February 21, 2013

Dave Grohl, Sound City, and The Great Analog Debate

Sound City

On January 31st 2013, the limited theatrical release of Dave Grohl’s documentary Sound City premiered to an eager public. Those who couldn’t make it to the screening got to digitally download the film on February 1st. For those of you who don’t know, Sound City tells the story of Sound City Studios, the birthplace of seminal records from bands such as Fleetwood Mac, REO Speedwagon, Tom Petty, Rick Springfield, Johnny Cash, Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, and many more. The story is as much about Sound City, its staff, and the records made there, as it is a story about the famed Neve recording console, Grohl’s all star compilation record, and a much larger discussion about analog recording techniques, when compared to the introduction and proliferation of digital technology from the 80s into today. 

Despite what some critics are saying, it’s a very well done documentary, especially from someone that has never made a full length feature film. Grohl notes on his interview with Stephen Colbert that he had no experience whatsoever making a full length feature but like his drum and guitar skill, that technique did not come about through formal training. It came about through vigorous passion and drive. Clearly great advice to those with any doubt about their ability to achieve a goal. Being a big fan of Foo Fighters and rock documentaries, I had to give Sound City several screenings after downloading it from iTunes. After around the 4th viewing, I began to question many things about music, technology, artistry, and the message that Sound City was trying to convey.

There is a crossroad in the story of production and recording when the age of digital steps in, and Sound City documents this shift beautifully. So beautifully in fact you feel for analog and the Neve desk like you would for a struggling protagonist. Although when this moment of digital intrusion happens in the film, I began to question Grohl’s message. How can you make this opus to analog and the Neve desk while shooting your film on a digital camera, editing it digitally, selling it digitally, and subsequently releasing the film’s soundtrack digitally? We live in an era where the majority of today’s popular media is produced and consumed through digital means, but does that make it any less artistic? Should we shun the technology or does it make more sense to shun the artists who produce vapid and commercial art? Is it really analog anymore if it’s consumed digitally? Is digital really the death of analog and if so, should we even bother to mourn its passing?

Let's shoot a movie about analog on a digital camera!

Let’s shoot a movie about analog on a digital camera

No one side of the analog/digital debate is completely right or completely wrong, but what Grohl does in this film is place a flag firmly in the ground for analog. Grohl has been very open when it comes to how he feels about today’s music and its creators, and I agree with him wholeheartedly. No matter what you do it must come from your head and your heart, without relying on the computer to make things perfect. The problem that Grohl does not seem to address here is that there is a world that exists outside of his iconic rock milieu. It’s the world where everyone who is not in this movie lives. It’s closer to a collective reality than any of these Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alums and future inductees will ever experience. We can’t all sit at our Malibu beach homes discussing the good old days before the digital invasion. We are in fact embracing the invasion and using digital means as a reaction to the absurdly inflated cost to make music. We are also stuck in an era where nearly every studio is recording into the computer, so why spend money going to a studio when we can record at home? In the freelance composition world, the struggling rock band world, and even the DJ/producer world, things need to get done inexpensively out of necessity. We would all love to hang out with Sir Paul McCartney and record to tape like a “true artist” but that’s not reality and nor should it be.

One thing this film represents is a generational divide. The older generation sees digital for what they think it is: the death of art and creativity. Conversely those on the digital side respect the analog proponents, are influenced heavily by their work, but they still feel like they can work better with a medium that fits their needs. The artists that champion analog in Grohl’s film just cannot come to appreciate this aspect of evolving technology, and a big part of that is generational.

Generational Gap

In the film, legendary songwriter John Fogerty reminisces about his run in with younger musicians, and how they abolish rehearsal or skill because they can fix it all in the computer. Personally the only people I have ever heard remark in this fashion, and it’s very rare, are devoid of creativity and passion. Fogerty, Neil Young, Tom Petty, and the countless other legends in this film have the same general consensus that this type of attitude, when crafting music, is an affront to the craft they have worked so hard to hone throughout their careers. I don’t totally disagree with this, but none of these voices are the voices of my generation or the generation who are making music today. The film’s voice is rock musicians from the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and an era before the Internet and advanced digital technology. There are plenty of relevant, current, and popular artists who are going back to the roots of live tracking and recording to tape, including electronically based musicians. In fact some of these artists recorded at Sound City. Grohl doesn’t interview any of them for this film.

