To Free or Not To Free: I Am Begging You To Listen To My Music, But Only Because You Want To…? by Michael J. Epstein [Guest Wreckers]

To free or not to free?
I’ve been having a series of conversations on Facebook (1 – 2) about various components of the value of music and, much like other aspects of life (stupid Hollywoodized rules for dating for example), we’re caught between…
1) a stereotypical “please please” listen to my music form of begging… 
…juxtaposed with…
2) “I’m being cool about it and I’ll let you buy my music and check it out because it’s what you want to do” aloofness designed to maintain value and mystique.
Truth: I want to just give away my music.*
I really do. It’s nice to make back some money selling it as it costs a lot to keep a band going, but the most important thing to me is that the most people hear it and enjoy it. So, I should just give my music away to everyone who will take it? I say, at least mostly, no. (Lots of others do too or maybe they don’t.) The reasons are complex and I am still trying to navigate them and come to a conclusive decision. I’d really love to figure out how. This post is my initial thought-dump on free distribution of music. I hope it opens up more conversations and more avenues of thought, and that it helps me find an optimal working method for my own work.
*That said, if you want any of it, just ask me and I’ll gladly send you download links…but you have to ask. I won’t offer it to you. Huh?

The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library (photo by Kelly Davidson)

There are numerous articles about the difference between price and value. There is a famous (and probably ongoing) debate about whether people in high-risk areas for malaria are more likely to use mosquito nets that they are given for free or that they paid a small amount for (1 2 3). The situation for musicians is, however, is not much like mosquito nets. There are huge numbers of people creating music. If we look at one arbitrary metric, iTunes has more than 20 million songs available! When I write a song, I am pretty sure the world doesn’t really need it. There isn’t a supply shortage. I write my music for myself, but then at least some part of me yearns for justification by having it reach others.

I’m begging you to listen…

While I don’t know the answer for everyone, I can speak about my experience for context. I can only assume an average person operates similarly, but I have no idea. I don’t think people value music they are handed, and, even worse, they start with a baseline “this music is bad” mentality when they begin listening. Most music is bad. Tons of musicians are vying for my attention, begging for me to listen to their music, handing me CDs, e-mailing me tracks, spamming me on Facebook…and I don’t even have any real power or clout to offer them. Even if I love their music, I can’t really do much of anything to help them succeed.

When people ask me to listen to their music, I almost never do. I don’t have time and I don’t have interest. If you hand me a CD, it will take me some 15 minutes to open it, put it into my computer, rip it (and probably type the stupid track names in because most people handing me a CD haven’t bothered to put their disc into freed), and then open the files. Chances are, it’s just not going to happen. I don’t mean that as a personal slight to anyone, I just won’t do it. If you send me a download link to your music (on bandcamp or something similar) after I’ve had a conversation with you, the chances are greater. If you are on Spotify, the chances are actually very high. I’ve been storing a “music to listen to” playlist and the time/risk/cost of adding your music to that is extremely low and I won’t forget about it. Sure, that playlist contains thousands of songs at the moment, but I do seem to be making pretty regular digs into it. I listen to tons of new music, particularly local music – almost 100% because I regularly hear about or read about bands. I trust when someone tells me they like a band that they have no stake in. I check it out. Still, I have far less time to do this than I have music I’d like to check out.

Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling (photo by Kelly Davidson)

If you send me an unsolicited link via e-mail and we haven’t met or talked and I have no context for you, there is less than zero chance that I will listen. In fact, I will probably actively avoid listening to your music forevermore. Why? I don’t know. It sounds mean and awful, but there is some kind of social wall that I feel is being eroded when I get these messages. Unless I know you pretty well, I will probably unfriend you or block you on Facebook if you post a link on my wall to your music or event. Again, I hold some value in my private (public) space. I also cannot keep you as a friend on Facebook, but block you from posting on my wall. I don’t care if you invite me to a million events because I can block you from inviting me to events (and I just pretty much block everyone from inviting me to events as matter of making the site usable – this way, I can use the events system to actually track events). I never look at messages on Facebook, so I also don’t care if you spam me there. I will never see it.
When you do all these things (or when I do all these things), the message is: this music has no value…so much so that I not only offer it for free, but essentially put time, money, and resources into begging you to listen to it.

Does that mean you should never “beg” people to listen to your music? Well, the line blurs between begging and promoting…

Possible successful “begging” techniques for giving away music for free: 

SPIN

1. Get someone with a reputable name to give away your music for free

People perceive someone else talking about your music very differently than when you talk about it. The divide widens when it’s someone with a reputation. Recently, we gave away a new The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library track on MAGNET. When I post that you can download our song on MAGNET (vs. our site), everyone is far more likely to perceive the song as being good (just by virtue of someone else offering it) and everyone is far more likely to share in the vicarious excitement of the song (by someone they know or follow) being touted by someone else that they’ve heard of. I am not sure that a ton of people who follow MAGNET will download the file, but I am sure that way more of my friends and followers will download it than if I just sent them to my website. Sadly, “reputable” endorsement seems to be the most powerful of movers. I’d love to say quality is the prime mover, but I don’t think it is.

TIME

Tangent: when The Motion Sick appeared in SPIN prior to ever playing a single show, we were immediately taken seriously and it became easy to book shows at venues that would never be attainable to a new band with no connections. As it turns out, being in SPIN sold fewer CDs (and downloads) than we sold on numerous good show nights throughout the years, BUT it made everyone we personally know take our band a lot more seriously. Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling‘s recent appearance over at TIME had a similar effect in justifying our existence to friends and family. The music doesn’t change just because SPIN or TIME writes about it, but the way people perceive it absolutely does. Most of these things won’t break you with huge new audiences, but they will strengthen your ties to your existing audience.

LIMITED-TIME OFFER!!!!

2. Offer it for a limited time

This week only, download our song. No one wants to miss out on a limited-time offer.
Caveat: The problem is, our music is always available on Bandcamp in streaming form (we don’t get paid for that) and Spotify (we do get paid for that). So, I am not sure I can ever offer a limited-time offer unless we remove that, which brings forth other problems and concerns.

