First Floor #36 – Pull Your Music Off Spotify

a.k.a. Bandcamp is the kind of platform we ought to be cultivating.

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 had a different essay planned for today.

All last week, I was convinced that the second Bandcamp Friday was going to be a disappointment. Although the first one in March had been a massive success, pulling in 4.3 million in sales, I figured that the novelty of the platform giving up its usual 10-15% commission for 24 hours had already worn off. I tend to be wary of donation- and subscription-based models anyways, and knowing that most consumers out there probably had even less disposable income available than they did six weeks prior, I imagined a scenario in which Bandcamp Friday #2 showed a lot of moxie, but ultimately fell a bit flat.

I was wrong.

It only took 14 hours for Bandcamp to match its sales total from March, and yesterday the platform announced a total haul of $7.1 million for the entire event. That’s an increase of 65%.

Now, this doesn’t mean that I’m going to declare Bandcamp the savior of the music industry. $7.1 sounds like a lot, but it’s important to remember that the global music industry brings in tens of billions of dollars of revenue annually. The Bandcamp Friday phenomenon may be encouraging, and it’s generated some feelgood anecdotal stories about artists being able to buy groceries or pay their rent, but it’s not going to rescue us.

It is, however, a sign that an appetite exists for platforms that truly value the interests of artists and labels, particularly those who operate outside of the mainstream. I thought this tweet from Barker summed it up nicely (albeit angrily):

If you read his entire thread, he talks about how the Leisure System label (which he helps run) removed its catalog from Spotify earlier this year, and how that subsequently triggered a rise in Bandcamp sales, even before the coronavirus hit.

I think he’s on to something. Artists complain about Spotify (and other streaming platforms) all the time, and most of us have seen the ridiculous charts displaying just how little money a stream generates. And yet, artists and labels continue to engage with these platforms, seemingly resigned to the notion that although the situation sucks, it’s better to have your music available on Spotify, Apple, Amazon, etc., because that’s where the listeners are.

This is just another version of the “exposure” myth that already plagues the music industry. I suppose there’s a certain logic to the idea that listeners might “discover” an artist’s music on a streaming platform (presumably by hearing it on a playlist), and that could theoretically build momentum that eventually translates into more streams, more merch sales, more gigs and maybe even some actual record sales. In reality though, how often does that happen? And does the success of a tiny fraction of artists justify the fact that everyone else is essentially providing free (or very cheap) content to a platform that’s barely compensating them in return? The legitimacy of Spotify and these other streaming platforms is based upon the idea that listeners can log on and find “everything,” and that claim, despite being inherently ridiculous, is only bolstered every time that a new artist or new label signs up.

There’s an argument out there that artists need to demand higher pay rates from these streaming giants, and it’s not without merit. There’s an obvious absurdity to the idea that a company like Google (which owns YouTube and somehow gets way less flack than Spotify) can get away with paying less than .002 cents per stream. At the same time, it’s unlikely that these companies’ business models are even going to change significantly, because it simply wouldn’t make financial sense. Although places like Apple and Amazon can comfortably operate their music divisions as a sort of loss-leader, losing millions while ostensibly drawing in customers to their more profitable products and services, streaming leader Spotify has no such luxury, and it’s already paying out approximately 70% of its revenue as royalties, mostly to major labels like Universal, Sony Music and Warner. The company may be inching toward profitability, but it’s currently still operating at a giant loss (literally hundreds of millions per year), even as its user base approaches 300 million people worldwide.

Barring some sort of major shift in its business model, Spotify simply won’t be capable of paying artists more, and other large platforms are unlikely to take that initiative on their own. Knowing that, there’s only one option that makes sense for independent artists and labels: removing your music from streaming platforms.

Perhaps this seems like a call for independent musicians to cut off their nose to spite their face. After all, I’ve spoken with multiple label owners who’ve told me that streaming actually accounts for a larger percentage of their income than actual sales. (And yes, these are electronic music labels that presumably are still selling significant quantities of vinyl to DJs and engaged fans.) Given the current state of the discourse in electronic music circles, it’s not exactly “cool” for them to say that publicly, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

In the long run though, there’s little to be gained from continuing to participate in an inherently flawed and unfair system. Some artists and labels may be profiting now, but are they profiting as much as they would have 10 or 20 years ago when people were actually buying music? And what about all of the artists and labels who aren’t profiting in the current system? Shouldn’t we do something better for them?

