Best of Bandcamp Contemporary Classical: January 2017

Neo Classical

Metronome photo by nigel_appleton

The taxonomy of contemporary classical music—new music, contemporary music, whatever you want to call it—is a thorny issue. But every two months we’ll take a look at some of the best composer-driven music to surface here on Bandcamp, making room for electronic experimentation, improvisation, and even powerful takes on old classics. Here’s a look at the latest.

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Everything is Terrific: The Bandcamp 2016 Year in Review

Bandcamp 2016 Year In Review

And now some genuinely great news in an otherwise unremarkable week: every aspect of Bandcamp’s business was up in 2016. Digital album sales grew 20%, tracks 23%, and merch 34%. Growth in physical sales was led by vinyl, which was up 48%, and further boosted by CDs (up 14%) and cassettes (up 58%). Every single one of these numbers represents an acceleration over last year’s growth. Hundreds of thousands of artists joined Bandcamp in 2016, more than 2,000 independent labels came on board (like Dischord, Merge, and Dualtone), and the rate of fan signups tripled. Fans have now paid artists nearly $200 million using Bandcamp, and they buy a record every three seconds, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The record business overall did not fare as well. According to Nielsen, it grew 3% in the U.S. in 2016, while sales of digital albums fell 20%, tracks were down 25%, and physical albums dropped 14%. These declines are not at all surprising given the industry-wide push toward subscription music rental offerings, and indeed as the year came to a close, those services reached a combined 100 million paying subscribers. This milestone is being celebrated by some, but it is not good news for the vast majority of artists, and poses some serious problems for fans, labels, and music as an art form.

As more people subscribe to music rental services, the already paltry rates paid to artists are going down (and no, artists don’t necessarily make it up in volume). But it’s not only artists who are struggling. The companies built solely around subscription music rental continue to struggle as well. Some say the model is simply broken. The success of Netflix is often used as a counterargument, but the music business is not the movie business.

Longer term, if subscription music rental can’t work as a standalone business, then it will only exist as a service offered by corporate behemoths to draw customers into the parts of their businesses where they do make money, like selling phones, service plans, or merchandise. And when the distribution of an entire art form is controlled by just two or three nation-state-sized companies, artists and labels will have even less leverage than they do now to set fair rates, the music promoted to fans will be controlled by a small handful of gatekeepers, and more and more artists will be hit with the one-two punch of lower rates and less exposure. The net effect for music as a whole is worrisome.

Bandcamp provides an alternative to all of this because we feel strongly that an alternative needs to exist. The fact that we continue to grow, and that that growth is accelerating, tells us that many of you agree. We’ll therefore continue to build on a model that compensates artists fairly and puts them in control of their data, gives fans all the convenience of streaming plus the benefits of ownership and still allows them to directly support the artists they love, and works as a standalone business that’s 100% focused on music (we just had our 17th straight profitable quarter, while also increasing our staff by 43% last year). Impending thermonuclear apocalypse notwithstanding, we are incredibly enthusiastic about 2017. At least two of the half dozen things we’ll launch this year will astound you, and one may even cause you to make an unexpected vacation detour. We can’t wait. Thank you for being a part of it!

P.S. Don’t miss Bandcamp Daily’s Best of 2016.

Album of the Day: Various Artists, “Lives Through Magic”

If the dance music community was as diverse and inclusive as it was in the days of The Paradise Garage, places like The Ghost Ship in Oakland, California, wouldn’t need to exist. But because the mainstream club scene can often feel unsafe for non-conforming or marginalized people, the existence of an alternative network of venues becomes crucial. The Ghost Ship, the Oakland venue destroyed by fire in December, was one of those spaces. Lives Through Magic is a fundraising compilation that aims to raise up and honor the outsiders who lost their lives in that fire, by raising funds for the Gray Area Foundation For The Arts and the Trans Assistance Project.

It was, according to the New York Times, “one of the deadliest structure fires in the United States in the last decade,” an inferno that gutted the local arts community as much as the building itself. People ranging from 17 to 61, including three transgender women (some of whom were also musicians), artists from varying electronic disciplines, local arts promoters were among the lost. They are the under-represented roots of dance music (never forget: house music’s origins are black and gay). They are the people whose pioneering pre-genre experiments whose contributions are defanged and repurposed for mainstream society. Honoring their contributions has never been more essential.

The Lives Through Magic compilation, pulled together here by Kris Petersen—former label manager at DFA and a keen supporter of the underground—features a wide array of producers. Some are well established, some are much more on the come-up, but they all owe a debt to the DIY scene. There are unresolved and broken techno loops from Peter Fonda, beautifully-rugged synth sounds from Alice Cohen, and austere dystopian futures from R Gamble. Though brighter moments do exist in, for example, the instrumental pop of Gobby’s “Friendly Commute,” the mood is often rather bleak. Comfort in the unconventional and disquieting, though, is what spaces like The Ghost Ship are all about—and what, at its best, dance music can provide.

