My focus, in this newsletter and, regrettably, in life, is the music industry subset commonly (if commonly inaccurately) referred to as “independent” music, an industry that’s stakes (financially and culturally) have been rendered laughably small by the historical reality of fewer and fewer people under the age of thirty giving a shit. This is not to buy into any tired tropes of young people having particularly bad taste. The young people who do care about music have as high or low a sense of discernment as any arbitrarily designated generation before them. Out of those who count “music” as a hobby, the usual percentage like (age commensurate versions of) what I have always liked and understood (i.e. guitars and unpopular rap). But the larger population, young and old alike, has shifted its attention away from music as anything other than a gossamer vibe, a sensory experience amongst many, a minor thing that, like all moods, should not have to be paid for. It is not the homogenized radio or the cynical major labels, in the end, that marginalized the music world I care most about. All the historical boogeymen of the music industry have found themselves relegated to the same footnote boat as that which they preyed upon with their devious stratagems of “being catchy and relatable.” People have the same good or bad taste (whatever that might mean) that they always have had. It’s just now most people have either good or bad taste about video games, snippets of rote choreography, or pornography. Even when the latter is not implicit (though it often is), its iconography, particularly as developed by the Japanese, informs the first two enough to operate as a thoughline if not urtext.
I don’t begrudge people their aesthetic foibles. There’s no societal contract that says that people must forever prefer their culture in blues-based, equally signifying and obscurist, three-and-a-half minute chunks of melody. If I wasn’t fated to care deeply about the discography of countless early-’90s hardcore bands devoted to temperance and junior varsity cosplay, I’d happily devote the rest of my life to electronic sports, mining the pre-choruses of mid-aughts R&B songs for truncated loops to jazz-hand to, and a streaming career consisting of me crossing my eyes and sticking out my tongue while dressed like a Zentradi mecha-prostitute and speaking in the voice of an oversexed teletubby.
So, the industry I’ve obsessed over since I was a teenager currently rates, in terms of cultural relevance, somewhere between the non-gangster films of Martin Scorcese and “centaurs.” What are you gonna do. At least one thing has remained true; I still don’t understand how any of this works.
When I say, “I don’t know how any of this works,” I’m not being humble. Nor am I indulging in some sort of coy existential shrug, a man-boyish throwing up of the hands indicating that I’m some sort of smol Skampolian bean who can’t compwahend pwaying rent or whatever. I compwahend pwaying rent just fine. I just don’t understand, after all this time, the independent music industry. Even the small time, cheap and grasping hood that the industry is now. I don’t understand how anyone is signed, how anyone gets coverage, or how anyone succeeds. My industry befuddlement has been adjusted for scale, but that serial misunderstanding remains as strong and pure as it was when I was a hormonal mall rat, corseted in acne and oversized army shorts, pointedly cocksure that a band as palpably godawful as Pearl Jam was never, ever going to catch on.
I recently spent an afternoon listening to and thinking about the band Dry Cleaning, a London post-punk band that is signed to the indie powerhouse 4AD and who was recently bestowed with the still reasonably vaunted “Best New Music” designation by Pitchfork. Despite what I’ve said thus far, I’m not going to run this band down. If you’re a fan of Dry Cleaning (or, in a possibility made somewhat plausible only by the scale and stakes of the industry, you are a member of Dry Cleaning), you can relax. I think Dry Cleaning is perfectly solid.
(Of course, fans and name searching Dry Cleaning members might want to bail now regardless… The opening wasn’t a sly set up for a band hagiography either.)
I was listening to Dry Cleaning for a few reasons. First, I had enjoyed Jillian Mapes review in Pitchfork as much as I, as much by feral instinct as previous history, distrusted the high number attached to New Long Leg, Dry Cleaning’s just released piece of art. Jillian Mapes is a good writer and, being that, made the subject of her analysis seem compelling. Conversely, the “8.6” attached caused all my usual need to naysay (against God, mankind, the whole critical infrastructure that has yet to recognize my genius). It was as much a need to counteract my adolescent impulse towards contrarianism as the usual hate-pleasure reactionarism that inspired me to sit with the record.
