People Places Records on Community, Activism, and Consortium Works: Solo Saxophone

Over the last two years, the experimental music label with a DIY ethos, People Places Records, has been organizing a saxophone consortium (Consortium Works: Solo Saxophone). It’s a type of collective commissioning project in which people chip in to commission composers, and performers sign up to play the pieces once they’re finished. Today, The Road to Sound is thrilled to be premiering the first music video from the project, featuring Andrew Noseworthy’s Pull Up, performed by Greg Bruce. People Places Records has committed to donating to charity on Bandcamp Fridays and giving artists 100% of proceeds after that date for all releases, including this one.

Beyond this video premiere, the idea of a consortium is timely for its broader implications of community-based music making. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, and broader socio-political unrest of the moment have all pushed conversations surrounding the ways in which music can move forward the forefront. To get to the bottom of People Places Records’ commitment to building community and equity, I video chatted with its founders, Andrew Noseworthy and Aeryn Santillan. Music industry forces are all reckoning with how to create a more equitable future, and People Places Records is just one example of a label making decisions on how to progress. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

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VANESSA AGUE: How long had you had the saxophone consortium in the works? Because it’s massive! 

ANDREW NOSEWORTHY: I guess it did get pretty big, or it’s been running for a while. Basically Samantha, the original lead commissioner, and I had been talking about doing a piece for a good while. I had seen a couple of other individuals, like Tyler Kline, doing these kinds of projects that were very successful, and I thought they were also in line with the types of sustainable community ideas that I’m interested in when I collaborate with people, with PPR, and with Aeryn. 

We spent late 2017/early 2018 planning it and getting the composers together, and then we launched it in June or July of 2018. The signup writing period ran until November. There was a yearlong performance exclusivity period for everyone that signed up, and there were about 46 players from all over the world that signed up.

The performance exclusivity period for members ended last March, and that’s around the time that a select group of members all studio recorded the pieces for us for this album. Right around the time that the premiere was coming up, Samantha got a really good job teaching in a school in Toronto and decided to switch from being a regular performer to being the music program director at this school, so she couldn’t really commit to it anymore. She had a lot of involvement with it right up until basically the premiere period. She’s still a supporter, but she’s not really performing very much anymore. So it got picked up by the consortium members. 

VANESSA: You briefly touched on how this is part of the community initiatives that you want to have as a label. I was wondering, from both of your perspectives, what community means to you? 

AERYN SANTILLAN: Andrew and I grew up sort of having parallel lives, in some ways, with guitar playing and punk bands. And I think, from my perspective, I take a lot of inspiration from that kind of community building, where everyone has a voice and everyone’s voice matters. There’s this support that happens that I would really like to see in more experimental music communities, where you’re a part of it, you’re able to do things on your own, you support others with what you can, and vice versa. That could be creating album art, or recording your friend, or helping promote records. You play into the community’s strengths. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. We can all learn from each other and we’re better off together. The other thing I wanted to touch on was, because I think it’s important especially now, but I think experimental music communities can learn a lot from how punk has treated socio-political issues. It’s very much at the forefront all the time. All the bands I know and have been in have donated money, like immediately, it was a no questions asked. Sometimes I feel like there’s a lot of bureaucratic nonsense in new music. We’re trying to keep it DIY and really focus on people, versus, I don’t know, building an organization. 

ANDREW: There are exceptions, and there are organizations that draw the line much further within the kind of DIY environment, but I think that we don’t see a future in this top-down, hierarchical construction that a lot of the organizations do. Contemporary music or experimental music or new music focuses on distinct roles a lot. There’s more of a fluidity within the DIY community. 

VANESSA: It is something that we don’t see as much because it’s ingrained in music school what your instrument is, or what your strengths are, but really anyone can try anything. How are you, as a label, promoting and encouraging this attitude within experimental music? 

ANDREW: At first we were really dedicated to this continuing line between all the different releases and to making sure that whenever we put out a release, it was something that we could wholeheartedly support and put as much resources that we could, even just with our own time of, say, Aeryn hand screen printing the merch, or me doing the promotion or booking shows. We were also involving a continuing revolving door of different collaborators within each different release so that you can see that kind of fluidity that I was just talking about. 

Since last summer, we’ve been talking about ways to move that forward or be, dare I say, a little bit more radical about it. We’re different than the majority, but how are we different than these other specific established labels? How are we different than Cantaloupe Music or how are we different than New Amsterdam Records or something like that? Because there’s definitely influence there and there’s an inspiration and there’s definitely overlap.

