Christopher Campbell: For The Record


Christopher Campbell not only makes his own extremely unique music but he also helps make music by lots of other composers happen through his day job as the operations manager for Innova, the recording label of the American Composers Forum. So when he decided to put together a recording of his own music, it seemed perfectly natural for him to release it on Innova.

“It seems a little weird because I’m working on the album myself,” Chris acknowledges. “But I paid the admin fee and I paid the manufacturing fee. The artist comes to us and pays us a $3300 admin fee, which is a one-time up-front cost. We never charge anything more than that, except for manufacturing. You own 100% of the product: intellectual, print, all the rights to your recording. You’re basically hiring us to be a hired gun. Once you pay the fee you get into a distribution network with Naxos, all the publicity and the expertise of the label, and 100% of the profits. Whether you sell 10,000 records or five, all those profits are yours: digital, physical, what have you. Nobody’s getting rich, but my hope for these artists is that they have a revolving door fund where they invest in their career and the art they are making and can recoup enough to invest in the next project. By the time you have three or four records out, then it starts gaining momentum. Part of the reason I wanted to put the album out on Innova is I wanted to take a scientific look at it. Here is what we allocate per release. Here are the man hours that we can do on each release, the Campbell record is no different. To get a different perspective about how it runs through the pipeline from an artist’s perspective is a slightly different than an operation manager’s perspective.”

What is really different, however, is what he chose to put out: a three-sided LP! (That is to say, a 2 LP set one of whose LPs only contains grooves on one side; the other is left blank.) But releasing Sound the All-Clear on vinyl was much more than a clever marketing scheme at a time when CDs are being eschewed by many in favor of direct digital downloads because more and more music aficionados are rediscovering the joys of vinyl. Like many advocates of “long play records”, Chris contends that the process of listening to music on “long play records” allows for a more personal relationship with the music as well as more focused listening, despite the possible mechanical imperfections of the medium:

There’s something really sexy about vinyl; there’s something really cool about a needle going through grooves. When I was a kid, my dad played in jazz bands most of his life and he had a really big vinyl collection. It was almost this fetish object. Cover art’s huge and it’s immersive. It’s not this tiny package, it’s an art object. And subconsciously I think you treat something like that with more respect in a day and age where CD manufacturing is so easy to do. [My] music isn’t easy listening and it isn’t workout music. You can’t even bump it in your car really; it just doesn’t have that quality to it. But when you put it on a stereo system it sounds really good, I think. So I wanted to in some ways be a jerk and tie the listeners’ hands and kind of force them to approach it that way [...] I know a lot of people don’t own turntables, so it’s available digitally for download and it’s available on CD, but it’s really built for vinyl; it’s mastered for vinyl. And you can hear the difference.

While it probably won’t work in a car, Chris’s tactile mood-transforming soundscapes could work in a club. No matter what format you hear it on—an mp3 download, a physical CD, or the vinyl LP for which it was conceived, the first sound you’ll hear is a needle dropping on a record. Ironically, as digital dethroned analog with its DDD claims of no noise, those same cracks and pops that CD advocates were so happy to be rid of were soon sampled and became ubiquitous in contemporary pop music.

“I find the popping and clicking and scratches really charming,” beams Chris whose texture-based music embraces such sounds. “It’s not sterile; it’s not an empty field. You start listening to the room sound and engaging the space differently.”

Beyond Sound the All-Clear being music conceived for the LP format, it is music that is conceived as a recording rather than for a live concert experience. In fact, a lot of what is going on, even though it is mostly created with acoustic instruments, would not really be possible in a live context and live performance is not something Campbell is even particularly concerned about, even though Sound the All-Clear is not electronic music per se.

I still notate everything, but in terms of the performance, the ensemble goes from three people to fifty people in a live setting. So we did studio stuff—we’d add or subtract and use different cues. Sometimes it would be me conducting, sometimes it would be working on visual monitors so players could see when to come in, almost like Guitar Hero, because a lot of the stuff is pretty arrhythmic, gestural, or based on breath cycles rather than one, two three, four [...] And we miked virtually everything, just to get separation and clean sounds. It’s not an orchestral recording in the sense that everything washes together and it’s this big landscape; everything is isolated so that in post-production we could manipulate those colors with Logic and ProTools and all those computer programs.

Ultimately, the path he has taken is a direct by-product of his dual existence. While putting out a recording on the label where he works has helped him to better understand all the details of the process for every recording he services, Chris Campbell’s in-depth knowledge of the field has helped determine the artistic choices he has made as well as the contexts in which he hopes to frame his own creative work:

Why limit yourself to classical or new classical? That’s just a ghetto I don’t want to be in, frankly. It’s frustrating to spend a long time on a piece and then hear it once and have a hard time getting the recording rights to it. [...] I love live performances, but my intentionality was to make an album and if it gets performed again in a live setting that’s kind of irrelevant in a way. Would it be cool? Sure. But would it be likely? It’s really hard for composers to get performances.

But don’t start getting the impression that Chris is in any way pessimistic. After all, would anyone but a starry-eyed optimist release a debut album as a composer on vinyl?

CD [manufacturing] costs have gone way down; this was expensive. But I’m a stubborn Scotsman! And I think there’s crossover potential, and there’s been success with the people who are interested in trip-hop. In some ways I think it might be easier for an indie rock hipster to appreciate the album more than a classical guy or gal, just because there’s a lot of psychological baggage about what constitutes classical music today. It’s for adventurous listeners, no matter how you want to genre-dice it. If you have hungry ears and are interested in new sounds, I think it’s a good record for that!