Reissue Culture. If you're a music fan or culture nerd, that term likely elicits a wide range of feelings and viewpoints, something that can be gleaned from a quick synopsis of the critical discourse surrounding those two words. Simon Reynolds has been one of the most outspoken critics of reissue culture, viewing reissues as symptomatic of the 21st century's inability to create something actually new without looking to the past for inspiration and guidance. As he puts it in this fortune cookie-ready riddle, "Is nostalgia stopping our culture's ability to surge forward or are we nostalgic precisely because the culture has stopped moving forward?" For Reynolds, the fact that albums from as recent as 2001 are being reissued signals an opportunistic scraping of the barrel for albums that are inferior copies of those already within the canon. Parallel to Reynolds' critique is the bemoaning of major labels' targeting diehard fans' bank accounts through the deluxe reissuing best exemplified in the picture disc novelties and color pressings that have come to represent Record Store Day. The true crime lies in the fact that these needless and opportunistic pressings are clogging up the pressing plants and keeping actual new music as well as important reissues from being released. Theo Parrish's Sound Signature label released two CDr comps last year of music that may never make it to wax. Both he and Underground Resistance have spoken out about the tolls that major label bandwagon jumping on the vinyl resurgence have wrought on their bottom line. Lastly, there's the portrait painted by critics like Amanda Petruisch depicting reissue culture as one in which the primary motivation is to do discover some "mislaid masterwork." According to Pete Swanson, co-founder of the exciting new reissue label Freedom To Spend, "it does feel [like] so many reissues are released with the PR campaign[s] to place them within a contemporary context that may or may not be totally erroneous."
Freedom To Spend is just one amongst hundreds of tiny labels out there chasing a whole different narrative, whether reissuing long out-of-print albums that command absurd second-hand rates on Discogs or approaching music's past almost like A&R reps cum musical anthropologists, endlessly digging up unknown oddities that are then curated around certain themes, both obvious and not so much. Last year's Sky Girl compilation was an exemplary archival release of the latter variety that represented a major break from traditional archival compilations, which are a collection of rare or unreleased songs often grouped around a specific geographic and chronological period like Soul Jazz's cataloging of reggae, krautrock, and, er, soul jazz. Sky Girl followed a logic more akin to a conceptual DJ mix; a collection of both obscure private press and easily obtainable recordings from the 60s up to the 90s curated around an imagined idea rather than material facts. In the process, curators DJ Sundae and Julian Dechery made a compelling argument for reissue labels' ability to recontextualize songs and artists and imbue them with potent relevancy, creating what Swanson might refer to as "creative progeny," musicians and artists inspired but not indebted to this undiscovered music. Swanson cites the influence that Mokai's 1998 reissue of Nuno Canavarro's abstract electronic masterpiece Plux Quba had on himself and many of his peers in Portland.
When critics like Reynolds portray reissue culture as one that drudges up unnecessary relics of the past, keeping musicians chained to outmoded ideas rather than developing wholly new ones like they used to in the 1980s, they cease to acknowledge at a fundamental level that music has always been in dialogue with the past.* Such criticism elides the ongoing exchange musicians are having with that which came before them, one that accounts for both major and minor musical discourses. Be it Stravinsky's personalization of motivic development, a musical strategy for introducing difference through repetition that stretches back to the sixteenth century, or John Cage transposing the ideas of the I Ching onto musical composition, musical innovation relies on a free-floating and nonlinear relationship with the past in which musical and non-musical ideas can take on a wholly new meanings and forces in a different temporal and/or societal context. It's in looking at the history of musical innovation as a dialogic process global in nature that musicians remain locked in a constant dialogue with music already created, both within and outside their own culture, while anticipating subsequent musical responses to their own creations. In this discursive exchange, reissue labels like Mississippi Records, Music From Memory, Numero Group, and now Freedom To Spend serve as dialogical accelerators, sending out copies of aural artifacts wherever there is a free market and intensifying the exchange of ideas at both the historical and cultural level. Such labels ultimately introduce new concepts into the musical ether, exposing artists and fans alike to parallel yet removed musical statements that continue to reshape musical canons both major and minor.