With all our future releases, especially now with the way that the whole climate of music and art looks right now moving forward, we decided that all of our upcoming releases, for the preorder and then for the release day period, all the proceeds will go towards a transparent and grassroots activist or benefit organization of some kind. We’ll pick different ones for each release based on the artists involved and their areas. Following that, all the proceeds will go directly to the artists involved. We’re not making enough to pocket or any of that kind of stuff, so we might as well put it back in. 

AERYN: I guess some people might be like, “how does the label make any money?” Andrew and I use our band for that. Our projects on the label just feed into the label, we don’t really care about making money off our own recordings in that way. That’s our, I guess, personal contribution to keep it going and then have a label that can exist in the pandemic. We break even, and that’s all we really ask for, because really the good thing that comes out is we get to help our friends and build community with this thing that we’re constantly building and changing. 

ANDREW: Yeah, the platform is more important than anything else.

VANESSA: How has the pandemic affected what you see for your future? Has it made you make any decisions about delaying anything, or, on the other hand, to make something happen faster? 

AERYN: I think we’ve, as a label, been fine. Because it’s just Andrew and I we were just like, “we’re just going to pause this now.” It’s not a money loss. 

ANDREW: It’s a luxury in that way for sure. Not everybody can say the same thing. 

AERYN: For sure, and I think that’s what makes DIY great. We built something sustainable. We have control of it, and we can say, “yeah, it’s time to hang on for a second.” We pushed some releases back a little bit because there was some doom and existential dread happening in our individual lives in general. But now that everyone’s kind of more, I don’t want to say used to it, but everyone’s in some kind of weird pandemic groove at this point, I feel like it’s a little easier to start organizing again. 

ANDREW: The other thing that we had to do was figure out our response to the increasing focus on the Black Lives Matter protests and all the other kinds of relief that is going on. Aeryn and I took a little over two months talking regularly back and forth about it, and didn’t release anything because we didn’t want to clog feeds with self-promotion. We wanted to give a bit of space so that we were not going business as usual, but it also wouldn’t have felt really sincere to just suddenly switch everything that we were doing and only program according to what’s happening right now, because we’ve kind of always been doing that. Our last X number of releases usually feature a number of LGBTQ+ artists or BIPOC artists. We figured that giving to causes was an actionable way to support rather than to just suddenly say, “okay, now our next three releases are only Black composers.” Representation is good, but if we’re already putting out all that music anyway, it’s like, how do we now do our thing with that? 

AERYN: That whole train of thought, it’s just like, “why weren’t you doing it before?” It’s something that Andrew and I honestly get pissed off about all of the time. [laughs] It’s this performance that people put on for the internet. I feel like everyone is doing these big performative gestures and that’s just such an eye roll. 

VANESSA: Performative activism has been pervasive. That leads me right into my next question, which was: do you think about representation when you’re picking who to work with? But, it sounds like that’s embedded in your process. 

AERYN: I don’t want to say I don’t think about it because I do, but not in the like, “we better program a Black person or a trans person or insert minority” way. I never think about it that way. I’m just friends with people that are those things. We haven’t had a hard time looking for diversity because we just naturally have that within our circles. I think when you already have that embedded, other people are comfortable in that space. It just becomes a space for other people to come and hang out and do things. There’s easy connections that happen. It doesn’t feel like this forced thing is what I’m getting at. 

ANDREW: Yeah. That’s a good point. When it’s integrated like that, it kind of just happens. I will say to an extent we are mindful of it sometimes, but not to the point where we need to do that as a selling point or strategy. Maybe if we have three releases on the docket, and if the last two were by mostly white people, maybe the next one doesn’t have to be made by mostly white people. I think there’s a healthy balance of being mindful of it and knowing that there is a danger to not thinking about it and contributing to some sort of saturation. But when it’s your selling point or it’s the way you market it or it’s a political decision, it’s just as dangerous. 

VANESSA: What would you want the future to be for the experimental community at large? 

