December Q&A: Ross Flournoy (Apex Manor)

For December the Fingertips Q&A returns to pick the brains of Ross Flournoy, front man for Apex Manor.

For December the Fingertips Q&A returns to pick the brains of Ross Flournoy, front man for Apex Manor. If you’ve been keeping close tabs on Fingertips you may remember that Apex Manor is a newly-formed L.A.-area band that has risen in the ashes of the late, great Broken West. You may also have noticed that the Q&A is a bit late this month, and that is only because Flournoy has been seriously working on his answers. I mean, seriously.

Apex Manor’s debut album, The Year of Magical Drinking, comes out next month on mighty Merge Records.

Ross Flournoy

Q: Let’s cut to the chase: how do you as a musician cope with the apparent fact that not everybody seems to want to pay for digital music? Do you think recorded music is destined to be free, as some of the pundits insist?

A: For someone at my level in terms of sales—which is to say, someone who doesn’t sell a ton of records—it’s really hard for me to tell what, if any, effect illegal downloading has on my “numbers.”

When I was in the Broken West, I was of the mind that illegal downloading wasn’t so bad—if anything, I thought it might be beneficial in the sense that if someone got our record for free and liked it, then perhaps that person would be inclined to come to a show or buy a t-shirt. Or maybe—just maybe—if they liked it enough they would decide to buy a CD. If they downloaded it for free and DIDN’T like it…well then, they weren’t going to buy it anyway. So in that sense, illegal downloading can almost be viewed as a kind of promotional tool. I can’t say my view has really changed.

I will say that as a music fan, I have downloaded music illegally. However, it’s almost always from bands that I love, and I’ve downloaded those records in advance of their release dates because I just couldn’t wait to hear them. Three specific cases come to mind: LCD Soundsystem’s This Is Happening, Spoon’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and Wilco’s Wilco (The Album). In all three instances, though, I made it a point to purchase a physical copy of the record once it was available. Even if I hadn’t loved all three of those records after listening to them illegally (which I did), I still would have purchased each record to support the band. So in that sense I was kind of “voting” with my dollars—I wanted to help out, albeit in a very small, artists that meant something to me.

I think that’s common for a lot of so-called “indie” bands and their fans— that notion of supporting what you love. Even for bands that are selling hundreds of thousand of records—The National, New Pornographers, Spoon, etc.—I’d hazard a guess that illegal downloading doesn’t really hurt them that much. And that’s because the people that are into those bands and buying those records because they feel a real connection with the artist.

I think illegal downloading really hurts the majors, and artists that are accustomed to or expect to sell millions upon millions of records. Unless you’re Lil Wayne or Taylor Swift or Susan Boyle, that shit just doesn’t happen anymore. And it most likely won’t ever happen again. And the majors and Lenny Kravitz and Korn and whomever else need to wrap their fucking minds around that.

As far as how the industry is dealing with this, I think Merge has the right idea in streaming records for free prior to their release so fans can check them out and see if it’s something they dig, something they could live with, something they’d want to buy. I remember very well at the age of 14 going into some chain record store in Memphis and finding, for the first time, they’d let you take CDs to this little listening area, they’d unwrap them, and put them in a CD player so you could sit down and listen on headphones. I just thought that was the coolest thing ever—I’d never seen it before. That way you didn’t just have to buy a record and hope you liked it—you had a chance to experience it first. Obviously that idea has been writ large with iTunes, illegal downloading, etc.

To be honest, I don’t lose a lot of sleep about illegal downloading—or even record sales, for that matter. I don’t mean that to sound like some bullshit, artsy fartsy, “I’m just in it to make art and nothing else matters” kind of statement. Of course I’d LOVE to sell a tenth of what Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga sold. But the truth of the matter is, up to this point I haven’t made my money from record sales—I’ve made it from licensing. My goal in life is to be able to make a living writing songs and recording them. As long as I’m able to achieve that goal and hopefully turn a profit for Merge (and they WOULD NEVER ask or demand that of me, just to be clear—but I love them), I don’t care how I do it.

Q: Related question: there’s a lot of talk these days that says that music in the near future will exist in the so-called “cloud”—that is, on large computer networks—and that music fans, even if paying, will not need to “own” the music they like any longer. How do you feel about this—do you see anything really good or really bad in the idea?

A: Is this a good thing or a bad thing? That’s like asking a guy who builds carriages how he feels about the Model T. I don’t really think it’s that cool, but there isn’t a goddamn thing I or anyone else can do about it. It’s just the evolution of technology, and so far as I can tell it can’t be stopped.

