Everyone knows that the music industry is changing forever. Faced with emerging technology that makes the traditional model of record production obsolete, the entire business is undergoing a public soul-searching as well as a mad scramble to be the first to stumble on a new model that makes sense (and money) in the internet age.
The problem is so ubiquitous that a question about facing it has become standard in almost every artist interview I’ve read recently. The answers to these questions are also fairly standard: It’s easier to make a record but harder to get it noticed, and taking music on tour is now the grail of the working musician who wishes to make a living with their art.
But in reality the future is just as uncertain as it always is. There is no one “right” way, no patented formula for success. Many artists may find their way on the road, but the truth is that this new climate doesn’t favor a single path to commercial and artistic happiness. It favors the innovators, those willing to look beyond the typical, to build their own methods and run with them.
Birmingham band Through the Sparks (TTS) are one such group of individuals. Despite national recognition and a solid local and regional fan base, they were unable to fully embrace the “get your money on the road” mentality because of ties to home that made it difficult to leave for long periods of time and return to out-of-town venues with the frequency necessary to retain fans.
TTS front-man Jody Nelson recalls the moment where they decided to switch gears. “Travis [Morgan], who owns [TTS label] Skybucket Records—we were talking to him about trying to get to touring,” Nelson says, “and he was really wanting us to do that. Our problem was, like everybody else, you go somewhere and nobody knows who you are because you haven’t been there in two years because you don’t have enough money to go back every couple months. It was just getting futile, so we came up with the idea—our bass player Greg Slamen had just had a baby—and it was just impossible to [tour enough] where it was worth it; you have to go all or none. So we decided that we’d try another approach. We got the website up to where we could actually [reach] enough people that we did have on our mailing list, that we could keep reminding them, when we do come back, that we’re still around. Once we decided to do it like that, it was easy to say ‘Okay, there’s going to be a deadline every month and we’re going to send out a newsletter every month with something [new] to listen to.’”
Armed with this new structure, TTS set about recording a single per month to include with their newsletter. It was an entirely new way of thinking about recording compared to their traditional album-oriented approach. “Everything [changed],” Nelson remembers. “Everything, because first of all we weren’t working in album format. We’ve always done that. Plus in an album format you can go back all at once and maybe do all the overdubs or something. Now when we do play out of town somewhere there are people we can contact now, and they’re probably going to be there. Not all of them of course, it’s crazy to think that, but we can pretty much play and have somebody show up, instead of just going somewhere where it’s totally empty. That and we were able to build the mailing list a lot and also have constant mentions every month online somewhere, instead of just once a year when you release a record.”
After 12 months of creating one song a month, they realized they had an album’s worth and decided to put them together in a collection, entitled Almanac (MMX) Year of the Beast, which they could release.
“It wasn’t the idea from the beginning,” Nelson says. “It just kind of got to be that way because—well, we realized we’ve got an album here. No matter if it is disjointed, it still makes sense as a collection, especially if you know how it was done, and why it came out that way. We weren’t able to have the advantage of knowing what collection of songs were going to be on there, [so] the collection we’re putting out is backheavy. You can tell once it gets to the end that it starts to make sense like an album, because the earlier songs we were able to look at in retrospect. Normally what you would do is take that and start to get an order together and say ‘Oh well, this song goes here, and this one goes there, and because we’ve got this then we’re going to add this.’ And it starts to make sense as a record near the end. But [on Almanac] the ones in the beginning are kind of hodge-podged together. I mean, not really song by song, but as far as the way they connect with each other. So it was kind of an anti-album in that aspect, but also since we only had a month we couldn’t just—I mean, usually I can’t listen to anything we’ve recorded, because it’s been drilled into you. It’s like refrigerator buzz or whatever, you can’t even hear it. But I still like this one, because we weren’t able to kill every song by overdubbing too much or rewriting.”
There were other challenges as well, especially for Nelson as the primary songwriter. “For me, musically,” Nelson says, “I think it was fun having all those little deadlines, but lyric-wise, to finish something in a month for me is really hard, if it’s going to be put out, because I usually go back and rewrite and stuff like that, but just constantly having to walk around and think about [the lyrics] really kind of made me feel like an asshole a lot. Still, that’s kind of what’s cool about it. The fact that we knew we had a certain amount of time, there’s stuff that would have gotten thrown away if it weren’t for that restriction. Meaning, ‘Okay, we’ve gotta make this good.’ So it was a challenge, without all the time to get it wrong. We were just kind of like, ‘Well man, let’s just do what we know.’ So there is some stuff [on Almanac] that’s more safe. There’s some straight up rock songs on here instead of noise-scaped, ambient [stuff].”
Fear not, the resulting album does contain a fair amount of the kind of off-kilter weirdness that made TTS’ last album Worm Moon Waning so appealing; it’s just not as prominent. Though the month-to-month production schedule does make the beginning of the album feel like it’s changing channels a bit, that variety actually served to draw me deeper in, rather than push me away. In a way, this is the audio equivalent of a collection of short stories. Each track tells its own tale, weaves its own aesthetic, but it is the combination of all these different soundscapes that provides Almanac’s particular charm.
Now that TTS have settled on a new model that works for them, they aren’t content to rest easy. They’re already working on their next release, though they have loosened some of their self-imposed restrictions.
“[Almanac] comes out June 21,” Nelson says, “ but we’ve got songs that we were writing in the background this whole time, and we’ve already gotten in that rhythm of doing a song a month and it kind of stayed that way a little bit, so by the time September rolls around we’ll probably have another [album] finished, [this time] without the restrictions. It’s better for output, but this time when we’re done with something we can just throw it out like normal.
TTS are also playing Birmingham’s newest music festival, Secret Stages, which will take place May 13-14 and provides them an opportunity to get in some live performance in front of a large audience without the hassle of leaving town.
I ask Nelson if he is excited about the impending festival. “Absolutely, it’s gonna be great,” he says. “[The loft-district] part of town’s really fun. Any time Birmingham can do something— people like to get out. This kind of thing brings people that aren’t usually music fans down here. People that aren’t in it every night tend to get out and just have fun. The surrounding area comes into town. I’m excited about hearing The Love Language. That’s great guitar music. John Paul Keith and the One Four Fives are good friends of mine. We used to play with John Paul, years back. I’m actually playing with Barton Carroll, I’ve seen him play guitar, and I love seeing him. And then all the people I’ve never heard of—Dawes is gonna be great, but all the people I’ve never heard of, that’s the fun part—if you walk around you see stuff that you wouldn’t normally know, that’s the reason to go.”
Almanac (MMX) Year of the Beast will be available June 21, but you can visit www.throughthesparksmusic.com to listen to the individual singles, download their previous albums and find out a more about the band. For more information on Secret Stages, visit www.secretstages.net.
Sam George is the managing editor of Birmingham Weekly. Please send your comments to email@example.com.