If you've completely lost your shit to one of Girl Talk’s overwhelming sample-collage albums only to subsequently shelve it for the rarest of occasions, don’t feel so bad. Turns out the guy who made them has pretty much done the same exact thing. Referring to his party-crashing trilogy of Night Ripper, Feed the Animals, and All Day, Gregg Gillis admits: “I don't really just throw them on myself, but I do reference them a lot. Sometimes I have a hard time remembering exactly the way something went on an album, so I find myself going on YouTube. It's kind of embarrassing.”
And yet, for all the concerns about how the Girl Talk project would (or would not) hold up with age, 2014 is looking a lot like the kind of world Gillis envisioned back in 2006 on Night Ripper. Obviously, there were people who found space for both Neutral Milk Hotel and Ying Yang Twins then, but they were rarely, if ever, part of the same conversation. Nowadays, any indie band that doesn’t incorporate elements of pop, hip-hop, or R&B into their sound tends to be seen as hopelessly puritanical.
Meanwhile, most artists now rely on record sales about as much as Gillis does, which is to say, not at all. In fact, though no one has ever paid a dime for a Girl Talk record, a recent study showed that 2010’s All Day actually helped other artists make money. Moreover, many DJ/producers can not only play rock festivals at this point, they can often headline them for a highly lucrative fee. That fact isn’t lost on Gillis, especially after a startling New Yorker piece from last year revealed how much bigtime club gigs in Las Vegas actually pay. "I'm in a weird point because I feel like I'm in that conversation at times, but otherwise I feel so different from that," says Gillis. "I do play Vegas and get offers where the money is good, but I don't know if it's best for the way I want to present this.”
To some extent, Gillis has taken the opportunity to kick up his heels a bit. He toured far less in 2013 than in years past and spent a lot of time hanging with his “friends with real jobs” in his hometown of Pittsburgh, where they may hit a TGI Friday's in the suburbs or see a Steelers-jersey-filled house show for "some weirdo band." His day-to-day consists of waking up “in the afternoon, checking WorldStar and email, and then just working on tunes.”
Some of those tracks will make up his upcoming collaborative EP with Philadelphia firebrand Freeway, Broken Ankles, due out April 8 via mixtape hub DatPiff. (The release, which Gillis considers “the next Girl Talk album,” also features guest shots from Waka Flocka Flame, Young Chris, and Jadakiss.) He regards his Keystone State counterpart as a “legend,” and goes on to discuss how Jim Jones changed his life, Pittsburgh’s current status a hip-hop hotbed, and his goals in uniting his aesthetic with an underground, not-quite-star like Freeway: “I'm sure a ton of Freeway fans have no idea who Girl Talk is and a ton of Girl Talk fans have no idea who Freeway is—my goal is to bridge that gap."
Watch the teaser for Girl Talk and Freeway's video with Waka Flock Flame:
Pitchfork: Did you reach out to Freeway for this project or vice versa?
Gregg Gillis: I made the first move. I had 70 beats ready to go. A lot of them were like a modern take on soul beats, which I've always loved, and those sounds are classic Freeway. He has this whole history of starting with Jay-Z and Roc-A-Fella and moving to Rhymesayers, but at no point has he stopped doing his thing. He's been extremely consistent, but still has evolved on his own path, which is something I admire in any musician. I always like the people who keep moving forward, but kind of stay in their own lane.
Pitchfork: How did you and Freeway get along initially?
GG: It started off a little stiff. I knew he had seen YouTube videos of me performing and he knew the general gist of it. Then finally we were on Rock the Bells together, and when he saw the show, I think it finally clicked. It took a little while for us to gel. This was not a “he goes to the studio and raps over my song” sort of thing. This was two months of putting a ton of stuff together. I hope you hear it in the release.
Watch Girl Talk and Freeway perform "Tolerated" at a Brooklyn show last year:
Pitchfork: Were there any moments where you caught yourself playing up your hip-hop knowledge to impress Freeway?
GG: It’s easy to forget, after spending a lot of time with him in the studio and just listening to him talk, that he’s a legend. I’m kind of geeking out, like, “Whoa, I’m in the studio with Freeway.” I’ve never written a lyric in my life, and he writes in his head. It’s all right there on the spot, and it’s always good. But there were a few times where I felt like the delivery could be changed, or maybe a syllable could be different, and I felt like a complete insane asshole on the first day, trying to say something to Freeway. But by the end it got comfortable. I would talk to my high school friends and be like, “I just suggested how to do an ad-lib to Freeway.”
Pitchfork: Was there any point where he said, “I can’t really rap over this”?
GG: Something that distinguishes my solo work from normal rap production is that it has a lot of melody—it’s not just cutting up a song and having someone rap over it. And there’s a lot going on on some of the beats. If we wanted to try something, he’d more or less be down. We had him over some straight rock beats, and that was his call.
Pitchfork: Have you ever previously tried to make hip-hop beats?
GG: I did one beat, like, 10 years ago, for a group in Pittsburgh. The only other thing other than that was the Jim Jones [track "Believe in Magic" for Pitchfork.tv's "Selector"]. That was influential. It was a wild night. It turned into us being in the studio for five or six hours, and the ad-lib part was absolutely triumphant. He got in the booth and was running around and I'm pretty sure he was drinking something and smoking something else. I have no idea what was even in the rotation at that point in the night, but he was absolutely losing it. The ad-libs just come to him. The crew in the studio that night was wowed.
Pitchfork: When Night Ripper dropped, some people still held assumptions about pop and hip-hop and indie rock having completely separate fan bases. But now, it’s fairly obvious that everything is fair game. Do you find that more intimidating as an artist, or freeing in a way?
GG: It’s a positive thing. Though it does make things a little more complicated in terms of the purpose of doing this. Prior to Night Ripper, when I would play pop music at underground shows, it was offensive to some people. I wasn’t doing it to piss people off: I just didn’t believe in those strong divisions that you’re supposed to listen to this or that. But as that idea gets more accessible, it’s not as offensive to people; the electronic music underground is just as big as the mainstream. In Pittsburgh, they don’t necessarily play Tiesto on the radio, but that music is the biggest music in the world right now. It has been bizarre with the whole EDM explosion and how that fits into what I’m doing, but for me it's always been the musical idea first before any conceptual thing. So even as EDM happens, I always like to borrow bits and pieces of things. There’s a line between jumping on something that’s happening and incorporating bits and pieces of it into my work.
Pitchfork: You were the only Pittsburgh artist to break on a national level since maybe Rusted Root, so how does it feel now that Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller have put a much bigger spotlight on your city?
GG: It's been cool because I've been supporting those guys for a while, and I remember when Wiz Khalifa first came on the radio here, around 2005. I went to a show of his and I had a burnt copy of Night Ripper before it came out—I met him there and gave him that copy. I played a few shows with him before things really took off. They've got Rostrum Records, which is a Pittsburgh-based label, and they all went to the same high school, Taylor Allderdice. I feel like the perception of Pittsburgh has definitely changed nationally based on Wiz and Mac Miller. Those guys are both not in any way manufactured by the majors or anything like that. They were doing local shows at the Shadow Lounge.
GG: I’d be curious about the amount of independent bands that lived off of music in 1998 versus 2013. A lot of my friends who came up in a DIY way live on music now, and I don’t think they would’ve had an avenue to have that fan base prior to the internet. There are now bands that get no mainstream exposure and still play at arenas in Tennessee. The industry side of things has been exposed. In the 90s, it was so hard to understand everything that was going on. You just had a vague understanding of where a band fit in, and who was popular. Now, people have a good understanding of that, and they’re giving new bands a shot.
Obviously for my project in particular, people think, “Oh yeah, that guy cuts up pop music and it’s popular—end of story.” Like it’s that easy. But for me, this came from a place of being influenced by Negativland and John Oswald and Kid606. I can honestly say I did this for six years and I wasn’t trying to make a following. I was just trying to make interesting music. That’s not being modest, that’s just being realistic. Prior to Night Ripper, no one gambled on this. I burned maybe 300 CDs and sent them out to labels and DJs and everything, and I heard back from one person. Then it turned into this thing that took off. I’m not the only one; there’s a lot of examples of that, which is really exciting.
Pitchfork: Do you still worry about lawsuits?
GG: Yeah, but I don't lose sleep over it. And I do believe in what I'm doing, so “worry” isn't an accurate term. I'm confident in what I'm doing and believe it should be legal if it's transformative and comes in its own entity and doesn't negatively impact the sales of the source materials. It's always a possibility, but I feel like I've always tried to not let that influence me. If you're going to do this, you've got to go full-on. There's no half-assing it.
It’s late October when I walk up to Mac DeMarco's home studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where the creaky iron gate outside never seems to shut all the way. The 23-year-old comes to the door looking and sounding like he’s been up all night—eyes drooping, not really smiling. He’s got a mustache and scraggly facial hair in that nebulous zone between “five o’clock shadow” and “actual beard.” He's wearing the hat he wears all the time, the one with the patch on it.
He points to a cluttered box of a room on the left, says it’s his, and tells me to make myself at home while he takes a piss. In the hallway, there’s a baby doll with demon wings hanging from the ceiling, twine tied around its torso. There’s just enough clearance for his door to open, though sizable chunks of wood usually chip off whenever you close it. His room is maybe 15 feet long, and rumpled-up clothes and a five-piece drum kit take up at least 90% of the walkable floor space. He lives here with his girlfriend. There aren’t any windows.
A month previous, after returning to New York from an extensive tour behind his breakout album 2, which included some arena gigs opening for Phoenix, DeMarco went to the store to stock up on everything he needed so he wouldn’t have to leave this room. "And I pretty much haven’t," he says. Fruit flies hover around a full Viceroy-brand ashtray. For the past few weeks, he’s been toiling on his third solo record in this space, recording every instrument on the record while chain smoking about two packs a day with the door closed. "In Canada, we call this 'the Indian hot box,’” says DeMarco, who grew up in Edmonton. After four days of hanging out in the unventilated rectangle, my eye started twitching persistently; he calls this "smoker's eye."
To understand why this grubby, gap-toothed kid has seized a strong following over the last few years, consider the other festival-friendly indie rock outfits currently in his sphere. In a heap of artists who take their craft very seriously, here’s a guy with a penchant for public nudity, shameless drunkenness, and slovenly classic-rock covers peppered with the shouted words “SUCK MY DICK!” So while some find his behavior repugnant, others are enthralled with his youthful abandon; either way, within the often faceless world of modern guitar rock, DeMarco demands attention by not giving a fuck. It's no wonder he recently found a kindred spirit in shit-stirrer extraordinaire Tyler, the Creator, who tweeted: “DEAR MAC DEMARCO I LOVE YOU YOU ARE AWESOME."
But DeMarco's not just some volatile loose cannon. There’s a warmth and approachability about him; he recently covered Jonathan Richman live, and he talks about Steely Dan records with authority. His home-recorded love songs—near yacht rock-ian in their smoothness—contain widely universal sentiments. They're feel-good affairs performed with a deep-voiced croon and a warbly guitar tone that’s distinctly his own. He’s telling stories with a smile, crafting breezy songs that sound good at outdoor stages.
In person, he smiles and makes you feel like you’re in on his jokes, however bizarre or disgusting they may be. He’s the friend who actively looks for the party, drinks way too much when he gets there, and is eventually found passed out in the closet. He's an auteur with a lampshade on his head. A punk kid with moon eyes. An unwashed chain-smoker from the Canadian flatlands who keeps coughing between sentences.
It's time to record. DeMarco lights a cigarette, grabs his junky electric guitar—which is tricked-out with a pickguard made from house siding and a Pabst bottlecap around the input jack—and finds the right place to stand so the amp doesn't buzz. When he starts playing, he wiggles his head around in a circle and bobs his knees. Sometimes, his entire body heaves, on the beat, from side to side. When he plays back the tape, he tells me to note that the song's bassline is “dirty as shit.”
DeMarco's got just a few more days to finish three more songs for what will be his most scrutinized album yet, Salad Days. When he talks about what he’s got left to do, he runs his hand through his hair (which then sticks directly up), his eyes glaze over a little, and he sounds exhausted. His slumped-over presence is a sharp contrast to his public persona, though he’s not humorless. When he gets excited about a song he’s just recorded, he’ll turn the volume up pretty loud and yell something like “niiiiice baby!” in a sort of off-brand Jim Carrey caricature.
Mostly, though, he’s focused and finally winding down from almost constantly being “on.” Earlier in October, he sat on the floor of this room, a pillow beneath his ass, his keyboard in front of him, and wrote both the music and lyrics to the wary new track “Passing Out Pieces”. Key lyric: "I’m passing out pieces of me, don’t you know nothing comes free?" Following a year and a half of touring and press, DeMarco says he felt "fuckin’ bummed out.” He and his band were outspokenly sick of their own set; their medley of jokey covers—including "Takin' Care of Business", "Enter Sandman", and Limp Bizkit's "Break Stuff"—became a chore.
He sounds beleaguered as he talks about his fanbase, which ballooned over the past year. Before 2 came out in late 2012, DeMarco was playing sparsely-attended shows in 200-person capacity rooms, but he just sold-out an upcoming set at Manhattan's Webster Hall—that’s 1,400 tickets. “I don’t have resentment towards the fans,” he’s quick to note, before admitting they’ve “kind of scared the shit out of me.”
“I feel sort of weathered and beat down and grown up all of a sudden,” DeMarco says. "I’ve always had some kind of plateau that I wanted to reach, and now I just can’t see the next one." For Salad Days, he's imposed a firm restriction on himself as a songwriter: No more songs “about absolutely nothing” with ambiguous lyrics. He’s concerned that his new songs, which he describes as negative, may put off some fans.
“But I need to get this shit out, you know?”
“He's always been a kook since he was a little boy,” says Agnes DeMarco, Mac's mom. “When I took him skating for the first time, he spun like a whirling dervish, fell down, and then got right back up to spin again.” For his part, Mac recounts a day when he and a neighborhood kid named Norman poured gasoline into flower beds and lit them on fire, then made molotov cocktails and whipped them into oncoming traffic. (Agnes doesn’t remember that.)
DeMarco’s 21-year-old brother Hank, who's currently studying ballet in Calgary, says that whenever he took a bath between the ages of 8 and 17, Mac would unhinge the lock and come into the bathroom to annoy him. When I speak to DeMarco’s friends, they struggle to offer specific childhood stories—there are just too many. Still, Alex Calder, a member of DeMarco's old band Makeout Videotape, can't help but recall one of the many times when he woke up with Mac’s bare penis resting on his face.
When DeMarco was in high school, he and his friends would hang out in Agnes’ garage and play blues jams, which eventually led to his first joke bands. There was the Gories-style shit-fi group the Meat Cleavers, who nabbed a few gigs after sending local promoters threatening emails: “Give us a fuckin’ show or we’ll come down there and beat the fuckin’ shit out of you.” Thinking back to the crowds at those Meat Cleavers shows, Calder says, "I don't know if anyone got the joke.”
Then came the Sound of Love, a smooth R&B band that had DeMarco singing songs about girls from his school, like “Queen of the Courts” (about a girl who played tennis) and “Chinese Takeout Lady” (about an Asian girl Mac had a crush on). He pissed off a lot of girls with that band.
After completing two EPs and an album with Makeout Videotape, DeMarco started making music under his own name. Actually, “Mac DeMarco” isn’t his birth name. It’s Vernor Winfield McBriare Smith IV. But everyone always just called him Mac. Though his parents never married, when DeMarco was five, Agnes gave his dad, Mac III, an ultimatum: pay child support in the next six months or the kids legally take her last name. The money never came.
“I actually remember when she booted him out,” DeMarco says. “I was watching All Dogs Go to Heaven and I was already like, ‘Oh my god, this is so sad!' And then my mom was like, ‘Your dad’s not comin’ back.’ I was like, ‘Nooooo!’”
Agnes calls DeMarco's father a “charming guy” but also “an alcoholic and an addict.” Mac’s seen him a few times over the years. There’s a video on YouTube where they meet up in a parking lot before a show in Santa Ana, California, last year. Mac III hands his son a beach hat—the kind dads wear—but the overall interaction is palpably tentative; he doesn’t stay to see the show. “I guess I'm supposed to act like a son to this dude," DeMarco says, "but at the same time, he's just some random guy.”
“What do you say to a father who you know chose alcohol and drugs over you?" Agnes wonders out loud. "How do you deal with that?”
DeMarco and his girlfriend, Kiera McNally
When I stop by DeMarco's apartment again the next day, his girlfriend is home. Her name is Kiera McNally, but DeMarco almost never calls her “Kiera” to her face; it’s “Kiki” or “Karen” or “Keeks.” She smiles and laughs in a warm, genuine way. Naturally, she has a very durable sense of humor.
Once again, DeMarco looks like he’s about to fall over. It's after 9 p.m., and McNally has just woke him up from a long nap. “You were very mean,” she says to him, lovingly. “You said you wouldn’t be mean and you were.” He explains that his waking impulse was to scream, “Shut the fuck up and let me sleep!”
“Ah well,” he says, rifling around for his lighter. “I should be up anyway—I’ve got to write one last song. And then do two more.”
DeMarco and McNally first met in Edmonton when they were 14 and started dating five years later, after McNally tipsily walked up to him and said, “You know what? I’ve always loved you.” Salad Days includes three tracks DeMarco calls “the Kiera songs.” The centerpiece is “Let My Baby Stay”. “She’s essentially an illegal immigrant in America,” he says. “Her ability to enter and exit the States is threatened, so that’s a stress for me, and it’s pretty much all my fault.”
Last summer, they moved away from Montreal, where they had a bigger apartment and a much more domestic lifestyle. “Couple bullshit,” he calls it. “I tried it, but it’s just not for me.” McNally sums up their disdain for Montreal's pretentions with a snooty impression of the city's scene: “We’re going to a reading tonight.”
They decided to try Brooklyn, eventually finding the small room in their current apartment, dubbed The Meat Wallet, alongside experimental and psychedelic bands including PC Worship, Tonstartssbandht, and the Dreebs. From the hallway, you can hear their roommate Pat Spadine, the composer behind Ashcan Orchestra, blaring noise music. “I’m probably the pussy of the crew,” DeMarco says.
But while their tight quarters offer a very intimate kind of tobacco-stained sanctuary, DeMarco's rise has affected his relationship with McNally, too. Last year, he was on tour for 10 months, with very few breaks in between. At one point, the pair went more than 90 days without seeing each other. “It gets hard coming back and having new friends and telling her all these stories,” DeMarco says. “It’s almost a long distance relationship, even though we live in a tiny room together.”
The increased attention paid to DeMarco's music also means there are now pictures and videos of the couple together online. “It's fucking weird that our relationship’s so public,” he tells me; while he twiddles McNally's cheeks at a pizza place near their apartment one night, somebody interrupts: “Oh hey, Mac DeMarco!” It all makes the songwriter worry about coasting on the internet’s perception of their relationship. “I can't just objectify Kiera as this lovey-dovey thing to sell my records," he says. He reiterates that Salad Days marks the first time he’s written songs that are so personal.
In her best “mellow dude” voice, McNally says, “It’s reality, man.”
Her boyfriend nods, adopting a faux-surfer voice. “Reality bites, dude.”
It’s Saturday when DeMarco appears at the Wallet’s gate with a huge smile. He’s shaved his face (except his mustache) and changed his clothes for the first time all week. “What’s up! Come on in!” I ask him how he’s doing. “Great! I’m done!”
He spent the previous 24 hours sprinting to the finish line, recording the album’s instrumental outro and putting some glockenspiel on “Let My Baby Stay”. He woke up watching videos on YouTube. He’s happy. But there’s still one thing left to do: fix the drums on the gentle new track “Go Easy”, which currently “sound like farts.” His Fostex reel-to-reel tape machine is down from eight working channels to six, and he’s also discovered a side effect of chain smoking right next to it: The tape is warped. “The guitars sound so fucked up,” he says. “It’s amazing.”
As he gets ready behind the drum kit, I find myself in the role of de facto engineer. “Press play and record at the same time,” he instructs. Midway through a good-sounding take, he stops and tells me to rewind and hit reset. “Jiggle it around," he adds, "don’t worry about fucking the machine up.” I am very worried about fucking the machine up.
I do what he says. “Sick. You’ll be a studio whiz in no time.”
While he drums, he’s incredibly focused. His eyes are closed, his hat backwards, a cigarette dangling from his bottom lip. His ash is about an inch long, just precariously teetering until it finally falls onto the snare after the chorus. He makes it to the end of the song and then listens back briefly.
“That’s fine, I don’t care, this song is such a pain in the ass to me," he says. "It was hard to write it, hard to record it, I don’t give a fuck. Perfectionist? That’s not something I am. Fuck that.”
The other track he's just completed is called "Chamber of Reflection", based on something he read about one of his favorite subjects, the masons. “It’s a room people go into before you’re initiated into freemasonry,” DeMarco explains. “It’s like a meditation room, and they lock you in there for a period of time. The purpose is to reflect on what you’ve done in your life already and move on from it.” He's sitting in his folding chair, looking around his room. “I think that’s what I did in this chamber of reflection right here.”
“It was actually therapeutic,” he continues. “I feel a little enlightened, a little less heavy.” He leans back, grins, nods, and raises his eyebrows. “It’s tight.”
The next time I visit the Meat Wallet is three months later, in January, and this winter's never-ending snow is coming down hard outside. Some things haven't changed—the demon baby still hangs in the hallway, DeMarco is in the bathroom when I arrive—but his room has become more efficient and cozy. The drums are gone, the guitars are up on hangers. A rod near the ceiling now offers a place to put shirts and coats. There are clothes on the floor, but it's a manageable pile.
A couple of minutes later, DeMarco walks through the door, his hair reaching Doc Brown levels of untamed greasiness. He’s wearing boxer briefs and a sweater. He shakes my hand, groans, and explains, unprompted, that he has “firehole to the fuckin’ extreme” thanks to a past-midnight snack made up of two kinds of meat, spicy cheese, and jalapeños. He's planning on a vegetable-based lunch today.
Along with crashing Tame Impala frontman Kevin Parker's high school reunion in Perth, Australia, and catching a debilitating stomach parasite in Taiwan, the last few months saw DeMarco taking care of some serious business, too: He got McNally a visa for Christmas, legally extending her stay in the U.S.
Earlier in the day, Salad Days was officially announced online. And while the press release outlined a narrative about a maturing artist, it's not so simple with this guy. Two weeks before the announcement, DeMarco shared a faux-Death Grips message on Facebook, “leaking” the “title track” to his “album” Eddie’s Dream. The accompanying video featured his friend Jesse, naked with an acoustic guitar covering his penis, lip syncing to a song with the lyrics, “Gimme pussy! A little bit of pussy!” Kids at shows have already started screaming for him to play the song live, but he says he never will. Later on, I hear him sing it aloud to no one in particular.
I hop into DeMarco and McNally's Dodge Caravan—technically, it's Agnes' ride—and we're off to pick up a test press of Salad Days from his label, Captured Tracks. The snow is still coming down, but DeMarco's got the passenger seat window cracked open while he smokes (his own window doesn’t work).
When we arrive at the label's record-store headquarters in Greenpoint, owner Mike Sniper and a few staffers congratulate DeMarco on all the internet traffic and accolades he’s received from the Salad Days announcement and the release of "Passing Out Pieces". They film a goofy Instagram promo. They read the comments. They’re all happy to see him. He seems happy to see them.
They offer to play the test vinyl on the store's speakers, but DeMarco declines. Instead, we head out and start walking through the snowstorm. “That’s nice going into the office when the track is getting a lot of hits, because they’re all so happy to see me,” he says. “You know, instead of, like, ‘We’re going to need a couple more singles.’”
DeMarco says that after he returned from a European tour in November, Captured Tracks asked for “an upbeat single” to be added to the record—something to pitch to late-night talk shows. They wondered if he’d re-record some of his old Makeout Videotape songs, which he flatly refused to do. “It’s like going to the art gallery and being like, ‘Your painting doesn’t look done to me,'” he says. Eventually, though, he complied: “Let Her Go” is undeniably TV-ready. It’s also the kind of universal song DeMarco was trying to avoid writing in the first place. He says he feels bitter about having to deliver a song like that.
But any talk about such things takes place before and after we hit our main destination for the evening, Sunshine Laundromat, which offers reasonably-priced dry cleaning—as well as a vast array of pinball machines. DeMarco takes his pinball seriously; if you ask him a question during a game, you’ll need to wait a second for an answer. After Theatre of Magic, Medieval Madness, FunHouse, White Water, and World Cup Soccer, he puts his last set of quarters into the Addams Family machine. His skills are impressive enough to earn him the third-highest score on the LED leaderboard. While the theme song plays, he hits the flippers and enters his name: “M-A-C.” It’s the first time he’s made the list on a machine in Sunshine.
“That’s my proudest moment today,” he says with an ecstatic expression. “Thought I was going to be so excited about my album launch? Noooo! I’m a family member on Addams Family, baby.” He pauses.
“I wonder how long my score will stay there. Hopefully a while.”
Overtones is a column that examines how certain sounds linger in our minds and lives.
Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" belongs on the short list of skating-rink songs that terrified me in my childhood. I could never understand why, but its bright, wordless chorus was troubling—it felt like something had gone askew inside it, reminding me of my parents' voices through the bedroom wall when their conversation veered into argument. It was one of the first times I can remember music giving me a taste of ambiguity, disorientation. I didn't know those words then; I just knew this song always made me skate faster.
Upon its release in 1973, the massive doorstopper of a double-album "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" headlines represented John's commercial apotheosis, holding at #1 eight weeks and eventually selling 30 million copies. By the time I heard the title track in the late 80s, it had settled into the Great American pabulum-distribution system—AM stations, supermarkets, and yes, skating rinks. But while I have liked or loved many other Elton John songs—"Take Me to the Pilot"; "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters"; "Border Song"; "This Train Don't Stop There Anymore"—"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" is the only one that has ever actively haunted me.
It's not the words, which are innocent and sweet. Like a lot of Bernie Taupin lyrics, they feel taken from a old-timey musical, maybe one where the country bumpkin gets fleeced by a city huckster ("Should've stayed on the farm/ Should have listened to my old man"). No, the trouble lurks in the chords. The opening lyric, "When are you going to come down? When are you going to land?" almost feels like a taunt, because the song never comes down, never lands. It is constantly moving in two directions at once: a never-ending upward lift and a soft fall that never reaches the bottom. It seems to have no ceiling or floor. The moment it approaches something like resolution, the chorus hits, and everything disappears again, like a Cheshire cat's grin swallowing out the sky.
John built the song like an animated GIF of someone falling endlessly on their face. In the verses and bridge, a clutch of chords anchor us firmly in a home key of F major. Then, when the chorus arrives, a flatted sixth chord, brilliantine and alien, sails out of the blue, touching us down somewhere in the vicinity of A-flat major. It has no business here, and it is overwhelming. It is like being blinded by sunshine. John knew how potent this moment was, so he doubled up the melody with strings and so many backing vocals that they fairly flay your skin off when experienced in headphones.
In that one moment—the entire band bearing down on the F chord that just doesn't appear—you feel music reminding you, wordlessly, that things are never quite as they seem, that life contains the possibility for revelatory surprise. It's a musical bait-and-switch your mind never acclimates to, even after literally thousands of listens; my sophomore college roommate, a courteous soul who was not given to complain, was finally moved to issue meek protest during the initial grip of my obsession. I apologized to him, and then furtively found moments when he was away to listen more.
I was behaving like a lab animal but also trying to puzzle something out: Why did the song work the same way on me every single time? Narrative surprises in film don't work like that; once you know that the sled was Rosebud, or that Bruce Willis was dead the whole time, you don't get that shock back. But there are no spoiler alerts in music; good surprises work every time. So whenever "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" approaches the ledge of that pendulous C7 chord and dissolves beatifically once again, the past disintegrates, and you are overwhelmed by the present.
That chorus section seems to always have been taking place, beneath the surface, on some other space-time continuum, and John is just ripping back the curtain on it to tantalize us. It's a brief vision of paradise, albeit one with a sinister tinge—it's a little too bright, as if someone had figured out how to weaponize the colors in a Miyazaki film. The song is about escape, and wherever its narrator is yearning to escape to, it probably sounds a lot like this. But it might not be safe to remain there. I think this is what frightened me about the song as a child; it represented all the shiny threats I didn't comprehend—bright liquids I shouldn't drink, smiling strangers I wasn't supposed to talk to.
When I read William Todd Schulz's Elliott Smith biography Torment Saint last year, I was struck to learn that Smith also harbored a borderline-unhealthy fascination with this song. That same moment, the sudden, temporary leap into A-flat major, had pierced his imagination. As the Flaming Lips' Steven Drozd told Schulz, "My fondest and most disturbing memory of [Smith] was when we did ecstasy together one night… 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road' came on and he started bawling his eyes out." Mark Flanagan, the owner of L.A.'s Largo club, recalls that Smith once listened to "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" for 18 straight hours, high on mushrooms. He emerged with XO's "Waltz #1."
Listening to "Waltz #1" with "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" in mind, you can hear what Smith was busy extracting during his deep-diving expedition. In mood, the two songs are almost comically different, Smith's song enervated and foggy where John's is robust, bouncy, and clean. And yet, you can hear the loneliness and ecstasy of the chorus' swoop recounted in Smith's little stagger up the scale on the line "What was I supposed to say?" It’s a moment of similar harmonic indecision, a hanging question of the sort that Smith loved to pose. It is a moment that peeks its head above its expectations to glimpse glorious, dark, upsetting things on the edges, before settling, with a sigh, back into normal existence. But things are never the same, and you never quite come down, or land, ever again.
After building a reputation for retina-rattling music videos including Radiohead's "Karma Police" and UNKLE's "Rabbit in Your Headlights" in the 1990s, Jonathan Glazer has charted a fascinatingly perilous career as a feature director over the last 14 years. The British filmmaker followed up 2000's brilliantly foul-mouthed crime drama Sexy Beast with 2004's Birth, an unsettling meditation on loss that drew controversy for both its frustrating narrative tics as well as a notorious bathtub scene between Nicole Kidman and an 11-year-old boy.
His third film, Under the Skin, which arrives in American theaters this Friday, heads into even more challenging territory. Loosely based on Michel Faber's 2000 novel of the same name, the quasi-thriller follows an alien occupying the form of a young Scottish woman played by Scarlett Johansson in a cheap wig and heavy makeup. After capturing and grotesquely murdering a multitude of men for sustenance, the foreign body starts to sense its human self and feel the pangs of consequence. Visually intense, the film carries moments of beauty, brutality, and pure obfuscation: There's very little dialogue uttered during Under the Skin's 107-minute runtime, and Glazer's unconventional shooting methods—many of the "victims" captured by Johansson's character were non-actors whose exchanges with the well-disguised star were shot on hidden cameras—give the film a uniquely roughshod feel.
As recently chronicled in The Guardian, the decade-long process of making Under the Skin was arduous and mentally taxing for Glazer; there were endless plot reconfigurations, including a scrapped narrative involving aliens masquerading as Scottish farmers that at one point had Brad Pitt attached to star. "The creative process for this film was immersive and exhaustive," Glazer tells me during a recent phone conversation. "And talking about it is weird, because when you're making a film, part of you thinks it’s not going to see the light of day. It's almost as if you're making it for yourself."
While the behind-the-scenes struggles aren't easily sensed while taking in Under the Skin's chilly, inhuman atmosphere, plenty of on-screen tension is provided by Mica Levi's mesmerizing score, which is now playing in full via Pitchfork Advance. Levi is best-known for her work heading up build-and-break avant-popsters Micachu and the Shapes, but her work for Under the Skin is something else entirely. The strings sometimes resemble nails going down a universe-sized chalkboard, screaming with a Ligeti-like sense of horror; elsewhere, they endlessly drone in a gaping vortex, like Vangelis' iconic Blade Runner score dipped in turpentine.
"Mica is very insightful and intuitive," Glazer gushes. "We had a lot of discussions about what sounds might work and what wouldn’t, and when we heard the ones that sounded right, they became the language for the film. All those bendy and stretched notes just felt correct. It came half from the heart, half from the head."
Levi joined the project in April of 2012, after Glazer's music supervisor Peter Raeburn played his director part of Micachu and the Shapes' 2011 live LP with the London Sinfonietta, Chopped & Screwed. "[Raeburn] played me some [known] film composers, but I thought this film would require a new voice," says Glazer. "I heard ten seconds of [Chopped & Screwed] and said, 'Stop the tape, use that.'"
"I didn't expect anything from it, really," Levi sheepishly says of the opportunity to work on the film. "It felt really far-fetched—I might as well have been auditioning for fucking modelling." Still, she and Glazer took to each other quickly as creative partners: "His obsession was striking to me. He's a nice bloke—I certainly didn't think he was a wanker."
Keeping in line with the film's tendency to embrace the vague and unknowable, Levi's work on Under the Skin began immediately and without much definition: "I was shown into a room and shown the film, and then I started working on it. I didn’t even know I had the job even months in, really." Along with Raeburn and a group of musicians, including Micachu and the Shapes drummer Marc Pell, Levi worked on the film's score over a ten-month period, which included a heavy presence in the editing bay as Glazer shaped the final cut of the film to fit the thrilling sounds she was composing.
"The approach that [Glazer] took to making the film meant that everyone was throwing things at it, and the film was either chewing it up or spitting it out," Levi says. "Honestly, when it was finished, it felt like it was only because somebody in charge said that it had to be."
Levi applied liberal amounts of her homemade warping process to the music, accentuating its stretched-out, black-hole vibes. "I like the way that it perverts your comfort and your reality," Levi says of the sound-manipulation process she's relied on since her and the Shapes' auspicious debut, 2009's Matthew Herbert-produced Jewellry. "It’s a different kind of distortion to me—perverting sound into a different field," she says. The musician got in so deep that she had a tough time shaking the film's eerie images—bawling babies, desiccated human husks, disfigured faces—from her consciousness: "I dreamed about the film every night while we were working on it and didn't stop until about six months ago. It was really fucking weird."
Pitchfork: How do you perceive the music corresponding to the actions of the film's alien protagonist?
Mica Levi: It felt to me like she was a detective, like she was figuring something out. She’s on the hunt. Ideas of strip-club shit made sense to me, in terms of thinking about sexiness and perversion—so slowing things down and speeding them up seemed right.
Jonathan Glazer: The sounds featured in the music are indistinguishable from one another—it's hard to tell where one sound ends and another one begins. Everything’s very woven together. The music is very much the blood of the film, to the point where it’s hard for me to think of the two entities separately. I still haven't sat down and listened to the score separately from the film, but I'm very much looking forward to doing that.
Mica Levi; photo by Steven Legere
Pitchfork: Despite the score's general amorphousness, a few distinct themes arise from it. How do they correspond to the film?
ML: The music featured in the beginning of the film is complex and slightly sophisticated; it’s supposed to feel like a life form you can’t quite understand, but it's carrying on relentlessly, like a beehive. In the void where she drags the men down into, she seduces them over this music that’s kind of fake-sounding, almost like she's putting on makeup—it gets sadder, it runs out, it loses it steam, it gets darker, and then it comes back and hits her. Experiencing emotions, for her, are rushes of strong feelings that freak her out and start to make her feel like a human, and that develops into another musical theme.
JG: As the film moves along, there's more silence because there's fewer narrative reasons for using music. It becomes about embracing the real sounds of the world: rain, wind, and everything else that she’s starting to experience.
Pitchfork: What are some film scores that you admire?
ML: I can't say I’m a film connoisseur, but I’m getting much more into it. I actually prefer films that don’t have any music in them. But I enjoyed the music in Ghost in the Shell, and Disney films I saw as a kid—the way the music works in those films is in my fucking body.
Ryuhei Asano makes wide-eyed music that sprawls while feeling deeply personal at the same time. As Lee, the 27-year-old Japan native has released about a dozen sample-based albums on his Bandcamp over the last two years—including this week's TANHÂ, a collaborationwith fellow Japanese artist Arµ-2—pinpointing links between old soul, reggae, jazz, and hip-hop. One song, “g roo v”, repurposes the Young Rascals soul favorite “Groovin’”; another uses ambient guitar and jazz piano to reshape 50 Cent’s “Wanksta” into something meditative; other samples are stitched together with bits of dialogue from Japanese film and TV shows.
His cut-and-paste collections sound as though someone is struggling to find a specific FM radio station from a far-away city by turning a dial coated with dried syrup, and experiencing loopy bliss in the process. Asano’s deceptively simple music works like the best homegrown secondhand sounds—think Dilla, Jai Paul, Madlib, the Books—drawing from a deep well of curiosity to encourage a similar sensation in its listeners, making them take in familiar material from new angles.
But while each brief track feels almost accidental—they’ve got names like “thx”, “lalala”, or “with my lovely cat”—there’s careful calculation in Asano’s presentation. Each song is paired with one of his original drawings, gently odd sketches he’s been making since he was a child. The soft-spoken artist recently called me on Skype from his small, dorm-like apartment in Bangkok, Thailand, where he’s been living for about a year.
Pitchfork: What brought you to Bangkok from Japan?
Lee: I’m from a small town called Koka, in South Japan. I went to design school in Japan, then moved to Thailand last March to study English and to see what happens here. There are a lot of fun parties in Bangkok, and a lot of art galleries opening right now, too. The artists I’ve seen here are growing quickly. I want to go lots of places to show what I do and meet lots of artists to make great, interesting things.
Pitchfork: Are you able to support yourself with your art in Bangkok?
L: Not really. It’s difficult.
Pitchfork: How did you start making beats?
Lee: I started rapping first, in Japanese. I used to do rap shows in Japan and I would also do live drawing and painting while DJs play. Then, after three or four years, I started making beats. I use Ableton Live. Rapping is difficult.
Pitchfork: Do you come from an artistic family?
L: My mother is a piano teacher and I used to take lessons, but I can’t play. I also have a brother, who's in L.A. as a swim coach, and a sister. I’ve been drawing since I was very young.
Pitchfork: You use such a wide range of samples in your songs. How do you choose what you want to use?
L: They're the songs that I like and usually listen to. Sometimes I play music on iTunes randomly before I go to sleep, then when I hear a great song, I wake up and think, "OK, I can sample something."
