DIGITAL MUSIC : THE FOREST FLOOR AND BEYOND

An article penned by the great David Byrne has been doing the rounds recently. It’s a good read, explaining in layman’s terms how many digital music models work, the rise and fall of big record labels, and the negative repercussions to the growing presence of Spotify. I really hope that it makes at least a few people reconsider how they consume music though I was disappointed by the alarmist tone of the article, summed up by the title (“The internet will suck all creative content out of the world”) and this quote towards the end –

Without new artists coming up, our future as a musical culture looks grim. A culture of blockbusters is sad, and ultimately it’s bad for business. That’s not the world that inspired me when I was younger.

Well, for starters the reason that this does not seem like the world that inspired you when you were younger is that this is not the world that inspired you when you were younger. Nostalgia has no place in this discussion. Let’s move on however, I don’t intend this post to be a riposte. For an articulate and well considered response to both Byrne and Thom Yorke’s recent assertations I recommend having a read of this article by Mr Dave Allen. It provides excellent perspective on the Spotify phenomena by placing it in the context of what is actually currently occurring in digital media. Allen emphasis dealing with the reality of the situation; I find his comparison of Spotify to FM radio to be particularly useful. As someone who does not use Spotify, it seems to me that it is the radio stations who should be most concerned by being made redundant by subscription services. The people I know who do use Spotify use it much like radio – they listen to it in the background while they’re working, listen to it when they’re not sure what they feel like listening to. These people still buy music. They’re still interested in new music. To suggest these services are creating a global creative black hole is terribly naive, and yes, I’m afraid it does make you sound a lot like Metallica during the Napster era. Being fearful of change is a common thing but to quote Buckminster Fuller – “Don’t oppose forces, use them.”

But this wasn’t going to be riposte. I think the best way for me reply to news of the latest edition of Music Is Dead is for me to relate some of my own experiences in digital music. But first let’s look at some heartening statistics from recent times (though as we shall see these measurements are becoming increasingly murky):

Another article from Techdirt that I urge you (especially if you are David Byrne) to read is this 2012 piece by  Mike Masnick entitled The Sky Is Rising: The Entertainment Industry Is Large & Growing… Not Shrinking. There’s a load of heartening numbers in Masnick’s report that provide indisputable evidence that we are going through an incredible period of artistic creativity, spurned on by the opportunities provided by that apparent killer of art, the internet. It’s pretty hard not to be excited by a lot of the points that he makes in his report, a thorough examination of several sectors of entertainment industry that presents contrary information to many articles in the most news outlets and blogs. The fact is that good news such as this doesn’t garner as many clicks and shares as panicky articles on lovely old bookshops closing and news of music ceasing to exist unless we do something. Spotify and music subscription services are a major issue, there is no doubt about that, but let us look at this situation with clear eyes.

Masnick also describes the difficulties in measuring the “industry”, in that the “industry” does not really exist anymore. The music industry, and entertainment industry by large, has been splintered into many different pieces. These pieces are an ever increasing number of independent artists, represented by independent groups that represent and distribute their work. This is difficult for quantify but to say there is less art being made today and less opportunity for artists due to things like Spotify is plain false. The best way to see what is happening in the digital world is to experience it for yourself and not rely on shaky figures, which brings us to my story.

I talk about Bandcamp a lot and that’s because I spend a whole lot of time on there, having run Bandcamp Hunter for just on three years now. There’s no need for me to champion Bandcamp any further than I have before, though I would advise Mr Byrne and anyone else feeling as if we may soon live in a musically barren world to become acquainted with the vast amount of music available there within and to observe the spending habits of folks who frequent the site. This is now a very easy thing to do with Bandcamp’s introduction of fan pages and a music feed. This social functionality enables me to view the music that people have paid for with real money via the occasional email that summarises all the recent spending activity of people I follow, or alternatively I can check this out anytime on my music feed. Not only is it a terrific way to discover music, but I’m always delighted to see people regularly paying for music (and often accompanying it with gushy reviews. I love seeing people get excited about music).

