a.k.a. The futility of trying to repair a system that was never meant for independent music.
|Shawn Reynaldo||1 hr|| 2|
Hello there. I’m Shawn Reynaldo, and welcome to First Floor, a weekly electronic music digest that includes news, my favorite new tracks and some of my thoughts on the issues affecting the larger scene / industry that surrounds the music. If you haven’t done so already, please consider subscribing to the newsletter by clicking the button below.
ON MY MIND
Before we get started, a quick reminder that First Floor is currently running biweekly, so the next newsletter will go out on August 25. The “normal” weekly publishing schedule should resume in September.
Being a writer is funny. Sometimes you spend days or even weeks thinking about a piece you want to write, and then someone you know just… tweets it out. That happened to me yesterday when I spotted this pair of tweets from Mat Dryhurst:
For regular First Floor readers, these arguments (and my tendency to reference Mat Dryhurst) will be nothing new. I’ve written about Spotify and the many shortcomings of the streaming economy multiple times here in the newsletter (and I’m honestly kind of sick of prattling on about it), but I was thinking about tackling the topic again in the wake of Spotify CEO Daniel Ek’s widely criticized recent interview with Music Ally. You’ve probably seen the interview already, or perhaps one of the many subsequent reaction pieces that took Ek to task, primarily over his promotion of “continuous engagement” and related assertion that artists “can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough.”
While it’s been satisfying to see critiques of Spotify (and the streaming economy in general) finally being elevated to such a degree, it’s unfortunate that so much of the discourse is still centered around the idea of “fixing” streaming. (This is where Mat’s tweets come in.) It’s easy to say things like “artists need to get paid more for streams,” especially when they’re being paid around $.004 per stream, but even if that rate were doubled or tripled, that wouldn’t solve the problem because:
The streaming platforms, which are already paying out 60-70% of revenue (mostly to major labels), wouldn’t be able to sustain that sort of increase without radically altering their business model, which they’re not likely (or maybe even able) to do.
Higher royalty rates would only help those artists whose music is attracting enough of a streaming audience to make payouts actually matter. Most underground / niche artists—including almost everyone who tends to get covered here in the newsletter—still wouldn’t be earning anything close to a living (or even significant) wage.
The second point is the more important one, at least for anyone who’s a fan of music outside of the commercial mainstream. I’ve said this before, but Spotify and the other major streaming platforms were not designed with independent musicians or music communities in mind. These companies are running operations of scale that have been optimized for major labels and passive, less engaged listeners. If we want to draw a parallel to the “old” (i.e. pre-internet) music industry, streaming is more like an online version of commercial radio than a digital replacement for the record store.
Given the billions of dollars of revenue that streaming platforms pull in, not to mention the many ways that their influence has come to shape the entire music industry, I can certainly understand and appreciate independent artists’ and labels’ efforts to tap into the streaming economy and make it more equitable (i.e. advocating for a shift to user-centric payment models). But in the end, it’s still a case of trying to shove a proverbial square peg into a round hole, and as far as I can see, tinkering at the edges of the streaming system isn’t going to save independent music or preserve any (increasingly antiquated) notions of artistry.
At least for the time being, disengagement feels like the only real option, and that goes for artists, labels and (perhaps most importantly) consumers. Focusing on platforms like Bandcamp is certainly a good start, but even that has its shortcomings. (Although the payouts are higher, it certainly hasn’t done much to stem the need for artists to engage in the same sort of “continuous engagement” that Daniel Ek was savaged for mentioning.) There are no easy fixes, especially in the middle of a pandemic, and finding solutions, even limited ones, will require a lot more time, effort, discussion and long-term thinking. Bigger is not always better—and when it comes to independent music, it’s almost never better—so perhaps it’s time to stop looking for one-size-fits-all models. What works for one community / genre / locality may not work for everyone, and that’s okay.
Regardless of where things ultimately end up, it’s undoubtedly a positive that these conversations about (and critical dissections of) streaming are not only taking place, but have finally graduated beyond the nerdiest corners of the internet and social media. Now it’s just a matter of getting people on the same page about where to go next.
The battle continues…
A round-up of the past two weeks’ most interesting electronic music news, plus links to mixes, articles and other things I think are worth sharing.