All of analog’s cheerleaders are from a completely different generation than the ones making music, playing festivals, and loading up Spotify play lists around the world today. This brings up even more questions which frankly no one will ever ask Grohl. Grohl is a guy that you desperately want to think you are cool, and for that reason you will never see an interview where someone asks, “Why didn’t you interview Death Cab for Cutie, Wolfmother, Jack’s Mannequin, or The Mars Volta? They all recorded at Sound City, they are all relevant (or at least more relevant than Neil Young), but you make no mention of them. Why? Why didn’t you shoot the movie on film if analog is such an important medium? Is it because it was a cheaper, easier medium to work with than celluloid? What would you say to the band/artist that doesn’t have the money to record in a fancy analog centric studio, but only has a laptop and passion?” Asking these questions may be a dangerous move for a publication or media outlet’s “cool factor,” so god forbid someone challenge Grohl on this.

The especially out of touch, age revealing moment of the film is when Neil Young is talking about what’s “going on in the streets,” with shots of Daft Punk, deadmau5, and Skrillex as the montage for his diatribe about what digital has done to the current state of auditory acceptability. The way this is edited together, with Neil Young’s commentary over the top, and the Nine Inch Nails song “Everyday is Exactly the Same” as the soundtrack, we are meant to feel disdain for the current state of popular music. More specific than just popular music, the montage suggests it’s a disdain for almost exclusively EDM (or whatever other name is acceptable for the genre at the moment). We are meant to view this genre as empty, unfulfilling, and uninspiring, especially with Reznor’s lyrics: I believe I can see the future, because I repeat the same routine. It feels like a reassuring pat on the back to the aged disco hating rocker who laments in lonely despair about how today’s music is not real music. Whether that was Grohl’s intention or not, the message becomes spiteful towards current production methods and electronic based music. Even Neil Young’s notion that we need to let the kids live the way they want to live, is devoid of encouragement and sounds spiteful. The one comment we get from anyone remotely relevant today is during this part of the film and it’s from Robert Levon Been of Black Rebel Motorcycle Cub, “I think it makes a lot of independent music possible right now. It’s one of the reasons we are able to make records with a couple hundred bucks.” His mumbled and uninterested delivery makes this commentary so distant and removed from the louder and more confident voices like Young’s. Been is expressing exactly what’s going on today within music and production but Grohl treats it as a throw away observation within the Sound City project.

The Enemy!

The Enemy

Every generation has to deal with this. One group has to step aside to put the creative onus on the shoulders of the next generation, and there is absolutely zero shame in that. There is a graceful way to do it, and then there is the way the cast in this film choose to do it. It looks as though Grohl conducted most of the interviews, so it begs the question whether or not he was prodding these guys and gals to react to the current state of popular music. This disgruntled attitude from digital naysayers and Pro Tools besmirchers is not limited to this film, but has permeated the talking points of nearly every rock icon from the past 50 years. Once you get them started, they tend to go off on a rant akin to asking Al Gore, “so what do you think pollution is doing to the planet?”

Only a couple interviewees in this film seem to transcend this generational gap. They show respect for the elders and give a leg up to the new comers, but more importantly they do it often. However the narrative and general tone of Sound City takes a different approach. It projects the ideology of, “Forget that digital crap you’re listening to. That’s not real music.” Unless of course your name is Trent Reznor.

