Even a pandemic can’t stop the music in the digital age
Written by Molly Liebergall
In their final moments together, Matthew and Vanessa tearfully nestle into each other’s arms.
“I was really getting strong feelings for you,” she says into the nape of his neck. Matthew lets out a sob into Vanessa’s shoulder, barely able to utter a word. The mood in the villa is somber — and tense.
“That was the fakest cry I have ever seen in my — ” Vanessa, now talking to two of her friends elsewhere, says before freezing.
Jack Wright sits up, remote in hand, while Vanessa remains plastered on-screen. Wright, a UW–Madison senior, turns to his bandmate William Lorenz with an idea. It’s March in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, on the border of Illinois, and the pair, known on stage as the musical duo Staring in Spaces, haven’t seen a soul in days.
They’re holed up with their instruments and digital equipment in Lorenz’s grandmother’s house, where they will ultimately spend two weeks writing, playing and creating music while COVID-19 lockdowns commence across the United States. Safe from infection but isolated from the rest of the world, Wright says the lack of human contact sometimes led their creative process down rather interesting routes.
“We started writing songs about people’s relationships in those reality TV shows,” Wright says over Zoom with a laugh. “When you don’t have any social interactions, you run out of ideas.”
Matthew and Vanessa’s dramatic split in season two of “Love Island Australia” inspired Wright and Lorenz to write a breakup ballad that they may eventually release, but it’s on the back burner for now. At grandma’s house, the duo ground out “a bunch of really cool stuff,” Wright says, including the music for their late August single “Float,” which outperformed most of their previous songs in Spotify streams within months.
Just a few decades ago, none of this — the band’s creation, production and promotion of a new song — would have been safe or possible during a global health crisis. But with recent developments in music production technology and the rise of social media, countless independent artists like Staring in Spaces can keep making music from the same place where they always have: at home.
Now sitting in his apartment in Madison, Wright holds a small keyboard — maybe a foot long — up to the camera.
“MIDI is sick,” he says, admiring the pseudo-piano’s plastic ivories and thumb-sized buttons. MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, which is a device — typically a miniature keyboard or button pad — that connects directly to a computer to digitize the notes an artist plays. It’s programmable, so people can download a plethora of sounds that link to the keyboard and buttons to independently make multi-instrument tracks with just one MIDI, which can range from $50 to $100.
An engineer created the first MIDI in 1978, but it took decades to slim the initial technology down to something so light and portable that Wright could wave it around with one hand. This technology grew up alongside its partner in 21st century music production: digital audio workstations.
Digital audio workstations, commonly known as DAWs, are a 1980s marriage of audio recording and computer editing that has since evolved into a stand-alone market of competing softwares and devices.
Anyone who has used an iMac since the latter half of the 2000s has likely played around with a DAW without even realizing it. Though it was not the first, Apple’s 2004 user-friendly GarageBand is undeniably the most widely-recognized program for creating, recording and mixing tracks of any genre all in one place. DAWs introduced this capability to the main frame, but much like with the MIDI, it was a while before modernization and commercialization made them readily available and accessible.
Now, for less than the cost of a decent professional session, which can be more than $200 per hour, artists and interested amateurs can effectively transform any space into a fully-functioning production studio, which is crucial in a time when people are largely confined to their homes.
Daniel Grabois, a UW–Madison music professor who teaches electro-acoustic ensemble, says the circumstances for overcoming social barriers, ironically enough, could not be better.
“In terms of self-produced music, this is the best time to have a pandemic,” Grabois says. “Price points have made it reasonable, and available help has made it doable by everybody.”
A simple search on YouTube yields an endless stream of 10-minute beginner videos on MIDIs and digital audio workstations, such as how to make a beat from scratch and how to record guitar using a DAW. Online tutorials, however, can’t always compare to one-on-one instruction.
Aaron Zinsmeister, founder and audio engineer at White Raven Audio in Appleton, now spends more time virtually teaching clients how to set up devices and software for at-home production.
WiFi, instant messaging and other modern technological amenities enable anyone with access to bridge the physical divide forced by COVID-19 health restrictions. While turn-of-the-century tech development improved independent music production, it also birthed the new and prolific social media.
First came Friendster and Myspace, and then Facebook greeted the world in 2004, the same year as GarageBand’s release. Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat followed, each with a greater emphasis on photo and video than the last.
TikTok, the latest addition to the market, underscored this trend with its meteoric rise in popularity: from 11 million monthly active users in the United States in 2018, to more than 100 million this year — a near-tenfold increase that mostly occurred between early 2019 and this past June.