Neutral Uke Hotel

3. Offer it to a select group of people who are engaged in a special way

Believe it or not, people are EXTREMELY reluctant to be on an e-mail mailing list. They are far more likely to“like” a page on Facebook or follow someone on Twitter than to sign up for their e-mail list. From my perspective, my e-mail list is the only way to reach people that is in my control and has at least moderate reliability. So, I’ve been rewarding my list subscribers by providing a free sampler of my music every month that usually includes unreleased tracks or other special items that ONLY people on the list receive. The key here is that most e-mail list subscribers view being on the list as a deeper connection than say, following a band on Facebook.
Downloading a track for free in exchange for an e-mail address also works, but is a little bit tricky. Bandcamp presently offers this option (and I use it regularly), but I am afraid that the users feel kind of like they’ve been duped when they see “free” and then ultimately have to enter their e-mail address and get added to your list!

4. Pay-what-you-want?

This is the one I’ve been struggling with the most. It actually makes the most sense logically from my perspective, but I think it acts as a pretty serious deterrent when it’s happening under scrutiny, which it is when we are collecting e-mails and other data. People don’t want to feel cheap. They don’t want the onus of deciding the value of the music placed on them.In one case that I am aware of, The Lights Out, used an unobserved merch case (with cash box lockdown) allowing people to drop money into the box and collect merch at any price they felt fair. My understanding is that this has been a very successful approach and doesn’t not make the buyer feel that they are under surveillance or being judged.UPDATE: Here’s a video tour of The Lights Out‘s merch case:

So where does that leave us?

Should we forget free?!?!?!?

I think we can’t ignore free. That is, a consumer probably should not be expected to directly pay money in exchange for your music at the instance of consumption any longer (or much longer) – see rant below. Does that mean artists make no money? Not necessarily. We need to shift paradigms. More importantly, we need to present value to consumers without cost. Of course, we’re all still trying to figure out how! We’re in an in-between space at the moment and it’s a very difficult one to crawl through…My rant on the future of consumption below, but first…
PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE check out my music! I am begging! 

Darling Pet Munkee (photo by Michael Basu)


My rant from Facebook: I think musicians have to stop pretending that music has much consumer value and stop expecting that people are going to pay historical prices for it. The giant corporate conglomerate market control and price fixing has ended. Now, music is so overwhelmingly available and has become virtually worthless as a commodity. We need to accept it. Does that suck for musicians? Yes, it does. Is it the reality? Yes, it is.

I view music purchasers as “supporters of the arts,” if you will. They are not doing it to get the commodity; they are doing it to encourage the artist to keep doing what they are doing. It’s turning more toward patronage, it’s not consumerism anymore (or it won’t be for very much longer I believe). We have a culture that does not value art very much financially. Thus, art has little monetary value. You can throw a tantrum about that, but it’s not going to change the facts. While I don’t support piracy in a general sense, I think we need to acknowledge that the value of music was faked for so long and that the modern consumers demand music for free (or pennies). Again, sucks for musicians, but it’s how it goes. No one has a right to make a living being an artist. Artists need to stop demanding that right if the market doesn’t support it. We can come up with a million reasons why our music should sell for as much (or more) than it does now, but those reasons are simply not relevant to market value. I realized that the fastest and best way I could lose less money making music was not to sell more or sell it at a higher price, but rather to stop spending money. Do my recordings sound as good as they would if I spent a lot of money on them? No. Would I sell more if I had spent more? Also no.

I think artists will ultimately benefit the most from subscription model payouts once statutory rates for streaming are set (and hopefully are somewhat reasonable). It also rewards people that make good music that gets listened to a lot and removes rewards for overmarketing terrible music. I think that the end of music selling in favor of paying per stream will ultimately save the art. Write bad songs, get no plays. Write great songs, get plays. First thing we need to do is abandon the idea that people are going to be willing to pay $10 for an album. That concept doesn’t have much life left in it. I say kill the pirates by meeting consumer demands, not passing imbecile laws. Spotify is a piracy killer. Sure, the payouts need to be worked out still, but that is where the focus of legislation should be – how can we shift to a streaming, on-demand model that can work for everyone? Artists are, of course, going to lose out in this shift, but it’s inevitable.

Space Balloons

A lot of this applies to movies, television, and other media as well. We need to figure out how to shift models instead of just trying to stop a cultural tidal wave with useless laws. These models will require a rethink of how content is produced and how much money is put into it. I think this is ultimately a winning proposition. It’s actually the real stage at which there is market equality.

Michael J. Epstein is a maniacal madman in the independent music world.  He is arguably one of the hardest working players in the indie rock world.  He is involved in several groups including his own fronted group The Michael J. Epstein Library, the ukulele based tribute group fronted by Shawn Fogel known as Neutral Uke Hotel, his duo with Sophia Cacciola Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, the conversion of DNFMOMD and instrumental masterminds Axemunkee known as Darling Pet Munkee, and a trio also with Sophia Cacciola known as Space Balloons.  The list actually goes on and on as Michael is always creating and reinventing himself through so many different projects it is almost entirely impossible to keep track.  Learn more about all the eccentric and amazing things Mr. Epstein has been doing at his website where this article was taken from.

Hipster Ass Bike For Hipsters (a.ka. The Greatest Craigslist Ad Ever Made) [Guest Wreckers]

I am selling my Vista Carrera 7 road bike. Perfect for the aspiring culture creator. I have recently become a Successful Entrepreneur and I no longer have the need for such trifling possessions. I drive a gigantic cargo van that literally pisses gas onto the road to mark its territory.

Do you want to be noticed? Do you want to stand out from the crowd? Sleeve tattoo didn’t do the trick? Dubstep bounce remix didn’t go viral? Look no further than this bike. Don’t even look past it in the pictures posted below. Import it into Photoshop and delete the background. I know you know how to do it, because you’re a graphic designer.