Literally hours after the last edition of First Floor went out, news broke that Amsterdam nightclub De School had announced its closing, citing financial difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and a desire to avoid bankruptcy. Although it wasn’t mentioned in the official statement, the club had also been facing intense criticism in the weeks leading up to the closure announcement, which ranged from calls for a more diverse staff and programming slate to concerns about the club’s response following an accusation of sexual harassment by security staff at the door.
Roland has launched a new editorial platform called Roland Articles, which promises “a curated selection of enriching stories, product guides and interviews, marked by a focus on artists, instruments and the Roland brand.” On August 8 (a.k.a. 808 Day), the company also celebrated the 40th anniversary of the legendary TR-808 drum machine, commissioning a new mini-documentary called Building the Beat and an interview with 808 creator Tadao Kikumoto. There’s more 808 content too, all of which can be found at this special online hub Roland put together for the occasion.
Over the past few months, Boomkat has been releasing a cassette series called Documenting Sound, which features music created in quarantine from artists like Sarah Davachi, Hieroglyphic Being, Kelman Duran, Ulla, ZULI, Lawrence English and more. The releases aren’t on Bandcamp—digital and physical versions can be picked up directly from Boomkat—but they’re worth checking out, especially the series’ latest installment: Echo, from Shelter Press co-founder Félicia Atkinson.
Atlanta-based DJ and writer Ash Lauryn has been tapped as the Guest Editor of Beatportal this month, a role she kicked off with this introductory letter. (Full disclosure: I contribute to Beatportal on occasion.)
The latest issue of DJ Mag (full disclosure: I also contribute there sometimes) is devoted to celebrating Blackness in dance music and fighting racism in the dance music industry, and many of its features are now available online. (Just look for the articles with the black-and-yellow color scheme.)
The pandemic has caused a lot of chaos, but it hasn’t done much to slow down release schedules in 2020; the autumn months are looking to be as busy as ever. Here’s a sampling of upcoming records that were announced during the past two weeks:
Canadian ambient specialist Khotin has new LP, Finds You Well, slated to arrive via Ghostly International on September 25. Album cut “WEM Lagoon Jump” is streaming here.
Veteran bass manipulator Machinedrum will be returning to Ninja Tune with a new album, A View of U, on October 9. Two cuts from the record are streaming online, “Kane Train (feat. Freddie Gibbs)” and “Ur2yung.”
Rian Treanor, a British producer whose debut album ATAXIA was one of 2019’s best efforts, has completed a follow-up, File Under UK Metaplasm, which will be released October 2 on Planet Mu. Opening cut “Hypnic Jerks” is streaming here.
Following her recent effort for Don’t Be Afraid, Ikonika is heading back to her Hyperdub home base with new EP called Hollow. The full record arrives on August 21, but the track “Body Servants” is already available to stream.
Experimental composer Sophia Loizou is a new addition to the Houndstooth label roster, and will be releasing a new album called Untold on September 25. She’ll also be issuing an accompanying poetry collection entitled A Tellurian Memorandum. The track “Anima” is streaming now.
The past couple of weeks also saw the release of some benefit compilations, the most intriguing of which I’ve listed here:
LOBSTER PLUR Volume 4 is a massive 35-track collection from the Lobster Thermin label, with all profits going toward Hackney community initiative Sistah Space, which provides support for African and Caribbean heritage women and girls who have experienced sexual and domestic abuse or who have lost a family member to domestic abuse.
Worst Behavior, Vol. 3 finds the bass-loving NYC label and event series pulling together tunes from DJ Swisha, Nikki Nair, DJ FLP, A.Fruit and many others, with a portion of the proceeds going to Eden Reforestation, which plants trees in deforested countries, and G.L.I.T.S., a Black-trans founded organization that supports trans sexworkers and advocates politically for trans people.
Isolation and Rejection Vol. 2 has 24 tracks curated by Manchester label Front & Follow, which promises to donate all income raised to The Brick, a UK charity on the front line of supporting those most in need.
MY WIFE HAS BETTER TASTE THAN I DO
My wife Dania is a wonderful person, but she has little regard for my taste in electronic music. Head of the Paralaxe Editions label, she often describes the music I like with words like “cheesy,” “simple,” “predictable,” “boring” and, worst of all (in her mind), “happy.” In contrast, I think she has a fantastic ear, and I’m constantly amazed by the obscure gems she unearths, both from record bins and the dark corners of the internet. Given that, I’ve asked Dania to share some of her finds with the First Floor audience. Each week, she highlights something that she’s currently digging, and adds some of her thoughts as to why it’s worth our attention.
