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A Q&A with Dunk Murphy of Sunken Foal

Back in 2008, I stumbled on an LP called Fallen Arches by an artist named Sunken Foal while searching through Planet Mu’s excellent catalog. I was immediately fascinated by the album’s organic instrumentation combined with glitchy percussion and decidedly progressive song structures that made for an outstanding and important LP. After a little investigation, I learned the man behind the project was Dunk Murphy, an accomplished Irish producer and musician, who also has released music as part of the groups Ambulance and Natural History Museum, among others. There were only two EPs (Fermented Condiments on Mu Records and Mother of God on Acroplane Recordings) from Sunken Foal since the debut, so it’s little wonder that I was highly anticipating his newest release, Friday Syndrome Volume 1, which is available as a free download at his website, www.counstersunk.org. Dunk was kind enough to answer a few questions from me via e-mail about his music, label, and artistic approach:

First of all, as a composer and producer myself, I love the way you went about producing the material on Friday Syndrome Volume 1. What was the catalyst behind the method, and did it result in any new or exciting revelations for you?

DM: Every tune is always different – I spent a little less effort at the time of inception with this collection of tunes – my stuff in the past has been far more “composed” working with lots of chord progressions and harmonies on guitars and pianos etc. – this time out I gave myself a few hours each Friday evening to compose some short rhythmic tracks and send them on to some friends as soon as they were done – the idea was to take advantage of that thirst for studio work I get every Friday evening when I know everyone else is getting ready to go out and socialise (knowing that I should to be getting ready too but at the same time getting all annoyed that I hadn’t worked hard enough that week) 

 

On your website, it seems that the recording itself is free for download, and what you’re actually selling is merchandise to promote the record. What made you take this approach?

DM: I tried my best in the past to make a living purely from music whether it be composing for film, performing or releasing music – it all seems to be in this huge state of flux as a business now and I’m starting to think that this state of flux will continue and no one ubiquitous medium for music distribution will be settled upon – so in the meantime I wasn’t really bothered investing in one of the new distribution methods as I wanted to get the music out ASAP – it seemed to me that there was a lot of negativity from one side from people complaining about the kids pirating music, and then a lot of negativity from another side where people are attacking established record companies for selling music through the same old methods – I was thinking it could be nice for the artist to come up with a slightly different way of collecting revenue for their works and accept that it is not “business as usual”

 

There also doesn’t appear to be a label involved. Is there any specific reason why you’re self releasing this recording, are there any added benefits, and do you foresee releasing music on labels ever again?

DM: Yeah, I’d love to release music on other labels again – my last album came out on planet-mu – I think that they prefer a different side to what I do so I thought releasing this myself might be a little challenge – I’m viewing countersunk as a label and there is music to come out from other artists through the site at a later date – I’m still not sure if we’ll venture into vinyl yet – it’s all still a bit new – by self releasing, perhaps the benefits are that you get to engage with the audience in a more immediate fashion

 

How important do you find a physical object à la a CD or LP these days, and do you see yourself releasing Friday Syndrome Volume 1 this way in the future?

DM: The physical object to me is really important: hence the generative prints that we have on sale to support the release – it occurred to me that with vinyl, 250 individual sleeves could not be printed with unique artwork without a huge amount of work so the idea of the 50cm x 70cm prints came and I decided to go with it – there are a couple more volumes to the “Friday Syndrome” project to come so there might be a ‘best of’ vinyl release if there is call for it

 

I think your work is extremely textured and diverse, therefore potentially lending itself to film music. Have you ever considered doing music for film, and if an advertiser approached you about using one of your songs in a large campaign, would do it?