Orange body. Green accents. Pink handlebar wrap. Some silver. Black. Dirt. Are there even any more colors? There are awesome reflective stickers on the bike, too, which makes darting out in front of automobiles on dark evenings and asserting one’s absolute and total right of way even more self-righteously awesome. Dear motorist: Did you not see the stickers. Do you think I have time to just put stickers on things. I’m trying to save the world from people like you.

Just think of all the great places you could see and be seen on this bike:

1. An Obama rally
2. A Ron Paul rally
3. Rally’s
4. Miscellaneous

The possibilities are endless.

This bike will get you laid. If you ride this bike around Audobon Park at 1 in the morning without pants on, dudes will literally knock you off of your bike to try to blow you.

This bike is a freewheel fixed gear, because you’re a fucking monster and you have one speed, and that speed is +/- 15mph.

A seat comes with the bike, but is not pictured. If you want, you can ride the bike without the seat to simulate the stick you have up your ass about which Pavement album is best, which political cause that matters to you most intermittently, or about whatever it is that you “do.”

SAFETY FEATURES

This bike is Japanese and comes with four distinct safety features:

Safety Feature #1: front brakes only. Because you’re not about to conform to anyone’s preconceived notions of how a bike should stop.

Safety Feature #2: Quick release back wheel. I took this bike to Mike the Bike Guy on Magazine to get a tune up once, and he refused to work on it because of this Safety Feature. He said it was a “Frankenstein bike.” I asked him if he didn’t agree that Frankenstein was a literary masterpiece. I thought that after losing that argument he might be a gentleman and agree to tune up the bike for free, but he remained all pissy and still refused to work on it, even for money.

The next time I went in to Mike the Bike Guy on Magazine was to get air. I was all, hey MTBG, can I get some air? He was all yes. It was clear that we both believed that air is a free resource that should not be commodified. Common ground. He pointed me toward his air machine. Everything seemed cool. When I realized that the nozzle didn’t fit my bike’s tires, I was all, hey MTBG, how does this nozzle go on? He looked at me, turned around, took two steps toward the back of the room, and let out a loud SIGH. I couldn’t blame him. I work with people too, and sometimes they ask me questions because they don’t know things and I am the paid expert on the exact things they don’t know and I am standing right next to them, and I have to humiliate them in front of others before I answer them, too. It’s all just part of the job.

Safety Feature #3: Helmet. That’s my helmet. You can ride in a painter’s cap and pretend to be smart at the same time, but you’re not fooling anyone.

Safety Feature #4: Welding fix at seat joint. When this joint came loose, the bike was deemed horribly unsafe. When I welded it back together, it became safe again, therefore: safety feature. It’s supersturdy now; I welded it to fuck and back. I painted the welding joint green because I was feeling creative and I don’t have to explain my art to anyone.

Safety Feature #5: Apparently this bike has really nice rims. I am listing this under Safety Features because I feel that less-nice rims would probably make the bike marginally less safe.

Safety Feature $6: Earthquake proof.

$180 or best offer. Cash is fine. Your parents can PayPal me directly. Or see below:

I’m totally into creative trades (this part is actually serious). Musical instruments (serious – esp synths and pedals); original art (serious); US Currency (for srsly); leisure suits (I’m 6’1”, 180, with long arms and broad shoulders. Let’s stick with dark colors – I’m kind of pale and I don’t like to look washed out); real estate/underwater mortgages (4realz dogg); antique firearms (I promise I won’t trade you the bike and then shoot you with what was previously your firearm in order to steal my bike back and sell it again, although wouldn’t that be ironic, or would it, I don’t know, we use the word incorrectly so often that I’m not sure it matters); casual sex. Show me what you got.

*[EDIT: dig on this? The author has a rap band called Sex Party: facebook.com/sexpartymusic, @FFFFFF_SexParty]*

A Cultural Analysis: Inspiration to Independent Music Culture by Melissa Trembath [Guest Wreckers]

Note from the editor:  Indeed, many of you will recognize the name Trembath as it is the same as my own.  Melissa is indeed my wife, and thus was automatically included as a guest for our second run of Guest Wreckers.  Biased much?  Of course.  But, when Melissa said she had chosen to write about Independent Music for an assigned paper on culture analysis in her English class at SFCC, and furthermore that she would be using the book I founded/edited Children of Mercy: Tales and Teachings From The World of Independent Music as an artifact to represent said culture, I was seriously in awe and extremely flattered.  It is also a very well structured and informative paper, and deserving of a spot on Trainwreck’d Society.  And she promised me a back rub and several other favors.  So sue me if I did so oblige.  If you have an issue with this, start your own blog, and complain about these matters elsewhere.  Other than that….Enjoy!

Melissa Trembath

Liz Rognes

English 101

5/11/12

Inspiration to Independent Music Culture

How does one explain the independent music culture? It means so many different things to different people. Tim Chaplin from the experimental rock band Factory Kids defined it as  “Doing things for yourself-in some cases, often by yourself, out of sheer necessity-or just because you want to”(Chaplin, 44). For Cyndi Kimmel, a former DJ for KZUU at Washington State University, independent music “is an intended focus on the independence of music from major commercial record labels and boundaries” (Kimmel, 109). The term independent means: free from authority, control, or domination, operate alone, non dependant, and capable of thinking or acting without consultation or guidance from others. With that definition I think independent music is freedom to do what an artist wants, make the music they want, without having to answer to anyone.

In the independent music culture, one artifact that represents an inspiring aspect of independent music is a book entitled Children of Mercy. It is a collection of stories and essays from people within the culture. The contributors to the book write about many different topics including the struggles of being an independent artist, what independent music means to them, independent music history, and several other topics that hold a significant meaning in the independent world. In this book the reader gets forty different perspectives that are all centered on independent music and its culture. In this paper there will be perspectives from contributors in the book, as they wrote them in Children of Mercy. They will help to explain the independent music culture and the significance of this book.

