Australia’s bass and drum duo DEAD play big, heavy, dirty rock with a healthy disregard for genre restrictions and a strong desire to jam. Drummer Jem told M3 about what makes a good record store, the price of gig tickets and how you can help them fund their upcoming album…
M3 – First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself, and what it is that you do?
Jem – I play drums in DEAD and run the label WeEmptyRooms. I also play in Fire Witch and some other bands that don’t play much. Managing DEAD and the label is a full time occupation. Apart form that I do what work I can to pay the bills. If you’re not into music I’m not very interesting really. I spend most of my day on the computer booking tours or out the back of the house screen printing album covers.
What inspired you to form DEAD? What are your own musical backgrounds?
Basically we both wanted to play a lot more music than our other bands could. We’d already played together in Fangs of… (Jace plays guitar in that band) so we knew that we shared a lot of ambitions and were happy to spend extended periods of time together in small spaces. Jace told me he can also play bass, I half believed him. We decided whatever we came up with together, we would have fun doing it. So we booked a tour and then started writing some songs. That put a kind of pressure on us that was a lot of fun really. When we first started playing no one really knew what to expect, including ourselves.
My musical background is mainly improvised stuff, it’s how I learned to play. Jace grew up in remote NSW and I think learned to play mainly from covering AC/DC songs and then discovering bands like Hard-Ons.
What would be your preferred medium to listen to music (eg. Vinyl, CD, tape, MP3 etc.), and why?
I listen to a lot of vinyl. I got into vinyl ‘cos when I was a kid it was dirt cheap. I guess people were getting rid of it figuring it was over. So it took me a while to come around to the idea of playing full price for it. Digital format is super handy though, I would never want to give it up. When vinyl is manufactured properly it does sound better. The convenience of digital is great and it allows so much music to be released that would otherwise remain unheard (for better and worse). I don’t really have much of an interest in Cassettes. They hold a certain nostalgia for me but I’ve never once put one on and though “Now that sounds amazing!”
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?
There is nothing to stop people from still listening to albums this way. If they choose not to that’s their choice. As a band all you can really do is release it and understand that your album is like a suggested serving to people. People have always been able to skip tracks on their LPs and CDs. Bands like mine exist in an underground world that is always pretty separate to the mainstream. It may have played a part in the album’s demise in the pop world but I don’t really know or care if it has. It has led to people listening to music in very poor quality a lot more than they used to I think. For example a while back we had an album review where the reviewer had listened to it through their computer speakers. How can they possibly get an accurate take on the album that way?
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?
In ten years of doing this I’ve never made any money off either so I’m probably not the best person to answer that. I can tell you that we get paid a lot less from shows than ever. Ticket prices for underground shows have hardly changed in the last ten years. Like the price of weed they seem to be fixed in time.
But in that time petrol has almost doubled and other band related costs have gone up like anything else. Venue guarantees have even gone backwards in some places. We rarely cover even our travel costs when touring Australia. The bands themselves are responsible for this as much as anyone. As the scene gets more competitive (more bands) there are more people willing to play for nothing or cover the costs of the gig themselves for the chance to play to more people. The problem for bands like ours is this model is completely unsustainable and the more shows you play, the more money you lose. For most underground bands this is not a problem as they only tour a few times a year or less.
We’d need to sell a lot more records than we do now to even get to close to making money off record sales. That or we’d need to start getting paid for digital downloads and, apart from the handful of people who do that, I don’t see it happening anytime soon.
But touring may well be a viable way to earn income in other parts of the world where cities are closer together, venues pay bands properly etc.
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?
Where we live (Melbourne, Australia) we’ve seen a number of record stores open up and thrive in recent years. It seems to me that the model for success has changed, rather than the record store dying. In the past record stores were like the gatekeepers for all this cool music. And often they were very arrogant about this. You would go in and ask for a certain LP and they would make fun of you for your taste or make sure you knew what a pain in the arse you were being for them.
Now we as customers can order anything we like off the internet and do not have to go through a record store to get it. So the record stores left that do well are ones who know their stuff. They seem to be more specialised. They might have a whole lot of hard to get second hand stuff. Or an extensive knowledge of music that allows them to introduce you to new music. When I think of the record stores in Australia I frequent most (Broken Glass, Blackwire, Tym Guitars, Ritual, Round and Round, Thornbury records, Repressed and more) they all have something that makes them unique and a cool place to go. And if someone wants to buy one of my label LPs it is always cheaper for them to buy off an indy store than to pay the postage costs of mail ordering from me direct.
