Tag: recordings

This is the Album of the Future

record collection

I am a composer, performer, music producer, and avid record collector, and I am currently in a complicated relationship with physical media. Like many others, I love the tangible process of opening up a CD or LP, playing it through my home system, and studying the artwork and liner notes as I listen. I hold my own albums to this standard as I release them into the world. I pore over the details of the physical package, driving my collaborators crazy as I attempt to perfect every aspect of its design. After spending several maddening months—and often years—to make an album, the moment of finally holding the object itself is a satisfying final seal, assuring me that I’ve created something permanent.

Yet the age of streaming rages on, my closets are filled with boxes of overstock, and even my mother is more likely to listen to my music online than she is to put on a CD or LP. As much as we like to think of these discs as the sacred vessels of our musical concepts, many of us are questioning whether it is worth the time, money, space, and materials to produce the physical object.

What makes an album such a powerful statement is that the artists and producers craft a complete experience for the listener, not only through a cohesive musical idea but through its presentation: artwork, information, liner notes, and now virtually any form of media. Currently, digital platforms do not allow much room for this, confining albums to tracklists and an album cover: a thumbnail representation of something that could be physical. This has had financial repercussions—by reducing an album’s worth to the play count of its individual tracks, huge corporations have gotten away with paying artists fractions of pennies for their work.

In response to these changing tides, some of us have chosen to dig deeper into the classic formats, releasing our albums on limited edition vinyl and cassette tapes. Others search for new objects to represent their album (beer koozie with download code anyone?). Look no further than Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Music (2005), a self-contained electronic music circuit and playback device within a CD case, for an eloquent example of physicality as the concept of the album itself.

There have been many creative approaches to releasing albums as physical objects in today’s world, but that’s not what this article is about. I’m tossing any purity I have left aside, and I am wondering: What can an album be now that it no longer needs to be an object?

Florent Ghys’s “This is the album of the future” from his video album Télévision

The album has always been and continues to be a malleable form, having adapted to over 100 years of changes in technology, business, and pop culture. The very first albums were, literally, albums: bound books manufactured to contain several 78 RPM phonograph records, examples of which can be found as far back as 1908. When Columbia Records began releasing 12-inch discs in 1948, the term had already been extended past its original meaning to refer to any collection of musical tracks. Since then, our albums have contorted through a variety of formats, shapes, and sizes and now, residing on the internet, they no longer require a physical container. Artists can release albums at a faster rate and with more ease than before, and the possibilities seem to be endless for the integration of multimedia and interactive elements.

Some are skeptical as to whether some of the newer formats should be identified as true “albums.” To decide for myself, I apply a very simple litmus test: Does the artist call their work an album? If yes, then it is so. I see the changes in how music creators conceive and present this music as the indication of its evolution as a term.

I have been searching for compelling examples of albums that have extended this form within the digital world and collected them here. Some big-budget and mainstream offerings need to be mentioned, but I have chosen to focus on a few specimens from independent artists and labels, and have given them a close and thoughtful listen.

This is by no means a comprehensive survey. I invite anyone with examples of albums that should be included in this discussion to post in the comments below.

Notes from Sub-Underground

Object Collection’s Notes from Sub-Underground (2017)

One of the immediate parameters that is lifted for albums in the digital age is that of length. At one end of the spectrum, an artist can release a shorter offering and present it as a complete concept without feeling the need to fill the entirety of a CD, tape, or LP. On the other end, albums can be very long indeed. Notes from Sub-Underground, a 2016 collection of experimental music put out in the wake of the Trump election, is an awesome example of this. Produced by the music theater group Object Collection, this five-hour-plus compilation is comprised of 62 tracks representing somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 artists. The line-up includes influential experimentalists from across generations including Richard Foreman, Cat Lamb, Phill Niblock, Michael Pisaro, and Matana Roberts, as well as performing groups String Noise, Ensemble Pamplemouse, and my own group Dither.

Beginning with a call for submissions in December, the compilation was assembled in less than two months and released on Inauguration Day, 2017. Object Collection compiled the tracks, did some basic post-production work, and produced a cover and liner notes for digital distribution. Upon its release, in order to download a copy of the album, listeners would contribute an amount of their choosing through an Indiegogo campaign, all proceeds of which were donated to the ACLU. (You can now access the compilation through Object Collection’s website.) While only some of the tracks are overtly political, the collective album effort is what makes this an effective statement.

And it’s a great record. I committed to a complete listen, toggling between sessions on my home computer and on my headphones while on New Jersey Transit. Although the sequence of the tracks is not curated (the song titles are placed in alphabetical order), there is a satisfying flow to the album in its consistent inconsistency. One of my listening sessions began with Mellissa Hughes and Philip White’s “Clinging to a Cloud, an abstracted pop song comprised of autotuned melismas intertwined with synth tones and computer voices. This track flows beautifully into an excerpt from Suzanne Thorpe’s vocal collage “Constituting States,” constructed of recordings of the U.S. national anthem as sung in different languages. The voices swirl around each other and finally resolve, to be interrupted by Jonathan Marmor’s clangorous electronic piece “Easter Helicopter”. Listening to the entire project is a cathartic experience that holds true to Object Collection’s maximalist and DIY ethos.

OneBeat Mixtape 18

OneBeat Mixtape 18: Vols 1-6 (Found Sound Records, 2019)

A collective musical endeavor that approaches the album format as a series of shorter offerings comes from the Brooklyn-based nonprofit organization Found Sound Nation. To document the output from their OneBeat program in 2018, for which they enlisted 24 international artists to create collaborative works, they have produced and released a series of digital “mixtapes,” each averaging around 20 minutes in length. Their concept is to provide an extension (“B-sides”) to the golden record that was included aboard the two Voyager spacecrafts in 1971. They staggered the release of the six volumes, each referencing a stop as the ships traveled deeper into space. The entire project can be found on Bandcamp.

While the eclecticism of the tracks on each volume holds true to the idea of a mixtape, the concept and production of the recordings create a unified offering. (All tracks were produced by OneBeat and recorded during the same sessions.) “Sorabe,” the opening track of Vol 1: Earth composed by Tsanta Randriamihajasoa, groups the Malagasy pianist with Indian vocalist Pavithra Chari, Hungarian clarinetist Zolt Bartek, and Algerian drummer Younés Kati. The track is a jazz-infused tour of each artist’s musical language, emulating the idea of the earth’s bustling “acoustic and organic sounds.”

Skipping ahead, Vol 6: Heliopause is described by OneBeat as a collection of “abstract pieces perhaps only understandable by the most adventurous human ears.” While I don’t find this material to be inaccessible (especially after listening to 5.5 hours of Object Collection) this volume certainly conjures an otherworldly sonic palette that one might equate with the edge of our solar system. Beginning with the more tangible songlike opening of “Outer Space,” each track of the album continues a trajectory deeper into textural and droney soundscapes.

Florent Ghys: Télévision

Florent Ghys: Télévision (Cantaloupe Music, 2014)

There are many notable examples throughout recorded music history of a film being produced in conjunction with an album. The Beatles’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Prince’s Purple Rain (1984) are two of many landmark works which were released separately as film and soundtrack. As home video systems became increasingly popular in the 1980s, artists began to regularly distribute video compilations, live concerts, and documentaries as part of their output. I fondly remember the comedic band Green Jellö (popular on MTV for their heavy metal claymation video “Three Little Pigs”), who claimed in the opening credits of their Cereal Killer VHS (1993) to be the “world’s first video-only band.” (They did in fact release a soundtrack album separately from the video.)

Billing an audiovisual work as the album itself is still a relatively new phenomenon which is quickly being embraced by the mainstream, encapsulated by the success of Beyoncé’s “visual album” Lemonade (2016). Although one might question how these offerings differ from the films and videos made by their predecessors, I see this as a natural arrival point, enabled by current digital platforms: the audio and visual elements of the album are both readily available on the same interface and can be easily conceived, created, marketed, and distributed together as a unified concept.

Bassist/composer Florent Ghys dubs his most recent solo release Télévision (2014) a “video album,” and it is indeed a high-level integration of musical and visual concepts. In this case, the two elements are so intrinsically connected that it’s hard to imagine experiencing the music alone. Working in sync with both audio and video software, Ghys composed the two entities in tandem, providing a direct video corollary to virtually every musical event.

In the opening track “Beauté Plastique,” each new instrumental layer enters with a corresponding visual element, creating a complex tapestry of hockets and contrapuntal lines. The final track, “This is the Album of the Future,” features a tongue-in-cheek video collage of dated advertisements for compact disc players. (Télévision is in fact also available as a CD from Cantaloupe records.) The entire video is an absorbing and effective visual experience which kept me engaged in a way that felt more akin to binge watching a TV series or going down a YouTube rabbit hole than listening to an album of the past.

Rabbit Rabbit: Rabbit Rabbit Radio, Vols 1-3

Confronting the issue of digital distribution, another creative video-based offering comes from Rabbit Rabbit (Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi). Frustrated with online services, in 2012 the duo began a long-term project in which they released a song and video per month on their own subscription-based site, rabbitrabbitradio.com. Although they have now chosen to end their monthly output and focus on larger-scale works, they compiled their three years of work into three albums which can be listened to and watched on Bandcamp.

