Satchel Butterfield has been recording hip-hop songs in his Portland basement for the past four years. He does it all on a laptop, with audio software he bought for $300 and a vocal booth he built with materials from Home Depot. He uploads the finished songs to music-sharing sites like Spotify.

“Not having to set up thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment really lowers the bar,” said Butterfield, a 17-year-old senior at Casco Bay High School. “To be honest, I don’t know if I could have or would have started doing this if I had to spend that.”

The dreams of basement and bedroom musicians got a huge boost last weekend when 18-year-old pop phenom Billie Eilish swept the major categories at the Grammy Awards. Eilish, who made her entire debut album of brooding, electronic-based songs with her brother in their Los Angeles home, seemed embarrassed when she took the stage to accept the awards. After brief remarks for her “Song of the Year” win, Eilish implored her brother to say something.

“This is a really, really big deal and … I have no idea what to say,” Finneas O’Connell said. “We just make music in a bedroom together.” Then he held the Grammy aloft: “This is to all the kids who are making music in their bedroom today. You’re going to get one of these.”

Eilish’s path to success highlights a music industry trend. Away from the pressure of a label trying to manufacture a marketable sound, young musicians are making music on their own – without studios, without producers, often without instruments.

It’s not an entirely new idea. Pop star Justin Bieber was discovered on YouTube when he was a preteen. Indie pop artist Ingrid Michaelson posted her early music on MySpace, where it was found by a music producer for the TV show “Grey’s Anatomy.” But today it’s easier than ever to make music with little more than a laptop and a microphone and send it out to the world with a few clicks on music-sharing sites.

Patrick Doyle, a senior editor for Rolling Stone magazine who grew up in Maine, said the trend has “given rise to more interesting music.”

Casco Bay High School students Jonathan Rugema, left, Gabriel Gomez and Simon Hale collaborate on a song in Hale’s bedroom in Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

That model also provides something else: a level of creative control that ensures authenticity, which is one of the reasons Eilish has been so successful, commercially and critically.

Jeff Shaw, who founded the nonprofit Maine Academy of Modern Music 12 years ago, said young people are increasingly interested not just in learning instruments or the dynamics of playing in a band but in the production and recording of music.

“We encourage it for sure,” he said. “I think all this technology allows everyone to do it, but it doesn’t mean everyone can do it well right away. You still need the education. You still need to put in the work.”

BASEMENT TAPES

Satchel Butterfield has been playing music since he was a boy. He started with the doumbek, a Middle Eastern drum, and moved on to the saxophone, then added guitar, bass and keys. He’s not an expert but can do enough to incorporate those sounds into his tracks.

He’s been creating trap music, a style of hip-hop, but has recently shifted to psychedelic pop rock. One of his influences is Tame Impala, an Australian psychedelic rock outfit led by Kevin Parker, who is known to bring recording equipment on the road and record in hotel rooms.

Butterfield has applied to Berklee College of Music in Boston and said if he’s accepted he plans to defer for a year and spend that year in Chicago with two friends making music.

He’ll continue to upload music to Spotify. So far, interest has been mostly local, but one of his songs ended up on a curated playlist that increased its exposure to 26,000 plays.

“Some of it is luck,” he said. “If a song is seen by the right person, it can blow up.”

Even if his music doesn’t take off, he feels like he’s learned enough to produce for others.

Satchel Butterfield, a senior at Casco Bay High School, has been recording music at home since his freshman year. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Butterfield loans out his basement studio, too.

Jonathan Rugema, another Casco Bay High senior, creates music under the name Jean Bizarre and said Butterfield’s vocal booth produces a great sound. Rugema, primarily a rock and R&B singer, said he has been inspired by Eilish and her brother because they represent the idea that you don’t need a fancy studio to produce a compelling sound.

“I like how they’ve been able to create and collaborate in their home and how they still do that even after all this success,” he said.

Rugema, 18, has been in Maine since middle school, when his family immigrated from the African country of Burundi. He’s been around music his whole life but didn’t realize what was possible until he took music classes at Portland Arts & Technology High School and started experimenting with programs like Apple’s GarageBand.

Jonathan Rugema has been singing and recording music with friends locally for the last few years. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“It really opened my eyes. I feel like it makes me be more connected to my art,” Rugema said of recording in an intimate space like a bedroom or basement. “No one else is really invested, and that can inspire you to create what feels right to you.”

Rugema cited as influences Harry Styles and Frank Ocean, the latter of whom dropped his label recently and releases music independently.

Meagan, Lexi and Kinsey Johnson – 21-year-old triplets who make up the punk rock band Random Ideas – watched last week’s Grammys from their home in the Kennebec County town of China and felt an immediate connection when O’Connell gave his nod to bedroom music.

Random Ideas, a punk rock trio comprising triplets from the Kennebec County town of China – Meagan, Lexi and Kinsey Johnson – pose in their basement bedroom and practice space. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“When he said that, we definitely had the feeling of, ‘Oh, that’s kind of like us,’” Kinsey said. “You realize that’s what’s possible.”

The sisters first got into music seriously in middle school after playing the Xbox video game Rock Band but had an interest long before.

Lexi sings and plays bass, Kinsey plays guitar and sings backup, and Meagan plays drums. They started writing songs at 13 and recording them in either their living room or a friend’s basement.

“We don’t do that as much in our bedrooms now,” Lexi said. But all of the songwriting, which is collaborative, and early practicing is still done there. They recorded their latest album, “We Met in the Womb,” at Husson University in Bangor because they could use a studio there for free. They stream it on Spotify and sell it on Bandcamp, another music-sharing site, and through their own website.

“That’s all pretty new, though,” Lexi said. “We didn’t do that for the longest time.”

NO NEED FOR STUDIOS

Doyle, the Rolling Stone editor, said this shift in the music industry was a topic of conversation in a recent interview he did with Elton John and Lana Del Ray.

“A big part of that conversation was when Elton was talking about how you used to have to move to a city and play with other people and improve that way,” Doyle said. “Now, people make albums in their bedrooms.”

Part of the appeal, he said, is that it’s much easier to replicate a studio sound outside of a studio. But he said not everyone is on board with that idea.

“There are people who say it sacrifices quality,” he said. “Robbie Robertson of The Band has said that 90 percent of music now is kids who got a guitar for Christmas.”

Still, Doyle said the ability of musicians to record their own music means people don’t need to move to New York or Los Angeles or Nashville to achieve success.

Singer Jonathan Rugema records a vocal track in his friend’s bedroom. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Satchel Butterfield Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“A lot of exciting music is being made in other places,” he said.

The Maine Academy of Modern Music serves 1,600 students statewide, with workshops, classes and events. Shaw, the founder, said his two-week summer songwriting and recording camp, where kids from elementary school through high school use digital software to record and mix – and more professional studio equipment, too – has become extraordinarily popular.

There are pros and cons to the ubiquity of do-it-yourself recording equipment, he said, sort of like everyone who owns a digital camera thinks they shoot professional photography.

“I think copycatting is sort of an easier thing now,” Shaw said. “People hear a cool effect on a vocal and think, ‘I’m going to use that, too.’”

Butterfield said he has seen some of that. Artists will always try to replicate a popular sound. But that rarely lasts.

“If you have something special, you can find your audience,” he said.


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