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‘Music is suffering’ On 99¢, Santigold calls to fix a broken streaming biz

“My ears are a curse, and a blessing. I hear everything.”

It’s something that happens once every four years, and when it finally hits, it’s usually quite spectacular. No, no, no — I’m not talking about the Presidential campaign or the Olympics; I’m talking about getting a new album from forward-thinking dance/electronic icon Santigold. Her self-titled 2008 debut pushed genre limits, while her 2012 hard-edged follow-up Master of My Make-Believe added post-punk exploration to her sonic palette. Here in 2016, we now have 99¢, a diverse exploration of beats and the business-oriented music culture we live in, out now in various formats via Atlantic. From the percussive wail of Banshee to the fast echo ’n’ flow of Chasing Shadows to the punkish sneer of Who I Thought You Were, 99¢ is a priceless collection from an artist who refuses to sit still and be defined by anyone’s labels.

“I did an in-store performance at Rough Trade [in Brooklyn], and they were playing 99¢ really loud in the store,” Santigold recalls. “Usually, when I hear my music publically, I cringe; I can’t take it. I get really embarrassed. But it sounded really good in there, and I went, ‘This is great!’ Environmentally, the record worked, which means you could hear it while you’re shopping, or at a party — and it sounds good in the background too, which I think is cool.”

As Digital Trends reported three weeks ago, Santigold came up with an innovative interactive video for Google Chrome users for the culturally narcissistic track Can’t Get Enough of Myself. While taking a break from doing her thing at SXSW in Austin, Santigold called us to discuss the origins of that video, the sonic thrust of 99¢, her issues with streaming, and how to channel the muse — even when no lyrics are involved.

Digital Trends: First, I have to say thanks for letting me co-star with you in the Can’t Get Enough of Myself video. It was very polite of you to allow me so much screen time.

Santigold: (laughs heartily) You’re welcome! It’s so funny. So many people, when they watch it, actually think I put them in the video. The first reaction from people I don’t even know, they’re like, “Oh my God, you did, like, a video capture of me?” [both laugh]

Yeah, I signed the release form and everything, I swear. [Santigold laughs again] It’s such a cool idea. How did you brainstorm it?

I was trying to come up with an idea where, in keeping in line with the idea of Can’t Get Enough of Myself, people love seeing themselves. So the first thing I thought of was, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if people could actually be in the video?” But I didn’t know, technologically, if it could be done. I always come up with the wildest ideas, and I have all these amazing tech friends who I ask, “Is this possible?”

For this one, I’m thinking, “It should be in 3D” or whatever, but they’re like (pauses) “Um… no.” So I called Yung Jake, who’s the most cutting-edge technology video person, and I said, “How about this?” And he said, “Mmmm…. How about a webcam?” I was like, “Alright!”

Apparently, it had been an idea he and his partner Vince [McKelvie] had been working on and thinking about doing for quite some time, and this song seemed to be the perfect idea for it. From there, Jake and I just brainstormed about how we could get the webcam integrated in the most interesting and fun ways, and that involved using unique filters on the toaster, the newspaper, and the foam of your cappuccino — things so it wasn’t just your obvious camera feed, you know?

After that, I took it to the label, and they were like, “If you can’t do it on mobile phones, we can’t do it.” They asked their tech team, and they said it was impossible, and so did Jake. And I was like, “Dammit!” because I wanted to do it so bad. I called this other tech genius friend of mine, Brian E: “They’re saying I can’t do it; what do you think?” He said, “Gimme two hours.” He did the test, and he was like, “It works.”

It sure does, and it plays so perfectly into the disposable culture that’s at the heart of the album and its content. So how do you reconcile yourself as an artist with the streaming world?

I think the actual technology of streaming is great. I love the convenience of it, and I think it’s really cool. But we have to rethink it, because it’s not supporting the artists it’s playing. Basically, what it’s doing is making it hard for artists to exist.

Music is suffering, because the only people able to sustain this are the people making factory-line cookie-cutter music.

We’ve got these big-corporation artists like the Beyoncés and Rihannas of the world, but they’re existing on a whole different level. They’ve got these huge massive teams and these big resources, and they can even sell records. Most artists don’t.

We’ve got more than fulltime jobs making music. We’re fulltime making products that we’re technically giving away for free. How do you make that work? In what other industry are you making a product and then giving it away for free, and then having no other income coming in for all the work you just did?

We’re scrambling to make money in other ways, which completely takes away from the time we have to make the music. The turnaround time for the music is pretty insane at this point. People expect you to put out records every year and a half, and it’s like, a normal human can’t really do this! (laughs)

Right? Plus you’re a mom too. You’ve got lots going on…

Exactly! And I’m very hands-on — I take an artistic approach to everything. I’m coming up with ideas, and actually making things.

