Ringo 028: Covert Elbow-Bump

or, a few dollar bills tucked in an envelope

Hello, pally pal. It's me, Michael Donaldson, and this is my (sometimes) weekly newsletter about music-listening, music-making, and the confounding culture around those things. Thanks for attending this meeting of the society of Ringos. Let's do the secret handshake, adapted as a covert elbow-bump under present circumstances.

All is well here. The temporary fortnightly schedule of Ringo newsletters is allowing some breathing room. I’m spending time working on the 8sided.blog, getting a rhythm down, and posting frequently. I've also given the site a makeover and think it's looking sharp. Which reminds me: if you know your way around CSS and have a little free time, then I'd like to talk to you. I wanna do a couple of small tweaks, but for the life of me, I can't figure out how to do them. I'm in the 'he's still learning' stage of CSS, so I'm easily stumped. Anyway, reach out if you'd like to help.

I've mostly sourced this episode of Ringo Dreams of Lawn Care from the blog. The first piece is an expanded and very different version of something I posted earlier this week. I like this idea — that the newsletter is an extension of the blog, where I expand on posts once I've had a few more days to think about them.

And, as you know, each episode of this newsletter comes with a theme song. Last time I mentioned a bunch of disappearing song files, sacrifices to the hard drive gods. I thought I'd give you another one of these sketch(y) mixdowns. This one is probably my favorite of the 'lost tracks.' All of the original audio and DAW files have vanished, so this is the only form of it that you or I may hear. Have a listen to "The Tiger in the Logo" and then join me on this week's ramble.

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I enjoyed this mini-doc from Great Big Story (R.I.P.) on 'The Last Cassette Factory '— though I'm wondering if any tape manufacturers have popped up since the video's release four years ago. As noted in the video, there's a resurgence of cassette releases. This growth is partly thanks to Bandcamp and a need to give fans a limited, physical version of a release without breaking the bank for vinyl pressings. 

It's an excellent idea for emerging bands to offer cassettes, especially when personalized with homespun artwork and packaging. Just don't believe that your fans are listening to your cassettes. It's safe to say these days most cassettes are purchased as a 'totem' — something tangible to represent membership in a band's fan-circle. There's also an element of support, like when I had a great time at a concert I got into for free, I'd buy the band's t-shirt. And, as the first commenter on the video's page notes, "The problem is I don't see any quality cassette players being made today." 

As for this video, we've all seen footage of the whirring machinery found in record pressing plants. It might be surprising to see that a cassette factory's inner workings are also fascinating and highly technical. 

I recorded my first 'album' in the '80s, and it was a manually dubbed, photocopied J-card cassette. I was part of a self-released cassette movement, documented in the book Cassette Mythos. I even had my 'albums' reviewed in a few 'zines. 

I still remember a friend of mine, also active in the cassette underground, telling me one day: "I know why all this music is released on cassette. Because it's not good enough for vinyl." Ouch. There might have been a little hard truth in that. I mean, just revealing that I recorded some cassette albums in the '80s has me a bit nervous. There are now labels actively seeking out 'undiscovered' cassette releases and reissuing them. Against previous odds, many are appearing on vinyl. As for mine — well, in retrospect, my cassette 'albums' were quaint but kind of terrible (btw – Ira Glass is right). Not ready for vinyl.

The author of Cassette Mythos would probably agree these tape 'albums' weren't for vinyl. Not because they weren't good enough, but that vinyl was never the intention. The 'cassette underground' was a healthy bubble for artists who weren't just outside the mainstream. They were outside the outside of the mainstream.

Here's how Cassette Mythos' back cover description describes these cassette artists: 

… the citizen of the real music underground, where the cassette tape and the home studio have provoked a mass exodus into basements, bedrooms or garages around the world. These networkers, in conjunction with the Zine Culture and the International Postal System, manically produce, trade, and distribute their own music, in their own style and for their own purposes, free from the censuring, perceptions-clogging nets of cash and commerce, forging what has fondly become known as the Cassette Culture.

