Bunches of MP3s have come my way recently, and I’m happy to share some with you. Come back on Friday for the Spring/Summer mix!
1. “Reno” – Shareef Ali. Anti-folk, acoustic-punk, and country converge on this memorable, attitude-filled breakup tune. (Ali’s CD release show is tonight, if you happen to find yourself in San Francisco.)
2. “Blankets” – Matthew Fowler. Fowler has a smooth, soothing voice that sounds far more mature than his 19 years. Fans of Josh Garrels and Ray LaMontagne should take notice.
3. “The Lampolier” – Grover Anderson. As fall moves toward winter, let’s move from pretty singer/songwriters to the haunting, backwoods Appalachian murder ballad tradition. The production here is particularly notable.
4. “Down to My Soul (The Music)” – Kate Vargas. When a woman says she’s influenced by Tom Waits, that gets my attention. Vargas delivers on that promise with raspy, soulful, inspired folk full of banjo and danger.
5. “Strugglin’” – I Am the Albatross. This one also starts out as a Tom Waits-ian folk ramble, but it transforms into a Gogol Bordello folk/punk/polka blaster complete with vengeful religious imagery. All aboard!
6. “All Walks of Life” – Mike Dillon. I’m used to Mike Dillon’s unclassifiable madness played at 3 zillion BPMs. This unclassifiable madness includes a significantly chiller body before a naturally madcap coda but is no less weird: it still includes vibraphone, trombone, drums, and Dillon’s crazy vocals.
7. “Alta / Waterfall” – Fear of Men. Jangly indie-rock urgency married to the rich, dusky landscapes of Bowerbirds and the like.
8. “Blight ft. FatRat Da Czar” – We Roll Like Madmen. Very smooth, dark, crisp electro here. FatRat Da Czar raps some really nice flow over it, really making this track.
9. “Ruin” – Vedas. The PR for this one calls it a “hollow depletion of hope,” which makes me want to try and cheer them up. Their James Blake-ian electro-pop/R&B/indie/whatever stuff is definitely attractive, though. All is not lost, yo!
10. “Reset” – Maggie McClure. Here’s a cathartic, female-fronted, piano-based pop tune for those who never stopped secretly loving The Fray and The Goo Goo Dolls.
11. “RaVe (feat. Kris English)” – Cloud Seeding. Is it folk? Is it electro? The lines keep getting fuzzier. Either way, this one is a lithe, easy-moving track.
12. “There Was a Time” – Corea Blue. Lo-fi can always get grittier, y’all. Props to this track for creating a zen-like mood and tone while using tape hiss as an instrument.
In the new music landscape, traditional models are modifying, morphing and changing. The record label is one of those pieces that is stretching. Neil Sabatino, owner of Mint 400 Records and songwriter in the band Fairmont, was kind enough to give Independent Clauses a long interview about the pros and cons of digital labels. (Mint 400 is the label of The Duke of Norfolk, whom I manage.)
How did you start Mint 400 Records?
Mint 400 Records was originally a joke. I would use it as my fake label that I said Fairmont was on when we were in between labels. I didn’t really intend to start a record label at the time when I first came up with the name. Then as I started working with a digital distributor he had told me he was signing me up to digital distribution as a label because Fairmont had so many releases at the time, and it got us around a loop hole that allowed us to control the digital distro for every record we had ever put out.
At first I planned on only releasing my own band’s material. I finally asked the question to our digital distro, “Can we help our friends put out their records through our digital distro deal?” The answer was yes, and the rest is history.
How does a digital label like Mint 400 differ from a traditional record label? What do you offer bands?
Mint 400 basically is focused on keeping the bands out of debt, hence releasing very little physical content and being about 95% digital. Occasionally the label has put out physical records for a select band or two and has helped other bands who have pressed their own material to get physical distribution but because of the way that the industry has changed it doesn’t benefit small bands anymore to press anything. One of the things I wanted to do when I first started out was to be able to sign a band, bring them to my home studio and engineer and produce their record for free. Then I wanted to be able to use my art background to design their album art, web page, and other media.