One reason Children of Mercy is a unique book is because of how it was produced. If we were to apply the standards of independent music to this book it would definitely qualify as an independent project.  It has so many aspects of the independent culture in its creation.  It was produced by a publisher working out of his garage, created and edited by a music blogger, and distributed by the founder who would drop off copies to local bookstores. Another interesting part of this book is it had a compilation album that went along with the book. In addition to submitting an essay to the book some artist donated music or created original songs for the album.

Children of Mercy: Tales and Teachings From The World of Independent Music

An additional unique quality to this book was that it was made with little money out of pocket from the creator. There was a fundraising event where people donated money to help get the project started and completed. The album was handmade and the artwork for the album as well as the book was freely created by friends of the founder. It was literally a group effort to bring this book to life. Also another unique quality to this book is that all profits are donated to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. The charity was chosen because a contributor to the book has a son who suffers from Cystic Fibrosis. This book has many unique qualities to it, even though it is just an ordinary object.

Children of Mercy is after all just a book, which is simply an ordinary object. It is also not the first of its kind. There have been other books like this one. An example is Peter Terzian’s Heavy Rotations which actually influenced the editor to create Children of Mercy. Terzian’s book has similar qualities to Children of Mercy but it is also very different. In Heavy Rotations music journalists write about different albums individually. This is a contrast to Children of Mercy where members of the independent music world are writing about all different aspects of life within music.

Children of Mercy stands for everything Independent. It stands for independence from the mainstream media as an important way of having art uncorrupted and free from influence. It reinforces the belief that music creation can be done easily as long as the artist has the drive and spirit to create art for and by themselves. As Matt Montgomery, a music journalist and founder of MusicGeek.org, said about an indie band winning a Grammy: “It’s yet another road sign on the long trek toward a culture of independence in music, culture, and society”(Montgomery, 79).  I believe Children of Mercy is also a road sign toward getting recognition for independent music into the world.

People outside of this culture might not understand the significance of independent music. They could see Children of Mercy as just another book about music. Some people could look at independent culture as amateurish. They might think that anyone could be an independent artist even if they do not actually have any talent. In the words of Matt Montgomery on the significance of independent music “when information, media, culture is not spoon-fed, people think. And they don’t just think a little – they think a lot, and they think constantly. If not because they have to, then because they can”(Montgomery, 80). The beauty of this culture is that there is so much available. If people do not like one artist or group that does not mean they will not like any others. There are so many different sounds, emotions, and thoughts thrust out into this culture. In Children of Mercy the contributors highlight these aspects throughout their tales and teachings from the independent world. While some people may say that it is just another book, it is actually a meaningful book full of hopes, dreams, thoughts, ideas, emotional struggles, and inspiration.

Children of Mercy Compilation Album (The Beechfields Record Label, 2011)

Children of Mercy can enlighten people about real life accounts in the independent culture, by actual people in the independent world. It offers a perspective into this culture that may have never been put out there before. This book speaks to the independent at heart. Not just people who play music or write novels but, whatever it is they want to accomplish they can. They do not need a publishing agency to accept them, or a major music label to put out their music. Do it yourself. Jess Gulbranson put it best when he wrote “No matter how bad you are at what you love to do, or how untrained, or unmotivated, YOU CAN DO IT. Just start”(Gulbranson, 71).

After exploring Children of Mercy my thoughts on independent music and the culture surrounding it has been enhanced. This book has helped me realize how much passion is put into independent music. The main reason independent music is important to me is because of the torrent of emotion that the music exudes. I love the feelings I get when I listen to independent music whether happy, sad or angry. I connect to it and that is what music is about to me: the connection. Cyndi Kimmel stated it best when she said “we comprehend music as a universal language used to express everything seen, thought, felt, and done reminding us of our shared commonalities”(Kimmel, 109). I feel as though I understand just a bit more about the independent culture after reading all the stories and teachings within Children of Mercy. When looked at a little closer people can find added meaning, more inspiration, and a different perspective then they may have had before reading Children of Mercy.

Melissa Trembath is a student with dual studentizionship at Spokane Falls Community College and Spokane Community College with studies in Diagnostic Medical Sonography.  She is also the mother of three daughters and the wife of Trainwreck’d Society’s founder/editor/head wino Ron Trembath.  She currently resides in Spokane, Washington and has been deemed to be the greatest woman on earth.

Welcome to Mobile (A True Story) by Phil The Tremolo King [Guest Wreckers]

I woke up before the alarm went off. It was hard to believe I had gotten my biological clock used to waking up at 4AM. Outside, Government Street was pitch dark and quiet as a mouse…no cars, no birds, no dogs…Mobile was a pretty sleepy town to begin with. I tried to make out shapes in my room but the only thing I could see were the red digital numbers of my alarm clock.

I turned on the lamp next to my bed. It was only a 40 watt bulb, just enough to see. I looked around the room. The bare bulb hanging from the ceiling,  outlets attached to the socket. The muddy brown wooden waynescoting, the dark green stained wallpaper. The massive rusty fridge in the corner. And my favorite: on the wall, a thriftstore painting of bright red roses on black velvet.

Time to get up and make the donuts…I put some ground coffee in my little cooking pot, poured in water from the sink and put the pot on my hot plate.  This was my way of making morning coffee. The resulting liquid was disgusting and full of grounds, but at least it had caffeine in it. I quickly brushed my teeth in the little porcelain sink, ran some hot water over my face and put on my clothes.

The day labor place , appropriately named ‘Work Load’, was only about ten blocks away. I scurried through the neon-lit empty streets, hoping I would work today. Otherwise I had gotten up at 4AM for nothing and most importantly, I wouldn’t have money for food and the twenty-five dollars a week my room cost me.  The sun was coming up as I approached the little storefront with the fake wood paneling on the walls, the drab neon lighting and the glass window counter at the end where the owner sat and looked out over us. His name was Jack; he was actually a pretty decent fellow considering the line of work he was in. To my surprise this morning he was out on the street, talking to some very haggardly looking people. They were walking towards the building in the early rays of the rising sun.  An old woman with no teeth, long stringy bleach blond hair, in jeans and sneakers, her skin grey and wrinkled like a gator. Two young men, one fat, one skinny, sporting crewcuts and wearing  t-shirts and dirty jeans. The fat one wore a baseball cap. Meaty ears like cauliflowers. Tiny watery eyes so close together he looked cross eyed. His face pasty white with red blotches. Like a pig.

