At the end of 1997 home computers were in 500,000 homes across the USA. By the end of 1998 that figure had risen to 1.5 million. A similarly sustained future growth curve would put computers in every home by the end of 2002. Of course, that won't quite happen, but as prices continue to drop, a high rate of growth will be sustained and the home computer will be as common as the TV set by the middle of the next decade. All of these computers are capable of controlling electronic musical instruments. The larger home computers, Apples etc., have sufficient power to become complex musical instruments capable of satisfying the most demanding professional musician.
Okay, so I have taken some liberties with the dates in the above paragraph. It is actually paraphrased from Ray Hammond's book, The Musician and the Micro, published in 1983:
All of these computers are capable of controlling electronic musical instruments.... The larger home computers, Apples etc, have sufficient power to become complex musical instruments capable of satisfying the most demanding professional musician.
- Ray Hammond, The Musician and the Micro, (UK: Blanford Press, 1983)
The revolution is always just beyond the horizon, and today is no exception. Over 16 years after the publication of Hammond's book (or his "prophecy" as today's spin doctors would say - after all, so what if he's off by a few years), the language through which we anticipate the cultural arrival of digital music has changed very little. Idealists contend that access to technology broadens the base of production, and thereby creates a form of Audio Democracy, freedom to trade sounds - or in more overtly Capitalist terms, free trade. Every day my email box is flooded with messages promising "FREE web exposure!", asking "Are you ready for a GLOBAL AUDIENCE?", from people willing to "STREAM, DIGITIZE and ENCODE all content for FREE!" Jumping on the digital bandwagon is more like boarding a Greyhound bus, and we're all happy to be taken for a ride. Audio websites become yet another way for companies to make money from other peoples' recordings while the producers go penniless, just happy to "have their work out there for people to hear."
As I operate with a limited budget and cheap equipment, I would not deny that the increased affordability of digital audio technology has facilitated my own audio productions. Similarly, as I cannot play a single traditional instrument, yet I have used computers to produce believably "spontaneous" improvisational piano and jazz-based recordings, I know for a fact that digital composition and synthesis certainly broadens the base of audio production to accommodate for people with no traditional "talent." However, I do not find these technological developments particularly surprising, no more so than the widespread popularity of electric guitars and garage bands during the 1960s and 1970s, or affordable 4-track tape recorders in the 1980s. For what is at stake is not the ability for technology to transform my hapless desires as a producer into "finished" pieces of music. Rather, it is my use of technology to cheaply and quickly emulate musical signifiers - the pianist's gesture, or Modernist computer musician's abstract formalism - in a manner which attempts to challenge High Culture musical art forms by associating them with the financial limitations of a contemporary digital Folk Music.
On the other hand, as with most Folk Musics, circumstances of financial limitation are quickly associated with utopian retreats to an original voice, a true musicology unfettered by the trappings of academia or the marketplace (for example, the multi-billion dollar Hip-Hop industry is still seen as the uncensored "word from the street"). Yet the digital audio underground is unwittingly reliant upon the workings of major corporate technologies, spectacle culture's promise of fame, and a desire for the financial rewards of the audio marketplace. The presumed subversive autonomy of electronic dance cultures appears in my rural Missouri home town as strangely decontextualized Drum'n'Bass music in pickup truck commercials, and the new Levi's store in San Francisco does a better job creating a nightclub environment than most real clubs. Thus, in my own productions there is no refuge in a critique of High Culture. It is only a precursor to positioning my own actions in relation to the reappropriation and regurgitation of "alternative discourses" by a marketplace which seeks to sell revolution and subversion until, ultimately, there is no need for direct social action or political organization, because advertisers tell us a percentage of every purchase we make on our credit cards over the next month will benefit one charity or another.
And so, with revolutionary purchasing power, we are back to our topic at hand - the home computer revolution and how it will forever transform the production of audio. In this coming age, popularly framed as a time in which everyone can produce professional-sounding music at home, the majority of people will undoubtedly continue to create their audio in response to the traditional consumerist promise of lifting our lowly selves to the level of the "professional" musician or Rock Star. We curse the hierarchy of professionalism before us, saying "fuck you!" to musical traditionalists, yet aspire to achieve NEW GLOBAL STARDOM within the audio marketplace. Capitalist marketing serves as the only discourse through which most people know how to discuss the importance of audio production.Like graffiti, digital audio can serve as a gesture of resistance and circumvention of dominant cultural orders. But also, like most graffiti, the majority of audio production remains an act of vanity devoid of any politic to inform its gesture of resistance. And so, like the Art marketplace's embrace of graffiti in the 1980s, the majority of home-grown digital audio will serve as so many illegible tags on a wall, with a few individuals being tokenistically embraced by the marketplace and bestowed with financial success.
Meanwhile, the desire for communal empowerment will not be realized through transformations of technology, but through transformations of perception and action. Its sound is that of social relations.