Eddie Ashworth

Ohio University

When Justin Vernon unlocked and opened the door to his father's cabin in the wilds of northern Wisconsin in November 2007, it is unlikely the thought crossed his mind that he would emerge three months later with what would become one of the most highly praised and, in its own way, profitable records of 2008. With a minimal recording set up brought almost as an afterthought, Vernon started making music as therapy, coping, as he was at the time, with personal distress (the recent break up of his relationship and band) and physical illness.
He recorded. He experimented. He multitracked his tremulous voice over spare instrumentation and ambient sounds, and out of his isolation songs emerged.  The songs eventually grew into a collection that Vernon thought could earn him a label deal, allowing his new material to be "properly" produced and distributed.
Fate, and the marketplace, would have it otherwise. The cabin recordings instead were picked up by the American Indie label Jagjaguar and released in their original form as For Emma Forever Ago.  Vernon took on the nom de chanson Bon Iver (from the French for "good winter"), and the rest is history (Frere-Jones, 2009).
For Emma, Forever Ago became an indie sensation and one of the most critically lauded albums of the year, winding up on scores of "best of 2008" lists in periodicals like Entertainment Weekly, Paste and MOJO, which was typical in its praise:
Isolation doesn't get more splendid than this ...cathartic and strangely heart-warming.  A heady blend of acoustic expansiveness and affecting harmonic power... it threatens to be one of the highlights of the year. (MOJO, June 2008, p. 100)
Q magazine, among others, took note of how the record's actual production influenced its overall mood:
This remarkable album's impact resides in its sound...[Vernon's] stretching and warping of songs until the tension between plaid-shirted authenticity and technical adventure carries a considerable charge, the kind undiminished by repeated plays. (Q, June 2008, p. 147)
In addition to its critical acceptance, For Emma, Forever Ago has to be counted as a commercial success. Since there was almost no recording budget to recoup, the result has been very profitable for all concerned (Frenette, 2009).  As of October 2, 2009 For Emma, Forever Ago has shifted over 210,000 units (53% as complete album digital downloads) in the US, and has gone Gold in the UK.  Vernon's 2009 follow up EP, Blood Bank, has had similarly strong US sales since its release, currently over 82,000-73% of these as digital downloads (Neilsen/Soundscan, 2009).  Along with sync licensing and a robust live schedule, Vernon's three month rustic retreat has spawned a diverse revenue stream benefitting the artist and his indie support network of label, musicians, crew and management.  In the words of Kyle Frenette, Vernon's manager:  "It has allowed all of us to do what we love full time."
A year after Vernon emerged from his sonic sojourn, and two thousand miles away in Burbank, California, another do-it-yourself recording was taking shape.  In his well-equipped personal studio Shaun Lopez, guitarist and leader of the influential 90's melodic hardcore band Far, was putting the finishing touches on a cover version of the Ginuwine song, "Pony."  Since the breakup of the band in 1999, Lopez had moved on to create other bands, while sharpening his production and engineering skills by taking the helm with artists such as the Deftones and Giant Drag.  On "Pony," Lopez acted as engineer, producer and musician (Delfin, 2009).
Lopez's intent in self-recording "Pony" couldn't have been more different than Vernon's on For Emma, Forever Ago.  Vernon had no audience in mind other than himself; Lopez, as a veteran of major label deals, touring, and rock radio airplay, had other fish to fry.  The reunion of Lopez and his Far band mates on the track "Pony" was by all accounts a conscious effort to create a radio friendly commercial rock single, combining a deadly drum groove, ominous, strutting guitar riffs and lascivious vocals, into an earworm quality, danceable rock track (Delfin, 2009).
However, like Vernon, Lopez succeeded beyond expectations.   According to Rodel Delfin, manager of Far:
"Pony" got into the hands of a couple of radio stations, particularly up in the Bay Area.  One station in particular was Live 105, which is the main rock radio station in San Francisco, and the program director (who was a big Far fan from back in the day) heard the song, fell in love with it, started playing it and it becomes the number one requested single. It soon is getting played in Seattle, in Sacramento and then KROQ in LA, and becomes one of the type five songs on KROQ's playlist.
This naturally attracted the attention of major labels, many of whom came courting with so-called "360 deals" in which all of the potential revenue streams that can be generated by the artist (such as touring and merchandise) are on the table.   However, because of the band's less than ideal relationships with corporate labels in the 90s, Far opted instead to sign with respected independent Vagrant Records, who will release the completed album early next year (Delfin, 2009).
    That Lopez and his band produced and engineered their record themselves figures prominently in the album's publicity campaign.  According to Delfin "...every press release, every interview, has focused around the band recording it on their own without any constraints."
Using the "do it yourself" or DIY origins of Far's new record as a promotional tool is emblematic of the growing importance of the DIY aesthetic in the making and marketing of records.  A perfect storm of widely available and inexpensive recording gear, the proliferation of mp3s as the de facto standard consumer format, and a recording industry defined by shifting revenue streams and shrinking budgets have made the art and craft of record-making a decidedly democratic process, where seasoned pros are in direct competition with not only gifted amateurs, but absolute novices as well (Olivarez-Giles, 2009) (Berger, 2009).  Since this is likely to become more commonplace in the foreseeable future, it is important for current and aspiring record producers to understand (if not embrace) the phenomenon it they are to remain vital in the new recording industry.  It is also useful to contrast  current self-recording artists with the origins and development of DIY as a cultural phenomenon, and later an aesthetic movement borne out of creative and financial necessity.  


In her book DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture, Amy Spencer describes the broad scope and initial impetus for the historical DIY movement: about using anything you can get your hands on to shape your own cultural entity; whatever you think is missing in mainstream culture...with those driven by a fiercely independent ethos seeking representation of the kind that mainstream culture does not allow (Spencer, p. 11).
