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Artist Spotlight Q & A

Robert Nunnally

The following Q&A is an excerpt from a longer interview conducted with Robert Nunnally by spinmeister in August 2008. You can also read the complete gurdonark interview.

image CC-BY M. Nunnally
He has a degree in physics, co-owns a commercial law practice, takes photographs, plays internet chess, writes poetry, publishes a blog, co-owns a net label, records and remixes ambient music. And that’s just a partial list for Robert Nunnally, who hails from just a bit north of Dallas, Texas and is known to the ccMixter community as Gurdonark.

Some great remixes by gurdonark.

spin: Your work lends itself very well to be featured in sound tracks for video or film and this has indeed occurred. Which ones of those are the most memorable for you so far?

Robert: Viral video has been very good for my music. My music is natural background work, and both my mixter and my NSI work frequently is used as soundtracks these days.I am working with a friend on a soundtrack on a traditional “film festival” animated film, which is to be done any day now. I have made many friends through ccMixter, and ccMixter is directly responsible for me becoming a bit of an advocate for CC/open source issues.

Many dozens of fine videos and films have used my material, which makes me very happy. I feel almost disloyal to choose any favorites. I’m very fond of the “voodles” of Copenhagen film-maker Sam Rensiew. His “video doodles” eschew traditional narrative structure and focus the viewer on looking at what is there. My song “Moodle” is a tribute to his work, which has a “pataphysical” absurdist quality. He’s used my work in dozens of his videos, and I’m particularly delighted that he liberally mashes and morphs my songs to fit his needs. This is what sharing culture is all about. Here is a video to “Moodle”, accompanying a video of furniture — truly a furniture music.

Film-maker and professor Jennifer Proctor does wonderful small films and has taken my mixter work for her soundtrack sometimes, which thrills me. Here is her delicate use of perhaps my favorite mixter song, “Longing for Home”, in a film called “ Lonely Balloon”.

Norwegian film-makers Lomeg_rom make interesting voodles on the theme of contiguity. Here is a recent use of one of my pieces, “Innocence”.

I love practical uses of my work as well as the more abstract. Here a cat, Patches Jeter, gives a wonderful lesson in how to make flipbook animation.

I love all the uses of my work, though, almost without exception. I also enjoy one-to-one-to-share-with-all collaborations such as writing 30 seconds of music for a video-maker in Spain’s, nutxlago’s, lovely youtube bird videos. This sharing of music can be really fun.

spin: In addition to creating music yourself, you have also co-founded a net-label, the “ Negative Sound Institute” (NSI) . Many of our readers may not be aware of the thriving net label scene. A net label is rather dramatically different from a traditional record label isn’t it? NSI and many others aren’t in it to make money, so what’s the purpose of a net label such as NSI?

Robert: Netlabels seek to create a new culture of shared music as a clear alternative to the traditional commercial record labels. Almost all netlabels release under Creative Commons licenses, though a few use variants of the Free Art License or other schemes. Some netlabels have a commercial wing. Many of the early netlabels began life as indie commercial labels, whose owners came to realize the greater impact they could have by releasing for free download.

Netlabels are too varied and numerous for one simple description to encompass them all. Many of them work on principles similar to those adopted by the earlier mail art and tape exchange movements. These earlier movements had the common ground that institutional hegemony (whether by art galleries or record companies) created a culture in which artistic expression was challenged by the understandable desire of capital-providing people to commercially succeed. Netlabel owners came to understand that once the whole “make me a star and make me rich” element is removed from the equation, incredible shared experiences between artists, label and listener can result. Although in netlabel culture, only a few adopt mantras similar to the old “mail art and money don’t mix”, similar ideas apply for some folks.

We’ve seen a number of hybrid models arise which are not themselves netlabels, but which are instructed by the principles of netlabels and Creative Commons., a label I admire intensely (and buy from regularly) is a great example of such a hybrid model. It’s literally a dream-label for its artists. It’s not a “netlabel” in the sense I mean, but it’s learned from the shared culture ideas and helped explore how they can make a business model work in a shared-music way. CASH Music is doing some impressive things with Creative Commons releases, such as the great Deerhoof decision to release the sheet music ahead of the album. This created a world of remix chances, and Lucas Gonze even converted it to MIDI for easy CC remixing.

