Paul Dunne has a lot to celebrate. In the last month he and childhood friend Aaron Swartz have started their own band, Dinoczar, and they have an EP (short for extended play) of three songs called “Ghosts” scheduled for release in January. In the words of Dunne, who plays guitar in Dinoczar, writing, recording and releasing his own music feels like “a dream come true” at times.
When he initially envisioned that dream though, Dunne hadn’t thought he’d be releasing that music for free. It’s something on which he has conflicted feelings.
“Yeah, I’d rather be selling over streaming, but we can’t afford to do that right now,” said Dunne, a middler at Northeastern University. “Getting our name out there is more important.”
Dinoczar’s situation isn’t uncommon among up-and-coming bands. With the advent of websites like Soundcloud and Bandcamp, hubs of demos and music recordings that can be accessed without charge, comes an over-saturation of artists hoping to make it into the industry. And when such a large group of musicians puts its music online for free download, it’s hard for other up-and-comers to do it differently.
Naturally, this curtails the number of bands that can succeed in an overstuffed industry. As a result more and more young musicians are pursuing musical performance as a hobby, and not something that might result in a viable career. Though to pursue it in such a capacity, musicians have to find ways to advertise themselves that don’t involve making a profit.
The staggering amount of illegal downloading is one likely culprit in this paradigm shift. Last year The Guardian reported that illegal song downloads in 2012 were just shy of 200 million, a drop from the previous year but a large sum nonetheless. That piracy statistic makes a compelling argument for streaming services like Spotify, Pandora Radio and Pitchfork Advance as well.
In the 2013 mid-year report for the music industry, published by Neilsen Soundscan and Billboard, digital track downloads dropped 12 million from the previous year. Conversely, streams in 2013 were counted at 50.9 billion, a 24 percent increase from 2012. Numerous bands stream their album ahead of release so as to encourage legal purchase of their product. It’s becoming an increasingly common practice, with established acts like Arcade Fire and Daft Punk being recent testaments to streaming’s infiltration of the album release cycle. Long-time American rock band Wilco has done it for each of its last five albums.
The prevalence of streams may simply be an extension of the new millenium’s conversion from physical to digital music. In a study done by Peter Tschmuk – “Is Streaming the Next Big Thing?” – Tschmuk notes that the market share of digital music has risen in the last four years from 35 percent, from 22 percent in 2008 to 57 percent in 2012. In fact according to Tschmuk, this year’s rise in music sales was the first increase since 1999.
Jay Fialkov, a professor in the Music Business and Management program at Berklee College of Music, doesn’t think the rises in metrics for both streaming and music purchases are unrelated. “For a lot of people I imagine streaming is a way of ensuring quality in a future purchase,” said Fialkov. “If you hear something and you like it, you’re more apt to buy it then if you hadn’t heard it at all.”
With underground artists and undiscovered talent, that pre-purchase listen becomes all the more crucial. “Artists and groups who already have careers can move records by name recognition alone,” Fialkov said. “Where unsigned artists who need that word-of-mouth buzz are concerned, free music becomes a tool for getting their name known.”
Fialkov also spoke to the importance of live shows for lesser-known acts, something he views firsthand as a Berklee professor. “It’s another way of making yourself known,” said Fialkov.”For a newer musician looking to find success that’s quite important, and performances are another way of doing that. I’m more likely to look into a student who’s impressed me in a concert hall than one I hear noodling in a practice room.”
Mark Gilday, a Conor Oberst-inspired folk musician and fourth-year student at Northeastern University, is greatly indebted to the live performance. Gilday, who performs under his full name as Mark Gilday Jr., had some experience playing for an audience as a member of Northeastern University’s Songwriters Club, and performed at several open mic nights over the course of his short career. But at the beginning of 2013, Gilday hadn’t found anything resembling a following or fanbase.