This where Bandcamp comes in. Again, I’m not saying it’s a savior and its platform is honestly far from perfect, but at least its values seem to align with those of independent music communities. Writer Liz Pelly, as she tends to do, put it a lot more eloquently:

It’s important to remember that the streaming giants are platforms of scale; they are literally designed for the mass market and the commercial mainstream. There may be a lot of bullshit narratives and dewey-eyed nostalgia about “independent” music, but at its core, it’s an idea that’s not rooted in mass consumption. Spotify thrives on passive listeners (i.e. the folks who simply hit “play” and let music stream endlessly in the background), but passive consumption is antithetical to the idea of independent music, which generally requires listeners to dig a little deeper and seek it out. (Side note: if we’re being honest, the scarcity and exclusivity of independent music is also part of what makes it fun.)

That’s what makes a platform like Bandcamp so appealing. At least for now, it’s not geared towards the mainstream. It may not be on the radar of the “average” listener, but maybe it’s time for independent music culture to stop caring about the “average” listener. It’s silly for an experimental noise artist to be operating in the same sphere as Drake, but that’s what’s happening on Spotify. Why don’t we cultivate spaces that cater only to the folks who really want to be there? Bandcamp is one of those spaces, and unlike many of the streaming giants, its operation is already profitable. This is the kind of self-sustaining eco-system that we should be supporting and growing—sustainably, of course.

To be clear, I don’t think Spotify is going anywhere. Even if independent artists and labels everywhere suddenly pulled their music off the giant streaming platforms, those companies are going to be fine; most of their revenue comes from mainstream music anyways. When I advocate for artists and labels to stop engaging with Spotify, it’s not because I think we’re going to collectively take them down, or even prompt any kind of large-scale reforms. If that happened, that would of course be great, but in the meantime, I suggest that we leave them to do their thing and focus on building something better for ourselves.


ANOTHER THING I WROTE

  • Last Friday, Pitchfork published my review of Modern Bliss, the debut album from Australian producer Roza Terenzi. I have no idea if she appreciated descriptors like “more Burning Man than Berghain” or my inclusion of the Aussie term “bush doof” (which I swear is a real thing), but I can say that they sprung from my genuine affection for the music.


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.

  • Thanks to Bandcamp Friday, the electronic music world was greeted with a torrent of new releases, and I simply don’t have the room to list all of the interesting ones here. Some of my absolute favorites are highlighted in the New This Week section below, but if you’re interested in a deeper dive into which special Bandcamp Friday releases I think you might find interesting, I’ve put together a more complete rundown here.

  • Mat Dryhurst is a name I’ve mentioned a lot in the newsletter, and just yesterday he and partner Holly Herndon announced the launch of a new podcast called Interdependence, which they promise will provide “conversations with good people at the forefront of music, technology and policy.”

  • Beloved Detroit producer Moodymann has a new album on the way. Entitled Taken Away, it’s due to arrive on May 21 via his own KDJ label. In the meantime, the decidedly funky lead cut, “Do Wrong,” is streaming here.

  • More than seven years have passed since synth explorers Emeralds called it quits, and yet the Cleveland trio’s legacy only seems to have grown with the passage of time. Fans have long been clamoring for the group’s full catalog to be reissued or made available digitally, and last week the band finally complied, offering a number of old releases (plus some previously unreleased material) via a newly created Bandcamp page. Even better, more music is on the way, as there’s apparently a lot more “in the vaults.”

  • Darkstar have announced a new full-length, their first in five years. Civic Jams will be released on June 19 via Warp Records, and is said to examine “those moments when you balance the everyday fuckery you find yourself in with being in a place or a community that resonates with you and eases the burden.” The latest single is “Jam,” which can be heard here, along with several other cuts from the LP. One of those is “Wolf,” a song for which John Talabot has come up with two different remixes.

  • Greek artist Jay Glass Dubs has completed a new LP for the Berceuse Heroique label. No official release date has been set—it will apparently come out “when the gods are silent”—but a sampler has been made available that includes a gorgeous album track, “Shape,” along with a drum & bass remix of that song by Bristol producer Hodge.