While maintaining high production values, these videos are intimate and homegrown, often using footage from the recording studio or home performances. They incorporate several candid and personal moments, including a living room session in which their young daughter throws a minor tantrum during the song. Family and friends feature prominently throughout the three volumes. “Paper Prison” is a documentary portrait of Bossi’s father as he discusses his rare book collection. The final track, “Merci Vielmal,” was recorded on a train while on the road with their group Cosa Brava (performed with bandmates Fred Frith, Shahzad Ismaily, and Zeena Parkins). Not only is this music captivating, but you come out of the experience feeling as if you have had a window into the artists’ everyday lives.

John Cage, The Ten Thousand Things, I Ching Edition

John Cage, The Ten Thousand Things, I Ching Edition

John Cage, The Ten Thousand Things, I Ching Edition (Microfest records, 2013)

In the ‘90s, artists such as Peter Gabriel, Primus, and The Residents released CD-ROMs with game-like applications along with their albums, providing an interface for listeners to explore the songs, art, and other elements. Today, our touch-screen devices offer even more potential for interactive music applications. Bjork’s Biophilia (2011) was released as an “app album,” featuring artwork, extensive liner notes, videos, and games associated with each track. Other artists take the interactive model further by allowing the music to be generated in real time. Brian Eno’s most recent release Reflection (2017) exists both in fixed media and as an application that creates a unique and endless version of his composition.

An interesting example of a generative album experience comes from Microfest Records’s release of John Cage’s The Ten Thousand Things (2015). In the 1950s, Cage composed this set of pieces to be played independently, in any combination, or reconfigured in a variety of ways. Microfest produced The I-Ching Edition of the album which consists of a fixed version of the piece, accompanied by an application (delivered via thumb drive) that allows you to generate unique versions the composition. Each rendering is constructed from performances by pianists Vicki Ray and Aron Kallay, bassist Tom Peters, percussionist William Winant, and an archival recording of Cage himself reading his lecture “‘45 for a Speaker.” Each new version of the piece uses the same recordings, but is unique in its organization.

One of the most satisfying things about this piece is that the spoken material in Cage’s fragmented lecture describes the same compositional techniques that you are hearing in real time. The chance aspect of the application itself adds yet another layer. The creativity of this format, the top-notch performances, and the charm of hearing Cage masterfully read his lecture make for an enthralling aleatoric experience.

Ironically, many of these innovative application-based albums have fallen victim to operating system upgrades. We can still get Bjork’s album through Apple’s app store, but similar offerings from Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, and Philip Glass seem to have become obsolete in less than ten years. These apps were either never updated, or they were seen by the record companies merely as short-term marketing tools. There also just haven’t been a huge quantity of app albums made, as the financial overhead required to create these programs is still prohibitive for most independent artists.

With so much trial and error required, it is not a surprise that album formats have needed to pass a high threshold of popularity and mass consumption in order to achieve longevity. This is one reason that physical albums are still relevant today—they survive as permanent objects on the sidelines of a constantly changing and merciless digital landscape.

What is the album of the future? I hope for an interface that is as accessible and navigable as the current streaming platforms, one that allows artists to configure a unique experience for their listeners, and one that empowers us to control its monetization. (Bandcamp is well ahead of the pack in this regard.) The ideal platform would not only provide easy access to music, art, text, and all types of media, but be malleable so that new elements can be integrated as they arise. The next sea change in business and technology will surely provide new and unforeseen formats for our music, and within it artists will continue to innovate, adapt, and respond.

The Grammys You Care About Will Not All Be Televised

A grammy award

Aside from the televised presentations during last night’s 61st Annual Grammy Awards ceremony (which you can still relive highlights from on the CBS website), The Recording Academy handed out many other awards yesterday at Los Angeles’s Staples Center. Here are some of the ones we are most excited about.

Recordings of works by living American composers triumphed over older repertoire in the Best Opera, Best Choral Performance, Best Classical Instrumental Solo, Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance, and Best Classical Compendium categories.

Terrence Blanchard’s composition Blut Und Boden (Blood and Soil), which is included in the soundtrack for the 2018 Spike Lee film BlacKkKlansman, was awarded Best Instrumental Composition, winning over compositions by Alexandre Desplat, Jeremy Kittel, and Alan Silvestri, as well as a co-composition by John Powell and John Williams. Aaron Jay Kernis fetched the award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for his Violin Concerto, which was released by Onyx Classics in a performance by James Ehnes with the Seattle Symphony under the direction of Ludovic Morlot, beating out work by Du Yun, Missy Mazzoli, Jake Heggie, and Mason Bates.  The Santa Fe Opera recording of Bates’s nominated composition, the opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, did however capture the award for Best Opera Recording, while Ehnes’s performance of Kernis’s concerto earned him the Best Classical Instrumental Solo accolade over soloists who had mostly recorded older repertoire. (Apart from Craig Morris, who was nominated for his rendition of Philip Glass’s early Piece in the Shape of a Square arranged for multi-tracked trumpets, the other nominees were soloists who had recorded Biber, Bruch, and Bartók.) Recordings of works by living American composers also triumphed over older repertoire in the Best Choral Performance and Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance categories. The winners were: innova’s recording of Lansing McLoskey’s Zealot Canticles performed by The Crossing under the direction of Donald Nally; and Nonesuch’s recording of Laurie Anderson’s Landfall performed by the Kronos Quartet.

Best Classical Compendium, a relatively recent Grammy category (established in 2013), was awarded to a JoAnn Falletta/London Symphony Orchestra recording on Naxos American Classics devoted exclusively to the music of Kenneth Fuchs, which includes four works, each of which features a different soloist: Fuchs’s Piano Concerto performed by Jeffrey Biegel; Glacier, a concerto for electric guitar and orchestra with D. J. Sparr; Rush, a concerto for alto saxophone with Timothy McAllister; and Poems of Life, which is a setting of 12 poems by Judith G. Wolf sung by countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen. And the award for Producer of the Year, Classical went to Blanton Alspaugh, whose qualifying 2018 recording credits included operas by Jake Heggie (Great Scott), Ricky Ian Gordon (The House Without a Christmas Tree), and Robert Paterson (Three Way) plus the Pentatone compendium Aspects of America, which features Carlos Kalmar-led Oregon Symphony performances of works by Samuel Barber, Kenji Bunch, Sebastian Currier, Christopher Rouse, and Sean Shepherd.

John Daversa picked up three honors for his album American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom.

Miami-based composer/arranger/trumpeter John Daversa picked up three honors for his album American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom, an album featuring DACA artists presenting Daversa’s original compositions as well as his arrangements of various standards: e.g. the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim “America,” which originally appeared in the 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story; John Philip Sousa’s classic patriotic march Stars and Stripes Forever; Woody Guthrie’s protest song “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)”; and, perhaps most poignantly, Cole Porter’s 1934 “Don’t Fence Me In” (which in our current political climate takes on additional meanings not originally intended by the Montana-based cowboy poet Bob Fletcher, one of whose verses Porter bought and reworked into this song). Aside from receiving the award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album (beating out albums by Orrin Evans, John Hollenbeck, Jim McNeely, and the Count Basie Orchestra directed by Scotty Barnhart), Daversa also beat out Regina Carter, Fred Hersch, Brad Mehldau, and Miguel Zenón to receive the Best Improvised Jazz Solo accolade for his solo on “Don’t Fence Me In” and also was given the Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella award for his version of Stars and Stripes Forever.

The Wayne Shorter Quartet’s disc Emanon received Best Instrumental Jazz Album eking out a victory over recordings led by Tia Fuller, Fred Hersch, Brad Mehldau, and Joshua Redman. All Ashore, a Nonesuch album of nine originals performed and collectively composed by progressive bluegrass stalwarts The Punch Brothers (a quintet featuring Chris Thile) was awarded Best Folk Album; Best Bluegrass Album was given to an eponymous recording by the more traditionally oriented group The Travelin’ McCourys. All in all, awards were given out in a total of 84 categories which are all listed on The Recording Academy’s website.


Before we sing another chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” and bring the curtain down on 2018, we have an annual tradition among the staff here at New Music USA of revisiting some of the tracks that caught our ears and hung on for any number of good reasons. Don’t see a 2018 favorite of yours? We hope you’ll tell us more about it below in the comments so we can all give it a listen.

PLUS: New this year, you can stream the entire mix using our playlist feature. This listening option will allow you to easily save tracks to your own playlist as well.

Happy Holidays from New Music USA!!


Jennifer Jolley: Prisoner of Conscience

Album: Motherland
New Focus Recordings

Purchase via Amazon / iTunes / Bandcamp
The score on ISSUU

I know that Quince’s second album made our list last year, but to me their latest (Motherland) is, to recontextualize Mao Tse Tung, a “great leap forward.” The centerpiece of this third Quince disc (featuring four recent compositions by four different women for unaccompanied female vocal quartet) is Jennifer Jolley’s Prisoner of Conscience, a substantive musical response to the 2012 trial and imprisonment of three members of the Putin-defying Russian punk band Pussy Riot. Though it was composed back in 2015, Jolley’s not-fit-for-radio-airplay, eight-movement cantata with spoken-word interludes is the ideal soundtrack and perhaps balm for our current “toxic” (to replay the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year) times.

