They Might Be Giants' John Flansburgh: Tidal vs. Dial-A-Song

While other artists align themselves with streaming services, the 30-year vets employ kitschy, antiquated tech for song distribution

Cuepoint, May 28, 2015
by Kelly McCartney

It's a little bit crazy to think that John Linnell and John Flansburgh have been making music as They Might Be Giants for more than 30 years now. And, in some ways, they're just getting started. This year, they circled back to their roots and reinstated their iconic Dial-a-Song program which features a new song each week available to fans who call (844) 387–6962 or visit the website. On top of that, they have a monthly residency at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, a solid tour schedule and a free live album, Flood Live In Australia. Plus, they will cull their new material into three new albums--the first, Glean, dropped on April 21. It's a lot for an art pop band known to one generation for "Birdhouse in Your Soul" and another for "Here Come the ABCs."

It almost feels like a bunch of bands are getting left behind in the 21st century, but, in a lot of ways, maybe the world is finally catching up to They Might Be Giants time...

Well, that's a very kind thing to say. I'm not really sure it's true, but one of the joys of getting older is that you realize how much bullshit you can actually push out of the way. I feel like They Might Be Giants actually flourishes in obscurity. There was a fleeting moment in time when we were pushed to the front of the media's attention. That was an interesting time for us and it was probably an interesting time for rock music listeners, but there's more to a music scene than just what's on the charts. Music that endures often has very little to do with what is currently popular, so I feel like, if you are rigorous with your own stuff and don't listen to the common wisdom about what makes a career, you can do very well for yourself.

Well, technology has always been a member of your band. You have your own mobile app now.

[Laughs] That's true. I guess we've always seen ourselves as advocates for what we were doing. I'm sure you've done interviews with people who feel very distant from the idea of self-promotion or any kind of presentational part of what they're doing. I think, for us, being maybe even over-aggressive, in terms of claiming that part of the band--for lack of a better word, the branding of the band--as our own is something that we've always done. In some ways, it probably just goes back to loving the Beatles and thinking of a band in terms of being a gang. It's empowering to feel like you're in control of that stuff. And, actually, in the 21st century with social media, it's much easier to feel a little more in control of the way you're presented. So, some things are more pleasant on that front.

Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like you guys must come down in favor of streaming services, yeah? As flawed as the model might be, it's kind of in line with some of the stuff you guys have always done.

I'm reluctant to drill too deep on this topic because it's a moving target, in a way--it's a rapidly changing thing. This is my grumpy old man take on the whole streaming problem: I think the missed opportunity of right now is that the recording and composer organizations--like the RIAA (which most people don't know anything about except from Napster, but it actually represents the major labels as a combined entity) and BMI (which is a composer collection agency of royalties when music gets played in bars and on television)--I feel like all these people who actually represent recording artists and songwriters are doing the bidding of just a few people who control the labels, along with controlling liquor companies and booking agencies, but not really representing recording artists directly.

Although I think the press release for Tidal sounds very compelling, the reality of Tidal is almost the exact opposite. It's basically no different than any other streaming thing. In my dream world, if something that actually delivered on the promise of Tidal could be confabulated--just from the back-end, technology-wise--it doesn't seem like it would be too hard for the RIAA or BMI or some combination of those people to actually create a truly artist-controlled service. And I think that would really clear things up.

Basically, you've got this collision of multiple middlemen who are all sort of claiming primacy in this situation when none of them, really, are the creators. That's the part that just seems like a shame to me. Musicians are pretty good at figuring out how to rip themselves off and shoot themselves in the foot and be under-represented in negotiations that directly involve their creative work, so I'm not surprised that it hasn't happened. But when I think about something like BlueCrossBlueShield, when it started, it was strictly for the benefit of the people who took it on for insurance. There was no profit portion to it. Things like that can be done. And I just feel like the general public has such good will toward music... they feel so good about what musicians bring to the culture, it's such a positive thing... If there was a clear signal sent that there was a streaming service that was strictly for the benefit of the streaming that's happening, I think people would feel fine about it. I think it would be a winning pitch.

