An Artist’s Perspective on Collect Records and Martin Shkreli

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Joshua Strawn is a member of Brooklyn-based duo Azar Swan. Until last week, he was in negotiations to release an album on Geoff Rickly’s Collect Records. We asked Josh for his personal perspective on the effect that Collect’s apparent demise would have on his art and career.

I had no idea when I first read about the outrageous Daraprim price hike that it would affect me on a creative level, much less an existential one. Of course social and political events can’t help but have an indirect effect on any artist — and the way that the profit motive poisons the supposedly humanitarian endeavor of providing health care in the United States definitely creeps into the lives of artists. To become a musician is to make a life choice that resists most kinds of stability, including access to health care. But when I found out Martin Shkreli had been the silent financial hand behind Geoff Rickly’s Collect Records, a record label that has been offering to release an Azar Swan album, the effect went from indirect to extremely direct.

Geoff Rickly has been a kind supporter of Azar Swan for a while. He has said that the door at Collect was open to us whenever we wanted to have the conversation. Until recently, we weren’t quite sure what that conversation would consist of. Our third LP is almost complete, and we already have plans for its release mapped out. But since [Azar Swan co-founder] Zohra [Atash] and I are always working on the next thing while the current one is getting finished, we naturally began conceiving the fourth record. This is where Collect and Martin Shkreli come into play.

As physical sales and label budgets have shrunk over recent years, the financial constraints of the business become creative ones. There are certain kinds of records that you stop considering making. You stop your imagination from encompassing projects that would take too many days in the studio, or involve too many live musicians. Certain gear that you might want to use, you don’t even consider. This is at least one reason for the increasing popularity of music made on computers with homegrown production aesthetics: you can emulate a string orchestra or a CS-80, but to have the real thing on the record is another matter entirely. Mainly a matter of cold, hard cash.

When Geoff approached Zohra recently, he made some remarks to the effect that money for the label was looking flush. That set our imaginations to work. We got to dream about music in a way that we hadn’t dreamed about it in quite some time and we hit upon something we were really excited about. We were planning to pitch the project to Geoff in the coming weeks — but then the news of Shkreli’s pill scandal hit, and with it the news that he was the reason the label had such a nice amount of money to offer its artists.

But perhaps more importantly, with larger budgets come the advantage of industry machinery. It’s true that the independent and DIY spirit can often help musicians avoid losing creative control. They are in some ways an antidote to the pure bottom line orientation of the majors. But as a band we have experienced an odd inversion of this formula. It has been precisely a lack of big industry machinery that has made us feel at times like we were losing control of what we made — because not being on a major label means that your ideas have a strange way of turning up on those labels anyway.

Time and again we’ve seen artists undergo sudden image makeovers that bear a distinct resemblance to aesthetics that Zohra has been exploring for years. I literally have to do double takes when I see various photos in my social media feed to see if it’s Zohra posting a #tbt image, or if it’s something from the rollout of another, more prominent group. It’s insanely frustrating to see another, more famous artist making loads of cash doing something you’re certain you were doing before them. It instantly becomes a numbers game: the band with more fans and a bigger PR budget tends to come out on top. This is something to which all too many independent artists — in music and elsewhere — can relate, and not having a budget behind you means you can’t fight back.

For a moment, it looked like we might finally have found a place where there was cash to spare for such matters. Zohra and I were on tour in Europe when we heard the news about Shkreli, Rickly, and Collect, and she remarked that there was always something about it that felt too good to be true. A nice guy running a label that had cash to spare for artists to create freely in an industry increasingly bereft of financial resources? It felt like a weird alternate dimension. Didn’t we come from the universe where only dickheads have tons of cash, and only want to give it to terrible people to fund terrible bands? Didn’t we come from the world where U2 was more famous than The Chameleons, where Scott Walker and Lydia Lunch didn’t begin getting proper credit for their contributions until just recently? Didn’t we come from a world where people use the outlandish cost of medicine to make sick people poor?

Of course we do.

And so, we press on, thankful beyond measure for all the support and respect we get from fellow artists and from fans. But I’ve got a two-year-old daughter now, and I’d be lying if I didn’t sometimes look at the world I’ve brought her into and wonder if I should maybe do something else. Am I being selfish because I feel compelled to do this thing? My daughter is thankfully healthy today, but I’m eventually going to have to pay her medical bills in a world where pharma bro’s like Martin Shkreli make the rules.

I don’t want all this credit and a big recording budget because I need my paranoia and/or narcissism placated. When former members of Coil and Whitehouse agree to remix my music, I have all the personal and artistic validation I need. When Lydia Lunch tells Zohra she loves her, we’re set. We don’t want Shkreli-scale money so we can get a hundred thousand new followers on Facebook or buy new cars and houses. I wouldn’t have a word to say about other artists’ choices were it not for the frustration that creative work we do is not yielding as much for us as it is for them.

It’s really just that I need to sell a song to Game of Thrones so I can pay the pharma bro’s of the world if my daughter ever gets sick. This is about the world being a place where power is not just a little bit out of balance, but drastically out of balance. It’s about the way that the 1% problem bleeds into everything. I admire Rickly and the folks on the label for walking away from Shkreli’s money. But ethical choices like that become harder every day when decent people who could be cooperative and social are thrown into this cutthroat contest for survival.