America at work
A Man, A Plan, A Mobile Studio: Producing Music in Detroit Wherever, Whenever
Free Enterprise Staff | July 17, 2014

Brian Wilson and his seemingly endless studio sessions recording Pet Sounds; Fleetwood Mac building a replica of Lindsay Buckingham’s bathroom in their L.A. studio to get the perfect reverb on Tusk; George Harrison playing long into the night with George Martin trying to learn the guitar solo for “I’m Only Sleeping” backwards, so they could reverse the tape and create a dreamlike guitar effect—pop music’s mythological auteurs famously innovated at the expense of their own sanity and their record label’s largesse.

However, with the music industry in, let’s just call it, “transition,” recording budgets are shrinking. It’s hard for small bands to even recoup the few hundred dollars they can scrape together to record an album at a local studio.

Desperate for money to tour on, Ann Arbor-based band Vulfpeck gamed Spotify by releasing a totally silent album called “Sleepify” last month. With tracks titled “Zz” and “Zzz,” the album’s short tracks (:30 at the minimum) were played by fans as they slept, helping the band raise $20,000. That Vulfpeck was able to raise that kind of cash is impressive, as bands only make 0.007 cents per stream on Spotify. For anybody keeping count, it takes143 streams to make a single dollar. Good luck if you don’t have a following. Which is something you build while touring. Which is something you need money from record sales to support.

The cycle is a vicious one.

While the industry continues to adapt to how people consume music on the internet and how to fairly compensate artists, Anthony Goodwin, founder of AFG Audio in Detroit, is attempting to bring a little relief to bands in and around the city by providing professional grade audio recording and production at affordable rates.—something he’s able to do with a mobile studio. “I bring the equipment and the band provides the space,” Goodwin explains over coffee. “I’ve recorded people in basements, their offices after hours, their grandparent’s garage, a live set in a bathroom.”

Home recording is nothing new. Bands have been attempting to record themselves since the 1960s, and DIY is as much a necessity as it is a sought after aesthetic for some musicians. What sets Goodwin apart from home recording aficionados is more than tracking, editing and mixing; his skill is leveraging the hidden advantages contained within any given space. “There’s a reason everything on the radio sounds the same,” he says. “I went to school in Nashville and I’ve been in the studios almost all mainstream country music is recorded in. It’s the same engineers and producers, and the same sound-treated rooms. There’s no personality. Those places are like music mills.”

Finding “hidden advantages” is sort of what the Motor City is all about these days. So you might read about 84,000 blighted buildings and vacant lots in Detroit, while Anthony wonders, “What would it sound like to record drums in there?” It isn’t always glamorous work. To get a more authentic sounding reverb on some vocals for a band Anthony is currently recording, he lined a closet with Kleenex boxes from floor to ceiling. “I must have tried about a half dozen different configurations. But it sounds sweet,” Anthony says with a satisfied grin.

Independent arts projects and urban farming initiatives on abandoned inner-city plots have generated a lot media interest in recent years, leaving some locals understandably skeptical about how much of a salvage operation can be implemented by enthusiastic hipsters when the city needs total financial resuscitation. So recording music in an abandoned auto plant might just sound like another fun stunt that could be taken as exploitative. Yet Anthony, and the other young creative entrepreneurs who have moved to Detroit in the last ten years, are a statistical anomaly that should please anyone in a city that’s leaking population and brainpower.—especially when those same people are finding innovative solutions to cost prohibitive problems such as recording fees, access to better food, or inefficient city recycling.

“I’m a business owner,” Anthony explains. “Yeah, it’s just me and some freelance people now, but I want to build something in Detroit. It’s colorful city. Its music should be, too.”