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7 November 2011

Brassland’s Song-A-Day Giveaway

Above a video whose inspiration lay, in part, in Marxist economic theory. Which is not to say the thing which it advertises is either Marxist or economical.

Starting last week on November 1st, my label Brassland has been giving away a song-a-day as part of a month long celebration of our 10th anniversary. You can participate by either liking the label on Facebook or Tweeting about it from our site. To those of you who do not partake of social media, our apologies and sympathies — and I assure you we’re putting our thinking caps on to figure out how to get you some of this music.

Anyway, a lot of people have been talking about this effort including Pitchfork and Spin and last but note least Sequenza 21.

Yay internet!

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21 September 2011

Brassland is 10: A short attention span essay on publicity, intimacy & the community behind the label’s anniversary.

Publicity, or: What you see is what you get

My label Brassland is 10 years old this year. I’m sure there’s an exact anniversary date on which the Dessner Twins and I determined that starting a record label was a good idea – circa Napster and the birth of the iPod, on the cusp of the recorded music industry’s decade-long earnings decay, and after the major bummer of 9/11. (One of those is a prime example of understatement.) I don’t know the actual date. I’m not keeping that close a track.1

I’m happy to report that, macro-economic trends aside, we’re doing better than ever and have left a nice bit of culture in our wake. To jump right into some news you can use, here are some sounds we’ve put out during that time.

But as much pride as we take in the music we’ve released, the label has never been strictly about putting out recorded music.2 We’ve always thought of ourselves as doing something larger. Or maybe what I mean is that we thought of ourselves as something smaller?

In any case, we’ve always been trying to do something else. Soon after forming Brassland, we published a statement of purpose on our website which phrased that “something” like so:

    “We encourage collaboration and creation among an evolving assortment of creative folks. Music is our current focus. We like music that transcends genre. At the same time, we try not to make transcending genre a cliché by applying labels to what we do: funk-metal, progressive punk, Afro-cuban jazz, underground hip-hop, intelligent dance music, whateva! We like musicians who play well and possess the elusive tonic of personality.”

What got me musing again about this origin myth is a bit of publicity: an article about our anniversary that appeared in The Guardian a few months back. You can click here to read the piece online, or the image below to see it laid out in all its pulp-printed, pre-digital glory.

By and large, the paper got our story remarkably right. Record labels don’t generate much commentary so it’s nice to see the mission behind Brassland shine through. As I was quoted in the article: “It’s gratifying. I feel like we started with an idea, and that idea has become true.”

Ten years in, though, I think it’s worth wondering: Have we met all our goals? What still needs doing? How should our goals evolve? And, finally, is it worth forging ahead with our bread & butter activity of putting out records, the fate of the recorded music industry be damned?

***

Today that initial mission statement still sounds about right: that music is not our exclusive interest, that genre is a fool’s game, that the group of people we’ve assembled is as vital to our identity as the products we make. This credo has enabled us to outlast and outgrow many better-funded and over-hyped entities that emerged at the same time we did.

But on this anniversary, I’d like to give a sense of how that mission statement has played out in the real world. First, here’s a sense of what we have been for & against.

  • AGAINST the deskilling of popular music that’s been characteristic since punk rock emerged in the late 1970s
  • FOR making inroads for independent culture (a.k.a. “indie music,” a.k.a. the D.I.Y. spirit of punk rock) into high-culture milieus that have been too obscure and too unapproachable for the masses after successive waves of increasingly recondite 20th-century avant-gardes
  • AGAINST focusing on the cool & the fashionable, the trendy & the transgressive.
  • FOR “good music” in whatever form it takes. Yes to that which is progressive, purposeful & capable of touching hearts. Yes to quality over quantity. No to “the new” for newness sake! No to releasing eight albums a year if we don’t find albums for which we truly care!
  • AGAINST business for business sake, profligacy without purpose, and opportunism and careerism without meaningful cause
  • FOR the work of “lifers” — the makers who’ve placed artful living at the center of their existence in whatever form that creativity takes: painting pictures, recording music, making their own clothes, engineering software or other innovative machines, the growing of food & artful preparation of such, etc.

