Thursday, November 02, 2006

Whistler, Sp3ccylad & David Pogue

I must link this here, because it is interesting:

Sorry, David.

I also must comment, because this is something I genuinely give a shit about.

Yes, I have heard of David Pogue. In fact, I own several of his "Missing Manual" books, including the one for GarageBand 2 (I was really hoping to see "GarageBand 3: The Missing Manual," but, based on Pogue's comments there, I'm no longer holding my breath).

The main problem with GarageBand's supposed lack of popularity is not the application itself, which is quite wonderful (especially versions 2 and 3), but rather the environment into which it was born. Think of it--there's only so much music that one person can listen to in a day. Most people seem to prefer to have music playing dimly in the background through virtually every waking minute of their lives (except when they're watching television). Of all those hours of daily music, virtually all of it comes from the commercial music industry. This means that, not only was all that music produced according to some pretty specific and slick-sounding standards, but that it's all owned by those companies as well. In essence, the music industry is meeting virtually 100% of the daily demand for music that people have, and they're doing it with material that they own, and that sounds at least halfway decent. They also have control over virtually all the primary promotional avenues. In other words, the entire musical landscape, from the musicians all the way to the brains of listeners, is almost wholly controlled by the recording instustry.

Juxtapose this situation with the needs of the beginning GarageBand artist, who may not even know how to play an instrument. How is a person like that supposed to compete with the pros? There's also the problem of getting the word out, if (like Sp3ccylad or Maggie O., for instance) the artist happens to be skilled enough that people might actually want to listen (I can attest that both Maggie and Sp3ccylad damn well can play their instruments). There's also the fact that smaller artists are much more vulnerable to piracy than big companies are--even though copyright laws are supposedly intended to protect the proverbial Starving Genius, it's a fact that Sony can afford to get ripped off many times, while the Starving Genius most definitely cannot (not to mention the fact that the Starving Genius can never afford a lawyer, due to being starving).

In addition to all that is the amount of work it takes just to be a musician. When I was younger, and didn't have to work for a living, I used to be a fairly accomplished saxophone player. That involved a substantial amount of practice time, as well as years and years to reach an advanced level of skill. There was very little slacking off allowed, either, because playing an instrument is a physical activity, which means you need to do it regularly if you want to stay in shape. Musical instruments themselves are also very expensive, if you want one that's worth a damn. These are all practical considerations that would exist even if the music industry went "poof" overnight. Similarly, musical composition turns out to be a surprisingly involved endeavor, unlike, say, quickly snapping a digital photo and importing it into iPhoto. One can spend literally hours twiddling away in Garageband, just to achieve a reasonable sound for a few measures of music. Composing an entire album, then, becomes something akin to putting together a masters thesis.

And on and on and on. A thorough analysis of the steep uphill battle that GarageBand and its faithful adherants face would be quite a lot of work, but I think I've managed to convey at least some of it here: It's not that GarageBand has been a failure, it's that everyone's expectations for it have proved to be wildly optimistic. This is unfortunate because, in the long run, I believe that simple, consumer-friendly music programs like GarageBand actually will change the musical landscape for the better. But it's not going to be a revolution, it's not going to happen in only a few years, and it's not going to simply occur without any resistance from the entrenched music industry (which has steadfastly opposed any type of progress which might infringe on its cozy little monopoly).

The original topic on Sp3ccylad's blog concerned something that might at least help alleviate the practical difficulties of musicianship. The Whistler: a piece of software that listens to you whistle (or sing, drum your fingers, whatever), and transcribes that into, if I understand correctly, actual useable MIDI information. At this point, it's just dreamware, and doesn't actually exist--in fact, it's a candidate for My Dream App, where the winning idea will supposedly be developed into a working piece of software. If it could be made to work (which is a pretty big "if", in my opinion--my very first question would be how it would deal with the fact that 90% of the population seems to be virtually tone-deaf), it would go a long way towards making up for the "I can't play an instrument" problem.

[edit] Correction: Whistler was a contestant for My Dream App--since then it appears to have been eliminated from the competition.

Oh well.


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