When I speak of “netlabel culture”, though, I speak of labels which limit or eschew commercial releases, and which participate directly in this sharing of music. At any given time, my mp3 player is roughly 85% netlabel music, and 15% commercial music. I think that the wonderful thing is that while a huge niche audience has been created for netlabels, the growth of the audience is continuing and is inevitable.

Netlabel culture is about removing the artificial barriers between artists and audiences. I love the music of the English chill artist Psonikadia. I know that not only can I get his music for free download, but also that I can drop him a line and he’ll write back. When we put Verian Thomas’ wonderful guitar ambiance on NSI, we’re not rushing to the lawyers when someone remixes him and releases an album, as Pocka did. We’re delighted. As my friend Cagey House says, it’s a new culture of parlor music. The time is past for rock stars and Watchmen and faded heroes. The time is here for people who make and share music.

spin: Why do the people creating and maintaining these net label sites do it? What do they get out of it?

Robert: I can speak for myself about NSI. We meet fascinating people, who become our friends from afar. We get sent great music to hear, which we will release on NSI when it fits our “sound”. Even the music we do not release we tend to really enjoy. We would probably release more if not for the call of day jobs. We are part of a dialog about sharing music and sharing culture which we value. For a cost that is remarkably inexpensive (thanks to Verian’s web skills), our music and the music we like gets out into the wide world.

spin: Why would an artist want to be associated with a net label, rather than just having their own web site and/or a myspace page?

Robert: That is a great question, and it goes to the heart of a current discussion. Lucas Gonze suggests that the future is in song pages, an internet address for each song. Another discussion suggests that an artist weblog, rather than an artist website, is the way to go. I see a lot of virtue in each of these suggestions, particularly as I reach the conclusion that the interaction we have with one another with music need not be so stratified as the old “recording-deal” world proved to be.

In the world before weblogs, many people believed that there was a group of intelligent people “out there”, in London or New York or Paris, who were the best arbiters of our taste and reading. The self-published and the DIY were viewed with a bit of disdain. Now we all read authors we love whom we know are just the “same old ordinary people” we are, and yet we share these amazing interconnected literary experiences. We don’t disdain published authors — we love them. But we no longer grant them a monopoly on our thoughts.

Music is no different. We tend to see music as “look at me, look at me”. This is the problem with some of the earliest internet music sites, such as two I like, and Everyone wants to be a super-hero. Everyone wants to be a star.

But imagine if music were a weblog post — a thing one shares like one shares an essay or a poem or a personal note or a flickr image. Marco Raaphorst writes soundimages (klankbeelds) — simple free downloads which soundtrack still images. Vlog artists eschew video-as-movie-madness for video-as-weblog.We as music makers can begin to see our work as ways of achieving inter-connection, rather than as ways to get record deals. I think that this need not be a commerce-free affair. I think that Calendar Girl is on to a very great idea, and I have the fond hope that her work proves not only successful but also remunerative.

I believe that the music world is evolving and I do not have a crystal ball. Yet I believe that netlabels have a place. They work more like collectives than like traditional record companies. When I go to or Earth Monkey or Dark Winter, I know the range of genres I will find, and I know that the owners have done some curation. At NSI, for example, our artists are usually fellow travelers with ambient music, but not often “traditional” ambient. This sense of shared values and a “home” for the listener is valuable and should endure.

spin: How do the various artists and NSI find each other and decide to create this online togetherness?

Robert: Verian and I formed NSI after being weblog friends. I had begun to get my bearings in making odd music, and I suggested we work together. We were very pleased with our resulting songs as the Thomas Nunnally Ensemble. He and I had both done DIY poetry (Verian’s a very good poet who used to run a fine imprint, while I write just the kind of odd little things that get published in just the kind of odd little ways and places one might, hearing my music, expect). He’s got web skills, which I nearly completely lack. We got our site up, and asked a few people we knew to submit. I handle publicity for us, and soon I helped “get the word out”. Before you know it, we had artists approaching us, and other netlabel owners being very kind. It’s like building something, promoting it a bit, and finding that one has joined this amazing community. Our main limitation is that we do not release as often as we might due to our day jobs, as we get some amazing submissions.

Here’s the link to the complete gurdonark interview.