ANDREW: I don’t think I have one answer, I think I have little points that I think about. One would be, and this is another buzzword right now, but there would definitely be accountability of some kind. This is a very quick example, but if a composer appropriated something and then five years later, they get called out on it, they’d own up to it and realize that they profited off of using this material from this group of people and that that wasn’t right. And then they’d own up to it and delete it, or find some way to give back. I think that’s one very simple, individual gesture that would help a lot of various communities. It doesn’t have to be a mass structural change. Everybody wants to write an article now about how notation is colonialist or something like that, but those are also really grand, sweeping gestures that need a lot of deconstruction by different people at different levels. I think a bunch of little things, small steps, will all contribute bigger than something like that. 

AERYN: I feel like there can be a better redistribution of wealth. Some composers are getting paid a lot of money and there are grants that could fund a lot more composers. We all need to live, but why are we paying this person a hundred grand to write something? At some point, it’s just too much. I think if you give smaller grants and opportunities to a lot more people, it would allow for easier collaboration and things like that, because then people have some money to play with. They can go get their stuff recorded or whatever. These huge orchestra pieces that get commissioned, it’s just boatloads of money. It’s a lot of work, and I would also like to make money if I ever write for orchestra, but at some point there has to be a cap. Give some opportunities to other people, monetarily or literally have a premiere with an orchestra or something. I think those things can get us somewhere. 

ANDREW: What you’re talking about made me think about how a lot of established composers who get that kind of money justify getting that kind of money because of the amount of work that goes into it. But they don’t ever acknowledge the fact that even if they weren’t getting any of that money, there’s still massive capital on being able to have a good recording of an orchestra piece. So that contributes to a top-down culture where it’s the people that get these massive orchestra commissions, even without the money, who have a stranglehold on writing for orchestra. You can’t write for orchestra unless you’ve already written for orchestra, nobody’s going to want you to write for them because it’s such a huge risk. 

AERYN: It just contributes to that cycle. 

VANESSA: How would you imagine breaking that cycle? If you lived in an ideal world? 

AERYN: I think it’d be nice to have some kind of set commissioning structure for everyone in some way, where it’s a little more organized and not just like, you can make zero or a million dollars. [laughs] like, what does that mean? Some of the stuff I have coming out, I’m writing the same instrumentation, but I’m getting paid significantly more or less. Why? And this happens everywhere. I think people should unionize and create some kind of structure, or maybe not unionize, but can organize and talk about making money as a composer. I feel like it’s such a behind closed doors thing. I don’t know how much Andrew makes and Andrew is my best friend. [laughs] It’s such a taboo thing to talk about, but I feel like everyone should know what everyone else is getting paid so we can see inequality and fix things. 

ANDREW: Unions exist and they all say they’re there to help create an equitable environment, but it’s not as radical or as integrated as we’re talking about. I think the more that orchestras get community-based in terms of their programming and involvement from their members, the further it becomes fluid and the more things will move away from that kind of stranglehold or monopoly. The example I think about is something fairly recent. This time last year I had my Monotron Concerto performed by a youth orchestra, the National Youth Orchestra of Canada. They did a recording and a reading of the piece, and they nailed it basically just off of reading. A lot of the players stopped me afterwards and said like, “I love this piece, this is amazing, thanks so much for writing this.” And I’m sitting here thinking, I wrote this in 2014 and every orchestra call I’ve ever submitted it to tells me it’s crazy and no one will ever play it. Imagine if the players had some sort of say in that. 

AERYN: Yeah, I think those things can be more democratic. I agree with you there, Andrew, about having more input. 

ANDREW: Or less of, basically, a monopoly or less of a top-down structure. I don’t even know if I have the answers to that, I just know it doesn’t need to be the way that it is. [laughs] I know that too many cooks is a thing, and I know that you obviously can’t have some sort of chaotic environment with an organization that’s hundreds of people, but it doesn’t need to be a dictatorship or something either. 

VANESSA: That’s all about the distribution of tasks and the distribution of money. There’s so many ways you can do it. Do you have anything else that you’d like to add? 

AERYN: This is your time! Commission more Brown, Black, and queer people immediately and try to do stuff that you haven’t done before, like recording or something. Put stuff out, just do it, even if it’s not the greatest recording. More people don’t have to sit and wait to make these pristine things to share art. 

ANDREW: And when you commission those Black, Brown, and queer composers, don’t put them on the Black composer program. Play their piece more than once beyond the premiere. Make their piece a part of your regular repertoire. 

Consortium Works: Solo Saxophone will be released in full on August 7. Proceeds from now until August 7 will go to the Okra Project, and after that date, 100% of proceeds will go to the artists.

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