I am more than happy to see this continue and to see the bigger chain stores die off. I don’t suggest this isn’t a hard climate to open a record store in. People doing it are doing it primarily for the love and not make a huge profit.
The digital age is different to the old model of course. But to suggest it is worse I think is really narrow minded. For bands at our level the benefits outweigh the negatives. Of the people complaining it is ruining the industry I see mainly major labels who have made a living off exploiting musicians. I have no problem with them going out of business. Whether you like it or not the Digital Age is well and truly here. Trying to fight against it is like trying to stop a wave from breaking with your bare hands. You are much better off spending your energy on working out how to use it to your advantage.
Your upcoming second LP is being paid for through fan-funding. Why did you decide to opt for this method of funding?
Fingers crossed we will be funding part of this next LP that way. We’re almost at the end of the campaign and very close to our target amount. We have been applying for government grants since we began this band to help pay for recordings and tours. So far we’ve not managed to get a single grant! So when we failed again to get a grant towards the costs of this next album we thought about other ways we could help fund it. A lot of people suggested we just play some shows which demonstrates how little the public understand about how poorly bands are paid.
But we calculated that across all three pressings (LP in USA, Cassette in SE Asia and LP in Australia) we had sold some 400-500 copies of our first album. So it seemed logical there were people out there who had an interest in us making another album. The Pozible website allowed us to set up a whole lot of different things for sale that people could purchase and know the cash was going towards the album. Even better is they know they will only part with the cash if we reach our target and make the album.
We also thought about ways we could make the album for less money but could not do it without compromising the quality.
What benefits and/or disadvantages have arisen from this fan funding method?
It’s given us a platform to sell a whole bunch of things at once. They are mainly on offer below their value but then some people have paid extra for them which was unexpected. A few other bands have jumped on board and offered us things to sell which has been great. Nowhere Audio (Brisbane) made a live album for us at no cost which we have been selling to raise money.
If it’s successful it means less of a debt for us to deal with for our album costs. And it’s a great way to connect with the community our band are a part of.
Disadvantages: A lot of people have misinterpreted it as us asking for a cash hand out or donations from people. I can only assume these are people who have not actually looked at the details. It’s not something we’ll lose sleep over but it would be better if people did not see us in that light I suppose. The stuff we are offering is all well priced and if people don’t think so they don’t need to support it.
Do you think fan funding is a realistic alternative to the traditional record company method?
I’ve self funded every record I’ve made so I’m not familiar with the record company method. But I assume you mean the one where a label makes a band pay a lot of money for their record, then the band have to work forever to pay that money back and never own the rights to their own music. That method has no appeal to me.
I think it is a realistic way to help a band fund their recordings so long as they have already established some kind of a fan base. Paying for music in the digital age is a choice, not a necessity. If you can find people willing to support your band then I say give them every opportunity to do so.
What would you say are the main challenges facing an up-and-coming musician/band in today’s cultural climate?
I can only really speak for Melbourne where we live. It’s very competitive here. Getting people to notice you is very hard. There are great bands playing 7 nights a week here. So people are not starved for live music, they are exhausted from it! They can see a world class band on a weekend and think nothing of it as they are so used to seeing it.
Promotional avenues used to be more defined and there were less of them. If you gave a decent pitch to one of the street presses you could get an article and it would help promote your album/show etc. Now the major street presses are fairly useless to bands like us and only write articles on you if you pay them for advertising. I can’t remember the last time I even read one. I feel like the promo avenues have splintered into all these different Zines, Blogs, Radio shows, On line radio etc. I think it’s for the better but keeping up with it is not easy. It probably means it’s easier than before to reach a small audience but harder to reach a larger one.
There is a lot of people out there who will exploit up and coming bands. Avoiding them can be hard if you are new to the industry.
The main challenge is paying the bills really. If you are happy to just play once a week, keep a normal job and pay for it yourself then that’s a good approach. If you want to tour though and spend most of your time on the band it is an uphill battle I think.
Finally, what does the future hold for DEAD?
We record this next album in a few weeks. We tour Japan in September and will tour Australia again in December. We have a split 7″ with No Anchor that will come out some time this year, a re-mix album that I can’t really say when it will be released and we’ll release our second LP in Australia in December.
We’re also making a collaborative album with BJ Moriszonkle; a musical genius who gets around Melbourne.
Apart from that hopefully more touring.