Playlist interview: Rick Latham

We tend to hear a lot about the technical and gear-ish side of digital music -- how music is encoded, what the latest digital player brings to the table, and where we can find the coolest downloads at the cheapest price. Lost in these discussions is how the changes wrought by digital music effect musicians. We thought we'd find out by speaking with a musician who does it all, Los Angeles drummer, Rick Latham.

Latham has been working in the music business for the past three decades and has seen that business change in radical ways. Before moving to L.A., Rick was a member of R&B bass legend Chuck Rainey's band -- "Rainey Man." From 1996 - 2002 Latham was a featured member of the Edgar Winter Band, with which he played hundreds of gigs including a special appearance at the 1999 Montreux Jazz Festival. Currently he's founder and driving force behind his own contemporary jazz group, Rick Latham and the Groove Doctors. Latham is also an instructor, offering drum clinics across the globe, and author of the acclaimed drumming manual, Advanced Funk Studies .

We caught up with Rick between gigs and sessions to ask him a few questions about how the changes in music have changed the way he goes about his business.

PL. You wear a lot of hats -- drummer (road and studio), composer, producer, band leader, instructor, and webmaster. How has today's technology changed the way you now work versus how you worked in the past?

RL. It's true, I do wear a lot of hats, but you have to nowadays.

Hat #1: Session Musician/Composer When I used to work a gig at night, I'd get up the next morning and have a leisurely coffee, read the paper, make a few calls to keep in touch with fellow musicians, do a few errands, and then get ready for that night's gig or rehearsal or session or whatever. Now I'm up around 6:30 AM, checking my email. After seeing my family I'm hard at work by 9:00 AM. I'll make calls and read and write email and then start to work on music or design things.

In the past, a recording session was a tremendous effort with scheduling, finding the right studio, the right gear, buying tape etc, etc, etc. Now I can have an idea for a new tune at 10:00 AM and by 2:00 PM that afternoon have a mastered CD with complete graphics ready for online- or brick-and-mortar distribution. By the next day it can be on the radio or in a television commercial in Japan. This would easily take weeks in the "Good Old Days."

Thanks to the technology I have it's very easy to record tracks for other clients or writing partners. Along with my computers and recording gear I have a killer drum kit miked up and ready to go just across the room. I just load a stereo file into my system, push Record, and run over to the drums and start slammin' out some funk. Then I either burn a CD or email the file back to wherever it came from. The session's done without me leaving my home.

Hat #2: Publisher of music instructional material (including books and DVDs) and head of indie label, RLP Records In this tech-heavy world I'm now also my own marketing person (Hat #3), graphic designer (Hat #4), IT person (Hat #5), and secretary (Hat #6). Though I'm not a trained designer, I create most of my own ads (with occasional outside help from real graphic artists). A lot of my promotional material is sent out electronically and I fulfill orders right from " The Boom-Boom Room " -- my studio/office/warehouse. It's small but mighty!

Hat #7: Booking agent I also book most of my drum clinics and gigs for my jazz group, "Rick Latham and the Groove Doctors." I do about 30 clinics a year that include universities, music stores, and drum shops all over the world. My group is busy playing in L.A. and traveling -- playing festivals in the U.S. and abroad. With the 25th anniversary of my drum book, Advanced Funk Studies, , a new DVD release coming up in 2005, and the recent release of my band's third CD, "Live and Loaded" recorded at The (world famous) Baked Potato Jazz Club in North Hollywood, I'm really busy organizing things for the coming year. This takes a tremendous number of phone calls and emails that could never be accomplished without all this technology.

PL. How important is it for musicians to have an online presence?

RL. Very. Here's an example:

I was a ground floor member of mp3.com and we had close to a million plays of our first five tunes that I posted on that site so the exposure was great. Plus they actually paid pretty well at first (but then the corporate suits came in and the rest is history). We got our first festival gig from someone who had heard about us from the web.

I have several sites -- my personal site, the band site, my source music site, my drum tracks site, and my on-line store site -- that have made a huge difference in my prominence as a musician and solo artist.

PL. Has online distribution of music -- free music sites and peer-to-peer sharing services -- made it easier for musicians to get exposure or is there simply so much of this stuff that good music gets lost among the pile of mediocre material?

RL. You have to be careful about how you distribute your music online. There are a lot of sites out there that try to take advantage of musicians with claims like "We get your music out to millions!" or "Get your music into the hands of famous producers!" There are only so many places people will go to look for good music and if your stuff isn't in the first few places they look, they likely won't find it at all.

That said, there are some great sites that do and will put your music out in front. You have to look at the fine print and behind the hype to find the site that's right for your stuff, though. It's similar to paying for a good position in a search engine. If you're asked to pay a fee to get your site exposure, you'd better make sure that it's placed where the right people see it.

