Hello, I hope you’re all doing well this week. I’ve received a number of nice comments over the last couple weeks, which were really appreciated. I wanted to quickly plug Welcome to Chicago, a podcast co-hosted by my Winston Cook-Wilson that I recently joined to discuss Chicago XI. Unrelated, but more good news: the Spotify-owned Gimlet Media is now an officially recognized union! Enough small talk, let’s dive into this week’s newsletter.
This month, MIT Press published Ways of Hearing by Damon Krukowski, the former drummer of the amazing band Galaxie 500, current member of the duo Damon and Naomi, and one of the smartest music writers around. The book is a lively transcription of his 2017, six-part Radiotopia podcast by the same title. It examines Krukowski’s experience of sound growing up in New York City, labor and power within the music industry, and the ever-changing meaning of sound.
(There is a particular novelty to how the words are presented on the page and how Krukowski attempts to best represent an audio experience in a physical book. I won’t linger too much on how the medium can best convey certain messages, but if such meta questions are of interest, I would suggest reading, rather than listening, to Krukowski’s thoughts.)
Krukowski, with whom I shared a panel at New York University last fall along with Liz Pelly, is one of my favorite thinkers in the contemporary music space. His piece “Making Cents,” which appeared on Pitchfork in 2012, deals with many of the core themes I cover here every week. Yet, it’s his broader thoughts on sound, explored in Ways of Hearing, that really helped expose a number of my own particular listening habits. In the second episode, Krukowski writes:
If you stop up your ears—say, with earbuds listening to this podcast—you’ll find you aren’t as aware of the space around you. Or of other people. If you’re on the street, you won’t hear their footsteps approaching; you won’t hear their cough letting you know they are right behind you; you may not even hear them yelling at your to get out of the way.
This passage pulled me back to the last few years of returning back home to my parent’s house in a wooden suburban neighborhood, where the city sounds I’ve accepted as normal in New York City are suddenly gone. I’ve grown to anticipate music blasting from cars cruising on my block, whereas back home the piercing sound of an ice cream truck on a desolate suburban street is an isolated performance, not connected to a larger urban soundtrack.
What works so well about the book is that if you’re someone who works in music, or is passionate enough to read a weekly newsletter on the industry, there’s likely some audio experience over which you’ve obsessed. Krukowski’s own passion for the entire music production cycle offers a number of entry points for the reader. Perhaps it’s a certain recording technique, the way some artists form their melodies, or an appreciation or aversion to technological advances like the drum machine and Auto-Tune; no matter the specific sound, Krukowski’s attempt at breaking down the many components of the music ecosystem can allow one to dive deeper into even the smallest aspects. Thus, it shouldn't be surprising that Krukowski devotes a good amount of time not only to the business of hearing, but the labor that produces such a vast audio world.
The Labor of Sounds
Halfway through Ways of Hearing, Krukowski drills down a bit deeper into how such an ephemeral product—recorded music—is, or perhaps isn’t, able to support the lives of music laborers. In the fourth episode, he details traveling to eastern Europe and discovering that people across the world know his band’s music despite not having a means to purchase the music without some input from the digital world. He relishes this moment but doesn’t allow himself to embrace utopian thinking. Instead, he pivots to interview the Providence, Rhode Island punk band Downtown Boys, quoting the band’s guitarist, Joey DeFrancesco:
There’s money being made—it’s just the distribution of it is worse than it was 20 years ago, which you know the Internet is supposed to equalize but hasn’t. And you know I think we have to do kind of organizing as musicians and like take seriously that we are laborers and can make demands. Cause like a lot of capitalism, the whole industry is designed to disguise the labor.
Recent readers won’t find it too shocking I enjoyed DeFrancesco’s quote, but in the context of Ways of Hearing it takes on a slightly different meaning. The hidden labor mentioned above is placed front and center in Ways of Hearing. Whether he’s discussing the technique used by a singer in front of a microphone, the tangible differences between analog and digital audio, the physical labor being a music distributor, or the community that can be built from a physical retail store, Krukowski peels back the layers of production. It’s an up-close look at not only how technology changes an industry, but how people perceive something that existed purely outside of a marketplace.
The relationship between music and labor isn’t limited to the battles between musicians and record labels or artists and technology. This can be seen in his visit to a bookstore battling against Amazon or a record distributor facing the shifting landscape of digital music. Ways of Hearing points out a number of different fronts on which skirmishes are waged.
The Intimacy of Sound
Earlier in the book, Krukowski chats with his mother, a musician, and asks about her early relationship with music. She explains that she remembers her father singing to her, which is reminiscent of Krukowski’s own childhood. He recounts his mother singing to him in the womb, an early sign towards his eventual career in music. As I thought about this small exchange in the context of technological change, I realized how technology can shape the way we connect with those we love deeply.
When I started college, my mom and I formed a habit of calling each other on Sunday mornings – a tradition we still hold today, as I’m states apart from my parents. Yet, there was something odd about suddenly recontextualizing my relationship with my parents through voice calls. I grew annoyed when she’d call on speaker phone, obscuring her voice, or while cooking, during which the clatter of the kitchenware drowned out her thoughts, split between two tasks. Krukowski goes down a delightful rabbit hole about filtering on a landline phone and the small but perceivable difference between analog and digital audio.
While still in school one day, I heard my mother say the word “orange” and my train of thought completely broke down. I asked her to say it again, and when she repeated the word I still couldn’t process it. My mother, born-and-raised in Atlanta, Georgia, kept pronouncing the word as “earn-guh,” and my mind my suddenly jumped to a 2010 OJ Da Juiceman song (“Orange”) in which he pronounces the word with the same inflection. While on the phone, I laughed a bit. Not at my mother, but at myself, because hearing my mother felt both foreign and incredibly personal. As if this word, if pronounced a certain way, could remind me of not only a rapper I liked, but my mother and the place she called home. These tiny moments are what Way of Hearings helps contextualize through the lens of labor, technological change, and social connection.
6 Links 2 Read
How Billie Eilish Became an ASMR Icon - Pitchfork
I’ll admit I don’t experience ASMR, but I loved reading about how the ASMR community embraced the Billie Eilish’s music. Even so, learning that her record label reached out to a YouTuber to provide marketing for her album and only compensated her with free swag is pretty disappointing.
Cherie Hu dives into the increasingly messy world of music distribution, which unearths a number of issues as record label, music distributors, publishers, and streaming platforms overlap more and more in terms of what is provided to artists.
Running the Numbers - Real Life
A thoughtful piece on how even the lives of Twitch streamers are subject to many arbitrary, video game-like elements just to create a sustainable life.
I don’t think any description I put here could upsell this story better than the headline, except to say the actual story doesn’t disappoint.
At this point, I honestly find most stories about artificial intelligence and music to be exaggerated press releases to scare musicians and trick venture capital firms. However, the combination of AI and music copyright law will likely be an amazingly beautiful disaster in 2040.
I’ll save my take on piracy for another day, but I’m always fascinated by current stories on the state of music piracy, which are often pushed outside of mainstream music business reporting (which declared piracy dead in the era of streaming).
The Penny Fractions newsletter arrives every Wednesday morning (EST). If you’d like to support it, check out the Patreon page. The artwork is by graphic designer Kurt Woerpel whose work can be found here. The newsletter is copy edited by Mariana Carvalho, with additional support from Taylor Curry. My personal website is davidturner.work. Any comments or concerns can be sent to email@example.com.