It’s time for the third in our series of interviews with the digital age’s most happening music curators. (Interview with Matt Thornton is here; interview with Layla Gibbon is here).
I wouldn’t have been able to enter polite company again nor sputter the word “curator” if I didn’t fire off some pithy questions to Erika Elizabeth, the hostess of the world-beating "Expressway To Yr Skull" radio show (now podcast), and one of the supreme musical tastemakers of the last decade, far as I’m and many other righteous folks are concerned.
It’s not really nepotism or anything – I mean, we had no idea of each other’s existence three years ago – but since discovering her show in 2011, we’ve recognized some like-mindedness in the musical realm, and she’s now Dynamite Hemorrhage fanzine's contributing editor and largest contributor of content besides myself. (You can order #1 and see all the stuff she wrote here; more is coming in Issue #2 in a couple months).
I interviewed her once before as well, but this thing on curators would be useless without her informed and well-considered take. She’s successfully migrated her show from an analog curation medium (the college radio studio) into the digital age (her podcast, which is the same show, albeit less frequent), while also suffering the existential pathos that stems from trying to stay (somewhat) analog in a world increasingly defined by 0’s and 1’s.
I reckon we should let Erika speak for herself – what do you say?
DH: How do you balance buying new music on vinyl vs. downloading it, and what sort of trade-offs do you make in the process?
Erika Elizabeth: It’s a Sisyphean struggle for me to even try to keep up with buying all of the new music on vinyl that I would like to possess, for a multitude of reasons (my lack of a wealthy benefactor & the record collection that is already monopolizing my studio apartment are but two of them). Waiting to buy records from bands at shows when they play in Portland has been a good way for me to moderate that a little bit - I get to put some money directly into their pockets when they really need it & it forces me to be more deliberate about what music I bring home. But obviously, not every active band with new records that I would like to obtain will be passing through here, so I’m also always picking stuff up via record stores or mail order whenever I can. As much as I love the record stores here in Portland, they’re heavily slanted toward used vinyl, so I usually end up dropping a chunk of change on newer releases every couple of months when I go visit friends in Seattle, since the shops there actually seem to consistently stock new vinyl on smaller labels & working at a tiny vintage/record store doesn’t afford me the big bucks to pay for shipping on a bunch of new singles from Australia or the UK on a regular basis.
Downloads certainly are convenient now that I’m doing a podcast scraped together entirely from my laptop, as opposed to the years I spent doing a show in a fully-equipped radio studio with access to multiple turntables & cassette decks & the like, but since I’d rather save my money to get ahold of new music in a tangible format, any downloading I do is limited to what I can track down for free. So with those limitations in mind, digital music becomes a placeholder of sorts until I can get my hands on physical media, which sometimes might not actually happen (records with ridiculously small runs that immediately go out of print, things that get lost in the shuffle as a new avalanche of releases gets added to my wishlist, etc). If you’re compelled to be an evangelist for all things new & weird & wonderful (as I am), there’s bound to be some trade-offs in how much you can financially support all of the things that you’re hoping to turn other people onto & that’s a dilemma that I face on a constant basis.
DH: What sort of impact does putting together a regular radio show or podcast have on your imperative to scour for new music - or would you be just as curious even without the drive to share your discoveries w/ your listeners?
Erika Elizabeth: Honestly, it’s sort of a chicken-or-egg situation. Let’s just say that there’s a really good reason why I went to graduate school to become a librarian; namely that I absolutely love doing research & digging up information from all sorts of places about things that interest me. I’ve absolutely always been curious about (some would say unhealthily obsessed with) tracking down new/unfamiliar music & that dogged fixation is what ultimately pushed me toward doing college radio/podcasting - it was an opportunity to actually put all of those discoveries that I had culled to good use (meaning, beyond playing records too loudly in my bedroom by myself) & hopefully have a domino effect of turning other people onto music that I felt needed to reach a wider audience. At the same time, knowing in the back of my mind that I have another radio show coming up definitely pushes me to put in a little extra effort to track down a few more new-to-me musical finds than I might have otherwise stumbled across in my typical day-to-day research. And that’s mostly a consequence of me being unreasonably hung up on not repeating myself too much in my playlists - luckily, there’s always a chance for me to dig deeper into the history of all-female Swiss punk bands from the late 1970s or try to find something out there from a band on Harriet Records that’s not already in my personal collection or what have you.
I will say that not being on a fixed, weekly broadcasting schedule has been a huge improvement for my mental health when it comes to putting a show together, because I have way more time in between episodes to really pursue those paths of musical discovery as far as I want to, without the panic of needing to pull together one hundred & twenty minutes of new material in under a week.
