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Free Your Mind

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Last summer a record label, Recession Recordings, was born that spit in the face of everything a record label does. Not only did it not provide physical copies of its recordings to interested buyers, it didn’t offer anything for buyers at all. Buyers, as it turned out, were not welcome. Instead, all the music on this label was available for nothing. In the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, Recession Recordings offered itself as a musical equivalent of the breadline—manna downloaded from heaven, or in this case, Houston.

The dominant sound on Recession is electronic, but its ethos is about as punk as you can get. Recession’s roster of artists—Houston DJs About This Product, edgy minimalist duo the Jerks, ambient artist Algebra, collagist Dino Felipe and others—are stubborn experimentalists who have liberated themselves from convention simply by refusing to sell anything.

As a consequence, the music on Recession doesn’t need consumer appeal, and that makes for challenging listening. About This Product, for one, doesn’t seem interested in making their music welcoming. Their blend of dance floor beats and Stockhausen-like squawks are designed to pull listeners in while simultaneously pushing them away, as if mass approval might prove a lack of sonic bravery. DJ aSkew, meanwhile, strips down the conventions of his beloved Houston hip-hop—with its slowed-down, smoothed-out, screwed-and-chopped cadences—to pay tribute to the machine residing in the middle of all that soul. He hints at danceability, only to sacrifice it for a bigger idea. Recession’s music might not cost money, but it makes you work to appreciate it.

When I listen to the music on the Recession Recordings website, I find that I can’t quite shake a sense of ambivalence, both on my part and the artists’. Some of the songs have melodies, but they’re not the kind that stick in your head; other songs seem to resent the idea of a melody when there’s so much noise in the world to be made. Beats, meanwhile, are as likely to dissipate and fall apart as grow more driving and thunderous. So the question becomes: How do you approach music when the people making it keep refusing to meet you halfway? The funny thing is, it makes the music all the more appealing. Like the girl who never looks your way and doesn’t seem to care when you look hers.

If there is an unambiguous pleasure to the Recession Recordings experience, it’s the sense of transgressive indifference: Giving things away is liberating, not only because there’s no bottom line, but because you get to exist outside the pre-established terms of our market-based culture. Do away with the impulse to be a salesman, and a new world opens up. In an era when even economic desperation doesn’t seem to make people long for something new, the daring of Recession’s approach is almost revolutionary. After all, what’s more punk than being indifferent to your own interests?

Josh Rosenblatt writes about film from New York City.