Brandon Wilner and Willy Smart met in 2012 in New Harmony, Indiana, where they were both attending the Summer Forum residency. It was there that their first discussions of running a label that would release only “fake” music began. Over the years, it would go on to take a few different forms: first as a label that released (original) fake music on real cassette tapes. (During that first iteration, Willy also published a book called How To Listen to and Understand Fake Music). In the fall of 2014, the officially-minted Fake Music Re-Anticipations (FMR) shifted focus to include fake music that preceded the advent of the label, with a reissue arm now known as Re-Anticipations. At the time, both Brandon and Willy were in grad school—Brandon at Columbia University and Willy at School of the Art Institute of Chicago—and actually producing the reissues proved difficult, so FMR evolved once again, with a decision to “make the label nothing rather than something,” as they put it. Now instead of reissues the pair periodically releases PDFs explaining their decision not to reissue a particular work, in the process unearthing rare, fascinating and often forgotten instances of what fits their definition of musical fakeness. The reissues can be found on FMR’s website, in the archives on Library Stack (we’ve also interviewed Library Stack for the Are.na blog), or by opting in to an email thread you can’t opt out of (those requests can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org).
I asked Brandon and Willy to talk to each other about what Fake Music is and has become. Below, they discuss the subjectivity of authenticity and fakeness, how their label seeks to preserve the latter, and a recent event where the authenticity of Fake Music itself was called into question. The conversation took place in a Google Doc, which is also how they collaborate, cross-country, on their new releases.
Brandon Wilner: Do you think that at this point you or I or we have a clear definition or conception of fakeness in music?
Willy Smart: The idea of fake music is interesting I think because it is difficult to imagine. There’s fakeness as a synonym for something like inauthenticity, which is probably where that idea is most used in music-related discussions, always derisively—but there it’s the performer or affect that’s fake, not the music itself. So music that is itself fake is a bit fuzzier and I think that’s the fuzz we’re in the orbit of.
BW: That’s a nice distinction between fake artists and actual fake music, but I think that in those conversations, referring to an artist or performance as fake generally means that the music they make is false as well. Pretty much since I’ve started working on the label with you, I’ve had in mind that Dead Prez song “Hip-Hop,” which begins with the words “fake records.” The whole track is about how inauthenticity in a person will lead to music that’s just as shallow.
That kind of musical fakeness seems to me to have more to do with the original version of Fake Music, which actually put out a good amount of releases that were recognizably musical in ways that Fake Music’s more recent nonreissues and physical releases are not. It was music that seemed kind of shoddy in one way or another, but always had true personality to it. That’s why I still find myself returning to something like Hot Fruit so often—it’s singular and very sincere music, but its singularness (which I’m guessing is closely related to its fakeness) is difficult to pin down.
WS: Originally the label existed to release music that was deliberately faked or that embraced fakeness—but nevertheless, music that was really made (and was really released too). After a couple years of stockpiling cassettes, the physical form of the release began to be less important to me than the idea of the release itself. And so we gradually transitioned to doing releases like those in FMR that prioritize an announcement of a release over its physical form.
I think the charge in the Dead Prez song is that fakeness in music is either something that can’t be scrubbed off (because you are living an inauthentic life) or something that involves an ulterior motive (making money); so, fakeness is either unwilled or else concealed. But a group like Hot Fruit wears its fakeness on its (record) sleeve. And so, rather than sounding inauthentic, Hot Fruit’s music, as you say, is singular and sincere. But still fake too. (Of course this mutual dynamic of fakeness and sincerity isn’t really new—this has been at play and in discussion in drag for a long time.)
So Hot Fruit and other FMR early releases like James Bin dealt with fakeness I think more than they were actually “fake.” There are models for fakeness in painting (the counterfeit) and writing (asemic writing) but not really in music. I think that’s because music is culturally encoded with “realness,” but also because music is performative and isn’t located in an artifact in the same way a work of visual art often is. If I perform a piece by Bach, it will be a really poor performance, but it won’t be fake. The word artifact has the word fact in it and a fact by virtue of being true can be faked. Not sure if this is shifting gears too much, but this makes me think of our Re-Anticipations imprint in which we periodically release announcements that we will not be reissuing a particular piece. The artifact is important here too but it’s the missing or inaccessible artifact that our arguments turn on.
BW: Inside of the Re-Anticipations label, I also feel that there’s been a transition happening. We might say that we were initially concerned with the missing or inaccessible artifact, because we were dealing mostly with works that were simply silent or nonexistent. But I think that when we did releases like Eliane Radigue’s three-year period of inactivity and the infamous Disco Demolition Night in Chicago, our focus became more about the impossible artifact—one that encompassed an entire historic event or period and was therefore impossible to release. For releases like these, fakeness is the quality of history intervening before a person or object can create or emit music, rather than an artist choosing to make something silent.
