At 22 years old, Will Toledo, the frontman of the definitively DIY band Car Seat Headrest, is getting noticed for his music’s location. And not just in the traditional sense of Los Angeles versus New York versus some irrelevant town in Nebraska, either. No, Toledo is getting noticed because of where he makes his lo-fi sad pop tunes and where he chooses to sell them. His choices are discussed because they demonstrate trends in the current, ever-changing music industry.
When Toledo was 17, he started making music not in the usual song-writing fortresses of the bedroom or garage, but in his parents’ car. In his hometown of Leesburg, Virginia, Toledo looked for different places to record in solitude. His band’s name, Car Seat Headrest, refers to Toledo’s first audience as a musician. With the same independent spirit, Toledo began releasing his music via Bandcamp, an online store where listeners can determine the worth of music.
Bandcamp was founded in 2007 and claims $127 million in fan contributions ($3.7 million in the last month alone). By letting any artist sign up and release music to the store, Bandcamp opens up unprecedented opportunities to anyone with Internet access. This is another example of the web providing more and more places for creativity and economical music sharing.
Will Toledo used Bandcamp to self-produce 11 albums. Making massive amounts of content like this is often patronized and looked at as “half-assed,” or a collection of “rough-drafts.” But with more and more artists turning away from professional studios to their own computers, one has to look at DIY music with increased validity.
Car Seat Headrest, along with a lot of Bandcamp users, has a noticeably rough, reverb-drenched sound. This is also part of what gets Bandcamp musicians labeled as basically lazy and lacking technique. But having commonalities in sound doesn’t mean the artists are any less good than a label-signed musician. In fact, this might make them better. When artists are given the freedom to record on their own, they do so without the obvious pressures and rules that come with a record deal. They are automatically making more honest and intentional music by choosing to self-produce. This freedom also extends to the audience. Instead of scrolling through services like iTunes or Spotify that equate a musician’s worth with their rank in the charts, listeners discover music without the industry’s influence.
Bandcamp is a great way of supporting indie artists, but it also helped make the careers of many musicians. Earlier this year, Car Seat Headrest was signed to Matador Records, who produced their first compilation album “Teens of Style” (released Friday) and will produce their first studio album “Teens of Denial” for 2016. Along with Toledo’s career, Bandcamp worked for those of fellow sad men Alex G and Sufjan Stevens. Bandcamp gives these artists support and visibility on a small scale that can also help launch them into more and more success.
As essentially free music sites like Bandcamp grow and evolve, the more iTunes and major labels lose power. Even if you argue that not all labels are bad, that they have more resources and highly trained professionals, Bandcamp still offers something more honest. Bandcamp puts the emphasis on the fans, and let’s them think for themselves.