I used to like holding a physical artifact in my hand. For my generation, that was a CD. Ten years ago, I remember thinking that there was no way in hell the CD would disappear during my lifetime—that maybe in the future people would expect music to be intangible in the sense of its being experienced through invisible means. But that that was a LONG way off.

Clearly I was wrong about that, and my own habits bear this out. The last time I bought a CD was six months ago. I’ve bought a ton of records since then, but all of them through eMusic or iTunes. That’s primarily because I’m impatient. If I hear something and love it, I want it now. And thanks to the internet, that can happen. I’m a huge liner note freak, so I miss that a lot. But ultimately, it’s more important to me to be able to hear something I love immediately as opposed to waiting ’til the next day and heading out to the record store.

At the end of the day, I think music itself is far more important than whatever particular means through which it is experienced. So, although the “cloud” maybe isn’t as cool as having an LP or a CD, as long as people are listening, we’re gonna be okay.

Q: How has your life as a musician been affected—or not—by the existence of music blogs?

A:I think blogs did a LOT in terms of gaining exposure for The Broken West, especially around the release of first record in early 2007. Even before then, bloggers were the first people to sort of champion the band and get our name out there. There were a couple of people—Justin at Aquarium Drunkard and Alan at Sixeyes—who wrote very nice things about us prior our being signed to Merge. So I’d say that music blogs have had nothing but a positive effect on my life/career as a musician.

Q: What are your thoughts about the album as a musical entity—does it still strike you as a legitimate means of expression? If listeners are cherry-picking and shuffling rather than listening all the way through, how does that affect you as a musician?

A: I have mixed feelings on this subject.

On the one hand—as a music fan—I wish I could look you in the eye and tell you that I’m heartbroken about the “death of the album.” But I’m not sure I am. Let’s be honest—the vast majority of good records these days have, at best, three or four great songs and the rest is middling to total shit. Also, I am and pretty much always have been a “song” kind of a guy. I absolutely love the Doobie Brothers’ “What A Fool Believes,” but I couldn’t tell you what record it’s on if you put a gun to my head.

Having said that, there are a bunch of records that mean the world to me—records that I love all the way through, and that I love for the way in which they’re sequenced: Exile On Main Street, London Calling, Wildflowers, The Soft Bulletin, Good Morning Spider, Sound Of Silver, Midnite Vultures, My Aim Is True, Teatro—these are records I listened to from start to finish a million times. And it kind of kills me to hear a song from one of these records out of context—like on a greatest hits or something. I remember when I heard the Stones’ Forty Licks, it really pissed me off that after “Tumbling Dice” I had to hear “Undercover Of The Night” instead of “Sweet Virginia.”

As a songwriter and a guy who makes records, I definitely spend a LOT of time thinking about sequencing. For my new record, I was actively sequencing for a good six months. Writing down sequences, crossing them out, making iTunes playlists, etc. So from that point of view the album as a musical entity is important. However, always in the back of my mind was this reality you’re talking about—that ultimately maybe all of my fretting about sequencing was for naught, since people were just going to listen to the songs they liked.

It’s worth remembering that the “album” is a relatively new conceit. The record business started as a singles game, and it wasn’t until the mid-’60s that the idea of the “album” really took hold. So it’s kind of funny that we’re returning to where we started—people seem to be a lot more interested in experiencing music as singles as opposed to albums.

As far how it affects me as a songwriter and a musician, it’s another one of those things that’s pretty much out of my hands, so I can’t really fret too much about it. Selfishly, I’d love it if I sold more complete records than single downloads, but that’s probably not the way it will play out.

Q: Because basically anyone can record and distribute music now, there is way way more music available for people to listen to these days than there ever used to be. How do you as a musician cope with the reality of an over-saturated market, to put it both economically and bluntly?

A: It’s kind of lame. It seems like instead of being able to let your music do the talking for you, you’ve got to put on a gorilla suit and film yourself fucking a goat and post it to YouTube to get attention. Look at those guys in Ok Go—that seems like a major bummer to me. No one really knows anything about their songs; they’re just those guys on a treadmill. I imagine they started out as people who loved music and wanted others to hear it, and now they’re basically just video directors. That kind of sucks.

However—and I hate to sound like a fatalist yet again—there’s nothing I can do about it. So I try not to fret. As I turn into more of an old man with each passing sundown, I’m trying hard to stop letting shit bother me that I have no control over.

And the other side of this coin is that we’re seeing a bunch of really cool bands and songwriters bubble up who might not have otherwise, say, 10 or 15 or 20 years ago, when recording and distribution were still prohibitively expensive. So that’s a good thing.

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