In documenting the origins of the DIY in the self-published, usually radical political tracts of the 1920s, and later in the political zine movement of the 1960s and 1970s (a la The Berkeley Barb) or music zines during the same period (Maximumrocknroll), Spencer notes how print-based DIY led to other forms of media, including a wave of DIY records that distanced themselves from what they saw as the bloated excesses of popular records and music of the time.  The punk and early indie rock DIY production ethic embraced amateur musicianship along with primitive recording techniques; ragged, intense musical performances by artists who had only recently become acquainted with their respective instruments were captured in similarly untutored fashion on less than state-of-the-art gear. The resulting recordings were then either distributed by the artists themselves or by newly formed indie labels catering to this niche market, bypassing what punks viewed as an equally decadent recording industry.  Generally, sonics and production values were of very little concern to these seminal DIY artists.  According to Spencer, this era of DIY was more concerned with empowering marginalized groups to take on what they felt was the increasing uniformity of popular culture, and had much in common with the long tradition of "outsider" DIY practices.
    Later, in the 70s and 80s, artists like DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash and others combined intensely innovative ideas about rhythm and lyrics, and never-say-die resourcefulness, to create hip-hop music from cast off vinyl, inexpensive turntables and second hand PA rigs.  Hip-hop took the salient features of early DIY (empowering those without conventional access to media) and added a revolutionary brand of cut and paste aesthetics that still defines hip hop production, and is utilized regularly in other popular music forms as well.  The introduction of all in one recording and sequencing devices like the Akai MPC series of samplers incorporated self-production to the mix, thus making hip-hop a truly DIY musical form (Garafalo, 2005).
However, before punks started storming the industry status quo and before hip hop producers started dominating the airwaves, there were isolated examples of DIY artists who have more in common with the post-millennial cohort of self-recording musicians, who chose the process primarily for its creative and aesthetic possibilities, rather than as a cultural statement or for financial expediency.  For example, in the 1950's, Les Paul famously pioneered the multitrack process on the records he made for himself and wife Mary Ford at his home studio.  Paul produced and engineered his records, recording multiple guitar overdubs with a cutting edge (at the time) 8-track tape recorder supplied by his friend, Bing Crosby, and the company the crooner backed, Ampex (Peterson, 2005).  Another artist who became associated with "flying solo" is Todd Rundgren, who, on albums like Something/Anything (1972), Hermit of Mink Hollow (1978) and A Capella (1985), did virtually everything himself-songwriting, singing, playing all the instruments, producing and engineering-with frequently spectacular, sometimes bewildering, results (Erlewine, 2009).
One of the most well-known and influential examples of an artist who took this route is Paul McCartney, whose first solo album, McCartney (1970), was recorded largely at his Cavendish Lane home in London. Using the best equipment a Beatle could buy (including a Studer 4 track tape recorder) McCartney employed techniques learned from years of observing EMI studio engineers such as Norman Smith, Geoff Emerick, Ken Scott and Richard Lush. As one of the first solo releases by a former Beatle, the album was not surprisingly a popular success, eventually going double platinum in the US.  Much was made at the time of McCartney playing all of the instruments and engineering the record on his own (with some reviewers mistakenly reporting the album was recorded completely at McCartney's farm in Scotland) (Spizer, 2005) (Scott, 2009). A number of critics noted the loose, offhand audio charms of the album that contrasted with the meticulous studio wizardry of the Beatles recently released Abbey Road (1969).  Langdon Winner summed up this sentiment in his Rolling Stone review of May 14, 1970:
The 14 cuts on McCartney are masterful examples of happiness, relaxation and contentment...Ever since Rubber Soul the Beatles had insisted on putting miles of echo chamber between their voices and the ear of the listener. This became so irritating to me that I refused to buy the last two Beatles albums in futile protest...In McCartney all of the fancy neo-Stockhausen electronics is cast aside. The only thing that separates us from Paul's voice are the two inches between his lips and the microphone. The sound is a genuine improvement-clean, crisp, warm and definitely human.
The success of the McCartney album and its generally favorable critical response is significant since, like Les Paul's and Todd Rundgren's work, it bears a number of similarities to many current DIY productions, one of which is recording in non-studio environments for their sonic or psychological attributes, with the artist frequently assuming the role not only of producer but engineer as well.  
Like McCartney, much of the impact of For Emma, Forever Ago are attributable to an intimate recording situation (this time in the sequestered environment of the Wisconsin woods) that fostered the creation of his very personal sounding record.  According to Frenette:
The solitude and place are the reasons the album sounds the way it does.  It would have been more polished and might even be more radio friendly coming out of a studio with help of a producer/engineer, but it might not have attracted so many people had it been recorded in that manner because it would have lacked the 'real' quality that it has.
The idea that the recording environment influences songwriting and performance is central to many post-millennial DIY productions.  While modern DIY albums represent a widely contrasting range of musical styles and approaches, the pervasive influence of the recording venue is one of many common features DIY projects share.


This idea of authenticity and capturing the sounds and/or influence of the environment are very important to many DIY artists, even if that environment is the artist's bedroom.  Some artists go to what might seem extreme measures to achieve a sense of "vibe" in their records: Tony Dekker, vocalist/instrumentalist of the Canadian band Great Lake Swimmers, produced their eponymous debut album (2005) in an abandoned grain silo, the record embellished not only by the distinctive reverb that (one assumes) only a grain silo can provide, but also by crickets and other natural sounds that were captured during the recording (Serra, 2009). The effect of this subtle ambience is palpable, and difficult to duplicate within the studio environment. The band continues to explore the possibilities of non-traditional studio environments in its latest release, Lost Channels (2009), which boasts a variety of remote recording locales including Singer Castle, on Dark Island in the St Lawrence River and St Brendan's Church in Rockport, Ontario. The band's website spins it like this:
Dekker chooses to record in old churches, community halls, abandoned grain silos and rural locations. It's easy to hear why. His voice doesn't need any studio embellishment, standing at its strongest when bathed in natural reverb and enriched by the historical context surrounding it (Great Lake Swimmers Website, 2009).
Once again, it would seem that this aspect of DIY is so central to the Great Lake Swimmer's brand identity that their respective PR folks feel compelled make special mention of it in their press releases.  
