music

Why Do We Sing? Reasons for Art, Revisited.

I wanted to live, so I pretended to die.

I had to shut down cash out and get buried alive.

Out of the black and into the daylight

You had to dig me out, dust me off and pull me off the cross and

Break me back open, break me back open, look inside

Break me back open, break me back open, shine a light,

It's gonna be bright

Veruca Salt, “The Gospel According to Saint Me



I just got back from a trip to Sacramento, CA with my family to catch the reunion of one of our favorite bands, Anberlin. The Tooth & Nail alt/emo rock alumni had just wrapped up their “final tour” in 2014… T-shirts were $25 and PBRs were $6, marking a strong odor of “cashgrab,” but their performance was truly alive. The lead singer, Stephen Christian, was climbing into the crowd to sing with the sold out venue, pulling fans onstage and giving them a microphone, turning trivial banter from the crowd into heartfelt, irreplaceable moments. They played for two hours spanning their discography, rocking deep cuts and old songs alongside fan favorites and radio singles. 

At the one-hour point, Stephen spoke about how the break from Anberlin had given them a chance to rediscover their love for performing, for their families, and for their understanding of what it means to have a positive, impacting platform in a cruel, dying world. Personally refreshed and motivated to make a difference in the world however possible, Anberlin is here to stay.

This speech caused me to think deeply about the struggles musicians have against the “non-music” sides of being an artist, particularly as it pertains to developing and satisfying a projected ego. Take, for instance, Anberlin’s alumnus status as a Tooth & Nail band, which often garners assumptions from listeners that Anberlin is a “Christian” band; juxtapose that with the PBR statement I made and I can feel teenage, youth group Fallon judging the heck out of present day Fallon, not only for abandoning all those years of spouting Minor Threat lyrics incessantly at his friends, but for supporting a Christian band that would facilitate an environment of “drunkenness” or whatever. When playing music in social or spiritual climates of any sort, we both artist and listener, have been conditioned to take rigid sides on all sorts of issues. The ironic thing is that we’re all coming together for the same reason: the music.

Once the expression, contemplation, and enjoyment of art is given the backseat, both community and the art itself begin to destabilize, turning into something different entirely. I know from my own life as a touring musician that once I started cutting songs and rushing records to make a tour schedule, I compromised the core of my craft to maintain relevance in the eyes of other people. If my devolved (albeit, subconscious) motive were written on my sleeve, no one would have had a reason to continue supporting me, except maybe a pitied solidarity. None of us want any of that!

Everyone wishes to be seen a certain way, but being attentive to this desire over the creative process ultimately starts looking like something else entirely. What won me over with Anberlin wasn’t even the spoken intention from Stephen Christian’s monologue, it was the life in their art being overwhelmingly connected to the music itself (makes a better argument for their charity promotion than the $6 PBRs). In the same way, what makes my art better is that I put care and effort into each step of the creative process, not that I put CD cases on a merch table and then forget to put discs inside (yes, this actually happened and it was horribly embarrassing). There is nothing inherently wrong with being an artist and making money or working toward activism through it, but there is something wrong when that being a primary motive is snuck into your efforts to share your art. Popularity through manipulation seldom breeds a humanitarian result.

Being an artist in the age of tabloids, social media, fandoms, and analytics can often be nebulous; we are so easily distracted from the heart of our cause. It’s not a bad thing to be inspired by Green Day’s loving audience interviews in Bullet in a Bible, but chasing that isn’t how they got there. It’s healthy to periodically reevaluate your reasons for taking the actions you do in the name of art. Again, this applies to both artist and patron. Creators of art, consider what influences you to share your art. If you aren’t content keeping it to yourself, figure out why that is and ask yourself, “Is this really what I want to do? Is this what it can be?” (can>should) And appreciators of art, be deliberate in how your support manifests itself; how we do this determines the health and livelihood of how art is shared. If we’re sincere and intentional, we can build better art culture for all.


-Fallon

Friends of Chroma: OK O'Clock Releases a New Album

Today we want to do a little something new for the blog and bring attention to some new music not featured on the Chroma roster. Our friends in OK O'Clock released a new album just yesterday, titled Parental Guidance.

Parental Guidance is an electric display of punk-injected emo-rock, ruminating over the existential dilemmas at the intersection of growing up, moving on, letting go, and seeking hope. The full-length features a raw-yet-refined production filled with loud guitars and crooning vocals full of endearment by OK O’Clock’s frontman and main songwriter Lance Rutledge (it’s worth mentioning he engineered the whole thing in his basement, too). We appreciate Lance for his passion for creative expression that is meant to be shared with others; his encouraging presence in the Kansas City DIY scene backs that up.