Pitchfork: Who are your influences?
L: Mainly other artists from my hometown, like Ingenious Makino, and a guy from Japan named Olive Oil. Of course I like J Dilla, Madlib, and Flying Lotus as well.
Pitchfork: I really like how you title your songs. How do you choose one like “melt down. (r.i.p. kiroshiro)”, for instance.
L: Just my feeling, or what I want to say. Sometimes I use words from the original song. With “(r.i.p. kiroshiro)”, the original is called “melt down.”, and it’s about nuclear things. There are lots of problems. The vocal already had the word “dead” in it, so that’s why I put “r.i.p.”.
On the 22nd floor of Sony’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters, Future—aka 30-year-old Nayvadius Cash—is fucking with a journalist over the phone. “This is a moment we’ll remember forever,” Future shouts into the speakerphone as a disembodied voice stumbles on its words. “This was the greatest interview of all time!” He then picks up the handset and slams it down onto the receiver.
The Auto-Tune auteur is peeling around his label Epic's office for a full press day; he’s shaken a lot of hands and is in a playful mood. In between interviews, he walks past a receptionist and tries to lure her away from her current "ham sandwich" existence with promises of steak, lobster, and a personal assistant post. His security guy Charles brings in a bag of take-out from nearby high-end Chinese restaurant Phillipe, and Future stuffs an egg roll in his mouth while twiddling an orange-pink chicken skewer in his long digits, his ring finger inked with a C, for his fiancée Ciara. (The two are expecting a son in the coming weeks.)
Later, a conference room full of Instagramming writers listen to cuts from his forthcoming album Honest, along with a Nicki Minaj collaboration that won’t be on the record because of clearance issues around its sample of George Michael’s "Careless Whisper". As it plays, a manager reminds us not to record the full track. “Leak that shit!” Future screams with glee.
Two years in the making, Honest, which is due out April 22, is stacked with an impressive guest list including Kanye West, Drake, Andre 3000, Pharrell, and Wiz Khalifa. And while he boasts that "the caliber of artists that I got on my album is unheard of," Future also admits that "the politics that go along with that shit is a lot to fucking deal with."
"When you mix a record that someone else is on, you've got to send it to them, they've got to like the mix, you got to like the mix, the producer's got to like the mix," he continues. "Too many people are involved! That's why it took so long. Would I do it again? Fuck no! I can drop an album in July if I want to because I don't have to deal with this lawyer, that lawyer, you not responding in a timely manner, you you you you you—it's always about you, it's never about me. I don't want to be put in that situation again. I'm making all my fucking beats now, so I ain't got to deal with nobody but myself."
Though Honest features a number of “hard-fucking-core” songs—“My Momma”, “Move That Dope”,” “Covered N Money”—it also includes some of the most orchestral production celebrated trap producers like 808 Mafia and Metro Boomin have ever created. The first song on the record, “Look Ahead”, features a sample from the blind African duo Amadou & Mariam and could be described as this album’s answer to Drake’s Take Care opener “Over My Dead Body”.
As my one-on-one time with Future draws to a close, he abruptly gets up to leave the room. Since our interview had him constantly comparing his life to a movie and peppering his responses with the phrase “no edit,” I ask him if cutting the interview short could count as an edit as he lingers in the doorway.
“Man, when the President says a speech, he tells the people ‘Thanks for coming out here’ and walks away,” he responds. “He don't tell you why he's walking away, he just walks away. We giving you scripts! You get script after script, line after line, no edit. We're going to be looking at this interview 10 years from now and saying, 'Nigga, we made it!'"
Pitchfork: You’ve mentioned that Honest is your most personal album. Why?
Future: Because I'm telling you certain things on these songs I shouldn't even say. But I'm willing to step over my boundaries to be able to explain to my fans the man that I've become.
Pitchfork: Is there a song on the record that communicates that most clearly?
F: "Blood, Sweat, Tears". This album is for the people who thought I was some fly-by-night artist. They don't even understand it! You have to listen to every song and see every picture and all my tweets to really understand this shit. If you wasn't following me every fucking day, then you don't know! You couldn't see this coming! I don't just write hits for myself, or for other artists, or to just be writing it. I write it because I was born to do this. I was given this gift and I'm making the most of my opportunity.
Pitchfork: There are a lot of love songs on this album...
F: There are no love songs on this album. What song was about love?
Pitchfork: The hook on "I Won" sounds like it's praising women, or a woman.
F: "I Won" is not a love song. It's just me uplifting women in general. I'm giving women the power to treat themselves as a trophy—to show that and know it in yourself and be confident—because when they do that, whoever they're with is winning. I'm not teaching motherfuckers how to love.
Pitchfork: Legendary Atlanta production team Organized Noize—which was co-founded by your cousin Rico Wade—is having its 20th Anniversary this year, and I can feel their stamp on Honest between the Big Rube spoken outro and Andre 3000’s involvement.
F: That's my way of showing them I'm loyal. Big Rube was on my first album and some of my mixtapes. His words are so powerful. I want to speak every word he says into existence. I wanna be a part of that! I wanna be a part of greatness. His wordplay is great to me. Can't nobody fuck with him when it comes to this shit. This nigga should be writing for motherfucking The New York Times.
Pitchfork: I saw the video that Ciara posted last week where she's dancing to "Move That Dope" while very pregnant.
F: Man, [my son] started movin' that dope! He started movin' his toe! Started stepping on his momma's stomach—I saw the footprint through her stomach when that song came on. He was like, "This cool!"
Pitchfork: Have you started getting gifts for the baby yet?
F: For sure. There's so many gifts packed all the way to the ceiling. It's gonna take a month to go through that shit. But I'm so thankful. We got baby clothes, moccasins in every color. He got the Carmelo shoes. Jordan. Everybody sending shoes for my dawg. He 'bout to be turnt up and fly. He already flier than me. My son is better than me. What the fuck?
Shout out to all my other kids, too! I love my kids. Three boys and one girl. And then my adopted son—I knew this kid when I was going with his mom when he was one year old and now he about to be 10. So even now when I'm in my relationship and I'm getting married, I still treat him like he my son because I'm all he know. I don't even like to say "my adopted son" because he's watching all my interviews on YouTube and I know it would hurt him if he heard me saying I wouldn't claim him. I take care of him. Period. That's my son. I love him like he pumpin' the same blood through him. I can't let this kid down. He looks up to me.
Pitchfork: Does being engaged to a musician inform how you make music?
F: She understands why I'm making the music that I'm making. She understands that it's a missing link to Future Hendrix. She know that. She like, "Tell your fucking story however you want to tell it, uncut and raw, man. Don't hold nothing back." And I did it. And I'm proud.
“If you could only play a record once, imagine the intensity you’d have to bring into the listening.” – Avant-garde guitarist Derek Bailey
In the 1960s, experimental music was all about the moment. Improvisation was common, and compositions often involved interpretation and chance; no two performances were alike. As a result, some musicians disdained commercially-released recordings, since a record can’t change—it freezes music intended to be open and indefinite.
At the time, John Cage insisted that “records ruin the landscape,” pulling attention away from the surrounding environment, a vital element of his famous “silent” composition “4’33””.“When I read Cage’s book Silence, I was growing up in Louisville, Kentucky,” says writer David Grubbs. “For me, records were a mode of time travel and geographic travel, interfacing with a much larger world. So it seemed antiquated and backwards that Cage would be so down on them.”
Grubbs is also fascinated with the contrast between the intentional scarcity of the 60s and today’s endless music stream. As he puts it, “Only a few of the recordings that are widely and immediately accessible today—many of which have become canonical representations of the period—actually circulated at the time they were created.” How that shapes current notions of 60s experimental music is a question Grubbs grapples with, especially when discussing two online resources: the meticulous, subscription-based Database of Recorded American Music, and the more anarchic, free Ubuweb.
Grubbs is currently an Associate Professor in the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College. He was a founding member of Squirrel Bait, Bastro, and Gastr Del Sol, and continues to make solo records; his most recent is last December’s Borough of Broken Umbrellas. He spoke to me about his book via phone from his home in Brooklyn.
"Records have always been the most extraordinary form of time travel for me, and that’s why it matters to know when something was circulated, and if it had an audience of five or 50,000."
Pitchfork: How did you get the idea for Records Ruin the Landscape?
David Grubbs: It was submitted, in a fairly different form, as a PhD dissertation in 2005. As a dissertation, it was a project about 60s experimental music; as a book, it's about encountering 60s experimental music in record form in the present. I found myself thinking about the distance between the 60s and today through certain moments. Like the Henry Flynt interview with [Ubuweb founder] Kenny Goldsmith on WFMU, where he talks about how he was scarred by how proud John Cage was to be ignorant of popular music. Goldsmith says, "Nobody thinks twice nowadays about listening to everything!" Something that had seemed so uniquely, radically syncretistic in Flynt's day seems much more commonplace now. That was one of the first moments that led me to think about measuring the distance from a period in which sound recording played a peripheral role, to nowadays, where so much of people's experience is vectored straight through recordings.
Pitchfork: You focus on Flynt’s album I Don’t Wanna, whichwas recorded in 1966 but didn’t come out until 2004.
DG: Yeah—you listen to it now and think, "Wow, it really seems of its particular moment." But it hardly participated in that moment.
Pitchfork: Why do you think it's important to know that?
DG: Because otherwise the history just gets completely flattened out, and people imagine that everything was always available and accessible. One of the things that struck me was the way in which the landscape of experimental music seemed different at different points in time, on the basis of where one was situated geographically, if one had access to live performances, and what was released at a particular time. It’s a kind of optical illusion to think of I Don't Wanna taking its place at the table in 1966. And yet, it is also so profoundly of 1966.
There’s part of me that is a strict materialist, and thinks of I Don't Wanna as first circulating in 2004, being contextualized through other releases on Locust and other things released in 2004. Yet records have always been the most extraordinary form of time travel for me, and I Don’t Wanna has the texture and the sound of 1966. That’s why it matters to know when something was circulated, and if it had an audience of five or 50,000.
"The word 'archive' seems so reassuring, but I have a lot of concern over the longevity of documentary materials."
Pitchfork: Cage and Bailey both openly disliked records, yet Cage made many, and Bailey had a prolific label.How did they reconcile that contradiction?
DG: For Bailey, records were a large part of making a living as a working musician. And it's much more consistent with the ethos of free improvised music to release a large number of audio documents, so that you don't get the sense that each one is something Bailey has been building towards for a long time. As there are more online archives of improvised music, it becomes more like the daily practice of playing it. It lessens the idea of there being masterpieces of improvised music through benchmark recordings.
In Cage's case, he reveled in contradiction. He said everything negative he could about how records aren't music: "I once heard of a jukebox that smashed records; isn't that the most marvelous thing?” Yet when he made a decision to record, he was concerned to make records that were unlike records anyone else had made, like the blind superimposition of multiple takes on Cartridge Music. That's the first record where multiple takes were stacked up, and people performed takes without reference to previous takes. But Cage didn't particularly trumpet those achievements, because he thought that records just weren’t music. Part of the pleasure in writing the book was to go deeper into his contradiction and appreciate it, rather than to call him out—"John Cage is contradictory!" That would not have been telling him anything he didn't know.
Pitchfork: Bailey claimed he bought less than a half dozen records in his life. Do you think that’s true, or did he and Cage exaggerate for effect?
DG: I interviewed Bailey in his house and I did not see any records out. If it's an exaggeration, it's probably not so great an exaggeration. I recall [improvisational drummer and composer] Michael Evans telling me a story of someone who had the opportunity to meet Cage and give him a record, and Cage just smiled and said, "You know I have nothing to play this on?”
Pitchfork: How do you think Cage would react to music's vast availability now?
DG: I assume it would further intensify his dislike of recorded music. There's a book of interviews with him by Joan Retallack called Musicagethat was finished the summer that he died, in 1992. And in one of the last interviews, he was very excited to talk about nanotechnology. There’s real technophilia from him, a kind of utopian embrace of the idea that nanotechnology will free people up to do what they really want to do.
Pitchfork: You mention that a fundamental objection experimental artists had to records is that they don’t change. But you also argue that records themselves offer potential for chance – that “recording makes accidents happen.”
DG: My experience that undergirds that observation comes from punk, where people might have scraped together the money to be in the studio for an afternoon to make a record. Punk isn't a music that you think of as chance-based, but exigency has a lot to do with it. Chance doesn't have to involve the I Ching or rolling dice or throwing yarrow stalks. It can involve an out-of-tune guitar, or other impossible-to-replicate moments of awkwardness—even more so than an awkward, out-of-tune live performance, because there's something incredible about the way that an out-of-tune guitar becomes part of the song on a record. I won't be precious and say it's part of the composition—that's nonsensical—but chance occurrences are so crucial to what's distinctive. It's the fingerprints all over so many of these recordings.
Pitchfork: You discuss how use of the word “archive” has changed since the 60s. What do you think of what the word means today?
DG: There's a kind of whistling-in-the-dark quality when people talk about backing things up as “archiving,” or the “archive” of a particular radio station or venue or musician. I have a lot of concern over the longevity of these documentary materials. I'm looking at a huge stack of CD-Rs right now that have live recordings, Pro Tools files, unreleased stuff. I hope that, ten years from now, it'll be possible to retrieve the data from them.
The word “archive” seems so reassuring, but I'm not sure about these things that are now being called archives. Is anything lost by the fact that the word has come to mean so many more things, and that there's such a proliferation of amateur archivists? Kenny Goldsmith from Ubuweb describes himself as an amateur archivist, and people can download files from Ubuweb—it's not a streaming service. But it’s a miracle that it's still online and they're able to make it work through the donations of server space and volunteer efforts.
Pitchfork: Ubuweb doesn’t seek approval from artists whose work they host. What do you think of that approach?
DG: The one real error for Ubuweb was when they briefly had this thing called the "wall of shame" to shame anybody who asked them to take something down. I'm entirely sympathetic to people asking for things to be taken down. But as somebody who very early on volunteered to have Ubuweb host out-of-print records of mine, I've had nothing but a great experience with it. I've given them some real odds and ends that were never pressed on record, things like a weird radio documentary I made about Coney Island. And that has probably been listened to many more times than records I made for Drag City that I worked on for months, because it's free. What a strange thing—that musicians grant permission to places like Ubuweb, and then because it's free, it'll probably be listened to more often than something that is still wrestling with this idea of making a profit.
In this edition of The Out Door, we speak with three artists who’ve pursued their visions over multiple decades: 77-year old Swedish legend Bo Anders Persson of Träd, Gräs och Stenar, zither player and New Age pioneer Laraaji, and Californian improv-rock outfit Gang Wizard. But first, we touch on the recent controversy stirred by a Tumblr account about someone's reactions to her husband's record collection. (Follow The Out Door on Twitter and Tumblr for all types of experimental music news and information.)
In late February, the New Jersey librarian and writer launched the Tumblr My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection. The premise was simple but fascinating: Listen to the 1,500 or so albums and singles in her partner’s record collection and write about them, without much of a filter, in a public forum. The quest, as she noted, began as a whim. Her own musical collection and knowledge were both rather thin, she admitted, and after living with someone for nine years, she decided it was time to hear what he’d heard, or at least cared enough to buy.
Word of the blog spread quickly, with each post suddenly generating dozens of notes and thousands of social media shares. O’Holla landed in New York’s “Approval Matrix” and dutifully blogged that her placement represented the realization of a lifelong dream.
Then, of course, a wave of stringent analysis and backlash followed: O’Holla’s naiveté and lack of critical context insulted women by reinforcing gender stereotypes, some said. Others lamented that O’Holla’s sudden popularity undermined the work of female music critics who had battled institutional sexism for years or decades to be taken seriously. And still others noted that it simply swiped the premise of another long-running music column by another woman, but added nothing except a cute gimmick and a few Vines.
I admit that, when I first read My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection, I quickly decided I probably wouldn’t read it again. It did reinforce customary ideas of taste and fandom, and initially, its tone didn’t interest me. I wanted less winks, more thought. But I stuck with O’Holla, and I’ve since grown jealous because I realize that she gets to hear nearly 1,500 records—many of them duds, lots of them landmarks—for the first time. What’s more, she gets to tell us exactly how she hears them, no matter how inchoate the responses or context-free the analyses may be. And for me, that’s always been the thrill of experimental music—or, really, anything that orders and reorders sound in an unexpected way.
When I think about each major phase of my listening life, I realize that what impacted me most was encountering the un-encountered and letting these new ideas run wild. I’d find something that shattered the nice little framework I’d made for myself, and then try to find records that took those ideas further. I think about the first time I heard Tony Conrad’s Four Violins or Harvey Milk’s Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men, Led Zeppelin’s III or John Fahey’s Of Rivers and Religion, albums that revealed new worlds that I’ve spent the years and decades since exploring. I wish I could go back and read the thoughts I had upon first hearing that music. I’d like to laugh at my own naïve impressions or mismanaged facts and consider, retroactively, the course that each of those albums set me upon, even if the road ahead was uncertain.
“I don’t think I really realized how tense this music was making me feel until the reggae jam came on,” O’Holla writes upon first listening to Bad Brains. But she keeps listening and starts to get a sense of what the band is doing, to situate their sounds according to her own personal musical world. And suddenly, she starts to like it. “I think knowing a little more what to expect the second time around I can actually hear how the songs are all different, and I think I have totally changed my mind.”
As O’Holla finished the set of records her husband filed under “A,” she squared with at least one quantum leap in the history of jazz. Not long after reviewing two Louis Armstrong records, she put Albert Ayler’s Spirits Rejoice on the turntable. “UGH! I WANT TO TURN IT OFF! Louie, I miss you so!” she wrote. Perhaps you’ll roll your eyes at that, but O’Holla subsequently asks a series of salient questions that should feel familiar to any of fan of noise, metal, free jazz or, you know, Wagner—basically, any music that works with ideas of torment and tension: “So is that the point of this music? To concentrate not only on what you feel while it’s playing but also how you feel in its absence?” It can be, absolutely. Some of my favorite records push me to the point of hoping that, soon, their intensity will soon collapse only into silence. And when they finally do, I just want to hear it again. That’s exactly how I’ve felt about Four Violins since the first time I’ve heard it. O’Holla articulates that sentiment with laser precision, and I think it is exactly because she’s chronicling the experience of hearing these revolutions for the first time.
Upon listening to the final Arab on Radar album, Yahweh or the Highway, O’Holla writes, “Sometimes it just doesn’t feel like music. It just feels like sounds.” To me, at least, that’s a thrilling feeling, to hear something you can’t quite define and then take the time to decode it. Man or woman, stubborn novice or zealous expert, wouldn’t it be fun to see a guide to how your perceptions about and definitions of music you now love and hate have changed? If O’Holla finishes the project, she’ll have nothing less than a map of her tastes—not only as they exist, but of how they morphed during the years it will doubtlessly take to finish writing My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection.
Again: I’m jealous of Sarah O’Holla. —Grayson Haver Currin
Next: Bo Anders Persson on life before Träd, Gräs och Stenar
II: Bo Anders Persson: Here to Stay
Photo by Henrik Källvik
Most of the music Bo Anders Persson created happened 40 years ago, in the span of less than a decade. But that short stint made him a legend still revered in underground circles today.
Born in Sweden in 1937, Persson attended the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm in the mid-60s. There he and some fellow students formed Pärson Sound, a free-flying mélange of avant-garde experimentalism and noisy psych-rock. As their lineups changed and their sound evolved, they became International Harvester, then Harvester, then Träd, Gräs och Stenar (aka Trees, Grass, and Stones). Thanks to some reissues and archival releases over the past 15 years (as well as a number of TG&S reunions), all three groups have had an influence that still reverberates.
Less known is the work that Persson made by himself before Pärson Sound began. While studying at the Academy he experimented with chance, improvisation, and field recordings. One tape-loop piece, “Protoimperialism”, came out in 1970 on a split LP with fellow Swedish composer Folke Rabe. But otherwise, little evidence of this period has surfaced until now, via Subliminal Sounds’ archival release Love Is Here to Stay.
Person’s solo work turns out to be just as stunning as the music he made with bands, though quite different in tone and style. When using tape recorders, Persson conjured ambiances and drones that feel like glimpses of infinity. When employing musicians, he formed meditative pieces that sound elemental. That’s especially true of the title track, recorded at an Academy student concert in 1966 and featuring voice, flute, contrabass, and Persson’s own rumbling conga work.
Persson hasn’t made much music since the early 70s, save for some new TG&S material during their reunions. He currently lives in a rural area outside of Stockholm; when we phoned him, his wife asked us to call back, as it would take her some time to go fetch him from outside. What follows is his story, in his own words, of his journey to making the music on Love Is Here to Stay, what he’s been up to since, and what his future might hold.
Bo Anders Persson: I was always interested in music, but I wasn't very good at playing anything. I tried to learn to play piano with very little success. Still, I was curious about music—I felt that I needed it. I needed music more than music needed me.
I was studying engineering at the technical university in Stockholm, but I was having a real crisis [about] the position of technology in society when it spoils the environment. It's worthless to make these machines when they are just polluting. This made me think about what was most interesting to me. And I found out that music experiences were the most pleasing things for me.
I thought maybe I should study a little music theory, so I attended the music college in Stockholm. I met [lecturer and composer] Jan Bark. He had been to America and visited the San Francisco Tape Music Center where he met Terry Riley. He brought Riley to Stockholm for the first time. We were to record the first performance of In C there. I was mesmerized. He had a real impact on me.
Jan and I started to discuss more and more the music scene in Stockholm. It was puzzling me and also attracting me. And then I thought of very simple ways of making some kind of modern music by chance patterns and by using tape. [One of my first pieces] was just called “Piece”. I had four tape recorders with loops of various lengths, and I put the sound of a singer into this. I found that the bias of the recording head was fading out the sound, so they were empty, some of the loops. So I had to shortcut the bias. What happened then is it got distorted. So it was by chance that I got distortion on the sound of the singer. That was really beneficial.
At the time I was kind of disappointed with the Western music tradition. I thought this way of notating music was not organic and I went to some extremes opposing these things. Nowadays I don't think that way anymore. I think the Western tradition is also organic from the society in which it was conceived. I am really in love with some of Schubert's compositions now; I appreciate him a lot. In the 60s and 70s, I thought it was just strict. Not now—now, I think it's also great. You must take it for what it is.
Around that time in Stockholm, in the late 60s, there was a growing consciousness of environmental and political issues. I was taking part in demonstrations. I was looking for connections [between music and politics]. Very much of the political art that was going on was too clumsy and too coarse. I didn't feel attached to that.
I did a tape piece which I think is one of the best things that I recorded, “Proteinimperialsm”—the title is a word that was invented by a scientist specializing in food production to describe what was happening with the fishing industry. Some developed countries were taking more than their fair share of the protein sources. So that's why I choose this word.
This piece consists of someone saying "protein imperialist, protein imperialist"—it goes round and round. That was made for an exhibition, a very grotesque environment with some papier-mâché figures, like kings eating too much and such things. It was about Western culture dominating the world. They wanted me to make music for it so I choose this word and looped it. I still think that piece is good. I like it.
[Not long after making “Proteinimperialism”], I started a group [Parson Sound] with some fellows from the music academy and some others that leaned toward modern music improvisation. We started making a kind of noise music with various means. Eventually, we thought it would be interesting to play some kind of rock and roll. My view of rock and roll was that at first you must learn to play some Rolling Stones tunes. But I met someone who had seen San Francisco groups like Quicksilver Messenger Service. We started just to play not caring so much about the rock and roll tradition. These things took over more and more, so I dropped out of the music college.
Persson (center) playing with Harvester, photo by Jakob Sjöholm
At the time there were many anti-Vietnam War and local political issues in Stockholm that we were taking part of. These things were so consuming, as were all the possible conflicts you can have in a group of people, being in a band and going on tour. All my energy went into this. I dropped out of the so-called “serious” music scene, and I kind of never came back. Two or three people from this early free-form improvisation group we had at the Stockholm conservatory were in the rock group. So certainly there was a connection, in a way. But I'm a little disappointed in myself because I wasn't able to combine these things more meaningfully. There was kind of a split between the “serious” music scene and the elementary rock scene.
I also drifted more towards environmental issues. I met a farmer in the Swedish countryside who had ideas about man's position in nature. He was the age I am now, 70 years old plus. He became a kind of a guru for me. I really wanted to grow food for myself and my family. So I dropped out of the music scene altogether, and we stopped the band too in '72 or '73.
I haven’t done a lot since then besides [reuniting] with Trees, Grass & Stones. I think I will eventually do some things again, but right now what takes most time is just to work with the house. I had the good luck of meeting a woman many years ago who was interested in organic farming. We bought this house and started to grow things for the house. This has taken most of the energy. I have tried to make some simple things with computers now, since you can loop with them very easily, but they haven't turned out very well. I think you can do things when you're younger... you need some kind of optimistic energy which I don't have. I'm kind of disappointed with what I've been trying to do.
Photo by Henrik Källvik
I have an idea to take water sounds from the little stream we have outside and filter these sounds and loop them. They say the old traditional violin players in Sweden, several hundred years ago, were educated by nature's spirits called Nøkken. They learned by listening to the small waterfalls in the stream. This is why they have this special gift of making people dance. I thought of making a piece around that whole idea, but I didn't succeed in making something that was interesting enough.
I still have an idea to do that, but there are so many practical things to do. I'm really lucky we have this small garden, summer is coming and I am still alive. We are alive—that's the first thing. —Marc Masters
Next: the resurgence of Laraaji
III: Laraaji: Life of Radiance
Photos courtesy of Laraaji
Laraaji had been in New York for nearly a decade, and he needed money. After graduating from Howard University in 1966, he’d moved to the city with hopes of either becoming a composer or becoming a professional comedian by following the clubs-to-big stages path already set by at least one hero, Bill Cosby. He’d had some slight success, but he’d mostly gotten into meditation and tai chai and taking all-night walks through the city. He’d used his composition degree to make billowing music that fit those moods, too. Cash was short, though, so he toted his guitar to a pawnshop and put it on the counter. He expected $175, but the clerk only offered $25.
“It was almost like I heard a voice,” Laraaji remembers of that mid-70s day, “telling me to do something other than take money for the instrument.”
That’s when he asked about the autoharp in the window. He’d seen autoharps—trapezoids of strings, tuning pegs and chord buttons—while performing in Greenwich Village. The bluegrass bands with which he’d sometimes shared variety-show bills often included at least one. They looked intriguing, but he never considered playing it until the day he walked into that pawnshop carrying his guitar. On his way in, the autoharp in the window caught his eye.
“There was that familiar instrument with all those buttons and strings. But there was something that could be done with that instrument that I had not heard,” he says. “So I left the pawnshop with $5—and that autoharp.”
The purchase changed Laraaji’s life. He removed the chord bars and tinkered with the tunings, experimented with different ways of striking or strumming it and eventually amplified the instrument, too. He began calling it by its more generic name, the zither, and playing it on the sidewalks of New York, where people would stop to listen and eventually plunk money into his instrument case. He found that it made listeners, himself included, simply feel better.
“Music can shift my attitude about the moment. I can guide people to a place of celebration, so they can override pessimism and negativity,” he offers. “Music is a tool for guiding the heart and nervous system and consciousness to exalted states of positivity and joy. I use it as a positive force to impact the planet.”
In 1978, as Laraaji played through one such trance in Washington Square Park, with his eyes closed and his hands dancing across the wire and wood, a member of his audience decided not to put coins in the case but instead a note. The spectator was Brian Eno, whose music Laraaji had not yet heard. He asked the musician to call him. Two years later, Eno finally released Laraaji’s Day of Radiance, the third album in Eno’s landmark four-album Ambient series. Though Laraaji had been making such music for years, inspired by minimalist guru Terry Riley and New Age pioneer Steven Halpern, the recording pushed him into a brighter public spotlight than he’d ever expected. More than three decades, dozens of albums and countless meditation workshop and ashram retreats later, both Laraaji’s music and lifestyle stand as New Age touchstones.
Some of his best material stretches, as he puts it, past “linear time,” creating seemingly unending coccons that cradle the listener. The two-track, one-hour 1987 album, Essence/Universe, is a dream state of vocals and synthesizers, zither strums and bell rings. Roger Eno’s All Saints label reissued that LP late last year, alongside a mountain of other archival Laraaji material. In fact, given that revitalized cache of recordings and a recent uptick in blissed-out electronica, courtesy of acolytes from Mark McGuire to Sun Araw, Laraaji is undergoing an unlikely renaissance at the age of 70. It’s something he never anticipated, especially not now.
“My goal was to take advantage of spontaneous situations and to enjoy musical collaboration. I wasn’t sure how much of the world I was going to be traveling until the ’80s, when Day of Radiance got me traveling around the world,” he says a few days after playing a large, regal theater at the Big Ears music festival in Tennessee. “And I wasn’t sure that it wasn’t going to be a source of income. But I don’t have to do a day job.”
Laraaji shies neither from the term New Age nor from admitting that his music stems, at least in part, from the sort of environmental mimesis that makes listeners think of Windham Hill or blissful hippies. He used to walk along the beaches of New York, for instance, playing his zither in a way that imitated the motion of the waves. He maps his breathing with the instrument in a similar fashion. He speaks candidly and passionately of music’s therapeutic power.
“I visualize angelic beings dancing in my presence, and I play for these imaginary dancers. Or sometimes I just play music that corresponds to my imagination of blood flow,” he says. “Other times, when I’m playing very soft and gently, I am again using my imagination to imagine the listener in a state of still, comfortable trance, in communion with their own nature and timeless consciousness.”
In fact, Laraaji’s music is just one aspect of what he terms a holistic existence: “What I try to do with music I try to do from a base of constantly refining myself,” he says. His diet has moved toward veganism—“a more peaceful diet”—and he spends as much time in yoga-oriented communities as possible. He dances, and the divorced father admits he works to temper any strong reactions he might have to the world and its hurdles with patience. This all stems from meditation and his belief that all energy in the world is connected. If he’s working to be peaceful in one situation, he says, then he must strive to do as much in every instance.
“A sense of compassion and love for the universe gave me a sense of acting even when my actions aren’t being observed,” he explains. “I try to be in a loving mode or serving mode, whether I’m being rewarded for it or not.”
Aside from playing concerts, a central component of Laraaji’s “serving mode” is teaching laughter workshops, joint extension of his music, work as a comedian and yoga studies. He often presents these workshops in conjunction with concerts and festival bookings. Last year, he lead former Yuck frontman Daniel Blumberg through one such course during an appearance at ATP; last weekend in Knoxville, dressed in bright orange and sitting cross-legged in the floor, he first coaxed a crowd in an art museum’s well-lit hall closer by playing the zither with his right hand and the instrument-mirroring iPad application ThumbJam with his left. Then, he smiled broadly, welcomed everyone and laughed—a deep, full-body chuckle that booms like tom-tom.
The laughter sessions require a certain suspension of disbelief, or, at the very least, an unmitigated commitment to looking rather maniacal for an hour. With the assistance of his longtime collaborator and partner Arji Cakouros, Laraaji guides attendees through a series of exercises meant to stimulate the body’s endocrine glands and the lungs by laughing at frequencies that resonate with those organs. Participants hum in a way that rattles their heads, and then they force a hearty chuckle through the drone. This stimulates the production of hormones by cajoling the tiny pituitary gland, Laraaji explains as he turns to the ever-smiling Cakouros so that they may pronounce the word “pituitary” in unison.
“I started offering laughter as meditations alongside of my music, as a doorway into deeper relaxation and meditation,” he says. “I call it a ‘playshop,’ because when I introduce a conscious state of play in those workshops, it becomes much more fun.”
Given Laraaji’s bent for healthy living and an unclutted mind, one might what he’s still doing in New York after nearly 50 years. The city is so noisy that he must record between the hours of midnight and 8 a.m. when he’s at home; otherwise, he’s just distracted. But he travels enough to not be weighed down by the density, and he spends days and weeks at a time in upstate New York with Cakouros. That allows an escape.
But the reason he ever favored the zither at all (and, now, occasionally the iPad and harmonica) instead of the piano is because it was portable, meaning he could play for crowds with ease and convenience. And this music was never meat only for Laraaji.
“At times, I think about retiring to a more comfortable and less busy place, but I have a sense of service. I’m using more of my energy by being in New York,” he says. “In New York, I can reach more people more often. —Grayson Haver Currin
Next: The open-ended joy of Gang Wizard
IV: Gang Wizard: Open to Joy
Gang Wizard: Rob Woodworth, Michael Landucci, Linus Landucci, Christopher Breedon
The unruly racket of Californian improv-rock band Gang Wizard has been rattling for nearly 20 years, and it’s hard to say exactly how many people have contributed to the din. “It’s been an open-door policy,” says founder Michael Landucci, calling from his home in Long Beach. “Many would come in and out, perform one-offs; some even stuck around and became members for awhile.” “Whoever 'got it' was welcome to play with us at any time,” adds Landucci’s longtime band mate Christopher Breedon.
Though the group’s core is Landucci, Breedon, and Jacob Anderson, even they haven’t been involved in every phase. Brian Miller and Grace Lee of Foot Village, Rob Enbom of Eat Skull, and Valerie Martino of Unicorn Hard-on have all passed through. The new Gang Wizard album, Important Picnic,features two lineups: the basic trio (who record together whenever Landucci and Breedon trek from L.A. to Anderson’s Portland studio), and a quartet that includes Landucci’s sons Linus (19) on guitar and Noah (16) on bass, both born after Gang Wizard began. Drummer Rob Woodworth has since joined, after a chance meeting at a jazz show.
“To me that’s fascinating—the evolution of a band, and how it goes in and out of different phases,” says Landucci, who started Gang Wizard in the early 90’s while running the Blackbean & Placenta label. “I like bands that are around for a long time. Those are the bands that I listen to, [the ones that] evolve and change and make little twists that are surprising.”
That’s a pretty apt description of Gang Wizard’s music, too. The band’s improvised sound relies on change and surprise, turning fractured beats and damaged riffs upside down and inside out. Though all of the members clearly know their instruments well, there’s a sense on their many releases that they’re trying to unlearn habits, chasing the thrill of making sound without making rules.
“There will always be a kind of song-based bent, where we’re focusing collectively on this idea of a song we’re creating,” explains Landucci. “As we follow that path, it turns into whatever it turns into.” Adds Breedon, “It’s not necessarily resistance, but I try to make it more unorthodox. I try not to hit the two straight on the two.”
“I think we’re ultimately writing songs for ourselves, and we want to make something that surprises us,” he continues. “Christopher and I are into wine, and when we drink we’re not usually thinking, ‘I hope this is a solid, traditional wine.’ To other people, that would be inviting and exciting, but to us that’s boring. When we create music, we can’t detach ourselves from that part of our personality.”
Surprises are sprayed all over Important Picnic, from the rolling hardcore of “All Sorts of Ruin” to the wry cluck of “Ugly American”, to the no wave destruction of “Dog’s Share.” Shades of 90’s rock-destructionists like Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 and Trumans Water emerge, but Gang Wizard approaches their expansive, let-it-all-out songs with more abandon. There’s also a sense of glee and discovery throughout the album, due in part to the fresh perspective provided by the band’s youngest members. “Linus has basically grown up with this sound,” says Breedon. “He’s heard it his whole life, and now he’s got a voice in it.”
“My mom would gather the kids together and we’d all leave the house while my dad and his crazy friends would make noise,” recalls Linus, chuckling. “We’d find the dogs under the beds when we got back, because they were afraid. But I was never scared by it – it’s just this thing that he does, and I really enjoy it. Showing it to my friends, though, they’re kind of iffy about it. I’ll be like, ‘Listen to my band, we’re going to be on tour, we’re having an album release’ and they’re kind of like, ‘Uh, cool bro…’”
Gang Wizard’s upcoming tour in support of Important Picnic will be a first for Linus, and he admits he’s not sure what to expect. But neither are any of the members. “We’ve done shows where we cleared the room completely,” Breedon explains. “And we’ve done shows where people just couldn’t get enough.”
“For me, it’s usually been about who was playing [in the group] that night,” says Landucci. “Some of the most disastrous shows were ones where we picked the ten people we were hanging out with that weekend, and it just turned into anarchy in a very uninteresting way.” But Landucci also cites many satisfying performances, particularly during the mid-00’s when Brian Miller and Rob Enbom were in tow. “They were so energetic and surprising…there was no “no” or “can’t” in their vocabulary,” he recalls. “Some of our shows were more performance art than music. There was one show in Boston where we ended up dog-piled on top of each other on the stage. Just really blissful, really idiotic in ways, but just so fun.”
Landucci credits Miller for helping steer the Gang Wizard ship during this era. “He and Rob really managed the band for maybe half a decade,” Landucci says. “He set up a lot of our shows and got [Thurston Moore’s label] Ecstatic Peace to put out our second record (2003’s Jackyll Loves Hyde).” When I ask Miller about his memories of this time, he highlights an East Coast tour when “we were all into the idea of music communicating the emotion of embarrassment. We'd put tons of effort into performing music that sounded like nothing was coming together, and it made audiences squirm.” One such gig in Providence, RI, impressed Ben McOsker enough that he subsequently released the 2006 album Byzantine Headacheon his Load label.
The concept of making audiences squirm may sound confrontational, but to hear Landucci and Breedon tell it, Gang Wizard has mostly been about having fun. “There’s a joy to the band when it’s going right,” says Landucci. He chalks some of that up to life in Southern California: “We used to record in Oceanside, and then we’d just jump in the car and go to the beach and jump in the water. That’s such a different experience than someone who’s [making music] in Vermont or Massachusetts or whatever.”
Part of the joy also comes for Landucci from his Christian faith, which shows up in titles like 2006’s Why Is There a God?and 2013’s Spirit vs. Soul. “I'm a huge fan of worship, and while Gang Wizard is usually not worship music, it's infused with the same sort of passion: emotions right on the surface bubbling over, all the uncertain dangerous emotions of life,” he says. “That's the place I sing and play from when things are really turned on and charged up. There's a profound sense of release, sometimes of demons perhaps, but sometimes of the Holy Spirit. Either way, something shifts when we create something as a band.”
