Things are unquestionably bad for “the music industry.” The people who make their livings providing music to the people who want to experience it have had the carpet pulled out from under them by the combination of a novel coronavirus and an American society unprepared – or unwilling – to head the pandemic off at the pass.
Given current projections of the disease’s course through the American populace, it’s hard for anyone to see a return to the crowds and gatherings that drive much of the music industry’s revenue before 2022. There must be a publicly funded response to keep a huge group of people whole – engineers, agents, managers, bartenders, producers, musicians of all stripes, venue owners, ticketing agencies, et al – or their lives will be irreparably damaged along with our ability to enjoy live music for years to come.
But music continues.
After a major lull in new releases, we are seeing the dam start to burst, marked by pre-COVID-19 projects finally getting their time in the somewhat dimmer sun (album sales are down 25 percent, although streams are up 13 percent, according to Nielsen), along with efforts created during the pandemic, infused with both the country’s collective sense of dread and the ingenuity that has allowed musicians to figure out new ways of doing things.
I mean, Taylor Swift did her own makeup and styling for “cardigan,” the video she released last Friday.
Or take the single and video release from An Overnight Low, “New Fascinations,” which came out July 2. Everything about it screams “social distancing,” from the lyrics – “Uncertainty in beauty to fear/ Quarantine to the now and the here,” somehow actually written before this all started, thanks to an appendectomy – to the footage of the sign by the side of the Maine Turnpike asking visitors to isolate for 14 days that opens the video, accompanied by an old-time film camera’s shutter sound. Even more so, it was recorded in a socially distant fashion, songwriter and frontman Chad Walls said.
“We were about to embark on a new record,” Walls said, “and we usually go over to the Halo (to work with Jonathan Wyman) but it’s closed. We had started recording a little bit before the pandemic, we had had one guitar set to a click, so we had the foundation for a record, and then it turned into, ‘Let’s keep recording,’ and ‘How are we going to do this?’
“It’s just made me rely on the way I made music when I was 13,” he said. “I have a Tascam four-track and a couple of microphones, and I’m a huge fan of Guided by Voices, and I was like, ‘I can do that.’”
The beat, such as it is, for the new song is provided by a pre-programmed loop Walls grabbed from a 1980s keytar. The contrast with the warm-toned ’70s guitar lead is striking. Backing vocals? Yeah, those were provided by Sam Anderson and Ted Warner singing along 10 feet behind Walls, outside, using just a single mic, “and you crossed your fingers.”
Does it sound like it was recorded at the Halo? It does not. But it sounds like a band that put a lot of care and attention into what they were trying to produce.
The project has brought him and the band a lot of joy, Walls said, but “the difference is that I don’t rely on music as a source of income.”
The band’s three full-length albums, EP, and new single are all of a project begun by Walls while sitting in a train station in the UK, following the completion of Ph.D. work in 2013. It’s “real,” in the sense that you can buy it and stream it and the band plays gigs for money, but no one’s going to miss a mortgage payment if it all goes to shit.
“I feel bad for people who are relying on music to make money,” Walls said, “but at the end of the day we’ll have this record that comes out that I’m really happy with. It’s a lot of fun.”
He also tries to appreciate the things that are newly true about making albums. “When you’re in a studio, you’re watching the clock,” Walls said. “You can’t be really inventive.”
Plus, he had to learn to trust Anderson and Warner a great deal more.
“Where in the studio it would be lots of deliberating over whether you should use a Fender on that, or should you drop tune,” Walls said, with this project he just had to send off the songs and trust his bandmates to deliver the goods.
“We had to be apart,” he said, “but we got a little closer as a band that way.”
It’s a nice sentiment. And for a little while, that’s going to have to do.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2 weeks, 5 releases
While you’re staying at home, throw these new releases on the stereo or in the headphones:
• Sojourn Suspect, “S/T.” The second release from Repeating Clouds is out, a rollicking and rocking affair that continues to demonstrate the label’s indie rock bona fides. With a bit of Northampton sound, it’s loud without being aggressive.
• Marrow, “Aim to Zoom.” The second single off of a forthcoming full-length on Milled Pavement, this is chock full of lyrics that ought to take hours to sift through.
• The Renovators, “The Girl I Knew.” A big-band blues number fit for the lounge, with horns from the Nuff Bros: “We used to hug and kiss all night, and now I can’t do anything right.”
• King Kyote, “The Quarantine Sessions.” A three-song EP, featuring the demo for the brand-new “Quarantine,” plus acoustic versions of “Gold Fades” and “Ghosts,” all in a country-folk vein.
• Lauren Crosby, “Biloxi.” Like a high-speed song from Bobbi Gentry, with Ghost of Paul Revere’s Griffin Sherry playing the foil, this is some hard-charging folk-rock.
— Sam Pfeifle