Has Digital Recording Ruined Artist Creativity?

8 Jul

Jackson Browne is a recording industry legend. He broke on to the scene in the 1970s, combining the qualities of a classic troubadour and an edgy protest singer. Much of what he did during the early years of his career was considered revolutionary. He probably couldn’t do a lot of those same things today, given the industry’s reliance on digital recording and engineering.

As a long time Jackson Browne fan and indie musician myself, I have to wonder if the digital era has ruined artist creativity. My misgivings about the modern state of the industry could be nothing more than my age and a general curmudgeonly attitude. But I am not the only one who feels this way about modern music.

An Incomparable Album

In my mind, Browne’s signature work is his 1977 LP Running on Empty. The album was the fifth one he recorded, but it was also the one that put him on the national stage. The interesting thing is that Running on Empty was not recorded in a studio. It was recorded during the summer of that year, while Brown and his band were on tour.

That may not seem like such a big deal to you. After all, live recordings taken from tour dates had been common for decades. But Running on Empty is unusual because not all the songs were recorded in concert. Some were recorded in hotel rooms, others on the tour bus (as it was tooling down the road), and still others backstage.

If you listen closely, you can hear the differences between the recording environments. You can also tell that Browne and his band didn’t go to great lengths to make sure their music was mistake-free. It is alive with its imperfections. That’s one of the things that makes the album so creative. In my mind, Running on Empty is incomparable.

It Sounds Too Perfect

To this day, Running on Empty remains one of my favorite albums. I am also a big fan of 50s and 60s rock & roll and all its imperfections. I love hearing those four-part harmonies, even when one of the singers isn’t quite on tune.

In 1961, the Dell Shannons released a song entitled Runaway. The song isn’t especially remarkable from a lyrical or musical standpoint, but it became an international hit due, in part, to the incredible keyboard work done by Max Crook. The amazing thing is that Crook was way off time in both of his solos. It is actually quite noticeable to the extent that he almost threw the other musicians off, too. But his lack of timing is what gives the song its unique sound.

Today, digital recording and engineering erases all those quirks. Everything sounds too perfect. I have to wonder if this somehow reduces an artist’s desire to be creative. After all, anything quirky an artist might add to a song could easily end up being engineered out later on.

Maybe It’s Just Me

I will concede that my thoughts about modern music might just be my own quirks. Today, musicians can work with online recording studios, like Supreme Tracks out of NY, and put together music digitally. Modern technology allows them to do some amazing things with music – things the likes of Jackson Browne and Max Crook never would have been able to pull off in their day.

Still, I cannot help but think that artists were more creative before they had computers to clean up after them. But at least I have a digital copy of Running on Empty. My vinyl copy died a long time ago.