A Historical Snapshot of One-Man Bands - Specialization Week


By Alexandra Bellink

Photo courtesy of Russell Bernice.

Within the past decade, the one-man band has become a popular trend in the music industry, but that is not to say that it has not been around for decades. Over the years, the ways in which artists create music has changed greatly because of technology. In the face of progress, these ultimate Do-It-Yourselfers are not only baring the responsibility of their full musical output but often in their business affairs as well. As a result, many artists have taken similar approaches to making and releasing their music in the 21st century.

Take Jesse “The Lone Cat” Fuller a talented and fiercely independent folk musician born in 1896, whose influence extends through 60s counterculture. Fuller was exposed to music at a young age and felt passionate about it enough to make it into a profession. He had difficulties finding people as dedicated to music as him, so he simply played multiple instruments on his own in bars and small clubs in San Francisco. Fuller even designed and built a few of his own instruments including a fotdella, a large, six string bass he played with his feet using levers and pedals, as well as a bow he could oscilate with his mouth using wax and string.

Fuller was not the only man of the early 1900s to play music on his own and build his own instruments. Oklahoma born, Joe Barrick was also uninterested in depending on other musicians to play music for him. At the young age of fifteen, he taught himself the mandolin, fiddle, and guitar. In order to find a way to play two instruments at once, he created a similar instrument to Fuller’s, calling it the piatar, using an old board, guitar neck with pedals. In their time, Barrick and Fuller did not have to deal with the exhausting task of finding a record label to release their music with. Artists of the 21st Century often have many issues finding the right label to help them expand their growth that respects their music and will allow them to have full creative control.

A classic modern example of the one-man band and perhaps the only artist of his ilk who can claim to be nearly as famous as his band (or brand) name these days is Trent Reznor, as he is the sole founder of Nine Inch Nails, and in the studio every needed member. Unsurprisingly, Reznor is a classically trained pianist who grew up in a small town in Central Pennsylvania and took refuge in writing music during his college years. After college, he moved to Cleveland and worked a low paying job at a music store and continued to work on his music.

Not only did he release four albums under the name Nine Inch Nails with Interscope Records, but he has composed music for films and produced other artist’s albums. In 2007, he made a departure from the major label and started releasing his music independently. In 2008, completely independently, he released The Slip as a digital download free of charge. Ironically enough, after going independent for several years he has made the decision to be release future music on a major label again due to the amount of marketing that a major label can offer for live performances and albums.

Travelling farther down the path that Reznor and others have paved, are all-in-one pop artists with smaller, yet devoted and more youth-oriented markets. For instance, take Bryce Avary who plays under the name The Rocket Summer. He started off playing in a few bands in high school but soon decided to go solo. Playing acoustic guitar alone was not enough for him so he went on to record his first EP, playing all of the instruments on his own. Right before he released the EP, his friends suggested the name The Rocket Summer from a chapter in a Ray Bradbury novel.

After two albums on an independent label and two on a major label contract, he released his fifth album in June 2012, Life Will Write the Words, independently on his own label, Aviate Records. With no record label helping him with distribution or marketing, social media became a resource. Just as any upcoming, DIY artist would do, Avary marketed his music via his Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. The week of the album release, one contest asked fans to post photos of themselves with the album in order for a chance to win a special prize package.

In the footsteps of The Rocket Summer is Secondhand Serenade, solely compromised of John Vesely. His band name derives from the feeling that he is serenading both his fans and his (now ex-)wife secondhand. After recording a few songs at a studio in San Francisco, he released them on his Myspace to stream for free. Within a short period of time of releasing his tracks digitally on his own, he received 27 million listens on Myspace as well as an offer from Daniel Glass, a well-known figure in the music industry looking to start up an independent label and sign him.

Now known as Glassnote Records, the label features artists such as Mumford & Sons, Two Door Cinema Club, and The Temper Trap. In 2012, Vesely departed from Glassnote Records to pursue his next album, an acoustic rendition of his 2008 album, A Twist In My Story, on his own.

In order to do this he started a Pledgemusic, a website similar to Kickstarter, in which fans could pledge to artists anywhere from $10 to $20,000. On May 21,2012 he announced that he successfully funded the project and made enough to record the album, but would need more to put the album out including distribution and marketing. In September, with the continued help of fans,  A Naked Twist In My Story, was finally released.

No matter if you are a well known, established artist such as Trent Reznor, or a college student recording in your dorm room, with technology today anybody can gain popularity without a label and full marketing team. Nowadays, music can be made in a much more timely manner and with programs such as ProTools, Logic and Garage Band, it is not even necessary to have a full band to record your music. It does not seem unlikely that more and more one-man bands will appear in the next few years as technology develops.