Two years ago, Justin Vernon and Aaron and Bryce Dessner, along with Tom and Nadine Michelberger of Berlin’s bohemian Michelberger Hotel, invited more than 100 musicians to Berlin for what they called Michelberger Music, a gathering of musicians in hopes of reinvigorating the at-times rigid music industry. Now, the event–that’s not quite a festival, not quite a conference–has been adapted by Vernon and the Dessners in hopes of having even greater reach.
Since August 12, PEOPLE–which has been growing through artist-to-artist physical encounters–has been in Berlin for a week-long residency during which more than 200 participating musicians have been able to collaborate and/or perform new material. Artists such as Damian Marley, Francis Farewell Starlite and Jenny Lewis are all on the roster. Then, on August 18 and 19, the public will be able to witness the spontaneity across seven stages at Funkhaus, the historic Berlin site of the former East German Republic radio and recordings headquarters.
In conjunction with the physical gathering, Vernon and the Dessners have also launched its non-physical counterpart, a new digital platform called PEOPLE, on which artists can share in-the-works music and have complete control over what they share, when they share it, when they remove it and how it’s presented.
Ahead of the two-day Berlin event, some of the voices of PEOPLE offer their own views on what the platform is, how it’s pushing music forward and why openly collaborative and creative spaces like it are more rare to come by.
Who: Founding member of PEOPLE, member of Bon Iver
PEOPLE project: Formed Big Red Machine with Aaron Dessner; the pair’s self-titled album will be available on PEOPLE and through Jagjaguwar on Aug. 31
Who: Founding member of PEOPLE, member of The National
PEOPLE project: Other half of Big Red Machine
Who: Founding member of PEOPLE, member of The National, composer
PEOPLE project: Collaborated with Will Oldham and Nathalie Joachim on upcoming album One With the Birds
Tom and Nadine Michelberger
?Who: Founding members of PEOPLE and owners of Berlin’s Michelberger Hotel
Who: Haitian flutist and member of chamber group Eighth Blackbird
PEOPLE project: Women of Haiti, and One With the Birds
Who: Indie-folk singer-songwriter
PEOPLE project: Adapting a musical theater show based on her 2010 album Hadestown, on which Justin Vernon and others sang on
Who: Icelandic musician Krisín Anna who was a member of the legendary Icelandic band Múm up until 2006, when she started performing one woman shows as Kría Brekkan
PEOPLE project: I Must Be the Devil will be released by Bel-Air Glamour Records/Vinyl Factory and PEOPLE
Richard Reed Parry
Who: Member of Arcade Fire
PEOPLE project: His folksy Quite River of Dust Vol. 1 will be released on Sept. 21 through ANTI- and PEOPLE
In your own words, what is PEOPLE?
AARON DESSNER: The best metaphor that I can think of is that it’s a platform that acts as like a garden, where creative seeds that you plant–with anyone you want to collaborate with–can grow. Where the emphasis is not on the finished, produced marketed product, but on process and showing a three dimensional context. It’s very easy to share authorship and share revenue and to co-work with anyone you want to collaborate with and then everyone that contributes in any way to that piece of content, remains forever attached to it. We created a vehicle for that. It’s really a tool, a publishing tool, and the idea is that it will give voice to different things.
NATHALIE JOACHIM: To me, I was just excited to learn about PEOPLE from Bryce because it really feels like an opportunity to engage in sharing work together in an open and free way, that has been in many ways co-opted by the recording industry. So this puts a little bit of the community feeling back in music sharing on a platform that really is about us.
BRYCE DESSNER: It’s an attempt to allow music to live in a way that’s a bit the outside of the normal traditional boundaries, where you record, release and market things. Obviously, the minute you make a website or even plan an event, you eliminate certain possibilities just by the nature of the design. But with this, what remains interesting to me is to see what other people bring to it and how they define it and less about our, and even my own, personal involvement in it.
