First Floor #35 – (Very) Cautiously Optimistic

a.k.a. Talk of real change in the music industry is slowly picking up steam.

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

I’m not an optimist.

For anyone who’s followed my work over the years, I suppose that statement won’t be particularly surprising, and that probably goes double for regular readers of this newsletter. I certainly can’t deny that First Floor has become, amongst other things, something of an ongoing platform for my critiques of the music industry.

Today, however, I’m going to try and set my cynicism aside, because during the past week I’ve been feeling something unexpected: optimism. Don’t get me wrong, the current state of affairs is bad. Huge swaths of the music industry are effectively on pause and the overall economic outlook for both artists and industry professionals is grim. Things are bound to get worse before they get better, and plenty of folks will likely wind up abandoning music altogether in the coming months, purely out of necessity.

So what, exactly, do I have to feel positive about? The current music industry discourse. (Yes, seriously. I’m as surprised as you are.)

A month ago, the COVID-19 crisis was being greeted with empty sloganeering and calls to collectively weather the storm until the “scene” could get back to normal. That’s still happening of course, but as the pandemic has stretched on, there’s been a noticeable shift in the conversation.

Last week, Emilie Friedlander wrote an article for Vice that laid bare just how precarious life has become in the “independent” music world. She also chronicled efforts to collectively organize within the underground music community, effectively arguing that its survival may ultimately depend on joining forces with (or at least borrowing the tactics of) organized labor. Many of the ideas she laid out weren’t new—in fact, she openly borrows from Mat Dryhurst and his ongoing calls for “interdependence” over “independence”—but it does feel like the current crisis has suddenly prompted a lot more people to take a serious look at the big picture, and the calls for permanent structural change are steadily growing louder.

It’s not as though thoughtful industry critique didn’t exist pre-coronavirus, but back when the economy was moving at a million miles a minute, those discussions often felt more like abstract thought exercises than concrete calls to action. Even as every Spotify-savaging Liz Pelly article was roundly cheered on social media, the same streaming platforms she criticized were steadily increasing their stranglehold on the music landscape. This phenomenon wasn’t limited to streaming, either. The dominance of festival culture, spiraling DJ fees, dwindling revenue for songwriters and producers, the overrepresentation of the upper classes in music, the rising environmental cost of constant touring… the list of problems is endless, and all of these issues had been highlighted by smart people in and around the industry, yet nothing changed. In the old status quo, real change was frequently stifled by the simple fact that too many people were making money; steady profits have a way of preventing people from rocking the boat. As for the people who weren’t profiting, they were usually so busy hustling that their efforts to upend the system were often limited to private conversations and Twitter grumbling.

The music press undoubtedly deserves some of the blame here, particularly when it comes to streaming. For years, outlet after outlet eagerly reported how streaming had “saved” the music industry, often while integrating platforms like Spotify and Apple Music into the presentation of their content. Everyone knew that streaming platforms were giving artists a raw deal, but their dominance and exploitative practices were largely accepted as the cost of doing business.

Thankfully though, journalists’ tone now appears to be shifting, at least a little bit. Take the response to Spotify’s announcement last week that artists could now start fundraising through the platform. A few months ago, such a move likely would have been widely hailed (at least in the mainstream music press) as a thoughtful gesture by a company that truly cares about artists. Instead, we’re starting to see responses like this Guardian article, in which music editor Ben Beaumont-Thomas essentially calls bullshit on the idea, labeling the virtual “tip jar” model as a “slap in the face” and advocating for Spotify to simply pay artists more. It’s an argument that’s been echoed across social media in recent days, and it’s encouraging to see musicians and fans alike increasingly holding these multibillion-dollar companies to account.

I don’t mean to imply that some sort of revolution is in the air, but there does seem to be a growing appetite for structural change, or at least a serious discussion about it. Last week, I wrote my first-ever feature for Pitchfork, examining the current explosion of DJ livestreams and asking whether or not anyone was actually getting paid. (Spoiler alert: for the most part, the answer is “no.”) The article has generated a lot of discussion and the overall response has been largely positive, but I was honestly a bit nervous about publishing the piece, just because it ran against the grain of multiple widely accepted industry practices. Although the notion that DJs (and the artists whose music they play) deserve compensation seems simple enough on the surface, we’re also living in a time in which streaming DJ sets are generally thought of as free content, regardless of whether it’s a Boiler Room session or a podcast for a widely read magazine.

