Ringo 030: Filling in the Blanks

or, secrets revealed (one step closer)

Greetings, Ringonauts. It's me, Michael Donaldson, and this is my (sometimes) weekly newsletter about music-listening, music-making, and the often inscrutable culture around those things. Thanks for being a part of our roving band of Ringos. As the wise man said: no matter where you go, there you are.

I'm enjoying some subtle temperature drops here in the tropics (that's where I am, right?). I took a break from the newsletter this morning to boat around the lake with a few members of my social pod. That's about as good as it gets right now, and I'm continuing my day with a slight jump in my step. It's been a lazy but reassuring week, cutting through the brain fog by rewatching Sopranos episodes (which I'm starting to realize is kind of a lockdown 'thing') and reading inspiring articles about vintage snowball fights

I don't have to tell you — every episode of this newsletter has a theme song. Like all of its core elements, I determined the title at random, and it's called "Experimental Forestry." The less I say about it, the better (intentional mystery!), but I will point out that the drums are crazy. Have a listen to "Experimental Forestry," and then let's dive into this week's ramble.

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What's this? It's Brian Eno in 1973's flamboyant "I wear make-up because I look better" glory. A 24-minute documentary called Eno popped up online this week, filmed during the recording of Here Come The Warm Jets. The opening scene sums up Brian's modus operandi — he's playing the piano well enough that for a second, you think, "he can actually play the piano." But then you realize he's not that good at all. It's his enthusiasm and concentration that's making it work. And, unless it's buried in the mix, that piano part never makes it into "The Paw-Paw Negro Blowtorch" anyway (kind of like the sitar solo we hear seconds later — huh, what?). Says Eno, "I have attempted to replace the element of skill considered necessary in music with the element of judgment." What a find, what a gem.

After I was alerted to the doc (thanks to Jon from A Poke In The Ear), I started thinking about how crazy it is that we have access to videos like this. We're rolling in historical documents of the bands and artists that fascinate us, demystifying their images and processes. I mean, I remember having no idea who Joy Division really were or what they looked like. In the early '80s, it wasn't easy to get ahold of the evidence, and the band and its album covers didn't help. And then I ended up at a friend's house, and he's got a videotape — 5th or 6th generation copy — and Joy Division is playing live on a TV show. My guess is it was the Granada Reports video. Secrets revealed — there's the band, one step closer.

The hidden networks that delivered these tapes are a story in themselves. Did my friend get the video from the classifieds of a music magazine? Goldmine, maybe? Perhaps it was a hastily dubbed bootleg found in an underground record shop. A lot of stores back then had a few of those behind the counter (mine included). My friend was part of a network of tape traders, so he dubbed these tapes himself and received a steady flow of covertly filmed concerts and static-tainted television appearances. Without the 'secret handshake,' these things were hard to come by.

Now, of course, all of this is available from a YouTube search. Discoveries are added all of the time, like the Eno video, and this recently unearthed Joy Division footage. That's fantastic — alongside fans, music historians can't believe their fortune. But are we trading away the mystery? There was a magic to knowing nothing about Joy Division. We knew they were British, and the singer was no longer with us, whispered among music fans like a gossipy game of telephone. But that was about it. I remember staring at the cover of Closer and imagining the people responsible for this odd noise. In a way, it was inspiring — I was drawn in and creating my own context for the music. 

Sure, we read fanzines and underground publications to help piece together the puzzles. I fervently read all those things. But my favorite band in my teenage years, hands down, were the Minutemen. I lived and breathed that band. But I didn't find out that D. Boon, the lead singer, and guitarist, died in a tragic car accident until a couple of months after it happened. That's hard to believe, right? Now I'd see news like this on Twitter the moment it happens.