The second reason I gave Dry Cleaning an honest chance is because, unlike a lot of bands I end up hating, there isn’t, regardless of the largely positive press response to the new record, a critical consensus. At least not one so oppressive that I’m forced to kick against the pricks (AKA my friends and peers) in the name of some righteous cosmic balance that only those of us who know just how boring Kid A is are privy to. When I posted on social media that I was ambivalent about this new pageant favorite, the response was measured. Some pals loved the band. Others… not so much. But nobody accused anyone else of posing or hating. This allowed me to do the often unthinkable; divorce, in my mind, the art from the art’s reception. So pleasant! So genial! Like a strawberry milkshake on a hot, yet breezy, day.
Also, I do actually like music very much. Post-punk especially. So… roll the dice, you know?
Anyway, the album is fine. Quite good even. The bassist and singer especially seem to be tapping into the slightly dubby, slightly unafraid of (an admittedly lowkey) chaos, tradition that I look for in Public Image Limited’s descendants. If the guitars are a touch on the Yo La Tengo side of the post-punk divide for my tastes, that’s OK. I understand that some pleasure principles code cozier than others. I don’t know if I’ll relisten but I’m also open to the idea that I’ll happen upon New Long Leg at a different juncture of my life and will absolutely fall in love with it. It’s happened before. I mean, I once thought Kate Bush was new age music, all AC/DC songs were the same, and The Woods was the worst Sleater-Kinney album. (That last one wasn’t my fault… they had Rick Moody write the album bio for God’s sake. What was I supposed to think.) Point being: I like Dry Cleaning well enough and also anything is possible, and occasionally likely.
As is so often the case, be it in geopolitics or the works of Alan Moore, a peaceable resolution leads to the recurrence of disquieting questions. Dry Cleaning is fine. Good even. But, here's where my blood starts going bananapants, why them and not others? Why them (or, for that matter Shame or Black Midi or Savages or The Armed or whoever else has been feted in recent enough memory) and not one of the hundreds (OK, dozens) of equally capable post-punkers hawking their throbbing bass wares back and forth across the Atlantic like lil’ Uniqlo draped Vespuccis. In fact, again with zero disrespect intended towards Dry Cleaning, the prevalent message I received, via text or DM, regarding my queries about the band’s popularity was consistently along the lines of “I like Dry Cleaning well enough. Not sure why it’s them and not one of the other bands doing the same thing tho…” In short; how does this work? How does any of this work?
I’ve had a number of favorite post-punk bands over the last few years. Some, quite a few actually, don’t need to enter into this equation. Rakta started weird and then got weirder. Native Cats are from Hobart, Australia and seem unwilling to gladhand their way over to Melbourne. No Home, while stunning and brilliantly moving, is also, I imagine, willfully and repetitively grating to the ears of the square world. I wouldn’t, and didn’t, expect any of these artists to get signed to 4AD or get Best New Music. Other post-punk bands I love, such as Algiers or Protomartyr, do perfectly fine and, while Algiers has certainly always gotten a raw deal from Pitchfork and neither band is rolling in DIY duckets, it would be hard to argue that either band has been unduly deprived of whatever meager rewards the independent music industry has to offer.
And of course, we’ll not be including perennial favorites, Iceage. Partially because, if anything, they can be used as an example of a band given more than their artistic due (Not by me obviously. But I hear what you jealous, craven idiot monsters say behind my sweet, sweet boys’ backs) and partially because they’ve taken themselves out of any post-punk runnings by devoting themselves wholesale to a full gospel choir exploration of the catalogs of Oasis and “It’s Only Rock and Roll…” era Stones. So just leave Iceage the hell out of this, you animals.
