Monday, March 30, 2009

Live performance vs. recordings

One of the marks of a truly gifted musician is that he or she can closely reproduce the quality of the performances on a recording in a live setting. In an age of digital recording, mastering, and effects, anybody with the slightest amount of musical inclination can sell millions of records. Such artists are usually aided by significant editing, especially vocal, for pitch correction and vocal effects. Often dozens of takes will be required of the performer to obtain a recording of one verse that can even be edited to the point of sounding decent. Usually such a musician's or group's lack of raw talent or training is evidenced live in concert where they simply cannot accurately reproduce the music on the album. Sometimes performers overcome this difficulty by simply lip-syncing to previously recorded vocal tracks. I am personally amazed at the success of some such musicians. A prominent one that comes to mind is the country smash-hit Taylor Swift. Although she is an accomplished and talented song-writer, it requires a very cursory overview of some of her most popular recordings and their live counterparts to discover a huge disparity between her vocal talents when aided by the technologies of a recording studio and when all that is stripped away in a live setting. Yet (driven in part by a very smart marketing strategy) she has sold millions upon millions of records to unsuspecting fans who for the most part refuse to acknowledge that their star is not actually gifted at singing to start with.

Now, I don't write this to pick on any musician in particular. In fact, you'll find a few Taylor Swift tracks in the Country section of my iTunes library. To me, the issue at hand is the integrity of music and performance. I believe God has gifted everyone with certain gifts, to different degrees, some more than others. The concept that "you can be whatever you want to be" is not a Christian teaching, in my view. God calls us to explore and pursue the talents and gifts He has granted to us and I believe that it is at best unwise to ignore those areas of our life which God has given us special gifts and pursue those areas where he has not gifted us. (There is much that could be said on the issue of talent, gifts, and calling and this isn't the sum of my thoughts and beliefs on the subject!)

When I hear a musician on a record and am impressed, then hear a live recording and am met with a poor reproduction of the music on the album, I feel deceived. I am forced to question the integrity of those who record and market music as something that it is not. I realize this raises a lot of questions about what is "real" music and what is not "real" music in an age of digitalism and I don't claim to have the answers to those questions. Also, as a musician myself I absolutely do not want to discount the pressure and difficulty of performing in a live setting. As beautiful as a piece may sound in my home studio, only by the grace of God can I reproduce that under the pressure of playing in front of others. I also am not discounting the value that technology can add to our musical recordings and performances. What I am questioning if the use of technology to take what is not beautiful or skilled and make it sound like it is.

As Christians pursue the goal of taking dominion over the gift of music and redeeming it for the glory of God we should keep issues like this in mind. So what do you think? Does digital editing have a bearing on the integrity of music and performance?

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