If you have been following us for any length of time, you have likely caught on that we here at Heavy Blog are an opinionated bunch. Yes, we obviously have many many feelings when it comes to all sorts of music-related topics, but unsurprisingly this also carries itself well over into the realms of other forms of art, media, culture, sports, and, yes, politics. Hence how we have wound up with this, The Void Screameth, where on the internet, nobody can hear you scream, but we can at least pound the keyboard until something legible comes out and hope that one or two other people read it!
Can We Remember the Human?
The code of “netiquette”, that is the set of mores, manners, and maxims that attempt to describe and prescribe our behavior online, wasn’t written by any specific person. Appropriately, they emerged from the system of the internet and the users on it, merely given voices by individuals at certain points in time. The first rule of this nebulous code is “remember the human” and I think it’s one of the best heuristics out there for figuring out how to live, especially online. You see, when you sit behind a screen and commit the accursed act of “going online”, all you see is text, inputs that trigger certain reactions from you. You don’t see the people sitting behind their screen and it’s oftentimes easy to forget that they exist at all. What’s even harder to remember is that text does not inherently carry tone (beyond the loose set of symbols that are the rules of punctuation) and, therefore, it does not sound as it does in your head.
This is all trivial; most people who use the Internet to any capacity, certainly of the millennial and younger generations know all of this. So why am I repeating it here? It’s because we’re wrapping up the year and as a result, I am exposed to a lot of aggravating messages and behaviors. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not that bad; I’m not being harassed or anything. But anyone who has ever posted a list will tell you that people tend to forget the human on the other side of that list almost completely. People tend to forget that the person who made that list is just as passionate as they were in making theirs or in coming to comment “where is X?????” with a billion question marks and, often, exclamation marks as well. Which is not that bad until you figure in how many times this might happen to someone like me.
The situation becomes even worse when you figure out that not everyone limits themselves to multiple punctuation marks; people get right down nasty. When discussing which albums made it to which list, people can and do often lash out: “what? What do you mean you didn’t like this album? That’s impossible, it’s so good!” Now, even as I am typing this sentence, that doesn’t sound so bad. But remember, there is no tone online and when I get ten of these messages, in some format or other, it starts to grate. People sound aggressive and they often are. Things get taken out of context, passions run high and, before you know it, people are blocking each other. This happened to me the other day. And in 2019. And in 2018, come to think of it.
So, what’s the bottom line? The bottom line is that interactions like these, where empathy is forgotten by both sides and tempers are unleashed, can be easily avoided by remembering the human when you type your additions, suggestions, or critiques of someone’s list. Instead “where is X????” you could easily say “hey, have you heard X?” That supposes that I haven’t and works from that assumption, allowing me space to check it out and come back to you with my opinion. You could also say “what did you think of X?” and that’s even better; it opens the space for a conversation and a gentle one at that. We can discuss why the album is not on the list and respect each other’s opinion. What you should avoid at any cost is then arguing about that; just respect my opinion and move on.
And that’s it. Remembering the human is really way more simple than we think, we just need to be reminded of it from time to time (lord knows I do as well). So, here’s a reminder to both you and myself to be kinder in 2021, around AOTY lists and otherwise. We could all use a little more softness and empathy in our lives.
2020 Exposed the Brokenness of the Modern Music Industry for All to See. Will Anyone Care Enough to Fix It?
I don’t need to remind any of you reading this that 2020 was a horrible year for musicians. The shutting down of public and communal spaces and events hit the entertainment industry that relies on people experiencing art outside of their homes harder than just about any other industry save for perhaps hospitality. Just like that, like Thanos snapping his fingers, all live music was canceled. For fans of live music, having to cancel all plans for expected shows and travel plans to festivals was a humongous bummer. For the musicians whose livelihoods depend on it, it was devastating and life-threatening.
Back in October Bill Kelliher of the mighty Mastodon revealed that all four members of the band have resorted to living off of unemployment insurance available through the band’s LLC and working odd jobs. He stated, “There’s no money coming in. There’s not big royalty checks that just come in every month. And that’s the truth… because people don’t buy the music.” Granted, it’s not that people have suddenly stopped listening to Mastodon. But so much of the modern industry has been held up by this single tentpole of live performance that once it was chopped down there was absolutely nothing left to hold it up. Music streaming has been around long enough now that we’ve simply come to accept that artists don’t make money off of their actual recorded music anymore.
As evidenced by the most recent RIAA revenue reports from mid-2020, all money being made from music sales besides streaming subscriptions is virtually irrelevant. 85% of all revenue in the first half of 2020 was off of streaming, with 6% coming from digital downloads, and 7% coming from physical sales (vinyl, CD, tape). The vinyl boom might still be well and alive, but it still only represents a small fraction of the money being made in the industry as a whole. Furthermore, when musicians are actually only netting a small piece of the overall revenue of the “industry” (including distributors, streaming platforms, rights holders, labels, and more), it becomes even more impossible to imagine any musician getting paid fairly from their music.
And that’s not even touching upon the fact that the live tentpole so many musicians were relying on to begin with was being systematically hacked away at long before the pandemic took hold. Skyrocketing rents in urban centers where most music venues and live performances are have been forcing the shuttering of small to midsize venues for years now. Add to that a complete shutdown of all live performances, and you have an existential crisis on your hands for venues of all sizes. A survey from NIVA, the National Independent Venues Association, last year revealed that around 90% of independently-owned venues across the US were in severe danger of shutting down if either pandemic closures continued or if there was no long term financial assistance. Mercifully, NIVA’s advocacy was effective in at least securing some funding for an assistance program in the most recently passed COVID relief bill in December.
