Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Making of an Album


As my regular readers and listeners are aware, I tend to go jaggedly back and forth in these missives between discussions of geopolitics and world history, and explorations of the minutiae of the daily life of the working musician. This one belongs in the latter category.

It's been years since I've had much time for watching movies -- there was a brief period between children when there was a bit of time for that sort of thing, but not much. When I'm on long plane flights is when I get to catch up on a little bit of movie-watching. The noise-canceling headphones I had the good sense to buy a long time ago help a lot with the din of the airplane engine constantly in the background, but they don't come close to getting rid of it. Despite the adverse viewing and especially listening conditions, I often watch movies about musicians.

I've never been a rock star and I've only known a couple of them, a little bit, so whether the movies about rock stars are realistic is hard for me to know. The movies about working musicians who aren't rock stars are more the ones I can relate to, the ones that are depicting what we might call working class or middle class musicians. The movies about these musicians are often just a good vehicle for telling the story of loneliness, to explore the creative tension inherent in the contrast between the excitement of the gig and the alienation of the highway truck stop.

While they sometimes get that part right, the sort of essence of the story, they rarely get the details. You can forgive them when it's obvious that the actors are not the ones playing the instruments. But other times it's harder to suspend one's disbelief, if you're a working musician watching a movie that's supposed to be about other working musicians. There was an especially memorably cringe-worthy scene in what was an otherwise charming love story called Once, about an Irish guy and a Czech woman falling in love on the streets of Dublin.

They're both musicians, but how this classically-trained pianist is so good at improvising is never explained or explored, it just is. For anyone who is familiar with classical music circles, that needs to be explained. But then they're in a studio together, recording an album without a producer, and the engineer tells them to listen to the click track, but there isn't a click track. There was so much wrong with that scene, it would be hard to know where to start.

If you're recording an album without a producer, the engineer is unlikely to suddenly assume the role of producer and tell you to listen to the click track. And if they do this, then there will presumably be a click track to listen to. Of course, most viewers of most movies wouldn't know this, or even know what a click track is, and they don't need to. If you don't know what a click track is, there's nothing to cringe at in this scene, it's just fine.

Of course, movies like this are not made for the tiny minority of the general population who are working musicians. Just like the articles in Forbes or on the BBC. It just so happens that I am right now in the midst of a crowdfunding campaign to record an album, which I will hopefully be making with a bunch of other musicians in Ireland later in the fall. And then yesterday, listening to BBC Newshour as I often do, came another story about the death of the album.

Sure enough, Forbes agrees, album sales are a tiny fraction of what they once were -- not just in physical forms, but in any form. It's all about streaming, all about singles, or shuffle play, or playlists. The big hiphop artists, they say, are abandoning albums altogether, and just releasing singles, in more of a trickle, so each one will get a bit more attention along the way, is the idea.

Reading this music industry reporting is interesting, partly because of the assumptions that are made. For example, if albums aren't of interest to consumers anymore, says the press, artists will naturally make the transition and start recording singles, and releasing songs one at a time every couple weeks, rather than a new album once or twice a year. And when we talk about releasing singles, it needn't even be said that we're not talking about recordings you made with your iPhone, we're talking about professional-quality, produced stuff.

What they don't mention, or don't know, or don't care to figure out because it doesn't matter for the top 1% of the scene that they're actually covering, is that this kind of transition is relevant mainly to the stars with huge budgets for recording -- and for those way on the other end who are playing all the instruments themselves and recording everything on their laptops with ProTools and a USB mic. You'll find little or no mention of the middle class of working musicians, those of us who, if we do keep on recording albums, even though there is basically no direct money to be made in recording either albums or singles in the free streaming era, we will be making them not just because it's a wonderful, transcendent phenomenon, the album, but for very simple practical, and totally overlooked reasons.

If you're going to record your music -- and you'll be forgiven for not knowing this if you're not in certain niche professions -- it's much more economical to do it in bunches.

If you've ever made an album in a studio, you'll be very familiar with the sight of a collection of musicians sitting around on couches with laptops, phones or other devices, quietly whiling away their time, waiting to be called on to do something. This is partly because playing music is only a small part of the process of making an album. So much of it is getting the sound right for each instrument. Just getting a drum set well miked for recording can take several hours. The drummer and the folks at the studio know this in advance, and this process is scheduled in to the whole thing. Studio musicians are usually hard-working people who put in very long days and show up early. They're accustomed to doing exactly what they're told to do by producers with high expectations. The good ones rarely complain.

When you're one of the regular working musicians who used to populate the recording studios of the world that are now rapidly closing shop -- when you're one of the ones who didn't have unlimited budgets to spend months or years working on an album, but who took a break from touring for a few weeks each year to focus on making a new album -- the idea of hiring a drummer, a bass player, a keyboard player, and whoever else you might be hiring for a recording project, just to record one or two songs, is completely ludicrous. It makes no economic sense. If you're going to spend four hours just getting the drummer miked, you want to then use the rest of the day, and the next day, recording with the drummer. If you're working hard and just getting decent takes of songs you've spent plenty of time rehearsing together, you might record the basic parts for two or three songs each day -- after spending all the time setting up for each new instrument you're recording.

The same is true for the mixing process, which often takes almost as long as the recording process. For many albums of other artists, I hear it takes longer. Any element of the recording or mixing processes can potentially go on forever. As with other things, it's sometimes just a matter of stopping when you've got something that's good enough, rather than aiming for perfection, which would simply take too long, it would require more time and effort than is available given your limited resources. But once you're set up to start mixing an ensemble you've recorded, it will take less time to mix the second and third song than it will take to just mix one. Much of the setup you do for one song might be the same as the setup you'll do for other songs, so again doing more songs will certainly take longer, but it will take less time per song to mix ten of them than if you just mix one.

Once you make that album, you may decide to release one song at a time on streaming platforms as they recommend these days, but there will still be basic logistical reasons why the album is likely to stick around as a phenomenon long past the time no one is buying them at all anymore. Because actually we're already at that stage, and I'm still making another one.

For those of you listening to this in podcast form, I'll close with a song that's going to be among the songs to be recorded for this next album, if all goes according to plan.

The Making of an Album

As my regular readers and listeners are aware, I tend to go jaggedly back and forth in these missives between discussions of geopolitics ...