As expected, 2016 has come in like a church mouse for The Airborne Toxic Event. But while we all wait to see what the future will bring, a certain violinist is still here to keep us entertained.
Anna Bulbrook Goes Back to GIRLSCHOOL
The multi-talented Anna Bulbrook is quickly becoming a leading ambassador for women in rock. After her band the Bulls successfully hosted the all-female-fronted GIRLSCHOOL residency in Los Angeles last August, they are now taking it to the next level. GIRLSCHOOL is back in session for the 3-day Field Day Weekend festival, Jan. 29-31 at L.A.’s Bootleg Theater. More than a dozen artists will join the Bulls in a smorgasbord of gifted female musicians, with all proceeds to benefit the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls. Click here for tickets.
Tying a Bow on 2015
As expected, there hasn’t been much in the way of Airborne news as we close the door on 2015 and enter what is expected to be a quiet year for the band. All we’ve been able to dredge up of late is a pair of photo galleries from the group’s set at last month’s Not So Silent Night in Denver, courtesy of Westword and Greeblehaus (Amie Giese, a big TATE fan), and some major kudos from Popdose, which placed both Dope Machines and Songs of God and Whiskey high up its Best of 2015 listing (in a tie for 5th).
The Airborne Toxic Event ranks right up there with The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus in terms of clunky indie pop band names from the 2000’s. But the music, oh the music, is so freaking phenomenal. From their breakthrough single, ‘Sometime Around Midnight’, onward, the band rarely releases anything less than a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. That said — a lot of their best stuff doesn’t wind up on their proper albums. They have a knack for recording one-take ‘Bombastic’ video versions of their songs and scatter them like Easter eggs on the YouTubes for fans to find. As richly as their studio albums are produced, there’s something magical about the Bombastic versions that deserves an eventual box set. I bring this up because this year they released an entire second album as a limited edition digital only bonus to their new album, Dope Machines. This surprise album, Songs of God and Whiskey, was almost immediately out of print. Head to their website to this day and they say it’s not available. Search iTunes or Amazon and you can find it with a little work. I bought it for $10 and it was worth every penny. I don’t get the business model of making your best work in years so damn hard to find (this NEEDS to be released on CD), but I digress. Let’s talk about the music.
Songs from Songs of God and Whiskey, much like Foo Fighters’ Saint Cecilia EP, were written throughout the band’s career — and playing them loud confirms why this band is so damn wonderful in the first place. Every instrument crackles and shines, the band is on fire.
The proper new album, Dope Machines, is a different affair. Their signature guitars and Anna Bulbrook’s viola are downplayed and synths are pushed to front and center. It’s a risky move considering that crescendo of strings IS the band’s sound. But the bold move pays off. Dope Machines is the band’s most uplifting and joyous album since their debut.
I think we can all concur with the author about the urgent need for Songs of God and Whiskey to be released on CD – and vinyl, while they’re at it.
The Sad State of the Music Industry
There’s been many lamentations of late about the current state of the music industry, with its ever-shifting business models and penchant for churning out sound-a-likes heavy on groove but light on content – an environment that is not particularly suited to groups like The Airborne Toxic Event, self-admittedly not a singles band. Now, two more influential figures have added their voices to the growing, ever-concerned chorus.
First to weigh in was award-winning singer, songwriter and producer T Bone Burnett, who had this to say in an op-ed for the Washington Post:
How bad is the problem? Consider this: In 2014, sales from vinyl records made more than all of the ad-supported on-demand streams on services such as YouTube. I’m not running down vinyl — it is still the best-sounding, most durable medium we have for listening to music, by far. But why should a technology most people consider outdated generate more revenue than an Internet service with more than 100 million American users? That’s just wrong.
Just two decades ago, a music superstar was born when her record went gold, selling 500,000 units. Today, experts say it takes 100 million streams to match that kind of success. Even the most relentless year-round touring schedule or advertising licensing deals can’t match the income that a hit record once produced…
For small and up-and-coming artists, the income collapse has been even more severe; copies of one-penny royalty checks are rampant on the Internet. These artists are struggling American small businesses, and the deck is stacked against them.
Noted music critic Neil McCormick, meanwhile, came at it from an artistic angle in The Telegraph:
Adele represents a throwback to a time when the whole world sang the same songs. It is the one album everyone will have heard or heard about. Interestingly, this sales success was achieved while the singer refused to allow her album to be streamed, the new favoured technology of music distribution.
In 2015, subscription services Apple Music and Tidal were launched to compete with the major established (but mainly ad supported) platforms of Spotify and YouTube.