DH: What current online or offline resources do you favor in trying to find the music you listen to and recommend to other vis-a-vis your show?
Erika Elizabeth: Well, for someone who does a podcast & (sort of) maintains a blog, I’m really not very digitally-inclined. A substantial amount of the accumulation & pursuit of music that I do utilizes the internet as a secondary source, rather than a primary source. A big part of why I moved to Portland last year is because it’s a total record store town - it’s sort of unreal for a mid-sized city like this to have a dozen or so record shops, most of which at least have their moments of brilliance & one of which I’m fortunate to work at (which means that I literally have hours where I get paid to sort through piles of records looking for things that might be of interest to me).
One of my favorite new-to-me finds from the past few months was an EP from 1982 by this female-fronted band from Seattle called the Visible Targets, which I stumbled across in the bins at a local shop & brought to the listening station based solely on the fact that the sleeve design had an almost textbook early ’80s post-punk aesthetic, which if reflected in the music would mean that they totally had my number (it was & they did). After I brought it home, I did some research online to see what I could find out about them, which led to finding, among other things, some really great archival video footage, which garnered a really enthusiastic response when I reposted it on the Facebook page for my show. But I don’t have a smartphone, so I’m not going to be Googling from the little screen in my hand as a means of doing some investigating while I flip through record stacks & I kind of like doing online research after my instincts have already guided me toward something offline - I feel like it forces me to be a little more adventurous & take more chances.
When I was an underground music-obsessed teenager stuck in the suburbs before the internet had become fully ubiquitous & I was desperately trying to find new sounds that challenged me, a lot of my methods were simply based on connecting dots from the limited information I did have access to - reading record reviews in zines that mention one band including former members of another band, making note of who was touring with or opening up for bands I liked, working my way through the back catalogs of labels that seemed to put out a lot of records that I already had, etc. I’m very much still in that mindset, although now that it’s 2014 instead of 1999, I can dig up that information much more quickly online. I stumble upon a lot of newer music that I incorporate into my podcast via those sorts of “six degrees of separation” methods - “oh, this band just put out a tape that I really like & there’s like three or four other things on their label’s Bandcamp page that I should probably check out”, that sort of thing.
I’m always looking at local show listings to see if there’s anything on the horizon that I want to hit up, which has led to being unexpectedly charmed by an unknown-to-me band who happened to be on a bill opening for another band I was already planning to go see, or who I checked out after noticing that they were going to be playing one of the venues here in town that fairly consistently hosts the sorts of shows that I’m inclined to go to, not to mention all of the bands that I’ve looked into after noticing (via the miracle of Facebook news feeds) that they were playing shows with my friends in various other corners of the country. I actually don’t keep up with blogs as consistently as I should, but I have a fair number of reliable standbys bookmarked on my laptop & I’ll scroll through those when I’m getting ready to put together a new podcast, to see if there’s anything new & up my alley that isn’t on my radar yet.
DH: Are you pleased with the abundance of music available to you within minutes online, or has something been lost in the process - and by buying vinyl, are you potentially seeking to hold onto a meaningful part what brought you into music obsession in the first place?
Erika Elizabeth: Of course, as a confirmed music obsessive, the convenience of having so much music so readily available to me online is incredible, but at the same time, I do think that something has been lost in the process - namely, a more immediate sense of community & connection. Maybe I’m romanticizing the era of the internet when blog culture hadn’t completely blown up yet, but that was also a time when my music discovery facilitated through online channels was mostly based around trading mixtapes with people from all over the place, which allowed me to find out about music that has profoundly influenced my life in ways that I can’t even begin to quantify; music that I likely never would have stumbled upon on my own if I had been forced to keep relying solely on hearing something by chance on the local college radio station or reading a review of a record in a zine & then actually being able to find a copy of it in the strip mall CD chain stores that I had access to as a teenager in Houston, Texas. I’m still friends with some of those people who sent me tapes in the mail fifteen years ago, which is the sort of connection that is so much harder to make when you’re, say, just downloading something that someone posted on their blog - it becomes more of a one-way transaction. Obviously, there’s exceptions to that (you & I wouldn’t be zine collaborators if you hadn’t emailed me as a result of finding my radio show online!), but so much of the current online exchange of information seems to be this cycle of forwarding & reblogging or whatever, without more personal conversations entering the picture.
