August 21

Budget vs. Lo-Fi, as a Genre

The album 10 Songs About Memory and Hope cost about $600 to make – including the cost of instruments, sound equipment and mastering.  True, there’s some sampling of stuff from the public domain, which made it easier to put together.  But it’s worth thinking about, especially in an era where the term “indie” has a certain tinge that makes it sound more like “business investment” than “blood, sweat and tears.”  People will put together Kickstarter campaigns, regularly asking for over $5000 in order to put an album together.  If you’re a purist that insists on getting an American made Fender Telecaster (forget the Mexican made Tele) you’ll be spending over $1000 for privilege of American purity.  Ableton Live looks to cost $500, and that’s before you even make a sound.  Beyond that, let’s not forget that making something sound indie can be an expensive venture in and of itself.  Indie is all about carefully manicuring something to sound as if it were home-made and lo-fi, just like hipster is all about making yourself look as if you were poor.

And there’s that term – “lo-fi”.  Nowadays the term is used to refer to a kind of “sound,” but of course the term and the sound have lots of different meanings.  “Lo-fi” means “low-fidelity,” and it generally meant that the recording of the music was done on inexpensive materials.  It’s why lo-fi is associated with the idea of noise or lower quality.  Lo-fi seemed kinda cool way back when.  I think the idea was that lo-fi represents a kind of unfussiness about music making.  There’s certain fundamentals that you can still communicate in lo-fi recordings – chords, melody, lyrics.  And the rest may be nice, but it certainly isn’t necessary.  And it would be a mistake to obsess about the rest at the expense of the fundamentals.  I think lo-fi was a sort of medium-induced return to focusing on the basics.  That’s at least a musical aesthetic associated with the idea of lo-fi.

But of course, like anything else, the representation can swamp the concept.  And people obsessed about the “sound” of lo-fi – with its frequency loss, and distortion and general noise.  Of course, the obsession with that sound is a different concept than the unfussiness principle.  You can obsess about distortion in ways that are decidedly very very fussy – just talk to noise artists.  And there’s nothing wrong with caring about certain types of frequency loss, and distortion and general noise.  That is a a type of aesthetic.  It’s just important to point out that it isn’t the same aesthetic as the unfussiness aesthetic that I mentioned earlier.  Someone can spend thousands of dollars trying to capture that “lo-fi sound” and I’m sure someone has.  Someone can obsess about capturing that “authentic” “lo-fi” “sound” to the detriment of the basics.  Alternatively, someone can end up with a recording that is, for all intents and purposes, lo-fi because that’s the very best that they have to work with at the time.

I imagine a similar sort of thing happened to the idea of garage bands back in the ’90s.  Great music was created in garages because that was the most utilitarian area in which to practice where you didn’t necessarily have the biggest house or a studio space.  And because all you had was some cheap guitars and a drum-kit, you were forced to focus on the basics because that was all that you had.  And then of course people got obsessed with the idea of garages, and some rich millionaire decided he’d start his own garage band, in his deluxe 5-car garage with the Mercedes Benz – thinking “I’m now a part of this.”  And then Apple created a piece of software called Garage Band.  And so on and so forth  You see how society ruins things.

I had a conversation with someone a few months before I released my album, and they observed that in a technical sense, the album was “mid-fi” instead of “lo-fi” because it didn’t have those typical noise signatures that you have with “lo-fi”.  Which was hugely annoying.  Because by this time, trying to make something sound authentically lo-fi can cost a lot of time and effort.  I’d have to buy tapes and a tape deck, and that would increase my costs another 18% or so.  And even then, a lot of “lo-fi” music released in the mainstream is actually very well produced.  It struck me as kind of ridiculous that somehow I could be accused of not being lo-fi enough, because I didn’t really have the money on hand to do it.  Those songs were made on the laptop I purchased for graduate school, with my $100 condenser mic, and a synthesized virtual Rhodes.  Some licks borrowed from some friends, some lost and found snippets from the world, and an unfinished sadness from having to move to another state.  That should have been enough.

Like “garage-band” and “alternative” and “indie,” I think maybe it’s time for the term “lo-fi” to be put to rest.  It’s usage has been overplayed to the point of meaninglessness.  I propose the concept of “budget” as a genre, because the concept of “lo-fi” is dead.  You can tell me your music is “lo-fi”, but all I’ll want to know is, how much did it cost to make your album?