Here are some more-poised than usual thoughts on the first ten years of this record label-like thing I've been running. To cover the entire bodily spectrum in a single mixed metaphor, I'd like to think this piece is a bit less of a gut-level kneejerk response than I usually muster, a bit more of a heady, meditative deep thought.
Publicity, or: What you see is what you get
My label Brassland is 10 years old this year. I’m sure there’s an exact anniversary date on which the Dessner Twins and I determined that starting a record label was a good idea – circa Napster and the birth of the iPod, on the cusp of the recorded music industry’s decade-long earnings decay, and after the major bummer of 9/11. (One of those is a prime example of understatement.) I don't know the actual date. I’m not keeping that close a track.1
I’m happy to report that, macro-economic trends aside, we’re doing better than ever and have left a nice bit of culture in our wake. To jump right into some news you can use, here are some sounds we’ve put out during that time.
But as much pride as we take in the music we've released, the label has never been strictly about putting out recorded music.2 We've always thought of ourselves as doing something larger. Or maybe what I mean is that we thought of ourselves as something smaller?
In any case, we've always been trying to do something else. Soon after forming Brassland, we published a statement of purpose on our website which phrased that "something" like so:
- “We encourage collaboration and creation among an evolving assortment of creative folks. Music is our current focus. We like music that transcends genre. At the same time, we try not to make transcending genre a cliché by applying labels to what we do: funk-metal, progressive punk, Afro-cuban jazz, underground hip-hop, intelligent dance music, whateva! We like musicians who play well and possess the elusive tonic of personality.”
What got me musing again about this origin myth is a bit of publicity: an article about our anniversary that appeared in The Guardian a few months back. You can click here to read the piece online, or the image below to see it laid out in all its pulp-printed, pre-digital glory.
By and large, the paper got our story remarkably right. Record labels don't generate much commentary so it's nice to see the mission behind Brassland shine through. As I was quoted in the article: "It's gratifying. I feel like we started with an idea, and that idea has become true."
Ten years in, though, I think it's worth wondering: Have we met all our goals? What still needs doing? How should our goals evolve? And, finally, is it worth forging ahead with our bread & butter activity of putting out records, the fate of the recorded music industry be damned?
Today that initial mission statement still sounds about right: that music is not our exclusive interest, that genre is a fool’s game, that the group of people we’ve assembled is as vital to our identity as the products we make. This credo has enabled us to outlast and outgrow many better-funded and over-hyped entities that emerged at the same time we did.
But on this anniversary, I'd like to give a sense of how that mission statement has played out in the real world. First, here's a sense of what we have been for & against.
- AGAINST the deskilling of popular music that’s been characteristic since punk rock emerged in the late 1970s
- FOR making inroads for independent culture (a.k.a. “indie music,” a.k.a. the D.I.Y. spirit of punk rock) into high-culture milieus that have been too obscure and too unapproachable for the masses after successive waves of increasingly recondite 20th-century avant-gardes
- AGAINST focusing on the cool & the fashionable, the trendy & the transgressive.
- FOR “good music” in whatever form it takes. Yes to that which is progressive, purposeful & capable of touching hearts. Yes to quality over quantity. No to “the new” for newness sake! No to releasing eight albums a year if we don't find albums for which we truly care!
- AGAINST business for business sake, profligacy without purpose, and opportunism and careerism without meaningful cause
- FOR the work of “lifers” -- the makers who’ve placed artful living at the center of their existence in whatever form that creativity takes: painting pictures, recording music, making their own clothes, engineering software or other innovative machines, the growing of food & artful preparation of such, etc.
I know, I know, it's a bit ranty. But it could be worse.3 And even outlining it in bullet point fashion like that, I can't help but think there's something missing…
Intimacy, or: What's missing is what we're after
If the Guardian article and my bullet points omitted something, it's the years of personal connections & interactions that preceded and supported every flash of publicity our artists receive — in brief, what is missing is how shit actually happens. It’s what articles about culture, especially popular culture, always miss. To use the architecture of the internet as metaphor, they may capture the network but they overlook the nodes; they'll highlight the strong ties but overlook the weak ones.
