I’M WITH THE BAND
New technology lets musicians of all abilities collaborate across continents — and get paid if they create a hit, writes David Sinclair
SO, I’ve just written and recorded a song with Stewart Copeland, drummer with the Police, and now he’s talking to me on the phone from Los Angeles. “Have we got a hit?” he asks. “How do we divvy up the Grammys?” Although Copeland and I have collaborated to create a song called Friday Call, and made a video of us performing it together, we haven’t actually done so in the same room, or even on the same continent. We have done it through the modern-day magic of a new app called WholeWorldBand.
WholeWorldBand is a platform that enables musicians to record and interact with each other in a virtual world that circumvents all physical and geographical barriers. It also creates a level playing field on which big-name professionals such as Ronnie Wood, Brian Eno, Dave Stewart, Passenger, Gemma Hayes and Ethan Johns perform on an equal footing with fledgling acts and unknown amateurs.
The app is still in beta (test) mode, and for the time being can only be accessed with an iPad. But already it is attracting singers, songwriters and musicians of all stripes and abilities like moths to a flame. Anyone can join in, and with such comparative ease that, given a fair wind, it could trigger a revolution in the way music is created and consumed.
So how does it work? The musician sets up an iPad and videos themselves playing or singing. It could be a finished song performed with a guitar accompaniment; an unfinished melody sung a cappella; a chord sequence; a drum track; a keyboard line; even the sketchiest of guitar parts. This is called a “seed track”. The artist posts it on the WWB platform, invites other musicians to add to it, then waits.
Meanwhile, you can add your contribution to other people’s seed tracks, as I did, adding my own vocal melody, lyrics and guitar chords to Copeland’s drum track. Once this has been done, the various contributions can be com- bined (mixed) into “mosaics”, so a song — or maybe even several completely different songs — gradually emerges.
WholeWorldBand is the brainchild of Kevin Godley, the acclaimed video director, songwriter and mainstay of 10cc. The genesis of the idea goes back to a commission he received in 1990 to make a BBC2 television program to illustrate the notion that music is a “global language”. Godley came up with an idea called One World One Voice, which was essentially a musical chain letter. He started recording a piece of music with a film crew, then travelled around the world, picking up other musicians and adding their contributions to the track in every place they stopped.
“The finished result was exciting,” Godley recalls, “but the idea irritated me to a certain extent, in that the music was set in stone. It was finished. And there was something about the process that felt as if it should be able to continue. Music shouldn’t always be a finite experience. It should be something people can tap into and add to and subtract from and change at will. But that was science fiction at that time.”
In 2008, Godley realised technology was rapidly catching up with his idea of a continu-
ous musical chain letter. He filmed himself with a digital camera and sent the footage to a friend in America, who tried to add some guitar chords. It wouldn’t sync up. With subsequent attempts and refinements, however, using technology that is now commonplace, the idea has finally become viable. “My revisited dream has become a reality,” Godley says, as if he doesn’t quite believe it’s happened himself.
He assembled a small team of technical and music experts based in Dublin, and secured financial backing from industry heavyweights including Paul McGuinness and Trevor Bowen, of Principle Management (which has looked after U2 for more than 30 years), Cyril McGuire and others. Godley decided that all interactions on the platform should be monetised. “Record — Mix — Earn” is its slogan: an ethos that goes against the prevailing trend for online activity involving recorded music to be a cost and earnings-free zone.
The sums involved at this stage are nominal. The app is currently free to download. To put up your own seed track costs €0.18 (about 30c). To make a contribution to somebody else’s track — as I did to Copeland’s — costs up to a few dollars. Apple takes 30 per cent of the session fee and WWB takes up to 25 per cent, leaving net earnings of about 45 per cent to be shared between the seed-track artist and musicians whose contributions have been used in the various mixes (mosaics).
Should an artist wish to record and release a WholeWorldBand song in the real world, separate to the platform, there are buyout clauses and copyright agreements designed to provide an equitable division of earnings, royalties and session fees in most ensuing scenario one can think of — short of divvying up the Grammys.
The notion of a pay-to-participate structure has drawn criticism from some commentators, who would prefer any musical service provided online to be free at the point of delivery as a matter of principle.
The process is at such an early stage in its development, and so revolutionary in its scope, it is difficult to predict how it might ultimately be of most general use. Clearly, DIY artists can use it to record and promote themselves. But if it were to spread far and wide enough, Godley’s idea that recorded songs should live on and change and evolve over time, instead of being a “finished product”, could conceivably become commonplace. Fans could create their own preferred versions of their favourite act’s songs. The visual dimension would enable filmmakers or advertisers to put up clips with dialogue or other footage and invite contributions for a soundtrack. Bands or producers wanting to audition musicians could use it to narrow down their search far more quickly and efficiently than requiring applicants to travel to a particular location. Songwriting partnerships and recording sessions could evolve across countries and time zones. Artist and repertoire departments could trawl the platform in search of potential hits before they had even been written.
Copeland is exited by what he calls the democratising potential of WWB. “This application brings music closer to the people,” he says. “I think that’s a good thing, for music and for the enjoyment of music. It’s reviving the power of campfire music — that moment when musicians of different abilities join in, rather than sit passively and watch somebody else doing all the work. It’s a drag for the professional musician, because you open the floodgates and everybody can do it. But now everybody’s got a chance to share that cool idea.”
Ronnie Wood, below, is one of several big-name musicians to have collaborated on the WholeWorldBand