DM: I’ve done loads of that shit!! – ads have paid the bills indeed in the past but they take a lot of work and you really have to be dedicated – not just in terms of composition but you have to think in a business minded way – films are even more work and you really have to be involved with the team at hand – the “Friday Syndrome” stuff started out of a period where I was finishing off a couple of art film sound pieces – One of them was called “Rialto Twirlers” by director Anne Marie Barry  – I was all ‘droney-textured’ out and I needed to write some beats … sort of as a method of self therapy : )

 

The “business minded” approach you speak of seems to be a difficult trait to take on for artists such as myself, especially in today’s fluctuating and seemingly oversaturated market. Do you have any advice for composers struggling to adapt this mindset who are looking to get their music in productions such as advertising or films?

DM: Shed any kind of pride or dignity that you might still be holding on to – be prepared to “believe” in things that you otherwise wouldn’t : ) whore yourself with all your might

 

Sunken Foal’s Friday Syndrome Volume 1 is now available for free download on countersunk. Share the link, and while you’re there, buy something and support the artist.

 

Opportunities Behind the Music

I read a fairly interesting New York Times article on the “vocal producer to the stars” Kuk Harrell, who is behind some of today’s most successful pop stars. The article went on to describe his varied history in the industry, his demeanor, and exactly how he became what he is today. The most interesting part of the article, however, was about highly specialized producers, and how sounds are generated, encouraged, copied, cut, and then pasted in today’s modern recording studio.

Depending on your background, this article might be a revelation to you in many respects. I really wasn’t aware that people thought that today’s vocalists just went in to the studio and belted out a full rendition of a song, but this is apparently so. Technology gives recordists and producers the power to cut and paste the tiniest of segments from a plethora of takes into what you hear on the master. This can have a sterilizing effect on the recording, depending on the music (and you’re opinion), but it also provides a world of possibilities at the click of a mouse. It also makes recordings like this one seem even more incredible, given they all had one shot to get the whole thing right. Pretty unbelievable.

It’s very interesting to me to think of highly specialized producers in the studio getting just the right sound out of the performers, their music, or their instruments. As an artist, my recording studio experiences relied on the musicians having their material ready to go, and the engineer using his or her expertise and knowledge of their gear and studio to get the best sounds out of the instruments. In this way, I can see these types of producers being a good and bad thing. The concept takes away a lot of the artistry from the engineer, and makes the job almost purely technical, but it also provides a lot of new and exciting opportunities for individuals with very specific talents and/or training that may have been marginalized previously. So road dogs, and creative visionaries, take note. There may be a (lucrative) place for you in the studio.

All Judgements Considered

There has very recently been a series of reactionary editorials bandying about in cyberspace regarding the fair compensation of artists in today’s technological landscape. This NPR editorial begat this NPR editorial, which was met with this response by a mainstream artist, that led to this reponse by a reasonably successful indie artist. Unsurprisingly, they all had different viewpoints on the way music is changing, and the way these changes apparently aren’t being adapted to by some musicians who once were able to somehow make a living off of record sales. If you choose to indulge in these articles, please set aside a fair amount of time, especially for Lowery’s editorial, which, despite him stating otherwise, comes off as wholly condescending, judgmental, and ridiculously unrealistic. 

Now I fit in kind of on the lower end of the age spectrum here, and that’s important. I’d say about a decade separates me from Emily White and Travis Morrison, who is roughly a decade younger than David Lowery. I was old enough to see the transition from cassettes to CDs, and to live through most of my childhood without much worthwhile internet access. I certainly did make cassette dubs of other people’s records, and I recorded the hell out of college radio, an act I hold in the highest of importance regarding my understanding of music. I remember when burning CDs was a brand new venture, one that I had trouble believing was possible. I remember Napster. I was also heavily involved with my college’s radio station for every year of my undergraduate studies, and took advantage of promos and library access with reckless abandon.

I am also a musician that has played in many bands, and has had many records released by said bands on extremely small indie labels. As such, I can barely relate to Travis Morrison’s success with his band The Dismemberment Plan. Lowery’s bands might as well be Def Leopard. Whatever that guy is complaining about in regards to music is outside of my realm of understanding, even if his first band was supposedly a purveyor of “DIY ethics” (probably before signing to a major label).