My preference for buying vinyl certainly has roots in that community-oriented mindset, not in small part because I’ve been working in record stores for most of the past decade & having face-to-face conversations about music with someone from either side of the record counter gives me a joy like few other things in this world. My media consumption habits were something that I thought of often while I was working on my masters degree, where my entire academic motivation was based around a desire to help make resources more widely accessible to people & to preserve them for future generations. I took an archives course that was really eye-opening as far as the role that technology has on long-term preservation of archival materials goes, specifically the amount of work & resources that it takes to convert information stored on now-archaic file formats (think files & data saved on floppy disks, or increasingly, films that only exist on VHS) into something that can still be accessed & maintained using current technology, which is a never-ending cycle as older formats are continuously phased out & newer formats inevitably become dominant.
So while the internet is a wonderful place for having easy access to all sorts of music & exposing that music to a wider audience, I think having a physical artifact (i.e. vinyl) gives me a greater sense of security & permanence. How often do we lament a once active blog going dormant as the links to mp3s it once provided turn into virtual dead ends, or seeing videos pulled from Youtube for copyright violations, or what have you? Plus, it’s just way more exciting to DJ when you get to dig through a box of singles to throw on the turntable, as opposed to just standing over a table while you scroll through your iTunes library.
DH: How has the state of music accumulation and curation evolved in the last few years? What’s different about, say, 2014 than even 2012 or 2010?
Erika Elizabeth: The sphere of online music curation has obviously expanded exponentially in just the past few years & the one thing that I find myself lamenting is the sort of constant one-upping culture that has emerged now that music blogs are a dime a dozen, feeding off absurd, ego-driven notions of first discovery. Granted, this isn’t exclusive to blogs & the like, but I feel like the immediacy of the internet has greatly distorted the importance of being able to lay claim to “breaking” an undiscovered or relatively under-hyped artist. I tried my hand at writing for online music publications for a spell & I grew so disillusioned with it because the prevailing attitude of so many of those outlets seemed to be geared more toward beating any other music blog or website to covering a particular artist & less toward providing any sort of intelligent, critical assessments or sharing things out of genuine enthusiasm. It turns into this vicious cycle of trying to crank out some short paragraph essentially copy & pasted from a band’s website or press release or whatever, throwing in a link to a Youtube video or a Bandcamp page & waiting for all of the other blogs to catch up to what you’ve just discovered (and often, to recycle the same links & tag lines, ad infinitum). I think that’s why I tend to be drawn to music curation outlets that have a greater distance from that insidious clickbaiting mentality - print zines that are writing about things that came out months before the issue could be published, podcasts where you can actually hear someone talk passionately about music that they want to share with a wider audience, those rare blogs that have a clear focus on smartly & thoroughly highlighting music that would otherwise fall through the cracks without resorting to horrible Buzzfeed-esque list-making, etc.
DH: What parallels does online curation have with the days of flipping through stacks of records in crates, if any - and what sort of mindset does a modern digital curator need to bring to the search for the best obscurities?
Erika Elizabeth: I’m a firm believer that regardless of whether your crate digging is done in actual record bins or just by combing through online resources, you’re only going to get anywhere if you’re not the type of person to play it safe & stick to things that have already been demystified for you. One of my biggest frustrations in booking shows for relatively small potatoes bands over the past few years has been trying to get people in my local community excited about taking a chance on spending $5 to see some band that haven’t heard of yet play in a run-down bookstore or DIY art space (that doesn’t have the added pull of a bar with free-flowing alcohol that they can use to justify attending), only to hear one of my friends say three or four months down the line that they just got around to listening to this same great band & wish that they’d come through town at some point. If you’re trying to be an effective digital curator, don’t be that person. Don’t be afraid to go deep into that internet K-hole of having a half dozen tabs open in your browser while you stream something from a Bandcamp page while simultaneously scouring the band’s Tumblr or Facebook page or whatever for any scraps of information that you can find, just because you came across their name referenced in some other corner of the internet. Sure, you’re probably going to have to sort through a bunch of music that does absolutely nothing for you, but to me, it’s the modern equivalent of what I used to do back in the day when I’d take a chance on a bunch of cheap-as-hell used CDs from the cut-out bin based on which label put them out (and it’s less of a financial gamble than having to sell back those New Wet Kojak albums as a result of your Touch & Go binge).
If you discover something that interests you, dig deeper & do some creative research to find other things that might be affiliated - if you find one great new C86-worshipping band from some random city, there very well might be an entire geographic micro-scene there of other bands making some similar noise that you didn’t even know existed. Or maybe not, but you never know.