If you’re a band in 2018, what’s the best way to release music? Twenty years ago it was obviously via an album, with a single or two clearing out the paint, and then a single or two following close behind. The singles were played by radio. The videos of those singles were played on MTV and maybe VH1. Of course that was only if you were popular enough to run in those circles. The majority of bands weren’t, so most bands relied on the radio and word of mouth to spread the word. It was an imperfect system, but it was also the only system.
Flash forward a decade and with the rise of the Internet and more importantly, faster Internet, a new delivery system for artists to release their music emerged. Digital versions of tunes could be dropped and circulated via social media networks and outlets like Grooveshark and other comparable outlets. Albums were still a thing, but the writing was on the wall. Physical copies of albums were quickly becoming a thing of the past. Instead of filling up CD booklets, we were now reluctantly tossing CDs when it was time to move and your new pad just didn’t have space for a box or two of jewel cases.
So now we’re in 2018 and spending your hard-earned gig money (what little there is) on getting physical copies of your album made sounds like a joke your Dad would make and instead of spending time haggling with reproduction houses, you’re emailing Spotify, trying to get your latest release on the increasingly powerful streaming giant. And hey, if that doesn’t work, there’s always Soundcloud and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with dropping a release there. Just ask the thousands of rappers who do that on a regular basis. And while we’re talking about releases, are albums even a thing anymore? I mean, they are. We see new ones show up on Fridays. But seeing as how actual physical copies of albums don’t really exist anymore and albums really only exist on a digital plane, are they really albums anymore or are they just collections of songs? For all his faults, Drake’s desire to release new music under the label of mixtapes or playlists has actually been pretty prescient. The idea of an album is going the way of the idea of physical copies of an album and frankly, we’re powerless to stop it.
Also falling by the wayside are songs being released that are tied to anything. It used to be that if a band released a new song, an album was soon to follow. But that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. Childish Gambino dropped the song of the year in early May, but “This Is America” wasn’t part of anything besides rumors, as a forthcoming Gambino album has become frequently talked about but infrequently confirmed. He’s even released songs since then, but they have been similarly free of attachments. Drake does this too and why wouldn’t more people do this. Hell, Kayne dropped an album that he proceeded to mess with for a week or so after mainly because it only existed digitally. It’s not like people had physical copies of Life of Pablo and whenever he altered something, had to run out and replace it. Kanye may be toxic right now, but he knew what was up when it came to dropping albums in this current age. Nothing is permanent anymore, everything is fluid.
And this leads me to Brass Against, formerly Brass Against the Machine, and currently one of the more exciting bands out there. The band, which retrofits hard rock staples from Rage Against the Machine, Living Colour, Audioslave and more, have been around for about a year or so now, first appearing on YouTube with covers of “Bombtrack” by Rage and “Cult of Personality” by Living Colour. Since then, they’ve dropped about a video a month, each one featuring them debuting a new tune. The videos are largely the same. The band wears white jump suits, the singer (usually Sophia Urista) is in black and they are in a generally nondescript studio. There’s no tricks, special effects or even footage outside of the studio. There’s no lead-up to the video, nor is there any kind of outro package of any kind. It’s just the band playing the song, full stop.
Yet these videos have gotten increasingly popular and the word has started to get out about the New York-based band. Three of the videos, their takes on Rage’s “Killing in the Name” and “Wake Up,” as well as their cover of Tool’s “The Pot,” have each surpassed one million views, and on average, their videos have about 200,000 thousand views. Whereas they started out mainly covering Rage tunes, they’ve diversified over time, a shift that was echoed in their name change, as they dropped “the Machine” sometime this summer, which was also around the time they released a collection of their tunes on Spotify. They’ve since added their versions of songs from Run the Jewels, Bob Dylan (via Rage Against the Machine) and Led Zeppelin among others to their arsenal. Their most recent release is a spin on “Walk” by Pantera. The video was uploaded Thursday morning and by mid-afternoon already had nearly 10,000 views.
Despite all of their song choices being iconic ones, each one does have a similar stomp to it, as well as a vicious groove to it. Coupled with Urista’s attitude-soaked vocals, the songs are far from a novelty, as if it were just cute that a gang of horn players decided to prove their love of rock ‘n roll and that they could hang too. They’re covers that stand up on their own, which is usually one of two main goals when playing covers. You either want to delightfully pay homage to the song or breathe new life into it. Brass Against is pulling off a hard-to-accomplish twofer.
But they are also accomplishing something else in releasing music in the way that they are, doing so semi-regularly on YouTube. They’re playing the game by the new rules and playing it well. There’s something so fresh to the way in which they’re doing it and I think it’s been beneficial in terms of popularity and building buzz. If they were just releasing music bit by bit on Spotify, it’d get lost in the shuffle. The videos allow them to separate themselves and the visual element works in their favor. The band name grabs you, as do the song choices. But on top of that, the videos are interesting in the simple aesthetic and they peak your interest. The white jump suits are an inspired choice, the band seems to be truly enjoying themselves, which is something that for me personally is always a bonus, and Urista is a visually-compelling frontwoman with a tomahawk chop of a voice. I could tell you about the band or you could hear them yourselves, but seeing them is different. There’s something about seeing something for yourself that makes you a believer more than someone just telling you something.
Of course it’s true that Brass Against did technically drop an album, so it’s not as if the album as a concept is totally dead. But their album is more of a luxury than anything else. I for one, prefer the videos. What can I say? I’m a visual learner.
I can only hope that the band keeps doing what they are doing and making random weekdays that much more interesting by dropping a new cover of some song I’ve always loved and creating a new variation of it I can love just as much. If they’re next “album” is just another collection of tracks released over the course of the year, they’ll be doing it right.
The music industry in 2018 is the wild west and to survive requires thinking differently about the landscape in front of you. Brass Against aren’t re-inventing the wheel, but they’re definitely finding a new way to use it that merits our attention and admiration.