Manchester’s space rock champions Amplifier have been bravely venturing into the great sonic unknown for over a decade now, leading many to praise them as the UK’s answer to progressive legends Tool. M3 spoke to singer and guitarist Sel Balamir about why operating out of your garage may stand you in better stead than signing to a major label…
M3 – First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself, and what it is that you do?
Sel Balamir – Well that’s easy – I do everything. Essentially my jobs are: Singer/ Guitarist / Songwritter. From there it branches out: Production, often Mix Engineer, Project Manager, Artistic Director, Business Manager, sometimes Tour Manager. Artwork, Website Development. Label manager. Sometimes Promoter. Everything.
You need to have a wide range of can-do skills to do this these days.
When I was a kid – I just wanted to play the guitar. Life was simpler then. But it was a good basis from which to start.
What inspired you to form Amplifier? What is your own musical background?
Amplifier has been going for over 15 years now. The wellspring then is still going strong now. And that is just the transcendental love of good rock music and chunky chunky riffs. My own background is that I was born with an illness of being obsessed by music.
Many people have claimed that there is no longer any money in record sales, and that touring is the most efficient way to earn an income as a band. How much truth do you think there is in this sentiment?
That’s not my experience at all. We sell thousands of records out of Matt’s garage and send them all around the world. We make more money now than we ever did on a label. Touring yes – you can make money and you can lose money – but my experience is that what you might lose in touring costs you make up for in increase of profile and secondary merch sales and opportunities
Much has been made of the supposed death of the record store in recent years. Do you believe the digital age has killed the record store, and if so, do you think that this is a necessary part of progression, or a tragic loss?
Well – it’s definitely stripped the numbers right down – but there still seem to be a lot of indie stores.
If anything – my observation is that the ratio of indie to chain stores seems to have increased as the chain stores close down. Maybe that’s not the case in the big picture. I’m just basing that on what I see in the street
What would be your preferred medium to listen to music (eg. Vinyl, CD, tape, MP3 etc.), and why?
I only listen to music from a digital format these days.
I can carry my entire history with me.
It’s a different type of listening than vinyl or cassette or CD – it is referential.
It’s not representative of how everyone else listens to music.
Do you feel the idea of an album, as a piece of art that people will listen to from start to finish, has been undermined or forgotten about in the digital age?
No not at all – I think the opposite. That argument is a bit like saying that advertising has killed off the movie as an artform. The format is distinct.
Recently, there seem to be a large number of bands offering their releases for free via sites like Bandcamp. What do you think of this distribution method, do you think it is a realistic solution to the problem of illegal downloading?
I love Bandcamp – it has a host of features that are very handy and I use it to host all kinds of things – including our webstore download sales.
It’s not a one stop solution – but then again nothing is these days – it’s all about consumer choice; and that’s where the music industry is, in my opinion, completely out of step with reality.
Platforms like Bandcamp and Topspin and Tunecore recognise that they are a service industry. They assist musicians. Musicians hire them.
The old industry will never ever subscribe to this new hierarchy – they can’t – they aren’t set up like that. So it’s gameover. I’ll vote with my wallet. Just like everyone else.
What is your take on the current SOPA/ACTA controversy?
Well – Counter intuitively, as an artist I have come to the conclusion that it is in my interest for file sharing to take place – purely on the basis that it is a form of free promotion for me. I make the money back from selling t-shirts, donations, and people upgrading to the physical item. It’s like try before you buy.
This system works for me because I spend an inordinantly large amount of my time on the internet emailing our fans and dealing with their orders and generally making myself available to them. This relationship means they have a sense of emotional investment with Amplifier. This won’t work for traditional industry because most music fans don’t give a rats arse about the label, and in fact, rightly or wrongly see them as a hinderence or dilution of the band’s creative “essence”. No label has the capacity to do this kind of legwork, nor I imagine the inclination, but the fact is – that is what people will increasingly expect.
There is an argument that draconian legislation like SOPA would actually force the web to toughen up to protect itself with new systems against the essentially soft and easily targeted DNS system that we have currently.
What would you say are the main challenges facing an up-and-coming musician/band in today’s cultural climate?
Well you can’t look at the bands of the past as your model for how it’s done – you’re going to have to be an improviser. There’s no set route – you need to carve your own niche – You’re also going to need people who aren’t in the band to help you not only artistically but with the nuts and bolts of making money- so you’re going to either need to be a collective – or a kind of polymath… So all kinds of non musical skills are essential too, as well as a basic talent. Predominantly – you need to be a diplomat. That takes a long time to learn.
Finally, what does the future hold for Amplifier?
A defined period of growth and then a stable and sustained period of minor prosperity.
It’s a simple dream.