An intangible asset such as "historical context" extolled in the GLS website quoted above is usually not on the equipment or amenity list of commercial recording studios. When it is, historical context is frequently used to play up the body of successful records that have been recorded at a particular facility (with album covers and platinum albums typically displayed on the wall of the studio's public areas).   One such studio that has successfully brokered its storied history is Total Access Recording in Redondo Beach, California.   In continuous operation since the early 80s, the studio's initial client roster included DIY pioneer SST Records (home of such influential artists as the Minutemen, Black Flag, Husker Du and The Meat Puppets) and later was central in the rise of commercial metal music in the 80s (Dokken, Great White, and Guns 'N' Roses were regular clients). During the next decade, "alternative" rock radio icons such as Sublime, No Doubt, and Unwritten Law recorded their hit records at Total Access.  A particular thread of this lineage appealed to the second wave of hardcore punk rockers in the 80s and 90s, when Hermosa Beach-based Pennywise chose the studio to make two of its albums because, according to guitarist Fletcher Dragge, "that's where Black Flag recorded" (Epitath Records, 1997).
Interestingly, studio owner Wyn Davis is sympathetic to artists who choose to record outside the studio environment:
The recording studio is a completely unnatural and foreign place to make music. There is no feedback, you don't have anything in there, you're coming in and you're surrounded by a bunch of technology and now you're supposed to do your thing. So there's nothing in a studio, generally speaking, that is conducive to anything that an artist really wants to accomplish.  I think that a lot of times when people make records on their own, and they're outside that environment they're inspired, they have the excitement of writing the song and the energy that, in studio, has a very powerful and distinct way of draining all that out of that process.
Producer/engineer Ken Scott shared an amusing story regarding John Lennon's preference for home recording, and the difficulties of creating a similar environment in a commercial facility:
When we were doing the White Album, one day Lennon comes in, they're trying to do something and he says 'why is it so much bloody easier to do it at home and its just so much better.  You're just sitting there and it happens.  It's perfect.'  So we said, 'hang on, let's just try something.  If you think its better at home, then we'll set it up as close as we can like a home setting in a studio.'  So that's what we did.  We got an armchair...we got a lamp stand, we made it as close to a home environment as we could for him.  And he sits there and starts to play, and we're recording it, and he comes up and listens and says 'It's just as bad, isn't it?'  and we said 'Yes.'   At home, you're not picking it apart the way you do in the studio.
Chris Watson, owner of Park the Van Records (the stalwart New Orleans indie label that is the current home of The High Strung, The Generationals, The Spinto Band, Pepi Ginsberg and others) provides a colorful assessment of the differences between working in an established studio and a home based or other ad hoc situation:
If you're by yourself you might be more inclined to walk around your house naked, and I feel the same way about artists who make records on their own.  They're just like "I'm not afraid to do this thing that I might be embarrassed about around other people and maybe I'm not going to pull it off, so I'm not even going to try it.
This aspect of modern DIY production places it firmly in the tradition of the earliest of record production practices, recording in non-traditional recording situations out of necessity or convenience.  While many examples abound, certainly Ralph Peers' location recordings of seminal country artists such as The Carter Family and Jimmie Rogers in a hat warehouse in Bristol, Tennessee during the late 1920's, or the haunting recordings of Robert Johnson, captured by Don Law at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio in the 1930's, prove that definitive recordings made in non-commercial studio environments have been successfully accomplished since the earliest days of record production (Wolfe, 1987) (Briggs, 1961).
But sometimes a record's sense of place is instead the time-tested ambience of a studio space.  "Pony" conjures up the sound of heavy rock recorded in places like Sound City in Van Nuys or Cherokee Studios in Hollywood during the mid 90s, combined with the compressed edge of contemporary "active" rock records.  Many DIY artists are students of the sounds they love, and set out to create recordings similar to those made at facilities that may be too expensive or inconvenient for them to book, or, in some cases, simply no longer exist (Dixon, 2009) (Butler, 2009).


Producer/artist Don Dixon, himself no stranger to DIY production methods on his own records as a solo artist (although he is perhaps most widely recognized for his work on REM's seminal Murmur and Reckoning albums) notes the lack of a  "time is money" mentality in DIY productions. One of the attractions of doing it yourself, according to Dixon " that people have an almost unlimited amount of time, and that is something that is sometimes good, and sometimes bad."  It is obvious that the dazzling cut-and-paste work of DIY mash up artists such as The Avalanches and Girl Talk can only be achieved by devoting countless hours of trial-and-error editing that would cost a fortune in a normal commercial studio.  But song oriented pop DIY artists also point to the absence of a studio clock ticking away as an advantage of DIY recording.  Charlie McArthur of Bears (who record their albums in the basement of his partner Craig Ramsey's home) observes:
It obviously gives us a ton of freedom just because there are no time constraints and we feel comfortable just working at home. I recorded in the studio once with one of my old bands, and I definitely felt pressure to get it right and do it quick, and I didn't really like that. So I think recording at home it lets us bring out little special things that we want to experiment with because we feel comfortable.
Watson echoes these sentiments from the perspective of label owner:
You can take it at your own pace, spend the kind of time you need, and let the songs breathe, and come back to them, and keep experimenting, keep layering on top of it and adding the bells and whistles, tapestries, lighting the candles, whatever you gotta do.
Not being tied to a schedule also has perquisites in an era when getting your musical ideas to market as efficiently as possible is the new mantra.  According to Delfin:
More artists are recording on their own and not waiting.  I even see major label artists who understand the current marketplace and don't want to wait a year or sixteen months for their next release. A common thing right now is for any artist to constantly feed content to their fans.  I think having that ability, if an artist has access to their own home studio, or access to their own facility, and can record without having to wait for budget to be approved or what have you is crucial. Being able to move quickly is a big benefit.


The freedom of setting one's own schedule leads to performances and sonics that tend to be more idiosyncratic than their commercial studio counterparts. According to McArthur:
A lot of weird little noises and stuff get in there sometimes, either from the house or things that, you know, if you were working with a producer he might say 'no, do that over, that wasn't right' but we sometimes end up leaving the mistakes and they actually make it sound better.
