Why I Built alonetone
Why I built alonetone
alonetone rose out of the core understanding that it costs nothing to immediately share music online.
In the early 2000s, I built music uploading into a forum that a small group of friends and I used. The goal was to encourage all of us to share what we were working on, in a low-friction and casual way. It worked fantastically, but eventually technology and needs changed.
To succeed the forum, I wanted a music-focused site where artists could check in on what their friends are up to, get notified when friends upload new music, comment on each other’s stuff, etc. Ever the optimistic programmer, I figured with some work, a server, and paying for trivial amounts of bandwidth costs, it was possible to open this up to others online.
When alonetone launched in 2008, it clicked. A community of musicians uploading and listening to each other was formed.
alonetone turns out to be social
One of my biggest surprises post-launch was how important the social components of alonetone were. Alonetone was conceived as a way to share, get listened to, and keep up with my artist friends. But with enough activity, people started to spend serious amounts of time on the site, socializing and keeping up with what the rest of the community was up to.
Despite the comments on tracks being one-way and simple (I intended that all convo would be around pieces of music), people had elaborate conversations and all types of social interactions.
It evolved beyond what I imagined, or even was setup to handle.
Sharing The Demo
Back to the music: It’s common for musicians to work on things and immediately have the impulse to share their cool thing in progress. It’s motivating to sketch out ideas and quickly iterate on them, knowing you will share them with others later that night.
Sometimes songs take months or years, but often they start with a core idea that comes together in mere minutes. Even with 100s of hours invested on that same song, the rough and raw demo has a very special quality about it, it captures a creative moment in time.
When that demo is bounced, we never actually know what the future looks like. Maybe this song will be something we’ll spend years polishing, making some super-produced version of it. Maybe this version is all there will ever be. Maybe it’ll sit and we’ll come back to it in years.
Often the want is the same for each song — we want it to be great — therefore the intention is almost always to put in more work. There’s simultaneous excitement about its potential as well as an infatuation with how it sounds now.
After a series of tantrums and customer shaming in the 2000s, the music industry slowly caught up with the internet existing — but it’s still a business based around official releases: Albums, EPs, Singles and more Singles. Some artists share tidbits of works in progress on social media, but there’s not much in the middle of the spectrum.
The fact that “official” releases even exist is only an artifact of history. Bands booked time in studio, recorded their music, had a label to shoulder costs, and released a physical product. That is all extremely high cost and involves dozens of people over months of time. Today, releases are still what “serious” musicians “should” make: A final product, mixed, mastered, perfected and signed off on.
Personally, my favorite things to listen to are often the things my musician friends threw together as a joke or experiment. I also know extremely talented music makers who have never officially released things and do not have any interest in the nebulous amount of effort it takes to get that done. This doesn’t make them less serious, if anything, they are simply attracted to exploration and experimentation more than selling a product. I don’t blame them, it’s inherently high effort and can often be low reward.
Thankfully other services launched over the last decade have reduced “release friction.” Bandcamp lets you DIY and start selling immediately. Distrokid lets you distribute to all official stores efficiently. You can be on YouTube instantly, Spotify in hours.
“Official” releases still have their place, but there’s no way around the fact that it adds weeks or months of latency between “I made this” and “This is ready to listen to.” Musicians also have to psychologically transition from “I just made this, should I work on it more?” to “This is the best it’s going to get, it’s ready for the world” This makes us pause and depending on who you are, it can be a lengthly psychological transition.
Does it Matter?
Suspending romantic historical context for a few moments, it suddenly feels counter productive to draw a strong dark line between official releases and “things I’m working on.”
Do more polished works have inherently higher value over quick sketches?
Are we discouraging creativity in general by placing so much emphasis on a final marketable product?
One answer is to look to our current tools. Distrokid lets you get on commercial services within hours. Logic and Ableton both let you export to Soundcloud. Final Cut lets you upload directly to Youtube.
The technology is there to instantly publicly deliver.
Be official if you want
Alonetone originally aimed to frame “demos” or individual uploaded tracks as equally important to an album or official releases. Some folks want to upload in progress work only, a scratchpad. Others want to upload only completed work, a portfolio. Others, like myself, want both.
Is there a benefit to segregating formal releases from demos? Are there two different needs, one to share “this is what i’m working on” and another to say “here is what represents me, my final product”?
It differs artist to artist. Personally, I want to present my Releases (with a capital R) without too much social context. The last thing I want is to share an album with someone I care about and have them be distracted by some argument in the comments or have trouble figuring out which tracks are mine vs. “promoted”.
One thing feels clear: Releases should stand on their own and be free from too much clutter, especially to guest listeners. There should be a way to get back to more from the same artist, but that’s about it.
But I also want to upload stuff I’m working tonight, and share it with friends, etc. Alonetone has a concept of tracks over time. When you are logged in, there’s richer social context and more ability to explore from artist to artist.