In addition Mint 400 tries to help here and there with PR and tour dates. So basically without costing myself any money only my time, I was able to give a band that had nothing a pretty good start. That was in the early days and now that we have grown we also started working with Pirate Radio Promotions who were nice enough to give us a very indie friendly rate to promote our records to college radio and specialty radio.
This in addition to licensing deals set up specifically for Mint 400 Records artists have been the things we offer bands that a lot of other labels can’t offer. Through a lot of trial and error I have found the most cost effective ways to spend on a band’s release without breaking the bank for them or for myself. I honestly believe that through being on a label like mine, prolific, talented bands are given a chance to grow exponentially and with my help can elevate themselves to the point where they can continue on as a band for many years. For some I will be the stepping stone for them to get to the next step bigger label.
Why should bands get involved with a digital label? What would they benefit? What types of bands would benefit?
I think bands who are prolific are the bands who will benefit the most from a label like mine. A normal label wouldn’t dream of letting you release more then one thing a year because they like to be paid back before moving onto the next thing. Through Mint 400 because we try to handle everything in house we encourage bands to release as many things as possible and they reap the rewards by having that material available for licensing and for radio. For this reason we have a lot of amazing songwriters that have the ability to record their own material and this limits them only to how much material they can write in a year. The bands who won’t benefit from my label are the ones who think they are the next big thing, we don’t buy into any aspect of the major label or even major indie label way of doing things. I would say my label is the most punk rock label that releases almost no punk rock music.
Digital labels get maligned as not as good as traditional labels. What would you say the biggest misconception about digital labels is? I have been in my current band for 13 years now and have released something in every year of our existence, some years we even did two releases. My concern has always been to hone my craft and release as many great records as possible. That is all I really care about and is what I want the artists on my label to care about. The point for me is I have been able to have my records heard by people for over a decade and most bands can’t say that. I want to offer that gift to like minded songwriters who know that their humble songs deserve to be heard.
We are willing to get involved with an artist even if they only have recorded in the bedroom and never done anything else. Amazing songwriting is our concern, and I feel at some point there will be a backlash against the bands who spend millions on records to sound like a perfect robotic auto tuned version of themselves. It will always come back to tremendous musicians who write tremendous songs. I would never hold it against an artist who wants to work the stable 9 to 5 job, have a family and a house but still write records. Just because an artist is stable and doesn’t want to tour and be away from his loved ones for months on end doesn’t mean his work holds any less merit then a major label act.
If someone wanted to start a digital label, what would it take? What goes into creating a digital label?
If someone was looking to just start a digital label I would say all that matters is you have bands that you believe in. For me it helps that I have a background in art which translates to the ability to be able to help bands with everything from videos to web & album design. The other things like producing and engineering records took a lot of hard work to get good at and if you are hoping to do what I do and produce and engineer your label’s releases then I suggest putting in ten plus years in an indie band where you learn from seasoned veterans.
It doesn’t hurt that being in a band you get to learn what kinds of things get you heard more, like radio campaigns, and which things are wastes of time and money. However I would never discourage someone who has drive from attempting to start a digital record label. The only thing that really matters is how good your ear is and will you know an amazing songwriter when you hear one? I pretty much started the label with no cash up front, I mean it did help though that I had already spent thousands on the Fairmont records that became the initial first batch of what Mint 400 released. For the entrepreneur, I would say get good at everything so you can do it in house and cheaply and then you are ready to start your own label. The distro, the radio, the licensing will all come later if you have quality bands.
I don’t want to misrepresent the label at all, so I will disclose that you are going to need to pretty much spend all of your extra cash for a very long time on things for the label. However if you are smart about it and don’t exceed your limitations, then you can pretty much spend what you make to keep upgrading the label. I would say the label has grown tenfold with respects to earnings over our 8-year history and we try to then grow that money by putting back into the label.
