With record companies falling apart at the seams, and CD sales in the toilet you would think that 80’s Guitar artists who are still trying to make music would have it worse than anyone else. They were overlooked at the time, history has not been kind to them, and these days they never get coverage in national publications or large web sites. If it is hard for the big record labels to stay in business right now, then it must be nearly impossible for these (now) little guys to gain enough of a return to continue to create new music…right?
One of the earliest users of the internet to market music, Mike Peters from The Alarm, have been consistently creating new music for the past 17 years, and for the past 12 years he has been marketing it, almost exclusively online. In 2000, Mike Peters released a boxed-set of re-released Alarm albums named The Alarm 2000 Collection with a custom dedication CD for $150, and sold scores of them online. In 2002 Peters reformed The Alarm, and sold an on-line subscription of 5 cds and 50+ songs named the In The Poppyfields Bond released over the course of 6 months, and then let fans vote for the song-list that would finally appear on the the 2004 album “In The Poppy Fields”. Just last year Peters did the same thing with an 8 CD collection of EPs that will ultimately form the basis of two (possibly) albums to be released later this year. In between Mike Peters has sold scores of other CDs, t-shirts, tickets etc online and his web site at http://www.thealarm.com it has become a huge part of the way he promotes, markets and sells his music. He has done all of this with almost zero major label support. However, even if you have not heard of Mike Peters or The Alarm in the past decade, they are doing well enough to continue making new music, tour, etc. In that time, Mike Peters even beat cancer into remission TWICE and still kept going. Now that is dedication!
Mike Peters is not alone. Guitar hero Mitch Easter started developing the “power-pop” sound in the early 70’s in the band The Sneakers (with Chris Stamey of the dBs) before gaining notoriety as a producer in his garage studio (“Drive-In”) for early REM records. Easter and his band Let’s Active came from the same era as Mike Peters and The Alarm. Even though they sounded completely different (The Alarm = punk influenced guitar rock, Let’s Active = glistening guitar power-pop), they shared the same record label (I.R.S.) and found themselves in a similar situation at the end of the 80’s: major record labels were not interested in their music. However, just last year Mitch Easter joined the internet revolution and released a new album (Dynamico), his first in 21 years. When I was reading an interview with Easter, I noticed this quote:
“I always thought I would have to get a record deal to put out new music, and because there aren’t a lot of people out there who want to hear me right now, I supposed I wouldn’t be allowed to do it Now, it’s such a do-it-yourself world that everything’s changed. Doing it yourself is becoming the only way records are coming out, because the world itself is hip to acquiring music in different ways now.” (Steve Wildsmith Nov. 16, 2006 The Daily Times (Knoxville, TN) )
What Easter is saying is that, basically, it is now commercially viable for him to make music again. This hit me like a ton of bricks. The music industry is supposedly dying, yet Mitch Easter and Mike Peters have found a way to make their own music and make it commercially viable at the same time? The situation confirms something that I have felt for a long time: the record industry is not only broken, but may simple be unnecessary (almost) in the 21st century. I recently caught-up with Mitch Easter and talked to him about this exact situation. His answers were very enlightening.
Awkward 80’s Rock Blog Guy Surprised to Get Interview With Mitch Easter (Me): Was Drive-In your studio or just where you produced all those great albums? Do you enjoy running your own studio now? What types of artists do you record?
Mitch Easter: It was my place. When I was in college I had the idea to start a studio so I wouldn’t have to get a real job. This has panned out OK, more or less. I’m still at it, and it still has its moments. It’s still mostly “indie rock”, whatever that means. In 1999 we opened a “proper” studio, so nowadays we are the posh, expensive place as opposed to the humble garage place.
A8RBGSTGIWME(Me): Who were your influences when creating your Let’s Active sound? Nuggets/60’s Garage, The Shoes/Cheap Trick, or something else entirely?
Uh, I don’t remember, exactly. In high school I was a huge Move fan, but you know, really liking something and being able to copy it are altogether different things! All those people you mentioned are great, and in the early 80s I was listening to early 80s music, including now-forgotten acts like Altered Images and The Associates…
A8RBGSTGIWME(Me): As a producer (some might say one of the BEST ever), sound quality and nuance must be very important. Do the limitations of MP3 hurt what you can produce in the studio? What would be your ideal distribution method?
Mitch Easter: You are too kind, re: my producer abilities. Good sound is always a plus, even if “good” has wildly different interpretations. But I maintain that even the gnarliest sounds deserve a high quality capture and transmission system! In all but the most compromised of settings, you can detect a well-recorded track. The trouble with MP3 is that its flaws are less obvious, and some sound OK. A few years ago people started bringing MP3 players into the studio and connecting them to the little stereo system in the front room. One time somebody was playing the first Led Zeppelin LP from an MP3 and I didn’t realize that was the source, and while I was getting something out of the refrigerator or whatever I remember thinking “I thought that record sounded better than that!” Which it does, actually. The actual recording, as heard on LP or even the initial CD run (which wasn’t stellar, but still…) is not the sort of softened, hazy and fizzy thing I heard that day! The MP3 sound reminds me of a shot-up battle flag- you can interpolate what it is supposed to be, but it’s full of holes. In the studio I just don’t think about it; I’m just trying to mix the song. But now we are faced with people approving mixes via emailed MP3s, which seems really convenient but is maybe no better than when this was done with cassettes, and the unexciting knowledge that many people will only ever what you’re doing as an MP3. At least nobody ever considered cassettes the ultimate format or anything! Everybody accepted the idea that the LP would sound better, but the cassette was good for the car, etc. Now with today’s ultra slick marketing, you’ve got most of the world’s population being told that this sleek internet delivery/iPod world is The Greatest Thing Ever and Totally Modern!!! (and throw that old junk out immediately) and since many people listen with their notions and not their ears, I think we’re stuck with a highly compromised arrangement. I would be pretty happy if we had the MP3 world for “the kids” and for convenience, and something like SACD for high quality. The shadowy business people who decide everything are doubtless thrilled at the potential profits in the non-tangible distribution future, and are happy to hasten the demise of the physical formats. But I’m 53 and I like to hold that thing I bought in my hands, look at the cover art, etc. and being on the computer all the time sounds like a nightmare to me, even though it is completely OK with young people, I guess.
