Rompler keyboards, live performance and capitalism


I give to you: a box full of sampled sounds, with a keyboard attached, and a synthesizer that would not be missed if it disappeared from the next iteration, after the grumbling about it online ceased: $800. I also present to you this humble offering: another box full of sampled sounds with a keyboard – of the same size and type – attached, a synthesizer that would not be missed if it disappeared from the next iteration, after the grumbling about it online ceased, and that includes a bunch of knobs that do things of a hopefully musical nature: $4,500.

They serve an identical primary purpose: making a variety of sounds when someone’s fingers strike its keys in a coordinated fashion, or when struck randomly, if that’s to your liking. The rumor is they both contain a computer inside, in case you want to add your own operating system and play Solitaire (or run an illicit media server on the darknet), viewed through a screen that’s smaller than a deck of cards, while voiding your warranty in the process.

So why the difference in price? There’s no inherent reason that an instrument that is mostly a much-adulated rompler should cost $4,500, while another one with a more down-and-out reputation, but that holds largely similar specifications, is perfectly functional, and that gets used by many professional musicians – ones that aren’t high profile enough to have to worry about such things as brand credibility down to the level of what they happen to be playing live, or pretending to play live, for that matter – costs $800.

Even if the more expensive one provides additional features, such as the ability to add your own sounds (which it does), and an arguably nicer-sounding (although also limited) synthesizer – what is it about said features that adds up to a $3,700 difference in value? Is the more expensive keyboard 5.625 times larger than the other? Does it have 495 keys? Can it play 1,440 notes at once? For that much money, it should be able to overthrow capitalism, not enable it.

As an aside: the $800 keyboard likely shouldn’t cost that much either, even under capitalism, but welcome to economic leverage – the cheaper of the two has a corner on the “low end” market – inasmuch as anything that costs several hundred dollars can be considered low-end – most likely due to the greed of their competitors, and possibly, because of economies of scale, resulting in mass-manufacturing of $800 keyboards being more viable than reduced-cost boutique ones.

How much said economies of scale holds true in relation to the price differential, and how much it’s due to people hyping up the definitely-over-inflated-by-whatever-means brand over another, is unknown (both appear to be trade secrets), but both are factors. Thankfully, this doesn’t result in something that is so shoddy to be unplayable – far from it – although that happens as well.

Also, many keyboards are most likely built with the same exploited labor as computers and cell phones. Same goes for guitars, and a host of other things. That shiny smart toaster you got as a gift? Shady. That “Does everything but import the beans” espresso machine you fancy so much? Sketchy. (None of your most beloved devices are free of sin, sadly.)

Given the nature of much of modern pop and dance music, it’s debatable that musical keyboards are even necessary – who needs individual notes when everything is made up of loops, or if you’re fancy, arpeggiators – yet they persist. Keyboards serve a functional purpose for all kinds of musicians, one that is tethered both to studio use and live performance. They’re hands-on in a way that making music with nothing but a computer frequently is not, they represent the bulk of the sonic range of western music in a relatively easy-to-grasp way (if they have 88 keys, that is), and for many of us trained musical types, their physical nature speaks to our tactile sense. They can even be used as a control surface to bang out drum parts! They remain useful things, overall.

Also, some keyboards are red. Which clearly is worth an additional $3,700, as opposed to a more mundane white or off-teal finish.

In terms of technology, music is at a strange crossroads. In theory, there’s no reason to create much of anything outside of a computer when in the studio; increasingly, there’s not much of a need for keyboards on the stage, either. (Devices that play backing tracks to support solo performers, or to make up for missing band members, is a different story.) With a few exceptions, everything that is generated “ITB” (in the box, for you non-producer types) sounds close enough to “real instruments” that they pass muster, and further, people are used to listening to music that makes heavy use of samples. Via compressed audio streams, on earbuds. So there’s not much of point in having an argument about fidelity: it clearly is for nerds. Given the way some keyboards sound, it’s arguably not for people who spend $4,500 on one, either. Did I mention that it comes in red?

“Ah,” you say, “but then there’s live performance. Red is clearly more important during live performance. Your notes will sparkle and shine much more than with the off-teal model.” Given digital media technology, is there a need for live performance at all? I’d argue that there is, but the way the industry works now, performance is less about the needs of the general population (the masses, if you will) – socializing, being able to dance, drink (or partake of other substances) and unwind, enjoying the sound and spontaneity of live music itself – and more about addressing the needs and wants of the small percentage of people who have the time, money and energy to go out. Listening to music live – in venues in particular – is frequently an expensive affair.

Also, much of the human needs that popular music used to address is handled by DJs these days. So live musical performance as a popular medium is not quite as, well, popular as it used to be. Resurgent, perhaps – but accessible to all, and with an affordable ticket price? Not so much.

In addition, media technology has advanced over the past several decades; it’s possible to make, distribute and promote an album without having to go on the road. From an artistic perspective – and to no small degree, a listener perspective – it’s an open question whether or not an audience needs to be at a club or venue at all. Listener-supported YouTube channels prove that the musical aspects of live music’s social value can be addressed online. In reality, even non-profits such as KEXP are tethered to the ways the music industry works, where touring is required for working artists. It’s similar to the ways that the music industry has worked for decades (make of that what you will), the wrench that digital media threw into the industry’s machinations notwithstanding.

That’s not a slag on KEXP, by the way. It is what it is, the industry is what it is. I happen to think “what it is” in the case of the industry as a whole is bad, if not evil. But that’s clearly not KEXP’s express-if-not-sole doing, either.

As a live performer, I wrestle with all this, and as a leftist/anarchist, I wrestle with it double. What is the social purpose of my labor? Does it even have a purpose? Is there some other set of things to do that would be of greater benefit? What about creative acts of resistance, such as producing works based entirely on pirated media? These are real questions, amplified by the present-day socioeconomic dynamics of music making, by the commodification of mass culture, and by the music industry itself, then and now.

Nevertheless, musical labor *IS LABOR*, and is of social relevance and importance, my own worries and soul-searching notwithstanding. Please don’t respond with your hot take on how playing music isn’t actual work – it is. There’s nothing worse than when someone goes on at length about how your work is suspect – typically while not holding a mirror up to their own labor – when you’re just trying to get paid. So thanks in advance for keeping that to yourself. Triple especially if you’re a software developer by trade.

PS: My first draft contained multiple technical and aesthetic explanations as to how this all works. If you’re muttering to yourself “Thank you for not going into all that”, you’re welcome.