Digital Sucks! Unless it’s Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Grohl manages to retroactively take the heartfelt and often times downright tear jerking moments from the Sound City staff, and strips the emotion completely out of it when we get to the “we hate digital” moment of the film. It seems like the whole film is leading up to this moment of “F You!” to digital. Examples include calling the initial release of Pro Tools “Slow Tools” and having the mantra of Sound City be “Digital Sucks!” When producer Keith Olsen left Sound City in the 80s to form his own studio, he wanted to take advantage of the emerging digital technology which many at Sound City thought was akin to blasphemy. We have a humorous anecdote from Tom Petty when Olsen shows off his 1 fader console and Petty says, “I don’t give a fuck…I want shit to touch. I want knobs to play with.” Then Sound City got a hold of a computer which for producer Butch Vig (producer for Nirvana’s Nevermind) was a necessity for the track “Something in the Way.” Sure it was slow and rendering took several hours, but this was a new technology. The way Vig and others comment on Pro Tools and the digital invasion seems to come from a place of animosity, but it comes off as mostly fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of what this may do to music, but more likely fear of being put out of a job. There is even a moment in the film where an engineer shows how long an edit on tape takes when compared to an edit in Pro Tools. As you can guess, what takes minutes to do with tape takes seconds in Pro Tools.

Nine Inch Nails

The one artist who does not get hated or dismissed for using digital production methods is Trent Reznor. For some reason Reznor gets a pass and can come into Sound City, use all the digital technology he wants, and all without getting lambasted by anyone for doing so. He is put on a pedestal as “one of the good ones” using digital. Grohl says, “Trent’s using technology as an instrument – Not as a crutch. He doesn’t need it. He is one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met in my entire life. He’s the person that could inspire the digital end of this conversation.” This is of course too little and too late because Grohl has already taken us down this path of slamming digital. What makes this ideological confusion more apparent is the fact that the film was shot on digital cameras. Digital filmmaking could be argued as a crutch in this scenario as there is no evidence to suggest that it was used in any real creative or innovative way (if we are going by Sound City’s definition of what is acceptable when it comes to using digital). In fact much of the found footage, reenacted footage, and Ken Burns inspired photo zooms have a filter on them to give the shots a virtual, grainy, film look. I understand why digital makes more sense because using celluloid film would take longer to shoot, edit, and distribute. But that’s what the human element of creating art is all about right? This is quintessential having your cake and eating it too. We can make a digital film, add digital effects to make it look like real film, which of course adds a human element, but this should never be done with music. Period. I can see no larger hypocrisy with the entire Sound City project than using digital means to create an account of analog music production, and its inherent benefits over digital.

One especially revealing moment is when engineer/producer Nick Raskulinecz talks about why digital is such a problem, “Pro Tools has enabled people, any average, ordinary person, to do that now…But not so great is it’s kind of enabled people that have no business being in a band or the music industry to become stars.” Raskulinecz has produced some of my absolute favorite records of the last decade (Diamond Eyes, One by One, In Your Honor, Black Gives Way to Blue, Snake and Arrows, Come What(ever) May) but his notion that Pro Tools gives a leg up to people who have no business in music is bullshit. The music business is built around making truckloads of cash off of artists who have zero creativity. Some of the best music in the world gets little to no recognition from radio, institutions like the Grammys and the R n R Hall of Fame, and the public in general. So the problem becomes not one of technology, but one of trends and the flaws of the entertainment business generally. You can’t blame the artist or the technology that got them there. You have to blame the business and the institutions, but god forbid we do that because those guys pay the bills. Instead let’s point our finger and criticize that which has no voice to defend itself.

Raskulinecz has touched on a very important point here though. Technology has certainly democratized how music is made, but Raskulinecz is demonizing the tools and the digital medium which is the height of absurdity. Pro Tools, Logic, Garageband, whatever you want to call it, is not responsible for this phenomenon, and we only have to look at the history books for the people who had no business being in music before digital. This responsibility can only be placed upon the consuming public. “Serious” artists think Justin Bieber is a joke but that doesn’t stop him from selling out arenas and getting platinum records. For this “analog is superior and digital sucks” argument to have any validity, these analog proponents need to take a good hard look at their immediate surroundings. An environment which more than likely includes CDs, DVDs, a computer, smart phone, or tablet being used to acquire and consume classic films and albums, even if they are recorded in an analog format.

Where do we go from here?

