First Floor #31 – Livestreaming into the Abyss

a.k.a. Livestreaming has exploded in the past few weeks, but is it actually helping anyone?

Hello there. I’m Shawn Reynaldo, and welcome to First Floor, a weekly electronic music digest that includes news, my favorite new tracks and (usually) 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

First of all, I just want to welcome all of the new subscribers. Last week’s newsletter was easily the most read edition of First Floor to date—thank you for that—and seems to have prompted a bunch of new readers to sign up. If you’re part of that group, I’m very happy to have you; thanks for allowing me to land in your inbox every week.

Anyways, let’s get to it. With clubs and festivals on hold and a growing percentage of the global population in some form of lockdown, music fans everywhere have been inundated with a growing number of livestreams as of late, especially in the electronic music realm. DJ sets, live performances, jam sessions, tutorials, workshops, impromptu talk shows… artists have been “going live” in a myriad of different ways, but what I find interesting is how quickly general sentiment seems to be souring on the format.

Just a couple of weeks ago, livestreams were being hailed as impressive examples of creative ingenuity, a vehicle in which tech-savvy artists could stay in touch with their fans and the music community could, at least theoretically, drum up some financial support (i.e. donations) during the COVID-19 crisis.

Two weeks into the pandemic, however, we’re starting to see more takes like this:

Admittedly, it’s hard to accurately measure our collective sentiment when everyone is in isolation and social media snark is essentially all we have to go on, but I’ve certainly noticed a major uptick in livestream-related skepticism. Ranging from derisive jokes about the overabundance of livestreams happening to more thoughtful questions about the long-term viability of the medium, it certainly seems like our excitement about and interest in this sort of content has already declined significantly.

Some of this undoubtedly stems from the sheer gravity of what’s happening in the world. As much as those of us stuck at home are bored and craving human interaction, it’s hard to get all that excited about an online DJ set—especially a vibeless one that likely consists of someone playing tunes alone in their poorly lit living room—when there’s literally a pandemic going on. I’ve been beating this drum for a few weeks now, but in the grand scheme of things, music and DJ culture just doesn’t feel all that important right now. Although I’m well aware people across the music industry are struggling—and if we’re honest, it was difficult to make a living even before the coronavirus hit—the growing wave of livestreams increasingly feels like a garish cry of “pay attention to me” from a social cohort that fails to acknowledge its relative privilege. I don’t know how everyone else feels, but I’ve personally never been less interested in celebrity, and that feeling extends to my favorite DJs.

Of course, not all livestreams are rooted in artists’ desire to satiate their own vanity. Numerous online events have been put together to raise money for people and organizations whose financial well being has been seriously threatened by the pandemic. In theory, that sounds great, but in practice, it’s hard to know if any of these livestreams have been all that effective in terms of fundraising, especially when few, if any, real listenership and donation numbers are being made public. And even if we grant that some event have been successful, either in terms of raising money or just attracting a significant number of people to tune in, is this model something that would really be sustainable in the long run?

Pundits have been quick to point to the success of tip-based content models on platforms like Twitch, but that approach has yet to be effectively integrated into the electronic music realm. Furthermore, it’s unclear whether fans would even be willing to start tipping at any sort of significant scale, especially after they’ve already grown accustomed to getting similar content for free from platforms like Boiler Room (which also provides higher production values than the average at-home streaming session). While it’s possible that DJs and electronic music artists could alter their livestream approach to be more Twitch-friendly (e.g. interacting with the audience, debuting exclusive material, providing constant updates, etc.), many of those changes would take electronic music culture even further away from its logistical, artistic and spiritual roots.

Additionally, while the current novelty of the livestream phenomenon may have sparked an initial wave of excitement, along with a telethon-esque “let’s pitch in and donate to help solve this crisis” spirit, maintaining even a sizable fraction of that engagement for a prolonged amount of time feels like a daunting prospect. It’s important to remember that livestreaming technology has been around for decades, yet it’s never really caught on, largely because the experience is so inferior to seeing a band or DJ live.

