Thom Yorke’s ‘New’ MusicModel Ticks Few of Tomorrow’s Boxes (for The Conversation)

Late last week, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke released his new solo album – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes – via BitTorrent, Inc’s “bundle” platform. Visitors to the service pay a US$6 fee, receiving the usual torrent descriptor file (much as one would on a torrent index site such as Pirate Bay) and proceed through to a downloadable bundle of eight MP3s, a music video, cover art and purchase links to the vinyl edition. To date, more than 300,000 users have either purchased the album or legally downloaded a free portion of it.

It is the paid component of the bundle that proves a potent detail here. So far, this fee-generating torrent file has been the central media hook found in reportage on the album, spreading news of Yorke’s work beyond music and entertainment journalism into the broader technology press.

In much the same way Radiohead’s 2007 album In Rainbows created a broad-reaching splash with its pay-what-you-want delivery download model – a model the band subsequently abandoned – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is an experiment only to the degree that all effective album promotion at this level is an experiment in unknowns.

Read the rest here.

Artist Versus Entrepreneur: Who Gets What?

AKA SOME ARTISTS CAN’T PROMOTE THEIR WORK

Last year, I was struck by two wildly different links I came across on the same day.

Link 1:

oxbow

Via US noise-rock band Oxbow’s Facebook profile I was directed to an opinion piece by writer (and former musician) Alina Simone. Titled ‘The End of Quiet Music’ this was a nicely rendered argument for re-considering contemporary music as Art. Simone illustrates this with anecdotal evidence from her own music career: whilst making music, Simone always felt uncomfortable promoting it. After some dalliances with the new ‘realities of forced entrepreneurship in the music business’ she packed music in and became a writer of essays and novels.

As Simone sums it up, we need to consider people like her:

“We’ve placed the entire onus of changing-with-the-times on musicians, but why can’t the educational, cultural and governmental institutions that support the arts adapt as well, extending the same opportunities to those whose music provides the soundtrack to our lives? If they don’t, Darwinism will probably ensure that only the musical entrepreneurs survive.”

It’s a good argument.

There are a tonne of reasons why contemporary music should be thought of as part of the arts:

(1) Not everyone is an entrepreneur. Some people are terrible entrepreneurs and the world would be better off if they did something else. A significant number of musicians fit this profile. Wouldn’t you rather hear less from some desperate band?

(2) There are concrete barriers and market failures that confront some musicians. It can cost an Australian band $10,000 to $20,000 more than an American band to tour America, due to geography and visa restrictions.

(3) And the big one: It’s already happening in places like Australia. It’s here. Contemporary music is treated like part of the arts here. To a much lesser degree, yes, but it does gets funded by the same people who fund poetry and painting.

Here is a list of bands who have received Australia Council for the Arts funding in the last year or so:

Ball Park Music  $20,000

Dead Letter Circus $15,000

The Smith Street Band $13,240 / $13,000

Adalita $15,400

San Cisco $20,000

Sarah Blasko $20,000

Art Vs Science $20,000

Augie March $20,000

More than half of these acts are affiliated with major labels.

The music ‘industry’ is already partially under umbrella of the arts in Australia.

(Look for yourself)

In Australia, contemporary music is art. All we’re really arguing about (if we’re arguing at all) is about capitalising that ‘a’ in ‘Art’ like it always is in opera and experimental music.

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Link 2:

the-weeknd-4ee6928ad3a11

The second piece I saw last year (I wrote some of this ages ago) reached me through Buzzsonic. It was this flashy piece by Billboard Magazine on The Weeknd: How The Weeknd Went From Internet Mystery to Billboard 200 No. 2 by Reggie Ugwu.

On the surface, this piece tells a VERY different story to Simone’s. This article is about how a musician made it ‘big’ by doing virtually nothing:

 What does it mean for an artist to succeed on his/her own terms in 2013? The Weeknd — the 23-year-old, famously elusive R&B singer born Abel Tesfaye — sold 95,000 copies of his major label debut album “Kiss Land” last week, according to Nielsen SoundScan — enough for a debut at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in a neck-and-neck race with country music star Keith Urban. “Kiss Land” trailed Urban’s “Fuse” for the number one spot by less than 3,000 albums. But unlike Urban, Tesfaye had no charting singles, or penetration at radio, and conceded to only one press interview — with Complex magazine in July — in support of the project.