There's a lot to glean from the independent music scene of the '80s. The top 40/mainstream held sway as it does now. The college radio/indie press crowd of acts were on the periphery, willing to graduate up a notch if needed. Then, there was a feisty strain of regional acts that shared an insular network of distributors and shops, venues and promoters, magazines and ‘zines, and specialty radio hosts. Michael Azerrad illustrates this with some of the acts he covers in his brilliant Our Band Could Be Your Life. That only includes the ‘80s indie rock scene, though. There were equivalents at this level in hip hop, jazz, religious music, the avant-garde — self-sufficient networks existed for all genres. Sometimes their contacts and outlets overlapped, but often they didn't.

'Cassette Culture' was another level. The only way to learn about releases was through a handful of zines (such as Factsheet Five, which I wrote about previously). The artists didn't tour. You could probably count on your fingers the number of radio stations that played them. And, radically, most 'Cassette Culture' artists encouraged other members of the scene to trade releases. Instead of accepting payment (usually a few dollar bills tucked in an envelope), these artists would send their cassette in exchange for yours. 

Self-sufficient scenes continued to spring up in the '90s — the indie 7" single revival of the early '90s comes to mind, as does — of course — the vast network created around electronic music and raves. 

Genre and lifestyle based scenes continue to appear, but are they self-sufficient? This question gets into the debate over what 'independent' means in 2020. Is a band or label truly independent when massive corporations like Spotify and Facebook are instrumental to its existence?

These scenes don't appear separate when they are all hosted on the same streaming platforms, promote on identical social media networks, and aspire to get coverage in the same major music sites. Of course, this intermingling has its positives — modern music fans listen to an incredibly diverse palette of styles. But I can't help but feel we're missing out on the regionality of music scenes and the strong network of support among fans of a genre. It might also be a piece to the puzzle of why we haven't felt any prominent music movements or shifts in over 20 years. 

As I've stated here before: we can learn a lot about technology's effect on culture by peering at it through the lens of the past. I'm lacking quick answers or suggestions right now. Rest assured, this is something I'm thinking about a lot so expect more commentary on the way. As always, your thoughts are enthusiastically welcomed. 

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In the latest issue of his Roden newsletter, Craig Mod offers advice on dealing with dingdongs. He also provides clues to determine if you, unsuspecting reader, are unknowingly a dingdong. What’s a dingdong? Craig explains: “A dingdong is a subset of asshole, but for the sake of levity, we go with the former. A dingdong believes — genuinely! — that their opinion and their frequent, unsolicited deployment of that opinion is helpful. Often: It’s not.”

Craig rightfully points out that website comment sections are ‘dingdong bonanzas.’ I believe this extends to comments on Twitter, Facebook, and all the rest. His prescription? Block or mute. Or, even better, reply with something like, “That’s interesting — thanks!” and then block or mute. Craig calls that technique “The Dalai Lama Stance.” 

In the essay, Craig makes this case for ignoring dingdongs, no matter how tempting: 

… dingdong engagement has a very low energy-in to positivity-out yield. Almost zero. In the exceedingly small chance that you end up in a fruitful back and forth with a dingdong, it’s likely you’ll look back on that tête-à-tête and wish you had been doing literally anything else with your time.

It’s true! I remember when I was active on DJ and electronic music forums in the early ’00s. I got in so many stupid arguments. And even in exchanges with dingdongs where I felt it was my duty to set things straight, I came out defeated. I remember eventually thinking, “Has anything useful or positive ever come out of arguing in an internet forum?” Once I had my answer, I logged off for good. Now I follow my friend Zed’s advice: I don’t argue on the internet. [LINK]

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David Lynch is relieving his lockdown boredom by posting videos. He gives weather reports (nothing new for him), baffles fans with what he’s working on, and declares a daily magic number. If only I could get a couple of hundred YouTube views from pulling numbers out of a jar.

In addition to documenting these quaint activities, Lynch’s team is also posting a series of short films under the David Lynch Theater series. I don’t think many, if any, of these are new, but most are new to me.

So far, my favorite is the deceptively simple one-shot video, The Spider and the Bee. The mini-movie consists of a close-up shot of an unfortunate bee caught in a web as a spider enacts its fate. There’s no semblance of Hollywood production here, and it’s a solid guess we’re looking at an undusted window sill in Lynch’s house. It’s Lynch, not Attenborough, after all.