A8RBGSTGIWME(Me): I think you are in a similar position to Mike Peters in that he was around U2 when they began and was influential in some ways to their sound an image, but will probably never get credit for it. At the same time, the connection to U2 kind of hurt the band. The same could said for you and REM. You helped them define their sound, but your connection to them overwhelmed your own work (to a certain extent). Do you struggle to at once, recognize the past, and at the same time try to unshackle from it?
Mitch Easter: Ah well, I was well aware of R.E.M.’s vast appeal- they were really energetic and great on stage when they started, they had a real star guy front person (who was also a good singer!), easy-to-grasp songs, etc. etc. and I never felt remotely in competition with them. I realized that my charms, such as they were, were a lot more modest and a lot less mainstream than theirs. So I really enjoyed getting to work on those records and we did a few tours with them in the 80s which were totally good tours. So I’ve got no complaints! As for me, it’s true that my official reputation is that I’m some kind of flag-waver for a very narrow lightweight pop, which is pretty annoying! What I like to listen to for fun is way more likely to be Soft Machine Vol. 2 than the sort of thing I’m generally associated with. But, c’est la vie. People will think what they will! I also think I could put out a thrash metal record and it would be called “jangly”. So much for “rock criticism”! On the other hand, without these associations from the past, I’d totally be a nobody. So if the jangly squad comes to see me play now, well, thank you very much for attending! I just think that being too nostalgic is basically a drag; I like a balance- the past was great, and, I hope, so is now! It is really hard to get people to pay attention to your new stuff sometimes but you have to try anyway. As for me, I intend to avoid the trap of making boring middle-aged records with too many acoustic guitars and slow tempos! (Editors note: Check out Mitch’s new song : Time Warping to see what he means. the thing blows the speakers off!)
A8RBGSTGIWME(Me): . While the record industry is crumbling, artists like you have found a way to make their work financially rewarding because of the internet. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Mitch Easter: No doubt about it, internet communications are surely helpful to somebody like me who isn’t going to be part of the latest young person social movement. But I’m not a million percent enthusiastic about the brave new world of music distribution and creation, either! It’s always a mixed bag. The old record industry was, of course, corrupt and creepy but it was a useful filter and you could sort of wade through the current offerings without that feeling of “way-too-much-stuff/no quality control” that sort of stops me in my tracks these days! I think it’s high time the old system fell apart, though. I guess the next challenge will be how to avoid “meet the new boss- same as the old boss”! I’m also appalled that MP3 has become the primary consumer audio standard. The CD format is pretty much a 1970s system, and now we have something that sounds a lot worse. CD is slowly on the way out, and SACD, the only improved digital distribution format to be offered, is dead. This is progress??
A8RBGSTGIWME(Me):The filter. Yes, the one main issue with the new “distribution” is that getting seen is nearly impossible. A lot changed with MTV because music became fashion, but is the internet once step beyond that? Do you think it is is it critical mass, or lowest common denominator?
Mitch Easter: Who knows! Both?? I think it’s mostly a hopeless sea of what is supposed to be a democratic utopia is mostly a mob. But what are you going to do? I suppose there must be some sort of mass consciousness at work that makes some things rise above the fray, and it’s never been “fair”, anyway. But none of this exactly feels right. It’s a transition, is about all I can conclude as of right now.
A8RBGSTGIWME(Me):I saw that people can purchase your record from a small company for $14.99 or at Amazon.com for $16.99. Even though Amazon has a higher price-point, which one benefits you, the artist more?
Mitch Easter: The cheap price is from 125 Records, who are friends, and doubtless I get more of that money than I do from Amazon! Being at a high-profile place like Amazon is, I suppose, a trace of the old record biz, where in a larger sense it’s useful to be in a place like that even if the margins are lower. The problem is always- who will find 125 Records, vs. the omnipresent monolith?
A8RBGSTGIWME(Me):Do you have any future plans for touring and recording?
Mitch Easter: I look forward to recording another disk, which I will do the minute I get some time to do it. (Being in the studio business is the absolute worst job ever if you want to find time to make records!) As for tours, we played a fair bit across the US last year, and man oh man, what a money-loser! Between the weak live music scene and the cost of hotels and fuel, it’s certainly a labor of love. I really love playing in front of an audience, but for us small-potatoes types the economics couldn’t be worse. We’ll do it again of course. The Dynamico record was mainly an ice-breaker for me, just to get something finished and out the door. I think it has moments of charm, but it is by no means slick! Not that I care too much. Other people can make those perfect records, I’m not really interested in that nearly as much as whatever the inner content is. But since I am known as a recording guy I suppose it is expected that I’d be ultra careful with my own stuff but it is exactly the opposite! I appreciate your interest and hope you like it.
I’d like to thank Mitch Easter for his generous answers and gracious nature giving them.
Here are some videos for some great Let’s Active songs from the 80’s :
Let’s Active: Every Dog Has His Day
Let’s Active: Every Word Means No
Let’s Active: Waters Part
Plus, here are couple videos from new Alarm Tracks by Mike Peters from the upcoming albums:
The Alarm: Three 7’s Clash
The Alarm: Plastic Carrier Bags