For boomer garage-band set, a chance for small-scale stardom
Older amateur rockers are creating original albums as a viable sideline gig.
Andy Hewett keeps the cellphone conversation brief. It's noisy at his end – daughter's first day of kindergarten – and this road-warrior management consultant from Mountain View, Calif., is in active "dad mode."
On weekends, Mr. Hewett, a bass and keyboard player, likes to compose music with his kids. Last year his son, Isaac, backpacked copies of his own home-mastered CD to first grade.
Thursday nights, however, Hewett keeps for himself. That's when his band, Evolution Eden, gathers to rehearse and record original songs in his home studio. Their first CD, "Story Road," achieved international radio airplay through an online distributor.
"Last summer we had the No. 9 song on the Australian world-indie chart," Hewett says. And this spring – April 1, of all days – the band got a call from Interscope Records cofounder Beau Hill about putting together a second CD.
Score another one for the boomer-garage-band set. Plenty of youthful acts break up after high school, some sputter along until their members hit middle age, re-forming around corporate colleagues to play covers or just jam. Now – spurred by low-cost recording software, as well as digital-music distribution and networking sites – an emerging subset is turning a creative outlet into a viable sideline gig. A little audio self-publishing can be as fulfilling as a record contract.
Jay Dougherty, a copyright law expert and professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, has played guitar and sung in rock bands since the mid-1960s, even appearing on bills with The Ramones and the Talking Heads at New York's CBGB during a brief period as a full-time musician. A CBS Records deal dematerialized back then when his band fell apart in the year it took to get studio time.
Today, at "a young 57," Mr. Dougherty exhibits eclectic taste. He exults in the fact that he has just picked up White Stripes tickets. And Dougherty also plays in a funk band made up of lawyer friends, and a harmonizing cover band – "doo-wop to The Beatles to The Eagles, big four- and five-part harmonies.
"[But] my favorite project is my original music," says Dougherty. He records digitally, in 16 tracks. With little time to self-market, he hoists up MP3s online and hopes they get noticed, that maybe they'll become part of a film soundtrack. The process can also be cathartic.
"I find elements of my life now that I can fit into a song," he says. "This past spring my mother passed away – that's something we boomers are going through – and the last verse of the song, one I had begun writing years ago, had to do with her and her relationship to my estranged brother."
"Lyrical content becomes a lot more important," says Doug Kolmar, a guitarist who has released three CDs in the past 30 years and has a New England songwriting award to his credit. "Some of that has to do with age and the feeling that there are certain things you need to get across."
A changing game
Nostalgia and technology make for a potent cocktail. With their identity very much tied up in music and self-expression – and with many long-touring role models – boomers are ripe for a musical resurgence, says Steve Slon, editor of AARP the Magazine.
"It's not the demographic that grew up with computers at their fingertips, learning programming," he says. "Nonetheless, it's a group that really defines itself by its eagerness to reinvent itself and to discover and to learn." There's incentive along with opportunity.
Fluid Media Networks produces American Idol Underground, an online version of the hit show that invites users to upload original music for fan voting. "Every artist wants to be heard," says Justin Beckett, Fluid's CEO. "But where 10 years ago you needed $75,000 if you wanted to go to a studio and get a state-of-the-art CD made, today for several hundred you can produce an album – a CD or a digital album – of high-technical quality."
Digital distribution, too, has changed the game, Mr. Beckett says, in ways beyond just wresting control from the major labels. His firm has recently worked with residents of retirement communities. "These are people learning how the Internet works just to get their music out there," he says. "There's probably 10 times the amount of music being produced today than a decade ago."
It's all about access. Billy Coulter, a 40-something musician from the Washington, D.C., area has worked with Fleetwood Mac producer Steve Thoma, among other industry heavyweights. In his 20s, he says, he found recording studios very imposing. "Now," he says, "just like with desktop publishing, the power has come down to the user."
That can create some dissonance, Mr. Coulter allows, if it gives way to brain-to-Internet self-indulgence. "Just because you can [put it out there]," he says, with a laugh, "doesn't mean you should."
That one-in-a-million chance
But for musicians whose work has been vetted, an industry in fast forward is a boon. "It's a huge difference in the kind of preparation you have to do," says Mr. Kolmar. "[In the days of tape] you'd ask yourself, 'Is this something that I feel strongly enough about to record?' You can explore so much more now."
Kolmar, who works in educational publishing in Saco, Maine, has been using a version of Cakewalk software and a WAV-format digital recorder. Similarly, Evolution Eden's Hewett recalls traveling, not long ago, with a "big black suitcase" that held a Mackie mixing board, a digital recorder, and big headphones. Now he and his friends use tiny interface devices and good software – the ubiquitous Mac Pro Tools or M3 Audio for Windows.
Touring, they and others say, remains essential for cementing a fan base and for selling CDs – still a popular format among boomer buyers. But sites for selling digital tracks singly also abound – iTunes, tunecore, myjonesmusic, broadjam. And for profile-raising there are personal websites and the online communities. The website 55-alive.com is now accepting videos for its "battle of the boomer bands."
Plenty of boomers even inhabit youth-dominated MySpace, some more comfortably than others.
"You almost have to be there for the one-in-a-million chance that someone will see you and like it," says Lisa Bell, a singer-songwriter from Boulder. Colo., who has worked with her area's top jazz musicians and produced two of her own CDs, hitting such themes as divorce and new love. "It has been quite interesting to start singing after 35," she says. "The music business really doesn't know quite what to do with you."
To Ms. Bell, that hardly matters. "I may never be a superstar with a big record deal," she says. "But I am living my dream."