Alina Simone has one of the more curious backgrounds you are likely to encounter on the 21st-century indie scene. Born in the Ukraine, she came to the U.S. as a small child because her scientist parents were fleeing the Soviet Union after her father decided against taking a job with the KGB. She grew up in the suburbs of Boston, ended up at art school, then moved to Austin to become a musician. She began as a street singer, inspired by Boston’s busker goddess Mary Lou Lord. She scraped and struggled and pursued the American music dream like so many other independent musicians in the early ’00s, even as she was slowly but surely realizing there was something slightly insane about the whole thing. In the mid-’00s, deciding she needed to know more about her Russian heritage, she managed to get a job that sent her to Siberia for a while. Her parents were not all that thrilled.
More fun facts: Simone—birth name, Vilenkin—married Josh Knobe, her high school sweetheart, in 1999; he is now a professor of philosophy at Yale, and a pioneer in the so-called “experimental philosophy” movement. (Simone has written and sung a playful “anthem” for the movement, which you can see/hear in YouTube form here.) In 2008, Simone recorded an album in Russian featuring the songs of the Russian underground punk-rock legend Yana Stanislavovna Dyagileva. This year, Simone had a book of essays published by Faber & Faber, entitled You Must Go and Win; the book deal came about because an editor heard a song of hers while listening to Pandora. (And who said technology is killing the printed word?) The book and her latest album, Make Your Own Danger, were officially released the same day, back in June. (Fingertips featured the song “Beautiful Machine,” from that album, last month.)
There’s plenty more to know but I’ve run out of space. Simone and Knobe now live in Brooklyn and have a five-month-old baby. She writes semi-regularly for The New York Times. She is one of those people who seems effortlessly engaging even as she probably doesn’t think she is engaging at all. I would have asked her more than five questions but a format is a format. Assume you have not heard the last of her.
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: I’d like to declare that the future—where music is “destined to be free”—has already arrived. Basically, anyone buying music today is making a conscious choice to pay for it, whether it’s to support a specific artist or label or record store. How do I cope with this as a musician? It’s largely a psychological issue with me. I was reading a Harvey Pekar comic the other day, and he said something like, “Even though I lose a couple thousand dollars a year putting out my comics, it makes me feel really good when people tell me they appreciate my work.” I thought this was a very blunt and sweet and honest way of spelling out what motivates a lot of us. Supporting oneself entirely as a musician has ALWAYS been exceedingly difficult, even before the internet. And honestly, the indie labels that released my past three albums took one hundred percent of those royalties, aside from what I hand-sold at shows myself. As an independent musician with admittedly weird sensibilities and a penchant for doing uncommercial things like recording Soviet punk cover albums, I really can’t expect to support myself as a singer.
The rub for me is that recording and releasing music still does cost money. Has it gotten cheaper? Undoubtedly. But if you want to make a quality, studio album, and you don’t also happen to be a crack audio engineer, you will still have to spend a whole bunch of money. Also, because so many reviewers still require a physical copy of an album (not to mention the perception that a physical release is taken more seriously), toss in the cost of cover art and manufacturing. Marketing to radio and print media, especially with A-list companies, can easily eclipse all of these expenses put together.
Given the economic realities, a vast majority of musicians, even “critically acclaimed” ones like, occasionally, me, find themselves “paying to play.” They do it because they love it and they want something tangible to show for their efforts, and because, as Pekar put it, it makes them feel good when other people like their work. As someone who’s been doing it for a while, looking realistically at a Kickstarter-based future of miniscule streaming revenues where even breaking on the costs of putting out an album becomes near impossible, I have to ask myself, why do it? Why release an album commercially? Is the excitement of getting accepted to SXSW, or getting played on the radio or reviewed on Pitchfork, worth the mounting costs? After a certain point, no, it’s not. There are other ways of connecting to people with music that are fulfilling and totally free. Sitting in your room, recording a song solo, putting it on YouTube and sending it to your mailing list, for one. You sacrifice production values and orchestration and making a splash in the media, sure. But maybe you make up for some of that with rawness and intensity and a heightened sense of intimacy with your audience. If you don’t care about the public validation, this starts to feel like a more honest exchange.
Q: Related question: we are being inundated with the idea that music is headed quickly to the “cloud” and that music fans, even if paying, will not need to own the music they like any longer, since they will be able to simply listen to everything on demand when they want to. How do you, as both a musician and a listener, feel about this lack of ownership, about handing a personal music collection over to a centralized location?
A: I am a girl who landed a book deal because an editor heard her music on Pandora one day, so I’m hardly one to argue against streaming services like these. On the other hand, do I wish Spotify offered better rates to artists whose music is getting streamed? Sure. Yeah. Definitely.
I do love the idea of old, rare, out-of-print music being converted to a digital format so they can reach a wider audience and hopefully exist in perpetuity. Also? Dealing with each new version of iTunes and the fucking scourge of little exclamation marks it inevitable unleashes, makes me want to plunge a pool cue into my eye. If a cloud means I never have to deal with little exclamation marks again, it’s definitely a cloud 9 to me. (Now please insert the obvious Luddite counter-arguments regarding the tactile aspect of music ownership, the death of album art, etc., here.)
Q: Has your life as a musician been affected by the existence of music blogs?
A: Absolutely. I owe my musical career, as well as any tiny crouton of acclaim I’ve managed to scrape together, entirely to music blogs. It’s gotten to the point that—much as I do love the aforementioned tactile experience—I don’t see much use in those “review” bible type print publications that have a million album reviews in small print in the back. I am a teensy bit confused as to who still reads these, and whether they exist outside of some weird music-industry-feedback-loop-vortex. When reading an online music review, you’re just a click away from listening to the music being discussed, and in my opinion this makes writing about music a lot less like dancing about architecture. What blogs bring to the mix is the all-important curatorial function. I’m someone who prefers the restaurant with ten items on the menu, the video camera with only three buttons. There’s a reason Pitchfork only posts five album reviews at a time.
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: If I were to sit down and make a list of stuff to feel crappy about in the digital music era, evil song cherry-pickers and the death of the album wouldn’t make the cut. We all remember the frustration of only liking a song or two off a new album, but being forced to buy the whole thing and then feeling ripped off and cheated and annoyed. I guess I don’t see anything wrong with each song on an album being forced to stand on its own merits.
Q: With the barrier to entry drastically lower than it used to be, there is way 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: One of the things I love about living in New York City is that feeling of anonymity. There is power in knowing you can reinvent yourself at any point, get lost in the crowd, find your own tribe. The proliferation of music offers a similar opportunity for both artists and listeners. But let me hone in on the economic issue. From the perspective of an indie artist, as opposed to a consumer, this glut makes marketing an ever-more important aspect of releasing an album. Unless you are already famous, competition for press, for those coveted Pitchfork (or NPR, etc.,) reviews, for radio play on the handful of stations that actually impact sales, is fierce. Which brings us full-circle to question number one. What’s it worth? I would go far as to say that with so many artists releasing music independently, good publicists—the kind whose emails actually get read by journalists—are becoming the new gatekeepers of the indie world.