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A Beginner’s Guide to Exploring New Music

Some time ago while I was fiddling around on Facebook, an old fraternity brother of mine lamented the fact that bands like the Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead weren’t around to grace us with new music. For some reason, this troubled me greatly. Personally, I’ve spent the better part of the past few years making a concerted effort to seek out and find new music; not just stuff that reminds me of past acts but new, ground-breaking music that’s more like high-concept art compared to what gets played on the radio.

Now that spring is upon us and the music festival scene is beginning to warm up, I thought it would be a good idea to do an interview with someone who has spent several years cultivating a taste in music like a sommelier does with fine wines. You can find him on the Twitter machine via @Culture_Czar for his general life lessons or @czarplaying for his exclusive takes on music. Here’s our discussion on music, how he came to find out new bands, ways for you to explore new music, and the burgeoning music scene here in the state of Alabama.

Me: When did you first start looking for music that wasn’t considered mainstream (i.e. what gets radio play?)

Culture Czar:  I’d say middle school or high school. I remember being in middle school and everybody else listening to whatever the pop hits of the time were, but my best friend and I were listening to Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath because those were his dad’s favorite bands and we were blown away by the stuff that he’d listen to at home. While they’re certainly mainstream artists, it was probably fairly odd for pre-internet middle schoolers to be listening to that kind of stuff.

I also remember someone giving me a Black Flag cassette in middle school and not really knowing what to make out of it at the time because it was so alien to anything I’d heard at that point. Then in early high school, I was getting the stuff that filtered down from having an older brother in college so I was listening to stuff like Helmet, The Jesus Lizard, Dinosaur Jr.

I remember later in high school someone giving a copy of Phish’s Rift album right after it came out and that was another “what in the hell is this” moment, because you had all of these great bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden blowing up with this heavy music and then you had these four weirdos from Vermont playing this idiosyncratic stuff. That opened the door to Zappa and the Grateful Dead for me…two great underground heroes of days past.

Me:  How did the Internet affect how you sought out new music?

Culture Czar:  I recognized the power of the Internet as a tool to obtain music VERY early. As I mentioned, I started getting into Phish in the early 90s and they allow the free trading of recordings of their concerts. Their fans were early adopters of stuff like UseNet, email lists/digests, and band-specific message boards in order to disseminate these recordings. My first email address was DOS based (webmail didn’t exist yet) and I got it expressly in order to gain access to these live music tape trading communities. It was always a thrill to get a package of cassettes in the mail of concerts from Montreal or Boston or Chicago or Seattle or wherever.

As internet technology improved, I downloaded stuff from Napster, did bit torrents for live concerts, and I absolutely love the live music section of http://archive.org to this day. Now, I use services like Spotify, Amazon Prime, Hoopla Digital, etc. to sample new albums before I buy them whether it’s jazz, indie rock, Albanian folk music or whatever. I’m still an old school nerd that likes holding an actual, tangible object in my hands before I play it…and the sound is vastly superior to the overwhelming majority of streaming services.

Me:  What effect do you think services like Spotify and Amazon Prime have on music today?

Culture Czar:  I think there are a lot of pluses and minuses to digital services. On the positive end, it allows bands an opportunity to get their stuff out there to the public without it requiring a financial investment from potential fans to check out a new band. I can look at the concert calendar of local clubs and literally work my way down their upcoming events list and check out bands I haven’t heard to explore if I want to go see them or not. I’ve discovered countless new artists that have enriched my life by doing that with club listings, festival lineups, etc.

On the negative side, it’s fostered this widely prevalent attitude that music (and by extension other art…particularly movies and to a lesser extent books) should be free. There’s a vastly mistaken notion that most career musicians are wealthy or even comfortable. A lot of even critically-acclaimed musicians struggle to make ends meet and are uninsured. “Free music” is one of the reasons why we’ve seen the rise of increasingly expensive concert merchandise ($30-40+ t-shirts and posters for example.) It’s because that’s the one revenue stream bands produce that others have very little ability to take from (though it should be stated that many venues charge a band 10-20% of their merchandise sales for the right to sell their merch in a venue.)

