A thoughtful letter today from a reader about recordings. He’s noticed that musicians often say they dislike the manicured, edited-to-within-an-inch-of-their-lives recordings of today, and prefer the more ‘natural’, warts-and-all approach of the earlier twentieth century, when it wasn’t possible to correct or ‘improve’ things afterwards. Record collectors, too, often cherish these less self-conscious recordings. My correspondent asks innocently why, if musicians dislike today’s glossy finished product, they submit to being edited like that?
It’s a vexed question to which there don’t seem to be any answers, only more questions. Why has bland perfection become such an ideal in every field? It’s the taste of our time. Photos are routinely air-brushed, celebrities’ figures digitally altered to make them taller and slimmer. Public figures have makeovers to weed out their idiosyncrasies. Speech impediments are treated; erratic teeth are straightened. Magazines promote the identically fabulous lifestyles of the wealthy. We know there are often other realities behind the images, but that hasn’t quenched our thirst for airbrushed glamour. It’s the same in the music world.
You might counter that there is now a healthy vogue for ‘live concert recordings’, but even that can be a bit of a fiction. Yes, the concert is used as the basis for the finished product, but the rehearsals are often recorded and used as material for ‘patching’ mistakes. Sometimes the players also stay behind after the concert to ‘do corrections’. Many ‘live’ labels should really be called ‘based on a live performance’ or ‘lightly edited’. Otherwise, it’s just perpetuating the myth that perfection is routine.