Ringo 001: Still in a Questionable Condition

welcome to the debut episode of Ringo Dreams of Lawn Care

Hi! I'm Michael Donaldson, and I write about music on 8sided.blog, license and publish music through 8DSync, and make music as Q-Burns Abstract Message. I think about music all of the time. My guess is you do, too.

This is the first episode of Ringo Dreams of Lawn Care, a newsletter loosely about music-making and music-listening and how technology changes the culture around those things.

Yes, I'm calling these emails episodes, kinda like TV shows. And any good episode has a catchy theme song. I'm going to create a theme song for each episode of this newsletter. Click here to listen to this episode's theme.

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I teased the launch of this newsletter for a while, waiting for the moment to strike and surprise. Nothing planned — I've been thinking what this newsletter should be about, probably overthinking it. Leads to delays and thought bumps; just write dammit. And here we are.

If there's a thread running through what I write about on 8sided.blog, it's how the rush of progress affects our culture, specifically as it pertains to art and creativity. It's tempting to focus solely on the technology as it's what's driving most of this progress, but I'm fascinated by the big picture effect on human society and you and me. Most of the time, I'm thinking about music — how we listen to it, how we make it, and what value we put on it. The blog's tagline is 'thinking about music's place in the 21st century' and that about sums it up.

Last year I hit 50 years (I think I just passed the Brimley/Cocoon Line), and I often think about how I recorded my high school punk band on a 4-track cassette recorder, tape hiss my worst enemy. And then, in college, I cut reel-to-reel tape with razor blades to splice together extended dance remixes to play on the radio. I was a film student for a while, and I loved the monk-like discipline of cutting film in the same way. In about five years, technology erased all of these activities. I was part of the last generation to touch tape with a razor blade.

I often tell the story of obsessing over a magazine record review as a teenager and trying to find the album. I lived in Central Louisiana, and a lot of independent records were hard to come by. But I'd look for this record that I only read about for months and months and months. I finally found it on a family trip to Baton Rouge, in a hip record shop on the outskirts of LSU. So excited! And when I got home and put that record on, it sounded like the greatest thing I ever heard. That obsession, that hunt, that feeling — is that still a thing?

But lest you suspect this newsletter is a 'let's go back' nostalgia trip, know that I would have traded all of that for the technology we have now. I'd trade my experiments with the 4-track cassette recorder and all its creativity-inspiring limitations and all the tape cutting. I would even trade that obsessive feeling of the record hunt that's impossible for me to explain to anyone 15 years younger than me. I mean, I can't even imagine what it's like to be a teenage music fan with the world's recordings available anytime — to read a review and thirty seconds later I'm listening.

There's been a shift in my brain as I move from one era to the next, a shift that happens so fast that I can't help but notice it. No boiling frogs here. And it's still happening, and it's happening to all of us, whether we're 50 or 15 or 35 or 95. That's what fascinates me — those moments when I realize the game has changed and the way I process art or approach creativity has, too. And it seems like this happens every month now.

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A story: in early 2001 or thereabouts, I was somehow booked to DJ at a basement nightclub in Yekaterinburg, Russia. I had the expected American assumptions of a club night in Siberia (or the Urals — there's some debate about that), that I'd be blowing minds with all of my hot-off-the-presses tunes that these isolated punters had never heard before.

I walk into the club and immediately hear the local DJ before me not only playing loads of tunes I had planned to play in my set but also playing fantastic music I had never heard before. I was stunned. We were three hours deep from Moscow by plane! How did the DJ find this music? I went into the DJ booth and noticed that he was playing off burned CDs marked with Cyrillic Sharpie scrawl.

I was witnessing digital music changing the world. Napster, Soulseek, and all the others leveled the playing field. Suddenly DJs everywhere had access to most of the same music as me, and it was time to step up my game. I remember standing in that DJ booth realizing the weight of this — music was suddenly ubiquitous, and fans in faraway cities you've never heard of can hear it, love it, and rock it out in their DJ sets. In the snap of a moment, my world seemed completely different.