PR and management are two aspects of a professional career that can be non-obvious to a band first venturing into those territories. They can seem mysterious, nonsensical, towering, or even inaccessible to a band looking for representation. To clear up some of the confusion about the two related but separate functions of the music business, Brian McKinney of Crooked Houses PR + Management gave Independent Clauses a helpful interview. Below are some of the big themes that McKinney outlined.
Three things to know about PR
1. You need to get a PR person three months before your release date.
“A lot of bands don’t understand that publicity needs to happen before the album release. Lead time is involved. It takes magazines three months to look at it, decide if they’re going to review it, write it, edit it, publish it, and send it out to newsstand. If you’re working with Pitchfork or even Independent Clauses, it can be a month to six weeks. Having these conversations while you’re demoing the album is good. I’ve turned down some releases from great bands and great albums because I can’t [promote] it after it’s released. I just can’t get it to work.”
2. Results are not guaranteed with PR blasts.
“No matter how much you spend, even if you spend thousands of dollars on publicity, the results you get aren’t always the results you expect. I’ve worked with bands that are working with very little and got them some pretty good stuff–and they weren’t satisfied. The number one misconception is once you hire someone, your album will be on Pitchfork or reviewed in Spin. There’s so many other bands, so many other labels with marketing budgets, and there’s only so many places to get reviews.”
3. PR takes up a lot of time on the PR person’s part.
“There’s a lot of writing involved, that’s part of it. There’s a lot of thought that goes into who you’re going to contact and follow-up e-mails. If you’re doing physical mailing, there’s hours on hours printing pages, stuffing envelopes, printing address stickers, and affixing stickers.”
Three things to know about managers
1. You need a manager when the business becomes big enough that you’re running out of time to make art.
“[Managers] need to keep an eye on a whole bunch of different aspects of the band. Really it’s about freeing up the artists to perform art. If a band has enough time to send e-mails to every blogger and magazine and label, then I don’t think they’re practicing enough. I think they’ve got too much time on your hands. You can’t be good enough, there’s so many other bands that are going to be better than you. Focus on your live show, focus on your music.”
2. Management is about making business connections; PR is about making press connections.
“The job of the publicist is to get media attention, and the job of the manager is to get industry attention. That means label, A&R, and booking agents for setting up tours. That is one reason I don’t do PR for the bands I manage, because I like to spend as much time as possible working those connections. Otherwise I’m just being a free publicist for a band, which isn’t helpful to anyone. When [bands I manage] have an album coming out, I make sure that they budget to hire a publicist.”
3. It is expensive, but it’s valuable for those trying to make a career.
“It’s expensive, don’t get me wrong. It’s a hard sell. Bands don’t understand how much work is involved [in management], and how necessary it is to have someone represent you. That’s why I’m trying to keep things as upfront as possible on my website.”
I think we have a true folk voice here. I had never heard of Brook Pridemore, hailing from Brooklyn, New York. (By the way, the title of the live cassette I’m reviewing here is My Name Is Brook Pridemore, And I Live In Brooklyn, NY). I had the chance to talk with Brook, and I think the answers write this review. After sampling his music, I decided to get to know this artist.
Bill Callahan, Thee Headcoats, Tom Waits, The Mountain Goats…
I can see that Brook gravitates toward very real, natural artists. Brook once got to show Bill “Smog” Callahan his Bill Callahan tattoo! Similarly, Brook writes in a true folk tradition. He writes about the immediate, foregoing the struggles of song construction and ambiguity that songwriters often labor over. I ask Brook about performing solo with the type of concrete material he has.