The functionality of Bandcamp comes with the struggle between streaming music and listeners actually downloading it,. This challenge of harnessing the huge amount of exposure the internet offers and the converting this into actual money for the artist is something that labels and artists continue to wrestle with. There are ways to negotiate this (only posting a few songs and offering the full album for purchase is a popular and effective technique) though this is a prime example of the music world being uncertain as to how to best utilise the wondrous accessibility that technology offers. I’m certain that Pandora and Spotify are not the answers, and I’m confident they will not be a permanent presence in our lives. Saying that they are creative black holes that will doom all music on earth for good only conjures such images :

Source : Wikipedia

We should all know by now not to lose our collective shit over phenomenas like Spotify, especially in such rapidly changing times. In my daily web usage I’m constantly seeing vinyl, tape and digital releases disappearing from the virtual shelves of Bandcamp sites, constantly observing people paying significant amounts of money for pay-what-you-want albums. Streaming has become dominant but it’s not all encompassing.

The use of streaming is just another step in people changing their listening and consuming habits, and this is a great thing. For a good part of the last fifty years our listening habits were ingrained into us by commercially motivated enterprises and platforms – primarily big labels and commercial radio. Now we can listen to what we want, when we want, and this is extremely positive. People’s musical taste will diversify and as a result their everyday lives will be enriched. That may sound romantic but I believe it to be true, I believe the discovery of inspiring music can be hugely empowering and educating.

So if Spotify is replacing radio then that’s ok by me, for now. While that happens I’ll spend more time finding exciting music and less time reading articles like Byrne’s, wringing his hands over the “culture of blockbusters”. Such a concept is incredibly myopic, a notion that places far too much weight on the influence of big labels and the music industry as it was. What a remarkable time we live in, to be able to experience the richness of global music like never before. It should be celebrated. Music is not fading away. To the contrary, I believe it is thriving on the decomposing matter of the music industry as we knew it. Like the teeming and complex ecological systems to be found on a forest floor, the internet is full of independent labels and artists getting busy making wonderful art and pushing it out to hungry consumers, who are more than willing to pay for it. It’s an unpredictable time in so many ways, though peoples desire to make and consume music should never be doubted. It’s a great force. Don’t oppose it.

FOUND MUSIC : SOUNDCLOUD 19.10.13

Nothinge is Max Posthoorn, of tragically-now-defunct Melbourne band Sandcastle (an obituary from me is forthcoming – they were a great band). His work as frontman of that group always indicated to me that he was a musical explorer, a restless and curious artist who would not settle on one sound, on a set way of doing things. The steady stream of music he’s been uploading to Soundcloud of late suggests a fertile period of creativity, with these Experimental Series providing especially fascinating listening. The sound of an artist at work.

Boy oh boy I’m excited about the new Trouble Books LP, to be released on MIE later in Novemeber. The soft electronic pop of “Concatenating Fields” was one of my favourite releases of the last few years, a somewhat peculiar album that  intrigued me with its subtle sonic mutations and lyrics of a scientific bent. While this new track is but barely a skerrick, it’s enough to suggest that the new album from the husband and wife duo will provide more many more moments of pristine, off-kilter beauty.

I caught Melbourne Cans supporting The Ocean Party a few weeks back and really enjoyed their set of loose garage pop. Just the one track up on Soundcloud and it’s a roughly recorded gem that’s got something sinister going on:

We could leave our shoes in the shape of a heart; covered in blood

Love that murderous tone, though I do recall a lot of songs in their being a bit brighter. We’ll have to wait and see what their debut release holds.

My mailbox eagerly awaits the arrival of the new Clipd Beaks tape, to be released through Moon Glyph. When I chatted with Steve of said label he described their sound as ” crunchy guitars and weird 90’s vibes” and this holds true with this rather brilliant taster, though the swirling psychedelic atmosphere generated here reminds me more of modern bands like Woodsman. Really got my mouth watering for that full length. Godspeed little tape.

If I had to choose just two words to describe the music of Spain’s Lucrecia Dalt they would be minimal and inventive. Her music rewards – nay, demands – close listening. This new track is a great representation of the sublime subtlety at work in her music. If “Mirage” seems to stretch on longer than its five minutes then that’s because it is deceptively dense – sounds introduce themselves then depart, rhythms form and then decay, and then there is always Dalt’s voice : haunting and barely there, wavering like heat on a blacktop highway. An amazing artist.

