Keith Fullerton Whitman’s critically acclaimed recorded output is extremely eclectic, ranging from the harsh drill’n’bass of his project Hrvatski, to the expansive musique concrète inspired soundscapes released under his own name. M3 caught up with Keith to hear about record stores, music’s native formats, and the aesthetics of tangible media…
M3 – First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself, and what it is that you do?
Keith – Yes, sure ; I’m Keith Fullerton Whitman. By day I run a very small, very focused music distribution company named Mimaroglu Music Sales. By night / weekend / early morning I record & perform music under my own name, as well as taking on various audio & music-related projects (sound design, engineering, mastering, etc.)
What inspired you to start making music? What is your own musical background?
I was inspired, at first, by listening to the radio in the New York city suburbs in the early 80’s ; a very fertile time for all kinds of music. I never had any musical inclinations, until I started making little “music programs” on a Commodore Vic20. From there I got into computer music, then synthesizers, drum machines, hip hop, drum n’ bass, etc. I went to the berklee college of music in the early 90’s & received a bachelor’s degree in “music synthesis”.
What would be your preferred medium to listen to music (eg. Vinyl, CD, tape, MP3 etc.), and why?
There are so many mitigating factors to this question that I can’t give you a single answer. To drastically oversimplify, I tend to listen to music in it’s native format … so ; hip hop & mixes on cassettes. Any mid-century music (40’s through 70’s) on LP or 45. Classical from the 80’s / 90’s / 00’s on CD. Pretty much anything after 2005 or so on MP3, especially music made or mixed / mastered on a computer. No one format is ideal ; in the same way that having the same meal for dinner every night is not ideal. Variety is the best course.
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?
I have lived largely off of record sales for the past 10 years, so I would personally argue that point!!! This year alone, I’ve made more money on record sales than playing concerts (and I’ve played at least a dozen times so far !!!) ; but then again, I have a unique situation in that I’m also running the company that markets & distributes my own music. I can’t see how touring would be any more beneficial to any kind of musician, unless you’ve crossed a popularity-threshold into it being profitable … but once you’ve crossed the same threshold then you’re also profitable as a recording artist, so the point is moot. Also, I’m an artist that never actually turned his back on the tangible music formats ; they’re far more important than digital to me. This isn’t nostalgia for me, just aesthetics. I’m committed long-term to tangible media, and the process of creating, designing, and preparing physical releases is one that adds an incredible amount of significance & an extra layer of expression & context that is simply missing from digital music. I will never stop making records.
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?
The social aspect of the digital age has perhaps obviated the need for a specialized music community in any given area, one that normally would meet in record shops. When I was younger, learning about music, it was always in record shops & record fairs, even when I was actually buying something maybe every other or third time. the importance of record stores has little to do with commerce, and more to do with an actual space in which to hone in on your tastes, define yourself. No one shop will be able to keep up with any one customer’s particular interests, but by creating a neutral space that covers a broad range of approaches to music, one begins to acclimate to the ways in which others view music, and perhaps some of this begins to color and/or influence their own outlooks. This is something that simply can’t been replaced by the oxygen-free nature of the internet ; the real, breathe-able space in which to communicate with others & compare / contrast opinions ; to be put in your place, but also to have your opinions affect others. That these places need to stay afloat via a revenue stream is perhaps their ultimate shortcoming … but when they close, it’s really not as simple as just losing a shop. they’re often the center of activity for large groups of people.
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?
Absolutely not … if you’re referring exclusively to pop music, then yes, I’d argue that the album never has been the focus, ever. But in all other areas of music, the album is very much still alive!!!
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?
Some bands manage to start their own labels & turn them into viable side-businesses … but it’s the exception, rather than the rule. I see Bandcamp the same way ; if the label is really “working” their Bandcamp portfolio, promoting it, etc. then they’ll have some degree of success with it. If it’s simply an afterthought, a “placeholder” for a future record … or even just the raw demos & live sets on offer outside of the “statement”, then it just adds to the unwanted noise, rather than providing something polished, definitive. I don’t understand why anyone would use a third-party service to simply offer data for free, when a simple link on the band’s own official page would have the same end-result, in a far more direct way. I understand the need for Bandcamp when it comes to monetizing your music ; the actual mechanism they use for this is quite elegant (even simple things like shopping carts & order tracking are problematic to set up ; Bandcamp solves these) …
What is your take on the current SOPA/ACTA controversy?
As a user, I don’t want anyone telling me what I can & can’t do on the internet ; especially not the government. As an artist, I don’t like the centralized “sharing” of my work for free, especially when the ease of acquisition exceeds that of the regular retail channels. This dualism is at the heart of it, and there’s no real workaround that everyone will agree on ; every move is a concession. Ultimately, I’ll see that the free digital exchange of music, movies, books, etc. is different from the monetized one. I still go to the movies, still buy books, still purchase records (in great number) …
What would you say are the main challenges facing an up-and-coming musician/band in today’s cultural climate?
Getting a foot in the door is harder now than ever ; when the labels are gone, the Darwinian, hierarchical system of interest & influence dies with it. Good luck trying to find someone to vouch for your project when all you have is an anonymous website with free downloads. Even trying to organize a tour for your project is difficult ; it hinges so heavily on the social aspects of the music community that come hand & hand in the label-system.
Finally, what does the future hold for Keith Fullerton Whitman?
I’m just back in town after a weekend in Chicago giving talks, demonstrations, and concerts. I was in europe performing festivals & working on a few residencies before that. It’s good to back here in Cambridge for a straight month, as I’m looking forward to seeking out some new labels & records for Mimaroglu. A month is a good period of time to sort out some interesting titles. After that, I’m going to Spain for a few weeks in April for some more festivals. It’s a busy time!!! But I’d go crazy if I was just running Mimaroglu full time, or even playing & working on music full time. Again, variety …