—Frank J. Oteri, Composer Advocate and Co-Editor, NewMusicBox

12 Little Spells

Esperanza Spalding: 12 Little Spells

Album: 12 Little Spells
Concord Records

Purchase via Amazon / iTunes

“Grounded sensation of perpetual connection with the immensity of the external world,” reads the photo accompanying the release of “12 Little Spells,” an overture dedicated to the thoracic spine. With it, Esperanza Spalding conjures the grounding, expansive, connecting force of the twelve vertebrae between the pelvis and the base of the skull that anchor the ribcage and protect the spinal cord. This spell/song has cinematic swells that feel like breathing, like unfurling, like taking a giant full-body morning stretch while returning to your corporeality after a deep sleep. Spalding’s voice, supported by strings and guitar and bass and brass, stretches and expands alongside her lyrics.

On her website, Spalding writes that the concept behind her newest album, 12 Little Spells, came to her as an embodied tingling healing sensation. She touches upon her initiation into reiki and writes that she wanted to “harness these 12 little sensation-revelations into sounds, words, imagery, and performance that activates this healing, tingling effect in others.” For me, this collection of spells feels more like a grimoire than an album in the best possible way. If you are a body in need of some magical grooves, I would highly recommend treating yourself to a meditative hour of musical healing, courtesy of Esperanza Spalding’s 12 Little Spells.

—Mallory Tyler, Administrative Associate


Jlin: Abyss of Doubt

Album: Autobiography
Planet Mu

Purchase via Bandcamp / direct

Admit it, we’ve all been there. That’s what makes this short, intense track so compelling. Suggested listening mode is loud and with good headphones for the most dramatic impact.

After working in steel factory in Gary, Indiana, Jlin has taken the electronic music world by storm. An indefatigable touring performer, she’s been on the road almost constantly since May 2017. Despite that, she still found time for collaborating with choreographer Wayne McGregor on a major new work, Autobiography, from which this track and album resulted.

—Eddy Ficklin, Director of Platform

This is Not a Land of Kings

Gelsey Bell: This is Not a Land of Kings
Gelsey Bell, Amber Gray, Grace McLean (vocals)

Album: This is Not a Land of Kings
Gold Bolus Recordings

Purchase via Bandcamp

Admittedly, I’m a sucker for the center of the Venn diagram of folk, a capella, experimental, female vocals. On this track and across the entire short EP, Gelsey, Amber, and Grace demonstrate the full expressive power of the human voice. Extended techniques mingle effortlessly with deeply satisfying consonant and dissonant harmonies. This track helps me suspend time for a moment before I get back to “rolling up [my] sleeves.”

—Megan Ihnen, Content Associate

The Landscape Scrolls

Peter Garland: mid-day
John Lane, percussion

Album: The Landscape Scrolls

Purchase via Amazon / iTunes / Bandcamp

In the chaos of modern life which often sets my mind skipping, I found Peter Garland’s The Landscape Scrolls to be a recording which instantly focused my ear and attention. Spare lines of distinctly diverse timbres fuel the five-movement, 50-minute-long piece, expertly delivered by percussionist John Lane. In this setting, Garland’s musical imagination cuts an aural path that is striking for its clarity of expression and inspired in its cumulative effect. I have yet to find the lucidity many have achieved through the practices of yoga or meditation, but the resonances in The Landscape Scrolls shush the contemporary noise machine and offer up a centering sonic touchstone.

—Molly Sheridan, Director of Content

A Very Wandelweiser Christmas

Franz Xaver Gruber, arr. Meaghan Burke: Silent Night
The Rhythm Method

Album: A Very Wandelweiser Christmas

Purchase via Bandcamp

The Rhythm Method are, individually and collectively, fierce, fearless, and virtuosic performers. They’re also a group of players who are unapologetically stylistically omnivorous and versatile, and have a definite sense of humor – which shows in their choice to release that rare animal, a new music Christmas album. (The last one I remember is Jerseyband’s Christmasband… in 2001? Which is also awesome but on a completely different level, volume-wise, to this one.) The quartet describe this album as “a cheeky but earnest tribute to the ethereal, soul-flossing music of the Wandelweiser composers’ collective” drawing on “those composers’ deep engagement with silence and slowness, with gentleness and the sort of beauty you have to lean in to hear.” If you like your holly jolly on the quieter, experimental, ASMR side, this is for you.

—Eileen Mack, Software Engineer and Platform Strategist

Yo Soy La Tradicion

Miguel Zenon: Viejo
Miguel Zenon and Spektral Quartet

Album: Yo Soy La Tradicion
Miel Music

Purchase via Amazon / iTunes

Miguel Zenon has for many years used his enormous artistic vision to draw attention to the music from his own cultural heritage. This collaboration with the Spektral Quartet is a striking addition to his body of work. This entire album is worthy of some deep listening, and it was recorded just at the time Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, making the project all the more compelling. I chose this particular track because it demonstrates a more introspective side of the music, which often goes unnoticed.

—Deborah Steinglass, Interim CEO

Book of Travelers

Gabriel Kahane: Model Trains

Album: Book of Travelers
Nonesuch Records

Purchase via Amazon / iTunes / Bandcamp

Gabriel Kahane is such a phenomenal storyteller. On the album Book of Travelers, he captures many personalities and snapshots of lives within the romanticism of long-distance train journeys throughout America. In “Model Trains,he relates the story of a train-loving husband and father who goes slowly mad after hitting his head. The harmonic palette one might liken to romantic art song, which is probably what carried the story so poignantly for me upon first hearing it.

—Amber Evans, Grantmaking Associate


Julia Holter: Chaitius

Album: Aviary

Purchase via Amazon / iTunes / Bandcamp

I’ve always really enjoyed Julia Holter’s work, and her new album, Aviary, is stunning. Each track offers its own beautiful, terrifying, and joyous world, worth multiple listens. I was initially taken by “Everyday is an Emergency,” which is full of bagpipe, brute-i-full amazingness. However the energy and chaotic-ness of “Chiatius” grabbed my attention. It delivers something of a more classical vibe mashup. It’s as if there are multiple pieces overlapping, ebbing and flowing over the top of each other.

—Scott Winship, Director of Grantmaking Programs

How to Promote Your Album

Welcome to The Basics of Publicity: Part 4, the gripping conclusion to my four-part series on promotion and marketing for musicians! In my previous posts, I’ve talked about how to consider your public-facing brand and the key points to hiring a publicist, the ten most important things to know about social media marketing, and the core media assets you need and how to get them on any budget. For this final post, I’m going to talk specifically about recordings and how to promote them. This will incorporate many of the practices and concepts from my earlier posts, and hopefully it’ll give you a sense for how those ideas translate into real-world action. To further drive the points home, I’ll offer some case studies from my more than ten years promoting recordings for EMI and Warner Classics.


For the purposes of this post, I’m not going to go into the actual recording process—that’s something I’ll leave to the many extraordinary producers, engineers, studio technicians, and others who specialize in translating the glorious sounds of your music into a true-to-life, impactful recording. What I’m going to focus on is how to take that lovely digital file/CD/LP/cassette tape/wax cylinder, and give it the best potential shot at being heard by the most people possible. Because there’s nothing worse than pouring your soul, time, and money into an album and then having no one hear it.


Also for the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume we’re talking about a traditional “album” that features 40-70 minutes of audio recording. The rise of high-quality digital music files, streaming outlets like Spotify, video distribution platforms, even virtual reality, all open up new and exciting possibilities when it comes to recorded sound. I could write a separate post on each of these, but for most people, the standard is still going to be a traditional recording that can be distributed online but also packaged into a physical CD. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming…

The moment you start thinking about the recording itself is when you need to also be thinking about how you’re going to promote it.

Many people make the mistake of waiting until the recording is finished before they begin thinking about promotion, but I cannot stress enough: the moment you start thinking about the recording itself is when you need to also be thinking about how you’re going to promote it. There are a few very important considerations you need to be thinking about the second you decide you want to make a recording:


Gone are the days when a world-class performance of a beautiful piece made for a newsworthy recording. There are simply too many new recordings being released each month, and the only way to cut through the noise is to have a story to tell about your album that will get people interested and engaged before they hear a single note.

As laid out in my first post, having a story that people can talk about and tell others is the beating heart of any kind of modern promotion. The same is true of a recording: Why is this music so important to you that you want to make a permanent record of it? If there are a variety of pieces on an album, what common theme ties them together? If it’s new music, what are the stories and ideas (both musical and non-musical) that might make it stand out in people’s minds?

If the only answer to these questions is: “Because it’s great music and a great recorded performance of it,” then you may end up with a fantastic album, but it’s one that will be very difficult to promote in a meaningful way.

An example: piano duo Christina and Michelle Naughton recorded an album entitled Visions, which featured Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen, a Kurtag arrangement of a Bach chorale, and Hallelujah Junction by John Adams (a mentor of theirs). The story of the album revolved around different musical approaches to the idea of spiritual joy – from Messaien’s ecstatic transcendence to Bach’s serene confidence to Adams’s reckless ebullience. Having that story angle in place helped to tie the program together and provide a clear, concise message about what people could expect from the recording, and how they could talk about it to others.

The story of your album should determine all extra-musical aspects of it—the title, cover design, liner notes, and any other marketing materials—and answer the question: “Why should people care about my recording?”