  • Back in 2018, RVNG Intl. and its Freedom to Spend offshoot teamed up to release Beside Herself, an anthology of material from ’80s experimentalist Michele Mercure. Now, they’ve put together what they’re calling an “intimate answer” to that record, a new collection called Pictures of Echoes. The cassettes appear to be sold out already, but the digital version officially drops this Friday, May 8 and a few songs from the release are streaming here.


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.

CV & JAB Landscape Architecture (Editions Basilica)

Hoshina Anniversary Odoriko 2.0 (Alien Jams)

Hello again. This is actually Shawn writing. Dania is coming off five overnight shifts in a row at the emergency room, so she (justifiably) didn’t have the energy to put together a little blurb for the newsletter. She did, however, send over these two links, and I think we all know by now that you can trust her recommendations.

It’s also worth noting that her most recent Dublab show was included in Philip Sherburne’s round-up of April’s best DJ mixes for Pitchfork.

She’s an amazing lady.

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.

Nathan Micay “Who Shaves the Barber” (LuckyMe)

Bandcamp day was full of surprises, and one of the biggest ones came from Nathan Micay. His debut full-length Blue Spring was one of 2019’s most celebrated electronic LPs, and out of nowhere the Berlin-based Canadian dropped the follow-up last Friday. Entitled The World I’m Going to Hell For, it’s not just a surprise album; it’s also a pretty significant change in direction. According to Micay, it’s two years in the making and his most political work to date, but it’s also a record that pays little attention to the dancefloor, swapping out driving kicks for cinematic flair and classical instrumentation. Liberally employing cello, viola and violin—Micay spent time in youth orchestra as a child—the music retains the colorful anime-ish sensibility that defined some of his past work, but The World I’m Going to Hell For is a bit more serious, “adult” even. That’s not a critique; the drama and emotion of songs like “Who Shaves the Barber” feels genuine, and given the present state of the world, it’s refreshing to be moved by something that doesn’t rely on the usual club tropes. Impressive stuff.

The Soft Pink Truth “We” (Thrill Jockey)

Speaking of surprises, the new Soft Pink Truth album is a doozy. Drew Daniel, best known as one half of experimental duo Matmos, has had this solo project since the early 2000s, but while his initial efforts were rooted in playful glitch and wild covers of classic hardcore and death metal tracks, his latest LP, Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase?, is rooted in notions of healing. Arising as a response to the election of Donald Trump and the creeping rise of fascism around the globe, Daniel sought out joy instead of anger, and enlisted contributors like Colin Self, Deradoorian, his partner M.C. Schmidt and numerous others to help realize his musical vision. What’s resulted is a breathtakingly beautiful record, one rooted in tinkling pianos, serene atmospheres, angelic voices and an almost devotional sensibility. I never would have guessed that Soft Pink Truth would, or even could sound like this, but this album is absolutely stunning.

Lord of the Isles “Passing (feat. Ellen Renton)” (Whities)

Lord of the Isles “Inheritance (feat. Ellen Renton)” (Whities)

I’m not a big poetry guy. That probably has a lot more to do with my overly literal personality than the intrinsic value of the art form itself, but perhaps I need to take another look, because this new Whities release, which showcases the voice of Scottish poet Ellen Renton, floored me. Apparently Lord of the Isles felt the same way about her work, as he was so moved by “Passage” that he was compelled to make some musical accompaniment. There’s something hypnotic about Renton’s cadence, and that effect is only heightened by Lord of the Isles’ delicate melodies and languid tones. “Inheritance” is a sort of companion piece, similarly emotive but with a more uplifting vibe, especially once the sunrise-ready breakbeats kick in about halfway through. Both songs are steeped in nostalgia, and could be mistaken for the kind of cathartic voiceovers you often hear at the end of a dramatic coming-of-age film. Perhaps that sounds tacky, but it’s not—these tunes are glorious.

Ital Tek “Diamond Child” (Planet Mu)

The one downside of Bandcamp Friday is that records like Outland—an album whose May 1 release was announced back in early March—got somewhat lost in the flurry of new music on offer. It’s too bad, because the UK producer’s sixth full-length is a fantastic piece of work, infusing what might be described as a heavily textured strain of weightless grime with synth-driven pomp. It’s not really club music, but Ital Tek’s compositions are full of movement and life. “Diamond Child” is built atop a dense fog of hovering distortion, sweeping pads and pulsing synth tones, but despite all that weight—both aural and emotional—there’s no preventing the song’s soaring melodies from taking flight.

