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Does indie music really mean shitty music? 

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I’ve heard it often: Indie music means bad sounding music, in other words, it’s shitty!

First, indie music is often confused with music recorded in a garage by inexperienced musicians with little or no knowledge of recording and mixing, and sometimes less than adequate equipment. 

It’s also confused with a genre that would be some kind of lo-fi punk alternative.
This is why, more often than not, I would use the term “unsigned” rather than “indie” to talk about independent music, recorded by talented musicians and producers all around the globe, in every possible genres you can imagine.

Now, while it’s true that some of it can sound bad, it’s detrimental to think that all of it does, and I would argue that more and more, with the prices and quality of recording gear and digital audio workstations (DAW for short) being so affordable nowadays, and tons of resources on how to record and mix, the end result is getting better and better and more and more unsigned artists are producing quality music.

Still, there are some things that contributes to the myth:

1/ the fact that people are listening on devices that are less than adequate to get a good sound (phones, tablets and laptops speakers are not meant to be hi-fi, and even most bluetooth smart speakers are too often synonym of lo-fi, no bass, mono sound)

2/ streaming platforms and internet radios are using low rates* mp3 quality to air the music, this is because bandwidth has a cost, in terms of speed, and also in terms of prices when it comes to the power of computers able to sustain hundreds or thousands of listeners in a continuous stream. This power cost also translates directly to services costs that radios are subject to.

* streaming rate is measured in kbps, short for kilo bits per second, this is the amount of data that is used to reproduce the sound - the higher the better, up to 320 kbps which is the upper limit and almost lossless.

Now there is a reason why most streaming platforms (like SoundCloud, Spreaker, or even Spotify in their free tier) and most internet radios are streaming at 128 kbps mp3 or more. They have recognized that this is the absolute minimal limit when it comes to listenable quality. Anything under that rate is creating so much artifacts and distortion to the sound that it’s barely recognizable anymore.

Check out this example of a snippet compressed at 128 kbps and the same snippet compressed at 64 kbps. You will hear the enormous difference between the two, check out how muffled the 64 kbps mp3 sounds, how much the cymbals are drowned in a kind of swirling phase artifact, and how horrible this truly is, it’s even worse that cassettes were back in the 80s…
No matter what device you are using I bet you will be able to hear the difference!

You can go back and forth between two snippets in the player below (opens in a new tab/window):

Compression comparison

To me the 64 kbps version is hardly listenable. I wouldn't want my music to sound this bad, I bet most indie artists will agree.

Anyway, when you’ll hear a shitty sound don’t just assume the source music itself has been poorly recorded and mixed, check that the streaming rates you are served are not below the minimum of 128 kbps, I and every unsigned artists striving to produce great sounding records will thank you!

Deconstructed 

Tomorrow, Saturday, October 12, at 3 pm EST, I’ll launch a new series of videos on my YouTube channel called “Deconstructed”. From then on, every Saturday there will be a new video.

The idea is to take very well known songs from very well known bands and artists of many genres and many era and listen to the multi-tracks to discover how this was recorded, what makes them sound good and also talk about a few production/songwriting tips and tricks that anyone recording could use to make their song better. So we’re really going to be deconstructing songs, track by track and listen to what’s been recorded in detail.

This should interest indie artists, producers, engineers, but also any curious music lover, as I intend to let people hear things they might not have noticed in these recordings and point out why this makes a difference, and how it worked within the context of the song.

Now, some might say that it doesn’t go well with my fight against streaming platforms… after all, YouTube is the biggest one of them, and the one who’s paying the less in royalties. But I consider YouTube as a video channel more than anything, and a great platform for learning, and this is what this series is going to be about… whether it’s a fun fact, or a detail in a song you’ve never noticed although you know the song by heart, or about some tips for recording and mixing, it’s a way to share my love of this music that has been part of my life and most likely yours too. 

Anyway, the bands and artists will get any little royalties coming from their “deconstructed” songs, because these videos will most likely be monetized on their behalf (or their label’s). Some videos might be taken down from label’s DMCA, and if so, I’ll possibly put them on a private site, with a password protection, so that people really interested will still be able to access later. We’ll see how it goes.

In any case, I hope you will like this new series, whether you’re just curious about music, or serious about learning of songwriting/production.

So don’t forget to subscribe https://www.youtube.com/c/ghostlybeard and hit that “bell” button to be notified each week when a new video comes up!

Beware of the coin men! 

