LivingArts: Outplaying the Sample

In Aaron Gervais’ notorious blog post “No seriously, there is no such thing as Arts Entrepreneurship”, he takes a definitive stand on the dangers of confusing art with art-based commodities. Never having been an artist who avoids the dangers of commercial work, I’ve spent the last few years balancing the needs of my clients and my personal artistic practice, with varying degrees of success.

A common lament among musicians is how the world of synthesized orchestral instruments and sample libraries has destroyed a once significant revenue stream. Large sections of strings and brass players can now be replaced by convincing sample libraries produced by Native Instruments, Vienna Symphonic, Spitfire and others. While some larger budget session work still exists, there is no question that new sample driven technology has eliminated a significant amount work for string players. While change is difficult to accept, we are already past the point of looking back; sample libraries are a de facto standard for large ensemble scoring work. Some would point the finger at the American Federation of Musicians for fee structures that no longer reflect current working realities. Others would blame producers and even the public at large for a lack of discernment and demand for real performances. The reality is the technology has gotten really good and it provides a euphonic and consistent option for composers. Technology and automation eliminating jobs is hardly a new phenomenon; as it turns out, musicians are also not immune. Before the advent of radio, film and television this work never existed in the first place; and that which technology has given, technology has also taken away.

One thing programmers haven’t really perfected is how make an amazing solo performance. In solo performances, there are many human characteristics that are difficult or next to impossible to program: inflection of phrase, articulations and matching the vibrato to the specific intensity of the line. Replacing MIDI instruments with real strings is a job I do frequently; I’m working to surpass and outplay the samples with technical excellence and emotive power. I am part of a growing sector of independent musicians who record themselves and deliver audio for broadcast. With budgets seeming to be continually tighter, reduction of overhead by eliminating the large studio and having the players engineer their own sessions is a new norm. The speed and agility of small operation entrepreneurs are advantageous when dealing with recalls, revisions and quick turnarounds. In the digital world of Logic, Pro Tools and Sibelius, musicians and composers are assimilating roles once filled by copyists, librarians and engineers. The acquisition of ancillary skillsets is a significant unintended consequence for artists who choose to do business in the world of digital commodities.

It’s a balancing act to keep grounded in a long-range vision for my writing and playing. Over time I have come to feel part of my voice is embedded in the DNA of the recordings I create, irrespective of client or context.  It has, in a small but tangible way, become a part of my artistic practice.