Galcher Lustwerk “Soul Control (Palms Trax Remix)” (Lustwerk Music)

Years ago, back when Galcher Lustwerk and Palms Trax were just getting started, they agreed to a remix swap, but only one of the reworks—Lustwerk’s take on “Forever”—saw a proper release. Now that’s been rectified, as this version of “Soul Control” was salvaged from the ether and posted online last Friday. It’s a nice reminder of what made both of these artists so appealing in the first place, as Lustwerk’s laid-back groove and effortless cool is joined here by the same sort of playfully sparking synths that powered early Palms Trax songs like “Equation.”

Fennec “Finding Rest in a Weary World” (Self-released)

You may remember me loudly singing the praises of this Indiana producer back in February, right after his brilliant Free Us of This Feeling album came out. “Finding Rest in a Weary World,” an extra tune he released for Bandcamp Friday, is similar in spirit, a sample-heavy piece of world-weary dance music that evokes the soulful sounds of Detroit house. Simultaneously melancholy and hopeful, it’s another deliciously deep gem from an artist who deserves a lot more shine.

Klara Lewis “Ingrid” (Editions Mego)

Clocking in at more than 20 minutes in length, “Ingrid” isn’t just a track—it’s an epic. Beginning with a simple cello loop, this Swedish artist allows it to to play over and over as she slowly weaves in additional tones and atmospheres, upping the drama and gradually nudging the composition into noisier and more ominous territory. Eventually, Lewis’ creation is practically bellowing, its sludgy stew of distortion turning itself over again and again as the whole thing seemingly marches toward oblivion. In the end, that destruction never comes, as the storm dissipates and the song ends on a peaceful note, but regardless of the outcome, “Ingrid” is a journey that’s well worth taking, both for the sheer dread and the sweet relief that comes when it passes.

Khotin “Tropique 707” (Self-released)

The Vancouver ambient stalwart has done it again. Actually, it’s more correct to say that he did it again, as “Tropique 707” is taken from Archive 13-15 Vol. 1, a collection of tunes from 2013 - 2015 (hence the title) that he recently salvaged from an old laptop. This track is pretty rudimentary, but there’s a lot of charm in its ramshackle beat, new age flourishes and smooth piano melody. Sitting somewhere between an old Balearic jam and the sort of music you might hear in a classy hotel lounge (I mean that in a good way), it’s an impressively chill house tune from an artist who was literally operating out of his mom’s basement when he made it.

Jex Opolis “Listen to the Band (Club Mix)” (Good Timin’)

Following up on his Net Worth album from earlier this year, this Brooklyn-based Canadian contributed to Bandcamp Friday with Net Loss, a collection of dub versions of songs from that LP. (As such, there are way less vocals here, which I personally prefer anyways.) Jex Opolis specializes in a distinct brand of boogie-infused house, and “Listen to the Band” continues in that vein, its glossy synths and definitively ’80s disco strut plotting a wiggly course across the dancefloor. It’s a breezy slice of synth-funk.

Unknown Mobile “Underground” (Self-released)

More synthy goodness from another Canadian producer. Last Friday, Unknown Mobile offered up Leafy Edits Vol. 1, a collection of four reworks that he’d created over the past few years. “Underground” is the standout, primarily thanks to its twirling synth melody, although the flickers of piano that appear halfway through are also sublime. I’m not sure if the source material was some sort of new age or jazz fusion record or something else entirely, but whatever it was, Unknown Mobile flipped it into a delightful little house track.

Space Dimension Controller “Cosmic Transformation” (Self-released)

Space Dimension Controller “Tiraquon6” (Self-released)

Jack Hamill dug very deep into his hard drive in preparation for Bandcamp Friday, assembling a compilation of 38 tracks, some of which dated back more than a decade. There’s a lot to explore—including numerous ambient and experimental tunes that crib from acts like Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin (with varying levels of success)—but “Cosmic Transformation” is more in line with his usual galactic funk sound, marrying a speedy techno beat with sci-fi synths and a squirrelly funk bassline. “Tiraquon6” is more mellow, but amidst all the drifting arpeggios, what really makes the song compelling are the melodic swells that slowly flutter in and out of fidelity. Listening to the track, it’s easy to imagine a spaceship gradually losing contact with its home planet as it floats further and further out into the cosmos.