I don't fault the media for its inability to understand how culture is made. It's a function of the difference between living and observing, between inside and outside, and the difference between intimacy and publicity. The format that newspaper stories on the Arts typically adopt make true insight into what's being reported on impossible. Take the case of this Guardian article. Several months before it appeared, I spent an afternoon with Laura Snapes, the young British journalist responsible for the piece. Laura is great -- an uber-fan of The National, an employee of the long-running British music publication NME, and a self-admitted lover of sad-sack music which, well, it's probably a requirement for fans of Brassland's discography.4 Over the course of a day, we hung out at The National’s studio in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn; at Buke & Gass’s rehearsal space in Red Hook; at a Clogs concert one night at Merkin Hall in midtown near Central Park. In miniature, it was a fitting map of how culture actually works in New York City today. There are grand displays of art in the center, while the making of things takes place in cozier spaces at the edges, and in the boroughs.5
But there is a difference between a map and the land that it traces.
The activity of promoting artists as individuals, and launching their careers as sui generis stars continues to define Brassland as a business entity. Indeed, some of the artists we’ve worked with over the years have become critically acclaimed and semi-popular phenomenon: The National and Nico Muhly come to mind most firmly. But the fact is, servicing these public roles is a very small part of what Brassland is and does.
Our more vital role is serving as an informal & conceptual hub for a small but growing community of artists. Our main hope is that during their tenure on the label, we can help them find a comfortable niche within an evolving constellation of co-conspirators. I like to think that we encourage the idea of having peers more than we do individual stardom. We try to create an environment conducive to [blank]-making: be that word before the hyphen music, food, or empire -- this last, a word which I'd define positively. Empire is the opportunity to build an infrastructure of one's own.
This may sound idealistic, but in large part the focus on the creative network is practical. It is a fact of life in the arts that behind every "overnight success" are dozens of lesser-known but much beloved men & woman who supported that instant sensation. Even after success comes for an individual artist, those men & women continue to help make new work happen. Every year spent building a foundation for one's art in these private communities will strengthen it, and allow the art more time as a viable economic and creative force. Artists who truly embed themselves among their network of collaborators are far more likely to enjoy long-term success and, by extension, sell more records; thereby, Brassland's focus on the creative network over the superstar could even be construed as self-serving (in the sweetest and most humane way possible).
To transform the metaphor about internet architecture into one about physical architecture, let's imagine our most popular artists as skyscrapers. A strong foundation, a strong system of support in the urban jungle, is what allows that artist's aspirations to reach farther into the air, and what allows a thriving ecosystem of supportive businesses to exist in the neighboring buildings and on the lower floors.
It’s easy to overlook how our greatest successes are bound up in the lives and art of our (as yet) less popular groups. If you pay little or no attention to our specific milieu, you can probably tune out the rest of this paragraph. If you do pay attention, here are some examples: That one of our most forgotten artists, Baby Dayliner aka Ethan Marunas, was a major inspiration to The National's Matt Berninger as he was learning to be a frontperson for a rock'n'roll band. (Interestingly, the descriptors one would apply to Baby Dayliner's performances -- brave, funny, curious and intellectual -- are the same ones you'd apply to Matt's; the difference being that Ethan's one-man karaoke-style approach is braver still.) That we discovered Buke & Gass when the sister of Aaron & Bryce Dessner from The National booked them at a small club in Ditmas Park. That Padma Newsome -- the driving force behind Bryce’s other group Clogs -- was in part responsible for the great leap in arrangement & sophistication between The National’s first and second albums, joining the group as an associate member though the completion of Boxer. That Doveman (aka Thomas Bartlett) contributed key riffs and ideas to that same album in more or less anonymous fashion -- a favor repaid when The National played a major performing role on his album The Conformist. That Nico Muhly was a major presence on that same Doveman album -- an outgrowth of their relationship as co-conspirators in the social whirl of New York’s music scene, a relationship that’s offered a number of our artists entrée into past and future projects well outside of the label’s immediate orbit.
Finally, Brassland prides itself less on sales figures than this daisy chain of intimate relations. These relationships are what allows careers and the people who have them to grow, and grow strong.
At the best of times, Brassland's artists just keep growing & growing & growing.
