“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can never live long enough to make them all yourself.” Quotes like this remind us of the importance of keeping our heads up and our eyes open. For the purposes of the following, “not living long enough” might be a bit over the top, “not having enough time” is probably more suited.
So here’s the thing. Can those of us who work in the post production industry learn anything from the music recording industry and the extraordinary changes it went through over the past twenty years. And are the social and economic changes that began affecting the music industry at the turn of the century comparable to those we have now started to see in film and television?
From the earliest experiments in sound recording and cinematography, the development of both disciplines has progressed at a similar rate. 1906 saw the first radio broadcast, then around twenty years later, the first television broadcast took place. In the 1950s LPs were becoming widely available to the public, then ten or so years later Super 8 became the must have motion picture format of choice. The move from mono to stereo as a standard music format, you could argue, was paralleled in television by the move from black and white to colour. There were cassettes in the 1960s and VHS in the 1970s. The eighties saw compact discs (CDs) and in the nineties we were introduced to the digital video disc (DVD). Another area of comparison would be that of portable technology. In the early 80s the public’s love affair with Sony’s Walkman started; then wait twenty years and Panasonic released the first portable DVD player. In 2001 Apple launched the iPod, nine years later, the iPad.
When comparing advances in music production and film/TV production, both of which ultimately are funded by end consumers and the demand for higher quality, more convenient content, is it valid to say that many of the advances are very similar? The main difference being that a comparable advance within film and TV will occur some number of years after that of its musical counterpart.
Advances in technology aid the same two fundamental areas of both industries.
- In the production of content. For example, the way material is captured, stored, and played back, in areas such as picture editing, multitrack sound recording and mixing, and other media processes.
- In the distribution of content, the supply chains of various formats (magnetic tape, vinyl, CDs, DVD, Blu Ray, digital files, etc), and the means by which to present these formats i.e cinema and broadcast, both through analogue and now digital means, and devices such as turntables, cassette decks, DVD players or more recently, Smart TVs, tablets and mobile phones.
During the 20th century music production and post production saw a myriad of new technologies, new techniques, new ideas, all of which were designed to increase creativity and productivity. In 1947 a band called The Harmonicats released Peg O’my Heart. This was the first pop record to use artificial reverb in an artistic way. The film montage, one of the most notable of which has got to be the training sequence in the 1976 film Rocky, was an editing technique that was being discovered by Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov in the 1910s and 1920s.
In music during the mid 1950s big developments in multitrack recording where underway, and by the 1960s the artistic potential of this recording technique was being realised by bands such as The Beatles and The Beach Boys. Also at this time new electronic instruments started to emerge. The Mellotron, also made famous by The Beatles, was a polyphonic keyboard, which used sound recorded onto magnetic tape, and was the forerunner to the modern synthesiser. The 20th century also saw many advances in film editing. The Moviola, invented in the 1930s, became the first widely used machine for motion picture editing, then in 1953 a company called Steenbeck released the ST200, a flatbed tape editor which included optical sound and playback of 16mm magnetic tape, a new media at the time.
Until the 1950s most television programmes had to be broadcast live, but the introduction of video tape meant there was now a viable way to edit TV shows together before they were broadcast. And in 1971 the relatively young post production (industry?) was introduced to nonlinear editing (NLE) with the release of the CMX 600, a system that performed nondestructive editing of source material by utilising early forms of digital technology. This machine was too expensive and too big to be a commercial success, but the creative freedom of nonlinear editing, something that had not been seen before in film and video editing, meant companies continued developing this technology. Back to music production, and in the early 1980s a Japanese speaker company called Fostex started making multitrack recorders. They released the B16 in 1983, signifying another leap forward in recording technology. It was the first machine capable of recording sixteen tracks on 1⁄2” tape, with its larger, more expensive predecessors having to use larger format tape. At this time we start to see small project studios, set up by musicians and engineers. This, in turn, led to an increase in commercial work being carried out by them. In 1989 Avid Technology helped post production take another step forward with the Avid/1, their first NLE system. It proved so successful that it caused many editors to ditch their Moviola, Steenbeck, and KEM flatbed film editors. But data storage was still an issue, so in its early years it was only used for editing short form content such as adverts and music videos. The movie industry had to wait until 1993 before the system had enough data capacity to hold the media for a feature length film. Lost In Yonkers, also released in 1993 was the first theatrical feature film to be edited on Avid. The system was based on the Apple Macintosh II personal computer, but music producers had started using personal computers in the eighties, and the first widely adopted machine for music production was the Atari 1040ST, released in 1987. Thanks to its superior musical functionality it marked the first major step in the democratisation of electronic music production. Since the introduction of personal computers, each new machine has been more powerful and more capable than the last. This increase in power led to digital audio workstation (DAW) computer programs such as Cubase, Logic and Pro Tools becoming industry standards in music production. It also meant other audio hardware such as reverb units, synthesisers and drum machines were no longer as important. The multitrack recording capabilities of the software were also expanding, and ever increasing numbers of audio tasks could now be carried out “in the box”.
In more recent years computer power has become sufficient to cope with the most complex video tasks and so the same pattern can be seen within film and tv production, meaning the need for dedicated machines to handle specific tasks has decreased to a point where, beyond a powerful computer and the right software, little other hardware is required. So as we start to see growing numbers of editors, colourists and dubbing mixers building their own professional systems, and more production companies contemplating the prospect of handling their own post production, are we now witnessing a similar form of democratisation in post production?