CONVERSATION : MELTED ICE CREAM

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Conversation with Joe Sampson of Melted Ice Cream

How did Melted Ice Cream begin?

Melted Ice Cream began when I came up with the idea for the logo sometime in 2011. My friend Leo drafted it up for me and I started up a Bandcamp to host a couple local live releases. It stayed much the same until April this year when I put out a free digital compilation of Christchurch punk and alternative music (Sickest Smashes from Arson City). Not long after then I started putting out cassette releases (a few reissues to begin with and then some fresh stuff).

Did you have a long term plan or a vision for the label?

I haven’t got a long term plan as such but I’d like to continue releasing cassettes for the next while and another compilation sometime in the next six months. I’ve got a couple of collaborations with other labels/magazines/websites in the drafting stage, nothing confirmed yet though. I would like to be releasing vinyl at some point, although the costs of doing such a thing from New Zealand is ridiculously expensive.

Tell me a bit about the initial process involved in releasing an album or EP, from talking with a band to deciding that it’s right for the label.

Basically if I think it’s decent then I’m keen to put it out. There’s some fantastic stuff out there that no one knows about. I’m not a record label in the traditional way, if that even still exists. I’m short on time between my own bands, so I like to make any band or artist involved well aware that I can’t really function as a proper label. MIC is more about consolidating the bands that I like and the bands I think deserve more attention, safety in numbers.

 

You’re based in Christchurch right? What’s the music scene like there at the moment?

I am based in Christchurch as I have been most of my life. Not trying to be pretentious or cryptic but I don’t actually know what a music scene is all about to be frank. If it’s anything like it is in movies or books then we don’t have one here. We’re a city of 400,000 or less. Music scenes only seem to exist in hindsight.

If I take a year like 2007 for example there was probably a dozen or so regularly gigging bands in the guitar genre that I was aware of, but there was probably many more. If I look back over the last 7-8 years of local music there’d be about a dozen bands, acts and projects that I’ve been fond of that I would still listen to on a regular basis.

So it sounds like you keep focused on local music fairly strongly. What sort of music did you grow up listening to?

Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, REM, White Stripes, David Bowie, QOTSA, Neil Young, Marcy Playground, Green Day – fairly mainstream alternative stuff, which I love. I ventured off to the underground/avant in my later teens but I still listen to the important bands in my life on a regular basis and I often revisit past love affairs.

What are some of your favourite NZ bands, past and present?

Pretty much all of the Flying Nun from the 80s and 90s – there are a lot of bands in that canon but Verlaines, 3Ds (David Mitchell), Chris Knox and David Kilgour’s many groups are particular favourites. Semi recent – Mint Chicks (probably the best band out of NZ in the last 20 years), Onanon from Dunedin, and many local bands current and past which I won’t list out of fear of missing anyone out.

Can you tell me a bit more about a couple of your artists – Salad Boys and X-Ray Charles?

Salad Boys is my current main song writing outlet, we’ve been a band since mid 2012, we’ve released a self titled mini album on MIC and have been on tour around NZ pretty much constantly over the last year. We’re currently recording our first full length which will hopefully be out on cassette by Christmas, and we’re planning a trip to the USA in about 6 months.

X-Ray Charles is the current main song writing outlet of my friend/ex-house mate Brian Feary with James Sullivan (Salad Boys) on drums. They’ve been together for roughly as long as the Salads and have so far released a “selph titled” mini album through MIC and have been up and down the country in past months performing their sick brand of turbo geek trash. Plans wise I’m not sure but I imagine another mini album or full length in the next six months.

 

You’ve put out a few tapes – how do you produce these? Who does the design for your releases?

We’ve had a good run with the cassettes, some people out there really dig them! I make my masters on a Fostex 4 track and we run them off on our recently acquired Sony cassette duplicator – that thing runs at 16x regular speed and hauls ass! It’s been a great addition to our capital. We typically do small runs of 20 to begin with and then go from there if they sell quick. The designs vary from release to release, usually a member of the respective band, but our “in house designer” role has pretty much been Brian Feary.