But, right now, Tidal is confusing the issue with a phony scenario. And Spotify is just another thing. It's obviously, for listeners, like Napster or any other easy broadcasting scenario. There's a lot of music discovery there. There are a lot of interesting things going on there. But for musicians, ultimately, it's just another marginalizing, ghettoizing thing. I'm sure the people at Spotify will do very well. I'm sure the people who listen to Spotify enjoy it tremendously. But I'm also quite positive that the lot of musicians, in the next couple of years, will continue to get worse.

It's tricky because the masses don't understand how it all breaks down behind the scenes. They don't understand that, in many cases, the label owns the masters, but the publisher and songwriter own the composition, and then the artist, if they aren't the writer... that's a separate thing, too. There are a lot of moving pieces most people aren't aware of.

But, you know, the bottom line is that it's reshuffling the deck, and the new deal is, essentially, worse. Listen, I've been in bands for 30 years. When we started, they were just wrapping up manufacturing eight-tracks. Stuff comes and goes. Things change. Certain things get better; certain things get worse. It's a very dynamic part of the culture. Things change a lot. It's no crisis, where they're at right now.

In some ways, it's a very good scene over all. You can exist as an independent artist and make your way through the world without being marginalized by the media. And I think that is actually very different than it was even 15 years ago. The second you lost your major label deal in the 90s...

That was that...

Yeah. It was like, "Thanks for playing our game. You're gone. Nothing else is going to happen for you." That's not the way it is now, which is definitely a huge step forward.

So let's go back a little to just after the eight-tracks... Dial-a-Song... '83 is when it started?

When I first moved to New York, I lived in a building with Linnell in Park Slope. I moved in '81 and we shared an apartment in, like, '82-'83. That was when we got the band together. When we got kicked out of that apartment, I actually got my own apartment by myself which was an incredibly adult move, at the time. It seemed very weird to my 23-year-old friends that I wouldn't have a roommate. It was definitely a little more expensive, but I felt like at least I wouldn't have to worry about covering anybody's rent or taking care of some crazy long distance phone bill of somebody else's so the phone doesn't get turned of. Pretty much as soon as I got my own apartment, we started doing the Dial-a-Song thing because we were free to do it. We didn't have to share the phone line with a roommate.

Linnell wasn't the one running up the long distance phone bill and not paying his rent, right?

No, no. John was a fantastic roommate.

Okay, because that's not some breaking news I want to make here: John Linnell is a deadbeat.

[Laughs] No. No. No. John does more than his share of dishes. If you're looking for a really good roommate, I would definitely recommend him.

He's the guy, hey? Cool. Cool.

El gato.

So... a song a day on an answering machine... phone number posted in the back of the Village Voice and you kept that going, in some form, for over 20 years.

Yeah. I mean, the last 10 years were not as active. It was a little bit of a preview of what's happening now with bands and premiering songs. Maybe this is a subtle point, and I'm sure I will tell the story backward, so forgive me. But, do you remember... when the Breeders started properly, when they were doing their first full-length album and actually becoming the band, they did this crazy thing where they went on tour with a bunch of songs that didn't really have the words finished. They didn't have an album out. They were playing small clubs and mumbling through these songs. The songs came together in the workshop way of just playing out and doing it. That seems slightly crazy, but the thing that's funny, when you think about then versus now, if anybody had filmed it or they'd been thinking, "Oh, this is going up on YouTube," it would be so stifling to that kind of casual approach.

And I think the thing that happened with us was, once we started making records and people started paying attention to us, it was harder to put our best, brand new stuff on Dial-a-Song and not feel self-conscious about it. The other thing you have to remember is that every single person from the record company thought Dial-a-Song was not just a bad idea, they thought it was a completely destructive idea. They thought it was actively bad, that it made us look very small-timey, very desperate... it made us look weird.

There was just no upside to it, no one on our team who felt it was particularly beneficial to us because the way bands were presented back then... a big part of it was being mysterious. Music culture, these days, resembles some Dolly Parton meet-and-greet. Everybody has to be so damn friendly. It's all about the fans, in that sort of Fan Fair kind of way. People make themselves very available, which is nice, but it's so the opposite of the star-making template that was applied to bands. Dial-a-Song was exactly the kind of thing that was unacceptable to people trying to massage the image of a bunch of not-pretty-enough guys from Brooklyn.

And yet it was kind of spot-on, in a lot of ways, even if it was ahead of its time. Here you are bringing it back and it's perfect for now.

