New Zealander Steph Brown cut her chops playing keys with some of the country’s top performers, including the likes of Anika Moa, Che Fu and Opensouls. It wasn’t until she moved to New York in 2008 that she started performing her own music, and in 2011 formed Lips, an electronic pop act characterised by a girl with giant lips for a head. Steph was soon doing things like touring the West Coast of the US on a wing and a prayer, and winning prestigious songwriting awards. West Virginia-born multi-instrumentalist and producer Fen Ikner joined Lips in 2013, and as a duo they’ve refined their sound – and recently relocated to Tucson, Arizona. They keep busy touring, and working on a range of projects like arranging and performing the soundtrack to the hit stageshow Daffodils by playwright Rochelle Bright, with whom they’re also collaborating on a forthcoming three-person show. Both Steph and Fen have always made a living from making music, but the rise of online streaming sites has whittled their income down to near-nil as people opt to stream Lips tracks for free rather than purchase them. Sarah talks to Steph and Fen about what this means for them and independent musicians generally, and what they think the future holds.
You relocated to Tucson, Arizona recently after living in New York City for seven years. What was behind that move?
S: It was financially motivated. We were working all the time just to afford to live, and not spending enough time making music. New York is really inspiring and I’m grateful for my time there, but it’s not a great place for artists. Tucson is wonderful. It’s cheap, there’s a large and supportive creative community, the surrounding landscape is beautiful. The video we just made for our new single Traces of Teddy is something we never could have pulled off in NYC with our budget, so already it’s been a better place for us.
Is NYC still somewhere that artists can thrive?
S: It’s a desirable place to live for so many people because the best of the best is there. The best theatre, the best food, it’s an amazing city. I loved being able to see an original Max Ernst painting any day of the week. Busloads of people move there every week and rent prices continue to rise higher and higher. But I think that to make art you first need the time and the space to do it, and it helps to be around other creative people who are making stuff and who inspire you, and who aren’t trying to hustle you out of a dollar just to survive. NYC is all about the hustle, night and day.
Tell me a bit about Traces of Teddy, and its video.
S: Traces of Teddy is a story about having a crush on a boy named Teddy who is interested in someone else. We came up with a concept, and hired a fantastic Tucson director, Alex Italics, who tweaked our concept into something way better! An evil space queen on Planet Lips sets her sights and affections on this man Teddy, so she sends her Lips-headed race of people to invade Earth and retrieve Teddy, which they do.
F: It’s shot in the style of 1960s sci-fi movies, using filming techniques from that era. We built these ridiculous papier-mâché lips heads, and this guy Robert Suchy built all kinds of amazing looking old school computer and spaceship set pieces. It’s a lot of fun.
How did Fen come to join Lips, and Steph how does it feel to have a partner in crime after playing solo for so long?
S: I started out with a band but I couldn’t get the sound that I was looking for and so went solo for a while. I was doing everything myself: singing, playing keys and bass synth, and triggering drum loops on Ableton. I’ve always played multiple keyboards at once so, in my head, adding these two extra things seemed like something I could pull off. It was not! I persevered for a long time solo. Why, I’m not sure! I saw Fen playing in a band in Brooklyn and he was doing everything that I needed. He was playing drums, singing and triggering samples. He was brilliant. I met him on the first day he moved to New York and I think if I’d met him later he would have already been too busy playing in six different bands so I’m grateful to the universe for that.
F: Playing as a two-piece is common these days, but most two-pieces play to loops and backing tracks to pull off a full sound. We started out doing that too, but it was no fun, the music sounded lifeless. So we spent many months developing a set where we play everything live, no tracks.
S: It was a challenge but I’m so glad we did it because it’s the most fun to play now and people say it sounds really different from what’s out there at the moment.
We’ve had a few chats about music streaming services and their impact on artists. What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of the changing music sales – or lack of sales! – model?
S: This year on average we have had about 20,000 streams a month, and we make US $100 from that. 20,000 streams is not heaps, but if 1 in 10 people liked the song and bought it, that would be a much more liveable income. Streaming is great for the consumer but I stand by the belief that music should not be free. It just shouldn’t. Why would I spend a year making something, spend thousands of dollars on it, then give it away for free? I’m not going to.
F: I think that, now that we’ve devalued music to almost $0, we’ve seen the quality of music go down as the money isn’t being invested in it to make it the best that it can be. Musicians will move onto other things, it will become a hobby that you may or may not have time to do. I think, as an idea to combat this, music streaming should be run by a not-for-profit organisation, the way that performing rights organisations like APRA AMCOS and BMI collect musician royalties. If streaming services aren’t trying to make bigger and bigger profits for shareholders as I assume is the endgame for Spotify and the others, and there are no free subscription rates, then royalty rates would be more fair and we could start to build a sustainable industry again. It can be more about the artist and the consumer, as was the touted promise of the internet’s ‘liberation’ of music – rather than being just another way for non-musicians to make money off the backs of musicians.
