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Opinion

The Bandcamp Era

Car Seat Headrest recently rolled out a “Greatest Hits” of sorts. Well, the bandcamp lo-fi version of what a greatest hits compilation would be. The album is called Teens of Style and it raises at least a couple of interesting questions: What do we do with all this lo-fi music laying around Bandcamp that previously independent artists released, now that those artists are being signed? What does this mean on a greater scale, for artists and fans, as windows like Bandcamp are becoming a standard within certain genres?

There have been a lot of irrelevant questions posed to these guys from different angles, mostly pertaining to the “pressures” of having a wider audience, having to work with other people, and all kinds of ridiculous questions that really stereotype people like Will Toledo (Car Seat Headrest) and Mat Cothran (Elvis Depressedly) as introverted guys who wouldn’t know how to make or perform music in any situation other than a living room. And most of these somewhat derogatory questions have been countered resiliently in the last year, for the betterment of the ever-changing lo-fi scene.

So hopefully, we can start asking more relevant questions, now that those cases have been sewn shut. Questions more of organization and the future of this genre. There are many artists getting attention for their muffled, fuzzy, sad-yet-warm recordings: Alex G being one of the bigger ones recently, Spencer Radcliffe, and the aforementioned bands. To keep it simple, we’ll focus on Car Seat Headrest and Teens of Style, along with one of the more active Bandcamp artists, and lo-fi ambassadors, Elvis Depressedly (currently on tour with The Front Bottoms).

Elvis Depressedly is the older brother in the situation (an older brother by about a year and a half, if we’re sticking with a shitty family analogy). Cothran is really the main voice of the band, and is sort of a veteran of the lo-fi scene right now. He first gained attention with Coma Cinema, an ongoing project that he started in high school in 2005. He’s very vocal on Twitter, often the first to call out everyone who is “bad” in the music industry, most of the time with good intention and for good reasons.

This past year, his currently more relevant project, Elvis Depressedly, had their first “legitimately” released record, New Alhambra off of Run for Cover Records. They had steadily gained a cult-like following through Bandcamp, and as a result, have an insanely strong connection with fans. Anyone who has been to one of their shows and has tried to talk to Mat or the rest of the band knows this. They kept going in the standard fashion; they released New Alhambra as the next chapter. Just this time, on a bigger label and to a wider audience.

Car Seat Headrest is about a year behind in the cycle, and are doing things a little differently. While Teens of Style was released earlier this month, it features no new songs. However, it’s not a “Greatest Hits” compilation, either. Instead, it’s some sort of in-between, a journey, really, of songs picked by the guy that is Car Seat, Will Toledo. Will and new “boss” Matador Records agreed that this was the best course of action to take. Will has twelve albums up on his Bandcamp page, and Car Seat Headrest is now going to be even more accessible to more potential fans, hence the logic behind this abridged history called Teens of Style. The pair also agreed to release new material some time early next year, on an album to be called Teens of Denial.

So, to coin a really corny phrase, these previous releases from Will have been rendered “public demo tapes.” While they were originally intended to be final products, many of the albums were released under the current circumstances Will was in. Those being less preferably equipment, reaching a certain “satisfied enough” point in the creation of songs crossed with the desire to release new material, and other factors that early bands are going to face. The difference between this situation and every other band ever, is that Car Seat Headrest already had a national audience for many of these releases.

Will has also hinted in interviews that complete albums may be re-recorded (or, in the least, remastered) in the future. And if you’re a hardcore Car Seat fan and already had listened to the earlier versions of Teens of Style tracks, you’ll have noticed that there were some lyrical changes, changes that Will obviously had the rare chance to make. Changes that many artists have made with songs in the past; just not with the degree of changes.

Take Grandaddy, the central California lo-fi indie act from the early 2000’s. Many of the songs on their demo tapes, which were re-released a few years ago to benefit frontman Jason Lytle’s ailing sister, were eventually re-recorded on official releases. Lyrics changed, song structures were edited, and better equipment was utilized, changing the ultimate course of the creative process. However that much was only known to early-on fans who actually had these original tapes.

What does this all really make Bandcamp? It’s inevitable that a service as great as Bandcamp would emerge, now that we’re connected to the internet 24/7 and it’s been an integral part of our daily lives for a while. And now that it’s at it’s current peak (and still trending upward), we have a huge window opened up for fans to see what’s out there, and get into music while it’s still fresh and potentially underdeveloped.

As a result of this window, we have a hub that represents the true supply and demand of the music industry. While this “true supply and demand” is still fairly limited to devout music lovers and certain genres, it’s an interesting window that is pushing art up for the betterment of artists, especially with home recording becoming more and more accessible and affordable. Without Bandcamp or the current landscape that we’re in musically, many of these artists would not have been so easily found. Some may have never really made it or would have had their paths delayed by many years before reaching the audiences that they can reach right now. A very good example of this is Cothran and Elvis Depressedly. He’s made a following for himself in really defying the standards within the music industry. Instead, he’s made his own path and had the ability to shun, and even actively fight against labels and other bad people without ruining his reputation and barring him to musical obscurity.

As for the future of the process that Bandcamp artists are going to go through, we’ll have to see. With a real-live supply-and-demand tracker like Bandcamp, it’s going to be easier for artists to become visible based on pure talent and songwriting, while limiting, to some degree, the necessity of pushing demo tapes to the right people and having the money to record and promote. Fans also become a more visible and stronger measurement system as to how bands are currently trending. As for post-Bandcamp fame, the jury is still completely out. Will the Car Seat experiment work out well enough to use for other bands? Will other artists want to anything similar, or will they treat a bandcamp album as an album, and not a demo tape?

What about the industry as a whole? Is there a ceiling to Bandcamp? Is Bandcamp bound to be limited to lo-fi recording, or can it work to include all genres in a more successful fashion? Could the trend possibly make a jump from the relative underground of Bandcamp into the mainstream? And not just the “Pitchfork crowd?” Finally, and perhaps a radical and wishful question, could the “Bandcamp way” continue to grow and ultimately save a music industry that has struggled to maintain a functional relationship between streaming music and actually paying artists of all popularity levels?

A lot remains to be seen, but for now, Bandcamp is a great little niche for fans and artists to connect on an extremely personal level. And there also happens to be an insane amount of talented musicians in the network, with a growing amount of which are finally getting paid to do their work.

Written by Joe Cardina

Written by Joseph Cardina