The Catalyze podcast: Ads, algorithms, and reversing capitalism in art, with producer and musician Nicholas Byrne ’19

Apr 15, 2021

Catalyze invited Nicholas Byrne ’19 of Arts + Crafts back to the series to talk about his latest music projects, and because we thought you might want to learn more about the artist behind the music that’s featured on the show. 

We first brought Nicholas to Catalyze in October 2020 as the producer, guitarist, and singer was road-tripping across the country with Eric Lee ’18 and Sam Lowe ’20.

Nicholas spoke with us from Smithonia, an unincorporated community about 20 minutes outside Athens, Georgia. He shared about his collaborations with Sam (whose music project is called Sacra Monet) and singer-songwriter and guitarist Audrey Walsh (UNC-Chapel Hill Class of 2023), a DJ at Carolina’s student-run radio station, WXYC 89.3 FM. 

Nicholas also talked about how AI-powered tools will advance digital music production, how a “shake-up” in the creative landscape of social media platforms could shift dollars back into the hands of content creators, takeaways about manipulating sound and light from Berlin’s music scene, and a new opportunity on the horizon in New York City.

Listen to the episode.

More about the music

Sam is a graduate student at Stanford University pursuing a master’s degree in computer science with minors in cognitive science and music. Follow the alumnus at @sacra.monet on Instagram or on Spotify

Nicholas earned his bachelor’s degree from the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media with a minor in music. In addition to his music, Nicholas works on freelance video assignments and digital advertising and social media campaigns. In spring 2021, the alumnus was accepted into the MFA program in lighting design at the Parsons School of Design in New York City.

Follow Nicholas @art.sandcrafts on Instagram or on Spotify.

Note: This interview was conducted over the internet for a video recording . You can view the video teaser for this episode on Morehead-Cain’s Youtube or Instagram page.  

How to listen

On your mobile device, you can listen and subscribe to Catalyze on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. For any other podcast app, you can find the show using our RSS feed.

Catalyze is hosted and produced by Sarah O’Carroll for the Morehead-Cain Foundation, home of the first merit scholarship program in the United States and located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can let us know what you thought of the episode by finding us on Twitter or Instagram at @moreheadcain or you can email us at communications@moreheadcain.org.

Episode Transcription

(Sarah)

Nicholas, thank you so much for joining us today. 

(Nicholas)

Hey!

(Sarah)

So, you are recording from Smithonia right now or where are you at the moment?

(Nicholas)

I am currently in this building that is called the Commissary, and this property is where my grandparents live. They are retired now. They moved here in 1996, I think, so, the year that I was born.

Smithonia was one of the largest plantations in Georgia in the 1920s, and it was a sharecropping plantation. Since then, my grandparents have moved here and retired, and they spend a lot of time gardening. It's definitely a place of historical significance.

(Sarah)

It sounds like you built out a recording-slash-production studio, which is really cool. So, catch us up-to-speed with what you've been doing and the kinds of music you've been producing.

(Nicholas)

I moved to Athens after graduating from UNC in December of 2019 and was planning on doing a bunch of parties here, and I was doing that kind of thing in Chapel Hill. 

But since the pandemic, I’ve been here with a group of friends that just decided to move down to Athens because it's cheaper than New York and a fun place to be when the world took a pause. But yeah, so, I've been here for the past year, spending pretty much every day practicing music production.

I have a music project called Arts + Crafts. I've also been collaborating with a lot of other friends recently and working more as a producer, so that's very exciting. I'm releasing an album with my friends Audrey and Henry. They both went to UNC, and that band is called Hiding Places. So we're going through the motions with that, which is exciting. We're going to get it mastered, put it on vinyl. 

It's been cool. I don't think that this would have happened if I hadn't spent a year sitting and working in this room by myself, essentially, sometimes with friends, but I think a lot of the learning happens when I sit down for hours and don't look up.

(Sarah)

Well, I want to hear more about Audrey's collaboration. You mentioned Henry, too, because people will start hearing your music a bit more on the series. So, share about how you guys got connected, and also, where did “Hiding Places” come from?