A major draw of DIY recording is that it tends to accentuate the individual qualities that can set the artist apart from the rest of the pack, thus helping them better brand their product.  Having no time constraints means that artists are freer to experiment with their songs and their arrangements.  There are few artists who have carved out a more distinctive canon of recorded work than the great Argentinean electro-folk artist, Juana Molina.  Her breathtaking soundscapes swirl around meticulously overdubbed and looped vocals that, while sung mostly in Rioplatanese Spanish, require no translation, so powerful is the hypnotic effect of her highly individualistic music (Cruz, 2009). Molina recently acknowledged the importance of recording on her own and how it influences her muse:
When I'm on my own, I create a universe that is deeper, and the fact that I'm on my own and I'm doing everything by myself makes me go deeper and totally go for it. Sometimes you need to compromise when you're with other people, because you can't really transmit exactly everything (Cruz, 2009).
Her intimate familiarity with her own, very spartan recording set up facilitates this process.  Molina recently described her home studio in Buenos Aires, remarking specifically on its simplicity:
I use a guitar, two microphones, a computer and the same keyboard that I've been using since I made my first record. I record with five tracks. I'd rather focus on ideas rather than production (Rachel, 2008).
Marty Marquis of the Portland Oregon based band Blitzen Trapper (whose Furr album was yet another 2008 DIY release that achieved widespread critical acclaim and solid sales figures) observes that not having the normal studio "filter" of a producer or engineer can create an atmosphere where an artists' more distinctive attributes can rise to the surface:
Once you go to an established producer and an established studio your chances of creating something that idiosyncratic or really unique in sound, just in tonal quality, your chances go down.
Marquis also points out that for many DIY artists, the impetus of recording alone is for self-satisfaction, rather than "thinking about meeting your audience somewhere," contributing to the sense of individuality inherent in the DIY approach. As Davis notes " don't have anybody trying to second guess you and there's no pressure on you to come up with a result that is satisfying to anyone except yourself."
One reason for the prevalence of unconventional sonics on DIY releases is that many artists who make their own records are novice or self-trained engineers, although many grow into these roles as their DIY work continues. According to Davis:
The reason they sound, a lot of times, the way that they do, and it depends on the sophistication of the person using the technology, is because the person in some of the do it yourself projects doesn't really know how to use the technology so they get results that differ from those that somebody who does know, and sometimes those results are awesome and interesting and amazing.
However, for some DIY artists making distinctive sounding records is an entirely intentional process.  Few bands better illustrate this than The Bees (or, as they are known for legal reasons in the States, A Band of Bees). Their first release Sunshine Hit Me (2002), was recorded in band member Paul Butler's parent's garden shed on the Isle of Wight, and later nominated for the Mercury Prize. Butler produced and engineered the album  (and played all the instruments along his musical partner, Aaron Fletcher) (Butler, 2009).  The sonics of the album reflect Butler and Fletcher's deep appreciation of the sounds of their own favorite records (by artists as diverse as The Temptations, Lee "Scratch" Perry and The Kinks).  According to Butler:
I think I'm just blending out the tracks, pushing that 50-60's thing because of the reverbs I use, which I don't find now is like I'm making it sound like an old record.  It's just the sound of the reverbs I really like, because it's so raw.  There's so much midrange in them...I've been hugely influenced [by the sound of those records] and copied them at the end of the day, but only as an influence.  I just keep using my ears until I feel like its sitting right.


Another common thread that runs through many DIY releases is that they were initially intended as demos to present to record labels.  As mentioned earlier, this is how For Emma, Forever Ago got its start.  Blitzen Trapper's well-received 2007 release, Wild Mountain Nation, came into being in similar fashion.  According to Marquis:
With a record like Wild Mountain Nation we never thought anybody would ever hear that thing.  It was recorded as a bunch of demos, but the demos were so appealing to all of our ears and some of the A&R people we were talking to we just thought 'wow, people might get into this.'
People, in fact, did get into Wild Mountain Nation; released on the band's own Lidkercow imprint, the album was greeted by glowing reviews (it rated a coveted 8.5/10 by indie tastemaker Pitchfork) and has sold a respectable 18,257 units to date (Neilsen/Soundscan, 2009). This paved the way for the even more successful follow up, Furr, on Seattle-based indie powerhouse SubPop. Furr garnered excellent reviews, spurred a successful series of tours in 2008 and 2009, and more than tripled the sales of their previous release (Neilsen/Soundscan, 2009) (Marquis, 2009).
DIY productions often become official releases because of what has been colloquially known in the industry as "demo-itis", where the demo version of a song (casually prepared by the artist for preproduction or deal shopping purposes) has a freshness or excitement that is deemed impossible to replicate in later, more conventionally produced versions.  In the past, the generally inferior sound quality of such demos precluded their release.  (There are exceptions, or course; Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska album consists of the four track cassette demos he recorded on his own, and the grainy, murky textures of that record add immensely to the overall affect of Springsteen's bleak narratives) (Ruhlmann, 2009). However, now that current recording technology allows for reasonably high quality home recordings, this is no longer an obstacle for releasing these as finished products.
Ken Scott notes that corporate record companies, which seem to be relinquishing their traditional role of artist development, have fueled the increased phenomenon of demos becoming final product:
Major labels are not nurturing talent.  They won't sign anything until, as far as they're concerned, there are three immediate smash hit singles off the album, which is leaving very little room for anyone else.
Scott observes that this has made it more difficult for producer/engineers to work  "...because people don't think they need them."   The implications of this statement will be further discussed later in this paper.


Another common feature of most DIY artists is that the songwriting and recording process are generally inextricable from each other.  Many DIY artists use the studio as a songwriting vehicle, making changes to the material while in the process of building arrangements, during the recording process (McArthur, 2009) (Butler, 2009). While this is hardly new, the cost of commercial studio time normally renders the practice unfeasible for all but the most successful artists.  Still, even bands like The Beatles (who during their most fertile studio period were avid experimentalists and essentially given carte blanche at EMI studios to do whatever they felt like) came in with fairly complete song ideas worked out before hand (Scott, 2009).
