Good day, old chum! Michael here, bringing you the latest episode of the curious and occasional text broadcast called Ringo Dreams of Lawn Care. I thank you for joining us and being a part of the Ringo squad. There's only one rule in this club: no Fischer-Pricing allowed.
How are things? All is going well here. The duck box delivers heaps of joy this month, and I have my first vaccine appointment on Thursday. Things are looking up.
Fair warning. This episode of Ringo is a tad self-indulgent (no surprise, really). I'm thinking in public through some decisions about this newsletter and the topics I write about. Related to all this, I changed the tag line on the blog this week. It used to be "Thinking about music's place in the 21st century." But, as we're two decades into this century, I figure we probably have some ideas about music's place by now. There's more on that change, and some other developments, below, followed by cool things you should check out. Embrace the ramble!
I'm watching this Minutemen concert video from 1985 ("And when reality appears digital," Mike Watt soothsays at 18:57) and thinking about the punk rock dream. American independent music was at its height, disadvantaged, compared to its British counterpart, by the sheer size of the country. For the first time, bands like these were finding nationwide renown without a major label attached. (A quick pause to recommend Michael Azerrad's essential book Our Band Could Be Your Life if you'd like to learn more about these scenes.) But the dream — yes, the punk rock dream — was autonomy. Self-releasing, self-distributing, self-promoting, self-administrating, self-booking. Some, like Ian MacKaye's still inspirational Dischord outfit, came closer than anyone had before.
Fast forward a few years after that Minutemen concert. I was nineteen years old and wanted more than anything to start a record label. But those were ancient times, and I had no idea how to manufacture vinyl or find a distributor and doubted it was possible from my lonely North Louisiana dorm room anyway. So I dreamed — came up with names, imagined the types of bands I'd sign, scribbled fake logos, studied the discographies (and personalities) of labels like SST, Alternative Tentacles, and Factory.
What a time. Here I am (guitar) at nineteen, playing something resembling punk rock with my friends (photo by David):
"Home Taping Is Killing Music" was a strange '80s PR campaign by the British Phonographic Industry, a trade organization representing major labels and distributors. We read that slogan to mean "the music industry" as taping our friends' records made more music, not less. The punks agreed. Alternative Tentacles released Dead Kennedys' In God We Trust Inc. on a one-sided cassette — the b-side was blank. The cassette displayed the familiar tape-and-crossbones icon (now appropriated by The Pirate Bay) and the phrase, "Home taping is killing record industry profits!" Below that: "We left this side blank so you can help."
The major labels were the target of our ire, but, in reality, our problem was with the corporate gatekeepers. Sure, we had our gatekeepers — the fanzines, the college radio DJs, the cool punk rock clubs. Not all gatekeepers are bad, but those corporate gatekeepers insisted on shoving their agenda-culture down our throats.
Because of this attitude, some celebrated when Napster supposedly (but not really) brought down the music industry. That era offered a glimpse of the power of self-distribution, aided by the internet revolution. As bandwidth got faster and tools more sophisticated and egalitarian, predictions about 'the end of the major label' were common (guilty as charged). "No more gatekeepers!" was the rallying cry — that emerging teenage bands would soon have the same chances at an audience as an established superstar.
The result: not only are the corporate labels flourishing, but new gatekeepers have covertly replaced the old ones. Sure, the power to self-everything is here, but most choose to sieve their independence through an algorithmic filter. We're gaming the gatekeepers just like old times, but now it's about massaging the algorithm to get us on the right playlists, to amplify strategically placed hashtags, and to get the targets just right in that boosted Facebook post.
There's so much frustration with this newfound reliance on social media and low-paying streaming services. But do things have to be this way?
Back in my dorm room, I was frustrated that I couldn't figure out how to do what all the punk-inspired DIY'ers wanted: to navigate this music thing without any interference (or interaction) from 'the man.' That was the punk rock dream. And now we can have it but only if we really want it. The dream's not easy, and algorithms, and the promise of shortcuts, are seductive.
If I've personally advised you on label or recording artist stuff, you've heard me mention 'the punk rock dream.' I talk about it a lot. I've been thinking about the concept since that dorm room. So, when I decided I needed a new tag-line for my blog, I decided on "A zine about sound, culture, and the punk rock dream." Because, really, that's what the blog and newsletter are all about. (The 'zine' part is a nod to how I got started with all of this.)
OK. Let's talk about Substack.
I've been thinking about moving this newsletter off Substack for several weeks. There are four reasons for this:
I have no intention to ever charge a fee for this newsletter. Substack exists around the assumption that someday I'll change my mind about that.
