Fingertips Q&A: Liam Singer

Liam Singer is a composer and performer of exquisitely crafted songs that employ the time frame and accessibility of pop music while offering the ear a depth of aural interest and emotional intent more typical of classical composition. Singer’s is music to enjoy with the luxury of one’s full attention. Where this leaves him in our fractured, instant-feedback world is a good question. Me, I think he’s holding down the fort while we flail through our digital madness phase. We need people like him out there far more than we need the latest “viral sensation”; we need people listening to music like his far more than we need mobs of disconnected knuckleheads thinking they are contributing to the good of the world via their Twitter feeds.

The Portland-born, Queens-based Singer has been featured twice on Fingertips—the first time in 2010, and then again last month, for the lovely song “Stranger I Know.” His fourth album, Arc Iris, is due out in July on Hidden Shoal Recordings.

The Fingertips Q&A, for the uninitiated, is a semi-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. We can all do with hearing less often from so-called experts who by and large have huge vested interests in their “future of music” pronouncements and more often from the musicians themselves.

Liam Singer

Q: 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 definitely spent some years feeling a general sense of bitterness that I was pouring money into making my albums, then seeing them show up online and having people at shows freely admit to me that they’d downloaded my music from a blog or whatever. But at the end of the day, complaining about it is a bit like when people complain about New York City—you can hate New York all you want, but it’s pretty certain that New York doesn’t care how you feel! The situation is what it is, and all one can do is approach it pragmatically. If it were my primary goal to support myself economically off music in this climate (which I think is a fine goal), literally everything about the way I made it would be different, from the type of music I wrote to how I recorded and distributed it. But I made a choice early on in recording albums that my interest was in maintaining creative fulfillment through the pursuit of a personal aesthetic language—to attempt honest self-expression as best I’m able, and to send it out into the world to hopefully find folks who connect with it. In that sense, the economics are irrelevant. My feeling is that, if my heroes like Charles Ives could spend his life working as an insurance man and Moondog could spend his life as a hobo, I can certainly work a day job and live relatively simply while I write my own songs of an exponentially more questionable value.

I don’t mean to condone piracy at all—if my music has found a meaningful place in someone’s life, I very much hope that they’ve found a way to compensate me and my label. It’s just that, on on a personal level, I find it unproductive to worry about it. I love the album format so I’m going to keep making music that way, and depth of fidelity is important for the kind of work I’m doing so I’ll continue recording anything acoustic in a studio. I do think that music is probably destined to be free, that the album as an entity will die soon, and my decisions are most likely absurd. And that’s a sad thing…but if one takes a long-form historical view it’s no crazier than any sea-change driven by technological innovation. The album—and for that matter, recorded music as a whole—are still pretty recent developments, and there’s no sacred order to how they should operate.

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?

A: I am a member of Spotify, and think that it’s generally a good development given the state of things. Though the payment they currently offer artists is a pittance, I’ve heard convincing arguments that, as the number of users increases, the royalties to musicians will be able to as well. I think any music fan has to admit that there’s something wonderful about being able to instantly access anything you want—it’s definitely been a great tool for me to check out new music from the past couple years that I had been too lazy/busy to previously. I never felt morally okay with illegally downloading music, especially from smaller artists, but if labels are putting their artists’ work on Spotify voluntarily then I don’t really have any issue with it. And like all music nerds, I of course mourn the ending of the album as a physical object (and enjoy the resurgence in vinyl’s popularity). But in the end, is the shift really all that bad? It’s easy to confuse one’s nostalgia with moral superiority—again, taking the broader historical view, music as a physical object was a very strange development to begin with. In any case, it’s certainly a good thing to be putting less plastic crap into the world. But I still produce CDs personally, mostly in order to have something to sell at shows, and because it’s more difficult to get people to take you seriously without them.

In subtler ways, I think that the instant access to music that’s developed over the past decade has changed the way people listen to it, and those changes do trouble me. With no investment put into attaining/owning music, it’s very easy now on a listener’s part not to invest any effort into understanding something that doesn’t immediately grab them. That’s troubling for any musician who is producing work that takes patience, or sounds initially bizarre. Also, I think the overwhelming amount of music available has resulted in more instant categorization. Basically, I think the aspect of “genre” has come much more to the fore in people’s minds when they hear something, to the point where we now see music being produced that is almost nothing but genre, or the idea of a particular sound.