When The Bees' first release resulted in a deal with Virgin Records, and a budget opulent enough to book Abbey Road themselves to record its follow up, Free the Bees (2004), Butler, Fletcher and their four new band mates likewise had to abandon some of the freedom of the DIY aesthetic and adopt a more conventional recording schedule and traditional production strategies.  Butler admits that the band
...made demos of all the songs [at the garden shed] and then it was three weeks of playing live at Abbey Road...we got good, went in, and played the songs until we nailed them properly.
In contrast, the modern DIY process seems to foster of studio based writing and arranging.  McArthur asserts that:
We definitely use the recording to build up the songs.  That's why it takes so long to record cause we're kind of writing as we go.
Recently, Molina described a similar recording/writing ritual she uses in making her records:
It takes me a few weeks to get into that state. I record nonsense and write a few things and have a cup of tea. It's like getting into a tunnel. At the beginning, I'm at the door and all of a sudden I'm in that tunnel and everything disappears: the computer, the instruments. Everything becomes abstract and music. When that happens, I'm ready to get a record together and I could be in that state for months (Hughes, 2008).
Paul Butler also acknowledges the importance of his own personal studio procedure in The Bees' songwriting:
Writing and recording are completely intertwined for us.  Once you sit at an instrument and play or sing, that's when the magic happens.  If you can be in an environment where you can press record really quickly, and record it really nicely, then you're a winner because you don't have to record them at a later date, which is very hard to do under pressure in a big studio.
     The Bees recorded their most recent record, Octopus (2007) back on The Isle of Wight in a new basement studio (paid for with a modest advance from their current label, Astralwerks).  Once again, we see a record label prominently touting the DIY aesthetic of the recording on its website:
From Sun Records to Studio One, Meeksville to Kraftwerk's Kling Klang, some of the most visionary music of the last sixty years is linked forever with the specific studio in which it was recorded. There's a special alchemy associated with these places - more than just rooms full of mics recording sound, they breed a magic and myth of their own... Isle Of Wight six-piece A Band Of Bees knew that before they could record their third album they first needed to build their own studio, somewhere they could find their own sound. The band duly spent a year constructing their wood-lined sonic laboratory in the basement of Paul and fellow founding member Aaron Fletcher's Isle of Wight home. With walls and floor of pine, it looks most like a Scandinavian sauna. They started jokingly referring to it as The Steamroom and the name stuck (Astralwerks, 2009).
While the band quickly renewed their do-it-yourself style of recording on Octopus, Butler admits that the Abbey Road experience raised the bar for his own DIY productions:
I couldn't go backwards from the last album, so I had to complement Abbey Road in some way.  Still, it really did take of lot of work because the bloody tape machine needed, literally, fixing everyday.  I didn't have the engineers to just call in at any time, and the technicians just to get it all fixed.  That probably added eight months to the recording.  I'm not joking!  But at the end of the day it was amazing because it's like 'oh, look, we did this ourselves' up to the same level that you would at Abbey Road, without worrying about how much its costing.


Butler's statement alludes to another hard truth regarding the popularity of post-millennial DIY recording; while its allure is primarily creative, one cannot discount the economic advantages of home recording, both for the artist and the labels that eventually release their work. The availability and popularity of relatively inexpensive recording gear and DAWs give aspiring artists tools that their counterparts just a decade ago could only dream about (Olivarez-Giles, 2009).  Dixon described the typical DIY artist as someone
...who doesn't have unlimited resources, who doesn't have unlimited funds, or unlimited access to high quality technology, and any musicians they want to play on their record.  People who are essentially bands and individuals who have to carve the time out of their lives to work on things while they still manage to live.
Many independent labels base their economic models on having a large percentage of their product produced DIY.  Frenette points out the advantages from a managerial perspective:
You don't have to pay as many people.  I'm kind of kidding, but really, it makes for easier accounting.   
Park the Van Records has added to its "indie cred" as well as its bottom line by releasing records by artists who record themselves, most notably Dr Dog.   Interestingly, Watson admits this was not the original intent of the label:
It was never really part of the game plan.  It isn't something we set out for.  I think what happened was with the first releases on the label being Dr Dog's records and were all self-recorded, produced, etc...we then started receiving demos from artists doing the same thing.
Watson also notes that all of Dr Dog's catalog has recouped and are delivering royalties to the artist and label-all, that is, except their most recent release, Fate (2008).  Although this is their best selling record to date (over 50,000 copies) it still has not recouped since the budget for this record (for various reasons) was more than the rest of the Dr Dog catalog combined (Watson, 2009).   In a tight economy, records that cost little to make are sometimes the only road to profit for many indie artists and labels.
An increasing number of record labels (both major and minor) find DIY releases attractive options to add to their catalogs.  John Biondolillo, former General Manager at ATO Records (the NYC-based label founded by David Matthews, with a roster that includes Radiohead, Gomez, Ben Kweller and Brendan Benson), recently estimated that about 40% of its catalog falls within the DIY category. Moreover, Biondolillo observes:
The first record the label put out and the biggest record the labels ever put out [White Ladder (1999) by David Gray] was self-produced. He didn't have two nickels to rub together...he know it was the moment.  He knew he had to capture that moment and if he didn't it was over.  
The album eventually went double platinum in the US and certified 7 times platinum in the UK   (Biondolillo, 2009).  And while the sales figures of For Emma, Forever Ago do not come close to Gray's phenomenal DIY triumph, Frenette still considers the Bon Iver album to be a considerable financial success (based on a combination of album sales, sync licensing and the resultant demand for Justin Vernon-based live performances)  "...because it was inexpensive to make the result of its release has allowed all of us (involved with the project} to do what we love full time."


In spite of the fact that many equate DIY with lo-fi, the one aspect of DIY production that is not a consistent feature is the actual sound of records made using DIY methods.  While some records do hew to lo-fi, no-fi, or anti-fi aesthetics (either by accident or design) DIY is by no means a sort of lo-fi parallel indie universe to the hi-fi world of major label releases.