(Nicholas)

So, Audrey and I met . . . I think we met on Instagram first, but I was booking shows in Chapel Hill at this venue called Nightlight, which is on Rosemary [Street], and we needed some photographers for the event. I put out an email through the WXYC radio station listserv, and was like, “Hey, are there any photographers?” Audrey reached out immediately. I was just like, “Great. This is the best photographer at UNC. This is great.”

Audrey is multitalented—an amazing songwriter, singer, guitar player, and photographer. We related on a variety of horizons. I started out as a photographer. And also, she's from Asheville, and I'm from Athens, and they're similar towns.

(Sarah)

Very artistic towns, I think.

(Nicholas)

Yeah, yeah. We both grew up spending a lot of time with friends who are artists and that kind of thing. So, it was cool to find each other at UNC and to start collaborating. 

Our friend Henry, who we also met through the radio station, he lives in Athens and plays drums. And so, we've been tracking drums in all of the songs. And our bass player, Anthony, who Henry and I have actually never met, he's in Nashville and is one of Audrey's friends from growing up. 

It's pretty cool to be able to work remotely with music stuff because a lot of people have home recording setups, and you can just send files and get the files back that you need, which is my favorite thing ever, to get the stems of audio files in my email.

(Sarah)

I wonder if it's similar to podcasting, because after this pandemic, I think there will be even more of a saturation—as we are recording one ourselves today—of people getting more creative at home and realizing that they don't have to be in a traditional setting to build some things up, and it can be more amateur or as professional as it gets. It just seems like there's been a wide range of people trying new things since they're spending more time at home.

(Nicholas)

It is very, very cool. I think a lot of people are learning how to record themselves with audio and video. It's interesting because I have been a video editor for a while and thought, at some point in time, “I bet that everyone's going to get really good at video editing. Maybe I should do some other stuff, too.”

(Sarah)

I think there might be some parallels as well with music, because I'm sure that AI is also making a lot of advances there with what's possible. Do you want to speak to that or do you have any thoughts about where music technology might be going and how that might intersect with the human creativity behind it?

(Nicholas)

I'm most excited for the creative tools that will be coming out. There is always a relationship between technology and music. Throughout the history of music, that's been a common theme and, I think, will continue to be a theme. 

So I'm excited for the tools, right. I don't think that there's going to be, in the near future, totally AI-generated music that is great. But I think that there will be high-powered music tools that will be great, and that will be very interesting to use to modify music in post-production. 

I use a lot of music software. Artists figure out ways to use technology in interesting ways. So, I'm not worried about that, and I think it actually will be really cool for those that are interested in exploring that. It's always exciting, I think.

(Sarah)

Is there any software you've used recently that is newer on the market that you're excited about? 

(Nicholas)

In the video sphere, I use processing units called circuit benders. It's actually not new technology but it's a niche technology. So, essentially you can use physical hardware from like the 1990s, like TV station boxes, that these hacker people will add additional controls to.

(Sarah)

“Hacker people?” What do you mean by “hacker people?”

(Nicholas)

They go into the circuit board and make new connections and solder together different parts of circuits. So, I've been really enjoying using that thing for the past couple of years. I have this one by this guy, Tachyons+ is the name of the designer, and the name of the device is the Dream Weapon. So, I think that's pretty cool.

As far as audio software goes . . . I use Ableton pretty regularly. I also use Pro Tools. There's nothing AI-related recently that I'm super thrilled about. My friend Sam [Lowe ’20] is actually doing some AI research at Stanford and we have a few music projects together. He's pretty jazzed about all that stuff and is learning how to code software effects from the ground up, which is very cool.

He does a degree of programing songs, too, which is interesting. That's not something that I'm going to be doing, but I definitely think it's cool to learn that stuff and to learn the rules of the tech so that you can learn to break them.

(Sarah)

So, share more about your collaboration with Sam. And also, I was listening to some of your music on Spotify, and I hear Sam ordering fast food, which was really funny, and there are also some cameos of Siri talking. I wanted to ask if you were recording that looking for inspiration or if it was just a funny moment, and also, what is the role of humor in your work, would you say?

