Ringo 027: Regular on the Blast

or, talking about my media empire

Hi, friend! I'm Michael Donaldson, and this is my weekly newsletter about music-listening, music-making, and the technicolor culture around those things. Thanks for completing this week's Ringo quorum. We couldn't have done it without you.

Yep, I took last week off. A lot is going on here, including helping to plan the renovation of my mom's freshly bought house. So busy. And, as I explain toward the end of the newsletter, I might keep this at an every-other-week pace for a couple more episodes. Just a heads up.

This episode of Ringo is more rambling and self-referencing than usual (if you can believe it). If you're a new subscriber — and there's a few of you, so welcome! — then know that Ringo 027 is an odd man out. Our regularly scheduled programming will commence soon. But this time, I've got a few things on my mind. Let me tell you what I'm thinking about.

But first — Every episode of Ringo Dreams of Lawn Care has a theme song. This one's not new (again, so busy!), but it is a short favorite. "Regular on the Blast" was part of my Tiny Accidents project a couple of years back. It sort of reminds me of an instrumental Tom Waits outtake circa Frank's Wild Years. Which is cool. 

When recording the Tiny Accident songs, the idea was to note which of the sketches got stuck in my head months later. Then I would develop those remarkably sticky tunes into longer, releasable songs. "Regular on the Blast" was more of an earworm than most. So one day, I went into the studio hard drive to open up the sketch's files. And they were missing. Other songs' files were missing, too.

It's strange because 97% of the files on the hard drive were intact. Most of the Tiny Accidents song files, which shared a folder with "Regular on the Blast," were there. But that song was gone along with 4 or 5 other Tiny Accident songs. And also vanished: a long experimental track I was working on, intended to flow like a DJ mix over 45 minutes. I was halfway done. Poof. I don't even have a test mixdown of that (unlike all the Tiny Accident tracks) and no memory of how it sounded.

Back up your hard drive, kiddo. Here's "Regular on the Blast" — have a listen and then let's go on a ramble.

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I'm thinking about Letterboxd. I joined this trendy film lover's platform a few weeks ago, and — hey whaddaya know — I'm enjoying it. Here's my profile. I'm logging the movies I watch and the ones I want to watch, which is my main reason for using Letterboxd. (I've gone through my journal and back-tracked some movies I watched in the past year before I joined.) Now I'm starting to enjoy the platform's social aspects and how it's a powerful place for film discussion and discovery. I even wrote my first review on the site this morning (it's nothing special). 

Film critic Scott Tobias wrote an informative article on Letterboxd and its culture for The Ringer. Here's a paragraph from that: 

"Diary" was one of the words Matthew Buchanan focused on when he and his cofounder, Karl von Randow, were conceiving Letterboxd in the years before it launched in 2011. The other word was "Lists." Those were the building blocks of the service, and they're almost embarrassingly true to how the cinephile mind works to compartmentalize the films that pass through it. The common denominator among Letterboxd users tends to be a compulsion to log and order the things they've seen, which many of them were already doing using spreadsheets or pen and paper. Letterboxd is a social media site that opens up those habits to public scrutiny, but the trade-off is that it also functions as a vast warehouse of opinion and hard data, an opportunity both to survey reactions to popular films and head down various rabbit holes. "Social film discovery" is how the homepage labels it—a phrase that's in keeping with the no-frills, unassuming nature of the site.

Die-hard movie fans and fanatical music heads are similar. That paragraph could easily be talking about album collectors. The article also contains this quote about film buffs: "There's still the delusion that you can see everything, that you can really have an encyclopedic knowledge of the entire expanse and breadth of the medium, which is not really on the table when it comes to literature or art." Literature or art but not music. Because music collectors have the same mentality.

Where's the Letterboxd of music? That's an excellent idea. Replace 'movies' with 'music' and imagine a musical Letterboxd to keep track of and discuss the albums we listen to. We'll make themed or best-of lists and professional music critics will rub shoulders with amateur and aspiring critics with their opinions. And, like on Letterboxd, the pros can be looser (and funnier) in their comments and reviews than on their employers’ sites, which makes things fun.

As mentioned in The Ringer article, another feature is no film (or album) is too old for discussion. "Release dates don't matter at Letterboxd, and conversations can happen about any film at any time, which gives it an advantage over formal publications, which peg their coverage around embargo dates …" It's like hanging out at the indie record/video store. The new releases might be the first thing we talk about, but our discussion eventually turns to rating the classics and obscure favorites.

For music, this kinda sounds like the lovechild of Last.FM and Discogs. But, while those sites have their particular focuses ('scrobbling' and marketplace) this musical Letterboxd is solely about music nerds and fans congregating and talking about music. Am I missing something? Is there something out there like this? Let’s make it happen.

