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Independent Musicians

Open Culture

Scott Andrew LePera founded the lo-fi folk-rock project the Walkingbirds in 1998, around the same time he discovered the Web. Since then he’s actively recorded and released songs in MP3 format directly onto the Web from his little bedroom studio in Northern California. The Walkingbirds’ website sees several hundred downloads each month from all over the world, and their first CD release, The Sandalwood Sessions, is available exclusively on the Web.

Dealership began, in a sense, as a music project conceived by Chris Wetherell in 1995 while studying at U.C. Berkeley. To augment his classical studies, he began to think of ways he could explore pop music on his own. When he met Chris Groves, also a student and musician, an idea took root: Chris W. thought it would be cool to start a band with Chris G. His newfound whimsy impelled him to visit Guitar Center one afternoon and blow his student loan check on band gear. Then came a few months of drum ‘n’ bass work, which didn’t go anywhere except to convince the Chrises that they needed at least one guitarist. They begged everyone they knew to be in the band with them, until finally, sucker that she was, Jane agreed to learn to play the guitar.

In the fall of 1998 they released their first EP, Secret American Livingroom, which they recorded in Menlo Park with Guy Higbey. It was sheer luck that they found a great recording engineer who was patient, willing to teach, and open to playing around with some of the pop trio’s more outlandish ideas. Loaded with pop hooks and pretty vocals, it became favorite of local college DJs and indie scenesters. On the strength of this debut, they played Noisepop 1999 with Imperial Teen, and later that year, CMJ in New York.

Their next album, TV Highway to the Stars, was released in late 2001, and they’ve spent much of 2002 working on a follow-up.

These unsigned musicians have embraced the Internet, thorns and all. We caught up with them to talk about their thoughts on how tough it is to make it in music today, what they love about using the Internet to get their music out, what worries them, and how they plan to use Creative Commons licences for their work.

Creative Commons: In the current world of music, unsigned bands greatly outnumber signed recording artists. Tell us a bit about your bands, how you got started, and what types of music you create. How long have you been making music?

Scott, Walkingbirds: I’ve been writing and recording music for over a decade, ever since I got my hands on a roommate’s 4-track back in college. I started playing in bands while at school, although the music I played was much different, mostly grungesque and prog-rock stuff. After my main band broke up, I tinkered with the idea of a stripped-down acoustic act, with lots of vocal harmony and interplay — very different from what I had been doing before.

The Walkingbirds were formed in 1997, and by that time I had a small catalog of new songs [and was] looking for a voice. From the start we decided this was going to be more of a “project” than a band. A “band” implies that we actually rehearse and perform regularly; we wanted to keep it very casual, so we could skip out on a rehearsal and go drink beer with a clear conscience. My co-writer Laurie Hallal had recently gone through the breakup of her very popular band, and we were both burnt out from the effort of trying to make a band work. The goal was to write songs and put them to tape, and have fun doing it. No more than that.

I moved to California in the summer of 2000, and the Walkingbirds as a duo ended. It was around this time that I realized that most of what we paid to have done in a studio could be done inexpensively on a PC. After a bit of tinkering I managed to record and release a handful of new tunes under the Walkingbirds name, exporting them straight to MP3 format and uploading them to my website. So now the Walkingbirds are fully a one-person DIY record-at-home musical project in the strictest sense.

Jane, Dealership: Oh, I like the idea of a “project” as opposed to a “band” very much. In a way that frees you from having to stick to genres. The toughest and most annoying question bookers and promotional people ask is, “Who do you sound like?” When you’re in a band, you feel you have to develop a “band” sound — not that we really do that in Dealership. Which is why it’s hard to say what we sound like.

CC: How much work and time goes into writing a new song or cutting a complete CD?

Scott, Walkingbirds: It’s always an uphill battle for me, mostly because the ideas don’t come easy. I’m lucky if I can complete one song in six months. It was a bit easier when I had bandmates, because you have more contributors and feedback and can complete a song faster, but the end result is usually much different than when you’re writing solo. I have bits and pieces of songs lying around from years ago — a chorus here, a bridge here — waiting to be completed. Sometimes these bits never become whole songs, and sometimes I’ll be noodling around with some old chord progression and things will suddenly click.

Because I record at home, I have the luxury of taking my time and having complete control. Sometimes I’ll work on a sampled drum track for weeks to ensure it sounds as natural and “live” as possible. Or sometimes I’ll stay up late applying random effects to the bass track, just to hear what happens. If I’m unhappy with a vocal take two weeks after I recorded it, I don’t have to book another few hours at the studio four weeks from now; I can walk go into the bedroom, erase it, and do another. There’s no clock, no engineer running patch cords, no arguing with the lead singer, no hauling a drum kit into the basement.