PL. Speaking of peer-to-peer file sharing, how do you feel about it?

RL. I think that, for the most part, people should pay something for the music they download. Even if it's only a small amount, the writers or composers or performers deserve something for their work. Clubs have to pay license fees for the use of juke boxes so I don't see why listeners shouldn't also pay a license fee to listen to that same music at home.

If someone shares a file with a friend, it's not a big deal to me. However, it's a different story if people distribute mass quantities of music electronically or on CDs.

I personally use a few peer-to-peer programs to find obscure stuff for reference or historical information. Or if I can't remember the bridge of some tune I'm arranging, I'll look for it on a peer-to-peer network. But I don't share my files or have my local file sharing option turned on because most of the music on any of my computers is my original music, not something I want to freely share with Uli in Sweden.

Even if I do download something with one of these programs, I usually trash it after I get what I need out of it. I don't have a single CD that I've burned with downloaded tunes. I'd rather go buy the CD and support the artist and I would expect others to do the same for me. Sites like the iTunes Music Store are cool because you can download music cheaply, but you are still paying somebody for their art. I recently have made all my stuff available on several digital distribution sites. That's definitely the way to go now.

PL. Is radio play as important as it once was? And is it increasingly important that listeners be able to hear your music on the Web?

RL. I think that traditional radio airplay is important just for the sheer number of people who listen, but Internet radio or web streaming is also a must for any new artist today. Along with radio play, you must have good distribution. If your CD isn't available in stores or through sites like the iTunes Music Store, you've lost customers. People will only go so far to find your music and they'll quickly lose interest if they can't find it almost immediately.

PL. Increasingly records are made with prerecorded loops, Las Vegas and Broadway orchestras are replaced by a couple of guys with synthesizers, and, in concerts, singers sing to a prerecorded soundtrack augmented by a couple of musicians. Is today's technology a good thing for working musicians?

RL. As with any technology, it's only as good as the person using it. Being a drummer, I clearly remember when drum machines first came out and people started using them to replace live players.

This was not the intention. Things got to this point because people figured, "Hey, I can do this myself and save a bunch of money and it sounds pretty good." Most drum programming was -- and is -- mediocre at best unless a drummer has programmed it. The thing that is great about drum machines or synths or sequencers is that they are fast and they offer immediate gratification. I truly feel they were never intended to take the place of humans, but to help us create what, in the past, would have taken forever.

I own several drum modules, synths and sequencers and I use them all the time in conjunction with live players. Most people (even the finest trained musicians) that hear my stuff never even think I've programmed or sequenced some of it because I know how to make it feel human and musical rather than mechanical. These devices are tools that we all should embrace and use with moderation. When I hear someone using Reason or GarageBand -- just plugging in loops or samples -- and calling themselves a composer I have to laugh. But with budgets being the way they are nowadays, this is happening. I feel that true players will always be at the forefront of the industry. But the lines do get blurred as technology advances.

PL. Look down the road 10 years from now. What effect do you think technology on the musical landscape in terms of how music is performed, created, distributed, and consumed?

Technology will continue to be a huge part of the future musical landscape and we will see many more monumental advances in the years to come. Live music will still be the best bang for your entertainment buck, digital distribution will become the norm, and record companies will have to participate in that or be left behind.

PL. What kind of computer and digital audio gear do you use to do your work?

In my studio I have a dual 2 GHz Power Mac G5 with a 23" Cinema display and a Power Mac G4 400 with a 17" CRT running Mark of the Unicorn's Digital Performer 3. Inside the Mac is a MOTU sound card with two MOTU 2408s. I also have Digital Performer on my PowerBook, which I use with a small M-Audio portable MIDI keyboard. And I sometimes use ProTools LE.

I have a bunch of synths, samplers, mixers, and outboard effects -- Roland keyboards, Sennheiser mics, Tannoy monitors, and a Soundcraft - Spirit Studio 24X8X2 console.

And, of course, I have a 20gig iPod with the four buttons!

PL. Who's your favorite drummer? Favorite composer?

RL. Wow, that's the hardest question you've asked all night. I have so many and all for different reasons. For drummers I'd have to choose Buddy Rich and Steve Gadd. Buddy was my first major influence when I started playing at age 12 and I saw him many times before he passed. He never ceased to amaze me with his sheer power, creativity, and musicianship. Gadd is just an incredible player -- probably the most influential drummer of the 20th century and it was his inspiration that prompted me to write my Advanced Funk Studies book in 1980.

Aaron Copeland and Samuel Barber are my favorite composers. Aaron Copeland was simply Americana put to music. I love all his work. Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, in my opinion, is the most beautiful piece of music ever written. It actually brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it performed.

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