You can listen to Parental Guidance here, and if you’re going to listen to any one song to get you hooked, my recommendation is particularly emotive and hook-laden “Lights”.

FFO: Pedro the Lion, Bright Eyes, Modest Mouse

Your Top Albums of 2018: The Reflection Challenge

We live in an era where, thanks to platforms like Spotify and last.fm, we can track stats on most of the music we listen to throughout an entire year. It might seem like an entertaining piece of personal trivia to receive this kind of insight, or perhaps it is useful as a bridge back to the memories made with the music you sought out; I’d like to push the envelope a bit further into something you can take action on. What if you took those stats and turned them into direct appreciation for the artists that impacted your year?

Let me give you the backdrop for this thought. Streaming services have made music extremely accessible for artists to share and listeners to enjoy, and in doing so, some artists have been able to recover revenue lost to the massive Internet piracy trend that was born out of the 2000s. With listeners only needing to pay $5-10 a month for all the music they can listen to, it seems like we could ask for nothing more. This has, however, come at the cost of the artist, as streaming services distribute payouts based on the number of songs streamed. This payout is dismally low, with the most popular streaming services paying less than a cent per song played. This means only the artists who can amass and sustain massive popularity can turn a profit, while less popular artists and artists with long songs essentially give their music away for the not only for benefit of listeners, but to the executives and upper threshold of artists. In 2017, the average artist on Spotify generated $6.09 per album. Total. Here’s the research.

The biggest streaming services pay less than $0.01 per track play.

The biggest streaming services pay less than $0.01 per track play.

Let me give a personal account of how disparaging this system can be. At the beginning of 2018, I took account of all the listening stats recorded on my last.fm account since 2011, which came out to 29,526 songs played across 2,160 artists and 2,253 albums. According to the 2017 payout data across all music streaming platforms, if I had exclusively streamed all that music I would have contributed $117-806 to those artists (not counting YouTube’s payout rate, which is $21.84, just so you know). And that’s split among each artist based on the individual frequency of my listening to them. Compare that to how much those albums might have cost if I bought them at $5-12 a piece, which comes out to about $11,265-27,036. Best case scenario, if I streamed all that music, artists didn’t even make 10% of that money, and when you consider that Spotify Premium only costs ~$10 monthly, if I had held that membership over the course of 84 months (7 years) that’s a lifetime contribution of $840, of which only $117 is distributed unevenly across 2,160 artists. Yes, this system is deeply problematic.

So listening to artists this way is, in general, hurting them financially. We’ve gotten a bit carried away with convenience and frugality, losing sight of the meaningful exchange and intentionality of a direct purchase. Unfortunately, we’ve reached a point in which artists must either resolve to surrender this financial avenue and come up with other ways to make a return on their albums, or forsake the idea altogether. It is true that the cost of recording and widespread distribution, as well as other barriers-to-entry for these things, has lessened significantly. However, as the market for music becomes more deeply saturated with time, there’s less time and money to go around.

I’m not going to suggest or ask that people totally abandon music streaming. It’s better to listen to music for cheap/free than to not listen at all because things are crummy! I don’t think the average person who utilizes these services should feel guilty that the system is so messed up. There are so many economic and cultural reasons that gave a rise to this state of the music industry, and it wasn’t all sunshine and roses back when corporate record companies were in the top seat of influence either.

I want to bring us back to how cool it is that we have this incredible accessibility to music. We have the tools to be more connected to what we listen to now more than ever. In past posts we’ve talked a lot about how to be intentional listeners and supporters of artists, and in light of the New Year I want to put forth an idea inspired by something our pal Dave Mantel suggested on social media a couple years back. Take those artists in your top ten/five/three that you listened to in 2018 and ask yourself, “How did I support them?” Did you purchase any of those mind blowing new releases? Did you go to a show? Gush your feelings out in an embarrassing tweet you had half a mind to delete until they replied?

The specific challenge is this (but only if you can reasonably afford it and only if your conviction is not one of guilt, but a desire to engage. There are cheaper/free alternatives to this you can read about here, here, or here!): budget out your ability to purchase those top albums of 2018 you loved but never got around to buying. No, this won’t necessarily dismantle the capitalist machine or push your favorite albums onto the front page of Bandcamp. Not yet, anyhow. Artists and listeners exist for one another. We don’t owe or deserve a certain outcome from this relationship, but it flourishes when we make efforts to be an active part of it.

