21 September 2012
May I grab a moment of your increasingly internet-fractured attention span and focus you on this interview between T. Cole Rachel and the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan on, ahem, the “state of the Alternative Community” — communities being something I care about a great deal.
Here it is thanks to Stereogum. (Thanks Stereogum!)
Here is an excerpt I particularly like, and bold-face on the parts I really really like:
“Once I entered the world of honesty, circa 1992, there was sort of no going back. It’s a nice fantasy to think if someone got me some media training, I would have avoided a lot of these controversies that are really meaningless and continue to be meaningless. Secondarily, I think there’s something to be said for being principled. Like I think of Lou Reed as being principled. I think of Neil Young as being principled. There are those actors in the world for whom the principles they live their life by, in the long run, mean something. And I think that the principles that I live my life by do mean something and will look better in hindsight. Because when I was at South By Southwest … first of all, in alternative rock music, generally speaking, there have been very few bands in the past 10 years that have made OK Computer-level records. I guess you could say Arcade Fire made one, but there’s been a real scarcity in great, A-level work that crosses over into the mainstream. That’s very interesting, because I don’t think it’s a lack of talent. And if anything, you could say that technology should afford the ability to make ideal records even more easily than we used to be able to make when we had to do it all on tape. Secondarily, the main alternative voice for at least seven years now, and you could argue possibly longer, has been Pitchfork. And they have not produced the level of movement commensurate to their power. So what does that say to me? That system doesn’t work. Now it might work for the kids down in Wicker Park or Echo Park. It might work for the guy with the handlebar mustache. But it doesn’t work overall in the way that the Stooges work, the way that the Velvet Underground worked, or the Cure worked, or Depeche Mode, or pick your fucking any band that made it across the divide from being underground to being iconic. Read more »
Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis
Tags: 120 Minutes, Alternative Culture, Arcade Fire, Billy Corgan, Mumford & Sons, Nirvana, Pitchfork, Smashing Pumpkins, Stereogum, Stone Temple Pilots, The Community Function, The National, The Problem With Nostalgia, The Problem With the Avant Garde
3 April 2012
Awhile back I read Tracy Kidder’s excellent Mountains Beyond Mountains, an inspiring portrait of physician Paul Farmer’s work in the area of public health, specifically the pioneering work he’s done in Haiti. FYI, I was not inspired to read it by the Arcade Fire‘s charitable giving to the cause, though it’s easy to see, in this book, why they, in turn, were inspired to give so generously of their time, resources and fan attention.
This particularly beautiful passage gives an account of what it’s like to have what they call “a calling” to be driven by that peculiarly human kind of passion, in all of its illogic. When one has “a calling” how it is is, often, just how it has to be. And don’t let my use of the word “beautiful” give you the wrong ideas. The passage is actually rather dry, delivered in the matter-of-fact manner in which, I imagine, Dr. Farmer works & thinks. The beauty is in a person hovering above the mundane efficiencies of 20th century management thinking, who knows that the way to get things done is, sometimes, to just move inexorably toward a goal with a force & intensity that others are simply incapable of maintaining.
Farmer was forty now, and he had the credentials to operate in the way Hiatt envisioned, on a purely executive level. In academic circles his reputation had grown. He was about to become a tenured Harvard professor. He was near the head of the line for the big prizes in medical anthropology; some of his peers were now saying that he’d “redefined” the field. As for his standing in clinical medicine, he’d become one of the doctors whom medical schools, in Europe as well as in the United States, invite to their campuses to deliver the lectures known as grand rounds. At the Brigham the surgeons had recently asked that he lecture to them, a signal honor not often granted to a mere medical doctor. He also sat on a number of councils in international health, and he’d made his views heard. But he didn’t seem disposed to abandon any side of his work, including seeing patients one-on-one in Haiti.
It wasn’t as though Farmer didn’t want to do all he could to cure the world of poverty and disease. He just had his own ideas on how to go about it. Actually, he seemed to be the only person who understood the plan fully. A young assistant of his once said to him, in exasperation, that he had no priorities. That wasn’t true, he replied. Patients came first, prisoners second, and students third. But you could see how the assistant might have felt lost in the details.
…and, for once, that’s all I have to say about that.
Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis
11 November 2011
I post these two passages side-by-side because they’re more connected than you might imagine.
And then came modern transportation and media and suddenly, you could reach everybody.