“I am not a ‘singer songwriter.’ Brook Pridemore is a band. It happens to have the same name as I do. It has always been a band, there have just been long patches where I’m the only person playing. I have learned, through thousands of solo shows, how to perform under any circumstances. I could go on for days regarding the weird spots I’ve been in. I got used to running out as soon as the band before me was done, and shout my name and where I was from, and start to play. Fewer people left, if I did that. It has still always been a tough slog. But I wouldn’t trade it for the easier route.”
Brook says his home state of Michigan has nothing to do with his lyrics, but that where he is now does.
“A good bit of my lyrical inspiration comes from years of seeing Kerouac’s America, that is, big wide open spaces, taken through a windshield, the clack-clack of the interstate beneath the wheels, getting stranded atop mountains, making out with strangers, rocking out in Austin after spending the previous night in jail, never giving up, never surrendering, always on the go, always on the run, until you stop and breathe, and realize that the feeling that you’ve been running away from is in your own head. And you stay home (Brooklyn) for a while, and you learn how to occupy the space you’re in. So, yes, location matters a lot in my lyrics.”
Bill Callahan says in his song, “Seagull,” “A barroom may entice a seagull like me right off the sea, and into the barroom. How long have I been gone? How long have I been traveling?” I ask Brook if he is married, single, or happily involved. Also, if he meets a lot of hotties because he makes music… or because he’s at bars more than an average person (performing)… or after performing …after a sweaty rave-up (which are what songs like “Chocolate Cake City” and “The Year I Get It Right” from this new live release are: drenched roof-rockers).
“I’m not in a relationship at the moment. I learned the hard way that I’m not going to meet my wife at a bar. I’m an odd duck. I need to get to know a girl.”
The reviewer interjects. “But, if you’re like (Brook) you run like hell and get to see the world, ‘til you find yourself in Brighton… missing a girl.” -directly from his own song “Oh, E!” – the reviewer’s pick from this release.
I guess we all want to know, then, why did Brook Pridemore start writing songs or, rather, start just putting his reality right on the line… an open book? “I was drawn to music from an early age. I was looking for a creative outlet, and I’d missed the boat on marching band. I got my hands on a guitar in 1993, and have never really looked back. Music is so much more immediate than poetry, or fiction, or acting. It’s also so much more personal.” One can pick any song on this live cassette and just know that you’re going to hear a great story, well-told. It’s really an exciting listen also, because you can hear the die-hards in the front rows near the recording device singing along. Brook finishes, “I didn’t realize until I was much older that the big reason for writing songs is so I could make people listen to what I had to say. And because I wanted to make people dance.”
He gets them dancing around track four of the live cassette (recorded at the Sidewalk Café in Manhattan in 2011), and he only has to suggest it once.
Discover Brook Pridemore. Check out the new live cassette. I hope to see life in the very in-the-present way Brook does. It seems like a great way to exist, experience, and then move forward. -Gary Lee Barrett
Soundsupply, who I’ve been seriously into since their early going, have been moving on up in the world. The organization curates 10 albums (often based on a theme) and packages them up for a limited time at $15. It’s an incredible deal, and they feature really good music. (Lots of music that Independent Clauses covers, if I may give myself a little pat on the back.) They’ve been picking up clout recently (and maybe even Klout, what up), and so they’ve been taking on more and more ambitious projects.
The biggest thing they’ve got going right now has moved them right off their (brand new!) website and into Groupon; they’ve paired up with fun. (you may have heard of them) to curate a drop that raises funds for The Ally Coalition.
They’ve also got a drop going from Polyvinyl, and an eBook drop. I think this is what they call “making waves.”
Given that she’s an pioneer of Internet marketing, it’s not super-surprising that she continues to come up with interesting ways to fund her career. For her latest tour jaunt, she funded part of it with an interesting sale. You could still buy regular merch, but she created a special Tour Shop (currently inactive, but still available to peruse). In this tour shop, you could lay down money and get a personal postcard, a photo Allison took, or a little souvenir she buys just for you. It’s a cool way to fund touring and make connections with fans. (I think it’s especially cool for fans that don’t get to be at one of the shows, for whatever reason.)