Mystery is still possible, but only if it's intentional. It's no longer the automatic by-product of existing outside the mainstream. I'm not saying mystery is better, nor would I rather not have quick access to views of Brian Eno applying make-up or Joy Division goofing around. It's good that there's no longer a 'secret handshake' for seeing these things or that where we live ropes us off from experiencing the music we love. But we should still consider mystery and whether, as artists and music-makers, we give away too much. Often the most powerful fandom comes out of inviting listeners to fill in the blanks.

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Continuing our journey on the nostalgia train, remember how we used to listen to albums? From start to finish? Thanks to streaming, it's all playlists and singles now, right? 

All signs pointed in that direction as streaming started taking hold of the listening space. But now, according to a study from Alpha Data (formerly BuzzAngle), album listening habits have increased steadily since 2015. There are interesting points to draw from the data — newer releases are more often listened to as full 'albums,' while we pick our favorite songs from older titles. But, unsurprisingly, new releases propelled by a ubiquitous single don't score high on the album-listening test. Also, country albums generally aren't listened to in full that much and score the lowest, while albums for theatrical musicals score the highest. Rock and electronic releases are somewhere in the middle. As you can guess, it depends on the artist and the album. I expect Radiohead to score high. 

I've never believed the 'album is dead because of streaming' narrative. Some bands are good at making albums, and others are good at releasing singles (and a handful seemingly excel at both).

This was always the case. Pre-internet, bands that made great singles were required to record an album. Those would end up as the 'it's only got one or two good songs' albums. Meanwhile, other bands made terrific albums that you listened to from beginning to end, but there weren't necessarily any stand-out singles. 

It always frustrates me when an act that releases outstanding albums feels they should switch to singles because 'that's what you have to do these days.' I don't know how much weight Alpha Data's study holds, but I welcome any encouragement for certain bands to record with 'the album' in mind. As I wrote on the blog, the album isn't dead, nor is the monthly single the way of the future. Look closely at who you are as an artist and the type of fans you aim to attract. The nature of your next release resides in that reflection.

Related to this: It seems that books are holding their own versus other 'traditional' forms of media (like radio and broadcast TV), which are withering. Books remain popular, even among Gen Z'ers. I assume this study includes Kindle/eBook editions and audiobooks. But, like the strengthening album, it's a triumph of long-form content. Also, considering the popularity of hour+ podcasts, it's hard to believe the future of media rests solely in the hands of those with short attention spans. Someone should've told Quibi.

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There is a long history of musicians tailoring their compositions to fit the delivery format. When 7" records were the craze, the two-and-a-half-minute song ruled. Once the long-playing record dominated (aided by shifts in radio programming in the '60s and early '70s), it became de rigueur to package songs as an album statement. The 45 RPM 12" created the extended dance mix. The compact disc inspired seamless albums and Eno's 61-minute song "Thursday Afternoon." It's not only formats that shape music — one imagines operas were (and still are) written with the opera house in mind.

Now many are tailoring music to fit specific streaming platforms and playlists. There is a 'Spotify sound' — big choruses up front! — and music created with TikTok virality at the top of the mind. There's nothing wrong with this until it becomes a compromise — the artist erasing what's distinct about her to satisfy market pressure or being convinced to by a cynical manager or label. 

Liz Pelly writes compelling and often scathing broadsides for The Baffler, and Spotify is usually her target. Pelly's latest must-read, titled "Podcast Overlords," focuses on the potential fall-out of Spotify's love affair with the podcasting world. A lot of it has to do with podcasters compromising their shows — and their business models — to appease Spotify.

Pelly sees musicians as the "canaries in the coalmine," foretelling that only the biggest podcasting names will find success on the platform. The others will face diminished identities and fanbases in favor of Spotify's platform branding and emphasis on 'star' playlists. And, unlike the music content, most exclusive podcast IP becomes the property of Spotify. 

As I mentioned, many Spotify-focused musicians bend their music to accommodate the platform. Pelly sees podcasts similarly affected, pointing out an increased frequency of shortened podcasts. An example is Parcast's three-minute Daily Quote, intended to fit automated personalized playlists like The Daily Drive and Daily Wellness. There's also a real danger of producers optimizing their podcasts — a positive reframing of appeasing algorithms that encourage milquetoast and unchallenging content. 