The lack of design options. Every Substack newsletter looks pretty much the same.
This stuff. Problematic.
I'd like what I'm writing to live on a platform I own and control.
I want to expand on the fourth reason by addressing the changing definition of independent music. The qualifications once seemed cut-and-dry, apparent in Michael Azerrad's book that I linked to above. Now things are fuzzier. How independent is the punkest of punk labels if they primarily promote through Zuckerberg's platform, via a corporation so huge it would have given Jello Biafra an aneurysm back in the day? A band might self-release, but are they independent if Spotify and YouTube are the focus of their outreach? One could even go as far as to charge that a reliance on Apple products to make music is a dependence on the most giant of multi-national corporations.
We can go all over the place with this until it's just nitpicking and cutting hairs. But my definition of 'independent,' which I wrote about here, is summed up by a simple question: do you truly own the work you're passionate about?
That ownership includes all the decisions made about how an artist presents her work: how it's distributed, how direct the access is to the audience, and the alignments that color the public perception of the work. The primary platform hosting this art — your preferred way for people to check out what you've made — plays a large part in determining ownership. The person who writes paragraphs of prose as a Facebook post doesn't own that — Facebook can take it down at any time. It's the same for a photographer using Instagram as her only portfolio. Or a video-maker hosting his achievements solely on YouTube. I don't even think Bandcamp is immune, despite its reputation as a bastion of music independence. It's all the same if you're relying on it. How screwed would you be if it went away? Or if a corporation that doesn't share your values acquired it?
I'm not saying you shouldn't use these platforms. But position your art and the work you're passionate about under the assumption that these platforms and — crucially — their policies are impermanent. These should be deployed as mere tools, not adopted as foundations. Let your work live somewhere you own, and make that place the primary destination for your audience. Everything else is a funnel.
Sounds like the punk rock dream, right?
That's one reason I'm working to move this newsletter off Substack. I considered the prospect of hosting Ringo on an owned platform soon after the launch but put those changes on the back burner. Over time, the other three reasons have added some varying degrees of urgency.
As you've undoubtedly noticed, this newsletter has gone from weekly to fortnightly to occasionally. When I do ease back to a regular schedule, I want the newsletter living and beaming out from my website rather than Substack. I've done the research and am looking to apply something close to what Jared Newman is doing (without charging my readers, of course). There's also some great advice from Ernie Smith of Tedium on self-publishing an email newsletter.
There will be at least one more Substack-based Ringo, the final number depending on how long it takes me to get all this set up. My last Substack missive will be a short one letting you know the switch is happening — you won't have to do anything as I'll port your address over to my new self-published digs. Of course, you can opt-out or unsubscribe at any point.
At the very beginning of Ringo, I mentioned that this newsletter is an experiment until it isn't. This change is another visit to the lab, mixing chemicals and seeing what happens. I'm constantly testing what independence means in the digital age and how the internet can facilitate — rather than stifle — that punk rock dream. Consider this newsletter and 8sided.blog a continuing report on my findings.
The talented + prolific music and film writer Robert Ham is also contemplating Substack, which hosted his essential The Voice of Energy newsletter. I ended up in an extended Twitter DM conversation with Robert about this, and we debated our options. Robert's decided to move his newsletter to Buttondown, which is my first choice if self-publishing doesn't work out.
If self-publishing is like self-releasing, then Buttondown is like signing to a small, hands-on indie label. Many small labels were started by someone frustrated by other labels, wanting to make the landscape better. Buttondown, a one-person operation, seems to have formed from a newsletter equivalent to this label frustration. Indeed — if self-publishing's technical ins-and-outs are intimidating (and tbh I can't say I'm entirely free from intimidation here), then Buttondown is a fine option.
Another fine option is subscribing to Robert's newsletter, The Voice of Energy. He astutely reviews music and movies and interviews makers of both. This newsletter is responsible for seriously extending my listening and watching queues. Here are the archives for The Voice of Energy's past issues if you'd like to check it out, but don't subscribe there — subscribe here on Buttondown instead.
Stuff's been happening on the blog:
• Maybe you thought I'd spend this entire newsletter writing about NFTs. I could have! Here are two blog posts I wrote on this crazy-ass craze: The Hidden Value(s) of Digital Art and NFTs for the Rest of Us.
• I also had an interesting conversation with emerging hyperpop artist Rachel Kerry about how experimental music techniques are infiltrating pop music.
• And I spoke with writer and visual artist James A. Reeves about blogging every day through a pandemic, the liberating possibility of fiction, and how he sees gas stations as sci-fi temples.