It’s not a new idea that artists’ work is what attracts audiences to online platforms (and builds said platforms’ value), and yet talk of paying artists for that work has long been relegated to the fringes. So much of the music economy is predicated on the concept of “exposure,” that what artists do for free or cheap now will potentially lead to a proper payday down the line, be it from increased album sales, more bookings or something else. While there’s a certain logic to the practice, it’s unquestionably exploitative—after all, it’s quite literally rooted in artists providing free or cheap labor—and now that many of those potential paydays have suddenly gone up in smoke, the music community is starting to realize that perhaps another model is needed.

Just yesterday, I spotted this comment from Atlanta-based DJ and writer Ash Lauryn:

I don’t want to overstate the importance of a single tweet, but seeing this sentiment voiced publicly (and racking up likes) feels like a step in the right direction. For so long, talking about the financial aspects of the music industry has been frowned upon as impolite or needlessly combative, but now that the music economy has come crashing to a halt, perhaps it’s time to stop worrying such things. As horrible and difficult as the current crisis is, and will likely continue to be, it’s provided the music world with a chance for a reset, and amazingly, there seems to be a real interest in making it happen.

Will that interest last though? I’m not sure. Now that the pandemic appears to have peaked and governments around the world are slowly shifting their focus toward reopening our societies, it’s possible that this budding sense of communal solidarity and drive to organize will evaporate as we return to some semblance of normality. I hope that’s not the case, but humans are fickle creatures. In the meantime though, I’m feeling good about the conversations I’m seeing, and will do what I can to make sure they continue.


RIP MIKE HUCKABY

Last Friday, Mike Huckaby passed away at the age of 54. The veteran Detroit DJ, producer and educator was a beloved figure in the Motor City and beyond, a quiet and kind man who preferred to let his work do the talking. Moreover, he graciously shared his knowledge with others, whether he was recommending records to people during his many years at the Record Time shop or teaching production to kids (including, at one point, a young Kyle Hall) at Detroit’s YouthVille center. Social media has been flooded with tributes and fond remembrances over the past few days, and knowing that his death (which resulted from both the lingering effects a stroke he suffered last month and COVID-19) may have been related to a lack of access to proper health care makes the loss even more difficult to stomach. Still, there’s no denying that Mike was a special person whose music and actions touched countless people around the the world. He will be sorely missed.

For those looking to find out more about Huckaby’s life, death and legacy, I’d recommend the following:

  • Michaelangelo Matos wrote an excellent in-depth remembrance for the New York Times.

  • For those who prefer something from Huckaby’s hometown, The Detroit Free Press published this article on his passing.

  • Resident Advisor put together a tribute that includes 10 of Huckaby’s most iconic tracks, along with a jacking mix from his early days as a DJ. (This one might be a good starting point for people who aren’t familiar with his music.)

  • This is older, but back in 2018, Huckaby starred in this highly enjoyable episode of Amoeba’s What’s in My Bag? series, running through a slew of amazing records from across the musical spectrum.


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.

  • I mentioned this last week, but it’s worth repeating that Bandcamp will once again be supporting artists by waiving its usual 10-15% percentage on all sales for 24 hours on this Friday, May 1. Even better, the site has also announced that additional commission-free days have been scheduled for June 5 and July 3. Get those shopping lists ready!

  • UK artist India Jordan has a new EP on the way for Local Action. Entitled For You, it’s due to arrive on May 20, and the infectiously bouncy title track is a much-needed dose of sunshine and ebullience during this dark time.

  • Back in February, Jessy Lanza released a poppy new single called “Lick in Heaven,” and she’ll soon be following that up with a full album. All The Time will be arriving on July 24 via Hyperdub, and is said to be “the most pure set of pop songs” that Lanza and her creative partner Jeremy Greenspan have ever recorded. Ahead of the release, she’s shared another LP cut, “Face.” The song is streaming here, or you can check out the charmingly lo-fi and strobe-filled video.

