Houston Experimentalism for Free


A few weeks ago I went to a record store in South Austin with a friend. He wanted to pick up some little-known, out-of-print dub LPs he’d been coveting, and I wanted to get out of my house because a man can only spend so many days sitting in his pajamas before he starts hallucinating.


While my friend haggled with the store owner, I went to the listening stations to check on the current state of American pop music. After a few predictable disappointments (every time I hear a new song by musical tourists Vampire Weekend, for example, I picture Victorian-era Englishmen playing tennis in the middle of the African savannah, impoverished locals retrieving their balls), I discovered two gems: the first, the opening track off a collection of gospel music from the Seventies called Good God! — the gorgeous, absurdly funky “Like a Ship” by T.L. Barrett and Youth for Christ Choir; the second, the opening track off the latest album by Beach House — the gorgeous, decidedly un-funky “Zebra.” While my friend was busy paying $80 for three records, I typed the names of these songs into my phone, texted the message to myself, and, after I got home, downloaded the songs onto my computer. I felt bad taking for free what artists I respected needed me to pay for in order to keep making music I liked, but it’s not my fault that illegal downloading is so easy to do and that online thievery has become so common and that CDs have gotten far too expensive and that I am not a very good person.


For those interested in downloading free music, there are ways to avoid this kind of ethical quandary, of course. Take About This Product. The Houston-based experimental noise duo, made up of high school friends Jon Barber and Art Pinsof, has chosen to forego the rules that govern the consumption of music in America and make all of their albums available for free through their label’s Web site.


Now I should tell you that, as with everything else in this world, there’s a price to pay for not wanting to pay a price. ATP’s music is not always easy on the ears. It walks a line between Daft Punk’s drive and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s dissolution: one minute it’s inviting you onto the dance floor with pounding beats, the next it’s driving you off with digital, atemporal squawks that sound like a sampler gone haywire.


It’s as if Barber and Pinsof can’t stomach the idea that their music might be adored without reservation, as if unconditional love implies a lack of daring on the part of the artist and a lack of critical thinking on the part of the listener. It’s exactly the kind of attitude you’d expect from a band that proudly proclaims that they will “never record a track for the sake of some one (sic) else.” It’s also the kind of attitude you’d expect from a band that’s willing to give away its music for nothing.


ATP’s philosophy is punk rock thinking for a corporate age, when punk music is used to sell paper towels and a band’s truest act of rebellion might just be to bypass the marketplace and detach from the culture of consumption entirely.