Much of the above is an internal discussion I've been having ever since I learned that experimental musician Pete Swanson, formerly of Yellow Swans would be starting a reissue label with Heavy Winged member and Little Axe co-owner Jed Binderman and RVNG Intl. big kahuna, Matt Werth. Freedom To Spend is dedicated to unearthing "autonomous anomalies produced by musicians working within and outside the limits of technology to create intimate art." Expanding on the mission's label statement a bit, Swanson says "the goal of FTS is to present work that is eccentric and sort of aesthetic dead ends...hoping that these records are seen more as contemporary challenges posed than purely relics." It's this sensibility, seeing "old" records as being as viable in today's contemporary musical discourse as any music being made currently that always endeared me to Swanson, who I first met when he played at my then-home of The Silent Barn during Yellow Swans' last tour in 2007. Expecting a serious and foreboding "noise dude," I was surprised to find myself talking to a gregarious and friendly chiller about The Congos and Lee Scratch Perry. Some years later when he became a more regular presence, I soon found myself treating our interactions as nerdily as one possibly could, transcribing the barrage of artists' names that would come out of his mouth when I would ask him what he was listening to. His responses would fuel my own digging and helped me to learn about acts like Finis Africae and Franco Battiato. While I don't personally know Jed, I've been seeing Matt at seemingly every decent show in NYC for ten years now and always enjoy chatting with him at his store Commend on the Lower East Side, which showcases his uncanny talent for uncovering incredible deadstock. The amount of musical knowledge I have gained just from talking to Matt and Pete, alongside following their online presences, has been priceless in and of itself.
The idea of people like Pete, Jed, and Matt taking their collective brain trust and transforming it into an actual label whose records hundreds and hundreds of people will buy and thousands will now learn about as a result of FTS existing got me thinking about the role of curation within reissue culture. For as much as you can complain about cash-grabbing opportunists and major label apathy, doing so downplays the important role that labels like Freedom To Spend serve as curators and influencers of culture, no matter how niche of an appeal a certain record may have. Reissues and archival releases like last fall's Carl Stone retrospective on Unseen Worlds, which ultimately became a corrective to the history of sampling and electronic music performance, can take on a life of their own and reach an audience well outside the academy and diehard music nerds. But to do so requires a certain passion and a willingness to listen to an ungodly amount of music. In talking with Swanson, it becomes clear that seeking out music seemingly lost to time is something that animates the label's three founders, as is sharing exciting and bizarre new finds amongst themselves including an album of "mimimalist piano composition[s] that either lean towards tasteful or gargabe german drinking song[s]" that Binderman recently discovered. Discussing that record with Swanson, he describes it as being "50% corny schlager stuff and 50% great...a tape self-released by a composer in the 80s." Despite the motivations shared by some reissue label heads, Swanson is certainly not possessed by some monomaniacal quest to rewrite music history, but rather expand it by introducing some fascinating footnotes without reinforcing "some well-established aesthetic line." And albums like the minimalist piano compositions meet drinking songs serve to embody the label's ethos during the course of a Twitter chat that preceded the below email interview as I become hopelessly fixated by this album of "mimimalist piano composition[s] that either lean towards tasteful or gargabe german drinking song." Swanson continues, saying "there's no rhyme or reason to it and will go from being tasteful to being crummy mid-song... nothing I've heard before but...It IS NOT GOOD."
The fact that such a curio would be an object of shared fascination by Swanson, Binderman, and Werth speaks to the conversational dynamic that shapes what records they decide to actually press. According to Swanson, "For example, Matt's taste may lean more 4th world, Jed's more industrial and my taste is generally more avant..and we all have to agree on an album...checks and balances," adding that "I think if we're all going to sign off on a record it'll be both something that we're passionate about and is something fairly unique." Unique is certainly an apt word for the label's inaugural two releases, reissues of Michele Mercure's Eye Chant and Marc Barreca's Music Works For Industry.
