Monday, June 8, 2015

retromania and the means of musical production - a guest essay by Nik Farr

I recently received a very interesting email looking at retro in music from a "slightly different" angle, that of the music-maker, arguing that the syndrome / malaise is influenced by trends in instrument manufacture and sound technology as much as it is by purely cultural factors of the kind that usually get discussed. I asked if it would be okay to put the email up here as a guest essay, and after making a few tweaks, the writer said "Sure". So here it is....

Retromania: A Slightly Different Take

by Nik Farr

I've always felt a deep, deep affinity with the post-punk movement, but I was born in 1979, so I definitely missed the revolution. But I can remember being in my mid-teens and talking to my peers about music, and describing a feeling of nostalgia for a period I didn't live through. Directly inspired by the artists who produced the music I loved, I picked up a guitar at age 18. This led me to pick up a bass guitar and, much later, several pieces of software that I learned to use to create music of my own. It would probably be the epitome of Simon's’ term "record collection rock," heavily-indebted as it is to the music I came of age listening to. But hey, I’ve always enjoyed the process of writing and recording my own material.

Simon's writing about post-punk and retro culture has had me thinking a lot about the issues facing modern musicians. I think I have a slightly different take on the whole thing, coming it at as I do from both a listener's and a musician's perspective.

One of the things that's rarely discussed by critics with regard to art in general and music in particular is the influence of the tools that are available to creators. Only rarely, when there's some sort of giant technological leap which inarguably factors into the story of an artist's creative process—Jimi Hendrix, the printed circuit, and the fuzz pedal, for example—do we see mention of anything about the gear involved. This is probably because many music writers have historically been a little ignorant regarding the process of record-making, let alone how technology has changed the way that songwriters write.

Simon doesn't seem to be afflicted in this way, which led to me writing him an email which turned into this essay. My idea could be boiled down to its essence thusly: retromania is, at least in part, the byproduct of a reissue culture that has existed among instrument manufacturers since the early-to-late 1990s.

In, say, the 1960s, rock and pop artists only had so many instruments and/or recording tools at their disposal. If you take the available pool of instruments, amplifiers, effects units, and recording devices (which was substantially smaller until the mid-1980s when rock and pop were firmly ensconced within the realm of mainstream acceptance, which equals profitable business) and divide that by the average band's equipment budget, it's pretty easy to see why so much music sounded similar for so long.

By way of example, let's take the Beatles' early work and Herman's Hermits' first few hit singles. In the early 60s, both bands used instruments and amplifiers made by the same companies (Vox, Gretsch, Rickenbacker, et al) because those were the tools that were available to them. Bigger and more globally recognizable brands such as Fender and Gibson hadn't yet made inroads in the UK, and as such, their gear was prohibitively expensive until later in the decade. Both groups recorded in the same studios, very likely with the same engineers placing the microphones and threading the magnetic tape. Despite limitations, popular music experienced a creative boom because it was not looking to the past (certainly no more than it was looking to the future) for direct inspiration.

Fast forward a few years to the early 70s, and even this once-popular technology was considered obsolete. Studios were upgrading their recording consoles to accommodate more tracks and higher fidelity tape; musicians were adding new makes and models of guitars, basses, amplifiers, drums and so forth to their collections. Nobody was trying to recreate the sound of Buddy Holly records, for example, because there was no way to do so. Nobody had the right equipment—who could construct a reverb tank like the custom-built one at Norman Petty’s independent studio?—and the idea that you could acquire or assemble the gear needed to do so within a reasonable amount of time for a recording project would have just seemed silly.

Basically, popular musicians couldn't help but sound somewhat original for many years, because a) even when they used the same equipment, this revealed the major differences in writing and playing styles between various acts; and b) convincingly re-creating the sounds of yesteryear wasn't logistically possible, so no one would have bothered to try.

In the late 80s, spurred on by the punk and post-punk movements, the indie boom was in full swing in America and the UK. Bands in this scene often had small budgets, and by this point, a plethora of used instruments had accumulated in secondhand stores and music shops around the world. Indie acts who couldn't afford a gleaming, brand-new Gibson Les Paul might instead find a passé guitar like a 1960s Fender Jazzmaster hanging in a pawn shop window and reach for that instead (as was the case for Television's Tom Verlaine).