There’s been plenty of handwringing over the commodification of music (/everything), but I’m not so worried about it. I think that this small scale sort of project is something that builds connections, not obscures them. I’d pay $40 for John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats to buy a souvenir, for sure: I’d put that in my office and tell literally everyone who comes to my office that John Darnielle bought that for me. Yes, I would pay $40 for that.
[There's some analog to Kickstarter gifts here--especially really good, personal Kickstarter gifts. Perhaps this could be seen as the personalization of Weiss's Kickstarter love; the project is "I'm going on tour"; the rewards are these cool things. The website is hers, and no money goes through Kickstarter. Maybe this is an indication of a trend to come?]
So maybe this isn’t a grand-scale, career-changing DIY Ditty, but it’s still a cool thing that I would love to see bands do more of. Seriously, what if your favorite band bought you an action figure? Best action figure ever.
Gregory Alan Isakov was one of my favorite discoveries of 2013; his deeply romantic, gentle folk tunes moved me often. (This probably has to do with being in a relationship; sorry to all ye unrequited.) Leif Vollebekk has a similar vibe in North Americana, as his songs meld earnest and passionate emotions with relaxing arrangements.
Even though Vollebekk is a Canadian troubadour, you’d never know unless I told you: this is a Southern record through and through. He has a lilting Southern voice full of vibrato, grit, and regret. The opening track is called “Southern United States”; “Pallbearer Blues” has a New Orleans funeral feel (mmm, rag piano…) and a William Faulkner title. Standout “When the Subway Comes Above the Ground” namechecks Mississippi, Memphis, and Nashville. The storyteller pose that Vollebekk takes is a little bit southern bluesman, a little bit Leonard Cohen. The dude can even rock a harmonica. North Americana does not accomplish the insider’s perspective of Jason Isbell’s Southeastern; instead, it becomes a testament of appreciation for a place a little to the south of his Canadian digs.
That tender affection for the locations and people invoked and implied in these songs make it easy to transfer that affection. “When the Subway Comes Above the Ground” sounds like a gorgeous, expansive love song complete with organ–even though it’s mostly about travel and disappointment. If you don’t listen to the lyrics and just feel the emotion in his voice, it can be about anything or anyone lovely and rare.
While Vollebekk’s arrangements are beautiful, they never obscure his vocal lines. His trembling tenor is the centerpiece of things both expansive and minimalist. Quiet closer “From the Fourth” invokes the best moments of Josh Ritter in the crisp, light guitar playing; Vollebekk puts his own spin on it with a breathtaking, thoughtful vocal performance. It’s the sort of performance that emphasizes the subtle details of the vocal performance: the tone of voice, the length of notes, the timbre with which each word is sung. Someone else could sing it, but it wouldn’t be the same song. That is a sign of vocal and songwriting mastery.
Leif Vollebekk’s North Americana is an album that rewards both those who want the mood and who want to know the details. You can put this on and it will lighten the vibe of a room immediately; you can focus and hear all the little aspects that Vollebekk took care to give the listener. It’s top-shelf music either way you go, and that is very, very uncommon. It stands up to the glance and the scrutiny; I wish the same could be said of all music–and of me. Highly recommended.
Who:Nonagon (Tony Aimone, Robert Gomez, John Hastie); The Austerity Program (Thad Calabrese, Justin Foley) What: Controlled Burn Records, their new artist-run label When: Formed 2013 How: The Austerity Program, formerly of sadly defunct Hydra Head Records, was looking for a label; Nonagon was looking to expand their reach. Cousins Foley and Hastie decided that their two bands could throw their hat in the ring together.
Why: Now here’s where it gets interesting. Controlled Burn Records isn’t out to move either band up to a major label or engage in any sort of careerist acts. The members of each band have jobs, families, and rooted lives that they very much enjoy. So instead of folding the bands or trying to make a poor label match work, the two bands decided to collectively make a system that worked for their needs.