 Though made in a converted dance studio, with drums recorded in two-track stereo on an ancient Tascam multitrack cassette recorder, Blitzen Trapper's mostly self-recorded Furr album has a majestic, widescreen and evocative soundscape; Juana Molina's self recorded tracks are meticulous, groundbreaking, and huge; Dan Snaith's Caribou tracks have a sonic richness akin to classic Electric Light Orchestra records; and Sufjan Stevens now iconic Illinioise album (2005) manages to make a modest collection of microphones, preamps and a consumer level, all-in-one Roland digital recorder sound like a classic era recording of a movie soundtrack or original cast recording, made with state of the art gear (state of the art circa 1960, that is) (Marquis, 2009) (Roberts, 2009) (Umile, 2007).
For some artists, the intent is to use current "prosumer" technology in a personal studio environment and make what are emulations of big label, big budget commercial popular albums.  Obviously, Lopez absorbed the lessons learned from working with producers such as Brad Wood and Dave Sardy on Far's major label projects in the 90's when he decided to reconstitute the band for their current recordings.  According to Delfin:
The band needed to appeal to hardcore fans from ten years ago, but also sound up to date with the current rock marketplace, and winning over a new generation of fans.  Its fair to say that in Shaun's case, he's doing it DIY because of his experience as a record maker and the market he's going for, he's making a major label product in a personal studio environment.


The popularity of DIY recordings has naturally resulted in mainstream records adopting some the attributes of these releases.  As an example, Davis points to the work of Beck, who has enjoyed tremendous mainstream success, yet
...he spends months at Oceanway in Studio B, paying ungodly amounts of money, but his goal is still to make these aesthetically individualistic and decidedly sort of indie sounding products.  That's just part of the cultural hipness quotient of what some people find to be artistically pleasing and interesting.
Marquis points to recently released records by artists as diverse as TV on the Radio and Wilco as examples of traditionally recorded albums that contain sonic elements more akin to DIY records:
... on the TV on the Radio record that came out last year I was surprised at how the drum tracks were distorted.  There has been a chicness [sic] to having a kind of degraded drum sound. On Wilco's new record there's these little guitar licks that come in that sound like the dude's playing a broken amp.  Also in general there's a lot of cheap keyboards being used these days things you can find at Goodwill.
Delfin also notes the DIY aesthetic creeping into other major label releases:
Look at the MGMT record for example.  That's a very indie sounding release, but it wasn't.  That was a full major label release for the most part.
Some major labels are getting into the act by forming in-house quasi-indie divisions where they emulate the seat-of-the pants production ethic of DIY labels. Delfin:
There are a few departments at major labels where they've created their own indie imprint, where they find a particular band that they like, they'll sign them up for $25,000-$30,000 deals, 360 deals.  They'll give them a $15,000 recording deal and get it done.  Find that up and coming producer kid to do the project, which will frequently take place at the artist's or producer's personal studio.
If there is any doubt that DIY aesthetics are becoming firmly entrenched on the major label battlefield, one only needs to take a quick listen to Reprise Records' October 27, 2009 release of Devendra Banhart's first major label album, What Will We Be.  As the crown prince of the "freak folk" genre, Banhart's eccentric yet endearing output is as DIY as it gets. Though the production on the new record is more refined than his earlier indie label releases, it  nonetheless retains much of Banhart's signature quirkiness, with almost all of the DIY bases covered.   Sense of place? The album was recorded in a cabin in Bolinas, the quaint Northern California seaside retreat favored by hippies and clam diggers, and the same location where Grace Slick and Paul Kantner recorded their post Jefferson Airplane Sunfighter album (duBrowa, 2009). Quirky sound and performances? Those are seagulls heard behind Banhart's vocals on one of the album's tracks, recalling the Great Lake Swimmers' "crickets-in-the-silo" recordings mentioned earlier (Butler, 2009). Burnishing the DIY finish of the record is the choice of Banhart and Warners exec Tom Whalley to hire none other than Paul Butler of The Bees as producer. This decision speaks volumes of how crucial the DIY approach is to Reprise's game plan for Banhart's output on the label.
It should be noted that one factor contributing to a narrowing of the distance between DIY and commercial studio productions is the overwhelming acceptance of mp3 technology as the primary listening format for most music fans. (Kot, 2009). The inevitable degradation of sonic detail inherent in lossy mp3 playback technology makes it very difficult for most music fans to discern the subtle nuances of a vocal recording made with a $10,000 Telefunken microphone, or a $500 Rode microphone. Such variations are noticeable on CD and vinyl versions of records, but are much less apparent at even high mp3 bit depths, and an increasing number of listeners actually prefer the sound of mp3s to these earlier, higher fidelity formats (Berger, 2009). This renders the end-user's perception of the audio differences between, say, The Bees recording of Free the Bees at Abbey Road and their recording of Octopus at the band's Steamroom studio on the Isle of Wight rather negligible.
However, another reason for the aforementioned records' sonic continuity is The Bees desire to recreate the sound and feel of what they consider to be "classic" records.  In their own ways, DIY work as diverse as The Bees and Far share an affection for the studios where the records they love were made.  This is reflected in the sound of their projects in many ways. In The Bees case, vintage recording gear-in particular, reverberation devices-are deployed.  Use of older echo devices and reverbs (such as the Roland Space Echo or spring reverbs) give The Bees' productions the verisimilitude of recordings made in those "temples of sound" of an earlier era, before plug ins started turning DAW based recordings into cookie cutter "emulations" of the real thing,
DIY production in general has helped fuel an ongoing appreciation for vintage gear of all types.  DIY artists don't just employ older analog gear because it is cheaper to obtain, but also because of the unique attributes of individual pieces of such gear (Butler, 2009). Digital recording, having no sound of its own, relies on the audio coloration provided at the front end of the recording chain to provide timbral character.  The recent successful launches of new analog consoles like the Rupert Neve Designs 5088 mixing desk (using discrete electronics and Neve's transformer based circuitry) points to a resurging esteem of such classic analog designs (Mix Foundation, 2008).
Butler indulged his appreciation for classic sound when recording Free the Bees at Abbey Road, where he insisted on using the oldest console in the studio:
I didn't want the new SSL or anything like that-I wanted the EMI desk.  It just sits in the corridor at Abbey Road.  No one uses it.  I was like, 'what is that doing out there?  Get that in here right now!'  But that thing took about ten people to lift it.  Not that big, but its built like a tank...beautiful stuff to operate...very little resistance, just a clear audio path.  However, it did break most days, but the old engineers loved coming in and sorting it out.


