Open. Click. Send. In a matter of seconds, Max Schieble’s pre-recorded vocal track from America appears in the e-mail inbox of his bandmate Danny Lentz, who is abroad in Paris. Lentz receives the file, pulls out a violin and plays his part from memory. The file is sent back over to Schieble, who then puts it through the mixing grind of free software programs including Logic, GarageBand, and ProTools (all downloaded in “the glory days of MegaUpload”).
Once on iTunes, an upload to SoundCloud and Band Camp — all free sharing programs that link to social media — is a token of victory. At a remarkable speed in a “more or less cost-free process,” Pharaohs — a jazz-pop group that Schieble and Lentz co-founded, along with other rotating band members, two years ago — have created a song.
Enter Converse’s Rubber Tracks. The famous Americana shoe manufacturer of Chuck Taylor’s opened a free studio in Brooklyn last year in an attempt to brand the DIY movement and bands within it, like Pharaohs. And the company did this by appealing to a cost-sensitive demographic: According to Keith Gulla of Converse in a press release, the company wanted bands to “help overcome one of the biggest hurdles in their career: affording studio time.” Converse provides the gear, the audio engineers, and the space to create; all a band has to do is apply and show up.
That’s it — no strings attached or sign-up fees necessary. And as an option, a band can choose to let Converse have publication rights to the produced music in order for them to pump it through their website and social-networking presence.
Like Converse, the once-online, now-in-Brooklyn clothing company Mishka offers their brand name as a free platform for artists soaring in the blogosphere. By releasing mixtapes online with Mishka’s name and insignia on them, local New York rap acts like Ninjasonik and Mr. Mutha****in Esquire have gained fame and success without either party shelling out the big bucks.
As with many of today’s hopeful recording artists, Pharaohs have circumvented the shackles of money, time and distance by knowing their way around a MacBook. Although Schieble points out this isn’t his preferred way of recording (in his opinion, “Pharaohs’ music loses its essence a bit” with a lo-fi sound), the DIY process represents the extraordinary synergy that now exists between the Internet and a band. But someone, or something, has been left out of the mix: the presence of a middleman, a/k/a the venerable record label. Long one of the pillars of the music industry, labels are going the way of MySpace: ignored and outdated.
Since popular music awakened in or around the 1950s, the record label’s job has been simple: Sign a band, help them make music, and promote that product by all means possible. It was the authority figure that bands had to overly impress to in order to get airplay. But the transfer of power away from this top-down hierarchy began at some point in the mid 2000s. While music blogs and Facebook slowly invaded the Web, performers like Lil Wayne and Drake used the sites’ sharing capabilities as an advantage by releasing free mixtapes that went viral in minutes.
This symbiotic relationship is the modern-age alternative, demonstrated by the unprecedented act of clothing companies being involved in music production. Instead of signing an agreement or contract, the record label is quickly being replaced by the record collective, where two parties benefit off each other’s brand — in this case, the company’s name generates hype for the band’s music and vice versa. It is the natural application of DIY logic to marketing or, as Schieble understands it, “having a PR-oriented group backing you, and that’s it.”
Singer, songwriter, and Millennial musician Andy Gruhin is an unusual holdout with a major label — in this case, Sony. But he still has his generation’s mind-set in the signing situation and recognizes the trend that is taking place: “We live in a time where Arcade Fire won a Best Album Grammy for a DIY album. The labels are losing power every day. Art has no price.”
Because of this, he signed what is known as a “publishing deal” with the record titan, in which Sony is strictly responsible for marketing and nothing more. By doing so, Gruhin can create and play his own music without “selling my soul and risking my dignity to take advantage of people.”
Another example of this Millennial concoction is Danny Rose and Aya Tello’s A mini Tribe Records, whose m.o., in Rose’s words, is to “reinforce a spirit of artists for artists, not CEOs for music.” In a space like this, he believes that “it’s all about bands making their mark and creating their own content, not about what will sell well or get more cash flow” — a common mantra of the Internet, where personal self-branding and uniqueness is encouraged.
