Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Thoughts on Independent Music

Before I turned to graphic arts my studies and hobbies were in music composition. Like everyone else in the demomusic scene I released music for free and competed in contests like MC6 and 30 minute compos on #trax. I don't compose much anymore but I still have a great love of music and the people who have the craft to do it well.

I've been very passionate about independent music over the past couple of years since understanding more about the current state of the record industry. I'm not going to rant too much about this, and I don't think I need to because a lot of people would agree that the situation in the industry, for both artists and fans, is pretty abysmal. This doesn't have as much to do with the RIAA, it's about what artists under a record label have to go through; the record industry doesn't try to make music as much as they try to make celebrities.

This is why I've become so passionate about the independent music scene. I still consider myself part of it, even though I've been on sabbatical from it for 6 years, and I'm thrilled to see artists, especially those that where my peers from the demomusic scene like Andrew Sega (Necros) and Alexander Brandon (Siren), continue to create music and get paid for it. And as a side note, this is part of the reason why I loved the Unreal series so much; both of those artists created the soundtrack for it.

I love to see those artists succeed. I love it when artists have the copyright to their work and can be compensated fairly for it, or release songs for free or under a creative commons license. Like most geeks with my mindset about the entertainment industry, I buy most of the things I do purely out of principle because I want to support what it stands for.

The studio we are starting is built upon the philosophy of independence, so it's something all of us here really care about. We've seen too many good TV shows get canceled, franchises getting ruined by bad films/games/etc., ineffective distribution and draconian methods of enforcing copyright law. We have come to the conclusion that if we want to make the kind of entertainment that people genuinely want we have to remain independent. We believe that independent entertainment companies and individual artists are going to become very important and more mainstream, and we want to promote good independent work in all areas of the arts. That's why licensed music from our shows are going to be from independent artists.

Going back to the indie music scene, there are a couple of problems that I've had with it, one is finding great indie music and the other is how to create better indie music.

Finding Good Independent Music
It started with me trying to find new bands to listen to. Pandora was a great free resource because I could just input a song, band or genre and it would generate a custom channel that plays songs similar to it. But most of the songs that show up in my play list are top 40 songs or have been at some point, and it plays some dud songs which fortunately are skippable up to a certain number of skips per hour.

The good news is that I do occasionally come across new bands that I like, but they are not indie. Then there's Jamendo. It's all creative commons music that you can download or stream music completely for free, and if you like the band you can make a donation through the Jamendo web site. I found out about Jamendo through Rhythmbox, which can easily be installed with your favorite Linux distro. At first I made the mistake of browsing through the entire Jamendo playlist of songs, searching by genre, to find new music. After about an hour I came across one trance artist that actually had decent sounding music. It was good enough to download but it had the same production quality as some of the better demoscene music.

My recommendation with using Jamendo is to see what's featured on the front page of their website (not the random album reel at the bottom), and browse the database sorted by popularity. Even then it's still hit and miss, but you do come across albums with high production value and are well composed. Also, a lot of the songs are not in English, which is actually pretty cool.

Lastly there's CD Baby, which has provided me with the best indie music I've heard. Every album is reviewed and searching for top sellers always turns up great music. It's not free like Pandora or Jamendo, but the samples for each song are usually about a minute or more, and you can buy the albums as MP3 or have the CDs mailed to you in a timely manner. So far I've been more than happy to dish out the money for these CDs, and knowing that the artist receives 91% of what I payed for the album is great. So far I've found CD Baby to be the best way to not only find great indie music, but also support it.

How to Make the Independent Music Scene Better
The business model for indie music is fine for the state it's in right now. Thanks to digital distribution just about anything is possible now, and any number of people can get the music. Because the indie scene is more agile than large record labels, they'll jump on better business models way quicker. Getting the word out for these bands is the best thing we can do right now. By the way, Iris' newest album Wrath is awesome. It's a hybrid of electronica and rock, sounds awesome and is totally worth the money. Oh, and Celldweller is some of the best industrial metal music I've heard in a long time. There. I did my part for today.

The thing I'd like to see is a larger quantity of great indie music. From my past experience, I would have been better off if I had some training on mastering music for CDs. It wasn't until I read an article written for professionals where I started to pick up on things like what levels each frequency band should be at, compression (dynamic range, not data), hard limiting, and other things that you need to know about making a good master. Unfortunately, by that point I had already started college and didn't compose much. I was able to remaster my songs after I learned more about it (you can listen to the remastered versions of those songs on the music portion of my website), but since some of the mixes was bad to begin with there wasn't a whole lot I could do to fix it.