CV & JAB “Stone Circle” (Editions Basilic)

The latest collaboration from Christina Vantzou and John Also Bennett, who first teamed up in 2018 for an album on Shelter Press called Thoughts of a Dot as It Travels a Surface. Landscape Architecture is the duo’s latest effort, and it’s a stark (albeit beautiful) record that consists of little more than piano, flute, bits of drone and what sounds like the occasional field recording. The music is minimal, to be sure, but all of the empty space in LP opener “Stone Circle” only heightens the meditative mood, along with listeners’ ability to relish every detail. If you’re in search of grace and serenity, look no further.

Kevin McHugh “Telempathy 05” (Valence)

Most electronic fans know Kevin McHugh for his techno creations under the name Ambivalent, or perhaps for his grittier LA-4A project. Over the past few months, however, the stress of the COVID-19 situation prompted this NYC artist to take his music in a new direction, and he created an album of ambient and chill sounds for friends and family. Last Friday, he decided to share that album with the world—as a “name your price” download, no less. Released under his birth name, Telempathy Vol. 1 moves through a variety of sounds; as ambient records go, it’s actually quite lush and even playful at times. The whole thing is available as a continuous mix, but for those seeking a more digestible entry point, “Telempathy 05” is one of the more lively offerings, a suite of gleaming synths and twinkling melodies that exude an almost childlike sense of wonder.

Magick Mountain “Plains (Physical Therapy Praise Mix)” (Allergy Season)

A product of the witch house era, Magick Mountain was a short-lived project that actually sounded a lot more like actual house music. Regardless, his music was briefly big with the Altered Zones set, and I remember loving the original “Plains” when it came out in 2010. That said, the one downside of Magick Mountain’s music is that he didn’t come from a proper club background, which meant that his production was a little too thin (particularly in the low end) for DJs to make much use of it. This Physical Therapy remix, which was originally released in 2011, remedied that problem, beefing up the drums and giving the track a little extra sashay that’s reminiscent of early ’90s diva house. The rework has just resurfaced as part of a massive collection called Hyperextension: The Complete Physical Therapy Remixes, Vol​.​1; spanning a full decade, it includes the NYC artist’s takes on music from Pictureplane, RuPaul, CFCF, Matrixxman and many, many more. Even better, it’s also available as a “name your price” download. I recommend grabbing it.

Lupo “Run Di Dance” (ThirtyOne)

There have been a lot of soft and soothing sounds in today’s newsletter, but this one is an absolutely filthy bit of drum & bass. Courtesy of Doc Scott’s seemingly unstoppable label, “Run Di Dance”—which appears on the new Impossible EP—is a growling homage to the darkest corners of tech-step, although the snarling wobbles may be taking some cues from dubstep as well. The whole thing would be downright terrifying, but the track’s razor-sharp drums offset the menace with an infectious bounce and a tangible sense of forward momentum.

RDG & Øjeblik “Sereno” (Samurai)

Drum & bass outpost Samurai Music is usually a vinyl-only affair, but the Berlin imprint decided to break from tradition last Friday with a new compilation called Outliers:1. Bringing together 19 previously unreleased tunes from label regulars like ASC, Homemade Weapons, Antagonist, Red Army and others, this collection has a lot of heat, at least for anyone with a taste for dark and driving drum & bass sounds. Picking a favorite wasn’t easy, but this stormer from Danish pair RDG & Øjeblik is a masterclass in both skull-rattling rhythms and mind-warping sound design. Close listening reveals all sorts of layers and impeccably placed details—there’s even a barking dog in the mix—but none of that detracts from the track’s punishing bass assault and relentless drums.

Patrick Holland “Rat in a Business Suit” (Verdicchio Music Publishing)

I’ve written about Patrick Holland more times than I can count, so his appearance here likely won’t surprise anyone. “Rat in a Business Suit” is the closing track from Simstim, Holland’s first official EP under his own name, and it’s a spacey trip through the astral sounds of progressive house. Full of soft pads and gracefully ascending melodies, it feels like a trip back in time to when Sasha & Digweed’s Northern Exposure mixes were some of the most influential releases in all of electronic music. Holland was only a boy when those were coming out—I myself was just a teenager—but he’s perfectly captured the warmth and joy of the era. If he keeps making tunes like this, chances are that I’ll keep writing about them.


That was a lot! If you’re still reading, we’ve come to the end of this week’s newsletter. Thank you so much checking it out 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


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.