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I’ve been reading about Blockchain lately… You’ve probably heard of it, at least you must have heard of Bitcoin, and have heard the latest crypto babble that the media enjoys so much. After all a good jargon is the wet dream of every journalist.

Now this technology is supposed to be the remedy to everything… Yes! Even the music industry! And well, if it can cure that, surely it will cure cancer!

Enter Musicoin and co

In the unsigned world, I see some people rave about Musicoin for example, and how this wonderful platform is going to pay out more than any streaming platform and materialize money out of thin air, without any ads, while still being totally free for listeners. That’s pure magic or I don’t know what!

Turns out that Musicoin is only one of the many new platforms with more white paper than sense, apparently. (Boy! Do they love their white papers! They are all chock full of technical jargon that is mostly included to confuse you even more than you were). Digging a bit, without too much effort, I then found out about other platforms like ArtbyteSoundchain, Emanate, eMusic, Bittunes, Voise, ChoonUjo (this one is funny, with Imogen Heap herself having released her “Tiny Human” song which sales amounted to a grand total of $133.20!) plus all these exotic new “currencies” dedicated to music like Musicoin but also Audiocoin, Songcoin, Metal Music Coin, Muse, Beatcoin… looks like they invent a new coin every day. Check out this website which references 1916 of these entries (as of today anyway!) Actually there is even a platform that allows anyone to create their own! Time for a BeardCoin?

My first contact with Musicoin was from links that some indie enthusiasts were sharing. Being curious I tried to listen, but the player would never want to play, so I went to the website and it looked rather messy to me. Not a really good impression overall. But OK. That’s another beta platform, right? <insert big sigh here>

Since their claim to being able to pay a decent amount per play was pretty extra-ordinary, I decided I would dig further… But I’m going to tell you straight up: I didn’t like what I found. At all.

Monkey money, monkey business

First, the value of Musicoin is in fact so fluctuant that what you read on their platform about the supposed earnings of the artists is never even close to reality. You see, first you have to exchange $MUSIC currency into another more accepted crypto currency (Like Bitcoin or Ethereum), using a convoluted process involving trading on a coin market or another (there are only a couple that can do this at the moment). The process is so ridiculously complex, involving installing a wallet application on your PC, opening an account on a couple trading sites, juggling with obscure hashes and calculating decimals, and gauging whether the time is right to “sell” your precious coins, that only seriously chronic nerds are going to want to go near it. I’m not joking, see this tutorial.

The real cost of Blockchain

The recommended process to ultimately withdraw your few Musicoin earnings is to trade them first against Bitcoin. Of course you will have to pay big fees to do so because the computing of your transaction involves a lot of computers in a pool, and it gets increasingly more complex as days go by, involving increasingly more processing power, and ultimately, increasingly more electricity. Fact is, Bitcoin today is already using 0.5% of the world’s electricity and by late next year, will be consuming more electricity than can be produced by the entire world solar panels. Let this all sink in for a moment. 

And then of course, once you get your Bitcoins fractions, you will have to trade them again on another coin market into some real money, which means a lot more transaction fees (up to 50% from what I’ve seen) and a lot more electricity consumption…

Techno magic

Reading further on the Blockchain craziness, it turns out there is a lot of approximation and misinformation around (but of course there is, it’s a big buzzword in the press, and most journalists have no clue about the underlying technological issues, which are apparently numerous). I also found some articles that took to debunk all this hype, for example this one about eMusic (a Musicoin competitor). Let’s just say that I don’t have all the background that this guy has, but I have the general feeling again (thanks Mom, wherever you are!) that when something looks too good to be true, it generally is! Anyway, the guy wrote a book about the Blockchain scam.

So, to sum up: you get your tunes on a platform that’s pretty buggy (it’s beta), people are going to listen to them for free, you get paid virtual coins that you need to exchange against other virtual coins using a complex process, opening many accounts on various platforms, leaving more of your private information everywhere, trade on a virtual market that is bound to spiral down when all is said and done (remember the internet bubble burst? I do) and is consuming electricity at an exponential rate, which will ultimately eat all our planet resources… what’s wrong with this picture?

The worst of it

All of this and I still have another issue with this whole thing. And it’s another big one: turns out that this whole mess is again making everyone believe that it’s perfectly normal to listen to music for free, that no one needs to pay for it. Aren’t we all tired of this refrain?

If the fact that it’s all based on more hype and technological magic than reality, the fact that it’s unsustainable long term, the fact that it’s endangering our planet resources, if all of that wasn’t bad enough they are also basically saying that music is not worth paying for. 