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I'm thinking about what Darren Hemmings had to say in a recent Motive Unknown newsletter. It's not a secret that I'm no fan of social media (esp. Zuckbook). You might not know that I'm presently doing a lot of research into how a label or artist can effectively promote music without social media. I'm convinced it's possible, but not without a fair amount of legwork and reconsidering music marketing traditions. So it was with great interest to see Darren, who runs a marketing consultancy representing the likes of Run The Jewels and Moby, state the following:

… there may be quite a fundamental shift starting here - albeit in very, very early form. It strikes me that some artists are increasingly tiring of existing on other people's platforms where their relationship to fans is always compromised. Instead, platforms like Bandcamp and community hubs like Discord allow them to sell directly and build a home for those fans that is not subject to algorithmic control over who see their message. They are tiring of social media and tiring of other platforms controlling who they can reach. [...] Where I think this could get interesting is when we see the first artists really break through with little support or presence across both DSPs and social media in general. I think many would see that as an impossible notion right now, but to my mind that is something that may happen sooner than we all realise.

I agree. And I would love for some of these breakout 'first artists' to be emerging rather than established (I mean, if Bruce Springsteen decided to do a Bandcamp-only release, it would obviously do well).

I also think the anti-platform sentiment that's loudly brewing isn't only about lack of direct fan access. There are also political concerns, especially among a younger crop of tuned-in artists. In Spotify's case, there are problems with the platform's unsupportive moves against musicians. And issues with Facebook (which, remember, owns Instagram) are so plentiful that the platform's contributions to things like, uh, genocide are now old news. 

It isn't easy to find optimism right now, but I'm optimistic about this. Artists and labels are starting to take control. They're learning that the tools exist, for the first time in history, to reach new levels of independence (and interdependence). You know that thing I like to say: It's the punk rock dream come true … if you want it.

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I'm thinking about my home office. A few weeks ago, I ran across the newsletter Workspaces. It's a simple newsletter, featuring photographs of the desk set-ups (and room decor) of various creative and tech workers. These days, most of these photos show the 'home office.' Most of them are way too organized, which frustrates.

As mentioned in the last Ringo, I'm feeling the burn(-out) and finding it difficult to motivate myself. I know part of it is being here in my home office every day for six+ months straight. No more coffeehouse sessions to break things up, no travel every couple months to reset the mind, no temporal markers like concerts or memorable get-togethers with groups of friends. 

So, inspired by Workspaces, I decided to rearrange my home office. I'm now facing the opposite direction (away from the window now, but there's more light on my desk) and added another bookshelf behind me. I also created a separate 'reading area' — a comfy chair in a corner where I can take reading breaks away from the computer screen. I'm hoping this will fool my lizard brain into thinking I'm in a new place. Au revoir to that lonely room I was trapped in for six months.

It's early days, so I can't gauge the success of this mental trick yet. But the initial feeling is positive. Hey — I'm writing now, so I suppose that's something. My environs do seem new. And I love the screen-isolated reading area, which I'm hoping will inspire more books and less iMac. 

Once I'm confident that this layout is a keeper, then perhaps I'll post a Workspace-style photo and overview of my office set-up here or on the blog. I'm not sure if you're interested in anything like that, but let me know, and I'll get on it if you are.

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I'm thinking about the blog. Blogging about blogging is a thing. It might be even more of a thing after months of lockdown. I know this is supposed to be a newsletter about 'music-making and listening and how technology changes the culture around those things." But I've only had my own navel to gaze at for a while, so please bear with me as I figure this out.

I've blogged on-and-off since the late '90s. That is a little bit of an exaggeration — more off than on, really. I had a Q-BAM section on the Astralwerks site in 1998-ish, where I occasionally posted 'hellos' and updates and short tour diaries. My own site eventually had the same, maybe one post each month. Embarrassingly, I was more prolific on my MySpace blog — but those posts are now lost in digital dust (let that be a lesson, friends — don't post anything worth saving solely on Facebook, etc.). 

A few years ago, 8D Industries started as a Squarespace blog. I opted to switch to a self-hosted WordPress platform in November 2018, and 8sided.blog was born. 

8sided is my most stable attempt at blogging. I've had post-a-day streaks for weeks at a time, only to fall back to once a week or less. Lately, it's more of the latter, but it's nothing to beat myself up over. I'm happy to be a blogger and, in turn, a writer, no matter how prolific. I love it, and I love the practice.