I know, I know, it’s a bit ranty. But it could be worse.3 And even outlining it in bullet point fashion like that, I can’t help but think there’s something missing…

***

Intimacy, or: What’s missing is what we’re after

If the Guardian article and my bullet points omitted something, it’s the years of personal connections & interactions that preceded and supported every flash of publicity our artists receive — in brief, what is missing is how shit actually happens. It’s what articles about culture, especially popular culture, always miss. To use the architecture of the internet as metaphor, they may capture the network but they overlook the nodes; they’ll highlight the strong ties but overlook the weak ones.

I don’t fault the media for its inability to understand how culture is made. It’s a function of the difference between living and observing, between inside and outside, and the difference between intimacy and publicity. The format that newspaper stories on the Arts typically adopt make true insight into what’s being reported on impossible. Take the case of this Guardian article. Several months before it appeared, I spent an afternoon with Laura Snapes, the young British journalist responsible for the piece. Laura is great — an uber-fan of The National, an employee of the long-running British music publication NME, and a self-admitted lover of sad-sack music which, well, it’s probably a requirement for fans of Brassland’s discography.4 Over the course of a day, we hung out at The National’s studio in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn; at Buke & Gass’s rehearsal space in Red Hook; at a Clogs concert one night at Merkin Hall in midtown near Central Park. In miniature, it was a fitting map of how culture actually works in New York City today. There are grand displays of art in the center, while the making of things takes place in cozier spaces at the edges, and in the boroughs.5

But there is a difference between a map and the land that it traces.

The activity of promoting artists as individuals, and launching their careers as sui generis stars continues to define Brassland as a business entity. Indeed, some of the artists we’ve worked with over the years have become critically acclaimed and semi-popular phenomenon: The National and Nico Muhly come to mind most firmly. But the fact is, servicing these public roles is a very small part of what Brassland is and does.

Our more vital role is serving as an informal & conceptual hub for a small but growing community of artists. Our main hope is that during their tenure on the label, we can help them find a comfortable niche within an evolving constellation of co-conspirators. I like to think that we encourage the idea of having peers more than we do individual stardom. We try to create an environment conducive to [blank]-making: be that word before the hyphen music, food, or empire — this last, a word which I’d define positively. Empire is the opportunity to build an infrastructure of one’s own.

This may sound idealistic, but in large part the focus on the creative network is practical. It is a fact of life in the arts that behind every “overnight success” are dozens of lesser-known but much beloved men & woman who supported that instant sensation. Even after success comes for an individual artist, those men & women continue to help make new work happen. Every year spent building a foundation for one’s art in these private communities will strengthen it, and allow the art more time as a viable economic and creative force. Artists who truly embed themselves among their network of collaborators are far more likely to enjoy long-term success and, by extension, sell more records; thereby, Brassland’s focus on the creative network over the superstar could even be construed as self-serving (in the sweetest and most humane way possible).

To transform the metaphor about internet architecture into one about physical architecture, let’s imagine our most popular artists as skyscrapers. A strong foundation, a strong system of support in the urban jungle, is what allows that artist’s aspirations to reach farther into the air, and what allows a thriving ecosystem of supportive businesses to exist in the neighboring buildings and on the lower floors.

It’s easy to overlook how our greatest successes are bound up in the lives and art of our (as yet) less popular groups. If you pay little or no attention to our specific milieu, you can probably tune out the rest of this paragraph. If you do pay attention, here are some examples: That one of our most forgotten artists, Baby Dayliner aka Ethan Marunas, was a major inspiration to The National’s Matt Berninger as he was learning to be a frontperson for a rock’n’roll band. (Interestingly, the descriptors one would apply to Baby Dayliner’s performances — brave, funny, curious and intellectual — are the same ones you’d apply to Matt’s; the difference being that Ethan’s one-man karaoke-style approach is braver still.) That we discovered Buke & Gass when the sister of Aaron & Bryce Dessner from The National booked them at a small club in Ditmas Park. That Padma Newsome — the driving force behind Bryce’s other group Clogs — was in part responsible for the great leap in arrangement & sophistication between The National’s first and second albums, joining the group as an associate member though the completion of Boxer. That Doveman (aka Thomas Bartlett) contributed key riffs and ideas to that same album in more or less anonymous fashion — a favor repaid when The National played a major performing role on his album The Conformist. That Nico Muhly was a major presence on that same Doveman album — an outgrowth of their relationship as co-conspirators in the social whirl of New York’s music scene, a relationship that’s offered a number of our artists entrée into past and future projects well outside of the label’s immediate orbit.