Hello. “Thalassocratie” is the opening track from Roméo Poirier’s excellent new Hotel Nota album, a song whose slow, smooth waves of warped brass make me think of hot pebbles beneath my feet, hidden Mediterranean coves and still summer nights. Released just last week, it’s the perfect accompaniment for the intense heatwave we’ve been experiencing here in Spain.
NEW THIS WEEK
The following is a rundown of my favorite tunes that came out during the past week or so. Click on the track titles to hear each song individually, or you can also just head over to this convenient Buy Music Club list to find them all in one place.
The global pandemic has plenty of us missing the club, and while that’s prompted some people to (foolishly) start attending parties (both legal and illegal) in recent weeks, Sinjin Hawke and Zora Jones have taken a different approach—they’ve designed their own virtual club space. In truth, Virtua isn’t a full-blown substitute for real-world partying, but its space-age visuals certainly look great, and the soundtrack—which also includes tunes from Fractal Fantasy affiliates Martyn Bootyspoon, Xzavier Stone and Zubotnik—is stuffed with sleek, chrome-plated club sounds. “Blank Spaces” and “Virtua Theme” bookend the EP, the former layering playful R&B vocal snippets over brawny bass wallops, while the latter offers a hypnotically intricate array of delicate, almost crystalline melodies.
Keeping things in the Fractal Fantasy camp, “Lickety Split” is the title track of Martyn Bootyspoon’s new EP, his first for UK label Local Action. A slippery house cut that recalls the freaky energy of classic Chicago house, it’s got a killer bassline, but the song is also a vehicle for Bootyspoon’s trademark swagger, his silky baritone infusing the proceedings with an extra dose of eroticism, not to mention a little bit of over-the-top silliness. Not many artists could pull off a lyric like “let’s get weird, let’s get wet,” but coming out of his mouth, it sounds like an invitation to a wild party and a very good time.
Like much of the electronic music world, Scottish producer Hudson Mohawke has been emptying out his hard drive as of late, most recently on B.B.H.E., a career-spanning mixtape of previously unreleased material. Although many of the tracks here are fleeting, clocking in at two minutes or less, “Monte Fisto” closes things out in anthemic fashion, its booming beats and emotive piano melodies channeling both the dayglo bluster of his Butter album and the feelgood blaps of his earliest collaborations with Kanye West. Bombastic and triumphant, the song may not match up how most people are feeling these days, but it still put a smile on my face.
June of 2019 feels like it happened 20 years ago, but that was First Floor’s final month as a weekly radio show, during which I somehow convinced Peach—an artist who doesn’t really do many interviews—to be a guest on the program. The whole episode is still online here, and anyone who listens will hear the song “Test In,” a jaunty, breakbeat-driven DJ tool that the London-based Canadian had been playing her in sets but hadn’t yet released. More than a year later, however, “Test In” has been officially shared with the world—Peach put it online for the latest Bandcamp Friday—and the track’s perky rhythms, sharp strings and sparkling melodies offer a welcome reminder of the infectious energy she brings to her craft.
There are only two tracks on the new Works EP from L’Automat, and I love them both. “Works 1” is a spacey, almost cinematic electro cut with ominous melodies and a slightly crunchy acid bassline that slithers its way across the track, while “Works 2” is a more energetic electro-techno hybrid with bubbling synths and a sense of melodic flair. Plenty of artists are dabbling in similar, sci-fi-influenced sounds these days, but this veteran French producer—who seems to have slightly altered his artist moniker after going by just Automat for nearly two decades—has offered up a quick class in how to do it right.
Back in June, I said that AceMo was “arguably the hottest producer in NYC right now,” and his stock has only continued to rise over the past two months. I Want to Believe is his latest solo release, and it’s a surprisingly subdued effort, at least for anyone who’s gotten used to his raw, hardware-driven techno and jungle rave-ups. Described as “7 songs about life & love,” the record is largely a collection of dreamy, melodic house cuts; the usual AceMo grit is still present of course—there’s plenty of reverb in the mix—but a song like “Follow the Light” doesn’t need polish to tug at your heartstrings. This is introspective, even melancholy music, the sort of tune that’s perfect for those “what does it all mean?” moments that occasionally happen on the dancefloor. It’s something different from AceMo, but at this point, the guy seems willing to try—and capable of creating—just about any style of dance music.