The main thrust of my argument is that the all-important record label, something Lowery seems strangely bent on defending, is becoming increasingly less important. In fact, I’d say that outside of making really sexy looking limited-run LPs for niche audiences who enjoy such things, they’re borderline irrelevant now. I also bet that record labels are more of a hindrance to a lot of important older music that nobody will ever legally get to hear because the label-owned recording has gone out of print, and/or is mired in red tape.

That brings me to the main point that isn’t addressed by any of the aforementioned articles. I think it would better serve music as a whole to try and use today’s technology to empower both the artist and music fan, and not make them both feel like they’re indebted to an antiquated business model or faceless company. Is there an alternative to buying a physical copy (which people don’t generally seem to want anymore), legally streaming the music (which apparently doesn’t compensate artists fairly), or downloading it legally (which not enough people seem to do)? One alternative is to completely cut the label out of the equation. Distribution channels are no longer monopolized by big labels, and if you need a loan, go to the bank, or better yet, start a kickstarter account. While you’re at it, start a PayPal account, too and/or a site like bandcamp so people can buy directly from you (and in a variety of file types to boot). As usual, it’s up to the band to figure out ways to get exposure, but, these days, putting yourself in a situation where you need to move 10,000 “units” before seeing a profit is absolutely ludicrous. It’s sad that Lowery won’t get a chance to issue his band’s older recordings this way unless he keeps waiting, or buys the masters from the label for exorbitant amounts, but that’s the legacy of the record label in 2012. I suppose he could set up a personal donation page if he doesn’t mind Virgin not getting a cut.

Compromise and Leverage

Compromise plays a role in everyone’s life. Whether it’s with fairly small scale day to day things, or large life altering decisions, compromise has a way of shaping and changing things in a substantial way. With artists, it’s an even bigger deal. And as it becomes increasingly possible as a musician to gain widespread exposure on a grassroots level via today’s burgeoning technology, the option of “selling out” has become less tempting. The reliance the musician once had on the all-powerful record label is falling by the wayside, and with that goes their willingness to compromise their music, and with that comes leverage. The musical artist, increasingly empowered, holds the cards. You need them more than they need you. The Best Cinematic and Motivational Royalty Free Audio

This seems like a strange game marketing agencies seem to like to play. In a previous blog post it was discussed that licensing music has become far more prevalent in advertising than hiring a composer, at least according to one industry source. However, with things moving in the direction they currently are in the “music industry”, I can only imagine it’s going to become increasingly difficult to wrangle a song away from an artist for an ad campaign. As a composer and producer of music, I see this as an opportunity to showcase what original music can do for a production. Music that’s created to support original visuals and highlight their emotional content, not songs created for their own sake, to sell records, or to pack clubs. There is a fundamental difference here which just reinforces my feeling that the true power of music is rarely utilized in association with visual media. That’s why in the rare instances you see it, you know.

Character

I’m not going to pretend that there are not a gazillion other music composers and producers out there, and a lot of them might be more formally educated than myself. Many of them might have more state of the art gear, and even more might have a greater amount of accolades than I have. However, I’m also not going to pretend like that necessarily holds much weight in the grand scheme of things. It’s all about what your ears tell you. As much as I’d like to, I can’t define certain signature artistic elements that show up in my work, so instead I prefer to accept them as flourishes of “character”.

Character is a completely subjective concept that means vastly different things to different people. As far as music goes, I look at it as what an artist brings to something that not everyone else can, does, or wants to. Now, musically this could be something as extreme as John Cage’s “4:33″, to a fantastic reinvention of a song we’re all familiar with. It all depends on the artist, and their character is a main way in which we distinguish one from the other.

Character is something we inherently have, but sometimes needs to be provoked or awakened by experiences and events. However, it is the intangible things that shape us artistically, that seem to come from within, that give us all a truly unique voice. If you’re lucky enough to have found yours, let the world hear it. If not, keep searching.