Julian Reid Weighs the Pros and Cons of Tech in the Music Industry

The JuJu Exchange pianist talks Pro Tools and human compassion.

Just because we can innovate new technologies, does that mean we should? 

I want to see more modern-day inventors and consumers ask this question. Too often, we trumpet technological innovation as an inherent good without asking what this technology might do to us. How might technology shape our desires in negative ways? How might it enable harmful activities that we otherwise may not want? Of course, these questions are being asked about iPhones and social media. For instance, as we speak, legal battles are waging in Washington, DC about how social media has been used as a disruptor to our democratic process. But I am curious about an arena of technological development that does not undergo nearly as much scrutiny: musical technologies on humanity. 

Too often, in the musical world, technological innovation goes unquestioned as an inherent good. Having more synthesizers and Pro Tools effects today is inherently good, because these machines and software give us unparalleled access to new sounds and the ability to record them. Having mp3 players over the phonograph is inherently good because we can store more sound; having more and more cymbals for one’s drum set is inherently good. The assumption is that more is better. But this is a dangerous assumption. 

Technology does not have inherent value. Its value derives from how it is used, and technology can hurt as much as it helps. In the case of music, newer forms of technology can take away the benefits of older systems. A tape deck creates a certain kind of sound that digital recordings can never replicate exactly; synthesizers’ arpeggios cannot copy the ebb and flow of an arpeggio played by human fingers.

As a musician myself, I do not assume that technology is inherently good or evil. Rather, I see technology, musical and otherwise, as a means of sounding our inward desires. What we desire, the good and bad, shines forth in how we as musicians engage technology. For instance, if we are inwardly greedy, we can manifest that desire by the constant accumulation of more instruments and more sounds. Greed leads us to say that technological innovation is intrinsically good and therefore we should create as many sounds as we possibly can — explore every musical frontier. 

But technology can sound positive inward desires as much as our negative ones. For instance, musical technology can create a more just world of music-making. Innovations in the quality of home recording allow more people to record their music for more people to hear. In so doing, the process of sharing one’s music with the world is a more democratized process. 

The important observation here is that technology is not net positive or negative. Technology always calls the human operator of it to think about how this technological innovation affects humanity. Technological innovations do not necessarily make musicians more humble, compassionate, or just. Moreover, to the contrary, innovation can make people greedy, arrogant, and insensitive towards others. If technology is neither intrinsically good or bad, musicians have to think critically about what new technologies mean for them, and how and if they need to use them. 

To be clear, I love various kinds of technological innovations. I am not a technological Luddite! I love experimenting with new technologies that create new sounds and lead me into new sonic frontiers. In fact, my band, The JuJu Exchange, prides itself in being on an ongoing search for new sounds that we can enfold into our sound. But one of my band members wisely cautioned against acquiring new sounds just because we can. He echoed the wisdom of the ages: just because we can, does not mean we should. Just because musicians can create new music with new technologies does not mean that they should. Just because we can perfect our notes with a click track or auto-tune does not mean we always should. Just because we can create new sounds on our synthesizers or can buy new instruments does not mean we always should. If we think in terms of the inward desires that we want to sound through our instruments, then we can move with wisdom through the process of creating sound. 

It is incumbent on musicians to grapple with the appropriate limits of technology because musicians can lead the way in shaping how society responds to technology. Public musicians base their whole careers on making technology palatable and attractive to their audiences. A good pianist draws people towards engaging the piece of technology we call a piano. A good pop singer makes people want to listen to the speakers that mediate the singer’s voice. A good DJ persuades people to embrace the musical capacity of a computer.

Musicians may not think of themselves as being in the act of persuasion, but we very much are. We are always persuading people to listen to us! And if the musician is using any kind of technology to make music (in other words, using more than one’s body), then the musician is persuading people to engage a certain kind of technology. Because the musician plays this role in society, it is imperative that we think about our powers of persuasion. I hope that we can persuade people to think carefully about technological innovation. We can help listeners think through what is gained through innovation as well as what is lost. In our persuading people to listen to us, we can draw people not only towards machines and new software, but also towards virtues such as humility and compassion that create a better society.

Throughout his life, Julian Reid has always found deep joy in playing piano. Hailing from Chicago, Julian spent most of his childhood studying classical and jazz piano at Merit School of Music’s Conservatory and playing piano around the city. He has served in various music ministries at churches, including service as musical director for choirs and praise teams. He has toured with various musical acts around the world, including a duo show entitled Joker & King with the magician Kenta Koga. He is a member of the jazz group The JuJu Exchange with Nico Segal (formerly Donnie Trumpet), his brother Everett Reid, and Lane Beckstrom, which just released their first album, Exchange. Julian is equally interested in theological studies. After having completed his undergrad studies in philosophy at Yale University, now Julian is pursuing a Master of Divinity degree at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He and his wife reside in Atlanta. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @julianreid17 and The JuJu Exchange at @thejujuexchange