Very few people actually purchase recorded music anymore and even subscribing to a service like Spotify puts very little in the artists’ pockets compared to what the companies make (amazing how everybody gets paid but the content creators!) It’s great that you have a band like Arctic Monkeys that blew up before they even had an album out because they uploaded their songs to stream on MySpace, but then you have great artists like Hanni El Khatib who don’t sell many records, but who license their music for TV commercials (you might not know his name, but I guarantee you’ve heard his songs.)

To summarize, it’s democratized music in the sense that there aren’t corporate gatekeepers like there used to be. Anybody can make music recorded ProTools and upload it to Spotify or iTunes and put it out there, the hard part is being heard in the vast sea of competition (and then getting paid when you do get some momentum.)

Me:  With there being so many different musical acts vying for listeners’ attention, would you say that this has watered down the quality of today’s music or enhanced it?

Culture Czar:  I’d say it’s greatly enhanced it. In the past, your opportunities for discovery were infinitely more limited. 50-60 years ago, you were largely limited to what made it on the radio or what was spread by word of mouth. Fast forward a few decades and you started getting things like MTV which allowed for music to be spread further. If you lived in Cornfield, Nebraska, it’s very unlikely you hear Nirvana in the early 90s without MTV. Local radio isn’t playing that without it blowing up nationally first. Shows like Headbanger’s Ball, Yo! MTV Raps, 120 Minutes, and Alternative Nation allowed more fringe artists to get national exposure. Local radio in Birmingham sure as hell wasn’t playing My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr., Primus, and Sonic Youth. I have MTV to thank for those bands in my life.

The Internet has just increased the global spread of music. There’s no way a band like the Black Lips is touring India, Iraq, and Palestine in the pre-Internet days. It just wouldn’t happen. That was largely reserved for mega-stars like Sting, Michael Jackson and the Rolling Stones. A lot of people say there’s no good music being made today, but I’d venture to say there’s more good music than ever being made today. I think the key thing to mention here is that our options are so much more vast than they were 15 or 20 years ago that our shared experience of music is less than it used to be creating the illusion of less quality because less people know the same stuff. It also depends on what age the person is that you ask if there’s good music today. There have literally been studies to show that around our early 20s, most people have an aural/musical imprint that’s set in stone. Sure, they’ll still hear new bands they like, but they’re unlikely to explore new genres with any depth.

That said, it’s so easy to explore whatever you want these days. Only want to listen to European jazz? Easy. Only want to listen to 80s punk and hardcore? It’s all there online. We still have mega stars like Beyonce, Kanye, Drake, Radiohead, etc., but you’re not limited to what you hear on the radio or see on MTV anymore. It’s all out there for the literal taking.

Because of the spread of the internet, iPods, etc., less people are tuning into terrestrial radio and MTV hasn’t shown music in a thousand years, so the irony of way more being out there is that you have to work a little harder to hear it/find it. We’re by and large no longer limited by geography or economics with our music consumption and that’s incredibly exciting.

Me:  What do you think of Alabama’s current music scene?

Culture Czar:  Alabama’s current music scene is certainly experiencing a boom that it hasn’t seen in a while. Folks like Alabama Shakes and St. Paul & the Broken Bones are touring internationally in a major way and getting appearances on major network programs like Saturday Night Live. And they’re not just from Alabama, they’re living here still and repping Alabama in a major way and that’s really good for future generations of musicians to see that you don’t have to leave here to make it big.

We’ve certainly exported no shortage of talent to other states whether as full groups like Drive By Truckers or with individuals like Brent Hinds (from Pelham) being a member of Mastodon. There’s a lot of talent here in a variety of genres. One of my favorites is Birmingham-born visual artist Lonnie Holley who now lives in Atlanta. He’s launched a late music career and he does this incredible free improv stuff. Literally every show is different and every song is only performed once. I’ve never seen anything like it.
I love the art music ensemble Iron Giant Percussion. They do some of the most interesting work around Birmingham in my opinion. They perform modern percussion compositions by composers like Steve Reich and John Cage, but they also write their own music. Really cool stuff. I think Dan Sartain is constantly reinventing himself and makes very cool records. Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires got signed to Sub Pop and make very fun sweat-soaked rock and roll that’s socially conscious. Matt Bryant is another guy whose music I love. He’s a professor at UAB that does this fascinating stuff where he plays ukulele through all of these pedals and loops it in really heavy layers. Super cool and creative stuff. And then you have organizations like LOBOTOMIX doing good work that promote local, regional, and national underground hip-hop artists on a regular basis.

