Interview – Unkind

Finnish crust punk legends Unkind are one of the most passionate and unique sounding contemporary hardcore bands, and their most recent album for Relapse Records, ‘Harhakuvat’, finds them refining the dark atmosphere and heartfelt heaviness that has marked them out as pioneers of the Finnish punk scene. M3 spoke to drummer Saku about record sales, Finnish DJs battling with esoteric copyright laws, and what the future has in store for Unkind…

Photo Credit: Santtu Särkäs

M3 – First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself, and what it is that you do?
Saku – I’m a musician/producer currently playing drums in Unkind and other instruments in various different projects. I work independently as a recording and mixing engineer as well as doing AV-work from educational videos to shooting live music performances.

What inspired you to form Unkind? What are your own musical backgrounds?
Music has always been a big part of my life. I started off with playing cello when I was seven and learned to handle the more usual band instruments by myself through the years, as I started to get into rock and metal. My dad played in bands up until he got a family so we had some guitars and a bass laying around along with quite a good collection of literature and albums ranging from Deep Purple an Uriah Heep to Jethro Tull and Mahavishnu Orchestra. If you’re really into rock music there comes a time at some point in your youth that requires you to at least consider forming a band. We had a few bands through my teen years with some local friends and Unkind got formed pretty much at the gig of one of those bands. Tommi came to ask me to play drums for their new band after we came off stage that night. I had never met the guy before and they had already played together for awhile under a different name. I thought why not and we arranged the first rehearsals on the spot. Playing to all of us has always been about making music for the love of making it instead of “making it” as an artist or a band.

What would be your preferred medium to listen to music (eg. Vinyl, CD, tape, MP3 etc.), and why?
Nowadays I mostly listen to radio over the net as most of the best stations are localised to other domestic cities or even foreign countries. Apart from that the number one format for me, as well as for most of the world that has a constant connection to the internet, must be listening to streams or digital files on the computer/MP3-player/smartphone. Sometimes I like to sit down with some more rare albums that I only have on vinyl, but that’s happening less and less often as my record player is in a pretty bad shape. CD’s I haven’t bothered with since I got to replace my portable player with a much handier MP3-player. The ease of access must be the main reason for this. On your computer you don’t really have to start rummaging around that much to hear some particular song or album and while on the road you don’t want to lug dozens of awkwardly shaped pieces of plastic just in case you feel like listening to some of them at some point.

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?
Well it got at least bloated when we came to the CD age. Before that the most standard length of a proper album was what’d fit on a single 12″ vinyl and anything beyond that was extra. After the CD broke out it seemed that pushing it up to and over the standard maximum 74 minutes somehow became the norm and forced many artists to produce several filler tracks to get it up there, although the whole would have never required it in any artistical sense. That and the sheer profit centered attitude for producing music might have made the wider public focus more on the hit singles. There’s still loads of artists and bands in the more marginal genres who still make the album work as a single piece of art and value it as such. The industry is focused on providing the hits to people who’re hooked to them and sell them to people along with a dozen fillers on the CD to get most out of their investment. It works the same way in any other industry where the product is padded a bit to make the profit margin bigger. That might make the album concept redundant to people who don’t normally listen to types of music where it’s still done properly.

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 might be true to some extent. Then there’s people (like us) who don’t make money out of either. To me the most effective form of income for a band is selling merchandise. They usually have the smallest cost and effort to get something out of them and it’s a great way for the fans to show support as they’ll be practically advertising the band by wearing their shirt. Record sales usually have ridiculously small royalties to the artists, considering how much the publisher makes out of them in most cases. That also depends on the nature of the deal they have. If the artist can produce the master themselves and then lease it to a publisher they’ll be far better off, but not many have that advantage mostly because of having made bad choices or not even realizing the possibility exists. It’s always been a bit funny to me when big labels cry out for the poor artist when discussing piracy legislation and at the same time they pay them pittance and house a boardroomful of completely unnecessary people cashing checks bigger than the budget deficits they blame the pirates for.

