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Music’s Computer Loves & Fears Through the Years – Billboard

Written by on 25/04/2023

“We are living in an electronic age and electronics is changing the world.” This bold-for-the-time declaration, from the June 24, 1967, issue of Billboard, came from an unlikely source: Limeliters banjo player Alex Hassilev. For an acoustic musician, he was savvy about electronics: Over the years since, we’ve gone from classical compositions played on synths to music created by artificial intelligence. What’s next? Just ask ChatGPT!



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Come On, Moog!

A year after the Summer of Love, Billboard hailed the age of computer love. The Oct. 12, 1968, issue predicted that “computers would someday allow operators to obtain overnight, or at least weekly, reports of record popularity on jukeboxes.” A month later, Billboard reported that “[a]n electronic Bach album is being issued by Columbia Masterworks this month,” which “employs a specially adapted Moog synthesizer as its musical instrument.” That recording, Wendy Carlos’ groundbreaking Switched-On Bach, became “only the second classical record in history to sell more than 1 million units,” according to the June 8, 1974, issue.

Speaking on the Moog in the Dec. 20, 1969, issue, jazz drummer Chico Hamilton opined, “it’s up to the listener to decide if it’s music or not,” but quipped, “some people turn electricity off.”

Synths In the Key of Life

While the Sept. 30, 1972, Billboard reported that skeptics saw synthesizers as merely a “cheaper alternative to a real string section,” the Sept. 9, 1973, issue proclaimed that keyboards were now the “hot instrument” thanks to synthesizers becoming an “integral part” of Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. By the late ’70s, Giorgio Moroder taught the Moog to move, and the July 30, 1977, issue praised the “incessant, spacey, machine-like beat” on Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.”

One-Way Ticket

Synths were inescapable on the Billboard Hot 100 by the time of the March 24, 1984, issue, and Billboard ran a prescient headline with a phrase from Steve Jobs: “Computers Bound to Become ‘The Second Telephone.’ ” Another piece in the same issue covered the rise of “computerized [ticket-selling] outlets like Ticketron, Bass, Select-A-Seat, Ticketmaster and others,” noting that “the logistics of selling tickets becomes smoother; the service charge, however, is divvied up between more parties.”

Prog Rock and Prog-ROM

After Peter Gabriel released the musical computer game XPLORA1, the Jan. 8, 1994, Billboard hailed him as “the first major pop artist to actively participate in the creation of an interactive CD-ROM title integrating substantial amounts of music, video, still photos, text and ‘virtual touring.’ ” Not everyone was ready to get with the program, though. “We don’t see the point of participating in something if ‘the medium is the message,’ ” said The Cure’s Robert Smith about E-CDs in the Aug. 17, 1996, issue. “It’s an interesting idea, but is that art in itself?”

AI Think, Therefore AI Jam

A feature on digital recording in the Oct. 9, 1993, issue addressed fears of “sterile” mixes and “computer control supplanting the human touch.” “There is nothing spookier than facing something totally unfamiliar,” said producer John Hampton. “[But] you can let technology do so much of the work for you that you can sit back and look at the big picture.” A Berklee dean agreed: “What computers in general have done, is allowed us to take our minds off the mundane and concentrate on the creative.”

The same concern came back in a piece in the March 18, 2017, Billboard, which pointed out that “for songwriters, the subject of artificial intelligence is an especially fraught one.” The beat goes on, in other words — even if technology helps create it.

A version of this story originally appeared in the April 22, 2023, issue of Billboard.

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