I’m a Bandcamp-er

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Industries may be dying (if they’re cultural) or left for robots (if they’re manufacturing), but people are still making things. Musicians, writers, composers, none of us make money on a level to sustain life. (the other side of the coin may be the obsession that glossy magazines and leading newspapers have with the prices at auction for works of fine art. The attention is on the money and the economics, which anyone can measure, and not the aesthetics and cultural value. Because no one gets paid to write about aesthetics and cultural value.)

It seems like everyone is making something. All it takes is time and a little bit of money, and with substantial levels of long-term unemployment (people like me who have disappeared off of the statistical measures) and underemployment, there’s at least plenty of time to go around. As for money, the barrier to entry in the form of tools is cheaper than ever, in real terms. Want to write words? Here’s a netbook. Want to make and record music? Every Apple computer has a built in Digital Audio Workstation, portable digital recordings are under $200, and all you really need nowadays is an iPad.

When you’re done, publish it yourself. Selling it is another headache, especially for books. On the buyer’s end, there’s a massive inundation of creative product, too much to grasp in the mind, much less sample and examine. It’s like standing on the beach in California and trying to picture the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. As a semi-professional critic, I try and get a taste of what is going on in music, not just in the jazz and classical and pop worlds, but the underground culture of bedroom producers, some of whom work together in small collectives, others who are isolated. I conservatively estimate that I listened to over 600 brand new recordings in 2015, and a good bulk of those came via Bandcamp, which has been driving me to an almost insane, though entirely pleasant, distraction.

Bandcamp, for those unfamiliar, is a web outlet for music that also serves as someting of a social network for music makers and music fans. Musicians sell through the site—almost everything you buy comes with a high-quality digital download, and beyond digital albums there are cassettes, LPs, CDs, USB drives, floppy disks (there is imaginative packaging all over the site); if it can hold reproducible musical information, you can find it on Bandcamp. Bandcamp has a lot of advantages: if you buy music, the site keeps it on your own page, which is called a collection, and from there you can listen (via the web or their iPhone app) or redownload anytime; you get email notices on new releases from musicians in your collection; you can follow musicians, labels, and even other Bandcamp customers and not only see what’s new but what other people are listening to, which is a great way to find new music; and you can stream most recordings in their entirety before you buy.

Once you start with the site, you begin flowing in a massive stream of music, which can be exhilarating but also is a problem. How do you decide? How do you keep to a budget (it’s so fucking easy to grab things)? And how do you listen to everything? Starting with the fall, a number of Bandcamp labels have been offering their entire digital discography at discounted prices, some so low as to be non-existent: yesterday I bought the twelve item discography of STC Records for $0.50. Why not? Of course, adding that on top of other complete discographies I scooped up during the fall means that I have 147 digital albums I have not even loaded into iTunes yet.

And still there’s more: I have tabs open in my browser for Business Casual—98 releases for $1.00—and DMT Tapes—185 fucking releases for a motherfucking $1.35. Like a lot of Bandcamp, there is very much a shotgun approach to the music on these labels, a lot of quick sampling and screwing around with same, often with no coherent purpose in mind but with an overall ‘what the fuck, let’s try anything’ aesthetic that produces a lot of curious music, interesting in the thinking it represents, containing enough small gems to justify the ridiculous prices. Can I listen to all 283 recordings? No? Can I find the ones insides that number that I want to listen to? Maybe, maybe not. Is it worth spending $2.35 to try?

That’s the tough question. The cost is nothing, but the time … Music occupies time, and listening consumes time. Do I have enough time left in my days, my life, amidst the listening I must do, the writing I must do, the music I myself am making? I have to say no, but knowing about the music on these labels is great, because that’s what people are doing on their own, and around the world the balance of low cost-of-entry, creative isolation, eccentricity, and musical skill is producing a lot of music that is not only successful and pleasurable but that is new. We are in the midst of the growth of a new era of truly independent music making, not “indie” in the sense of a conformist sound, but indepent in the sense of personal experimentation—the idea that someone is curious to see what happens if they do this or that with their guitar, and recording the result, and then shaping that into something new. I especially love that we are in an era in the west where people are making music free of the dictates of linear time and rhythm, working with pulse, waves, timbres, pure sound. That is a present future.

Recommended on Bandcamp:

  • William Ryan Fritch and Kevin Drumm, both of whom are trying a subscription method for recent and new releases, an interesting update on an old model for how musicians get paid. Fritch’s Revisionist was a favorite of mine last year, his work is strongly recommended.
  • The synthesizer space-jam improvisations of Bernard Wöstheinrich, available through Iapetus, many of them for free.
  • The entire Irritable Hedgehog catalogue, specializing in some of the finest and most important post-minimal music, with exemplary performances from pianist R. Andrew Lee.
  • The good people at Destination: Out, who are putting together an important digital version of the discography of FMP records, a German label that produced some of the finest free jazz recordings of the 20th century. Their coup de theatre is the digital verion of Cecil Taylor’s massive, astounding, and out-of-print The Complete in Berlin ’88 box set, but the whole page is a cornucopia for free jazz fans.
  • The music of the duo Lost Trails, a haunting and insinuating conglomeration of ambient, field recordings, found sounds, and metaphysics.

There’s so much more I could recommend, but this is already at the precipice, and I want to be able to find my way back up out of Bandcamp, and not lose you as well. You can check out my own collection for all the things I have been, and hope to, listen to. I can honestly say that there’s not been one clinker in the bunch.