In the real world, fans might shell out to go see a particular DJ play a few times a year (at most), but are they going to donate to that same DJ’s livestream every week, or even every month? And what about all the other DJs they like? As more and more artists jump into livestreaming, the competition for donations will become even more fierce, and will also be happening on a global scale. We already complain about local DJs being overlooked, but imagine how they’ll fare if forced to go head-to-head with international stars online. As a medium, the internet is overly titled toward widespread familiarity and popularity, and that phenomenon only intensifies when algorithmic curation comes into play. Livestreaming will be no different, and barring significant structural changes, embracing the format seems like a surefire way to further reduce the economic viability of being a musician or DJ; although it may present everyone with the “opportunity” to earn money online, my guess is that it will ultimately shrink the pool of artists who are actually able to scratch out a living through their work.

Despite these risks, artists continue signing up, and brands have already begun to take notice. My inbox is increasingly filled with press releases about virtual clubs, online festivals and other livestreaming events; some are clearly being funded by major labels (even if that hasn’t been made explicit), and others are being sponsored by brands. Yet here’s where we come back to the question from Mat Dryhurst’s tweet that I posted above: is anyone being paid? Based on the responses he received, the answer thankfully does seem to be an occasional “yes,” but again, it’s hard to make any concrete evaluations when no real numbers are being made public. Furthermore, if any of the branded events were truly successful from a listenership standpoint, we’d all be hearing a lot more crowing about “X amount of people tuned in to see Y’s livestream on Saturday.” So far, that hasn’t really happened, which makes me think that the brands / companies pouring money into these events likely aren’t seeing a huge return on their investment.

If we focus exclusively on the electronic music realm, artists and industry folk I’ve spoken with have repeatedly told me that there’s been largely zero compensation for the livestream events that have taken place over the past couple of weeks. Granted, many of these events have been fundraisers, but it’s still troubling that artists—many of who have already taken a sizable hit in their own income—are expected to now turn around and contribute their own work for free. Within a limited timeframe, this would of course be fine, as it makes sense for artists to waive their fees and perform in service of their community; however, if we elongate the window—and at this point, we really have no idea just how long clubs / festivals / etc. are going to be out of commission—we’re looking at a scenario in which DJs will be actively driving down the value of what they do, and for what? To help grow another tech platform that exploits their labor and likely doesn’t pay much in the way of royalties to the people whose music is being played?

Last night, I saw another tweet that really resonated with me:

I’m not looking to attack anyone. With everything that’s going on right now, I can certainly understand why people—artists and fans alike—are looking to livestreams. On a very basic level, it’s a source of connection, not to mention a potential distraction from our collective boredom. That said, it’s hard not to feel like we’ve seen this dance before (minus the pandemic part, of course). Time and again, tech platforms have offered convenience and new ways to bring us all together, and while that may have benefitted the average (i.e. casual) music consumer, they’ve been disastrous for the health and viability of local and underground music scenes. While I’m not a luddite and I wouldn’t argue that livestreaming can—or even should—be stopped, it’s still in a nascent enough stage that it could at the very least be set up to work in a way that benefits both creators and consumers alike. Rather than blindly flocking to platforms that don’t have our community’s interests at heart, can we at least have a discussion about how to move forward before we all sign up? Given that most of us are in quarantine for the foreseeable future, we certainly have the time.


ANOTHER THING I WROTE

  • Daniel Avery and Alessandro Cortini may not seem like the most obvious collaborators—although they did release a limited-edition 7” together back in 2017—but the two have just released a full-length album called Illusion of Time. I reviewed it for Pitchfork, and also liked it a lot more than I expected.


REAL QUICK

A round-up of the week’s most interesting electronic music news, plus links to mixes, articles and other things I think are worth sharing.

  • To the surprise of no one, the past week has seen another round of event postponements and cancellations. This round-up from Resident Advisor, which is often updated several times a day, continues to be the best resource for those interested in following all of the latest developments.

  • In a piece of more uplifting news, NYC arts institution Roulette has shared a recording of an Arthur Russell performance from 1985. Just over 49 minutes in length, the audio can be streamed and/or downloaded here.

  • Given that most of us are stuck at home, it makes sense that Ableton has extended its free trial to 90 days. (It was 30 days previously.) They’ve also reset all trial licenses, so if even if you’ve done a trial before, you now have a clean slate and can start fresh with another 90 days to experiment.