In short, Tesfaye made music and let the internet and buzz do the heavy lifting. When he’d cemented in what he was doing (via free mixtapes) he went with Republic and they promoted ‘Kissland’ via ‘word of mouth, online and street-level marketing and a string of cinematic music videos.’ They didn’t throw endless amounts of cash at it. The artist didn’t take to social media every waking moment. Every individual step looks pretty savvy to me.

It’s all been built to scale up fairly organically, based on whether it should.

(That last word seems important)

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THE MIDDLE GROUND…IF THERE IS ANY?

5756196362_8266c50ac8_b

So where’s the middle ground between these two pieces?

It looks pretty clear to me:

The consumer market.

 You can’t mess with this formula: Sell people what they want to buy.

This is often a difficult proposition for musicians because – in short – their product line is somewhat fixed. Most musicians can only sing, play, perform, write and entertain in a few specific ways. Most musicians can only make a fixed number and type of product. If you play guitar, you can’t release an album of violin jams, for example.

(Same goes for many other creative people, including writers. I couldn’t write romance fiction if my life depended on it. My idea of romance is this: my girlfriend and I eat pizza together, fully clothed, in a well lit room.)

This is not a problem Tresfaye has because people want music he makes. He doesn’t need to change anything up at the moment. He’s riding over ground opened up by EDM’s rise and rise, helped along by Drake. He has, despite this, maintained a cache of mystery. So he’s got everything on his side at the right time.

When has this ever not worked?

So here’s my problem: If I had to choose which one of these two artists (Alina Simone or Abel Tresfaye) is making ‘Art’, I’m going with The Weeknd.

I just am. Simone’s work is not art because she couldn’t promote it.

I don’t think the relationship between art and entrepreneurship is linear at all.

‘Entreprenurship’ is not about being a pest on social media. That’s a mistake proponents for and against make repeatedly. Tesfaye has been far more entrepreneurial than most, while keeping a fairly low profile.

‘Art’ is not about being an extrovert either. There are probably more photos of Alina online than Tresfaye.

Entreprenurship, innovation, creativity, all those buzzwords are all about the same thing when it comes to music or any other creative endeavour: it’s the art of telling your audience a new story about why they might like your stuff…

And then getting lucky with the rest of it aka having the right product-fit for the right moment.

It’s a brutal fucking business. Really crushing. But if you can tell the right story at the right time, the game is yours no matter how you choose to play it.

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The ‘Open Source Acclaim’ of Death Grips: Narratives of access, career and promotion in contemporary music journalism.

(This post is adapted – very slightly – from a paper I gave at this year’s International Association for the Study of Popular Music conference in Brisbane, Australia. As I was speaking to a diverse academic audience, I set-up the paper with a lot of biographic information at the front here so if you’re familiar with the work of DG, you can probably skip this.

BACKSTORY: THE RISE OF DEATH GRIPS 

Both ends of my candle

Countin’ paces

Never stop chasin’ each other’s faces

I’m the mask that separates them

I’ve been interested in the American experimental hip-hop band Death Grips for what feels like a long time but it’s actually been about three years. Three years feels like a lifetime in music criticism. The band emerged in 2011 with a self-released mix-tape titled Exmilitary, something that travelled far and wide online, finding all sorts of places to reside, namely MP3 blogs and more prominently, Grindcore Karaoke, the online label of Jay Randall (Agoraphobic Nosebleed). The links between Grindcore Karaoke and the band appeared clear: in addition to hip-hop, Exmilitary had strong ties to (and samples taken from) aggressive rock, punk and art music and as such it felt like a natural fit for GK’s emphasis on the borderlands of noise, grindcore and punk, whereby the tinny drum machines of Death Grips sat directly alongside the spluttering electronically programmed blast beats of electro-grind.