Finally, the terms of use pertaining to license grants on most of these new platforms were alarmingly similar to the ones I advised everyone to stay away from

In conclusion, you know what? I wish you all good luck with this, but you can count me out. I mean until they come out with something really significant of course, like a BeardCoin for example, at which point I might trade my Monopoly money for it.

Questions, questions 

Since I’ve started this thing on social media and reached out to many people in the unsigned world, I’ve virtually “met” countless passionate individuals both sides of the mic.

I’ve been interviewed a few times, and each time I enjoyed the conversation, as much as I hope people listening or reading have enjoyed it…

Still I’ve always felt that I needed to know more about the one behind the mic or the email, because as much as it’s fun to be asked questions about your passion, it’s also a bit frustrating because it only goes one way.

So I’ve started thinking (yes, this happens to me sometimes, I try to reduce that to a minimum, I assure you!), and came to the conclusion that I would like to reverse the roles for a moment, basically interview the interviewers… Not quite sure yet what form this will take, could be a written interview via email, or a Skype conversation, and it could be published in writing or as a podcast, or both.

I’ll probably need to add yet another section to this website which is becoming a monster hub of many things (hopefully fun!), but I think it would be nice to hear about these people that I call partners: Radio hosts, bloggers, promoters, etc… How they got the bug, how they started, how they operate, what are their goals and ambitions, what they think about the state of the music industry… I believe there are a lot of subjects that could be discussed and this could shine a light on those unsung heroes of the unsigned world.

What do you think? Do you have any suggestions? Are you a partner that would like to give this a try? Let me know in the comments below…

Piracy vs streaming 

One of the argument I hear often about the marvelous benefits of streaming is how it has been the music industry savior, after the Napster years of generalized piracy which killed the cash cow that labels were enjoying, selling CDs and CD re-releases at prohibitive prices…

Perhaps it’s true for big labels, who, although they’ve seen their margins drastically reduced since their heyday (but truth is that they were pretty guilty of milking that cash cow much too much), are now enjoying some renewed revenue from streaming, thanks to their partnership contracts, allowing them to collect most of the revenues generated (the top 10% of the streaming catalog from all providers is collecting 99% of the revenues). Not so surprising when the search algorithms and big playlists pushed to streaming platforms users are carefully tweaked to favorite the big labels and their artists.

Once again, it’s the independent labels and the unsigned artists who bear the brunt of the industry debacle. And I would argue that the supposed streaming savior has made no difference at all for these 90%, who are truly the collateral damage of this digital economy, as Maria Schneider, five time Grammy award winner, points out in her open letter to the NMPA (National Music Publishers Association) outlining her perspective on the MMA (Music Modernization Act). 

And not only didn’t streaming made any difference for independent artists, I would also say it made things worse.

But hey! Piracy has been vanquished, hasn’t it? Well, there are some indications that it’s actually not the case, as you can see in the chart above which lists the percentage of various types of copyright infringements by age group (based on consumer research from IFPI - the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry). 

Combine Youtube free-for-all, – knowing they are by far the biggest streaming platform nowadays, with a pay per play rate far below any other thanks to infamous “Safe Harbor” loopholes –, with a rise of “stream ripping” tools, allowing anyone to download what’s played from free accounts on any streaming platforms, and you get a much more insidious kind of piracy, one that takes the guise of legality and one that is mostly benefiting the streaming giants.

Again, if big labels, and indeed streaming platforms can brush that off as simple losses compensated by their ad-generated huge profits, it cannot be the case for unsigned artists who are seeing their work stolen, or abused at a pay per play rate so low it’s laughable. What artists lose by believing in the streaming golden mirage is real physical and download sales that is fair pay for their craft, investment, time and efforts.

In the end, I would argue that piracy was better for unsigned artists, as it was mostly touching big labels, and it was after all, illegal, so actions could be taken against it. Nowadays, streaming is little more than legalized piracy and there’s not much we can do about it, or so it seems, short of opting out and educating our fans. I believe that opting out is our only option because it is our work that is exploited… Remove the work and that could ultimately force the industry to reconsider the digital economy landscape. If they don’t do it, then I suppose it’s time we do it ourselves.

But until we all remove our copyrighted work from all these places where everyone can access it and pirate it freely at no cost and with no consequences, there’s no doubt we are in fact just feeding the monster…

Ready for a change?

EDIT: Also see, published today, this article from Digital Music News

The value of music 

You will hear it everywhere, from all sorts of sources: people don’t buy music nowadays! And truth is, why would they? When you can stream music for free everywhere, right?

