Thursday, 5 January 2012

No Packet Required - does music really have to cost that much?

Last year, dozens of ukulele artistes raised funds for new albums and projects through dedicated fundraising websites. Some raised a couple of hundred dollars. Others raised figures in the tens of thousands. One YouTube star raised $77,888 for her album. Another young lady raised $104,000 for hers. A well-known, self-styled ‘Burlesque Queen’ raised a staggering $133,341 in order to record a short tour to put out as a live album.

Does it cost this much to make an album? More to the point, does it cost this much for a relatively obscure ukulele player to make an album? Maybe it does; I don’t know. It just seems a little excessive to me.

Even during the course of writing this, I have become aware of another ukulele artiste (again, an attractive young woman, by sheer coincidence) who has raised over $14,000 for a project. The project? Writing a song a week for a year, recording the song on whatever she has available, and emailing the weekly mp3 to her backers. Bearing in mind you can write a song on a scrap of paper with a pencil stub, you can record an mp3 on most laptops and smartphones and you can email essentially free, what on Earth is the $14,000 supposed to fund? I find this genuinely baffling.

I have several issues with this approach to funding projects. One of the main ones is the seeming lack of accountability. You are told how much is apparently required to complete the project, and what you get (if anything - it’s often little or nothing – in some cases, contributors don’t even qualify for a copy of the finished CD) for your contribution, but what happens to the extra money generated? Do the contributors see how their money is spent? Do we have any idea how much of the requested funds are actually required to achieve the project? There is precious little information. Also, if the finished product turned out to be an ill-advised vanity project, you’ve contributed to a white elephant, destined to sit under someone’s bed for the next 300 years, whereas if it ends up becoming hugely commercially successful, the creators are under no obligation to share any of the profit with the investors. You’ve got your signed postcard, and that’ll have to do.

Of course, it isn’t seen as investment; it’s seen as patronage of the arts. But it’s odd how many people suddenly believe they are artists when there’s a chance to hound friends, family and internet acquaintances for free money, bypassing the necessity to risk your own money on your own project, circumventing any need to have any confidence whatsoever in the value of what you are doing. It’s very easy indeed to put someone else’s money where your mouth is. If you’re going to spend $100,000 on an album, you’d better be damned sure you’re the sort of artist who can make a $100,000 album commercially viable, or you’re just being deluded or vain, or at the very least criminally self-indulgent, asking others to finance you for playing at pop stars.
None of this applies, of course when talking about art, but as soon as you start asking other people for money before you've even produced anything - or, for that matter, fully demonstrated what you're going to produce - it serves a different master. It stops being art and starts being a commercial venture, and the rules are different.

Several of the big hitters in these funding schemes made what name they have in a resolutely lo-fi and understated way. The simplicity and accessibility of the ukulele is one of its chief appeals. It’s often at its best as an unadorned accompaniment to a singing voice, and though it works as an ensemble instrument, the ensembles where the uke shines tend to be less grandiose, more rustic affairs.

Or so it was. Perhaps it’s different now. Fancy hardware and fancier software is easy and cheap to obtain nowadays, and inexpensive instruments and equipment mean even people on a modest budget have the wherewithal to become multi-instrumentalist, one-man record companies. Most home computers have the capability to create astonishingly complex recordings, and much more besides. Even phones can give us Abbey Road in our pockets.

I’ve heard many, many amateur or semi-amateur recordings over the last couple of years that have been unbelievably complex affairs, with huge arrangements, string sections, drums, full choirs of harmony vocals, filled with effects and filtered and shaped to the nines, all knocked up at the kitchen table while the other half was watching the match or Coronation Street.
So why would a person with that kind of technology at their disposal, from that lo-fi background, need $100,000 to make an album?

I’m going to start a range of projects under the banner title: ‘No Packet Required’, where music can be created and hopefully enjoyed without costing me or anyone else a packet.

Project One:

I’m going to match ’One New Song on mp3 a week for a year’ girl’s offer. I’m going to write one new song every week for a year, record it on whatever device is freely available to me at the time, and give the mp3 to whoever wants it, gratis. Apart from the frequency, I, along with thousands of others (including many of the ‘fundraisers’), have been doing it on YouTube, social network sites and Bulletin Boards for years.

Of course, writing one new song every week isn’t necessarily conducive to writing quality material, so you may have to take the rough with the smooth, but then it’s the same for her, isn’t it? Also, she offers a $1 refund for every week she doesn’t write a song, which I won’t match, as I’m not looking for any money to begin with.

If I forget about doing this, please remind me.