Once you’ve got the story of your album in place, you want to think about organizations that might be interested in that story, and in helping you to tell it. Partnerships can boost sales of an album (if your recording centers around music written in response to visual art, for example, is there a gallery of that artist’s work that might be willing to sell your CD in the gift shop?), help with social media (if you’re featuring the music of a living composer with great social media, can they post about your album?), and can help add to the publicity by further validating and adding additional angles to your story, and making the entire campaign feel like more of an event.

An example here is an upcoming album from pianist Tanya Gabrielian, featuring piano transcriptions of Bach solo cello and violin pieces. Tanya suffered a severe spine injury while doing martial arts as a teenager and spent a painful month in the hospital, where the recordings of these Bach pieces helped her maintain her sanity and get through the low points of her experience. So for the album, she’s partnered with various chapters of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, putting on performances at their various local branches where she’ll play the album music in hopes that it will provide the same support to NAMI patients as it did for her during her time of struggle. It’s an example of a partnership that emphasizes the core story of the album (the healing power of Bach’s music), while also providing performances that can be pegs for local media outreach.


There was a time when you couldn’t put out a commercially successful album if it wasn’t on a record label—physical distribution and PR/promo/marketing outlets were simply inaccessible to the common folk. Now the internet has changed all of that, and you can easily put your album on CDBaby and get your music out across all digital platforms like iTunes, Spotify, and more. So why should you even consider a label? Well there are pros and cons…

Pros of a Record Label

  • Physical Distribution: While there are fewer and fewer retail music shops with a physical building, if you want to be in them you’ll need a label—or at least label services—to get your CD shipped out and sold in those stores.
  • Grammys: Getting a Grammy Award is a long, complicated, and opaque process, and you’re VERY unlikely to have it happen unless there’s a label handling it and managing the process, not to mention advocating for your recording within the industry.
  • Recording/Packaging Support: Some labels will help defray some or all of the costs of recording (depending on your contract) and possibly the packaging design, photo shoot, video production, etc.
  • PR/Marketing: Major labels—and some of the boutique ones as well—have dedicated PR and marketing teams, with the contacts and experience to help with the work promoting your recording.
  • Prestige Factor: This one is more amorphous, but there is a certain degree of prestige in having a respected label release your album—it shows that other people believe in you, and you’re not simply doing everything on your own. This is especially true of a major label. If you self-release, realize that some of the larger media might not take you as seriously as they would if your album was on a label they knew and trusted. (Of course, if you’ve already had previous albums that they’ve covered in the past, this can be less of a concern.)

Cons of a Record Label

  • You make no money: If you release on a label, don’t expect to ever see a return on that investment. The most wildly successful niche recordings sell a few thousand copies, and even with the best record deal ever, you’ll only see a fraction of that income.
  • You lose some control: Depending on the label and the deal with them, you might lose artistic control over the presentation, title, story elements, etc. of your album.
  • All labels are not created equal: Some are better at some things, others are better at other things. You want to learn the ins and outs of each and determine what you need from them before signing on, otherwise you can get stuck in a relationship that isn’t beneficial to either side.

Photo by Jonathan Velasquez


Okay, you’ve got a story, partners, maybe even a record label. Now it’s time to start putting a promotional plan in place.

1. Assets

Since you’ve already (I’m sure) read my third post on assets, you know all about photos, videos, and more. But you should also consider these in the specific context of your album, as they can be vital when it comes to promotion and telling the story of your album. Will you create music videos (even just having a two-camera setup in the studio during the recording, which you can pair with the studio audio track)? Can you make an intro video that features some performance footage, as well as interview footage of you telling the story of the album? Are there any “bonus tracks” that won’t be on the final album, but that you could offer exclusively to media outlets in exchange for a feature on the album?

An example of this is a video we shot with violinist Ariana Kim around her self-released album Routes of Evanescence—a recording entirely of contemporary violin works by women composers. We wanted to get some exposure around International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, so we shot the video quick and dirty in her apartment, and offered the exclusive to a major violin blog, which ran this great story as a result. It was an example where an asset led directly to promotional exposure because it was tied into the story of the album.

2. Performances

This is an area where many people fall short when planning their album. I cannot stress enough: having performances of your album repertoire (even if it’s a few pieces within a larger program) is a VITAL part of a successful promotion plan. Fewer and fewer media outlets will cover an album release on its own, but if you have a live performance that features the album, then they can cover that and talk about the album in the context of the performance. Plus, performances open up the possibility of post-concert CD sales and signing sessions, which are where the majority of album sales happen these days.

At the very least, you want to have a record release performance—ideally in as established a venue as you can find, in a market where you have an existing fan base. You want it to be packed, and you should invite as many media outlets from the area to come as possible.

If people enjoy hearing it live, they’ll be far more likely to want to take it home with them.

The ideal setup is one where you have a full tour that includes as many major cities as possible, and that starts off with a record release performance. (Do NOT have the release “street date” be at the end of the tour. Please don’t do that.) If that’s not feasible, then as many performances as possible featuring as much of the album repertoire as you can fit in, is the next best thing. Contact each venue to set up CD sales/signings after each performance, and bring a stack of albums along with you so you don’t run out! Square card readers or similar allow you to process credit cards so you’re not just relying on cash.

Regardless, get the music on your album performed! If people enjoy hearing it live, they’ll be far more likely to want to take it home with them.

3. Social Media Timeline

Since I’m 100% certain you’ve read my second post about social media, and that as a result you’re now a hyper-engaged, digitally savvy social media maven, let’s talk briefly about how to promote your recording on social media. You want to put a timeline in place from start to finish, with as many different assets as you can, leading up to the release. Here are some ideas to get you started:


  • Photos of the scores you’re preparing
  • Video of you practicing for recording sessions
  • Photos and videos of you in the recording studio
  • Pre-order links when they go live
  • Release a single track to give a taste for the album
  • Unveil the cover image in a post
  • If you did a photo shoot for the album, reveal the new photos in a gallery
  • When you first get your advance CDs, share a photo of it
  • Video of you talking about the album’s story, and why you’re excited about it
  • Livestream of you answering followers questions about the album
  • Advance media coverage


  • Share all of the buy links for the album in a single post (or link to a website page where they’re all present)
  • Video of you inviting everyone to listen and pick up a copy
  • Photos/video from the release performance
  • Share any media coverage that runs at the time of release
  • Share intro video


  • Share album reviews with pullout quotes
  • Photos from your tour, CD signing sessions, etc.
  • Highlight specific tracks, tell the stories behind them, record videos of yourself performing them, etc.
  • Roll out music videos for work on the album

These are just a few ideas to get you started. Anything you can think of related to the album can be fodder for social media.

Also, as I mentioned in my social media post, you want to think if there are people you can ask to share some of your more significant posts. Obviously any partners in the album should share, but even the recording studio, related music publishers, composer societies, your conservatory…the more the merrier, and many will share if you just make the ask!

4. Promoting Your Recording

This is where the rubber hits the road—trying to get media to cover your album. Of course, you can consider hiring a publicity/promotion company to do this for you (and you know how to do that, because you read my first post which gives advice on hiring a publicist), but many don’t have the budget for that, in which case you’ll have to do it yourself. Here are some tips to get you started:


  • You should plan to start promotion eight to twelve weeks out from the release date. Any smaller of a window and you’ll risk missing opportunities.
  • You’ll want to have the finished recording in hand when you start promotion, so work backwards from there when planning a street date, performance, tour, etc.
  • In planning the recording, editing, mastering, album package design, etc., always build in a week or two extra for buffers in each step. Trust me.

Press Release

  • I know press releases have lost some of their impact in the digital age, but it’s still useful to have all of the info in one place for a promo mailout, when pitching, etc.
  • Put together a document that has the album cover image, name of the album, names of performers (or just you as the album artist), release date, label (if applicable), a paragraph or two introducing it and saying what the story is, a track listing, and links to any videos, photos. Put your contact info (or the info of whoever is promoting the album) at the bottom.

Media Targets

  • Spend some time brainstorming a list of possible media outlets—blogs, newspapers, magazines, radio stations, etc.—that might be interested in your album. If outlets have covered you in the past, add ‘em to the list. If you have a possible direct connection to any writers or producers, add ‘em. Again, read my first post for more general media strategy advice.
  • If you have a label, they should have a list of outlets they send promo CDs to. Get that list, and add your contacts to it.
  • Put the whole list into a spreadsheet with media outlet name, contact name, address, email, any notes about past history with them, or possible angles unique to the individual or outlet.

Promo Mailing

  • Six to eight weeks out from release, you’ll want to mail out copies of the CD to as many of the media outlets on your list as possible, so that they can have a chance to listen to it well ahead of street date.
  • A NOTE ABOUT UNSOLICITED MAILINGS: If you aren’t on a label and aren’t in the habit of just sending out CDs to people, then you need to be careful here. While ultimately the most efficient way to go about a promo mailing is to send out the CDs to everyone who might be interested, and then follow up with an email or phone call after the CD has arrived, just be aware that there will be the occasional person who will take umbrage at having a CD sent to them without their having asked for it. If you come across someone like this, just apologize, and then if they’re still listening go ahead with your pitch.
  • In addition to CDs, you should have a digital version of the album to distribute as well—even just a Dropbox link to a folder that contains Mp3 and WAV files of the music, a hi-resolution JPEG of the album cover, a PDF of the liner notes, and a Word document of the press release. That way, you can send that to people if they say they prefer digital versions.


