Is Free the Future of Music?

A Los Angeles concert promoter is attempting to make money by making his concerts free, and he thinks the rest of the industry should do it too.

Free For All Festival

City: Echo Park, CA
Date: 2010-08-15

Perhaps it’s attributable to the contrast between the giant beard and the business suit, but Robert “Bobby” Kittleman has the messianic quality of someone who has seen visions. With a resume that at 27 includes a five-year stint as a business analyst at a Fortune 500 company, a UCLA business school degree, and a work ethic that rivals Thomas Edison, he seems destined for great things. There is an unmistakable gleam in his blue eyes, as if despite what anyone says to the contrary, he has seen the future and knows that it’s simply a matter of time until the rest of us catch up. That look, and his enthusiasm, makes him dangerous.

Kittleman cares deeply about music. Most people would call him a music freak. His apartment is neatly covered in concert posters and band memorabilia. Plus, he has a significant vinyl collection, the hallmark of any music savant. His tastes are wide-ranging: bands as disparate as Akron/Family, Lungfish, Sean Hayes, Oneida and Fools Gold are his favorites. But they all have one thing in common: by their choice or otherwise, they are not a part of the corporate music world.

It’s a matter of common knowledge that the music industry is in decline. How much so is a matter of debate, but between 2004 and 2009 the industry as a whole lost 30% of its revenue (The Guardian, 10 January 2010). Reasons are many, the most well known being that the now ubiquitous ability to share music digitally has forever cut the knees out from under what was once a vibrant business model. Regardless of the details, and the many debates, what everyone can agree on is that the music business will never be the same again.

This is where Kittleman comes in. On 15 August 2010, he and two partners are attempting to pull off the first of what they hope to be a string of festivals based on a novel business model: donations. The one on 15 August is called the Free For All festival and is an all day event in Echo Park, California. It features several bands that could be considered some of the best of the truly-independents: Akron/Family, Langhorne Slim, Sean Hayes, and Active Child, among many others. Kittleman is putting up the $13,000 necessary to secure the bands and the venues for a daylong festival; the rest is up to the attendees.

His two partners, the indie-roots music blogger Jody Orsborn, and LA musician Phil Eastman, are supplying promotion and festival organization know-how. If they succeed they will put Kittleman’s money and any additional profit into the next festival. If they fail Kittleman stands to lose several thousand dollars and the idea of donations-based concerts will wither, at least for the near future.

Kittleman doesn’t seem to be affected by the pressure as we sit talking under the palm trees of a local café. While he talks his rolled up shirtsleeves reveal several tattoos. The words are familiar and I eventually realize they are lyrics from the band Pavement. We quickly start to talk about music. The question comes up, “Was God speaking through Doug Martsch when he wrote and recorded the music for the album Keep It Like a Secret?” We decide Doug Martsch was just extremely talented and that it would be lame if God spoke through musicians anyway.

Now that we’ve bonded, Kittleman uses the moment to segue into his spiel, “Long story short is that this whole free concert thing really can be traced to Ash Ra Tempel and Can making some of the greatest music in 1972 and it was funded by the German government. It all goes back to funding, to looking at music as art, and we have to find ways to do that. This is one of those ways.”

“But the specific way the idea began is that I read an interview with Seth Olinksy [of Akron/Family] and Seth said that, ‘I wish my music could be free but I could still make a living doing music, because I want everybody to be able to enjoy my music but I also need to put food on the table.’” After taking a sip of coffee he continues, “I literally meditated on the idea of, ‘how can music be free and the musicians still make money?’ and what I came up with was that everything we afford artists needs to be available to musicians. Basically, they need to be free to create what they want. There is historical precedent for this, the Krautrock of the early 1970’s being the most well-known example.”

Kittleman’s ideas are polarizing, but when questioned he explains, “Really what I’m talking about, and the eventual plan is, is a way to facilitate doing a direct financial transaction with a band. Labels and promoters don’t like that. Currently the only way to do a transaction with a band is to buy a CD or MP3, or a T-Shirt, or purchase a concert ticket, all of which the band sees a very small percentage of and typically has to put their own money into. A label has to stake them, so the bands owe the label, they have to buy T-Shirts or their label does, and they have to pay for gas, food and lodging when they tour. Most bands barely scrape by, and I’m not kidding. The pop stars are the one half of one per cent minority.”

Most people’s perception is that once musicians are on a label and their music is played on the radio that they’re living extremely well. According to Kittleman that isn’t the reality, “The bottom line is that bands live in poverty. I try to get really into the financials of the bands that I talk to. One band netted $36,000 last year, total. That had to be divided among each other. Another band made $30,000 and that had to be divided by four. These are bands that have been around for awhile and that the music community, like listeners of Nic Harcourt or Morning Becomes Eclectic, would know about.”

Kittleman looks around, I can’t tell if he’s making sure no one else can hear him (this is LA after all) before continuing, “Truly what I’m looking to do, whether or not this festival is big enough to encompass it, is looking at an entirely new way to handle the music industry. For now it’s just going to be an alternative but at some point the industry is going to have to change or it won’t survive. I have a degree in economics and accounting and my background is analytics at a major electronics company. What happens, and has happened in the music industry, is Econ 101: as a product or service matures over time the margins that are available become smaller.”

