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You could have been forgiven for thinking that good times had returned to the music industry at Wednesday night’s “Shaken, Rattled and Rolled” party. Thrown by the Producers & Engineers Wing of the Recording Academy, and honoring T-Bone Burnett, the studios and control rooms of the Village Recorders on the west side of Los Angeles were filled with party-goers, who enjoyed the numerous open bars, passed Hors D’Oeuvres (including shrimp and scallops), sushi rolled to order, an elaborate chocolate tasting and demonstrations of high-end recording equipment (take that, Pro Tools!).
But Burnett, a Grammy- and Oscar-winning producer who has worked with, among others, Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, Elton John and Leon Russell, and on the soundtracks of O Brother Where Art Thou, I Walk the Line and last year’s Crazy Heart, struck a somewhat darker note.
After calling the honor a special one, because it was given by people who care about the way music sounds, he used the rest of his short speech to demand that the industry improve the way formats are used to distribute music. The MP3 compression algorithm, he said, was one of the worst inventions of the 20th Century, and in embracing it, the recording industry made the mistake of “making music for people who don’t care about music.” How can musicians and music makers convince listeners that music is worth something, he asked, if they allow their work to be distributed in “really low-quality formats.”
We caught up with Burnett following a performance by the Secret Sisters, one his latest finds. The Alabama-based duo is a classic close-harmony sister act whose pure voices and sweetly lilting material recall the idyllic early 20th-Century sounds that have been the hallmark of his work.
He insisted that, if sound quality improves, consumers can be educated to pay for music. “Tap water is free everywhere you go,” he explained, “but people still buy fancy bottled water.” There’s no reason, he says, why vinyl and analog recording can’t make a comeback. “Increases in bandwidth and innovations in reproduction” will make it possible for analog to be just as portable and easy to us as digital files. “Computers are wonderful, but they can’t make music,” he insisted. He pointed to country music as a format where people still care about sound.
As for his recent projects, Burnett’s getting ready to take some time off after working on albums by Lisa Marie Presley and Steve Earle. He hasn’t heard much of this year’s Oscar nominated songs, but if Gwyneth Paltrow, who has shown off her pipes on Glee and in Country Strong, wants to record an album, he says with a laugh, “I’m ready to work with her.”
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