The app allows users to splice together video, sound and special effects to create skits, performances, public service announcements or just bizarre randomcore that they can then post to the public. With the right hashtags and interactions, the platform’s algorithm can catapult any TikTok user to viral fame — and with them, the artist whose song they used.
Clairo, formally known as Claire Cottrill, is a 22-year-old self-made singer/songwriter/producer who rose to the forefront of the bedroom pop scene — a genre of contemplative lyrics and hazy electronic rhythms that spawned from the availability of at-home production technology. Cottrill’s breakout song “Pretty Girl” kick-started her career after she achieved viral status on TikTok, garnering millions of views across hundreds of thousands of videos.
Many artists have transferred TikTok fame to professional fame, aided by the crossover between social media and music streaming platforms — Spotify has a curated playlist dedicated to viral hits. It’s a combination of songs new and old, like Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” which one TikTok user single-handedly revived this fall in a viral video in which he careens down the street on a skateboard while lip syncing happily to the 1977 classic.
Combined with TikTok’s algorithmic affinity for new sounds, many up-and-coming artists flourished on the Gen-Z-dominated platform that received overwhelming attention over quarantine.
But with any opportunity comes competition.
Lorenz lives in New York but traveled home to Lake Geneva, near the Illinois border, almost an hour east of Janesville, to quarantine with his family before he met up with Wright, his Staring in Spaces bandmate. Since it was supposed to be spring break, he put music out of his mind and relaxed for a few days, but the calm quickly passed as the race to produce COVID-19-related content ramped up.
“It just felt like it was open season on the internet,” Lorenz says. “No one had made the coronavirus song, so people were like, ‘We have to do it … this could be our opportunity to put something out that’s really good and timely.’”
Lorenz composed a song in a matter of days and Wright added edits, but because they want their songs to sound better than what their “surface-level knowledge” of digital production can provide, Wright says, they outsource to an independent artist, producer and friend, Nick Pedraza, for mixing. By the time he finished producing the track, they felt it was no longer timely, but Lorenz teased the possibility of releasing it down the road with other new music.
Since the pandemic, collaborating from afar is possible, but Wright says scheduling challenges and the back-and-forth of video chats and texts has made it take “five times as long to do everything.”
Now, if he wants Pedraza to create and send over a sound, it could take a full day, which Wright says holds up the “flow” of working on a song. Nevertheless, he says Pedraza’s value to the band is worth their reliance on his production skills.
“Nick is huge for us. Without him our music would definitely sound worse,” Wright says. “It’s a crutch for sure that we rely on quite a bit, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Despite its pitfalls, virtual collaboration is a partially viable alternative for studio producers who were forced to adjust their in-person business models. White Raven Audio shut down for the first couple months of quarantine, and since reopening, Zinsmeister has adapted.
Business is a bit slower but not terribly different, except for the sanitation and social distancing measures Zinsmeister implemented. He has worked on more projects remotely and prioritized in-person work for the things that are especially difficult at home, like quality vocal recordings.
Many independent artists outsource production to White Raven and other studios. Similar to Staring in Spaces, some of Zinsmeister’s clients will start a project at home and then engage a professional for the technical aspects.
“There’s a lot of blurring of those lines these days,” Zinsmeister says of the distinction between independent and studio-produced artists.
Technology has managed to fill in many of the gaps left behind by social distancing, but some, says Jeremy Morris, UW–Madison professor of media and cultural studies, are unfillable.
An expert on the current industry, Morris says one crucial feature of the music landscape is still missing: concerts. Instagram live shows, a popular quarantine tool among artists, provide the real-time experience, but lack the third dimension of performance, which is actually being there.
“Concerts are a unique and singular experience,” Morris says. “For independent musicians at least … it’s entirely a business of you and your fans, and how you connect to your fans.”
Zinsmeister says many independent or part-time artists in the Appleton area took a hit when the virus struck because they relied heavily on live gigs to propel their music careers. For some, it’s made an already-difficult line of work even harder to pursue.
“A lot of them are in really rough states, and a lot of them are thinking about giving it up,” Zinsmeister says. “You’re always on the verge of giving up.”
Until he can once again perform in person for packed crowds, Pedraza is devoting isolation’s “abundance of time” to channeling his passion for his own music into a surplus of new projects. Producing alone in his room, he says it’s difficult to gauge how well a song will be received, but he is trying not to overthink things.
Musicians are staring down a tunnel. They know there is a light at the end of it, but no one can be sure of how far away it lies. Pedraza treks toward the exit one foot in front of the other and keeps his mind’s eye on the promise of reunion.
“We are creating with reckless abandon right now, with everything to gain and nothing to lose,” he says. “So I am just making as much as I can, however I want, without getting too into my own head … because the next time I’m on the stage, I know it’s going to be such a huge release for everyone.”