Digging For Tunes With Emperor X
SCOTT SIMON, Host:
NPR's Sam Greenspan reports.
SAM GREENSPAN: Listen carefully to this...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENSPAN: ...because the song that Chad Matheny is about to sing might never be heard again.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENSPAN: Chad is recording this himself on to a hand-held tape recorder.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CHAD MATHENY: (Singing) What does it matter if you bounce all morning? Why does it matter if you're down and you're feeling awful?
GREENSPAN: There are two things preventing you from ever hearing this again: First, when he's done, Chad is going to bury the tape in the ground; second, no one may ever find it.
MATHENY: That's it right there. Yup. This is a bright, neon yellow cassette that will be wrapped in aluminum foil and buried under that boulder right there.
GREENSPAN: That boulder right there?
GREENSPAN: Chad walks over to the rock, drops to his knees and starts scratching at the dirt with his hands. Apparently, he hasn't bought a shovel.
MATHENY: I'm trying to do it loudly so you can get some good sounds too.
(SOUNDBITE OF DIGGING)
MATHENY: So if someone just casually comes up to the rock they won't notice anything, but if you just dig down a half inch, it'll be right there.
GREENSPAN: In a few weeks, Chad will post the tape's GPS coordinates to his website. Whoever finds it gets to keep the tape, which also comes with a secret code that will unlock more music on his website for the rest of the world to hear. Chad says that these hidden recordings are mostly half-formed song ideas - it's his music in its earliest stage.
MATHENY: When I bury these things, I'm burying the whole creative process and just leaving it out there for people if they want it, because people usually don't get to hear that, I don't think.
GREENSPAN: Those who do follow Chad's music career know him better as Emperor X, a one-man band who has been making a sort of spacey, lo-fi indie-folk since the late 1990s.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONCORDIA HEADSCARP")
EMPEROR X: (Singing) A large headscarp slam Concordia. Last night the wave of slush against the wind.
GREENSPAN: Though he's never made it big, Emperor X has gained a following. He's also caught the ears of critics, among them Chris Dahlen, who writes for the online magazine Pitchfork.
CHRIS DAHLEN: He's definitely gotten rave reviews of his albums, he tours really hard and he does a lot to get out there. He didn't make it big for the reason that millions of really interesting musicians don't make it big. Whatever combination of things, and in spite of his hard work and his talent, it just hasn't broken through.
GREENSPAN: And Chris Dahlen, the Pitchfork reviewer, he buys it. He says that in an age where any kind of music you could ever want is just a mouse-click away, this is the perfect way to recapture the adventure of trying to track down a little known artist.
DAHLEN: Back in the day, you know, there'd always be that artist that you were in love with. You had to find all their albums, but they were really unknown, and you would go to used record store after used record store trying to track them down. And then, finally, you find one of their albums in the bin, and you're just so excited when you hear it, and you love it more because of all the effort you put into it. You have a stake in this musician now.
GREENSPAN: Chad Matheny calls the packages of tapes and computer codes his caches. So far, he's hidden three. When he announced that the first cache had been hidden in Brooklyn, college student Tiel Reardon took the bait. She and a friend headed out, but the GPS coordinates only pointed to an intersection. They spent an hour before figuring out that the cache was hidden in an out-of- service subway station. They didn't find the cache so they headed back up the stairs...
TIEL REARDON: And on like the third to the top step I just found this dirty old $20 bill.
GREENSPAN: So instead of getting a cache you got some cash.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
REARDON: I was waiting for you to say that.
GREENSPAN: But, on the other hand, if you're a relatively unknown musician, there's no guarantee that anyone will ever listen to the music that you put out on a CD either. It kind of makes you wonder if this whole burial thing is a gimmick.
MATHENY: Yes. Yes.
GREENSPAN: It is a gimmick.
MATHENY: There's definitely the gimmick aspect to it. For sure it is. In the same way that - I can't really think of anything that's quite this gimmicky, actually. It's not a gimmick to try and sell more copies of a record. It's a gimmick to try and increase the value of the experience.
GREENSPAN: Maybe by as much as 20 bucks. But at the very least, when people go looking for his tapes, whatever story that comes from the search will be their own. After thinking this over, Chad says that perhaps gimmick isn't the right word.
MATHENY: Did I say that or did you?
GREENSPAN: I said that. So what would you call it?
MATHENY: I think game is better. It has the same connotations of being fun, but without the connotation of them trying to trick anyone. 'Cause I'm not. If no one finds these things and no one cares, then yeah, I'm a litterer. It's not the end-all-be-all of my work, anyway. I mean I'm a musician, primarily. This is just one musician's response to the quickly changing way that people are consuming music.
GREENSPAN: I wiped off the dirt and dried off cassette as best I could. I loaded it into a tape player that I had brought along. I hit play - and nothing, just static and some far away voices. But then...
MATHENY: This tape, this tape's burial is occurring on...
GREENSPAN: Sam Greenspan, NPR News, GPS coordinates 38.902194, -77.020952.
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