—Kristan J. Caryl

A John Prine Listening Primer

John Prine by Josh Britt

John Prine by Josh Britt

When John Prine began his career in 1969, he was a 23 year-old mailman just home from a stint in the army as a mechanic in West Germany. After he moved back to his suburban Chicago hometown of Maywood, Illinois, he began writing simple three-chord folk songs about lonesome elderly couples (“Hello in There”), morphine-addicted veterans (“Sam Stone”), and the strip mining that destroyed his father’s Kentucky hometown (“Paradise”). Prine began playing open mics in Chicago folk clubs like the Fifth Peg and the Earl of Old Town, eventually earning a weekly residency, before being discovered one night by Kris Kristofferson. Within two years of stepping on a stage, Prine released a debut album for Atlantic Records, and the plainspoken Midwesterner was being hailed as the latest in a long line of “new Dylan”s.

Prine’s stint with Atlantic, however, lasted only four years and as many studio albums. Two years after releasing his final Atlantic album, 1975’s Common Sense, Prine signed a three-album deal with the more singer-songwriter-oriented Asylum Records, which would release his late ’70s masterpiece Bruised Orange in 1978. But Prine soon realized that he was not interested in being in a relationship with any sort of traditional label.

By 1981, immediately following his three Asylum albums, he’d founded his own label, Oh Boy Records, and by 1984 he was self-releasing full-length records by mail order. That way, as Prine explained at the time to Bobby Bare on The Nashville Network, “There ain’t no middleman… no swarthy little character in Cleveland that gets the money from the people that want the music, and then… takes most of it, twirls his mustache, and sends me 12 cents.”

Since founding Oh Boy, Prine has released a total of 14 albums, including some of the most renowned of his career: From his 1991 comeback album The Missing Years, to his 1999 country duets collection In Spite of Ourselves, to his most recent masterpiece, 2005’s Fair & Square. Almost all of Prine’s Oh Boy discography can be found on Bandcamp.

John Prine

Photo by Kyle Dean Reinford

By the time he went out on his own in the ’80s, Prine had developed enough of a dedicated following to directly support his music—primarily, by buying tickets to his regularly sold-out theater shows around the country—without the financial backing of a label. As Prine put it in 1995, “I just didn’t want to continue recording unless it was in a manner that seemed to make more sense to what I actually did, which was pack my suitcase and go on the road for a living.”

Although Prine is still best known for the modern-day country-folk standards on his debut 1971 self-titled album, the latter half of his career is populated with exemplary moments of song craftsmanship every bit as moving and profound as “Angel From Montgomery” or “Sam Stone.”

Here are eight highlights from Prine’s Oh Boy collection.
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Tim Kinsella: Uneasy Listening

joanofarc-credit-shervinlainez-600

Joan of Arc by Shervin Lainez

It’s been 20 years since Joan of Arc emerged from the ashes of Chicago cult oddity Cap’n Jazz—a noisy, angsty project too experimental for alternative but too melodic for punk. Those origins, plus damning by association with some of their peers, resulted in the band being lumped in with the “Midwest emo” wave of the mid-late 1990s. Joan of Arc singer Tim Kinsella and his bandmates have proudly been waving their collective middle finger at genre trappings ever since. With head-scratching album titles, including 2003’s In Rape Fantasy and Terror Sex We Trust (the title track is an attempt by Kinsella to capture the overwhelming nature of hearing Bauhaus’ The Sky’s Gone Out at age 10, before he was ready for it), and tongue-twisting song titles, Joan of Arc has courted confusion and uneasy listening since their inception. After a four-year “hiatus,” the band’s latest, He’s Got The Whole This Land Is Your Land In His Hands, is proof that Tim Kinsella still loves fucking with our heads.

If the Butthole Surfers recorded a post-rock record, the result would be something like He’s Got The Whole. Recorded in a variety of non-traditional spaces, including a hotel basketball court, a friend’s AirBnB, and industrial spaces on Chicago’s West Side, the shambolic album feels more immediate than some of the band’s more esoteric fare. As the merry prankster of the indie rock set, Kinsella still straddles the line between surrealist poet and agitator. With a Tortoise-inspired groove and Kinsella’s abrasive rasp, album single “This Must Be the Placenta” will thrill adventurous listeners and continue to infuriate Joan of Arc naysayers. Kinsella wouldn’t have it any other way.

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