21 Independent Music Production and Distribution

The preceding chapters have documented many significant changes to the music industry over the years. But arguably the most significant change is one that is the most recent and potentially disruptive — the rise of completely independent music production. The term “independent” has been used in the music industry since its inception to refer to small record companies that exist outside the “mainstream.” An early example of a successful independent record company would be Okeh Records in the 1920s while a more recent example would be Subpop Records in the 1990s.  This chapter is not about small, independent record companies, which have been discussed at length above. Rather this chapter involves music production that it does not involve a record company at all. This new form of independent music production enables musicians to market recordings directly to the public without the intermediation of record studios, record companies, or traditional record distribution channels.

Independent music production is highly dependent on new technologies that eliminate economies of scale and other technological barriers to entry into the recorded music market. Economies of scale arise due to the fact that it is more cost efficient to make many units of a product than to just make one. Going back to the earliest years of the record industry, it was always possible to make a single recording of a song as an amateur. However, the cost of making hundreds of copies of a recording was prohibitive without the financial support (and industry connections) of a record company. Record companies provided many benefits to a musician, but perhaps the most important was the investment of funds in recording and manufacturing the recorded product. Musicians simply did not have access to the capital and expertise required to make their own recordings until the developments discussed below.

Changes in technology in the second half of the 20th century gradually provided musicians with more opportunities to produce their own recordings, with the most recent of those changes being unfettered access to streaming music platforms. Here is a summary of these changes and how they enabled independent music production:

Magnetic tape recording: We saw above that the first “format war” was between the cylinder and the disk, with the disk winning broad acceptance as the superior format shortly after the turn of the 20th century (c. 1910). However, making and duplicating disks was (and still is) a capital-intensive process requiring expensive equipment and technical expertise, making it out-of-reach for music self-production. In the late-1920s and early 1930s, a new and more accessible technology, magnetic tape recording, became available. So-called reel-to-reel tape machines (or “decks”) became widely available, which were smaller, more mobile, less expensive, and easier to operate than disk cutting machines. One of the primary advantages of tape recording machines is that they could be easily moved from place to place, enabling “field” recordings away from dedicated recording studios. The famous Smithsonian folk and blues field recordings made by the father-son folklorist team of John and Alan Lomax in the 1930s and ‘40s are an iconic example of the recordings enabled by this technology. The Lomax’s could fit their tape recording gear in the trunk of a car, making it possible to drive throughout the country making “field recordings.” One prominent example of the Lomax recordings is that made of blues legend Muddy Waters in 1941 in Mississippi, in Waters’ home. Waters’ recording by Alan Lomax inspired him to subsequently move to Chicago to launch his commercial recording career with Chess records in 1948. Waters quickly became the leading “Chicago Blues” artist, building on his modest start as a subject for Lomax’s folklorist field recordings. 

Tape recording technology improved to the point that it quickly became the standard professional recording-studio equipment, reaching its pinnacle in the 2-inch, 24-track decks of the 1970s, a format that remains the state-of-the-art in analog recording technology today.

The tape cassette: Two-track (1/4 or 1/2-inch) reel-to-reel tape decks were inexpensive enough by the 1960s that amateur musicians could use them to make their own recordings. However, duplicating those recordings for distribution to even a few friends proved costly and difficult. In 1963, a new tape format was introduced known as the tape cassette, which placed the tape reel in a small plastic case, enabling it to be stored safely and conveniently and avoiding the delicate process of threading the tape through a deck’s spindles. Cassettes also allowed for easy rewinding. Their sound quality was inferior to the larger tape reels (due to the narrow and thin tape used in the cassette), but their increased convenience and ease-of-use outweighed the inferior sound quality for most users. 

The cassette tape brought about two other major enhancements that enabled independent music production: easy duplication and the idea of a multi-track “home studio.” The self-contained and inexpensive cassette proved ideal for duplication, even on a mass scale using multi-cassette duplication machines. A musician or band could distribute multiple copies of their cassette by paying a modest fee to a small business who owned a cassette duplicator. The cost of distribution was suddenly within reach of musicians and bands without a record deal.

In 1979, the Tascam company introduced a revolutionary product based on the audio cassette — the Portastudio. Tascam’s Portastudio was a self-contained, four-track, home recording “studio” built into a unit about the size of a shoebox. The recording medium was the by-then familiar cassette tape, but now controlled by a small mixer and controls that enabled an inexperienced user to record and layer four separate tracks. Portastudios were soon also equipped with another relatively new development, the “drum machine,” so that musicians could avoid the difficult process of recording drums while also providing a new level of rhythmic precision to their recordings. 