Know Your Audience

Last week, Dave said something very poignant that settles the anxiety of seeking validation for one’s creative works. “Look, there's nothing wrong with making things and wanting people to like them. That's human nature. But that should never EVER be the primary reason you make something.

What subsequently sprang up in my mind is a two-part question: why and when does intended audience matter? For the purpose of today’s exploration, let’s presume the place we create from is healthy and self-confident, meaning we’d create even if it weren’t feasible to share or profit from it beyond satisfying the urge that we simply must create.

Goals. The #1 aspiration people peg for artists is to make a living doing it. While that may be true for plenty of hard-working creatives, it may not always be the case, and hardly ever is it the entire picture. What’s important is to define these goals for yourself before deciding the best way to share with others.

Do you want to make money doing it? Don’t worry about how right this second, just answer yes or no! Do you have an action-oriented purpose behind your work, like social justice or spiritual contemplation? Do you want to have fun? Do you plan to devote a half-hour every day to practice? Is this all just an excuse to meet people and make friends?

The list could go on forever, which is both overwhelming and exciting. As the artist, you get to determine these goals for yourself, which also means analyzing your capabilities and limitations. It is important to be realistic, but that shouldn’t mean forsaking your values if you can help it. Be patient with yourself and your collaborators so you can all grow and do your best!

Alright, so you’ve considered what you wish to accomplish. If none of those things involve sharing your creations with others, consider continuing along with the article so that you can assist others you know who value sharing their work.

It is typically expected of artists to share their work with as many people as possible (i.e. being “paid” in “exposure”, getting a label deal, playing festivals, etc.). Let’s consider the possibility that this may not be the most effective approach in accomplishing your goals, especially if you are not financially driven. There’s nothing wrong with increasing the accessibility of art, but let’s consider what it looks like when attention is sought in the wrong places.

Imagine showing a painting to everyone in your downtown area by carrying it around and sticking it in their face (a price tag, conveniently marked on the corner of the frame). While yes, you would be showing it to the greatest number of people you could in a short moment, they are probably going to be annoyed and without space to properly appreciate what you’re sharing. (There are lucky people who could probably get this to work for them, in which case I say more power to ya.)

The people you share your work with are going to have goals regarding what they engage with, including how they engage with it. Having a fundamental of respect for patron (viewers, listeners, attendees, etc.) needs and desires the only avenue to start a mutual creative discourse. Once you figure out the demographic you are creating for, that’s when you search for mediums and compromises to connect with them in. The hopeless, disgruntled kids in a basement want to hear from a voice who genuinely understands them; the critic wants to be shocked by the skill and creativity in a composition; grandma is happy hearing you tap out “Moonlight Sonata” note-by-note.

Whether you are a beginner or a lifetime creative, there is always room to grow in our consideration of others while also esteeming our personal values. We aren’t capable of perfect empathy, which is what makes art and interactions so interesting. So often are we challenged by the fresh perspective of people who share our biases in part. We will never have all the bases covered, and it is because of this we must be deliberate in conveying our passions. Be true to yourself and give people a chance to clearly see who that is.

A Thought on Process

What is the point of all of this?

That's a question I find myself asking a lot these days. Not just in this space, but in a lot of the areas I'm finding myself, lately. And the truth of it is, in the moment, sometimes I don't have an answer. Sometimes I just feel lost. In some cases, really lost.

I recently took a trip to a film festival that is known for being one of the top in the country- constantly on shortlists. I'd never been to a film festival like that before. One of the only touchstones I had were the images in my mind of that episode of Entourage where the boys go to Sundance (that should have been my first red flag, let me tell you). I was there because I had the opportunity to score a short film that was being shown at this festival. So I flew out with delusions of grandeur. I had scored a film! I was very proud of my work. And it was being shown around the country at film festivals! I got so wrapped up in the presumed glamour of it all that I forgot that film is just like any other art medium: it's hard!

To make a long story short, the showing was plagued with technical difficulties, and the already small audience didn't feel like sticking around for the crew to get them sorted, so we (the director, producer, and I) ended up showing the film in a less than stellar setting, and then doing a Q&A for four people. This was not what I had imagined.

But it was also not altogether unfamiliar territory for me. Not at all. I constantly play music in less-than-ideal venues for small numbers of people. That doesn't bother me anymore. So why did this?

