Want to be a rock star? It's never been more affordable to pursue the only valid excuse to trash a hotel room. Cheap software makes it easy to record CD-quality audio to the PC in your bedroom -- or to a notebook in the back seat of a taxi, for that matter. And the Web offers instant access to millions of music fans.
With inexpensive audio software, musicians can record themselves and forego expensive recording studios. The Recording Industry Association of America's lawsuits over file sharing may be the most public evidence of a shakeup in the music industry; but at the other end, a quiet revolution has been going on in musicians' homes.
When I made my first recordings at home in the mid-eighties, it was with a Tascam PortaStudio. The beauty of this machine, which cost a few hundred bucks, was that it recorded four tracks onto an everyday cassette tape. To make a recording, I no longer needed my less-motivated friends to play additional instruments -- I could play one instrument at a time while listening to the previously recorded instruments, each on its own track. Cassette recordings are best suited as demos, though some albums have been recorded on cassette, the most famous perhaps being Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska.
For the same amount of money I spent 20 years ago on this device, today you can buy software that records 24, 48, or more CD-quality tracks. Software won't replace the knowledge of a professional audio engineer, of course, but the audio quality competes with that of studio recordings. Best of all, there's a bunch of free and demo software out there to help get you started.
The centerpiece of any PC-based home studio is multitrack recording software. Most of these programs cost a few hundred dollars, but demos and free versions are available. Digidesign Inc., for example, offers a free eight-track version of its Pro Tools software, the obvious motive being that you'll find eight tracks too limiting and opt to buy the full 32-track version for US$450. Another popular multitrack program is Adobe Audition (previously known as Cool Edit Pro), which costs US$299. You can download a free demo to see how well you like it.
Apple Computer has been very public about its music-recording software, including GarageBand on all its new computers. Separately, Apple's ILife suite costs just US$49; it includes GarageBand, plus photo-organizing and movie-creation programs as well.
Time to be a salesperson
Digital technology has made recording music easier than ever. But what about groupies? You'd be smart to promote your music on the Web.
"I think it's really important that artists have a Web site," says David Nevue, a solo pianist and author of the self-published How to Promote Your Music Successfully on the Internet (2004), available online. "It seems obvious, but many don't."
If you're short on Web design skills, or simply don't have the time to build your own site, no worries: Nevue recommends that you let CD Baby handle it. In addition to having sold more than 1.1 million CDs by over 72,000 independent musicians, according to the site, CD Baby builds Web pages to help the artists sell their CDs. "It's the simplest thing to do," says Nevue.
CD Baby also hosts streaming audio files and submits the music it sells to Apple ITunes, America Online's Music, Napster, Musicmatch's Rhapsody, and other services.
Of course, CDs don't sell without promotion. Though nothing beats getting in a van and touring the country, exposure online can't hurt. Perhaps the best place online to get that exposure is GarageBand.com, the Web site for a community of musicians who review each other's music. (This outfit is separate from Apple's software, although Apple paid GarageBand.com for limited rights to the GarageBand trademark.) There's no cost to set up an account and submit your music for review, as long as you contribute by reviewing others' music.
GarageBand.com CEO Ali Partovi says the site has almost a half a million registered members, and that many have found success through the site: "We've had dozens of acts get signed by labels or get paid by companies who want some sort of music licensed for a commercial or soundtrack." While Partovi didn't have statistics on how many of these artists recorded their music themselves, a recent survey done by the company found that 90 percent of the artists on GarageBand.com have a recording setup at home. Both FM radio stations and Internet radio stations play music posted to GarageBand.com, including Live365.com.
All this makes it possible to reach an increasingly larger audience online -- but that of course attracts more artists looking to make their mark. You need a way to stick out in the crowd. "You can't just put up a Web page and expect people to find you," says Nevue. He's taken the additional step of setting up his own station at Live365.com, which he says has brought in a lot of listeners. Nevue stresses that artists have to go out and find their audience through discussion groups, message boards, and through Web sites that attract people who are likely to appreciate their style of music.
Christopher Knab, author of the self-published Music Is Your Business (2004), available online, emphasizes that musicians rarely market their music solely over the Internet. "There are hundreds of thousands of bands and multimillions of tunes that are out there," says Knab. "The artist makes the mistake of saying 'Hey, I'm on CD Baby; I'm on ITunes; I'm on Napster,' and they don't realize that that's just the beginning."
There's a lot of grunt work left to be done. But there are a growing number of online tools out there. Just make sure you've taken full advantage of them before trashing that hotel room.
Got game? The World Cyber Games are coming to San Francisco (October 6 to 10). Roughly 700 competitors from 64 countries are expected to fill the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium to battle for more than US$400,000 in prize money. Parents who once pooh-pooh'd their kids' video gaming as a waste of time can now demand, "Why did you quit?"
Are you an Internet guru? If the rock star route to fame isn't panning out, perhaps your contributions to the Internet have earned you 15 minutes of paparazzi and Hollywood endings. Historian Ian Peter has launched a new portal dedicated to the history of the Internet, and welcomes others' participation. If you can't convince him that you deserve a special mention, take heart: Try searching the site for Al Gore.
Faster, faster: Fifty-three million adults in the U.S. use instant messaging, and many of them use it more often than e-mail, according to a new report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. One of the more interesting findings: Twenty-four percent had sent an IM to someone in the same office or home. Next question: Is there any correlation between obesity and instant messaging?