Michael Melia on music and media
Video Killed the Radio Star
Music and media have been interconnected for a long, long time. They are inevitably intertwined, but the interesting feature of their interaction is its development and its grand finale in the present.
In the past two centuries alone, these two have led a complex and rapidly developing relationship. From Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville’s invention of the phonoautograph in 1857, to Thomas Edison’s famous phonograph in 1878, to Emile Berliner’s gramophone in 1887, acoustic recording techniques changed the way that we interact with music. No longer was music a one-off performance that had to be seen live – it was captured and transformed into a new, physical medium that could be replayed and relistened to. Electrical recording in the 20th century furthered the development between music and media. In the mid-1920s, advances in electrical engineering improved the quality of sound reproduction tremendously. Microphones were used in capturing sounds during performance, and over-dubbing became possible. The sky was the limit for new sound production technologies. Magnetic tapes, multitrack recording, digital recording, and the introduction of new electronic instruments and technologies ensured that the development of new media in music was rapid and incessant.
Simultaneously with sound recording developments were other developments even more groundbreaking. Now that recordings were becoming higher quality, new ways of producing and distributing those recordings became more and more developed, not to mention the radio. Mass production of vinyl disks led to mass production of tapes, and mass production of CDs. The invention of the television in the late 1920s and its commercialization throughout the 1930s and 1940s ensured that it would be a dominant mode of communication in the 20th century. The question was – how to adopt music to this new medium? The answer lay in Warner Cable’s groundbreaking concept developed since 1977 – Music Television, or MTV. In 1981, the bonds between recorded audio and video coordinated together to create a new art form (the music video) were solidified at 12:01 am, with the words, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.’ (See it here, with the first music video ever played on television, ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’).
Since 1981, music and video have been deeply interconnected. At the time it was revolutionary, but to myself and to many of you reading this article, we cannot truly appreciate the groundbreaking quality of this achievement. But my question is, where are we today? What new means do we have of exploring the gap between audio and video in music? What new areas are being explored?
From the Television to the Basement.
Obviously the sheer amount of startups, enterprises, trends, fashions, and movements of music media cannot be covered in a single article. But one trend which I find particularly interesting is playing music From The Basement. Since 1981, music videos have become more technologically competent. Better digital recording techniques, compressing techniques, and presentation technologies have been explored in audio, and better film quality, special effects, and editing processes have been utilised to push the boundaries of quality in video. Today, however, new avenues of interfacing audio and video have developed novel approaches to the antiquated MTV.
From The Basement is just that. Started in 2006 by Nigel Godrich from London’s Maida Vale Studios, From The Basement was a podcast turned TV program that featured live performances from musicians with no audience and with no host. This developed what MTV tried to achieve in a different direction. Instead of working with pre-recorded tracks, Godrich wanted to capture the essence of music as process. Music as it was being made, at its core without any frills. Using high-quality state-of-the-art recording technologies, Godrich worked with every band and performer he’s had to ensure that they created the exact sound they wanted to make. Using expensive video cameras around the studio, his aim was to combine excellent live, one-take audio with crisp live, one-take video to encapsulate an authentic documentation of music as it happens.
This is strange. In a long history of the audio-video connection, technological developments have consistently been about bettering the finished product. Multitracking, over-dubbing, digital recording, and even early acoustic recording techniques – video editing, special effects, digital video technologies, and even MTV’s production-line show format – history up until now has been concerned with combining audio and video for producing a better finished consumable product that is perfect, shiny, and reproducible. From The Basement does this, but in a totally different and unprecedented manner – by foregrounding the process, the energy, the spontaneity, the emotion, the character, the personality of the music as it is made in the moment from the artist themselves. We’ve made a 360° turn. Starting from the special air of live, face-to-face encounters in music performance, we have ended at celebrating that live, face-to-face emotive encounter through using technologies which developed to almost erode that very type of performance. This is different from a mere live performance recording – these are the musicians themselves, no interlocutors, directly in control and expressing their music as it is meant to be heard.
Who knew that we would end up here? Now in 2011, there are several of these programs. The other highly renowned program, Live From Abbey Road, utilizes the same principles as From The Basement. Many bands, including The Raconteurs, Fleet Foxes, Mark E. Smith, Radiohead, Gnarls Barkley, My Morning Jacket, The Shins, Sonic Youth, Albert Hammond Jr., to Snow Patrol, Jamiroquai, John Mayer, Kasabian, The Kooks, Panic at the Disco, The Kills, MGMT, The Killers and more, have been featured in both of these shows in only the past five years. In an era of pre-packaged, pre-designed, pre-processed, pre-given, pre-written, over-dubbed magic music, these oases of live performance packages are rare. Without the distractions of audience or host, artists are given space to do what they did easily centuries ago: to just create music in the moment, full-stop.
Image – Kollision