It’s not nearly enough, however, and it’s only a temporary salve that doesn’t address any of the wider issues. Returning to “normal” is no longer good enough. We know where the fundamental issues lay. Streaming platforms will continue to increase their share of generated revenue, and there are little to no signs that there are any big changes coming. No number of gimmicks like Spotify essentially setting up GoFundMe pages for artists on their platform will do it. Not even Bandcamp’s current model, which is by far the most ethical of any of the major marketplace or streaming platforms, can fix it currently, no matter how many Bandcamp Fridays there are.
I wish I had the answers here, but I don’t. I have a few ideas based on things I’ve read and heard, such as platforms switching to a user-centric revenue model that bases payouts by percentage a user listens to an artist per month as opposed to how it works now, which is a complex system that often gets boiled down to a “per stream” figure. The massive benefits and convenience of streaming means that it is not going to diminish in any way for probably decades to come. Unfortunately, what we need is – and I hate to use the word because it’s turned into a cliche in itself – a revolution. Until artists can hold their own financial fates and set the terms of revenue and payout for the music they create, we will continue to have this conversation in likely increasingly dire terms. The only sign of hope for now is that virtually no one other than tech platforms and some of the biggest labels are happy with the current system. What can be done to shift the balance of power though, well, that’s the multi-billion dollar question.
Josh’s Weird Rant
This is more of a personal post than the others included here but, with everything that’s been going on, I’ve noticed myself shying away from more extreme music in 2020. Looking over everyone’s end of year lists I’m reminded of a number of acclaimed extreme metal releases that I just didn’t get around to listening to because, well, I just didn’t want to with the world the way it is at the moment. Add to that the stress of trying to finish a PhD and you end up with a year where I listened to Lady Gaga’s entire discography at least once a day, every day, for about three months straight, while seemingly landmark extreme metal albums like Imperial Triumphant, Black Curse and Fawn Limbs have gone unheard, beyond the most cursory of listens.
Even after years of conditioning, extreme metal remains a demanding prospect – it’s in the name after all. I say this as someone who used to regularly go to sleep to the soothing sounds of Napalm Death’s Scum (1987) in my late teens and early twenties and it’s not like I neglected extreme music completely; I had Annal Nathrakh’s Endarkenment in my Albums of the Year list and, my number one, Code Orange’s Underneath, is largely defined by its intensity, especially in its earlier moments. Yet there’s also something elating and cathartic about these records. When it comes to the more oppressive extreme metals this year, I just haven’t had the stomach for it.
If an album—especially an extreme metal album—hasn’t grabbed me straight away this year, then it’s very rare that I’ve been willing to put in the effort to make it “click”. I’ve fallen instantly in love with everything else Ulcerate have put out previously, counting their 2009 record Everything is Fire among my favourite albums of all time, while considering it a hot contender for heaviest album ever as well. Stare into Death and Be Still, on the other hand, just never did anything for me and, although I’ve given it a handful of full listens, that’s only because I hold Ulcerate themselves in such high regard and I ultimately just gave up on it, not feeling compelled to force myself through it until it clicked, or to unravel just what wasn’t working about this record for me, compared to their previous material. Meanwhile, records by bands I’m only cursorily interested in, like Fawn Limbs or Of Feather and Bone went unplayed. Skipping through them now, I can’t really see that changing anytime soon; it seems I’m still not ready.
Another aspect I’ve found myself withdrawing from in 2020 is overtly political music, especially those albums that deal with police brutality. Again, I had Run the Jewels at number two in my AOTY list. However, I’ve struggled with more oppressive records, like Zeal and Ardor’s Wake of a Nation or clipping.’s Visions of Bodies Being Burned. I’ve listened to both these records, in full, on a number of occasions; I felt it important to do so, unlike the simply “extreme” offerings, but I haven’t fixated over them the way I did Stranger Fruit (2018) or There Existed an Addiction to Blood (2019). Music very much became an escapist outlet for me in 2020 and, when waking up everyday to endless news reports about police murdering people in the streets and governments leaving their citizens to die amid a pandemic, I looked to music to take me away from these atrocities, not remind me of them. I can’t imagine what it’s like for the people actually experiencing these horrors but, as a white guy safely sitting on the other side of the world, I get to put on Carly Rae Jepsen instead. Such is my privilege, and I could and should certainly be doing more.
The conscious neglect of extreme music doesn’t make my 2020 AOTY list invalid. These things have always been subjective and my 2020 list reflects my 2020 experience. The political aspect poses more of a problem. It’s less of an issue in the revamped format we’re using this year, which emphasises the individuality and subjectivity of everyone’s individual lists. Yet, if we were posting a more ”objective”, collated list, then I’d have some serious reservations about saying an album I sincerely love and which has been with me since the beginning of 2020, like Dragged Under’s The World is in your Way—which more or less reignited my love for heavy music – or Spirit Adrift’s Enlightened in Eternity – as glorious as it is—is a “better” record than something like Visions of Bodies Being Burned or even Imperial Triumphant’s Alphaville, given its sheer musical scope and mastery. My and everyone else’s AOTY list is merely – and always only has been –a list of albums we have enjoyed listening to during an arbitrary period of time. This time I’m even let off the hook by our more personal presentation. Yet, as with most things in 2020, it’s been cause for personal reflection.
Looking back on this list in years to come won’t give me a definitive list of the best albums of 2020 but a snapshot of how I was feeling at a particular moment in time and, more than ever before, the factors influencing that snapshot have had identifiable and wider-reaching implications that, ironically, have far more significant ramifications for people who aren’t me. Well I guess this is growing up…