The Rock Star
Everything's getting shuffled in this art for art's sake world we're now living in, thanks to the nebulous shrieking invisible universe of our glowing-box consortium (...internet...)
Radiohead, NIN, Girl Talk - they all released albums for free - but they're all rich...comparatively speaking, while I'm here saving quarters to buy the next box of kleenex from FoodMart... And, the baffling thing is - bands at the local level (numerous around here and around Detroit) are doing the same thing... We're a state that's experiencing our own personal Depression - so while it's striking that our local artists would give up the ghost of chasing the rock star dream and offer their work for free - it's understandable considering we...the fans...are all broke anyway.
We'll still come to your shows though
anyhow...on to Prussia - the now-quintet of diligent genre-splicers whom I caught up with recently in a cramped Coney in Rochester...to discuss the release of their upcoming EP Blessed Be, Yours Truly in Spirt and Soul - which is available for FREE - TOMORROW - from Common Cloud records at http://www.blessedbeyourstrulyinspiritandsoul.com/
Who's The Band of Today? or "No Charge"
A discussion on free music online: featuring Prussia
photos: Jacob Yeung
An Interview with Prussia
We’re sardine’d together in a cramped corner booth of a Coney Island talking about the future of the music industry. Passing styrofoam cups of Mountain Dew and dabbing ketchup onto the last soggy fry, me and Brenton and Ryan and Andrew...just rambling together on this random winter's night..., we realize that, as “the biz” crumbles and the free digital release trend continues - for bands and the albums they release - there could be a fine-line between an artist’s paradise and a potentially chaotic niche-directed dystopia.
Arched up together with the five boys of Prussia, (bassist/keyboardist Brenton Bober, drummer/bassist Andrew Remdonek, singer/guitarist Ryan Spencer, his brother Drew who plays drums, and the newest member, Jake Brusokas, coming in on second drums) the batch of early 20-somethings modestly (soberly?) shrug off their own existence as “a band that’s not big” and therefore smart to release their upcoming album for free on the internet.
It’s not so much self-effacing as it is uncertainty – we get dizzy trying to dissect how an artist, a band, a journalist, even charts oneself in this swirling new-rules-every-day-yet-no-rules-on-some-days structure of music and commerce…it’s release, it’s sale, how people find it, how people listen to it…what people even think about it…
“I think the music industry needs to thrive on, as strangely as it sounds, other things than music,” says Bober. “If you really like a band then you’ll support them…”
Last year, as a writing/recording trio (Bober, Remdonek, Spencer) released their debut full-length Dear Emily, Best Wishes, Molly, an admittedly sunnier, 60’s-pop dominated, almost-introductory-feeling tour of their eclectic tastes – ranging from Motown to reggae as bent and twisted through art-punk tubes and indie-noise-pop gutters.
This week, (for free – I’ll remind you,) they’re releasing their latest, (continuing the letter-writing-sign-off theme) Blessed Be, Yours Truly, In Spirit and Soul: “It’s not so 60’s” said Remdonek, who recorded and mixed it, “it’s still really soul-influenced but it’s a different kind of soul. The last one was more of an upbeat kind of Motown-thing, this one’s more…what’s going on is a little darker…”
Indeed, the writing for it began in late winter 07, while Bober was getting heavily into vivid quasi-hallucinogenic Italian horror films, like Susperia by Dario Argento. Bober said, “Most horror movies are meant to be done in an everything-needs-to-be-dark/everything-needs-to-be-spooky way, but when you see [Susperia], all the colors are so saturated, everything is so bright – it’s the exact polar opposite of what a horror movie should be – yet it pulls it off better than any one I’ve seen…”
Spencer throws in, dead-panned, “[Susperia]…scared the shit out of me…” And, thank you Spencer, because some of Blessed Be’s atmospherics can potentially scare the shit out of you, too! So far, I’ve been calling it Prussia’s potential soundtrack to their own imaginary horror film, with slight doo-wop dressings and surf-guitar inflections warming the chilly corners.
“It’s very cinematic sounding to me,” said Remdonek, who revealed that Pan’s Labyrinth and “a lot of Star Wars” played on televisions in the background while he was mixing, potentially spurring some of his own intricate additions. [In fact, much of the album was formed in back and forth construction; Like “hey, I added this part in, what do you think?—Oh, cool, I added this part yesterday, let’s put it together” sort of day-to-day reformations].