Needless to say, the rise of DIY as a vibrant and successful component of the recording industry has influenced the way we all do business and practice our craft.  Books aimed at the aspiring producer for the educational market have certainly taken note of this.  For example, Megan Perry in her How to be a Record Producer in the Digital Age soberly notes:
Perhaps the most seismic of trends is that producers are an afterthought for many new, motivated artists.   High-quality demos and recordings can spring forth from a simple home laptop recording setup, without need for thousands-per-day professional studio fees or the oversight of a production professional.  As more artists opt to DIY...producers must learn to work with artists on new terms of engagement and make sure they are not taken out of the value chain entirely (Perry, p. 212).
Perry does not go on to explain what those "new terms of engagement" might be, not particularly encouraging to the aspiring recording professional for whom the book is intended.  Does this indicate that the role of the producer/engineer is in decline, and that artist produced and engineered records will become the norm?
     There are those who do see this as wave of the future. Frenette paints what might seem a bleak picture for those of us who derive all or part of our livelihood from making records:
Producers and engineers are used less these days for sure.  I think its better to have an artist doing their own thing, because then it is 100% authentic; it is art coming from the heart of a musician or the hearts of the collaboration between musicians.
Biondolillo also articulated what we all already know, that for the most part the days when producers were "paid 80 grand, 100 grand, 150 grand, just to walk in the room (plus points)" are now gone and many of those first call producer/engineers
...that are acclaimed and made great records, these cats are all hustling right now.  Because they know that that money has dried up, and they know the technology is at such a place where guess what...are they still needed?
Delfin echoes Biondolillo's assessment:
There is definitely a scrambling effect going on right now.  Even the A-level guys.  They still get those big projects, and they'll get their rate, but they're not getting ten of those a year now.  Maybe three...they're taking on a lot more spec projects, finding talent on their own, with some of them signing artists up to 360 production deals.
Delfin's last statement highlights a crucial shift in the role of the producer/engineer in today's production landscape.  As Ken Scott pointed out earlier, many major labels have slashed their A&R staffs and in some cases have abandoned the development process to independent producers and labels. Rather than obviate the traditional roles of producer and engineer (as Scott feared) it is instead redefining the role of the producer/engineer in the marketplace, pointing the way to a new set of "job requirements" that we as professionals must adjust to, and aspiring producers must include in their skill set. Talent scouting and development, with back end participation, are now de rigueur for a producer in the new millennium.  As Delfin states:
Producers have to be more entrepreneurial and delve into other realms of the business, doing production deals, while continuing what they already do...attaching themselves or structure their arrangements so that if one of these spec projects becomes a hit, they're compensated properly.  Compensated in a more fair way that's related not just to record sales, but other aspects of the income stream.
So, to stay in the game, even big time producers have had to adjust their work methods.  Don Was (A-list producer of Bob Dylan, The B-52's, Bonnie Raitt, The Rolling Stones and many more) would once take his time in the studio to perfect a recording; however on the latest Was-produced Todd Snider album (The Excitement Plan [2008]) sessions lasted a mere two and a half days (for both budgetary and creative reasons).  Happily, Snider's scrappy story-songs are greatly enhanced by the no-nonsense production; it certainly doesn't hurt that expert sidemen Jim Keltner and Greg Leisz were there to provide support.  Also working in Snider's favor is, of course, Was and his years of producing artists and musicians live in the studio.  It all paid off with another very well received record for Snider and his label, Yep Roc (LaBate, 2009) (Studio Expresso, 2009).
Just as the disruptive technologies of the 21st century have turned our delivery and revenue streams upside down, and caused us to take on new roles, the resulting post millennial version of DIY is also dictating shifts in the traditional producer/artist relationship. Davis (as a survivor of many recording industry ups and downs) has embraced the changes by adjusting his work techniques:
What we do now is much more about finishing the work that people start at home.  Most people don't have enough space or equipment to record 20 strings, or a whole band full of musicians, so we find we doing a lot of basic tracking now.  The change for me has been most of the time in the past people would just come to the studio and I would engineer their record.  Now I'm teaching them how to engineer their own records at home so that I don't have to try to perform miracles when they come back for the mix.
Davis finds this hybrid approach of combining DIY production with studio production a trend that will likely continue, but adds:
We may be reaching a point where some of the people who were initially really enamored with the idea of being able to just go in and spend all the time they want making a record, or overdubbing, or messing about with their stuff, are getting to the point when they really want to have some kind of significant and quality output, they realize that the management and the technical overhead of that is something they'd really rather put on somebody else.
Dixon echoes Davis' observations:
Not everybody can consistently maintain a self-motivated state when they're working on a record.  Very few artists have the confidence to maintain a state that has enough objectivity to ever finish.  The problem is that at some point you have to know that it's done.  Most people don't have that sort of self-discipline.  I think that almost everyone benefits some from a foil of some sort, a collaborative relationship.
Sure enough, we are now seeing many die-hard DIY artists  (including those interviewed for this paper) opting to "be produced" as their musical careers gain momentum.  Dr Dog, who until recently have recorded all of their albums on their own in their studio outside Philadelphia, recently left their original, DIY based label Park the Van and signed with Anti Records, and for the first time have hired a veteran producer engineer (Rob Schnapf) to helm the sessions (Watson, 2009). Similarly, Blitzen Trapper is opting to work with outside engineers (including longtime M. Ward engineer Mike Coykendall) to record their new album.  The reason?  Marquis observes:
..for Furr, there was definitely more concentration on fidelity and the internal coherence of the songs. It just seems the higher the fidelity, the broader the audience is that will appreciate the song there.  Some of my favorite records are records from the golden age, the classic age of rock, and if we can get that kind of thing going on in our records to me that's even better.  I'm not really concerned whether its DIY or not.
