Today on Blogcritics

In the Garage

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This week, instead of reviewing indie CDs, I’m rooting around in indie heaven (or indie hell, depending on your perspective): Garageband.com, a true Internet survivor.

Since 1999 the site, which counts George Martin, Jerry Harrison, Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite as members of its (strangely, all-male) Advisory Board of 39 industry heavy hitters, has provided an intriguing form of peer review for over 150,000 bands and musicians.

The idea is simple: each indie artist who wants to get a song onto the site has to first listen to and review in writing one song from each of 30 other artists. Reviewers are expected to write something thoughtful and preferably specific about what they liked or didn’t like about the songs, which are presented anonymously in same-genre pairs, and indicate which of the pair they preferred, whether it’s a type of music they typically listen to, whether they’d be likely to buy it, and so on. The general public is welcome to register and participate in the reviewing process for their own edification as well.

It sounds a little cumbersome, but if you approach it in a spirit of adventure and helpfulness and you possess even an average facility with words it’s fairly painless. It’s probably a little like speed-dating, actually: you simply can’t spend a lot of time on any one song, or it’ll take up your whole day. Extra-busy (or language-impaired) bands can, incidentally, bypass the initiation by coughing up some cash to get their song straight into the review pool. But that’s taking the fun out of it, if you ask me.

Once you’ve reviewed a song, the site tells you the name of the band and lets you add the song to your playlist if you like it. Meanwhile, an actual human being at Garageband gives each review a quality rating. Higher ratings entitle you to extra benefits.

I’ve been mucking around in the slush pile for a few days and am well on my way to earning the right to put one of my own songs into the pool. The reviewing process is both encouraging and discouraging. Most of the music is terrible, which is encouraging, since it leads you to think, rightly or wrongly, that your own music is much better than most of what you’re hearing. It’s discouraging, though, to realize how many thousands and thousands of hopefuls are out there competing with you, and how even if only one percent of the artists were really good, that’s far, far more than there’s room for at the top of the heap.

Why is it worth it to artists to participate? If you believe the website’s hype, many have gone on to bigger and better things, some signing to major labels. (cf. American Idol‘s Bo Bice). What makes this hype, even though Garageband is unlikely to be literally lying, is that savvy, industrious indie bands aren’t going to sign up on a single free website. They’ll be all over the Internet, promoting here, competing there, looking for every possible connection and medium of exposure. Rather, Garageband stands out for other reasons: its peer-review pool concept, its longevity, and its fine user interface. (The site itself works quite well. Years of development have not been wasted.)

On the minus side: the tinny, low-fi sound quality makes it tough to evaluate some aspects of the music. You have to pretend you’re listening to a transistor radio that’s under a blanket. Then you’re OK. But get some more hard drive space, Garageband. Everyone’s doing it: Google, Yahoo, you name it. Get some space so you can host higher-quality files.

Now, about that all-male advisory board…

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Great job, Jon. I didn’t know about how the process worked on getting songs up on the site.

    You’re right in that much of the music is terrible, but what’s good is really terrific. Think of it like digging through the $5 bin at the music store (or, in some cases… the $1 bin). However, the ease of online listening allows you to dig up those rare jewels much more quickly.

    When I was heavy into Dumpster Bust Radio, my podcast, I had a ball finding podsafe music on GarageBand. I was signed up as an official radio station, so it was a pleasure to promote great artists (and there are a number out there) who are more than willing (many got in touch with me) to get their stuff out there.

  • http://www.garageband.com Ali Partovi

    Hi Jon,

    I’m the CEO of GarageBand.com and I just saw your blog post. Thank you for doing such a great job boiling down the essence of the GarageBand experience into so few words!

    FYI, we don’t expect artists to put their music exclusively on GarageBand, nor do we claim that the dozens of bands who have been signed relied exclusively on us for their success. However, in almost every case the band did climb to the top of our charts before getting signed — and quite often, these bands tell us, “I got discovered because of GarageBand.” The reason is that industry people (agents, DJs, etc) are increasingly recognizing the value of GarageBand’s charts as a filter and indicator of the public’s preferences.

    Also, one thing you might not have realized (because it’s so new that we’ve barely started touting it) is that top-ranked artists on GarageBand.com are now being featured regularly on the websites of every Clear Channel radio station. That’s right: thanks to us, the largest radio network in the free world is beginning to embrace unsigned music, and has recognized the GarageBand charts as a decent filter of music by the people, for the people. To see this in action, visit http://www.z100.com/cc-common/new/ (or the equivalent page on any of the other 800+ music stations in the Clear Channel Radio network). For more info see: http://www.garageband.com/htdb/companyinfo/pr091305.html

    So, while I agree with you that the primary benefit for most of the artists is to get advice and feedback from their peers, that’s not the only benefit. Thanks to our relationship with Clear Channel, the 1% or fewer who make it to the top of the GarageBand charts in a commercial genre become automatically eligible for nationwide promotion the likes of which has never before been available to an unsigned artist. This is a small but symbolic step toward making the music and radio industries more democratic and meritocratic.

    Lastly, you commented on the “tinny” quality of songs. Are you listening to music in “lo” or “hi” bandwidth mode? If “hi,” then you’re getting the original MP3 songs at the maximum bitrate submitted by the band — there’s nothing we could do to improve the quality. If “lo,” then you’re getting a lower-quality version, which is there to accommodate listeners with slow connections.

    Having said all this, there is a LOT we need to do to improve GarageBand. I’m sure you’ll run into more things that can be done better, which is what keeps us hard at work. Thanks again for writing such a thoughtful and generally accurate article.

    your humble servant,

    ali partovi
    ceo, GarageBand.com

  • http://www.thebmrant.com Matt

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing Ali–its definitely a well thought out concept you guys are working with. Best of luck.