In 1969, the Whole Earth Catalogue arrived on the scene with an interesting subtitle: Access to Tools. In it, there was an article that spoke of a new home multi-track recording device made by Tascam. It suggested that this new technology might provide musicians with an affordable means to record their work and thus circumvent the costly recording studios, which were, in some cases, owned or controlled by parent record companies. With this new technology you could also avoid the perceived traps, greed and excesses of the music business world. You could release your own album.
That winter, Ken Hamm and I searched out this new technology in the hope of pursuing this new path: the woodshed album. After several tours of Toronto industrial parks, we discovered that the Tascam was not available in Canada yet, and so we found ourselves working on an old Scully half-track in a language lab at OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education). Nevertheless, for us, the new age had begun. My first album was one of the first four independent albums to be released in Canada. Chris Cuddy, a compatriot from Peterborough, might have had the first release.
In the subsequent years, more and more artists responded to the democratization of the recording process and, in turn, technology provided more affordable gear for home recording. Now in 2018, of one hundred CDs on my shelf, 80 are essentially independent or woodshed hybrid albums. If I were to check my vinyl record collection now resting in the basement, only three to four per cent would have been independently produced. This opening up of the recording process has been a wonderful thing for artists who could never have dreamed of having their own CD simply because they were too far from musical hubs – and for works that would have never found a home in the musical mainstream. However, with this democratization, the collapse of the music industry, and the introduction of online downloading, there is trouble in paradise
When I look at my CD collection, I notice that a disproportionate number of those independent CDs produced during the early days were pretty dodgy. Often they were purchased at live gigs in support of the artist, and that’s good, but after a while one gets cautious. It might be that they sounded bad at the recording level, but more importantly, they often fell short on the artistic level. The songs were not well conceived or executed. Now I will be the first to admit that my first effort was indeed an effort, but at least I have the excuse of being a pioneer in the form. And now that the CD is both threatened and yet, ubiquitous, there has been dramatic fallout. The democratization of the process has effectively turned all consumers into Artist and Repertoire personnel. In the bad old days, record companies had a series of checks and balances in place. The AnR guys sought out and listened to artists who they wanted or who auditioned to get on the label. One of the most famous was John Hammond Sr. who brought us Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan for example. He was noted for his taste, musical vision and yes, money making ability for Columbia Records. Nowadays there is no John Hammond. We the listener are asked to be the first arbiters at $15- $20 per CD. What this has done in recent years can be summed up in the expression “buyer beware.” With so many contemporary independent artists nowadays, consumers are becoming more and more cautious about wanting to buy a CD period – even today, though the quality of production has improved dramatically. A listener said to me recently, “I don’t buy CDs off stage any more – I don’t trust the quality.” I believe this has led to the increase of single track downloads. I think as well it has led many artists to steer away from releasing Cds at all, instead choosing to go back to the now boutique world of vinyl recordings or direct to download. There are other exponential factors here that the world of Apple introduced that I am not bringing to bear on this article but I am acutely aware of.
Under the previous paradigm, artists usually submitted demos of their work or recorded a series of demos for the record company before embarking on an album. This check in the system allowed the record company to hear who they were supporting without taking on the cost of full production. It allowed artists to become more familiar with the recording process. Today, an artist can create a CD in his or her basement and release it, unheard by anyone between the artist and the listener. There are no checks and balances in this new world and now sadly, the CD or download card has become your demo. That is a very expensive demo.
Now maybe there shouldn’t be these checks and balances. Certainly the new democracy is preferable to the tyranny of the old system, where record companies and publishers preyed upon the naivety and hunger of the artist. But if this new world has turned us into unwilling editors it also may have cheapened the value of the product itself. At one point, doing a demo was like posting a bond of serious intention within the trade. Record companies, club owners, festival directors all required them. It was the thought then that if the artist had gone to the trouble, effort and commitment of putting out a demo, their work should be considered seriously. All that has fallen away, and in the particular and thorny case of the festival director, they are now asked to sort through thousands of CD submissions each year. When you combine the first issue of quality with the second, of shear numbers, it is understandable why the posted bond of a CD now has a reduced value and why, in part, you don’t hear back from that festival director. They are buried under a pile of CDs and are being asked to do several tasks that used to be done by several others. It was reported that an AD of a large Canadian folk festival received 1200 unsolicited CDs before they decided to only accept submissions online. That’s trouble in paradise and the reason why most juries now only accept downloads.
As an artist who has supported this artist friendly recording process for most of my career all this puts me in a bit of a quandary. If this new order has become a source of frustration for the artist and listener, who has the major beneficiary been? I might submit that, at this point, the winner has been Alesis, Mackie, Rode, Fostex, Cubase, Logic, Garageband – all those companies and programs, formats and tools that have made home recording possible. At some point, new companies saw that that one unit at $200,000,( Revox, Studer) was beyond reach and realized that they could increase their earnings if, through cheaper and available technology, they could sell 100,000 units at $6000. Ah capitalism- hard to avoid. (Alesis’ ADAT sold over 140,000 units before it was determined they were better used as boat anchors. I recall one studio having six ADATs in the hope that two might be working!) Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.
Now I am not sure if we, as artists, have been conned again or are merely hapless participants in an evolutionary process that has included the devolution of record companies and the availability of new technology. I do know that we are in a period of tremendous shake down and upheaval – a paradigm shift as they call it – and ultimately the musician is caught between the rock and a hard place. We cannot turn back nor would we want to, but certainly the road ahead seems uncertain and bumpy.