S: I’m sure there will be many people who will argue this, who enjoy their free streaming or who say that the major labels would never agree and perhaps they’re right, but I think that this is a viable solution to save our industry. But no one’s going to subscribe to that if they can listen to the same stuff on the platform they’re already using. You’d actually need people to be exclusively on your platform, which is quite hard to do, obviously.
F: Spotify itself is a great product, and the people who use it love it, but the business ethics are highly problematic. For one thing, the profits are disproportionately divided to favour the major labels, who also have a stake in the company. It’d be great if the consumer experience could remain the same, but without the weird non-transparent revenue sharing system, where profits are divided disproportionately. The bigger artists who have negotiated better rates, basically, are just getting more of the money, period, regardless of how many actual streams they have. In the kind of model I think we should be pushing for, part of the company’s income goes to the administrative fees, and then the rest is divided up according to the number of streams. The more money the thing is making the more money the artists are making.
So your main issue with Spotify is the way that the profits are divided – the crappy deal that artists get – as opposed to the service itself?
F: Spotify are trying to make money for investors, not musicians. It’s not even a music company, it’s a tech company. There’s really not a lot of money left in music, and streaming services are removing what little was left. But they need artists to do what they do. Artists are the only reason people are using the thing.
S: Well they did make a really convenient platform to listen to music on. For the consumer it’s great.
F: But it’s a little too great. People have always been willing to pay for music, as long as it wasn’t just free. And the thing is, nobody really decided that music was going to be free. Tech companies just made it free.
S: Well that’s not exactly true, piracy made it free.
So in a sense streaming services are a way of formalising that economy again.
S: Yeah, totally.
F: And at the moment it’s formalised really heavily in favour of major labels and the streaming services themselves, leaving indie artists out in the cold.
If you’re not making money from streaming or downloads, how do you make your money?
S: We’re not. We tour, but touring is so expensive. So we don’t make money from that.
F: We kinda don’t make money at all, because we put money into making our thing. But now we’re just not making any money at all –
S: Yeah, just making art, these days. Now we can only make it when we have the time. It’s really sad.
Have you found that to be a general situation for other artists?
S: Definitely, everybody’s talking about it.
In New Zealand, or America as well?
F: I mean, New Zealand at least you have things like the Making Tracks grants, and they pay for radio plays. New Zealand kind of takes care of their own a bit, you know?
S: It’s great.
F: More so than America for sure. Still, it’s not a ton of money – and you’re actually supposed to use it to make the thing, as opposed to, you know, paying rent. And we do.
S: Yeah, so we actually got a grant from NZ on Air to make the Traces of Teddy video. I mean, that’s amazing – we’d never have been able to afford a video otherwise. They helped us record the song as well. Not many other countries do that, it’s really, really cool. But it doesn’t change the fact that once you’ve made the thing – that’s it. Basically, they help you make cool art. Which is really awesome and lovely, and we’re real grateful.
F: But making a video used to be a thing that you could do to advertise your record, it sort of doesn’t – I mean, here, advertise this thing that I don’t make any money from. Or you can use it to advertise touring.
S: But we don’t even make money from live shows. By the time you’ve paid the travel costs, and the accommodation – your set up.
F: You could potentially make money if you did it constantly and were really smart about the business of it. There are people that do, but still it’s a real rough grind, you know? Not everyone can do that, most definitely. So many of the small bands, the system is not set up to help them make money at all.
S: And if you’re in New Zealand you can’t actually tour constantly. You can’t do it!
F: You can tour twice a year.
S: So that’s pretty tricky.
That brings up another point, which is that artists are now expected to do everything. You’re supposed to also be a business person, an art director – to do all of the stuff, manage your own tour. As well as creating this amazing music that you’re going to be promoting and selling. That’s a lot of pressure.
S: It’s actually impossible, we’ve found. You just can’t do it. I mean, you can’t do everything at once – you can’t do five or six jobs at once.
F: Or at least, yeah it’s really hard to do that, but it’s incredibly hard to do it when all of that doesn’t actually amount to you being able to make any money. Because you still have to make money to live somehow or another. You have to do all that on top of having a ‘real job’.
S: Which is why I think we’re just seeing people stop. Because you just can’t do it.
Have you looked at working with record labels and managers?
S: It’s just rough because there’s not the money to afford to pay them. Music managers are pretty few and far between these days, and they really need to only work with big commercial acts who can pay them. First, we’re an independent band, they can’t make a living off us.