Q: Social media has fostered a pervasive clamoring for quantity: everyone (both artists and fans alike) are supposed to want more and more “friends,” more and more “followers,” more and more “likes,” more and more “views.” How do you personally stay committed to quality in this landscape?

A: The first music scene I was ever really personally exposed to was the northwest indie rock world growing up in Portland in the 90s, and I feel like lot of those ethics have stayed with me,for better and for worse, despite the fact that my actual music has little to do with it. I’ve always remained very suspicious of artifice and self-promotion, and in some sense view obscurity as a positive thing. So I’ve been extremely slow in embracing social media. As in, nine years into releasing albums I still don’t have a proper email list. But I’m not proud of that—at its best, I do believe that self-promotion is a positive tool that gets your work to people who might not otherwise find it. Still, one encounters so many characters in the music world who create the most mediocre stuff, but tend to it like Little Junior Businessmajor Social Media Guru, and it always makes me feel sad and queasy. Though more often then not I’ll end up reading about them in major music publications a couple of years later! That stuff works.

Social media is effective because it appeals to pre-existing human desires. It would be disingenuous for someone who gets up on stage and performs in front of a crowd of people to claim they don’t want “likes” or “views,” real or virtual. Even if you’re doing something intentionally abrasive or obscure, you want the right people to “get” it. And all creative activity is ego-driven in some sense, because the artist begins by creating something that absolutely nobody asked them to make, and then tries to convince people to love it! So even though I haven’t taken to the world of online self-promotion that well, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it necessarily. I’m trying to get better at it, and thankfully have people on my side like my label, Hidden Shoal, who go for it. But ultimately, I think my primary resources of time and energy need to be put into the creative act, and I just have to trust in the idea that anything good will get to the right people eventually.

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?

A: For me it’s been entirely a benefit. Releasing an album is like throwing it out into the void, and hearing a voice shout back is always a wonderful thing. I appreciate every email I’ve received, which is often just a short note letting me know that a particular album has been important to someone. There’s not much one can say in response besides “thanks”—and learning to accept compliments gracefully has taken me a little while—but it’s always nice, and if it comes at the right time it can be a powerful thing in easing any depression/self-doubt I might be having about my work. I’ve also made a few really great friends who I’ve initially met through them hearing my records, and that’s very valuable to me.

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?

It’s true, anyone can buy a laptop and make a record now, and like many musicians I know, I definitely went through a period of curmudgeonly-ness about a lot of bands that have been hyped over the past few years who seemed to be high on image and low on musicianship. That’s definitely been one reality of the modern music scene. But then I heard Grimes’ album, and I thought “Well, this record supposedly represents everything I think is wrong with music today. But I really love it.” So then it became clear to me that the issue was with my standards. The truth is, amazing and terrible albums have been made for hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of years, they’ve been made on four tracks in a bedroom, with a single microphone in the middle of Indonesia. The results are all that matters, and bad or good results can come from anywhere. In the end, I say the more albums the merrier. As I guess I’ve established, I don’t see writing music as a way to make a living personally, so the concept of an “over-saturated market” is irrelevant to me.

The situation is much more of a bummer in the case of people like Scott Solter, who records and produces my stuff. What someone like him offers is by nature vocational; there’s no escaping the intertwined nature of economics and creative work for someone who runs a studio. I think its sad that the economy for studio work is being eroded—it’s fine when musicians record themselves, but I bristle when they start speaking as though they’re actual engineers because they bought a laptop and a good mic. Artists are increasingly missing the collaborative relationship with actual engineers and producers who understand sound on different terms than the average musician, and the aesthetic pleasures of fidelity are being forgotten.

But the ultimate dream is that, in a world where the economic incentive for creativity is more or less removed, but everyone has easy access to creative tools, what you wind up with is an explosion of bizarre, personal, original creative dreams being sent out into the ether. That hasn’t quite happened yet, but it could. I just hope that musicians don’t forget to actually learn how to play instruments.

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