I usually try to avoid using superlatives, but I think Wata Igarashi just might be the best techno producer in the world right now. His excellence isn’t exactly breaking news, as he’s been active for nearly a decade and his remix of Aurora Halal’s “Eternal Blue” wound up on a lot of Best of 2019 lists, but the Japanese producer does seem to have settled into a real groove lately. In recent months, he’s been releasing music via his own WIP imprint, and following a couple of excellent ambient offerings, he’s now dropped the techno-oriented WIP03, which opens with the churning rhythms and noise-addled soundscapes of “Eruption.” There are no big melodic hooks or cheeky nods to nostalgia, but Igarashi doesn’t need them; the track simply thunders along, crashing and smashing whatever stands in its way, confident in the knowledge that everyone listening is bound to either come along for the ride or simply stand back and marvel at its raw power.
“Mas Movement” isn’t for the faint of heart. Released as a one-off single for the latest Bandcamp Friday, it’s two minutes of blazing dancefloor fury, its fleet-footed soca drum patterns (lifted from a track by long-running Antiguan outfit Burning Flames) infused with a bassy, booming kick and the (sampled) political fire of late civil rights activist Kwame Ture. It’s intense and brimming with urgency, but “Mas Movement” is also fun and uniquely Caribbean, as Foreigner—a Los Angeles artist who’s originally from Trinidad & Tobago—has tapped into his roots and cooked up something that’s both musically and spiritually potent.
As a huge fan of Innerspace Halflife—a criminally slept-on (and currently inactive) duo whose back catalog is well worth exploring—I try and keep up with what the group’s two members, Hakim Murphy and Ike Release, are doing these days. The latter has just released a new album called Personality Fragment via his own Episodes label, and while it does have some quality house tracks on it—the title track and “Glass Hands” are both standouts—I found myself returning to “blue9,” a tune which defies easy genre categorization. With a big, walking bassline that sounds like something you’d hear on an old Roni Size record and brawny drums that could be a sped-up take on hip-hop’s boom-bap era, it’s a bit of a weird one, but the song’s uniquely broken rhythms pull off the difficult task of breaking the mold without losing the plot entirely.
I know, I know. Hieroglyphic Being again? The veteran Chicago producer has shown up in practically every edition of the newsletter during the past couple of months, and here he is again, but the guy just keeps on pulling amazing music out of his archives. He’s just released two more album-length collections, Confusion in the Lands and The Secret Societies of Ra, and they’re both rife with his wildly messy, endlessly creative and oddly compelling productions. “Invisible Touches” appears on the former LP; at its core, the song is essentially a spacey, subtly swinging house track, but this one sounds like it’s been dubbed to an old VHS tape and then run over by a monster truck. Similarly blown-out is “The Faithful Surrender,” a high-stepping cut that closes The Secret Societies of Ra with a flurry of buzzing synth lines and corroded drum machine rhythms. Audiophiles might cringe, but there’s a lot of magic amidst all of the mayhem.
2020 will likely go down as a year without any real summer anthems, but these two songs were clearly meant to be enjoyed on a sunny dancefloor. Granted, Gerd Janson and his Running Back label tend to specialize in upbeat, Italo- and disco-infused house music, so these tracks, which both appear on the new One Swallow Doesn't Make a Summer Part 2 compilation EP, both fall perfectly into that lineage. “Synergy Bar,” by Llewellyn (a.k.a. the German producer best known as Lake People), is more strident, a glowing burst of glossy synths and dreamy pianos that taps into multiple eras of feelgood Italian dance music. “Central Store,” a collaboration between Russian producer Lipelis and the mysterious AC, is a bit more subdued, but the track still sounds like an instrumental from your favorite ’80s synth-pop outfit.
Speaking of lost summer anthems, the new Sound of Love International 003 compilation is loaded with them. Curated by Shanti Celeste—who was slated to play this year’s edition of the Croatian festival, along with dozens of other great DJs—there’s something a bit bittersweet about the collection, but that doesn’t detract from the quality of the music on offer. There’s a new collaborative track from Celeste and Saoirse, but the compilation’s real gems are the older cuts, including this propulsive techno tune from Swedish artist Cari Lekebusch. Originally released in 1994, it’s a euphoric number that offsets its speedy underbelly with pastel synths that are perfect for the sunrise. It’s sad that the tune won’t be soundtracking many sunrise sessions this year, but given that it’s already more than 25 years old, it’ll probably still sound great whenever we do manage to (safely) get back on the dancefloor again.