“We’re starting to move into the direction where a lot of bands aren’t going…” said Bober. “Like, with Dan Deacon and all that kind of music – with what’s going on right now, should we really be this fucking happy?”
“There’s songs about incest and about witchcraft,” said Spencer, “and obviously there’s a religious aspect like the last one, but…I think there’s a distance growing between us and a Christian fan base…oh, and cannibals, there’s a song about cannibals.”
“Ryan got help writing his lyrics from Ozzy Osbourne,” says Remdonek. “But,” Spencer jumps back, “you wouldn’t know it because it’s still kinda poppy and hooky. Brenton wrote 3 of the songs and it reminded me of a horror movie so I tired to write the lyrics based on that.” Remdonek nods and then qualifies that, “We always just want to do something different. I never want to make the same song again.”
And so here we are – a working class band with broken equipment, a four-track, moveable studio, less-than-glamorous day jobs (some of which lost in the wake of Michigan’s own personal depression) and they’re releasing their work, their art, for free!
Free Music Online:
Over the last year and a half, “bigger” festival-hopping jetsetter bands like Radiohead, Girl Talk, Nine Inch Nails released their albums either for free, or for pay-what-you-want deals, online. Kanye West streamed new material for free, and the Flaming Lips released a special 8-song album as a digital download.
Conventional wisdom holds that bands make their money on touring and merchandise sales…and since the Record Industry seems to be evolving into the 21st century as slowly and ineptly as the Auto Industry – the artists it ludicrously attempts to wrangle down with contracts are starting to puncture wrecking-ball-sized holes into their flawed and ever-more archaic framework. October 10, 2007, the day Radiohead released In Rainbows for pay-what-you-want prices online - seems more and more to be a day which will live in revolutionary renown (for artists) and disestablishmentarian infamy (for the industry). It should be noted that Radiohead sold 3 million copies of In Rainbows as both a digital download or physical CD (box-set, etc).
The sales experiment was a success – for all the cheap-or-free downloading, it still did not hurt physical sales when the CD was officially released months later. (That, some of you will point out, is probably because Radiohead is such a band that their fans would be duly dedicated…and might not work with other bands).
Girl Talk’s 06 release Night Ripper was not sold on iTunes initially because DJ Gregg Gillis had not obtained permission for the countless songs he’d sampled throughout the album. With 08’s Feed The Animals he was able to cut out that pesky middleman, and let you go straight to his site to type in your price. If you paid $10 – you got the physical album mailed to you. We’re not babies, we can figure this all out on our own – we don’t need fat cats with cigars and corner offices and complimentary Grammys anymore… The Rock Star is dead. Gillis and Thom Yorke and Trent Reznor…though rich beyond our means, comparatively speaking, our lowering the alienating stage and coming down to hand us their work, on their terms – terms we can afford.
Another thing we need to consider is piracy. It’s not going anywhere. These bands can have pay-what-you-want systems, but BitTorrent downloading will still persist. Momentarily, there’s no other better solution.
In a recent interview with the Von Bondie's Jason Stollsteimer - when asked of the subject of free music online, he shot back quickly, without batting an eye, that all local bands should release their music for free.
It should be stressed that Yorke, Reznor and West, et al can afford this…they’ll all be playing Coachellas and Bonaroos and Spain and Japan and Jupiter’s fifth moon festivals for the next few years – hence a hefty (guaranteed) cash flow beyond the almost-irrelevant-after-the-fact matter of record sales.
So…what about local bands? Bands here, in Detroit…working shit jobs just so that they have the money to replace their tuners and their 4-tracks, sacrificing gas money and beer money so that they can replace their strings…I mean, not to completely romanticize the imagery of our own army of basement DIY-ers but…comparatively speaking, these bigger touring bands can afford it… It then starts to really say something about the state of music, as an art form, when money or fame is clearly being ameliorated, in terms of a musician’s inspiration.
I spoke to a few other bands on the subject – Detroit’s fractured-folk experimental singer/songwriter Alan Scheurman, (who released his Old Patterns album for free online,); pop-songwriting-whiz and manager of local label Suburban Sprawl, Zach Curd (who recently put out an album and compilation for free) and local 60’s-pop/hard-rock visionary Jesse Shepherd-Bates (who plans a free EP this winter).
Scheurmann releasing Old Patterns for free was “an extension of my personal world view,” a belief in the power of community and that we don’t own anything.