Besides Jack I was the only white person in the day labor place. Nobody seemed to mind; I certainly didn’t. We all sat on the hard plastic chairs, waiting for Jack to hand out the day’s assignments as the phone started ringing. Every time Jack would glance up from his desk towards us, eager hands rose up in the air. Pick me! Pick me! Jack would point at the ones he chose, and off they went. This was just about as close to rock bottom as anyone could get. The jobs were all manual labor. None paid more than minimum wage. You were charged half an hour’s wages for transportation in a van to and from work. There were no benefits of course, and there was no job security at all. Basically, whether you worked or not on any given day was up to Jack. This was a pretty small place; no more than twenty would be workers would show up per day, about all the place could accommodate. Certainly not as big as some other day labor places I’d seen like the one in Atlanta which easily held a few hundred workers. Perhaps that was why Jack seemed not such a bad guy.

Most of the work was at Bellingrath Gardens. This was a large botanical garden complex, open to the public, in a nearby town called Bellingrath. Today was no exception. About eight of us were chosen to work.  We were each given our work slips and out we went, towards the waiting van. To our surprise, our regular driver was not behind the wheel. Instead it was the redneck from that morning with the baseball cap and the pig face.  He did not greet anyone. He just stared straight ahead with a hard, cold stare.

Usually the van was full of laughter and talk. We might have been down on our luck but that did not stop my coworkers from trying to wrestle what little joy they could from their daily existence. Today however it was ghostly quiet in the van. The new driver was like an evil spirit sending out bad vibes.

The van became a little tin box on wheels filled to the brim with tension, the passengers prisoners on a trip to nowhere.  Mike, a gentle giant of a man in his fifties, who never even cursed, sat rigidly, his finger idly brushing something off his seat. His eyes were full of sorrow. Something was going on inside that van; something gnarled and twisted, ancient, dangerous, full of fear and horror, infinitely evil. Something that brought out old animal instincts of survival passed down from generation to generation. Only I had no idea what. All I knew was that we had a new driver.

Our old driver, who was black,  would always play old time soul on the radio. The passengers would sway and tap along, sometimes singing softly. That too had changed.  Now country music was blaring from the radio. It sounded mean and harsh. A few murmured protests were uttered. The driver ignored them.

So the trip continued in tense silence. The driver drove very aggressively, making hairpin turns at high speeds and taking crazy risks. Several times Mike gasped. The driver seemed really mad; for the life of me I could not figure out why. Was he mad at us? For what? He really seemed mad at the whole world. But why take it out on us?

After an eternity we pulled up at Bellingrath Gardens.  Like sheep we piled out of the van and walked towards the supervisor’s desk where we would be told where to go. The men looked like convicts, doomed men. We were the scum of the earth. Everybody knew it and we knew it too. The driver talked and joked with the supervisor, every once in a while throwing us a dirty look. I could sense an old hatred in their souls, a hatred that went back hundreds of years.  Blind, stupid, completely irrational, and therefore all the more dangerous. These little men with their little lives held on to their hatred because it made them feel superior.

But I had learned very quickly not to make waves. My survival depended on it just as much as my coworkers. My little weekly room kept me off the street and out of a shelter. My measly paycheck kept me in groceries and cigarettes and the occasional beer. So I quickly became a sheep among sheep and did what I was told.

The only other white man on the crew was Donnie, an old alcoholic with skin like leather and a twinkle in his eyes. We were working at a small table piled high with fresh dirt, filling new flower pots with it. This early in the morning the dirt was filled with nits, tiny white dot-like insects that jumped out and bit your hands.  Nasty little bites that stung first and then itched. Everybody told me I’d get used to it, but I never did.

“Why was everybody so quiet in the van?” I asked Donnie. Donnie had taken me under his wing from day one, showing me the ropes, warning me of snakes and generally giving me advice. He was also a great story teller. He always called me ‘li’l buddy’. But this morning he too was strangely quiet.           “ Shoot, li’l buddy, I don’t know” he answered vaguely    “ you know how them guys get sometimes. Maybe they was tired, or sumtin’.”  Mike was working alongside us. But he too kept quiet.

Mike went to get a new cart with empty flower pots, and when he was out of earshot, Donnie leaned in and quietly told me “look,li’l buddy, don’tell no one I told you this, but that family’s been known for being in the Klan for years.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. “the… Klan?’-“Yeah! You know…” and with his index finger he drew in the fresh dirt…three K’s. Then he quickly erased them. He threw me a meaningful look. “Now don’t you go and tell no one I told you that!”

I was stunned. I’d heard of the KKK or ‘the Klan’ of course,  with their stupid white hoods and burning crosses, terrorizing blacks in the old South, lynching and killing with impunity, and making sure white supremacy was alive and well. But that seemed a long time ago….this was the modern age, post MLK and the civil rights movement…surely that kind of blatant racism was a thing of the past, even in Alabama? All day long I thought about it, the haggard people in the morning talking to Jack, the hostile driver, Donnie drawing three K’s in the dirt with his finger.

Quitting time came, and we all piled back into the van, tired and sweaty and with dirt under our fingernails. No matter how desperate their situation, none of my coworkers ever complained about their lot. They just accepted it, and worked hard, thankless jobs for a pittance and without any job security or benefits at all. This hard life that I shared briefly was really not that far removed from slavery.

The ride back to the day labor place was every bit as tense as the ride to the Gardens. Once again the driver’s silent angry hostility, the reckless driving, the deathly silence, and the country music blaring out of the van’s  little radio. Mike, trying to make the best of things, tapped along tentatively to the unfamiliar beat. Finally Jake, sitting in the back, crouched up against the back door since there weren’t enough seats, broke the silence. ‘Hey man…can’t you play something else on that radio?’

