DIY to success
The local music scene is far from dead
by Michael Escañuelas
photography by Christopher Guzman
Outside of a Starbucks coffee in Chino Hills, Herbert Ha and Tony Perez arrive separately from their self made practice studio in El Monte. “Watch out, I’m still sweaty from practice,” Herbert warns as he exits his car. The band is working hard to prepare for a handful of upcoming concerts and striving to make their live show something worth catching. While none of them has given up full-time day jobs, they feel their band is on the edge of music business discovery. “What we rely on most is our live show. We don’t have a lot of material to push out,” Herbert explains. Even so, for Salinger, an indie rock five-piece based out of Chino Hills, music is not just a hobby, but a practical part of life. Compiled of Herbert Ha, on lead vocals and guitar, Javier Verni, on guitar, Tony Perez, on drums, and Taylor Harb, on cello, this group of musicians, who either go to school full time or hold full-time jobs, makes up the band Salinger. Although their name may not be known beyond their home town, this band is working its way to exposure in many new and effective ways.
Utilizing self-made studios, booking their own tours in states like Washington and Oregon, and even recording and producing their own demos, Salinger is just a local example of how the music scene has developed in the past decade into its own self run entity. “Do it yourself” (DIY) has become the motto of many artists in not only California but also throughout the entire United States music scene. Age old attention getting methods like dependence on labels, managers and booking agents have quickly grown outdated and been replaced by outlets that let the bands themselves take control of their work and reel in the benefits. The measure of success for a band has greatly changed; the rock star concept is quickly becoming a taboo. For bands like Salinger, this change presents the opportunity to create and show their music to more people than even thought possible before the new millennium.
This new movement is taking control of the music business but not only are bands taking control of their musical careers; so too are producers, engineers and venue owners. With new digital methods of distributing music, playing concerts and recording, the business of music is finally being controlled by the musicians.
Getting the album out
The music scene that resides within the La Verne area is just like any other; it is always changing and growing. For Salinger, the road to becoming a band started with a trip to Oakland to record a five song demo. The band began in 2008 as a singer/song writer project created by band front man Herbert Ha. After booking some time in a friend’s Oakland studio, Herbert and band mate Javier Verni went north to record their first demo, “Lovers,” which would become the band’s demo. Followers of Salinger say it holds a focus on heartfelt lyrics combined with a strong push toward musical diversity. “I was struggling with a lot things at that time; that is why It feels more organic, more heartfelt,” Herbert says about the band’s early material.
For many aspiring musicians, jamming with friends is just the first step in starting a band. But beyond creating music, a band must go through many steps to release material. For Salinger, this process began with recording the first EP “Lovers” and self releasing the album. “At the time, it was more of a personal goal, especially for me,” Herbert says. “I really wanted something solid to put out, something packaged, something pretty.” The band self released its album totally, making the packaging and selling the album at its shows. Currently, Salinger sells its music through the online retailer Band Camp, a free service that allows artists to sell their music online and not be forced to pay fees.
For local bands, to record an album takes many hours of work and much money. The process includes paying for studio time, recording the material and then mixing the music for release. Salinger gained its studio time with a friend in Oakland. For the “Lovers” album, the cost approached $700 for recording and an additional $400 to complete the packaging. When referring to future recordings, Herbert addresses the cost and time constraints with caution. “We have the songs to record a full length, but a band like us basically has to do everything on our own.” “Even though we work, it’s really hard to get the money into a studio and spend that much time.”
The days of driving to venues and distributing flyers, hoping people give them the time and day are gone. Websites like Facebook have paved the way for self promotion, along with sites Purevolume and BandCamp. Band members can build a buzz just by sitting in front of their computers. “Ten or 15 years ago, bands would network at venues, and bands would play with each other and get on compilations,” Tony says. Before file sharing, compilations were a necessity for a label and an opportunity for smaller bands to be heard. Now, promotion is focused online though social networks, allowing bands to directly interact with fans. Besides allowing bands to promote and sell their music online, sites like YouTube and Vimeo allow artists to create videos and post their music in a completely different art form. In turn, fans post videos promoting their favorite bands, allowing for viewership to millions. “We welcome anyone to come record things; they have our permission to put it online; we don’t care,” Herbert says.
Computers have changed the music industry, and it makes one wonder whether DIY ethics are ruining the authenticity of bands, artists or even the music. “Wanting to travel and doing what you love, like playing music—that’s one thing the digital world can’t take away,” Herbert says. For local bands, playing shows is essential. The passion that drives the music scene can be proven within a band’s live show. It is the only outlet that allows artists to fully display a band’s talent. Salinger took to the road and headed north to play a small tour. Cities within Oregon, Washington and California were chosen to share the band’s sound. But unlike tours for well known bands, smaller bands have a more difficult time getting crowds to show up for touring gigs. Some of the band’s shows either were cancelled at the last minute or had few people in the audience. “We’re a little band from a city no one knows, but it was our first tour, so we took what we got from it,” says Herbert. “You have to go into it almost expecting to play for no one.” But like with any business, one cannot pave the way to the top without treading the bottom. Not all bands can endure the challenges of self booking tours, or even managing a band through self-made ethics, but bands like Salinger are driven by the passion of their music.