For my album release, we did an in-store where we transformed Jack’s 99c Store on 32nd Street in Manhattan into a huge party space. We took over the huge videoscreen outside the store and put all my infomercials on it. We did installations in the aisles and had the aisles filled with products, and we had these mannequin sign spinners that looked like me in the front. It was amazing.

I try to do everything with an “art” approach. So when I take the time to make the art, I need to be able to earn money from the art that I’m making! If not, I’m not going to have the time to make art. And that’s not just the case for me; that’s the case for everyone.

Music is suffering, because the only people able to sustain this are the people making factory-line cookie-cutter music. They’re not really making the music — the producers are making the music, and some top-line songwriters are coming in and writing them. A&R people and their managers are picking the songs and putting the records together. They go in, they go “doo-doo-doot,” and they’re done; the song comes out. If that’s the only music we want to hear, then this is fine.

Otherwise, we’ve got to figure out a way for all of these streaming companies — not just Spotify, but all of them — to come up with a little more fair of a deal so that artists are actually able to sustain themselves, and continue to be able to be artists. That’s all I’m saying about it, you know?

I pay the premium on Spotify so artists can get a little something out of it, and I feel songs like Chasing Shadows and Rendezvous Girl are songs people need to both know about and pay for.

Thank you, I appreciate that. Also, it’s creating this disposable mentality about music where nobody values anything, because you don’t value anything you don’t pay for.

Do you think the vinyl revival is helping swing that mentality back the other way — having people get in touch with the physical aspect of the music and get a more complete music experience?

Totally! Especially when you get to experience the art of the album, which, to me, is always such a huge part of it. I love album art.

I love listening to music in the car. It’s a time when you can fully be enveloped by the music.

And when you have a cover like the one we have for 99¢, it really needs to be experienced at full size. I’d also love to know where I can get that one keyboard that’s down in the lower left-hand corner for 99 cents.

Um, you cannot get that keyboard (laughs), but maybe you can get that little baby blue one for 14 dollars. I don’t know where you can get me for 99 cents, but I guess that’s the whole point. It’s about the undervaluing of all the hard work. It’s my life in a bag, for 99 cents. And you can get the music for less than 99 cents.

Speaking as the music’s creator, what do you feel is the best way to listen to 99¢?

Well, as you know, I have the most insane ears ever. The engineers I work with and the people who do my mastering all say, “Oh my God, you should be testing speakers.” (laughs) My ears are a curse, and a blessing. I hear everything.

When I’m making the music, I’m an insane headphones listener. But as a regular listener, to be honest, I love listening to music in the car, and this record is a car record to me. It’s a time when you can fully be enveloped by the music, and you can totally be focused. You get to kind of not think. That’s my favorite place to listen to music.

Is there one song that’s the best headphones experience, to you? Rendezvous Girl is my favorite right now. It’s got both ’80s and modern sensibilities all mixed together.

Rendezvous Girl is definitely one of my favorites. OK, this is what happened. I was working with this producer, Patrick Berger, and the first time we met was the first time this song came to life. We were in L.A., and he came prepared with ideas. The bones of this track were already there; one of his ideas. It was very different from anything that I was thinking for this record, but it reminded me of Roxy Music. It also reminded me of this Grace Jones song that was a Roxy Music cover [Love Is the Drug, from 1980’s Warm Leatherette].

I was drawn to it, even though it was so different from anything I would have thought of. I usually sing whatever melody comes into my head, and I sing gibberish; it’s not really lyrics. Then I go in and write what sounds exactly like what I’m singing, even to the vowel sounds; that’s how I write.

And that usually takes a lot of work. But in this particular case, I walked into the booth, and this almost never, ever happens — I sang once all the way through, and that was exactly the song. I didn’t change one thing or one melody. Every single detail of the melody was exactly how I sang it the first time. The verses, the chorus change; every single part. To me, that’s magic, because that doesn’t happen.

You’re just channeling the moment. In the early days of R.E.M., Michael Stipe literally mumbled most of the lyrics for the Murmur record (1983), and sometimes he just sang sounds and not words because they were trying to connect the musical dots together first.

Which is like Cocteau Twins, one of my favorite bands of all time. [Vocalist] Liz Frazier, she didn’t bother with lyrics, and they weren’t the point.

I love lyrics, I do, but they get in the way of the process of me trying to find the melody. So I remove them from that part. But it is channeling the moment, exactly like you said. If you can open up yourself to that, you’re creating music that’s so much bigger than you, the artist. Sometimes, when I go back to songs I have written, I go, “Who wrote this? Who??” Sometimes there are even words I don’t even know! (laughs)