The Portastudio was a huge and instant success, as amateur musicians could now make multi-track recordings in their own homes, with even a single musician able to combine vocals, guitar, bass, and drums into a compelling mix on a cassette tape that could be easily duplicated for friends and fans. High-speed “home dubbing” cassette duplication machines also because popular, so that musicians could run off multiple copies of their cassettes without paying for access to the high-volume duplicators. On a personal note, I well-remember when my guitarist bandmate in the early 1980s bought a Portastudio. Although our drummer wasn’t thrilled with it, it enabled the guitarist, myself (playing a keyboard), and our bass player to create multi-track recordings in our guitarist’s apartment (including a track dedicated to the built-in drum machine). It was a game-changer. (That guitarist is now an Emmy-winning composer who writes and records television soundtracks for children’s animation shows in his home studio. That career all began for him with the cassette Portastudio.)

The Digital Revolution: The introduction of digital technology to music production in the 1980s had a tremendous effect on the ability of musicians to create studio-quality recordings in their own homes. I divide these new digital technologies into three types, discussing each in turn:

The compact disc (CD) is known to most (and discussed above) as a revolutionary new format to consume recorded music. However, the CD also quickly became just as revolutionary a method for recording music in the home. As explained above, the cassette tape offered great convenience over reel-to-reel tape, but it had several deficiencies. The sound of a cassette tape is significantly inferior to that of both a vinyl disc and traditional reel-to-reel tape formats. Cassettes have significant hiss, distortion, and speed flutter. (Dolby noise reduction was introduced to cassettes in the late 1970s, but this offered only a relative improvement and required specialized playback decks loaded with the Dolby encoding and decoding technology.) Cassette tapes were also subject to damage from heat and were prone to being “eaten” by low-quality tape decks such as those in cars. Finding a particular song on a cassette was also very difficult without specialized “gap detection” algorithms available only in the more expensive decks. 

Compact disks, introduced in 1982, overcame nearly all of the cassette’s deficiencies. The sound quality of a CD was far superior to that of the cassette, particularly it’s signal-to-noise ratio. (Signal-to-noise ratio refers to the amount of constant background noise, such as “hiss”.) The CD was also more durable and capable of easy track location (no rewinding required). But perhaps the most remarkable feature of a CD from the perspective of a recording musician is that with the invention of the “recordable CD” (CD-R), a musician could now record straight to a CD through their personal computer (which typically came loaded with a CD-R drive). (CD-R drives became available in computers around 1995.) The computer could also make an infinite number of copies of the CD with no loss of fidelity from the original. With a home color printer, a musician could even print labels and CD inserts, allowing for a production experience quite close to that of a retail CD. High-speed CD duplication machines also enabled musicians and bands to pay a relatively low fee for hundreds or even thousands of CDs, with labels and inserts, from many companies offering such duplication services. Boxes of self-produced, professional looking CDs could now be sold at live shows or even distributed to independent record stores by bands looking for an audience. 

In 1998, the CD Baby company was founded, which provided one of the first commercially successful online distribution sites for self-produced CDs. With a CD Baby account, musicians  could now have their CDs marketed, sold, and distributed on a public platform available to anyone with internet. Now, not only was independent music production possible, but also independent music distribution. Distribution is not the sexiest part of the music industry, but it is arguably the most important. Without distribution, nobody would be able to find new music (or old music, for that matter).

Another digital music technology that forever changed music production was the development in 1981 of the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI). MIDI is a digital language protocol allowing electronic music instruments (such as synthesizers) to communicate by a simple cable both with each other and with computers. The MIDI language controls musical parameters such as pitch, note on/off, volume, sustain, etc. The language is simple, fast and reliable, with only 128 gradations possible of each parameter. MIDI itself was a useful but not game-changing development. However, when MIDI was used in conjunction with Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software, the result significantly democratized the access to professional-quality music production. By democratized, I mean that now the average amateur musician could produce studio-quality music in their own homes with affordable equipment based around a personal computer.

The Digital Audio Workstation is typically a software suite running on a personal computer (Apple or PC), but can also refer to similar software running within a stand-alone digital synthesizer. At the core of the typical DAW software suite is a digital sequencer, which allows the user to program a sequence of pitches (such as notes on a synthesizer or hits on a drum machine) that get repeated (“looped”). The DAW sequencer is typically multi-track, meaning multiple instruments or tracks can be sequenced simultaneously. Because the recording digital, there is theoretically no limit to the number of tracks that can be layered, with the processing power of the computer being the limiting factor (rather than tape width). These sequenced tracks contain MIDI data governing the pitch, sound, duration, and other parameters of the music. However, DAW software later incorporated recorded digital audio into the MIDI sequence, so that a combination of synthesized and recorded sounds could be layered into a complex musical composition. The use of recorded audio requires an audio interface, which converts the analog audio signal from a microphone or electric instrument (such as an electric guitar) into digital data (0s and 1s), which is then sent to the computer and the DAW software.