Finally, Brassland prides itself less on sales figures than this daisy chain of intimate relations. These relationships are what allows careers and the people who have them to grow, and grow strong.

***

At the best of times, Brassland’s artists just keep growing & growing & growing.

That’s a picture of Madison Square Garden, soon after a management client of mine had left the stage. The National have had the honor of playing that same arena. It still strains my imagination to contemplate that I’ve had not one but two artists play such a venue. But the thing to remember about Brassland’s artists as they’ve grown in the world is that what impresses most is not the grandiosity of display but the ways they’ve made these grand displays…smaller. Maybe that’s not the word, but certainly the intention has been to make art in the world more about connection than spectacle.

Two examples: Here is Matt from The National at their recent show at the Hollywood Bowl, on the tenth anniversary of September 11th, literally reaching out and touching the crowd.

And here’s the whole band at a recent show of theirs in Philadelphia a week earlier, my first in-the-flesh opportunity to see their new end-of-set tradition of singing “‪Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks‬” unplugged, the audience as loud as the band on stage.

I’ll readily admit, I’ve yet to sit down and talk to The National folks about what each of these nightly rituals signifies to them. (You’ll probably see both events play out no matter where you’ve seen them on their current tour cycle.) But I couldn’t help but hope & wonder that they’ve internalized a certain concept about what it is to be a star — a concept that considers not only the light that is cast, but the dimmer, darker, high pressure quadrants of the universe that birth them.

I’ll probably never ask them. Part of the secret of creative relationships being that you don’t always ask; sometimes you just dream your own crazy dream.

So, okay, there are some deep thoughts for you on the gulf between publicity and intimacy. Next up, a brief consideration of the function of community and the entities that propel creativity.


1. I did look up some actual dates after finishing this short essay. I found this fall 2011 tour schedule for The National particularly evocative for the way it portrays a band either oblivious to the events of that September, or intent on getting on with things tragedy aside.
– 2001-08-10 – New York, NY – Brownies
– 2001-08-12 – Arlington, VA – Galaxy Hut
– 2001-08-15 – Pittsburgh, PA – Club Cafe
– 2001-08-15 – Philadelphia, PA – Khyber Pass
– 2001-08-25 – Brooklyn, New York, NY – North Six
– 2001-10-18 – New York, NY – Mercury Lounge
– 2001-10-20 – Buffalo, NY – Hallwalls
– 2001-10-27 – Brooklyn, New York, NY – Galapagos
– 2001-11-03 – Raleigh, NC – King’s Barcade
– 2001-11-04 – Mobile, AL – The Splash
– 2001-11-06 – New Orleans, LA – Mermaid Lounge
– 2001-11-07 – Athens, GA – Caledonia
– 2001-11-08 – Atlanta, GA – Echo Lounge
– 2001-11-09 – Bloomington, IN – The Space 101
– 2001-11-11 – Evanston, IL – WNUR 89.3 FM Taping
– 2001-11-11 – Chicago, IL – Empty Bottle
– 2001-11-12 – Columbus, OH – WCBE 90.5 FM Taping
– 2001-11-12 – Columbus, OH – Little Brothers
– 2001-11-13 – Louisville, KY – Barretone’s
– 2001-11-14 – Oberlin, OH – Oberlin College
– 2001-11-15 – Newport, KY – Southgate House
– 2001-11-16 – Morgantown, WV – 123 Pleasant St.
– 2001-11-17 – Pittsburgh, PA – Mr. Roboto Project
Lots more memories are attached to some of these shows. But in any case, I’d say autumn 2001 stands as a fitting anniversary date for us all.
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2. I always correct people when they refer to us as “Brassland Records.” I mean, ick! Who would want to run the Wild West Horse Buggy Company just as the railroad was being introduced?
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3. Have you read about hedge fund manager Ray Dalio’s Principles yet? You can do so in The New Yorker or Dealbreaker. Crazier still, you can read the thing itself. Go for it.
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4. I prefer the term “thoughtful” to “sad-sack” though, at our current cultural moment, I think those two words have become largely become synonymous in most people’s lexicon. Let’s leave the unpacking of that thought to a future BLOG, k?
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5. One thing Laura missed: I’d have liked her to include the detail that, on the weekend of her visit, I was staying at an apartment once rented by legendary Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren while he lived in New York attempting to pen a never-published memoir. I don’t quite fancy myself an impresario, but any portrait of a music scene would not be complete without the schemer off dreaming in the background.
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11 May 2010