Personally, I thought Exmilitary was interesting more than good. Others were more taken by it. When one writer for Forbes Magazine came to assemble his 2011 list of ‘Best Free Albums’, Death Grips came in about halfway at #5, edging out The Weeknd, Fugazi-Wu-Tang Clan mash-up Wugazi and Crosses, a side-project of Chino Moreno of nu-metal titans Deftones. The record also earned good reviews in The Guardian, Pitchfork and NME.

From 2011, the band’s trajectory trended in one direction: up. Less than a year after their debut, they would be signed to the Sony-funded Epic Records (home to Avril Lavigne, Fiona Apple, Michael Jackson’s catalogue). The band announced two albums for 2012 and in April, Epic released the first of these called The Money Store. To promote the album, a 30-date international tour was booked. It was due to start in May but…

After 11 years of being on the road, (drummer/producer Zach) Hill knew there wasn’t always something at the end of the touring rainbow, after playing “the same circuit of the same things of the same this of the same that.” Rolling with the future meant finishing the second record…They gave the world no more notice than…

DG

They didn’t tell anyone they were bailing on 30 shows, least of all their booking agent, manager, record label, or publicist. (Quote taken from this piece from Spin.)

Further to which, the band essentially opted out the album’s promotional cycle completely. They did a small, select handful of interviews that year, most of which went online well after the The Money Store had passed. All this did not go down well at Epic or in any other part of the music industries associated with the band, except the press: all of the intermediaries around Death Grips were effected and the band’s audience were deeply unimpressed, almost comically so for a band so readily adopting the punk mode.

Yet Death Grips followed through: they spent the next four months of 2012 locked away in their Sacramento apartment finishing their third album No Love Deep Web. When they returned to LA and Epic in a bid to have their third album released, they were met with a far less-than-enthusiastic response. They persisted, hounding the executives of their own label for a release date and got no where. The label refused to schedule the album until, ‘sometime in 2013’. Frustrated and feeling the moment passing, the band leaked No Love Deep Web on October 1st and it looked like this:

482

There’s some peen under the black box.

This provoked an unusual response from Epic:

Epic Records is a music first company that breaks new artists. That is our mission and our mandate. Unfortunately, when marketing and publicity stunts trump the actual music, we must remind ourselves of our core values. To that end, effective immediately, we are working to dissolve our relationship with Death Grips.

The band have remained active since: they started their own label, signed it over to another major-label funded subsidiary Harvest. Finally, in August of this year, they were set to play a small number of shows and festival appearances. When audiences packed into Chicago’s Bottom Lounge for the first of these dates, they were met with an AV projection, of a suicide note while a mix tape of the band’s music played. This was the entire show. The Bottom Lounge’s venue staff were repeatedly told the band were delayed but it was later revealed they were not even in the state.

THE SPECIFIC AND THE EXTRAORDINARY IN THE STORY OF DEATH GRIPS 

As one can imagine, online music portals like Pitchfork, Spin, Stereogum, Consequence of Sound and whomever else desired the traffic loved all of this. This all made the news pages regularly, tediously even: Pitchfork reported the tweets, the tour cancellations, the album leak, then Epic’s response to the leak and so on. On just that one website – the most influential music site by a long margin – there have been over 50 stories about Death Grips since February 2012. Stereogum has run 29 stories since the start of 2012, not bad for a site that has no actual access to the band. In one of these stories, a Stereogum writer referred to Death Grips’ success as ‘open source acclaim.’ This was a quip, of course, as much is the daily grind of music reporting tends to be but it got me thinking. The scenario of Death Grips looks open, and it’s designed to look this way but is this really true? This band’s constant provocation rings out as equal parts punk resistance and traffic optimising online promotion but does that mean it’s accessible, hackable, adaptable? I started looking for the specific and extraordinary in the story of Death Grips.

NOT YOUR STANDARD DEAL

Firstly, the recording deal the band signed with Epic was extraordinary in a few regards. The band’s way into the label was via L.A. Reid’s then-executive vice president of marketing Angelica Cob-Baehler:

“It took about six seconds,” she says. “I was just sucked in. What I saw was a band that had the ability to capture violent, raw aggression in a way I hadn’t seen this decade. I couldn’t sleep that night. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was scared of them! I couldn’t resist the feeling of just wanting to be a part of it.” (Quote, again, taken from this piece from Spin.)