Also, the tools to create good music are way too expensive. When I started composing music in High School I talked to several professional composers to learn as much as I could about the craft. Their home studios amazed me, they had so much more equipment compared to my studio at home (as shown in the introductory image for this article). I was told by one of these composers that buying gear is a monetary black hole; you can put an infinite amount of money into buying synths and samples discs but you'll never quench your thirst for new sounds. You'll always feel that you don't have enough. This is probably why I stuck with techno music because with Buzz Tracker and software synthesis I can make any sound in my head so long as it's electronic.

The only gear I had was an Alesis QS6, a MIDI controller (which I only used for live performances), Impulse Tracker and later Buzz Tracker which gave me the software synthesis. It wasn't until my first week of college where I actually bought Cool Edit Pro 2 (now known as Adobe Audition) for $300, which I still use today for all my audio work. Simply adding a great multi-track audio editor to my arsenal significantly improved the quality of my music, first in the mastering stage and now during the whole process where all of the musical parts are assembled, mixed, and mastered with Cool Edit (the CMC Ad soundtrack was done using this method). Buzz tracker and my QS6 was great and I made some pretty good stuff with it, but what I really needed was a good sound editor.

I haven't used Buzz Tracker in a while because it's outdated, had to be hacked to get it to work in Windows XP, and I haven't found a good replacement for Buzz yet. There are a bunch of Buzz clones out there but they are all in very different stages of development and activity. If I wanted a Buzz replacement, Propellerhead's Reason would be the way to go except that it's US$500. Now for finding a free multi-track editing program, Audacity is underpowered, and Ardour is--well, I haven't actually figured it out yet. Linux audio is a huge pain to set up so it's not Ardour's fault, which is a shame because Jack is such a great idea. Installing Ubuntu Studio should help, assuming that all that audio stuff is set up properly.

To my knowledge there's no completely free or at least low-cost way for making studio-quality music, unless you are creating electronica. Then all you need is Buzz Tracker and a few good drum samples which are available for free. If you don't want to do electronica and step up to the new age genre you'll need a Roland, Korg, or some other comparable synth and a few world music sample discs (about US$60-100 each). If you want to record anything acoustic you'll need to get good instruments to play on, a soundcard with a good signal-to-noise ratio for recording, dynamic and/or condensers mics depending on what you're recording, and a room with good acoustics to boot. After getting whatever recording and editing software of your choice, free or not, you've already spent a lot of money just to be able to record music that can be played from a stereo system and not sound like garbage, or at least so that only audiophiles will think it's garbage. To top it off you need the knowledge to do all of this correctly and make sure you're not spending money on gear you don't need. If you don't, then your songs will sound like recordings of music played in a bedroom with a tape recorder. And there's a lot of that kind of music on Jamendo, which is a shame because some of those musicians are great composers and performers, and I probably would have probably paid for their music if the recording quality was better.

You'll still be surprised by the quality of music you can actually produce with very little money--some people just don't know how to create good stuff with what they have. The problem is that the cost of entry for creating good music, or even creating passable techno and new age albums, seem to be the highest for music than any other creative hobby that I can think of.

Think about it. If a writer wants to publish their work, all they need is a word processor and a web site. Word processors are free (OpenOffice.org) and a web sites are cheap, not to mention there are places to submit your work like Orson Scott Card's e-magazine InterGalactic Medicine Show. For illustration all you need is pencil, paper, a $30 scanner, a $60 tablet, The Gimp, and then post your work on deviantART. For programming the GCC compiler is free and your project can be hosted on Source Forge. Even photography is pretty cheap to get into with digital cameras and sites like PhotoBucket and Google's Picasa. Even 3D animation and film are cheap to get into and share with people with things like Blender, Kino, and sites like YouTube.

I don't know what can be done to make music production cheaper, aside from better open source or "free as in beer" software. Good training resources would have helped me a lot in the beginning, and would still help me now if I threw myself back into music composition. Sequencing, soft synths, mastering, and recording are pretty complicated and have taken me years to understand even on my level. I've been working with a few sites such as the Blender Foundation, ShowMeDo, and a new site called Guerrilla CG that focuses on giving quality free training for 3D animation which is a very complex subject. I don't see why something like that can't be done for sequencing and sound engineering as well.

Something that would also be nice is to have affordable studios that you can rent. Self-service studios possibly? Software and hardware is getting cheaper, so smaller studios that can be used by independent musicians that would only cost $65 a day instead of $65 or more an hour.

A lot of things are going to change over the next decade in the music industry. I'm confident that a lot of the struggles that people have with creating music independently are going to be resolved during that time. That is unless the conspiracy theories about the music industry shutting down guitar tab sites are true, which is that they want to keep people from learning how to play guitar so that making music takes on the mystique of a black art that only the established music industry can create.

Either way, the independent music scene has a huge drive to create and release their music to as many people as possible, and I can't wait to see what the scene will come up with next.

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