Oh, yeah. It's perfect for now. And for us, it was perfect because it introduced the band to people in a way that really reflected where we wanted to be in the world. Don't get me wrong--I'm all for bands being mysterious and I think it's nice when people give stuff to their audience. But I don't think it's, necessarily, important that they give everything to their audience. You're not running for Congress. You just have to have some limits, somehow. But the best thing about Dial-a-Song was it was the perfect calling card for what we intended on doing. It's foreground music. It's good to concentrate on.

Because none of us are as young as we used to be... where in the world do you guys get the energy and inspiration to do everything you're doing right now with Dial-a-Song, the extra content for the radio network, the Brooklyn shows? I know Robert Durst is a treasure trove, but...

[Laughs] We were actually just talking about how we have to let go of Robert Durst, but he has been the topic of conversation for months. Maybe we'll just move on to Fred Durst.

There you go.

We're pretty good at mapping things out and planning. And we're also really good at drinking a lot of coffee. Between those two things, we've found a way to manage our output in a way that gives the illusion of hyperactivity, but I don't think it actually is. We work pretty diligently on making these things finished.

What's funny about our situation right now--and I'm being completely candid and this might not even make sense to somebody reading this article--I recognize that we are releasing 52 songs this year. We're releasing more songs this year than many bands release in their careers. That's a lot of songs. We know that's a lot of songs. But the truth is... We write the songs. We demo the songs. We arrange the songs with the band. We go into a recording studio. We do a finished version of the song. And then mix it for Dial-a-Song. Then, sometimes, for the album, we actually go back and tweak the final mixes that we did for Dial-a-Song. So, like on the Glean album, there are slightly different, improved mixes. We're pretty diligent about keeping the quality high. It takes a way lot of time, which is to be expected, I guess, and you want it to be the best.

But there is part of me that really would be interested in getting back to some "Casual Fridays" stuff--just bash out a song and not think about it too much. I do think it would be interesting to do some iPhone sessions where we just record a bunch of songs on an iPhone and not have there be any changing or tweaking or anything. I love the Steely Dan impulse, but I just don't want to go totally periscope down on the tweaking. It's just too much. So I'm trying to figure out how to get loose.

Which relates to my last question here. You guys did the kids' music, but even straight-up Giants music is fun stuff. Was that part of the mission statement from the start--"Must have fun"? Is it just dream and go? Anything can be turned into a song?

It's a very good question and I think about it a lot. I think we wanted to figure out how to approach this project with no limits. But the problem is, we--just as people--are profoundly limited. Our strengths lie in very specific areas and not in others, both individually and collectively. We actually are not good at certain things--and certain things that we really respect and are often very interested in. I think both John and I are really impressed with people who can do really good improvisation or real experimental music. But we're just not that good at that stuff.

When we started, we shied away from love songs a lot because it seemed like they were clichés, but also we weren't that far out of our adolescence and we were very shy of the notion, in general... not just because of it being jive, but also because we were afraid of revealing too much about ourselves. We've probably made many bold declarations about how nobody needs to write another love song, but the truth is, love songs are powerful and profound and some of the best songs ever written. Maybe all the best songs ever written are about love. It's a pretty rich topic. It's not surprising that people go for it.

But so is Robert Durst.

Robert Durst... his appeal is wide, but it might not be that deep.

Fair point.

To kind of conclude what you were saying... the fun part of it is more like background radiation. I don't think we've ever written a song thinking, "We have to write a song that's fun." That's never really the primary topic with us. And I think the fun part, actually, just reflects our personalities in a natural way. Maybe our biggest accomplishment as a band is that we figured out a way to sort of smuggle our actual personalities into the shape of a rock band. It's not something that came out of striking a pose in the mirror and figuring out which way we looked good. It actually is the stuff of guys kind of goofing off, making stuff up. There is some energy to that that is very real and it doesn't always get to recordings. It doesn't always get to the culture. A lot of times people are just selling their sexiness or there's a veneer over it. I think what's interesting about what we're doing is that, for a couple of guys who are seriously not hung up on any questions of authenticity, it's surprisingly authentic.

That's awesome. Instead of remaking yourselves in the image of rock stars, you made a rock band in the image of yourselves. It's perfect. Reverse engineering.

Yeah. Exactly. Science!

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