The Unscene

Bryce Merrill
Photo from Havana Guns

Is it possible to make pop music without concern that it's popular? A look at paradoxes of home recording.

At a coffee shop, I was talking to Charlie, a college student and amateur musician, about recording music at home. He slid a book toward me: The Indie Bible, a guide to DiY band promotion in the manner of Book Your Own Fucking Life, a collection of independent venue contacts, record labels and distributors, and even listings of punk-friendly lodgings for touring bands. Then he shoved a second, similar manual at me, another “sweet” resource for independent musicians trying to make it on their own.

I wasn’t sure what to say, if he wanted me to borrow the books or just look at them. We were meeting for the first and presumably only time, because he agreed to be interviewed as part of my research, but I sensed he wouldn't have hesitated to let me take them. What gave me pause was not that, but the paradox the books presented. Charlie had earlier confessed that his motivation for home recording was to sever ties with the music business, yet here he was extolling the virtues of backdoor guides to the industry. So is he in or is he out?

When Charlie talked about the joys of recording music at home -- a hobby he did ostensibly for no other reason than self-expression and exploration -- his speech quickened and his smile brightened. He talked about teaching his daughter to play drums for his recordings, and he seemed moved almost to tears recalling why he'd written certain songs. In this way, Charlie is like most of the other home recordists I've spoken with. They don't record music as part of plan to become successful; they are not expecting to be the next Moby, Bob Pollard, or Pavement. They do it for the pleasure of creating, for the enrichment of remembering through music, for a musical form of private catharsis. For them, the value of recording is the act of doing it. As Jonathan, another participant in my study put it, they revel in the benefits of “making it, not making it.

Technology changes in recording practices have evolved so quickly that explanations of the movement’s larger social effects are lagging. Observers have generally tended to take either a utopian or apocalyptic view of the home-recording phenomenon. Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times that artists like Mice Parade and Aesop Rock, who record music in their homes instead of professional studios, represent key players in what he calls a “quiet revolution” in music making. Other scholars are less optimistic: Critic Steve Jones agrees that home recording has affected how pop music is made and sold but has done little to change the core of how the music industry operates. Because little data has been collected on the home-recording movement (if it can be called that), it's hard to assess its impact on the pop-music marketplace.

But the impact of the movement on local scenes are obvious. Scores of musicians alone in basements and spare rooms now make music in previously impossible ways. Armed with small, simple, and reasonably affordable recording equipment, they record when they want and what they want, uninfluenced by professional concerns. Most are emboldened by a DiY ethic, and they are typically antagonistic toward pop music’s productive machinery. With control of the means of musical production, some home recordists believe they reclaim a part of their humanity by seizing the reins of expressive creation. Their songs are not commodities to be alienated from their creator and sold; they are compositions of the soul, to be heard and appreciated by only those who matter to them, who bring to it a similar spirit.

These musicians make up a new musical scene, but one that intentionally lacks notoriety. Their music is mostly unheard, and they are visibly absent. Enabled by technology and birthed by countercultural ethics, they eschew the public performing, the networking with other musicians, and the endless loitering in clubs (and arguing with club owners) that make up most local music scenes for something altogether new: an unscene.

Hidden in plain sight, home recordists make a virtue of their inconspicuousness amid the prefabricated pop manufactured by the culture industry. However, their stories suggest that they are not immune to the lure of ambition or blind to the shining light of attention. When I ask Charlie if he ever thinks about performing his songs live, Charlie says without pause, "Oh, yeah. I’d like to play for people. I don’t want to play anywhere massive like the Pepsi Center, but, you know, I could really see playing somewhere like Red Rocks or the Fillmore." The scope of his hopes stunned me -- Red Rocks is a historic amphitheater that holds nearly 10,000 people, and the Fillmore auditorium in Denver holds 3,600.

But Charlie’s ambivalence about obscurity was less hypocrisy than an admission that separating pop music from popularity is not so straightforward. In spite of an independent ethos and the technological means to realize it, home recordists cannot completely untangle the knot that ties popular music to mass culture and, more tightly, to audiences and commerce. Despite the authentic experience they have in making the music, a psychological inertia pulls their practice toward commerce and popularity. They are making popular music, even if this music never reaches a populace. Though they often subvert pop music structures -- verse, bridge, chorus, repeat -- they also use such structures liberally. The song structures they use are often derivative of common genres (country, jazz, rock, hip hop), and the lyrics generally formulaic. They know nothing beats a slow ballad about love lost or an anthemic chorus announcing victory. They may be in the margins of music, but they are not off the page.

Physically removed from local music scenes, home recordists work instead for the generalized appreciation of an imagined audience. They wonder if their laptop compositions would translate well to a live performance, or if organic sounds performed by other musicians would dutifully replace their sometimes automated, synthetic ones. Even if they do not actually seek a reception, they fantasize about how their songs might be received and are free to imagine as big and enthusiastic a reception as they choose. Charlie likely will never play Red Rocks, but no real failures will ever compromise his fantasy.

The home recordists' revolution won't be televised, but it does have a MySpace profile. Along with innovations in recording technology, the means of distributing music to public audiences has also evolved strangely and quickly. Numerous free-use sites on the internet offer home recordists a place to share their music with a vast, anonymous group of potential listeners. They may not ask directly for an audience response, but they are by no means keeping their music private. This act of technocultural participation runs contrary to the typically and explicitly private nature of home recording, again raising the question of whether they are in or out.

Here is one answer: While home recordists may be physically and ideologically distant from audiences and commerce, they are not detached. Nor is such detachment possible. Making music, even alone, is inherently a social act. And like all social acts, the creator and the creation cannot exist in isolation. Enabled by technologies that are also reshaping the public spheres of science, politics, and commerce, home recordists resist commercialization, but they cannot remove themselves from the commercial sphere altogether. Their definition of authenticity is not merely contradicted by their simultaneous desire to share their songs with others and, in some cases, to be discovered as talent in the rough; it reveals the inevitable tensions between resistance and submission to the culture that makes it possible for musicians to create.

Darren, another home recordist, spoke to me about how he vacillates uneasily between finding comfort in creating anonymously and also inspiration in this process to trade basements for rock clubs. “I go back and forth,” he confesses, “between feeling empowered and maybe even righteous because I’m doing this recording on my own terms and thinking that I really should see if other people might like what I’m doing…play some shows or something…But then I play a show and realize how much I hate it and why I started doing this in the first place!” We both laugh, acknowledging that the desire to make music in the margins are real, but so are the challenges to this ideal.

For every YouTube-video question posed to a potential presidential candidate, there are countless amateur video makers whose projects will never be seen. For every Nebraska, there are innumerable albums made with a four-track recorders, that will never be heard. But because the unseen users of these of creative technologies no doubt dwarf the number of notables, we must keep them in mind to understand how technology has and continues to change us -- our music, our art, our politics, and our society. To comprehend the true character of the information age, we have to pay attention to the unscene.

Bryce Merrill is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He can be reached at [email protected]

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