A Journal on the Art of Record Production

The first issue of a new academic journal is if nothing else an exciting moment in the sociology of knowledge!  Why this particular set of interests now?   Why can’t they be expressed in existing publications?  Is this the first map of a new field or just another subplot on an existing disciplinary site?  What does this journal mean for the development of new concepts and methodologies?

The publication of The Journal of the Art of Record Production follows the creation of a Web-based network and the organisation of two Art of Record Production international conferences, in London in 2005 and in Edinburgh in 2006.  There are clues here  as to why this journal is necessary.

First, the growing academic interest in record production reflects something happening in the academy itself: an increasing number of production courses and so of teachers of record production, looking for teaching materials and faced with issues of curriculum, course content and assessment (and so with issues of theory and value).  A research interest in production necessarily follows from a teaching interest.

Second, the increasing number of university-based production courses reflects not only the expansion of student numbers and university administrators’ pressing need to develop degrees with vocational value, but also changes in the business of record production itself.  Digital technology may have increased young peoples’ opportunities to produce records for themselves—the studio-in-the-bedroom—but it has decreased the opportunities for on-the-job training, as recording studios have become leaner organisationally and recording equipment more portable (not to say virtual).  As in other media occupations (journalism, broadcasting, television) training in record production is increasingly organised through academic qualifications rather than as any kind of craft apprenticeship.  And if academics have therefore had to take a new interest in what record production is—technically, aesthetically, phenomenologically, so record producers now have to take account of what academics do and in the ways in which their own activities are theorised.

One consequence of the resulting conversation between educators and practitioners is a new kind of self-consciousness among producers about their practices.  A self-consciousness reinforced, I believe, by the simultaneous effects of technological and generational change.  There are by now a significant number of producers—key figures in establishing rock as the dominant form of Western popular music—who are reaching the later stages of their careers and thus ready to think about their ‘life’s work’ and what it might mean.  From an academic perspective, the most fascinating and fruitful aspect of the two ARP conferences was not simply that working producers attended but that we shared a discourse.  The questions that interested us didn’t seem silly to them  (something I’m not sure would have been true even ten years ago) nor did it seem surprising that practising producers should now move into the academy themselves, to teach, of course, but also to read for PhDs!

One important reason for this journal now, then, is to keep in play this exchange between academics and practitioners, an exchange reflected in how the material here is organised, academic articles taking their place amidst producer interviews, discussion and documents and vice versa.

There are therefore positive reasons to publish a journal focused on the art of record production.  There’s research work out there that needs an outlet; there are teachers and researchers looking for material to use in their classes and studies; there’s a new network of academic/practitioner interests that needs articulation.  But there are negative reasons too, a sense that can’t be understood within existing disciplinary frameworks.

To begin with, the study of recording has been a marginal concern in the academic study of music.  With the glorious exception of the ‘eccentric’ Glenn Gould, musicologists have not regarded an understanding of the recording process as necessary for musical analysis.  Those few classical record producers who have received a degree of recognition (Walter Legge, John Culshaw) have usually been treated as impresarios—getting people into the studio in the first place—rather than as sound producers, determining what was then meant by music-on-record.  (And to this day these are the only three names that come up when I ask music students to name a classical record producer.)   The ideological effacement of the producer from the recording process in the classical world is an undercurrent. I think, in Stephen Frost’s fascinating reflection here on the role of the classical music editor, and it is probably not accidental that ARP emerged coincidentally with the development of  CHARM, the Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music.  CHARM is a research initiative designed to move the study of record and recording into the central ground of academic musicology, an indication that the impulse behind JARP is having its own effects in at least some university music departments.

More surprisingly, perhaps, record production has also been a neglected topic in popular music studies.  A few producers (Phil Spector, Joe Meek, George Martin) have been the subject of journalistic attention; the work of most has been sparsely documented.  As I discovered when putting together a 4 volume collection of key essays in popular music studies, it took many years for the pioneering work of Edward Kealy and Antoine Hennion to be followed up academically.  And even now, as Jay Hodgson argues in his paper here (and despite the work of such scholars as Paul Théberge, Albin Zak and Thomas Porcello) ‘recording practice’ is almost always subordinated analytically to ‘live practice’ in popular musicology.

Practically, the lack of production studies in the academy in the past means a lack of teaching material in the present.  Introducing students to the history of recording processes, for example, or to a comparative understanding of studio conventions in different countries or musical genres, is just difficult in terms of reading lists.

But there’s a theoretical problem here too, a lack of worked through concepts with which to grasp record production as both a material and an aesthetic practice.   As François Ribac argues in his paper here, recording technology must be understood as an aspect of the history of science.  Recording, in his terms, is the assignment of a ‘musical’ identity to one particular application of the industrial procedure of ‘transduction’.  Analytically the implication is that the study of recording means bringing together ideas and methodologies from both the sciences and the humanities, something not easy to do given the long standing academic organisation of disciplines into separate schools and faculties.  And such separation is not just an academic matter: as Alan Williams suggests in his paper here, the implicit difference between the sensibilities of musicians and engineers is reflected in the ever-changing power structures of the recording process.

The issues raised here were explored in ARP conferences and will undoubtedly lie at the heart of JARP debates to come.  I was honoured to be invited to edit this first issue which, inevitably, reflects my interests as a sociologist.  In particular, what intrigues me (and what seems quite neglected in both the music and sociology literature) is the nature of record production as an occupation.  The call for papers thus indicated as possible themes the studio as a place (of work); the record producer’s conditions of employment—in terms of contractual arrangements and legal rights, with reference to their status as artist/artisan, employer/employee, professional/creator; and the nature of the producer’s skill and its relationship to broader practices of sound design.

These are still questions that interest me though in the event, and perhaps inevitably given that this is the first issue of a new journal, the questions I raised are answered in the papers published somewhat opaquely!  Ribac accounts for the studio as a space by reference to the history of science, experiment and laboratory; Hodgson accounts for the skill of sound engineering by reference to a broader theory of recording practice “as an unique mode of musical communication”; and Williams accounts for occupational roles in the studio in terms of the enactments of discursive power.

It is precisely the push towards theorisation of each of these papers that persuades me that JARP marks the emergence of a new academic field rather than simply a further subdivision of musicology.  It amuses me greatly that we have here a French writer (François Ribac) drawing on a British theorist (Adam Smith) to argue that the recording process, as a creative practice, displays the beneficial effects of ‘feedback’ , while an American writer (Alan Williams) uses a French theorist (Michel Foucault) to argue that the recording process is best understood, rather, as a controlling practice, displaying the power relations of ‘talkback’.   But such view and counterview are the very stuff of academic work, and what this issue confirms—in both its academic and industry sections—is that from now on JARP will be essential reading.

Simon Frith
February 6, 2007