Recording Studios May Die, but the False Mythology Around Them May Not

"Chemistry is something that happens between people," says Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, whose prominent role in the fight against Napster earned him a reputation as an Internet-era Luddite. But the fact is that Metallica's long-running support of a "taper section" at concerts made it clear that he knows full well that peer-to-peer sharing technology connects people whose chemistry is rooted in cultural experience. (This taping subculture is well covered in Nick Paumgarten's recent survey of the Grateful Dead's recorded archive in The New Yorker.)

Rick Rubin is seen in the trailer uttering a characteristic production koan: "Be true to yourself, and make music that you love." It is an especially peculiar choice for inclusion, because for all of Rubin's associations with naturalist recording (witness his late-period Johnny Cash albums, the second of which, Unchained, was recorded at Sound City), his groundbreaking early efforts in rap (LL Cool J, Run-DMC, Beastie Boys) helped cement cut-and-paste as core components of contemporary pop-music production.

If we're fortunate, these contradictions will be as much the subject of the film as the studio itself will be. There's no doubt that the rise in laptop and related technology, both software and hardware, has contributed to the decline in numbers of large-scale recording studios. The question that lingers is whether Sound City will be rockist nostalgia, technological contemplation, or both at the same time. How much is this recent shift a story of new technology replacing old technology, and how much is it the story of new technology limiting human interaction? (The concept of the recording studio as an endangered species is emphasized by the participation on Sound City by writer Mark Monroe, who worked with director Louie Psihoyos on The Cove, whose depiction of threats to dolphins won it the 2009 Oscar for Best Feature Documentary.)

In his 2010 book What Technology Wants, Wired's Kevin Kelly summarized the conundrum of figuring out which technology is enemy and which technology is ally:

When I asked my friends about their own technological choices, I found one friend who e-mailed but did not fax; another who faxed but did not have a phone; a friend who had a phone but no TV; someone with TV who rejected microwave ovens; another with microwaves but no clothes dryer; one with a clothes dryer who had rejected air-conditioning; one who loves his AC but refuses to get a car; a car fanatic with no CD player (only vinyl records); a guy with CDs who refuses GPS navigation; someone who embraces GPS but not credit cards; and so on. To outsiders, these abstinences are idiosyncratic and, arguably, hypocritical, but they serve the same purpose as the choices made by the Amish, which is to sculpt the cornucopia of technology to suit our personal intentions.

The Studio City trailer suggests that Grohl may take the opportunity to wrestle with this subject—to further clarify and expand upon his Grammy speech from earlier this year. He asks in the trailer, "In this age of technology, where you can manipulate anything, how do we retain that human element?" It's likely that the development of the film was on his mind when he stood on the stage accepting the Best Rock Performance award: He was busy making a movie about the sort of institution where a "performance" is, in fact, constructed as much as it is captured.

Because despite all of the flack that Grohl received for his awkwardly worded Grammy speech, the televised ceremony showed him to be anything but technophobic. He and the Foo Fighters performed live that same evening with Deadmau5, the cartoon cyborg avatar of electronic dance music.

Presented by

Marc Weidenbaum runs the ambient-music webzine Disquiet, has contributed to Nature, and is writing a book about Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II for the 33 1/3 series.

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