The timing of this film couldn’t be more appropriate in a world full of endlessly disposable pop music which turns generic, collar popping, twenty somethings into festival headlining, rock stars. Much of the discussion towards the second half of the film is centered around the human element of making music. Putting people in a room together and letting them kick around song ideas is how hit records are made. This seems to be as much a celebration of songwriting as it is an attack on electronic musicians. More specifically DJ’s and producers who make music and perform it as a solo endeavor within a box on their laptops. The act of DJing has become an overly hedonistic, egotistical, and self-centered style of performing. The rock stars interviewed for this film tend to over generalize the individual making music. The DJ/producer that has the loudest voice is the archetype for their understanding of modern day electronic music produced with digital technology. And that voice is probably auto-tuned.

Those who will watch and appreciate the messages, disseminated by Grohl through his legendary artist roster, already agree with the message. Those in desperate need to hear these messages won’t even give this film the time of day. It’s like your dad saying “back in my day…” for almost two hours and at the end you’re expected to run out and make a hit record with a tape machine and a Neve desk. That’s not reality. That’s no one’s reality. It’s certainly not the reality for musicians today and the many hats they must wear to support their art. The reality is we have laptops and software that are way more conducive to what a working musician can afford. The cost of recording in a studio is too expensive, especially when you and your management know your record won’t actually make any money. Maybe that’s why Grohl chose to shoot the film on a digital camera. It is cost effective, it can be edited easily on a computer, and can be shot and edited by a solitary person with great ease. But that’s only acceptable for any other art except music.

Music is not the lucrative business it once was and the money is just not there. Album sales are down and in places like the UK, 27% of the population are buying music digitally with 40% of album sales coming directly through legal downloading mediums like iTunes. So even if a band were to go through the expensive and time consuming process of recording their well rehearsed collection of album material onto tape through an analog console, their music will ultimately be consumed through a digital medium which sort of negates the whole wallet purging, laborious process of laying it down to tape.

Digital Music Sales

The message of this film has been described as a love letter to the Neve console, which appears in much of the film. It’s the desk that started Grohl’s career, and this is his homage to its legacy and a glimpse into its future inside Grohl’s studio. To say that is the only message of the film is short sighted and does not give enough credit to what Grohl tried to convey with Sound City. It is in fact a film about the old and the new, the once was and what will become, and the struggle to keep that which we hold in our hearts alive, and put that love into the hearts of others. It’s as educational as it is touching, especially the moments when we get to hear from the producers, engineers, and studio managers who worked tirelessly to keep Sound City alive all the way up until the doors were finally closed. We hear a lot of these messages during the second half of the film too when Grohl and his friends hit the studio to record what will eventually become the Sound City Players Real to Reel record.

The other message of Sound City centers around this debate of analog, digital, and what constitutes “real music” or the “real way to record.” Grohl says there is a bigger question involved too, “In this age of technology where you can simulate and manipulate anything, how do you retain that human element. How do we keep music sound like people?”. The truth is it’s cheaper, quicker, and easier to make all media digitally. I agree with Grohl here on some level but I vehemently disagree with the notion that there is a lack of humanity within the digital medium. Digital does not make something less important or of a lesser quality as many of the Sound City interviewees suggest throughout the film. What a lot of rock stars from decades past feel is music which utilizes the latest technology is lacking humanity, heart, soul, passion, and more importantly (or at least important to the musicians interviewed for Sound City) lacking difficulty to produce which is somehow synonymous with artistry.

Despite my need to challenge many of the inconsistencies in Sound City, the messages are worth discussing in this era of mass consumerism, digital technology, and what it does to our most celebrated mode of expression: music. The invasion of digital recording and production, and what it may or may not mean to the current state of popular music and art, can best be summed up by Trent Reznor near the film’s close, “The tools are better. The tools are much better today than they were 5 years ago, certainly 30 years ago. Now that everyone is empowered with these tools to create stuff, has there been a lot more great shit coming out? Not really. You still have to have something to do with those tools. You should really try to have something to say.”