All the fun and satisfaction that Landucci, Breedon, and their comrades get from Gang Wizard frees them to follow their instincts, without worry for what anyone else might think. “I think we know that we are our biggest audience, and our biggest fans,” says Landucci, joking that the next Gang Wizard record will be called Dozens of Fans Could Be Wrong. “And we want to play what we want to hear.” —Marc Masters
On August 11, 1999, the South Coast of England plunged into darkness. The press had been talking it up for weeks—the last solar eclipse of the century—and on the designated hour, people grabbed blankets and folding chairs, and gathered all the way down Land’s End to get a view. "But, this being England, it was a very overcast day," Damon Albarn sighs in recollection, "so there was nothing to look at." Or at least not the expected thing. A more modern spectacle happened in its place: "Everyone was using the flashes on their cameras, so there was this moment, like a mania, when everyone started flashing-flashing-flashing and you could see it down the coast. In itself, it was kind of a magnificent event."
This memory inspired “Photographs (You Are Taking Now)”, a pensive track off Albarn’s forthcoming, first-ever solo album, Everyday Robots. Many of its 12 songs meditate on the pervasive and sometimes-mind-numbing effects of technology (“When I’m lonely, I press play,” Albarn admits in one of the album's singles, the jet-lagged video for which he shot on his iPad), but it stops short of condemning them outright. Instead, Everyday Robots sets out to find something personal and even poetic in our collective touch-screen dependency.
In the early stages of writing the album, he wandered around Leytonstone, the East London neighborhood where he grew up, filming places that were meaningful to him and seeing how the footage stacked up to his own memories. “I wondered what my experience would have been like if I went back to Leytonstone in 1976 and there had been modern technology, social networking," he says over the phone from London. An avid cyclist and former paperboy, Albarn’s favorite spot in town was the intimidatingly steep hill he used to glide down on his paper routes. On his recent visit, he filmed himself sailing down it once again, iPad balanced precariously on the handlebars.
Everyday Robots is without a doubt the most personal album in Albarn’s long and incredibly varied career. Its songs have a collage-like texture that make them feel like hand-pasted scrapbook pages—the sound of long-dormant memories rustling suddenly back to life. To achieve its particular atmosphere, Albarn (and his trusty iPad) went around making “field recordings” of some of his favorite childhood haunts. The jubilant “Mr. Tembo” features the exact church choir he used to hear on his Sunday strolls through his village; the hypnotically forlorn “Hollow Ponds” is overlaid with sounds from his schoolyard playground. That last one begins during a heatwave in 1976, then jump-cuts to 1993 (“‘Modern Life’ was sprayed onto a wall,” Albarn sings, a slyly self-referential nod to the inspiration for Blur’s most iconic album title), and ends up filtered through the present day, when the neighborhood (thanks to a motorway built in the 90s) has changed as much as the narrator.
Even at its most introspective and melancholy, though, Albarn’s music has always been buoyed by a familiar sense of playfulness. With Blur (especially around the time of the band’s 1994 Britpop masterpiece Parklife) he wrote scathing social critiques that were animated by his impish charm, and the downcast sensibility of Gorillaz are… quite literally animated, by Albarn’s collaborator Jamie Hewlett. So although the overall tone of Everyday Robots is overcast, it’s occasionally punctuated by sudden light. This is most satisfying on the final song, the soulful sing-along“Heavy Seas of Love”, which features guest vocals from Albarn’s friend (and, as you’ll see below, gym buddy) Brian Eno. “I wanted it to end on a fairly positive note,” Albarn says. “Because I’m not a depressive, angst-ridden, neurotic middle-aged man.” He pauses, and lets out a dry English laugh. “Well, not entirely.”
Pitchfork: Why did this feel like the right time to make your first solo record?
Damon Albarn: It has to be attributed almost entirely to [XL Records owner] Richard Russell, who proposed it as a “next project” for both of us after we worked on Bob Womack's album as producers. So we wondered if it would be possible for us to start a new band together—but then we looked at each other and realized that 45 is not a good time to start a male duo. [laughs] Then he said, “Well, I’d like to produce you.” So that’s what happened.
Pitchfork: In the early days of Blur you wrote a lot of character-based songs, and in Gorillaz you were literally playing a character. Did you find it difficult to shift into this more personal mode of songwriting?
DA: Actually, a lot of Gorillaz songs were very personal. I mean, that’s why it was interesting, because it wasn’t music being made for a cartoon. It was something different. It was a much more emotional affair. I wasn't necessarily thinking in the third-person then.
I will grant you, though, that back in the Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife, and The Great Escape [era], I was singing in the third-person. But I sort of stopped after that. I mean, “Parklife” is a third-person song—although, mind you, I was running in a park recently and someone recognized me and started singing the lyrics: “You joggers who go round and round and round…”
Pitchfork: What are the significance of some of the field recordings on this record? Were you actually going to places where you had lived and recorded?
DA: Yeah, for example, the beginning of “Hollow Ponds”, that’s a recording of the playground of the small school I went to in Leytonstone, as it is now. It’s funny, David Bailey was taking my photo this morning, and we were talking about the fact that we both come from Leytonstone, along with Alfred Hitchcock and David Beckham.
Pitchfork: Did the choir you used on the record have any significance to you?
DA: They were from the church at the end of my road as a kid, which was really special to me. I used to stand outside it on Sundays, but I never felt like I could go in. There were really high stairs and it had a big gate. I went back a couple of years ago, though, and they were really nice people. So I thought if there was a place on this record, it would be a really lovely thing to contact them and see if they’d join me.
They sing on the song “Mr. Tembo”, and it was perfect because the song is about this little elephant I met in Tanzania, who was being brought up by very religious men. They watch a lot of gospel on television in Tanzania, so this elephant has grown up with a daily dose of gospel TV before bedtime. So it was originally my song for him; if he ever hears [the song], I figure he might sort of warm to its gospel flavor.
Pitchfork: Many of the album's lyrics explore your relationship to technology. You’re critical of it in some ways, but you’re implicating yourself, too.
DA: Absolutely. That’s why a song like “Everyday Robots” or “Lonely Press Play” is in the first person. The album is about going back and seeing into the near future, wondering about the effect that that technology is going to have on us, emotionally. We’re in a period of massive technological transformation right now, and I wanted to comment on that.
Pitchfork: How would you describe your relationship to social media?
DA: Well, it’s a bit ambiguous. I get excited about it, but it also hampers me a lot of the time. I use it as a sedative. There are many examples of that, but I’ll leave it ambiguous.
My daughter is 14, and her generation—I mean, I don’t want to sound like a bastard, but I do find that their reliance on communicating constantly... Do you spend all your day talking to everybody as opposed to actually doing something? Is that something that just teenagers do, or will people grow out of it?
It only really just occurred to me and it’s probably just a load of old bollocks, but I have been thinking that the reason we had so many big cults back when I was younger is because there was no social media, and that was a way of feeling you were in a community. But now to become part of a community is so much easier.
Pitchfork: How did you come up with the video for “Lonely Press Play”?
DA: I like to put my iPad on the window and leave it there for however long the journey is, so that I’m staring out, and it’s staring out. We’re kind of staring out together. It’s very poetic to me, watching that absent-minded passing of time. You realize how much you’ve taken in. What is left of that memory of you staring out of the window for an hour? It’s all on the iPad. It has a lot of the melancholy of the record in the imagery.
Pitchfork: Brian Eno is on the album, and I know you guys have worked together on the Africa Express record. Did you know him before that?
DA: I’ve known him for about 12 years. I met him in our neighborhood health club. I was running on the treadmill, sort of anesthetizing myself yet again on machines. He was doing something more spatial: unisex water aerobics.
Patrick Haggerty released the remarkable self-titled album Lavender Country in 1973. It’s a breezy, old-school-outlaw country record that’s since been tagged as the first of its kind recorded by an openly gay man. The 10-song collection, put together with the help of the Seattle gay and lesbian community, sold 1,000 copies at the time, but the 2014 reissue by the North Carolina label Paradise of Bachelors has contributed to an unexpected resurgence. It’s easy to see why: These songs are played with a great 70s country twang, and their politics resonate way past the final notes, especially in today's culture of expanding equalities.
Something else that’s emerged during this reevaluation is the relationship Haggerty had with his father, a deeply caring Washington State dairy farmer who realized his son was gay early on, and tenderly let him know he was OK with it, without ever actually saying those words. In the 50s and 60s, Haggerty's father allowed him to dress up in girls clothes, and to try out for the high school cheerleading team with glitter on his face. It was during that day of tryouts, when he came to his son’s school to check on him, that he noticed Patrick ducked away because he was ashamed of his dirty farm clothes. He would later tell his son to be proud of who he was, because if he wasn’t, it would destroy his “immortal soul.”
I recently spoke to the 70-year-old Haggerty by phone to talk about his amazing year, the way young people view gender identity in 2014, what his father meant and means to him, and what it’s like to experience Lavender Country again 40 years later.
Pitchfork: When you released this record in 1973, did you imagine you'd be speaking exclusively to other gay men and women?
Patrick Haggerty: I certainly never had any illusions that it was going to catch on with a mainstream audience. I mean, I had fantasies, but they were ridiculous fantasies, and I knew that. [laughs] We made the album for gay people who were coming out and trying to come out. That's who we were trying to reach. We, the gay movement, wanted to memorialize our struggle in all kinds of artistic ways, then and now. So while Lavender Country's always had its straight supporters, at the time it was for us.
Pitchfork: When you released the album in the mid-70s, punk was starting up around the CBGB's scene in New York. Were you aware of punk then?
PH: I was. Seattle has always been a cutting edge city, kind of like San Francisco—though frequently even more cutting edge than San Francisco. In my mind, the artist that most represented what was closest to me politically and sexually was probably David Bowie. But I wasn't comfortable in that genre, it's just not who I was. I'm a little bit older, born during World War II, and I cut my teeth in the 50s, in terms of what was ingrained in me musically. So I was aware of [punk], but David Bowie was oblique. He wasn't hitting the nail on the head when it came to gay rights. He wasn't saying it, but rather pretending like he might say it in the next song. But he never did. I'm not faulting him—he was brave for what he did—but that's not what Lavender Country was.
Lavender Country live in the 70s
Pitchfork: There's definitely a punk ethos on the album, with lyrics like "tear the system down."
PH: Definitely. Many people talk about the punk character of Lavender Country, which always hits me a little bit by surprise. But in truth, a lot of Lavender Country is in-your-face punk shit lyrically [laughs] And it's supposed to be. That's what people who are grounded in punk relate to when they hear Lavender Country. At the time, it was very clear that no genre was going to have anything to do with what we wanted Lavender Country to say, and that we were going to have to do it ourselves. That's still kind of true in a lot of places. [laughs] But Lavender Country was produced by Seattle's lesbian/gay movement. In many, many, many ways, it would have been an absurd project to take on by myself. That's who we made it for and that's who we played it to.
Pitchfork: What were the reactions like at the time when you made the record?
PH: [laughs] There were a lot of different reactions. I think the reaction of 98% of America who heard about Lavender Country who weren't gay or very progressive minded was that it was outlandish and shocking and unacceptable. The priority was to keep it away from their children at all costs.
Haggerty playing the Seattle Gay Pride Parade in 2000
Pitchfork: Has it ever bothered you that people less familiar with the context or the history focus on a song like "Cryin' These Cocksucking Tears"?
PH: Let me talk about that for a minute. [laughs] "Cocksucking Tears” is both the boon and the bane of Lavender Country. That's what everybody remembers and that's what everybody refers to, but it really wasn't necessarily our intent. That was the song that got my lesbian friend kicked off the radio in 1974 for playing it. That's the one that was put on YouTube by some anonymous person, and then ended up at Paradise of Bachelors, who dug into it further and found out what it was. So "Cocksucking Tears" has been the leading song on Lavender Country, like it or not, all along. But there's a lot more to Lavender Country than "Cocksucking Tears".
It's just a song title, and it's the word that's so striking and outlandish. It had the propensity of turning the idea of Lavender Country into a cartoon, and Lavender Country is not a cartoon. So that's always bothered me. The interesting thing is that the culture has moved to the point where people are fine with it. I’m happy I've lived long enough to see it! They're finally ready to accept the fact that "Cocksucking Tears" is in Lavender Country and they want to find out what else is in the album. [laughs] That's quite refreshing! I want everybody to appreciate Lavender Country for what it really is, not just because it has a song called "Cocksucking Tears" in it. And that's happening! Finally.
Haggerty running for Washington State Senate with Nation of Islam running mates in 1988
Pitchfork: Lavender Country is just one part of your life. You also ran for office, raised a daughter, you're married. You have all these things outside the music. What is it like to suddenly have this part of your life come back and be put under the microscope in the internet age?
PH: What happened to me in the last six months is unparalleled. It's like a Biblical story. You couldn't even make a movie with a fantasy like this. I'm 70. I knew Lavender Country would define me musically, and I couldn't have a career anywhere in music because I wrote it. It was an albatross around my neck when it came to a musical career. But I knew that when I made it and I've never regretted that decision. But I had a whole life to lead, and I lived it. I wasn't ever expecting Lavender Country to do much of anything except what it had already done.
Pitchfork: What does your husband think? He’s suddenly married to a rock star.
PH: When I met my husband, Lavender Country was so dead that I don't even think he knew I made it until we were a couple of years into the relationship. It was not part of our lives. We were involved in some political activism, getting needle exchanges started and doing Act Up, which was a militant street organization around AIDS activism. I also had some health problems, and Lavender Country was not on the chart.
Then Chris Dickinson wrote an article about the history of gay people in country music in 1999, and she did a really good job of finding us and interviewing us and writing about how many out gay people there are in country music. At that time, she discovered that Lavender Country was the first gay country music, and basically proclaimed it as such. A couple years later, Country Music Television did a documentary on the “40 Greatest Firstsin Country Music” and they included Lavender Country, which was nice. There was some action around gay country in the early 2000s that I was participating in, but it went flat. Lavender Country went back to sleep. For the last 10 years I've been musically active—I sing old songs to old people. I have a partner who's older than me, a black man from South Chicago who plays a really mean harmonica. We do about a hundred gigs a year singing old songs to old people in retirement homes and Alzheimer's units and rehab centers and retirement complexes. That's who I am and that's what I do. I've been married for 28 years, raised my children, have a grandson. I was having a great life, I was fine. [laughs]
Haggerty with his daughter Robin in 1981
Pitchfork: What is it like performing these songs live now?
PH: We did a show in L.A. a couple of weeks ago, and it was interesting because while there were many gay people in the audience, it was not a gay crowd. It was basically young, white heterosexuals who love to follow music that they thought was hot. [laughs] It was an amazing experience. It really was. And man, you could've heard a pin drop while we were playing. The eyes were just wide open, and they were not intimidated by "Cocksucking Tears". They were so beyond it, and eager to hear what Lavender Country was about. It was just amazing!
Pitchfork: There've been many strides in gay rights over the years, but obviously it's still not perfect. How do these songs resonate to you in 2014?
PH: Well, the line has moved. When we made Lavender Country, the line was between who's straight and who's gay. It was a faulty division in the first place because scientifically we all know there's a lot of blur. People are crossing over all the time, and in their actual sexual behavior there's not really a discrete line between homosexuals and heterosexuals. In fact, sexual behavior runs on a continuum. That's the truth. The gay-straight line is a little artificial in the first place and it's a-historic. Politically, there hasn't really been a grouping of gay people in a lot of different cultures, though of course gay behavior has been there all along. So there's an artificial line, but it's one that was necessary to move the movement forward. And now the line has shifted.
My guitar player, a guy I've been running with for years, lives in San Francisco, and his sexuality is somewhat of a blur. Right now, he's involved in a heterosexual relationship, but I know his history very well and he's a crossover. He said the line has shifted from who you love to who you hate. It’s an anti-bigotry line. The bigots are on one side and the rest of us are on the other. That’s the new line. Gay or straight is out the window. It’s a non-issue. That’s not what’s real, that’s not what’s happening. The issue is: Do you hate somebody or not, and why.
Of course, the people who hate homosexuals are also the ones who hate black people and women and any kind of equal rights movement. That’s where we are. Lavender Country is resonant to everybody now on one side of the line. Now, anybody who doesn’t want to be a bigot can listen to Lavender Country and hear what it’s saying. The pool of people who are ready to hear Lavender Country has skyrocketed exponentially in the last 10 years. It all just took me by complete storm. The really exciting part, of course, is how it’s a big fat ego trip, but that’s ridiculous. I’m too old for that shit. The real bottom line point is that it’s fabulous I’ve lived long enough to see this shift. It’s a huge victory that Lavender Country is making a splash. And before I go to my grave I'm getting the last laugh, because Lavender Country is going to outlive me.
The Haggerty family in 1945
Pitchfork: There are these amazing stories about your father teaching you to be proud and not to hate. When did you realize that you were so lucky to have him as a father?
PH: I always loved my father and knew that my father loved me, but when I was a child, I thought was he was just another dad who loved his kid. There wasn’t anything exceptional about him. Because he never went to a place and said, "Aren’t you lucky you have a father like me? Don’t I stand out? Aren’t I different from all the other fathers, because I’ll put up with behavior from you and no one else will." He never went there. He never represented himself that way.
I had no gay consciousness, I didn’t know I was going to be homosexual, I didn’t know what it meant. My dad couldn’t discuss that issue with me. He had to show the love that he had for me regarding my sexual orientation in all kinds of subtle ways. It wasn’t something you talked about. It was something you did. It was a sparkle in his eye.
When I was 30, and I was out, I’d talked to so many different gay men about their relationships with their own fathers. Then, 10 years after he died, I began to realize what a truly unusual and remarkable man he was for his time and place. It’s incredible. I was so blessed to have a father who loved me. And he knew very well what I was going to be when I was six years old. I didn’t know it, but he did. Which sissy’s father in rural America in 1960 is telling them, "Whatever you do, don’t sneak because you’ll ruin your immortal soul?" One in a million, one in three million, one in 10 billion? So I didn’t know it at the time, but I’m 70 now and I’m looking back and going, "You had a really, really amazing father." When he said "don’t sneak," I said, "You’re right dad, I’m not going to sneak." And then here comes Lavender Country, fuck all of you. If you would’ve had my dad, the patron saint of all sissies everywhere, for a dad, you would’ve written Lavender Country too. You’re supposed to write Lavender Country with a dad like that.
Pitchfork: Are you going to write any new songs?
PH: Hey, everybody’s got big plans and so do I! I do have some new material; I’ve been told that somehow the story of my father should really come out in full. I'm well into that. I’ve got some new songs that have been recorded and some songs that haven’t been recorded. I’m not done. I’ve always got my eyes out for new things. I might keel over tomorrow but I’m not done fantasizing about what to do next. I’m actually getting more and more focused. This Lavender Country stuff has gone on long enough—been there done that. It’s time to move on.
I’m profoundly heartened to know that each generation is going to know what Lavender Country was. It was a community that produced Lavender Country and it’s a community that’s listening to Lavender Country now. A big community. It’s a victory. It’s not my victory, it’s our victory. Everyone who’s capable of listening to Lavender Country gets to be in on the victory. Congratulations to all of us.
Secondhands is a column that examines music of the past through a modern lens.
I first heard Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs on an IBM Thinkpad issued by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’d liked their first two albums and loved their third, a chaotic live-in-the-studio set called Here Comes the Indian. What grabbed me about the band was the way their music blurred the line between familiar and alien forms. An Animal Collective album could sound like noise struggling to become a song, or a nursery rhyme that had been melted down and smeared across the stereo field. Listening to them was like looking at a mask: I might recognize it as a face, but I’d never mistake it for one.
This was 2004. I was 21, finishing a heady interdisciplinary program at a liberal arts school in central Virginia, tearing down long-held ideas I thought I’d understood, drinking stolen cough syrup in front of Bagel Paradise, battling it out on the hazy frontiers of the mind. College is a good place to be if you don’t want to manage the banal intricacies of adult life, which I didn’t. A self-fashioned new native, I lived to conquer the world within. Everything else seemed like a dream happening somewhere outside my room, which coincidentally was a closet under a set of stairs in a house across the street from a 7-11.
Animal Collective’s music didn’t just accompany my life, it embodied and sometimes even validated it. Here was a band that not only seemed to think that the bare fact of existence was as fucked-up and confusing as I did, but also managed to replicate that confusion in sound. Biking across campus, I listened to Sung Tongs' alternate-reality smashes at pitiless volumes, staring at my peers, thinking, "Damn, it’s weird to have eyeballs—could I love an insect if insects had eyeballs too?" Naturally, my academic advisors thought I was on the right track.
Sung Tongs is Animal Collective's children’s album. (Here I accept that people who hate the band think all their albums are children’s albums.) The songs on it are sing-alongs, nursery rhymes, lullabies—music that uses innocence to mask the ways it gets lodged in the dark parts of our brain; it's no surprise that Animal Collective are into horror movies, which often reprise childhood fears—the bad clown, the stranger in the house—in adult contexts. The record is mostly built with acoustic guitars, live percussion, and voice, sometimes bent so far out of shape you might not be able to recognize them as human. Still, the message rings clear: This is a fleshy album. An intimate album. An album that taps into myths about the things people are capable of when bonded together in a meditative state somewhere off the grid.
At first, it embarrassed me. Men who had been covered in The New York Times had no business squealing like infants. But in the squealing there was the promise of a safe space, a circle of protection in which I was invited to experience feelings that didn’t have a place anywhere else. There’s a reason Animal Collective’s music has been compared to primal scream therapy: Both suggest that there’s no such thing as progress without a little bit of carefully mediated regress. At 21, staring down the cold inevitability of adulthood, I not only wanted this but needed it. The loving, demented babytalk of Sung Tongs became my psychological ball pit: A place where I could play, get dirty, and still have a heavily mediated shot at feeling young.
And like anything that seemed to aim deep, Sung Tongs eventually touched on sex, which, at 21, I was having as often as possible. The involuntary yips, the squishy, burbling sounds, and the way the music shuddered and twitched all reminded me of bodies colliding. Though treated to porn at an early age, I could never appreciate it; I liked it clumsy—something to fumble through, not master. Something like “Visiting Friends”, a 12-minute block of slowly rippling ambience in the middle of Sung Tongs, always sounded more erotic to me than something like “Let’s Get It On”, because “Let’s Get It On” never let me feel lost. Like psychedelics, I was interested in sex not as a way of asserting myself, but as a way of letting myself dissolve.
The truth is that I was scared: of graduating, of growing up, of the thought that the free play of Sung Tongs was behind me for good. It’s a common fear, but that didn’t mean I didn’t feel it. So I took refuge in a band that had traveled the world but still had the guts to acknowledge how scary and exciting it felt to get on an airplane (“Kids on Holiday”) or make out in public (“Good Lovin’ Outside”), who seemed periodically goofy but also offered the promise of restoring me to a kinder and more sensitized version of myself.
The love I felt for Sung Tongs took shape like a last gasp: The moment just before the rollercoaster car creaks to the top of the track and some instinct for self-preservation strikes you numb.
A lot of music I love takes a complicated experience and streamlines it into forms I can digest and understand. Humor is a byproduct of this. Wisdom, too. Both put the complexities of life in the rearview, where I can see them a little more clearly, then refocus my eyes on the road ahead. One of the reasons Sung Tongs still feels so potent for me is that it isn’t nostalgic for the past, but an acknowledgement that feelings we think we’ve moved beyond still lurk inside us, raw and in need of attention we never bother to give them. It isn’t a reflection on the trauma and beauty of childhood, it’s a recreation of it. The love I felt for Sung Tongs took shape like a last gasp: The moment just before the rollercoaster car creaks to the top of the track and some instinct for self-preservation strikes you numb.
Some albums seem terminal, like a closed circuit. Others start conversations. The calendar tells me that Sung Tongs is 10 years old, but despite Animal Collective’s ubiquity and influence on indie music, nobody has really picked up where they left off. Even the band—notorious for changing their template and lineup from year to year—moved on. Feels, which came out in 2005, marked the moment they graduated to louder, fuller music capable of reaching a big-tent crowd. Gone was the porch, the backyard, the woods. It was just as well. I had less room in my schedule for acting like a five-year-old anyway. Impedances, distractions, the hard shell of sophistication—they grow and keep growing. I stopped buying my clothes by the pound, and the acid in my freezer isn’t any stronger than it was when I bought it eight months ago, but I’m no closer to making time for it.
About a year ago I found myself waiting in the security check line at LaGuardia Airport after flying home to visit my mom. It was a good trip, bittersweet and marked by garden-variety annoyances along with moments of deep, inextricable connection. (As she says, by way of both unconditional love and vague threat: “You’ll always be my son.”) When I got to the TSA agent, I handed over my license. For reasons I don’t understand, the state of Connecticut has allowed me to keep the same photo I’ve had since I was 17. The agent looked confused. I asked if anything was wrong. “No,” she said. “Just that you were a young man then. Now you're a grown man.”
Years of unofficial training had braced me for situations like this, when tenderness hits so unexpectedly and in a context so banal that it seems like a mistake. Without thinking, I waved my hand across my body as if unveiling some game show prize and said, “Yeah, but I still got it, don’t I?”
Both of us smiled, and for a second I pictured myself dropping my bags and throwing my arms around her, crying that there were days I couldn’t believe I’d even made it this far. Instead, I told her to take care and have a great day, then I walked briskly toward my gate with a tight smile and my bags at my side, the way grown men do.
Nadya and Masha are in New York to speak at the fifth annual Women in the World Summit, a star-studded event put on by media mogul Tina Brown; an admirably critical Columbia Journalism Reviewarticle says the summit is “meant to expose Americans to the voices and experiences of women around the globe, and to connect full wallets with worthy causes.” The lobby of Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater is overflowing with free Coke products and gourmet popcorn, Toyota is offering ticket-buyers complimentary rides home, and, looking at my outfit instead of my ticket stub, a security guard informs me that I have wandered into the high-priced orchestra section by accident. Like February’s Amnesty International concert at Brooklyn's Barclays Center, where Nadya and Masha were introduced by Madonna, there’s something ironic about anti-capitalist activists being honored at this kind of event, but—as ever—the duo bring a refreshing jolt of anarchy to the proceedings.
Forty minutes before they go onstage, they tell the tightly-managed event's organizers that they’re going to deliver their speech without a translator—the first time they’ve ever spoken publicly in English. This incites a small panic backstage. “But that’s why we love them, and why they're being honored here in the first place,” someone on their team tells me afterward. “They can’t be micromanaged. They’re not playing by anybody’s rules but their own.”
Dressed in interlocking black-and-white outfits—a sartorial yin-and-yang—Nadya and Masha address an audience that includes Barbara Walters, fashion icon Diane Von Furstenberg, and the outspoken Ukranian musician Ruslana—the only person in the building who renders them star-struck. Their speech is incisive and poetic: “While we were in prison, we learned to be inspired by the little things—a ray of sunshine through the bars, a strangely shaped crack in the ceiling.” They speak slowly and with razor-sharp conviction. “Punk culture has taught us that to be moderate and restrained is not always the correct choice,” Nadya says. “When your intuition is telling you that the time has come to leave behind your moderation, do it!”
A little while later, we’re outside the Koch Theater, fighting one of those gusty spring days when lighting a cigarette should be considered an Olympic sport. We stake out a discreet corner, but a few young women spot Nadya and Masha and ask for pictures; they graciously agree but are also visibly weary of this sort of scene. As the photo snaps, Masha smiles, but Nadya does not.
Sporting chunky, electric blue glasses and a wavy mane of honey-colored hair, Masha has a buoyantly goofy energy about her. Nadya, on the other hand, speaks in a low, deliberate voice that very often drips with sarcasm. Her smooth brown bob is pulled back with a red scrunchie, and—as in pictures—her expressive eyes and mouth silently speak about 1,000 different words, most of them synonyms for get real.
Masha Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova at a recent Voice Project event in L.A. Photo by John Tyler Curtis.
Before they leave for L.A. the next day, they have a full itinerary ahead of them. But in their few hours of downtime in Manhattan, they’re intent on buying new shoes for their kids back home (Nadya has a 5-year-old daughter, Gera, and Masha has a 6-year-old son, Filipp) and—Masha lifts up the chewed-up sole of her boot, laughing—themselves. We decide to take advantage of one of those Toyota-sponsored rides, though Masha is adamant about riding the subway on the way back. They talk to me in English for practice, and though they are still learning how to speak the language, they definitely understand its humor. As soon as we get in the car, Nadya says she has no problem keeping up with the swift pedestrian pace of New York, because in Russia she gets plenty of exercise “running away from cops.”
Nadya and Masha also showed off their acerbic wit and impeccable comic timing during their first American post-prison interview on “The Colbert Report” in February—no small feat considering the conversation was mediated through a translator. The women hadn’t heard of Stephen Colbert before the taping, but Hunter Heaney, founder of nonprofit The Voice Project, found the perfect way to traverse the culture barrier: In the car on the way to the studio, he loaded up some segments of the host making fun of Putin on his phone. Very quickly, they decided this Colbert guy was all right.
The mood back in Russia, of course, is much grimmer. Since their release from prison, Nadya and Masha have been arrested twice—once on suspicion of theft, and then a week later for protesting in support of a group of fellow political activists known as the May 6 Prisoners—and have been attackedmultiple times on the street. Even within their community of ostensible allies, there has been friction. The night that Nadya and Masha appeared at the Amnesty Concert, anonymous members of the collective published a letter claiming that because they had become “carried away with the problems in Russian prisons” and strayed from the initial ideology of the collective, Nadya and Masha were no longer members of the group. They seemed to have brushed these accusations off, though, and prefer to let their actions affirm that they are indeed still a part of Pussy Riot.
During the Sochi Olympics (which they asked their supporters to boycott), Nadya and Masha took part in filming a new Pussy Riot video for their song “Putin Will Teach You How to Love the Motherland”, and they have been involved in the group’s subsequent actions, even as they continue their prison advocacy work, launching a prisoners’ rights NGO called Zona Prava. Their message is not one of exclusion and strictly defined rules, but of fluidity and solidarity. “Anyone can be Pussy Riot!” they urge in their speech at the summit.
But after spending an afternoon with them, what strikes me most about Nadya and Masha is how funny they are, and how often they are giggling conspiratorially about something or another. At the summit they are introduced as “brilliant pranksters turned political prisoners,” but no such transformation has taken place; they still manage to embody both of these roles simultaneously. Of course, being a merry prankster can be its own kind of political statement. “Try as those who put us here might,” Nadya wrote in one of her prison letters, “we are not going to commit the sin of gloom.” Pussy Riot remind us that, in the face of oppression, injustice, and profound bureaucratic absurdity, fun can be a revolutionary act.
As we drive along the East River, Nadya flips through a New York City guidebook and follows our route on a map. As they did onstage, they insist on conducting our interview in English. Nadya’s husband Petr is in the passenger seat, ready to help with any complicated translations. “I guess we can use men for that,” Nadya deadpans.
What follows is the conversation we had in the car, lightly edited for clarity.
"There are areas of official life in the United States that are similar to Russia. For example: disbursement of protest, and the way American prisons are run, which is pretty tough."
Pitchfork: Do you feel that the U.S. media has misrepresented you in any way?
Nadya Tolokonnikova: We have some problems when we talk about the May 6 Prisoners, who are political prisoners in Russia. From time to time, the media cuts our speeches about these people because they don’t know who they are, and they don’t want to learn who they are. We had a really nice interpreter on "The Colbert Report", and she insisted that the part about the May 6 Prisoners wasn’t cut from the program. But on "The Today Show", for example, I think they just don’t know. It’s strange, because we’re always talking about these guys. The last time we were in New York, 70 percent of the time we were talking about this case.
Masha Alyokhina: They want to listen to what they already know. And actually sometimes it’s hard to show people something new, if this new thing doesn’t have something bright or remarkable, something that you can remember very fast. This Bolotnaya Square case is hard to explain because our government threw these completely normal guys in prison—for some of them, the May 6 demonstration was the first demonstration they’d gone to in their whole lives. It’s just common people—not, like, stars, or pretty women, or something—and they have already been in jail for two years, and nobody knows about it.
Pitchfork: Do you think that the political climate in Russia has become more stifling since you’ve gotten out of prison? What changed over those two years?
NT: Russia really changed, and I realized it maybe two months after my release. Because we spent two years in these other conditions in prison, we continued to live in the Russian reality of 2012, which is when we were arrested. And all people around us were trying to describe to us how something changed. There was a big apathy. People don’t believe in political changes. But only two years ago…
MA: It was a different time.
NT: It was very different.
Pitchfork: You’ve been arrested twice this year, and attacked repeatedly on the street. Do you feel that you’re in danger?
MA: In Sochi, we were there maybe four days, and during that time I think we made some progress. You’ve seen the latest song, the video clip [for “Putin Will Teach You How to Love the Motherland”], right?
When that Cossack incident caused a big scandal, the governor, Alexander Tkachyov, ordered an investigation, but that was sort of a cover-up. Still, people have now moved to “softer” actions against the group, rather than beating and fighting. Sometimes when we travel to regions outside of Moscow, there are people who spray green medical paint on members of the group, and they are obviously under the control of the police and trained by the police.
Pitchfork: You’ve been advocating for prison reform since your release, and last time you were in the U.S. you toured some of our prisons. How do the other jails you've visited around the world compare to Russian prisons?
MA: The experience traveling to European prisons [made us] believe that reorganization of the prison system is possible. Change can be effective, and it can be made better.
Pitchfork: What’s something that has surprised you about visiting America?
MA: New York is an amazing city.
NT: We find it very inspiring. But obviously, there are things we don’t like, too. Not really things that we’ve seen before our own eyes, but we’re really disappointed by the Occupy disbursement procedure, and that it was dispersed by police. There are areas of official life in the United States that are similar to Russia. For example: disbursement of protest, and the way American prisons are run, which is pretty tough.
Pitchfork: What’s the state of Russian punk music right now? Anything you’d recommend listening to?
NT: It’s quite sad, because in most cases you have Western[-style] examples that are adapted to the Russian landscape, and that’s not too interesting. There are a few punk bands that make really original music right now, though. They do exist. We have this group called Sonic Death, and they are very good.
Welcome to the new Pitchfork Guide to Festivals. Formerly an annual rundown of our favorite summer fests, we've expanded and improved the Guide to make it a year-round list. This comprehensive collection includes events all over the world, big and small, in cities and out in the countryside, in fields and clubs and parks. The only thing they all have in common? Lots of great bands.
We'll be updating the Guide regularly throughout the year. So bookmark this page and check back often.
Donaufestival has earned a reputation for being one of the best experimental festivals in Europe.
Oneohtrix Point Never, Jon Hopkins, Pharmakon, clipping., Peaches, Xiu Xiu, Kelela, Mykki Blanco, Vatican Shadow, Bill Orcutt, Christian Fennesz, Outer Space, Sensate Focus, DJ Sprinkles, Dean Blunt, Jeff Mills, Roly Porter, James Ferraro
Welcome to the new Pitchfork Guide to Festivals. Formerly an annual rundown of our favorite summer fests, we've expanded and improved the Guide to make it a year-round list. This comprehensive collection includes events all over the world, big and small, in cities and out in the countryside, in fields and clubs and parks. The only thing they all have in common? Lots of great bands.
We'll be updating the Guide regularly throughout the year. So bookmark this page and check back often.
This two-day festival celebrates psychedelia and its many musical incarnations, from garage to the avant-garde.
The Dandy Warhols, Panda Bear, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Loop, The Horrors, The Zombies, The Black Angels, The War on Drugs, Of Montreal, Liars, Black Lips, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Oneohtrix Point Never, Graveyard, Woods, Mono, Temples, Dead Meadow, Mikal Cronin, Peaking Lights, Pink Mountaintops, The Fresh & Onlys, Acid Mothers Temple, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, Mark McGuire, Destruction Unit, Pure X, Higgins Waterproof Black Magic Band
Brighton's "new music" discovery festival that showcases emerging artists from all over the world in 35 Brighton venues, accessible by one wrist band.
Future Islands, Tennis, White Lung, Little Dragon, Charli XCX, Courtney Barnett, Albert Hammond Jr., Ballet School, Arc Iris, Clare Maguire, Jon Hopkins, Jungle, Jamie Isaac, Say Lou Lou, The Neighbourhood
Three-day indie and folk music festival that takes place at Atlantic Station.
The National, Conor Oberst, Mutual Benefit, Spoon, Modest Mouse, The Replacements, Alabama Shakes, Local Natives, Jenny Lewis, Deer Tick, The Hold Steady, Violent Femmes, Iron & Wine, The Gaslight Anthem, Foals, Dropkick Murphys, Blitzen Trapper, San Fermin
Over 70 bands will play sunny, sandy Gulf Shores at this year's Hangout.
The Black Keys, The Killers, OutKast, Jack Johnson, Queens of the Stone Age, Modest Mouse, The Flaming Lips, Childish Gambino, Conor Oberst, Tegan and Sara, Chance the Rapper, Los Lobos, Andrew W.K., Black Lips, Le1f, Diarrhea Planet
Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, The Decemberists, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Brand New, Cass McCombs, Tegan and Sara, Jenny Lewis, Phosphorescent, Built to Spill, Kurt Vile and The Violators, Warpaint
Mysteryland's inaugural U.S. event takes place over Memorial Day Weekend at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, home of Woodstock.
Steve Aoki, Moby, Showtek, Kaskade, Carl Craig & Dimitri B2B, Dillon Francis, Flosstradamus, The Chainsmokers, Big Gigantic, Lindsay Lowend
Sasquatch! May 23, 2014 — May 25, 2014 / Quincy, WA
Held in the scenic Gorge in central Washington state, Sasquatch! offers a wide array of acts.
OutKast, Queens of the Stone Age, M.I.A., The National, Haim, Chance the Rapper, Neko Case, Waxahatchee, Rudimental, Major Lazer, Violent Femmes, Kid Cudi, Cut Copy, tUnE-yArDs, Panda Bear, Tyler, the Creator, Parquet Courts, Bob Mould, Phosphorescent, Liars, AlunaGeorge, Washed Out, Big Freedia, Banks, Austra, Damien Jurado, Deafheaven, Mogwai, Foals, Ryan Hemsworth
Vivid Sydney May 23, 2014 — June 09, 2014 / Sydney, Australia
Luminescent displays and luminary performances are both givens at Vivid Sydney, an annual week-long event celebrating "light, music, and ideas."