  • New album announcements have slowed significantly, but veteran German producer Phillip Sollmann (better known as Efdemin) will be releasing a new full-length called Monophonie on May 15 via Ostgut Ton offshoot A-Ton. Composed in 2016 and debuted in 2017—some footage of that is here—the record is a conceptual effort rooted in the recontextualization of rare historical instruments.

  • Brooklyn artist Photay has new LP on the way for Mexican Summer. Entitled Waking Hours and slated to arrive on June 12, the album is “a meditation on time and our obsessive need to fill every moment with activity,” and the first single, “Warmth in the Coldest Acre,” is streaming here. (Full disclosure: I was hired by the label to write the press release and a few other bits of promo copy for the album. I was a fan of Photay’s work anyways, but feel free to take my mention of the new record with a proverbial grain of salt.)


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. As the 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.

Penderecki “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima”

Today I’ve selected something old to share from avant-garde Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, who sadly passed over the weekend. You may be familiar with his work from the soundtracks for films such as The Exorcist and The Shining. Written in 1960, “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” is quite literally a wailing ode to the dead, a sonic translation of horror, pain and destruction. Its layers of dissonant, foreboding tones gnaw into your skin, sounding like a thousand panicked screams fading into the abyss. Very 2020.

Follow Dania on Twitter, or check out her monthly radio show on dublab.es.


NEW THIS WEEK

The following is a rundown of my favorite tunes that came out during the past week. 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.

Matt Karmil “SR/WB” (Smalltown Supersound)

One of electronic music’s most perennially slept-on producers, Matt Karmil has a new album out with the unassuming title STS371. The music, however, isn’t so modest. Although the LP does include some forays into washy ambient and wonky leftfield beats, on the whole it’s one of Karmil’s most floor-focused efforts to date. Many of his past excursions into house music have resided on the dreamier end of the spectrum, and there’s some of that on STS371, but new record also contains several flashes of raw club energy. “SR/WB” layers soft pads over a flurry of high-stepping percussion and a sneering, rapid-fire bassline that sounds like something from Gesloten Cirkel’s playbook, or maybe even an old Vitalic record. It’s an intriguing extension of Karmil’s sound, not to mention a confirmation that this British artist hasn’t yet found the limits of his talent.

Molchat Doma “Doma Molchat” (Sacred Bones)

Molchat Doma “Na Dne” (Sacred Bones)

Hailing from Minsk, this post-punk trio is almost certainly the first Belarusian act that’s ever found its way into the newsletter. The band’s first two albums, S Krysh Nashikh Domov (2017) and Etazhi (2018), have just been reissued by Sacred Bones, and will undoubtedly prove enjoyable to anyone who worships at the altar of Joy Division, New Order and all the brooding artists who’ve followed in their wake over the past 30-40 years. Without question, there’s a lot of nostalgia baked into my enjoyment of this band, but Molchat Doma’s work easily surpasses the output of most ’80s revivalists. “Doma Molchat,” the synthy lead track off the band’s debut full-length, employs a bit of spunky new wave glamour, while “Na Dne” (which kicks off the second LP), is more reserved, edging toward the gloomy synth-pop of groups like Depeche Mode.

Axel Boman “Eyes of My Mind” (Studio Barnhus)

It’s not often that house music can be described as “folksy,” but this new track from Swedish producer and Studio Barnhus co-founder Axel Boman quite literally flips an old bluegrass standard. “Eyes of My Mind” is a dreamy, psychedelic tune that very much fits into Boman’s usual motif, but the vocal—which, despite its Appalachian origins, also carries the hippie-ish spirit of ’60s-era folk—is what really makes this something special. Even with its lively snare pattern, the song isn’t exactly a club banger, but there’s something uniquely human about the track; in a more cynical moment, I might have dismissed “Eyes of My Mind” as hokey, but given the current state of the world, there’s something reassuring about its gentle twang and swirling pastels. Also worth checking is the official video, which was created using 455 individual paintings and drawings that Studio Barnhus associate Malin Gabriella Nordin created while listening to the track on a loop.