  • Electronic music is overflowing with bass-techno hybrids these days, but few labels can match the quality of Timedance. The Bristol imprint’s next release will be the Rhythm Hi-Tek EP from UK producer Lurka. The record comes out on May 8, but one of its tracks, “Minds Eye Tript,” is streaming now.

  • Following an impressive 10-year run, Tri Angle Records is shutting down. Although the label had been relatively quiet during the past year, its influence over the past decade of electronic music is undeniable, thanks to a catalog that includes fantastic records from artists like Holy Other, Vessel, Clams Casino, Balam Acab, Serpentwithfeet, The Haxan Cloak, Forest Swords, oOoOO, Katie Gately, Lotic, Roly Porter and so many others.

  • Another week of crisis means another round of new benefit compilations. Some of the more interesting offerings include:

    • Pen Pals is a collection of remote collaborations curated by The Ransom Note label / website that features artists like Otik, Borusiade, Sapphire Slows, Bawrut, C.A.R. and many others.

    • Hivernation Volume 1 has been put together by John Talabot’s Hivern Discs label, and exclusively features tracks created during the COVID-19 lockdown, including efforts from INIT, Borusiade, Oma Totem and more.

    • For the NHS is an EP from the Hundred Flowers imprint that includes new tracks from label founder O’Flynn, Spooky-J and more.

    • V​.​Acina Vol​.​1 was put together by Sao Paulo party / label Gop Tun and collects new songs by artists from across Brazil, including Carrot Green, Valesuchi, TYV and many more.


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.

TRj “Scene 2: In the Mouth a Desert” (Self-released)

Hello. I miss buying tapes. I dare not now, because I’ve already lost a few to the pandemic postal ether. I just discovered TRj’s Music for the Desert Reboot and it totally matches my day off, exploring dunes here in middle-of-nowhere Australia. The tape is the soundtrack for an indefinitely suspended film, and I love the idea of a visually vacant soundtrack that I can make my own. I also quite like Low Company’s description of this song: “cyborg gamelan.”

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.

Laila Sakini “Butterflies” (Total Stasis)

Laila Sakini’s fantastic debut album Vivienne was first released at the end of February, but it was only last week that the music hit Bandcamp, which is why I’m sharing it now. The London-based Australian has kept things minimal, utilizing only piano, a few effects and her own voice, but the record is a patient and beautiful work that radiates both classical elegance and melancholy introspection. “Butterflies” is one of the more vocal-centric cuts, and reminds me of PJ Harvey’s White Chalk album. At two-and-a-half minutes in length, my only complaint is that it doesn’t go on for longer.

Dane Law “Delph” (The Astral Plane)

In the electronic music realm, it’s rare that album titles provide much concrete insight, but Algorithmic Music for Synthesised Strings feels pretty instructive. The London producer’s latest album was apparently born out of a guest mix for NTS, and sounds exactly as you’d imagine, with manipulated plucks and plonks gracefully dancing and twirling like some sort of water nymph. “Delph” is the LP’s standout cut, and though its delicate melodies do bear something of a resemblance to classic trance, Law’s relatively minimal composition dispenses with cheap grandeur while presenting a piece of music that’s ultimately far more complex (and far less linear) than anything you’d hear on an old Paul van Dyk record.

DC Salas “The Complicated Art of Dreaming” (Live at Robert Johnson)

Fresh off a release for Eclair Fifi’s River Rapid label, DC Salas—a Brussels-based artist who’s also the co-founder of Biologic Records—has landed on storied Frankfurt outpost Live at Robert Johnson. “The Complicated Art of Dreaming” is the title track of his bouncy new EP, and it closes out the record by slowing down the tempo and leaning heavily on a chunky boogie bassline. It’s a chugger, yes, but it’s also bright and upbeat, with perky percussion and colorful synth flashes that harken back to the glory days of Italo, synth-pop and new beat.

