Don’t pretend to be shocked. The fact that the future of the music industry is in jeopardy is no new news. And, as the struggling major labels attempt to cling to their shreds of power, more and more often these days creative artists are finding new ways to use emerging technologies to their advantage.
From Radiohead to the trillions of MySpace buzz bands, Ari Hest is the latest in a long line to turn to the magical powers of the Internet. Frustrated with his major label, he parted ways with the ailing dinosaur and, fans in tow, took things into his own hands. 52, the resulting project, is an ambitious effort: the prolific singer/songwriter will be writing, recording and releasing one song every week for the entirety of 2008 via his website. Songs are “released” every Monday and can be purchased a variety of ways, from a yearly subscription to a per-song basis.
SSv staff writer Natalie B. David gave Hest a ring to discuss the new project and find out what happens if the well runs dry.
SSv: So 52 is a brilliant idea just to throw that out there.
Ari Hest: Great. Thank you.
SSv: So how did this whole thing come about?
Hest: Well, you know I spent the last few years on a major label and everything, the creative process on my end was there but they didn’t want to put out a lot of music all at once, like I’m doing now. They have their ways of doing things and sometimes it works, but for me it wasn’t working. So I left the label in October and just decided to do, basically, the opposite of what I was doing there, which is put out everything that I write. I had been writing stuff while I was there that never made it past my computer but I had a whole bunch of material that I want to share with people and this seemed like the best way to do it. I didn’t want to just make a whole bunch of records. I just wanted to see what this was like. To do something that people aren’t accustomed to.
I do think that you don't need a label these days to be productive and profitable in the music business. Oftentimes younger people these days know more about what it's going to take to market their music than older folks who work at the label.
SSv: So have the songs already been written and recorded? Or is it an ongoing process?
Hest: It’s an ongoing thing. There’s only a few that have been written and a few less that have been recorded. At this point … by March or April I’m going to be a little bit more, I guess, nervous [Laughs] about getting everything done in time. But I’m not really all that concerned about the writing as I am about the production and trying to make everything sound different in some way. Because it is pretty limited, what I can do at my apartment, especially since I don’t play every instrument in the world. I just play guitars and bass and some keyboards. There’s a lot I can do but probably could do more if I was a little more well-rounded with the instruments. But that’s the biggest challenge, the production. The writing is something that’s come to me pretty easily throughout my career, so I’m not too worried about that.
SSv: So knowing that you have to write so many songs, has that pushed you as a songwriter, at least yet?
Hest: I think it’s good motivation for me to stay on top of my game, in a way. Like I said, I’ve always written a lot. It’s good motivation and that comes in the sense that there’s deadlines and I have to do something within a certain time. And I think that forces me to work maybe a little harder at a certain moment instead of saying, after an hour of trying to do something and not getting somewhere, saying to myself ‘Well, I’ll just pick it up tomorrow.’ I don’t know if I’m going to have the opportunity to do that as much during this year. So I think, you know, it’s just a question of motivating myself to finish off things at certain times that I may not have finished in the past.
SSv: So how are you recording these songs?
Hest: I’m recording everything into my laptop through a few microphones that I have at home. One of which is kinda nice, the other one is not so nice. It’s a FM57 microphone which is a good little mic, but it’s very inexpensive. And then another microphone that was recommended to me a couple years back. I think I’ve got enough to go on right now. I’m trying not to spend too much money on new gear because I think it’s just going to make things more confusing for me. I’m not a big computer guy. I’m not an engineer. I’m just trying to figure out what sounds good to me. And my ear.
SSv: So it’s definitely going to be a learning experience?
Hest: Oh yeah. It already is definitely.
SSv: With 52, from what I’ve seen, it’s also fairly interactive with your fans.
Hest: That’s on purpose. I think that these days, it’s a fact that it’s harder to sell music to people. It’s easier to get the music by other means than to just buy it, so I feel like I have to … I’m sort of selling 52 songs for 20 bucks or whatever it is, but it’s more the interactivity that I think people will find engaging and interesting about the project aside from the songs themselves.
I think right now the interactivity in January has not been exactly flourishing, but I think it will get bigger and raise some ideas of things I can do to make people feel more a part of the creative process. We’re going to start very soon with one particular idea that we’re going to ask for song titles and I’m just going to choose one from the batch and write a song that week about it. I just think that kind of involvement is going to go a long way.
