Musicians tend to solve the world's problems while jawing endlessly in bars. Often late at night.
Epiphanies arrive. By morning, they're forgotten. Oh well. There's always tonight! And tomorrow night!
I mention this not merely to be flippant, but because it does seem to be true that musicians in Buffalo – and probably everywhere else – love to talk about music in the broad, philosophical sense, with other musicians. Preferably while sipping a pint of locally brewed beer. This is what musicians do for fun, when they aren't playing music, or wondering why they can't make their relationships work and keep up their commitment to the muse herself at the same time.
This happened to me just the other night. I was watching the band Reptar perform in the Rapids Theatre, and catching up with local musician Nick Sonricker. We were both kinda blown away by Reptar, a willfully weird quartet of clearly talented musicians whose main purpose in life seems to be to please themselves by indulging in songs that refuse to follow the accepted conventions of genre classification. The band was putting on a pretty fascinating show, and I wondered aloud to Sonricker what they might be capable of in the recording studio.
This led to an interesting question from Sonricker, who happens to be the drummer with Aqueous, an eminently talented area band whose newly released indie effort "Willy is 40" is one of my favorite discs of the year.
"Do you think it's worth it to make albums anymore?" Sonricker asked, catching me completely off guard because he and his bandmates had just finished working so hard to do exactly that.
"Yes, absolutely, of course," was my knee-jerk reaction.
"I do, too," Sonricker said. "I know everyone says that it's all about the live show and the touring now, that nobody buys albums. But for me, the album is the blueprint. You start performing the songs the way you recorded them, and then they grow from there. And then before you know it, you end up with a whole bunch of new songs. I can't imagine not making an album. It all starts with that process."
Sonricker raises a significant issue. As more and more major recording artists are beginning to follow the path originally forged by indie bands – eliminating the major labels and producing and paying for their recordings themselves – we're witnessing a sea change in the world of recorded music. For better, in many instances, and, as it turns out, for worse in a few others.
The old music business model worked roughly like this: Major record labels were basically banks. They'd lend artists money in the form of an advance. All of that money was recoupable. Naturally, money began to be thrown all over the place, since the artists (who often didn't seem to realize this fact) were going to end up paying it all back anyway. Recording costs, promotional budget, big-name producers – it all added up to a serious case of corporate bloat. But the industry was happy because the industry was making money.
Along comes computer-based home recording and systems like Pro Tools. And just like that, the party's over. Artists could make professional records in their living rooms or in studios they build themselves for just such a purpose. You didn't need a big record company advance any longer. This was an exciting development.
Unfortunately, at the same time that this happened, people stopped buying albums and started stealing them. Then came digital singles and streaming sites. So now the artists found themselves in an interesting position. They'd seized the means of production and could now record their music themselves without the "help" of major label types.
Unfortunately, once they'd made that album, very few people were interested in buying it. Ouch. The irony.
I admire Sonricker's commitment to the art of making an album, because it's clear that it stems from his commitment to the music itself. If it's good for the music, then it's good, one might paraphrase his sentiments. It's unlikely that making that album will make Aqueous or bands like them much in the way of money, at least in a direct fashion. But making the album made the band better, and a better band is more likely to convert more listeners into fans, especially one like Aqueous, whose members are fully committed to touring.
There are now ways to offset the recording of an album, even for indie bands who aren't being offered recording budgets from external sources. Fundraising options like Kickstart are one possibility – in this scenario, artists solicit investment funds directly from their fans. Basically, the fans become shareholders in the album. The subtext is somewhat like this: "You want us to make a new album? Great! We'd love to! But you're gonna have to help us pay for it!"
This has worked for internationally famous bands, too. For example, the British progressive rock group Marillion solicited fans to help them record, and then leaned on those same fans once again to prepurchase tickets for a tour. Here's the kicker – there was no tour to speak of until the fans bought the tickets. In Marillion's case, this approach worked like a charm.
Locally, Jamestown's 10,000 Maniacs has employed a similar model. Teaming with the PledgeMusic Group, the band urged fans to pledge their financial support.
During the first week of the 10,000 Maniacs campaign, the group reached 50 percent of its projected support. That means that the band's new album, "Music From the Motion Picture," will be released in January.
Artists as diverse as Ben Folds Five, Juliana Hatfield and Margot and the Nuclear So and So's have followed a similar plan. So far, it seems to be working for all of them.
So if you're Indie Band X in Buffalo, wondering if it's worth making an album when it's easier and more profitable to simply gig constantly, the answer is yes. Absolutely. Of course.