One of the more attractive features of FTS's approach to the records they release is their placing a priority on the role that context plays in shaping either work, whether in the form of location, the arts community present within the artist's city, or the reasons behind certain compsositions. With two different write-ups on Eye Chant available on the FTS site, the label succeeds in creating a connection between the listener and the music at hand, which is a decidedly feminine take on much of the synthesizer music of the mid-80s. Mercure's chugging arpeggiations are tempered by yearning melodies and often lacking any percussive undergirding, with the artist bending her own voice on the album's arresting centerpiece "Eyechant"as the pitch shifting muddies her gender, creating an intimate and somewhat unsettling experience. The album may sound as its creator was in active dialogue with much of the East Coast avant-synth scene alongside synth-pop. But Mercure herself was a cell animator living in Harrisburg, PA, a relatively isolated and mid-sized industrial city that serves as the state capital. Her social circle was primarily made up of visual artists, which likely contributed to the synesthetic emotionality she's able to wring out of her machines' sounds and samples. Though Mercure's work was a largely private affair, she was commissioned to soundtrack a 1983 production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot and two of the songs on Eye Chant were intended for a PBS special and a performance art piece, lending the album a functional versatility while serving as a person soundtrack for one's diurnal rituals.
For all this biographical information that helps the audience to emotionally invest in Mercure's album, is FTS attempting to give autonomous anomalies like Mercure and Barecca a chance to finally take the stage? Swanson notes that despite Matt's past successes in bringing the artists he's reissued like Harald Groskopf, Laraaji, Ariel Kalma, and Craig Leon to live audiences, he doubts that FTS will take on such a role, though he is also quick to point out it's always a possibility. As he puts it, "I generally think of the album being the work and reissuing the record and getting it out there is the primary concern." The fact of the matter is, with a lion's share of the money to be made in music in touring and licensing songs, it's a bit jarring to see a label place such an emphasis on the album itself. FTS joins labels such as Finders Keepers and Unseen Worlds in demonstrating the power of thoughtful curation when fueled by genuine passion. When asked about what he's excited about in the world of reissues right now Swanson responds, "Love that the DDS dudes have brought Eugenio Muñoz's work back into the public eye. Mecanica Popular is sick and that Randomize LP is super sick. Also supposedly his Dr. Flanger LP is getting a repress." Given this palpable excitement on Swanson's behalf about putting out weird and "new" older music, it's not a surprise that these long-lost musical works of art are already resonating with contemporary artists in a very real way--a show of artwork made by Sarah Musselman after becoming inspired by Eye Chant is opening at Commend on March 16 through March 21. It also bears notes that Mercure's prioritizing of the body in her art has existing affinities across the academic and artistic spectrum, calling to mind the philosophical writings of Julia Kristeva and artist Ann Hamilton's mouth sculptures and pinhole cameras that she places in her own and other's mouths.
While the label doesn't have any target sound, it seeks out unusually intimate works created via instruments and processes that might not inherently scream "feelings." Released three years before Eye Chant on K. Leimer's Palace of Light label in Seattle, Barreca's Music Works For Industry is far less polished-sounding than Mercure's work, though it too achieves an uncanny level of intimacy with the listener. With titles evoking daily banalities, the thirteen songs together sound like alien library music or soundtrack record for an industrial city. (I should note that Swanson straight-up disagrees with me over this reading.) K. Leimer, in the album's liner notes, cites Iannis Xenakis, Morton Subotnick, Cluster, and Steve Reich as some of the influences Barecca was navigating. Barecca was seemingly interested in how each composer folded together different instrumentation in novel ways with often minimal means and thus Music Works was a group effort was achieved with the help of a team of musicians and performance artists. On first listen, the albums feels thematically outward-looking and musically functional in its sounds and structures, with what sounds like machines hissing on "Hotcakes" and the sampled, generic voices on "Radio and Television" and the album's title track swirling about like radios playing from passing cars. But Music Works For Industry is a work that contains multitudes. The album's primary aural themes are perhaps best heard on album opener "Community Life," which subverts the upbeat nature of krautrock's motorik chug in its knackered beat and unusual textures as sampled mantras exhort the virtues of being a good member of society. The cover image of Barecca's silhouette suggests a private space where he made this music, "a refuge from some industrial work or at least the dubious fruits of this labor." The role intimacy serves as a guiding aesthetic for the label is a versatile one as it can take on innumerable forms outside, giving the label considerable room in which to experiment.
