Inspired by an interesting theory that a colleague has about how DAW-based recording systems are sucking the life out of music...
I certainly have my opinions of what sucks the life out of music. I agree that DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations/computer-based recording), which give you the quick and easy ability to visually edit and "correct" your music into oblivion, can facilitate and even encourage one to make lifeless music, you're looking at the train and blaming the caboose for running over the damsel tied to the tracks.
Let's forget about the dawn of the vinyl LP and radio which let music fans enjoy music at home instead of going out to see live musicians. Let's just go back a few years to the early 80s. The same sort of things could be and have been said about the invention of digital sampling, MIDI-connected and synchronized electronic instruments, and electronic sequencers/drum machines themselves. I remember when the Synclavier digital sampler/audio workstation was first released in the very early 80s. Yes, you too could be a one-man-band with the investment of a mere $300,000.
In the early 80s, we had spent the last 5 years inundated with the most banal, cookie-cutter dance music which became of the fantastic soul, funk and pop music that was made in the early 70s. Save for a few worthy classics it was not so much about songwriting as it was about keeping the beat going for another five minutes. A good example of major commercial use of "lifeless" electronic music is the many cheesy movie soundtracks done by Harold Faltermeyer in the 80s. You know "Axel F" from Beverly Hills Cop by heart and you love it. Faltermeyer probably put a hundred musicians and songwriters out of work between him and his Drumulator.
Blame synthesizers and drum machines for that. Blame cocaine. Blame Barry Gibb.
The funny thing is, at that time were weren't complaining about how the music industry was losing money because people were just going to dance clubs, not sitting at home listening to Jim Croce records, but we were complaining that they were putting musicians out of work. No one wanted to see live music, they wanted a DJ. Drummers were running for their lives for fear that the Linn Drum would put them all out of work. (By the way, the axe that the music industry had to grind at that time was home taping of vinyl records was cutting into their sales. Kind of ironic that nowadays a company like Sony is both a major recording label and manufacturer of what few cassette tapes there are still available).
Being a recording engineer, I have a unique perspective to debate whether DAW-based recording has affected the quality of music or not. If you were to ask me what I thought was the major contributor to the proliferation of what one might consider sub-par music, I would be looking more toward computer culture in general. The fact that in the last 10 years, we have seen the cost of blank CD-Rs go from $35 a disc to pennies, and I don't think I know anyone who isn't tied into the internet, at least at their work, and at most on their hand-held Iphone.
People have been making bad music as long as sound has existed. You used to have to play it live in someone's living room. Now you record it in Garageband and post it on Myspace. Because of the internet, it's way too easy to self-publish your music, without the filter that record label A&R departments once had. That used to be the barometer for what music was "good" (or at least, "ready for consumption") and what was "bad". Of course there is endless debate on that subject, as most mainstream music that is released by major record labels is arguably not "good" to many music fans. At least there was some sort of filter to separate some of the prime-timers from the basement hacks.
The major motivator in any industry is money. That's a given. The fact that recording and self-releasing music via the computer has gotten to a price point that there is sometimes no monetary investment involved beyond purchasing your home computer and paying your monthly internet access fee is hard to argue with. The gates have opened to pretty much everyone.
I have been an engineer and musician for long enough that I have worked with every format from my old Panasonic mono tape recorder, 2" 24 track analog to DAW-based recording on a laptop. I see young musicians and engineers who have never even touched a cassette tape, let alone an analog mixing board and all they know is working completely in the digital domain, clicking a mouse instead of plugging in a microphone. This is no better or worse than the fact that I didn't "have to" cut my teeth recording straight to a wax cylinder in 1930. You use the tools that are available.
I see life being snuffed out of music every day. The many contributors include the DAWs ability to copy, paste, tune, quantize and simulate almost any instrument. They also include bad taste and laziness and simple economics. Why spend another two hours singing 8 perfectly-tuned vocal harmonies on the second and third chorus when I can just copy and paste the first one? Time is money, especially when you're a major record label conglomerate and you're not into this to make art, you're here to get rich.
So think of this when you're complaining about the fact that it's too easy to "correct" things that may already be perfect in their imperfection when you're in the DAW world: You're probably typing on a computer right now, and not an old Smith Carona without any correction fluid/tape. Thank god for spellcheck, right? This Christmas, while you're drinking your eggnogg by the warmth of the fire, think of all the poor proof-readers who have lost their jobs.
The bottom line is that just because you have the ability to do something, be it quantizing a drum track or driving head-on into oncoming traffic, doesn't mean you have to do it. You always have the discretion to work the way you want to work. There is "misuse" of the power of DAWs everyday, if you choose to look at it this way. There is also a 15 year old kid in Billings Montana making the greatest song ever heard on his parents' laptop right now.