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MIC0011 Salad Boys – Salad Boys
Edition of 130

What’s next for Melted Ice Cream?

We’ve got another compilation in the works – aiming for a release around January combined with a national tour in support – we may even make it to Australia this time, money permitting. Various cassette releases in the coming months, at least half a dozen in the planning stages right now. We’re also putting out a VHS of the soon to be released film documenting the recent Christian Rock and Salad Boys tour, once we figure out how to do VHS runs haha.

 

Melted Ice Cream on Bandcamp

THIS MONTHS TAPE : RURAL PAIN – EYES WINGS AND MANY OTHER THINGS

Each month on Formless Fields I’ll review a favourite cassette and delve a little into it’s creation by explaining where the album is placed within the artists catalogue, examining the design of the package, and providing my impressions of each track. I’ll do the same for a stand out vinyl release.

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In a world of high definition – of constant definition – it’s not only pleasant but an absolutely necessity to become a little hazy now and again. To reduce the focus so that all forms become a singular mass, so that the eye and the ear are not seeking to interpret every incoming signal. I believe much psychedelic music is an expression of this idea. Ritualistic and hallucinatory elements aside, to me psychedelic music seeks to articulate the indescribable, more so than many other forms of music. The best psychedelic sounds combine introspection and outward wonder. This can be achieved through loud corrosive sounds or in a more downbeat, atmospheric manner. Dallas’s Eyes Wings and Many Other Things fall into the latter category, and their latest release “Rural Pain” is quite special.

I became acquainted with EWAMOT a couple of years ago, very much enjoying the druggy miasma of “Ice Age”. I was attracted to the way the songs gradually unfolded – softly developing psychedelic music that never resorted to grand theatrics but instead focused on illustrating an ambiguous, many coloured vision. Listening to older EWAMOT releases demonstrates the changes in their sound (not necessarily a progression or a regression, simply a change). I was tantalised by “Bad Powder” though I recall being somewhat disappointed with last album “Napalm Beach“.

 

These songs sounded a bit too polished, and I also felt they were somewhat curtailed, with many tracks clocking in at under three minutes. The music of EWAMOT – and indeed much psychedelic music of this ilk – is at its best when it’s given space to grow, for tendrils of guitar to intertwine with the snaking spine of the song while ideas emerge and are submerged and reemerge. For smoke to fully fill the room. “Rural Pain” inhales, exhales, inhales, then exhales again, and fills the room in a dense, grainy fog.

As fond as I am of those older releases, this new release sees the Dallas two piece (Sean French and Colin Arnold with many others contributing) takes their sound to different, fascinating places. Where “Napalm Beach” was a slight disappointment, getting to know “Rural Pain” has been a thrill. It’s an enigmatic and beautiful album, constructed not with thick outlines but composed of many blurred musical shapes. EWAMOT are the sort of band that may be unfairly labelled a “jam band” and those unwilling to engage may find this music meandering, too unstructured. The rest of us have an album to become submerged within, to be taken downstream by. Keep breathing.

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Side one opens with “Water Flow”, a track that is indicative of the alterations to the bands sound. There is less definition present in the guitars and the sound is, yes, more liquid. It flows and feels voluminous,  with the disembodied chanting of the vocals reminding me a little the songs found on another of my favourite releases of this year, Baby Birds Don’t Drink Milk. It has an almost hymnal quality, not something religious, but to use a word that gets tossed about haphazardly in the music world – it sounds devotional.

“Neighbours” takes a darker turn. It is night, and the neighbours are fast asleep. We lurk. Again, the intentions of the lyrics are ambiguous but the atmosphere is what’s important – ominous, mysterious, an undercurrent of dread. Synths have a stronger presence on this album than other EWAMOT releases, and here the instruments provide both the dark moments and the pretty respite towards the songs conclusion. It’s a clever song that’s markedly different to anything I’ve heard the band produce before.

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The title track is probably my favourite on the album, it too thick with menace.