This was a thrill. Not only for the performer, but the audience. Instead of being restricted to the talent in your local burg, you could be exposed to others, with a different voice, a different viewpoint, in many cases with superior talent.
And by time we hit the era of network television, there were very few slots, and if you made it through, you’d truly made it. That was the goal, to make it.
Artists want to be heard by as many people as possible. If someone tells you they’re satisfied with a tiny audience, they’re lying. Art is expression. It foments understanding. You’re filling a hole inside yourself and the satisfaction comes when you realize you’re filling the same hole in others. And no matter how many holes you fill, you still feel empty, it’s the artistic temperament.
And then the filter was tightened even more, during the MTV era. It was harder to make it, harder to get your video on television, but if you did, you were instantly nationally famous. You achieved that goal of mass exposure overnight.
But now that’s impossible. Unless you stab or shoot someone, commit a crime. If you do something outrageous, there are Websites devoted to exposing you, never mind YouTube. But shy of that, it’s nigh near impossible to reach everybody.
And this has got all artists scratching their heads.
The X and Y corporations pay property taxes to operate their stores in Schuylerville, and a percentage of the county sales tax they pay is returned to the village via a rather abstruse political formula. The stores also furnish a handful of minimum-wage jobs. But what they take away contribute to the town is far less significant than what they take away: the chance for a local merchant to make a profit, to keep that profit in town, where it might be put to work locally, for instance, in the upkeep of a hundred-year-old shopfront building downtown, or a Greek Revival house on Pearl Street, or in the decent support of a family. But that profit does not stay in town. Instead, it is funneled directly into distant corproate coffers. The officers of the X and Y Corporations, who do not live in Schuylerville, have no vested interest in the upkeep of the 100-hundred-year-old shopfront buildings or the Greek Revival houses there. (They may not even know what they town looks like, or a single fact of its history.) Their success is measured strictly by the tonnage of Cheez Doodles and Pepsi Cola they manage to move off the shelves. Read more »
Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis
24 October 2011
UPDATED NOVEMBER 7, 2011: Soon after posting this I discovered a great full-length BBC documentary about Rough Trade posted on Vimeo. I’ve replaced the Raincoats video that led this post with said documentary. (The Raincoats song is now at the end of this post.) I’d recommend watching the doc even before checking out the book on RT if only because music only really lives & breaths when seen & heard. Contrary to reports, I have not been watching the documentary on repeat since the original posting date of the first BLOG. I’ve just been occupied.
Anyway, here’s an excerpt from a book I’m reading about Rough Trade which somehow has everything to do with this.
GINA BIRCH: Before moving to London, I’d been at Trent Poly doing a Foundation Course and while I was there I got involved with what you might call a conceptual art tribe, people involved in Art & Language. It was very political because there were always lots of factions, but it was also very exciting. When I moved to London, though, and started studying at Hornsey Art College, although the course I was on was interesting, and it had some interesting fellow students — like Elizabeth Taylor’s daughter, who painted horses, and Anish Kapoor — there was no core to it, no tribe like there had been in Nottingham, so I became lonely. I was living with a bunch of drug dealers in Islington when Neil from the Tesco Bombers said I could move into his squat in West London. This was a squat within a group of squats and this became my new tribe. Richard Dudanski, who played drums in The 101ers, was there with his partner Esperanta, whose sister Palmolive played in The Slits.
There was this great community of punks and hippies and everyone joined in. We all used the Tea Room, which was kind of a local café and food co-op in a squat where for 20p you could get brown rice and vegetables, a pudding and a glass of sarsaparilla. The punks the hippies really joined at this point and in some ways the DIY ethic chimed with many of the hippie ideals. I supposed that’s what we were, really — middle-class punk hippies.
It’s good to realize who you are. It’s good to realize how you do. It’s good to show no shame in it. Another excerpt after the jump. Read more »
Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis
21 September 2011
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:
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.
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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Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis
Tags: 9/11, Aaron Dessner, Alec Hanley Bemis, Anniversaries, Baby Dayliner, Brassland, Bryce Dessner, Buke & Gass, Clogs, Doveman, Good Music, Laura Snapes, Matt Berninger, New York City, Nico Muhly, NME, Padma Newsome, September 11, The Community Function, The Guardian, The National, The Problem with Capitalism, The Problem With Nostalgia, The Problem With the Avant Garde, TL;DR, Too Long; Didn't Read