D*Minds “Grenshaw” (ThirtyOne)

What’s happening with the coronavirus is pretty damn scary, and “Grenshaw” is the kind of track that’s perfect for leaning into that terror. The latest offering from this long-running Bristol drum & bass duo is essentially a throwback to late-’90s techstep, but there’s more to this tune than its aggro bass blasts, cracking drums and crunchy bellows. “Grenshaw” is unsettling, not to mention dramatic; the song’s soaring melodies—which sound like something out of a John Carpenter film, or maybe some kind of arena rock guitar riff—are epic, but they’re also ominous, as if they’re warning of the doom that will soon be wrought by the music’s savage underbelly. It’s most likely not for everyone, especially right now, but for those willing to embrace the darkness, it’s very well done.

Nasty Habits “Shadow Boxing” (ThirtyOne)

Keeping things in the evil end of the pool, “Shadow Boxing” is something from Doc Scott’s vault. (Nasty Habits is a pseudonym that the UK drum & bass legend and ThirtyOne Recordings boss used intermittently over the years.) Originally released in 1996, “Shadow Boxing” is regarded as a classic by many, and it’s just been reissued digitally as part of a larger collection called 1994/2001 Remastered. In truth, the drums here are relatively subdued (at least by drum & bass standards), and the random martial arts samples place the song very much in the ’90s, but make no mistake—this is a heavy track, and its lurching waves of drone sound like something out of War of the Worlds. This one may not be suitable for your “relaxed pandemic listening” playlist, but it’s something that drum & bass heads would be wise to grab regardless.

Nexus 21 “Self-Hypnosis (Mr Whippy Remix)” (Cease & Desist)

Another blast from the past, although it’s a past that I honestly don’t know that much about. Bleep is a sound that emerged in the UK in the late ’80s and early ’90s, combining elements of early house and techno with industrial and Caribbean soundsystem culture… and that’s more or less where my expertise ends. Luckily for all of us, writer Matt Anniss has gone to the trouble of thoroughly researching the era, and last year released a book called Join The Future: Bleep Techno & The Birth Of British Bass Music. Now, he’s followed that up by curating a compilation, Join The Future - UK Bleep & Bass 1988​-​91, which provides a more complete picture of what the music actually sounded like. Aside from Nightmares on Wax, most of the artist names featured likely won’t ring familiar, even for dedicated electronic music fans; nevertheless, the tracks, most of which aren’t particularly polished, do showcase a uniquely hybridized and incredibly influential moment in dance music history. The playful and techno-leaning “Self-Hypnosis” first dropped in 1990, and though the Nexus 21 project basically folded just a year or two later, its members—Mark Archer and Chris Peat—wound up finding a lot more success with their other music endeavor, Altern 8.

Marc Acardipane presents Marshall Masters feat. The Ultimate MC “Hustler for Life (JASSS Remix)” (Planet Phuture)

Another bit of rave revivalism, this one courtesy of veteran German producer Marc Trauner (a.k.a. Marc Acardipane a.k.a. The Mover a.k.a. approximately 50 other monikers). He’s just dropped The Most Famous Unknown, a sprawling, 34-track collection that’s essentially a “best of” album spanning his 30 years of work. That said, it’s not entirely a trip down memory lane, as the record also includes a grip of remixes from artists like VTSS, Dasha Rush, Nina Kraviz, Umwelt and others, including this rework of 1997’s “Hustler for Life” by Spanish producer JASSS. Similar in vein to her recent Whities release, this remix serves up a blazing onslaught of rave energy, complete with razor-sharp synths, freewheeling breakbeats and swirling acid flurries. Sensory overload has long been at the heart of Trauner’s music, and JASSS maintains that intensity, but here it’s been funneled into a gloriously unhinged dancefloor weapon.

Annie Hall “D’un Altre Planeta” (Central Processing Unit)

Annie Hall is another Spanish producer, although many people got to know her music while she was living in Windsor, Canada for several years. These days, however, she lives in Barcelona, and she’s just released a new EP called Fum for Sheffield electro / breakbeat outpost Central Processing Unit. It feels like electro has lost a bit of steam in 2020—and I’m guessing that the pandemic is unlikely to increase our collective appetite for high-energy, cybernetic beats—but “D’un Altre Planeta” is a quality tune that combines snapping breakbeats with moody, Detroit-style sci-fi sonics. Lively enough for the dancefloor and trippy enough for zoning out, it’s a promising effort from an artist who likely deserves a bit more shine.