That said, I can’t really say that technology has improved my songwriting. It’s made me more productive by taking away barriers, like the expense of a studio or CD duplication. Occassionally I’ll hear something while tinkering with FruityLoops or Reason that will give me an idea, a place to start. But inevitably it comes down to what (Smithereens’ guitarist) Pat DiNizio calls “ass in chair” — I have to turn off the machine, pick up the guitar, sit down and just write the damn song. I usually have to have a tune completely written in my head before I open ProTools. The great thing about all of this is that, when I am ready to record, I can do it immediately without the constraints I used to have a few years ago.

Jane, Dealership: I would love to do what you do, Scott. Since we put out our first album, we’ve been throwing around the idea of what Chris W. would call, in his Marxist way, “owning the means of production.” But assembling the components necessary to record a four-piece band with three vocals daunted us, and it’s not until recently that Chris W., who has always been a tireless promoter for his integrative capitalist ideals, has really initiated the purchase of computers and tools to record our own stuff at home. We are also starting to play more with non-live sounds — drum machines, samples, electronically derived sounds — and that makes it easier to make music without expensive, fancy mics.

I think that would definitely change our songwriting style, too. The way we do it now, we pretty much complete the song (or we try to) before we go into the studio — because we don’t want to waste a lot of time and money tinkering. Of course we end up tinkering somewhat. But in the future I see the recording process as an integral part of songwriting — in my fantasy, as I mentioned, we email tracks to each other and build off those. Maybe the danger will be we just won’t know when to stop! We’ll create an infinite loop of music.

CC: When you post an mp3 of your music somewhere online, what are the advantages to doing it? What sorts of things are you looking forward to when you offer your music this way?

Scott, Walkingbirds: Immediate distribution: I don’t have to take the extra step of pressing a CD and shipping it out. I often just rip the audio mixdown directly to MP3 and post it the same night I complete the mix.

Immediate feedback: I love hearing from someone who really liked the song, and appreciate the comments from people who thought the drums were too loud, the bassline too cheesy, and so on. And every so often I get a message from someone in Pakistan or Senegal, or somewhere distant that I will probably never see in my lifetime, and I am totally blown away.

Chris W., Dealership: Often, when thinking about the value of distributing our songs as MP3s, I’m reminded of a lyric from the song of a band we know well (Imperial Teen, Luxury). The lyric reads: “I’m looking for a family who listens to my songs.” MP3 sharing has powerfully enabled our ability to join communities of shared values and aesthetics and support. I’ve watched our behavior as artists change; we now derive a good deal of inspiration from the community of people who’ve listened to us and responded and shared their songs or their weblogs or their art. Artists who don’t share MP3s probably have a difficult time leveling the communication between fan and artist to a more rewarding interchange. If a band doesn’t participate in a sharing community, what kind of fan would be inspired to do more than email them and say, “Hey, liked your band on Thursday,” or “I loved that song”? We can trade music and ideas with a subset of people who already are thinking a lot about music, are exposed to many things (via P2P), and can take an active role in developing a critical aesthetic. The Internet, being a data exchange, is a lot more suited to that than any other medium.

MP3 distribution is also pretty nifty since it often enlists other people as third-party distributors via peer-to-peer processes. It’s a much quicker path to community building. (But not the quickest path to passive distribution of knowledge about your music, a process otherwise known as getting your name out there. That distinction, to be sure, still belongs to television.)

We also realize that there may be people who are encouraged to buy one of our CDs after listening to an MP3. But this result, while positive, is really, really low on the list of other values returned from sharing MP3s.

Free trading of our music has genuine, verifiable returns. Community. Exchanges of artistic thought and aesthetic commodity. . . The RIAA argument that artists won’t particpate in the marketplace of ideas without financial compensation for CDs seems pretty short-sighted from where we sit.

CC: Conversely, can you think of any disadvantages of doing it? What things do you worry about when offering your music files online?

Jane, Dealership: There are disadvantages. Recording, for us, costs money; we spent some time and money designing and producing the CD sleeves, too. And then the cost of pressing the CDs — it adds up fast. It would be great if everyone who downloaded Dealership would also go out and buy a CD. It’s a little depressing that they don’t, I guess. But if we ever make it to Boise, there’s a chance that some kids will have heard of us and will want to see us play and maybe buy some t-shirts and related merchandise. Also a lot of the indie scenesters are sensitive to the poverty of the musicians they like and are quite cool about insisting on paying for CDs.

I think ultimately the lesson that music makers, including the major labels, need to learn is that music will be free — utterly, completely, totally. What we’ll get paid for are related products — like the t-shirts, or the live shows, or the unique CD insert, or the poster, or — well, maybe we’re not smart enough to have thought of all that can happen. We need to change our revenue models. Fortunately it’s easy for us — easier than if we were a major label. We’re small, we’re flexible, and we don’t practice economies of scale. We can print 1000 CDs and watch how they sell, and shift if we need to. Which actually puts us in a better position to respond to emergent technologies, and to take advantage of them.