(Nicholas)

I definitely go through phases of recording, editing, and writing. When we're doing a writing phase—and this could be with Audrey or Sam or anybody—I'm finger-on-the trigger on the microphone. I'm listening, ready to hit record. Sam loves to get fast food. He loves to go to the Varsity in Athens. And, we were nearly done with arranging the project, and I just thought it'd be funny to hit record.

I definitely like to mess around in the studio. Being so serious all the time takes the fun out of it and can suck the life out of your creative process. I'm super big on having a good time because even if the recording isn't good, even if the song isn't good, at least you had fun doing it.

I kind of, like, scream around in the studio to hype people up. Audrey, I remember, was playing a guitar solo, and I was just standing at the top of the stairs, being like, “You rock!” That kind of thing.

I think the role of a producer really is to try to bring the life out of a song or a creative project. And that's something that I try to do in all my work.

(Sarah)

Yeah, on one hand, you're doing this professionally, so you have to be thinking about, “I'm going to produce a vinyl and maybe finance it, and work with other people, and work on distributing it.” I can see how all of that noise would really detract from just the creative process in and of itself. And so, if you don't shut off that noise, even if it's not a joyous song, it's a sadder song, or whatever it is that you're expressing, removing that transactional experience I feel like would be important in order to just have the most integrity about the work itself.

(Nicholas)

It's definitely two very different head spaces, and it's hard to code switch between them. Today, for example, is more of a work day for me. I have a few things scheduled. But yesterday, there was nothing on my calendar, and I just have a to-do list for this week, just knocking things off as they need to be approached in that moment. So, it's cool to learn how to do both of those things because they are very important.

If you can understand some of the business side of things, as an artist, I think that’s always very beneficial. There are a lot of artists who want nothing to do with that, which also makes a lot of sense. You might even be a better artist if you do that, or create better work, and have a team that can do that kind of thing with you. It makes a lot of sense why there are teams that work with artists, labels, and managers, so that they can actually do their thing uninterrupted.

In the modern era of young independent artists, you definitely have to do those things yourself. No one's really going to run your social media for you. Big artists are encouraged to have a very personal social media profile. I don't think you can get away with as fully promotional social media anymore because people just don't like to see that as much, I think.

(Sarah)

I'm hearing the message that you should have a personal account and that that can help give you some creative distance from the noise of . . . like, if you have a bunch of followers and they didn't like this song as much as another based off your post, and so does that change your process? But at the same time, we are seeing more “authentic” content, like someone just sharing with their iPhone and it doesn't always have to be glossy, so it sort of feels like they're competing sometimes. 

(Nicholas)

They're definitely competing. I'm in this for the long haul and am mostly interested in making songs and making visual art. You have to do the marketing stuff but I think that the kind of approach that I'm taking is like, I'm just going to get really good at what I really like to do and have that be the guiding focus, and have the marketing of it be second to the work itself. 

I think that there's a lot of focus on the marketing of art and the “social points” of making something. I don't wake up in the morning and am like, “That's so cool.” That's not exactly what I want to do. I just want to make songs and I just want to do shows. You have to do it, but if that becomes your passion, that's your passion, not making the work. There's definitely a balance. There's definitely, definitely a balance.

(Sarah)

How do you feel about NFTs, and would you ever want to get in on that market?

(Nicholas)

Yeah, I think that it's really cool that there are more avenues for independent artists to have more control over their art and who is profiting off of it. Instagram and TikTok, or whatever, these are definitely platforms to draw attention to your art. But as far as actually making money off of that . . . that's a very different question. You have to be selling something. But I do think it's very interesting with NFTs [non-fungible tokens], that kind of digital footprint, as the NFT is sold over time, the artist gets a cut.

I think that that's really cool. I'm definitely interested in thinking about how I can get involved in making digital art in that way. It definitely is much more of an incentive, for digital artists to make good work with that kind of payment structure involved. I'm sure that big labels and stuff will find a way to ultimately make more money than the independent artist in that realm, because that's what always happens, but I think that, in the early days of it, there's a lot of opportunity.