As 80s indie gave way to 90s alternative, it became more of an overt statement to play an older instrument. Kurt Cobain was unhappy with the release of photographs that depicted him playing a then-modern Takamine acoustic guitar during a recording session. It belied his image, even though it was a more player-friendly instrument than the beat-up junkers he was normally shown with. Functionality was starting to become secondary to form. Sellers of used instruments were beginning to market their wares as "vintage," and what were only a few years earlier considered outdated or obsolete instruments were suddenly being viewed as desirable historical artifacts that lent the owner some credibility. (Which makes sense; what looks more punk rock than performing with a guitar that looks as though it was dragged across the floor of every barroom in North America? Scratches, dents, dings and cigarette burns are often considered “character marks.”)

By the mid-90s, the vintage gear market was in full bloom, and manufacturers were starting to take notice. Secondhand instrument sales must have cut into their sales; what to do about this? Instrument makers still had one factor in their favor: the popularity of vintage gear, as well as the finite number of playable older instruments, was driving used gear prices higher and higher. The average teenage would-be rocker couldn't afford a guitar from the 60s or 70s. A major market segment was demanding a product that looked and sounded like it was older, but at a fraction of the price. Authenticity was not as important as was the appearance of authenticity.

Thus, instrument manufacturers moved from innovation to duplication. The first major step into retro was the introduction of the POD, produced by a company called Line 6. The POD was a bean-shaped processing unit that imitated (or modeled) vintage guitar and bass amplifiers. The sound was not quite correct--no one standing in a room with a Marshall JC800 amplifier stack would ever mistake it for the POD’s simulated tone--but it was close enough for someone with a budget of $400, which would be a fraction of the cost of the actual amp.

The success of the POD resulted in more and more attempts to model vintage gear, and even companies that initially seemed skeptical were suddenly churning out digital versions of their greatest analog hits. By 1997, the idea of being able to reproduce the sounds found on one's favorite pop and rock records from the past few decades was within arms' reach. A few years later, it was a tangible reality via various pieces of computer software. At this point, from my perspective as a rock musician, it was almost a requirement that one try to incorporate elements of one's influences into one's own work. Who didn't think of the Chameleons or Joy Division upon first hearing Interpol's "Turn on the Bright Lights"? And who thought of that as a bad thing?

One could call it coincidence that Interpol were using similar instruments to classic post-punk and New Wave bands to create their music. I’d be very surprised if that were the case.

Maybe it's a chicken-vs-egg question: did the desire to re-create the sounds of older music drive manufacturers to create the equipment that made doing so possible? Or did a market suddenly flooded with inexpensive gear that could produce a reasonable facsimile of the tones harnessed by one's heroes create a retro-vortex from which it is becoming more and more difficult to escape?

I personally subscribe to the latter theory. We all know that major corporations believe that nothing sells better than a proven formula--hence the glut of flaccid remakes and dopey sequels at the cinema box office. Another example is the proliferation of oldies radio stations, who are by now cunning enough to update their playlists every few years, dumping material that is too old for their current listenership and incorporating new-old songs as needed.

For most instrument/effects/software manufacturing companies, the desire for a bigger market share long ago trumped the desire to innovate, and I personally think this has been a huge driver of musical retro culture as much as anything. It's far easier to crank out cheap, Chinese-built modeling gear with a higher profit margin than it is to create and market a well-built, higher-priced gizmo capable of producing an original sound. And if it’s cheap and easy to sound like one’s musical heroes, why wouldn’t that logically be the first and perhaps last thing one attempts to do with an instrument?

Recently, electronic instrument builders have gotten in on the game, too. Over the past few years, I've seen reissues of synths and drum machines that were not too long ago being dismissed as cheesy-sounding or cheap. EDM's tendency to draw heavily from the well of 80s electronic music would seem to reinforce my point, although its aesthetic--for now--is overall somewhat removed from that of its sonic forebears. Still, one wonders how much longer it is before modern dance music gives in and gives way to blatant nostalgia-fuelled homages to a bygone era. Then again, maybe that’s already happening.

I dream of somehow breaking through my influences and going somewhere truly new. What that would entail or look like, I have no idea. The truth is, there will always be musicians who are better interpreters than creators, and I'm all for allowing them to do their thing. There's plenty of room and demand for it. Cover bands are now like classical orchestras, really--performing and promoting the works of original composers. But there is a question hanging now over the heads of all creators: what are we going to do when we hit the zero point, when retro culture is celebrating what happened five minutes ago and we have to find a way to create a new now?

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