TACK N°5 – WORK : LO-FI « do it yourself » and Soundcloud, workers more than solo artists

by Hugo Verdier and translated by Maia Sefton.

The theme of “work” led me to evoke a subject that is close to my heart within the music industry. The goal here is to understand these artists who seem to need no one at all or almost no one. They are composers, lyricists, but above all multi-instrumentalists and are extremely competent with sound techniques: they can therefore easily self-produce. Then does that mean that there is no longer any artistic work?

Overdubbing​ is a studio technique that became popular throughout the 1960s. It simply relies on adding an instrumental track, a guitar riff or vocal harmonies for example, on a rhythmically timed basis,with the whole thus forming the finished mix of the song. I have introduced this into the article because its development will allow a single individual to record a « complete » song in terms of the instrumentals. In the same period, many artists have stepped back from concerts and tours, which are seen as a « right of passage « . And on the other hand there is a greater demand for albums that have had more work put into them. And gradually the idea that one single person can play all the instruments for a song doesn’t seem illogical since it was not meant to be performed live by several different performers.

The first big example is former Beatles member ​McCartney i​ n 1970, when he released his first solo album. He recorded it in his suburban London house with only basic equipment. Other than the vocal harmonies performed by Linde McCartney, Paul recorded all of the instruments, the voices, wrote and produced everything: he didn’t need the studio musiciens or a producer. All of this and the relationship formed between an artist and his music became a precursor for not only Lo-Fi music but also indie, Paul had simply pursued a musical experience that already existed since in the white album he had already experimented with songs where he was the sole artist. Finally I shall remind everyone that the mainstream contemporary critics were very harsh with this first album saying that it was unfinished, badly recorded and rushed.

How has the production method evolved? How and why become the sole artist of your own productions?

Something that is even more impressive, two years after that first example, Mike Oldfield unveils ​Tubular Bells.​ This is categorized as symphonic rock, a subgenre of ​rock prog ​with a complex variety of instrumentals. In total there were 274 overdubs, that’s to say tracks were added on for the equivalent of 50 minutes of mainly just instrumental music, divided into two parts. He plays almost the entirety of the instruments but particularly the eponymous ​tubular bells. ​That same year Todd Rundgren released his third album ​Something/Anything?​ in which for three quarters of the disc he executed not only the instrumentals but also, contrary to Oldfield, the productions. The latter will impact a more recent artist which will tie in perfectly with this subject.

From the 1980s to the 2000, the great multi-instrumental artists are in chronological order: Prince with Dirty Mind,which was in my opinion very underestimated compared to the following albums. The wave of the alternative music was accompanied by Trent Reznor, the face of the Nine Inch Nails ​indus​ project, Beck with​ Mellow Gold​ that was carried by the

single, « Loser », recorded in a friend’s kitchen. Dave Grohl, who just like McCartney launched a solo career, at the end of Nirvana, with a homemade album. We can also mention PJ Harvey or Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, who mastered several instruments, keyboards, wind instruments, in their respective projects.

Today it is Kevin Parker with his Tame Impala project that best illustrates the subject. On his four albums from 2010 to 2020, starting with neo-psychedelia, which was particularly inspired by Todd Rundgren, up to a more soft rock with a touch of disco, he thinks, creates, plays and produces some of the most influential songs of this past decade. The production of an entire album by a single artist is often justified by the « limits » that working with a group or studio represents. When a composer has a particular idea for a song, it can be difficult to explain to other members, even with partitions. It won’t completely be what he had in mind and for some artists it can be something very frustrating. Thoineau Palis with his solo project TH da Freak, had a similar configuration before 2018 and the participation of the other musicians in the studio, evoked the « dictators methode ”which makes it possible to be the exclusive heavy head on a song or an album.

Therefore we remember that these artists are first and foremost multi-instrumentalists, generally composers and lyricists but above all else they imagine the music recorded here and differentiate it from the music that will be played live ; it’s difficult to interpret very complexe songs alone. Their talent allows them to play all the instruments of a composition where they are then the only one « responsible ». Also if the DIY (“Do it yourself”) is very much linked to lo-fi sounds, especially with R. Stevie Moore, we notice that it also appears in “labeled” music.

Recently many hip-hop projects ( the term lo-fi is today more of a simplification of « lo-fi hip hop »; homemade music and instrumentals that are developing on ​Youtube​ and ​Soundcloud​), electro sounds like synthwave, are made by a single artist. As for the genres that resemble ambient music,​ the instrumentals are less varied but remain of excellent quality. One example is Liz Harris’ project, Grouper with the 2014 album ​Ruins​, partially recorded in the south of Portugal; we can almost feel the landscape of the shores, the villages and cliffs in this extremely personal piece. Jenny Hval produced Blood Bitch with a similar idea in mind; it is an excellent concept album from 2016 previously mentioned in Tack n°2, inspired by fantasy and horror.

Today with the internet and lots of access to platforms like Bandcamp or Soundcloud, the number of solo projects are increasing. Luna Li, for example, took advantage of the quarantine to post complex and diverse instrumentals on Twitter; harp, guitar solos with a chorus, keyboards and even violins, that were shared a hundred times over, which illustrates artists contribution to social networks. ​Youtube’s a​ lgorithm has also allowed ​indie​ artists to surface; after appearing in recommendations or suggested content. This also happened with folk music​ ​and ​psyche I Didn’t Know of Skinshape​ (William Dorey). On another note the term indie by definition, can also imply a recording and/or production done by a single individual. As for Soundcloud, it was the solo project of Marie Ulven Ringheim, girl in red, who debuted with the single « I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend « at the end of 2016, a single that quickly reached thousands of listens after several weeks.

To conclude, multi-instrumentalists first recorded demos for their group, sometimes with a variety of different instruments; the main examples being Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson.

In the 1970s the idea of « DIY » appeared as a finality to the album and even as something that would characterize it, like for Mike Oldfield who is now renowned for that exact reason. From the 1980s this principle continues to circulate between pop genres, however it is mainly associated with alternative and indie music. Since the late 2000s, the existence of various software has first of all favored musical creations with a number of various instruments: with a midi keyboard you can create an orchestra or play common sounds that are increasingly realistic and more complex. The platforms previously mentioned are full of workers who are always pushing their creativity and they have opportunities to express themselves as much as possible.

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