Writes Pelly:

… as much as Daniel Ek wants to continue doing interviews pushing the same talking points about the democratizing force that streaming has been, it ultimately just reproduces and exacerbates the exploitative status quo, where those without the numbers are treated as disposable. The fact that podcasting staff are unionizing is of particular importance in this regard. Solidarity amongst podcasters and musicians could be useful in imagining new systems and practices that work for everyone. 

As I've said re: music on Spotify, it's not a game anyone has to play. Think of this as an opportunity to create (and strengthen) communities for podcasts existing outside of Spotify's ecosystem. My often repeated analogy of '80s commercial radio vs. college radio applies — there were many listeners satisfied with hearing the top 40. But there were also plenty of people enthusiastic about the fringe offered on college stations. What's important is to embrace your lane. Let Spotify be Spotify (i.e., commercial radio) and instead reach out to the communities of listeners that reject 'optimized' content.

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Canadian producer Damien Smith is Affect Display, and he's released a unique seven-track album titled Animal Drift Animal through the Pirates Blend label. The tracks recall Detroit techno's early explorations, as releases became less about the dance-floor and more about the head-trip. Smith's drum programming sets Animal Drift Animal into this heady mode, with frenetic rhythms that betray influences traveling across a landscape of genres. There are scenes of pastoral ambiance, but also indie-quoting guitar lines in "FlightorFury" and a couple of others, a mellow gothiness in "Transference," and disorienting experimentalism leading to grandiose prog-ness in "Dauen." And it works. Affect Display has delivered something unusual and grabbing. He's shaking things up, and what more can one ask for in these lockdown days of endless sameness? Check out the video for "Until the Light Hits the Door" for an eerily nostalgic taste of Affect Display's electronica:

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I'm in love with "Caminito de mi Pueblo," a collaboration between NYC's Chicha Libre and Colombia's La Sonora Mazurén. Translated as "Little Paths of My Town," it's a cover of a tune originally recorded in 1976 by Ecuadorian accordionist, poet, and Moog pioneer Polibio Mayorga. This rousing single is a tribute to indigenous leader Cristina Bautista, heard speaking on the track, and was released on October 29, 2020, the first anniversary of her assassination. "Caminito de mi Pueblo" has an uplifting, rebellious feel that we can all appreciate — proof that resistance doesn't have to feel angry. It also features some cool synth riffs amidst the layers of traditional instrumentation and bouncing percussion. Read more about this single here.

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EDGING → 

• More Spotify dirt! I wrote about the platform's pay-for-play Discover Mode on the blog. It's like renting space on one of those old CD bin endcaps, but not one found in your favorite record shop. [LINK]

• It's pretty interesting to look back at how graphic designers — and music fans — tackled the artwork on a cassette tape spine. Columbia/Epic's stock design was always baffling — those ugly red block letters. I guess they did a good job of yelling at you from the record store cassette wall (across the aisle from the aforementioned CD bin). [LINK]

• Unify Cosmos promises "the most relaxing sounds in the world." The interface is simple and imaginative, dropping you into a variety of exotic (and not so exotic) destinations. [LINK]

ª Here's a list of what I've been listening to on Bandcamp as seen on Buy Music Club. [LINK]

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Yes! Thanks for reading this week's Ringo. I plan to resume my weekly schedule, so maybe … next Sunday? Fingers crossed. As always, if you have any comments, something on your mind, or a recommendation I need to check out, please get in touch. And it goes without saying that things are getting scary in COVID-land again. Don't feel bad about spending your nights going through all five seasons of The Sopranos or whatever — just stay safe, wave to your friends from a distance, and wear a snazzy mask when you have to go out. Hopefully, we're nearing a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel glimpse. Take care and see you next week! 🚀

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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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