Without a word the driver abruptly stopped the van. He opened the door, got out and walked around the van to the back. Then he opened the back door.

‘Get out!’

Jake looked at him wide-eyed but didn’t move.

‘Get out before I throw you out!’ yelled the driver. ‘Go on, get out!! ‘

Quietly Jake got out the van and stood on the road.

‘I’ll make sure you’ll never work for Work Load again!’ spat the driver.

The driver got back in. ‘Anybody else got something to say?’ You could hear a pin drop. It was if everybody was holding their breath, waiting for the nightmare to be over, get home, out of the fucking van and away from this racist pig.

The driver started the van and roared off. I looked back over my shoulder through the window at Jake, who had begun walking. He was completely stone faced. He’d be walking at least an hour to get home.  What’s more, he was now blacklisted from even the ‘last hope’ employment of day labor.  Eviction and homelessness were surely staring him in the face.

I looked at Donnie sitting next to me looking into the distance. It seemed as if all the world’s sadness was on his shoulders.  As the van continued its ride, the heavy silence only punctured by country music, we passed a sign by the side of the road. I looked at it. It said…

‘WELCOME TO MOBILE’.

Phil The Tremolo King is a Belgian musician/artist who currently resides in New Orleans, Louisiana.  He has been playing music solo for years, and has also also been involved in a project known as Tremoflex 9000 featuring former Slacker’s member Vic Ruggiero and Brooklyn based artist Flex Underground.  His latest album, available on Norman Records, entitled 11, is a masterpiece of modern folk and all things estranged.  He has taken the DIY ethos to incredible lengths.  Phil recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign which allowed him to travel the lower Southwest United States via the Sunset Limited.  He has completed the tour, and will be releasing a documentary about his time on the tracks soon (which you can see rough footage of HERE.  Visit philthetremoloking.com for more details.  Phil also contributed an article and track to the Children of Mercy project and appeared live with the editor Ron Trembath on New Orlean’s WTUL 91.5 and also appeared simultaneously in Sergeant Sparrow Magazine as well.  In addition to these contributions, he is also the project’s Bandcamp and Myspace manager.  Even more unique, the white shadow figure who appears on the book’s artwork (created by fellow contributor Jess Gulbransson) is actually Phil himself.  

Our Government Is Causing More Terrorism by Matt Beat [Guest Wreckers]

The terrorists who attacked us on September 11, 2001, did not win on that horrible day. But they have won every day since then. They have created a fear not seen since the early days of the Cold War. They have turned our politicians into people who make every major decision based on fear. The “War on Terror” has, in fact, created more terror. That’s right, after the death of around 9,000 Americans, after the death of millions of people in other countries (but, really, who cares about them? ha!), and after $1.28 Trillion spent (keep raising that debt ceiling!), we are less safe now than before the War on Terror began.

But it’s not just the War on Terror. It’s also the War on Drugs. President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs 40 years ago, and we now spend $42 billion a year fighting drugs (just illegal ones- alcohol, nicotine, oxycontin, morphine, those are fine) and more people use drugs now than ever before. The Global Commission on Drug Policy has recently affirmed what many of us already know. The war on drugs has failed.

Terror and Drugs have existed since the dawn of civilization, but recently our government decided to declare war on the two. Oh, and directly or indirectly kill millions and spend trillions of dollars since declaring both wars. It’s important to specifically look at how the two wars have created more terrorism.

The main reason why we are less safe now is simply because many people passionately hate us, and no, they don’t hate us for our freedom. They hate us for various reasons that I won’t get into, but the biggest reason of all is our foreign policy, and there is overwhelming evidence to support this. As a mostly Christian nation of people, our foreign policy blatantly contradicts the “golden rule.” Remember that one? That was the “treat others as you would want to be treated” rule that Jesus of Nazareth preached and popularized. For every military action we have made during the War on Terror, we have failed to ask ourselves, “what would we do if another country conducted such military action to us?” For example, if an unmanned aerial vehicle from Pakistan secretly dropped a bomb on a house where suspected enemy combatants lived (they’re innocent until proven dead!), killing an entire family except for an 8-year old, which country would that 8-year old grow up to hate? If Germany decided to build a permanent military base in Texas in the name of “national security,” how would Americans react?

You can distract yourselves with “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Celebrity Apprentice” every night, but the fact remains that while you watch those “reality” TV shows, the real reality is that civilians are accidentally killed everyday by the United States military and NATO. The real reality is that the United States has over 1000 permanent military bases outside of its borders. The real reality is that new terrorists are created because of the invasion and occupation of foreign countries by our military.

What about the civil liberties that American citizens seem to take for granted? Those have also been consistently attacked since the War on Terror began. Thanks to the Patriot Act,our government can spy on us or search our home without us knowing. (so much for the 4th amendment) We are also not allowed to dance in public (so much for the 1st amendment). We have two choices at the airport before we get on a plane: get exposed to radiation and show off our naked bodies or get groped. (so much for decency)

The War on Drugs, certainly related to the War on Terror, has also created more terrorism. Whenever anything is illegal, that creates a black market. Those who operate within the black market are more prone to operate outside of the law. After all, they’re already breaking the law to begin with, right? If someone doesn’t pay or if a business deal goes sour in the black market, violence is usually the solution to get a message across. Most drug-related violence is actually drug trade-related violence.

Statistics are hard to figure because there is so much hidden damage. For example, let’s look at the stereotypical gang. Almost all gangs make at least some of  their money through the illegal drug trade. Say Johnny is looking to join a gang which makes most of its money from selling crack cocaine.  In order to join, Johnny has to kill someone from a rival gang. He drives by the rival gang member’s house and opens fire. But he is not home. Instead, he accidentally kills his little brother and sister. When you watch the local news that night, you probably won’t make the connection that the double homicide was linked to the drug trade.

Now, what if cocaine was legal? It would be counter productive for the gang to sell cocaine. They would have to compete with the legal market, and couldn’t compete, so they would be forced to sell another illegal product. But if there were no other illegal products they could easily access, the gang wouldn’t be sustainable and it would fall apart. Johnny therefore would not care to join the gang and two children would still be alive.