Fauzia’s productions and edits have been a staple of her mixes for years, but lately the London artist (and NTS regular) has been letting a few of them loose as official releases. The silky “Berceuse” appears on her new Fragments EP, the song’s breezy melodies calling back to the lush sounds and soulful spirit of liquid drum & bass. It’s still suitable for the dancefloor—although Fauzia keeps the drums in check for much of the track, they sound joyously rowdy when let loose—but the song’s sparkle is ultimately what kept me coming back for more.
I have to admit, I’d never heard of Sankt Otten before their new album Lieder Für Geometrische Stunden (translation: Songs for Geometric Hours) landed in my inbox, but this German outfit has been around for more than 20 years! Clearly, I have some digging to do, but LP opener “Sentimentale Sequenzen” is a lovely piece of ambient-ish synth exploration. It’s relatively minimal, but the song’s gently percolating melodies are profoundly soothing; even as the energy level picks up in the track’s latter half and things begin to move skyward, the sensation is akin to blissfully drifting into the clouds. Gorgeous stuff.
Taken from her excellent third album Excision After Love Collapses, “Fire Upon the Deep” is a dread-filled excursion from FRKTL, a classically trained British-Egyptian artist who moves between London, Cairo and Riga. There are shades of Grouper, Julianna Barwick and other artists who prominently mold and manipulate their vocals, but FRKTL also taps into the same sort of hi-fi sound design and static-laced doom that makes artists like Hiro Kone so potent. “Fire Upon the Deep” is dark, dramatic and even tumultuous, but it’s also eerily beautiful, its multiple layers of disembodied, drone-like vocals hovering above the fray before they quietly evaporate into the ether. Existential angst has rarely sounded so inviting.
Formerly known as South London Ordnance, UK producer Oscar Morgan started going by Portrait a few years back, launching his own Aura Dinamica label and taking his music in a somewhat more experimental direction. While most Portrait efforts have still been rooted in techno, his latest release MASS abandons the club for a more conceptual zone, specifically Body of Water, an “ongoing performance-based collaboration” between Morgan and choreographer / movement designer Magnus Westwell. Like all the songs on MASS, the title track is taken from that project, and its percussion is effectively underwater, slowly rumbling beneath a twinkling grey cloud of lurching synths and dreamy atmospherics. It’s all quite moody and grey, but it’s also weirdly comforting, to the point where the three-minute runtime ultimately feels too short.
In terms of releases, Sarah Davachi has been one of 2020’s busiest artists, and although most of her fans are anxiously awaiting the September arrival of new solo album Cantus, Descant, they shouldn’t sleep on Intemporel, her collaborative LP with French ambient veteran Ariel Kalma. Recorded in 2015 during a one-day recording session in Australia, the album isn’t the sparse, slow-moving suite you might expect; there’s a certain level of serenity at work, but also there’s a whole lot of life and energy in these tunes, even within the mournful, saxophone-fueled haze of album opener “Saxiran.” More celestial is “Hack Sat Zoom,” thanks to its woozy drones and feather-light synths, which lend the song a floaty bit of new age charm.
A collaboration between two of the ambient / experimental world’s most promising talents, “Eternal Portal” is as dreamy and delicate as you’d expect. The song appears on a two-track, Bandcamp-only release called 29720—likely because it was posted on July 29, 2020—and while the cavalier title might seem to indicate that this is some sort of hastily thrown-together effort, the music itself is arrestingly beautiful. On “Eternal Portal,” tones and textures gracefully flit and flutter beneath a mist of light static, sounding like a lo-fi ballet score, or maybe a sound piece inspired by the fleeting life of an adult butterfly. Clumsy metaphors aside, Perila and Ulla have created something warm and beguiling.
And with that, we’ve once again come to the end of First Floor. Thank you so much for reading the newsletter, and as always, I hope you enjoyed the tunes. (Don’t forget, you can find them all on this handy Buy Music Club list, and if you like them, please buy them.)
Back in two weeks,