“No Music Skills Required” Compounds Music Glut (ujam)

Recently a new website called ujam, which allows anybody and everybody to create and publish music, went “Public Alpha”. That’s right, now you, average Joe six-pack, can go online and have access to tools to live out your rock n’ roll fantasy. Have no talent? Can’t sing on pitch? Can’t play an instrument? That’s okay, ujam has pitch benders and programs to help you with that. In fact there motto is “No Musical Skills Required”.

Oh, and it’s all free.

Remember back in 2005, when studio-quality technology finally became accessible to the common musician? We all celebrated, because no longer the big companies that held the purse strings to studios were able to control the production of music. Then MySpace came along, and created completely independent channels for artists and bands to market and distribute their music, and socially network with their fans and create fan bases. YouTube afforded the marketing power of video.

But now we sit at the crossroads of the great technology paradigm. For all the music problems technology solved for artists and fans, it is now creating new ones, principally an astronomical glut in the sheer volume of music being produced, and then marketed specifically for commercial consumption on a global scale.

The simple fact is only a few select people are born with true musical talent or inspiration encoded into their DNA. Others can learn it as a trade, spending years of dedication perfecting the craft. And of course there’s variations in between. But the reason music is so enjoyable and inspiring to people is because it is something that not everyone can do, or do well. There’s a reason that the etymology of “magic” and “music” are very similar. So why is accessibility to musical talent a problem technology needs to solve, whether through Auto-tune, or this new ujam site? The enjoyability of music depends on its place as a minority in the collective talents of human society. Auto-tune opened up the potential for people who can’t sing to have a career in music. Now ujam, and the most certain-to-follow copycat and derivative programs, opens up the potential of music careers for everyone.

There is nothing wrong or dangerous with someone sitting at home on ujam tinkering with sounds for their own personal enjoyment or to share with friends, but the crux of the technology paradigm, where it interfaces with the adverse glut of music being produced, seems to be this sense of entitlement people have to be something big in the music business. Shows like American Idol perpetuate the idea that we might all be musical superstars. Judging the talent of superstars that have actually made it in music, one might say, “Well hell, I can do that. Taylor Swift can’t even sing on pitch.” Meanwhile actual music education is being slashed from school curriculums, replaced by a myopic focus on test scores, and in lieu of attempting to discover what each student’s true, unique talent is, and setting them on a course to pursue that.

Not everyone, and not every musician, has the right to national and international exposure in music. There is nothing wrong with being a good porch guitar picker, or open-mic star, or the guy that offers entertainment at the local bar every Friday night, or at the family reunion picnic once a year. All music used to begin local, where teachers and peers and such could offer constructive criticism and develop a unique musical identity based on local and regional culture and taste. Now some introvert in their mother’s basement might stumble upon a catchy rhythm or phrase, post it on YouTube, and be collecting 5-figure appearance fees within weeks. All while the one-in-a-million musical talents of our generation revel in obscurity or have to take menial jobs to survive. Sure, that’s one of those tough lessons of life, but as a music consumer, I’d rather hear Ruby Jane as opposed to Chocolate Rain.

Retired baby boomers en masse are using healthy retirement incomes to fund music endeavors with national and international aims. Parents are pushing their kids to become music stars before they reach puberty. 20-somethings are taking advantage of the ever-expanding gestation period of the human being in post-industrial societies to spend a decade after education pursuing an ill-conceived rock n’ roll fantasy.

Even money is now becoming inconsequential. Even if you throw a million dollars at promoting your cute teenage daughter who can sing some songs doesn’t guarantee you anything, because there are a dozen other parents doing the same thing, and just like everyone, they are vying for attention in the glut of musical-based content. What you need is some sensational viral phenomenon with opportunistic timing to piggy-back on a new technological or media format burst to get noticed. Talent, money, drive, dedication, skill, and inspiration are becoming more irrelevant by the second.

And what about the role of the music critic, the last tool for the music consumer to separate wheat from chaff? Lady Gaga calls them bullies. Taylor Swift thinks they’re mean. Like a six-year-old’s soccer game where parents are too scared to rule a winner just in case we bruise fragile little egos, if you criticize someone’s music, you’re not being constructive, you’re performing the intellectual equivalent of assault.

We all have a responsibility to ourselves and to society to try and figure out why we were put on this stupid planet, and what our singular contribution is. And I personally want to preserve the mystery of music. Even as a musician myself (though not a good one), I have no desire to marginalize it by running it through digital algorithms, or expand it through accessible tools. If you watch that ujam tutorial above, you’ll notice it even suggests notes according to the recognized 1-4-5 music progression (musicians know what I’m talking about), for the first time giving a practical example to my theory that eventually all “music” will be specifically formulated by computers to enact an optimized dopamine response in the human brain, making human musicians obsolete.

But I won’t be subscribing.

Let music be music, made by human hands. Or music may not be worth making anymore.