Twins are born collaborators, according to Aaron Dessner. Before he had any ambitions as a musician, he and his twin brother — fellow multi-instrumentalist Bryce Dessner — were always at it together, always co-conspirators in some ambitious scheme or another. Over the last 17 years, the duo have grown into their roles as the instrumental backbone of The National, refining a practice of songwriting that plays into their strengths as collaborators.
“We’ll write these songs for Matt [Berninger, lead vocalist of The National] which are essentially music with form, melody, and beats without lyrics,” Dessner said over the phone from a festival stop outside Lisbon. “But he only writes to maybe five percent of it. For almost twenty years, the rest of it has just been sitting on various hard drives, which is kind of a strange thing. But all of it we like and love.”
Until recently, there wasn’t really an outlet for all this material. Sure, they could dump the music on Bandcamp, swipe effortlessly through remote files via Dropbox, or surrender them over to the algorithmic churn of SoundCloud, YouTube, and a growing number of their competitors. Instead, the brothers have gone back to the drawing board, rethinking some of our foremost assumptions about the way music moves on the internet.
This June, the Dessners joined Bon Iver songwriter Justin Vernon in announcing PEOPLE, a non-commercial audio “publishing platform” and music festival dedicated to providing a space for experimentation and collaboration, both online and off. The site is currently in beta, but launches in earnest on August 18. “Whether you’re working multiple jobs or a musician just constantly on tour, you get out of the habit of being creative,” Dessner said. “It’s a very simple thing, but it’s at the core of what we’re trying to do: just get people more often in a room together with a relaxed environment where there’s time and space to make something. Good things happen then.”
“Good things” might be a bit of an understatement. In October 2016, the group hosted the first incarnation of the event, alongside Berlin hoteliers Tom and Nadine Michelberger at the former East German radio center known as Funkhaus in the south of Berlin. With performances from Wye Oak, Alt-J, and numerous Bon Iver and National projects, the festival was a weeklong residency for around 80 musicians, culminating in a final presentation of each artist’s works-in-progress at the end of the week.
“I don’t think we really knew what would happen, but it ended up being a very transcendent moment — for the audience, for the artists, for everybody,” Dessner said. “It’s eye-opening to take away the usual structures, staging, and expectations [of the music industry], and what happened immediately was incredibly exciting.”
In the two years since, the once-untitled event has not only secured a name, but also continued to grow in size and scope. Along with word that the festival would be returning for a second year, the group announced they’d be launching their own streaming platform in an attempt to bring aspects of these physical events into an online space. “There was all these creative seeds being planted [in 2016], but there wasn’t really a place for them...a home, or a garden for them to grow in,” Dessner said. “So that was when we started talking about building something that would be a kind of platform for this work, stripping away a lot of the structures of the music industry — things like promotional timelines and production timelines — to instead create a very direct way to share raw work, where the emphasis is more on process than it is on product.”
“I do think that the conventional structures within the music industry sometimes don’t know how to think about something like this because it doesn’t fit neatly into a strategic plan. It’s not meant to be a reaction against anything.”
Born from the collaborative spirit of Dessner-associated musical projects like Big Red Machine, Red Bird Hollow, Songs Without Words, and even The National, PEOPLE places collaboration front and center, strategically designed with rough demos and messy works-in-progress in mind. Unlike SoundCloud, Bandcamp, or other user-contributed platforms, PEOPLE allows artists to attribute authorship in a variety of ways that mirror the messy realities of the music industry. “For example, my brother composed all the music for a chamber group’s entire album, but if you search ‘Bryce Dessner’ on Spotify, you won’t actually see that album,” he said. “Of course this functionality and metadata exists on other platforms, but it’s really the basis of what PEOPLE is. You have to define authorship and revenue share when you upload something, so it’s very easy to involve collaborators.”
While nothing about the platform feels particularly technologically innovative, the gesture toward infrastructural autonomy feels part of a growing chorus of frustrated musicians looking for alternatives to today’s dominant streaming models. With platforms like Spotify notorious for low payouts and a capture model of data collection that always seems to hold advertisers in the highest regard, it isn’t hard to see why musicians might be looking toward non-commercial and artist-owned options less focused on producing scalable success, round after round of venture capital funding. “Being in a rock band that’s pretty successful, you meet a lot of unhappy artists,” Dessner said. “There’s been so much devolution in the last 10 years. Digital software, streaming, and so much of what was once accepted as how the music industry works has kind of gone out the window now, and people are reinventing it all the time.”
Labels, too, have always had a tricky relationship with digital platforms, who continue to exert a stronghold grip on the most popular means of connecting artists with their audiences. Dessner said that if anything, PEOPLE can live in a healthy, symbiotic way within the music industry. “There seems to be an evolution in thinking where people are starting to see digital platforms as a way for artists to develop new ideas, make new relationships, and evolve,” he continued. “I think that’s a healthy thing for everybody. But then I would also say that there’s a general inertia in the music industry when it comes to some of these structures… I wouldn’t say there’s been pushback, but I do think that the conventional structures within the music industry sometimes don’t know how to think about something like this because it doesn’t fit neatly into a strategic plan. It’s not meant to be a reaction against anything.”
For many, the frustration with streaming comes from the organizational models that artists are forced to participate in to be heard. While every library needs its index, the playlist spots, related artists recommendations, and “most relevant” search results of streaming platforms also establish specific hierarchies within their systems, ones that can sometimes feel pretty arbitrary — or even flat-out wrong — to musicians themselves. For artists and industry workers with entire careers at stake in the ebb and flow of “the algorithms,” talking about streaming can sometimes feel like a shouting at the sky, shaking a fist in outrage at an unforgiving god for some bogus decision that prioritizes consumer attention over the livelihood of the artists and creators who make these platforms possible to being with.
Without taking shots at anyone in particular, Dessner noted his reluctance toward all the elaborate bells and whistles of other services, instantly taking issue with the eerie accuracy of streaming algorithms. “I don’t want an algorithm on PEOPLE that’s watching what I listen to and making suggestions,” he said. “That restricts and eliminates all of the mystery of just crawling around a record store for something that you’re interested in. Why can’t I like a folk song and some outrageous noise? We’re kind of intentionally avoiding anything like that.”
That said, PEOPLE is a non-commercial platform, more of a freewheeling experiment than a panacea for a troubled industry. The whole thing is free to listeners, with an invite system designed to spread between musicians through these physical encounters. “All 200 artists [at this year’s festival] will have a login to PEOPLE and they can publish something they’re working on while they’re working on it,” he said. “Going forward, they can then invite others, as opposed to it being a one-hundred percent open application that just grows exponentially. The idea is to make it more of a working community.” Asked how it might compare to something like the Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young archives, Dessner said that he’s more interested in supporting open access than having the site associated with the legacy of The National. “For each of us, it means something different and very soon, I hope that it spreads far away from us,” he said.
In terms of musical comparisons, there really isn’t anything quite like PEOPLE. Is it like Google Docs for music? Is it like file-sharing with a front-facing side for fans? Regardless of the appropriate metaphor, Dessner seemed pretty optimistic about the idea’s nascent potential. “You can already see these group tracks being uploaded, with a group of people getting together in a room, making something, and putting it [online] without really having to say, ‘Well what’s our ultimate goal? Are we gonna take a band photo and then tour for three years and hope for a record deal and play SXSW?’” he said. Wherever they end up, it’s nice to have a little more breathing room on the increasingly crowded internet.