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

Live: Blacksmith at Spectrum – Hard Rock Lives! (4/7/14)

You’d be forgiven for thinking that hard rock is dead. It is a genre that survives almost entirely on the continued success of its elder statesmen. Slash is putting out a new album this year, and last year saw the release of Black Star Rider’s (ex-Thin Lizzy) fantastic All Hell Breaks Loose, but looking for younger hard rock bands worth talking about is a tough job. Those that have found mainstream success in the new millennium are more indebted to garage rock and psychedelia than the guitar heroism of Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi. A small glimmer of hope for the future can be found in the sleaze-soaked glory of Black Stone Cherry, The Answer, Rattlesnake, and now Blacksmith. Based in Sydney, Blacksmith employ blistering fretwork and soaring vocal acrobatics not seen since the heyday of Guns N’ Roses. Tonight, the small crowd gathered at Spectrum were treated to a short, powerful burst of great hard rock. With a little more practice and on-stage flare, they might just make a name for themselves.

Blacksmith’s modus operandi became abundantly clear with set opener, ‘Elysium Planes’, paving the way for a monstrous cover of Rolling Stones’ favourite ‘Brown Sugar’. The Stones have often flirted with hard rock, and Blacksmith took this tendency to its logical conclusion, injecting new life into a piece of classic rock history. The band then ploughed through the remainder of their set with originals both old and new, proving they need not rely on covers to put on a show. Highlights of the high voltage performance include the Sam Barker-penned ‘Iron Halo’, a HIM flavoured hard rocker punctuated by epic leads channelling New Wave of British Heavy Metal legends Iron Maiden, and ‘Robot Werewolves’, a catchy sci-fi themed romp sounding not all too dissimilar to Perth’s Psychonaut. The best was saved for last, however, as they returned to the stage after an 8-song set to perform an encore of Black Sabbath’s ‘Snowblind’. If you weren’t headbanging up until this point, you definitely were now.

With that, it must be said – Blacksmith are a well oiled unit of practised musicians, but they lack the stage presence to truly engage with the audience. Vocalist Jono Palmer stands meekly at centre stage, sipping wine in between wails, which blunts the edge of his impressive range. Likewise, lead guitarist Felix Short’s technical proficiency is undermined by his rigid stage movements and unwavering focus on the fret board. Self-described ‘assault and battery’, drummer Nick Spellicy proved serviceable if not terribly original, providing a solid grounding for the rapid fire guitar. Rhythm and sometimes lead guitarist Sam Barker and bassist Cameron Cooper were definitely the most entertaining, striking poses, making faces, and providing playful banter throughout the set. Having arrived with modest expectations, I was pleasantly surprised to know that amongst the sea of ill-advised cock rock revival bands populating the scene, there are some genuinely promising newcomers. I’m also partial to any band that gives away free stubby holders.