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Blogger Book Club: Bangers and Mash-ups

By Alex Shapiro

Marc Weidenbaum’s post below, “Bach to the Future,” reminds us that
floating among the myriad of issues Lawrence Lessig raises in Remix,
from copyright concerns to aesthetic ones, there is also the topic of
psychology, and the resistance many have to to embracing any new,
paradigm-altering technology.

Often when a new technology arrives, people immediately become fearful
that it will replace all that came before it, rather than simply seeing it
as one additional tool in an ever-expanding toolbox.

It’s been exactly thirty years since the invention of the LinnDrum and subsequent drum- and
sample-playback machines, and its arrival has yet to stop people from
banging joyously on hard objects just as they’ve done since cave days.
More is more. More is good. More is fun, and breeds more access to
creativity and thus, breeds more creativity.

This one small example–electronic drum sounds–raises an important
discussion of two distinct issues. First is the complete joy of having
more tools. Fun, fun, fun. Bang on a skin head, or bang on the rubber pad
of a DrumKat that triggers samples, or hit a button or key to trigger
those samples, requiring no banging at all, and all of them result in
drumming sounds. Nifty.

Next is the economic truth that yes, unquestionably, the arrival of new
tools sometimes means that the old tools are instantly obsolete. Often
cited is the buggy whip: once the automobile took over and people no
longer traveled in horse-drawn carriages, the buggy whip industry went
down the tubes. The downside of new technology. Not so nifty, if you were
an expert at making buggy whips.

But in its place were millions of new jobs in a completely new industry.
The upside of new technology. Might be nifty, if you could enjoy a career
that’s… uh… riveting.

When the LinnDrum became popular in the very early ’80s, it began an
enormous sea change in the recording industry and literally put many fine
musicians out of work. At least, out of work doing the kinds of studio
gigs that paid their bills. I can tell you: I was there, working as an
engineer in a rock studio in Hollywood when one of the first retrofitted
MIDI LinnDrums came in (they were invented pre-MIDI), and we all learned
how to program it. That synthetic sound aesthetically defined over a
decade’s worth of pop music. Interesting times for music–all these huge
sounds (to go with the huge shoulder pads and the huge hair)–and a bad
time for drummers. On a session, we’d sometimes use a drummer to trigger
the box by playing an actual drum set, thus melding the old technology
with the new, but just as often we’d simply program a track and have the
band play along with it.

Nonetheless, lots of percussionists were resourceful and found new ways to
ply their craft and their art. Some went with the “if you can’t beat ’em,
join ’em” approach, and made money recording their own sample libraries.
Others continued to work as drummers by becoming “triggerers” and
programmers themselves, since no one can create a MIDI drum track more
convincingly than a real drummer. But neither of these examples has the
drummer being able to purely work as an artist. For that, they created
their own ensembles, and also did what we all need to do in our careers:
they created need. It became clear what the enormous differences are
between synthetic sounds and real ones, and a new class distinction was
made (often due to budget) between the use of sampled musicians, and that
of living, breathing humans dripping beads of sweat onto the drum heads.

Despite all the impressive drum samples out there now, there have never
been more percussionists playing in thousands of wind bands, orchestras
and small concert, jazz, and rock music ensembles around the globe. The
advent of the drum machine technology did not stop people from being
drummers. It just added drum machines.

There persists an irrational fear that if just anybody can have access to
the tools to make art, it lessens the standards for art. Since the
beginning of time, everybody has had the same access to something as
simple as a drum. And yet miraculously, lots of great drummers have
managed to create great careers.

New digital tools are no different. The newfound ability to create
mash-ups from existing material initially recorded by others simply means
that sound and visual artists have yet another medium from which to choose
as they create their own statement (I am ignoring the obvious debate on
copyright issues for the moment). The availability of technology to allow
us to do remixes will not stop the flow of new string quartets.

Most importantly, quality does rise to the top, more than many realize.
The economy of art is largely based on the public’s desire to experience
something. So the difference between an amateur and a professional is as
simple as supply and demand: the latter will almost always be in more
demand. And demand creates the viable economic market for an artist.

We’re in a world in which sampled drums and live ones coexist, often on
the same tracks. We are also in a world in which art is made of original
material from the efforts of one artist, as well as made from original
material culled from many other sources, thus creating a new original
work. Adaptability is why our species has been so successful, yet we are
resistant to it. Many people fear change, especially when the status quo
is working for them. This is human nature, and still, it’s also human
nature to explore and invent. Ultimately, we each invent our own balance.
If we can avoid being fearful of the new and instead, ask ourselves how we
can use it to our advantage, we’ll see technology as a gift and not a
threat, and we’ll view most advances as positive opportunities. Fun, fun,


  1. And demand creates the viable economic market for an artist.
    Demand creates a viable market for art. Whether the artist gets paid for it or not is another matter…. :)

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