Return of the Artisan?

The digital revolution in music has always faced outspoken critics. Some have complained about harsh digital sound. Many lament illegal downloads. These days, musicians protest paltry revenue from streaming sites like Pandora.
10/26/2014 11:39 am ET Updated Dec 26, 2014

The digital revolution in music has always faced outspoken critics. Some have complained about harsh digital sound. Many lament illegal downloads. These days, musicians protest paltry revenue from streaming sites like Pandora.

Fortunately for dedicated listeners, some of these critics are also famous artists who seek to deliver a more engaging experience. Count Steven Wilson among them. Yes, we live in an age of overwhelming quantity, but sound quality often suffers. Examples include HBO's new mini-series Sonic Highways. It follows Foo Fighters as they make a new album in America's most revered recording studios. The "Ultra LP" version of Jack White's new album Lazaretto rethinks the way that music is pressed on vinyl.

You may have heard of these folks, but what about lesser-known artists? I'm talking about those who can't afford camera crews, large studios, and vinyl pressings? Is there a way for them to provide their audience with the same experience?

John Roccesano, known to friends as Johnny Rock, is a 32-year-old drummer and project studio owner in northern New Jersey. His new album, Johnny Rock & Friends: For The Record, takes an ensemble cast of unsigned talent and gets them into the grooves of a full-length LP. Roccesano recorded and mixed the album over two years on analog tape, and the entire process is documented in a series of in-depth YouTube videos.

I sat down with him recently to talk about the process.

PS: When and why did you launch For The Record?

JR: In 2012 I was getting really into playing vinyl records and researching everything I could about them. I've been on Steve Hoffman's Music Forum for years, which gave me a fantastic primer on vinyl, and also influenced me to buy different versions of the same albums for comparison. My friend and now co-producer Jonathan Bross and I would compare analog and digital recordings at his studio with critical ears (analog always sounded better). That's the kind of audience I had in mind when we started - people who care just as much about sound quality as they care about the music.

I learned that an all-analog album is actually very rare to produce. Very few mastering studios in the world today can cut a lacquer without first converting the source tape to digital. My friends are fantastic local musicians, and I knew most had never been recorded on 2-inch tape, let alone had their music pressed on vinyl. So I conceived a new album that could provide the analog experience to my friends, and together we could all make it onto a vinyl record.

What are you doing to drum up interest?

JR: We've just launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the manufacturing process and take pre-orders. More than that, last year I launched a YouTube channel that gives viewers an immersive experience. My two main features have been Artist Spotlights, where I interview most of our main cast about their musical journeys and how we all connect. Then there are videos which explore each song's conception and all the stages it went through in the studio. I've recorded over 60 hours of footage, so these videos will continue even after the record arrives in 2015.

PS: Unlike most compilation albums, yours is not a promotional record. It's an artistic one. Do you think it can find an audience without an accompanying live act?

JR: Well it's really not a "compilation" album, it's actually a "collaboration" album. The submissions were admittedly unrelated, but they were then arranged, recorded, and sequenced to be cohesive. As for a live adaptation, a live public concert is entirely feasible with a small group of us. But it would certainly be limited, and that's why I'm making such an expansive online universe that includes all of us. I think as long as we can keep our respective fan bases engaged and as long as they like the music, we can reach more people. By the way, we are offering private concerts in one of our Kickstarter rewards.

PS: What were the challenges you faced with analog recording?

The artists had to be present in a recording studio, lest a tape machine end up in their home. The limitations of the medium force you to think differently as well. There's a song on the record I co-wrote with my cousin Meagan, who lives over a thousand miles away in south Florida. I booked a recording studio there in March and flew down, but when my plane landed I had a voicemail from the studio saying their tape machine was broken. Everywhere else I looked didn't get back to me in time or was too expensive. But rather than cop-out and use a digital rig, we just scheduled another trip. So I went back in August with a cassette machine and we recorded in her dad's living room. People told me I was crazy for not doing that digitally, or that doing it on cassette was senseless. But I didn't care - I wanted a live performance caught on tape, and we did it.

PS: Do you think that digital recording and distribution is a blessing or a curse?

JR: Digital recording (on computers, not digital tape) is absolutely a blessing. It's much more versatile, practical, affordable, and portable. I find it lacking that extra bigness that tape adds, but it's still really good. Some people misuse or overuse the options available in digital recording, but others make it sound beautiful, so I'll take the bad with the good. Digital delivery on the other hand is awfully paradoxical. It seems miraculous to have so much content just a click away, but the quality is usually bad, if not terrible. We have immediate access to a worldwide audience, but get lost in a bombardment of information.

I co-wrote a song on the record called "Window To The World" about the paradox of technological advancements. I half-sarcastically sing "We can buy and sell the tangible things / We can buy and sell our dreams / Or we can steal it all with style and with ease / We're really ghosts in the machine." We've come a ways since the days of Napster, but the bottom line is most music ends up somewhere for free now; it's a given. And now that everything's free, nothing seems special.

PS: And yet vinyl record sales have increased every year since 2007. Why do you suppose that is?

I'd like to think it's because people had the same experience I did. I had some records laying around for years and I finally decided to get a turntable and play them. The experience was really great, and so I bought more records, old and new. Records sonically and visually have an allure about them, as does analog recording. The sales increases don't surprise me.

PS: What's been the greatest thrill of this experience?

It hasn't happened yet I'm sure. The greatest thrill will be watching a record spin on my turntable that my friends and I made. Now was the right time to do it, because it is prohibitively expensive for most working class musicians. And this technology won't be here forever; the machines in use are almost all from the 20th century. I call this project "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," because at the rate the old studios and true craftsmen are closing shop, it is.