What Cob-Baehler watched, in this quote here, was this video:

It has almost 2 million views, despite the fact that it looks like it was shot on a phone. What’s interesting to note at all points thereafter – even when the label is dismissing the band – is the adherence to the act’s cultural currency. This fairly potent cache they have, of bristling rawness, of a mix between the gritty, almost Ol Dirty Bastard-esque blather of MC Ride and the brashly experimental and hardcore referencing sounds underneath, all of this appears preserved under the band’s recording deal. The deal they signed seems very far indeed from the all-encompassing, all-controlling and encroaching contract work Matt Stahl has analysed recently. To the contrary, Epic seems to make no attempt whatsoever to tame Death Grips for the broader commercial market. At no point, does Epic appear ready or willing or even interested in pushing Death Grips to cross-over more broadly. When the band fails to live up to expectations, recall the wording the label used in their denouncement: they spin the story as a means to promote their ‘core values’ of authentic music, while Death Grips’ spin is pure punk-rock brattiness.

Everyone wins.

NO NEWS IS NEWS: DEATH GRIPS AND THE DIGITAL ENCLOSURE

My second point of exception with Death Grip’s open source acclaim is their self-management, namely the direction they have taken their band. Over time, the band’s sense of DIY self-determination has started to look more and more perilous, both bane and boon. For example, if they were, in fact, in total control as the touring stunts aimed to demonstrate, then they were also the origin of all this tactical promotion. Today, the band has really started to look like it’s own version Malcolm McClaren. From there it’s hard not to think of Greil Marcus and Debord and the spectacle. Here was Death Grips and the online music media and digital technology producing the ‘reality’ of Death Grips. While so heavily invested in the culture of online technology, the band’s music – it’s core – seems to slide to the margins. The more attention the band got in 2012-2013, the less emphasis was placed on its sound. It’s frightening how few of those 50 news pieces on Pitchfork centred on Death Grips as musicians or creators of sound-based art or music or songs. This has become almost pure media spectacle now. When a band is celebrated for not performing live what is there? The music media is celebrating an absence, a ‘mysterious’ lack of personal presence, as if the fact that anything can and does lies outside the digital enclosure is suddenly a curious and novel idea. Suddenly, no news has almost become newsworthy, by merit of the fact it jumps the track of daily updates and feeds.

Death Grips produce work directly aimed at these gaps, between all these processes and not for them. They draw attention by being neither one nor other. Likewise, they sit between punk’s authentic resistance and commercial hip-hop’s brash swagger, between music as communicative centre-piece and brand rallying point, between orderly business and chaotic art and finally, centrally, between promotion as a musician’s chore and as marketing as story-based art-form. Death Grips ride this age-old tension all the way. There’s real power here between the spectacular online and absent off and they are relentless online, releasing song after song, video after video, animated gif after gif but none of this reveals much about their concrete week-to-week existence. They are not the story. They’re telling the story.

THE PAROCHIAL BIAS

Finally, I want to finish up with one final piece of detail. It’s fairly obvious from the outset that what Epic wanted from Death Grips was this cultural power and cache, their ability to command attention. This is the central process by which music is being monetised at present. The album sales are never coming back. The Money Store was anything but. It reportedly sold as little as 4000 copies in its opening week and it is not surprising Epic proved elusive when it came to scheduling the follow-up album. Yet the story of how – exactly – the band approached Epic a second time is really illuminating. For a band steeped in outsider mythos, Death Grips were living anything but: In 2012, after completing No Love Deep Web in Sacremento, the band took the remaining portion of their record advance and set up a base in one of rock’s most mythologised places:

…they were walking down Sunset Boulevard with their bags and passed Chateau Marmont, the famed $435-a-night luxury hotel and/or castle where Led Zeppelin rode motorcycles through the lobby, Lindsay Lohan got booted for skipping her bill, and Katy Perry and John Mayer currently rendezvous on dates. (And again.)

Despite the band’s Bourdesian strategising, it didn’t work. The leak of No Love Deep Web was made from the hotel, the cover was shot in one of it’s bathrooms. As this era of the band came to an end, it was a failure almost, if not for the rapid succession of news pegs it provided for transmission.