Once you’ve distributed the music to each of the outlets on your list, you’ll want to email and/or call them with a pitch on how they might cover your album. Some tips on different outlets:

  • Newspapers: If it’s a newspaper that runs reviews, pitch them to review it. If they don’t run reviews but have concert reviews and are in a location where you’re giving an album tour performance, pitch them to review the concert, but also send them the album so they can include a mention in their review. You can also pitch for an interview feature to run before the performance, talking about the upcoming concert and album release.
  • Magazines: If they review albums, pitch for a review, otherwise pitch for an interview feature around the recording. See what different sections they have.
  • Websites/Blogs: You can pitch anything from an album review to a video exclusive, interview feature, guest post where you tell the story in your own words, etc. The sky’s the limit here, and many online outlets will be willing to work with you if you’ve got creative ideas and compelling content.
  • Radio Stations: Pitch for airplay if they program music similar to what’s on your album. If you’re touring to their area, you can pitch local stations for on-air interviews, pre-recorded interview segments, or in-studio performances. Some stations have websites or social media that offer possibilities for album promotion if you can’t get it on the air.
  • TV: If you’ve got a really compelling human interest story around your album, then you can pitch local TV channels around your tour markets to have you in for an interview or performance segment—particularly if they have cultural news coverage segments.

This is just scratching the surface. Ask your colleagues where they’ve gotten album coverage and see if you can secure similar hits for yourself. Find albums that have a similar repertoire or story to yours and check Google News searches to see what kinds of media coverage they received. Check the social media feeds of comparable artists (or their record labels) to see if they post about media coverage that might offer leads.

Pitching is an ongoing process, and you might find out about leads months after the album is released. Don’t be afraid to still reach out and see if they’d be interested, as you never know when a big feature might be right around the corner.

In Conclusion

When it comes to album promotion, you get back what you put in. The more work you do, the more results you’ll get, and while you might not have unlimited time to spend on it, you should at least budget a solid chunk of time for planning and execution. Again, there’s nothing worse than putting out a recording and not having anyone listen to it, so I hope that this guide will at least give you some guidance on things you can do to get your music heard by as many people as possible.

Thanks for reading this post and my other ones, feel free to stop by www.unison.media and drop me a line!

NewMusicBox Mix: 2016 Staff Picks

holiday lights

Before we ring in 2017, it’s become a bit of a tradition here at New Music USA to give a cheer for some of the standout music of the past year. Below you will find a selection of tracks streamed separately with a bit of commentary on what made them notable, as well as a continuous playlist of all of the music at the bottom of the post. Follow the links for further listening and to add the albums to your own collection.

Don’t see a favorite of yours? We hope you’ll add it below so we can all give another round of applause to the great work that hit our ears in 2016.

Happy Holidays from New Music USA!!

Timber Remixed

Michael Gordon; remixed by Ikue Mori: Timber
Performed by Mantra Percussion

ALBUM: Timber Remixed
Cantaloupe Records

Purchase via the Bang on a Can Store / Amazon / iTunes

I love the idea of keeping a work alive by recreating it in a variety of ways, and for this work Michael Gordon and Mantra partnered up to shine light on a number of composers, each with a very different voice. Why this particular track? On a personal level, I just really respond to Ikue Mori’s aesthetic. I shared this with the hope that many of you listening will explore the entire release, and then dig deeper to explore all the composers on it further. –Deborah Steinglass, Director of Development

Nicolas Jaar: No

ALBUM: Sirens
Other People

Purchase via Other People / Amazon / iTunes

An atmospheric delight. Imagine walking the halls of a slightly run-down, crowded apartment building on a sultry August evening. Lots of background, a shifting and elusive foreground—you never know what you’ll hear next. Here’s a track, but seriously, you need to sit back and just listen to the whole thing. –Eddy Ficklin, Director of Platform


Daniel Wohl: Formless
Performed by Daniel Wohl, Lucky Dragons, Olga Bell, Caroline Shaw, Bang On A Can All-Stars, Mantra Percussion, Mivos Quartet, and Iktus Percussion

ALBUM: Holographic
New Amsterdam Records

Purchase via Bandcamp / Amazon / iTunes

I’m a sucker for post-rock and ambient music. Eno’s Music for Airports done by the Bang on a Can All-Stars was one of the first introductions that brought me to contemporary classical composition. Listening to Daniel Wohl’s Holographic reminds me of this area of post-minimalist/classical and post-rock/ambient genre cross-talk that has always interested me. This record exhibits that style of slow and thoughtful musical development with well-orchestrated blends of electronic textures and instruments. — Blake Whiteley, Development Assistant


Oneida / Rhys Chatham: You Get Brighter

ALBUM: What’s Your Sign?
Northern Spy Records

Purchase via Bandcamp / Amazon / iTunes

I first heard Oneida play in a disused public parking lot Brooklyn in 2001. It was a pretty dark time for New York and we were all young and angry. Oneida’s sound has matured without losing any of that passionate, furious energy which struck me then. Teamed up with composer Rhys Chatham, Oneida have recently issued What’s Your Sign?. While some of the tracks are a little uneven, “You Get Brighter” is definitely worth a listen. –Madeline Bohm, Software Engineer and Designer

stone people

Martin Bresnick: Ishi’s Song
Performed by Lisa Moore, piano

ALBUM: The Stone People
Cantaloupe Records

Purchase via the Bang on a Can Store / Amazon / iTunes

Lisa’s playing (and singing) here is, as always, supremely musical and controlled and full of intent, and the piece, like all of Martin’s music, is profound, surprising, and rewarding to delve into. The Ishi of the title was the last of his people–the Yahi Indians–and the piece is based on transcription of a traditional song he recorded after being taken in by anthropologists at the University of California, Berkeley (his story is definitely worth reading). I’ve heard Lisa play (and Martin introduce) Ishi’s Song live a number of times now, and each performance feels like a brief glimpse into a lost world. The original melody is sung and then braided into shimmering, shifting textures, creating a mirage-like sensation, like being on the edge of seeing or grasping something that ultimately remains elusive. –Eileen Mack, Junior Software Engineer


David T. Little: Winter – Act III, Scene 2, “Endgame”
Performed by James Bobick, Marnie Breckenridge, Cherry Duke, John Kelly, Michael Marcotte, Newspeak, Alan Pierson, Peter Tantsits, and Lauren Worsham

Album Name: Dog Days
Vision Into Art Records

Purchase Amazon / iTunes

Dog Days, the opera by composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek, is terrifying, and that’s why I love it so much. There’s something about watching a family fall apart in a post-apocalyptic world that’s deeply disturbing (especially–spoiler alert!–when cannibalism is involved), but at the same time it’s too fascinating to look away. David’s score is a haunting representation of the action on stage, and this track reflects the tension, panic, and loss of humanity and hope we’ve reached at the climax of Dog Days. –Sam Reising, Community Platform Strategist and Grantmaking Manager

real enemies

Darcy James Argue: Dark Alliance
Performed by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society

ALBUM: Real Enemies
New Amsterdam Records

Purchase via Bandcamp / Amazon / iTunes

Darcy James Argue brought a certain amount of swagger to the table just by forming an 18-piece big band in New York City. I’m pretty sure the first show I caught featuring his amazing crew of co-conspirators packed the stage so tightly that the bass player was effectively in the club’s kitchen—and they were still killing it! But what I really walked away thinking—and to even greater degrees after every performance I’ve heard since—is that Argue has a gift for attracting committed, remarkable players and feeding them a stream of witty and sophisticated material, a potent mix that excites the audience’s ears as well as their toes. With Real Enemies, his exploration of conspiracy-driven politics through the decades (originally designed as a theatrical event), his cross-era cuts are particularly incisive. –Molly Sheridan, Director of Content, and Co-Editor, NewMusicBox


Kris Davis: Tim Berne
Perform Kris Davis and Tim Berne

ALBUM: Duopoly
Pyroclastic Records

Purchase via Bandcamp / Amazon / iTunes

This improvisation featuring Kris Davis and Tim Berne, is from Kris Davis’s aptly named album Duopoly. The album consists of Davis playing one composed and one improvised duet with eight different musicians (the first half of the album is all of the composed pieces and the second half is all of the improvised pieces) in a package that comes with an audio cd and a visual record documenting recording session. While the individual playing throughout the album is wonderful, what really appeals to me about this track is the way in which the musicians play off each other to creates a piece whose structure I found to be complex and organic. –Brad Lenz, Development Manager

wild cities

Clint Needham: On the Road: Nothing Behind Me
Performed by Francesca Anderegg (violin) and Brent Funderburk (piano)

ALBUM: Wild Cities
New Focus Recordings

Purchase via New Focus / Amazon / iTunes

I was first drawn to Francesca Anderegg’s album Wild Cities having known her and the pianist during my graduate studies, but I was especially taken with the work, On the Road: Nothing Behind Me by Clint Needham. The first listen had me Googling for sheet music! The piece is a mixture of playful lightness and distant, far-off memories tinged with wistfulness and the fading sunlight. –Kristen Doering, Grantmaking Associate


Jennifer Bellor: Chase The Stars
Performed by Jennifer Bellor, Rasar Amani, Lynn Tsai, Ivan Ivanov, Samantha Ciarlo, Tammy Hung, David Chavez, Lindsay Johnson, Bennett Mason, Sean Carbone, Tim Jones, Kyle Bissantz, Summer Kodama, Jeremy Klewicki, and Bronson Foster


Purchase Amazon / iTunes

Since so many extraordinary recordings are released every year, it usually borders on the impossible to sing the praises of just one of them. But JCOI-alum Jennifer Bellor’s self-released Stay seems to be several albums at the same time. Equal parts jazz and contemporary chamber music, but also indebted to indie rock, hip-hop, and even golden age Broadway musicals, this kaleidoscopic collection of 13 originals is a wonderful demonstration of how to maintain a highly individual compositional identity without needing to take refuge in pre-post-genre musical silos. I love Moments Shared, Moments Lost (a 2016 duo for clarinet and pipe organ), and AfterHours (a 2014 drum set solo), but nothing probably sums up the dazzling eclecticism of this release more effectively than Chase The Stars, a 2015 setting of an Emily Brontë poem in which Bellor’s own operatic voice is accompanied by flute, bass clarinet, string quartet, piano, electric guitars, three percussionists, and a rapper! –Frank J. Oteri, Composer Advocate, and Co-Editor, NewMusicBox

Stream the full list:

Vinyl Fever

If experience is the primary generator of wisdom, it’s unfortunate that wisdom often comes at a high and sometimes painful price.