“We didn’t really feel like we were a good fit for [other labels]. We have to do things in a sustainable way. We have to fit our bands into our lives in a way that may not fit with a record label that says, ‘You need to go on tour to support this record,’” said John Hastie, member of Nonagon and thereby co-founder of Controlled Burn. “Hydra Head was incredibly patient with The Austerity Program and all the restrictions that their family and jobs brought. Their situation became part of the solution.”
But they also didn’t just put up a website and call it a record label. Controlled Burn is legally incorporated as a general partnership, securing distribution for its bands, and organizing releases like Nonagon’s recent The Last Hydronaut EP. The five members of the two bands have capitalized on each of their strengths to create a division of labor that everyone benefits from. It wasn’t something that happened overnight; Hastie stressed that there were a lot of late-night phone calls trying to hammer out all of the details. In other words, this is serious, actual stuff.
Controlled Burn Records is not an organization bent on getting bands to major labels, but it’s also not a hobby project. It’s a third way: talented, passionate musicians who are seeking to increase the amount of people who enjoy their music via a non-traditional system. In an Internet era that allows worldwide exposure without having to tour your physical presence all over the world, this sort of creative end-run on traditional methods is important and vital. Many people still want a career in music; adapting some of the principles and methods of Controlled Burn can indeed help move bands along in that endeavor. But CB is also a refreshing example of how the Internet can allow a different set of goals not just to exist, but flourish.
“We made a decision a long time ago, which is we decided to keep this extremely important thing to us–this creative endeavor–we decided to keep it at arm’s length from how we earn our food,” Hastie said. “Am I a ‘hobbyist’? I’ll be a hobbyist. My output keeps getting better and better, and my happiness level has kept getting higher and higher.”
Controlled Burn–what a perfect name for the label. Nonagon and the Austerity Program are both able to keep the fires of their artistry burning, exactly under the specifications they want.
A ton of great singles have come my way in January, so I thought I’d put them all in one big post arranged quiet to loud. Enjoy!
1. “Pacific (Acoustic)” – Indigo Wild. Were you looking for a rolling, intricate, acoustic mountain jam? Like Fleet Foxes if they were less hazy, this will make you long for the pines.
2. “Anna” – Daniel G. Harmann. After graduating his solo project The Trouble Starts up to a full-on rock outfit, Harmann gives old-school fans a few tracks that hearken back to his early, dreamy days. His trembling, soaring voice over spare guitar chords is just wonderful to these ears.
4. “Slow & Easy” – Scott H. Biram. Less gospel and more ominous vibes mark the second Biram single off Nothin’ But Blood. It’s still incredibly engaging, what with the crisp production and Biram’s voice.
5. “Celeste” – Ezra Vine. If you’re of the opinion that you can never have enough hand claps, whoa-ohs, and happy melodies, raise your hand. Then lower that hand and click on this peppy, wonderful tune.
6. “Girl Don’t Fight It” – Phone Home. Optimistic, keys-heavy, proggy indie-rock in the vein of Fang Island, And So I Watch You From Afar, and others. It’s giddy and heavy and intelligent!
7. “Planets” – Little Earthquake. Peppy acoustic-pop + massive MGMT synth melodies = this unique song.
9. “Violent Shooting Stars” – Robot Princess. Mostly RP is a heavy, exuberant, video-game-infused garage-pop band (WEEZER FOREVER!!). This track puts them more in a pensive mood (at least for them) before ratcheting up to some stomping guitars. Get your power-pop on, dudes.
10. “Bird in the Water” – The Trouble Starts. Harmann’s band, throwing down pop-rock a la Snow Patrol. This would be fun to hear live.
11. “Tangle” – Acid Fast. Starts out with a nostalgic, emo-esque half-time section, then blasts off into a punk rock second half. The melodies bounce off those basement walls with almost more cymbals and passion than you can handle.