As an Australian music critic, I find this particular anecdote interesting. Is it not a rich metaphor for the band’s career more broadly? The band’s positioning within a certain geographic zone – the U.S., close to L.A. – afforded them significant advantage.The aesthetics of Death Grips are cheap to produce and transferred through a media most of the West have access to. Yet how far did Epic’s gaze travel in this brave new digital world? To Sacremento? To Youtube? And look at the hustle involved in that second-chance Death Grips were chasing. That experience is what most musicians outside of a select few struggle with every day. High quality accessible product can find its way to market despite geographic obstacles but fringe music like Death Grips? It was a miracle it made it to Epic once and even with the aid of Epic’s own capital investment, the band couldn’t get back inside the door. This is the size and shape of the ‘democratised’ and utopic digital media. You are free to do as you please but attention still travels along a circuitry of place and capital that still appears completely dominated by the U.S., even in 2013, even with something as unflinching as Death Grips.

The American music press seems wilfully blind to this. In an age were all sorts of music journalism tropes surrounding gender, race and class are being rigorously dismantled, little is made of the obvious parochial bias. While the online spectacle of constant daily churn and music for everyone – and by everyone – continues, much is obscured as we click through to the next illuminating and distracting moment. We are, each of us, a little like Death Grips. We have a plethora of options that look like an open source of inspiration and transmission but I’m not sure how often we exercise these ideals. Instead, we stare into the digital music media online and suddenly find ourselves compromised, conflicted and occasionally ostratcised by our own so- called revolution, our own marvel of creation. And while I’ve been fairly critical at times about this band, I think they really understand this. I think they feel it. They get it. Because interwoven between so much of what they do and so many of the band’s lyrics is a strain of nihilism. Spin critic Christopher Weingarten wrote of the band being one that “embraced the chaos of the internet.” I agree. But the internet Death Grips have a hold on is no business marketplace or visual pleasure zone, it’s an abyss, a place of cynicism, noise, alienation, surveillance and rampant, unchecked expectation. I think that third album title – No Love, Deep Web – might just describe the thrust of the band far more completely than an insider exposé.

Hybrid Moments in Jared Leto’s ‘Artifact’

AKA THIS FILM IS STRANGELY AWESOME

There are two distinct scenes in Artifact – a new documentary about US pop band 30 Seconds To Mars – where it feels as though the film could truly become an exposé. This desire to expose is a claim the film makes often. Director and star Jared Leto is repeatedly depicted on camera in a state of intense frustration about the injustices of commercial music. For minutes on end, he argues and cusses into the phone. If one were to edit out these scenes of him on the phone (and, perhaps, the scenes of the band high-fiving), there would not be much left of Artifact to watch.

Yet it is one phone conversation in particular that I found captivating. Leto cruises through LA in an SUV, speaking to his manager Irving Azoff. Not much comes of this brief chat: the band’s label is still suing them (for 30 million dollars, no less), negotiations are still slow and unfruitful, chaos still reigns supreme in the American music business. At the end of this conversation, just as Leto is about to speak, Azoff signs off abruptly. Leto then turns to the camera and says:

‘I was just about to ask him how much that call cost me.’

It is was at this exact point I first started to pay real attention. Here Leto is depicted at rock bottom. He is questioning everything around him, allies and enemies alike. If this moment were channeled through the remainder of the film and allowed to guide its narrative, Artifact would have been an astute and invaluable music documentary, irrelevant of one’s opinion of the band. Unfortunately, this is not to be.

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Always On This Line by Sarah Blasko

AKA THIS SONG AND WHAT’S IT ABOUT

Oh, it might be unkind of me to make you feel bad,
It might be a shame of me to treat you like that,
When there’s everything you’ve worked for in your life,
On this line…

You think?