All told, I can recall moving 22 times since I was an undergraduate, with at least another half dozen moves before then. Usually I would throw everything I owned in a car and drive. Eventually I started renting U-Hauls.  The last couple of moves I hired movers, like grown-ups do.

Everywhere I went I took my crates of LPs. AC/DC, Zeppelin, Psychedelic Furs, Solti’s complete Ring Cycle with Birgit Nilsson, Dorati’s complete Haydn Symphonies, most of Zappa’s records – and many more. In one of the later moves, my Denon turntable broke. And I now had crates of CDs to drag around, too.

Perhaps, dear Reader, you can feel where this tale of too-late wisdom is heading…

In 2012 came move number 19. I was consolidating, downsizing, rushing to pack, and thought – what if I just… you know… found my records a good home? I called my landlord and asked if he knew anyone who was into vinyl. He said yes. I left the records when I left the apartment.

He called a few days later to tell me how thrilled his friend was to inherit such a great collection, and that is when my sense of having made an impulsive yet life-altering decision – a very bad decision – began haunting me. On occasion it still keeps me awake at night.

When Bob Attiyeh, who founded and runs Yarlung Records, and I decided to start raising money for a new CD project that would feature three works that I am particularly proud of, including my Violin Concerto played by Baird Dodge and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by living-legend Esa-Pekka Salonen, my String Quartet played by Color Field, and my song cycle Times Alone with Laura Strickling and Thomas Sauer, I was already thrilled. I knew that Yarlung also sometimes released vinyl versions of products after the CDs had come out, but we hadn’t discussed a vinyl release and I thought maybe someday.

But it became clear during the recording sessions at the Segerstrom Center that Bob was thinking big. Very big. There were engineers setting up mikes for an ultra-high quality DSD (Direct Stream Digital) recording, a surround sound recording, the first-ever commercial SonoruS Holographic Imaging recording (which renders an incredible 3D listening environment from a pair of properly configured speakers), and we were also recording to tape. As in analog tape. Because Bob was scheming to release the entire project on vinyl also.

Quick vinyl primer, for those who have forgotten or grew up after its heyday: tape is the best source for vinyl. Tape is expensive. Tape is hard to edit. Vinyl, even at 33 rpm, doesn’t hold anywhere near as much music as a CD. 45 rpm vinyl offers higher quality (it is the speed for which the microgroove standard was originally designed), but at the cost of even shorter playable length. 180 gram vinyl is the audiophile standard at this point, because its squishing time and cooling time yield more accurate records than 150 or 200 gram vinyl. But Bob is a big thinker and devoted audiophile—and 180 gram, 45 rpm vinyl is what people expect of him and of Yarlung. And there was a solution to the capacity problem—just release the whole project on three LPs. Simple!

The recording session is one I and everyone involved will long remember. Recording a project for so many different formats—CD, vinyl, DSD, DSD surround, and Holographic Imaging—would mean an incredible amount of editing across incompatible platforms. A single four-minute track often contains hundreds of edits. Again the solution was deceptively simple: no edits allowed. NONE. Every movement had to be recorded as a single take. Even the extremely difficult, 18-minute-long first movement of my String Quartet.

16 minutes in, and someone misses a beat?



Start over.

This just isn’t how things are done. Recording this way takes more time, and escalates production costs. Releasing on three 12-inch 45s as opposed to, say, two 33s, also raises manufacturing, storage and transportation costs, and significantly raises the price point for purchasing the complete project on vinyl.

It was incredibly stressful and for the musicians an Everest-like challenge. There were moments when morale was tested, when it looked like this just might not happen—and then the next take was perfect. Literally flawless.

I remember when Thomas Sauer finished the final take of “Clouds ripped open,” the third song of the cycle Times Alone. As far as I was concerned, he and Laura had nailed the song a couple of times at least. But Tom would not stop until it was perfect. Every damn note. And it was Laura’s best take as well. When Tom leaped from the piano and rushed over to me for a high ten, it was clear just how exciting this goal of edit-free perfection had become to everyone. It was frightening, but it was amazing.

The CD and the three records came out a few weeks ago. Early reviews have been extremely positive. People are buying them. But those recording sessions were magical.

Are you, like me, someone who along the road gave up your vinyl? My kernel of wisdom is this:



Start over.

Because vinyl is still awesome. And my collection is growing again. Yours?

Piles of LPs against a wall of shelves filled with records; at the front of each pile is one of the new James Matheson LPs.

About Those 2016 Grammy Nominations

The official social profile image for the Grammy Awards, a cartoon of an old horn gramophone.

The 58th annual Grammy Award nominations were announced by The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences this morning. The Grammy ceremony will take place once again at L.A.’s Staples Center on Feb. 15, 2016, and will be broadcast on CBS. A complete list of nominations in all 83 award categories is available on the Recording Academy’s website.

For the next few months media pundits will probably debate whether the latest from Taylor Swift, Kendrick Lamar, or The Weeknd will get the nod as 2016 Album of the Year, but the choice for Best Contemporary Classical Composition might ultimately be more interesting. It certainly seems even more competitive. Odds might favor Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields (just released by Cantaloupe Music in September in a performance featuring the Bang on a Can All-Stars joined by The Choir Of Trinity Wall Street conducted by Julian Wachner) since it was already awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music back in April and the 2015 Best CCC Grammy went to John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean, a work beloved by Taylor Swift, which was awarded the Pulitzer last year. However, it might be too soon to rule out Andrew Norman’s Play since it has been hailed by several influential music critics as possibly the most important 21st-century orchestral work. Also, the Grammy adjudicators love anniversaries and it is the 20th anniversary for the folks performing Play on the recording, Gil Rose’s Boston Modern Orchestra Project, who have also recently been named Ensemble of the Year by Musical America.

Then again, the only thing that gets the Grammy folks to pay attention more than a big number anniversary is memorializing someone. Another one of the 2016 nominees, Prayers and Remembrances by Stephen Paulus, fits that category on multiple levels. Friends of people who were killed on the September 11, 2001 United and American Airline flights commissioned it for a performance on the 10th anniversary. And the recording the work is included on, an all-Paulus choral disc titled Far in the Heavens, was the final disc of Paulus’s music recorded under his supervision since shortly after the recording sessions Paulus suffered a stroke from which he never recovered and died in October 2014. However, Grammys sometimes beget other Grammys. The only nominee who has previously won is Joan Tower—in 2008, for Made in America recorded by Naxos. This year Tower is up for the honor once again for her 2010 composition Stroke, also on Naxos. So the only longshot this year is The Importance of Being Earnest, a 2010 Oscar Wilde-inspired opera by Irish composer Gerald Barry released by the British label NMC Recordings, which was surprisingly overlooked for Best Opera recording (all nominated operas are by long dead composers) even though the star of Earnest is the phenomenal Barbara Hannigan and the recording is conducted by Thomas Adès. So if Barry’s opera were to actually win, it would vindicate the Grammy’s sin of omission in the other award category.

While recordings of operas by contemporary composers appear to have been locked out of the Best Opera nominations, nominations in other classical categories include more recent fare. Contemporary music dominates the repertoire of discs nominated for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance. Aside from discs devoted to Brahms and Shostakovich, everything else is cutting-edge new. All nine of the works featured on Render, the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth’s latest New Amsterdam disc, are world-premiere recordings (including Missy Mazzoli’s Vesper Sparrow, which is among the works chosen to be performed at the 2016 ISCM World Music Days). Four of the five pieces on Filament, a Cedille disc by the sextet eighth blackbird, are also world premieres; the only “old” piece is Philip Glass’s 1968 composition Two Pages, although 8bb’s arrangement for this work whose instrumentation is left up to the performers is the first for this specific instrumental combination. The remaining nominee is Tom Flaherty’s Airdancing, a work scored for toy piano, piano, and electronics performed by Nadia Shpachenko and Genevieve Feiwen Lee on Shpachenko’s album Woman at the New Piano (on Reference Recordings). So all bets are off on who the winner will be. In the Best Choral Performance category, the aforementioned all-Stephen Paulus recording, Far in the Heavens (performed by True Concord Voices and Orchestra under the direction of Eric Holtan), seems a favorite, but in addition to competition from recordings devoted to Monteverdi, Beethoven, and Rachmaninoff, another nominee, Pablo Neruda: The Poet Sings, is an all-American choral disc performed by Conspirare under the direction of Craig Hella Johnson featuring works by Donald Grantham, Shawn Kirchner, and Cary Ratcliff.

