Originally Posted by Danner
One word: MIDI.
Another word: Metronome
I would suggest that playing to a steady tempo reference has been in existence since musical instruments were invented.
50 years ago I was practicing piano to a wind-up metronome, as were most musicians who were involved in any kind of formal training. String quartets practice to a metronome. The tempo is notated on the sheet music. Orchestras are lead by a conductor, who acts as a human click track.
The click track is not new technology. What's new is the idea that it's acceptable to play a musical instrument in a professional setting without the ability to maintain a steady tempo, but that's no surprise. Our culture today is all about instant gratification. Why waste time practicing to a metronome when you could be jamming with your friends?
What many people don't understand about a click track is that it makes it easier for the rhythm section to push or pull the feel. They can play behind the beat knowing that the song won't slow down. Of course, this concept of pushing or laying back is completely foreign to the nonprofessional, but that's okay. Music is a journey. Some of us take a few steps and then stop. Others keep on progressing, raising our level of competence to a point we never would have thought possible back when we were rank beginners.
(Where's the high horse smilie? It would be so appropriate here.)