The first DAW software programs were introduced in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. In 1991, the Digidesign company introduced its Pro Tools DAW software, which quickly became the default software used in digital recording studios. It wasn’t long after the introduction of Pro Tools that several other companies introduced their own competing software DAW products, including Cubase, Digital Performer, Sonar, Ableton Live, and Logic. Each of these products offered some unique feature or competitive pricing, leading to fully-featured DAWs that were affordable (some even free, such as Audacity) and easy to learn. Beginning in the 1990s, amateur musicians working at home with DAW software on their computers could put together professional-sounding multi-track recordings. 

The ease of use of these DAW programs enables even musicians working alone to create recordings with multiple vocal and instrument tracks, including authentic sounding orchestral string or brass parts and vocal harmonies. Many of these home “project studios” became so technologically sophisticated that by the 21st century many television, advertising, and even film scores were being entirely produced in the homes of professional musicians. It is easy to see why: a solo musician working in a project studio with sophisticated digital synthesizers and DAW software is far less costly to a TV or film producer than hiring multiple musicians to spend hours in a professional studio.

The next major step in independent music production arrived with social media and internet streaming sites, particularly those catering specifically to amateur, “unsigned” musicians. The earliest social media sites, such as MySpace (launched in 2003) and Facebook (2006) enabled musicians and bands to quickly create pages where they could market their music, including recordings and video. Musicians could already design their own internet web sites, but MySpace and Facebook were free and allowed musicians to easily market through an expanding social network.

In 2007, two new companies, Bandcamp and SoundCloud created online distribution platforms catering explicitly to independent musicians. These services provided an internet platform where musicians could upload their recordings and listeners could download or stream those songs. Links to Bandcamp or SoundCloud recordings could then be shared on social media and almost overnight the marketing and distribution reach of amateur musicians was expanded exponentially on a global scale. For the most successful of these independent artists, exposure on platforms such as SoundCloud would lead quickly to being signed by a major record label. The list of major pop acts that got their start in this way is lengthy and includes Billie Eilish, Post Malone, Lorde, Juice World, and Marshmallow. Of course, new social media sites such as Instagram and TikTok have added an important new dimension to this process with the short video format.

The latest development in this cycle of increasing independent music production access to the marketplace has been the rise of digital music distribution services that will place independent recordings to all of the major streaming services, collect any resulting royalties, and even offer professional marketing services. One of the earliest of these services is DistroKid, which launched in 2013. DistroKid had a notable success in 2015 when a song distributed on the platform by artist Jack & Jack reached the top of Apple’s iTunes download chart without any other intervention by a conventional record label. Because DistroKid charges a fixed fee for distribution, rather than taking a cut of royalties, the artist was able to retain 100% of the royalties from their hit song — something that had never happened before. This anecdote highlights one of the major advantages of independent music production and distribution: the artist not only has easier access to the market, but they are able to retain copyright ownership of their music and keep all the royalties that their recording and/or song may earn.

Another somewhat ironic advantage to independent music production is that it provides a platform for being more easily discovered by traditional record companies, particularly in the streaming age. Prior to streaming, a new artist would have to rely primarily on word-of-mouth or sending “demo” recordings to a record company in order to attract major-label attention. With independent distribution to streaming platforms through companies such as DistroKid, record companies can simply look at the popularity charts of the various streaming companies to find “viral” artists. Many artists over the past decade have landed contracts with major record labels after their independent music productions have been “discovered” from streaming or social media. An early example of this was Billie Eilish, whose 2015 song “Ocean Eyes” went viral on the independent music platform SoundCloud. Eilish had recorded the song in her bedroom with her brother, Finneas, when she was 14 years old. The success of “Ocean Eyes” on SoundCloud led to it being heard by a talent scout with a relationship to Interscope Records (now part of Universal Records), who released the song in 2016. Eilish quickly rose to become one of the most successful and influential singers of her generation, a process that began with her posting a song on SoundCloud when she was 14! 

There are many other recent examples of commercial success that began with independently produced and distributed recordings. In fact, such stories have become routine, with record companies now using independent music platforms as a primary source of talent. For many such artists, the question now becomes whether the advantages of a record company contract (marketing and other support) outweighs the attending loss of control over royalties and copyrights. An artist such as Billie Eilish highlights the advantages that a major label contract can still provide, including merchandising, movie deals, global marketing, etc. But many artists may decide that with the recent advances in independent production and distribution, keeping control over one’s artistic product may be preferable to the loss of control that comes with a record deal.

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