“The Tastemakers Battle of the Bands back in March was one of my first larger shows,” said Gilday. “I won the battle too.” Gilday confirmed that since his victorious turnout at that Battle of the Bands, his live performances have increased both in frequency and audience size. He even released his first album, “Nothing, Really!”, on Nov. 27, 2013, via Bandcamp under a model that allows downloaders to pay what they want for purchase.
Gilday’s success in a live setting and subsequent digital record release is a story mirrored in his Northeastern musician counterpart, Anjimile Yvonne. Yvonne performs under her first name in concert, and has been playing shows since 2012 with a rotating cast of instrumentalists supporting her. For Yvonne, the pressure of “making it” is mitigated by her lack of expectations and the enjoyment that comes from performing on a concert to concert basis.
“I like playing music,” said Yvonne. “A career would be cool, yeah, but that’s kind of a dream. There’s a reason I’m a Northeastern student too, you know?” Yvonne’s pragmatism is well-founded: a study done in the New York Times earlier this year showed that college graduates on average earned 84 percent more than a comparable high-school graduate. Additionally, the relative “worth” of a college degree for men and women was shown to be $365,000 and $185,000 over the course of a life time.
Professor Stephanie Kellar, another educator in Berklee’s Music Business and Management program, was in agreement with this principle. Business savvy in prospective musicians is something she stresses to students, and something her bio on the Berklee website’s list of faculty emphasizes too (“Musicians need to know how to market themselves,” “We translate theory into best business practices.”)
In respect to newer musicians, Kellar asserted that being realistic is key. “We don’t work in a profession where the most talented necessarily get jobs,” said Kellar. “A degree isn’t always a guarantee of a job either, and a lot of the job is luck and being in the right place at the right time. Students need to know that. “
As for turning a profit in the industry, Kellar shrugged. “The successful musicians you hear about the most are usually high school dropouts. Who can predict success?”
No one. But fortunately, sometimes success springs in unexpected places. For Max Shakun, one guitarist in the Connecticut roots quintet Poor Old Shine, that was surely the case.
“I played in a couple bands in high school, but we never performed anywhere besides school talent shows,” said Shakun, a fourth year student at UConn. “The chemistry also wasn’t great either as friends or musicians. With Poor Old Shine we hit it off after a couple of jams. We’re playing shows every month, and we’re all friends.”
Shakun and the other members of Poor Old Shine were also able to accomplish something difficult in releasing their debut album for purchase. That album, self-titled, and its positive reception gave Poor Old Shine what Shakun calls “a sense that we did the right thing in being a band.”
The band’s plans for the immediate future are ambitious for a group comprising college students. Poor Old Shine is currently recording in Cambridge on instrumental accompaniments for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of “The Heart of Robin Hood.” They’re certainly making waves too, with over 3,000 Facebook fans and a good review in The New York Times for their debut album being nothing to bat an eyelash at.
Shakun’s intent is to take a “see what happens” approach in terms of his band’s long-term future. “No one’s really sure where this is headed, and I have to finish school at some point. But for now we’re doing well, we’re getting talked about.”
Being successful might not be the same as “getting talked about,” but they correlate. Poor Old Shine’s ability to garner buzz through activity helped to establish a fanbase, one that in theory will maintain interest throughout the band’s future projects, and recommend their music to non-fans.
That might be how smaller bands get the name recognition that Professor Fialkov highlighted as so crucial. Through playing live shows and maintaining a steady release of music, in addition to marketing yourself to attract a fanbase (an approach Professor Kellar might suggest) bands can potentially find success. For Poor Old Shine, it resulted in eventually being able to release music for a profit – as discussed earlier, an increasing rarity for new bands.
Of course, not all young musicians interested in going into music for the long haul. The boys in Dinoczar, says Paul Dunne, just want to play for now.
“I’m playing in a band with my best friend, and we don’t suck,” said Dunne. “That’s not a bad start.”
Will they take Dinoczar far? “We’ll have to learn our songs first,” Dunne said.