F: There used to be A&R people and managers, who would see something and go, this is cool – I can help this thing make money, and then I can have some of that money. Now those jobs don’t really exist anymore, and the few people that are still around say to the artist, ok, start making a bunch of money! Then as soon as you’re already making a bunch of money I’ll step in and take some of it. So it is, as you say, just really totally up to the artist to do everything for the entire first part – and second and third parts of their career at this point.
What about the consumer’s role in all of this? Streaming services are successful for a reason. Does it boil down to the fact that people just don’t want to be paying for music?
F: I also think they don’t know enough about it, and I know also that nobody wants to – I mean, if there’s a bummer, unless it’s a sensational, headline grabbing bummer, people just kind of tune out. It may be beyond just being able to say, hey that thing that you’re doing, it means that we can’t make any money to live. People need to actually see it affect them. As in, the artists need to actually not be available, I think.
S: Yeah. I mean, I grew up with LimeWire, and Napster and I remember thinking it was so great. You could find these bootleg concert recordings from way back in the day that you’d never get to hear otherwise. It was awesome. And I remember Metallica complaining, and being like – screw those guys, they’ve got too much money anyway. I remember that really well. So I don’t blame the consumer, I mean if you can get something for free you’ll take it. But as artists, we need to get together and stand up for ourselves, and talk about it, and do something about it. We can only do that if we band together, and that hasn’t really happened yet.
What would you say about claims that, for smaller artists at least, streaming services offer a platform for exposure? Maybe people would listen to your music who wouldn’t otherwise have heard it?
S: That’s true, and that is great – it’s nice when you see somebody in Greece likes your song. That’s somewhere we’ve never been. You get a nice feeling about that, but it doesn’t change the fact that if you can’t afford to make it, then that’s all that really matters. I’m glad somebody’s hearing it in Greece, but if I have to stop making music because I can’t afford to anymore, that’s all that matters. To me that’s the bottom line. The exposure doesn’t really make a tangible difference for us.
F: Because exposure isn’t the same as marketing. Yeah there’s a platform, but I could’ve had a platform anyway, by just releasing it online wherever. I don’t know that one more thing that’s allowing me to get my music for free on the internet is such a godsend. Especially when streaming services are kind of just advertising for the major record labels.
I guess you could also argue that independent musicians have never really made money, from making music.
F: Well I think that independent musicians have never gotten rich –
S: But we can say that we used to make a living off it. We used to make music for a living.
Do you think it’s over for small artists, or do you think it’s a transitional time?
F: It is unless we do something about it.
S: Yep. I think it is. Maybe it’s a transitional time. Maybe there will be a solution that will put money back into the industry again, and then indie artists can flourish again. But for now I think it’s over.
Why do you think it’s important for it to not be over?
F: Music is just in people’s blood, whether or not you’re making it or listening to it. It’s part of humanity, part of the fabric of society.
S: It’s an expression of our culture, of where we’re at. What’s happening in the world, from the perspective of us, now. It’s not as important as growing food so that people can eat –
But I think music does have that – there’s something that it gives to us that, like food, we need.
S: Yeah, and I think musicians will always make music, because like Fen was saying it’s a drive, that’s in you.
F: It’s something that you just have to do, if you’re that sort of person anyway. There are plenty of people out there who just will always do it no matter what, and I think I’m probably among those people.
S: But if there’s no money to make it, you basically have to cut the quality a little bit. Where you might’ve had some money to put in to use a particular musician on your track, or to go do it in a studio where you know they have a specific piece of gear that would make the song, you just can’t do that anymore. So you might make a lesser quality thing.
F: And the ability to get into a great studio is going away as well – not just because of the money, but because the real studios are closing! The big ones have all closed already. There are still great studios around, but they’re hurting. Like Wavelab in Tucson – those guys have made all kinds of great records that have done well. Like the Calexico stuff, and Neko Case, and Devotchka. That Amos Lee record from a couple of years ago – stuff that was Grammy nominated, you know? Real legit shit. We went and recorded there recently, and they were kind of like – thank god, somebody’s actually willing to pay for quality.
S: Thanks NZ on Air!
F: Everybody does have the ability to make things in their bedroom, that’s true, but they can only get to a certain quality with that, in terms of the technical stuff. Then there’s also something else that being in a studio does for you, just having access to all these instruments. And having all these great mics to be able to put in front of those things, that go through excellent pre-amps, and come out of a mixing console. Everything just sounds a million times better, than if you’re recording into GarageBand, with your $100 USB mic. That’s not to say that you can’t make great things that way, but technically it’s only going to get so good. Also, you’re just one person by yourself in a bedroom. Where music, I think tends to thrive when you can get four or five people all working off of each other.
