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In The Garage? Garageband and the Death of Popular Music

© 2018 Chad McNabb

© 2018 Chad McNabb

by Chad McNabb

We didn’t fully understand it at the time.  Like many (truly) revolutionary ideas, its effects weren’t fully realized without the passage of considerable time.  Garageband, the digital audio workstation developed by Apple for Mac products seemed gimmicky, even playful at first. But we can now say that in January 2004, from a stage in San Francisco, Steven Paul Jobs killed popular music. Remember 2004?  The industry had been wearing an oxygen mask for 5 years after contracting the plague from streaming services like Napster and Limewire.  In 2001 they begin to chain smoke viciously through their mask with this technology going “mainstream” and “legal” after the advent of iTunes and iPods.  But the final death rattle came in January 2004 with the unveiling of Garageband to the world. 

Streaming services didn’t kill popular music.  They killed the music industry’s business model until it later adapted.  While they contributed to tribalism at its worse and the erosion of a true “popular” culture, Garageband fundamentally changed the way music was made forever.  In a terrible way.  Let’s go back a little further.  Music in this country was written and recorded in very similar ways for a very long time.  Artists wrote songs and collaborated with other musicians or at the minimum with a producer.  Ideas were exchanged.  Bad songs were weeded out. Songs were enhanced.  If you had no talent you often never saw the inside of a studio! This was a healthy process. 

Working with Garageband is an inherently solitary process. When using Garageband one has access to countless Instrumental sounds.  When these instruments are set to “autoplay” they play themselves in the selected key and time signature.  Need any Elliott Smith finger picked bridge?  How about some Herbie Hancock Synths a la Headhunters?  We gotcha fam. While no doubt convenient, it is this lack of collaboration that is the most corrosive element of the Garageband platform.  Collaboration has always been the backbone of all popular music.  If John Lennon had Garageband there would have been no need for Paul McCartney.  He would have never left his mother’s flat long enough to ever meet him.  We would have John, in a Liverpool bedroom, surely unkempt, recording significantly flawed “Beatles” songs.  Would I even be writing about John Lennon?  Probably not. Because today’s young John Lennons collaborate with no one. 

At this point, we must discuss “The Man.”  The label head, The A & R rep, or producer. The archenemy of all artistic expression, constantly stifling art in pursuit of the yankee dollar.  This is a confused and fallacious view of history.  “The Man” was very good for music.  He was great in fact.  “The Man” had taste.  He made damn sure, for decades that every artist fortunate enough to get a contract had genuine talent! “The Man” knew that if a “demo” tape made its way to his office, the band had been at it for years, playing live and had some degree of talent.  Can you imagine the night terrors he has now?  Just from the sheer volume of submissions.  “The Man” was killed not by a revolutionary bullet but drowned slowly in an insurmountable sea of colossal mediocrity. 

Now, I would like to share a personal story.  The recording studio used to be a holy place.  After years of practicing and collaborating (in an actual garage!) my bandmates and I saved up enough money to record in an actual studio.  We knew the songs inside and out.  We had to record them and play them quickly for financial reasons.  There were little to no overdubs.  The studio owner was completely unapproachable.  I feared him like my ancestors feared Peter the Great.  When I finally got the courage up to ask him to add some light reverb to the vocals, he said venomously “I don’t think it will help any.”  Touché! He was right!  There was nothing he could do to salvage the deep fried shit sandwich we were cooking in his basement.  He just wanted it to be over. We needed to hear this.  The music never saw the light of day and the world was a better place because of it.

This formula served us well for decades.  You had to collaborate with other artists and have genuine talent to be heard.  Since starting to use Garageband heavily in 2012, I have not recorded music wearing pants.  There has been no need! I have been alone.  I have added a 70 piece orchestra on top of a doo-wop song while watching a Family Matters marathon.  The music is not rehearsed.  There is little connection between it and the artist.  When going back through old songs on my computer, I often can’t remember having recorded them.  Imagine what a thrilling experience it would have been to record with an orchestra, even twenty years ago.  Think of your social life.  If you wanted to add sitar to a song, you had to find someone who could play one and befriend them.  Think of how cool that person would have been! Garageband has an odd finality to it.  Once the song is done, it is often uploaded to a site and forgotten. 

Proponents of Garageband will point to the empowering of individual’s artistic expression through technology.  One must ask though “Who are we empowering?” Musicians are becoming less talented and popular culture is becoming more bovine. My five year old used my iPhone last week to make a “mumble rap” song that rivaled 21 Savage. Will he ever feel the need to learn an instrument or play with other musicians? Should I have the capability of making an EDM song in my car on my lunch break? Or should the process mean more? We should have recognized this classic case of Orwellian doublespeak back in 2004. There is no garage.  There is no band.   I used to play in an actual garage with an actual band, with the hopes of one day leaving it. Now I never will.