Besides, it’s not like we’re in this for the money, anyway.

Scott, Walkingbirds: Obviously I don’t get any money for offering free downloads. But at this level you really can’t do it for the money. You’ve got to take that opportunity to connect with the people who are going to become your fans and turn them into repeat customers who’ll come see you play and buy your t-shirts.

One thing that does cross my mind from time to time is the possibility that some shmuck will take a song of mine and pass it off as his own. Or, that some company will start using one of my tunes as a jingle for snack crackers or something. But the Web has this tendency to sniff these people out, and I figure it wouldn’t be long before someone emailed me with a note, “Hey, did you hear this? This sounds like YOUR song.” And that’s where traditional, tried-and-true copyright law can still be effective — because even though I choose to make a song freely available, there are still limits. Under a modified license I might even be willing to allow someone to add my song to his setlist, or use it in a soundtrack.

But the same rule applies: ask first, because otherwise you will be found out, and your name plastered all over MetaFilter and Slashdot. Discovery is just a Google search away!

Chris W., Dealership: The downside of this method is significant and obvious. We aren’t compensated monetarily.

Which would be a disaster if we couldn’t derive compensation through other means such as live performance and merchandise. But we can. And because MP3s are traded for free with excellent, easy-to-install tools for sharing and downloading, this method generally yields the highest amount of people actually listening to our songs. Which, if they enjoy the art we create, can be very gratifying personally.

As far as worry. . . we can’t imagine that there’s too much to ever worry about regarding fair use of music. People like songs. They’ll share music with friends and family. As they always have.

I know what you’re getting at, though. Many people worry that offering music files online means No Money For Daddy.

But, as I’ve said before, I am not entirely convinced that the Internet-music-delivery industry and the CD/Cassette/Vinyl-delivery-industry are commodifying the same product. The reason I’m not yet convinced is that it seems unclear to me whether the “norms” for consumption of music are moving dramatically away from CDs and toward digital MP3 encoded files. Doesn’t it seem more realistic to state that a subset of music consumers are both buying CDs (perhaps less than before) and downloading free MP3s? I believe that the elements of CD packaging — including cover, booklet, and CD design — as well as the product’s very physicalness (something that allows for unlimited portability and decorative collection), are such valuable characteristics as to make a practical differentiation possible.

Which is to say that I don’t think people will ever stop buying music on physical media. And as a result, I believe that musicians will always be compensated monetarily. Consumers may become choosier about their purchases, though. Thanks to peer networks, there are many cheap and efficient methods for previewing a particular product’s contents.

CC: Now that you’ve seen the licenses available from the Creative Commons site, can you tell us how you plan to use them for your band’s work? Considering the potential drawbacks to releasing music online, can you see some benefits from using licenses with your work?

Scott, Walkingbirds: I’m seriously considering a combination of Attribution, Non-commercial, and Share Alike for my material. My primary concern is allowing the public the widest possible access to my songs. I don’t want people who just like my music to have to jump through legal hoops to listen to it on their computer or add a song to their Live365 webcast. I want people to share and enjoy this music by whatever means they have. The licensing options I’ve chosen should allow all of that, while protecting the important parts: I get attribution, and you still have to ask my permission to profit from my work. And if you want to make a funked-out disco remix, you can do that, as long as the end result is covered under the same license.

In some ways, it’s no different than regular copyright, except with the restrictions on copying and file-sharing relaxed. I’m comfortable with that. No more of this “you can only make one copy for yourself” crap. Artists have to get used to the idea that people WILL copy your stuff, they WILL share it with friends, and yes, it’s likely that you WILL find your entire album on the Internet. The question is are you gonna treat those people as fans, or thieves? Do you think people who like your music will appreciate being called thieves? Is that any way to establish a relationship with your new, online fanbase? Maybe the big labels can handle it, but I know that at my level, I can’t afford to alienate a single potential fan.

I’m much more comfortable saying, “Here are some songs, go forth and copy,” and not worry about it. What little money I lose to copying, I’ll make up in mutual respect from happy fans, who, I hope, will come to my shows and buy my t-shirts.

Chris W, Dealership: I think we’ll be releasing songs using the Noncommercial license. The upside is that people who are already sharing our songs and have every intention of continuing to do so will not be incorrectly identified as criminals. And we’ll have some ammunition against unauthorized compilations and unwanted inclusion in advertising. (Though, as a suggestion to the good people involved in this endeavor, it would be nice if this license could be applied specifically to a file format, like mp3 compression, and not to, say, .WAV sound files.)

As for the other licenses, Share Alike and Attribution suggest a release we’ve always talked about but never produced: a karaoke version of a song or two of ours. Be your own Chris Groves or Jane Pinckard in the comfort of your living room. Or cubicle, if you have a small mic, recording software, and understanding co-workers.

Posted 01 October 2005