Now that title may sound to some of you like a stretch, but you can see the news everywhere - now that the much-demonized music industry is already demanding an even bigger piece of the Apple pie** (The iTunes Music Store royalties pie, that is) and have been basically shooting themselves in the foot since they began taking 12-year olds as hostages for megabuck suings for filling their hard drives with illegal copies of Britney Spears pop pap.
Now you will ask, what does all that has to do with high end audio? Wouldn't seem like much but wait - as the big record labels are just getting more greedy and less attractive to the non-megabuck-popstar-of-the-season artist, there is an increasing number of musicians adscribing to the "Down with labels! We'll just roll our own" mantra, and do everything themselves - from recording to distributing their work via the Internet. Your home becomes your professional studio and distributing venue. Sounds like heaven for an independent musician, right?
Well, not quite - I'm not attempting to understimate the capabilities of those artists to create good stuff on their own, but one sad truth is, with very few notable exceptions (Ry Cooder comes to mind) most musicians don't give much of a thought to the quality of sonics on a recording. In fact I know many that are just fine and dandy with a boombox at home (I'll spare you the whole irony behind this). So how will they know the difference between a great recording and a lousy one? Sure, now you can assemble a decent home recording studio for a few grand as oppossed to the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of dollars it took to build one on the heyday of the big-name studio days, but that fact alone doesn't automatically guarantee that the result is going to be listenable or believeable to our ears, the same way owning a Handycam doesn't turn us into instant Steven Spielbergs.
So where does that leave the dedicated audio engineer's role? I fear that not in a very comfortable position in terms of relevancy. Sure, some may soon find it takes more than pushing Record to create a recording worth listening to and find professional assistance, but given the fact that many indie artists don't have access to, or care, about high-end output (on an iPod, it all sounds the same anyways), is fine audio engineering a skill in danger of becoming a lost art? Or maybe we are already there? (If the boom-thizz 'ghetto blaster' effect on many Billboard Hot 100 songs of late is any indication...)
(**) Side note: I still think charging 99 cents for a wimpy MP3 is a steal, and not in the good sense of the word. Just imagine if the labels could get their way. Unfortunately it takes a real good system (beyond what the Average Joe is willing to spend in hi-fi) to find out that listening to MP3s as opposed to SACDs or LPs is something like settling for a McD's Value Meal when you could actually go for a deluxe French cuisine meal. But then again, we are not Average Joes... who else is going to complain... :P