Take the Music Back – An Interview with Campbell Umbers

Gene Simmons recently declared that ‘rock is dead’, before being publicly rebuffed by the likes of Dave Grohl and Slash. It’s a sentiment that never ceases to rear its ugly head every few years, by some jaded rock start trying to maintain relevance in the new millennium. Record sales are plummeting across all genres, but that doesn’t stop young hopefuls from bringing the noise in tiny sweat boxes the world over, hoping one day to make it big like all their favourite rock bands. The Record Crate in Glebe is one of the noble venues hosting these humid hoedowns, and tonight two-piece That Red Head are set to blow the roof off with their own brand of dirty blues rock. The lights dim and the band emerge before a capacity audience, starting their set with a stripped down take on Johnny Cash favourite, ‘Ring of Fire’. Immediately, the entire crowd is singing along to the timeless tune, and I’m fighting the urge not to stand up from my seat. People still pay for and enjoy quality music, it just doesn’t receive the support it needs to thrive in the 21st century.

I’m sitting with one half of That Red Head, guitar-slinger Campbell Umbers, in his newly built home studio. Light barely penetrates this musical bunker, whose walls are lined with guitars, a drum kit, and a variety of other instrument oddities. He lights up a cigarette and nods in agreement. ‘I passionately believe that people will enjoy and pay for good art if they’re exposed to it’, he asserts before taking a long drag, ‘so for me the fundamental is creating a good product to begin with, which needs money’. Artists the world over are desperately trying to circumvent the strong arm of the record label machine, and are now procuring funding directly from their fans through services like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Progressive death metal band Ne Obliviscaris successfully funded a world tour through crowdfunding, raising over 80 thousand dollars in just a few weeks. However, as Cam was quick to point out, ‘the crowdfunding thing isn’t particularly useful if you don’t have a pre-existing fan base’.

He continues, ‘The Kickstarter model’s interesting, and it would be good if it could work in that how it works for like tech start-ups where you provide a working prototype and in this case maybe some demos, and then people get on board and fund it’. One can’t help but agree. Music, the infinitely diverse creation of patterned sound, does not have the same assured return for consumers as technology with a specific function in mind. Eskimo Joe may be able to rely on their status as a seasoned rock act to crowd fund an album, but local musicians like Cam simply don’t have the clout to draw in substantial contributions. In fact, Cam believes that crowd funding sites such as Kickstarter may actually be hindering the value of music. ‘I think crowdfunding actually perpetuates this is that the – if music’s not being devalued, the value has been sort of nebulised’, he posits amidst the smoke wafting between us. For Cam, the record industry needs to find a solution that doesn’t decrease the value of music, and allows both established and up and coming artists to flourish.

‘The Kickstarter thing again is a bit like the Band Camp model, which works in a lot of ways, but pay what you like, it’s not a clear value’, Cam asserts. The value of music is something that has been thrown into question with the digitization of the economy and the advent of P2P Filesharing. Where once major record labels set the value for music with their pricing schemes, anyone can put a value on it based on what they’re willing to pay. ‘I really believe that you know – you go out and you buy a record, you pay 15 bucks for it – whatever. And, y’know, that’s your value of music,’ Cam suggests, echoing the sentiment. If we can’t maintain that value, musicians won’t have the resources they need to create and record new and interesting music. Cam is in the same overcrowded boat as every other musician trying their luck in one of the most fickle industries on the planet. Where most artists merely lament the state of the industry whilst continuing to be its slave, Cam is determined to make a difference.

His studio is the home base for what he hopes to be a profitable business in the future. Working long into the morning hours, like some kind of mad scientist on the cusp of the ultimate break through, he produces and records a number of local bands as well as his own material. I was invited over to watch him mix a few of his own recordings in the middle of the night, which he hopes to release on his self-made label, Smiling Fish. He’s excited because he’s just found a Chinese woodwind instrument on the side of the road, complete with its own casing. As I arrive, he gets it out of its fluorescent orange home and begins playing it, wriggling his eyebrows as he moves between notes. After putting it away, he eagerly shows me his plans for an upcoming album he intends to release through Band Camp. The music drones through the speaker system and disturbs the listener with the aural intensity of an existential crisis, in some ways reflecting the record industry’s inability to find its place in the modern music landscape.