As Swanson himself comments, in spite of the considerable differences that might exist between each FTS release, the overarching through line is found in their "representing people who were able to develop home studios or have access to studios long enough to establish their own voice." And while I certainly had my own assumptions that Swanson wasted no time in dissuading me from, what really stands out to me about the label is the type of care that is put into each release. Gone is the colored vinyl, the bonus cuts, or assorted trinkets that a hallmark of many deluxe reissue releases, such as those put out by the Mondo empire. Where FTS goes deluxe is in the areas many labels overlook, from providing ample information about these largely unknown artists to organizing contemporary events that demonstrate in real time the dialogical nature of reissue culture. As Swanson himself notes regarding much of the criticism around reissue culture, "the problem with more mainstream music criticism is that it is about generalizations, themes, genres...whereas...FTS is more from the angle of Music fandom and interested in really eccentric, hybridized, complex records that aren't ONE THING. So one stance benefits from narrowing the vantage point whereas I'm more concerned with expanding the view, broadening the scope of possibilities and allowing for more complexity, less certainty." elow, I talk to Pete Swanson about just what Freedom To Spend means, how technology inevitably shapes the way music is made, and the role he sees reissues serving in today's music cultures.
Z: What does the name Freedom To Spend signify for you and how does it embody the label's MO? Personally, the name makes me think of the hopeless resignation of obsessive record collectors indulging in their freedom to spend, perhaps at the cost of more practical things. How did the name come to be?
PS: The name is from a found poem that I have. It's a great turn of phrase that is both fairly evocative and also ambiguous. It can mean a lot of things. I tend to think of it as being similar to Man With Potential in that it can easily be read as sarcastic or aspirational. In the case of FTS, it also touches on the ridiculous capitalist conundrum of freedom/speech/art being contingent on having access to capital, which can refer to record collectors, label heads, artists, etc. On the brighter side of that coin, the phrase also refers to the freedom of the artists on the label exerted in making these wild, broad-scope albums.
Z: While Freedom To Spend focuses on the "autonomous anomalies" that popped up in the seventies and eighties and were aided by more accessible technology and sometimes an education in electronic music and/or composition, the concept could also apply to a whole range of musicians practicing without education and the only technology being a microphone and reel-to-reel usually brought in by an outsider. How do you see your mission to bring artists like Michele Mercure and Marc Barecca to the a wider audience different from labels like Mississippi who also seek to uncover "autonomous anomalies" that were also empowered by the increased accessibility of recording technology, though utilizing more traditional instrumentation? To what degree do you feel the technology is essential to the music being made?
PS: The history of music has almost entirely been determined by technologies, that obviously includes things like synthesizers and DAWs, electric guitars, but also includes the development/adopting of instruments. A lot of Mississippi releases focus on people using those technologies to make unique music using the tools available, which is pretty similar to what we're focused on with Freedom To Spend. The primary difference seems to be both aesthetic, and Mississippi being more focused on folk forms, while we're more interested in a period where home studios and electronic equipment were becoming more accessible. While I think there's an argument to be made that Mississippi releases are directly relevant today, I see a strong potential for connection to all the home-studio operators working today. I think a lot of the music that we're releasing sounds very contemporary, while also posing potential paths forward. I hope that these eccentric records can help inspire musicians to develop creative processes that look beyond what are the most established aesthetic moves in contemporary sound.