There is nothing inherently bad about streaming. Indeed, if they can get enough subscribers for paid services, then it may yet prove to be the financial saviour of a music business that has been struggling since the internet came along. But streaming is having a negative impact on the kinds of music that people listen to.
When listeners don’t purchase an album, there is very little impetus to lavish love and attention on it or explore the work of artists in depth. Instead, streaming promotes individual tracks, often from curated playlists.
It is a form of internet radio, a competitive listening arena where the idea is to grab attention by any means possible. It favours the hook, the novelty, the high impact sugar rush of instant gratification, whether that involves bold DJ beats, histrionic singers, combative rappers or saccharine ballads from querulous singer-songwriters. It is a singles market, in other words…
Should it concern us that so much of this new pop is utterly formulaic, giving people what they already like with just a subtle twist? It is an odd paradox that an obsession with novelty should create an atmosphere of bland conformity.
According to John Seabrook’s behind-the-scenes look at modern pop production, The Song Machine, the peculiar sameness and banality of singles are a result of the huge teams of songwriters and producers required to craft even the most insignificant hit. Nobody seems worried that the depth, nuance and flavour of a song is sacrificed, as long as it sells….
The slow and sparse maturation of live stars might be a scary reflection of what is happening in the grass roots, slowly dying from lack of care. Down on the ground, small venues are suffering. It is estimated that 40 per cent of music venues in the UK have closed over the past 10 years.
Venerable live forums like the Sheffield Boardwalk and the Cockpit in Leeds have shut their doors. Promoters can complain about business rates and lack of government support, but the bottom line is surely that audiences are uninspired by fading local and national scenes.
Low-level bands can’t afford to go on the road because tour support from record companies has all but dried up.
Big labels used to spend a lot of money on A&R, nurturing promising talent, and sticking with particularly interesting artists for the long haul. Not any more. So, while the virtual world expands, the physical space where communities of like-minded music fans can interact keeps shrinking. Vital support networks are dying.
And as fewer dynamic new performers with original perspectives break through, live audiences drift further away. It has become a big pop monster eating its own tail…
The year will also be remembered for the awful scenes at Paris’s Bataclan venue, a direct attack on music by forces of terror.
It should serve as a reminder of how important music actually is in the fabric of our lives, and why we need the freedom, creativity and community it represents more than ever. Somewhere, somehow, the spirit of great, world-beating, popular music with ideas, emotion and substance has to rise again.
Not to be outdone, our friend Julie posted her own thoughtful musings on the subject, exploring a number of alternative approaches that have allowed some artists to continue to produce meaningful work while actually not having to worry about whether it’s time to go look for a day job.
According to Nielson SoundScan’s 2012 report, the three remaining major record companies of the once “Big Six” now control 88.5% of the global music market (sales of CDs, music videos and MP3s). That would be Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group. In the age of the Internet, with rampant illegal downloading, music sharing on social media and the popularity of streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, sales, even of MP3s, have steadily decreased. There is no doubt that this is what has led to the current climate of label desperation, in their last-gasp efforts to maintain big profits.
This desperation has created, as I see it, an adversarial relationship between the artist and their fans. At the very least, these corporations, through their own petty financial fears and insecurities over losing their market stronghold (which began a long time ago), have bred a culture of distrust. Fans are viewed by these conglomerates much the same way that I see the squirrels in my backyard — running off with the goods (or the bird food) without so much as a “how do you do.” It then becomes the sole sales strategy of the label to find a way to force music consumers to pay for their music and punish them when they don’t, rather than trying to develop new business models and marketing strategies that adapt to the changing environment and cater to the specific tastes of each artist’s fanbase.
The music industry “old guard” has also set requirements for musicians that are so unrealistic and myopic that all but a small handful of top earners churning out mainstream dreck are destined to fall short. This includes expected sales figures, radio airplay, Shazam numbers and other metrics, demographics and analytics — while dismissing old-fashioned ideas of community building and consumer loyalty.
Even as The Airborne Toxic Event celebrates 10 years as a band in 2016, these issues are no doubt weighing heavily on the minds of the musicians as they plot a course for the future.
According to last fall’s TATE fan survey, a slight majority of us are traditionalists: we like our Airborne Toxins pure, not remixed. Nevertheless, here for your consideration is “Sometime Around Midnight: Robo Patrole Remix.”
Glen is the founder and editor of This Is Nowhere. He’s grateful for an understanding wife and kids who indulge his silly compulsion to chase a band all over the Pacific Northwest (and occasionally beyond) every time the opportunity arises.