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Collaborating with Tchaikovsky, part 2

This morning, at 6 a.m. sharp, I found myself sitting bleary-eyed at the computer, listening to a live 60-piece orchestra in a recording studio in Prague, Czechoslovakia, playing my orchestration for the “Tchaikovsky” song I recently arranged for an independent project. (See my blog post from a few days ago.) It was 2 in the afternoon in Prague, so I’m guessing the musicians were a little more awake than me. (Not to mention, they were probably dressed in more than gym shorts and a tee shirt.)

The U. S. producer of the session, Phil Naish, was across town from me, in Franklin, TN. He was listening on his home studio monitors and communicating with the Czech producer via Skype. The Czech producer communicated everything to the orchestra conductor (in Czech, naturally). I listened and texted my thoughts to the U. S. producer. Twenty miles away, Lowell Alexander, the song’s co-writer, was also listening in.

It turns out we had proofed the score and parts well. There were no copy errors – and all was fairly smooth sailing. An hour later, it was over and I was having a bagel and coffee downstairs in the kitchen.

Wow – but does this whole process rock the music business boat. Let’s recap.

A very large group of Czech musicians worked for an hour to record a piece written and arranged by three guys in Tennessee, none of whom were at the session – but instead listening in from 8 time zones away in the comfort of their homes. (Not to mention the comfort of their pajamas.)

But why Czechoslovakia? Why not Nashville? Or LA? Or Dallas?

Simple. Money.

The Czech musicians worked for a small fraction of what it would have cost to employ the same number of American musicians. Globalization is hitting America’s most talented musicians in a big way. This breaks my heart, but it is a reality. I wonder what, if anything, American musicians are willing to do to compete with musicians on the other side of the globe, willing to record for much less?

There is, of course, the argument for quality. There are no better recording musicians on the planet than American session musicians (imho). American session musicians in Nashville, LA and NYC are astoundingly good. That said, the Czech musicians are quite good, at least when it comes to legit orchestra music.

For me, another equally significant argument is – I’d rather employ the people in my own community/state/country to do this work. There’s a part of me that feels it’s wrong to send this work overseas. (And the guys I worked with on this song have similar feelings.)

But – there is literally no way the producers could have affordably recorded this piece here in the U. S. None. Zero.

First, there is no studio in Nashville large enough to accommodate 60+ musicians. (The largest studio in town can handle about 50.) There are rooms that large in Los Angeles, but LA rates for both studios and musicians are the highest in the country. What’s more, the producers of this song were able to hire the studio and musicians for just one hour, piggy-backing on a longer session. That is unlikely to occur here in Nashville.

Second, even working at the lowest recognized union scale, a U. S. orchestra would cost more than double what the Prague orchestra cost. Literally, thousands of dollars more – for a single hour. That is a very difficult reality to ignore when determining how to spend limited production dollars.

I have no grand solution for this quandary. Technology and globalization are two-edged swords. They help some and hurt others. I just hate that they are hurting so many American musicians.

So, I’m left with the sense that I participated in something truly special this morning – hearing 60 musicians in Prague play notes I put on the page here in Tennessee. But I’m also struck by the realization that the economy of recording music is now determined globally – not just locally. And that’s unlikely to change any time soon.

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