Roza Terenzi “That Track (Rewired Mix)” (Planet Euphorique)

Modern Bliss is Roza Terenzi’s highly anticipated debut album, and much of the record is soaked in a sense of dreamy nostalgia, with astral melodies and psychedelic breakbeats that borrow heavily from the ’90s rave aesthetic. “That Track (Rewired Mix),” however, is something of an outlier. The song’s sassy vocal refrain sounds like something you’d hear in a playground game of Double Dutch, and it’s been paired with an upfront house beat that’s easily the album’s most linear rhythm. This Australian producer may be best known for her sci-fi vision—after all, her moniker is something of an homage to astrophysicist / recording artist Fiorella Terenzi—but the banging “That Track (Rewired Mix)” shows that even when her head isn’t in the clouds, she’s still capable of doing great work.

Wata Igarashi “Clear” (WIP)

This Japanese techno producer has really come into his own over the past year or two, and he’s just launched a new label, WIP, which stands for both Wata Iagarashi Productions and Work in Progress. Although he planned to launch the imprint with a techno release, the current pandemic prompted a change in direction; as such, “Clear” is an immersive synth epic that runs nearly 16 minutes in length. Inspired by Japan’s cherry blossom season, the track could technically be classified as ambient—there are no drums—but this isn’t really meant for passive listening. “Clear” is transportive, in the same way that an artist like Caterina Barbieri is transportive, although Igarashi’s grand vision is perhaps a bit warmer and more lush.

K-Lone “In the Pines” (Wisdom Teeth)

The first Wisdom Teeth record came out all the way back in 2014, but over the past year or so, this UK imprint has really blossomed, thanks to a stepped-up release schedule that has included music from Lurka, Duckett, Benoit B, Steevio and label founders Facta and K-Lone. The latter is responsible for Cape Cira, the imprint’s first full-length and a remarkably cohesive effort that surprisingly sets aside dancefloor tropes in favor of something far more tranquil. Channelling the Fourth World vision of artists like John Hassell, the LP is largely powered by sonorous chimes and vaguely tropical rhythms; hints of new age and gamelan abound, and “In the Pines” also recalls the pristine work of groups like Visible Cloaks, even if K-Lone’s music ultimately feels a bit more organic. Cape Cira a wonderful record, and although it wasn’t what I expected, its soothing vibe is a perfect salve for the difficult times we’re facing at the moment.

Osheyack “Mutual Shaping” (SVBKVLT)

This one isn’t going to calm anybody down. Taken from Memory Hierarchy, the Shanghai producer’s new EP, “Mutual Shaping” is an unapologetically rowdy club track. The machine-gun percussion is reminiscent of old Ramadanman material, but Osheyack has cranked the intensity level, weaving in additional layers of hard-hitting percussion and manic sound design. There’s a lot going on, and the song sometimes feels like the bass music equivalent of being trapped in a haunted funhouse, but even with all the detours, the track’s potency is never lost. It’s too bad that clubs are closed right now, because this is the kind of tune that can make a dancefloor go absolutely apeshit.

Pugilist & Tamen “Adversity” (Trule)

Allen Wootton (a.k.a. Deadboy) has been making moves with his Trule label as of late, simply by expanding its scope beyond his own productions. The young imprint’s latest release is Heavy Lies the Crown, a new EP from rising UK producer Pugilist, and “Adversity” is a collaboration he’s done with Australian artist Tamen. As you might expect, it’s a hybrid creation, one that’s perhaps described as a mutant strain of drum & bass, even though the genre’s usual Amen break is refreshingly nowhere to be found. The percussion here is actually somewhat restrained, but the insistent “Adversity” still packs a punch, largely thanks to its thick, sludgy fog of bass and reverb—a technique that appears to have been nicked from the world of dub. It’s an inventive effort, and a promising sign that producers haven’t yet run out of new ways to inspire a screwface.