Giorgio Moroder, Lauryn Hill, St. Vincent, Pixies, Australian Chamber Orchestra (with The Presets), Pet Shop Boys, Anna Calvi, Midlake
Movement May 24, 2014 — May 26, 2014 / Detroit, MI
Movement Electronic Music Festival celebrates Detroit's history in electronic music while still offering artists across many genres. Over 107,000 people attended the festival in 2013.
Jacques Greene, Ryan Hemsworth, Action Bronson, Carl Craig, Benoit & Sergio, Anthony "Shake" Shakir, Just Blaze, RiFF RAFF, Simian Mobile Disco, Baauer, Julio Bashmore, Skream, Tourist, Kode9, Move D, Voices From the Lake, Shackleton, Bonobo, Flosstradamus, Jamie Jones, Moon Boots
Taking place on the banks of the Mediterranean, Primavera features stages curated by the likes of Pitchfork and ATP.
Arcade Fire, Nine Inch Nails, Neutral Milk Hotel, The National, Queens of the Stone Age, Kendrick Lamar, Slowdive, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Disclosure, Television, Pixies, Cut Copy, Slint, St. Vincent, Warpaint, Haim, Foals, Chvrches, Darkside, Mogwai, Spoon, Chromeo, Cloud Nothings, Majical Cloudz, Volcano Choir, Metronomy, Sharon Van Etten, Sky Ferreira, Earl Sweatshirt, Jenny Lewis, Superchunk, The War on Drugs, Shellac, SBTRKT, Jamie xx, Deafheaven, Ty Segall, The Julie Ruin, Real Estate, Blood Orange, The Dismemberment Plan, Dum Dum Girls, Body/Head, Holy Ghost!, Cold Cave, The Haxan Cloak, Kvelertak, Caveman, Andy Stott
Each year, the Roots organize and headline a big bash in the City of Brotherly Love that leans heavily on hip-hop and indie rock.
The Roots, Snoop Dogg, Janelle Monáe, A$AP Ferg, Action Bronson, The War on Drugs, AraabMuzik, Rudimental, Just Blaze, Bad Rabbits, Biz Markie, Jhené Aiko, Chill Moody, Electric Wire Hustle, Roman Gianarthur, Emily Wells
Welcome to the new Pitchfork Guide to Festivals. Formerly an annual rundown of our favorite summer fests, we've expanded and improved the Guide to make it a year-round list. This comprehensive collection includes events all over the world, big and small, in cities and out in the countryside, in fields and clubs and parks. The only thing they all have in common? Lots of great bands.
We'll be updating the Guide regularly throughout the year. So bookmark this page and check back often.
Governors Ball has succeeded where so many others have failed: it has created a lasting outdoor summer music festival in New York City.
OutKast, Jack White, Vampire Weekend, The Strokes, Phoenix, Skrillex, Interpol, TV on the Radio, Julian Casablancas, Disclosure, Spoon, Broken Bells, James Blake, Damon Albarn, Neko Case, Grimes, Tyler, the Creator, Janelle Monáe, Jenny Lewis, La Roux, Washed Out, Earl Sweatshirt, Kurt Vile, Chance the Rapper, AlunaGeorge, Deafheaven, Run the Jewels, Diarrhea Planet
Luminato June 06, 2014 — June 15, 2014 / Toronto, Ontario
Taking place in venues around the city, Luminato features music, art, dance, theater, film, and more.
The Roots, TV on the Radio, The Hidden Cameras, Jason Collett, Kid Koala
Plisskën June 06, 2014 — June 07, 2014 / Athens, Greece
Focusing on experimental indie and dance music.
65Daysofstatic, Black Lips, Cooly G, Crocodiles, Damien Jurado, Dirty Beaches, Fuck Buttons, Girls Against Boys, Mount Kimbie, Nightmares on Wax, No Age, Plastic Flowers, Saint Pepsi, Shackleton, Soft Moon, Son Lux, Suuns, Vitalic, Wild Beasts, Wooden Shjips
Field Day June 07, 2014 — June 08, 2014 / London, England
This downtown London blowout has expanded from one day to two.
Future Islands, Sky Ferreira, Danny Brown, Avey Tare's Slasher Flicks, Blood Orange, Todd Terje, Pixies, Metronomy, Oneohtrix Point Never, Neneh Cherry, Jamie xx, Arthur Beatrice, Pond, Courtney Barnett, Temples, Evian Christ, Lunice, Jagwar Ma, John Wizards, Jessy Lanza, Jon Hopkins, Omar Souleyman, SBTRKT, Simian Mobile Disco, Sophie, Warpaint, Thurston Moore, The Horrors
Field Trip June 07, 2014 — June 08, 2014 / Toronto, Ontario
Started in 2013 as a celebration of Arts & Crafts' 10th anniversary, Field Trip returns to Toronto again this year.
Broken Social Scene, Interpol, Constantines, Fucked Up, Chvrches, The Kills, Kevin Drew, Lord Huron, Austra
Pinkpop June 07, 2014 — June 09, 2014 / Landgraaf, Netherlands
This is the 45th Pinkpop Festival, the 27th at its current Netherlands home of Megaland.
Arcade Fire, Haim, The Rolling Stones, Arctic Monkeys, Metallica, Rob Zombie, Mastodon, Rudimental, Gogol Bordello, Bombay Bicycle Club, Portugal. The Man
Sónar June 12, 2014 — June 14, 2014 / Barcelona, Spain
A three-day extravaganza for EDM and experimental music fans.
Massive Attack, Richie Hawtin, Chic (with Nile Rodgers), Röyksopp & Robyn, Simian Mobile Disco, Rudimental, Caribou, Woodkid, Lykke Li, Bonobo, Four Tet, Boys Noize, Pretty Lights, Moderat, Trentemøller, Dâm-Funk, Tiga, Yelle, Oneohtrix Point Never, Forest Swords, Neneh Cherry (with RocketNumberNine), Laurel Halo, clipping., Majical Cloudz, James Murphy
Bonnaroo June 12, 2014 — June 15, 2014 / Manchester, TN
Once a hippie fest, Bonnaroo now covers every genre imaginable, as well as comedy and more.
Kanye West, Elton John, Jack White, Lionel Richie, Vampire Weekend, Phoenix, Skrillex, Disclosure, Arctic Monkeys, Frank Ocean, The Flaming Lips, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, James Blake, Wiz Khalifa, Damon Albarn, Neutral Milk Hotel, Deafheaven, Lauryn Hill, Chromeo, Broken Bells, Janelle Monáe, Chvrches, Danny Brown, Phosphorescent, Die Antwoord, Ty Segall, Chance the Rapper
Warsaw's genre-spanning music festival held annually at Poland's National Stadium.
Snoop Dogg, Pixies, OutKast, Queens of the Stone Age, Lily Allen, Kings of Leon, Florence and the Machine, The Prodigy, The Kooks, The Wombats, Rita Ora, Limp Bizkit, Timbaland, David Guetta, Kasabian
NorthSide June 13, 2014 — June 15, 2014 / Aarhus, Denmark
A three-day festival in Ådalen, just a few minutes on foot from downtown Aarhus.
Arcade Fire, A$AP Rocky, Lana Del Rey, St. Vincent, Queens of the Stone Age, The National, Wild Beasts, Franz Ferdinand, James Vincent McMorrow, Jurassic 5, Mount Kimbie, MØ, Quadron, Rhye, Röyksopp & Robyn, Temples, WhoMadeWho, Rudimental, Ane Brun
One Love June 14, 2014 — June 15, 2014 / Istanbul, Turkey
A two-day, 175,000-person luxury festival situated in Istanbul's Parkorman forest.
Blur, New Order, Foals, James Blake, The Vaccines, Keane
Sled Island June 18, 2014 — June 22, 2014 / Calgary, Alberta
Venues all across downtown Calgary come together to host Sled Island's diverse roster.
Mission of Burma, Blitzen Trapper, The Fresh & Onlys, White Lung, Julianna Barwick, Screaming Females, Spiritualized, Neko Case, Rocket From the Crypt, St. Vincent, Touché Amoré, Joel Plaskett Emergency, Rhye, Killer Mike, Earthless, Bob Mould, Chelsea Wolfe
In addition to music, this four-day festival in Dover, Delaware is known for its luminescent displays.
Foo Fighters, Weezer, OutKast, Beck, Band of Horses, Arctic Monkeys, Broken Bells, Childish Gambino, Tegan and Sara, Local Natives, Iron & Wine, Sleigh Bells, Chance the Rapper, Phantogram, MS MR, Washed Out, Phosphorescent, tUnE-yArDs, Sky Ferreira, White Denim, A-Trak
FOR Festival June 19, 2014 — June 22, 2014 / Hvar Island, Croatia
Four-day intimate island festival limited to 2,500 people with no VIP access.
Haim, Darkside, Neneh Cherry, Mark Ronson, Klaxons, MØ, Kelela, Factory Floor, Baio, Movement
An electric and dance-centered festival featuring an illuminated forest, hookah lounge, and oasis spa.
The Glitch Mob, Nightmares on Wax, Washed Out, Julio Bashmore, Christian Martin, RL Grime
Hurricane June 20, 2014 — June 22, 2014 / Scheessel, Germany
Massive German festival taking place at the same time (and with the same lineup) as Southside.
Arcade Fire, The Black Keys, Interpol, Pixies, Belle And Sebastian, Lily Allen, Lykke Li, James Blake, Franz Ferdinand, Elbow, Metronomy, Chvrches, London Grammar, Poliça, Fucked Up, The Preatures, Toy, Moderat, Baauer, Duke Dumont
Southside June 20, 2014 — June 22, 2014 / Neuhausen Ob Eck, Germany
Massive German festival taking place at the same time (and with the same lineup) as Hurricane.
Arcade Fire, Black Keys, Interpol, Pixies, Belle And Sebastian, Lily Allen, Lykke Li, James Blake, Franz Ferdinand, Elbow, Metronomy, Chvrches, London Grammar, Polica, Fucked Up, The Preatures, Toy, Moderat, Baauer, Duke Dumont
This festival takes place during the summer solstice when Iceland has 24 hours of sunlight.
Massive Attack, Schoolboy Q, Banks, Woodkid, Múm, Carl Craig, Skream, Damian Lazarus
Glastonbury June 25, 2014 — June 29, 2014 / Pilton, England
Perhaps the most famous performing arts festival in Europe, Glastonbury's size and variety of music makes it one of the world's premiere outdoor music marathons, featuring interactive art, an iconic teepee village, and an annually-celebrated lineup.
Arcade Fire, Massive Attack, De La Soul, Jack White, Dolly Parton, Jurassic 5, James Blake, Parquet Courts, Warpaint, Chromeo, Kasabian, Mogwai, Foster the People, Angel Haze, Interpol, Chvrches, Tiniwaren, Blondie, Kelis, Bonobo, Little Dragon, Elbow, The Black Keys, Robert Plant, Lily Allen, Jagwar Ma, M.I.A., Disclosure, Rudimental, Jamie xx, Courtney Barnett, Danny Brown, MGMT, London Grammar, Goldfrapp, Lana Del Rey, Skrillex, Pixies, Chance the Rapper, tUnE-yArDs, The Sun Ra Arkestra, Four Tet
Summerfest June 25, 2014 — July 06, 2014 / Milwaukee, WI
Recognized by Guinness World Records as "The World's Largest Music Festival," Summerfest lasts 11 days.
New Order, Lady Gaga, OutKast, Nas, Usher, Atmosphere, Girl Talk, Ludacris, Cheap Trick, Best Coast, The Hold Steady, Tegan and Sara, San Fermin
The fourth year at Double JJ Ranch in Michigan with artists ranging from EDM to hip-hop and more.
Lauryn Hill, Flying Lotus, Schoolboy Q, Moby, Zedd, Matt & Kim, Aloe Blacc, Cashmere Cat, Cut Copy, St. Lucia, Chrome Sparks, Zeds Dead, Andy C, Moon Boots, RAC, Lindsay Lowend, Until the Ribbon Breaks, The Glitch Mob, Bro Safari
Defqon.1 June 27, 2014 — June 29, 2014 / Biddinghuizen, Netherlands
Festival started in 2003 specializing in hardstyle dance music.
Coone, Minus Militia, Wasted Penguinz, Base Alert, The Viper, Mark With a K, Nutralizers, Warface, Noize Suppressor, Acti, TNT
Roskilde June 29, 2014 — July 06, 2014 / Roskilde, Denmark
Denmark's Roskilde festival is one of Europe's most beloved fêtes, featuring a mix of radio staples and artists on the rise.
Drake, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Arctic Monkeys, Damon Albarn, Deerhunter, Interpol, Icona Pop, Lykke Li, Major Lazer, Moderat, OutKast, Rob Zombie, Trentemøller, A$AP Ferg, Ryan Hemsworth, Juana Molina, Chance the Rapper, Chromeo, Earl Sweatshirt, Forest Swords, Haim, Julia Holter, The Men, Merchandise, Pusha T, Warpaint, Vattnet Viskar
Welcome to the new Pitchfork Guide to Festivals. Formerly an annual rundown of our favorite summer fests, we've expanded and improved the Guide to make it a year-round list. This comprehensive collection includes events all over the world, big and small, in cities and out in the countryside, in fields and clubs and parks. The only thing they all have in common? Lots of great bands.
We'll be updating the Guide regularly throughout the year. So bookmark this page and check back often.
Canada's largest outdoor music event takes place in venues indoor and outdoor around the city.
A$AP Rocky, St. Vincent, Queens of the Stone, Lady Gaga, Snoop Dogg, Soundgarden, Blondie, The Kills, Stars, Tegan and Sara, Father John Misty, Joey Bada$$, Gogol Bordello, Local Natives, San Fermin, The Killers
The 10-day Canadian festival celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
Lady Gaga, Queens of the Stone Age, Tegan and Sara, Phantogram, Jacques Greene, Tyler, the Creator, St. Vincent, Childish Gambino, Bonobo, Danny Brown, Violent Femmes, Mac DeMarco, Jenny Lewis, Andrew Bird, Gogol Bordello, Ryan Hemsworth, Deer Tick, Action Bronson, Charli XCX, Holy Ghost!, RL Grime
Rock Werchter July 03, 2014 — July 06, 2014 / Festivalpark Werchter, Belgium
Huge festival that has been overtaking Festivalpark in Belgium since the 1970s.
Metallica, Pearl Jam, Arctic Monkeys, The Black Keys, Damon Albarn, Skrillex, Ellie Goulding, Pixies, Interpol, Major Lazer, MGMT, Rudimental, Franz Ferdinand, Moderat, Lykke Li, Katy B, Warpaint, tUnE-yArDs, Sam Smith, Parquet Courts
Netherlands' international jazz festival featuring a number of legendary performers as well as international crossover acts.
Pharrell, Joss Stone, Stevie Wonder, Robin Thicke, Mavis Staples, Booker T. Jones, Quincy Jones, Al Jarreau, Gregory Porter, Chic (with Nile Rodgers), Hall and Oates, OutKast, Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, Darkside
Suffolk's lakefront alternative music festival with an emphasis on outdoor conservation.
Haim, The Black Keys, Two Door Cinema Club, First Aid Kit, Damon Albarn, Editors, Kelis, Billy Bragg, Mogwai, Eagulls, Cass McCombs, Julia Holter, Nils Frahm, Cate Le Bon, The Afghan Whigs, Phosphorescent, Tame Impala, Lykke Li, Conor Oberst, Hall and Oates, James Vincent McMorrow, Jungle, Dawes, Goat, SOHN, Slowdive, Röyksopp & Robyn, The War on Drugs, Parquet Courts
Our annual festival in Union Park features a diverse lineup of new and established artists.
Beck, Kendrick Lamar, Neutral Milk Hotel, Grimes, St. Vincent, Danny Brown, Earl Sweatshirt, Hudson Mohawke, Slowdive, Giorgio Moroder, tUnE-yArDs, Death Grips, Sun Kil Moon, Pusha T, Sharon Van Etten, DIIV, Factory Floor, Wild Beasts, The Julie Ruin, The Haxan Cloak, Mas Ysa, The Range, Circulatory System, Ka, Speedy Ortiz, Perfect Pussy
Pemberton July 18, 2014 — July 20, 2014 / Pemberton, British Columbia
Outdoor festival held at the foot of a mountain near Vancouver.
Frank Ocean, Nine Inch Nails, Kendrick Lamar, OutKast, Soundgarden, Modest Mouse, TV on the Radio, Lauryn Hill, Empire of the Sun, Grimes, The Flaming Lips, Tyler, the Creator, St. Vincent, Snoop Dogg, Earl Sweatshirt, Schoolboy Q, Baauer, Girl Talk, The New Pornographers, Flying Lotus, Dinosaur Jr., Fucked Up, Dan Deacon, Purity Ring, Hannibal Burress
Forecastle July 18, 2014 — July 20, 2014 / Louisville, KY
Summer festival in Louisville, Kentucky.
OutKast, Jack White, Beck, The Replacements, Spoon, Band of Horses, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Local Natives, Action Bronson, Slint, Jenny Lewis, tUnE-yArDs, Against Me!, Flume, Nightmares on Wax, Waxahatchee, Sharon Van Etten, Black Lips, Avey Tare's Slasher Flicks, Charli XCX, Sun Kil Moon
Kansas City's one-day contribution to the Global Dance Festival.
BT, PANTyRAiD, Bro Safari, UFO
Deathwish July 22, 2014 — July 23, 2014 / Cambridge, MA
Presented by Converge frontman Jacob Bannon's label, Deathwish Inc., this brand new, two-day festival features all of the hardcore label's heavy-hitters, including Modern Life Is War, Doomriders, and, of course, Converge-- who will headline both nights.
Converge, Trap Them, Code Orange Kids, Modern Life Is War, Doomriders, Cult Leader, Self Defense Family, Harm Wulf, Young and in the Way, Oathbreaker, New Lows, Chrome Over Brass
Festival to honor 25th anniversary of Merge Records.
Neutral Milk Hotel, The Clientele, Destroyer, Lambchop, Ex Hex, Bob Mould, Wye Oak, Mountain Goats, The Rock*A*Teens, Caribou, The Love Language, Superchunk, Teenage Fanclub, Eleanor Friedberger, Imperial Teen, Hiss Golden Messenger, Mikal Cronin, The Music Tapes
Welcome to the new Pitchfork Guide to Festivals. Formerly an annual rundown of our favorite summer fests, we've expanded and improved the Guide to make it a year-round list. This comprehensive collection includes events all over the world, big and small, in cities and out in the countryside, in fields and clubs and parks. The only thing they all have in common? Lots of great bands.
We'll be updating the Guide regularly throughout the year. So bookmark this page and check back often.
Lollapalooza August 01, 2014 — August 03, 2014 / Chicago, IL
The grandaddy of alt-rock festivals, once a traveling tour, has settled into Chicago's Grant Park and become an institution.
Eminem, OutKast, Arctic Monkeys, Lorde, Nas, Spoon, Broken Bells, Interpol, Lykke Li, Chance the Rapper, Chvrches, Darkside, Jenny Lewis, Flume, Run the Jewels, Phosphorescent, Iggy Azalea, Blood Orange, Parquet Courts, San Fermin
Pickathon August 01, 2014 — August 03, 2014 / Happy Valley, OR
A rustic, independent music festival in the middle of the Oregon woods with a major focus on sustainability and green living.
Angel Olsen, Warpaint, The War on Drugs, Mac DeMarco, Jonathan Richman, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Courtney Barnett, Foxygen, Dan Bejar, People Under the Stairs, Parquet Courts, Destroyer, Diarrhea Planet, Mikal Cronin, Woods, Julianna Barwick, Hiss Golden Messenger, The Donkeys, The Men
OFF Festival August 01, 2014 — August 03, 2014 / Katowice, Poland
Big, diverse festival in Poland.
Belle And Sebastian, Neutral Milk Hotel, Deafheaven, Fuck Buttons, Chelsea Wolfe, Perfect Pussy, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Notwist, Los Campesinos!, Black Lips, Cerebral Ballzy
Single day festival electronic music festival outside of London, England.
Art Department, Kerri Chandler, Laura Jones, Maxxi Soundsystem, Steve Lawler, Geddes, Ellen Allien, Giles Smith, tINI, James Priestley, Route 94
Dance Valley August 02, 2014 — August 02, 2014 / Spaarnwoude, Netherlands
2014 is the 20th edition of Dance Valley.
Showtek, Boaz van de Beatz, Aeros, Dirty South, Otto Knows, Audien, Teka B
HARD Summer August 02, 2014 — August 03, 2014 / South El Monte, CA
Two-day electronic, dance, and hip-hop festival in SoCal.
Pusha T, Rustie, Cashmere Cat, Julio Bashmore, DJ Snake, The Chainsmokers
OVO Fest August 03, 2014 — August 04, 2014 / Toronto, Ontario
Drake's annual celebration of his home city of Toronto always features tons of special guests.
Øya August 05, 2014 — August 09, 2014 / Oslo, Norway
Taking place on the waterfront in downtown Oslo, Øya offers views of the sea as well as easy accessibility to the city.
OutKast, Röyksopp & Robyn, Queens of the Stone Age, The National, Janelle Monáe, Bryan Ferry, Neutral Milk Hotel, Slowdive, Todd Terje, Little Dragon, Joey Bada$$, Deafheaven, Darkside, The Julie Ruin, Jon Hopkins, Sharon Van Etten, Mac DeMarco, Angel Olsen, Neneh Cherry
Woodsist August 05, 2014 — August 06, 2014 / Big Sur, CA
Woodsist-- the label run by Woods' Jeremy Earl-- runs an annual festival featuring label artists, alums, and friends.
Woods, Angel Olsen, White Fence, Real Estate, Foxygen, Little Wings
Beacons August 07, 2014 — August 10, 2014 / Skipton, England
Skipton's Beacons Festival has quickly developed a reputation for its strong, varied lineups and its local feel.
Darkside, Jon Hopkins, The Fall, Nightmares on Wax, Charli XCX, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Metz, Eagulls, Cheatahs, Roman Flügel, Melt Yourself Down, Joanna Gruesome, Speedy Ortiz, Girl Band
This nature- and wildlife-centric festival takes place in a rustic pastorial setting where visitors are welcome to participate in recreational activities and thespian arts while enjoying an eclectic mix of music on the English countryside.
Jessie Ware, Metronomy, London Grammar, Sam Smith, Mount Kimbie, Chet Faker, Burt Bacharach, Joan as Police Woman, Connan Mockasin, Flyte, Gregory Porter, Hozier, Wilderness Orchestra, Slow Club
Way Out West August 07, 2014 — August 09, 2014 / Gothenburg, Sweden
Way Out West takes over downtown Gothenburg with its main festival in a park, as well as Stay Out West, a series of related shows in venues around town.
OutKast, Röyksopp & Robyn, The National, Queens of the Stone Age, Janelle Monáe, Neutral Milk Hotel, Blood Orange, Joey Bada$$, Mac DeMarco, Sharon Van Etten, Tinariwen, Icona Pop, Conor Oberst, Darkside, Pusha T, The Julie Ruin, Little Dragon, MØ, Bill Callahan, Deafheaven, Shlohmo, Kelela
Arcade Fire, Eminem, Arctic Monkeys, Lykke Li, Broken Bells, The Roots, Atmosphere, Tokyo Police Club, Danny Brown, Austra, Kevin Drew, Ryan Hemsworth, Skream, Cyril Hahn
Flow Festival August 08, 2014 — August 10, 2014 / Helsinki, Finland
This three-day music and arts festival showcases glossy sounds from the most progressive names in pop.
OutKast, The National, Janelle Monáe, Darkside, Die Antwoord, Mac DeMarco, Charli XCX, Slowdive, Nina Persson, Bill Callahan, Bonobo, Jamie xx, Little Dragon, Joey Bada$$, Action Bronson, Pusha T, The Horrors, Real Estate, FKA twigs, Marissa Nadler
Outside Lands August 08, 2014 — August 10, 2014 / San Francisco, CA
Picturesque festival in Golden Gate Park.
Kanye West, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Arctic Monkeys, The Killers, Death Cab for Cutie, Disclosure, The Flaming Lips, Spoon, Atmosphere, Cut Copy, Tegan and Sara, Duck Sauce, Haim, Chromeo, Lykke Li, Chvrches, Local Natives, Jenny Lewis, Tycho, SBTRKT, Phosphorescent, Run the Jewels, Deer Tick, Holy Ghost!, Warpaint, Flume, Dum Dum Girls, Gold Panda, Christopher Owens, Jagwar Ma, Mikal Cronin, Woods
Sziget August 11, 2014 — August 18, 2014 / Budapest, Hungary
Weeklong blowout in Hungary.
Queens of the Stone Age, Placebo, The Prodigy, Skrillex, Lily Allen, London Grammar, La Roux, Klaxons, Darkside, Bonobo, Palma Violets, Wild Beasts, The Big Pink, Kavinsky, Mount Kimbie, Jagwar Ma
An intimate festival located in the Black Mountains with a 10-year tradition of bringing music, comedy, and poetry to the Welsh wilderness.
Bill Callahan, Beirut, The War on Drugs, Neutral Milk Hotel, Neko Case, Panda Bear, Sun Kil Moon, Caribou, First Aid Kit, Daughter, Kurt Vile and The Violators, Sharon Van Etten, Poliça, Anna Calvi, Real Estate, Mac DeMarco, Simian Mobile Disco, Angel Olsen, Speedy Ortiz, I Break Horses, Mutual Benefit
Pukkelpop August 14, 2014 — August 16, 2014 / Hasselt, Belgium
Enormous Belgian festival has bounced back from a fatal stage collapse in 2011.
OutKast, Slowdive, Disclosure, Portishead, Röyksopp & Robyn, Janelle Monáe, The National, St. Vincent, Snoop Dogg, Forest Swords, Queens of the Stone Age, Deafheaven, Die Antwoord, Black Lips, Kelela, MØ, Perfect Pussy, Bill Callahan, First Aid Kit, Icona Pop, Neneh Cherry, Rustie, Omar Souleyman, Sharon Van Etten, Shlohmo, Thurston Moore, The War on Drugs, Wild Beasts, Darkside, Kelis
Jabberwocky August 15, 2014 — August 16, 2014 / London, England
Jabberwocky is a new two-day festival from All Tomorrow's Parties, Pitchfork, and Primavera Sound, held in the ExCel Centre in London, England.
Neutral Milk Hotel, James Blake, Caribou, Kurt Vile and The Violators, Panda Bear, Cloud Nothings, Perfect Pussy, Liars, Untold, Darkside, Forest Swords, Thee Oh Sees, Sun Kil Moon, Deafheaven, Pissed Jeans, Forest Swords, Perfect Pussy, Earth, Iceage, Speedy Ortiz, Metz, patten, Vatican Shadow, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, Joanna Gruesome, Chelsea Wolfe
Held in the Larmer Tree Gardens in North Dorset, England, this middle-sized event offers a bucolic setting.
The Flaming Lips, Wild Beasts, The Horrors, Yo La Tengo, St. Vincent, White Denim, Temples, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Deer Tick, Alexis Taylor, Eagulls, Sun Kil Moon, Tinariwen, tUnE-yArDs, Jenny Lewis
Welcome to the new Pitchfork Guide to Festivals. Formerly an annual rundown of our favorite summer fests, we've expanded and improved the Guide to make it a year-round list. This comprehensive collection includes events all over the world, big and small, in cities and out in the countryside, in fields and clubs and parks. The only thing they all have in common? Lots of great bands.
We'll be updating the Guide regularly throughout the year. So bookmark this page and check back often.
Outlook September 03, 2014 — September 07, 2014 / Pula, Croatia
Outlook Festival is a celebration of bass and soundsystem culture. Over 400 artists are taking part in this year's festival, which takes place on Fort Punta Christo, a one kilometer stretch of beach in Croatia.
Lauryn Hill, Busta Rhymes, DJ Premier, Horace Andy, Goldie, Bishop Nehru, Andy C, Jonwayne, Wilfred Giroux
Bestival September 04, 2014 — September 07, 2014 / Isle of Wright, England
The medium-sized Bestival takes place over four days on England's Isle of Wight; it features a day devoted to fancy dress.
OutKast, Chic (with Nile Rodgers), Foals, Beck, Busta Rhymes, Disclosure, Basement Jaxx, Major Lazer, Wild Beasts, Caribou, Chvrches, Sam Smith, SBTRKT, Darkside
Incubate September 15, 2014 — September 21, 2014 / Tilburg, Netherlands
Electronic and beat-focused festival celebrating cutting edge visual arts, cinema, film, and music.
Goat, Aidan Baker, In Residence, Krallice, Mick Turner, Nadja, Exivious
Fest 13 October 31, 2014 — November 01, 2014 / Gainesville, FL
Emo and pop-punk festival located in Gainesville, Florida.
Descendents, The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, The Hotelier, You Blew It!, The Menzingers, Lifetime, Less Than Jake
In 1968, teen phenoms the Box Tops were opening for the Beach Boys when they took a break from touring. The band's singer, Alex Chilton—barely old enough to vote at the time—was crashing at Dennis Wilson’s house in Pacific Palisades with a motley crew of musicians and hangers-on. Among them was Charles Manson, who was a struggling songwriter and not yet the decade’s iconic bogeyman. The morning after an unimaginably wild party, Chilton awoke groggy and confused to find Manson sprawled out on the couch next to him. It was, the young singer decided, time to go back to Tennessee.
Around 20 years later, in the early 1990s, Chilton asked music journalist Holly George-Warren to co-write a book recounting his experiences as a teen idol in the Box Tops, a frustrated power-pop auteur in Big Star, and a notoriously eccentric solo artist who gleefully deconstructed early rock, R&B, and even crooner anthems. His potential title: I Slept with Charlie Manson.
Sadly, I Slept with Charlie Manson never progressed beyond the planning stages. Chilton was soon distracted by Big Star and Box Tops reunions, and George-Warren was then launching her own career as a writer and editor. She has written and edited nearly 20 books on music and culture, including several editions of the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll and 2007’s Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry.
But now, four years after Chilton's death, George-Warren has written an exhaustive and deeply sympathetic biography that paints the picture of a profoundly complex, conflicted, and contradictory artist. She choose a slightly less sensational title, though.
Pitchfork: The first chapter of your book traces Chilton’s family tree all the way back to 1060 and establishes him a figure on scale with someone like Lincoln or Washington, even though he was a cult figure.
Holly George-Warren: I wanted this to be a traditional biography in that there would be some family background, and I do believe that people are derived from a certain gene pool. There’s both nature and nurture that makes them what they are, and maybe I have a little bit of belief in reincarnation, too. Alex’s family heritage was very interesting, especially when I discovered that his great-great-great-grandmother was a spiritualist. His family were actually plantation owners, but Alex was very vitriolic when it came to his criticism of racism in the South. He did a lot of research into his family history, and I think he had mixed feelings about it: He was very interested to learn about it, but he didn’t want to come across as a member of some Southern aristocracy. He lived a pretty hard working-class life, except in those little parts when he was a pop star.
Pitchfork: As celebrity biographies go, A Man Called Destruction doesn’t have the typical narrative arc where the person struggles to succeed and then becomes famous. Instead, Chilton had fame thrust on him when he didn’t seem to want it, and when he did want success, it was incredibly elusive.
HGW: He wanted it and he didn’t want it. He wanted to play music for a living, but being a cult figure didn’t pay the bills. The same thing happened with some of these seminal blues musicians, whose music influenced the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin while they were working as janitors and bus drivers. So I don’t think Alex is unique in that regard. He was doing the same kind of menial labor. But he never gave up on music. I’m happy that at the end of his life he was making money from Big Star and "That ‘70s Show"—he wasn’t a purist when it came to licensing his music. He saw it was a way to make money, and if he couldn’t be a pop star anymore, at least he could make money off the residuals.
"Alex Chilton was the Justin Bieber of his day."
Pitchfork: In the book’s epilogue, you reveal that you met Alex in 1982, when he produced some tracks for your band Clambake. How well did you know him then, and how did that inform this book?
HGW: I left that for the epilogue because I really wanted this to be a biography that is as objective as possible, though it’s probably impossible to make any kind of writing that you throw yourself into totally objective. Let’s put it this way: I didn’t want to be a character in the book. That experience may have opened the door to Alex’s world, but I was by no means a close enough associate of his to know his deep, dark secrets. Even when I did professional interviews with him for articles, I found it difficult to get a lot of information out of him. He put out that vibe that he loved to talk to you about what he loved to talk to you about, but it kept you from asking probing questions.
Pitchfork: It sounds like that firsthand experience was crucial to the book.
HGW: Definitely. I knew that he loved lamb chops; I had to fix him a lamb-chop dinner when he produced my little band. And I got to meet his bandmates and other people who were really into his music over the years, so that opened up a lot of doors. If I just came in straight from Music Journalism 101, without having been part of the scene and going to a zillion shows, I’m not sure if people would have shared stuff with me so readily.
I’m hoping that Alex comes across in the book as a complex person. There were so many different aspects of his personality. Over the years, he changed a lot, so when I met him he’d already gone through the crazy stuff. I never saw that part of him at all. He was always straight. Sometimes he was extremely friendly and gracious and outgoing. Other times he would snub me and be rude. You never knew which Alex you were going to get. But I’m very happy that my last interactions with him were extremely positive and convivial.
Pitchfork: As you mention in the book, he seemed to use subjects like literature and especially astrology as defense mechanisms to keep other people at a certain distance. Did that standoffishness make him a difficult subject?
HGW: I think he used astrology as a tool and a way to protect himself from the things he had gotten into in the past. Doing research for this book, I would be constantly amazed to really empathize with what Alex went through. He was the Justin Bieber of his day. He was in this boy band when he was only 16 years old, and we see this in stars who become hugely popular at such a young age: They can’t really process everything. So he used astrology as a survival mechanism. He made a lot of decisions based on astrological charts. So many writers told me that he completed dissed them when they tried to get an interview with him, even though they had perfectly good credentials. But his charts maybe told him that it wasn’t a good time to divulge secrets or talk with strangers. And then I would find these interviews that he did a few months later that were unbelievable. He completely opened up. If you looked at it on the surface, there was no rhyme or reason, but I think he was just following his charts.
Pitchfork: The late 1970s and early 1980s seem to be the worst period of his life. He was playing the rock star—picking up underage girls, doing a lot of drugs, trashing hotel rooms—even though he wasn’t a rock star anymore.
HGW: There was so much going on in Alex’s personal and professional life, and in the culture, so I could see why he would engage in that kind of self-destructive behavior. He had these big disappointments with the Big Star recordings, as well as this very intense relationship with Lesa Aldridge, which really wrung him out. And a lot of people were popping Quaaludes. That was huge in the 70s. It was part of the culture—that post-60s, pre-punk, nihilistic period. As he himself pointed out later when he looked back on that time, he had alcoholism in his family, so that was part of his ancestry right there. I quote him in the book talking about being sucked away from that whole youthful, high school dating period to be this pop star touring with the Box Tops. And he got married on his 18th birthday. So when that was all over, he wanted to go back and make up for lost time by acting like a crazy teenager again, even though he was in his late 20s at that point.
Pitchfork: There seems to be a tendency among Chilton’s fans to romanticize his commercial failures. Was that something you had to be aware of and work around while writing this book?
HGW: Alex pointed that out by saying something to the effect of: If Big Star had had a big hit the way the Raspberries did, then they wouldn’t have been so cool. They wouldn’t have been this failed band that made incredible music. There’s that whole mystique surrounding cult artists. Also, Big Star were from Memphis and were named after a regional grocery store chain, but according to Alex and [Big Star drummer] Jody Stephens, people in Memphis didn’t give a hoot about them. They were all into prog and Zeppelin and blues rock. It’s funny that Memphians consider Big Star their own secret treasure now.
Pitchfork: Despite being a cult artist, Chilton seems to exert outsize influence on subsequent generations of artists. Do you think the sense of irony that defined 90s indie rock might have had some roots in his music?
HGW: Definitely. When he started doing those [old country and crooner] covers, he was really into a lot of that stuff, but some of it he approached with a bit more irony. And there’s also the way he could be obtuse onstage and in interviews. From a business perspective, he was recording things on his own with a small budget, some of it pretty lo-fi, but that had an influence on bands like Pavement. That became really big for the whole indie scene: doing it your way, doing it on a smaller level, not kowtowing to major labels, but still making some money. After the Big Star records were reissued in 1992 and after they did the reunion show in 1993, Alex could have gotten a deal with a major label if he had gone back to that Big Star sound. But he refused to do that.
Pitchfork: At the end of the book, you emphasize that he was in a very good place personally and professionally.
HGW: That is the judgment I made based on interviewing people who were around him at the end of his life. Some of the people who were very close to him told me they saw him glowing with happiness. They thought he had found this love that he had really been looking for throughout his life. He was a mercurial guy, but I think you could say he found peace with the whole Big Star thing. He had reconciled painful memories of that band and those times when he thought he had been exploited and manipulated for someone else’s gain. I’m sure there were days when he was still bitter about it, but generally speaking, he had come to a place where he could accept his path and play those songs without feeling so much regret. He wasn’t struggling financially. He loved his little house. He loved New Orleans. I’m really glad he went out in a good place. I got emotional writing that part of the book. I wish he was still around and still happy. Who knows what would have happened with him? His voice was in great shape and he was writing songs in the last few years of his life. I wish we still had him here making music. I wish I was going to see him play this weekend.