Many artists like Dr Dog and Blitzen Trapper (whose most recent albums topped out at the 50-60 thousand unit range) eventually find themselves at a tipping point at which the advantages and sense of creative discovery inherent in DIY recording become less important than reaching the greatest potential audience, and choose to collaborate with producers and engineers to raise the bar of their careers and, yes, increase their record sales.  In practical terms, this sometimes is an absolute necessity.  Artists who have reached a particular career plateau and make most of their money from live performances have touring schedules that can keep them on the road for hundreds of days a year.  As Davis notes:
People that make music for a living, who generate the bulk of their income making music, have a need for a continuous and high quality recording output, do find having somebody produce and/or engineer is the only way to go.
    In spite of his manifest talents at recording his own band, Butler also appreciates the talents and quality that a capable and copasetic engineer brings to the table.  Of Abbey Road staff engineer, Alex Scannell (who recorded most of Free the Bees) Butler comments:
Al's funny and a pleasure to be around, in addition to his engineering skills...I appreciated him every day more and more because he put in unbelievable hours.  As an artist, if you're with an engineer that you have fun with, you can move around the studio, and all of a sudden you've got an idea, and then there's a microphone in front of the amp and he's up by the tape machine, it's fantastic.  You say, 'Allright, Al, let's go for it. Let's do this one.'  That's a blessing from the experience of doing things yourself because it just takes an extra half hour or more all the time to do it on your own.
So, while the new DIY production scene is likely to expand and remain an increasingly vibrant component of the record making process, producers and engineers who are able to adapt to a DIY world with the ears and skills of a trained professional, and who can interact with artists on a creative and personal level will remain vital to the evolution of the art of record production.   And the classic, time-honored skill of making the process as trouble free as possible to the artist remains as valuable as ever.  As Davis states:
A good recording engineer who's starting out now will be supremely able to make sure that [technology] does not get in the way of the process, to make the process as invisible as possible. Technology has been driving the process in recent years, but you also need to be able to just capture a great performance in as stellar a way as you possibly can.  If you don't possess those skills, then you're not going to really be a big help to the people you're working with.
Most longtime professionals are adapting to the new reality on a daily basis.  A recent Los Angeles Times article notes that during the past decade roughly half of the commercial studios in the LA Basin have gone out of business, yet savvy producers and engineers stay busy by working in artist-owned studios (Olivarez-Giles, 2009). In the article, Maureen Droney (Senior Director of NARAS' Producer & Engineers wing) notes that:
In some ways we've gone full circle.  We've gone back to being small and entrepreneurial.  People still look to commercial studios when they have something to offer that they can't do at home.  But, as it is, the recording studio business started with people starting small, funky studios, oftentimes in bedrooms and garages.
    The word "entrepreneurial" comes up frequently when discussing the future of our profession, and is one of many attributes not necessarily associated with record making during the flush years. In terms of pedagogy, teaching audio now requires a broader range of study than ever before.  Business, management, marketing and internet technology skills are now being added to traditional topics such as microphone placement, signal flow, mixing, and mastering in both liberal arts-based and so-called professional recording programs.  In the past, students were encouraged to specialize in order to enhance their employment prospects at recording studios; nowadays, one must be prepared to accept jobs that may encompass gaming, post-production, live sound or other areas of audio production. Add to this the fact that to be competitive, acquiring excellent recording and production skills in a number of categories is not in itself enough; as mentioned above, one now must also be an "entrepreneur," willing to take risks in the pursuit of professional opportunities.
    Students in the audio program at Ohio University, for example, are encouraged to put together their own portable studios from the moment they take their first production class.  This was not the case only a few years ago, when studio jobs were more plentiful. Rather than paint an unrealistically rosy picture of the industry as it once was, we are now obliged to teach students survival techniques in world in which you are not only competing with other producers and engineers for recording opportunities, but-ironically-also with the artists one might want to record.  It is more important than ever for record makers to be able to take their skills and technology to the music, rather than the other way around, while simultaneously honing their the "social" engineering skills, in order to manage a career-long series of creative teams in a fluid and engaging manner, and all the while anticipating ever changing venues and genres.
    It is also vital that the accumulated knowledge and expertise of longtime recording professionals not be lost in the wake of the post-millennial, revolutionary changes in the industry.  The institutional memory of the EMI engineers whom Paul Butler so appreciated at Abbey Road will increase in value over time as musicians realize that the best antidote to the neutrality of digital sound and the potentially homogenizing effect of DAW production tools and techniques is access to a broad array of analog front-end options and the knowledge of how to use and (creatively) misuse them. While it is of course obligatory to provide music production students comprehensive training in digital workstation technology (preferably on multiple platforms and areas of discipline), giving students access to the timbral palette of analog gear (new and old) and the production expertise of professionals who have intimate knowledge of their myriad uses over time give students the opportunity to develop skills that musicians actually appreciate.  When anyone with a credit card can acquire and utilize a DAW, marketable skills are perhaps better derived from the ability to create the sounds, and encourage the talent, that makes one's client a distinctive and vital presence in the world of recorded music, generating more value for their records, thus promoting the artist's larger career agenda.
 During the next few years, we are likely to see the number of successful DIY productions increase.  At the same time, budgets of major label albums will likely continue to decrease.  This process will bring more closely together the worlds of DIY recording and commercial studio recording.  While providing an unprecedented set of challenges for record makers, it also unleashes a new set of creative and commercial possibilities that record producers in the future must incorporate into their practices to fully exploit.  Blurring the boundaries that separate musical styles and the people who make and appreciate music has always been the art form's strongest suit.  Now, as record makers, we now find ourselves in the breach of that boundary, both professionally and creatively.  Those who can skillfully and joyfully navigate this passage will likely find themselves in higher demand in the ever-changing world of records and record making.


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I want to thank Ohio University graduate students Janie Henderson and Brian Hough for their research and transcribing work; Ohio University School of Media Arts and Studies colleagues Duncan Browne, Roger Cooper, Jenny Nelson and Greg Newton for their oversight; Ricky Chilcott and Paula Carpenter, also in the School of Media Arts and Studies, for their assistance; and Scripps College of Communication Dean Greg Shepherd for his encouragement and support.