Word 37 (Memorize the Sky)
My new favorite band is Memorize the Sky, the collaborative free-improvisation group of Matt Bauder (reeds), Zach Wallace (bass), and Aaron Siegel (percussion). They formed in Ann Arbor in the 1990s and have released three recordings: Memorize the Sky (2007, 482 Music), In Former Times (2008, Clean Feed Records), and Creeks (2010, brokenresearch). I bought the first two on iTunes. I can’t find Creeks anywhere. Based on some comment thread someplace, it appears it may have been a vinyl-only release. There are also three early recordings on Aaron Siegel’s Bandcamp page, digital reissues of 3” CD-Rs the band released in 2001.
Beyond the quality of the music, which has the lightness and sense of freedom and possibility I’m always looking for, I found the shape of this discography worth reflecting on. Twenty years; three albums, released in a three-year span; one of them unavailable on the Internet; three old reissues. We need to question the supposed necessities of constant productivity and absolute availability.
It wasn’t until just now that I realized, I’ve met Zach Wallace. He’s also a wildlife ecologist who studies raptors. We have mutual friends in New Mexico. I think he lives in Wyoming now.
I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself to make album every 12-18 months with each of a few different projects. This is not the result of any sort of commercial posture. It just feels like I need to do this to stay current and believe that I’m part of the field. I’ve always released my albums on Bandcamp, because Bandcamp allows me to present my music how I want to see it, and it feels like the kind of digital record store I like to be part of. I resisted Spotify for a long time. When I started Two Labyrinths Records I decided I needed to put official label releases where people wanted to find them, which basically, so far as I can tell, is YouTube and Spotify. Five years ago I would occasionally get the question, “is your music on iTunes?” or “is your music on Amazon?” People don’t ask that anymore. They ask if it’s on Spotify. One time someone up and asked me, immediately upon learning I was a songwriter, if my music was free. I was offended by the question, but actually the answer was, intentionally, yes. I’ve always made it a point for everything I make to be streamable in some way or another. I’m proud of my music and I’d like everyone to be able to hear it, whether or not they’re able to pay. And no one needs to pay for a download if the files aren’t useful to them, or for a CD if they don’t have a way to play it.
But I’ve come to believe that information should not be free—not unless everything else is, too.
I was right about Spotify. It’s a degrading system that doesn’t want me to have economic dignity as a creator of recorded music, and I probably shouldn’t be there. I realize not everyone can choose to opt out. It’s a privilege that I have other income streams, in fact other income streams as a musician, that make my (personally crucial) work in creative music the sort of thing I can do at my own expense for my own purposes. The fact is, I make no money on these recordings. In fact I pay for digital distribution and server space to put them online and barely recoup those costs, let alone the costs of making the albums. For a long time it’s felt like I need to pretend this isn’t the case in order to maintain my sense of worth as a creative musician. But I’m done engaging with the self-flattering illusions that contemporary digital life so readily generates. I’m not making any money on my recordings. Almost no one else is, either. Frequently we are digging deep into our own pockets because the work is really that important to us. We hope that if we keep quiet about this, one night the capitalism fairy will come reward our good behavior by bopping us on the head with a million-dollar licensing deal, and we will be whisked away to the magical sphere of music-making wherein meaningful sums of money are actually exchanged. This is what we’re reduced to: with no viable middle in sight, dreams of joining the 1% are all that’s left to us. That is a shitty deal and needs to be called so to its face. We need to be honest about all of this first, in order to ever have a chance at creating a better situation.
Eventually, when current systems get out of our way, we may realize that it’s a better deal to pay for the art and culture we like and care about—to pay as directly as possible to creators. This is just a better plan, more efficient, more generous and genuine, and it will result in better work and better relationships. Jaron Lanier has pointed out that this model has worked in as mass-cultural a medium as TV. Everyone decided to pay HBO and Netflix for ad-free shows. The result has been what many people call “the golden age of television.” (This ecosystem coexists with the free-admission cesspool of YouTube, which seems correlated to historic levels of teenage anxiety and depression.) Maybe the people who pay for a Spotify membership feel that they’ve signed a similar deal, but the amount paid to musicians is simply too low. In one recent twelve-month period, I made $1.34104278175 on Spotify streams. The mere fact of that many decimal points--billionths of a cent--tells you something. (I could easily get behind a hypothetical Spotify in which everyone has to pay and musicians are compensated reasonably.)
We will find that our money was well spent. What else is money for, anyway? It’s a floating indicator of value that we splash around. Just like love of art. When we buy organic produce from the local co-op rather than a hot dog from Target, we're getting more than just calories. I’m listening to Memorize the Sky as I write this. I started with In Former Times and have been working my way backward. I think I like the early recordings even better than the later ones.
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• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
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• Crossroad Blues