Here, for your consideration, is a Top 10 list published in Billboard magazine toward the end of last year, in the issue dated November 30, 2013:
1. Eminem: “The Monster” [ft. Rihanna] 2. Drake: “Hold On, We're Going Home” [ft. Majid Jordan] 3. Mike WiLL Made-It: “23” [ft. Miley Cyrus, Wiz Khalifa, and Juicy J] 4. Jay Z: “Holy Grail” [ft. Justin Timberlake] 5. Robin Thicke: “Blurred Lines” [ft. T.I. and Pharrell] 6. YG: “My Hitta” [ft. Jeezy and Rich Homie Quan] 7. Chris Brown: “Love More” [ft. Nicki Minaj] 8. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: “White Walls” [ft. ScHoolboy Q and Hollis] 9. Eminem: “Rap God” 10. Justin Timberlake: “TKO”
This list contains many of the year’s best-selling acts and, track-for-track, it looks like a fairly representative cross-section of 2013 pop. Except it’s not pop—at least, not according to the music-industry bible. This wasn’t the Top 10 of Billboard’s all-genre, authoritative Hot 100 chart. This was the Top 10 of the magazine’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
This Top 10 might make you cock an eyebrow if, like me, you define rhythm-and-blues and hip-hop as music largely, though not exclusively, conceived by, aimed at, and consumed by African-Americans. Obviously, whites can and do make excellent R&B and rap. The question is one of degree: In 2013, the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart was topped by a Caucasian person 44 out of 52 weeks—including 37 straight weeks, January to October, where it was topped by either hip-hop duo Macklmore & Ryan Lewis or blue-eyed soul singer Robin Thicke. Is it credible that a chart devoted to black-derived music should be dominated by white acts most of the time?
Ideally, any effective genre chart—be it R&B, Latin, country, even alt-rock—doesn’t just track a particular strain of music, which can be marked by ever-changing boundaries and ultimately impossible to define. It’s meant to track an audience. This is a subtle but vital difference. If an R&B chart tries to cover whatever might be termed R&B music, you get into the subjective, slippery business of determining what, or who, is “black enough” for the chart. That wouldn’t be appropriate for Billboard, a purportedly objective arbiter of the music business.
The goal is not to racially profile record buyers, either. Instead, by tracking the R&B and hip-hop audience—those who seek out black radio stations and maintain a steady diet of beats, rhymes, and soul, regardless of their own ethnic makeup—you get a much better read of the pulse of actual fans of the music: those who live and breathe it, week in, week out. That used to be what Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart did. It’s not what it does anymore.
Mind you, this isn’t the first time Billboard has run an R&B chart with so many white faces. For comparison, let’s go back 50 years. In the Billboard issue dated November 23, 1963, just under half of the Top 10 on the Hot R&B Singles chart was by white acts. And I mean really white. Hanging around that week’s top five were a pair of boy-girl duets with easy-listening pop vocals: “Deep Purple” by Nino Tempo and April Stevens and “I’m Leaving It Up to You” by Dale & Grace. Somewhat more authentic was rock legend Roy Orbison’s “Mean Woman Blues”—No. 8 R&B that week—a song obviously rooted in the 12-bar blues tradition, but one that had been recorded by a string of traditional rock'n'roll acts including Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard.
And what was No. 1 on the R&B chart back then? A song by white pop band Jimmy Gilmer & the Fireballs called “Sugar Shack”, a million-seller that also topped the Hot 100 and was Billboard’s No. 1 single of 1963. It’s a hokey song—and whatever its merits, the idea that “Sugar Shack” was a major hit among black audiences beggars belief. Gilmer’s hit topped an R&B Top 10 that also featured such black artists as Rufus Thomas (“Walking the Dog”), Sam Cooke (“Little Red Rooster”), and Ray Charles (“Busted”)—but none of those songs reached No. 1 like “Sugar Shack”.
The November 23, 1963, chart is interesting for reasons that have nothing to do with the coincidental assassination of President Kennedy that week. Rather, it was the last R&B chart Billboard would publish for more than a year. One week after this issue, the editors mysteriously pulled the chart from the magazine and kept it out for 14 months.
When Billboard brought back Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles in late January 1965, it looked markedly different: Its No. 1 song was the Temptations’ “My Girl”, and other than one Righteous Brothers song, the revamped chart included all people of color. Billboard’s editors never explained specifically how they changed the chart’s formula or the data gathered to compile it; the magazine carefully tends to its chart formulas, and over the years, all of Billboard’s major charts (there are dozens) have evolved along with changes in technology and American culture. But one thing was certain: The revamped 1965 R&B chart formula had been refined to focus more closely on record sales and radio listening by actual R&B fans.
And that’s the difference between the R&B chart led by Jimmy Gilmer in 1963, and the one led by Eminem in 2013: The former was based on a slipshod methodology, and Billboard fixed it. The latter is based on a new, also dubious methodology, powered by digital data, that over-weights pop crossover records. But this time, the magazine has no intention of changing it anytime soon.
Billboard has had a chart to track music aimed at African-Americans since the 1940s, but its size and methodology have changed multiple times over the years. To say nothing of its name—beginning with Harlem Hit Parade in 1942, the chart has been called everything from Race Records (1945–49) to Hot Soul Singles (1973–82). Since the 50s, some version of Jerry Wexler’s famous coinage “Rhythm & Blues” has appeared in the title more frequently than any other term; the chart’s current name is the comprehensive Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. For decades, the chart was the largely unchallenged authority on the songs that, week to week, defined black America. But it took Billboard a while to get the formula right.
Like the Hot 100, which since its inception in 1958 has mixed together multiple pools of data to form one all-encompassing pop chart, Billboard unified its R&B coverage into a single tally in October 1958. This R&B chart combined sales of singles (then on 45 rpm vinyl), radio airplay and, for a brief time, jukebox plays. This mix of sales-plus-airplay makes for a vibrant and reliable Hot 100, and it should have done similarly for the R&B chart.
The problem back then wasn’t with the formula per se, it was with the data. Retailers and radio stations were reporting all manner of popular records with even a hint of a beat, by black or white artists, as R&B. In the 50s and early 60s, at a time when reliable data in the record business was hard to come by—and, not incidentally, the Civil Rights Act was still nonexistent—one imagines the magazine was having a tough time finding record-shop managers and radio programmers able (or willing) to accurately reflect what African-Americans were listening to and buying. The November 1963 chart led by “Sugar Shack” was the dubious result.
The specific reasons why Billboard put the R&B chart on hiatus that week in late 1963 are lost to history. But it’s not hard to guess—chart historians theorize that the increasing dominance of Caucasian pop hits was the culprit. When the R&B chart returned in early ’65, Billboard placed a cryptic note below the new chart, in which the editors alluded to the magnitude of the challenge in reinventing it:
“Kudos to all the disc jockeys, program directors and retail outlets for their splendid co-operation in helping to kick off the new r&b page. It is quite evident, and has been for some years, that the people engaged in all areas of r&b programming and retailing, are solid co-operative merchandisers. The rapport between r&b radio and retail outlets and the energies expended by both to build the r&b field is a page that could well be inserted into many other areas of the record business.”
This editors’ note is more than happy-talk to thank DJs and store managers. It reads as Billboard vouching for the black-oriented music business itself—reassuring the recording industry’s machers that it was legitimate to track what actual African-Americans listened to and bought.
The key difference between the revamped R&B chart and the Hot 100 was that Billboard refined the R&B chart’s formula to impose careful limits on what airplay and sales counted. It was clear that only radio stations specializing in R&B—and not Top 40 stations or other formats that might play rhythmic music—had their reported airplay baked into the chart. As for the retail component, the magazine now counted what it came to call “core R&B stores”: retailers, many black-owned, in cities that sold primarily R&B records to a largely, though not exclusively, black clientele.
The Heyday of the R&B Chart
This formula turned out to be Billboard’s special sauce; the revamped chart wasn’t going to track R&B music per se, but rather the R&B audience. Ultimately, what this approach meant was that the R&B chart was qualitatively different from the Hot 100 pop chart—both the songs on it and where they fell.
A closer look at that very first revamped R&B chart in January 1965 offers several examples. That week, the Temptations’ “My Girl” was on both the Hot 100 and the R&B chart, but it was already at No. 1 R&B and had not yet reached the Top 10 on the pop chart—the Motown classic was still in the process of crossing over and wouldn’t top the pop chart until March. Conversely, Shirley Ellis’s “The Name Game” was a bigger Hot 100 hit that week (No. 3) than on the R&B chart (No. 6, on its way to a No. 4 peak). And there were core R&B hits that would never be big pop hits—Alvin Cash & the Crawlers’ “Twine Time” was No. 8 on that January ’65 R&B chart, on its way to a No. 3 peak; but it would never get past No. 14 on the Hot 100. These differences are why an R&B chart with its own distinct pool of data matters.
By the 70s, the differences between pop-chart performance and R&B chart performance were even more stark. In 1971–72, the R&B chart sported occasional No. 1 hits that wouldn’t even make the pop Top 20, like Rufus Thomas’s “(Do the) Push and Pull” (No. 1 R&B, No. 25 pop) or Johnnie Taylor’s “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone” (No. 1 R&B, No. 28 pop); or even the occasional smash that would miss the pop Top 40 entirely, such as Bobby Womack’s “Woman’s Gotta Have It” (No. 1 R&B, No. 60 pop). In July 1973, Billboard expanded the chart, then called Hot Soul Singles, from 60 positions to 100. Those additional 40 positions at the bottom would contain all manner of deep cuts that would never make the upper reaches of the chart—the Jackson 5’s “All I Do Is Think of You”, Syreeta Wright’s “Harmour Love”, the O’Jays’ “Family Reunion”, Al Green’s “Love and Happiness”—signaling the depth of black music in this era.
By the end of the 70s, acts like Parliament/Funkadelic, Teddy Pendergrass, and Tyrone Davis essentially had core R&B careers. A track or two by these acts would make the lower rungs of the pop Top 40, but the bulk of their Top 10 R&B hits wouldn’t even touch the Hot 100’s upper half, if at all. The bad news for such acts was that their lack of crossover generally meant lower label promotional budgets; the good news was that R&B success could sustain a career. And when pop crossover did happen, it really meant something. By the time the Commodores and Kool & the Gang started scoring Hot 100 No.1’s at the turn of the 80s, they’d already racked up strings of R&Bchart toppers since the mid-70s, presaging their pop success.
It also meant something when a white act charted R&B—the crossover validation worked the other way, too. Scores of acts that normally dominated the Hot 100 would occasionally record a song embraced by the R&B audience. Elton John has long attested to how thrilled he was when his “Bennie and the Jets” was the top song on black radio in Detroit and ultimately crossed to the R&B chart, where it peaked at a respectable No. 15. Other hits by white acts did even better, reaching the R&B chart’s Top Five: Average White Band’s “Pick Up the Pieces”, KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight”, Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music”, Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing”, Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy”, and, by the early 80s, Daryl Hall and John Oates’s “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)”. These songs didn’t chart high on Hot Soul Singles because someone in charge of the charts thought they sounded black enough—they crossed over because black radio stations and core R&B stores were playing and selling them in quantity.
(Payola surely played a role in those good-old-bad-old days, as it did throughout the 70s and 80s on the pop charts and rock radio. But R&B chart success in and of itself likely wasn’t a lucrative enough prize for labels to budget serious “incentives.” Anyway, as the evidence shows, the aforementioned white acts only occasionally scored serious R&B hits. If Warner had wanted Rod Stewart to have more than one R&B smash—rather than the solitary one he did—they’d have greased more palms.)
But these occasional appearances by white acts didn’t affect the chart in any major way during the decade of Michael, Lionel, Prince and Whitney—black music was doing just fine, thank you, both on the Hot Black Singles chart and on the Hot 100. In addition to the major inroads made at Top 40 radio by these megastars, a lower tier of core black superstars gave the 80s R&B chart its own distinct identity: Luther Vandross, the Gap Band, Freddie Jackson, Maze, Stephanie Mills, Melba Moore, Guy—with rare exception, these artists’ strings of top-charting R&B hits would bypass the pop Top 40 entirely. Indeed, what made the 80s one of the richest decades for black pop in a generation could be seen each week right at the top of Hot Black Singles—one week, Michael Jackson’s über-crossover hit “Billie Jean” could be on top, and then a week later, it would be replaced by a record as un–Top 40–friendly as George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog”.
Even in this rich period, the chart wasn’t perfect: Hip-hop, in its early days, was badly underrepresented on Hot Black Singles. But mostly, that wasn’t the chart’s fault. As has been well documented—particularly by the founders of the Def Jam label—black radio, then dominated by the smoothest forms of buppie-R&B, was slow to accept hip-hop, even as early rap singles were selling thousands or even millions (a phenomenon that also went underreported by record retailers).
At the start of the decade, a foursome of vital rap tracks all peaked, coincidentally, at No. 4 R&B: the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks,” both in 1980; and Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force’s “Planet Rock” and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message”, both in 1982. But No. 1 rap songs were scarce. To be sure, rap elements graced numerous 80s chart-toppers, including Cameo’s “She’s Strange” and Chaka Khan’s “I Feel for You”, but by the end of the decade, only two full-on rap songs, total, had topped Hot Black Singles: L.L. Cool J’s crossover ballad “I Need Love” in 1987, and De La Soul’s psychedelic P-Funk reinvention “Me, Myself & I” in 1989. (Run-DMC did just OK, never getting past No. 5 R&B with “My Adidas”.)
By the end of the decade, a follower of the black chart could be forgiven for thinking rap was basically a fad. But as it turned out, the 80s were a mere throat-clearing for hip-hop's 90s explosion. And good data had a lot to do with giving rap its due.
SoundScan Ushers in an R&B/Hip-Hop Chart Boom
The deep-data era on the U.S. charts began in May 1991, with the introduction of SoundScan (later Nielsen SoundScan) technology—accurate tallying of sales at the retail counter, through scanned UPC barcodes on music purchases to Billboard's flagship album chart. Immediately, this revolutionized the chart, giving a boost to genres that the old manual-charts system had underreported. In particular, hip-hop and country artists benefited massivelywhen sales were tallied more accurately.
Then in November 1991, the magazine brought SoundScan technology to the Hot 100. Because the Hot 100 was based not only on sales of singles but also radio airplay, Billboard introduced a computerized data feed from Broadcast Data Systems, which counted radio plays via a sonic fingerprint. While BDS didn’t eliminate recording industry payola, it made it much harder for labels to pay for a “paper” (phony) playlist add; the Hot 100 was now based on songs receiving actual airplay. Once again, the changes to the Hot 100, thanks to both BDS and SoundScan, were profound—it’s difficult to imagine Sir Mix-a-Lot topping the Hot 100 for over a month in the summer of 1992 without the more accurate technologies.
In 1992, the SoundScan and BDS technologies made their way to the black-music chart (two years earlier, the chart had been renamed again, this time as Hot R&B Singles). Billboard was so careful about not screwing up their R&B retail/radio formula—many small retailers couldn’t afford barcode scanners at first—that the magazine phased in the new technologies over several months to be sure they didn’t misrepresent what black retailers and stations were playing. But once the new formula was in full effect, by the start of 1993, rap’s profile on Hot R&B Singles improved almost immediately. Within the first three months, Naughty by Nature and Dr. Dre scored their first No. 1 hits on the more data-accurate R&B chart.
Of course, hip-hop wasn’t only dominating the R&B chart in the 90s—it was steadily taking over the Top 40, too. As early as 1993, black music was already so dominant on the Hot 100 that all but two of Billboard’s top 25 pop singles of the year were crossover tracks from the Hot R&B Songs chart (the only exceptions that year: one track each by UB40 and Soul Asylum). There were periods in the late 1990s and early 2000s where the Top 10 of the Hot 100 and R&B chart looked very similar. But that was largely because so many R&B and hip-hop tracks were legitimately crossing over to the pop charts—phenomena that SoundScan and BDS tracked accurately.
The death of the retail single by the end of the 90s helped accelerate the R&B-to-pop crossover. Wanting to motivate full-length CD purchases whenever possible, the major labels began pulling major radio hits from the retail market; if you wanted a Green Day, No Doubt, or Goo Goo Dolls hit, you had to pony up $16–$18 for the CD. While hits by both white and black acts were pulled from the retail market, songs by rock and pop were generally less available—a kind of racial profiling that implied that white consumers were more likely to buy a full-length CD. If you were a Britney Spears fan from 1999 to 2003, you’d buy her CD; many of Spears’s biggest radio hits, including “Oops…I Did It Again” and “Toxic”, weren’t released as singles. If you were, say, an OutKast fan, you might buy Stankonia, but you might just as easily purchase “Ms. Jackson” as a CD-single. The result was that, at the turn of the millennium, the Hot 100 was more dominated by hip-hop and R&B than teen-pop, which tended to do better on the album chart.
Still, even with these singles-yanking shenanigans going on, it was undeniable in the early 2000s that music by African-Americans had come to be preferred by a generation of teenagers and twentysomethings, and black radio at the peak of hip-hop was scoring ratings and influencing Top 40 like never before.
By 2004, literally every song that topped the Hot 100 was by a person of color. This was the final affirmation that black music—during the peak of Usher, Destiny’s Child, 50 Cent, and Jay-Z—was, to borrow Berry Gordy’s term, the sound of young America. In some cities, even the Top 40 pop stations leaned strongly “rhythmic,” in industry parlance. The R&B chart didn’t look terribly different from the Hot 100 in 2004, but that was largely because Top 40 radio was using the R&B chart as its first stop to go shopping for hits. R&B and hip-hop were setting the agenda.
Within a year, however, that pendulum would begin swinging back.
Black Music’s Digital Problem
The iTunes Music Store opened for business in 2003, revolutionizing the legal distribution of music online. Billboard waited a couple of years to incorporate digital song data into its charts, giving Apple’s online platform and iPod ecosystem time to disseminate past early adopters to teenagers and a wide range of demographics. Finally, in February 2005, digital sales—dominated, overwhelmingly, by iTunes—were baked into the Hot 100, and the digital era on the charts began.
The effects were remarkable, even within the first year. Million-selling songs like Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” and Weezer’s “Beverly Hills” gave the 90s veterans their highest-charting Hot 100 hits ever. Within just a few years, thanks largely to digital sales, soft-rock acts like Plain White T’s, Coldplay, and Owl City were topping the charts; and budding country stars Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift were breaching the pop Top 10, thanks in part to the democratizing effects of digital sales, which balanced out slow-moving radio rotations on the Hot 100.
Over on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, however, those millions in digital sales had no impact. Billboard still wasn’t factoring iTunes and its ilk into its black music chart in the late 00s; only physical singles sales still counted. To say the least, this was a rather surreal chart policy for the time. If the new millennium had been tough on brick-and-mortar music chains—shuttering the nation’s Tower Records, Coconuts, and Strawberries franchises—it was downright brutal on the smaller shops that reported to Billboard’s R&B charts, which were disappearing just as quickly. And anyway, so few physical singles were being released in the 00s that whatever black-owned-and-oriented music stores remained didn’t have much to report to the chart.
For all intents and purposes, then, during the 00s, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs was an all-radio chart. Physical singles sales still counted but had an infinitesimal impact. This overreliance on radio made the chart rather hollow; as vital as black radio is as a medium, it is subject to the same over-research, promotional manipulation, and slow playlist turnover as Top 40 radio. By 2009 and 2010, fewer than 10 songs were topping the R&B chart all year.
Add to the mix a slump in black radio in the late 00s, brought on by radio’s new ratings technology, the Portable People Meter, which replaced the prior handwritten diary system. PPM, a more accurate (though far from perfect) pager-like listener-measuring device, became Arbitron’s main method for gathering radio ratings after 2007. It revealed that urban radio wasn’t scoring the persistent listenership previously believed—in no small part because Top 40, adult-contemporary, and rock stations were more likely to be playing in public spaces—which led to decimated ratings and the shuttering of stations; in New York City, two powerhouse black stations, Kiss-FM and WBLS, were compelled to merge.
Billboard couldn’t do anything about the slump in black radio ratings. But clearly, for the R&B/Hip-Hop chart to remain vital, digital consumption of black music would have to be baked in somehow. However, for nearly eight years—even as the Hot 100 became reenergized by iTunes, and eventually Spotify (added to the Hot 100 in 2012), and YouTube (2013)—Billboard’s editors resisted adding digital consumption data of any kind to the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
They likely had their reasons. Because here’s the problem with digital and R&B: There’s no such thing as a “black iTunes” or a “black YouTube.” African-Americans—and hardcore hip-hop and R&B fans of any ethnicity—mostly go to the same sites to purchase and stream songs as everyone else. You can imagine a world where, say, BET or The Source had started a download store or streaming site; then all Billboard would have to do to modernize its R&B chart would be to draw all digital sales data for the chart from those outlets. (Sites like WorldStarHiphop let you stream both mainstream and underground videos, but they don’t sell enough stuff to be helpful to Billboard.) In the winner-take-all game of digital music consumption, any such site would get crushed by Apple’s iTunes and Google’s YouTube.
This all-encompassing digital consumption isn’t necessarily a problem when it comes to the Hot 100, which covers all genres and where, in theory, all songs compete on equal footing. But since its reinvention in 1965, the whole point of Billboard’s R&B chart has been to highlight sales and airplay targeted at core black music fans. That’s what distinguished the R&B chart from the Hot 100. How do you do that, if you can’t isolate sales and streams generated by these consumers?
A Solution Causes Even More Problems
As late as the summer of 2012, digital sales still weren’t incorporated into the R&B/Hip-Hop chart. That’s when I wrote an installment of my former Village Voice column “100 & Single” highlighting the growing “commercial funk” in black-oriented music and calling on Billboard to add digital data to the chart. “Music charts are like feedback loops,” I wrote. “They reflect popularity back at the industry that makes stuff popular. But the loop on this chart is getting smaller and more insular all the time.”
Granted, I have about as much influence on Billboard chart policy as you do—i.e., none. But as long as I was thinking out loud about how the magazine could modernize the chart, I also warned that, whatever they did, they shouldn’t just throw in all digital sales of any song that could qualify under the broadest definitions of hip-hop and R&B because, as I wrote, “a digital-fueled R&B/Hip-Hop chart would probably vastly overstate the urban popularity of will.i.am.” Then, three months after that column, Billboard did exactly what I was afraid of.
In October 2012, the magazine announced an overhaul to its R&B/Hip-Hop, Country, and Latin Songs charts, all incorporating digital sales and streaming for the first time. The modernization of these genre charts was long overdue, but Billboard threw out the baby with the bathwater. Or, you might say, drowned the baby in too much bathwater: Now, digital sales from any source, any buyer (read: pop fans) would be factored into each chart. Worse, in order to achieve sales and radio parity, Billboard also incorporated airplay across all radio formats into the genre charts; so airplay from Top 40 or adult-contemporary stations of, say, an R&B song would now count for the R&B chart, of a country song would count for the country chart, and so forth. In essence, Billboard would now use the exact same data set for these genre charts that it uses for the Hot 100, and simply trim the charts back to whatever songs the magazine determined fit that genre—each chart became a mini–Hot 100.
The word that recurred throughout Billboard’s announcement of the chart changes was “crossover”: “The new methodology, which will utilize the Hot 100's formula of incorporating airplay from more than 1,200 stations of all genres monitored by BDS, will reward crossover titles receiving airplay on a multitude of formats.” This was an acknowledgment that the mass of pop fans was going to control the fate of the genre charts. It was also ironic, since these changes would largely make “crossover” as we previously knew it—songs transitioning over a matter of weeks or months, from genre chart to mass audience—impossible.
Followers of these genre charts were instantly unhappy. Fans of Hot Country Songs were aghast at the changes; the very first week of the switch, an especially poppy Taylor Swift song that wasn’t scoring much airplay on country radio stations shot to No. 1 on the revamped Country chart. On Latin Songs, the steady turnover of hits atop the chart slowed down instantly, as a crossover hit that paired reggaetón stars Wisin y Yandel with Chris Brown and T-Pain vaulted to No. 1 and settled in for a months-long run. Even Billboard’s smaller charts weren’t immune. Hot Rap Songs, a sidebar to the R&B/Hip-Hop chart that had existed since 1989, also had digital data added to its formula; but rap fans howled when the first No. 1 song on the revamped Hot Rap Songs was K-Pop star Psy’s viral hit “Gangnam Style.”
Arguably, though, the biggest loser in the 2012 charts overhaul was Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. Billboard cut the chart in half, from 100 to 50 positions—its smallest size since the early 70s. Unlike the country and Latin charts, which hadn’t had a sales component, the R&B chart had once been fueled by singles sales at core R&B stores. Replacing that with undifferentiated iTunes sales was like replacing Sylvia’s with McDonald’s. Finally, while all of the genre charts were now stuffed with multi-format radio airplay, the effects were more noticeable on the R&B chart, which became exceedingly skewed toward pop-radio-friendly songs.
Top 40 stations rarely play Latin music, and they play only a small selection of country titles; but they play a lot of music that falls under the broad umbrellas of “R&B” and “hip-hop.” I place these terms in scare quotes because, while Justin Timberlake certainly qualifies as R&B-pop and Macklemore does rap, there was a reason neither of these acts topped Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs under its old methodology—they weren’t core artists for the genre. After the overhaul, Macklemore topped the R&B/Hip-Hop chart for five months straight, and Timberlake monopolized multiple spots within the chart’s Top 10 throughout 2013. With these crossover artists selling millions online and racking up hours of cross-genre airplay, dominance on the revamped R&B chart was inevitable.
Clearly, race is the elephant in the room in these discussions of who is worthy of the R&B/Hip-Hop chart. But it’s not as simple as “black: good; white: bad”—again, the R&B chart has historically included, and even been topped by, certain songs by white acts. The problem goes beyond race; the new methodology has skewed results for artists on either side of the color line.
Take Rihanna: native of Barbados, obviously a woman of color and, let’s be clear, primarily a pop star. Since her 2005 breakthrough, she has been tentatively embraced by R&B radio, but only intermittently. Until 2012, she’d only scored one No. 1 R&B hit, the 2008 ballad “Take a Bow”; that’s compared with her 10 chart-toppers on the Hot 100 in this period. Many of Rihanna’s Hot 100 No. 1s—songs as massive as “Umbrella” and “Disturbia”—were R&B chart underperformers (Nos. 4 and 88 R&B, respectively). But under Billboard’s new R&B/Hip-Hop chart formula, all of the megastar's millions in sales and radio audience count, regardless of their source. The week in 2012 that Billboard kicked off the new R&B chart, her “Diamonds”, a song receiving only modest black radio airplay, shot from No. 66 to No. 1 under the new methodology.
On the other side of the racial divide, consider Robin Thicke. He may be a punchline at this point, but during the mid-00s he was, no joke, a legitimate urban radio star—the leading blue-eyed soul singer of his day. His 2007 slow jam “Lost Without U”, an 11-week R&B chart-topper under the old, black-radio-driven system (Hot 100 peak: No. 14), was the No. 1 R&B song of '07 (and the first track by a white artist to rank as the year’s top R&B song since the chart changed in 1965).
The new 2012 methodology didn’t hurt Thicke—it boosted him in the wrong way, killing whatever cred he had. “Blurred Lines”, Thicke’s 2013 bid for pop crossover, succeeded like gangbusters on the Hot 100—it was his first Top 10 pop hit and eventually topped the big chart for 12 weeks. As for R&B/Hip-Hop, under the old chart system, you could imagine “Blurred” hitting the top for a week or two, if for no other reason than Thicke’s strong track record with the R&B audience. Instead, under Billboard’s new everything-and-the-kitchen-sink formula, “Blurred” topped the R&B/Hip-Hop chart for an absurd 16 weeks, making Thicke look less like the integral part of black radio he once was and more like a white interloper.
The reason songs like “Blurred”, or Rihanna’s “Diamonds”, or Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s “Thrift Shop”, can command the new R&B/Hip-Hop chart for so long is that Billboard’s overhauled genre lists are essentially what I call “accordion charts”: condensed versions of the Hot 100, with all the songs that Billboard has decided don’t qualify for that genre taken out. You could actually make any week’s R&B/Hip-Hop chart yourself: Take that week’s Hot 100; cross out the pure-pop, country, and rock songs; and re-stack all the songs that are left, keeping them in the same order. Voilà: instant R&B chart.
(To satisfy my curiosity for this story, I played the create-the-R&B-chart game with four different Hot 100s from various weeks throughout 2013. The only differences between my handmade R&B charts and Billboard’s official ones were the inclusion of older songs on lower rungs of the R&B chart that Billboard removes from the Hot 100 due to its recurrent rules that prune old songs. If these records had been left on the Hot 100, my faux R&B charts and Billboard’s would have been identical.)
An analogy: Imagine if we changed the way we elected U.S. senators. Under our new rules, we’d take each state’s presidential vote and just redistribute the Democratic and Republican votes among the two corresponding Senate candidates—ignoring the fact that candidate specifics, party-switching, and voter turnout have something to do with how we vote. A system like this would certainly make the process of electing senators simpler, and the result might vaguely resemble the outcome of our actual system. But it would change the outcome in close races; it would remove voter agency (a Democratic Senate hopeful would have no incentive to campaign for moderate Republican voters, or vice-versa); and it would dumb down the (already pretty dumb) process.
Billboard’s new accordion-style genre-chart methodology, with the Hot 100 playing the part of the presidential vote, is not much better than that. All the interesting quirks that make one song a better fit for the core R&B audience and another a pop crossover smash are eliminated. This approach isn’t the way Billboard’s genre charts are supposed to work; they are supposed to be based on a different sample of data—not just the Hot 100 data, editorially pruned by Billboard.
Emphasis on editorial: What is perhaps worst about this system is how Billboard, supposedly objective chart-maker, is now in the sorry business of trying to decide who qualifies for an R&B chart, with all the bizarre identity implications. Justin Timberlake and Eminem? In. The biracial Bruno Mars, or the Mariah Carey–like Ariana Grande? Out. I don’t have any better grasp on whether these artists should qualify for the chart than Billboard does. But the magazine is playing a role that used to be played organically—by shoppers at black retail stores and R&B radio—on a song-by-song, artist-by-artist basis.
But Can the Chart Be Fixed?
For all my disdain for the current thinking behind the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, I have sympathy for Billboard’s editors—they’re currently in a no-win situation when it comes to the digital era and audience measurement. If I were in charge, I’m not sure I could do any better. Admittedly, any sort of "fix" would be a touchy and labor-intensive task.
Late last year, while researching this piece, I reached out for commentary from Silvio Pietroluongo, who’s been with Billboard more than 20 years and is now their Director of Charts. (Disclosure: A very long time ago, I wrote a handful of articles for Billboard as a freelancer; but never as a chart analyst, and no more recently than 2003. The editor I wrote for—not Pietroluongo—is no longer with the magazine.)
First off, chart grumblers should get comfortable with the current state of affairs. “We are always exploring ways to improve our charts,” Pietroluongo wrote, “but at the moment we have no plans to change Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, except for increasing our pool of streaming services, as would be the case for any of our other sales/airplay/streaming charts.”
I also asked about the addition of all-genre radio data to single-genre charts like R&B/Hip-Hop. I can understand Billboard not being able to pull apart digital sales by audience, but why compound the error by throwing in pop airplay? Pietroluongo says it wasn’t about black radio’s lower, PPM-damaged ratings, but about apples-to-apples parity—if Billboard is going to count all buyers, it has to count all radio listeners.
“[This move] had nothing to do with urban radio’s plight,” Pietroluongo wrote. “[It’s] just as a way to measure full radio consumption, in the same way we measure the entire digital download market and across-the-board streaming activity. This was a more logical formula than using partial radio airplay with complete sales and streaming.”
When asked whether the revamped chart serves the music industry as an accurate reflection of the state of black or “urban” music, Pietroluongo wrote: “I believe it gives an accurate reflection of the popularity of R&B/hip-hop music [emphasis his] across multiple music metrics, which was our goal. The chart, as previously constituted, was 98% based on airplay from R&B/hip-hop radio stations, and that ranking (now R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay) continues to exist as a barometer of songs that are popular at that radio format.”
Indeed, fans of the pre-2012 system can check out the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart, which is virtually identical to the old methodology. As Pietroluongo implies, when the physical singles market died in the 2000s, the big R&B/Hip-Hop chart was essentially all-airplay, anyway.
But as its name indicates, the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart only covers radio; and the whole reason the main R&B/Hip-Hop chart needed refreshed sales data in 2012 was it had gotten radio-heavy, small-ball, and dull. The strength of the old R&B/Hip-Hop Songs—before the 2000s, anyway—was its mix of radio and consumer data.
Which brings us to the no-win situation: We fans—and, presumably, the music industry—asked Billboard to add digital data to the R&B/Hip-Hop chart, and Pietroluongo’s team complied. Now we’re complaining about them adding, in essence, too much digital data.
Remember that what made the pre-2000s R&B/Hip-Hop chart work was that it sought to measure the boundaries of an audience, not a genre. If listeners and buyers of black music collectively decided they liked a song—even it were by Bee Gees, Hall & Oates or, to pick a modern example, Lorde—it would appear on the chart, and its chart performance would depend on their purchases and listenership, not on everybody’s. The question is: How do you pinpoint this audience in 2014?
Apple, to take the most prominent example, doesn’t provide demographic breakdowns of its buyers—nor, arguably, should it. Neither does Google, parent of YouTube—it’s none of these companies’ business (well… insert NSA joke here). And anyway, if the U.S. census can’t come up with a straightforward way to measure who is a person of color, it’s silly to expect a technology conglomerate to do so.
Let me reiterate: The solution is not a set of data that racially profiles users. It’s tempting to cut sales and streaming data by ZIP code; both George Clinton and Chris Rock have quipped that African-Americans mostly live in about “10 places” across the country. But that would be too limiting, and anyway, we don’t want Billboard asking Apple, Google, Amazon, Spotify et al., “Tell us what songs your black users are buying and streaming,” even if such a thing were possible. What we want is a recreation of Billboard’s old “core R&B stores” model: limiting the pool, as best as can be approximated, to a music-buying clientele that purchases mostly R&B and hip-hop music—then asking them what they’re buying now. Is that even possible? Again, if there are no distinctive online gathering places for R&B and hip-hop fans to buy or stream music, sooner or later you’re going to have to place individual users in buckets, even if those buckets aren’t race-based.
You can understand why Billboard would find such data-gathering headache-inducing and ill-advised. Pietroluongo told me Billboard ruled it out: “We felt it was best to move to a ranking that measured the popularity of the genre of R&B/hip-hop music, and one that was not based on demographic or regional purchases, even if that option existed. Does the consumption of country music in New York or Los Angeles mean something different than that purchased in Kansas or Nebraska?”
I half-agree that regional patterns might not be advisable; and demographics are fraught. But imposing no limitations whatsoever on the audience parameters has resulted in the dubious, mini–Hot 100 version of the R&B/Hip-Hop chart we have now.
Streaming to the Rescue
The digital era is what got us into this mess—the fallacy of the “long tail” turning into the big-get-bigger economy, as everybody piles into the same few websites to consume their music. But if digital created the R&B/Hip-Hop chart dilemma, can’t digital can also solve it? The answer may not come from Apple’s iTunes, or Google’s YouTube, but rather the youngest and smallest (but fastest-growing) music consumption format: streaming.
Sometime this winter in your social media feed, you may have seen a blue U.S. map, with each state labeled with the name of a quirky musical artist. The map called these “regional listening preferences,” but your friends might have posted it on Facebook as “every state’s favorite artist!” This turned out to be one of 2014’s most misunderstood music memes—the map wasn’t meant to show each state’s ”favorite” artist; it was meant to show how each state was distinct from one another. Using piles of streaming data, the map identifies the act that was most unique to that state. For example, for Tennessee, the map offers Juicy J; he’s not the most popular act in Tennessee, but rather the artist most likely to be streamed in Tennessee compared with any other state. In short, the map is a breakdown of granular regional preferences and a showcase for how music-consumption data can be sifted very finely.
It was created by Paul Lamere, a technologist at the Echo Nest, a music intelligence company whose algorithm, developed at M.I.T., powers the music-recommendation engines of MTV, eMusic, and Vevo, among many platforms. Just last month, the Echo Nest announced it had been purchased by Spotify, one of its biggest clients—giving the company even greater market clout with one of the fastest-growing services supplying data to Billboard’s charts. The main point of Echo Nest’s technology is to determine as much as possible about an individual listener, in order to recommend additional, very specific music that that listener might also enjoy. But as the map experiment reinforced, even with data as simple as a ZIP code, streaming services can aggregate large amounts of data to track subsets of users and detect patterns by region.
Or, perhaps, patterns by genre—in a recent interview with John Schaefer about the blue map on the WNYC radio program "Soundcheck", the Echo Nest’s Lamere said the platform’s data was only getting more refined: “As soon as you start to know a little bit about the people’s specific tastes—where they’re from, how old they are, and also what kind of music they actually like to listen to [emphasis mine]—we can do a lot better job of understanding them and giving them a good listening experience.”
Imagine if the Echo Nest harnessed its platform—without identifying individual users by name, demographic, or location—to pinpoint a subset of listeners who primarily listen to contemporary R&B or hip-hop. (Or country. Or Latin music.) It would be fairly straightforward to aggregate just those listeners, and then chart their favorite songs weekly. This imagined system, based on a bucket of R&B/hip-hop super-listeners, would capture all of the new hip-hop and R&B they were consuming. And if a mass of these listeners collectively decided they liked an occasional, poppier song by Lorde or Adele, it would capture that, too.
The Echo Nest could, in essence, become the next SoundScan, rebuilding the core R&B record store of yore in digital form—no racial profiling required. Billboard would have its audience-specific data back and could pair it with data from black radio to reconstitute the R&B/Hip-Hop chart in modernized form.
A pipe dream? Perhaps, especially as long as iTunes—with its undifferentiated, mass-market sales data—remains the world’s largest music retailer. But Apple may not be atop the music-consumption pyramid much longer: U.S. digital music sales peaked roughly a year ago and have begun a steady decline as more users switch from buying to streaming (and the computer giant’s new iTunes Radio platform has proved less profitable than expected). It also might be a while before Billboard could attempt a reconstitution of the R&B/Hip-Hop chart’s special sauce while technology and consumer habits catch up. The digital divide may still be limiting the number of African-American users of services like Spotify—although huge smartphone penetration rates among blacks are quickly closing that gap.
Of course, all this speculation assumes the magazine’s editors even care to remake the chart once again. Billboard’s apparent strategy, now that the initial carping about the genre charts has died down, is to just wait out a cultural pendulum swing back toward black-oriented music.