Despite Cam’s grievances with Kickstarter, he is certainly more optimistic about Band Camp, which sees independent artists and labels coexisting on a relatively cheap distribution platform. ‘Band Camp published that 40% of consumers pay above the minimum price setting’, he notes, ‘but, I think that there’s [a] significant presence of major artists on there already that would kind of dilute those figures.’ Cam has opted to pay for his own Band Camp account for Smiling Fish Records, as the first stepping stone towards realizing his dream set up. Although the data may be diluted by the many larger independent labels operating through Band Camp, Cam posits that, ‘I like the Band Camp model as a model of online distribution. Their commission is very low. You maintain all of the intellectual property rights around the recording and the musical work.’ In providing a cheap platform for recording artists, Band Camp has empowered independent musicians in the fight for publicity in an industry which grows more diluted by the day.

Of course, this doesn’t include the cost of recording music in the first place, nor does it account for any kind of creative stewardship. This is where Cam’s studio, and his desired business model, comes to the fore. ‘For me it’s all about creating a really good product. Historically that’s been a collaborative process between artist, producer and label as well,’ he asserts, using Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon as an example: ‘Alan Parsons produced it, had a major influence on it. But I think the biggest thing to look at is EMI provided for Pink Floyd the space at Abbey Road for months and months and months to do that record. And I think that’s something that can be replicated.’ Certainly, Pink Floyd is an ambitious example, but Cam believes it’s the duty of small-time label owners to have a hand in nurturing the artistic direction of their musicians, and give them the tools they need to make the best album possible. As an artist, Cam has to believe people are willing to pay for good art, and the passion with which he explains his grand business plan is definitely convincing.

‘My personal solution – what I intend to do – is to build a business that is label-distribution-management: as much as we can handle, but be able to provide that service of creative direction and production in-house.’ This is all part of Cam’s plan to maintain a higher level of quality in music output, and develop a reliable brand around the business of music recording and distribution. He insists that this can be done relatively cheaply on a small scale, and is an investment in a better product. Cam simply doesn’t have time for the major label’s focus on quantity over quality, producing what he calls ‘inane Christmas bullshit’. He continues, ‘I think a lot of the reason for the decline of the music industry is not only piracy but also in that people aren’t selling a good product that you can emotionally engage with and that you can get really excited about.’ As any avid music listener will tell you, they are more than willing to pay for the music they love, it just needs to be made available to them. Major labels may put all their eggs in the bubble-gum pop basket, but in doing so have neglected to treat the consumer with the respect they deserve. This is what separates Cam’s grand vision from that of the recording industry hierarchy.

Cam is, however, quick to give praise to Jack White and his Third Man Records venture. ‘If you look at Jack White’s venture with Third Man Records that is a very, very successful company built on the premise of creating a quality product that people can get excited about,’ he proclaims. He’s not wrong; one glance at the sale of vinyl in recent years shows that his latest record, Lazaretto, has sold more copies of any vinyl release since Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy. In the process, the record also broke previous records set by Radiohead’s King of Limbs and his own Blunderbuss in 2011. A format thought on the brink of extinction until very recently has had new life breathed into it, all thanks to Jack White’s dedication to producing a quality product, and Cam hopes to emulate this success through his own venture. It is not an alternative form of funding that is going to save the music industry, as Cam puts it: ‘the way I think of alternative ways of fucking making money out of music is just bringing it back to the fundamentals of creating a good product that people can engage with.’

As part of building a brand around his business, and a reputation for quality music releases, Cam intends to invest in a set up not all too dissimilar to The Record Crate. ‘My plan, as I mentioned earlier, is to have an in-house recording set up, but situated somewhere with prominent frontage, and a bar and venue onto the street, so you have a first point of contact with your consumers where they can engage with your brand in a very easy fashion.’ Cam is practically jumping out of his seat as he explains this plan to me in great detail, and it’s hard not to believe him. He leans back into his seat, takes one final drag of his cigarette, and stubs it out on a nearby ashtray. I realize at this point that it’s time to let the mad scientist get back to business, because he has a lot of work ahead of him.

Upstairs at The Record Crate, That Red Head bring their set to a close with a colossal mashup of Link Ray and the Ray Men’s ‘Rumble’ and The Doors’ ‘Roudhouse Blues’. The whole room is shaking with each punishing chord, and the tightly packed crowd are losing their minds, head-banging in place, pounding the tables, and stomping their feet. The sweatbox is reaching a fever pitch when the final chords are strummed and the band takes their leave. ‘Encore!’ is being shouted relentlessly over the top of a constant barrage of applause and table bashing, to no avail. As people push and shove their way towards the staircase down to the bar, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Cam will make his mark on music, and proves that people are salivating for a product they can engage with. They just need someone to lead the way, and Cam appears more than happy to take up the challenge.

