Last week, Boise musicians Jake Hite and Jeremy Jensen took the stage in Glasgow, Scotland. Though the duo had traveled more than 4,000 miles to perform at the Glasgow Popfest, they had never actually met the other members of their band Baffin Island.
Jensen and Hite, who also play in The Very Most, met, wrote songs and recorded a three-song EP with the other members of Baffin Island--who live in Scotland and play as The Hermit Crabs--entirely on the Internet.
"We tried to talk on the phone," said Jensen, referring to lead singer Melanie Whittle. "She has a Scottish accent, and the phone connection didn't turn out so well. We had a hard time communicating."
Instead, they stuck to email and other online file-sharing programs. Baffin Island isn't alone. More and more, musicians are turning to the Internet to collaborate over long distances in ways that weren't possible only a few years ago.
Jensen said the biggest thing that made Baffin Island possible was new FTP services like YouSendIt and Soundcloud, which allow people to send large, high-quality audio files. Before such services, bands would have to physically mail recordings back and forth, a slow process that ran the risk of damaging the recordings, especially in the days of magnetic tape. But now pieces of songs can be zipped across the globe in minutes, making the field of potential collaborators nearly unlimited.
"The way that our process works so far is that I send Mel a really, really rough batch of chords on top of a drum machine, and then she thinks of words and melodies and she records them at her friend's studio and sends them back to me," explained Jensen.
But he's also quick to admit that not being able to goof around or jam out makes it tougher to collaborate in an unstructured manner.
"It works well because we have these pre-defined roles in the songs," said Hite. "If it got more complicated than that, it could get interesting."
Baffin Island--the halfway point between Boise and Glasgow--was started as a side-project for a compilation put out by the label Eardrums Pop, which paired members of existing bands into new groups. Jensen emailed The Hermit Crabs and the band grew from there.
But other long-distance bands have developed more out of necessity than happenstance.
First, the band split with drummer Dustin MacFadden-Elliott--amicably--right before it was supposed to leave on tour. Then the band's guitar player, David Wood, was accepted to a doctoral program at Idaho State in Pocatello. To solve the first problem, the band flew in an old friend from Canada to fill in. For the second, it decided to "pull a late-Beatles and just put out records."
Teens' process is similar to that of Baffin Island's--zipping audio recordings between Pocatello, Boise and Medicine Hat, Alberta. Wood said it's less organic than the band's previous jamming-out method of songwriting. But that doesn't mean he's against it.
"I think the songs are stronger on this album because this method takes more consideration," said Wood.
But even though the process is more laborious, Wood said it's worth doing things this way instead of forming a new band because of the group's chemistry.
"I'd rather play with these guys than anyone in the world," said Wood. "It's hard to find people you gel with when trying to make music."
But chemistry or not, Wood said it wouldn't work without the Internet.
"If we had to do it through snail-mail, we would have all quit by now," said Wood. "I honestly don't have the patience to wait weeks for a track."
And it does take patience, even with the Internet. Though Boise band Muffalo formed in 2002, the band didn't play its first gig until early 2010 because it had members spread across three states. Like Teens and Baffin Island, Muffalo emailed demos back-and-forth to one another, then met up periodically to rehearse and finalize recordings.
With an appearance at SXSW in 2010 and a European tour, it might seem like things worked out for Muffalo. But that isn't how the band's frontman, Eagle resident Derek Myers, sees things.
"I realized on stage in Europe that we hadn't built chemistry," Myers said. "We hadn't really decided that we were a band. We were friends, and we had these songs."
Myers emphasized that the long-distance process is too removed and too sterile.
"It's like going to a dentist's office to watch a movie," he said. "Even though you're collaborating together, you're not becoming a unit; you're not growing together."
After the tour, Myers made the difficult decision to replace his longtime friend and drummer in California with someone local.
"From now on, I'm only going to play with people I live near," Myers said. "There's ways to make [long-distance collaboration] better but not to make it good."
Some of those ways include using Skype for rehearsal sessions and decentralized live recordings, and using new virtual instruments. Garageband for iPhone and iPad allows project files to be shared wirelessly via multiple devices, and it's only a matter of time until they manage simultaneous tracking.
Someone who has embraced these new tools fully is Ontario, Ore., rapper Steve Stein, who goes by Oso Negro. Stein used to front the band New Madrid Click when he lived in Mississippi, but it was too difficult to get the musicians to practice consistently.
At the time, he was active on hip-hop message boards, participating in text versions of rap battles. It was there that he met different DJs and beat-makers and began setting his lyrics to their music. It wasn't long before Stein was a full-fledged player in a complex and growing online market for hip-hop beats and collaborations, something he relishes because it breaks him out of his own style.
"It allows me to produce music vocally that I wouldn't do over my own stuff," he said. "It's more complex."
Still, Oso Negro misses his band. He even worked a sample from one of its old recordings into his new album, Hungry Bear.
"I hate being up there by myself," he said.
But Stein's past experiences tell him it would just be aggravating to form another band. And that's why he's OK with collaborating online.
"This is the future," he said. "I can't help that I live in Ontario. But now I can collaborate with anybody, anywhere."