Producers and studios
Pablo Hernandez stands outside his humble Ontario home located on a short cul-de-sac that backs up to the 10 freeway. The freeway wall barely blocks the overpowering highway noise that one can not only hear but feel. Considering the noise pollution, it would be unexpected to find his garage houses the control center of a quality home self made studio. Pablo is a self taught student in the art of producing and engineering music. His studio, which houses a large 36 channel mixing board, an abundance of microphones and a large spacious area, is a work in progress that records his band “Resa’s” material, along with several other projects. “I don’t have any training,” Pablo says. “I started backwards, and I learned on my own with the help of friends.” Pablo’s work began after being laid off from his job as fire alarm technician. After learning that a friend had a large mixing board from the ‘80s collecting dust, the musician quickly jumped at the opportunity to set up the equipment in his garage. With time, Pablo added more recording tools like microphones, cables to extend to the front house and interfaces to create a modest home self made studio. “I didn’t really know anything. We just messed around learning just basic things,” Pablo says.
Before building his studio, Pablo created and wrote music with different bands. Using internet tools to obtain programs to record, Pablo quickly learned to manipulate the technical side of music. “I always have been a nerd for the behind the scenes stuff,” he says. He established a connection between the garage, which housed the mixing board and computers, and the main house, where bands played their instruments. Then, Pablo built his excellent resume as a producer and an engineer. “I don’t want to be an engineer, but at the same time I was learning from him all the technical stuff,” Pablo says. “I had to, to be able to communicate what we wanted to do.” Pablo’s self taught skills have given him an advantage of recording his bands material along with helping out friends with recording.
The path to excellence came from recording his own band, hours of reading and the expert advice of friends. Pablo was then able to make a drastic decision in his musical career and develop musical field versatility. In a music scene that demands so much from artists, it helps to have the advantage of recording knowledge to guide your band. “We can do other skills other than playing music,” Pablo says. “We have what it takes to communicate who we are.”
Unlike how Salinger’s members support their music careers through full-time jobs, Pablo was inspired by the loss of his fire technician job. “My job was just a job,” Pablo says. With the job loss, Pablo followed his music passion, which took a backseat to a full-time job. He decided to make it his career. “I changed my mind set to I can get by if I apply myself.” With the job field quickly become a ghost town, making rash decisions to pursue music has become a growing norm among artists. The do it yourself movement allows for artists to take the music scene into their own hands. For producers and engineers, there are many paths to take, including school—or like Pablo—building your own studio and learning through hands on experience. “There are so many options out there,” Pablo says. “It’s much easier to become an engineer nowadays.”
Venues open the door
For many bands, the art of live performing is their only exposure method and a personal connection with their fan base. Within the Inland Empire there are only a handful of performance venues compared to large cities like Los Angeles. One local venue not only embraces the local scene but also was built on the DIY ethics that push so many artists. After quitting his job as a teacher, Donavan and Rachel Foy opened in August 2006 their “The Wire Music and Arts Venues” in the heart of downtown Upland. “We wanted it to be something that we were really into, and we were both really into music,” says Donavan. “There wasn’t a legitimate venue for bands to play around here.” But just like any local business, The Wire was built with a hands-on mentality that still holds true four years later. Along with a modest staff, The Wire is run, booked and even cleaned by the owners. “I do everything from booking to cleaning toilets,” Donavan laughs. “It’s not glamorous, but it’s what we wanted to be.” Since its opening, The Wire has been a place made for the primary reason of music. “A big decision we made was it being all ages and not serving alcohol,” Donavan says. “We want it to be a place where people come to see music.” Similar venues like Chain Reaction in Anaheim and The Glass House in Pomona also have an all ages policy and do not serve alcohol.
For many business owners, the art of staying open comes from making right business decisions and learning from your mistakes. For Donavan and Rachel, owning a venue proved to be a unique business venture that came without an instruction book. “Since we first opened, we are always learning and figuring out what works and doesn’t work,” explains Donavan. “There’s isn’t anyone in our line of work that I know that I can get advice from.” The two base their business ethics and judgments on their experience playing in and working with local bands. These ethics include staying true to the focus of music and always being hands-on. These goals are achieved through do it yourself methods like booking and maintaining the venue. “All I ever did was go to shows, and now it’s my job,” says Donavan.
As long as the local scene of music thrives, there will always be a need for a performance place for the arts. The Wire is one of several local places that serves the do it yourself music scene and keeps artists from going broke. The Wire’s reputation is an important attribute to their business ethics. “That’s how it works with anything that is not corporate,” says Donavan. “How else are people going to find out about it? It’s word of mouth; it’s what you hope for.”
When it comes to do it yourself ethics for bands, producers and venue ownership, word of mouth helps keep the scene alive. Artists continue to play and display their art just to get people talking. Engineers and producers record and work as much as possible, even sometimes for free just to get their names out there. Venues treat bands and concert goers with respect with hopes that more artists book with them. The art of do it yourself is linked through several different ethical methods. With the power of digital technology, if one has the passion to drive your art forward, their always seems to be a way. “That’s the bottom line of when you do things yourself,” says Donavan.