When an artist produces a work about an artist producing a work, it’s hard not to detect a cry for help.
My dearest cousin Geoffrey,
I have run out of the food of inspiration, and am now digesting myself. Am going quite spare. Any crumb of an idea that you might spare me, might spare me.
It occurs to me that this postmodern fad for self-reference in literature might be getting rather stale.
my dearest cousin Geoffrey.
The question ‘Where do your ideas come from?’ is an inside joke among writers. An oyster can’t tell you how to make a pearl. The grit gets in, who knows how, and the rest is nature.
But a creative endeavour needs an irritant or stimulus of some kind: the thing that gets you to the point where gradually revealing the work is enough to propel you forward.
Chuck Close was (until recently) a painter, but he might be just as famous for giving the world an aphorism: ‘Inspiration is for amateurs: the rest of us just show up and get to work’. It suggests, if you’re suitably attuned, that you can just pluck a starting point out of background noise.
Here’s one starting point:
A couple of years ago, people couldn’t go on holiday, so they spent their holiday money on guitars and microphones and plug-ins. And all was well, as long as our loved ones stayed alive, and we didn’t need microchips to build hardware with.
This year, the music tech budget is right back on holidays. Or it’s blown on something frivolous and stupid, like not freezing to death in winter. Everybody here is working hard to get back to where we were. And we’ll probably end up there anyway, but not by being complacent or losing ground.
A big consequence of having a slow year is that it makes public companies cheaper to invest in. Year by year, it’s getting more probable that any given person in this room has spent part of their waking life in the service of a private equity company, who have decided, in their own language, to go long.
These companies are like buy-to-let landlords in London, who convert every cubic foot of enclosed air into a mezzanine with a mattress on it. Like landlords, there are many exceptions, but not enough to soften the stereotype.
Inside a PLC, everything long-term, everything commercially risky, every corridor and stationery cupboard, and all but the most predictable project with the nearest horizon is under pressure to deliver a rapid return, or else be dissolved and absorbed into a more immediate hit.
Quarterly growth targets. They’re what inspired so many of us to get into audio.
The pressure towards banal uniformity in everything, everywhere, is well documented. This is just one of many causes, and ought to make us a bit angry. But I’m done as an employee, and I’m done being angry about things I can’t change, and experimental data suggests that being able to sit on a stage and whine about banal uniformity is a hard-won and delicate privilege.
Besides, when short-sightedness and inertia overtake a competitor it’s a great day for me.
But, as deadly sins go, anger is a powerful creative force. There’s always been money in anger, as demagogues and journalists know, and now there’s a whole corner of the tech world that exploits it to the extent that it’s called the rage economy.
Especially there, though, we end up with banal uniformity. For all the buttons it pushes in our brain stems, social media is flatly unsatisfying and becoming more so. A restaurant where all the meals are free because someone’s chewed them already. And then taken a cocktail stick and written ‘Try Grammarly’ in the dribble.
Who else here has deactivated a social media account in the last few weeks?
[hard to tell with the lights shining in my face and the auditorium unlit, but perhaps 10-15% of hands go up]
I’m left with LinkedIn and my God.
‘My company has a new product out. In case you missed my previous fifteen posts over the last two weeks, here’s another silent video of me playing with it in my home studio.’
‘Do you want a solution that’s truly unique and crafted to your business? We’ve got a warehouse full of the bastards.’
Is there a word for grudging capitalism? An acceptance of our fate in a bigger machine, like a stoned Karl Marx? A bearded Victorian bellowing ‘Workers of the world! Could we just keep money but, like, stop being such dicks about it?’
The second big trend that’s changing our world is jumping out of every surface here so enthusiastically that I barely need to introduce it. In common with the other innovations that have turned our industry inside out since the last time I laced a tape, machine learning changes the nature of inspiration, expression, and the art itself.
The tools for wielding it are getting so accessible that we’re running out of excuses not to play with them.
Computers aren’t creative in the same way we are, and may never be. But it doesn’t matter. Crafters romanticise the process, but success is mostly about the product. Other animals display whimsical creativity; we’re just the only primate that can hold a paintbrush properly. There’s no reason why creativity has to be the sole preserve of organic chemicals either.
So I’m going to leave you with this. I asked a friend what I should say tonight, and she then asked ChatGPT for ‘a short closing speech on the theme “keeping your enemies closer”. Intended for an audience of audio engineers who are very intelligent. Make it funny.’
For some reason, ChatGPT responded in the voice of P T Barnum on crack, getting hung up on alliteration. I’m going to spare you most of the words. Rest assured that writers are safe for a couple more months at least. It seems weird to give the final say to a large language model, but the closing words deserve centre stage, and we should probably get used to this.
May our mixes be clear,
and our enemies near
— but not too near: we don’t want feedback.