Austin Kleon has steadily blogged for 15 years. He recently posted about this achievement, listing three main reasons why he blogs: to leave a trace; to figure out what he has to say; and because he likes it. I share all those motivations, but, for me, the second one is most important. Austin says this: 

Every time I start a new post, I never know for sure where it's going to go. This is what writing and making art is all about: not having something to say, but finding out what you have to say. It's thinking on the page or the screen or in whatever materials you manipulate. Blogging has taught me to embrace this kind of not-knowing in my other art and my writing.

I've also written about blogging — many times! — and explained my intentions this way

Why blog? As I wrote here previously, blogging is "an exercise to notice more, to observe the day with intention, to create firmer opinions and ideas, and to cope with the fears of uncertainty and of time passing." It doesn't matter if no one is reading — the act of putting your thoughts down in a public arena is medicine for gathering ideas and inspiring confidence. 

The newsletter is like a blog, but it's not quite the same. I imagine a blog as immediate, bursts of transmissions at unexpected intervals of varying lengths and effort. The newsletter is deliberate, organized, thought-out. I suppose these qualities aren't set in stone, but there is a distinction in my mind. 

My future-planning thoughts about 8sided.blog include an increase in post frequency, a broadening of topics, a stronger presence for my personality, and a dramatic (but not radical) redesign. I hate to rank this alongside Ringo, but the blog comes first. It's my number one. I want it integrating with this newsletter, with Ringo as an extension of the blog rather than the other way around. Lately, it seems like the latter. 

As I wrote yesterday in my journal, the blog is where I plant ideas and interests to watch them sprout. And then, I take the best fruit that grows from these and use them in the newsletter. I'll add exclusive fruit that wasn't grown on the blog, too. So the newsletter is a fruit salad. Have I told you that I'm terrible at metaphor? 

This story is a LONG way to say that I'm focusing on getting the blog ship-shape over the next week, maybe two weeks. I'll probably continue the newsletter on a fortnightly (every two weeks) schedule for the next couple of episodes as I figure this out. There may end up changes to this newsletter. And, of course, I may surprise you (and me) the next time you hear from Ringo. I'm going with the flow here. 

It's all a bit exciting. I think my blog's cool already, but it's gonna get a lot cooler. I feel a little like I'm growing a MEDIA EMPIRE over here, so I'm going to marinate on this for a couple of weeks. A report via Ringo is imminent.

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EDGING →

This new track from Kelly Lee Owens is excellent, and it features vocals from John Cale, who just sounds great. I want to hear from him more often (just as this vocal cameo from Brian Eno makes me want to hear him sing a lot more). And, since the early days of MTV, I've aggressively disliked music videos that mix in dialogue and in-video sounds over the music. But this music video is the exception — I love it so much. [LINK]

Deradoorian is Angel Deradoorian of Dirty Projectors, and her new album Find The Sun is super good. But, as I mentioned yesterday on Twitter, the best part is it reminded me of that band Th' Faith Healers — remember them? — so I looked up their cover of Can's "Mother Sky," which I hadn't heard in maybe a couple of decades. Mind blown once again. (Add this one to the list of music not available on Spotify etc. btw.) [LINK]

• I mentioned Tom Waits' Frank's Wild Years above. It's one of my favorite albums. In 1988, a concert film from this album's tour was released, titled Big Time. The movie is beautiful, and the performances of the songs are creative and mischievous. It's as good as Stop Making Sense in my opinion (that Talking Heads concert film was probably an influence on Big Time). Big Time has been missing all these years, only available via used DVDs and extremely low quality torrented files. But! Without fanfare, Big Time suddenly appeared to stream on Amazon Prime Video at the beginning of this month. Watch it. [LINK] (Side note: fingers crossed Laurie Anderson's digitally unavailable Home of the Brave follows soon.)

• In the last episode of Ringo, I posted an excerpt from an interview with Elijah Knutsen of Memory Color. He discussed the Japanese ambient sub-genre Kankyō Ongaku and dropped lots of knowledge and recommendations. The full interview is live on 8sided.blog, and there's a lot more in there for your perusal. It's one of my favorite interview pieces on the site — please check it out. [LINK]

• And, here's a list of some of the Bandcamp music I've been enjoying since we last did the Ringo tango. [LINK]

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Thanks for reading. These past couple of weeks were difficult — note to world: you're not helping — and it's probably getting more difficult from here. Someone, please pass the cocoon. It might be useful to sleep for a year or two. But! I'm encouraged because we're in this together. We're keeping on like we always do, and our optimism is a potent form of resistance. It's a nose-thumbing adamance that things will get better. In other words, hang in there. I'll see you in a couple of weeks. 🚀

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btw — I'm Michael Donaldson and you can read more about who I am and what I do here.

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