Alternate Routes: Tidal’s Music Discovery Problems, RSD’s Silver Lining in Ork Records Reissues

Alternate Routes is a column from Flavorwire contributor and WFMU DJ Jesse Jarnow, in which he’ll explore music solely distributed outside the Big 3 of Spotify, iTunes, and Amazon.

The highest-profile new alternate route of 2015 is easily the celeb-endorsed hi-fi streaming service Tidal, presenting a would-be challenge to iTunes, Spotify, and Amazon with the glittering attraction of music unavailable elsewhere. The notion of an artist-owned platform that doubles as a label is enticing, though perhaps music is not what they meant when advertising “exclusive content and experiences.” Two months in, the $9.99/month site only offers two recordings that would obviously qualify as original releases in a proper discography, a pair of new live non-albums by Jay Z and Jack White — archived streams technically, with neither tracklists nor backing musician credits — captured weeks apart in Manhattan and Fargo, North Dakota, respectively.

A section devoted to Tidal Discovery brims with unsigned acts, but seems bound by neither artistic vision nor organizational scheme. It is unclear what most of the artists are doing here specifically, with biography tabs left empty. Clicking somewhat at random, there is chiptune pop and regular pop and enticing glacial space-outs, all with no further info. While listening to a song, one might productively spend time Googling information about it, revealing (for example) that the creators of the aforementioned glacial space-out, This Is How We End, are from Norway, and that their Tidal-approved “Carry Them, Again” (which thunders into an unexpected grunge-swirl coda) is a fine soundtrack for discovering that they call themselves “alternative atmospheric downtempo post-metal” and that knowing that would’ve been useful previously. If Tidal can find a way to match the unified presentation and purpose of Jack White’s own Third Man Records, perhaps it might stand a chance of sticking around to nurture the next generation of hubristic pop stars.

While the thoroughly vilified Record Store Day has become a blight for a good portion of the independent record business, filled with false scarcity and record plant-clogging picture-discs, it also sometimes offers music unavailable anywhere else, thus sparking a conundrum for fans who want to purchase said music without dealing with the bullshit of Record Store Day. The rising tide of anti-RSD thinkpieces seems to have made an impact this year, though, perhaps provoking labels to offer new options to bypass the hassle while still acknowledging the necessary financial bump offered by the faux-holiday.

For this year’s Record Store Day, North Carolina’s Three-Lobed Recordings issued Qalgebra by a super-duper-jammy-band led by Neil Hagarty (ex-Royal Trux) and James Toth (ex-Wooden Wand). Casually experimental with all the imprecision and music-making joy of Crazy Horse, the Hagerty-Toth Group’s debut is the type of LP with a small but built-in audience. Perhaps only half-intending to do so, Three-Lobed opted to print enough to continue selling the album themselves (and, fully intending to do so, made it available digitally the same day).

Minus the downloadable part, this also seems to be the same “Record Store Day first” path chosen by the ever-righteous Chicago archival label the Numero Group, who have quietly continued to sell their most essential collection of the year (so far): a box set of 16 7-inches comprising of the entire output of New York’s Ork Records, 1975-1979. A steal at $125, the set offers a thumbnail history of nothing except Ork: early and edgy classic singles from Television and Richard Hell, a nervous and primal debut by The Feelies, glittering unpunk-pop by Marbles, and other artists that still feel like discoveries decades later.

Though vinyl might be hard to manufacture, bands and labels have no such hold-ups with cassette, the physical medium of choice for the always-active, low-key do-it-yourselfers. Maybe not quite as focused as Ork Records, Kerchow!’s series of $3 cassingles offers quick glimpses into various suburban indie undergrounds. Arklight’s saturated and exploding “Calling Them Out” b/w “Fevered Dream” translates the condensed avant-dreamery of early-’90s Elephant 6-style fuzz to the Bandcamp age without gaining any accidental fidelity in the process. Shivering Window’s three-song contribution to the series is a slightly more participatory channel to the same era: all blurry drum machines and opaque desires, a lazy, hazy time machine that only works when the listener achieves beatific slackerdom.

Perhaps the most work-free transportation of the year, in any medium or platform, is provided by Jeff Milano’s 25-minute Kambang Adzan cassette, a field recording made in Indonesia in 1997 or 1998. Intending to capture a monsoon, Milano also gets the occasional mewl of street-cats locked in the rooftop cages near his recording spot and, more significantly, voices chanting in prayer, floating up through the rain. Following the rise of ASMR sleeping aids and the popularity of phone apps that replicate lapping seashores and whispering downpours, Kambang Adzan might seem like a natural sleep aid. But the swell and chant of the voices is too real, the winds of the monsoon too insistent. Instead, it is just a place in time that, in turn, can now conjure a time far out of place. The chanting abates and the storm rolls back a little bit to dripping echoes, car horns, and occasional distant street conversation.

A lineage of off-grid private and small-label releases by folk musicians predates the punk and indie explosion by decades, and continues to exist in the form of homespun CDs made in tiny batches, sold at local shows and by mail order. This season that includes the beautifully low-key Silver Fiddle and the Red Banjo, an instrumental album by Brian Godchaux and Sandy Rothman. With a shared connection to the Grateful Dead (Godchaux’s brother was the Dead’s late keyboardist Keith, Rothman was a longtime collaborator with Jerry Garcia), the duo represents a long-developing iteration of Bay Area folk music: old-time dance-band traditions turned inward. In a world with electricity, the mellow conversations of two acoustic musicians will always be timeless and out of place.