Earlier this month, Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National, along with their friend and frequent collaborator Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, announced an ambitious new project that in some ways is still in the process of being defined. Dubbed PEOPLE, it’s described by the founders as a publishing platform for music that might not otherwise have a clear pathway to a commercial release: improvisational jams, meandering avant-garde instrumentals, in-progress brainstorms that might eventually end up on a National or Bon Iver record, and whatever else the musicians and their growing circle of colleagues dream up.
Looked at more broadly, Vernon and the Dessners hope PEOPLE can be a catalyst for collaborations between artists, both famous and obscure, that are spontaneous and freewheeling and devoid of the expectations and limitations inherent to music released under the guise of a record label or some other corporate entity. The artists have already pursued these utopian artist ideals at their artist-curated festivals, like Eaux Claires, MusicNow, and this summer’s PEOPLE festival in Berlin, coming up Aug. 18-19, in which musicians from the indie mainstream (including Feist, Jonsi and Alex Somers from Sigur Ros, and Beirut’s Zach Condon) and experimental fringes come together to exchange ideas. On PEOPLE, a musical fragment started by one artist might be developed by another artist, and then progress from there as listeners tune in.
On the PEOPLE platform, there’s a smattering of buzz-y indie releases, including four tracks from Big Red Machine, a new side project from Vernon and Aaron Dessner that will be rolled out in installments in the coming weeks. But much of the music found on the site — currently in its beta phase, though one hopes the finished product retains PEOPLE’s current unpolished Web 1.0 look — will be utterly unfamiliar to most listeners, which is kind of the point. If you want to hear old favorites by The National or Bon Iver, you won’t find them here. PEOPLE is strictly an avenue for music that probably couldn’t live anywhere else. While most streaming services specialize in providing listeners with exactly the music they know they already like, as well as new music that sounds similar to the stuff they already know, the hope with PEOPLE is that adventurous listeners will embrace the thrill of the hunt and the potential for new discoveries.
As to whether fans will embrace this platform, and whether the musicians involved will use it to facilitate truly worthwhile and lasting music … even the artists themselves aren’t totally sure yet. When I chatted with Aaron and Bryce last week, they didn’t claim to have any grand designs on what the future of PEOPLE will be. For now, the possibilities are endless — which is always the most exciting place to be.
You’ve talked a bit already about the platform from an artist’s point of view. I was wondering if you would address the audience’s perspective. What do you hope that listeners get out of PEOPLE?
Bryce Dessner: It’s sort of the anti-algorithm, in that there is no algorithm. The way that most of the Internet is, it’s you like this thing, so you’re also going to like that thing. I find that that’s rarely the case, for me anyway. And it removes a lot of the beauty of the early days of the Internet. It was sort of like the wild west — you would get lost and find your way. Right now it feels like the path was made for you. I hope that the feeling [of PEOPLE] will be a little more like going to an old record store, or tuning to a radio station where you just like what they put on.
Aaron Dessner: I use Spotify as a convenience. But there’s nothing about the user experience that excites me.
The most interesting aspect of PEOPLE to me is that you’ll be sharing music that in some cases is still in the process of being worked on, rough drafts of songs that you’ve already released, and improvised pieces from jam sessions at your festivals. It reminds me in a way of the Grateful Dead and other jam bands — they trained their audience to appreciate listening to the process of creating music in the moment, as opposed to only caring about a polished final product. But is that a steep learning curve for other kinds of listeners? Do you think your fans will appreciate hearing embryonic or “unfinished” work?