The scene lasts for eight minutes, a challenging length for a real-time display of a struggling insect. But I found the video transfixing, my attention aided by the remarkable sound design. Evocative use of sound is a Lynch trademark, dating back to the hisses, hums, and whirrs found in the Eraserhead score. Sound is dramatically and innovatively used to accent images and nestle implications through Lynch’s entire oeuvre, right to the recent Twin Peaks series. If you pay attention to final credits, you’ll notice Lynch is always partly or solely responsible for the sound design on his projects. And The Spider and the Bee is an experiment in sound design.

With only natural sound (or no sound at all), the video’s nothing special, a ‘circle of life’ home movie shot on a lazy day. Add the sound — the bee’s hapless buzzing, the spider’s cartoonish clicking, the swoops as the spider slides — and the story becomes compelling. The viewer is brought into this, too, as the camera thunders as it quickly changes angles. I jumped out of my seat the first time that happened.

Sound is an effective contextualizer, and inventive sound design, even when subtle, can transform a visual storyline into something heightened and unreal. It’s a fun trick played on our brains.

Bonus points: check out the documentary Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound.

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On Friday, my 8D Industries label released something new on Bandcamp. Titled Lessening, it’s the debut album from Scottish guitarist and ambient producer Ralph Kinsella. I’ve written about Ralph before — I discovered him after he reached out to 8sided.blog with his music. A few months ago, he sent the demo for this album, and I haven’t stopped listening. An antidote to lockdown — this is travel in a small room.

The last paragraph of the press release does a great job of describing Ralph’s music:

Kinsella’s guitar is the even thread, sometimes bare and then often processed, awash in texture and synthetic glares. Tracks like “In the In-Between Light” use the guitar to express enormity — of space and emotion — before the song is gently brought close by calming lines and reassuring synth patches. There’s also a soft tension in songs like “Lung Noises,” sharing the masterful slow build of the shoegaze genre’s finest practitioners. Lessening‘s closer, “Born on the Cusp,” offers a resolution — chiming guitars and reverberant tones signaling both loss and promise. This is the sound of an uncertain present feeling its way to that better world.

I hope you’ll check it out. Lessening is available now exclusively on Bandcamp and, like all 8D Industries releases, is set to ‘name your price.’ [LINK]

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This week I also spoke to Orlando DJ provocateur Nigel John, who records high-concept multi-genre music under the name Kurt Rambus. If one can bond over an email interview, we definitely bonded over the effect the TV show Night Flight had on John’s musical upbringing. Night Flight regularly featured films and programs like New Wave TheaterUrgh! A Music War, and early music videos from weird (for the time) labels like Some Bizarre. Speaking for myself, seeing (and hearing) these from the isolation of Central Louisiana shattered any notions of musical or artistic restraint.

A few years ago, area music-scribe Jason Ferguson wrote about Night Flight for the Orlando Weekly. I love this paragraph:

It's important to understand just how crushing and omnipresent the monoculture was at the time; even for the raddest, most punk/avant/weird motherfuckers in your town, information and media moved incredibly slowly, via occasional visits to the big city record/video store and, of course, fanzines and the mail-order bonanzas that would happen when you actually found them. For all but the most devoted freaks, salvation came in small, discrete doses, and most of those doses came on weekend nights thanks to Night Flight.

I guess this newsletter’s come full circle, with all this talk of insular scenes and how secret knowledge was shared in the days of yore.

Be sure to check out my interview with Kurt Rambus and listen to his wild new EP, curiously titled The Misadventures of Hayek Von Pinochet and his Men Of Action. [LINK]

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Oh — I almost forgot. Here’s a list of things I listened to on Bandcamp over the past couple of weeks. [LINK]

And that does it! Thanks so much for reading. I hope you’re doing fine, staying safe, and doing the fun things whenever you can. Are we getting the hang of this lockdown thing yet? No? Yes? As always, feel free to reach out to say ‘hi’ and let me know what you think of my digital text scribble. Ahoy! And I’ll see you on Oct. 25 — if not before. 🚀

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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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