Kronos Device “Hyperqub3” (Avoidant)

Late last year, long-running Glasgow label Soma Records launched a new offshoot, Avoidant, to focus on “leftfield electro and diverse sonics.” The young imprint’s latest release is The Infinite Ones EP, a new record from veteran UK duo Kronos Device. “Hyperqub3” sounds like a souped-up version of Cybotron, as they’ve injected a smacking old-school electro rhythm with whirring hoovers and a heavy dose of industrial crunch. It may not be subtle—it’s even a bit aggressive—but it most definitely bangs.

White Poppy “Broken” (Not Not Fun)

If I’m being honest, this song barely qualifies as electronic music, but I’ve been listening to it on repeat. Sitting somewhere between dream pop and the early output of The Cure, “Broken” is a hazy post-punk gem with an infectiously bouncy underbelly. The track kicks off Paradise Gardens, the Canadian artist’s latest album, and though it’s absolutely dripping with indie nostalgia—seriously, it sounds like a long-lost entry from the Creation Records catalog—White Poppy has so completely nailed the aesthetic that I find no reason to complain.

Fort Romeau “Neuromance” (Permanent Vacation)

At this point, Fort Romeau is essentially a known quantity, and his new Fantasia EP honestly doesn’t offer much in the way of surprises. That said, its three songs are all quality examples of what he does best: melody-driven, ’80s-referencing house music that’s been infused with elements of Italo and synth-pop. “Neuromance” is the best of the bunch, and while its chunky bassline does lend the proceedings a palpable sense of momentum, the track’s real magic resides in its glittering array of synth melodies, which nimbly twist and tangle as they soar ever skyward. If you’re looking for a quick shot of euphoria, this tune should do the trick.

Nonlocal Forest “Cloud-Hidden” (Hausu Mountain)

Mondo Lava “Credits” (Hausu Mountain)

Hausu Mountain frequently gets overlooked by electronic music fans, probably because a significant chunk of its output is noisy, discordant and utterly unconcerned with the dancefloor. Truth be told, screeching tones and harsh blasts of distortion aren’t usually my thing either, but that’s just one aspect of what this adventurous (and prolific) Chicago label has to offer. “Cloud-Hidden” and “Credits” both appear on HausMo Mixtape II, a wildly diverse collection of tracks pulled from assorted Hausu Mountain releases dating back to the middle of 2018. The former has a distinct Dungeons & Dragons vibe, sounding like the triumphant theme song to a budget fantasy film from the 1980s. With its glistening synths, “Credits” is similarly nerdy, although the song is more subdued, with gently clattering percussion that lends the track a more new-agey feel. These are just two of the gems on HausMo Mixtape II, and for anyone interested in a quick overview of what Hausu Mountain is all about, this compilation just might be the perfect entry point.

Xzavier Stone “Shea Butta” (Self-released)

Back in 2018, Xzavier Stone released his debut album THIRST on Sinjin Hawke and Zora Jones’ Fractal Fantasy platform. Since then, he’s kept a relatively low profile, lending his talents to only a handful of new tracks and remixes. That slow drip continues today with XZ, a new four-track EP showcasing his futuristic take on hip-hop and R&B rhythms. With its warped and pitch-shifted vocal choirs, lead track “Shea Butta” takes some obvious cues from the Fractal Fantasy playbook, but the playful strings sound like something Timbaland would have employed back in the day. Stone has an obvious ear for pop hooks, which is all the more impressive when you consider that “Shea Butta” has no coherent lyrics aside from a series of raspy “yeah” samples.

Zenker Brothers “Chi Boost” (Ilian Tape)

Maybe the Zenker Brothers are sick of everyone (myself included) talking about the “broken” nature of their music and how much it’s been influenced by the UK, because the Munich duo’s new Mad System EP is full of hard-charging, linear rhythms. The booming “Chi Boost” is the most potent of the bunch, a booming piece of techno whose slippery synth line sounds a lot more like Detroit than London. Given the song title, maybe it’s meant to be a nod to Chicago, but regardless of what inspired the track, it’s essentially a back-to-basics club screamer and it sounds great. Ilian Tape’s hot streak continues, and I hope it never ends.


And with that, we’ve come to the end of this week’s newsletter. 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.)

Until next time,

Shawn

p.s. Don’t forget to hit up Bandcamp this Friday.


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.