I don’t know much about the various local scenes throughout the state outside of Birmingham, but chances are there’s someone doing something cool in your neck of the woods and you should support them doing it.

And even though you didn’t ask, I have to give love to my two favorite Alabama musicians of all time: Sun Ra and Hank Williams Sr.

Me:  Do you think events like The Hangout and Sloss Music Festival will help further Alabama’s current musical boom?

Culture Czar:  I’m not sure about how the big festivals will promote Alabama music. I’ve never been to The Hangout, but I glance at the schedule and I’m not sure they’ve had many (any?) Alabama bands outside of established acts like the Alabama Shakes, Jason Isbell, etc. Sloss Fest has put a few truly local up and comers on their big stages as well as having a local stage last year. I don’t think it got a ton of traffic, but it’s a cool sign that a big fest like that is willing to showcase locals.

I think a fest like Secret Stages, while way smaller, is more important to the local music scene than those others. They bring in regional and national acts, but it’s a really good way to go sample A LOT of quality local music inexpensively and all at once.

Me:  Who are some of the local singers/acts that you would recommend to those looking to branch out and explore musically?

Culture Czar:  There’s a bunch of folks I enjoy seeing locally, but I’ll skip some of the ones you likely know for some you might not know.

First and foremost: Iron Giant Percussion. It’s a quartet of guys that graduated from UAB’s music department and they just do really cool work. They perform a lot of modernist compositions from renowned composers like Steve Reich and John Cage and Philip Glass, but they write their own stuff, they do improve pieces. Norman Westberg from Swans had them improv with him at his show here. They’re just great. Easily my favorite music thing going on in Birmingham.

Wilder Adkins is another guy I like a lot. It’s kind of starting to take off for him. Just a great singer-songwriter. He’s not some boring strummer though, he can play and he has very clever lyrics. He’s getting play on XM and won some songwriting contest at Lincoln Center recently. Super nice dude playing good music.

Early James is another guy I stumbled upon recently that I really like. He’s got a full band, but I really dig his solo acoustic sets. He’s a good guitar player, very energetic on stage. Definitely want to check out more of his shows. I think he’s from Troy originally but is living up here now and doing nothing but music.

Dan Sartain has been around a while, but I love his constantly reinventing himself. He’s done everything from punk to rockabilly to darkwave and a bunch of other stuff. There’s a reason he keeps landing tours like The White Stripes, Gogol Bordello, The Dirtbombs, etc. I think he’s kind of a thing in Europe. Seems to do really well over there.

Also going to send out some love to Huntsville band Daikaiju. Surf rock isn’t for everyone, but man, I’ve never gone to one of their shows and come away anything but ridiculously happy. I’m surprised any venue in the state will have them considering the fires they start, furniture that gets moved and possibly destroyed, etc. That said, they bring out a good crowd and everybody loves them so they keep going.

Me:  Since this is also a University of Alabama sports blog, let’s end on a related topic. It doesn’t appear that the UA administration is going to allow the playing of “Dixieland Delight” during football games anymore. If you could pick a replacement song for that moment of the game, what would it be?

Culture Czar:  I was in that narrow sliver of folks that never much cared for “Dixieland Delight” as an anthem for Alabama football. Don’t get me wrong, I loved chanting “Fuck Auburn! And LSU! And Tennessee too!” as much as the next guy, but was never on board with the “Tennessee Saturday night” line when we were clearly trying to have an Alabama Saturday night! As far as a replacement song? I’m not sure there’s anything I could pick that folks would just latch onto instantly that’s as beloved as that tune. I don’t think anybody could pick one. Those things happen organically. I hope something emerges that the students love and that whatever it is kind of irritates administrators. That’s part of the fun of being a student right?

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