He continues, “Computers are a prime example of this. The margin on computers used to be really big, and now the margin is less than 5%. So, do you think Compaq thought that they would always be making 30% on every computer? At some point there had to be consolidation and now there are five PC manufacturers in the world. Every product matures and the market changes as a result. So, you see that in booking agents for example, every band has one of the six or seven booking agents out there. Labels are the same way; the majors have purchased most of the independents. Sub Pop is owned by Sony.” [Editor's note: Sub Pop is actually partially owned by Warner Bros., not Sony.]

Kittleman stops to scratch his beard for a moment and contemplate his next sentence. “It’s basic economics. The margin’s have gotten squeezed, the amount of revenue has gotten squeezed [by file sharing], there is a higher supply of decent bands in the world, more than ever before because of the ease of digital recording, but the big overriding factor,” he swings his arms around in circles, “is that there is a finite amount of money that people have to spend on music. Basically, you have more people battling for fewer resources, a classic scenario. In a situation like that the only way to bring cost down and put more money into the pocket of the artist is to get rid of the middle men – the labels, the booking agents, etc. and figure out a way to go directly to the artist.”

It seems like everything being said from within the music industry or outside the industry is generally a version of getting the situation back to status quo. Could a radical idea like free music really be a solution? “Most people think I’m crazy. I talked to my Dad the other day and he said that’s very interested to see how generous people actually are. But, I think it’s less about generosity and more about establishing a system. Because people get emotion and human action mixed up with the means available to those people. People aren’t sharing music illegally because they’re inherently evil, they’re doing it because it is actually a generous act that, the act of sharing, and there is an easy means available to them to do it. It’s actually easier to illegally download music than buy it.”

“If you establish a means that allows people to quickly and easily do something and not have to expend a lot of energy or have some mystical spiritual knowledge like, ‘Oh, I really shouldn’t be downloading this file, let me find the label’s address and send them a check,’ then it will all fall together. If you can figure out a way that is ‘point a to point b’, ‘I don’t’ have to fucking think about it’, and it just makes it all apparent and easy then it will happen. But, until that system is in place all those music industry people: the labels, the booking agents, the venues, the promoters, the Ticketmasters are functioning as that de facto system of convenience. They are making it easy for the consumer, but obviously not easy enough or they wouldn’t be complaining about not making money. But, until an alternative system is as easy or easier than it is now there won’t be much of a change.”

More than an hour has passed since we sat down and it’s time for Kittleman to go. In addition to promoting concerts he busy is opening an upscale business in Costa Mesa, California and he needs to meet with his commercial real estate agent. As we walk to his car he responds to one last question. “Why do we do it? We do it to provide an example. Think about this: somebody could start a ticketing solution because they fucking love music. Some guy who loves music and hears about what we’re doing, but who is also a web software engineer. He could start an all-digital ticketing solution that venues could opt in to for free and bands could get the surcharge. Why doesn’t anyone do that? Someone will, some day.”

When we first talked on the phone about doing an interview Kittleman said, “I saw an interview with David Byrne and he said his favorite thing to do was, ‘giving people music', and I realized my favorite thing to do was giving people music too, even if I’m not making it. And everybody else, all these avid music fans, we love sharing music with each other. There is nothing better than making a copy of a CD or MP3, giving it to a friend and having them connect with it the same way you did. That feeling is amazing. But, what we are really doing in that moment is fucking the artist because the only way they really have to make money is to exchange a good to you that you pay for. How do we get out of that? This concert is a step in that direction.”

On 15 August, Kittleman is betting thousands of dollars on what he wants the future of the music business to be. Perhaps along with it is the beginning of formalizing a new way to look at music; what it means to each one of us. The truth is that music is simultaneously overvalued and undervalued. There is a lot of bad music out there, but if you had to pay for your favorite album or song, for the emotions and memories that are intertwined with each note, it would be worth much more than the money you paid for it (I’m thinking of Buffalo Springfield’s “Kind Woman” off of Last Time Around). Whether we realize it or not, the implosion of the music industry is forcing us to look again at what music means to us. As the implosion continues and the industry looks for new ways to protect itself, as evidenced by the recent surge in piracy prosecutions and the net-neutrality controversy over reduced Internet download speeds, we might have to decide sooner than we thought.

* * *

Free For All Festival Schedule

Outdoor Stage:

4:20 - 5:00 Mouse Heaven

5:30 - 6:10 Smart Brothers

6:40 - 7:20 Frank Fairfield

7:50 - 8:30 Dustbowl Revival

Echo Stage:

4:30 - 5:10 Roadside Graves

5:30 - 6:10 Bad Weather California

6:40 - 7:30 Don Juan Y Los Blancos

8:00 - 8:50 Old Man Markley

Echoplex Stage:

4:00 - 4:40 Dreamcatcher

5:10 - 5:50 Hi Ho Silver Oh

6:20 - 7:10 Sean Hayes

7:40 - 8:30 Active Child

9:00 - 10:00 Langhorne Slim

10:30 - 12:00 Akron/Family

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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