As the robots come for the musicians…

Shortly after releasing this season’s Christmas Carol, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, I got a comment about the great times we now live in. The point was that with a computer and a bit of external hardware, grand music can be created. The writer went on to lament that it’s putting a lot of musicians out of work. I responded, “Guilty as charged”.

For most of the music I produce, no musicians are ever hired. Strings, percussion, vocals, winds, and synthesizers are all performed by me at a five octave MIDI keyboard. Many musicians I know consider technology’s replacement of live players to be a problem requiring a solution. But is it?

On the one hand, I could argue that the same could be said for bank tellers, grocery store cashiers, telephone operators, cab drivers, and a growing list of tasks being replaced by machines. The economic argument is that the obsolescence of these tasks and their replacement results in lower costs and better products/services for all. Things cost less resulting in more money available for more stuff. Our standard of living increases.

What happens to the displaced worker? She is able to take on a higher level task that increases her economic value. So, instead of ringing up people’s groceries, she can oversee an army of self-serve scanners or manage store operations at a higher level–something she may need to train for, but something for which her economic worth is greater. She makes her money in a needed job for which no machine can currently do.

Let’s return to the musician. She’s an artist or he’s a craftsman. 30 years developing their musicianship only to find themselves with much less work, right? How are they moving up?

They move up by possessing an artistic skill with their instrument that cannot be duplicated by a machine. Sorry, but if their highest and best can be duplicated by a sampler, they must improve or retool. The good news is that in the long list of obsoletion, record companies and recording studios are close to the top. You no longer need to be wealthy to own cutting edge recording equipment. You need not be powerful to gain a huge audience thanks to social media and the internet. Obsoletion can both taketh and giveth.

In Mozart’s day, there was no replacement for a musician. But in Mozart’s day, only the wealthy and powerful had the money or time to engage in the arts. So while no musician of that time was complaining about being replaced by tape or sampler, life sustaining work for an artist compared to today was relatively rare.

Now, the good news for trombone players is that our instrument remains the most difficult to mechanically recreate. Even with a state of the art sampler, Hark the Herald Angels sounds pretty much like this (using Session Horns Pro by Komplete Kontrol):


Can we at least agree that if you cannot play trombone better than a machine, you don’t have a great case for being hired other than a plea to altruism? But, if no machine can duplicate your musicianship AND that level and style of musicianship is in demand, there is a musical and economic case for your employment.

Maybe the machines are forcing us humans to raise our musical game. Or perhaps, as with the grocery cashier example above, one musician’s obsolescence leads her to create and sell a better mousetrap sampler, synth plugin, or DAW?

At least for the moment while I can play trombone with greater finesse than a machine, I’ll keep the trombone player in me around while I surround that sound with my relatively inexpensive mechanical minions living inside the box.


1 Comment

  1. Rich Coffey on November 27, 2017 at 3:24 pm

    Thanks MIcheal – I have taken the same route… You have summed it up rather nicely.

    I have always been enamored with synths and often doubled as a keyboardist but recording tunes with the trombone (or multiple trombones) always makes it better (more human I suppose…).

    Keep up the great work and advocacy!

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