Steve Cobby – I've Loved You All My Life → Maybe there's a lockdown stimulus to Steve Cobby's prolificness — he's released two previousalbums since the pandemic's start, as well as a single and a murmur or two from his old outfit, Fila Brazillia. But Steve has always brimmed with musical output, a career-long series of textured and melodic songs with intricacies that belie their frequency.
If there is a stuck-at-home influence on his latest album, the warmly titled I've Loved You All My Life, it's in the sense of longing for sightseeing. The cover depicts a green, lush, but enclosed location — the starry sky is our escape hatch. And the music seems to travel, not explicitly quoting worldly influences but hinting at them as if remembering what it was like to be a tourist. "Kintsugi" comes closest, resembling a sort of Polynesian jazz fusion with tuned percussion, soaring flute-like lines, and thick four-fingered chords. Someone's whistling away in the background, like an overzealous member of Martin Denny's band. There are many other sonic vacations on the agenda — "Plutus Maximus" feels like a night-time stroll through a pleasantly unfamiliar town, and "Keeping Ourselves Together" could soundtrack a tranquil cabana session, fruity drink in hand. And the album closes with "Mise En Abyme," a wistful duet of harmonica and piano that might signal the recognition of memory, that the things we miss the most live on inside our heads.
I've Loved You All My Life is a joy to listen to and, yes, reassuring. This album might be my favorite of Steve's work out of all of his recent (all worthy) options.
Ausklang – Chronos → Soaring spaciousness abounds on Chronos, an album from the Berlin-based trio Ausklang. The band's not quite moody enough for post-rock, a bit too drummy for ambient, and way too heady for indie-rock. They're somewhere in the middle of all of that, probably closer to what I hesitate to call "soundtrack rock." Ausklang are like a Popol Vuh for the drone-footage age, replacing the ecstatic mysticism with shoegazey optimism.
The pieces are primarily improvised, the best bits edited together, and then overdubs added — a songwriting process pioneered by fellow German space cadets CAN. But while CAN gloriously sprawled and looped, Ausklang build and erupt. The title track, for instance, is a subdued slow-end jam that blasts itself into reverb-drenched guitar lines and cymbal crashes near the five-minute mark. And then there's the gorgeous "Future Memories," lulling the listener with a beatific guitar-then-piano melody before a Slowdive-like upward swell washes everything away.
The band performs a two-hour improvised ambient set every week at The Zionskirche, a 19th-century neo-romantic church. This aspect of Ausklang closes out Chronos via two beatless tracks that combine light drones, guitar atmospherics, and hopeful piano. Thus the album's sequence mirrors the band's dynamic sense — the tracklist progressively glides and thickens before floating down to a gentle landing. The album is so satisfying upon reaching the end, it's tempting to replay Chronos from track one and fly again.
Woo-hoo! We've reached the finish line of this episode of Ringo Dreams of Lawn Care. After all of that, I'm excited to see where it goes next.
As always, I love receiving your comments and 'hellos.' Send 'em on. But for now, I'll keep this short and simply request that you hang in there and keep on dreaming of brighter days. They're on the way. Thanks again for reading, and I'll see you again soon. 🚀
btw — I'm Michael Donaldson and you can read more about who I am and what I do here.
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So great!! I look forward to every issue!
Looking back, I feel fortunate that I worked at one of the labels that helped to define your punk rock dream, so I've seen the working model up close. It was all based on lean principles of business sustainability through continuous improvement. Turns out those years of record label and mail order catalog work were far better and cheaper education than the college I dropped out of so quickly. I have also applied those ideas and ethics into my own business practices and have been very successful even though I am as far removed from the music business as I could have ever imagined being in my life. The label? Still around and doing better than almost all of their peers.
As a result of my experience, I feel your dream can be made reality, but it is not easy. I am very discouraged by the explosion of platforms and how those platforms have created a monolith expression of culture that feels like a global constipation of ideas. I look forward to following you down the rabbit hole as you explore this punk rock dream as a counterweight to platforms as the default setting for the digital diaspora of expression and hopefully hack out a tangible road map for the rest of us.
The reason I say all this is because I never been more artistically creative than in the past year. But I no longer want to use platforms to share my expressions. I don't really have the time to figure out a new road map for disseminating ideas so my ideas remaining on the cutting room floor, which I am okay with because I am old. On the other hand, I'd rather not feel like I am being put out to pasture quite yet, either. Your newsletters have given me a new perspective that I very much appreciate and find them to be extremely valuable reference material, just like those old zines that used to come in the mail when I was a kid.