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Wednesday
Feb172010

Robots Will Kill Music! (1930)

With every important technological innovation a vocal group of people become alarmed that their industry will be adversely effected by it. People are understandably terrified when it seems like a new technology will put them out of a job. However, throughout the twentieth century, we've seen that the people who succeed in times of transition are those able to adapt to technology rather than fight against it.

Techno-reactionaries of the 1930s complained that automation and "robots" were going to put people out of work, and we hear identical cries today. But what is the "robot" of 2010? The Internet, of course!

Writer Andrew Keen claims that websites like YouTube have "infiltrated and infected" America, putting hardworking people out of jobs by giving a voice to the amateurs rather than those who have been the traditional media gatekeepers. In Keen's 2007 book, The Cult of the Amateur, he accuses the Internet and Web 2.0 culture of crippling the entire media industry; from newspapers to recorded music. What really gets me about Keen is his moral outrage over technology and the fearmongering that goes along with it, but I'll save that for another post.

Below is an ad from the Music Defense League that appeared in the November 24, 1930 Jefferson City Post-Tribune (Jefferson City, MO). The advertisement uses a robotic villian; a physical representation of the recorded or "canned" music that was starting to be used in theatres of the era. From the vantage point of 2010 it's a rather hilarious idea, because what is the institution of today being "destroyed" by new technology? Recorded music!

Efficiencies in distribution brought about by the Internet mean that moving recorded music around the world is simple and inexpensive. Any scarcity in newly recorded music is artificial because you no longer have to go to a store and pay for plastic discs to enjoy the music you like. As has always been the case, the innovators will thrive and those who try to put up artificial barriers will become irrelevant and die off.

Viva la technologie, etc.

 

 

Previously on Paleo-Future:

 

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Reader Comments (15)

that's great. it's amazing how the perspective has changed: they feared the loss of the one thing that still guarantees artists that they can make a living -- the live performance. this federation (and this article) seems to pit musicians against a recording industry, which is probably the way it should be, and I think we're finally at the point where a musician can perform and put music out there independently and bypass that "artificial barrier."

February 18, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermconrsullivan

The music and movie industries have reacted quite negatively to the advent of the internet. This was predicted in part by the SF author Robert Heinlein

From "Life-line" by Robert Heinlein (1939)

There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary public interest. This strange doctrine is not supported by statute nor common law. Neither individuals nor corporations have any right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back, for their private benefit. That is all.

In the story, the protagonist invents a four dimensional device that accurately predicts when a person dies. The life insurance industry goes to court to suppress the invention, as it will put the industry out of business.

February 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNyrath

In 1985, I bought my first Macintosh and went from doing graphic design the old-fashioned way -- hot wax, razor blades, cold galleys -- to using applications like FreeHand and PageMaker. Ironically, about that same time, I was worried sick that digital synths and drum machines were going to destroy popular music. Then, along came grunge, post-punk and alt-rock, leading us out of the darkness of a decade dominated by the likes of Mariah Carey and Michael Jackson.

Turns out that popular music is being destroyed -- not by technology, but by corporations, by a record industry serving up bland auto-tuned pap from "artists" like Britney Spears and Ke$ha, and a media industry giving us American Idol, a glorified karaoke contest appealing to the lowest common denominator of popular taste.

Every time I take a peek at a few minutes of American Idol, I can't help but ask myself if artists like Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, the Grateful Dead, Elvis Costello, or The Clash would have even passed the first audition on that show.

February 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMike Flugennock

I continue to be surprised at the speed with which the word "robot" spread through the English-speaking world. Matt, have you ever tracked this, or found anyone who did?

Hmm. Wikipedia says that Karel Čapek's R.U.R. was performed in Prague in 1921, and was swiftly translated to English and performed in New York, London, Chicago, and Los Angeles during the next two years. I guess that might be enough to spread the meme-- and the new imported word.

February 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBill Higgins-- Beam Jockey

Like you, I'm really interested in how the word was used and has evolved. In the 1940s I've found the word was used less to describe humanoid robots, but rather "robot pilots" used in WII. In the 1950s it returned to meaning an automation that had more human-like qualities.

I should write up something tracking the evolution of the word. Until then you might find this interesting: http://www.paleofuture.com/blog/2007/6/4/part-time-robot-1923.html

February 19, 2010 | Registered CommenterMatt Novak

Of course "canned" music succeeded because it was better than live - that is, a studio could get the best musicians and recorded exactly the soundtrack it wanted, instead of having to rely on Ethyl and Edgar picking out a reasonable interpretation on their beat-up piano and banjo. (I know that's the extreme; plenty of bigger theaters had professional musicians and good equipment; nevertheless you see my point.)

Interesting then that the proliferation of YouTube videos and the like is almost the opposite - or more accurately, perhaps shows how off-base major broadcast media have become in recent years. If a jerky badly-framed video on YouTube is more popular than many broadcast TV shows, maybe one of the messages is that the professional entertainers aren't doing such a great job after all.

February 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWutzke

What a wonderful website!

An artistic robot musician is obviously something else than just playing recorded music. More than 50 years ago an American inventor built a computer named Electronium that simultaneously composed and performed music, and some of this music is nowadays available on cd. Of course I'm talking about Raymond Scott, still known for his compositions in Bugs Bunny cartoons, Ren & Stimpy, The Simpsons, Animaniacs etc. More on Wikipedia.

Alman - www.almanax.punt.nl

February 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlman

These people should have seen the big European raves that are today, the cult around it and the music itself.

March 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJimmy

Yeah, I never thought robots could be gay, either. But who knows?

Beyond that, it seems youtube and the like, have democratized music. Anyone is able to showcase their talent and become a star almost over night. Thinking "Pants on the Ground" type stuff here.

As far as 'roboticizing' music, Kanye West has accomplished that goal almost single handedly.

April 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFarley

I think you are talented writer, keep us posting bukmacher

May 9, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterbukmacher

great glog,nice post.Thanks for so many usefull infos.Wish all the best sazky

May 25, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersázky

"Efficiencies in distribution brought about by the Internet"

Congratulations in ignoring the inherent devaluation of the medium. Since when was "efficient distribution" relevant to art? Or perhaps this line refers to the massive rise in illegal duplication? "Efficient distribution" counts for nothing if it is (essentially) stolen goods which are being distributed.

August 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

I wonder what Brian Eno has got to say for himself?

August 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaperboy

great post,exellent blog. Thanks and wish all the best

January 29, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterstavkove kancelarie

Speaking of formatting and parsing, it would be great if this comment system could be upgraded to take into account paragraphing…
00

April 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterceneestetigi

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