Bypassing the Nashville handshake
New technology has finally made DIY a reality in the music business. It's not just a question of retaining control of your music - it's part of the aesthetic movement which pushed theatre onto the streets and art out of galleries. Ian Kilroy talks to Irish musicians going it alone
If there's one thing we've learned from "pop-star" reality TV programmes like Pop Stars, it's how contrived, soulless and artificial the world of contemporary pop music now is. In a marketplace in which performers' art is not given a chance to develop before it is packaged, more and more musicians with an independent view are choosing to go it alone.
The advent of new and accessible technologies has made the independent route much more possible. The 1960s aesthetic which caused some theatre practitioners to abandon the stage for the street, and visual artists to seek an audience outside formal galleries, has now visited popular music in a much more radical way than it did back then. The possibilities the Internet and related technologies offer to bypass major record labels and give the artist direct access to a potentially mass audience have changed the music industry forever.
Dublin-based musician Adrian Crowley is a case in point. Crowley has recently secured a licensing and distribution deal with an independent label in the US. He has recorded his second album in Chicago with producer Steve Albini - who produced Nirvana's last album, as well as The Pixies' Surfer Rosa and P. J. Harvey's Rid of Me - and all without the backing of major finance, a big record company or the usual trappings that attend the launch of an act.
Crowley's first album, A Strange Kind, was also self-financed, and recorded over a year in Dublin, getting its limited release in 1999. He found it difficult, however, to get any distribution company to take it on board in Ireland, and turned instead to the Web. He put some of his tracks on the music site www.vitaminic.com, which allows you to download tracks, and set up a website, www.adriancrowley.com, with a link to an independent record shop with an online store that stocked his work. When Crowley approached distributors in the US, his web presence proved invaluable, he says.
"One of the guys I e-mailed to see if he wanted a copy of my album e-mailed me back. He'd searched the Net and downloaded a few tracks from my first album from vitaminic.com, and really liked them," says Crowley. Now his album is being manufactured and distributed throughout the US.
Crowley, who describes his music as "leftfield", has artistic reasons for never pursuing a major record deal, although he has been writing music for over a decade now. "I never tried to get signed by a record company," he says. "Even more than fearing losing control of what I do musically, I've got this broad vision of what I do, even beyond the music - the aesthetic of it in total." For that reason Crowley likes to be central to the creative decisions involved in cover design and video production: elements which are conventionally dominated by others. "I really love working with film and video and design," he says. "It's part of the broader aesthetic surrounding the music. At times in the live show I'll also bring in elements of film. It's important to be in control of these other elements."
While Crowley has gone the independent route from the beginning, The Walls, who supported U2 at Slane this year, started out with Colombia Records before becoming disillusioned and walking away.
"Our experience was that they signed us on the basis of demos that they really liked," says Joe Wall, of The Walls. "Then once they'd signed us, they started to try and steer us in another direction," he says. He adds, however, that many other bands have had a positive experience working with Colombia Records. The company had, at the time of going to press, no comment to make on The Walls' experience.
Part of the problem in Wall's view is the role that A&R staff have come to play in the music industry. An A&R (short for artists and recording) person is initially the talent spotter working for a record company, who brings a band in and gets it signed up with a record deal. After that he or she acts as a kind of bridge between the band and the people with the money and power in a record company - the executives.
In order to satisfy the pressure coming from their own employers, A&R people try to mould a band in a certain way, with a certain sound aimed at a specific market. To do this they choose producers to work with a band, to achieve a particular sound in the recording studio. As Wall says, "they start to think, right, who's successful and who can we make this band more like. In our case," he says, "they thought they could make us sound a bit more like Crowded House. So they tried to get us to work with producers who'd give us that kind of glossy sound . . . " It seems to him that they wanted to completely remake the band.
Not only was the direction of the band's music being changed, but also the record company started to suggest name change after name change to the band, says Wall.
Eventually, after a string of producers and months of tweaking the sound in the studio, with very little else happening, The Walls decided to go it alone.
"We moved back to Dublin from London and set up Earshot Records as a vehicle for releasing our own stuff in Ireland. We got stuck into recording stuff.
"We no longer had to wait for the green light from the record company to go into the studio and work."
Without big backing, the band's début album, Hi-Lo, recorded on a shoestring in Dublin, has had, like Adrian Crowley's work, to find alternative methods of meeting its public. In the face of a record industry that buys up space in shops and pays them to stock albums, The Walls have also turned to the Internet as an alternative site for publication and distribution. From their site, www.thewalls.ie, it is possible to download tracks and purchase their CDs.
But the band's biggest coup to date has been their Slane gig in summer 2001. Despite hustling from numerous record companies for the slot, on hearing Hi-Lo, U2 handed over the slot to the independent outfit. "It was great," says Wall. "At Slane, all these record company guys were coming up to me asking how on Earth we got the gig as independents. They just couldn't believe that someone who wasn't with a big record company could get that billing."
As for the avenues opened up by new technologies, both Crowley and Wall agree that a website is something anyone can have - a bit like having your name in the Yellow Pages. Wall says that you still need to work hard gigging to get a profile, get radio play and concentrate mainly on your music to ensure that the quality is there. Crowley jokes that you need to employ what he calls "the Nashville handshake": meeting producers and people with influence, and passing them a demo tape when you shake their hand.
Both, however, are clear about the artistic satisfaction they have derived from going the independent route. And while the successes they have gained have been hard won, they have been able to reach an audience, bypassing the increasingly market-driven - as opposed to music-driven - industry.
As Wall says, "Without having the moguls of the record industry on your side, by using a bit of guile you can still get places. As long as you believe in your music; that's the main thing."
Hi-Lo by The Walls is available from www.thewalls.ie
When You Are Here You Are Family by Adrian Crowley is available from www.adriancrowley.com
See www.vitaminic.com and www.audiogalaxy.com for music to download