Fingertips Q&A: The Ampersands

The FIngertips Q&A returns with Aaron McQuade and Jim Pace, who make music together as The Ampersands.

The Ampersands are a duo that make zippy, perceptive, carefully constructed indie pop grounded in the aural universes of smart-pop progenitors Fountains of Wayne and They Might Be Giants. You may remember these two from the song “Try This,” which was featured here last month. If not, perhaps you are not paying close enough attention.

Multi-instrumentalist Aaron McQuade and guitarist Jim Pace have been making music together for more than half of their lives at this point. They both do the singing and the writing and they both were kind enough to sit down and take a crack at the the Fingertips Q&A questions. Actually I don’t know if they were sitting down. But here are their answers. Aaron’s come from New York City, Jim’s from Providence, where they are, respectfully, based.

Note that the duo’s new album, This Is Your Adventure Too, is coming out on October 30th. Check it out via its smartly-designed web site.

The Fingertips Q&A, for the uninitiated, is a recurring feature. More than three dozen artists to date have participated. The Q&A’s sole intent is to allow actual, workaday 21st-century musicians a forum for discussing the state of music in the digital age. I’m tired of hearing mostly from so-called experts who by and large have huge vested interests in their “future of music” pronouncements.

The Ampersands

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?

AARON: Depending on where you are on the issue, the operative word there could either be “destined” or “doomed.” Free digital content can certainly lead to increased awareness, greater buzz, and ultimately, a big spike in legitimate sales (Google “4Chan Steve Lieber” for an example). Unfortunately, that free digital content is usually not provided on a volunteer basis by the producers of said content. Honestly, I personally would probably feel differently about it if Jim and I were more than two dudes, or if we lived within a few hundred miles of each other. That way we could play regular shows, and I’d be a lot more willing to provide free content to build buzz and drive people to those shows.

From where I sit, the fact that anything that can be digitized is destined/doomed to be free is both good and bad. If someone pirates our record, and someone else downloads it for free, I wouldn’t really blame them, because nobody’s heard of us, and who’s going to drop money on a record completely sight-unseen? (or “sound-unheard?”) But if they get it and love it, I’d be pissed if they didn’t then go and legally buy a copy—or at least legally buy our last record. I would be lying if I said I’ve never obtained digital content that wasn’t completely on the up-and-up. But I’d also be lying if I said that those few downloads haven’t led to hundreds of dollars in legit sales that I’ve given to the things I’ve discovered. That doesn’t make it moral, and it certainly doesn’t make it legal, but I don’t think it should be left out of the conversation either.

JIM: Probably in the same way I cope with the fact that nobody wants to pay for anything. The issue isn’t that people are willing to get something for free (even if it isn’t 100 percent legal), but that it’s incredibly easy to download music and software illegally. And there are (almost) no repercussions. I don’t think someone who regularly downloads Microsoft Windows and Office torrents would ever steal that same software from a Best Buy, because there’s a ton more risk involved there and the reward (saving one or two hundred dollars) is not worth it.

Per Aaron’s response above, I’d be ecstatic if someone pirated our album, and then immediately disappointed if that didn’t lead to them buying the album legitimately. I’d counter the “recorded music is destined to be free” theory with this: Why should it be free? Because you want it to be? It’d be great if stuff was free, but people have to make money to eat and drink and live. Arts need to be supported, and the support of music is done partly through buying someone’s recordings.

Q: What do you think of the idea that music is destined for the “cloud”? 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?

JIM: I’m not sure I equate putting music onto the cloud with losing ownership. I mean, I guess the cloud can be hacked, but so can my computer, right? I think the fact that it allows you to download a song you purchased onto multiple devices is great. At least I think this is how it works for Apple, Amazon, etc…

AARON: This is going to be corny as hell, but art—and music in particular—has ALWAYS existed in “the cloud.” It comes down to how you define “ownership.” Is music a tangible commodity that can be owned by an individual and and distributed at will? Is music an experience, thoroughly unique every time, owned by he or she who is doing the experiencing? Some of both? All of both?

Q: Technology has become so all-consuming in the 21st century that it seems in a way to be overwhelming the very idea of music itself. How do you guys stay in touch with music versus the technology that surrounds music? Do you even feel as if that’s important, or has everything truly changed?

AARON: Technology that’s used to create, distribute, or consume music is, I think, inseparable from the music itself. To me, finding the right technology (or figuring out how to best navigate the technology you have) is just as important as writing the right chord progression, or finding the right place for harmonies to overlap. And of course, “right” is subjective. To some, music sounds better when it sounds as though no “modern” technology was used. Others think it sounds better when technology smoothes over all the imperfections. To most, it’s probably somewhere in the middle. Now, did we go and use auto-tune on this record? HELL YES WE DID! But we didn’t go nuts with it.

JIM: I think, in regards to technology, that everything has changed, but for the better. I think it’s analogous to television. Forty years ago, there were three channels. Then the technology came along that allowed everyone to have 500-plus channels. Yes, there’s a higher percentage of shitty TV out there, but the overall number of brilliant shows is way, way higher than it was 40 years ago.

In regard to music, Pro Tools has allowed everybody to make an album (see Ampersands, The). Again, there’s a higher percentage of shitty music out there, when compared to 15 to 20 years ago. But I think there’s a lot more good-to-brilliant albums out now that could/would not have seen the light of day. I actually don’t think having 5,000 songs on an iPhone detracts from the enjoyment of said music. I think it’s wonderful that someone can have their entire music catalog in their pocket, and on a device that can also surf the web and make phone calls!

Q: One obvious thing the digital age has introduced is the ease of two-way communication between artist and fan. Does this feel like a benefit or a distraction, or a little of both?

JIM: Sometimes I don’t know what to think about Twitter/Facebook. At times, I thoroughly enjoy a comedian, musician, writer, or actor I like releasing his thoughts into the ether. And then there’s the millions and millions of inane why-on-earth-do-you-think-somebody-would-care posts/tweets. Overall, though, I’d say if you want to get a sense of who these celebrities are, it makes sense to bypass the middle men (the press). That allows you to more quickly find out what Snooki had for breakfast (spoiler alert: gin).

AARON: While it does make it significantly more difficult to separate the art from the artist, I will say that as a fan, the ability to interact easily with artists whose work I admire is truly an incredible experience. As an artist, I can only dream about the day when people will feel the same way about interacting with me. I will say that I’ve gotten a few new twitter followers since putting my name on the album’s website (@AaronABCP) and I can almost guarantee that they’ve been seriously disappointed to discover that I only talk about Pokemon, comic books, and the Oakland Athletics.

Q: There is clearly 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?

AARON: To us, it’s not a matter of “coping” with it, it’s a matter of taking advantage of it. Jim and I have been making music together for nearly twenty years, and we’ve only put out two full-length albums, both within the last four. If you want to become famous, the barrier is still just as high as it’s ever been—if not higher. You still need to devote 100 percent of your life to this career for many many years (90 percent of which is self-promotion) AND be insanely lucky to be in the right place at the right time, playing for the right set of eyes and ears. Even if all you wanted to do was make good music and maybe hope to make back the money you spent producing them, in the past you still desperately needed the luck factor, because recording was so prohibitively expensive. Today, if that’s your only goal, you don’t have to worry about luck being part of the equation.

JIM: I really can’t worry about the fact that there are X million bands releasing albums. The only thing we can focus on is our album. Let’s make it as good as possible. If the stars align and it gets noticed—great. If not, let’s make another. Everything else is out of our control.

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