Jack of all trades, master of none.
Frank Sinatra saunters onstage. He’s got a cigarette in one hand, a glass of bourbon in the other. The bandleader cues him from somewhere off-camera and he begins to sing. He didn’t write the lyrics, vocal melody, or music; he didn’t produce or engineer the recording he’s promoting with this appearance; and he’s not playing an instrument. But he’s KILLING the song, wrapping his expert vocal apparatus around the cleverly penned and affecting words with swanky elocution, slaying the masterful interpretation with his silky, well-weathered baritone. He’s a singer; that’s what he does. THAT’S ALL HE DOES.
The music industry used to be a world of specialists who had one job and, ergo, excelled at it to the brink of mastery. At its peak, specialization produced some of the best recordings ever made.
You had a person or duo or group whose sole task was to write songs. New York’s Brill Building was a hit factory because all the staff writers were singularly focused on composing better material; that’s why so much of their output––and Motown’s––has more than stood the test of time.
Copyrighters saw that the songs were registered with whatever performing rights organization with which the label was affiliated; they also submitted them to the Library of Congress, while the publishing division handled the mechanicals. Accountants kept track of an act’s royalties, recoupable, and expenses, and filed tax returns.
Then there was an A&R (Artist and Repertoire) person or persons whose job was not only to scout new acts for the label, but also to find the right artist or group to perform a particular song. They would subsequently contact the artist or group’s label rep, who passed the word on to their manager. And within each band or amalgam of session musicians, everyone had a specific role to play, which they’d already done countless times on other sessions and performances (especially in the “live” era, before the ability to overdub came into the picture) and were the best in the business.
Then you had a crack crew of engineers and assistants (the ones at Abbey Road used to wear white lab coats!) who set up and maintained the microphones, tape machines, and other related tech, with one director running the show at the mixing console. And there was usually one producer who acted as a go-between to shape the overall sound of the resulting recording.
A mixing engineer would step in during or after recording wrapped and balance all the levels, add effects and EQ, and then pass the two-track results on to the mastering engineer, who would give it the final spit-polish and prep it for pressing.
A graphic designer or designers would be working on the album art in parallel, and the pressing plant would receive those results with the tandem audio and print and package the product. A distribution company delivered the records to retail stores, where seasoned salespeople sold it to consumers.
An agent from the label or separate agency would book the artist on a tour, the day-to-day details of which would be overseen by a road manager. Roadies were tasked with the transportation, handling, setting-up, and taking-down of the equipment so the band could save their energy and focus for the show. A dude or dudes would drive the bus or buses from one town to the next for the same reason.
Then someone handed Elvis a guitar. Sure, it wasn’t much more than a stage prop, but it got people thinking. Robert Johnson, Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis embodied and embedded the idea of multiple utility into live performance, that a musical entertainer could simultaneously be a frontman and instrumentalist. And then that upstart Buddy Holly, who fronted his Crickets while actually playing his guitar, began writing his own hits.
Then the Holly-inspired Beatles showed up. All four played instruments while they sang, all four wrote original material to varying degrees, they all contributed un-credited production ideas in the studio, and they eventually became CEOs of their own record company. They were also multi-instrumentalists; Paul played guitar and piano as well, John bass and piano, George sitar, etc. And the more they had to focus on the non-musical aspects of their enterprise after Brian Epstein died in 1967, the faster their affairs began to unravel.
Somewhere along the line, whether via avarice or shrinking market shares (or both), ill content with their singular lot in the overall scheme, and slowly but surely, engineers and managers and artists began adding “producer” to their resumes. Producers became managers and co-songwriters; CEOs took on the additional A&R role; mixing engineers also became mastering engineers; and artists became publishers, managers, A&R reps, recording/mixing/mastering engineers, graphic designers, label heads, and booking agents, etc.
The major labels dried up all the while, taking the well-funded and highly effective specialist machinery with them. And whereas before they only had to exploit the artist’s commercially released work to ensure their financial enrichment, the “360” deals they now offer solo artists and bands demand a chunk of any and all possible revenue streams, including merchandising (T-shirts, etc.), which was how a band used to make any real money on the road.
The days of labels issuing glorified high-interest loans to signed acts so they could just be artists are long behind us (though what remains of the industry is as exploitative as ever). The booming population of contemporary artists has been painted into a DIY corner wherein they are forced to take on the progressively amassing non-creative aspects of their careers in a way that may be diluting the focus on and resulting effectiveness of their art. Most who are able to rise up are usually encouraged to branch out into acting to reinforce visibility and actually get paid (even Sinatra and Elvis did movies, though probably less for the money than the diversifying challenge and exposure). Albums and singles, often promotionally placed somewhere in their own films, are now just tiny little ineffectual speed bumps in a famous performer’s acting career, thanks to the steady devaluation of music through the digital era.
Most high-profile artists now seem professionally obligated to co-write with some hit-making team that also wants to produce them and probably program and record all of the instruments. And it seems like featured-artist cameos are now compulsory as well. Skilled professionals who could once subsist on producing, engineering, and/or mastering now have to supplement their incomes by churning out vainglorious op/ed and/or educational video content for YouTube and Instagram; as enjoyable as his videos are, one can’t help but feel that a highly skilled producer, engineer, songwriter, and musician like Atlanta’s Rick Beato is being dumbed-down by––and wasted in––these unrelated milieus.
Making a decent living in the music business has always been tough, but these days it’s more of a vocationally schizophrenic grind than ever, and one can’t blame these people for diversifying their resumes, but the cost seems high considering what gets lost in the subsistence shuffle. There are too many chiefs in the tribe, sticking their noses where they don’t belong, all but ruining whatever they touch in facets in which they lack sufficient training and experience.
There are still specialists out there in the contemporary DIY jungle, and they are persistent tigers whose numbers are scant enough to qualify them as an endangered species. Specialization is now a fiscally untenable career choice, and it feels like a one-way street; Pandora’s jack-of-all-trades-in-the-box has been opened and there’s no returning to a time when everyone did just one thing and did it well, and was satisfied, and made a solid living to boot. At least vinyl record pressing is still a specialist’s game and until such a time as something resembling the old paradigm returns, we can throw on an LP and witness a group of single-minded masters at work.