SSv: Definitely. Anything that makes fans feel like they can connect is always going to be a big help.
Hest: And I check in, I post on my own board a lot and answer questions. I want them to feel that they can ask me whatever musical questions that they want to ask.
SSv: Aside from what you mentioned, as far as picking song titles, what other kind of input are you hoping to take from this interactive situation?
Hest: I look forward to reading what people have to say about the songs. I think I can learn from both the positive and negative comments and I don’t expect everybody to like everything that I do. I think that I have a smart group of fans that really understand me and understand where I’m coming from, musically. And I think I can learn from them. I just look forward to hearing what they have to say.
SSv: Well, I have the first five songs and so far my favorite is “In a Rush.” What is the story behind that song?
Hest: That song, I specifically wrote about this guy who lives in my neighborhood. Well, I don’t know if he lives in my neighborhood, but he runs a deli that is like, two blocks from where I live and I walk past that deli a lot because it’s the only way to the subway. So I walk past him and there’s also a lot of beautiful women walking around my neighborhood and he’s always outside his door just kind of perusing and staring at these women and I just watch him sort of ogle over them and they, of course, don’t go into his store. And I just thought it was a funny idea to talk about this guy, wishing he could connect with one of these girls. But he can’t.
SSv: I’m sure the ogling doesn’t help either.
Hest: [Laughs] No.
SSv: So the big question about this project is, do you think this is the way that the industry is headed? Obviously the Internet is playing a big part, but the fact that you don’t need to put out a record and you don’t need a label. You can just release songs at your own pace.
Hest: Right. I do think that you don’t need a label these days to be productive and profitable in the music business. Oftentimes younger people these days know more about what it’s going to take to market their music than older folks who work at the label. Labels offer certain things that aren’t that important anymore. Distribution is not as big of a deal as it used to be. Radio is not as big a deal as it used to be and those were the big things that labels could really offer, as well as developing an artist, which they don’t do anymore. So if you can develop yourself you can figure out ways to market yourself then you should go ahead and do that and not wait for a label to come around and do it for you.
As far as putting out songs instead of full albums, I don’t know if that’s going to be the way to go. I do like to make albums. I have no issue with it at all. I just think at this point in my life something like this is an opportunity for me to try something new and see if it works. But we’ll see what happens in the future. I don’t know if it’s the right move or not and so far it’s been great and people have responded really well, but who knows? I could run out of creative juice in June and be in deep shit.
SSv: What do you do if that happens?
Hest: Start stealing other people’s songs? [Laughs] No, I don’t know what I’m going to do. In all seriousness I don’t think I’m going to have a problem, creatively, with this project. I think that the production is where my head will struggle a little more. I’m still a bit of a novice producer and I want to get better at that and that’s going to be the biggest learning experience of this whole thing is learning how to engineer and produce myself.
SSv: I also read that you’ve been working on a score for a film? Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Hest: Sure. It’s a film called “Dreamwriters” and it came along to me about a month ago and basically I just got asked to submit some music for it along with a lot of other people, I guess, who submitted music for it. They sent me a few scenes and I sent them back some music and they liked it and asked me to do a lot more. This was the first time I’ve done anything like it. I’ve been given the film to watch with a time code and writing music for the scenes themselves. It’s been great so far. I’m not sure when it’s going to come out, but I know that it will be in film festivals very shortly, the Tribeca film festival being the closest one. I think that’s in February. It’s a work in progress. It’s not finished yet, but it will be soon.
SSv: How does writing music for something like that differ from writing songs as you normally do?
Hest: Well, it’s pretty different because I’m not really writing songs as much as I’m writing little pieces of music that are mostly instrumental and it’s almost like being given a head start when you’re writing to scenes because the mood is already set. It’s easier but it’s also a bit more difficult because you have to figure out how to enhance a certain moment of a scene. If something happens right in the middle of the scene, you want the piece of music to connect at that exact moment, which is not always the easiest thing to do. So I’ve had to learn how to handle that, too.
SSv: So it’s a long ways away, but what are your plans after the whole project of 52 is finished?
Hest: Well, I don’t really have one yet. It’s too early to tell what I’ll be doing. Well I know that at the end of the year, as far as the 52 project, we’re going to put out an album of the 12 favorite songs from the project. For that I will go back in the studio and do that, probably with another producer and see how that goes. After that, I don’t know. I may try something like this again and I may need a lot of time off. Who knows?