The best example of my wanton inability to gauge what will or won’t be popular is the self titled 2020 debut LP by Brighton’s Slum of Legs. Besides it becoming an immediate favorite, when I first heard this “queer feminist noise-pop” collective’s record, I thought to myself: “This motherfucker is going to be HUGE.” With it’s quivering strings and post-hardcore bass rumblings, coupled with stadium-shakingly anthemic choruses, I just knew that, by hitching myself to the bandwagon early, I’d be receiving social capital dividends well into my retiring years. Slum of Legs’ songwriting, to me, has the rarest quality of sounding both startlingly original and like lullabies played from a Fisher-Price “Rocket To Russia” radio hanging above my crib as a toddler. I honestly thought that all the neo-Blink-182 youths, morally invested in finding an even less problematic Against Me! barnburner sing-along machine, would embrace these weirdos like they were the second coming of the fifth wave of emo. I was physically delighted that I was going to finally be in full aesthetic agreement with all my 20-nothing twitter followers who only know who I am through Maria Sherman retweets and who make fun of me for confusing Saves The Day with Taking Back Sunday. I thought at very least that Slum of Legs would get something within the vaunted-to-real-heads 6.9-7.3 score range that Pitchfork has historically given to bands I actually like.
Currently, if you google “Slum of Legs Pitchfork,” the fourth result is the review for Dry Cleaning’s New Long Leg, along with the additional phrase “Missing: slum.”
In my twitter discussion regarding Dry Cleaning, I attempted to parlay the “interactions” the thread was getting into some attention for another album released around the same time. I figured the new EP from Nuha Ruby Ra, which I’d first read about in The Quietus, might appeal to Dry Cleaning fans and naysayers alike. Deep bass, deeply eccentric arrangements, English accented sprechgesang, no wave accoutrements; what’s not to love? I certainly love it. So much so that I’m almost loath to give it my blessings in a public forum. With this being her first EP and with Nuha Ruby Ra still clearly on the upswing, it seems almost cruel to suggest that I can readily imagine all the 4ADs and all the music sites getting fully on board. If my enthusiasm does act as a kiss of career death (and all the Magic 8 Balls indicate “they sure as shit do”) then the last thing Ruby Ra needs is to be caught in the grip of my monkey’s paw. That being said, I don’t understand at all why the EP isn’t the featured text crawl of the Conde Nast blimp already.
I don’t think my tastes are willfully obscure. I’ve never been interested in being some sort of record store cliche who’s only interested in what others are not. Nor do I think that bands like Shame or Dry Cleaning or whomever don’t deserve whatever success they can eke out in whatever landscape exists. And I’m too old and tired to constantly seek out nefarious motivations in the souls of hapless nerds and cokeheads. I think most industry people are probably innocent, in their fashion. I more just want to express, and re-express ad infinity, my genuine and earnest lack of comprehension why some bands get signed by mega-indie labels and covered by all the same sites, while other acts like Slum of Legs or Nuha Ruby Ra or Chronophage or Ganser or Desperate Journalist or Big Joanie or any number of bands that, to my ears, work the same territory just as well, get barely any coverage or signings (at least in comparison)? Do you guys not hear what I hear? Do I not hear something in Shame that you all do? Is the Illuminati both real and weirdly concerned with mid-tier jangle-pop maneuvering? Is this one of those deals where everybody is going to answer “late stage capitalism” and expect me to just nod along like that could possibly mean something? Is this one of those “what if your blue was different from my blue” type scenarios? And, like those scenarios, am I just, you know, super fucking dumb? I honestly want to know!
Or, very possibly, I don’t.
We're constantly told that the industry is dead and, even within the context of a larger splintered and diffuse culture, irrelevant slash powerless, and that labels barely matter at all. Which may be a general truth but certainly doesn't feel that way to any artists outside even the shrunken spotlight. End of the day, the only possible answers to any of these questions of "why this, and not that" (outside the entirely too reasonable response of “worry about something else, my dude”) range from existentially dispiriting to conspiratorially crazy making. Bad luck, misaligned priorities (on my part), wrong taste (whatever that might mean), or systemic complicity; a veritable sucker’s buffet of poison or lite ranch dressing. All of which I’m congenitally incapable of taking in stride. The world’s refusal to bend to my will is plumb infuriating. I can only imagine what it’s like for people who care about shit that actually matters.
On the plus side; it's been awful nice to see Armand Hammer doing so well, right? And, also, I have heard from multiple sources that kids are really getting into Operation Ivy again. I'd say that the possibility makes me happy, but I don't want to jinx it.
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