This article was published with the express permission of those interviewed

Heavy Metal Hegemony: It’s a Man’s World

Heavy metal is hardly the most feminine genre of music. Large, hairy men stalk the world’s stages, broadcasting the soundtrack to the apocalypse through an unending stack of amplifiers. These champions of the ugly and downtrodden seemingly have little to offer to the fairer of the sexes… but appearances aren’t everything.

More women are making themselves known in the metal world, with bands such as Arch Enemy and Nightwish (two successful female-fronted metal bands) being prime examples. However, whilst the genre is more accessible than ever to women, the culture remains firmly rooted in heterosexual male ideals. Women are still placed on pedestals as objects of beauty and perfection as they sway gracefully before the microphone, whilst an overweight bald man glides across the stage on his belly. Should they choose to reject this notion of femininity, they must adopt an entirely masculine stage persona – even if they adopt this attitude, the plight of sexualisation persists in the heavy metal community.

Sam Barker is a woman who seeks to overcome this plight, having been influenced by heavy metal since she was fourteen. Going to an all-girls high school, she found that very few people shared her passion for hard rock and heavy metal; nonetheless she taught herself how to play guitar and formed a band. After high school, she attended the Australian Institute of Music, where she met the all-female members of local glam-revival outfit Thrüsh. Working at local metal nightclub Venom, she was able to book the band their first gigs, turning heads in the process. Regardless, being a woman in metal has its complications.

“It’s got its ups and its downs. There are a lot of negative connotations with it, but there are a couple of positive things,” Sam enthuses, suggesting that although it has its downsides, it isn’t all bad. “So, for example, being a chick means that I get more recognised ‘cuz there’s not many women. I don’t know the statistics specifically, but there are just…there are no women.” Women are few and far between in the metal scene, which can be both a good and bad thing for prospective musicians. One must yield to a male-dominated culture in order to make the grade (there is no ‘be yourself’), yet there are very few female musicians to challenge you.

Of course, this is only so long as you satisfy the aesthetic criteria. You might be able to shred alongside Eddie Van Halen, but there’s little success to be found if you look like Angus Young. Assuming you do satisfy these arbitrary beauty standards, however, does ability matter as much? “If I was a guy doing the exact same things as what I do, it probably wouldn’t be acknowledged as much,” Sam asserts. Perhaps you might be able to build a name for yourself on looks alone, yet the very crowd which propped you up on these merits will question your integrity as a musician. If you’re like Sam, toiling somewhere in the middle of feminine and masculine, you get a little of both: “I do get judged a lot more, and it’s a lot to do with aesthetic value as well as…it’s not just musical value.”

I can’t argue with her. In 2010, Revolver Magazine published their ‘Hottest Chicks in Metal’ calendar, which featured Angela Gossow of Arch Enemy fame. She slammed the magazine saying, “I don’t like the ‘Hottest Chicks in Metal’ movement at all. I think it’s kind of counterproductive and retro” in an interview with KNAC (an online magazine). She goes on to say, “it’s an embarrassment for female musicians, who actually are musicians,” ramming home the fact that looks have nothing to do with how you play your instrument.

These lofty beauty standards leave men at the door the moment you cross into the heavy metal subculture. Gone is the need for a trim waist and perfect skin, as going to any number of metal shows will illustrate. Instead, you find the sort of people you would normally associate with dirty bars and dark alleyways. Or, as Sam simply puts it, “there are a lot of hairy dudes.” Beauty is totally subjective, though, as Sam herself exemplifies: “I find hairy metal heads exceptionally attractive.” However, it is far more socially acceptable to be attracted to a conventionally unattractive man than a woman of the same calibre – this is only magnified by the distinct lack of women participating in the scene.

She went on to tell me about her experience at a Children of Bodom show in Sydney. Supporting the death metal titans was a local band called Voyager; their lead guitarist, Simone Drow, took the stage as it was time to perform. “A lot of guys around thought she was a roadie,” Sam told me, describing her as ‘”stocky” and “not the most feminine”. Following the realisation that she was actually a part of the band, people started making “derogatory comments… because she wasn’t hot, conventionally.” Afterwards, Sam found the most common reaction was “she’s alright for a girl”. As a guitarist herself, Sam knows exactly how it feels to receive such underhanded praise. Women can never escape their gender in the realm of metal, which mars the expectation put upon them by their peers – even if they do find the recognition they deserve, as Sam and many others have, they are still often met with the tired remark. Sam and Simone are both guitarists, which highlights another issue confronting women in metal; their place in the band.