And four months into 2014, the R&B/Hip-Hop chart is looking a bit less pop-skewed. A big reason why the chart looked so exceedingly white in 2013 was that the Hot 100 was itself extra-white last year—not a single lead black artist topped the pop chart all year. But Pharrell Williams broke the drought last month, topping the Hot 100 with “Happy”. Of course, because he’s No. 1 on that chart, he’s also No. 1 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. But what hasn’t changed is the R&B/Hip-Hop chart’s second-class, kid-brother status, as a cropped clone of the Hot 100. Top 40 radio and millions of iTunes buyers now define what Billboard calls an R&B hit—pop fans love them some “Happy”—and actual crossover as we used to know it is a thing of the past.
Given what they had to work with, Billboard did what it had to do to bring the R&B/Hip-Hop chart into the 21st century. But the technology will soon exist, if it doesn’t already, to do it for real and track the popularity of songs among an authentic, believable, legitimate coterie of black music fans. Restoring R&B/Hip-Hop Songs as an audience chart, not a genre chart, would uphold a great, multi-decade tradition. It would do right by an audience that has been consistently ahead of the curve in popular music.
This is the audience that gave James Brown and Aretha Franklin their first major hits, long before they graced the pop Top 10; that gave Lionel Richie his first No. 1 hit a decade before he went solo; that defined the terms “quiet storm” and “slow jam” before they became late-night TV punchlines; that gave a young Prince a home for his sound before the world knew he could rock; that broke Whitney Houston when she was still an ingénue; that stuck by Michael Jackson when Top 40 radio abandoned him; and that established Lil Wayne as the new millennium’s hip-hop polymath. African-American music is a continuum, not just an ingredient in the pop stew. It deserves its own barometer for success.
Coachella 2014 went down over the weekend, featuring acts such as OutKast, Arcade Fire, the Knife, Beck, the Replacements, and many more. Photographer Chris Tuite was there to take shots of the performances as well as some portraits of the artists backstage.
Check out a photo gallery of portraits and live shots from this year's Coachella by Chris Tuite as well as a review of the festival by Ian Cohen.
To act like Coachella attracts a greater percentage of fashion victims and industry douchebags than CMJ or SXSW is a matter of coastal bias, but one truth remains: The festival admirably presents music-as-art to people who simply do not give a shit about music as art, and the tension can be fascinating.
To Coachella’s eternal credit, they could fully cater to a kind of lizard-brain consumption if they so chose. Otherwise, there’d be no reason to start each day with the likes of Courtney Barnett, Waxahatchee, and Wye Oak, three thoughtful, modest acts who make intimate records that do not gain a thing being played in a festival setting. A similar scaling problem happens with Ty Segall and Washed Out, bands whose respective sounds seem awfully indicative of high temperatures, greasy food, and drunken camaraderie, but are actually more suited towards barbecues and private beach parties. So while these acts are odd fits for a festival as huge and unforgiving as Coachella, the booking has become a rite of passage, as well as a means of financial security.
On the flipside are bands like Chvrches and Bombay Bicycle Club. Neither has a particularly extroverted demeanor—Bombay Bicycle Club look like Jimmy Eat World starring in a British version of “How I Met Your Mother”—but their most recent albums have songs that come with their own laser-light shows embedded in the music, and sharp songs can cut through whatever sound issues might befall a band here.
And sometimes you can have both festival-ready songs and a festival-ready frontman, in the case of Future Islands. Their entire 2014—signing to 4AD, naming their album Singles, the "Letterman" performance—had all been leading up to this set, and it was no different than most Future Islands shows: singer Sam Herring prods, cajoles, huffs, and beseeches a crowd that has stranger dance moves than his own. This time, though, he was doing it for thousands of people—a satisfying reminder that, sometimes, the “system” works.
Moving onto the fest's biggest fonts, let’s be real: If Coachella was booked two months ago but had the same exact lineup, do you think Pharrell and Lorde would’ve replaced Muse and Arcade Fire as the headliners? Pharrell could be defined as a “stealth pop act,” the kind that Coachella can comfortably book without going full Katy Perry or Justin Bieber; he’s been a presence on the pop charts for the past 15 years, but he’s not saddled with the tabloid coverage of, say, Justin Timberlake or Beyonce. Dude could do “Happy” and “Lapdance” (with Tyler, The Creator) in the same set and bring out Snoop Dogg, Diplo, Nelly, and Puff Daddy. In many respects, Pharrell is a perfect headliner for a festival that stresses a comprehensive approach to pop music—a veritable center of the universe. His set felt like a proper culmination of a trajectory put in motion when that "Get Lucky" teaser flashed on Coachella's screens last year.
Pharrell's set also felt more organic and democratic than Arcade Fire's Sunday headliner spot. Arcade Fire want to be an earnest superpower with integrity and cool, and the ends justify the means, I suppose. But that doesn’t make Reflektor’s “party” songs any less awkward, the band's costumes any less ill-fitting (literally or figuratively). The medley of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” and “Rebellion (Lies)” still managed an electrifying, knee-buckling effect that took me back to when I first saw them in 2005 at the 750-capacity Variety Playhouse, feeling as if they needed and deserved to be the biggest band in the world. But at this point, they’re a bit too pushy to genuinely move me.
While the festival has tended to avoid heavier iterations of rock such as punk and metal, every loud band felt necessary this year. Whether it was AFI’s mall-goth potency, the ornery pop-punk of Title Fight, or motherfucking Motörhead, all provided a necessary outlet for the aggression that can build up trying to navigate through an undifferentiated mass of hand-holding festival goers on the way to the port-a-johns, or witnessing Calvin Harris outdraw pretty much every single act on the bill.
But there’s a sense something has to give in terms of where “pop” ends and Coachella begins because, all of a sudden, mapping out your Coachella experience based on the likelihood of a celebrity appearance is a very real option. Chance the Rapper brought out Justin Bieber. Nas brought out Jay-Z and Puff Daddy. Beyoncé came out during Solange's set to dance to “Losing You”. Speaking of pop, Lorde’s version of the genre is startlingly austere, reflected by a stage set-up as minimalist as Bill Callahan’s. Even if she’s shown an incomparable amount of confidence and composure for someone her age (or any age, for that matter), the Outdoor Stage's persistent technical difficulties were apparent during her set. Similarly, Haim have already played bigger festival stages than Coachella, so they’re expected to own this kind of shit; they acted like they’ve been here before, and odds are they’ll be back—but those meticulously engineered songs from Days Are Gone have a lot of trouble handling natural terrain.
Some might be more comfortable with pop as filtered through Girl Talk, who did Girl Talk things, updated for 2014: “Swimming Pools (Drank)” over “Oblivion”, “Royals” over “Paper Planes”. But judging from his recent Broken Ankles collaboration with Freeway, he’s evolved into a role with promise: proper hip-hop ambassador. E-40, Too $hort, and Busta Rhymes (with Spliff Star in tow, natch) all drew huge responses with extremely brief appearances during Girl Talk's set, while Juicy J performed one verse from “Bandz a Make Her Dance” to a five-figure crowd and proved god’s existence.
And Girl Talk was a fitting setup for the ultimate intersection of Coachella’s impulses: the paradoxically named, universally beloved OutKast! The Mighty O! What kind of social reprobate doesn’t like OutKast? A cynic might say they are a reestablishment of the old guard, but still, it isn’t Prince or Paul McCartney. Sure, OutKast haven't had a hit in over a decade, but the more pressing issue is that it’s been far longer since Andre and Big Boi were a functioning duo. Depending on your outlook, that hasn’t happened since Stankonia, which came out during the last days of the Clinton administration.
And even if OutKast is basically playing every gathering of more than a dozen bands besides the Warped Tour this summer, this was their first. And it felt designed to honor those who’ve held the torch for early favorites “Player’s Ball” and “Hootie Hoo”—they performed in a giant cube, upon which lava, the Stankonia flag, and ass-clapping strippers were projected. Inside, they recreated their aunt’s kitchen, the same one in Atlanta where they’d walk around the table, honing their raps back in the day. And Andre 3000 wore hoodies, overalls, and a New Era hat. No fur pants and shoulder pads, no pith helmets.
Granted, it’s going to go downhill when you lead off with “Bombs Over Baghdad”, aka the greatest song of the 21st century—even when you follow shortly thereafter with some of the greatest songs of the previous century. “ATLiens”! “Rosa Parks”! Within the first 20 minutes! And then, one of the most jarring things I’ve ever heard Andre 3000 say outside of “Mamacita” or “Roses”: “Can I hear myself in the monitors?” Like, three times. Pissed off.
After that, Andre seemed kinda…bored? Not willing to rise to the occasion? At least that’s what I was told after checking online opinion afterwards. Maybe that was a different kind of projection—a lot of commenters watched people watch OutKast on YouTube. This service is an admirable show of trust from Coachella, but doesn’t convey why people spend hundreds of dollars and endure hordes to go in the first place: You know, to be surrounded by people my own age for whom OutKast were the Beatles or Rolling Stones. But on YouTube, you get a reminder that festivalgoers are by and large kids who have spent all day in the 95-degree sun getting fucked up. Jay-Z, Kanye West, Macca, and plenty of Hall of Famers have taken to the Main Stage, but Hologram 2Pac still got the craziest response I’ve seen in my seven years here, which is to say, when you’re playing to a crowd that’s been drinking and drugging in the desert all day, you need actual magic to wow them.
It didn’t help that Three Stacks disappeared for about 15 minutes at one point, and if nothing else, the format of the set proved just how much better Big Boi’s solo work is than Andre’s—let’s compare “Ghettomusick,” “Shutterbug,” “Tightrope” and “Kryptonite (I’m On It)” with motherfucking “She Lives in My Lap”. Viewer response was quick: “When they gonna break up, when they gonna wake up?” “Are they going to start cancelling shows?” “Kids these days.” “We need to rethink this whole OutKast thing.” That’s ultimately the best and worst part of not just Coachella, but giving up control of how you experience music—when you remove your headphones or close your Twitter feed and come into contact with people who like, dislike, or simply are indifferent to the same music as you, should it alter your own opinion of it? Eh, maybe best to follow Andre’s advice and hush that fuss.
Listen to a playist of tracks by artists that played this year's Coachella:
On-demand streaming music has been part of the collective imagination for more than a century. It can be traced back to the 1888 publication of Edward Bellamy’s million-selling science fiction novelLooking Backward, in which a man falls asleep in 1887 and wakes up in 2000. Amidst the mind-blowing technological developments he encounters on his journey is a “music room,” in which 24-hour playlists are piped in to subscribers via phone lines. With no shortage of astonishment, the man proclaims that “an arrangement for providing everybody with music in their homes, perfect in quality, unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood, and beginning and ceasing at will” is perhaps the pinnacle of human achievement.
The splashy, celebrity-laden debut of Beats Music earlier this year may not have been accompanied by such gobsmacked wonder, but at the same time, the smartphone-based music subscription service sponsored by AT&T is the latest iteration of Bellamy’s fantastic 19th century notion. Beginning with Pandora’s 2005 launch and dramatically ramping up with Spotify’s controversial 2011 debut, streaming has become the preeminent technological force driving digital music into the 21st century. Though the idea of streaming music pre-dates recordings, the industry’s investments in today’s technology is designed in large part to wrench back control via unlimited access after a decade of ceding power to mp3-downloading fans.
So far, it’s working. According to Nielsen SoundScan’s 2013 report, sales of single mp3 downloads declined 6 percent from 2012, while streaming activity increased by 32 percent. The Recording Industry Association of America’s own data reveals that sales of physical media declined 12.3 percent between 2012 and 2013 while paid subscriptions to streaming platforms increased 57 percent. CDs and mp3s won’t simply disappear—they’re still vital parts of digital music's ecology—but faced with streaming, they feel destined to become the digital equivalents of once-dominant analog predecessors like vinyl records and cassettes.
Though streaming platforms are very much a product of the digital-era presumption that all the world’s information should be accessible with a single click, their form and function derives from another early music medium. A few decades after Bellamy’s book captured the imagination of millions, and at the same time that the business of selling records was taking off, “music rooms” were manifested by broadcast radio. Nationwide, parlors were filled with sound by national radio networks like NBC and CBS, which interspersed music with periodic bursts of news, narrative programs, and advertising. From the 1920s forward, the business of selling and consuming music has been structured by a technological dialogue between programmed music streams and individual recordings.
If the recording industry has its way, music ownership will give way to a model completely based on access, but with an important shift. While radio broadcasts are based on a one-to-many model of transmission, streaming platforms aim to zero in on the tastes of the individual listener. Like many other modern industries, the recording industry is doubling down on big data, giving their catalogs to the coders, and betting on a future of distribution and discovery dictated by quantification. Behind the interfaces of streaming platforms are vast databases of songs coded with pinpoint metadata and matched with freely provided listener taste preferences, an infrastructure designed to execute the recording industry’s century-long mission: suggesting with mathematical detail what a listener wants to hear before they know they want to hear it. Combing through a huge corpus of ever-expanding data for each individual song can be a vastly different undertaking compared to older forms of music marketing and distribution. What used to be a question of persuasion has become a problem of prediction.
Pop music was born and nurtured on radio’s non-stop streams of ad-supported music—the most prominent ancestor of the feed-driven landscape that shapes 21st century digital streaming.
Listeners are well-served by streaming platforms, but for artists, they cast the question of compensation in a stark new light. While the value debates that dominated the mp3 moment pitted fans against artists, the emergent streaming era has so far seen the return of corporate exploitation, with a speculative twist: The rich or soon-to-be-rich build innovative products, convince an ailing recording industry to sign over their catalogs, acquiring the bricks-and-mortar of their operations—digitized recordings—for fractions of a penny on the dollar. These operations are mostly funded by venture capital, periodic rounds of investments, or as cogs in vast empires of information, and they can feel overwhelming for fans and artists alike.
At the same time, streaming encompasses much more than locked-down platforms. At the most basic level, accessing digital files stored on distant servers through an online player is a form of music distribution capable of being deployed in countless ways. While the biggest streaming players can swallow small artists whole, all is not lost for those with little interest in big data. For every Pandora and Spotify, there are upload-friendly, embeddable platforms like YouTube, SoundCloud, Bandcamp—not to mention the embedded players omnipresent on countless music websites—which have proven incredibly useful for DIY-level promotion and retail.
Digital streaming’s predictive algorithms and on-demand capabilities can feel futuristic, but they are built from the fundamental ideas of several music ancestors. Remember, pop music itself was born and nurtured on radio’s non-stop streams of ad-supported music—the most prominent ancestor of the feed-driven Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr landscape that shapes 21st century digital streaming. When cultural critic Geoffrey O’Brien described a radio stream as "an artwork that manages the flow of information and music” within which “the thing coming up will always surpass what went before,” he could have been describing wading through a social media feed packed with audio embeds, letting YouTube sidebar recommendations guide a late-night deep-dive, or pruning a personal Pandora soundtrack designed to deliver the perfect songs, one after another. All new media inevitably bear traces of their forebears, if only metaphorically. Peel back the technological layers of streaming platforms and alongside databases, algorithms, wi-fi signals and smartphones, elements of radio broadcasts, jukeboxes, record changers, record stores, and telephone companies can be spotted amongst the sediments.
As streaming takes center stage for music commerce, questions with long histories must be reframed. In what ways are the non-stop interactions between databases and algorithms shaping our musical tastes? Do streaming platform business models inherently exploit artists when listener choice scales to infinity? Should speculative capitalism be the driving force for large-scale innovations in music technology, and is there a feasible alternative? Are we living in a technological golden age of creative possibility, cross-cultural communication, and sheer abundance, or a surveillance state controlled by privately-held brands promising endless access at the expense of imperceptible control? Answers to these questions are piloting digital music deep into the 21st century, but critically evaluating current technological developments means keeping an eye on the lessons of the past.
II. Everyday Disc Jockeys: A History of Song Shuffling and Music Programming
Long before the iPod claimed ownership over “shuffling” music, and internet radio turned the practice into an algorithmic science, the practice of compiling and recombining musical works was a staple of music culture. Historian William Weber points out that as early as 18th century Europe, concert programs for the upper-classes reflected a broad diversity of compositions, reflecting the taste factions arising at the time. The dawn of mechanized music first emerged as player piano rolls, many of which were programmed to play not a single song, but a medley of well-known and current tunes.
As 78 rpm recordings took hold and a recording industry took shape, the early 1920s brought the automatic record changer, which allowed phonograph owners to create streams of uninterrupted music in the home, just as radio was starting to do the same thing. The jukebox took shuffling records to an industrial level—these boxes could be as aesthetically pleasing as a living-room Victrola, and as sharply designed as a new Oldsmobile. In the midst of radio’s Golden Age, everyday disc jockeys plugging nickels into machines were creating their own personalized stations in public spaces nationwide. By the late 1930s, music historian Elijah Wald estimates, between 50 and 60 percent of all recorded music was going directly into the 400,000 jukeboxes across the country. Because of their popularity, jukeboxes were also the site of mechanized innovations in understanding musical tastes: Via mechanized play meters built into the boxes, owner-operators quantified the aggregate tastes of local areas—the music popular in bars and soda fountains, at least—to exacting degrees.
As industry lore tells it, jukeboxes’ capacities for providing such detailed listener data redefined the possibilities of radio, which was hemorrhaging audiences to television by the 1950s. One night in the early 50s, Todd Storz and Bill Stewart of Omaha’s KOWH posted up at the bar across the street from their station to discuss marketing ideas. Over the course of a few hours, they noticed that patrons were playing the same jukebox selections over and over, all night long. Storz and Stewart merged this revelation into KOWH’s operating philosophy, creating the first Top 40 station. Instead of radio’s long-held focus on variety programming (which TV was doing much better), the tight, data-driven playlists of Top 40 stations drilled home the idea that the average music listener wanted their tastes flattered, and would happily listen to a format that delivered their preferences right back to them.
The celestial jukebox idea merged a beloved cultural form with the immeasurable scope of the heavens, giving notoriously tech-illiterate CEOs and politicians an idea around which to build a new industry.
Forty years after the KOWH revelation, and well after jukeboxes had entered the nostalgia phase of their cultural life, they were symbolically reappropriated to sell an idea for sending music through the most game-changing new communication network since radio. The phrase “celestial jukebox” emerged from a book by Stanford Law professor Paul Goldstein, in which he tried to convince the major entertainment conglomerates and their legislative associates that, with some tweaks to copyright law, they could monetize their back catalogs in an exciting new medium. As a metaphor for digital music distribution, the celestial jukebox merged a beloved cultural form with the immeasurable scope of the heavens, giving notoriously tech-illiterate CEOs and politicians a useful idea around which to build a new industry.
But 1998's Digital Millennium Copyright Act was, to put it lightly, not the legislative response that Goldstein’s celestial jukebox needed. Copyright regulations became much more restrictive under the DMCA, not less; the specter of universal access to music was undercut by the desire for strict control over digital music’s circulation. This was guaranteed by the DMCA’s allowance of Digital Rights Management (DRM) software to be embedded within music files sold online. Even at the time, it was clear that the celestial jukebox model represented the corporate-owned major labels trying to drag outmoded 20th century ideals of consumer control into a very different technological climate.
The celestial jukebox is mostly remembered today for how dramatically it failed. RealNetworks launched MusicNet in early 2001 with the EMI, Warner, and BMG catalogs, while Sony and Universal started the very similar service Pressplay. For between $9.95 and $24.95 a month, subscribers could navigate woefully incomplete artist catalogs; ugly, ad-laden interfaces; and bizarre usage restrictions. MusicNet limited listeners to 100 songs per month—they were streamable once each, or if downloaded, they were rendered unplayable after a month. Only Pressplay’s premium subscription allowed 20 tracks per month to be burned to disc, with no expiring downloads. Quietly, as these major label-led mistakes gathered press, the contemporaneous playlists-by-experts model used by Rhapsody—which, more than a decade later, claims to have passed one million paying subscribers—started catching on.
Understandably, music fans in the late 90s and early 2000s were much more fond of Napster’s peer-to-peer model of celestial jukebox, through which they could explore endless folders of mp3 files on strangers’ hard drives and download songs with no limits apart from storage space, bandwidth, and a fin de siècle strain of musical morality. Napster’s interface, merging a database architecture with a real-time search engine and chat capabilities, was far more innovative than the e-commerce portals favored by the major labels, though the exploration process was far from orderly. The early days of peer-to-peer downloading were a descendant of the early radio practice of DXing, or distance listening, in which, as radio historians Susan Douglas and Michele Hilmes have recalled, a generation of tech-savvy young men set up DIY rigs in their garages and tried to locate strange aural transmissions from far away. Like DX transmissions, peer-to-peer downloads were notoriously unpredictable and unreliable, and much of the pleasure in the practices came in the joy of technologically facilitated discovery and connection.
Personally, I never did much with Napster. But I was introduced to its descendant Soulseek in 2003. While nostalgia likely clouds my impressions, the practices of digging through strangers’ folders and leaving slow-bandwidth downloads running overnight only to wake up to entire out-of-print discographies in the morning were perks, not bugs. This was not the case for Brian Whitman, who began playing with peer-to-peer in the years before starting his PhD in Media Arts and Sciences at MIT. Napster “was a turning point for music access, but probably a step back for music discovery,” Whitman wrote in a 2013 blog post. “The search was abysmal... and there was no discovery beyond clicking on other users’ names and seeing what they had on their hard drives. I would make my music available but, of course, no one would ever download it because there was no way for them to find it.”
So Whitman went ahead and tried to solve such problems. While most music fans had probably never heard of the Echo Nest before Spotify recently bought the self-described “music intelligence platform,” anyone who has used Rdio, Vevo, iHeartRadio, Spotify Radio, and countless other streaming platforms has been guided ever-so-gently by the database-driven music profiling company Whitman launched with fellow MIT PhD Tristan Jehan in 2005. As I type this sentence, a ticker at the bottom of the Echo Nest’s website claims that it currently catalogs more than a trillion data points about 35 million songs by 2.6 million artists—an ever-expanding corpus of big data that is powering significant portions of the 21st century’s celestial jukebox.
“The record listener is a child of the supermarket,” wrote Evan Eisenberg in 1987's The Recording Angel, the ur-text on the social and philosophical implications of turning music into consumable things. For Eisenberg, music fandom is inextricable from shopping, and “self-expression is almost entirely a matter of selecting among packages that someone else designs." He adds: "That kind of freedom can be tyrannical.” Music’s ongoing digitization into libraries of songs numbering in the tens of millions requires the consistent development of technological solutions to this tyranny of choice, to alleviate the minor-but-pervasive stress of simply deciding what to listen to amongst infinite options. Increasingly over the last couple decades, this work is being done by algorithms.
The technological systems that circulate and contextualize music have long been powered by algorithms of various levels of complexity. When jukebox owner-operators consulted play-counter data to restock jukeboxes, they were working with a primitive music recommendation algorithm, as are program directors at Top 40 stations, those overseeing Billboard’s rankings, and the engineers who code iTunes’ shuffle feature. Each of these practices necessitates a series of data-crunching operations designed to produce a specific result.
These pale when compared to the complex big data algorithms powering social media and other platforms based around ceaseless flows of information and recommendations, which collectively have come to be called simply "the Stream." Facebook’s news feed, for instance, queries thousands of factors every time the page is reloaded, interpreting your past behavior and current desires to determine whose updates—and which ads—are most important to you at that moment. Google’s PageRank, Twitter’s trending topics, Netflix’s recommended films, and countless other modern cultural conveniences are powered by impossibly huge recommendation systems dictating not only the cultural choices we make, but the lists of options we’re aware of, and the tastes we develop.
The early moments of product recommendations took shape as collaborative filtering, a technique dating back to the late 1980s that was popularized by the widely-circulated 2002 book Word of Mouse. Collaborative filtering, the authors contend, is a revolutionary update to demographic-driven market research, through which individuals are categorized based on quantifiable data like gender, race, age, and geography. Through collaborative filtering, consumers are understood not as members of social groups, but as individuals with fickle tastes, determined by their product ratings and purchase histories, and this data is matched with the tastes of like-minded others. As the Echo Nest's Whitman tells me, while collaborative filtering was all the rage in the late 1990s and early 2000s, its modern utility—largely visible in “those who bought this also bought this” recommendations—has reached a limit.
“Collaborative filtering will tell you that Radiohead and Coldplay sound sort of similar—popular stuff and other popular stuff are similar,” he says. "But it ignores everything about the thing itself. It’s only looking at the data about purchase or play. The object could be anything—underwear, or a song.”
More recently, computer engineers have looked to content-based recommendation as a way to address music-as-music, not simply as a generic commodity. Under this heading falls what’s long been called “machine listening”—epitomized most popularly by the Shazam app—in which songs are scanned for musicological factors and matched against those of other songs in infinite configurations. The Echo Nest uses machine listening, but it’s far from the company’s most important innovation. That would be its unique process of data retrieval and curation, which entails scraping information from social media platforms, Wikipedia entries, album reviews, and blog posts, which employees then shape into metadata, attached to songs and artists. When describing this labor-intensive aspect of the coding and recommendation process, Whitman suggests the Echo Nest is a living creature with an endless appetite: “If there’s a new artist, we’ll ingest it and try to learn about it.”
These ingestions lead to new ways of imagining the users of streaming platforms, and determining what they want. “The fact that the first song you type into your streaming service is indie rock, and not classical, tells us so much about you as a person,” Whitman says. The more a user interacts with an Echo Nest-powered platform, the more their own taste profile is matched up against countless metadata points the Echo Nest has already compiled.
“We don't just see that you have liked a song, we know about that song," Whitman continues. "To us, a song is not just a database entry, it’s the key, the tempo it’s in, the instruments.” There are also notoriously subjective cultural factors, as well. “Beyoncé will have [data points like] ‘sexy female vocalist,’ and ‘married to Jay Z,’” he explains. What fills the most important slot—the next song to be played—Whitman views as “a huge prediction problem.” Ideally, the more a listener uses a platform, the more of her taste data she allows the system to ingest, the more the Echo Nest gets to know her.
For decades, musical tastes were understood as deriving from one’s economic position and access to education, and were correspondingly slotted into “high” and “low” categories. The privileged classes preferred the elegance of Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier, while the working classes preferred the winsome pop of Petula Clark, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu outlined in his widely disseminated 1960s study Distinction. In his 2007 book Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, music critic Carl Wilson finds many limits to this idea.
“In a hyper-mediated, mass-production culture, a lot of reference points are shared across classes,” Wilson concludes, when trying to evaluate his distaste for the Canadian chanteuse. According to an article published by sociologists Richard Peterson and Roger Kern in 1996, Wilson reveals, the “omnivore” is the new model for the music connoisseur, and one’s diversity of listening across the high/low spectrum is now seen as the social signal of refined taste.
Through his PhD research into the engineering end of music recommendation platforms, UC Irvine’s Nick Seaver discovered that Peterson and Kern’s work was familiar to Pandora’s advertising department. This is far from the sociologists’ intention, but is very interesting for its reapplication. “They can score someone's omnivorousness by applying a kind of diversity metric,” Seaver tells me. “A higher diversity score should indicate a higher social status, which means that these listeners can have more expensive ads sold against them.” Seaver, a cultural anthropologist by training, is impressed by the theories used to justify the work of algorithmic music recommendation. “Every Echo Nest blog post is like a chapter in some new sort of social theory textbook,” he admits, only half-jokingly.
Do taste topiaries run the risk of sealing listeners into self-flattering cocoons? Is the tendency toward diversity mitigated by the safety of algorithmically-determined similarity?
Like many music fans, I consider my listening habits to be fairly diverse. But I also realize that algorithmic-determined internet radio streams are not designed for those of us who already spend large portions of our free time (and work time) researching, acquiring, and sorting music. This has long been the divide between the “lean-back” approach to radio listening and the intense, deep-dive approach of aficionados.
As I started playing with Pandora, iTunes Radio, Rdio, and Spotify Radio, however, I started becoming more intimately familiar with the listening labor required to construct algorithmic taste profiles. Providing positive or negative feedback for each new song was both irresistible and slightly maddening. Chiding and rewarding these systems felt like a mix between topiary gardening and a Rorschach test: a non-stop process of pruning my tastes, spurred by my instant reaction to new information. Such acts of pruning, I realized, are perhaps the defining social activity of life in the Stream. Voting “thumbs down” on a track for not immediately satisfying me is akin to liking a status update or a tweet, or even voting on the likeability of friends themselves by “hiding” certain folks in my Facebook feed, or periodically treating my list of Twitter followees like an overgrown bonsai tree.
Having failed to discover anything new or train the platform to make a stream that could match one of the shuffled playlists in my mp3 library, I tired of my ad-laden experiment with algorithmic taste pruning. But I didn’t stop wondering about its effects. Do taste topiaries run the risk of sealing listeners into self-flattering cocoons? Is the tendency toward diversity—determined on internet radio stations by a knob that slides between familiarity and “adventurousness”— mitigated by the safety of algorithmically-determined similarity? Is this something to fear, or just the big data version of niche marketing tactics that took hold on radio decades earlier? Does internet radio create a virtually cloistered local scene for the age of infinite “curation”? A Top 40 mobius strip to each individual?
As I conducted my ad hoc experiment with internet radio taste topiaries, I realized that these “stations” are much closer to sentient versions of the digital music playlists I'm much more fond of creating on my own. By constantly presenting me with computer-generated reflections of my own preferences, they're automating the pleasurable act of music recombination that I’ve been doing since making my first pause-record mixtapes in middle school. In the digital landscape, music obsessives are more likely to use publicly shared playlists to proclaim the diversity of their tastes, and there’s no place better than Spotify to do so (though Rdio, launched in 2010 by the inventors of Skype, comes awfully close).
With a catalog boasting more than 20 million songs, with 20,000 added daily (20% of which go unheard—a bug the Echo Nest will ostensibly help fix), Spotify’s primary appeal is as a massive data dump organizable into playlists: They claim more than 1.5 billion have been created so far. Spotify is the coolest and most useful platform to emerge in music streaming’s second wave. But because of its focus on providing free access to a massive catalog of material, it's also become the most controversial digital music service since Napster.
During the 1930s and 40s, playing records on the radio and in jukeboxes was a highly contested practice. Particularly for artists who made their living performing live—playing on the radio and in clubs—the fear was that radio royalties wouldn’t come close to compensating for the cannibalization of live audiences, and sales of sheet music and recordings. Back then, many artists decided to take public stances to protect their livelihoods. Bandleader Fred Waring went as far as stamping his Victor recordings with the phrase “Not licensed for radio broadcast” in the mid-30s, and when he learned a Philadelphia station was playing them anyway, he took it to court. In 1939, ASCAP pulled all of its material from radio for several months, unable to settle on a higher royalty rate with broadcasters. In response, broadcasters formed the BMI licensing agency, which filled its ranks with the hillbilly and R&B music that ASCAP wouldn’t touch. In the 40s, indie label Decca Records pulled its records from radio in favor of stocking singles in jukeboxes. While performers’ unions claimed that jukeboxes were putting live musicians out of work, many smaller acts that appealed toward the young, minority audiences at soda fountains and bars were reaping the promotional benefits of jukebox play.
Pulling one’s catalog from Spotify—or, at least, vociferously airing grievances about their fairness to artists—has become the 21stcentury update of those gambits during radio’s first decades. In a piece published on Pitchfork in 2012, musician and writer Damon Krukowski critiqued the landscape for DIY and indie artists in the 21st century, noting that “industrial capitalism on a [small] scale” had given way to a model of “financial speculation” that strives to turn profits for investors on the backs of cheaply streamed content provided by artists. The former Galaxie 500 drummer also opened the books on his streaming royalties, demonstrating how paltry the payouts are for decidedly non-paltry numbers of plays.
At a much higher level of visibility, Thom Yorke pulled the Atoms for Peace catalog from Spotify in mid-2013, taking to Twitter to condemn the platform’s compensation model for up-and-coming artists; he’d later memorably classify Spotify as “the last desperate fart” of the recording industry’s “dying corpse.” A few days later, David Byrne extended Yorke’s Spotify critique to “the internet,” which he claimed "will suck the creative content out of the whole world until nothing is left." In October 2013, Jana Hunter of Baltimore indie act Lower Dens— the exact sort of band that Byrne and Yorke aimed to support with their public stances—took to Tumblr to argue: “Music shouldn’t be free. It shouldn’t even be cheap.”
Spotify’s attempts to balance free access to its vast catalog with fair compensation to artists derives in large part from a particularly Swedish way of thinking about digital music. Stockholm-born Daniel Ek, a precocious, slightly cocky entrepreneur, founded Spotify in 2006 while CEO of µTorrent, one of the world’s most popular BitTorrent clients. In its early form, Spotify became instantly popular in Europe as what communications professor and author Patrick Burkart calls “a rogue index,” offering vast access with no licensing.
“The labels played ball,” Burkart explains, “because the Swedish government was advocating on their behalf, and everybody was trying to find a solution to [BitTorrent platform] the Pirate Bay.” When Swedish police—under significant international pressure—raided the Pirate Bay’s hosting service in 2006, the politically minded Swedish Pirate Party suddenly gained international attention. Burkart, whose new book focuses on Pirate politics, explains that the movement is “informed by the experiences of music fans, independent artists, and tech-savvy Internet activists who collectively reject the unilateral terms of participation in the celestial jukebox.”
As the Spotify concept developed, Ek shaped it as a piracy-killing Napster-with-permission that could turn an estimated half-billion illegal downloaders into paying subscribers. In 2010, former Napster investor Sean Parker invested $15 million in Spotify, then helped broker a crucial partnership with Facebook. Parker’s uniquely American sense of cocky tech-entrepreneur rebelliousness (see: The Social Network) fit well with Ek’s Scandinavian-bred sense of openness, coupled with his salesmanship and skill at coding.
For years now, Sweden has become synonymous with music piracy. The reasons, Burkart tells me, lie in the country’s cultural makeup and its recent legal and political histories with respect to copyright. “Sweden lagged behind other EU countries in terms of implementing directives on copyrights and data retention,” he explains. “Swedes had a little bit longer to experiment on the net and develop alternate delivery systems.”
Sweden is a socialist democracy with a proud history of entrepreneurialism, as well, and Burkart describes a Swedish legal tradition called allemansrätten, a property statute that translates to "every man's right." “It’s most often applied to hiking, boating and skiing across private property,” Burkart says. “As long as you don’t disturb it, you can even camp for a night, collect berries and mushrooms and do non-destructive things in this commons.” To tech-savvy Swedes like Ek, who came of age in the heady times of the late 90s and 00s, entrepreneurialism was filtered through this model of infinite access—the celestial jukebox-as-cultural-commons.
Like many 21st century tech startups, Spotify itself has yet to turn an actual profit—because of its business model, the more Spotify expands in the U.S., the more money it loses.
Several years after Napster’s inability to strike deals with the major labels, Spotify needed the participation of the multinational corporations who control around 80% of the world’s recorded music in order to launch its ostensibly piracy-killing platform. The solution was one that went directly against the commons idea: offer the majors equity in the company, an agreement that means that somewhere between 18 and 20 percent of Spotify is owned by the three remaining major labels. (The exact number isn’t known because the deals were struck under binding non disclosure agreements.) For many artist advocates, this is one of many troubling aspects of the service.
“The major labels are able to build a new business on the backs of artists without telling them very much at all about how their compensation actually works,” Casey Rae, an attorney and label-owner, tells me. Rae is the interim executive director of the Washington D.C. nonprofit Future of Music Coalition, founded in 2000, which is devoted to musicians' rights. Rae and many others within the FMC aren’t inherently predisposed to hate platforms like Spotify, but they worry about the sustainability of the streaming model, for artists as well as other independent platforms. “There are only three major labels left, so it's not even really like Spotify can have a competitor enter the marketplace,” Rae explains, "because any competitor would have to be extraordinarily well-capitalized in order to even get to the negotiating table.”
Even though Spotify’s effects on revenue were an unknown, it was too compelling an opportunity to pass up for most indie labels. “Early on, Spotify was this weird foreign threat,” remembers Chris Swanson, co-owner of the Secretly Label Group, which includes Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar, Dead Oceans, and the Numero Group. “It was this cloud in the distance that we were all reading about, seeing how it was impacting overseas markets in some positive and negative ways.”
The payout numbers Swanson and other label owners were being offered were significantly lower than the 70 cents-per-mp3 that iTunes paid. Nonetheless, the Secretly Group signed up, and were able to negotiate decent terms. “We just didn't want to be missing from a platform,” Swanson says. With a few years of hindsight, he surmises that holding music off of Spotify “is almost like it's not on the grid, which maybe forces people to go buy records, but it actually means people are talking about the music less.” But Spotify’s ties to peer-to-peer—a huge catalog, an on-demand interface, and a free, ad-supported version—means it threatens profits more than any other platform.
Still, like many 21st century tech startups, Spotify itself has yet to turn an actual profit itself—its value is based on investors’ speculation of its future success as a business model. This leads to what appears like a paradox, or at the very least, terrible PR. On one hand, Daniel Ek is a very rich man. On the other, Spotify’s yearly revenues are exceeded by its fixed costs—marketing, payroll, and especially licensing fees and royalty payments, which themselves account for 70% of revenue. (Spotify claims to have paid $1 billion in royalties to artists as of the end of 2013.) Because of its business model, the more Spotify expands in the U.S., the more money it loses.
In December 2013, Spotify took a small step toward transparency by releasing an information-laden website detailing many aspects of its operation, including its royalty payments to artists. One of the more interesting revelations was that during July of last year, a “niche indie album” collected $3,300 from plays on the platform, and a “breakthrough indie album” pulled in $76,000. I reached out to several labels trying to discern the origin of such categorizations. Unsurprisingly, no one had ever heard of them. Spotify’s “niche indie” classification, as it turns out, is about as useful in a descriptive sense as “classic hits” are for radio listeners. Its purpose for Spotify, perhaps obviously, is pure public relations. “Niche indie” artists are what Spotify wants them to be.
Talking about these Spotify classifications and numbers, Jeremy DeVine, owner of NYC-based indie label Temporary Residence Ltd. (Explosions in the Sky, Eluvium), says, “We get paid almost exactly $3,300 a month right now from all on-demand streaming services. For the entire label—215 titles—we make between $3,300 and $3,500 a month.” As for the “niche indie band” categorization? “That’s a band who can sell as many of one record in a month as an entire independent label that does fairly well sells for their entire catalog in the same timeframe,” DeVine estimates, citing Beach House and Vampire Weekend as possible examples.