Tigers & spiders & dreams, oh my! Some words about The National’s “High Violet”

As a brief preamble to this piece of writing about The National’s new album “High Violet,” I should offer this full disclosure: I’ve worked in close association with the band since 2001 when I put out their first album on my label Brassland. (I’ve known members of the band quite a bit longer.) Since making the leap to London’s Beggars Banquet label group in 2005 or so, they’ve kept me around to manage their back catalog & write textual materials introducing various new releases. I’ll be honest it was all quite a bit more fun when none of us knew what we were doing & (sub)cultural ubiquity was nowhere on the horizon. That said, it’s been thrilling to witness their development so closely — as musicians, as a business & as a cultural entity. Anyway, here it goes — my words after this obligatory cover shot:

And this obligatory detail of the piece I utilize as a tool to understand their music — Richard Serra‘s “Verb List Compilation: Actions to Relate to Oneself” (1967-1968):

But first, a word about history: The National were born quietly in 1999, and birthed publicly in 2000 when they made their first album and played their first concerts in a pair of small, modest, now shuttered Brooklyn clubs. As the shorthand goes, they were “two pairs of brothers, one best friend.” Beginning with the twangy roots of that self-titled debut (2001) – expanding into the omnibus of alt-rock songwriting that was Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers (2003) – taking the crucial, aspirational half-step into the Cherry Tree EP (2004) – then bursting out with the scrappy anthems of Alligator (2005) – the band finally went widescreen with Boxer (2007), a through-composed pop album that finally turned a ten year-old pasttime into a much-lauded career.

***

Now a word about materials: Throughout their body of work, The National have seeded a universe worth of symbols & signs. Chandeliers indicate precarious domesticity. Home entertainment systems (headphones & radios & television sets) are windows on the soul. Birds stand in for character archtypes (geese, swans, crows). And every set piece takes place in a nameless, moonlit city that’s occasionally and arbitrarily lent a real world name — Los Angeles, London, New York. Finally, forms of water describe moments of emotional tension and release. Oceans & rivers & rain are reservoirs of feeling & pain.

I’m reminded of the sculptor Richard Serra who, in the late 1960s, created a piece in which he wrote out all the ways he could handle his materials:
— to roll
— to crease
— to bend
— to fold

That simple way of imagining possibilities quickly grew more complex:
— to tear
— to chip
— to split
— to sever

The tools The National have perfected are more complex still. Their effect, though, reminds me of Serra’s list. Through the lens of their music, I view Serra’s sequence of gestures as a list of instructions taking us through permutations of the human heart.
— to cut
— to open
— to remove
— to disarrange

The National have become that rare band, fully fluent in their own unique language. And finally they seem poised make use of it the way R.E.M. and U2 once did — entering that magical zone where invention is effortless, perfection an accident, and true pleasure a mere variation on a theme.

