In the Garage

This week, instead of reviewing indie CDs, I’m rooting around in indie heaven (or indie hell, depending on your perspective):, a true Internet survivor.

Since 1999 the site, which counts George Martin, Jerry Harrison, Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite as members of its (strangely, all-male) Advisory Board of 39 industry heavy hitters, has provided an intriguing form of peer review for over 150,000 bands and musicians. And now, musicians can get garageband on pc download to help them make musical projects from scratch.

The idea is simple: each indie artist who wants to get a song onto the site has to first listen to and review in writing one song from each of 30 other artists. Reviewers are expected to write something thoughtful and preferably specific about what they liked or didn’t like about the songs, which are presented anonymously in same-genre pairs, and indicate which of the pair they preferred, whether it’s a type of music they typically listen to, whether they’d be likely to buy it, and so on. The general public is welcome to register and participate in the reviewing process for their own edification as well.

It sounds a little cumbersome, but if you approach it in a spirit of adventure and helpfulness and you possess even an average facility with words it’s fairly painless. It’s probably a little like speed-dating, actually: you simply can’t spend a lot of time on any one song, or it’ll take up your whole day. Extra-busy (or language-impaired) bands can, incidentally, bypass the initiation by coughing up some cash to get their song straight into the review pool. But that’s taking the fun out of it, if you ask me.

Once you’ve reviewed a song, the site tells you the name of the band and lets you add the song to your playlist if you like it. Meanwhile, an actual human being at Garageband gives each review a quality rating. Higher ratings entitle you to extra benefits.

I’ve been mucking around in the slush pile for a few days and am well on my way to earning the right to put one of my own songs into the pool. The reviewing process is both encouraging and discouraging. Most of the music is terrible, which is encouraging, since it leads you to think, rightly or wrongly, that your own music is much better than most of what you’re hearing. It’s discouraging, though, to realize how many thousands and thousands of hopefuls are out there competing with you, and how even if only one percent of the artists were really good, that’s far, far more than there’s room for at the top of the heap.

Why is it worth it to artists to participate? If you believe the website’s hype, many have gone on to bigger and better things, some signing to major labels. (cf. American Idol‘s Bo Bice). What makes this hype, even though Garageband is unlikely to be literally lying, is that savvy, industrious indie bands aren’t going to sign up on a single free website. They’ll be all over the Internet, promoting here, competing there, looking for every possible connection and medium of exposure. Rather, Garageband stands out for other reasons: its peer-review pool concept, its longevity, and its fine user interface. (The site itself works quite well. Years of development have not been wasted.)

On the minus side: the tinny, low-fi sound quality makes it tough to evaluate some aspects of the music. You have to pretend you’re listening to a transistor radio that’s under a blanket. Then you’re OK. But get some more hard drive space, Garageband. Everyone’s doing it: Google, Yahoo, you name it. Get some space so you can host higher-quality files.

Now, about that all-male advisory board…