20 years of technology and music – my interview with Carbon Leaf

(Note: This post is a bit of a departure from my usual content. For those who don’t know, there was a period of time where I was an aspiring musician – I play keyboards – and played with a couple of bands that gave “making it” a real shot. During those days, we connected with our local comrades-in-arms Carbon Leaf. Recently, I found myself reflecting on how much things have changed technologically since we were in those bands all those years ago. It inspired me to reach out to my buddy Terry Clark, one of the founding members of Carbon Leaf, and ask what’s changed in the past 20 years of being an independent touring band. His answers are below. Enjoy.)

Carbon Leaf in 1993:

Carbon Leaf - 1993

 

 

 

 

 

 

and Carbon Leaf in 2013:

Carbon Leaf 2013

 

 

 

 

 

1.Can you give a quick recap of Carbon Leaf’s history? How long have you been together?

We started at Randolph-Macon College in spring of 1993.  Basically just as a diversion, with no serious ambitions.  After a few months together, we started writing our own material and really liked what we were turning out, so we stayed together after graduation.  Eventually, all of us relocated to Richmond, VA where our weekend gigs started stretching to three, four or five days long.  We were releasing our own music on cassette and CD, basically selling them (or giving them away) at shows and a few local record stores. In 2002 we had to privilege to win an American Music Award as Coca-Cola’s best-unsigned band.  That opened a lot of doors for us as and definitely introduced us to a lot of people. The following year, 2003, we signed a record contract with Vanguard Records and released 3 albums through them. During this period, Carbon Leaf was fortunate to have a couple of successful radio singles that really helped put our music into a lot of new ears. In 2009 we left Vanguard and restarted our own label, Constant Ivy Music, and have released 5 new projects to date… including 2 full length albums in 2013: Ghost Dragon Attacks Castle and Constellation Prize.  We have always been “road dogs”, touring our butts off – to the point of wearing out five vans and three trailers.

2.When you first started the band, how did you get the word out about shows?

When we first started the band, promotion involved a lot of flyers stapled to telephone poles and mailing out physical postcards to our fans.  We used to sort our mailings by zip code in an effort to get a bulk mail discount at the Post Office.  In short, it was incredibly time consuming and a pain in the ass.

3.In the early days, how did you make records? How did you distribute and sell them?

Our first recording was a 4-song demo cassette recorded at a friend of a friend’s home studio.  That was the dawn of relatively in expensive digital recording.  He had and 8-track studio consisting of a Tascam DA-88 and a Mackie board… pretty revolutionary for the time.  Duplication was accomplished at our apartment with a stack of 5 daisy-chained cassette decks.  It was an art to push play on one deck while simultaneously pushing record on 4 other decks!  We gave away cassettes by the bag full at shows, generally throwing them into the audience from stage.

 

Shortly thereafter, I got an entry-level job in a “real” recording studio in Richmond (In Your Ear).  I was allowed to record at night to figure out how things worked and to try to learn the art of production.  All of the engineers there pitched in a great deal and helped me immeasurably when, in 1995, we started what was intended to be a full-length cassette.  It turned out that CDs were cheaper than cassettes at that point, so the project really became our first CD – Meander.

 

As a bit of a recording footnote, we were using one of the first professional hard disc recording systems, The New England Digital Post Pro.  It was 16 tracks on four separate hard drives in an enclosure the size of a refrigerator… it cost $250,000 and weighed 600 pounds.  Seriously.

 

The CDs we sold at shows and on consignment at local record stores.  Almost all of those stores have since closed 🙁 and the biggest one has filed for bankruptcy.  They still owe us a little money, so we receive copies of all the legal proceedings… it’s pretty sad.

 

A few years / albums later, we signed on with a large independent distributor and they were able to get or CDs into a lot of store throughout the country.  Some time goes by and it seemed like we should be getting more money from them, so we hired an accountant to audit them.  It turns out they owed us $80,000.  Awesome.  Needless to say, we are no longer with them.

 

 

4.How effective were these early promotion tools? (i.e., how much return did you see on the time/money you spent on these tools?)

Our flyer and postcard promotions were kind of successful… gradually more and more people started coming to shows.  We relied a lot on word of mouth.

 

5.How has the internet changed the way you promote the band? Make records?

Our main goal these days is to communicate directly to our fans through our website (www.carbonleaf.com), Facebook (www.facebook.com/carbonleaf) , Twitter (www.twitter.com/carbonleaf), YouTube (www.youtube.com/carbonleafofficial), SoundCloud, Instagram, etc.

 

We also us a service called Topsin for organizing our email database… allowing us not only to send monthly newsletters to the whole list, but it also gives us the ability to GeoTarget specific areas that we are playing.  That way we can email just our Texas fans about our Texas shows and not have to spam everybody.

 

Through Topspin we can also sell downloads of all of our albums, give away free downloads and sell “official bootlegs” of all of our live shows.

 

A few years ago, we built a pretty decent ProTools based studio at my house and have done almost all of the production there for the last 5 projects. We trade files with people via the Internet using Hightail and Dropbox.

 

6.What role does social networking play in the band’s activities these days?

It’s huge. We try to stay connected everyday to let people know what we have going on and it allows us to easily communicate directly with the fans.  It’s fun and helpful to able to see what our fan like and dislike in almost real time.

 

7.Do you run your own social networking accounts or does someone else run it?

We run them ourselves.

 

8.Do you use technology (of any kind) to “test” your material? (i.e., to see if people like it, will buy it, etc)

Not really.  In an ideal world, we like to play new songs live first, before we record them.  That’s the best way to see if something’s working or not.

9.What’s been the single most transformative technological change, when it comes to keeping Carbon Leaf going, since you started playing together?

Computers.  Not only can we make a really good album on a laptop now, but we can also distribute it to the world, promote it and connect directly to our fans from that same laptop.

 

10.What do you hope to see in the near future for music technology?

Unfortunately, all of this technology doesn’t make the 24-hour van drive from San Diego to Austin any quicker. 🙂

 

I’m not sure what is coming next, but I’m sure that it will be smaller, faster, and cheaper and will hopefully further reduce the barriers between our audience and us.