Sunday, September 2, 2012

What Songs Look Like: Binoculars

Last week, I discussed plagiarism, and touched upon the increasingly complicated issues that confront the music industry in the Internet age. The fact that so many contributors to this fine blog have lost their file hosting ability is a result of the tension that exists between copyright and fair use, between the desire of bloggers to expose readers to good music and the right of artists and labels to control distribution of that music. My guess is that most of the musicians whose songs get posted here would not care, if they even knew, and some would probably be happy for the promotion, but there is no way for me to conveniently ask. So, instead of there being some reasonable standard that allows bloggers and critics to post songs, say, for a limited time, or at a low bit rate, we simply post and wait to see whether we get shut down.
When I briefly worked at a record label in the 1980’s, the concern was cassette taping, but that was a hiccup compared to the devastating effect of the web, and Napster and similar services, that have seriously changed the way that music is distributed. You can pretty much find a free download of any song you want, if you look hard enough, and I understand that for most acts, the money comes from performing and merchandise, not the actual music itself. Although the days of small bands getting major label contracts seem long over, it is now possible for a musician to get his or her songs out to the public without a record label at all.
My subject this week is an example of this DIY approach. Julia Nunes is a talented singer/songwriter who became “YouTube famous” by making videos of herself singing, initially covers and then original songs, usually playing the ukelele. The quality of her music and the wit and charm of her videos, set her apart from most independent artists uploading to YouTube, and as a result, her following became pretty incredible.
Remarkably, Nunes’ popularity began while she was a student at Skidmore College. This video, for the song “Binoculars,” about a stalker, puts a spin on Nunes’ path to fame—she asked her fans to send in video of them singing her song, and she edited the footage and added more of herself, in her dorm room, as well as clips of her friends dancing in her room. My son, who seems to get into this blog every other week, was a year behind Nunes at Skidmore, and they met and became friendly. He got himself invited to the shoot through a mutual friend, and he is the tall skinny guy, wearing a blue t-shirt and black Mets cap, in the group dance scenes. (And not to leave my daughter, a talented singer in her own right, out of this post, I’m pretty sure that she started playing the ukelele at least in part because of Nunes).
Nunes’ Internet fame has made it possible for her to release a number of albums, all on her own label, open for major acts, including Ben Folds and Ben Kweller, play at Bonnaroo, and perform on Conan, as well as maintain an active touring schedule. She also continues to upload her charming videos to YouTube and recently recorded a cover of fun.’s “Some Nights” with the band Walk off the Earth. She is a great example of how musicians can succeed in the current market without the backing of a major—or even indie—label with persistence, ingenuity and talent.

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