FOR the longest time, bedroom musicians have been able to record studio-quality albums with a basic computer and cheap software. The real problem, though, was actually getting people to listen to them.
These days, sending out demo tapes to record companies or hoping to be talent scouted is a thing of the past. Aspiring musicians now have more direct connections to listeners worldwide as a growing number of avenues open up to offer high-quality local music online and new tools for reaching fans.
Local company OraStream, for one, today launches its services in more than 150 countries. It's the world's first audiophile-quality digital music locker-cum-streaming service- cum-indie music store.
French music subscription company Deezer is also available in more than 150 countries, and on Dec 20, it launched its Deezer 4 Artists (D4A) tools to help artists customise the way they interact with Deezer subscribers. Deezer is already working closely with local artists Aliff Aziz and Monster Cat to create new Artist Pages that should go live next month.
OraStream (www.orastream.com) allows people to store their music on special servers that then stream those music files at full quality to computers, phones and tablets. It's similar in concept to services such as Google Music, Amazon Cloud Player and Apple iTunes Match, but while those competitors are limited to MP3-type music quality, OraStream offers music files that exceed CD quality.
The basic service is free but only up to one GB of music. OraStream charges US$45 every three months for 50GB, and more for those with bulkier music libraries. It also has a store and app development service.
Artists can release music for free on OraStream, but they can also make albums available for purchase directly from OraStream's store. And for a flat one-time fee of US$40, OraStream will develop a specialised app for an artist that's exclusively focused on his or her music, and downloadable from Apple's iTunes App Store or Google Play.
An artist as distinguished as jazz keyboardist Jeremy Monteiro is on OraStream. The Cultural Medallion winner's participation is a big vote of confidence in the service.
"The music market is quite difficult, even for live music and especially so for recorded music," said Mr Monteiro. "Since my record label started in 1986, I've spent nearly $350,000 on recording and releasing albums, and while I've managed to break even, I haven't made any money from it," he adds.
"So, being able to sell digital downloads in high-quality lossless music formats could be a good way to record albums and distribute them without having to bear the heavy cost of pressing CDs. That's one of the reasons I'm very keen on supporting OraStream's efforts. And of course the fact that they are a local company that puts so much effort, time and money into their service makes me doubly happy to support them."
Mr Monteiro says that even if music released on OraStream doesn't end up selling well, recorded music is a powerful calling card to promote his music and that of the artists he manages to potential clients.
Award-winning fusion jazz composer Tze (Toh Tze Chin) was also an early OraStream adopter, and describes OraStream as a way of giving power back to musicians.
"Now we finally have a way to release music at the exact studio quality at which we record it," he says.
"To finish an album in the studio and then hear it after it's been reduced to CD quality - or worse in the case of MP3 stores or streaming services - is difficult," he adds.
"I do hope OraStream grows, but it's also easier for me to stand out in a new store than in a large established one like iTunes, which I'm also on," says Tze, who's busy preparing for his next The Looking Glass Orchestra concert on Feb 28 at the Esplanade Recital Studio.
OraStream itself is a Singaporean dream whose time has finally come. The five-person team has its roots in a project christened with the unwieldy name of MP4SLS within local research organisation A*Star, but back in the mid-2000s, the rest of the pieces hadn't fallen in place and the technology languished as an impressive curiosity with no application.
It took the advent of mobile phone apps and the ability to build its technology directly into app software, rather than relying on inflexible hardware, for OraStream's day to finally come. Two years ago, the pieces fell in place. Last year saw a flurry of testing. And now OraStream's launched in time to take advantage of new 4G mobile broadband networks.
"We're hoping that musicians here will see the benefits of our service and the way it preserves their artistry and the quality of their recordings," said OraStream's Frankie Tan.
Closer to the mainstream music scene is Deezer, which boasts a catalogue of some 20 million tracks, including the latest hits from all three major labels, but is going out of its way to woo local artists with its new D4A tools.
"Local content is something that's very important to us and we realise that curated local recommendations could be a key factor in differentiating ourselves from the competition," says Deezer's Clement Gosse. Mr Gosse's official title is business development manager, but he effectively runs Deezer's operations in the region.
"We've been talking with local artists and local labels to see how we can work together to use Deezer's platform to get their music out to a wider audience."
Deezer charges $4.99 a month to stream music to computers, and $9.99 to also stream to phones and tablets and to download music to them. It also has a Discovery option that lets users try the service free of charge, but at a reduced sound quality of 128kbps MP3 instead of the usual 320kbps.
Local band Monster Cat is happy to be one of the first artists to try the D4A tools before it's made generally available later in the year.
"The Deezer 4 Artist tools are easy to use and while it's great to be able to customise the design of our Artist Page on Deezer, what's really useful is the ability to upload exclusive content," says the band's frontman, who prefers to only go by his stage name, Hentai Cat.
For example, the band's current project is its Underwater Remix album, which involves a new free remix of its song Underwater by various producers and DJs being released every week, and the fifth and final remix is scheduled to be out on Tuesday. That's precisely the sort of exclusive content that would be perfect for Monster Cat's Deezer artist page once it's ready, say Hentai Cat.
OraStream and D4A may be the two newest digital tools to give musicians here an edge, but they are only the latest in a steadily growing arsenal at the industry's disposal.
Apple launched its iTunes music store here last June, making many local artists' albums finally available on home ground.
Singaporean artists ranging from Hanjin Tan to duo Jack and Rai have been selling their albums through iTunes for years, so to have Singapore join the list of countries on the de facto standard in online a la carte stores is a small sign of maturity for the industry here.
SingTel also embarked on a drive last May to include most of the local artists on its SingTel-exclusive AMPed subscription service by the end of 2012. With more than 40 local musicians currently on the service, a SingTel spokesman says that the telco's met its goal.
"We aim to promote greater awareness of Singapore artists at home and abroad, and raise the profile of the local music industry, which has long been overlooked by international music services," says Cheong Hai Thoo, SingTel's head of Funl!fe, in a press release. "We hope to uncover hidden gems and provide local fledgling artists with some monetary returns for their music," he adds.
Willy Tan, a representative of the executive committee of the Singapore Music Society and head of local label Aging Youth, says in the same press release that "it's amazing that Singapore's largest telco has rallied behind and placed its weight behind the fledging music industry".
Aging Youth-signed local rapper ShiGGa Shay, who is on AMPed 2.0, said in an interview last year that "digital is definitely the way to go, with services like AMPed making it that much easier for people to find my music, which is a good thing for sure".
What the local musicians now have is an array of both local and international music tools to leverage on. At home, there's a niche player like OraStream that offers quality over quantity, and a mainstream option such as SingTel AMPed 2.0 that offers quantity and bundled telco billing. Then there are the international giants such as Apple and Deezer who offer the reach of an international service with large catalogues. Together, these tools represent an unprecedented levelling of the playing field in terms of opportunities for regional and global exposure. Getting recorded music widely distributed may not be a profitable business model in and of itself any more, but as Mr Monteiro notes, when taken as a whole along with live gigs, it still makes sense.
But more important for local talent, it means no longer being restricted to the confines of the Singapore market. Today their bedroom, tomorrow the international music charts.