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.