First Floor #81 – Skee Mask Says "No" to Streaming

a.k.a. An interview with the German artist about his new album—and why you won't find it on Spotify.

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. This is the free edition of the newsletter; access to all First Floor content (including the complete archive) requires a paid subscription. If you haven’t done so already, please consider signing up for a subscription (paid or unpaid) by clicking the button below. Alternately, you can also make a one-time donation here.


ON MY MIND

What if artists just stopped putting their music on Spotify and the other major streaming platforms?

It’s a question I’ve asked before, and I’ve previously written entire newsletters arguing that artists—especially independent and “underground” ones—should simply stop engaging with streaming services that clearly don’t have their best interests at heart. As an idea, it’s not particularly original, and while it’s the sort of proposal that gets folks excited on social media, few established artists have been willing to actually make the leap and remove their music from these platforms.

That makes sense. Nobody wants to be the first person to jump ship, and even if the income from streaming is low (sometimes laughably so), some would argue that it’s better than nothing, especially during a pandemic when gigs are off the table. Others might say that there’s little money to be made in selling and releasing music anyways; if that process has already become a glorified promo exercise, then availability and access are what’s most important, and—like it or not—streaming platforms are where the majority of fans and listeners now reside.

These are reasonable arguments, and there are undoubtedly more to be made in favor of the streaming status quo, but it seems that none of them have been compelling enough to win over Skee Mask. Over the past few years, the Munich producer—a staple of the Zenker Brothers’ Ilian Tape label—has become increasingly disillusioned with streaming, even as he’s become one of the most critically acclaimed artists in electronic music. And while he’s intermittently tweeted about the topic, when the time came to release his third album, he decided to finally do something about it.

The new LP, which is called Pool, appeared last Friday, and not only was it a surprise release with no advance promo campaign, it was also a Bandcamp exclusive. Although the record will eventually be available for sale through some other outlets, Skee Mask announced that it would not be uploaded to the major streaming platforms, tweeting that people would need “to pay more than 1 microcent for it.”

This move is unlikely to upend the music industry—if Taylor Swift couldn’t topple Spotify, it’s unlikely that Skee Mask is going to rattle the streaming giants—but within electronic music circles, what he did felt important. Though he’s not even the first artist to go this route, he’s certainly one of the highest profile acts—again, within the realm of independent electronic music—who’s eschewed streaming, backing up his critiques by refusing to put a (highly anticipated) new album on these platforms.

Wanting to know more about his motivations—and the new album, which I too was rather excited to hear—I reached out to Ilian Tape, and although Skee Mask generally doesn’t do a ton of press these days, he agreed to do an interview. We got on the phone over the weekend and discussed the LP—including its genesis and what inspired the music—and his plans for the months ahead, but streaming was the main focus of our conversation, and he was remarkably candid about his feelings on the matter.

The interview—which has been edited for length and clarity—can be found here.

(PLEASE NOTE: the link to the interview will be open to all for the next 48 hours, but after that, it will be available to paid subscribers only.)


REAL QUICK

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

  • Dax Pierson, an Oakland artist who recently released his debut album on Dark Entries, was interviewed for the latest RA Exchange podcast, and aside from providing an illuminating window into the world of a totally unique producer, the conversation also took me back to my life in the Bay Area during the ’90s and early 2000s—including my time at college radio station KALX, where Dax and I coincidentally both worked. Much to my surprise, Pierson even mentioned me during the interview, along with the hilarious / somewhat embarrassing fact that many of the KALX lifers didn’t exactly appreciate the music I was playing on my show back then. (I do have one small correction though; Pierson said I was playing a ton of disco at the time, but I was actually playing a bunch of trance, which in retrospect is probably much worse.)

  • When Scratcha DVA was interviewed here in the newsletter a couple of months ago, he mentioned his enthusiasm for the sounds coming out of South Africa, and now the veteran artist has showcased many of those rhythms in the new mix he’s put together for Resident Advisor’s podcast series. (Side note: last Friday, he also dropped a new two-track collaborative EP with fellow UK producer Mak 10.)