Over the past few years, DeVine has devised his own experiments at Temporary Residence to understand Spotify’s threats more directly. “We don’t release records to on-demand streaming platforms on release dates anymore,” he explains. Such a delay—which other labels have adopted—echoes the past decade’s label strategies devoted to avoiding mp3 leaks ahead of release dates. Keeping new records out of certain channels around the time of release—treating Spotify as the new MediaFire, in a sense—is widely viewed as the best way to translate release-day promotion and hype into actual sales.
DeVine had a different, somewhat grander experiment in mind a couple years ago. When he noticed that his label’s digital and physical revenues were declining after offering them on Spotify, he devised a plan: pull the entire Temporary Residence catalog off on-demand services for one calendar year and then compare those revenues to other years. But DeVine decided to drop this experiment altogether after sending an email to the acts on his roster. “There were a handful of artists who understood and liked the idea of it,” DeVine remembers, “but they just didn’t want to be attached to a statement. There would suddenly be articles like, ‘Explosions in the Sky Pulls From Spotify’ or ‘Pinback Pulls From Rdio'. It’s not their fight.” DeVine agrees with Yorke’s principled stand, but notes that many smaller artists fear that their music would stop speaking for them, in lieu of the politics of their label.
“I'm like a small farmer who interacts with people who consume what I make, and the Spotifys of the world, which are like McDonald’s, make people less aware of how the thing gets made and of its value.” — Singer/songwriter David Bazan
The battle being fought, which many label owners and artists understand, is one of perception. When music becomes big data, the act of listening to a single song—something that was never trackable before—is capable of generating a small amount of monetary value. While Spotify’s promotional affordances for new artists have yet to be proven, the platform has redefined the possibilities of micro-monetizing back catalogs over a period of years. This angle on the Spotify Problem illuminates what is perhaps the biggest shift in the economics of popular music occasioned by streaming music royalty schemes: the shift away from the more established procedure of collecting (more significant) royalties for point-of-sale music recordings to a lengthy series of micropayments.
The point-of-sale royalties model, which drove music consumption in the 20th century, banked on radio play to drive purchases of albums, concert tickets, and other merchandise. This is a very pop and rock-centric model, to be sure. There’s a reason that rappers, whose income is structured through a different equation of live performance, brand tie-ins, merch sales, and recordings, aren’t complaining much about streaming micropayments. Under the streaming micro-royalties model, however, people pay fractions of a penny every time they stream any song, for as long as Spotify is around. Of course, the disappearance of Spotify is a very real possibility—as much as Daniel Ek publicly desires to create an experience for artists and fans, he’s under much more pressure to turn a profit.
For Swanson and his labels, the focus with Spotify is more on monetizing catalog than promoting new releases. He uses Drag City—a label that was a formative influence on the launch of Secretly Canadian and does not offer its music on Spotify—as an example: "Drag City’s back catalog is the sort of stuff that people are going to keep playing over and over,” Swanson claims. “I'm convinced that they would make more money on Smog records streaming over 10 years than they would by selling individual downloads.” In this way, one of the economic logics of Spotify for labels is the logic of the classic rock or oldies station, with exponentially more depth. For Swanson, the bottom line is twofold: return on investment, but also what he calls “cultural market share”—the continued circulation of music that has outlived its initial hype—for which Spotify works admirably.
For DIY artists, there’s no need to make public statements about financial stations. It’s more a matter of staying away. Singer/songwriter David Bazan, who is currently playing concerts in his avid fans' living rooms, says Spotify and its ilk offer his career very little. “The majority of my interaction with my audience is people who buy records and go to shows,” he says. “Outside of concerts, it’s just disposable media.” Bazan’s albums with Pedro the Lion, released by Jade Tree between 2000 and 2004, are available to stream on Spotify, but his two most recent solo albums, released by Barsuk, are not. As Bazan tells it, the process was rather simple: He asked Barsuk to withhold his solo albums from the platforms, and they agreed. A longtime proponent of sustainable, DIY music-making, Bazan uses locavore food movements to explain his distaste for Spotify. “I'm like a small farmer who interacts with people who consume what I make and tend my little patch of ground," he says, "and the Spotifys of the world, which are like McDonald’s, are going to make people less aware of how the thing gets made and of its value.”
Inherent with the “slow food” mentality as applied to music is the necessity of the tangible fetish property, the physical music object. “I’m willing to lose hundreds of impressions here or there in the publicity game in order to have people get my record and hold it in their hands,” says Bazan. “When it costs them something, they’re going to have a slightly deeper relationship with it.”
Vinylphilia and other sorts of affective relationships with musical objects are nothing new, but they take on a new level of importance when contrasted with a transmission from a distant server rather than an mp3 on a hard drive. It’s often hard to understand the affordances of music media until the next one comes along. Mp3 files felt incredibly intangible, even ephemeral, compared to CDs, cassettes, and records, but at least you could carry around an object that you were certain contained those files. With the new crop of streaming platforms, there’s even less a sense of ownership, only the procedure of remotely licensing a digital file to start playing each time you click. It’s understandable that many artists worry about the implications of streaming music: Access isn’t nearly the same phenomenon as ownership. Internet radio platforms like Pandora highlight the long history of this idea.
V: Pandora: Internet Radio Is Cleaning Up the Nation
Pandora more or less invented algorithm-driven internet radio in the mid-2000s, but Tim Westergren’s project didn’t start off as anything close to radio. After studying computer acoustics and audio recording at Stanford in the late 1980s, Westergren found himself adrift. He worked a variety of jobs in and around the music business before falling in with the Silicon Valley crowd in the late 90s. His experience as film score composer—a job that required him to break music down to its component parts, then and match those with narrative hooks—combined with advice from musicologists and coders, led to the Music Genome Project, an expansive database of songs given a scientific veneer. Song characteristics are called “genes,” which were collected into “chromosomes,” which make up larger datasets called “genomes.”
In order to try and bring the Genome to market, Westergren and his team, funded by $1.5 million in angel investor capital, launched Savage Beast, an e-commerce company, at the peak of the celestial jukebox gold rush in 2000. AOL Music tried Savage Beast as its recommendation engine, and Best Buy and Barnes & Noble tried it for in-store kiosks, but money was scarce in the post-dot-com bubble era. A venture capital influx of $9 million in 2004 allowed Westergren to pay back his long-suffering employees, hire an actual CEO, and by September 2005, launch the Pandora site as a standalone internet radio application. In late 2005, Pandora sold its first ad. In 2008, millions downloaded the iPhone app. By 2010, Pandora struck a deal with Ford. “Think about what made AM/FM radio so accessible,” CEO Joe Kennedy told The New York Times in 2010. “You get into the car or buy a clock for your nightstand and push a button and radio comes out,” he said. “That’s what we’re hoping to match.”
By mid-2013, Pandora had succeeded at competing with radio, with 76 million users and an 8.6% share of total U.S. radio listening. Indeed, the connection to radio is more than just a metaphor for Pandora. The platform is licensed through the DMCA as a pure play webcaster, which means limited song skips per hour and no rewinding. (In contrast, platforms like Spotify and Rdio are classified as “on-demand” services). The webcasting designation qualifies Pandora for a statutory license like broadcast radio stations, which means that it doesn’t have to strike deals with individual record labels to clear music, as long they pay the government-set royalty rates.
One crucial difference between Pandora and over-the-air radio stations, however, lies in who gets paid. Whereas broadcast radio stations pay royalties via ASCAP and BMI only to composers and publishers—a deal that goes back decades—Pandora is required to pay performers, who collect directly via the non-profit performance rights organization SoundExchange.
“Pandora actually is a very powerful engine for revenue generation in an area where performing artists didn't make any money until the mid 90s,” according to the FMC’s Casey Rae. Radio stations continue to resist paying performance royalties, having contended for decades that playing songs over the air is inherently promotional. (The U.S. is the only country in the world in which music performers are not directly compensated for broadcast radio play.) In contrast, Rae contends, “the statutory royalties that webcasters like Pandora pay can be looked at as a major step forward in terms of clear, transparent, equitable artist compensation.”
In May 2007, spurred in large part by Pandora’s quick success, the Copyright Royalty Board significantly raised the mandatory royalty rates for webcasters. Before the ruling, webcasters paid a fixed annual fee plus a percentage of their profits. After the ruling, they are required to pay per-song fees plus annual fees per channel. What defined Pandora technologically had come back to bite it economically. One of the primary advantages of internet radio is infinite choice, and many other stations much smaller than Pandora still had thousands of algorithmically-derived channels. The new fee structure made basic operations a mathematical impossibility for some of these smaller webcasters, for whom royalty payments exceeded total revenues.
To combat the rising royalty rates, Westergren quickly hired a PR firm and started encouraging Pandora subscribers, artists, and managers to contact their representatives in support. Bills were introduced—the Internet Radio Equality Act in 2007 and the Internet Radio Fairness Act in 2012—but neither have gotten very far. The fight transcended partisan lines, though in the public eye, it boiled down to a battle between those who supported tech developers’ rights to a market without crippling economic regulations versus the non-exploitative compensation of artists.
The solution is somewhere in between these poles: a sustainable internet radio model with enough scope and choice to satiate consumers but that can also earn enough revenue via subscriptions and advertising to pay the artists a fairer wage for the products of their labor. Of course, much of the battle is fought in the arena of public perception, where Westergren has faltered. Much like the very wealthy Daniel Ek, it doesn’t help Westergren’s case as a put-upon public servant that Pandora’s 2011 IPO resulted in a $3.2 billion market cap.
Internet radio breaks sharply from the broadcast model, building itself around the individual, not the mass, and scraping activity data into a hyper-personalized experience.
Webcasters pay artists directly while broadcast radio doesn’t, but the numbers are still incredibly low. The explanation as to why royalty payments are so low lies in internet radio’s unique conception of a listening public. In a blog post from June 2013, a day or so after an editorial by Pink Floyd used some fuzzy math to justify an anti-Pandora stance, Westergren wrote a long post on Pandora’s blog explaining the company’s approach to royalties. He started by blaming the RIAA—which, to be fair, has a terrible reputation for inflating, if not imagining, profit losses—for the bogus numbers that Pink Floyd passed along. Then, he clearly conceptualized the difference between Pandora and broadcast radio.
“Each spin on Pandora reaches a single person, compared to a ‘play’ on FM radio that reaches potentially millions of people,” he explained. “In other words, a million spins on Pandora might be equivalent to a single play on a large FM station.” This difference, Westergren concluded, explains why Pandora payouts are so small. “If major market FM stations paid the same rates as Pandora, based on audience,” he continued, “some would be paying thousands of dollars for every song they played. How much do they pay performers right now? Zero.”
Much of the debate about Pandora—and to a degree, all internet radio—centers on such a conceptual dilemma. The dominant form of transmission during the 20th century was broadcast, in which a single transmission reached millions of people simultaneously. For radio historian Susan Douglas, broadcast radio added “a new cognitive dimension” to social life that could bind “utterly diverse and unknown people together as an audience,” forging “powerful connections between people’s inner, thinking selves and other selves.” What is often called a “monoculture” nowadays is described by Douglas as an “imagined community” of strangers, united not through shared space, but because they were hearing the same programming (and ads) at the same time.
Internet radio breaks sharply from this model, building itself around the individual, not the mass, and scraping activity data into a hyper-personalized experience. The cognitive effects of interacting with internet radio are profoundly different than the broadcast model. Pandora is programmed to “learn” individual tastes, and then deliver music that flatters those tastes—the Top 40 model applied to the Long Tail, perhaps. Westergren may not be the most sympathetic figure, but he’s right: Internet radio’s promotional value is significantly less at the level of a single “spin” than the broadcast model’s. Directing a song at a single person is valuable, but of a very different sort than directing a song at a million people at the same time.
The manner in which Pandora’s algorithm delivers individual songs to individual listeners is itself unique amongst its streaming-platform contemporaries. Pandora is much snobbier than the Echo Nest, using a team of musicologists to code each song based on hundreds of criteria, from purely musical factors such as tempos and tones to more subjective categories like emotion and busyness. Using the terminology developed by the Echo Nest, Pandora is the epitome of a recommendation service with tons of care, but little scale. The best streaming platform will rank highly in both the number of songs it offers and the ingenuity with which it sorts them (naturally, the Echo Nest ranks highly on both, while Whitman notes that Pandora has “only” one million songs coded over more than a decade, compared to the Echo Nest’s 35 million).
The extreme care of Pandora’s approach allows Westergren to make some fairly outlandish claims about the objectivity of the algorithm’s results—he's said that the derivation of musical taste is nothing more than “social jockeying” and snobbery, withering in comparison to Pandora’s genomic approach. But Westergren’s arrogance in eliminating the social construction of taste in favor of his Music Genome is countered by an anecdote from a 2009 New York Times profile by Rob Walker, in which a violinist who works as a Pandora song decoder dubbed an Indian raga a three-and-a-half out of five on the scale of “exoticism,” leading to a brief debate about the subjectivity of that term. While it’s questionable to think that a country comprising 1.2 billion people could in any way be “exotic” to someone from Earth, this coder’s evaluation underscores the fact that Pandora is far from “celestial” in its scope—it’s only available in the U.S., Canada, and New Zealand. Moreover, such subjective coding draws attention to the fact that recommendation algorithms, like tastes, always arise from intricate networks of incredibly advanced technologies and human beings.
This past January, the long-rumored result of a collaboration between Trent Reznor and Beats—as in Beats by Dre headphones, the most successful music accessory since the iPod—turned out to be a smartphone-based music streaming platform, launched in collaboration with AT&T. As part of its opening branding blitz, Beats promised to put flesh-and-blood music-experts—ahem, “curators”—ahead of the cold, robotic algorithms that guide the music selections of its competitors.
“Music is much more than digital files,” Reznor purrs in one ad. “It breathes, and bleeds, and feels,” and “integrates the best technology with friendly, trustworthy humanity.” Reznor’s claim is, of course, factual, but that’s beside the point when it comes to marketing lingo. What matters for Beats Music is that its users believe they’re taking part in a streaming experience driven by personalities rather than algorithms.
I use the word “experience” purposefully, because it comes up a lot in discussions of streaming media platforms. Over the past few decades, advertising has embraced the idea of not simply selling things to consumers, but turning all manner of pleasurable activities into sponsored “experiences.” The same holds for developers, who work in concert with the people tasked with selling products to a general public. When I asked Beats Music CEO Ian Rogers what made Beats Music’s deal with AT&T and its smartphone-first philosophy unique, the “e” word came up immediately.
“Your phone comes with a pair of headphones, but you can still build a billion dollar business off of people upgrading that experience,” Rogers bluntly (and correctly) admits about the market that Beats Audio cornered. “Your phone comes with music too, but the experience is pretty crappy.” As is the basic function of modern branding, crafting a user experience via a streaming platform is a way of engendering loyalty to a commodified idea through a series of pleasurable activities—all based around the individual, not the mass. It’s fitting that the most exciting new streaming platform since Spotify would emerge from a billion-dollar electronics brand based around isolating the music listener.
Though coverage of Beats Music’s launch focused on Reznor, Dr. Dre, and music biz legend Jimmy Iovine, it’s Rogers’ low-key presence and extensive experience with online music that shapes the platform’s experience. Whereas Daniel Ek is an ex-BitTorrent CEO and Tim Westergren is a Silicon Valley-connected musician and composer, Rogers started as a tech-savvy mega-fan, active for much of digital music’s online history. After the Beastie Boys took note of Rogers’ comprehensive fansite—in 1993, it was one of the first of its kind—and hired him as a consultant, he pushed them to the forefront of fan interactivity and technological integration for the next decade.
Then, after trying and failing to turn Yahoo! Music into a worthwhile platform, he took over Topspin, a service designed to help up-and-coming artists market themselves online. Rogers’ recent hire of ex-Gang of Four bassist and longtime brand strategist Dave Allen as Beats’ first artist advocate makes sense given Rogers background in artist marketing and platform development. Allen was one of the few artists to take a public “pro” stance on Spotify and its ilk, claiming in one well-circulated 2013 blog post that “intelligent men like David Byrne and Thom Yorke… do not appear to understand that we are in the midst of new markets being formed” through streaming platforms, not the death of the recording industry or creativity.
Beats Music promotes its experience as a human one, but like all streaming platforms—like all recorded music—it’s a combination of humans and technologies. Beats’ “Just For You” homepage is an oft-pruned reflection of activity data and preferences, and “The Sentence” feature reframes the internet radio model as magnetic refrigerator poetry. Through its AT&T-powered connection to flesh-and-blood humans, Beats echoes a short-lived fad of the 1940s, when Rock-Ola’s Mystic Music Jukebox and AMI’s Singing Towers inspired the 1944 film “Swing Hostess”, in which a down-on-her-luck singer takes a job filling requests as a “jukebox operator.” Seventy years later, Beats’ jukebox is driven not by distant music operators, but by veterans of radio label A&R and music journalism (former Pitchfork Editor-in-Chief Scott Plagenhoef heads programming and editorial). Its experience combines the expert paradigms of Pandora and Rhapsody with Songza’s activity-and-mood-based playlists and the Echo Nest’s scraping of the web’s music discourse. Under the Beats brand umbrella, Rogers’ is crafting the musical software to complement Beats’ upscale $300 headphone hardware.
Aside from “experience,” the key to understanding Beats Music lies in “curator,” a word that came up as often in my interview with Rogers. That term—beloved by the Echo Nest’s music coders as well—has reached a post Web 2.0 saturation point. It makes sense: At a time when digitized cultural objects, from high art to .gifs, circulate widely for anyone to sort through, recombine and display, a title formerly reserved for the organizers of art galleries and museum exhibitions now applies to the omnivorous activities native to the Stream. “Our playlists have a consistent quality and length across all of our curators,” Rogers told me, lumping the Beats staff in with the platform's “third-party” curators, including “Lone Star, Ellen DeGeneres, Pitchfork, and Decibel.” For Rogers, curation equates to a level of distinction and definite shape that internet radio and Spotify don’t offer, while framing the playlist as the platform’s default music commodity. With Beats Music, Rogers tells me, “you know what you're getting in terms of quality and length, and that makes it a consumable thing.”
“Online music services need bushwhackers carving paths from one starting point to another. We’re not gatekeepers. We’re not tastemakers. We’re park rangers.” — Google Play Music's Tim Quirk
What Ian Rogers is for Beats Music, Tim Quirk is for Google Play Music. In the late 1980s, Quirk formed the band Too Much Joy, which was briefly signed to Warner as part of the major labels’ Buzz Bin-era land-grab of the early 1990s. In 2009, he inaugurated the trend of musicians-examining-their-digital-royalties, via a blog post titled “My Hilarious Warner Bros. Royalty Statement.” He’d been working at Rhapsody for several years at that point, and used his recording industry know-how to ask some pointed questions in a self-effacing, humble-bragging sort of way. His band’s quandary was that any digital (or physical) royalties they received were only chipping away at the $400,000 advance they still needed to recoup for Warner Bros. Quirk’s plight underscores the fact that artists signed to major labels often receive much worse streaming deals than those signed to indies—many of which offer 50/50 profit splits after advances are recouped—but also draws attention to Google Play’s plans to build-out its streaming and retail platform. Quirk, the outspoken public face of Google Play, is an ex-artist who knows from paltry digital royalties. But he also built the streaming stalwart Rhapsody, and knows how to market algorithmic recommendation as a flesh-and-blood operation.
Quirk and Rogers were co-presenters on a panel at South by Southwest’s 2014 conference titled “Man vs. Machine: The Curation Dilemma”, and while the title suggests a battle, both Rogers and Quirk know better—it’s the work of people using increasingly advanced technologies that has driven music recommendation for decades. Quirk also pitches Google Play Music as a quirky, flesh-and-bone team of music nerds. “I believe strongly that Google Play's music-discovery algorithms are way more geeky and subjective and weirdly human than others,” he tells me.
But his descriptions don’t stop there. At the 2013 Future of Music Summit—the Future of Music Coalition’s annual conference—he coined a metaphor for music recommendation in an age of infinite abundance that reframes digital curation in a unique way. “Telling the entire world what it should and shouldn’t listen to has become far less important than simply making this overgrown musical jungle navigable,” he claimed. “Online music services need bushwhackers carving paths from one starting point to another. We’re not gatekeepers. We’re not tastemakers. We’re park rangers.”
And if any single company is cut out to carve careful paths through the morass of digital music, it’s Google. Their skill at clearing through clutter is, in a way, what made its search engine so powerful; more than any other single entity, Google’s PageRank algorithm organized and sanitized the web. Like Apple with iTunes Radio, Google waited for the field to settle before making its big push, and Google Play Music aims to corner the streaming and digital retail markets by offering a digital music retail outlet as well as a paid subscription option that competes directly with Spotify (and pays better royalties to artists than its on-demand competitors). Like Spotify and iTunes, Google Play Music subscribers can incorporate their libraries into the platforms, but Google allows the uploading of one’s mp3 collection—illegally obtained or not, everyone has long given up caring—to their servers, or to have tracks matched by Google’s 20-million-song library.
At this point, the possible pirate origins of the files don’t matter as much as the fact that you’re listening to music while immersed in Google’s universe. Unlike Spotify, Beats Music, and Pandora, which are all single-entry portals offering access to large bodies of music, Google Play Music is built into a vast search, communications, and software ecosystem, co-opting the trust and reliance that hundreds of millions ascribe to its ever-expanding software, hardware, entertainment, and communication offerings. Where Beats and Apple are offering content to complement their lifestyle products, Google aims to re-route digital music into a retail-focused music experience contained within the infrastructure of the world’s largest public information utility.
Quirk ruffled a few feathers during that same FMC talk with his bold claim that “music is priceless.” He didn’t mean it literally, of course—the chutzpah required to take that stance while working for what is still the world’s leading directory for pirated music that is now selling music would be too much for anyone to bear—but as a way to address the continuities between music’s pre-digital era and the streaming present. “The same song will always be worth different things to different people at different times,” Quirk told the audience. “The online music revolution hasn’t changed that. It’s simply made the fact glaringly obvious.” As it happens, one of Google’s other properties has been making that fact obvious outside the gaze of the recording industry for years.
VII. Life Inside the Infinite Library: YouTube and SoundCloud
Jace Clayton doesn’t care to talk about how companies and artists are profiting from streaming music platforms. He’s much more interested in the cultural implications of a life lived inside what he calls music’s “infinite library.” As part of his research for a 2012 Fader article, Clayton met groups of Egyptian kids who were obsessed with 50 Cent after watching his videos on YouTube and Dailymotion. He imitates them for me: “We watch 50 Cent videos and we can't understand what he's saying, but we know what it's about because we understand the visuals.” The music they make from this influence is called Mahraganat, which means “festival.”
“It's basically an updated version of Shabbi, or populist Egyptian roughneck music,” Clayton explains. “They're incorporating structures from hip-hop, maybe a turnaround in the beat every four bars, Auto-Tune, and a certain sort of exuberance and attitude. It's a bit parochial, but then there's this weird overlay, which comes as a result of watching 50 Cent's ‘In Da Club’ over and over again, and getting access to what hip-hop culture is about.”
Clayton is particularly attuned to young people making use of technologies to reimagine styles from the other side of the world through local languages. He's perhaps more widely known as DJ/rupture, the globetrotting artist who treats his world travels as part-gig, part-field research expedition. Clayton’s DJ mixes, which intersperse R&B and hip-hop smashes with music from around the world, reflect the unpredictable paths and recombinations of music at a time when scarcity and a lack of access feel like relics of the past. In 2009, he wrote an article about “world music 2.0,” the term at once a knowing nod to the corporate-created music genre and an acknowledgement that decades later, the landscape is much different.
“World music 2.0 is a bottom-feeder, obsessed with microcultures breeding on YouTube, invite-only chat rooms, and other obscure corners of the internet where the line between producer and consumer blurs," he says, "and most songs end up being given away for free.” Instead of the center-periphery mindset of broadcasting—whether “center” stands for corporations or governments—Clayton describes a network in which “edges look to edges.”
For Clayton, focusing on the cultural implications of streaming platforms is far more interesting than tracking their economic impacts. “Once you get money out of the equation and you're not worried about labels and large media corporations and artists getting paid," he says, "the infinite musical library becomes a kind of cultural patrimony.” The differences between the metaphors of celestial jukebox and infinite music library are subtle but important: one is driven by micropayments, the other is a civic good, equally accessible to all.
Through his creative work as DJ/rupture, Clayton’s focus is on telling sonic stories by putting diverse cultures in dialogue with one another. In a very real way, DJs are the original human engines for music recommendation and recombination, the flesh-and-blood progenitors of the algorithmic features built into streaming platforms. “DJs begin because we're obsessed with music, because we're listening to it all the time, because we're excited about discovery, we're excited about connections,” Clayton tells me. “Then I think, 'How can I turn all these sounds around me into a narrative?'”
Clayton’s perspective subverts the too-frequent tendency amongst tech and music journalists to equate technological transformations of “music” to its effects on “the recording industry.” Yet while YouTube streams are powering the non-stop hybridization of exciting, off-the-mainstream-grid global musics, they’re also being translated into statistics for the most centralized, corporate purposes. In the wake of “Gangnam Style”, “Call Me Maybe”, and “Harlem Shake,” Billboard changed its popularity methodology fairly significantly. “The notion that a song has to sell in order to be a hit feels a little two or three years ago to me,” former Billboard editorial director Bill Werde told The New York Times last year. “The music business today—much to its credit—has started to learn that there are lots of different ways a song can be a hit, and lots of different ways that the business can benefit from it being a hit.”
YouTube has long been the default global site for music discovery and sharing, and it’s not even a close race.
YouTube is easily the largest, most influential, and most difficult to peg of all the music streaming platforms; It's long been the default global site for music discovery and sharing, and it’s not even a close race. An early 2011 Nielsen report claimed that three times as much music was streamed on YouTube than was downloaded from online retailers. Partially because of its embeddedness within Google searches and partially because of its openness to accept uploads from any registered user, YouTube has become the default online locale for finding an old song you can’t remember the words to, an ever-expanding archive of global popular music, a source of live concert transmissions, the MTV of “viral” clips complete with its own awards show, a space to make playlists, and a resource for people to teach others how to produce or compose music. It’s a promotional tool for one-hit wonders to earn advertising revenue (just ask Psy), a "Star Search"-style platform for seeking fame (just ask Justin Bieber), and a public space for commentary (just stay out of the comment sections—unless you treat them as art). Via its Content ID algorithm, YouTube is a DMCA-regulated seeker, finder, and deleter of corporate copyright violations, incapable of considering "fair use." The Echo Nest powers the recommendation features for Vevo, the major labels’ corner of YouTube. YouTube is top-down, bottom-up, and all points in-between. Like the company that owns it, YouTube has become a verb.
Depending on one’s perspective, YouTube is an accessible, ever-growing archive that is reversing pop music’s orientation toward the future, or it’s an accessible, ever-growing resource for artists to explore and recombine new sounds from around the globe, ceaselessly spinning off new micro genres (and memes). YouTube was a central figure in Simon Reynolds' 2011 book Retromania, responsible for “the astronomic expansion of humanity’s resources of memory,” and thus largely to blame for the fact that “the presence of the past in our lives has increased immeasurably and insidiously.” While longing for the boredom of his youth and the scarcity of out-of-print records, Reynolds worries about the capacity of the open, virtual archive to turn creativity into simple mimicry, when YouTube renders otherwise foggy memories freely available for detailed study.
Whether these memories are based in the brain or on the web, they're prone to disappear without a trace. Sometimes it’s as simple as a user deleting an account, but increasingly it’s the more sinister version of corporate owners “disappearing” large swaths of cultural production to avoid having to deal with copyright claims. In the wake of Rupert Murdoch buying Myspace and “nuking” the imeem streaming service in 2009, ethnomusicologist and blogger Wayne Marshall, a longtime annotator of the microtrends popping up every second on any number of online streaming platforms, wrote an extensive blog post, spurred by the very real fear that “entire media ecosystems” might suddenly “succumb to the sudden slash and burn of corporate logic, which cares little for what we might celebrate as cultural vitality.” I’ve been using the word “platform” throughout this article as linguistic shorthand to describe a variety of streaming services, but as Marshall notes, the term can disguise as much as it describes. YouTube and other services use “platform” as strategic PR, Marshall contends, to cover up the much more precarious technological and political realities that underpin their use. Calling YouTube and other streaming services “platforms” creates the image of an elevated space on which one might communicate to a large audience, strategically eliding the fact that uploads can vaporize at any point, often without warning.
The term "cloud" acts as a form of linguistic wallpaper masking the fact that digital copies of “your” music are in fact somewhere amidst vast server farms around the world, subject to disappearance without notice.
Over the past few years, SoundCloud has filled the role that imeem and its ilk once did, but not without similar worries about cultural vanishing. Started in Berlin by two transplanted Swedes, SoundCloud launched in 2008 with a simple, user-friendly interface allowing artists (particularly DJs) to create pages and easily share their work by embedding streams in other sites. As the platform grew, its developers started incorporating algorithms, similar to YouTube’s Content ID, that could detect copyrighted work being re-appropriated and circulated. Marshall took note of the myriad DMCA-sanctioned automated takedown notices that artists were receiving from the platform, and filed it under the category of what he dubs “platform politricks,” citing the “chilling implications for everyday musical practice, global popular culture, ‘fair use,’ and the public domain.”
Clayton has mixed feelings about SoundCloud as well. “They courted DJs in the beginning when they could afford to be more lax about copyright enforcement, using that to hype and reach a larger mainstream crowd,” he recalls. “And then they say, ‘OK, we're going to start pulling a lot of those early mixes that we pretty much tacitly condoned.’ It's this awful bait-and-switch.”
The bigger problem with such practices, Clayton argues, extends to cloud services offered to everyday music fans: “What does it mean if your own personal music is being stored in a platform that's hard for you to access, hard for you to download, has source code you can't tweak, you can't port it to something else if it gets bought by Murdoch's tentacles?” The word “cloud” fills a similar function for SoundCloud, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft as “platform” does for YouTube. It acts as a form of linguistic wallpaper masking the fact that digital copies of “your” music are in fact somewhere amidst vast server farms in places like Maiden, North Carolina; Ashburn, Virginia; Singapore; New South Wales, and Victoria, Australia; and Dublin, Ireland, subject to the terms of impossibly long end-user licensing agreements and to disappearance without notice.
One of the things that SoundCloud does particularly well, however, is allow user-created metadata to reshape the pathways of music discovery. As Quirk describes it, Google Play Music’s park rangers are well-versed in the skills of tagging and organizing. “We understand that metadata is merchandising,” he says. “It's not enough to just be in the system, you have to be constellated with other things that are like you.” But while Google Play and its contemporaries rely on top-down tagging, SoundCloud use bottom-up, user-created metadata as the communicative seeds of a vast music platform based around the idea that genres can be a series of endlessly recombinable word games.
On platforms like SoundCloud, user-created tags allow for genre constellations on the model of Twitter hashtags: a publicity mechanism for introducing strangers to one’s work, a navigation tool for listeners trawling the site for specific sounds, and a way to meet possible collaborators. Clayton refers to SoundCloud genre tagging as a “folksonomy,” a sort of DIY linguistic discovery interface that couldn’t be more distant from the musical connections served up by “a James Blake Pandora station,” in his dismissive comparison.
Though large portions of both platforms are commercially-supported, SoundCloud, YouTube, and their myriad online counterparts are much more vibrantly populated not by artists striving to gain fame, but simply to make music. As Brown University ethnomusicologist Kiri Miller explains in her book Playing Along, YouTube’s most prominent role for many is the proliferation of music lessons. She coins the phrase “amateur-to-amateur” as an update to “peer-to-peer” to describe many YouTube musicians who don’t claim to be experts, but who use the platform to find like-minded dilettantes. Similarly, University of Texas historian Karl Hagstrom Miller is writing a book that considers YouTube as the new “parlor piano,”a space for anonymous amateur musicians for whom playing popular music is, like using YouTube, a part of their everyday lives. Though they’re too often overlooked in lieu of digital music’s economic impact on the recording industry and artist royalties, these projects illuminate the myriad non-commercial forms of musical activity that populate the Stream.
The chasm between YouTube amateurism and the high-level debates over Spotify and Pandora royalties makes clear that streaming is far from just one thing. It's everywhere: DIY musicians use Bandcamp’s malleable platform to allow curious browsers to sample before buying, and sites likePitchforkand NPR Music have built out streaming widgets and standalone pages for free, pre-release previews. The Hype Machine, once the Dow Jones of blogged mp3s, has morphed into a streaming platform. This Is My Jam, a single-track service created by an ex-Last.fm employee, reimagines the bedroom-wall style music fandom of peak-period Myspace for single-song doses.
While the major media corporations are using the Stream to crowdsource A&R (Lyor Cohen’s 300 label striking a partnership with Twitter, Warner collaborating with Shazam) and expand operations into new platforms (the Tribune Company buying music metadata giant Gracenote), fans and artists are morphing their everyday activities to account for streaming advances. I’ve seen vinyl DJs use Spotify and SoundCloud to supplement their crates with the new pop tracks clubgoers drunkenly scream for (and witnessed the awkwardness of a mid-song wi-fi hiccup), and watched apartment get-togethers evolve into dance parties collectively soundtracked by people playing YouTube clips off their phones. Anyone who pays a monthly fee for server space and learns a bit of coding can set up their own personalized streaming site; anyone with limitless money and cultural influence can strike a deal with a wireless provider to turn their new album into a smartphone app and data-mining portal.
“What we saw in the 20th century was an anomalous blip when music had a physical form. Music has this intrinsic pull towards the dematerial, towards the unbuyable. It's a slippery, ghostly thing.” — Jace Clayton
In the years preceding the turn of the 21st century, the musical objects that were introduced scarcely a century earlier underwent a radical micro-materialization into mp3s, upending rituals that had been so firmly established as to seem a natural part of musical life. Seemingly overnight, highly-regulated commodity networks were augmented from the bottom-up as mp3 files burrowed new conduits that proved impossible to regulate. “Piracy” became insufficient to describe digital musical transactions; they were malleable and quick enough to count as acts of everyday communication.
For Jace Clayton, as digital files give way to streams—dictated as much by the everyday activities of fans and artists as well as the top-down logic of the corporation—music is returning to its originary, pre-industrial form. “What we saw in the 20th century was an anomalous blip when music had a physical form,” Clayton surmises. “That was very unusual in the course of human history and it will soon be very unusual again. Music has this intrinsic pull towards the dematerial, towards the unbuyable. It's a slippery, ghostly thing.”
From the dawn of radio to the ascent of the celestial jukebox, guided by the market’s invisible hand or just coursing through the air, music has fluctuated between states of ghostliness and tangibility. At the same point that phonography was reifying music into collectible things in the early 20th century, radio broadcasts sent it through the electromagnetic spectrum. Early radio listeners—whose imaginations were colored by the mechanized devastation of the Great War and were subject to the strong pull of spiritualism—often thought they were hearing the voices of the dead. The industry built around recordings and technological advances in radio were future-oriented products of modernity, but Susan Douglas reminds us that broadcasting “carried people back into the realms of pre-literacy” through a mode of communication “reliant on storytelling, listening and group memory.”
Several decades later, with radio’s ethereal signals long the subject of countless musical odes and its commercial imperatives the subject of bitter musical attacks, music’s ephemeral nature and object status were symbolically reappropriated as the “celestial jukebox.” And now, a decade after the recording industry’s first efforts rotted on the vine, a slew of well-capitalized startups are rerouting the insurgent musical currents of the digital age, with inexhaustible resources powered by databases and algorithms, disguised by elaborate interfaces, piped through unseen cables that, diverted by wireless routers, push music through the air to the attractively designed objects capable of receiving radio signals now called “wi-fi.” Listeners aren’t mesmerized by the miracle of transmission anymore; used to being plied with access to everything, they’re more likely to carp if an artist’s work isn’t represented in streaming catalogs.
Though the move from properties to portals has the capacity to engender thrilling new forms of musical innovation and cross-cultural collaboration, it is also cause for new anxieties. Streaming makes music feel more invisible than it’s ever been, but it still circulates through pathways that are much more controllable than those of mp3 files. There’s no need for the RIAA to file gaudy suits against its own consumers anymore, when fans are willing to exchange infinite accessibility for mundane surveillance and invisible corporate control. Digital streams take shape via hardware and operating systems that are subject to capitalism’s planned obsolescence, and they’re subject to laws crafted by politicians, corporations, and lobbyists who don’t have creators’ interests in mind. For the FMC’s Casey Rae, the stakes of streaming are rooted in its sustainability. “The health of an ecosystem is best judged by how many independent operators it can sustain, and it would be a tremendous tragedy if we ended up in a winner-takes-all environment.” In late 2012, Spotify received $50 million in funding from noted vampire squid Goldman Sachs, which doesn’t bode well for the long-term survival of the dozens of playlists I’m currently following on the platform.
As I write this article, I’m obsessing over Beats Music, trying to learn every nook and cranny of the platform. I’m beaming its playlists from my phone to my stereo receiver through my wireless router—so far, “Best of Trackmasters,” “Peter Murphy: Deep Cuts” and “Intro to Ryuchi Sakamoto” are my favorites. My giddiness is nothing new. Over the past few years, I’ve similarly obsessed over Spotify and YouTube before moving on to the new thing.
For communications professor Patrick Burkart, the pleasures we derive from each new platform represent a central problem to modern consumerism: “We think they satisfy all of our consumption desires, but they actually get closer and closer and closer and never quite satisfy, which is why we can be convinced to go on to the next one with the same sort of promises.” Such obsessions come complete with a moral quandary unique to our current moment, in which technological fetishism directly impacts the sustainability of artistic creation. After a decade during which millions of music fans became used to unfettered mp3 access while quietly ignoring the economic consequences for artists, certain mental calculations come into play. In an email, a friend put it succinctly: “Spotify is the best-yet middle ground between putting an artist in financial difficulty and putting myself there.”
