Bands and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Music and Internet and Singers and Technology

Digital boosts local music and labels

February 9, 2009

To appreciate how the digital age has changed the way local musicians work, take a look at singer-songwriter Otis Gibbs.

In the early 1990s, when Gibbs put out his first CD, there wasn't much more to it than that. He released the record himself, garnered whatever media coverage he could, mailed postcards to fans, performed around town and sold the disc at shows and a few local stores.

For his new album, "Grandpa Walked a Picket Line," Gibbs has done or will be doing all those things. He also hired a company called Thirty Tigers to handle digital distribution and generate front-page views on sites such as iTunes and amazon.com. Fans can contact him through MySpace and Facebook, buy his disc from sites such as cdbaby.com, which caters to independent musicians and their fans, and discuss him on locally based Web sites such as Musical Family Tree (musicalfamilytree.net), indianapolismusic.net and My Old Kentucky Blog (myoldkyhome.blogspot.com). And Gibbs can promote his gigs through his e-mail list.

"I'm like a guy with a pickup truck selling sweet corn," said Gibbs. "This whole digital thing really helps out a lot because you don't have to sell your corn just to the people in your town. You can sell all over the world."

These days, local musicians can record cheaply at home with programs such as Pro Tools and distribute their music inexpensively. Tracks can be sent digitally to critics and bloggers, and with the growing number of online music writers leveling the playing field, it increases the possibility of reviews and feature stories for lesser-known artists.

And, for fans and potential fans, sites like Musical Family Tree allow them to listen, and virtually every group has a Web site, or at least a MySpace page.

Jeb Banner started Musical Family Tree five years ago as a way to share music, putting up a list of MP3 files that he sent around to friends. And friends reciprocated. He and partner Joe Downey began promoting local music events and even started their own record label. "But mostly," Banner said, "it was about having thousands of MP3s available for free." For fans of Indianapolis-based Margot and the Nuclear So and So's, MFT has been the place to listen to rare and secondary recordings-tracks other than the ones found on the band's Epic Records releases.

About a year ago, MFT added Ning social-networking technology that allows visitors to talk to each other about everything from punk rock to Hoagy Carmichael. Musical Family Tree now counts 1,500 members, and it's growing.

If local music fans aren't talking there, they're likely on Indianapolismusic.net. IMN generates a weekly podcast, which can be heard on the site and at 4 p.m. Thursdays on WFYI (90.1) HD2, with concert information, photos, opinions and more.

Assistant editor Ryan Williams said the digital age has been a boon for fans and musicians alike. "It's certainly easier for anyone trying to find out about a band before they go see them and also for musicians to get in touch with each other," he said.

"No matter where you are," he notes, "services like Tunecore can get your music up on iTunes and in the same marketplace as everybody else." Although, he adds, "There's still competition, you still have to do the publicity work and make sure everybody knows where it is."

The digital world also helped local record labels. Bloomington-based Secretly Canadian employs 32 people and boasts a list of achievements that would have been difficult if not impossible when Chris Swanson and company opened their doors in 1996. Their roster includes Antony and the Johnsons, whose "I Am a Bird Now" won Britain's Mercury Prize for the best record of 2005. Another act, Bon Iver, currently has a Top 100 album, "For Emma, Forever Ago," that has sold 125,000 copies.

Neither band is based in Indiana—in fact, few of the approximately 50 active artists on Secretly Canadian's labels are. But proximity doesn't matter as long as e-mail, text and telephone are available.

Michael Kaufmann can appreciate that. He works in A&R/development (essentially, he signs and works with bands) for Asthmatic Kitty, the label of Sufjan Stevens, who won vast critical acclaim for his 2005 CD "Illinois." Asthmatic Kitty, founded in Holland, Mich., is based in Wyoming. Kaufmann lives in Indianapolis.

What he's seen in the music industry lately is what he calls "a new paradox. Not paradigm, paradox."

"Just because a band's MySpace page is getting listens and lots of downloads, that doesn't automatically lead to them setting up shows or even selling records," he said. "It's a good way to market, but to me, there's still something really crucial about the old-fashioned way of doing things. Playing live shows is still important, meeting people face to face is still important and fostering a live scene is still important."

As Kaufmann points out, for all its advances, the digital age does have its downsides. For one, fans have come to expect music for free. By the time Asthmatic Kitty act Fol Chen's new record comes out, about a third of the songs will have been released for free as MP3s.

Another downside: Digital recording makes sharing music easy for fans—and leaves artists with nothing to show for it. Otis Gibbs tells the story of playing a show in Ireland one night and getting an e-mail the next morning from a friend in California who had found and downloaded a recording of that concert.

And because anyone can put out music and market it with relative ease, lots more people do. CD Baby reports that it currently sells 2,341 records by musicians from Indiana.

What's happened, Secretly Canadian's Swanson said, is that the digital world has made music accessible to more people.

"There are fewer musicians in the music business making a few million dollars a year," he said. "But there are a lot more artists out there making over $100,000 a year."

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