I think in the moment I really just wanted the validation that the thing we had been working on was good, and would be liked by people. First mistake. I think I also wanted to have my ego padded a little bit. Second mistake.

Look, there's nothing wrong with making things and wanting people to like them. That's human nature. But that should never EVER be the primary reason you make something. Which, in the age of feeding off of the dopamine releases we get from social media likes and retweets and hearts and shares and virality and whatever else... It's hard. It's hard to readjust your mind to the idea of creating just to create. Making something because you HAVE to. Because it's inescapable. Because there's something inside of you that needs to come out.

After the showing we all talked together about the experience for a long time. And frankly, as much as I was talking with my friends and partners in the creation of this film, I was reassuring myself. I had to remind myself that the thing that I loved I had already done. We had already made the film. And it was good. We were proud of it. We had so much fun making it, and it was a huge learning process for all of us. We came out better for having made it. All of this other stuff- the festivals and the PR and marketing and all that stuff- that was fine, but it was not the point. I had to remind myself that if I was not enjoying the process while I was making something- if I was making something just to reap the likes or downloads or whatever after it was done, then it was a wasted effort because none of that stuff is guaranteed. The only thing that is guaranteed is what we're doing right now. The process. And if you lose sight of that, you're bound to be let down later.


-Dave

Listen to Everything, Even Country and Rap

“Electronic music isn’t real music; there’s no skill involved.”

Someone actually said that to me in high school and no, they were not joking. I was learning how to write chiptunes on a Gameboy using relatively complex software on a physical cartridge and had just finished writing one of the few pieces I ever composed with the medium. My friend’s argument relied on an arbitrary point that specifically aimed to sustain their one-dimensional understanding of music. Instead of allowing space to, at the very least, observe what I was doing, their singular aim was to shut me out from all they considered to be “music”.

Thankfully, exposure to sounds and styles across countless different artists had successfully instilled an ideal in me to give most things a chance. I did not heed their discouragement and am still here writing about music.

There are many of compelling viewpoints to find in the developmental history of music genres (thanks, music history class); there’s much to be said for the cultural context music often finds itself in (shout outs to intersectionality). Those topics alone have books written about them; today I want simply want to encourage openness to the possibilities found in music. There are countless perspectives to be communicated, influences to shape sounds and lyrics, opportunities found in unpredictability; music genres should exist to help us dive deeper into what we already appreciate, not serve as a tool for dismissal.

Hopefully if you’re reading a music-oriented blog you’re aware when we talk about music it is often classified into genres. Genres identify commonalities in the music of various artists and provide a more unified language when discussing various musical elements, such as style, physical context, or creative intention. They provide grounding for conversations about music, this mysterious and often abstract thing humans have loved for thousands of years.

Since there are so many things to enjoy about music (sonic quality, social importance, personal connection, etc.) people often take the elements they are most passionate about and construct value hierarchies. While this might help a person or group of like-minded folks better hone in on their appreciation for certain kinds of music, these constructs can sometimes be communicated in a way that suggests entire styles of music are not worthy of consideration.

Here are some common criticisms that people use in rejecting entire styles and cultures of music:

Jazz: “It all sounds like elevator music.”

Country: “I don’t want to hear someone whine about their life.”

Rap: “All rappers talk about is money and ego.”

Metal: “I can’t understand what they’re saying.”

Ska: “Trumpets? No thanks.”

Now imagine that all those excuses to ignore each genre weren’t simply a matter of personal preference, but a learned response resulting from narrow experiences and bad first impressions. Each argument is easily deconstructed when you look closer and find you can hardly compare big band to smooth jazz, deathcore to hard rock, and so on. Humans are hardly ever so easy to write off, why would music be?

Part of the artist roster here at Chroma (cheap self-promotional plug) aims to lead by example when it comes to open-mindedness toward music genres. Currently we have a range including folk, soul, emo, worship, ambient, pop, and hardcore. Then consider how each artist is teeming with their own stylistic nuances, songwriting approach, and artistic intention; these are all elements which transcend information a genre-grouping can convey. Heck, since 2014 I’ve had no clue what to classify Every Day as (cheaper self-promo).

If you love music, then it’s all worth investigating. There are no “guilty-pleasure bands” because, as they say, “you like what you like” and you aren’t required to validate your taste to anyone. You do, however, owe it to yourself to explore the untouched worlds of sound and poetry. It’s a beautiful galaxy populated to infinity with cavernous, expansive, breath-taking planets. Grab some headphones, muster up some courage, and give something new a chance.