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An artist filled a wagon with smartphones running Google Maps and wheeled it down a Berlin street. In the digital world, he created ghostly traffic jams — in Google's map, the road would turn from green to red wherever he wheeled the wagon. This form of virtual reality crept into our world as drivers avoided invisible congestion that inexplicably appeared on side-streets in Berlin. The artist digitally diverted traffic.

This act recalls a wall of smartphones tuned to Spotify, forming a 'bot farm' that increases play counts and revenue. The phones create an illusion of legion, installing a digital truth that gains our trust in the meatspace. It's not the power of a single Forbin Project-like computer that alters the real world — it's a wagon full of discarded eBay lot-purchased mobile phones doing the damage. Put that in a James Bond movie.

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The Oscars are tomorrow night. The films I love rarely make the cut but I am rooting for Honeyland in the Best Documentary Feature category. I watched this a few weeks ago, and it's occupied my mind ever since. Let's just say the movie is about a lot more than a woman farming honeycombs in rural Macedonia. It's about conservation, capitalism, tradition, patriarchy, and survival. Honeyland is also gripping. I couldn't take my eyes off it. And I almost feel like I've given too much away — I'd excuse you for mistaking the movie for a low-budget scripted drama if you didn't know it's a documentary. It's that well done. Honeyland is streaming on Hulu and available to rent via the other places.

While on the subject of the Oscars, Vox has this excellent breakdown of all the problems with the 'Best International Feature Film' category. Some issues are obvious, others I hadn't considered, such as why you may never see a Nigerian film in the running.

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The Quietus pointed out that Slowdive's album Pygmalion is 25 years old. Pygmalion is one of those ignored-at-the-time albums that creeps up, virus-like, many years later in influence and reputation. If you know what Slowdive sounds like, but you haven't heard Pygmalion, then you don't know what Pygmalion sounds like. As Joe Banks expressively says in The Quietus piece, "If Slowdive had previously sculpted a Gaudí-esque edifice from their pedal boards, Pygmalion puts us inside its walls."

For all of its beauty and tameness (and I don't mean that as a dis), it's wild that Pygmalion was considered 'difficult' in 1995. I have to admit — I'm not even sure if I 'got it' when it was released (I remember buying an expensive import of the CD because their US label passed on it). I mean, where are the drums?

Banks points out a direct line of influence from Talk Talk's last two albums and Pygmalion. They're treading similar soundscapes. Talk Talk had a bitter battle with EMI over the likewise 'difficult' The Spirit of Eden, eventually getting dropped from the label. Good thing this didn't dissuade Slowdive as Pygmalion is a gorgeous statement that wouldn't be out of place as a new release on a post-rock label's 2020 release schedule. Oh, hurried world — this is the sound we need now.

As for not heeding Talk Talk's downfall, Slowdive was dropped from Creation Records a week after Pygmalion's year-delayed release date. Let's show Alan McGee who knows best — listen to Pygmalion here.

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This week on 8sided.blog I wrote about why you shouldn't wish for a tip jar on Spotify and that imposter syndrome might be why many artists hate self-promotion. I also published a post about the definition of an independent artist and how it's changed over the last decade. That piece was picked up by the ASCAP Daily newsletter and received a ton of hits. It also brought a lot of subscribers to this infant newsletter. If that's how you got here, then 'welcome!' I hope you enjoy all the text above and will stick around for more.

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That's it for our inaugural episode of Ringo Dreams Of Lawn Care. I'm still pondering the format and layout, and if I'll have recurring sections or just keep things freewheelin' like this one. As for the frequency, I'm shooting for one every two weeks, at least until I get the hang of it.

I would love your feedback. Let me know what you think and if there's something you'd like to see in future episodes. Feel free to reach me at qburns@gmail.com or on Twitter at @qburns.

If you've enjoyed reading my ramble, then please tell your friends. Share this newsletter far and wide. That would mean a lot to me.

Thanks for reading! See you soon. 🚀