Still there are indications that there are some people still buying music, which gives some hope for its future.

First was a report from Bandcamp (an indie music store) that boast 73% revenues increased for 2017 - so surely some people have bought some music…

Another trend (and something I would myself call a fad, but one that is significant of a slight change in listeners’ habits), is the unlikely rise of vinyl records sales. Personally, I don’t believe at all that vinyl sounds better, because it’s a proven myth that has no scientific justification, but the fact that people are buying them again is significant to a certain attachment to an object, and what it represents… Albums in particular were once seen as treasures and something we enjoyed discovering, something we placed value in. 

Anyway, again this proves that some people are buying music and are finding value in it and in the artists who have made it.

So I believe that if artists stopped devaluating their own music by giving it for free and for streaming altogether, this would further incite people to buy their music. If artists started seeing value in their own music, others too would see it again as something of value. 

Now that’s a thought!

Inward - early feedback 

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As you might know, I’m going to release a new album soon, called “Inward”, the date is set for May 4th with a pre-order date as soon as March 2nd

I believe this is my best album to date. It contains what I consider some of my best songs and defines my own sound and style, which is a blend of many influences from many genres and the result of years of practicing and learning my craft. I believe it is also my best sounding album, where I’ve been able to truly find the sound I was looking for along the years...

I have sent a preview to a few close friends to get some early feedback on the last mastering, and have been blessed by some truly humbling comments. Here are a few (excuse their French!).

 

Al Yardy (KB Radio)

“This is fantastic.   blown away.. I am hearing so much in here.   You should be very proud.   I truly am very impressed.  Friends or not, I wouldn’t blow smoke up your ass. I might be diplomatic, but I won’t give you glowing accolades if I don’t mean it.”

Lee Pugh (The Puss Puss Band)

“Production is absolutely fucking beautiful man….really exquisite job it must be said and sooo many sweet progressions, and groovy soulful changes man.  . For me though personally Let Go is my favourite. It’s so hip it almost hurts :D”

Lakisha (KiKi) Skinner (Klef Notes):

“Ghost??  Ghost??  Just drop the mic.  You have done it again bruh!  I too really love the overall quality of the production and direction of this new stuff.“

Clare Shorthouse Fowler (Dandelion Charm):

“The production is delightful, really clear and wide, this is a fantastic sounding record. Love the lyrics and vibe and the guitar sounds and playing are just stunning!! I love how good music reveals its gifts with repeated listening.”

Virginie Lacour-Puiboube (Laughing at the Raindrops):

"As usual, superb production (some choices are surprising) , and I hear cohesion, accessibility and similarities with previous work with is a good thing (a sign of strong musical identity). The great thing about Ghostly Beard is there is always one tune you WILL really really like!”

Veronica Philips (Photograph):

“It’s spectacular!! Absolutely in love with your guitar playing. Well done sweetheart! You’ve got every reason to be proud of yourself.  The guitar is masterful throughout – I hear hints of Pink Floyd and even a little ELO.  It’s a beautifully constructed album.”

Chris Leon (Your Music Radio):

“I can understand why you are proud of this album, because it’s really great! Somehow it’s exactly what I expected of what you told me before. Really getting some cool unplugged Eric Clapton vibes. The songs are great and they give me a warm feeling actually. I really can feel the love you’ve put into this album.”

Elizabeth O.S. Chute (Passion and Meaning):

"It's absolutely awesome on an emotional, musical, lyrical, instrumental level. What I like so much about your work is the different layers that you are able to create which blend on a 3 dimensional level - from foreground to background and the overall enveloping intimacy. And what can I say about your lyrics? - they are so poignant. Together all of this is an experience which flows so well from each song to the next, and leaves your ear wanting for more...  Also because your instrumentals are rich, complex and subtle at the same time - on each listening to get a new experience.  For me that is so important, that there is always something new to experience to take away from a song."

 

So there you go. I asked permission to reproduce these quotes because I’m proud to have touched these people, all good friends, with this album and to know they have been loving it, and of course to make you, the reader, want to hear it!

So be prepared and watch that space! The album will be available for sale on my website (as downloads and CD), and on Amazon, iTunes, Bandcamp and CD Baby. Best place is here of course because no one is taking a cut.

And remember that all net proceeds from sales of the album (whether download or CDs) are going to benefit MusiCounts, so not only will you get great music, but you will do good as well by helping children get a musical education!