ANAIS MITCHELL: My sense is that PEOPLE is a coming together of people who are dedicated to community, the creative act–beyond any of the trappings of how music usually gets sold–the love and risk-taking that are part of making art.
RICHARD REED PARRY: A vast and complex community that explores new ways of doing things in the music world.–It’s big, it’s small. It’s quiet, it’s loud.
When you all first started talking about PEOPLE, what were those early conversations like?
AARON: The whole thing came out this experience–the prehistory of it is a long one. To me, it goes like all the way back to being a twin, a born collaborator. The best musical experiences that I’ve had in my life have very been those moments of spontaneity where something unexpected happens with someone you just met or someone you didn’t think you had the chance to work with. I think any musician would probably say the same thing.
We had this experience in Berlin in 2016 [Michelberger Music] where there was a residency and a bunch of friends got together and we invited lots of other people from all over the world, 100 artists, to come to Berlin to work [together] and stay at our friends Tom and Nadine Michelbeger’s hotel that has been a creative home for a lot of people — it’s all handmade and DIY, like a hostel and a nice hotel all in one. They’ve hosted us a lot over the last eight or nine years. But when all these people came, the idea was just to come together with no predetermined plan or schedule or headliners or band or anything like that, it was just to have 100 artists in one place collaborate freely for a week and then at the end of the week invite in the public and share works in progress.
It was a simple idea, but it was amazing how different it felt and how new and how transcendent, to just have the possibility for discovery and growth. And I think that the general feeling after it was, ‘How can we have this feeling everyday? How do we keep doing this, and how do we involve more people? It fed into a lot of Big Red Machine; the album that Justin and I made definitely came out of that spirit. It involved a community that’s very open, and it’s just probably some of my favorite music I’ve ever made, and we realized we needed to create a home for this kind of activity. Nobody ever said, ‘Let’s make a startup and try to create an infinitely scalable home for certain kind of music that’s going to become this giant community,’ it’s really just meant to be a artist-to-artist, artist-led, organic platform that acts as a publishing tool for these physical encounters that are happening all the time.
NADINE MICHELBERGER: We did a first mini-festival here in our hotel with Aaron and Bryce in 2011, but we were not allowed to name the band because The National was on tour and the promoter, of course, would freak out if we had a separate show. So we just said it was a mystery artist and spread some rumors so that people would show up. A mixture of hotel guests, artists and people were coming by for the day or the evening, and that was just very, very beautiful. We wanted to do that sometime again, but we didn’t want to copy that event here in the hotel. So years passed until we discovered The Funkhaus here in Berlin. When we saw that, we had the feeling, “Okay, we have to do that again.”
TOM MICHELBERGER: And the timing was just amazing. Literally in the same moment that we told Aaron and Bryce [about Funkhaus], which was [then] a really a dormant space, Justin emailed us [he had stayed at our hotel before] like, “Hey, I would love to do something in Berlin. I have this new album coming and would just love to spend a week in Berlin, do like something in the coffee house or something…” And we were like, “Perfect, perfect idea.” And from there, this took off. The frame was [always] clear: it has to be put on by the artists, there is no fee, there is no expectation, there is full freedom to do whatever you want to do, there is no expectation that you have to perform or anything. It’s truly about this free space, bringing those people together and then seeing what happens.
NADINE: So after the [Michelberger Music] festival in October 2016, in March the following year, Aaron and Justin spent a week together in Hudson to exchange [thoughts] during this digesting period. The conversation started about how and when and is there a way of us doing a digital expansion of that, and so, the idea of the platform came about. It was a year-long conversation back and forth on how to really get the essence of what [PEOPLE] should be and how it could be a continuation of physical and nonphysical things together.
Right now, what’s the biggest misconception about PEOPLE?
AARON: Um, well, it’s not The National and Bon Iver’s streaming platform. That’s number one.