Looking at the consumer side of things, shortly before the likes of MP3s and streaming, music was mostly delivered on CD and vinyl. Films and TV shows, still obviously accessible at cinemas and via broadcasters, were also available on VHS, then DVD and Blu-Ray. Depending on how old you are you might remember recording a favourite TV show to VHS, or recording a radio show to cassette to play in the car. Ultimately the goal has always been to watch or listen to what we wanted, whenever or wherever we wanted. The ultimate in convenience. Having something to watch on VHS wasn’t bad, but you still had to spool through the adverts if you had recorded something from the TV (unless it was on the BBC) and if you wanted to listen to a favourite track on a cassette you had to spool back and forth to find it, checking all the time that you’d not gone too far. DVDs and CDs definitely helped the process as it was possible to skip through chapters or tracks.
By the late 1990s and early 2000s the internet had started to cement itself as an integral part of everyday life, and amongst other things, had made it possible to access music instantly, which we could then store digitally. Apple Inc launched the iPod and iTunes in 2001, popularising the MP3 digital file format. But online piracy through peer-to-peer file sharing of songs was now having a devastating impact on the music industry. Websites such as Napster and LimeWire had made it incredibly easy to share music online. Gone were the days of using twin cassette decks and high speed dubbing to make a copy of an album for a mate; this was piracy on a grand scale. So if you were comfortable with breaking the law, sharing music online was a free and relatively simple way to get hold of new music. However, purchasing music online and storing it legally on a hard drive was pretty much impossible. The major labels’ response to this digital revolution was to try and sue everyone, not to make their music more easily accessible to the paying public. They chose to fight change. Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO at the time, saw this and after pitching the idea to Warner Music Group, launched the iTunes music store in 2004. During the next eight years Apple went on to sell 300 million iPods and 10 billion tracks via iTunes. They saw this change and ran with it.
The consumer experience was undeniable. Digital music has now evolved into a world of subscription music services, and for a monthly fee we can listen to whatever we want, wherever we want Jackpot! With the final limiting factors of music consumption now a thing of the past, it wasn’t going to be long before technology had caught up enough for us to be able to enjoy our films and TV shows in a very similar fashion. Internet and mobile data speeds where getting faster, so inevitably Video on Demand (VoD) was on the horizon. But while we were waiting to conveniently stream our films and TV shows straight from the web, companies such as LoveFilm in the UK and Netflix in America were using subscription services to send us DVDs in the post. On 16th November 2006 Channel 4 launch 4oD and not long after Netflix launch its streaming service and the BBC launch iPlayer. Apple launch the iPad in 2010 with plenty of other companies following suit with their tablets. EE launch the 4G network in 2012, allowing high quality video content to be accessed almost anywhere, and TVs got smart. We had arrived!!
During this digital revolution within the music recording industry, recording artists were being given new avenues for promoting and distributing their own material. Whether through a Youtube channel or by releasing music themselves through their own record label, these options that empowered musicians only weakened the position of traditional record labels. And even within the record companies themselves the internet was changing the way they operated. A&R staff who once had to travel the length and breadth of the country, with their ear to the ground, going to gigs in search of the next big act, could now use Youtube to help find it. So, digital technology started a real maelstrom within music production around twenty years ago, which triggered years of economic decline, and It wasn’t until 2017 that the global recording industry started to see modest growth. Evidence that it had finally caught up with this digital revolution. So is a similar thing happening now within film and TV production? Subscription video on demand (SVoD) platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu sit alongside Youtube, Facebook and others as increasingly popular viewing platforms, allowing new forms of entertainment to emerge. YouTubers, for example, are now as influential as pop stars and are generating huge revenues through advertising, endorsements and live performances. Brands are now producing entertaining, engaging content and not just “adverts”. Uncensored, opinionated programmes are being made, which can now be whatever duration is right for the content; no more cutting down to fit inside a broadcast schedule. Facebook, the website I joined over ten years ago to stay in touch with friends, is now distributing original longform content. Netflix is causing a commotion at the Cannes Film Festival because they feel they have the right to be enter their films despite having no theatrical release. Amazon (who started out selling books) is to show twenty Premier League matches a season from 2019 to 2022 on Prime Video, and brands such as HBO and WWE are selling direct-to-consumer through their SVoD services. Ok, so these do not sound like examples of economic decline, but they do demonstrate a similarly unprecedented rate of change. And this change affects the market position of the traditional broadcasters and distributors, the organisations that many familiar business models are based on.
The music recording industry exists to support the wider music industry, so when large social and economic changes affect it, they in turn affect the business of recording music, and those working in that field have to adapt. The one thing, however, that stays constant throughout all disruption of this nature is people’s creative vision and skill, and their passion for their craft. Whatever happens to the equipment, the rooms or the supply chains, the creativity and skill of the musicians and producers never diminishes, nor does their ability to demonstrate that. So, if post production exists to support the wider TV and film industry, then the same applies. The editors, the colourists, the dubbing mixers, the graphic artists, the animators, the post producers will all continue to demonstrate their skill, but the same technology that causes industry wide disruption can be used to create new ways of working. And if these new ways can alleviate new found pressures on production companies who are also having to evolve, then so much the better. Digital technology has created an opportunity to redefine what we do and how we do it. Change is a good thing, and something we must run with, not fight against. As with the music recording industry, changes in film and television are proving to be be pretty big. So for those of us who work in post production, it’s time to start thinking outside the telly box – ’cos we’re not in Kansas anymore.