Too Much of Nothing

I’ve been reading an interesting quasi-history of the Basement Tapes, a series of recordings produced in a garage in Woodstock, New York in 1967 by Bob Dylan and the group that soon came to be known as The Band. It’s quasi-history because of the participants; Dylan won’t comment, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko are dead, and Levon Helm only showed up for the last few sessions at the end of that summer.

The one common thread is that the recordings were not meant to see the light of day, except as a publishing tape to be distributed privately to encourage covering by other artists. This was eminently successful, with a number of songs hitting the pop charts from people like Peter, Paul, and Mary and Manfred Mann. What fascinates me about the fragmentary recounting of the tale is the process by which Dylan and his collaborators produced a secret body of work that was injected into the cultural dialog not in opposition to but alternatively to the high production of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper.

40-some years later, the technology process is similarly roiled by the intersection, or as some insist the collision, of the last and next paradigms of the Internet revolution. The roles of Dylan and The Band, then called the Hawks, are played by Twitter, FriendFeed, Ustream, the iPhone, and so on. Where the Basement Tapes were recorded in a circle of musicians trading off between instruments and vocals, the real time Web as it is colloquially becoming known employs a variety of lightweight tools to orchestrate a rich, deceptively simple platform.

Sgt. Pepper was recorded over 8 months employing hundreds of hours of Abbey Road studio time, engineers, and elaborate experiments in expanding the envelope of recording and performance technology. The Basement Tapes were done with the equivalent of prosumer equipment and the careful placement of at most 6 microphones. Curiously, an additional microphone dangled in the middle of the circle, to be picked up by various participants and used to interject Voice-of-God humorous pronouncements into the proceedings. With apologies to Dave Winer and Adam Curry, these were the first podcasts.

Last week Neil Young filmed a video in his house with Ustream and released it on YouTube. Young sent email to a friend with the URL on the 9th, and the video spread over the next several days. The song he performed is part of Young’s next record, to be released in March (assuming it goes according to current plan.) A few days ago, David Sanborn and I filmed an iChat session between two MacBook Airs which was edited down to 10 minutes with iMovie and uploaded to YouTube. It took some 15 hours to become available directly on the iPhone. Days and then hours.

Tonight Ustream has released an AppStore download allowing anyone with a Webcam to broadcast in effective realtime over a WiFi connected iPhone or iPod Touch. With an open source piece of Mac software, it’s trivial to project a video onto a Ustream channel, initiate a broadcast, Tweet the show URL, and reduce the latency from hours to minutes. We’ve been experimenting with these techniques to film recording sessions in New York, rehearsals in Tokyo, and improvisations on vacation in the Caribbean. Sometimes the quality of the broadband deteriorates or drops out, but then some of the Basement Tapes were recorded at the lowest possible speed over other takes on cheap tape stock.

I could connect the dots between these “experiments” and the startup world, the IT dialectic, the usual rationalizations for something that needs no such explanation. Soon we will tire of recounting the story of how events are transmitted faster and unfiltered over the real time network and realize that discovery happens when it happens, when the stars and minds align, when the cost of production approaches zero and the real investment is in the ideas being captured and distributed.

On the Basement Tapes you can hear the players melding into a supple machine, the laboratory that produced the group known as The Band when producer John Simon took the lightning captured in the garage and supplemented it with color and better application of technology. What wasn’t lost was the sound, the mesh if you will, that was invented in the garage. Steve Wozniak was quoted a few days ago as suggesting that Steve Jobs’ withdrawal from day to day operations at Apple might give him the time to visualize the future. I’m paraphrasing, but often the role of producer is to encourage but not smother when the take or feel emerges.

The economic crisis tests our mettle, but it also produces the limitations of a canvas from which rare results emerge. Boil down all the noise about real time and you get a common dilemma — too much of nothing, as one of the Basement Tapes famously called the firehose. How you separate the wheat from the chaff, find the trusted voices, harness the beat of the times — these are the valuable things that minutes or days or years later we’ll look back on and understand how everything had to go right to bring us to the moment tomorrow morning when a black man becomes a leader when we need it most.