Careful what you’re saying

Don’t you care for the game I’m playing?

There feels as if there is a bigger song bubbling under the surface here, maybe to do with the fact it is the most “traditionally” structured on the album. It sounds like a big psychedelic rock song that has been manipulated. Processed. Passed through molasses to become something much more interesting. The guitars are powerful though not dominant, licking at the edges of the entrancing psychedelic sounds that build. It’s a great song, demonstrating  one of the strengths of EWAMOT : restraint. Resist the temptation to want this song to break out into something bigger. Be taken by its hand. Ask no questions.

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The cover is a terrific representation of the sound and soul of “Rural Pain”. Two working class men by their vehicles isolated in a heavy grey fog. What is the rural pain? Is it what these men experience while striving to make a life in a time where agriculture is no longer the pursuit of the individual? Though I wouldn’t call these songs pastural by any means, these songs do evoke memories of my own childhood in a rural town. In particular I’m reminded of staying on friends farms in the winter months, of the mist on the dam in the early morning and the smell of wet soil. It was almost enough to get high on. Mostly though I remember the grey, the long expanses of grey.

“Somewhere” maybe the strongest invocation of fog on the album. It’s a song dense with textural noise, a heavy droner filtered through sonic static. The name of the song lends itself to the ambiguous feeling of stoicism that I feel is present in these songs and that cover. There’s hope in the fog, a way out from all of this. Somewhere. Somehow.

“Night” feels as if you have joined the song halfway along, as if you have stumbled upon a ritualistic gathering around a blue fire on a blackened hillside. It has a distinct jam quality though it isn’t messy – this sounds a lot like a band that are very comfortable moving within the structures of sound that they create, improvising beautifully. These circular rhythms and brooding guitar suggest hallucinatory moments, of gazing at the bark of a tree in an altered state and realising the great patterns that exist in nature, and in it all. The synthetic and organic melding in a beautiful dance.

“Still Waiting” has a Morning After atmosphere to it, or perhaps the moments just prior, as the sun makes it first attempts to cut through that fog. It’s ever present in this music, though behaves in different ways. Here it reveals itself gradually through layers of sound and a heavy space is built. A sad resigned space, perhaps one that those men inhabit. A steely, stoic space.

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Onto Side B, and “Lost at Sea” has an almost a tropical feel to it. If being marooned with nothing but ocean all around can be a beautiful experience then this is it. The interplay of guitars and more of those wordless vocals suggest a joy in being lost, in being adrift and wholly disconnected. Turn the focus down, turn the static up, and lets gets lost, this song says to me. Though I find the whole album to be an affirming listening experience, this song in particular shines with many blissful moments.

A song entitled “Bonglife” may suggest stoner vibes and you could probably make the case for this entire album (and indeed the entire EWAMOT catalogue) to be fuelled by THC – though this is hardly a druggy jam. It’s another darker piece on the album, contrasting the previous tracks breeziness. Grinding guitar and pulsing synth conjure an 80s sci-fi atmosphere in my minds eye. A city of steel and steam, teeming with humans and the inhuman. Red irises piercing the fog. It’s a cinematic song, and here’s hoping that EWAMOT do indeed one day score a film.

“Peppermints” is sonically dense, the fog here is heavy, almost opaque. The drone of this song is stifling – slightly suffocating in its repetitive fugue – before ending abruptly and giving way to the dissipation of “Neuce”. This track sounds like the album dissolving away as the sun burns through, the last of the condensation rolling down an empty main street. The song lingers, and in it’s final fading there is hope. There was no feeling of relief when that beautiful bed of static finally gave way, the density of this music is never oppressive. I wanted more. Turn that tape over. Press play. Roll on the fog.

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“Rural Pain” is released on Pour Le Corps Records, a great label that consistently releases brilliant psychedelic music. This album is not available to stream as of yet, though you can order it here and a digital copy will be sent to your inbox once formally released. Get yourself a tape though – I sure did enjoy engaging with this album without the distraction of all things digital and it sounded fantastic. Here’s a track from a recent EWAMOT release to close, I strongly recommend checking out the rest of their catalogue if you enjoy what they’re doing.