  • Black Bandcamp, a platform which launched last year and built a database of underground Black artists from across the musical spectrum, has now expanded its mission and relaunched with a new name, Black Artist Database (or B.A.D.). Aside from continuing to highlight the work of Black artists and labels, the site is looking to add other Black creatives (journalists, designers, photographers, etc.) to its database, has also launched [pause], an initiative to create more equitable working environments within the music industry.

  • Last week, the German Bundestag passed a recommendation that the country’s federal government should recognize clubs and music venues as cultural sites (right now they’re classified as entertainment sites), a change which would bring new tax breaks and put them in the same category as museums, theaters and concert halls. More details can be found in this report from Resident Advisor.

  • Back in 2015, Ableton launched Loop, a Berlin summit for music-makers that included a variety of workshops, interviews and more. After the pandemic prompted the cancelation of both the 2020 and 2021 editions, however, the company has decided to reimagine the entire Loop concept, beginning with the creation of a new (and free) online event called Loop Create. Registration opens on May 26, and although details about the lineup and itinerary aren’t yet available, the event itself will take place one month later on June 26 and 27.

  • If you own any high-end DJ equipment, there’s a good chance that you also own something from Decksavers, who have been making protective covers for all sorts of gear for more than a decade. Although the product itself isn’t particularly glamorous, it’s damn near ubiquitous, and the company’s founder, Mustafa El-Etriby, told a bit of the Decksavers story in an interview with Mick Wilson for DJ Mag.


JUST ANNOUNCED

A round-up of noteworthy new and upcoming releases that were announced during the past week.

  • Lucrecia Dalt and Aaron Dilloway might seem like an unlikely pair, but the two experimental artists first met in Colombia about 10 years ago, and have now joined forces on a new collaborative album, Lucy & Aaron. The LP is scheduled for a July 13 release through the Hanson label, and one of its tracks, “Demands of Ordinary Devotion,” is already available.

  • René Pawlowitz is best known as Shed, but the German producer has operated under many different names over the years, and continues to do so. Last Friday, he dropped a “High Speed Hardcore 4 Tracker” called Related on his own Nowt label, adopting a new moniker (Triple H) in the process. Next month, he’ll also be reviving his old Evil Fred alias for an EP called The Unknown Evil on Unknown to the Unknown. The record won’t arrive until June 11, but one track, “The Evil Dance,” has already been shared.

  • Not Waving has appeared many times in the newsletter, and the UK-based Italian will soon be releasing a new album, How to Leave Your Body, via Ecstatic Records. The LP is slated to drop this Friday, May 14, and features guest appearances from Jonnine Standish, Mark Lanegan, Spivak, Jim O’Rourke and Marie Davidson. The latter appears on first single “Hold On,” which is streaming here.

  • Speaking of all-star lineups, the new PRSNT compilation, which surfaced last week on the Modern Obscure Music label, includes contributions from Ryuichi SakamotoLaurie Spiegel, Lafawndah, Lyra PramukLucrecia Dalt, Kelman Duran, Visible Cloaks and others. There’s a twist though. Each track is approximately 32 seconds long, as the project was conceived as a sort of commentary on consumers’ short attention spans after the label learned that “around a third of all listeners using digital platforms skip to the next track within the first 30 seconds of playing.”


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.

Anita Lane “The World’s a Girl” (Mute)

A legend of the post-punk world who recently passed away, Anita Lane exuded female sexuality and fragility in equal measure, and her lyrics were poetic enough to stand on their own. In the early days of her career, she co-wrote three songs on The Birthday Party’s debut album Junkyard and later became the only female member of the Bad Seeds before releasing two albums of her own as a solo artist. This song, which is from her 1993 album Dirty Pearl, is one of my favourites, and its video (which I’ve linked above) was shot on Super 8 in Essaouira, Morocco.

