New York duo The Austerity Program create a distinctive style of claustrophobic, drum machine driven noise rock that has caused some critics to hail them as spiritual successors to Steve Albini’s volatile Big Black. M3 contacted guitarist/vocalist Justin Foley to talk about the unnecessary extension of copyright laws, the dangers of corporate sponsorship and how the digital age has opened up a multitude of new ways to discover music…
M3 – First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself, and what it is that you do?
Justin Foley – I’m Justin. I play in a band called the Austerity Program with my best friend. I play guitar and sing, he plays bass and we have a drum machine that handles percussion.
What inspired you to form The Austerity Program? What are your own musical backgrounds?
The formative period of my life, like a lot of folks, was when I was 15-20 years old. During that time I became much more politically aware, realized the importance of my own ethical responsibility, had sex for the first time and a whole bunch of other stuff. Deeply interwoven with all of this was going to shows and hearing records that affected me like no other life experience. Making music has been a way to tap back into that feeling.
What would be your preferred medium to listen to music (eg. Vinyl, CD, tape, MP3 etc.), and why?
Really depends on where I am and what I’m doing. My favorite format to own music is vinyl, mainly because when it’s done well the other formats can’t really touch it for aesthetic presentation or sound quality. But I listen to digital copies and CDs all of the time. Cassettes are kitchy BS that I don’t like.
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?
Not really. Given the choice, fewer people are choosing to listen to the music they enjoy in the context of a start-to-finish record. Some folks still look for that experience and some bands or musicians still conceive of their releases in that format. (Like our band.) Hopefully this will mean the death of filler tracks on albums, especially rap albums. No other genre of music has such a reliably massive swing between the peaks and valleys of quality on a commercial rap album. Two or three total bangers and then so much dreck. Please something kill that.
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 there’s a general mistake that lots of people make about noting the shifts in the overall music world from generality to specialization. Not as many people get their music from music stores, not as many people buy CDs (or even buy music at all), pay attention to music labels or do any number of things that used the be the general way of doing things. For lots of institutions in the old way of doing things, like most music stores that were nothing more than a step in the distribution channel, they’re no longer needed and so are falling away. But some people still like to buy stuff from stores, just like some people buy vinyl and some people download everything from blogs and some people do something else. There’s a lot more room these days for people to figure out what and how they like to experience 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?
The first part is totally true. Touring is going to be a money maker for some minority percentage of bands. Most will never tour and most that do will not come into the black. I think that it’s safe to say that most of the margins in making music have disappeared with the convolutions of the old distribution channels. There’s less money going around to any individual release. It’s cheaper than it has ever been in history to enjoy lots and lots of music. No one who loves music should be sad about this.
Similarly, do you feel that the abundance of recorded music that is easily available on the internet has led people to place more importance on the live experience as the ‘authentic’ way to hear music?
I have no evidence to think this is true. Never even considered it. Wait, you’re saying that most folks are going to listen to music on the internet and then think that hearing it live is more authentic? Wouldn’t most people (and again, this is all hypotheticals, because I’ve got no evidence) say that the way they are used to hearing music is what seems most authentic to them? If there’s more and more music on the Internet and that’s how they’re coming across it, that’s obviously going to seem more authentic to them, right? Most of the music they hear (and presumably like and feel is important) is stuff they’re never going to hear live. I think I don’t get your question.
Do you think recent developments in technology have reshaped what people consider to be ‘music’?
Do you think the digital age has rendered traditional concepts of copyright obsolete, or do you think they are still relevant?
How traditional? Here in the US, the Copyright Term Extension Act extended the ability to keep creative things out of the public domain for the entire life of the author, plus 70 years! If I live to be 80, that means you won’t be able to monkey with the music that I make without my permission until 2123. That insane concept of idea ownership and the batshit crazy attempts at control that surrounds it (FBI (!) warnings on video tapes, inability to sing Happy Birthday at a restaurant, etc) is a fairly recent accident of history. The ease and prevalence of sharing creative information, especially beyond the borders of state-sponsored enforcement, short circuits a bunch of nonsense and is (not entirely but certainly on the balance) a very good thing. Copyright is supposed to help people from getting ripped off but has largely been felt as intellectual extortion. Given the drasticly improved ease in ability to share information, the ‘protection from ripoff’ is just much less important than it used to be when the ripoffers had a much tighter control over distribution.
Recently, many bands have turned to corporate sponsorship in order to sustain themselves, the Scion A/V label being an obvious example. What is your view on this?
I don’t really want to judge others on the economic choices they make to get their music done. Our band has always been a non-work activity for us and is funded in part by the money we make in other parts of our lives. This is absolutely by choice and I’m totally fine with it – the decisions we make are driven primarily by what we want to be doing as a band, not as an economic cost/benefit. But I’ve also had some luck in my life and so won’t judge others for the associations they feel like they have to make, even if I have no interest in them.
That said, spare me any bullshit about how “branding is all part of the music experience” or “Toyota is basically the same thing as Touch and Go” or any of the other rationalizations. If you choose to shill for someone, call it what it is. I absolutely prefer to keep any of that to the bare minimum, even if it means leaving money on the table or missing good band career moves. Fuck that, I’m doing this because I love it.
What do you personally believe the future of music distribution will look like?
No idea, but I like the direction things are going.
Finally, what does the future hold for The Austerity Program?
For anyone who’s still reading beyond my preachy answers (to be fair, they were heavy questions, right?): we’re finishing up writing a full-length record that we’ll record later this year. Our good friends in Hydra Head will release it in Spring of next year and we’ll try to do the longest tour we’ve ever done: 2 to 3 weeks across the US. Then we’ll work on putting out an EP that will be six short and very violent songs. After that, I think we’ll probably settle in on something much more minimalist and broad strokes. We both get along well, can work being in this band to the rest of out lives and feel like there’s plenty of unchartered territory in the claim we’ve staked.