at 52nd street, "Bitches Brew" was recorded. The editing time for "Bitches Brew" was billed to Columbia. Business changes in the 1970s would have made such an arrangement impractical.
Let's consider the technology available for "Bitches Brew". Ampex had been selling 4 track tape machines until 1966-7. Miles did not care about the number of tracks, even though the engineers (Frank Laico and Stan Tonkel) and producer (Teo Macero) did. For this record, the in-house engineering department built a 4 head tape delay. Business changes in the 1970s would have made an in-house engineering department building custom equipment much less likely.
The track "Pharoah's Dance" has 17 edits. In 1969, this was a challenge. 40 years later, edits are simple with Digital Audio Workstations. Prior to the 1969, "Bitches Brew" would have been much more challenging to produce technically, if not impractical in terms of the record business. It went on to become the biggest selling Jazz record. Someone in the A&R department liked the sound and pushed it.
Let's revisit the idea of top tier and bottom tier studios and records. As technology advanced, it created the consumerization of recording technology. This pushed production towards hobbyists. Advances in music recording and production technology created a cyclical pattern of users wanting lots of presets, then eschewing presets for control, then wanting lots of presets again. The progression of technology created the Akai S900, which did the sampling of a Fairlight at 1/30th of the price. 1/4" tape for 8 track also lowered the cost of entry.
Top tier studios had Fairlights and bottom tier studios had Akais. Why did this matter? For one, it created the lo-fi movement, which in turn would have some people questioning an artists authenticity if they had a lo-fi persona with a hi-fi production. Forget that Beck's "Loser" and Shania Twain's "The Woman In Me" are completely different genres for a moment. Each one represents its particular aesthetic.
Written By: Jonathan S. Abrams