Z: It feels apt that your first two releases should be Mercure's Eye Chants and Barecca's Music For Industry, as the former is an album concerned with the personal, her body, and uses her voice as source material for her work whereas Barreca's album is, at least superficially, outward-looking, like taking a snapshot of an industrial society on its deathbed, so to speak. Was this juxtaposition intentional and what do you feel either release says about the label's greater intentions, be it simply giving shine to those for who it has long eluded or finding contemporary reverberations in these releases that make them particularly relevant for an audience in 2017? It's one that feels inherently urban, or perhaps cosmopolitan is a better word/concept, in that these are artists who seemed to live in "ports of exchange" so to speak, hubs of culture where ideas were at the ready...do you feel that's a fair characterization?
PS: I'm not sure I'd agree with either premise regarding Michele's and Marc's albums, but I do think these two albums, as well as what is coming up on the label, represent personal experiences and personal sonic practices. I don't think that these perspectives are inherently urban per-se.... I mean...Harrisburg, PA is not seen by most as a major cultural hub. But I do believe Michele was in dialog with the larger music culture and Marc was involved in the whole Palace Of Lights scene in Seattle, which seems to have some degree of a shared aesthetic. I think there was probably some trading of records and gear going on there. Ultimately I'm not so concerned with the juxtapositions record to record, as much as I am with each album standing on it's own and presenting a coherent point of view.
Z: I keep thinking of Roberto Musci as an artist who would have fit on your label, as his work was both in the public sphere--he composed for nature programs and the like--and engaged with the world at large through his extensive travels. Seeing that both "fourth world" and "world music" came into the popular vernacular during the period you're covering, it feels like these are musicians for who provincial life was no longer really possible (to counterpose them to the highly provincial music of blues and folk) as radio, TV, and movies brought the greater world to their doorstep and thus were almost forced to engage with new ideas, ones in which the advances of capitalism have allowed the rise of the individual over the tribe. So it almost feels like it's a psychic landscape you're surveying in your releases...do you feel that's fair or just overthinking on my part?
PS: I'm a big fan of Roberto Musci's music. And his music, which includes both field recordings of himself, other musicians, and composed elements, acts as a means of conveying the space he's occupied, his personal experiences. It makes sense that as we're able to travel more easily, someone's personal journeys through sound would become more complex, more plurally coded. In some cases with FTS releases, that's true. In a few instances, it seems like the music is more from exploring the interior, the provincial. In the cases when the exploration is more localized, the tools that are used end up allowing a unique voice. So...I see Michele's album as being more inward-looking, but she's not playing an acoustic guitar in a church or whatever, she's making her album using early sampling keyboards and stuff. It's modern music that is of a particular time/place/person that results from an individual experience and creative process.
Z: You referred to the music on Freedom To Spend as being considered "aesthetic dead ends" to a degree. Could you both clarify what you mean by that and explain whether an aesthetic idea reaching a dead end means that it's not relevant to the contemporary musician, or that these dead ends are actually extremely fruitful areas of music history and deserve to be part of a larger conversation amongst musicians and academics as well as wellsprings of inspiration?
PS: I really see reissues as an opportunity to reintroduce cultural threads that got dropped into a contemporary conversation. I remember the Nuno Canavarro album being reissued on Moikai when I was younger and it inspired so many of the artists I knew in Portland at that time. It was just a massively important album in my circle of friends, despite it's age and eccentric content. I hope the music that FTS is releasing resonates in a similar way. When I talk about "aesthetic dead-ends," it's referring to records that are deserving of creative progeny, of which, to my knowledge, there is none.