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?
I think the worst thing that’s happened to small record stores is when the big supermarkets began to sell CDs. That might not even have anything to do with the format, just that the more casual music fans like to get their records along with their groceries rather than go flipping through them in a specialized store without free parking space. That’s pretty much the same thing that’s driving down the small grocery stores and others as well.  Fortunately there’s still a strong community of record collectors who love to just hang out and chat at a local store and some good work has gone into saving the culture like with Record Store Day. Hopefully those efforts will be enough to help them survive as losing them would mean losing access to a wider spectrum of material. It would be the same thing that’s happened with commercialised radio where the DJs have turned into announcers whose job is just to fill the gaps between songs on the predetermined playlists full of repeats of a handful of current product. That limits even the casual listeners chances of hearing something different they might like instead of the same stuff that gets pushed to them through all the popular media all the time.

Do you think the digital age has rendered traditional concepts of copyright obsolete, or do you think they are still relevant?
They are in a way relevant and the most important thing would be to look at who would be the most rightful holder of rights to source material. Most of the copyright protection agencies claim to be working to help the poor artist although in 9 times out of 10 the copyrights technically belong to the publishing company. Generally copyright has meant the right to produce copies of source material and to provide income to the producer of the material based on the sales of the copies. That is slowly changing as people seem more eager to listen to it on YouTube for instance instead of going all the way to the supermarket to buy the whole album.  The blatant crusade some people seem to be on to protect the old way of distributing music instead of thinking of new ways to provide income for the artist has been completely overblown to a point where the only ones to get any benefit out of it are big companies, lawyers and the ones picking up their paychecks from these organizations. To say that helps the artist is a bit like saying that providing only the bus driver with a seatbelt would help protect the passengers.

What has become a bit obsolete is the way some consider they should be paid to hear their songs. I think it would benefit the artist as much as the listener to provide all their music free to listen online. No one should have to pay real money for an MP3 file as it has little value for money. People certainly seem to agree especially when it’s usually easier to hear a particular song from an illegal source instead of the official one. The smart thing to do here would be to offer the same ease of access on your official source and while you’ve got their attention you might be able to entice them to purchase a physical copy with added value to the buyer as well. If people are going to get the quick listen on the net where it’s easiest anyway it hardly makes sense to just decide to not compete with the illegal providers and instead sue random single moms for millions every now and then or try to lobby for legislation that could be abused in a very serious manner. The likes of Spotify are certainly a step to the right direction in regard to thinking of new ways of distributing music to consumers, although it hasn’t been without it’s flaws. Most have probably heard how unbelievably small amounts are paid to the artists for playing their music while the big labels made a back room deal for the rights to the material for bagloads of shares to Spotify. If the industry would focus more on possibilities like this, their biggest boogieman might just go away in short time.

There’s also quite a few examples of copyright legislation that actually hurt performers instead of helping them. There’s been some public discussion in Finland recently over some nasty redundant copyright laws connected to playing music as a DJ. To summarize, the worst of it was that if you’re using physical copies of CDs and vinyls you’ve purchased you won’t have to pay any license fees beyond what the venue is paying to officials for the event, but if you decided to make digital copies of them to use on a gig you’d not only have to pay a largish one off fee, but a yearly fee as well, which could amount to a ridiculous sum over time as most DJs have quite a large library. What’s even funnier the law technically makes playing illegaly downloaded files on a gig legal as long as you pay the same licence fee you’d pay for playing legally purchased files. The show-interrupting raids some more and less official copyright associations made on a few parties around Helsinki a few weeks ago didn’t help to make this issue feel less sour to the DJ community. Some pointed out rightly that you wouldn’t close down a supermarket in the middle of the day just to check some paperwork with the management. Somehow the climate over the whole copyright issue has gotten so bad that it’s made improving the situation near impossible as the worst culprits keep on solely using aggressive scare tactics on consumers and ‘lesser’ performers hoping to get people to submit to their arbitrary fees and regulations without discussion. The more they spread their fire to the consumers the more they drive them to pirate music out of spite. It’s beginning to feel like the whole issue has created an industry of itself which was definitely obsolete the moment it was born. Too many people making money on pushing different stances on a subject only make reaching a logical conclusion impossible.