That's a picture of Madison Square Garden, soon after a management client of mine had left the stage. The National have had the honor of playing that same arena. It still strains my imagination to contemplate that I've had not one but two artists play such a venue. But the thing to remember about Brassland's artists as they've grown in the world is that what impresses most is not the grandiosity of display but the ways they've made these grand displays…smaller. Maybe that's not the word, but certainly the intention has been to make art in the world more about connection than spectacle.
Two examples: Here is Matt from The National at their recent show at the Hollywood Bowl, on the tenth anniversary of September 11th, literally reaching out and touching the crowd.
And here's the whole band at a recent show of theirs in Philadelphia a week earlier, my first in-the-flesh opportunity to see their new end-of-set tradition of singing "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks" unplugged, the audience as loud as the band on stage.
I'll readily admit, I've yet to sit down and talk to The National folks about what each of these nightly rituals signifies to them. (You'll probably see both events play out no matter where you've seen them on their current tour cycle.) But I couldn't help but hope & wonder that they've internalized a certain concept about what it is to be a star -- a concept that considers not only the light that is cast, but the dimmer, darker, high pressure quadrants of the universe that birth them.
I'll probably never ask them. Part of the secret of creative relationships being that you don't always ask; sometimes you just dream your own crazy dream.
So, okay, there are some deep thoughts for you on the gulf between publicity and intimacy. Next up, a brief consideration of the function of community and the entities that propel creativity.
1. I did look up some actual dates after finishing this short essay. I found this fall 2011 tour schedule for The National particularly evocative for the way it portrays a band either oblivious to the events of that September, or intent on getting on with things tragedy aside.
- 2001-08-10 - New York, NY - Brownies
- 2001-08-12 - Arlington, VA - Galaxy Hut
- 2001-08-15 - Pittsburgh, PA - Club Cafe
- 2001-08-15 - Philadelphia, PA - Khyber Pass
- 2001-08-25 - Brooklyn, New York, NY - North Six
- 2001-10-18 - New York, NY - Mercury Lounge
- 2001-10-20 - Buffalo, NY - Hallwalls
- 2001-10-27 - Brooklyn, New York, NY - Galapagos
- 2001-11-03 - Raleigh, NC - King's Barcade
- 2001-11-04 - Mobile, AL - The Splash
- 2001-11-06 - New Orleans, LA - Mermaid Lounge
- 2001-11-07 - Athens, GA - Caledonia
- 2001-11-08 - Atlanta, GA - Echo Lounge
- 2001-11-09 - Bloomington, IN - The Space 101
- 2001-11-11 - Evanston, IL - WNUR 89.3 FM Taping
- 2001-11-11 - Chicago, IL - Empty Bottle
- 2001-11-12 - Columbus, OH - WCBE 90.5 FM Taping
- 2001-11-12 - Columbus, OH - Little Brothers
- 2001-11-13 - Louisville, KY - Barretone's
- 2001-11-14 - Oberlin, OH - Oberlin College
- 2001-11-15 - Newport, KY - Southgate House
- 2001-11-16 - Morgantown, WV - 123 Pleasant St.
- 2001-11-17 - Pittsburgh, PA - Mr. Roboto Project
Lots more memories are attached to some of these shows. But in any case, I'd say autumn 2001 stands as a fitting anniversary date for us all.
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2. I always correct people when they refer to us as "Brassland Records." I mean, ick! Who would want to run the Wild West Horse Buggy Company just as the railroad was being introduced?
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3. Have you read about hedge fund manager Ray Dalio's Principles yet? You can do so in The New Yorker or Dealbreaker. Crazier still, you can read the thing itself. Go for it.
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4. I prefer the term "thoughtful" to "sad-sack" though, at our current cultural moment, I think those two words have become largely become synonymous in most people's lexicon. Let's leave the unpacking of that thought to a future BLOG, k?
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5. One thing Laura missed: I’d have liked her to include the detail that, on the weekend of her visit, I was staying at an apartment once rented by legendary Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren while he lived in New York attempting to pen a never-published memoir. I don’t quite fancy myself an impresario, but any portrait of a music scene would not be complete without the schemer off dreaming in the background.
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