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This Column Is Brought to You by the Letter M, the Letter P, the Number 3, and the Concept "Death of the Artist"; On That Note ...

Wednesday, Jul 26 2000
This Column Is Brought to You by the Letter M, the Letter P, the Number 3, and the Concept "Death of the Artist"
It's been the better part of a month since John Vanderslice took on the somewhat bold experiment of releasing his new album, Mass Suicide Occult Figurines, as both a free MP3 download and as an old-fashioned CD on Seattle-based indie Barsuk Records. There's a legitimate financial risk involved in the approach -- there's arguably less incentive to pay cash money for a record when the whole thing's there for the taking, and Vanderslice's indie-minded college-type swapaholic audience is precisely the sort of demographic that's inspired the whole Napster mess in the first place. "A lot of people connected with this were nervous," says Vanderslice."I had a fleeting anxiety," says Barsuk owner Josh Rosenfeld, who began discussing the dual-release plan with Vanderslice at the South by Southwest music festival this March. Rosenfeld says he was sold on the concept based on Vanderslice's enthusiasm, though they did have to do some negotiating about exactly when the MP3s would go live; eventually they settled on getting the online version out one week before Figurines hit the record stores. "I'd planned to do it way earlier," says Vanderslice.

Due to a manufacturing hiccup, the record hasn't gotten full national distribution yet, and is currently available only in the Bay Area and through Barsuk mail order. Still, the early numbers tell an interesting tale about how MP3s are affecting music distribution -- and, to an extent, why we listen to records in the first place. Even though the album hasn't been sent to college radio yet, distributors have ordered approximately 1,000 copies of the Figurines CD, which is about par for the course with a musician at Vanderslice's level. "It doesn't seem like sales are slow and that people would rather hear it on MP3 on their crappy computer speakers," says Rosenfeld, who also notes that many music listeners, especially in indie rock, still have a soft spot for the tactile feel of a record, especially if it's designed and packaged well. "Distributors and stores were interested in it," says Rosenfeld. "It's not like there's nothing happening and there's a deathly chill and silence."

On the MP3 end, though, the numbers spike dramatically. Since the beginning of July, has tracked approximately 25,000 song downloads (the Figurines tracks went online on July 4, and the site also features songs from Vanderslice's old band MK Ultra and other artists; by comparison, the site tracked 5,000 downloads in June). There's no way of telling how many of those downloads will translate into actual CD purchases, but Vanderslice argues that it's the right avenue of promotion for artists in his situation. "I'm so sick of hearing bands talking shit about digital streaming," he says. "A lot of bands are coming from this very conservative, paranoid point of view. If it's good and if it resonates with people, people will pay for it."

There's another interesting point raised by the numbers: The number of downloads for the first song on Figurines, "Confusion Boats," is about twice that of those for the final song, the album's title track. So if people are simply cherry-picking their favorite songs and forgetting about the concept of hearing every track on an album, perhaps it's time to start talking about the death of the record as we know it -- say goodbye to the idea of trying to make a Tommy or a Pet Sounds or a Revolver, or any record which tries to create a consistent conceptual feel, since people will just pick out their favorites and ignore the rest anyhow (of course, we bear in mind the idea that perhaps folks are listening to the first few Figurines tracks, deciding they suck, and not clicking further). Ironically enough, those modern online listening habits mark a return to a way the record industry worked before the mid-'60s, when albums were packaged and consumed as hits-plus-filler jobs with no pretension to being "art."

Vanderslice admits the trend worries him a bit. "It's going to put a dent in the album as the definitive marker point in an artist's career," he says. To that end, he says his next album, which he plans to release on Barsuk next spring, is being written with a concept in mind, and he's eager to see how the MP3 approach works that time around. In the meantime, he's just enthusing over the reaction he's been getting from far-flung places like Belgium and Japan. "When you start getting e-mails from Papua New Guinea, you know that something's happening," he says.

On That Note ...
First, an apology is in order to Red Meat manager Owen Bly, whose last name we got wrong in last week's column. Secondly, this is the final edition of Riff Raff under my watch as I shift over to staff writer duties at the Weekly. A warm welcome is extended to Dan Strachota, a wise and able fellow who'll be taking over the music desk. Thanks to those who contributed tips, ideas, thoughts, and cranky letters. And apologies to all those people who left all those very important messages about all those very important things that I never got around to returning -- sorry, I was out getting coffee.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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