BRYCE: We’ve been ring leaders of it, but it really is much larger than any one of us. It’s not about any kind of personality behind it, and in a way it kind of lives or dies on that–it needs to be something about a much broader vision of a group of artists as opposed to just my brother and I and Justin.
One of the benefits of the platform is that an artist can share a work in progress, and also has the ability to take a song down and re-upload it as they go. Why do you think it’s important for listeners to see an artists’ entire process, rather than just the final outcome?
AARON: One of the downsides to the different ways the [industry] works is the two dimensional aspect to it. So we’re trying to create the ability for artists to have a more vibrant, living connection with fans–as a fan of music, I want to see as much detail, I nerd out about that stuff. The cycle of when you’re quote-unquote a professional musician is that you live release to release. Your behavior becomes organized according to industry conventions and timelines and promotional cycles and tours and you get out of the habit of the raw and unexpected creative moments that probably brought you to music in the first place. So I think giving artists an outlet to share fragments and share works in progress and give the audience a place to seek it out is wonderful and I think it’ll lead to different kinds of music being made.
NATHALIE: Three years ago now, Eighth Blackbird did a residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago where we were a living exhibit in that we rehearsed everyday in the museum and people could sit and watch. For us, it felt very exposing because that’s usually our private time, but it was actually such a beautiful thing. So being able to do that on PEOPLE feels really great because it’s nice to let people know that there is a journey from where you start to where you end in terms of making a body of work. Your audience feels like they’re that much more a part of it; they’ve been able to watch the thing grow.
BRYCE: Musicians are people. It’s an opportunity to share that a little bit more.
What outlet can PEOPLE provide to artists who are typically known for their work in a band?
AARON: PEOPLE is not about bands really, it’s about people, individuals. The guys who are in The National, I mean you can see already there are some tracks that are up there that do involve Bryan and Scott [Devendorf] and Matt [Berninger], but it’s about getting out from other the shadow, whatever it is you’re known for, and just being a musician. But definitely a big part of this is that we don’t want it to be hierarchical in terms of how many followers you have. It’s funny because that’s what YouTube and Spotify and Twitter and Instagram are all about, this sort of popularity contest and I see why that’s so sticky–it’s leading to the darkest side of humanity. For us, PEOPLE is about dissolving these borders and reducing these hierarchies to create an even playing field where it’s really just about creation and making work just to make it. That’s where great things happen, not because you’re trying to “appeal” to the most amount of people.
RICHARD: Arcade Fire is sort of a vibey but stressful survival of the fittest type food chain. Writing solo music is like being alone in a benign magical garden that constantly yields delightful new plants.
The press release says that “PEOPLE was born just out of a wish to establish this independent, nurturing space.” Why are such spaces rare to come by in the music industry?
AARON: I wouldn’t say it’s because anyone is standing in the way… maybe it’s habit and that the commercial structures of the industry have evolved towards celebrity and viral [content]–it’s all about creating a buzz. And there are instructions designed around checking certain boxes that don’t really relate to raw creativity. So PEOPLE’s really like an artist collective essentially, it just happens to take the form of a database and a publishing tool. It’s cool to see this web of interrelated stuff and as communities grow and as it spreads — hopefully far away from us–it’s going to be cool to have this weird family tree where everybody’s connected.
NATHALIE: To be frank, money is the reason. The recording industry is about a bottom line and a lot of great artistry gets lost in the shuffle of that. Bryce, Justin and Aaron are taking a leap of faith in bypassing that system, but I think we all know from our most fruitful artists experiences that a [a leap of faith] leads to some of the most beautiful work.
BRYCE: You see it in music history where there’s moments [of these spaces existing]. We came up in New York City at a time when the community in New York was very nurturing in the mid-2000s.There was a huge explosion of creative music and a big sense of possibility in the city, so we were encouraged by that, but obviously, the environment in New York now is different. The nice thing about PEOPLE is that these artists are from all around the world–it’s not about one community. To come from different types of musical economies — from a DJ who makes his living performing at Berghain in Berlin to a funk musician from Argentina to a rock star from Wisconsin–and bring what you know [creates] a different sense of possibility.