***

Let’s finish with a word about execution; you should understand High Violet as a collective effort. Amplifying The National’s core membership and regular roster of supporting players, scholars of linear notes may notice a constellation of minor stars on this album – Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, composer & celebrity arranger Nico Muhly, keyboard magician Thomas Bartlett aka Doveman, violinist & violist Padma Newsome from Clogs. There are brief appearances by one of the indie generation’s most enigmatic icons. Sufjan Stevens, and one by its most soothing young voice Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver. People who only listen to the record, however, would be excused for missing all that — because in context, there are no showy cameos, only the warm, anonymous din of a family reunion.

Maybe it’s premature to propose The National as the leading members of an underground pop firmament that’s kicked off this young century — but it is clear they have the wisdom to become one of the artists who will survive. Where many musicians, late into their career, are still recapitulating what it’s like to be 19 again (or 21, or 27), The National’s music anticipates is what it’s like to be 30 and 40, and well past that. “Oh, our lonely kicks are getting harder to find,” Matt Berninger sings on “Little Faith” and — contrary to the title — you pretty much believe him.

So: where the sole focus used to be Berninger whispering in your ear, these days he’s joined by a male chorus that telegraphs & amplifies his emotions.

And: where once there was a leader, now the entire band moves as a unit: –to buzz, –to snap, –to hum, –to tap, –to hover, –to vamp, –to intone

And: where once The National were known for their scrappy manner & charmingly ambivalent ambitions, they’re now a group of depth and echoes. The opening track, “Terrible Love,” reminds me of nothing less than the regal & kinky drone of the Velvet Underground. Sounds I once thought inimitable have been passed along like some holy meme the ancestor no longer cares for, and the inheritor now owns.

On High Violet, the National’s private language has taken root and, with those seeds firmly planted, blooms exploding, may their garden continue to grow.
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19 February 2009

Touch & Go Goes Out of Business

Originally posted to a music industry listserv which will go nameless. I heard from a few people that they enjoyed the sentiments so I am re-posting it here, loosely written internet style typos and all:

Just wanted to send a response & some, erm, deep thoughts about commentary going on on the [redacted] about Touch & Go’s sudden shutdown.

Brassland was one of a few new labels to switch to T&G distribution as of January 1, 2009. Very bad timing = erm, yeah. End of the universe = no. Death knell for anyone running a company based only on the sale of recorded music using a business model Factory Records and Touch+Go pioneered = perhaps.

I don’t want anyone to mistake me. This change is kind of ruining my life right now; is likely to cost my company + a few of the bands I’ve worked with tens of thousands of dollars; and some of the people working for me (especially myself) will have to put in many many man hours of labor to keep the train on the track. I’m definitely bummed out & somewhat annoyed.

That said, my feeling based on talking to a number of people more intimately involved in T&G’s current operations and those of competitors who know the retail environment well is that this is maybe something that just had to happen like it did. Could T&G have laid off a chunk of its staff and operated for months or years as a skeleton of its former self? Probably. Am I sort of surprised & upset there wasn’t more in the way of private efforts made before the announcement to help shore up distribution options for the labels left homeless by this change? Yup. But is T&G still doing this in a pretty classy way? Yes. From what I understand all the employees left (other than a few laid off last week) are being offered at least 6 weeks to wind down their affairs. In this economy, in this industry, that alone is something of a radical gesture — and an example I think any of us would be proud to emulate. And so far the employees still there are being helpful in trying to make this transition as painless as possible for us labels…

After the shock wears off, I get the sense a lot of us will, yes, look back at this as the end of an era — but also as an oddly fitting conclusion to this chapter of Touch & Go’s story. It’s like a band that breaks up with out all the bullshit and fanfare of pretending that a break-up can be candy coated.

Mostly I’m taking this as a very public revelation that Touch & Go’s founder, Corey Rusk, and his staff were pretty amazing + talented individuals for being the only people to take that business model and make it function on the scale that no one else ever made it succeed. Factory Records certainly didn’t take it this far, nor have any of us who have followed in the T&G footsteps.

I haven’t gotten to the anger stage of the grieving process — and maybe my feelings will be different when that happens — but there you go…

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