This article takes a look at the evolution of mastering, and how the playing field has leveled over the years for indie musicians to compete with major label artists.
The post is written by Sage Audio, a Mastering Studio in Nashville, TN. You can find them online at www.sageaudio.com
To say that the music industry has changed would be the understatement of the century. The fact of the matter is that the music industry has never looked the same from one generation to the next. It is a rapidly evolving creature that continually reshapes itself to fit the demand of its listeners. While a minority of independent musicians lament this progression and cling to the old, the majority are grateful that they now have not only the ability to record, but to actually compete with the quality of the major labels. One of the primary factors contributing to the advancement of the indie artist is the accessibility to affordable mastering studios. Mastering has evolved over the years which has had a direct positive effect on indie artists today. To better understand the benefits of mastering, it’s important to take a step back and look not only at the history of mastering, but also the bigger picture of the music industry and the production/distribution process as a whole.
For example, in 1969, The Grateful Dead’s third album, Aoxomoxoa, took seven months to record and cost $180,000. With inflation, that would equal $1,162,750 today. Clearly, there were very few artists in the 1960’s and 70’s that could afford this budget to produce a record. If you wanted to record an album you had to have the help and backing of a major label. Now, world famous acts such as Foo Fighters and Bon Iver can serve as inspiration for indie artists creating their own albums from home on a limited budget. Foo Fighters produced Wasting Light from Dave Grohl’s garage, and Bon Iver won 2 Grammys for an album primarily recorded in a cabin in the woods of Wisconsin. Today, through advancements in technology and innovation; the landscape of music production has changed, making it possible for independent artists to produce the music they love at a price they can afford.
Major Labels vs. Indie Artists
Before the birth of the Digital Age, major labels were in control of all of the resources. They not only had built lasting relationships with the best studios but often owned their own. Sure, there were other smaller studios that could be utilized, but none that could create a sound that would rival that of the superior major label studios. These labels had all of the cutting edge recoding equipment and resources at their disposal. The gap in sound quality between an independent album and a major label release was exponential.
Even if an independent artist was able to create an album that could rival the quality of major labels, they had no way to be heard. At that time, the major labels also had full reign of promotion and distribution. Radio airplay was the driving force behind album sales, distribution, and touring. Without an inside connection, it was next to impossible for unsigned artists to get mainstream attention on the radio while labels controlled the airwaves with their signed acts. Major labels had a stronghold on the industry in these days, but as we’ve seen throughout history, the music industry will inevitably transform over time.
Indie Musicians & The Digital Age
The Digital Age, with the invention of the internet, was the Che Guevara of independent music (albeit far less demonstrative). For the first time, artists that had not been signed were introduced to the tools necessary to create a competitive sound. In 2012, it is estimated that over 81% of Americans had access to and were using the internet, and that percentage only ranked the US at 28th of the 211 countries in the world. 76% of Americans owned a computer at that time which opened up a wide variety of options for online interfaces and professional plugins (some of which are offered free of charge).
The Internet also opened the door for the Indie Revolution to take some control of the airwaves. In 2007, independent artists controlled only a quarter of the music business, which ranked them a respectable #2 in profit sharing behind Universal Music Group’s 29%. However, by June 30th of 2013, Indie music leapfrogged Universal by expanding its market share to 34.5% compared to Universal’s 28%.
Songs from outside the major labels now make up half of the content streamed on Pandora but only 13% of broadcast radio. However, independent artists are able to compensate by utilizing online promotion sites such as ReverbNation, Soundcloud, YouTube, and Bandcamp as well as social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace. More and more artists are also creating well-designed, professional websites to keep their fans up to date on their tours, album releases, as well as featured songs and videos.
Another advancement that helped to level the playing field was the invention of the microchip. The microchip made it possible to manufacture computers and electronic devices at a fraction of the cost. In turn, studios were able to reduce their rates for sessions and independent artists were given the opportunity to build their own home studios without taking out a mortgage sized loan. Over the years, manufacturers of audio equipment have worked to reduce their production cost as well to increase the amount of people that can afford their product.
Where independent artists were once unable to record without buying expensive studio time; they are now able to set up a basic home studio with a computer and an Mbox ($250) which includes ProTools. With the additions of affordable plugins, microphones, interfaces, and monitors; a home studio is capable of producing clean and professional sounds. This combined with the access to experienced engineers at affordable rates and the ability to digitally distribute their own music is what has led to the rise of independent music’s share of the market. However, without a commercial and professional sound, the ability to distribute music throughout the world may not be enough to catch the ears of listeners. Nowadays, the prevalence of affordable audio mastering studios has helped level the playing field in the quality of music and is an important step in the rise of modern day indie artists.
What Is Audio Mastering?
Mastering is a form of audio production that has greatly evolved over the last few decades to enhance the definition and clarity of a track while creating a competitive overall level. In the past, mastering used to be a one process conversion, but there are now numerous steps that are involved in transforming a mix into a track that is radio ready in level and quality. Through equalization, compression, stereo enhancement, de-essing, noise reduction etc., an experienced mastering engineer is able to use professional audio equipment in an acoustically tuned room to create the best possible sound for a song before it’s released.
Mastering Music in the Past
In the early days of recording, there was no separation between a recording engineer and a mastering engineer. Audio was cut directly into a wax disc which was then used to stamp 10 inch vinyl records that played at 78 RPM’s. In 1948, Ampex introduced the Magnetic Tape Recorder which created the role of a Dubbing Engineer. They basically transferred the audio recorded on the tape to a disc, which involved no artistic input in the process. Another important innovation in the mastering process came about in 1968, when Sterling Sound became the first studio in the US to cut stereo discs.
Over the years, the technological advancements in equipment and final playback mediums created not only the role, but the necessity of a mastering engineer. Due to this new crucial step in the production process, hundreds of thousands of dollars went into constructing sonically advanced facilities, monitors, compressors, equalizers and converters. Since there was limited access to experienced professional mastering engineers, studio time ranged anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000 for a full-length album.
Before the use of the Internet, audio had to be physically transported to the mastering studios. This limited revisions and direct communication between the engineers and artists. Due to the significant amount of time and money put into a mastering session, artists weren’t offered free previews for their tracks, and unless a studio was provided by a label, the artist chose which studio to use by word of mouth. Essentially, only signed artists had access to the best studios. Most independent artists didn’t stand a chance in regard to sound quality for their project.
The Rise of Independent Artists
In recent years, indie artists have access to mastering engineers and studios like never before through online mastering. Since online mastering studios require no transportation for audio or attended sessions, they are able to offer more convenient mastering services at a lower cost. In addition, many of them offer free samples which allow artists to hear the quality of the master before submitting payment. Even world-renowned studios such as Abbey Road see the need to offer this online service.
In the past, demo releases were rough recordings that an artist would use to try and promote their sound. Artists now have the ability to create better recordings from home and have them mastered affordably to create a hi-fi sound which is a necessity in today’s highly competitive music industry. With internet distribution, indie artists can release demos, EP’s, and full-length albums that compete in the marketplace with albums released by major labels. This offers up and coming artists the opportunity to showcase their talent worldwide.
Through the invention of the Internet and innovations in technology over the years, independent artists are able to take matters into their own hands when it comes to the quality and distribution of their albums. While major labels still control a significant portion of the market, they are now forced to compete with the product and success of unsigned artists. There is no longer an exponential gap in the sound quality of the albums recorded at home and in a professional studio. Through online mastering and distribution, talent naturally rises to the top in today’s music industry. May the best artists win.
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