Your teenage rock band

You’re a high schooler. You love music. You want to play music. Not marching band music, and orchestra isn’t cutting it for you. You want your own band.

You’d find 2/3 or 3/4 of a core band among your close friends. Then you launch the search for the final piece, and maybe some extra pieces. It’s going to be a rock band, but you have a friend who’s a really, really good fiddler. You can make that work. It seemed like a lead singer and a drummer were going to be the hardest to find. Most kids who were into starting a band had taken guitar lessons, and some had chosen bass. Those two were easy to nail down. Teen self-esteem made lead singers tougher to find, and good drummers were in such high demand that finding an available one was a challenge. A singer doesn’t need much experience, and a guitar player can usually pick up bass reasonably well, but you don’t just pick up drums. But you found them all, eventually.

Then you had to find a rehearsal space. You couldn’t afford to rent a space, so you find garages and basements at whoever’s house has a parent or parents that worked late (or happen to be wonderfully permissive). Your equipment sucks enough to begin with, but the acoustics in a garage made life hell. The louder you played, the worse it sounded. The acoustics in a basement were different, but not much better. You can hear your bandmates now, though.

You rehearse and rehearse. After some covers, you start writing original songs. Your style starts to form. Someone in the band eventually hears something worth keeping. They convince you to play live.

Then you talk some friends into letting you play their party. It doesn’t go well. Maybe it went badly enough that someone in the band gives up and you start the search again. Maybe, though, you’d found a group of kids who were willing to soldier on.

You keep at it. You bond through the humiliation of gigs that probably weren’t as bad as you thought. Soon you get more cohesive. You get better.

Then it’s time to scrap together a demo tape. Someone has a small 4-track cassette recorder, or the local pawn shop has one you can pick up on a McDonald’s wage. You can’t afford good mics, though, so even if the noise bed on that 4-track weren’t insane, the combination of your basement-cum-studio and lack of anything but that blues mic your singer is in love with makes for an almost-indistinguishable, muddy mess. But you can make it out. You can live with it.

You make the rounds to the local all-ages venues and drop off the demo with the booking agents. You only had 10 copies you made on your stereo, all worse than the original thanks to sound degradation on magnetic tape copies, but one of those 10 calls you back. You got a gig playing something more than a basement when your friends’ parents were out of town.

You show up. They have house amps and a soundboard for you. They have monitors. You hear yourself pretty close to the way everyone else does for the first time. It’s exhilarating. You play. People dance. People you’ve never met talk to you after the show. You feel like keeping this going.

That good show gets you other gigs. Playing clubs makes you feel like you’ve made it. Seeing the same faces start showing up regularly boosts your ego. You have fans. It’s time for a record.

Between the three or four of you, you can come up with about $600. That’s enough for an hour at that studio at that one club. You can play you’re entire catalog of ten original songs in an hour, you’re sure of it.

But your drummer keeps demanding retakes, and your singer keeps telling the guitarist that he or she is off tempo. Your guitarist keeps telling your singer that he or she obviously can’t hear themselves in the cans. Egos clash. Tempers flare. You finish three songs before the hour is up, and the ride home is awkward and silent.

Then you get the mixdown. It’s the best you’ve ever heard yourselves sound. Everyone is critical of their own performance, of course, but there are no showstoppers. You decide to sell it as an EP. Maybe CD burners became a thing later in high school. An affordable thing. You make pristine copies and put them on the merch table. You make enough money on sales over the next few months to cover the original recording costs.

Between the door and the merch, you’re making enough to pay for gas to get to other towns. You can’t tour, because at least half of you are still in school, but you can play Friday nights as an opener at the club in the bigger town an hour away. It’s a cold drive because your Plymouth Rampage has a weak heater, and at least one band member has to ride in the back with the drum kit and amps. Fortunately, every band always has one good sport.

You start dreaming about rock stardom. Making it big. This is going to be a career. Then things plateau. You’re one of a dozen bands in the area in the same situation. Maybe you make it to headlining the shows. Maybe you don’t. It doesn’t matter because none of you are getting record contracts. You just can’t get the kind of exposure you’d need for that.

Then graduation comes. The diaspora. It’s “adios, I hope you find a new band in college town.” Sure, one or two of your crew probably aren’t headed to college, but at least one of them—probably the one with the 4-track and the mics—is. If the band goes on, it won’t be the same band.

Soon after, the Digital Audio Workstation becomes something the average high schoolers can get their hands on. You imagine what it would have been like to have your own studio back then. A little carpet on the walls in the basement, a couple of decent mics… and to have all the time in the world to make a perfect recording. A digital recording. And what if, you wonder, there were some technology that let you get that recording into not just the hands of a label, but to the whole world? What if you could do it for free? What if there were something that could level the playing field a bit, letting the listeners decide who got heard instead of the labels? It would be a different world.

Hey, look at that, it’s a different world.

Brett Terpstra

Brett is a writer and developer living in Minnesota, USA. You can follow him as ttscoff on Twitter, GitHub, and Mastodon. Keep up with this blog by subscribing in your favorite news reader.

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