That is a simplification to a complex problem, but history tells us that prohibition actually causes more problems than it solves. Look at the problems of prohibition of alcohol in this country or look at the success of decriminalizing marijuana in Portugal. The biggest problem with the War on Drugs is the terrorism it creates. The 1 million gang members in this country are easily the most frightening terrorists we have to worry about on a daily basis. They are the ones directly creating terror on our streets, disportionately affecting the lower class of our society (you know, the ones who rarely vote and don’t hold public office). The police fighting the drug wars are also unintentionally (sometimes intentionally) creating even more terror, often invading homes only to find no trace of drugs. Remember, the United States locks up more of its own citizens than any other country in the world. Most of those sent to prison are there for minor drug possession charges. Most of the drug possession charges alsodisproportionately affect minorities.

Terrorism is winning, and largely thanks to the ignorance of the masses and misinformation and disinformation in the mainstream media, it will continue to win. Ironically, this is after millions of lives lost and trillions of dollars spent fighting it. Who is to blame in the world for all of the world’s terrorism? A small amount of terrorism can be blamed on Al-Qaeda, The Taliban, and other terrorist organizations and also Muammar Gaddafi, Omar al-Bashir, and other brutal dictators. However, most of the blame, unfortunately, has to be put on the world’s greatest current superpower, the USA. The terror we cause is unintended and often accidental, but it is causing hatred around the world, thus fueling more terrorism from future generations. I love my country and I love what my country stands for, but I do not love its foreign policy and its drug policy, the two things that are putting my family directly in harm’s way the most. If we all want to survive, if we all want to feel and be safe, we must change both now.

Matt Beat is many things.  He is a father.  A middle school history teacher in Overland Park, Kansas.  And indie rokker as one half of the power duo known as Electric Needle Room.  His writing has appeared in the likes of the Kansas City Underground Examiner, and the charity based book about independent music, Children of Mercy: Tales and Teachings From The World of Independent Music.  Recently Matt has combined his love for american politics and history with his love for music with a collection of songs about all of the Presidents of United States of America, released annually on, you got it, President’s Day.  Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 of said albums are available on Bandcamp.  You can read more insight from Matt at The Beat Matt Blog, where this blog originally appeared on June 22nd, 2011.

An Open Letter To Cage The Elephant by Jess Gulbransson [Guest Wreckers]

Dear CTE,

I have no intention of starting any sort of flame war with your fans or yourselves, as I presume that you are all ordinarily intelligent people able to function in society. There is an element of subjectivity in any review, and in recognition of that I’m not going to throw a bunch of stylistic terms and critical references around. Well, not as a main point. Sometimes I can’t help myself. What I will provide is a personal plea.

PLEASE CEASE YOUR EXISTENCE AS A BAND.

Sounds, harsh, I understand, but I’m serious. Please listen. I first heard your band on the radio. Now, I’m not normally a radio listener. When I do listen it’s either to the classic rock station or the tejano/norteno station. My wife likes the alternative, though, so that station comes on a lot. What’s come with that is exposure to the Change The Elephant single “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked” which, not to put too fine a point on it, is horrid.

Is the title of the song a biblical reference? An instance of a widespread cliche? Or cribbing from the earliest musical reference I can think of, the excellent Ozzy album?Given what I later discovered, I would guess a craptastic combination of all three. So what is this song that earns such ire?

Now, there is a history of preening self-indulgent bands attempting to be righteous and comment on social issues. Sometimes they pull it off, usually through subtlety and/or sincerity. Mostly it ends up feeling as fake as a Sunday morning megachurch rock hymn. Social Distortion seems to practically live this trope. So, Cage The Elephant, what possessed you to step into this trench already full of failure and skeletons? That it is wildly popular probably only reinforces the feeling that you wrote a really awesome song. “Yes, our shitty ripoff of the equally execrable G-Love and Special Sauce is a hit. We must write more songs like this!” That’s probably what you’re thinking, and is the biggest reason you must STOP PLAYING MUSIC.

I didn’t think that I could diss you like this without at least listening to some of your other songs, and as the wise men saith, It Got Worse. Instead of more soulless faux-funk in the vein of The White Stripes’ lesser material, your other tracks are the most shameless copies of Arctic Monkeys. What? How dare you! The song “Lotus” is the worst, being a complete and shoddy redo of “The View From The Afternoon.” Look, being derivative is fine. It happens all the time, and everyone is derivative of someone, to some respect. Just… don’t suck at it. The common advice is to write what you know. Arctic Monkeys seem to write mostly about English club kids being bored and doing stupid shit. That’s vapid material, potentially, but they breathe life into it, and the verisimilitude stomps all over any liabilities the source material may have. It’s not just about Alex Turner’s vocal style, it’s the gestalt of all sorts of elements. You’ve just thrown a bunch of shit at yourselves, hoping some will stick into a cohesive style. We’re not buying it. Well, actually a lot of us are. Your “tenth generation sub-standard Faces” schtick, as phrased by Chuck Ubaghs, is getting a lot of people excited. Well, the fucking Archies did that too. So why not take a page out of their comic book and

DO NOT CONTINUE AS A BAND

The next step in your success, whether you remain one-hit blunders or not, will be to have new bands, who are just fine sitting in their basement doing their Warsaw-esque noodling, jump up and say “THIS IS A HOT SOUND, WE NEED TO BE ALL IRONIC SOUTHERN ROCK AND SHIT.” Some critics are sitting back and waiting for you to disappear before your influence spreads, but I don’t want that pop culture blood on my hands. Now, Cage The Elephant, I could suggest to you that you might take a reasoned look at your oeuvre and how you got there, then making a sophomore effort that avoids such tripe. It’s too late, though. Like a virulent virus ‘bricking’ before the host dies, your “Wicked” single is going to bring you down eventually. With the aforementioned consequences on impressionable young bands.

