Nils Frahm: ‘Spotify and Apple encourage a way of listening that is only half-ass’

Clubbers adore the German musician, as do classical aficionados

Nils Frahm says he is taking ownership of his unreleased music and it is the motive behind Old Friends New Friends

Nils Frahm says he is taking ownership of his unreleased music and it is the motive behind Old Friends New Friends

 

Wearing a Healy-Rae style flat cap and a sombre expression Nils Frahm cuts a distinctive figure as he logs in from his holiday retreat in rural Spain. Musically and philosophically, the acclaimed contemporary composer doesn’t believe in following the crowd. And he feels his peers should be wary of clambering on bandwagons – especially where money is involved.

“Artists should be inspired by what is going on in society,” he says. “But we should also react.”

He despairs, in particular, of the rise of streaming services. As a working musician, Frahm of course feels obliged to participate in the streaming economy. Which is why his forthcoming album of piano pieces, Old Friends New Friends, will be available on Spotify and elsewhere. Yet he is under no illusion but that he is merely a cog in a very large and lucrative machine. He believes, too, that Spotify has turned music into aural wallpaper that serves largely to distract while you are doing the housework, mowing the lawn etc.

These brands are the stars. The old school artists, like me, the content creators, are really replaceable. There will always be somebody else doing content creation

“Spotify, Apple – the interfaces, and the resulting experience they provide – encourage a way of listening that is only half-ass,” he says. “You don’t care so much any more what it is you are listening to. It’s not so impactful any more. It just needs to go on and on and on. You don’t want to be stopped with the more important thing you are doing. This is basically what most users do with Spotify. They use it to keep this other thing they are doing more effective.”

Streaming has taken the power away from musicians and given it to these huge start-ups, he fears. “In interviews I’m not talking about other artists any more. I’m talking about brands: iTunes and Dolby Atmos and Spotify and all these big names in the music industry. These brands are the stars. The old school artists, like me, the content creators, are really replaceable. There will always be somebody else doing content creation.”

Nobody, of course, creates “content” quite like Frahm. There is a sense, listening to his music, of being beamed to another world. His records exist beyond genre and as a touring artist he fills dance clubs and concert halls with equal ease. That thrilling opacity is particularly pronounced on Old Friends New Friends, which brings together a decade plus of minimal compositions for piano.

Frahm grew up in a village outside Hamburg, the son of a photographer who sidelined in designing cover art for Munich jazz label ECM. And since the release of his first album in 2005, he has become one of a generation of musicians at the cross roads between modern and classical. Along with Max Richter, Ólafur Arnalds, Jon Hopkins, Dustin O’Halloran and Peter Broderick, he pivots effortlessly between old and new, familiar and unorthodox, sublime and feverish. Clubbers adore him, as do classical aficionados. There is, in his repertoire, something for everyone.

Cult favourite

He has long been a cult favourite. However, he had his big break only in 2018 with the LP All Melody. It was composed, as most of his work is, at his Saal 3 studio at the Funkhaus, a Communist-era broadcasting centre overlooking the Spree in East Berlin.

Simultaneously earnest and playful, All Melody was a top 25 hit in the UK and in the United States reached two on the “classic” charts. And it saw him play to packed rooms, including Dublin’s National Concert Hall, and at the inaugural All Together Now festival at Curraghmore House in Waterford in 2018.

Nils Frahm in his studio at Funkhaus, a former East German broadcasting headquarters in Berlin. Photograph: Mustafah Abdulaziz/The New York Times
Nils Frahm in his studio at Funkhaus, a former East German broadcasting headquarters in Berlin. Photograph: Mustafah Abdulaziz/The New York Times

As the best albums do, it also contained multitudes. All Melody opened with Frahm conjuring with what can only be described as “Wagnerian pan-pipes”; elsewhere he set the controls for the heart of the dancefloor. At no point was it possible to predict what would come next.

“All Melody was more ambitious. I wanted to take another step,” says Frahm. “And to established a new way of touring. It was a risk. We didn’t know how the project was going and if people would like to hear the show. I was trying to make the best and most diverse record.”

He’s proud to have broken through and to have won an international fanbase. Nonetheless, it isn’t a phase of his career he is in a hurry to revisit. “It’s probably the most overthought thing I’ve ever done. Right? And now I cannot listen to it at all. This record is for me hard to identify with.”

Frahm feels artists should not to be in an audience’s face all the time. He was happy, after All Melody, to retreat from the spotlight. He’d said what he had to say. It was time to bow out gracefully.

“I had so much exposure and was on so many stages for so many nights,” he says. “For me, it’s almost like being a guest. And I feel you should ‘stop eating’, when it’s done. I don’t understand when people cannot stop eating when they have more food in front of them.”

It might be the wrong path to take when everybody else tries to become their own bank. It’s like treating fire with fire instead of with water

Stepping back wasn’t easy. All Melody was hot. And it was made clear to Frahm that he could keep it on the road for another year at least.

“There’s a lot of management that push you to do that. Management want to keep making money. They get the artists while they’re young. And then people burn out and get frustrated. I’m not in danger because I’m surrounded by my own team, people who care about me and I care about them. Taking at least two years off after two years being ‘present’ is a recommendation I would like to give – to stay healthy and a little bit excited still.”

Cryptocurrencies

Frahm’s distaste for streaming services is eclipsed by his suspicion of cryptocurrencies and by NFTs – watermarked digital units of data created a huge environmental cost (in terms of electricity use). Though NFTs have been embraced across the entertainment industry, the music business has proved especially keen. Artists hitching themselves to the bandwagon include Grimes, Kings of Leon – even Frahm’s boyhood idol, Aphex Twin, who earlier this year sold an NFT for €115,000.

“I’m personally against NFTs and Bitcoin,” he says. “My personal impression is that it’s a sin. I understand the bank system and the international market system is not fair in its essence. And people who do not have access to that power and money should be treated fairly. But it might be the wrong path to take when everybody else tries to become their own bank. It’s like treating fire with fire instead of with water.”

Nils Frahm: Management want to keep making money. They get the artists while they’re young. Photograph: Mustafah Abdulaziz/The New York Times
Nils Frahm: Management want to keep making money. They get the artists while they’re young. Photograph: Mustafah Abdulaziz/The New York Times

He has equally strong views regarding the conveyor belt of posthumous “content” the music industry is constantly churning out. Including Old Friends New Friends and a recent collaboration with Berlin electronica artist FS Blumm, Frahm has more than 25 albums to his name. Nonetheless, he understands that for certain people enough can never be enough. And it horrifies him to imagine that, after he is gone, someone might potentially trawl through his catalogue and cobble together a “new” Nils Frahm LP.

That, in a way, is the motive behind Old Friends New Friends. He is taking ownership of his unreleased music. And deciding what he does and doesn’t wish to share with the world.

“It would bother me if people in the future, just because I’m not there, would browse through my catalogue and try to see if there is ‘something else’. Without me being there and deciding upon it, I feel like… For some artists that was cruel. For example, Arthur Russell [the Downtown New York experimental composer] – while he was creating, he hadn’t so much output because the labels didn’t understand his music. Only now are people hungry for his stuff.”

Inevitably, the music business has moved to fill that void. Regardless of what Russell might have wanted.

“Even though he’s not there and God bless him –but they put out a lot of things which are sometimes, I think, really well curated and sometimes not so well curated. I would definitely feel it would be better if he could do that. My fantasy is that if music stops for me then I hope nobody needs to put out another Nils Frahm thing .Why not write it in an article? If I known that I don’t want it, it’s better for me.”

Old Friends New Friends is released Friday, December 3th

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