The cheese stands alone

Philip Morgan

I really enjoy listening to the Tape Op Podcast, which consists of long-form interviews with people involved in the music recording business, ranging from artists who are obsessive about some aspect of music recording (ex: Jack White) to recording engineers and producers.Almost every interviewee talks about the changes that have happened over the last 15 years in the music business. Napster entered the scene in 1999, and it either caused or was concurrent with a sea change in how music was distributed, sold, and listened to, and that sea change--along with the commoditization of the means of production of recorded music itself--led to deep changes in how music is brought from idea to published media that you listen to.Things got better for some players in this game. You and I now arguably have more access to a greater range of music at lower cost and higher convenience than any other people at any other time in human history.At the same time, jobs went away. Overpaid middlemen got made redundant. They're not happy about that, but I bet few others share their grief. Most people were happy to bid them good riddance.Jobs went away on the production side of things too.One of the jobs that largely went away is studio technician. Even studios that somehow survived the precipitous drop in demand for their services and were able to alter their business model to become more competitive have eliminated their technicians. Part of this is driven by technology, and part by economics.In the heyday for commercial studios, recordings were made using tape recorders and gear that was technically "mass produced" but was really just 1 step away from hand-made. That equipment really needed a skilled human being to maintain it. It was a serious capital investment, it was designed to be repairable over the long term, and so it made sense to invest in its upkeep.Technology really changed things. Grammy-winning albums have been recorded on laptops with a few thousand dollars worth of outboard gear (one example is "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" by Skrillex). There are fewer recording studios now, and fewer of the ones that remain use equipment that requires a dedicated technician. This has reduced the demand for the skills that studio technicians posses.But maintaining gear is not all technicians did. The really good ones knew their craft--a mix of electric and mechanical engineering--deeply, and when it was called for they could design and build 1-off supplementary hardware on the spot to make something happen. They could fix a guitar player's misbehaving tube amplifier and keep a finicky tape machine operating to spec through undocumented tweaks that bordered on black magic.How could such a talented person become redundant?In many cases, the studio technician job got combined with the recording engineer job. Yeah, the combined engineer+technician is not as good as a dedicated engineer+dedicated technician, but if it's a choice between an unprofitable studio that has one or more staff technicians and a mildly profitable studio without the technician, guess which path the studio owner takes?But why did the engineers get to keep their jobs and absorb the technician duties rather than the other way around?I think it's because the creativity the engineer brings to the process is a bigger part of the studio's value proposition.Or to phrase it differently, in let's say the 1980's... both the studio technician and the recording engineer offered strong value to the studio. In the 2000's, technology had changed in a way that reduced the value the technician offered much more than it reduced the value the engineer offered.There was a time when the studio technician provided creative value as well, but the bulk of their creative value was ultimately contributing to making sure stuff worked right, while the engineer's creativity contributes to how the recording sounds. If the recording sounds good, who cares what level of genius was or was not required of the technician? The effect of the engineer's work is more visible (or rather, it's more audible) to the end customer for the recording.Despite all the value that new music recording technology brings to the table, if you aren't able to use that technology to make music that the right people want to listen to, you aren't going to sell many records. Seen from this perspective, who does more to help sell records? The studio tech or the recording engineer? These days, the recording engineer arguably makes a greater contribution to how successful a recording is in the marketplace.--- 🎶🎶🎶 ---The farmer in the dell (2x)Hi-ho, the derry-oThe farmer in the dell...The rat takes the cheese (2×)Hi-ho, the derry-o…The rat takes the cheeseThe cheese stands alone (2×)Hi-ho, the derry-o…The cheese stands alone--- 🎶🎶🎶 ---Does any of this remind you of your situation? I suspect it might. It's a story as old as time.Time moves on, things outside of us change, and our economic value changes as a result.**Does your value proposition to your clients look more like the studio technician or the recording engineer?**If it's more like a studio technician, is there new technology coming down the pipe that would reduce your economic value to whoever pays for your services? For example...Remember how Wordpress combined with themes like Divi became a "good enough" solution for a lot of businesses that formerly would have had no choice but to pay for a fully custom website?**Remember how Rails changed the web app development world?**This is how commoditization works. Increasingly better off the shelf software, frameworks, libraries, and established best practices eat away at the need for fully custom work done by early adopter experts.Make sure your value proposition is durable over the long run:

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