“It’s sad, but most women are keyboardists or bass players. Guitarists are less common, but the rarest thing is a female drummer. I’ve met four of them in my life.” The most common place women find in bands is that of the vocalist, as Angela Gossow of Arch Enemy and Floor Jansen of Nightwish illustrate. Perhaps this reflects a need for women to be on display to be appreciated. Women might not be able to find recognition if they hide behind an instrument, concealing their aesthetic. Perhaps this is also why female drummers are so rare, along with the stigma attached to drummers as being ‘cavemen of the future’.

With all this focus on beauty, one would be forgiven for thinking that metal isn’t a culture built for outsiders after all. It seems society’s standards for women have persisted despite the declaration of metal as music for the ugly and downtrodden. This can be put down to metal being established from the very beginning of its life as a ‘boys club’. Even the most feminine of the metal genres, glam metal, lacks a solid female talent base to draw on. “The whole glam thing is men wearing spandex and tights in order to appease a primarily male-oriented audience. The whole premise is objectifying women, partying, doing drugs. It’s like this peacocking affair for other guys to admire,” Sam explains. Glam is no refuge for women in metal, as it displays and perpetuates the same misogyny found in other forms of the genre.

Misogyny is everywhere, though. As horrible as it is for women in the metal scene, it is still very much outsider music. The abrasive sound and dark lyrics could never be fully accepted by a mainstream audience. The music rails against everything that defines popular music, even if the culture is still in many ways rooted in larger cultural trends. Sam agrees, “I think Metal is still very much outsider music. I mean that’s the whole theory of metal being for outsiders. But at the same time you’re gonna get the stigmatism with women everywhere. Metal is very misogynistic, but you get that everywhere: in music, in the arts, in media…just anything.”

The rampant objectification and dismissal of women hasn’t gone unnoticed by all, however, as the rise of bands like Steel Panther seek to expose and make fun of this phenomenon. A parody glam metal band, Steel Panther have gained a huge amount of success through their blunt portrayal of eighties hair metal. Although their success has been able to illuminate the sexism in metal for some, there are still many who take the band at face-value. Sam concurs, “Steel Panther have started to poke fun at misogyny in the metal scene… [but] people are still laughing without realising the connotations behind it.”

Sam takes a lot of cues from Steel Panther in her own endeavours with Thrüsh – the five members of the band dress in provocative clothing, including leather, spandex, and fishnets. The band plays a similar style of eighties hard rock, whilst spouting lyrics about using boys and getting trashed; somewhat of a female appropriate of Steel Panther’s own lyrics. “There are five females in the band, and we use that to take the piss out of being objectified,” Sam continues, “a lot of our songs were piss-takes out of the whole glam rock scene, the metal scene, women in metal.” Despite her best intentions, Sam still found that the males in her audience were using that to further legitimize objectifying her and the band: “Some people were saying that, you know, your music parodies that, so therefore it’s okay for us to objectify you because you’re saying so yourself, which wasn’t the case.”

Surely, I thought, being a woman in metal would not only be degrading but also incredibly difficult to crack. After all, if no one takes you seriously, how are you supposed to progress in a world defined by the tastes of your peers? Sam says it isn’t as hard as it might seem – “I’ve been noticed since day one. I started clubbing and it didn’t take me long to get a dent in the local scene.” I assumed this would only last so long, perhaps as a result of merely being a good-looking woman in the right place at the right time, but Sam continues to impress me with the swiftness of her ascent: “Within a year I ended up working at the biggest metal club in Sydney, I had a single come out, I had a lot of recognition from a lot of the local scene. I mean, it’s been two years now, and I’d say I’m definitely a big part of the scene.”

Despite heterosexual male ideology being at the forefront of metal for all of its forty-odd year existence, many women like Sam have made their mark, or began to make their mark. Unfortunately, much of this demands adopting one of two types of personas: one must either embrace their femininity to the fullest, or disregard it entirely. Almost all notably successful women in metal adhere to one of these archetypes in a bid to compete with the men who’ve owned this genre since its beginning. Sam is one of the few women who choose to be entirely themselves on stage, and her success can be attributed not only to her musical prowess, but her cunning ability to navigate the scene.

Making the most of your situation is admirable, but it’s definitely something that needs to change. One can only hope that metal culture will begin to shed its juvenile approach to women, but Sam thinks we still have a while to go; when I asked her if she thought it would change anytime soon, she had this to say: “Maybe. I don’t know – every now and then I see a little glimmer of hope when someone takes me seriously as a musician.” This is hardly fair, but until something changes Sam and others like her will have to put up with being marginalized and objectified. That said, she wishes there was something she could do. “Until I can do something about it, which I don’t know, I might never be able to do something about. As a feminist I want equality within the sexes and the metal scene’s very close to heart – but until then I’m just going to have to take the piss out of it some more.”

This article was published with the express permission of those interviewed