The middle-eight of ‘Always On This Line’ by Sarah Blasko is one of the most bittersweet moments in Australian music. It’s pretentious, manipulative, awful but also knowing, sly and gut-wrenching. After a whole song of ‘Maybe you could have made something of yourself’ (never myself), Blazzy cops to this brief moment of doubt. But…it’s never felt very generous to me. It feels like fine print. Compounded by the cute filmclip, the only difference between this and – as John Gardner would say – ‘staring into a volcano filled with baby skulls,’ is her awkward dancing and the impeccable chorus hook. There’s a lot of life in that dancing and chorus. I don’t know how she does it.

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History Is Made At Night: The Importance of Live Venues

AKA THANK GOD FOR CLINTON WALKER 

One of the best Australian music books you could read this year was published on a small academic press and unless you’re a nerd (or an avid reader of Mess&Noise, same difference) you probably didn’t notice. This book – History is Made at Night: Live Music in Australia by Melbourne Sydney-based music writer Clinton Walker – is the sort of thing a lot of musicians should get ahold of.

Why?

Because it’s a sustained, thoughtful and entertaining argument for something most of us hold very dear: live music. It’s written in the shadow of the recent strife with Melbourne’s Tote Hotel  but for a writer of Walker’s talent, this is just a starting point. He takes that moment and succinctly unravels why and how it could ever have been  seen as acceptable to close down a beloved venue for virtually no reason.

As such, this book is all the ammunition a musician (repeatedly) need to clarify and defend what we do against a range of things: the real estate industry, bad policy, snobbish arts funding and an exploitative commercial industry. And this is the exact sort of work my discipline (popular music studies) needs to be doing in Australia.

That said, I figure you’re probably not going to find it at your local book store, much less read it.

So here’s my notes:

On the function of venues:

‘…I can vouch for what goes on in these rooms: a ritual of social and artistic communion and transcendence that is increasingly rare in a world of virtualization, isolation and commodification.” (3)

On vocational training:

‘You don’t learn how to write a song in school,’ (Paul) Kelly said. ‘You can’t do a TAFE course on how to play in front of an audience. These places were my universities.’ (5)

The live music industry is big:

…the value is enormous. The industry boasts nearly four thousand venues nationally which put on more than three hundred thousand gigs a year and attract forty million punters, generating more than a billion dollars’ revenue and employing fifteen thousand. (6-7)

Damn straight:

‘Popular music isn’t in search of an audience, nor is it seeking to remix its demographic; it’s already got a vast and incredibly diverse audience. It doesn’t seek grand public monuments like an Opera House either. Everybody knows it’s (almost) never received government funding, and it’s hardly about to start sticking its hand out now. All it’s really asking is that when it does find some little hole in the wall in which to perform without harming anyone, it’s not harassed in doing so. All it’s asking is that the contempt, vilification and harassment stop. Now.’ (9)

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You Are Never Just A Musician

AKA I WANNA BE DIVERSIFIED

The successful pop star has her hand in a half dozen different media and a half dozen different genres. Take Chrisina, she sings, dances, co-writes. She does philanthropic work, acts in film, endorses brands. She is a public face for hire and designs jewellery. She is not equally gifted at all these things but she gets by and she moves with the times. She rides the trends.

The successful indie band has its hand in half a dozen different media and half a dozen different sub-genres. Take Sonic Youth, the big kahuna. They sing and flop around onstage. They write songs, appear in film (documentaries, Last Days), endorse guitars and coffee. They maintain music labels and fashion labels, solo careers and various curation projects. They experiment. They move with the times. From no-wave to classic rock to grunge to classical / experimental to reissuing everything.

The successful local band has its hand in a few media and usually one genre. Pick any band you know personally. They sing, they perform, they write songs, appear on Youtube, self-release their albums (or have a friend do it) and maintain their often unrelated, increasingly professional day jobs, for money. The good ones do more than that: they book shows, books tours, take photos, blog, write, record, document, broadcast, inspire and encourage. They don’t – as rule – change with the times. Instead, they break-up and reappear as a new band.

The motivations are different but the activity is comparable.

Everyone rocks a diverse deal these days.

And that’s why ‘diversify’ is such a buzzword in industry: It works.

The focused pure authentic musician who only plays music is something that dumb white guys made up. It’s a bogus history with no real foundation. Forget this history.

If you play music, the question isn’t whether to diversify.

The question is: How well are you already doing it?