Digital music has merged seamlessly into the 21st century information stream, but streams have been an organizing musical metaphor for much longer—traceable back to Edward Bellamy’s mystifying “music rooms” of 1888. Or maybe the origin is 11 years earlier, two weeks after Alexander Graham Bell filed his patent for the telephone, when a New York Times writer predicted the decline of live music when listeners had the option of streaming operas at home through phone lines. Or perhaps the imaginative origin of streaming lies in Francis Bacon’s utopian novelNew Atlantis, published in 1627. Bacon described “sound-houses” found on the mythical island of Bensalem, where people “practise and demonstrate all sounds and their generation,” and which feature “all means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances.” Music is the most ephemeral art, and the most artful form of human communication. People have been imagining new ways of ambiently circulating it for centuries. The only certainty for the future of streaming music, history tells us, is a future of streaming music.
In 1952, a twenty-nine-year-old record collector named Harry Everett Smith squirreled himself away in a two-room office at 111 West Forty-Seventh Street, chewing on peyote buttons and compiling a six-LP compendium for Folkways Records. The Anthology of American Folk Music, which was released by Folkways in 1952 and reissued on CD by the Smithsonian in 1997, was culled exclusively from Smith’s 78 collection and contains only songs issued between 1927 and 1932, that fruitful five-year span between the advent of electrical recording and the apex of the Great Depression.
Despite its self-imposed parameters, Smith’s anthology is generous in its definition of folk music: child ballads, spirituals, Alabamans playing Hawaiian steel guitar, fiddlers, Charley Patton as the Masked Marvel, Appalachian coal miners, Cajun accordionists, the Carter Family, jug stompers, string bands, church congregations, and Uncle Dave Macon—mouth open, banjo wedged behind his knee, hollering “Kill yourself!”—all appear.
Taken as a whole (and that’s the entire point), the Anthology is a wild and instructive portrait of a young country working itself out via song. It’s also deeply confounding. There are times when I have clung to it as a kind of last hope, believing that it’s an object that unlocks other objects; there are other times when I have found it solipsistic and nonsensical and inherently ill conceived. Whatever the Anthology offers, it’s not revealed quickly.
Smith is about as close as the practice of 78 collecting has ever come to producing a known cult figure.
Like most serious collectors, Harry Smith got going early. The arc of his life is both predictable—as if, like a river, it could have only ever led to one place—and meandering. He was born on May 29, 1923, the son of a boat captain and a schoolteacher, theosophists who encouraged his burgeoning interest in ethnography. He spent a good chunk of his high school years studying the tribal ceremonies of the Lummi Indians in his hometown of Bellingham, Washington, and started amassing 78s around the same time. The first one he bought was by Tommy McClellan, a rough-voiced blues singer who recorded in Chicago in the early 1940s. (“It sounded strange and I looked for others,” Smith later said of it.)
In his early twenties, Smith was just undersized enough to be able to crawl inside the fuselage of an airplane, and after six months working for Boeing as an engine degreaser, he decamped to San Francisco, then Berkeley, and finally New York City, where, in desperate need of cash for things like food and shelter, he tried to pitch his record collection wholesale to Folkways Records. Instead, cofounder Moe Asch persuaded him to produce a multi-disc compilation for the label. Asch’s biographer, Peter Goldsmith, suggests that Smith’s “appearance and manner” might have reminded Asch of his pal and partner Woody Guthrie, another charmingly arrogant polymath who recorded for Folkways in the 1940s. (Incidentally, Guthrie—who spent a good percentage of 1952 in a state psychiatric ward—adored the Anthology, and in a letter to Asch admitted to playing it “several hundreds of times.”) In a 1972 Sing Out! interview with Ethel Raim and Bob Norman, Asch confirmed his admiration for Smith’s purview, saying “[Smith] understood the content of the records. He knew their relationship to folk music, their relationship to English literature, and their relationship to the world.” Smith was paid $200 for his work on the Anthology and promised a 20-cent royalty for each copy sold.
Although he’s now equally beloved for his experimental films, paintings, and animations, Smith is about as close as the practice of 78 collecting has ever come to producing a known cult figure. (These days Robert Crumb also qualifies, but his collecting is far more incidental to his legacy.) Smith, who died in 1991 in room 328 of the Chelsea Hotel in New York, a building already infamous for its output of body bags, was the kind of guy who designed his own tarot cards. He was a dedicated mystic, a consecrated bishop in the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica (a fraternal organization based on Aleister Crowley’s The Book of the Law), and, supposedly, an initiated Lummi shaman. He palled around with folks like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso, and was eventually appointed “Shaman in Residence” at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, a Buddhist-inspired university founded by an exiled Tibetan tulku. Along with records and rare books, which he arranged on his shelves by height, Smith collected Seminole textiles, hand-decorated Ukrainian Easter eggs, and anything shaped like a hamburger. He lived with a goldfish in a series of tiny apartments crammed with ephemera (quilts, weavings, clay models, mounted string figures, women’s dresses). In 1984 he donated “the largest known paper airplane collection in the world”—sourced exclusively from the streets of New York City—to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Smith was also an obsessive chronicler of found sound, be it the peyote songs of the Kiowa Indians or the wheezing vagrants of the Lower East Side; one Fourth of July he recorded every single noise he encountered.
In almost all the photos I’ve seen of Harry Smith, he’s wearing plastic-framed, thick-lensed eyeglasses and sporting a robust, scraggly beard. His skin looks papery but his eyes are sharp, narrowed, and alive under two drooping lids. In my favorite shot, taken by Ginsberg in 1985, he’s pouring whole milk from a cardboard carton into a glass jar (“transforming milk into milk,” Ginsberg noted). His face is approximately 80 percent glasses. Atop his head, little tufts of white hair wisp to the left, the consistency of fresh spiderweb. He appears to be about ten thousand years old.
Cantankerous and exacting in the manner of most collectors, Smith often bickered with his peers about money or objects. He would demand to borrow a book or record and then refuse to give it back. As his archivist and friend Rani Singh told me, he was constantly informing people that their belongings were better off in his collection. (“‘It should be in my collection, it shouldn’t be in your collection,’” she recalled him saying.) His compulsions were driven by a fierce internal logic; Smith was painstaking in his pursuit of proper serialization, even if it meant pilfering other people’s most beloved shit. Things, he believed, belonged next to other things—like sentences in a story, books along a shelf, songs on an LP. “He was looking for undercurrents. He was looking for ideas that were disappearing, nuances that were disappearing, trying to make connections not just among 78s from Georgia or North Carolina versus upper New York State or Canada, but connections between the string figures that he was interested in from all cultures across the world,” Singh said. “He was comparing string figures to tarot cards to 78 records to creation myths to all these other things and finding the things that link all of us as humans together.”
Smith was painstaking in his pursuit of proper serialization, even if it meant pilfering other people’s most beloved shit.
It’s still hard to quantify the cultural impact of the Anthology. In the liner notes to its Smithsonian reissue, John Fahey wrote: “Had he never done anything with his life but this Anthology, Harry Smith would still have borne the mark of genius across his forehead. I’d match the Anthology up against any other single compendium of important information ever assembled. Dead Sea Scrolls? Nah. I’ll take the Anthology. Make no mistake: there was no ‘folk’ canon before Smith’s work. That he had compiled such a definitive document only became apparent much later, of course. We record-collecting types, sifting through many more records than he did, eventually reached the same conclusions: these were the true goods.”
There’s also no satisfying term for what Smith did. Both “compiler” and “curator” feel too removed, too impersonal. Smith didn’t just corral a bunch of parts, he dreamed a whole. While I’ll admit to a tendency toward certain flights of sentimentality—and while I don’t want to discount either Smith’s intentionality or his authorship—I also don’t think it’s so preposterous to believe that these records were delivered to Smith for this precise purpose and that he ordered them as a poet orders words on a page, channeling, building meaning from nothing, becoming a physical conduit for a spiritual truth. That Smith understood how to place these records in useful dialogue is a function of his expertise and experience, but there is also a sense, here, of a story that needed telling. That’s not an unfamiliar feeling for most 78 collectors.
In The Old, Weird America, Greil Marcus calls the Anthology“an occult document disguised as an academic treatise on stylistic shifts within an archaic musicology.” I think that costume is essential to its premise; although it might seem counterintuitive, the illusion of authority allows the Anthology both its insularity and its limitations. Anyone who attempts to use it as an objective textbook—as the definitive, omnipotent document implied by its title—will be devastated by its shortcomings. It’s a wonky portrait of America at nearly all stages in its development. It contains no field recordings sourced from the Library of Congress or anywhere else and excludes entire communities of citizens, including Native Americans, immigrants, and (with a few exceptions) people who lived in the northern half of the United States.
Per Smith’s vision, every track on the Anthology was professionally rendered and released, an oddly normative and antiacademic approach to something as intrinsically noncommercial as folk music. Smith clearly wanted to exalt the records people actually hunted down, bought, and cherished, just as he did.
While the Anthology isn’t comprehensive, it’s still a self-wrought universe with its own logic and revelations. It encourages—maybe even requires—its listeners to devise their own (personal, imperfect) explanations for how and why people sing. It’s all in here, Smith is saying, and if you can accept the Anthology on faith, as the sacred text he clearly envisioned, its world might open up to you, become your own.
Smith divided his eighty-four tracks into three categories, a kind of holy triumvirate: Social Music, Ballads, and Songs. All six records (two for each section) were collected under a cover illustration of a celestial monochord, an ancient, one-stringed instrument that vaguely resembles a mountain dulcimer. Here, the monochord is being tuned by the hand of God, which is stretching down from an illuminated cloud. The picture was drawn by the Belgian engraver Theodor de Bry and first published in Robert Fludd’s The History of the Macrocosm and the Microcosm sometime between 1617 and 1619. When properly played, the celestial monochord is supposed to unite the base elements of air, water, fire, and earth. The drawing is an allusion, certainly, to Smith and Fludd’s shared belief in serialization—in linking everything to everything else.
In the most basic sense, what Smith did with the Anthology will be familiar to anyone who has ever crafted or received a fussed-over mix tape from a paramour or a pal. As the rock critic Rob Sheffield wrote in his 2007 memoir, Love Is a Mix Tape, “It’s a fundamental human need to pass music around.” And of the mix tape, specifically: “There is always a reason to make one.” The idea, of course, is that music can be arranged in such a way that it communicates something new and vital—something impossible to say in any other way.
“The whole purpose is to have some kind of series of things,” Smith himself announced in a 1969 Sing Out! interview with John Cohen, and indeed, much of the Anthology’s lingering effect has been attributed to Smith’s sequencing. Previously, these tracks were islands, isolated platters of shellac that existed independently of anything else: even flipping over a 78 required disruptive action. Shifting the medium from the one-song-per-side 78 to the long-playing vinyl album allowed, finally, for songs to be juxtaposed in deliberate ways. It’s possible now, of course, to dump all eighty-four tracks onto one digital playlist and experience the entire Anthology uninterrupted, but I still prefer to acknowledge the demarcations between its three sections—to play it as Smith did.
The Anthology’s rubric was entirely Smith’s own. He deemed extramusical qualifiers (race, style, chronology) irrelevant, and rarely does the actual content of a song explain or justify its placement. Sometimes tracks by the same artist are lumped together; sometimes they’re not. Its blueprint isn’t obviously rendered or easily parsed, and the collection’s narrative, insomuch as one exists, is deliberately obscured. As such, the Anthology can feel like the musical equivalent of shouting cellar door, a phrase trumpeted for its ethereal beauty—it’s affecting in ways that have nothing to do with literal meaning. It can also be supremely frustrating. Like a good poem, nothing makes sense until everything makes sense.
“To me, what’s in plain sight is that the Anthology induces you to look for some underlying, organizing principle,” Kurt Gegenhuber, the author of my favorite Anthology-based website, The Celestial Monochord, offered. “To some, it may be natural to seek stories when looking for order, but the Anthology’s main effect is to seduce us into all sorts of hard, sense-making work. What I see as important is the way the cuts refuse to legibly lead to each other. Discontinuity and the lack of context seem to me crucial to the Anthology. Throughout, the M.O. is for each cut to just materialize out of some dark forest and float before you like a disembodied face, hang there for a few minutes, and then fade to black. And then that memory is dispersed by the next cut, which hypnotizes you all over again. The sequencing gives each cut a context of no context.”
That so much of this material is so strange (try to make literal or metaphoric sense of, say, Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground”), performed wildly and linked together according to some unspoken pedagogy, means the Anthology is disorienting long before it’s revelatory. I can only imagine what it sounded like sixty years ago. Gegenhuber, for one, believes that Smith inadvertently foresaw—or even created—the way people now listen to long-playing records, devouring them as whole texts and not just indiscriminate strings of songs. “You might say the Anthology was the first draft of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (or Highway 61 Revisited), since ‘listening’ to albums [now means] falling into very close ‘reading,’ ” he said.
The Anthology can feel like the musical equivalent of shouting 'cellar door,' a phrase trumpeted for its ethereal beauty—it’s affecting in ways that have nothing to do with literal meaning.
The Anthology does contain a few concrete arcs to keep listeners grounded. Over the course of six LPs, for example, Smith slowly builds a not entirely surprising argument about the harshness and futility of work in the face of things like love and home. It culminates, for me, with Mississippi John Hurt’s generous, mesmeric performance of “Spike Driver Blues” on the final side of the final LP. Even now, the whole thing (from the Williamson Brothers and Curry’s “Gonna Die with a Hammer in My Hand” to the Carolina Tar Heels’ “Got the Farm Land Blues” to Uncle Dave Macon’s “Buddy Won’t You Roll Down the Line”) makes me panic that I and every gainfully employed person I know should actually be subscribing to some unsustainable hobo ethos. “Take this hammer and carry it to the captain, tell him I’m gone, tell him I’m gone,” Hurt sings, his voice eerily, tellingly placid. It’s a declaration of autonomy that also suggests a deep reordering of basic priorities. It’s fearless, and I can’t think of another musical moment that makes me want to kick my laptop out a window more. When I first heard about a friend who quit her office job via petulant Post-it—“I’m outta here,” she scrawled, affixing the note to her computer, a bold if indulgent decree—my first thought was how proud Harry Smith would be.
Elsewhere, there are clear lessons about love and fidelity and revenge. There is an extraordinary amount of bad behavior. It turns out people have always been doing the same ugly and beautiful things to each other. Nearly any emotion you can imagine feeling—lust, contempt, rage, satisfaction, jealousy, love, loneliness, joy, exhaustion, guilt, unbearable sadness—is articulated and slotted onto Smith’s continuum.
It’s impossible for me to believe that Smith, who fancied himself a bit of an alchemist, didn’t engineer this thing specifically for those sorts of reactions. Ultimately, the Anthology is about sewing together self-made worlds—establishing a supernarrative of the human condition.
I understand how that might sound absurd. An eccentric, possibly hallucinating twenty-nine-year-old pawing through a pile of records and deciding which ones and in what order they should play isn’t exactly comparable, say, to Albert Einstein defining relativity. But Smith’s role in the creation of the Anthology did reposition the collector, rather than the critic or scholar, as an architect of canons, an arbiter, a storyteller. He sussed a narrative from incongruous parts and presented it as an edifying fable. Practically, there is a parallel, certainly, to the songs contained therein, which are often based, at least in part, on other songs—a new work from old work, a tapestry from string.
It’s not unusual, then, for the Anthology to elicit a dramatic response. “I’ve met dozens of people who heard the Anthology and ran off to join some circus or other,” Gegenhuber said. “For [folklorists and musicians like] Mike Seeger, John Cohen, and many others, the response was to learn to play, yourself, its songs and styles, and go looking for Boggs, Ashley, Hurt, et cetera. For still others, the Anthology induced the record-collecting response, which seems to be about sense making.”
Accordingly, even otherwise-reasonable authors go a little loopy when writing about the Anthology’s inexplicable allure. In When We Were Good, Robert Cantwell’s treatise on the folk revival, he describes it as “strange, even sinister: a closet-like enclosure from which the world is shut out, spangled with occult symbols whose meaning we have not yet learned, fitted to an obscure design or purpose and harboring a vague threat, like the gypsy’s tent or the funhouse, that by some unknown force will subject us to an ordeal over which we have no control and which will leave us permanently marked.” (Yikes!) Marcus, meanwhile, conjures a place called Smithville, and in describing the first side of Songs, writes: “The streets of Smithville have been rolled up, and the town now offers that quintessential American experience, the ultimate, permanent test of the unfinished American, Puritan, or pioneer, loose in a land of pitfalls and surprises: Step right up, Ladies and Gentlemen! Enter the New Sensorium of Old-Time Music, and feel the ground pulled right out from under your feet!”
I understand—deeply—the impulse toward hyperbole, the desire to speak of the Anthology as a contained spiritual experience that incites certain epiphanies. It is, after all, a thing you can inhabit if you want to: there are alehouses to drink in and Stetson hats to bicker over and corn to hoe and people to marry and love and betray and maybe murder.
Then there’s Smith, a welcome little Virgil, typing his short, all-caps headline-style summaries (they are stylistically reminiscent, at times, of the descriptions included in Alan Lomax’s “List of American Folk Songs on Commercial Records”) that mostly make me snicker but occasionally make me gulp. Like the synopsis he cobbled together for Rev. F. W. McGee’s “Fifty Miles of Elbow Room,” a spastic, lyrically unintelligible gospel song that I think is about heaven, or at least some heavenly analog (it appears to be based on the New Jerusalem as seen by John in Revelation 21:9): “WHEN GATES WIDE ON OTHER SIDE ROOM FOR YOU, ME. FOUR SQUARE CITY, JASPER WALLS, LIMITS 1200 MILES. ON RIGHT HAND, ON LEFT HAND 50 MILES ELBOW ROOM.” It’s Smith reducing a song to its weird essence—to the best, most universal truth contained therein.
At the very least, the Anthology contextualized—if not accelerated—the folk revival of the 1950s and ’60s, coaching new fans about the genre’s recorded precedents. The songs Smith included may have only been twenty to twenty-five years old, but they were hardly accessible (or even known) to noncollectors in 1952. Now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, it seems deeply bizarre to think that cultural artifacts could become extinct so quickly (for example, in 2011 I heard Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” a song first released thirty years before, approximately eight thousand times without trying), but the bulk of these tracks were either half forgotten or entirely unheard of by the time Smith polished them up for rerelease. In a 1993 interview with the music producer Hal Willner, Ginsberg called the Anthology a “historic bomb in American folk music,” claiming that “it turned on Peter Paul and Mary, turned on the whole folk music world at that time, including Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and everyone else, because it was this treasure of American blues [and] mountain musics. Happy Traum, everybody, including Dylan, [were] affected by it up to Jerry Garcia, who learned blues from Harry Smith’s records.”
Ultimately, the Anthology is about sewing together self-made worlds—establishing a supernarrative of the human condition.
By the mid-1980s, Smith was living in a flophouse on the Bowery, intermittently boozing himself into comas. He was toothless save a few decayed, abscess-ridden molars, and because of an injury sustained while ripping a feeding tube out of his mouth (after one particularly gnarly drinking binge, he’d ended up in St. Vincent’s hospital, connected to a cornucopia of machines), he could eat only pea soup and mashed bananas, and not, apparently, without a good deal of gurgling.
Prior to his arrival on the Bowery, he’d been shacked up in a tiny, book-stuffed room at the Hotel Breslin on Twenty-Ninth Street and Broadway, then home to the indigent elderly and the welfare bound, now repurposed as the modish Ace Hotel. (Its popular restaurant—I mean gastropub—presently serves a twenty-one-dollar hamburger; model types with expensive laptops are often draped around the lobby.) According to Ginsberg, the scene there was such: “And in the bathroom he had a little birdie that he fed and talked to and let out of his cage all the time. And when his little birds died he put their bodies in the freezer. He’d keep them for various Alchemical purposes, along with a bottle which he said was several years’ deposits of his semen, which he was also using for whatever magic structures.”
In 1988, Ginsberg helped bring Smith to the Naropa Institute, where Smith studied and lectured and cleaned up a bit: he quit drinking (he still self-medicated freely, smoking weed and ingesting, as Rani Singh writes in “Harry Smith, an Ethnographic Modernist in America,” “whatever combination of Sinequan and Valium he found in his jacket pocket”) and began aggressively chronicling found sounds (church bells, children jumping rope, cows). He gained thirty invigorating pounds on an ambitious diet of bee pollen, raw hamburger, ice cream, instant coffee, and Ensure. He lived and worked in a cabin with an index card—DO NOT DISTURB, I AM EITHER SLEEPING OR WORKING—posted semi-permanently to the front door. Singh, who first met Smith while she was studying with Ginsberg at Naropa, called his years in Colorado “relatively tranquil.”
For someone so invested in interdependencies, there’s little evidence of Smith sustaining a significant romantic relationship in his lifetime. Singh described him as asexual. “I just think that he was more of an intellect. He lived in his head more than in his body,” she said. He was also a relentless hustler, prone to harrowing fits of rage, and particular about his habits and beliefs. In “The Alchemical Image” (which originally appeared in the catalog for “The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward,” a 2002 exhibition of Smith’s selected visual works), the curator Raymond Foye wrote: “The cardinal rule in listening to records with Harry was NO TALKING. Absolutely none, whatsoever, until the record was finished. Hanging out with Harry was always characterized by a mixture of pleasure and fear. Several of his visitors were unstable, armed, and dangerous, and Harry’s anger could clear a room. A gouache that took three painstaking weeks to complete might be torn up in a flash. There were always his sudden mood swings, and, of course, his drinking.”
By the time Smith ended up back at the Chelsea, in 1990, he was living on food stamps and Social Security and a yearly donation from Jerry Garcia, who had publicly declared the Anthology the primary source of his understanding of the blues (the Grateful Dead frequently performed songs from the collection). One day, according to Ginsberg, Smith said, “I am dying,” threw up blood, and fell over. His body was taken to the morgue at St. Vincent’s, where Ginsberg later “pulled him out of the wall on this giant drawer. His face was somewhat twisted up, there was a little blood on his whitish beard. So I sat and did the traditional Tibetan liturgy, refuge liturgy, and then spent an hour meditating.”
No one knows exactly what happened to Harry Smith’s record collection. At some point Smith donated a good portion of it to the New York Public Library, where it was eventually integrated into the general collection. Before its absorption, it was cataloged and stealthily taped by the musicians and folklorists Ralph Rinzler and Mike Seeger. In Music from the True Vine, his biography of Seeger, Bill Malone describes how, in 1956, Rinzler and Seeger taped “hundreds of 78 rpm records from Harry Smith’s unrecorded collection.
Working as volunteers, Ralph cataloged over 1,000 records on three-by-five cards while Mike recorded his favorites on his reel-to-reel recording machine. When told to cease his recording, Mike then smuggled out scores of records in a suitcase—including many highly choice items from the Columbia and RCA Victor catalogs—which he then taped at Ralph’s home in Passaic [New Jersey].” In a 2007 interview with Ray Allen, Seeger recalled their caper: “That evening we went out with my tape recorder and the box [of records]. So the guard at the door said, ‘Oh, I want to look at the box.’ So Ralph went into kind of like a frenzied dance, looking for a card or something to show him. So he got the guard, who was like this 60-year-old, like a cop doing his retirement, so flustered and confused, and I just walked out with the box.” The pilfered recordings were dutifully returned the next day, but their bootlegged tapes were passed around folk circles for years like a talisman, or a secret.
Moe Asch eventually bought or otherwise obtained whatever records Smith didn’t give to the library. They were similarly assimilated into the Folkways archive and became the property of the Smithsonian in 1986, after Asch died and his family coordinated the institution’s acquisition of the label (the Smithsonian agreed to keep all 2,168 Folkways titles, including the Anthology, in print indefinitely). According to Folkways archivist Jeff Place, they still have “a few thousand” of Smith’s records “mixed in with the rest of the 78 library,” but when they began work on the reissue in the late 1990s, they could only locate one of the 78s—Bill and Belle Reed’s “Old Lady and the Devil”—that Smith had used to source the Anthology. “We had to go find the rest,” Place said, which meant knocking on collectors’ doors (records were borrowed from Joe Bussard, Dick Spottswood, Don Kent, and Dave Freeman) or, in some cases, reusing the original master tapes Asch and Smith made of the Anthology prior to its release.
Although that seems pat enough—Smith’s collection was broken up and deserialized, sure, but it was relocated to two relatively safe places—the story of what actually happened to his 78s still gets muttered between collectors as a warning, an illuminating parable with a worrying end. The collector and producer Chris King was the first to tell it to me. “By the time [Smith] had basically exhausted his mental faculties or his ability to manage his collection, he had amassed over thirteen thousand 78s, which would be a lot of hillbilly, a lot of blues, and a lot of ethnic music,” King explained. At some point, well after Smith had submitted the bulk of his records to the library for safekeeping, the collector Richard Nevins had received a call to purchase a few Fiddlin’ John Carson records plucked directly from Smith’s collection and marked as such. But how had they become separated from everything else? King heard that the library had junked most of Smith’s donation. “Deacquisitioned. It was all put in a Dumpster and destroyed.” He shrugged. “So basically thirteen thousand 78s and a man’s life—just snuffed away, just like that, in a dumpster.”
When I e-mailed Nevins to see what he knew, he was more optimistic about the collection’s fate: “As far as I know, the collection never left the NY library and should still be there—but it was at their Lincoln Center musical branch. I have about four or five 12" 78s from Harry’s collection that I got from [the collector] Eugene Earle—don’t know why they were separated. The bottom line, though, is who cares where the collection is at—there’s little or anything in it that doesn’t reside in many other collections. It was Harry’s insight and good taste as an LP compiler that was special, not his actual collection.”
Nevins was right, of course, but I was still curious. I figured there was no way anyone could know exactly which records Smith had amassed over all that time, especially if his collection was as monstrous and diverse as many people claimed it was. It seemed plausible that, given Smith’s pedigree as a listener, his collection could have contained any number of unheralded masterpieces. My nosiness manifested as a flurry of correspondence: first, I wrote to the folklorist and filmmaker John Cohen to see if he had a list of the records Seeger and Rinzler had recorded and cataloged (I knew he still owned a copy of the reel-to-reel tapes they’d made), so I could at least see if the library had copies of those songs. I sent a similar e-mail to Steve Weiss at the Southern Folklife Collection, which acquired Mike Seeger’s papers in 1991 (Seeger died in Lexington, Virginia, in 2009, at age seventy-six), and another to Place at the Folkways office, which holds Rinzler’s (Rinzler died in Washington, DC, in 1994, a few days shy of his sixtieth birthday). Although neither collection had been cataloged for research yet, Weiss and Place both told me I was welcome to sort through their physical archives—to look for a list, for a rogue stack of yellowing index cards, for a record—if I thought it might help. I did: I wanted, badly, to know what Seeger and Rinzler knew, to hear what they’d heard. Seeger’s widow, Alexia Smith, told me the pair had even considered putting together a companion to the Anthology based on the rest of Smith’s collection. “Near the end of Ralph’s life, he and Mike made a selection of cuts from these tapes—songs and tunes not included in Smith’s Anthology—for a CD, which never got made,” she wrote. “I’m aghast to think Harry Smith’s record collection may have been ‘integrated’ or sold.”
I also contacted my source at the New York Public Library, a publicist named Jonathan Pace whom I’d worked with on a few library-related stories for the New York Times. Pace referred me to Jonathan Hiam, curator of the American Music Collection at the Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, who offered to give me a private tour of the recordings archive. Within minutes of receiving his e-mail, I began imagining the grand moral dilemma I’d face when, alone in some unswept corner—having descended an obscured, rickety staircase to an unmarked catacomb deep below Sixty-Fifth Street, insulated from the day tourists thronging Damrosch Park and lit by the orange flush of a single Edison bulb—I discovered a stack of unheard Smith-owned 78s in a crumbling cardboard box. Would I stuff them into my backpack and climb out the bathroom window? It would be a noble reclamation. Possibly even heroic.
I also sent a note to John Mhiripiri, the director of the Anthology Film Archives; I knew they had ended up with a rogue box of Smith’s paper airplanes, and I reasoned there might be some other pieces there, too. “Anthology has been storing the bulk of Harry Smith’s collections since his materials were packed, labeled, etc., following his death in 1991. This includes one box of his paper airplane collection (in addition to the many books, records, Ukrainian Easter eggs, string figures, etc),” Mhiripiri replied. “The collections are mostly in off-site storage, however I am open to making the airplanes available for you to view, provided that Rani [Singh] agrees, there is no super-urgent deadline, and that it could be done within a specific timeframe, ideally not exceeding an hour.” I accepted his conditions and forwarded consent from Singh. Mhiripiri told me to call him again in two weeks.
I had a research stake in untangling Smith’s material legacy, but I was also becoming dangerously interested in just getting my hands on some of his stuff, which had started to seem like the most obvious way to discern any useful information about his life and work. Besides, it irked me the way Smith’s records were strewn about, lodged in random, private enclaves, estranged. I saw myself battling back a classic collector urge: the desire to gather and serialize. To position everything in relation to everything else. To slot like among like. To write a story.
In the last decade, I’ve interviewed scads of emerging bands who vehemently cite the Anthology as an influence, to the point where I’m suspicious of their intentions and nervous about its ability to indicate a certain kind of cool.
I met Jonathan Hiam at the security desk of the performing arts library on an especially glaring Monday morning. He led me downstairs to the archive. The New York Public Library’s record collection is not, it turns out, stored in a damp, underground tomb, but is organized by label on big, white rolling shelves in a fluorescent-lit and well-ventilated basement. While we wandered through the collection, I resisted the urge to throw my jacket on the ground and start pulling 78s from the shelves, chucking their paper sleeves into the air, like a chimpanzee devouring a pile of ripe bananas. I wanted to hear everything, immediately.
Hiam told me he’d been looking into the acquisition of Smith’s collection, but that the library’s early donation records had been inconsistently kept. Now the process is streamlined and well documented, but it wasn’t always: records came in and they were put on the shelf. Maybe a carbon copy of an acceptance note was slotted into a folder somewhere, maybe not. For some reason, Hiam said, there was virtually no information about music donated between 1958 and 1968. Smith’s 78s may or may not have been marked with his initials. The library likely sent Smith a letter of receipt, and someone probably filed a copy of it somewhere (which would provide at least a date and the size of the donation; Hiam thought it was unlikely it would be itemized), but finding it would take some time. He promised me he’d try.
The library’s several hundred thousand 78s aren’t technically in circulation—you can’t check one out and tote it home—but patrons can request to hear whatever they want while they’re in the building. The retrieval process is delightfully weird, and after I’d browsed the contents of the archive with Hiam, I was keyed up to try it. Per Hiam’s instructions, I located the lone microfiche machine on the second floor, which is positioned behind the reference librarian’s desk and requires the rather brazen unhooking of a temporary railing to access. There, I thumbed through a Rolodex, compiled in 1985, of purple microfiche negatives listing the library’s archived records (“You might be one of three women who have sat here,” Hiam snickered after he spotted me settling in). I picked a random track from the Anthology—Chubby Parker’s “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O,” a whistle-heavy novelty song from 1928—found the appropriate slide (they’re organized alphabetically by performer), and slid it into the base of the Micron 780A (a gray, boxy machine that incites brief, Proustian flashbacks to 1989). After wiggling the reader around for a bit, I found an entry for the record, complete with matrix and serial numbers. I wondered, immediately, if this was Smith’s copy—the ur-copy, as it were, maybe even with a tiny “H.E.S.” carved into the label!—and eagerly filled out a paper slip, pressing hard enough to ensure the carbon copy was legible.
I rode the elevator back up to the third floor and tentatively handed it to the clerk at the A/V playback desk. He told me to take a seat. “This might take a while,” he warned.
“Like ten minutes?” I ventured.
“Maybe more than ten minutes.”
Once the slip is submitted, a call is placed to a librarian in the basement, who rises from his or her desk and starts scouring the shelves. Because the microfiche hasn’t been updated since 1985, and because these records are so infrequently accessed (some have likely remained untouched since their acquisition), this process can be vexing. Records aren’t always where they’re supposed to be. When the requested 78 is finally located, it’s carried to a dark, studio-like room where an audio engineer places it on a turntable, makes any necessary adjustments (changing the speed, weighting the tone arm, equalizing the playback), and pipes it upstairs to the waiting patron, who sits in an ergonomic office chair and listens on a cushy pair of studio headphones. I waited a while, fiddling with the buttons of my coat. I watched a boneless old man in an oversize blazer repeatedly fall asleep and startle awake: tipping to the right, popping back up, drooping left, up.
Every few minutes, the A/V clerk trudged over and told me they were working on it. Hiam appeared, smiled, and apologized. After forty-five minutes, I started to feel a little guilty. I had a perfectly playable CD of “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O” at home. I also had an MP3 of the song on the iPhone shoved in the back pocket of my jeans. I owned two physical copies of the Anthology. Besides, this particular 78 might not actually be Smith’s, and even if it were, I wouldn’t be able to touch it, and besides, what exactly did I think I was going to learn by listening to it this way? I told the A/V clerk that it was okay, I’d come back another time.
“We have to find it anyway,” he said.
“I know,” I answered.
I took the elevator back down to Lincoln Center. A guard searched my bag on the way out. All he uncovered was a half-eaten granola bar.
I realized fairly quickly that flying south to claw around for Ralph Rinzler’s index cards and Mike Seeger’s bootleg tapes was a useless errand. I told a lot of people not to worry about it, and nearly all of them appeared relieved. I no longer knew why I was so preoccupied with gathering or in any other way quantifying Harry Smith’s 78s—what I thought they could tell me about music or art or humankind, how I thought they might augment or guide my own experience of collecting.
My prying did yield one interesting footnote. The New York Public Library presently holds an uncataloged copy of the Cincinnati Jug Band’s “Newport Blues,” an instrumental cut recorded for Paramount in 1929 and included on the second disc of the Anthology. I only learned of its existence after spotting it in a display case at an NYPL event, and gasping. Hiam helped me arrange to have an archival transfer of the record sent to Chris King, who had previously suggested that he could listen to a good transfer, compare it to his original first-pressing LPs of the Anthology, and tell me if the NYPL’s copy was, in fact, the source copy—if it had “Smith’s DNA on it,” as he put it. A few days after he received the CD from the library, King sent me a note. “I’m very certain that the copy of ‘Newport Blues’ (PMT-12743/21100-2) that was used on Smith’s collection (from the original first pressing of the LP set, Vol. 2 Social Music, Dances No. 2, Band 40) is the same copy that is held in the NYPL,” he wrote. “The main evidence is that on the CD transfer, there is a rather predictable non-musical artifact found at thirty-five seconds, forty-one seconds, forty-two seconds, and forty-three seconds that corresponds identically with a more muted non-musical artifact found at the same time spreads on Smith’s track. This non-musical artifact is above the frequency range of the normal ambient surface noise that an N-Paramount of this time period would have. I think it must be a pressing bubble or other defect in the shellac pressing, possibly caused by the use of ground up chairs or bovine bones, maybe both.”
A few weeks later, on a trip through Virginia, I stopped by King’s studio to hear the comparison for myself. He made a braised pork shoulder in veal sauce, and after supper we carried cups of red wine into his music room. He played me the CD transfer; I noted its particular crackles. He played me the LP; I noted its particular crackles. I looked up and nodded. As far as I could tell, King’s assessment was sound. I knew, at least, where one of Smith’s records was.
Following Smith’s cremation, a handful of his acolytes supposedly blended his ashes with wine and chugged him down.
I still can’t quite explain why the Anthology has endured in the way it has, why it matters so much to people, why it matters so much to me. New musicians still routinely find their way to it; in the last decade, I’ve interviewed scads of emerging bands, folksy and not, who vehemently cite it as an influence, to the point where I’m suspicious of their intentions and nervous about the Anthology’s sudden muscle, its ability to indicate a certain kind of cool. Between 1999 and 2001, Hal Willner, working with the gloomy Australian rock musician Nick Cave, staged a series of tribute concerts to Smith and the Anthology in London, New York, and Los Angeles. A slew of contemporary artists—Steve Earle, Wilco, Beck, Sonic Youth, Lou Reed, Van Dyke Parks, Elvis Costello, Philip Glass, and plenty more—signed on to pay homage to Smith’s work. The results were collected as The Harry Smith Project: The Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited, a two-CD, two-DVD boxed set that’s a perfectly passable tribute, if low on surprises.
When I asked her about the Anthology’s continued vigor, Singh told me flatly that she thought it was magic. “He was a magician, he was interested in magic,” she said. “As you said before, [it’s in] the juxtaposition of songs—one song next to another, they rub up next to each other and they create this frisson that’s almost a third thing. You know you’re in the company of really true, good art when there’s just something else that’s there. There’s this spark that you remember afterwards that’s unexplainable in a way. And the Anthology is that for me and so many people. It’s so many undiscovered worlds,” she continued. “And it’s the weirdest thing, every time you listen to it—and I’ve listened to it hundreds and hundreds of times—you think, Wait, was that song there before? Were they next to one another? How could that be?”
Singh believes Smith’s vision—his philosophy, his narrative, his fingerprints—was paramount to the set’s survival. “Anybody can make a mix tape, for God’s sake,” she snorted. “Everybody does. Every old boyfriend makes a mix tape and thinks it’s a perfect expression of their love.”
Following Smith’s cremation, a handful of his acolytes supposedly blended his ashes with wine and chugged him down. While I find this supremely disgusting (as well as ethically and physiologically dubious), I can also understand, in a way, the desire to internalize a guy who believed so deeply in internalization. The Anthology works best when you consume it whole. Marcus called it a lingua franca—a password that grants access to a mystical folk brotherhood, a shibboleth—but I like to think of it as more personal and self-actualizing, like the EAT ME cake in Alice in Wonderland.
Smith received a Chairman’s Merit Award at the Grammys in 1991, just nine months before he died. He was honored for his work on the Anthology and “his ongoing insight into the relationship between artistry and society, his deep commitment to presenting folk music as a vehicle for social change.” It took two adult men to help Smith onstage to accept his certificate. At one point his foot swung for a stair and missed, like a dog’s leg thrashing at some phantom, unreachable itch.
“I have arthritis, so I had to have this young man help me up here,” he said when he arrived at the podium. He smiled, happy and calm in a tiny tuxedo, no tie. His long white hair was pulled into a ponytail. “I’m glad to say that my dreams came true,” he declared. “I saw America changed through music.”