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ROT Turns 100

Why, it seems like just yesterday that Steve Leon called me on the phone. “We just had an editorial staff meeting,” Steve said, “and we’re wondering if you’d like to do a column about what you do.” My first thought was, does Metroland really want a regular column about binge drinking and masturbating like a monkey? Then I realized that perhaps they wanted regular contributions about my so-called professional life—stuff about the business and law of music and art and privacy and this Internet thing all the kids are so crazy about.

OK, I can do that. But what to call it? That was tough. My whole life, I’d resisted exploiting any of the obvious stupid double entendres using my last name, but I was stuck. My first list of possible column names included: Crock of Legals, Art Carnal, The Corpulent Hitter, and F. Lee Harvey’s Straight Poop. See? Sure, some of these are good for a giggle, by I was looking for something that would be durable, just in case my column stuck around for a while. Something that wouldn’t be an enduring source of embarassment, like, oh, say, a really goofy stage name.

So, Rapp on This it was. And it’s worked out OK over the past four years. I discovered after, like, a year that the column’s initials were ROT. Bonus! And this is ROT number 100. I’ve enjoyed writing these things. I’ve enjoyed all the comments (even the rude ones after I teed off on Hillary a year ago). I’ve enjoyed posting the columns with odd, handpicked, stolen illustrations on my blog rappon So, I’ll keep going.

Last week at the Columbia Arts Team’s Songwriter’s Festival in Hudson, I was on a great panel with the topic of something like “Is Technology Killing Music?” I started, setting up a discussion of digital vs. analog, but that’s not what the rest of the panel wanted to talk about.

Henry Hirsch, seated to my right, took the bull by the horns. Henry is a recording engineer and producer who’s worked with the likes of Lenny Kravitz, Madonna, Mick Jagger and Vanessa Paradis. Henry just opened a world-class, major-league recording studio in a beautiful old church in downtown Hudson. He’s perspicacious and opinionated, like any great studio guy ought to be. Henry’s beef—what he wanted to talk about—was that technology has reached a point where actual music performance, either in the studio or on stage, is no longer necessary. That’s where the panel went, and it was fascinating. Henry was joined by pianist/composer/label chief Lincoln Mayorga, who’s been doing almost everything one can do in the music biz since the ’50s, has weathered at least four major technological revolutions, and had a whole lot to say on the topic, too. When guys like this start talking, I shut the hell up, sit back and listen.

Mulling it over since Saturday, I’m thinking that all the talk about the evolution of music recording and how it has slowly moved the performer out of the picture was interesting enough, but it also raises the question, so what? I saw Bonnie Raitt probably six times in college; her band was down and dirty, as was she. Then I saw her at SPAC after she hit paydirt with that John Hiatt song. The old band was gone, replaced by a bunch of hired guns with blow-dried hair. The show sounded just like the record, clean as a whistle. I was stunned and pissed. I imagine every show on the tour was virtually identical, right down to the solos.

Were the musicians actually playing? Probably. Would it have made any difference if they weren’t? Nope.

Ever since then I’ve approached most arena shows for what they are: pure entertainment, like a big Hollywood movie. Do we care that a lot of the movies we watch are largely products of CGI and green-screens? Nope. Should it surprise us that much of what hits our eardrums at big concerts isn’t coming off the stage? Nope. When I review these shows, I rarely talk about the music, which is a given, largely banal, and devoid of surprise.

Is all this “destroying music?” Only, I think, at corporate levels. As the mainstream music biz has become increasingly corporate, perfection is demanded to remove a variable that might negatively affect the quarterly earnings report to shareholders. So, technology supplies a pitch-perfect, beat-perfect product, matched with good-looking, market-tested delivery systems, formerly known as major-label artists.

It’s a race to the bottom, and another reason why the mainstream music biz is falling apart. There’s precious little music being made there anymore. Which is why God made clubs, basements, Garage Band, MySpace, and YouTube, where real music is still being made. More than ever before.

—Paul Rapp

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