In 2000, Saratoga Springs musician Michael Jerling decided to go independent.
The blues and folk musician had been previously signed to two small record labels during the course of his three decade-plus career, and had recorded most of his albums at NRS Studios in Catskill. But beginning in 2000, Jerling began recording more at his home studio, using an Alesis Digital Audio Tape (ADAT) machine and a computer.
His most recent albums, 2002’s “Little Movies” and 2007’s “Crooked Path,” were both self-recorded, although they were still mixed and mastered at NRS. He also self-released both albums under the moniker Fool’s Hill Records. According to Jerling, the creative benefits of being an independent artist led him to strike out on his own.
Pros and cons
“The pros of being with a traditional label are that you don’t have to put up any of your own money; budgets and distribution are all set up,” Jerling said. “[But] of course, when somebody gives you money, they tell you what to do, and sometimes you don’t like what people want you to do. That was a big artistic trade. When you’re an independent artist, you can do whatever you want as long as you don’t run out of money.”
With recent technological advances in home recording setups on computers, and with help from the Internet, DIY recording and distribution is becoming easier and more widespread.
According to Scott Petito, who runs NRS Studios and recorded The Band’s three 1990s albums, about 10 years ago, 80 percent of the projects he worked on were funded by a record label of some kind. The opposite is true now — only about 20 percent of his recording projects are label-funded; 80 percent are being undertaken by artists working independently.
“All the top guys have gone DIY,” Petito said during a phone interview from his home, adjacent to NRS Studios. “People like Natalie Merchant watched Ani DiFranco and thought, ‘Why am I giving nine out of every 10 dollars to a label?’ ”
In the Capital Region, local bands of all genres have followed suit. According to Michael Guzzo, owner of the Capital Region Unofficial Musicians and Bands Site, crumbs.net, about 50 of the roughly 187 local bands registered on the Web site are affiliated with a local record label, with another 12 on major labels and the rest independent. According to Guzzo, as DIY recording has become more prevalent, fans have been helping DIY musicians.
“I’ve seen a major trend in bands turning to fans, when they’re recording a new album, and asking, ‘What can you do for me as a fan?’ ” Guzzo said. “They’ll give out CDs, free tickets and T-shirts, depending on how much of a donation they actually get.”
The members of local alternative duo Sirsy recorded their fourth album, 2007’s “Revolution,” at their practice space, building a studio with funds raised entirely from fan donations, which eventually totaled $17,000. The band has been using this “sponsorship program” since 2002 to raise money for recording costs, but “Revolution” was the first album that the group did not record in a professional studio. However, like Jerling, Sirsy opted to have the album mixed and mastered at a separate studio, Pyramid Studios in Ithaca.
Richard Libutti, Sirsy’s guitarist, bassist and occasional pianist and drummer, built the studio, which is computer-based but utilizes “classic” microphones and tube preamps. The band’s equipment includes a $1,500 Neumann vocal microphone and one tube preamp that cost about $4,000.
“The cool thing is, the next album that we record, we can use these mikes and these preamps again,” said Melanie Krahmer, Sirsy’s drummer, vocalist and flutist. “It was a smart thing to do, and if we’re lucky enough to raise $17,000 again, we can keep building on it.”
However, you don’t necessarily need $17,000 to set up a basic home studio.
“You can get a decent mixing board, an interface and eight inputs into a computer, and you can do it all for about $1,000,” Guzzo said.
Richard Nolan Jr. and Kamran Parwana, of Schenectady bands Desperately Obvious and Beware! The Other Head of Science, have been recording on their own since both were in high school. Nolan estimated their recorded output at 20 albums, spread out among 12 bands, all self-recorded and released. Their initial experiments involved a single microphone run through a computer, using the sound recording program supplied with Windows 98.
“It was obnoxiously loud,” Nolan said, during an interview at Pinhead Susan’s in Schenectady. “We had the drums in a third room, one guitar with the drums, and another room with guitar. The vocals were in the closest room [to the microphone]. And we recorded it all at the same time with one mike.”
Nolan and Parwana now record songs for Desperately Obvious and Beware! at Nolan’s apartment on Broadway in Schenectady, using Logic, a recording program run with Mac computers. Parwana recently purchased the latest version of Logic for about $500.
“There’s basically two major [recording] programs — Logic and ProTools,” Parwana said. “ProTools is probably a little bigger, but Logic has a following.”
DIY recording is one thing, but distributing music independently can be difficult to manage, especially without the backing of a large label. All of Sirsy’s albums have been self-released by the band, on the group’s vanity label, Sirsymusic. According to the group, so far they have sold more than 32,000 CDs independently at shows and through their Web site, sirsy.com.
Nolan and Parwana have worked with another local band, The Mathematicians, who have a small label called Make Your Fate Records. When Desperately Obvious releases its next album, which the group expects to have completed next year, the CD may or may not carry the Make Your Fate name.
Schenectady blues and jazz musician Marcus Benoit records in a professional studio, but distributes his CDs online at cdbaby.com and at shows. His latest CD, “Let’s Get Away,” will be distributed free at a future CD release show.
“Some [musicians] are giving CDs away at performances, and if they’re collecting money at the gate, why not?” Benoit said during an interview at his home. “When I do the CD release for ‘Let’s Get Away,’ I’m going to have 100 copies printed just for that reason.”
Numerous Web sites, including the aforementioned cdbaby.com, offer services to musicians looking to sell their music online, either through digital downloads or a physical CD.
Mark Eldred, a former resident of Galway who currently lives in Reykjavik, Iceland, started Digiticed Music, digiticedmusic.com, last year. The site allows independent musicians to send in recordings that Eldred reviews and approves. Once an artist is approved, Digiticed Music will sell that artist’s albums, as CDs and downloads, for $14 plus tax, splitting the profits with the musicians. The musicians maintain control over their recordings, and can still sell them on their own.
So far, seven artists, ranging stylistically from blues to dance to hip-hop and others, have signed up for the service. The site, which receives about 75 hits per day, already has artists in Australia, Ireland, Boston and British Columbia.
“There’s no limit, as long as it’s people with independent thinking behind it, trying to do this and that with music,” Eldred said.
The cost of recording equipment, production of CDs and promotion is the main hindrance for DIY artists. Also, according to Guzzo, a home studio that costs $1,000 doesn’t compare to a professional studio in terms of recording quality. “But [bands utilizing home studios] have something to sell, something quality they can post online, and maybe not distribute nationally but at least have something to show off as a product.”
Petito, who is a musician as well as a producer, said NRS studios has survived because of the need for producers to work on albums.
“That’s a skill that, regardless of equipment, people are going to use,” Petito said. “That aspect has saved me in a sense.”
But for many musicians, the artistic freedom that comes with being an independent artist is worth the challenges and hard work. Over the years, Sirsy has been approached by a number of labels, both major and independent, but has turned down each offer in order to maintain artistic control.
“We played a showcase in New York City two months ago, and a label person came up to us and said, ‘You guys are amazing; you write amazing songs. We’d really like to hook you up with an “American Idol” songwriter,’ ” Krahmer said. “[Major labels] can’t see past that anymore.”