I can say that the way I’ve been arriving at the releases I’ve contributed lately is asking, “What are the world-historic forces that might prevent an otherwise musical person or thing from creating music?”
So the word “fact” has definitely been on my mind, but primarily as it’s in some way precluded an artifact.
WS: The first few releases we did on Re-Anticipations focused on artists who had chosen to make their music absent and so its fakeness lay on the side of the individual. Our first nonreissue, VOLVO, is a good example of this: a Dutch rock and roll band who never performed nor recorded. But yes, I think our focus has shifted—especially after the releases of Eliane Radigue’s period of inactivity—from individual fakeness to historical fakeness. One of the weirder releases that exemplifies this is the The Spermaceti Organ, in which we describe the potential vocalizations of sperm whales that have been compromised due to the whaling industry’s target of the whales’ vocalization organs.
I’m also thinking about my shift in research styles since we started this. Initially, I very actively sought out releases, which involved skimming Discogs and other secondary sources. Now my research for this project is much more ambient: I read whatever I’m reading and maybe some detail rings with some potential fakeness. The spermaceti organ release was sparked by a footnote in John Durham Peters’ The Marvelous Clouds, for instance. Feels in a way like I am always wearing some very subtle fake glasses that I don’t notice until something potentially fake rotates into my view. Does fake research feel this way to you too?
BW: I’d say I’ve got my eyes peeled in general for things that have any hint of interesting silence or nothingness about them, but I also try to be sober in my consideration of what might actually become a release. I’ve been moving at a slow pace recently, and I tell myself that this is a quality-control measure. If I’m at all equivocating about a piece of fake music, I’ll try not to do anything with it for a while. If it comes up multiple times over the span of weeks or months, then I’ll think more seriously about trying to write it up.
Another point I’ve had in mind while rerouting the label’s purview away from the individual is that I (and you too, I think) didn’t want to just be putting out different versions of 4’33”. We have not wanted to touch that work, as it’s the most mainstream piece of fake music, and I think for many it’s now just the butt of a joke. As we did more releases from traditional bands, artists, or composers, I felt like that piece just looked like a glaring omission. I wanted it to make perfect sense that 4’33” does not appear in our catalogue. I didn’t want to wind up working with variations on the same old avant-garde trope. I wanted the project not to resemble the avant-garde’s ideal work of art that’s supposed to be divorced from the conditions that produced it. I wanted it to be heavy.
WS: And of course there have been many, many “real” releases of recordings of 4’33”!
If I am remembering correctly, we first hit on the idea that would become the Re-Anticipations label in a Gchat conversation, joking that we ought to disseminate press releases that announced we would not be reissuing particular music recordings. Pieces like 4’33” that are constituted by silence or absence are maybe the most obviously unreleasable, because they already circulate within a field of music but they cannot (or at least not easily) be embodied in modern musical formats. And so our first few releases float there in that avant-garde joke register.
For me too though the interest in the unreleasable is deeper than a greatest and quietest hits playlist—though that is for sure a good and adaptable playlist—and so I want to be considering works that we cannot issue not only because they were designed not to be released but because the historical circumstances under which they might have been designed were unrealized or obscured or rerouted. In a way we end up looking at historical events and nonevents that are shaped similarly to conceptual and avant-garde gestures of withdrawal and obfuscation. We cannot release any of the music that might have been recorded had the 1973 OAPEC oil embargo not temporarily limited the production of vinyl records, just as we cannot release any of the music by the band VOLVO because they did not perform or record any music. History withdraws and obfuscates and dissimulates too. That is an obvious point I guess. Just thinking that it’s interesting to track the appearance of these moments and shapes at a historical scale since these are the gestures that an avant-garde has used to lay a claim to an autonomy from that historical scale.
BW: To your question about continuity between individual and historical fakeness, I think this continuity is still present per the simplest criterion we work with: the fact that we are unable to issue this music in modern musical formats. This idea winds up in the last paragraph of every release when we justify our decision not to reissue the work, but I don’t think I understood the significance of it until we had our label and catalogue removed from Discogs because we weren’t dealing with, in their terms, “recorded music.” That was when I realized that the job we’ve given ourselves here is to identify music that can’t be captured through audio-based recording practices, and to then provide a record of it in the only means possible, which is writing. If we weren’t recording it in this way, something like the OAPEC oil embargo would only come up in the fields of history or international relations. Now, for better or for worse, it’s a musical event.
WS: Are we still talking about fakeness? The category makes more sense to me when we are considering works of art than it does when considering historical events and history. Maybe our label’s removal from Discogs is a good moment to think this through since it’s us and our fake label against the real historic force of Discogs forum moderators. Could you relay a little more of that narrative?
BW: I think we must still be talking about fakeness insofar as the works in our catalogue are called into question by the most powerful music archive of the day. I failed to convince Discogs staff that the project was actually musical, so it must be fake in their view, even if this kind of fakeness (illegitimacy) isn’t exactly what we’re trying to claim.
