Cheap Artists Give Recording Industry A Facelift

Chris Perry doesn’t have any money. The black fedora he wears mixed with his chin-strap facial hair help him fit right into the “struggling musician” persona. He’s been playing guitar for a while and he’s taken music classes at the University of Tampa. He’s played in bands as well as written his own music for solo endeavors. Last year, he decided to take it upon himself to write, record, and distribute a solo E.P.

Recording at a studio proved too expensive for Perry, he expected it would cost somewhere between $500-$1000 so he recorded the four-song CD entitled Ready To Fly on his Mac computer using Garageband, a basic recording program that comes free on all Mac computers. Perry’s budget and expenditures were comparable to many young musicians trying to record their own music; barely enough to get by, and not nearly enough to professionally record.

“I’ve got twenty dollars to my name,” croons Perry over his acoustic guitar on the first track of Ready to Fly. “And I’ll blow it all on beer.

Since the “Great Recession” began in the latter years of the 2000s, the music industry has changed dramatically. From the illegal downloading of songs through Limewire, Mediafire and torrents, to free releases of whole albums (Radiohead’s In Rainbows, Angels and Airwaves’ LOVE, Prince’s Planet Earth), the industry is starting to come to terms with the fact that consumers can’t and don’t want to spend the way they used to.

That fact is starting to be seen in all facets of the music business.

When Perry goes to write a song or E.P., the thought of a studio doesn’t even cross his mind. “The bottom line is you need money to record nowadays,” Perry said. “That’s a fact. A sad fact.”

That doesn’t mean studios are charging exorbitant amounts for recording time, pricing has stayed relatively consistent. It’s just a drop in available funds.

Dr. Bradford Blackburn, assistant professor of music technology at UT, explains that there are a number of reasons studios can range from $20-an-hour to upwards of hundreds of dollars-an-hour.

“The list goes on and on in what you’re going to spend to make a recording studio top notch,” Blackburn said. “With that said, many people are opting not to record in a studio, because a studio has to pass that expense onto clients.”

The first and foremost is simply how functional the studio is. If it’s built correctly, it has walls insulated from the outside, windows with air pockets between the panes, a floating floor (on springs or some other form of sound absorption surface), a specially designed air conditioning unit and a good electrical system. All of this helps in reducing sound distortion, something that can ruin a recording.

The biggest difference between now and past economic lulls is that musicians without a well funded budget have alternatives. Since recording began the transition from analog to digital in the 90s, cheaper and better quality ways to record sound have become more readily available.

In October of 2010, Hypebot.com conducted a survey of the most used recording programs. Apple’s Garageband came in seventh behind program’s like Apple’s Logic and Avid’s Pro Tools, but came in first for products that retail for under $100.

The appeal for Garageband is simple, explained Dr. Blackburn. It’s lets you do basic recording tasks without getting too complicated or bogged down with theory. With the help of prerecorded instruments and tracks, you can use Garageband to “make” songs without ever learning or writing a note in your life. Blackburn explains the program is a blessing and a curse.

“A lot of people gravitate toward Garageband because if they’re not schooled as musicians or they don’t have the training, they can make stuff instantly that sounds interesting, just by using the pre-recorded loops that are in the program and that’s fine,” Blackburn said with a wry smile. “But it’s not a whole lot different as collage as a form of art.

“Basically you’re taking something that already exists, that someone else created and then just pasting it up on your locker door and calling it a work of art. I submit that that’s actually not really art but recycling.”

Steve Connelly is chief engineer and producer of Zen Recording Studios in Clearwater, Florida. Before starting his own studio, Connolly played in a band called The Headlights and toured with Roger McGuinn of The Byrds. He’s seen the recording industry from both sides; first as a musician struggling to get heard by a mass audience and second as a studio producer for acts such as Ronny Elliot, The Ditchflowers, and The Almost.

“That whole experience was the catalyst to start my own studio,” Connelly said of his band experience and trying to record in a major studio, through email. “I thought I could’ve made our record for $2000 instead of $70,000-but that was the good old days of waste and excess-things are different now.”

Although he recognizes the hardships musicians face, he can’t help but be a bit perturbed when artists come into the studio expecting a finished product quickly. Recording just one song can take many hours if not many days. Artists with a tight budget, if they do decide to record at all, try to get as much done in as little time as possible.

“What happens is people try to get more for less,” Connolly added. “Thus shortchanging themselves on a quality level.

“Few spend enough time on a project to really flesh it out, a bit of what I call ‘American Idol Syndrome’ has started to seep in. Folks think you walk in, plug in, step up to a mic and make magic that I then capture and out pops a gold record. That’s possible, but usually it takes a lot of hard work and long hours to achieve.”

The recording process can be summed up in three stages.

Tracking, which is the use of microphones and recording software to actually take in and save the sound for the song or sound bite; Mixing, the use of software to mesh many different sound tracks into one blended and equal clip; And mastering, the most arduous of the three, the perfectionist stage. Anything wrong in the original two stages that wasn’t caught or fixed is worked on during mastering. Many techniques can be used to master a track, but it takes a certain finesse to find a medium between fixing and tampering.

Connelly and Dr. Blackburn agree that studios are slowly finding a new niche if not becoming totally obsolete. Musicians like Perry, even if they aren’t getting studio quality material, are making the sacrifice to save a bit of cash.

Some studios are shutting down and some, like Connelly’s, are run independently by people who aren’t making the kind of income normally associated with record execs.

The music industry is changing fast, and that means everybody. As rewards for musicians not on the big stage get back to love and away from money, there are still the select few who are sticking it out and recording on their laptops. And the ones who are doing it all for the passion.

“This is truly a labor of love,” Connolly said. “You work every waking hour for what amounts to poverty level recompense. You have to deal with the fragile psyche of the fickle artist; play psychologist camp counselor- take out the trash and clean the bathroom. And somehow make people sound better than they thought they would…I’m afraid recording and the music business in general may succumb to further dumbing down of Western culture, but I always see a few new bright lights on the scene.

“They take the circumstances of the day and find creative, do-it-yourself ways of keeping it evolving and using the new tools to create something that wasn’t there before.”

This article can be found in The Minaret Magazine‘s second issue for the ’11-’12 school year.

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