On Reddit.com—a social news aggregator—it was suggested that I listen to “lo-fi, satanic, weed-drenched pop.” Definitely not a genre I’ve ever seen in record stores.
While hiding from the cold beneath four layers of blankets in Fredericton, I was introduced to the homemade music of a Californian-based musician within hours of the link being posted. I streamed the music, requested a way to download it, and then paid $5 to have the 23-track album on my iPod. It’s been my walking music ever since.
“With that Reddit exposure last week I’ve probably made a couple hundred bucks,” Will Marquis told me over the phone.
Marquis wrote, self-produced, and distributed his album online without any resources traditionally supplied by music labels. Apparently you can challenge multi-million dollar companies with a $90 recorder and a free account from Reddit.com.
Marquis calls himself the Meanest Boys and produced his self-titled album with a few instruments and a tape recorder he bought a decade ago.
“The equipment I have I know very well because I’ve been using it for so long,” he said. “So it’s really comfortable when I sit down to write a song.”
The album draws on five years of material, and even though it sounds rough at points, your heels still tap, the melodies get stuck in your head, and the songs stay interesting after listening to them for days—what more do you want from music?
It used to be impossible for people like Marquis to share his music without the backing of an established music label. But now every musician can access just about everything they need.
Services like Bandcamp.com will host your songs and allow you to sell them for whatever price you want. Distribution is no longer expensive or exclusive. You don’t even need the Apple store.
“There was a shakeup in the industry when all this technology started becoming available to everybody,” said Kevin Herring, the grey-haired head of the audio engineering department at the Centre for Arts and Technology here in Fredericton.
“The popular myth is that the recording industry is in trouble—though it’s not, the record labels are in trouble,” Herring said. “Music is still being bought, recording engineers are still recording the stuff, and musicians are still writing it and playing it … the difference is that the record labels don’t own that product anymore, they don’t own the distribution streams anymore, they don’t own that digital file—unless the artist signs for that. The independent movement is damaging the record labels, but not the recording industry.”
You don’t need a huge studio, a pressing plant, a warehouse, transport trucks, or anything else that goes in to creating and selling a physical product.
Of course, some people still want something they can hold, so Marquis is putting out two albums on vinyl with small, independent labels that have seen his Myspace page.
But the demand is shrinking for CDs and records, and that makes it hard to keep large operations afloat. When someone only wants the music, they just get it online, and they expect the price to reflect the simplified process—which usually isn’t as simple as Marquis makes it.
Truthfully, the Meanest Boys could sound better—and then he could charge more than $5 for 23 songs—but I like to think the sound quality is a part of his style. I enjoy it, but it’s not perfect.
When you want something to sound professional, you need professionals.
“You need a producer, and an engineer, and your songwriters and so on. Those roles are there because it’s the most efficient way to get a good sound,” Herring said.
You can stock a great home studio for a fraction of what it use to cost, but you need qualified people to run it.
When the resources are available, we don’t need to pay the people who are holding the tools hostage; we pay the people who know how to use them. It doesn’t matter how great your instruments are—if you can’t write music, you can’t make a good song. That’s why Marquis can make something worthwhile without good equipment. It’s talent that matters.
The same goes for every industry. Just because everyone can get the tools to make professional grade products, it doesn’t mean they know how, or that they’ll take the time to learn.
As Herring put it, “if I have the money I can go out and buy a Ferrari, but that does not make me Michael Schumacher. I’m not going to go to Monte Carlo and blow him off the track.”