Elliot Scheiner is a record producer and engineer. He did his audio apprenticeship, in effect, with Phil Ramone back in the ’60s. He has subsequently worked with numerous musicians, including Steely Dan, Van Morrison, Beck, and Bruce Hornsby.
I had the opportunity to speak with him about various things audio. (He thinks, for example, that black vinyl is the best medium for listening: “We hear analog, not digital.” He acknowledges the ubiquity of iPods, cringes at the compression rate, and is hopeful that there will be continued developments that will provide music files that don’t leave out as much information as the current approach; he cites work that’s being done at the Fraunhofer Institute, where MP3 was developed, that would provide more robust audio experience.)
“So,” I asked, “what’s your sense of the state of the music industry?”
In Scheiner’s view, it is the result of, essentially, one thing: Greed. Greed on the part of the music companies that began to rip off customers in earnest when CDs emerged, charging a usurious surcharge for music on that format despite the fact that it cost less to produce the discs than packaging it on black vinyl or cassette. Second, greed on the part of listeners who started pirating the music, leaving the artists without getting any money for their work. “That hurt musicians more than the labels. The music companies can always figure out ways to cheat the artists to survive.”
Another change that has led to the current situation emerged in the late ’80s when, Scheiner says, music company execs and A&R people started involving themselves in the production of music. Scheiner recalls that he’d be asked to provide them with the tape recorded at the end of a week, and they would then say things like “I don’t like that part” or “This needs more bass here.” It wasn’t, he explains, that they were necessarily interested in making the music more commercial; rather, they simply wanted to be able to say that they were responsible for a recording. “They didn’t know anything,” Scheiner insists.
Scheiner is one of the founding members of the METAlliance, which is dedicated to promoting high levels of audio engineering, both as regards recording and listening. He points out that the proliferation of digital recording has resulted in a more-than decimation of recording studios. A problem, he thinks, is that the quality of the music suffers, so if the music truly matters, then those creating music need to understand the differences. “I’m involved with a group of guys trying to educate the public on the alternative to MP3 files.” He acknowledges that there is certainly a place for iPod-based music. If you’re running. Or want to have 1,000 songs in your car. “So be it. Everyone is OK with that concept. But there is better sound than MP3 files.” He suggests that if someone is skeptical that they simply take a recorded CD, put it in a computer’s drive, and they switch back and forth between it and the same music in MP3 format.
Some bands think that if they give their music away for free, they’ll make it up on the touring and merch and the like. Scheiner doesn’t think this is likely; he says that he’s aware of just two bands that have turned that trick: the Grateful Dead and Phish, and that to some of the fans of the latter are fans of the former and so there is a predisposition among the collective to support those musicians. Scheiner does think that the future of the industry will be based on digital distribution of music. Unless or until the improved downloading platform comes to the fore, this will mean subpar audio. Yet Scheiner is pleased that there are labels that are putting music on vinyl today, so all is not digitally sampled.
If the issue is simply convenience and portability, that’s one thing. But if it is truly hearing an artist’s work, for Scheiner, that’s something else entirely.