What can the music industry learn from Side by Side?

Filmmakers wrestle with encroaching digital technology, but yet again the musicians got there first.

Keanu Reeves and Martin Scorsese in Side by Side

Last night I watched Side by Side, Keanu Reeves and Christopher Kenneally’s sensitive new documentary on the celluloid/digital split in the movie industry. There were some pretty stellar talking heads in the shape of Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, James Cameron, and a host of others, who all pitched articulately and passionately either for or against the use of digital technology in their filmmaking.  But what gave the film a greater depth and legitimacy was the appearance of a good many cinematographers and DPs; their names may be less familiar but their position right at the very coal face of the interaction between analogue and digital (or as I now know to call them, photochemical and video) lent a more expert air to proceedings.

What struck me was that not once did anyone mention piracy or audience consumption; this was a film about the process of filmmaking, and the focus was on the difference in both aesthetic and workflow between the competing mediums. This is a debate that has long existed in the music industry, but one that has been overshadowed by the looming threat of digital piracy. With the continued ascendance of the mp3 and the recent resurgence of vinyl records, all we seem to talk about is the release format. The analogue/digital debate in the world of music production seems to have been settled long ago, with digital emerging victorious. But is it all as cut and dry at that?

That analogue ‘sound’

Another passionate (and equally geeky) celebrity-fronted documentary released recently was Dave Grohl’s Sound City; a love letter to the Californian recording studio that gave him and countless others their first foothold in the music industry, but also the story of the studio’s analogue mixing desk which Grohl has bought and lovingly restored. Here, again, the focus is on the analogue/digital divide in the production process, and again there’s plenty of a-list talking heads from both sides of the glass; Tom Petty, Trent Reznor, Frank Black, Butch Vig, Rick Rubin, the list goes on.

Dave Grohl and the Sound City desk

Interestingly in this film, however, the debate is all one-sided. Only Trent Reznor, flushed with his newfound soundtrack credibility, is willing to say anything in favour of digital music production. ‘Tape has heart’ reads their mantra; records made back-in-the-day just sounded ‘better’. When all spheres of music are taken into account, this is not the majority view. Sound City has gathered a motley crew of refuseniks hankering after a mythical golden age, a Belle Époque where musicians ‘really cared’ and records were ‘crafted’ rather than mechanically assembled.

Stick to your guns; a.k.a. “don’t tinker”

This is all bollocks, of course. Tape certainly has it’s own aesthetic, but with care and attention this can be reproduced digitally. What tape really represents is a way of working; a spontaneity and an inability to change much once the music has been captured. What it represents is discipline. Artists back then were just as lazy and self-obsessed as they are today, but they had to work within the boundaries of the technology. Piece by piece, digital is taking those boundaries away and the only thing that can make great art is talent.

There’s no denying that Livin’ La Vida Loca is infinitely worse than Physical Graffiti, in exactly the same way as Attack of the Clones is infinitely worse than The Dark Knight, but the reason isn’t that the better ones were analogue and the crap ones were digital. It’s because Ricky Martin is no Led Zeppelin, just as George Lucas is no Christopher Nolan. What makes a great record are the same things that make a great film; vision and hard work.

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