Musicians Wage War Against Evil Robots

Reader Ken Palmer pointed out an interesting Smithsonian article about how emerging technology was thought of as a threat to musicians’ livelihood – way back in the 1930s!

“I remember when it was argued that synthesizers and samplers were going to put many musicians out of work,” notes Palmer.

But this alarmist view of technology in music goes way back to the early 20th century.

Joseph N. Weber, the president of the American Federation of Musicians, made it clear in the March, 1931 issue of Modern Mechanix magazine that the very soul of art was at stake in this battle against the machines:

The time is coming fast when the only living thing around a motion picture house will be the person who sells you your ticket. Everything else will be mechanical.

Canned drama, canned music, canned vaudeville. We think the public will tire of mechanical music and will want the real thing. We are not against scientific development of any kind, but it must not come at the expense of art. We are not opposing industrial progress.

We are not even opposing mechanical music except where it is used as a profiteering instrument for artistic debasement.

That debasement came in the form of the evil robot grinding up instruments in a meat grinder, above right.

If you know of any other humorous vintage perspectives on music technology, let us know!

10 thoughts on “Musicians Wage War Against Evil Robots

  1. Actually the concerns expressed in the 1931 article have come to pass.. ticket sellers at cinemas might as well be robots themselves!

    But more prophetically, ‘mechanical’ ie: recorded music has indeed been used as a profiteering instrument for artistic debasement, on a much larger scale than was possible before.

    Fortunately, technology now seems to be on the side of the artist, more so than the profiteers whose industry is swirling down the bowl of history ;-).

    1. The Net and the gradual death/mutation of “record companies” is still being sculpted. Economy-of-scale has deeply affected things, thanks to studios that run on a desktop. At the end of the day, all of the debate and astounding devices still come down to one thing: results. A dog used to chase our car any time we left the house, so one day, Mom stopped and said to the dog “Okay, you stupid SOB, you caught it. NOW what are you gonna do with it?” The tools are killer now. I simply wanna hear more of the INDIVIDUAL in the results.

      This is Bryson Andres, who does more with a violin and a looper pedal than most do with a wall-of-doom synth. THIS is a great example of the organic feel I see as missing from a lot of synth music.!

      1. This is my personal opinion and I do not consider it to be the right opinion – I just feel it like this:

        I don’t miss any organic feel in electronic music if it is a good music. No instrument or technique will automatically make a better music if a producer/composer is not capable of making a good track with it.

        I am personally very tired of strings in electronic music and have found them often (!) as irritating and “kitschy” as wobble bass in dubstep. I am also often bored (often, not always, I love a lot of rock, metal and jazz music too) by anything that sounds like a normal, unmodified instrument moreover if it is in an uninspired electronic track. This made me hate most of the trip-hop music as if it was a dubstep…

        On the contrary, when I hear a sound in a track I have never ever heard before I have a little feast.

        And while the guy in the video was indeed very skilled and musical and I am able to respect him for it, the track itself was boring and so cheesy. I have heard such a violin track million times before.

  2. There is a spectrum of “control / responsibility” in the musical experience, from ultimately passive to ultimately responsible.

    For example, the ultimately passive person barely listens, and takes NO responsibility for the choice of sounds; i.e., a passenger on an elevator– ignoring the muzak. On the other end of the spectrum, a person who designed, built and mastered the playing of his/her own unique instrument, with a unique approach to scale & tonality, and composes completely innovative, original music which is performed live to an audience of intensely engaged listeners.

    We all probably operate in various regions in between those extremes (when were not on an elevator).

    I prefer to think of some music makers as VERY active listeners, or somewhat passive instrumentalists. But take all that with a grain of salt.

  3. >“I remember when it was argued that synthesizers and samplers were going to put
    >many musicians out of work,” notes Palmer.

    I would argue that this has indeed come to pass. We have the same volume of people making music (or more) but their skill sets and capabilities have shifted dramatically. 20 years ago I would “jam” live with people who called themselves musicians that played real instruments, knew musical theory, and had a wide range of performance experience. Today I might “trade tracks” with someone who called themselves a musician who has fairly extensive technical/software skills but knows very little to no music theory, learns by copying things they see on youtube, has never played a real instrument in their lives (other than maybe a couple triads on a micro-keyboard), and uses mostly sample loops created by other people as the bulk of their body of work.

    Even though we may have more people with access to music making gizmos today, the real “music” creation capabilities are drastically lower. It’s like having less original recording/performing artists, but tons more cover bands. (and we let the cover bands claim the cover tunes as their own original work, even though it is indistinguishable from hundreds of other songs)

  4. One thing kind of “protects” live music– IT IS FUN.

    Now whether or not it can be a profitable profession is another thing. I sure like playing instruments and from what I can see, the kids still love it.

    I also think this era of boring, hyper-polished, 4/4, 4-on-the-floor, auto-tuned, 2-chord, synth-ostinato-out-the-wazoo, robot music will run its course. I hope, anyway.

    And don’t get me wrong, I like synths. I love this forum. What appeals to me musically has more human qualities, some complexity, maybe some surprises, but I almost always appreciate good craft.

    1. Guys, what are you listening/referring to? Give me an example of an boring, hyper-polished, 4/4, 4-on-the-floor, auto-tuned, 2-chord, synth-ostinato-out-the-wazoo, robot music.

      Maybe is a problem in your choice of music?

      And if you are talking about contemporary pop music played in charts then don’t expect anything more complicated and thoughtful. This music is made for profit and as a background noise, not active listening.

  5. Lots of musicians and music fans actually do look at synths and (even more so) samplers like that to this day.

    On a side note, I think it would be cool if my synths were robots, as long as the never put me threw a meat grinder.

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