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


NEW THIS WEEK: THE BIG THREE

The following are some of my favorite tracks from three releases that came out during the past week or so. (Click on the track titles to hear each song individually.) An extended list of recommendations is available to paid subscribers only.

Apple “Chantes” (Appsolute)

Apple “Dutty Dance” (Appsolute)

Apple “Get Funky” (Appsolute)

Scratcha DVA was already mentioned in this week’s newsletter, but he deserves some additional kudos for his ongoing efforts to champion the UK funky genre and its (often unheralded) originators. Last week, he convinced fellow London producer Apple to excavate his hard drive and offer up Tibetan Apple, a collection of vintage tunes—several of them legit UK funky classics—on Bandcamp. It’s hard to overstate the impact that songs like “Chantes” and “Dutty Dance” had when they first dropped back in the late 2000s, but their swinging, bongo-fueled rhythms and seasick melodies completely flipped the script on UK club sounds, re-introducing house music (and a sense of lightness) to a moody, heads-down scene that had largely been subsisting on a diet of grime and dubstep. Even after more than a decade, these stripped-down constructions are brimming with energy, and their confident, off-kilter swagger sounds as infectious as ever.

“Get Funky” never reached the same sort of anthem status—in fact, I’d never actually heard it before last Friday. The song’s swaying percussion fits perfectly in the UK funky mold, but the track itself veers down a different path than “Chantes” and “Dutty Dance,” swapping out Apple’s signature string riffs (or maybe they’re horns?) for a more playfully relaxed melodic sequence. If he’s got more gems like “Get Funky” sitting in his vault, let’s hope that he won’t wait too long to share another batch of tunes.

Barker “E7-E5” (Ostgut Ton)

“Techno without a kick drum” sounds like a simple enough formula—at first glance, it might even seem like a gimmick—but no one could credibly describe Barker’s music as some sort of novelty. The Berlin-based producer’s kickless creations have been some of the most compelling electronic music of the past few years, and “E7-E5,” which appears on his new BARKER002 EP and apparently dates back to 2015, is another spellbinding effort. Although Barker has never intentionally sought to make (or reference) trance, the parallels are obvious here, most notably in the song’s space-age synths, tinkling piano melodies. and soft-focus flashes of neon. Taken together, they form a soft cloud of pillowy textures, but “E7-E5” never feels languid or static; on the contrary, it soars, with Barker proving yet again that there are plenty of different ways to achieve liftoff.

Car Culture “Featherweight” (Lighthead)

Car Culture “You (feat. Great Skin)” (Lighthead)

When an experienced dance music artist announces the impending release of a more ambient or experimental record, a(n often deserved) collective eye roll from audiences usually isn’t far behind. Physical Therapy (a.k.a. Daniel Fisher), however, isn’t the average producer. The New Jersey native has always been a shapeshifter, and Car Culture, which he describes as his “most hypnagogic alias,” shouldn’t be dismissed as a vehicle for unlistenable self-indulgence or bland sonic wallpaper.

Fisher touts new album Dead Rock as “smooth sounds for end times,” and currents of soft rock / easy listening undoubtedly run through songs like “Featherweight” and “You.” The latter, one of three collaborations with Great Skin on the LP, features a plaintive vocal that could have been salvaged from a big-budget ’80s art rock record (e.g. something from Talk Talk), which blends beautifully with the song’s warbling chords and gentle patches of static. And though its title might indicate otherwise, “Featherweight” is actually a bit heavier, although the song’s wandering, electro-acoustic groove does feel like its casually gliding through the air.

Once again, additional track recommendations are available to paid subscribers. This week’s selections include new music from artists like India Jordan, Kevin Richard Martin (a.k.a. The Bug), Green-House, patten, Wata Igarashi and more, along with tracks from labels like Rekids, LuckyMe, Delsin, Lobster Theremin and ThirtyOne.

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That brings us to the end of yet another edition of First Floor. Thank you so much for reading the newsletter, and I do hope you enjoyed the tunes.

Have a nice week,

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.