To Rose, this is where the bigger names lose the battle. Limited to radio and TV — mediums the Millennials increasingly tune out — major labels “carelessly spend money trying to guess at how their artists fare.” Although he admits that public relations and marketing still require some financial support, promotion via social media is cutting costs by market specification: “Now we can directly access our fans and target the ones we want to target for free; this cuts upkeep by a lot.”
In what he sees as a “family,” musician Phillip DeVries is a member of the A mini Tribe clan, opposite Rose in the collective sync but “both in the same boat of obscurity.” He explains that the collective works by lending a helping hand where need be: if one vocalist is needed in another’s recording, a simple exchange is made. In his opinion, the days of having simple name recognition through live shows are in the past: Now, as the 21st-century circuit, “the Internet, in a way, becomes the new record label.” Thus, Rose becomes a partner to DeVries, not an owner.
DeVries has played in Greenwich Village music venues with his group Broken Down Engine, which includes drummer Lucas Brown and bassist Dominick Chang. After recording with Rose’s equipment, DeVries’s blues guitar is channeled through music blogs and Facebook — the “hype machine,” as he calls it — to reach a larger audience.
But with all this potential for maximum exposure, the expectation bar can sometimes be set too high. Or as superstar Kanye West reportedly once said, “It’s not cool if no one listens to you.” Aware that Facebook or blog attention does not automatically translate into real-world success, DeVries falls back on the live approach of his musical forbearers, like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn: “It’s the live shows where you play well and have people start talking about you.” With everything else online, the live show is the only offline device in the Millennial setup.
Nick Dierl of Life or Death PR & Management — the group that does promotion work for big names like SoCal rock pop duo Best Coast and erratic rap clan Odd Future — agrees that cyberspace has its limits. Even if your music permeates the blogosphere, “being Internet famous is still very different from having fame in real life,” he said, “Now, more than ever, it’s really important for bands to be on the road winning over fans.” Using, as an example, Odd Future — a group known for its Tumblr and Twitter takeovers — Dearl explained that the group has succeeded because it delivered on its hype.
For Neil Patel, this trip-up results in the only real cost for the DIY movement: “The only thing hitting bands right now is a touring band with gas prices.” Patel started booking shows at the age of 15 in Atlanta, Georgia, and, four years later, created the hardcore punk collective Back to Back Records.
Even as a record label owner himself, he admits his own outmoding: “I think, now, more than ever, you don’t need record labels, and bands should be DIY,” Patel remarked. To avoid paying any overhead promotion costs whatsoever, he scours the social networks to sell his product: “I’ve never paid for marketing. I spend time on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and message boards to promote Back to Back’s stuff,” he said. The records he releases for bands are available on “donation download,” or a pay-what-you-want basis — a distribution scheme unheard of with major record labels.
For him, “punk and hardcore is a lifestyle” that he transformed into a business: “[The music] saved my life,” and all he wants to do is release 7″ LPs by bands that he loves listening to.
From Patel and Rose’s collective structure to DeVries and Schieble’s chop-and-screw recording, the attitude becomes clear: Everyone can participate in an activity without one player dominating the rest; a leveled-through-technology playing field exemplified in social media and software programs. With help from companies like Converse and Mishka, the top-down record labels’ job responsibilities can be replaced by a bottom-up generation that is tech-savvy, skeptic of their parents’ ways and anti-authoritative.
As the summer ends and Lentz returns from Europe, Schieble plans on paying a visit to Rubber Tracks to record Pharaohs’ first full-length album. Besides the $2.25 MetroCard fees to get to and fro Brooklyn, they’ll pay nothing, and, to Millennials, that’s the way it should be: “[The Internet] is democratic,” said Schieble. “In that sense, it’s the ideal American way of making music.”