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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Editing out excess

From demos to live-streams, the ‘behind the scenes’ of the music industry gives a unique insight into the creative process.

The phenomenon of excess in media is relatively modern. The notion of creating excess, then refining the total media into a coherent project, is one which underpins many creative industries today. But this process would have been difficult and expensive in the past. This privilege, of being able to try something over and over again to obtain the desired effect, has been catalysed by advances in technology. The link to technology is particularly apparent in music, film, and photography, which prior to the digital age relied heavily on expensive, inconvenient, and time-consuming analogue devices. With the advent of the digital age, we are now able to experiment more than ever, leading to huge amounts of material which never even makes it to the end product. Herein lies the interesting question; what is the value, if any, of the media which never makes it to the end product? Should it be available to audiences, or would this harm the overall reception of the finished piece?

It is difficult to recognise just how much technology has impacted our creative processes. Only 50 years ago, the process of recording music was severely limited compared to our modern capabilities. Take for instance Queen’s 1975 single ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. This seminal single was painstakingly recorded on analogue equipment over a period of three weeks. In total, 180 separate vocal tracks were recorded for the single. These were later combined on mixing desks which offered only 24 track analogue tapes. Once the 24 tracks were completed, the tracks had to be ‘bounced’ to one analogue tape to free up the tracks for subsequent recordings. This, of course, meant that it was not possible to go back and ‘edit’ the music in the way we can now.

Additionally, mistakes could not just be deleted and re-recorded; they had to be recorded on fresh tape, which made correcting them significantly more expensive than it is now. As a consequence, excess material, in the relatively few instances that it was created, was often not kept. Yet, as the recent success of the film biopic Bohemian Rhapsody shows, audiences are hungry for these backstage stories, the behind the scenes drama and action of our favourite media and our favourite creators. It is safe to say that we see the value of the ‘excess’ which in many cases has been cut away, as it allows a special rare insight into the media that we connect with on a human, emotional level. The appeal of this ‘behind the scenes’ glance into the creation of our favourite music has been brought to new heights with the widespread use of the internet. Before the advent of the internet, our only insight into musicians’ creative processes were rare demo copies of music – such as the Beatles’ The Beatles Bootleg Demos, or the unreleased demo tapes of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti.

Now, we even have access to artists’ practice rituals – from Adam Neely live-streaming the writing of a song in one hour, and making videos of his five-hour major scale practice routine, to the Royal Opera House live streaming their rehearsals for Manon. So our current insights not only show ideas which were cut from the final product; they also show the precursors of the whole creative project. But what are the reasons for our enthusiasm? In the past, it was the rarity of the material which created its prestige, but perhaps the modern justification may be attached to the deeper understanding and appreciation of the finished product which is afforded by access to this material. After all, we may appreciate Adam Neely’s impressive bass guitar skills more after we witness him play the lick for five hours straight, or the skill and dedication of the performers of the Royal Opera House more, when we realise the colossal effort which goes into rehearsals for these productions.

Having access to the whole of artists’ creative processes may have negative implications on the media created. Some critics have suggested that access to excess leads to a decrease in the quality of media which we consume. This is because the availability of digital technology saturates the market with all kinds of content, so it becomes more difficult to find the truly splendid work that is buried in the noise of the other lower-quality content. But perhaps there is an alternative, more exciting, and optimistic conclusion to be drawn here: it is possible that the increase in cutting and pasting, editing, re-editing, polishing, and publishing outtakes allows unique insights into the creative process which were previously confined only to the minds of the creator.

We are now able to engage with and observe the actual creative process which goes into these works. Just think about all we could have learned had the world’s genius creators, such as Beethoven or Jean Luc Godard, live-streamed their rehearsal process or released unedited cuts of movies or ‘making of’ commentary. These insights into creation which we are afforded in the modern day should be cherished, for the accessibility to art which they create will surely inspire the next generation of creators.

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