Woman at the New Piano has also been nominated for Best Classical Compendium, as has Ask Your Mama, a Langston Hughes-inspired, polystylistic multi-media gesamkunstwerk composed by Laura Karpman (Avie Records) and another album devoted to the music of Stephen Paulus—a Naxos disc containing Veil of Tears for strings and two of his concertos, the Grand Concerto for organ and orchestra and Three Places of Enlightenment for string quartet and orchestra. The only recording of music by a living composer to be nominated for Best Classical Instrumental Solo is Ursula Oppens’s new Cedille recording of Frederick Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, but considering how many recordings of that piece have now been made (including a previous one by Oppens, which was its first), it is tempting to think of it as standard repertoire as well. Ask Your Mama is also up for Best Engineered Album and its engineer, Judith Sherman (who also was behind the console for the Rzewski disc) is in the running for Producer of the Year, Classical facing off against Blanton Alspaugh, Marina A. Ledin and Victor Ledin, ECM’s Manfred Eicher, and Dan Merceruio of Sono Luminus. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Symphony ‘Humen 1839’, a joint composition by husband and wife Zhou Long and Chen Yi, is up for Best Orchestral Performance, as is an all-American disc (on Pentatone) performed by the Oregon Symphony conducted by Carlos Kalmar entitled Spirit of the American Range which includes works by George Antheil, Aaron Copland, and Walter Piston. Another orchestral disc, a Naxos all-Christopher Rouse album performed by the Albany Symphony conducted by David Alan Miller, has strangely been nominated for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album. While the disc contains Kabir Padavali, one of Rouse’s few vocal compositions and a total winner, and soprano Talise Trevigne’s performance of it is stunning, it is only one of two works on the album; the other work—the piano concerto Seeing which features pianist Orion Weiss—is completely non-vocal.

Scores by Alexandre Desplat (The Imitation Game), Justin Hurwitz (Whiplash), Jóhann Jóhannsson (The Theory of Everything), and Antonio Sanchez (Birdman), and Hans Zimmer (Interstellar) are the finalists for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media whereas brand new works will face off against two 1951 scores that have been revived this past year for Best Musical Theater Album. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, Jeanine Tesori’s Fun Home and Something Rotten! by Karey Kirkpatrick and Wayne Kirkpatrick will be challenged by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I and a stage adaptation of the George Gershwin-songed motion picture An American in Paris.

In the various jazz categories, Joey Alexander, Christian McBride, Donny McCaslin, Joshua Redman, and John Scofield have all been nominated for Best Improvised Jazz Solo and albums by Alexander and Scofield will compete against discs by Terence Blanchard, Robert Glasper, and Jimmy Greene for Best Jazz Instrumental Album. Nominees in this category are exclusively for smaller combos since the Grammys offer another award, Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, for bigger groups; the 2016 contenders for that accolade are the Gil Evans Project, Marshall Gilkes and WDR Big Band, Arturo O’Farrill and The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, Patrick Williams, and the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Maria Schneider, of course, was the recipient of the Best Contemporary Classical Composition Award for her Winter Morning Walks in 2014; 21st-century music reality, unlike the Grammy Awards, is not neatly compartmentalized into distinguishable musical genres.

Perhaps the strangest of all Grammy categories is Best Instrumental Composition which perversely excludes works nominated for Best Contemporary Classical Composition from consideration—although one of the 2016 nominees, David Balakrishnan’s Confetti Man, is the title track from the latest album of his group, the Turtle Island Quartet, released on the “classical” label Azica Records. Among the others are Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Suite and Marshall Gilkes’s Vesper from their respective Best Large Jazz Ensemble-nominated albums Cuba: The Conversation Continues (on Motema Music) and Köln (on Alternative Side Records) and two other big band jazz scores from albums that were not among the Best Large Jazz Ensemble finalists—Bob Mintzer’s Civil War written for the Bob Mintzer Big Band and Rich DeRosa’s Neil written for the University Of North Texas One O’Clock Lab Band.

It might take Taylor Swift recording an album with John Luther Adams or (an even greater probability) Caroline Shaw recording with Kanye West for the folks in charge of the Grammy Awards to catch up with the breadth of music that people are now listening to and how they are listening to it. Once that happens, hopefully the various categories in which musical achievement are acknowledged by the Recording Academy won’t feel quite as straitjacketed.

Indeterminacy 2.0: How to Burn Your Harpsichord


Image from variant:blue by Joshue Ott and Kenneth Kirschner

Do you know the Brandenburg Concerto where Bach kicks over the harpsichord and lights it on fire? You know, No. 5, with its ripping keyboard solo that can only be described as a sort of “Baroque shredding.” I’ve heard that solo referred to as an audition piece for Bach himself, who was known as a fearsome improviser and may have used it to pummel prospective patrons into submission.

I open a discussion of indeterminacy and digital technology with this anecdote because I think it’s important to remember that indeterminacy’s country cousin—improvisation—goes to the very roots of music as we know it and beyond. In fact, the question to ask may rather be one of where our notions of fixity and certainty in music come from. We barely even have a word for it—we don’t exactly talk much about “determinacy”—and yet beneath all our ideas about music runs this assumption: that a piece of music is a stable thing, that it has a fixed essence, that when we talk about the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 we’re talking about THE Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. Not some crazy ephemeral solo Bach might have thrown in there one day.

Which is too bad, really, because it is only through chance, chaos, and the unexpected that music, like life, evolves. Perhaps there was once a time when music seemed less rigid, less fixed—a liquid, not a solid. Perhaps in an age of folk songs, of an unpredictably malleable oral tradition, a more fluid image of music might have held. But something changed that, and I would suggest that it was the advent of the score—of a written tradition in music. With that, the possibility of a true text, a stable essence of a fixed piece of music, locked down once and for all forever, comes into being. And the fixity of the score, the perceived tyranny of its certainty and stability, was very much what Feldman, Cage, and the composers of the New York School of the 1950s were rebelling against when they pioneered our modern ideas of indeterminate music.

But there is another form of stability in music as we know it today, another kind of “determinacy” that underlies our sense of what music is, and can be: the recording. From 1877’s first needle drop onwards, we have known music as much from recordings as we have from scores—and for non-musicians, much more so. The recording has conquered the world, and in doing so has become music’s new fixity—its new certainty.

But why should a recording be the same every time you listen to it? Until recently, this question wouldn’t even have made sense. You had to physically scratch the sound onto those old wax cylinders, and one can only imagine the mess it would have been to try un-scratching it. You can’t re-lathe a vinyl record, or reach into an old-fashioned compact disc and start moving those microscopic pits around. But our notions of what our recordings are have not kept up with what our recordings actually are: digital data. Code. Our recordings are no longer hardware—they’re software. And yet we listen to an mp3 or an online music stream in the exact same way in which we have listened to CDs, vinyl records, cassettes, 78 rpm phonographs, wax cylinders—starting at the beginning, playing linearly to the end, and hearing music that’s exactly the same on each listen.

But there’s no reason why this must be the case. With digital music, it’s possible to build complexity, chance, and intelligence into the recording itself, to create a music that is ever-changing and open-ended, indefinite in duration and indeterminate in composition—to create an indeterminate recording. A listener can press play on a piece of recorded music that will be different on every listen, that can be heard for as long or as short a time as they wish, and that will continually grow and evolve for as long as they choose to listen.

On and off over the last decade, I’ve been experimenting with developing just this sort of music—with some successes, plenty of failures, and hopefully a little insight along the way. This series of articles will describe some of those experiments, others that haven’t yet been tried, and the hopes and ideas underlying them, all on the theme of the possibilities that exist at the intersection of technology and indeterminacy. Tune in next week for an attempt to figure out exactly what it is we’re talking about here.


Ken Kirschner

Kenneth Kirschner
Photo by Molly Sheridan

Composer Kenneth Kirschner was born in 1970 and lives in New York City. His music is freely available at kennethkirschner.com.

To Stream or Not to Stream? That is the Wrong Question.

ignore streaming services

With the launch of Apple’s new streaming service, we’ve seen a resurgence in the popular arguments over streaming: Are the royalty rates too low? Can this possibly be sustainable? Does streaming devalue music? If you can hear everything for free, why would anybody buy anything?

For the armchair pundits pompously pontificating in pubs, the answers to these questions don’t really matter: they don’t have any skin in the game. They’ll keep doing their thing.

If you run a label or release your own recorded music, though, the answers to these questions do matter, because at some point you’re going to base a decision on them.