ANAIS: Our culture is pretty obsessed with products, numbers, what we have “to show for ourselves”–maybe nowadays when there’s so much “content” being created all the time there’s a kind of anxiety about staying visible as an artist that never really goes away. It’s hard for me, as an artist, to be okay with this slow, mystical, meandering creative process that I may or may not have something “to show for” at the end of the day, so I’m not surprised it’s hard to find spaces and organizations that truly support that process, it goes against our cultural training. It’s radical for people to put their faith in each other and in the process of creating and collaborating for its own sake. It’s a real dream to be able to commune for a week with the beautiful artists gathering [in Berlin]. Many times you see other fellow musicians only in passing, always in motion, it’s a privilege to stay in one place with people–things happen that way.
TOM: I think it really comes down to recognizing your own abilities to do something and the responsibility if you have the ability to do something. And I think with this event it’s a miracle already getting [over 200] people who are in the midst or peaks of their career to spend a week together, and we’re not paying them to come. We very quickly said, “This doesn’t work if we involve managers or labels or anything,” so it really is an artist conversation. What PEOPLE is all about is putting tools in [the artist’s] hands to do something themselves. And when the creation happens, not falling back on the regular system. But that doesn’t come easy, it requires everyone to go down new paths. It’s an experiment and it will be an experiment for a very long time.
Why do you think a platform like PEOPLE is needed, and how is it pushing music forward?
RICHARD: New avenues, new ideas, new outlets and ways to experience music are so needed right now. Real community is so necessary right now.
NATHALIE: To me, I hope that PEOPLE is setting a new precedent for empowering artists to have more ownership over their work and to really feel like they can put their work forward without needing a huge machine behind them. It’s hopefully going to set a new standard, and I think as artists we often feel beholden to systems that we have to work with, whether it’s for funding or concerts or whatever, and I really do feel that PEOPLE has a structure that’s forward-looking. It empowers artists to really share their voices in a way that’s very hard to do without systemic barriers that are in place. I feel really positive about that, and I do hope that it’s a foreshadowing of the future of our field.
KRISTIN: It entices me to actually be an active musician in the world again. I used to work in the music industry, release and tour for years with my old band múm, but had started working much more in the field of visual art and I was finding that a more creative environment offered more self-discovery. PEOPLE pushes music forward because the musicians can feed this futile environment and it brings music back to the origin as a force to bring people together.
BRYCE: I think if you look at the last 20 years and larger picture of how music is released and recorded and distributed and all those things, we’ll look back at this time as revolutionary. I think we have been privileged to see all that and to develop a career within it. A band like The National probably wouldn’t be popular if it weren’t for online music and the way that that’s all shifted.
Who are some artists you discovered through PEOPLE, or knew about previously and would recommend?
AARON: I think Richard Reed Parry is such an interesting musician, PEOPLE is definitely an ideal outlet for him and he’s posting really interesting things; Nathalie Joachim, the Haitian flute player who’s a world class classical musician but she’s also in the chamber group Eighth Blackbird, definitely has an interesting perspective; Ryan Olson, this Minneapolis producer who does a lot of hip hop; Anais Mitchell, the songwriter, is working on something with my friend Josh Kaufman and Eric Johnson from the Fruit Bats, I just put up a rehearsal recording of them in Eaux Claires — it’s the genesis of a new project for PEOPLE.
NATHALIE: I don’t know that I’ve listened to anything that I didn’t sort of already know, but I will say that I’m really excited, just in terms of ‘Yay, contemporary classical music,’about the collaboration between Tyshawn Sorey and Crash Ensemble. I saw that go up there recently. I think just to know that that is up there in the same place as Bryce and Justin and Aaron is amazing.