Scheurmann: “I think about a time when entertainment, storytelling, and music was shared freely, often ceremonial, with the whole community benefiting from the shared experience. Our reality is evolving at an increasingly rapid pace. I think that as some of us begin to move into a free society we project some of those attributes in our actions. I think it’s safe to say that other artists who share their work freely have similar intentions. We aren't interested in a 20th century capitalist model. I think that the music business, as with most of what we think of as "business", (i.e. corporate/sweatshop models) is naturally going to struggle as people in the society demand accountability and the right to live with the principals of mutual aid. Sure, there's no short term profit, which is why the business isn't giving anything away, but healthy communities that freely share information and resources are the only way we can have sustainable "profits".
If there's a line that is being crossed here, its the line separating old and new, slavery and freedom, extinction model vs. evolution model. That's what is happening with wikipedia, online social networks, urban gardening, free art, and the reemergence of psychedelics. We are creating the world that we'd rather live in. Whether or not we can hold it together long enough to get to the promised land depends on how quickly we decide to move away from old belief systems and into a more holistic consciousness.”
Curd: “There are cases where it works really well for artists (Radiohead, Girl Talk, the success of Vampire Weekend's demos) but everyone seems to make the jump that since it worked for a few large acts, it will work for everyone. How many free online albums are being released this week alone on the internet? There are probably hundreds, if not thousands. So, I think there has to be a motive behind why something should be released for free. With the Sea of Japan record we released for free, those guys weren't a real band, but made a great record. So far that release it was an idyllic "let's share this awesome music with people!" motive. With the holiday compilations, we look at those releases as first a "thank you" to the people who support SubSprawl throughout the year, and secondly as a good way to let people know about our label. Also, if we had charged for the holiday comp it would have been a nightmare from an accounting standpoint, because there are so many made-up bands and non-SubSprawl bands on the holiday comp each year.
I don't think the "slippery slope" of free downloads is dangerously slippery, but I do think it benefits artists and labels to think about the value of their releases and the potential impact of their releases if they want to function with sustainability in mind. With Prussia, their free release will definitely alert some new people to their band. In the short-term, that release won't facilitate them being musicians full-time, but it might in the long term? See? Murky!”
Bates: “I think 'the biz' has crossed a line, but not necessarily a bad one. The business side of music is going to suffer regardless, due to the ease of acquiring free music whether it's legal or not, and it's time to go back to viewing music as an art form. Part of the reason I'm keen on releasing music for free is I think it should be accessible to anyone who'll lend an ear. I put everything I've got into any recording I deem good enough to release, and it's easier to get a stranger to listen to something for free than for any amount of money. Looking at bigger names such as Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails, I've seen/heard many people chide them for setting a bad example for artists in my shoes, but personally I think it's great. It should be noted that both groups cashed in huge by giving the option of a pay-what-you-want download. You have to start small to get to that point, and I think Prussia's got the right state of mind by going the free route.
Releasing music for free (be it a digital album, a FreeP, whatever) is actually a great business scheme, as well as a great means for scoring points for artistic expression. If more people give the album a chance that wouldn't have listened to it under pressure of payment, that translates to a bigger fan base. The only people that want to pay for your material are the ones that already dig what you're doing. Win the masses over with presents now, and hopefully they'll be glad to pay you to keep doing it if you're good enough down the road. It's a Field of Dreams thing really.”
Spencer (Prussia), concluded non profit album's are the future. especially when we are talking about local bands that have not yet made a splash into the national scene. i think that there will always be some people (i am included) that will purchase compact discs, cassette tapes, etc.... but the demand for these items is horribly outnumbered by the enormous supply of, and i hate to say this, but music with nothing going for it besides a little bit of hype.
therefore, if a band would like to be heard, because it has indeed gotten to the point where you're doing someone a favor, by listening to their band, they will have to release music for free. and if it starts to get buzz, fuckin' press that shit to wax, don't waste time on yesterdays rags(compact discs) everybody's got an ipod!(i truly believe ipods sound like shit, and even i own one).
think about what artists are offering these days:
of montreal pretty much launched a line of toys, apparel, and house-decor for their latest album.
the girl from the knife-free
clipse-free mix tapes
we have the internet.
l.p.'s (and i'm talking long player albums 35+ minutes)
are next to go.
people don't have the attention span to dedicate 35 minutes to just one band, not when 14 other bands just came and went in that same amount of time.
who's the band of today? vampire weekend? clap your hands and say yea?”
All definitions and preconceptions are crumbling – “Band of Today,” “Rock Star,” “Platinum sales…” It’s all getting wound back down…to pure passion.
HEAR It Is…