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A New Age of Dis-Connectivity in Music

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It happened while I was listening, on Rhapsody, to "Gene's Lament," recorded live at the Blue Note by Gene Harris in 1985. About half way through his solo I burst out laughing, and so did a number of the people in the recorded audience that night. I've seen this happen a number of times at shows when a band really digs deep into the groove. It just feels so good you have to laugh about it. As legendary jazz drummer Duffy Jackson recently described it, the band has, "...put 'the grin on the groove.""

Music, like any art form, is the conveyance of emotion through a medium, and the emotion in music starts with the 'groove' or the 'swing' of the song. When the musicians are really connecting with each other it is like an electrical circuit. We all get 'charged' with the emotion they are transmitting. The circle of joy is completed.

As human beings we live for the spiritual connection music provides. Music has always been connected with religion and has been repeatedly shown to have healing power.

But what happens to music when it is produced without that mystical groove? What effect does it have on people when there is no emotional communication in their music, no 'grin on the groove'?

When music is created inside a computer, using what is called MIDI (music instrument digital interface), the beat is placed on a grid. Every note can be perfectly aligned and then reproduced with flawless precision. The drums, keyboards and bass can all be replicated using perfectly recorded samples instead of live players. Recorded short segments or 'loops' of music are often sampled from old records or purchased in royalty-free loop collections and used as the basic rhythm track for a new song. Computer hard drive recording has driven down recording costs until it is now possible to record a credible album in your bedroom studio -- sometimes with no human being actually playing a musical instrument. The music is exactly reproduced but with no emotional communication.

I began using a computer to create music back in the mid-1980s. At that time the available memory on a personal computer was 64K, so you couldn't do much. Each instrument had to be written into the computer and then recorded on tape. Then you had to write another track in the computer and use a sync tone to record that track onto the tape in time with the previous track. It took forever and the results were seldom worth the effort.

Today you can build a massive track in a couple of days. It is still labor intensive and the software is often mind-numbingly complex and buggy, but the results can be broadcast quality.

Like most contemporary songwriters I have used computer recording for practically my whole career. But I must admit, I never once heard a computer 'put a grin on the groove.' I have had entire weeks in my home recording studio working slavishly in front of the screen and at the end of the work the results lived or died by whether the melody and lyric could carry the song. The groove never lifted me up to that place where only a great band can go. I can't ever remember breaking into spontaneous laughter or joy listening to the computer 'print out' the track. I never once felt healed.

In this age of connectivity we Twitter, blog, e-mail and post every portion of our lives on social network sites. But at the deepest level of emotional communication, our music has lost its groove. We find ourselves with music that leaves us unfulfilled and blame 'Big Corporate Record Labels' because the music is slick but soulless.

Admittedly, quantity and quality have never coexisted peacefully in music. Big hit records are nearly always lowest-common-denominator music. But even the Big Labels used to make better records. If you listen carefully back over the decades somewhere in the early 1990s you start to hear the music flatten out. The tracks become more formulaic, in part, because the software used to record it works best within those formulas. Drum loop samples often lock a track into a single groove; one dynamic level; and even worse, one chord change. It is not by some Big Record label's marketing plan that Hip-Hop has become so dominant on the charts. It is the perfect music for computer reproduction. Low cost/high return music is the path of least resistance when a record label is facing massive losses from music piracy. Back when the big labels were rolling in money they could afford to invest in lots of diversity in their catalogs. Now the business plan has been reduced to 'crank up the computer and crank out another track' exactly like the last hit.

This leads to consumers feeling cheated when they pay for a whole album and nothing seems to connect with them emotionally. Then they use that feeling to justify stealing the music. This just perpetuates the 'loop' we are stuck in. Computer music doesn't connect, people steal the music, record labels cut costs, leading to more computer music.

To break out of this downward spiral it will take music that really grooves -- music that actually connects on that deep spiritual level. We need bands that play together for years and develop that ESP-level of communication that all the great groups have. Take a quick listen to Booker T and the MG's or James Brown. Listen to Count Basie and discover the meaning of swing. Hear Alison Krauss and Union Station and the greats of Bluegrass like Bill Monroe. We need music that is made by hand and played with fire and devotion.

But in order for a musician to survive long enough to really develop that mystical level of communication he/she needs to have the "three G's": Grits on the table, Greenbacks in your wallet, and Grace in your heart. That's where you can help! Whenever and wherever you encounter a band that 'puts the grin on the grove,' buy their music, don't steal it. The connection of music is a two-way communication. The musicians and songwriters need to feel the love too!