It's kind of hard to understand exactly how it's going to evolve, and I think that that is part of the whole conversation, right. Everyone's like, “So, what is this?”

(Sarah)

I'm glad to hear that because I don't understand how that totally works. And also, it seems bizarre that there is such a market for a piece of art or music or something that has the original integrity, and to sell it from that basis. Because before, I mean, I've talked with Andrew Patterson ’06 in a previous episode about the streaming wars, and how people used to just download things off of Reddit. And people still do that but now people use Netflix and so they don't just rob things off of the Internet to the same degree.

And so, it's interesting to see what's going on here, that people are willing to pay so much in this volatile market for something that is the real deal versus just trying to find ways that you can just download it and rob from the artists in that way.

(Nicholas)

I think the real robbing, if I may say it, is . . . it’s the platforms who are selling ads based on the artists filling the feed. That is the real crime here. I really think that another solution to this can be for social media companies to be paying creators. Why does that not happen? There's a lot of money being pumped into advertising on social media, and I studied advertising at UNC, and ultimately was just like, wow. It's crazy that they are not paying creators more when they are creating all of the value on these platforms.

There very well could be a large shift in the creative landscape of the Internet because there are so many creators, which is awesome. That's my soapbox on that. But I do think it's ridiculous that they make you pander to get “likes” and adapt your art to their algorithm so that they can sell ads. And you make no money. 

(Sarah)

Yeah, you've done a lot of social media campaigns, too, in your postgrad work, and I'm also curious, if I could put you back on the soapbox, if you want, to hear your thoughts about Spotify, because there seems to be a really big opportunity to have diverse voices there, but it's all controlled by Spotify, in which playlists they push and depending on their algorithms, how they nudge people in different genres, and perhaps even decide on your behalf what kind of musician you are, as if you're just one.

Anyway, I'm giving too many of my own thoughts about this, so, what do you think about it? And do the pros go past the cons, or what's your perspective in how the platform is evolving?

(Nicholas)

I was following Spotify pretty closely when it was in the pretty early days. I was on Spotify the first day that it came in to the United States. And when it first came out, there was an inbox feature, which was very, very cool. 

I remember I only had a few friends that were on Spotify at the time, but it was essentially that you could send songs inside of the app to your friends. And that immediately became my favorite messenger and platform ever, because it was every song for free, and you could also message and stuff. 

My unconfirmed theory is that . . . they removed this feature, and I do think that it was a move to keep editorial control on the platform. There was potential for influencers to exist on Spotify with that kind of messaging platform available and profiles and stuff. 

But there aren't really influencers on Spotify now. There are some accounts that are independent from labels and from Spotify's editorial team that do have a decent amount of followers, but there are not that many and they are not that big.  

I was a little bit just also annoyed that they took away my favorite feature at some point in time. I literally used it every day.

(Sarah)

I’m sure you weren’t the only one who was upset by that. 

(Nicholas)

Yeah, definitely. You could probably find a funny Google search of disgruntled music nerds. It's a real tragedy, and they should bring it back. But ultimately, I think it comes down to this question of like, “Who are you building the platform for? Is this platform designed to just milk as much cash as you can, or is this platform designed for the users or the creators? And how are you going to keep them there? How are you going to have a long lasting platform that people like to use?”

I have a lot of friends who make content and put it on Instagram and put it on Spotify, and no one really likes it, you know, and it's like, why? Why does it have to be like that? 

(Sarah)

As in they don't have a huge following or because it doesn't fit neatly in, maybe, what's of mass appeal right now?

(Nicholas)

I just think it's that the platforms don't treat artists well, essentially, and that there is a lot of opportunity to put more money in the pockets of artists, and consistently, Spotify chooses not to do that. Instagram chooses not to do that. So shame on them for the people that are creating a lot of value on these platforms. 

I don’t want to come off as a total tech pessimist. I love a lot of things about Spotify. It totally changed the way that I listen to music and exposed me to a lot of new genres, and I think that it ultimately has influenced the development of genre as far as popular music, significantly, which I think is really, really cool. 

