Cost-effectiveness of live electronics

Jamie Bullock has written an interesting blog post called Does live electronic music make good business sense?. While I follow his argument, and understand where it comes from, I think the topic could also be discussed from a different perspective.

His main point is that the benefit-cost ratio of working with live electronics is low. This argument holds if you are assuming that live electronics is being “added” to an otherwise conventional composition/performance process, and that the live electronics part would be an extra expense. But, turning the question around, why would you add live electronics to a conventional composition/performance process? Isn’t one of the points of working with music technology that you can think outside the box? Then it could also be argued that live electronics actually allows for better cost ratio. Here’s my reasoning:

Instead of adding live electronics, you could substitute it with something else, e.g. musicians or acoustic instruments:

  • Musicians are certainly much more expensive to have around than computers, so removing a few musicians from an orchestra and adding some computers would make for longer test periods and more flexible work hours.
  • Acoustic instruments are much more expensive than electronics. If you look at the cost of the acoustical instruments that professional musicians carry around, I am quite sure that laptop musicians with even the flashiest laptops, sound cards and speakers don’t even come close. True, laptops have to be replaced every second year or so, but buying violin strings or getting an overhaul of your tuba isn’t cheap either.

I am not trying to say that we shouldn’t have musicians playing acoustic instruments around, but rather that we need to start thinking about music technology as something else than just being “added” to the world of acoustic music performance. This also means that we need to get to a point where the development process of music technology is considered part of the compositional and creative process itself, and not something extra that you should add on after the piece is “finished”.

I also think that if we ever want to make music technology become an integrated part of music performance we also need to remove the distinction of performer vs. technician. The way these terms are used today implies that the performer is the one standing on stage and getting the name in the program, while the technician is (sometimes) mentioned in the acknowledgments. At some point orchestras will have to start employing music technology experts as musicians and treat them similarly. They may not have been playing violin for 25 years, but working with music technology for 25 years is a quite useful experience too. We are not there yet, but I do hope we will get there at some point in the future.

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Alexander Refsum Jensenius is a music researcher and research musician living in Oslo, Norway.