A new focus enters the mix with this feature on how digital recording technology has influenced musicians' ability to get their work out. We'll be looking at artists' survival strategies, and we'd like to hear about yours. Send any comments or feature ideas to: [email protected]. Also note: with the upcoming all-new mnartists, you'll be able to post digital sound files and video files to your web page on mnartists.org.
"Thanks for coming out, everybody. Don't forget I've got CDs for sale up here. And check out the new MP3s on my website."
Just one decade ago, those remarks were seldom heard in your local nightclub, coffee shop or basement keg party. Websites and CDs were for established artists with recording contracts. Today, they're for everybody.
Over 90 percent of the musical acts performing regularly in the Duluth market, for example, have at least one song available on CD or the Internet. Ten years ago, it was zero percent.
"Back then it was a lot harder to put out a CD," said Greg Cougar Conley. His band, Both, released its first full-length CD late last year. In the 1990s, Conley was the frontman of Puddle Wonderful, one of the first Duluth-area bands to put out a CD. He said in those days there was only one recording studio in the area (Inland Sea in Superior, Wis.) and no CD manufacturers. Duluth musicians had to pay a Twin Cities company a minimum of about $1,500 to have a batch of CDs made back then. Though it was a daunting task to sell or even give away more than 200 copies, the smallest run available was 500.
The first Duluth band to release a CD was Low in 1994, but that was with record label support. Shortly afterward, Swivelhead became the first Duluth band to self-release a CD. The group broke up in 1995. Band-member Bob Olson still has 200 copies of Swivelhead's pioneering self-titled CD boxed up in his home.
"I don't remember what we paid," Olson said. "It was a lot of money. We only had a budget for about a day and a half in the studio. It was really, really rushed. Really high pressure. I think that affected the product."
Swivelhead and Puddle Wonderful both traveled to Minneapolis to record with Tim Mack at Amphetamine Reptile. Today, Duluth artists seldom leave town to record, working at four reasonably well-known studios within the city: Bally Haus, Dog Talk, Sacred Heart, and Paul Broman's studio in the Washington Cooperative. Cost for studio time in Duluth varies from about $15 to $50 per hour, depending on which sound-engineer musicians choose.
Today, most CDs in the Duluth market are self-released, or released under a made-up label name. A few small but legitimate labels, however, have also been established. The oldest Duluth label is Shaky Ray Records, which will put out its 40th release this month. Owner/founder Mark Lindquist started Shaky Ray in 1995 after receiving a flood of rejection letters from labels refusing to record his band, Giljunko.
"At that time, it was actually cheaper to make a [phonograph] record [than a CD]," Lindquist said. The cost of having 100 seven-inch records made in the mid-1990s was about $350. Things have flip-flopped since then. The cost to release vinyl has gone up slightly, but the cost to have CDs made decreased dramatically when smaller runs became possible.
"It's about a buck a disc," Lindquist said. "You can buy 1,000 empty jewel cases for $25. If you want to stuff and cut out your own covers, you're basically just paying to get the disc made and it's a dollar a disc." Lindquist said most Duluth-area bands do a run of about 100 to 200 copies. "I'll make like 25 or 50 discs, pay for those, and then with the money I make from selling them I'll make another 50 and then another 50."
Production costs can vary considerably depending on the desired quality of the product. Some bands simply burn copies of their recordings on a home computer and write the band name on the disc with a black marker. Others choose elaborate, professional art and labeling.
"If you're going to do it up right, with shrink wrapping and everything and UPC labels, that can get expensive," Lindquist said. "But it's getting cheaper almost by the month."
Many bands post some or all of their recordings as MP3s on their websites. Music fans with the right tools and computer literacy can simply download the recordings and burn them to a CD on their own.
Olson, who today plays guitar for Father Hennepin and the Black-Eyed Snakes, said that though there's more recording opportunities for musicians today, and more toys to play with, it's still a big investment to produce a professional recording.
"Good studio time you still have to pay for," he said. "That doesn't get any cheaper."