But I do think that there could be a shake-up, as far as the platforms go and how creators are treated as there are more people who really want to do this.

If you look at what the top jobs that kids want are—they want to be YouTubers, they want to be musicians, and so they want to be content creators. And I think that at some point in time, there will be a turn where it becomes a lot more equitable for artists and creators. So, I’m looking forward to that and I think it will happen. 

(Sarah)

I think we’re also seeming more startups launching that match influencers to different brands. So, we're seeing more of this being institutionalized, which could be good, perhaps from an equitable standpoint, if those startups are coming from a place of thinking about equity and who they're promoting and choosing. But I can also see that just becoming even more business-oriented versus what social media, I think the premise of it was to make it more human and relational, and so yet another step in that direction. And you mentioned being a pessimist—I think I ask most questions with the “Well, let's talk about what's actually going on here” angle, which is the cynical look, so, I think that's my own bias going into it. But it's really interesting to hear your thoughts on that.

(Nicholas)

Yeah, something that has been inspiring to me . . . I've been on social media for a long time at this point. I got very inspired to get into more in-person experiences as a response to these digital experiences that all of us now have. I think it's easy to forget, when you're surrounded by colorful screens all the time, that there are really fun things that you can do socially, in person, in a real space.

I don't think that that is lost on us yet. A lot of people really like that. But that pushed me into wanting to make things that exist outside of my laptop screen and to make things that are seen beyond other people's little rectangle.

(Sarah)

Or to not even view the act of being with people as a content creation opportunity. Like, “I hope we are not hanging out just because, at some point, you want a photo to then share on social media, which seems to negate what we are doing as real because that seemed like the purpose of it.” 

(Nicholas)

Totally. I used to do these parties in Chapel Hill called Office Hours. Who knows, maybe that will come back one day. But what we would do at these shows is we would put stickers on people's cell phone cameras so that you couldn't take photos. And we would just say, “Have fun. Be here.” That kind of thing.

Because we were taking photos of the event, there was documentation for sure. I did a study abroad in Berlin, and a lot of the different venues there would put stickers on your phone because it allows you to have this third space, this other time where you don't have to worry about people taking photos, and you don't have to worry about taking photos yourself, you are not allowed to. That kind of thing is a really fun twist on the contemporary social media culture to tell people that you can't take photos.

(Sarah)

I like that. It's weird to me how that is so bizarre to say “no photos” and suddenly, people are like, “What do we do?” Or it seems so offensive or something, when you're just saying, “Let's not surveil in any way or try to capture something. Let's just live this right now.” I also want to ask you about the Parsons School of Design in New York City, which you just got accepted to. Congratulations again! How are you thinking about that program, and is it OK if I ask if you're going to accept, or what's on your mind as you're thinking about next steps?

(Nicholas)

I'm feeling good about it and definitely leaning towards accepting. I think I want to talk to a few mentors and stuff before making a final decision. It's an MFA in lighting design, which is pretty interesting to me because, as we were just talking about, these physical experiences . . . I think I got turned on to this direction also by the study abroad that I spent in Berlin.

I would basically go to a lot of different shows, in nightclubs and stuff, and basically took notes about what was cool about the experience. You know, they make you wait in line for two hours and you don't even know if you're going to get in. You get in. There's a sticker on your phone. You can't take photos. OK, we're in a cool room now. What makes it interesting, very often, is that lighting has a huge psychological effect. That is very interesting to me as far as how you can craft an experience.

It all relates to the time that I spent in recording studios as well. You're trying to draw life out of something. How do you accomplish that? Music can do that. Light can do that. And music and light together is a very potent combination.

I would be very interested in working on stage lighting, music studio design, and studio lighting, and also club lighting. So that's the connect with all the the various music interests. And just thinking about how to amplify a moment and to make a moment feel lively. That's something that I'm very interested in pursuing and creating.

(Sarah)

I'm excited to see what you do next in the kinds of music and art you will create there.

(Nicholas)

Thanks so much, Sarah.


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