Music Reviews and Mindfulness

Band: “We’ve finally done it… We’ve passed the test. We’ve created the perfect album!”
Band Grandma: “What’s all this racket?”
Band: “But Grandma… They gave us a 10 out of 10. You don’t like it?”

It's pretty easy to establish that the enjoyment of music is subjective. There are cultural and personal influences (there may even be others, such as instinct and genetics) that shape and define what we enjoy and seek out from music. As social creatures, with friend groups, opinion-centric public platforms, and economic agendas, we find it relevant to listen and share what music we enjoy with others. Nothing problematic so far.

Consider how we communicate personal taste. There are technical descriptions, emotive expressions, lyrical dissections, contextual observations, and so on. In any descriptive case of a subjective matter, there are points that can be described objectively (e.g. notes that were played correctly, genre identifications), but elements of personal connection (let’s call it ‘bias’) color our perspective (e.g. relating to lyrical topics, valuing an artist’s moral stance). 

A general “X out of Y” score for an album cannot stand as an accurate account of the nuances of a reviewer’s opinion. Even if a following a clearly established rubric, subjective standards can easily be factored into whether or not a game receives a “positive” or “negative” score. Then consider the reader, how they are subject to various numerical grading standards across various review outlets only to decide that nothing less than an “80%” rating deserves their time. What’s worse is how easy it is to skip the heart of a review, the body text, in favor of the quick judgment made in reading a number.

So what can we do to get the most out of music reviews? 

On the writer/publisher side of things, some outlets, such as geek culture website Kotaku, fancy a review summary technique that gives a quick rundown of likes and dislikes, as well as the reviewer’s experience with the subject being reviewed. This not only encourages the reader to refer to the body text for greater detail, but it serves as a reminder that this is a human (not a robocorp) interpreting their own limited experience into words, which are also limited. This is not the only way to form a summation (some may even argue summations hurt reviews), but it is a step closer toward more clearly communicated opinions.

Some summary formats to consider:
Album likes & dislikes.
A general recommendation: "yes"; "no"; yes (but).
“For fans of” (commonly tagged at the bottom of a review “FFO: Qajaq, B.B. King, Slayer”)
“If you like X song from the album, you’ll probably enjoy the whole thing.”
No summary; emphasize processing body text of the reviewer’s opinion.

On the reader/listener side of things, the goal is mindfulness. Be aware that the review you read, listen to, or watch comes from the opinion of someone whom you may or may not agree with. Your own listening is similarly limited and uniquely valuable, so keep the compatibility of your biases in mind. Don’t forget to respect the opinions of others as well! The comments section is, too often, a dark place...

The music world/industry can be pretty tough as is. Then throw in the hinging of attention, reputation, and revenue on an arbitrary number and matters are all the more daunting. We can create a more patient and intentional attitude toward sharing new music by thinking critically about the endless wonders of music and the human lens we view it through.
 

A Canopy Above Our Endless Sky, Qajaq's Latest, Out Today!

Click here to skip the reading and listen now!

A Canopy Above Our Endless Sky. That which encapsulates all we know and experience. Qajaq has always held a fixation on the fabrics of existence: the things that drive us forward, hold us back, that which binds us together. Canopy, with its war cries, private contemplations, and interpersonal pleas, is an exploration of the intimate, yet esoteric infinity that we are all a part of.

It’s been 3 years since the release of The Light of Everything, Qajaq's debut full-length. Since then, they've taken to a busy tour schedule this last year, eventually incorporating new songs in their live shows. We’ve finally reached the day of satiated anticipation, as those new songs, such as “The Bad Year” and “Arrow in Flight”, make their recorded debut on Canopy. The release features production work that reflects a fresh musical vision, departing from the 5+ person indie band to wind a careful, solemn spaciousness throughout this collection of songs. But what’s striking is how each track is uniquely arranged, instrumentally, dynamically, atmospherically, conceptually. It’s as if they all took the responsibility to represent the heart of Canopy alone. This album is a glorious snapshot of the perpetually refining Qajaq we’ve come to know.

You can listen to and download A Canopy Above Our Endless Sky on Spotify, Apple Music, and Bandcamp, as well as on all the other major streaming services. There’s physical merch, a CD and t-shirt, to accompany the release as well, which you can purchase through their website qajaqmusic.com.

And if somehow you’re still on the fence, sit down with the music videos for "The Bad Year," “Sun and Rain,” and "What They Could Give You, I Could Not Give You Better." Maybe you’ll change your mind.