Bicep “Atlas” (Ninja Tune)

If you like Bicep, you’re probably going to like “Atlas.” Released last week as a standalone single, it’s probably best understood as a big-budget sequel to “Glue.” All of the key elements are still in place, including the ’90s-style breakbeats, colorful synths and an emotive vocal that lands somewhere between Dead Can Dance and Future Sound of London’s classic “Papua New Guinea.” That said, where “Glue” was sort of a low-key sadboy tune that inadvertently became a massive anthem, “Atlas” is bigger, bolder and brighter. Bicep may not be truly “underground” anymore—although they’re not exactly “famous” either, at least not in the mainstream pop sense of the word—but they do have a larger fanbase now, and were clearly aiming for the fences here. To their credit, they succeeded in the effort.

Workforce “In the Throes” (Must Make)

UK producer Workforce (who’s also one half of drum & bass duo Spectrasoul) has been steadily ramping up his solo output over the past year, and he’s just dropped a new EP called Late Night Soundtrack Vol. 3. “In the Throes” is the standout cut, a bouncy roller with bright melodies, thick waves of bass and, most importantly, some pitch-shifted diva vocals, infusing the track with a soulful vibe that’s often lacking in modern drum & bass. As much as I can get down with techstep mayhem and repurposed R&B snippets—at least when those techniques / styles are well done—it’s also nice to be reminded that this music is being made by real people, and “In the Throes” does just that.

Daniel Avery & Alessandro Cortini “Illusion of Time” (Phantasy/Mute)

As I mentioned above, the Illusion of Time album was a pleasant surprise for me, an ambient-ish effort that bounces between textured distortion and synth-driven grandeur. The whole LP is worth a listen, but the title track is the song I kept coming back to again and again. Built around a simple melody that’s equal parts Krautrock and classic IDM, the song could have easily been a throwaway piece of pastoral electronic noodling, but Avery and Cortini have bathed their production in layers of warm fuzz and scratchy tape hiss, which make for a more complex listen and also lend a subtle sense of menace to the proceedings.

Jacaszek “Christ Blood Theme” (Ghostly International)

I’ve never really been a big fan of Jacaszek. It’s hard to say why, but his work just never really connected with me. Given that, I figured that his new album, Music for Film, would be one of those releases that I scan through once and promptly forget about, but that’s not what happened. It’s strange, because the LP—which pieces together a variety of compositions that the Polish composer assembled for film projects over the years—doesn’t represent any sort of major sea change on Jacaszek’s part; truth be told, some of its songs are more than a decade old. Maybe I’m the one that’s changed, but I found myself entranced by the record, and “Christ Blood Theme” in particular. Weaving together a somber choir of soaring, angelic voices, the song—as the title implies—pulls heavily from sacred music, and its devotional tone pairs beautifully with Jacaszek’s stark palette of strings and other classical instrumentation. I’m not a religious person, or even a spiritual one, but there’s something uniquely powerful about music that looks into the great beyond.

Nicolas Jaar “Mud” (Other People)

Nicolas Jaar “Garden” (Other People)

Less than two months after the release of a surprisingly noisy album from his Against All Logic project, Nicolas Jaar has returned with another, much different full-length, Cenizas. A woozy, minimal effort that sets percussion aside almost entirely, it amazingly still manages to sound self-indulgent, and won’t do much to quiet those who say that trimming the fat isn’t one of Jaar’s strengths. (I count myself as part of this camp.) That said, for those with the patience to wade through the morass, Cenizas has some fantastic moments, two of which I’ve highlighted here. “Mud,” the longest song on the album, is a moody dirge, with Jaar singing in an almost Jim Morrison-esque fashion atop a suite of warbling psychedelic tones and one of the LP’s few steady drum beats. “Garden,” on the other hand, is light and delicate, an exquisite tune that employs little more than a simple—albeit melancholy—piano refrain and gentle flutters of melodic atmosphere. Together, the two tracks showcase why Jaar is often hailed as a special talent; I just wish he could sound this good all the time.


That’s it for this week’s newsletter. I’ll be back next week, but thank you so much for reading. 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.)

Stay safe out there.

Shawn


Shawn Reynaldo is a freelance writer, editor, presenter and project manager. Find him on LinkedIn or drop him an email to get in touch about projects, collaborations or potential work opportunities.