S: The practical realities of it are if we can no longer make music full time, what can we do instead that still allows us time to make music?
And it’s no fun doing something creative if you can’t have fun doing it, because you’re stressed out. What’s the point.
S: Exactly. And even when you release something, getting people’s attention for long enough to listen to it is hard in itself. There’s so much new music – but not just new music, new things to look at, new articles to read – so that’s a challenge as well. Fighting for people’s attention.
F: Just like, hey slow down for a second. And maybe actually enjoy this.
S: And also can you listen to it more than once? Because otherwise good music will just go away, like all the other stuff. That’s also just in general I think, with the internet. Something’s up one day, gone the next. It’s just constant turnover. You do value things less.
How do you find out about that new music in the first place?
F: I used to read magazines, read about things in Mojo, even Spin – Spin used to be alright. That’s not really happening now. I hear things reviewed on NPR a lot of times. I know that’s the dumbest white guy thing to say, but it’s true. I’ll often hear something from there. So I think, curated sources.
S: How do you find new music?
I guess through friends, I listen to Spotify a lot – although I do pay to subscribe!
S: When you listen to Spotify though, do you listen to just the songs you already know? Or do they have new music suggestions?
Sometimes I’ll use the radio option, but I like Spotify because if I hear about an artist somewhere else I can find them and hear their stuff very easily. My personal rule at the moment is, if I come across something – particularly by an independent or smaller artist – and I like it then I’ll buy it. But I’m a freelance journalist, who few people pay also. So I can’t really afford to buy a lot of music.
S: Yeah, I mean your industry is kind of in a similar boat, right? Is that true?
Yeah. And I think people value written content almost less than they would music – if someone asks you to pay to read an article how likely would you be to do that? I don’t. If a pop-up comes up saying I need to subscribe before reading on, even if I know it’s going to be a good article, or something that I probably should read, I’ll often search the topic somewhere else.
F: I think, you’ll pay for a magazine, or a newspaper – or at least I will still.
S: Well here’s the thing, only the stuff where I know the content is going to be well-researched and of a high quality, like the New Yorker for example. I want to support them because I get so much out of it. But there’s so much content out there that I find it easier to stick to the publications I already know. With such a small radar, I think I miss all the great independent stuff.
F: It’s that same thing, where there’s just a giant pool of content, and you really need some curation.
Which is interesting, because with the internet sort of exploding, there was a lot of talk about removing the gatekeeper – information’s everybody’s. But it appears to be coming back around to this idea that, actually there’s a need for a curator still.
F: Yeah, and the curator actually has a certain amount of power. If you put together a well-researched, well-thought out list of things, then you get that reputation of being someone that people can turn to.
Apple’s new Beats radio is an example. Bringing in people like Zane Lowe to be that tastemaker.
S: People want it. I mean, I want it. I want someone to play me an hour of music, without me having to search for it, or dig for it, or press play on a million tracks to find something I like.
To help me sift through all of this stuff!
F: And the curation can’t just be the Yahoo! homepage, you know? It needs to be thoughtful, because there’s so much of tech companies just trying to spoon-feed you content, or whatever.
S: What I lament, and this must be true of writing too, is the removal of the craft of it. Everything has to be instant. Just write something really quick about this thing that just happened, so that you’re the first to comment on it. You don’t get this thought out, sumptuous writing – I don’t know, I get shivers from something that’s really creatively written.
F: And it’s also the same with music.
S: And it’s the same with music.
F: Being able to spend time, and craft something. And then people being able to spend time and enjoy it.
Because, if you’re a good musician and a trained musician, then you can in theory write something quickly – I’m not saying it’s always easy, but you have the skills to be able to write to a format. But to actually create something that’s beautiful, from your soul is different.
S: Yeah, and it sounds even better if you’ve got five other people weighing in, who you trust, who are good at what they do.
F: And you can hire a dope mix engineer –
S: Who then makes it even better. So, suddenly the village has made something really good, as opposed to you making something that’s good.
All that said, do you have any advice for artists who are starting out?
S: I’m obviously pretty cynical these days, and I wish I wasn’t. Making music brings me the utmost joy in life, and it’s hideous to have it tainted. Leaving the economics of being able to even afford to make music out of it though, the biggest advice I would give musicians starting out is to not forget to learn from the music of those who have gone before you, in all genres. This is something I’ll try to keep doing till the day I die. Music is an art form with a long, long history and you can learn something from the greats in every genre no matter if it’s not your style of music. It might be something as simple as leaving a measures space where you wouldn’t have thought to.
Lips are a Tucson, Arizona-based pop act with roots in New Zealand. Find them at www.lipssongs.com, and check out the video for Traces of Teddy below.
Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.