Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Real World GarageBand [MacTribe]

MacTribe, June 2007

DIY finds some help.

Studio time, marketing, promotion, pressing, packaging, distribution... all of these things require money and inside connections for up-and-coming musicians. But as technology advances and the phrase "famous on the Internet" begins to translate to dollars, do-it-yourself (DIY) musicians find more ways to work effectively outside of the music industry's traditional system. Enter Apple's GarageBand. This application has become a creative catalyst for everyone from the average tinkerer to the signed artist. From full album production to long-distance collaboration to sketching new songs on the road, Apple's music editing application has given new meaning to the term "garage band," allowing the company to further entrench itself in the music industry.

A perfect example of the DIY band, Los Angeles-based Bastard Fairies put their entire album together in one week using GarageBand. The band picked up Fisher Price toys from thrift stores to add texture to the music, threw in some socially conscious lyrics, stitched everything together in GarageBand, and offer the album as a free download. Band member Robin Davey loves the simplicity of the program and believes it served as an enabler for the band. "It's the quickest way to get your ideas down," he says. "Once you actually open it up and realize how quickly you can build a track it definitely enables that creative process and takes away the need for expensive studios and things like that. Everything is there in one package."

The Fairies advertised their free album on YouTube with videos assembled in Final Cut Pro. One of the videos, a "commercial" for the album, featured an eight-year old girl talking about the perils of religion and the failures of an educational system that pushes religion instead of empathy. The video quickly became popular on YouTube, and criticism from Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly unexpectedly boosted the DIY band's exposure. "People grabbed hold of [the video] and, because it was tagged at the end with the Bastard Fairies website, they discovered the album there," says Davey. "That led to it being most subscribed on YouTube."

Despite the popularity, the Bastard Fairies chose to keep with the DIY spirit and not profit off of the album in the wake of their celebrity status. They will offer a special version with five extra tracks and a bonus DVD for purchase, but the original album will always be free for download. "Because the album was done on a budget of about $10 there's no reason why we can't give it away," he says. "There's no one to tell us that we can't and also if we do that, people are going to download it. We're going to generate fans." Thanks to Apple's technology, they were able to successfully retain full control over the entire process, from recording to distribution and promotion.

Like cassette culture of the '80s, GarageBand is a way for new artists to record a demo, but unlike the '80s cassette culture, social networking sites like MySpace and YouTube allow artists to self-release and build a fan base before finding their way to the airwaves. An existing fan base gives them an advantage when it's time to shop for a label. "We're in this stage where you can do so much more by yourself and I think it's very empowering to be able to record yourself," says singer/songwriter Ari Heist. "As a musician, it's such a key thing because otherwise you'd be spending a whole lot of money to get other people to do it for you." Heist produced and recorded his 2006 EP, "The Green Room Sessions," in his Brooklyn apartment. He played every single instrument on the album—a feat in itself—and assembled the pieces with GarageBand. Unlike the Fairies, however, Heist has been signed to a major label, Columbia, for a few years. "I'm not the first to do this, but I'm really excited about it," he says, taking a break after performing at SXSW. "I use it all the time."

Even artists who don't record entire albums with the software find it a useful part of the creative process. Singer/songwriter Jann Klose uses GarageBand in conjunction with ProTools and Logic to collaborate on songs with his keyboardist. "When there’s a new song idea I usually dump it right into GarageBand," he says. Unlike Logic and Pro Tools, which consist of folders within a file, GarageBand creates a single all-inclusive file, making it easier for artists at different locations to collaborate. And since GarageBand files can be opened in Logic without needing conversion, Jann will open it up there in order to generate and print the arrangements for other parts of the ensemble. "My keyboardist and I go back and forth with the file and we can work on adding strings in MIDI thanks to the new MIDI capability in GarageBand."

GarageBand's ease of use combined with the portability of Mac laptops make it a great application for capturing ideas whenever and wherever they happen. For a touring musician, this is often the bus, the bar, or backstage. Adam Merrin of The 88 depended on GarageBand for the drums on his solo album, but his band, recently featured on the popular television show "The OC," also uses the application when they're on tour. "I remember being on the road and using it to record ideas while we were in the car," he says. "We can just open up the laptop and start creating melody ideas on it."

Apple's recent forays into music have proven incredibly successfully, and GarageBand is no exception. The program has already become popular with average Mac users who just like to geek out and play. Many companies also offer loops for users to download and manipulate. Communities on the Internet like MacJams and iCompositions provide forums for fans of the GarageBand to upload loops and tracks and share them with other members of the community. Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor has even gotten into the GarageBand spirit. He periodically releases tracks as GarageBand files and encourages user remixes. Since GarageBand is so easy to use, theoretically anyone can make music.

But could GarageBand make it too easy for anyone with a Mac and a mouse to have delusions of rock star grandeur? "No," says Adam Merrin. "The song is still the most important thing. It’s very easy and inexpensive for people to put out their own records but the best stuff is always well written." Robin Davey agrees there's no hope without some idea of what a song is all about. "That's the essential thing: the song that you start with," he says. "Without that you're not going to get anywhere."

As a viable option to expensive studio time, GarageBand will help good do-it-yourself artists emerge on little to no budgets. But unlike "American Idol," which offers the hope of three minutes of fame even if you sing like a jackal, some semblance of musical talent and a sense of creativity is a prerequisite for getting anywhere with the music you create, even in GarageBand. Still, the consensus is that it's worth digging into and exploring what GarageBand has to offer. "I couldn’t recommend it more," says Merrin. "The fact that it comes installed with all the Mac computers is the coolest thing of all." Robin Davey sees it as part of a trend in technology making artists more self-reliant. "I think that the more and more computers evolve, the easier it gets for artists to put their creativity down."

But while GarageBand won't replace the studio any time soon its rise is certainly not good news for everyone. Heist believes an easy and affordable program like GarageBand negatively impacts smaller independent studios who rely on the business of small up-and-coming bands. "You see a lot of studios going out of business, a lot of studios that were once very sought-after and had really nice stuff to offer, but you can create something that's as good or almost as good in your own home," he says. "It's a no brainer. You won't want to spend that much money everyday to go to a studio."

Jan Klose sees its accessibility as nothing but positive. "If you’re creative there’s a lot of things you can do with it right off the bat. The main thing is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get it since it comes with iLife and new Macs. The fact that it’s so fun and easy to use makes it an obvious choice."

Time will tell whether or not GarageBand will have a lasting impact on the music industry, but it's clear for now that Apple fortifies its place in the music scene with this DIY-inspired application. Combined with the ability to build a following on the Internet, GarageBand has the potential to revolutionize an entire segment of the digital music industry.

— Jess Hemerly, 2007

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