What is your take on the recent SOPA/ACTA controversy?
It’s a terrible phenomenon and closely tied into the aforementioned crusading. Laymen are duped into giving up significant rights or giving major loopholes for politicians to abuse. All in the name of the poor suffering artist who’d never directly benefit of any of these proposed laws. Only big business and malicious people in seats of power would benefit, if anyone. It might be all for a good cause, but the methods are all wrong. The entertainment industry would really need to look itself in the mirror and think of how they could improve so that they could be competitive with all the free illegal channels the internet provides consumers. First thing to do would be to make buying music easier or as easy as downloading torrents or searching it on YouTube and then make the price more enticing. In any case it would be smarter to offer the public something other than half empty threats. The fact is that unless we shut down the internet altogether (which some idiots have even publicly suggested in a political forum) the phenomenon of getting entertainment online isn’t going to go anywhere. We’ve seen over several decades how well writing laws have kept people from using drugs, and should be able to think of new solutions to the problem at hand that’d actually work instead of creating more problems. The most used argument that the entertainment industry is suffering actual financial losses directly because of illegal downloading is even sketchier now that the results of the first couple of years of harsh control in France seemed to have cut downloads by some 80% while music/movie sales hadn’t improved at all. Somehow statistics like that and the fact that most active pirates tend to buy a lot of copies legally don’t seem to matter to the most zealous anti-piracy advocates. You can’t fix anything by making a temporary improvement to a single part of it while ignoring others that need to be checked.

What would you say are the main challenges facing an up-and-coming musician/band in today’s cultural climate?
Well getting published and getting your music heard used to be the biggest one. Now that you can distribute and promote your music to thousands of potential listeners over the net that has become somewhat easier, but still many seem to consider the only way to go would be to send out demos to big companies who’d eventually screw you over one way or another. One thing to do would be to distance the way of thinking from that and try to self publish, cutting the somewhat unnecessary middle man. The costs of selling music comes down a lot if you settle for only selling digital downloads and the only significant costs would come from actually recording the material in a studio (unless you are capable of working in a home studio which can be put together quite affordably nowadays). There’s a bit of a same problem in getting gigs. Most venues seem to be reluctant to pay any more than small travel expenses or even only some free beer if there’s no professional booking agency handling things in between. This has often to do with tax issues that come up when trying to pay small amounts to musicians who don’t have any ways of providing an invoice for it. In most underground genres this problem is alleviated somewhat by people working together within the scene to put gigs together and ask bands directly to come and play without getiing profit out of it themselves.

Finally, what does the future hold for Unkind?
Our next and only gigs for this summer are on Tuska Open Air Metal festival in Helsinki and a smaller punk/hardcore festival north of Finland, Hässäkkäpäivät. After the summer we’re planning for a European tour and possibly starting to record tracks for the next album.

For more information about Unkind, you can find them on Facebook and Bandcamp.

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About M3 Event

The music industry is rapidly changing. The internet has enabled widespread piracy, as well as a variety of new business and distribution models. We want to offer an engaged audience in and around the Euregion an opportunity to develop a coherent and detailed picture of the future of music distribution. On the 31st of May 2012 a music conference in Maastricht, consisting of oppositional debates, creative workshops and lectures, will provoke opportunities for intellectual stimulation, debate, as well as networking. We hope to utilise the skills and ideas of some of most forward thinking minds and operators in the industry in order to highlight some promising new ideas and areas which can be improved upon.

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