Z: Both Mercure and Barreca used instruments and technology that is both being used by musicians today but has also been compressed into handy DAWs. While these may be "aesthetic dead ends" in a way, they also directly apply to many musicians' current practices as there are lessons to be learned both technically and aesthetically. Do you feel that your releases are part of an ongoing conversation between contemporary electronic musicians and those that came before
Absolutely. That's the hope, that these records inspire something in musicians working on music now.
Z: I wonder if you see any parallels between your autonomous anomalies and the fourth world music discussion being had at the time Freedom To Spend is focused on? You mentioned how you find it an appreciable way of expressing personal experiences over vague multiculturalism. Could you expand what you mean by the "Mexicaness" articulated by Jorge Reyes and how seeing that or Mercure's "100% Bridal Illusion" and how giving voice to these intensely personal artists differs differs from a more archival, Nonesuch approach in the mid-20th Century?
PS: I think there's room for critique of appropriation, as well as room to push those boundaries.. In the case of fourth world music, there's a risk of tokenism and empty gestures, which is what I would generally prefer to avoid representing. That being said, I think it's really compelling when people are able to articulate their own experiences through sound. That can include personal experiential history, cultural heritage, contemporary tools....So...in the case of Jorge Reyes or other musicians exploring "pre-hispanic" concepts in their music...there's an exploration of pre-colonial, indigenous cultural history, set next to contemporary synthesizers and production, field recordings of spaces that he thinks are sonically relevant. It's not just that he's conveying some abstract, idealized notion of multiculturalism, it's something that is a product of personal inquiry and I find that super compelling.
Z: Surely to start a record label and especially a reissue label in 2017 brings with it a certain skepticism on the part of consumers and critics alike who feel overwhelmed with the glut of music accessible to them currently, especially when it comes to wading through a lot of the crap to find something unique and rather niche like the releases on FTS. What was it about this project in particular that moved you to invest yourself in bringing these albums to a larger audience and do you feel that these types of release can go beyond the "heads" or diehards who you'd expect to buy out a 300 or 500 limited press run of an album like "Music Works for Industry?"
PS: Sure, there is a glut of music available, but I think that enhances the value of a label that has something of a curatorial identity. Generally if you find something enjoyable on FTS, you will find something else enjoyable. The music that we're releasing is generally both very obscure and fairly unusual. it's something that I'm certain "the heads" will appreciate considering the rarity of these albums and hopefully some new fans will be turned on to these sounds being made available again. I'm the last person to know what is actually sellable, so I rely on Matt and Jed since they have experience in that matter.
Z: The history of music and technology since the 70s in particular is an especially dense one, whether you look to the history of house and techno being discovered by young men experimenting with gear or the artists you're choosing to highlight. Do the artists you're focusing on tend to come from a more academic background? What was the purpose of their music, if any? Music for Industry has a functionalist, almost library music-like quality to it; what intersections, if any, have you found between library music as a platform for experimentation with sound and form during this period and the artists you're placing a spotlight on?
PS: Several of the musicians we're working with have done soundtrack work for movies and television, but that's about where the connection to library music begins and ends, as far as I can tell. Some of the musicians we're working with come from an academic, compositional background, some don't. I think everyone we're working with so far found some satisfaction in experimentation in the studio and I would hardly consider any of the music we're putting out conventional or functional.
Check out Freedom To Spend's Bandcamp to listen to more tracks and buy both of these fantastic records!
More Zurkonic Music Writings
*Such logic facilitates a linear and teleological musical history; even Reynolds' beloved hardcore continuum--an idea that I certainly have my own affinities with--tends to feel rather unidirectional. Each phase provides the conditions for a subsequent movement while remaining rooted in a tradition of distinctly British styles of dance music, taking hardcore techno as its point of inception. The concept of a continuum in Reynolds' hands can be thought of as an historical mind palace whose many corridors and additions remain part and parcel of a grander British narrative. Despite their noble prioritizing of context and nonlinearity, that context often reinforces distinctively British qualities by critically colonizing certain sonic and stylistic signifiers.