That situation came about after maybe six months of updating the FMR releases on Discogs. I created a label page for us and was adding the releases as they came out. It was actually pretty satisfying because the site’s linking helped broaden our audience. If someone were to browse Eliane Radigue’s Discogs page, they’d see our release (essentially a bootleg, another kind of fake) right there next to her best-known works. If a listener is patient enough to be interested in her music, there’s a good chance they would have been open to the kind of music on our label as well.
Anyway, one day I was out digging through records (real music) at a shop when I checked my phone and saw that a Discogs user had flagged all of our releases, which I’d listed as PDFs. They gave the same reason (about “recorded music”) in each instance, and then started a thread in which they “discussed” the validity of the releases. It didn’t actually wind up being much of a conversation: I responded to their criticisms and didn’t hear back. Our label page was removed shortly after I submitted my response.
I still get a bit miffed when I think for too long about this willful omission in their archive, but I guess I can also see how to the average music head, this project seems more like literary frivolity. I’ll admit that it was also exciting at the time to have such a strong reaction to it. Do you have any feelings about the banishment?
WS: My reaction to it is still amazement—more that we were noticed than judged as inappropriate for inclusion in the Discogs archive. Because FMR is a web-based project, I don’t have the experience of being present with the work with anyone else, except you when we’re live-editing a release in Google Docs. Though we might receive email responses from members of our mailing list, there’s a delay between transmission and reception. And so whatever public FMR has can’t be verified live. Maybe this says something about my confidence in my projects finding an audience, but because of this delay, I’m always a bit surprised when we get any sort of response. The incident with Discogs was even more surprising since we never solicited the attention of the administrators.
I’m more upset I think that no one responded to your argument in the discussion thread. In the thread, the user Jayfive links to a comedy sketch from “The Ronnie Johns Half Hour” in which two music fans ratchet up their coolness with avowals of devotion to fake music, culminating in a description of the band Nothing’s greatest album: a 90-minute blank cassette released as a word document. So maybe if we’d gone with .doc instead of .pdf we’d have been in the clear with the Discogs committee.
Though I have that voidy feeling when I’m hitting the send button on the email announcements for our releases, we in fact do have an assured audience made up of the addresses on our mailing list. While we receive occasional replies announcing support for that particular release, our announcements mostly go unanswered. We decided from the start to not use Mailchimp or any other mailing list service so as not to fall under a frame of advertisement for another organization, but because of this I think our emails sometimes end up in spam folders. (Our closest readers then are maybe the spam-detection algorithms built into email clients.) We’ve had several requests to be added to the mailing list but the majority of our list consists of addresses we’ve personally plugged in.
We’ve also adopted the membership policy of the literary group Oulipo for our mailing list: once you’ve joined, you cannot leave. So there is no ‘Unsubscribe’ button on our emails; instead, a small note, “You cannot unsubscribe from this list.” One could block our email address, but we cannot take the step of removing a subscriber from our mailing list. Unlike Oulipo, though, we have no threshold for membership. Anyone with an email address may join. It’s a long list now. We have our main boosters who frequently reply to our notes or tweet our releases, but I also keep having experiences of running into people in person who I’ve forgotten are on the list but who are invested and informed. Though I’ve described my research for the project as ambient, FMR ends up being one of the most widely disseminated and received projects that I work on.
BW: We did conclude early on that what we’re doing is not technically spam because we’re not soliciting money in the emails we send out, but there is still an air of unwantedness around the label’s operations. I saw a friend (who is not on our mailing list) at the beach the other day and he mentioned that our mutual friend (who is) told him that he does not get the material and thinks the project is “too conceptual.”
I do understand that we are almost asking to be misunderstood when the music is only available in the promotional materials that most people skip over when they receive an email like this. I used to write one-sheets for music promotion and I now have them sent to me all the time. They contain some of the worst writing you’ll ever read. It makes sense that people wouldn’t want to engage with music that is just the one-sheet.
I can trip over my thoughts when I try to explain the label to people through speech, but in my mind it’s very simple and direct: we admit our inability to put out the music in our purview. I don’t think of this music as only trivial navel-gazing; there are some beautiful pieces in our catalogue: Alfred Schnittke’s gravestone, engraved with an indefinite and very strong musical rest written in classical notation, is as stirring and persistent as any beloved melody or poem. I’m glad to have been able to give it a home among other works that are similarly diffuse.
WS: A few years ago I was flipping through a music appreciation book by the composer Aaron Copland. The epigraph to the book, or maybe one of the chapter headings was, “Music can only be great when there are listeners who are really great.” Right. And then the slight switch that’s functioned as FMR’s motto: “Music can only be fake when there are listeners who are really fake.” Fake music’s audience then is not just fake but really fake. The truer the public, the faker.