I spend a lot of time with labels, and the decision many of them are wrestling with is this: “Do we stream our products or not?”[1]

This is the wrong question to ask.

false dichotomies

Here’s why:

The record business is old. Edison patented the phonograph cylinder in 1878, and discs were introduced to the US market in 1889. Since then, we’ve had 78s, 45s, LPs, 8-tracks, tapes, cassettes, CDs, SACDs, DVDAs, Pure Audio Blu-Rays, MP3s, MP4s and FLACs. [2] People act like downloading represented a big shift in music consumption, but it really didn’t. [3]

Except in few rare cases, the shift to purchasing digital downloads hasn’t seriously challenged our idea of what constitutes a recorded music product. Digital albums are, for the most part, simply digital representations of the CDs they either duplicate or replace. Each format strikes a different balance between convenience, quality, playing time, and durability, but what they all have in common is they are all sold.

The business we have has evolved—partly through intelligent planning, partly through natural selection—around the process of convincing customers to part with money in return for the permanent ownership of recordings. [4]

You make a record, promote it to people who have never heard it, and get them to pay a chunk of money in order to be able to listen to it at any time in the future. Thus it has always been.

This is important, because our entire experience of recorded music, all the assumptions we make about what constitutes a product and how it should be valued, have been shaped by an ownership-based market that is more than a century old. Like unmetered water, an all-you-can-eat buffet, or an unlimited cellphone contract, the new streaming music services create a different set of incentives for both customers and suppliers. To apply these changes to a mature ownership-based market, we have to forget a lot of things we didn’t even realize we had learned.

The question we have to ask is not “Should I stream my stuff?” but “How does the existence of streaming services change my job?”.

do the same thing

It’s perhaps helpful here to look at what the movie industry does. Rental (and even subscription) has been a big part of their business for decades, so they’ll have had the chance to learn from their mistakes as the market matures. You don’t have to hang out with a Hollywood lawyer for long to realize that while the dumbest people in the movie industry are just as dumb as the dumbest people in the music industry, the only ones who take on the major labels and win are the studios. The men in suits might know a thing or two.

Blockbuster movies these days are so homogenous they make the Top 40 look like a hotbed of artistic rebellion, and yet studios are quite comfortable distributing them through a wide range of outlets. There are previews followed by a wide theatrical release, traditional physical rental, home-delivery rental, cable pay-per-view, download-to-own, digital rental, online subscription services like Amazon Prime, DVD, Blu-Ray, in-flight entertainment, cable movie channels, and network broadcasts. If there’s a way to get paid, the studios are all over it.

Indeed, for as fun as it is to lampoon them for making the same movie over and over, we should look in the mirror once in a while. The economics of the physical sales model have got us thinking an album has to be at least ten songs or 50-70 minutes of music. When iTunes came along, labels and artists alike bent over backwards to try to keep the album format alive instead of realizing what an absurd creative and commercial straightjacket it has always been. This is particularly stifling in the new music world, where a new work might not see release until there’s a full CD-length program to keep it company.

Studios know that people have appetites for 15-minute cartoons, 43-minute episodes, 120-minute feature films, and 27-hour stimulant-fueled Breaking Bad binges. Movies are profitably made for straight-to-DVD release, and video streaming services are making their own content and dropping whole seasons in one day. The content might all look the same, but the business plans are sophisticated, carefully tailored to the content, and different.

Other businesses have embraced (or been forced to accept) access as an alternative to ownership. Public libraries did not destroy the book business, despite its long-touted decline. [5] It took quite a while for recordings to replace sheet music as the most visible form of music consumption. (The first Top Ten charted the sales of sheet music, not records, and sheet music first became available on subscription 250 years ago.)

19th-century music

Of course it’s possible that subscription streaming will be the end of the record business as we know it, but I’ve never understood what is supposed to be so great about the record business as we know it. Let’s worry about something that is within our power. What are we going to do about all this?

The way I see it, you have some action items:

1. Stop looking for a new model. When people say they’re looking for a new model, what they really mean is “can somebody please come up with something that works so I can copy it.” It is going to be harder than that, but only a little bit.

2. Stop thinking of your recorded music business as “selling albums.” From now on, you commercially exploit the copyright in audio recordings. Write yourself a list of all the ways you might do this. Include not just paid streaming and downloads, but licensing, future compilations, and free downloads and streams used for promotion. Consider them all for every recorded asset. Try to keep an open mind about what constitutes a product. Do not wait until you have a whole album to think about this. Alongside your marketing plan, make a release plan for each product. Do not simply take the last one and change the album title and the date.

3. Make worse records. When I buy an album, I’m expecting a certain baseline level of quality, because while only a fraction of the cost goes toward creating the content, I’m still paying a lot of money to permanently own that recording. On a streaming service, I already paid somebody else. All I invest in your product is the time to listen to it. I’m more willing to take a chance, and less likely to be disappointed. There are no refunds for bad records on Spotify, so many interesting-but-not-sonically-perfect live albums have a place on streaming services even when they really don’t belong on download stores.

4. Make better records. To make money from selling albums, you have to convince people that they may, in theory, wish to listen to them at some point in the future. To make money from streaming music, people have to actually listen to it. If your albums are better in theory than in practice, streaming platforms are not going to be the place for you. You have to record something that doesn’t already exist, and which people will want to hear. If you want streaming subscribers to buy an album you’re not prepared to stream, then it really has to stand out to people who haven’t bought it and don’t go to record stores. It will cost the same as a month of listening to everything on Spotify.

taylor swift

5. Remember that “streaming” is not a single service with a single deal. Alexander Street Press and Naxos both offer academically focused streaming products that are priced higher than Spotify or Apple Music, and pay correspondingly higher per-stream rates. These services already offer a happy medium for labels reluctant to participate with Spotify and Apple Music.

6. Consider windowing. Apple Music will let you set a streaming release date that is some time after your download-to-own release date. There are ways to do the same with Spotify. Your commercial goals may be best served by not releasing the DVD the day your movie opens in cinemas.

7. Consider why you made the recording in the first place. Not everybody’s primary motivation is profit. If the priority is to reach a large audience, and to get people to take a chance on your music, streaming might come quite high up the release plan.

8. Try stuff. Innovation is just having something to show for playing around. The more fundamental the threat to your business, the more important it is for you to play around. Most big companies are bad at this, which is why they’re so often late to the party, and when making a serious plan to invent something doesn’t pan out, they use their money to get what they want instead.

9. Build a following. Streaming service providers are determined to turn their jukebox apps into social networks. It feels desperately contrived, but it is happening, and it isn’t enough to get people to like your album once. For you to get paid, people have to listen to your records over and over again, and it is nobody else’s job to make that happen. If you’re not streaming, this still matters, because if a major discovery platform doesn’t have your music, you have to work harder to keep the same level of visibility.

10. Don’t forget your back catalog. A year after release, you might have shipped 80% of all the albums you’re ever going to sell, but on streaming services, the work is just beginning. Make sure your catalog is nicely linked up online, that any resources about the music have links to the recordings, and that you’re using playlists, editorial, and any other tools at your disposal to get people from one of your recordings to another. Make sure the metadata is lovely. Put the sleeve notes on your website—somewhere obvious. Look after your old records, and they’ll continue to look after you.

If you’re in the business of making and selling records, then streaming means your job has changed, and it’s not as simple as opting in or opting out. Whether you want to stream or not, things are different now. The one thing you mustn’t do is ignore it. Good luck.

streaming moral crusade

1. Too much has already been written on this question, but in brief, the arguments against streaming are that:

a) It is unsustainable. The argument goes that streaming services are not profitable despite their huge popularity, and therefore never will be. This misunderstands the nature of investment and the projected growth of these businesses.

b) It is a scam. If the majors are screwing their artists, then this is (i) not new and (ii) between them and their artists. It is not an inherent flaw in the delivery mechanism, nor is it Spotify’s fault that some people entrusted notoriously devious multinational companies with the exploitation of their intellectual property.

c) It is not transparent. This is not true either. Streaming services pay out a fixed percentage of total subscriber revenue according to each rightsholder’s share of the total number of streams. The formula is not complicated, although the implications of this are not always obvious.

d) They insist that every stream is worth the same, and that amount is too low. This is the only argument that holds water, and it is a straightforward business decision: the service offers to pay you X each time somebody listens to your music. Take it or leave it. This isn’t a moral question, it isn’t about transparency or power or big guys and little guys or the contract to take photos of Taylor Swift on tour. It’s your music; they are offering to pay you for it. You decide.

Some products will reap poor financial returns on streaming services because they are, by their nature, not something people listen to often or repeatedly. Some labels have catalogues comprised entirely of these products. If those labels intend to continue making exactly the same products without regard for the changing shape of the music market, they would be well advised to steer clear of streaming services altogether, but that does not mean they will not feel the effects of them.

2. At this point, even downloads have been around for a long time: I run a label for King’s College Choir. The choir itself has been around for half a millennium, but fewer than half the singers are older than the iTunes Store.

3. Outside of chart pop, which has suffered badly from a sudden increase in ways for young people to express their individuality (or lack thereof), the big shift came a little earlier with the widespread success of online CD sales. This has had a huge impact on the diversity of available recordings. iTunes and Spotify also have almost everything**, but they didn’t start this. Amazon did.

**There are exceptions. Garth Brooks isn’t even on download stores.

4. Usually round ones, as Will.I.Am observed in a moment of either inane idiocy or surreal genius.

5. There’s an old joke that the first book published using moveable type was the Gutenburg bible and the second was a book about the death of the publishing industry. With some regrettable exceptions (I’m thinking Twilight), taking publishing out of the hands of monks with nice handwriting turned out not to be such a bad idea.