Again, this may sound harsh, but I really think your band sucks, and I just have to be honest about it. I don’t think you’re bad people- just writing bad songs. Take that as what you will, and thanks for reading my little note. Good luck in your future endeavors as record store owners/fry cooks/business executives.

Sincerely,

Jess Gulbranson

Jess Gulbranson is a novelist/journalist/musician currently residing in Portland, Oregon.  He isthe  author of bizzaro fiction novels 10 A BOOT STOMPING 20 A HUMAN FACE 30 GOTO 10, Mel, and Antipaladin Blues.  He is also 1/2 of the experimental folk band Couer Machant, which is featured on the Children of Mercy Compilation.  Jess also contributed to the book Children of Mercy: Tales and Teachings From The World of Independent Music in 2011.  He contributes regularly to the Portland based blog Crappy Indie Music!  The Blog! where this piece was originally published on on July 4th, 2009.

Sound Is The Blood Between Me and You by Curtis Sutton [Guest Wreckers]

To say it’s been a good year for music would be an understatement. 2010 yielded some great things, but it wasn’t exactly overwhelming. There were some definite surprises this year (The Beastie Boys and The Roots are still putting out quality music! It’s already time for 90s nostalgia! Lady Gaga exists!), and some disappointments (No new Missy Elliott record. What was Lupe Fiasco thinking? Rihanna exists.). And if the hook from “Moves Like Jagger” gets stuck in my head one more time, I’m reaching for the sleeping pills.
Narrowing down my Top 10 for 2011 was a bit of a chore, even more so because I bought a ton of music in the past few weeks, and I’ve been trying to listen to it as much as possible to see if it compares to the stuff I bought earlier, which was already impressive. I wish I had a better system, possibly something more quantitative, like points for catchiness or number of total listens or something; but no, I just kinda look back at all the music I bought this year and pick out my favourites. Anyway, in no particular order, here goes:
• PJ Harvey – “Let England Shake”
Polly Jean has crafted an album about war and politics, but it’s also a dark love letter to her homeland.
• Real Estate – “Days”
This is what lazy Sunday afternoons sound like.
• Washed Out – “Within and Without”
• Wye Oak – “Civilian”
• St. Vincent – “Strange Mercy”
Expert guitarist, emotional singer, gifted songwriter, and not too bad to look at, Annie Clark never fails to bewilder me. This set of songs straddles the line between weird and weirder, but they’re so catchy, it’s almost like a pop album.
• Radiohead – “The King of Limbs”
Well, duh.
• James Blake – “James Blake”
• tUnE-yArDs – “w h o k i l l”
Merrill Garbus’s violent, chilling lyrics are hidden by wacky, exhilarating music. Thinly produced but somehow richly textured, it’s more fun than it has any right to be.
• Fucked Up – “David Comes to Life”
The best punk album I’ve heard in a long time. Back in 2008, they released “The Chemistry of Common Life,” and even though I heard such great things about it, I resisted. For some reason, I picked up DCtL, and I can’t get enough. Yes, it’s somewhat of a rock opera concept album, but get past all the pretentiousness that entails and you’ll find a record full of love and regret that breaks all the rules and doesn’t look back. I’ve since bought TCoCL, and now I understand what all the fuss was about.
• Wild Flag – “Wild Flag”
A little piece of me died the day Sleater-Kinney decided to go on indefinite hiatus back in 2006. Corin Tucker’s 2010 solo album was good stuff, but nothing has been able to fill the SK-sized hole in my heart until Wild Flag. Made up of Carrie Brownstein, Janet Weiss (the other 2/3 of S-K), Mary Timony (of Helium), and Rebecca Cole (of Elephant Six and the Minders), WF takes punk, indie rock, 60s girl-group, and psychedelic influences and blends it all to create their own sound. It’s a tense record, with Carrie and Mary trading off vocals to keep you guessing. Yet it’s still amazing fun, the kind of music you can hear in a dive bar or at a beach party, making you want to raise your hands and sing along. If I had a dollar for every time I almost ran off the road dance-driving to “Romance,” I’d take that money and buy this album again.

So, that’s my top ten, but I’d feel bad if I didn’t give honourable mention to The Weeknd. (Sounds like “the weakened.”) The Weeknd is the musical project of Abel Tesfaye, who released a suite of free (!) mixtapes this year via his website. It’s ambient alt-R&B that I can only listen to at night, preferably while drinking wine, and even more preferably when I have someone to make out with. Not only is the music phenomenal, but I appreciate how he’s taking advantage of the internet, not fighting the inevitability of free music. Radiohead proved that an established act would have no problem operating like this, but The Weeknd is proof that one doesn’t need a big, faceless record company to distribute his art to the masses. The fact that it’s such a quality product is an added bonus.

As a post script, I’d also like to talk about Sufjan Stevens. Like Fucked Up, Sufjan is someone I’ve heard about for years, mostly because of “Illinois,” his 2005 album that put him on the indie map. I’m one of those people who can’t be told about new music; I have to discover it on my own. (I guess it’s a pride issue.) But something came over me late last year when I was browsing in an independent record store in Baltimore with my friend Dan. I saw “The Age of Adz,” and I just had to pick it up. I knew it was sonically different from his earlier records, and even though I wasn’t hooked right away, something about it kept me queuing it up on my iPod every few days. Since then, I’ve purchased the greater part of his back catalogue, and I now understand the draw of “Illinois.” Few singers can make me tear up with sadness with songs like “John Wayne Gacy Jr.,” and then shed tears of joy three songs later on “Chicago.” Equally impressive is how he handles everything so delicately, creating songs with gorgeous melodies and story-telling lyrics, the depth of which is rare in any genre. I still feel like I’m catching up to those who have known about Mr. Stevens from the get-go, but I’m loving the experience.

Curtis Sutton is an American currently living in Budoia, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy.  He is a thoroughly researched music junkie, with a direct and passionate obsession with Sleater-Kinney.  Curtis documents his love for music, life, and especially travel across the globe in his up close and personal blog, The Wax, where this story originally appeared on December 31st, 2011.