Last month, Damon Krukowski and I discussed Spotify, the public exit of Nigel Godrich and Thom Yorke from that platform, and the various challenges facing musicians who do or don’t want to participate in similar streaming services. Toward the end of the discussion, Damon and I both hinted at the freedom of going free, the moments when giving your music away is more profitable—in the long run—than letting another company sell it inefficiently and unprofitably. Damon expanded on his position in a subsequent article for Pitchfork, but neither of us was advocating that musicians play and record for free, in all scenarios, all the time: nothing of the sort. So before I hand this discussion over to a new panel, one clarification.
My band, Ui, released a clutch of records through Southern Records. These albums are no longer available on Spotify because, according to Southern, the costs of administrating the relationship were not covered by the microscopic amount of revenue generated. I believed them then, and believe them even more now. Because I have no illusions about a horde of people dying to stream instrumental music from the nineties, it occurred to me that offering high-resolution versions of the album for free (through a service like Bandcamp) would allow our music to circulate in the world, and might even sell ten or twenty copies of the vinyl sitting in Southern’s warehouse.
But we’re a defunct band that never experienced much popularity. What about an excellent, working band like Dawn of Midi, whose new album, “Dysnomia,” received a score of 7.9 in Pitchfork this week? (I’d say 8.9 but who’s counting?) This band uses a grand piano, an upright bass, and a drum set to make their music; touring means they either play venues with grand pianos on site (relatively common) or that they rent a very big van (uncommon, if we’re talking about small bands trying to drag around a grand piano). More to the point, their music needs to be recorded in a well-equipped live studio by a skilled engineer; Garageband and other popular home-recording software programs are of no use in properly capturing a mechanically traditional band, that is, despite an advanced aesthetic vision. Some kind of business model needs to remain in place, or we won’t have albums like “Dysnomia.”
These tactical questions are obviously different for Top 10 artists who can partner with telecommunication and cosmetics companies when releasing albums. To discuss how less popular musicians are going to survive, I asked Dave Allen, Jace Clayton, and Damon Krukowski to answer a few questions. Dave Allen is Director of Digital Strategy at North, Inc., a bass player, and a founding member of the post-punk band Gang of Four. Jace Clayton is an artist primarily known for his work as DJ /rupture, and is currently writing a book on music at the dawn of the digital century for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Damon Krukowski is a musician—Damon & Naomi, Galaxie 500—and a writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Sasha Frere-Jones: So here’s a recent peg, a long and detailed piece about Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and the economic details of his career as a musician, moving into and out of the major-label system. Dave, Tweedy’s experiences are possibly closest to yours, as you’ve been through many stations of this mayhem. Damon and Jace, you’ve also gone through several levels of business and non-business; and you both still play live regularly.
How do we think about spending the lion's share of your time playing and recording music when the chances of that activity providing a living salary are incredibly small? What is the viable future for marginal and independent artists?
BY RICK MOODY
July 2nd, 2013
Dave Allen is a formidable commentator these days on all things Internet, a sort of web 2.0 version of Marshall McLuhan: less New Age than Jaron Lanier, less Sun Microsystems than Bill Joy, less corporate than Mark Zuckerberg. There is a fierceness to him—he strikes first and warms up later—that makes him perfect for the job.
The above would make him a fine choice for a discussion of the distribution problem in music as it specifically relates to the Internet. Except that in calling Dave Allen an Internet strategist, or a pundit of the digital realm, or a high-tech agit-prop genius, you would be leaving out the job he had before that, when he was Dave Allen the bass player, first in Gang of Four (on their first two albums, and then for a couple of years during their reunion victory lap), and later in Shriekback. As such, he has experienced all of the vagaries of the music business as a player, producer, label owner, and now as a copyright owner of a great number of great songs from the seventies and eighties that are routinely streamed on Spotify, et al. Few people of my acquaintance (and we have known each other since I interviewed him on one prior occasion for Frederick Barthelme’s online magazine Blip) are better situated to talk about distribution and the difficulties thereof without romanticizing the story.
As part of my attempt to explore all aspects of modern distribution—and all of its possible positions and rationales—I talked with Dave for a few weeks by email. The results are herewith. As with all of Dave’s opinion pieces (of which more can be found at North, a Portland-based branding company where he works as a digital strategist), his responses here are heavily outfitted with links and citations, because he always gathers intertextuality in close to him, as though the Internet is somehow contained in his vest pocket. That’s part of what makes Allen such an exciting resource these days (and it’s why I can’t resist going back to find out what he’s thinking about on any given day): the web is in him and around him, and bends to his influence, whatever his subject is. See more below.
An Interview with Dave Allen. November 2011.
Dave Allen was the ferocious bass player in one of the most ferocious and moving English rock and roll bands of the late seventies, Gang of Four. Allen appeared on the band’s first two albums, their best, before going on to found Shriekback with Barry Andrews of XTC. There, in a more funk-oriented environment, his bass was even more central to the band’s sonic identity. After leaving Shriekback in the middle eighties and founding an independent record label, Allen went on to have an undeniable second act in the United States (where we are reputed to have no second acts), first at eMusic.com and then Intel, where he was a Director in the Consumer Digital Audio Services department, and later as an executive (and founder) of various marketing and branding agencies, among them the agencies Nemo and Overland. He is currently Director, Insights & Digital Media at NORTH. Now in his mid-fifties he blogs regularly and is a general cultural critic of the inspiring sort both online and off. He speaks regularly at national conferences and at campuses in the Pacific Northwest, where he lives. In January 2011 he will join the University of Oregon as an adjunct professor working with Deborah Morrison, Chambers Distinguished Professor of Advertising, teaching a class on Digital Strategy in Brand Marketing at the School of Journalism & Communication.
I was introduced to these more recent manifestations of his work by Courtney Eldridge, who suggested I interview Allen. I confess that my preconceptions—that he might be somewhat fierce, opinionated, and disinclined to conduct a nice, entertaining interview just for the sake of it—were mostly borne out. As befits a man who knows a lot about the Web, this interview was conducted entirely in that ethereal topography, without a single moment of face to face contact. We shipped the results back and forth for about four weeks in November 2010. This is a completely collaborative sequence of ones and zeroes, therefore, and one that is marked thoroughly by Allen’s intensity, his inquisitiveness, his energy, his passion, his enthusiasm. As someone who listened fervently to Gang of Four at the time of its greatest accomplishments, I am happy to say that I found this man and this interview experience very satisfying. It is possible to age gracefully without giving up an inch.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the musical environment in Leeds when Gang of Four was first formed? What were you listening to? And how revolutionary was punk for you at the time you were first made aware of it?
I was approached by Shane Danaher from Portland’s alternative weekly, Willamette Week. He asked me to answer some questions around the Emily White and David Lowery debate regarding the legality of music file sharing. It’s an issue fraught with high drama, deep passion and outright outrage that makes it difficult to discuss in public. I know this first hand as I’ve been trying to change the course of the debate for more than a decade, to no avail. At the heart of this interview I attempt to make one major point, one brought up in a comment posted by the author Rick Moody; the debate should not be about the “stealing” of music. The correct question to ask, he feels, is – Why shouldn’t artists get paid?
Anyway, here’s another attempt at grappling with the issue.