Inside Out: an RPM rXtrospective
The real history of RPM is in the music: every song, every album, every band that ever recorded a track tells part of the story. More than 40,000 songs have been created as part of the RPM challenge during the first decade. Some participated once, and some have done it every year, like a glorious ritual of music. Every musician who has participated has a story as rich and surprising as their own lives.
But if you ever wondered how things look from behind the scenes, it’s something like this.
It’s more than coincidence that there are other artistic challenges to complete a project in a short time frame, like 48 Hour Film Project, NaNoWriMo or FAWM. This structure provides a deadline, but also acts as a protective boundary for your creative process--outside of that boundary is everyday life, but inside you've declared a space to play with the tools and instruments that you love, to let loose your passion for film or writing or music. And, among the mundane details of daily life, it’s great to have a moment to say “This is also who I am, too.” The fun part is that when you join a collective challenge like this, hundreds of other people are in the same space, all sharing the experience together.
More music, please
In the winter of 2005 The Wire weekly newspaper in Portsmouth, N.H., was only two years old, but those years had already been full of music. We’d put together two compilation CDs featuring Seacoast and NH-area bands across all genres, one with 20 tracks and one with 22, then given them away free in every copy of The Wire, almost 20,000 CDs in total (we still spot them on someone’s dashboard occasionally). We’d helped to put together a jazz and poetry CD, as well, in order to help spread the word about Jazzmouth, a unique Seacoast poetry and Jazz festival, and we ran an around-the-clock audio stream of local music served off a computer dedicated just to that which sat in a corner of the office, humming quietly to itself as it sang to the world. We hosted a second audio stream for Portsmouth Community Radio, whose antenna was just across the street from us, which picked the signal off the airwaves, digitized it and then rebroadcast it online, since the fledgling, all-volunteer station hadn’t yet been able to set up their own streaming system. We’d worked with Pro Portsmouth to co-create and curate a outdoor summer music series, “Summer in the Street,” in which local music concerts were held on a closed street in the middle of downtown Portsmouth on beautiful Saturday afternoons throughout the summer.
So, yeah. We liked what we were hearing. It wasn’t just the quality— and so much of it was really great — but, as we were discovering, local music scenes are, universally speaking, a boundless resource of energy, creativity, potential, satisfaction and joy, a fact that had been gradually obscured by the scaled-up, buffed-up, global corporate music industry machine that emerged from the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
At this point, our music editor had an idea. We had been journalistically observing the music that people were making in our town—people who were hoping to make it big themselves, hoping their next release would be a breakthrough, hoping we might become the country’s next favorite music scene. But what if we got our newspaper involved in the process? What if we made something new and special happen in our hometown that would be fun for the musicians who work here and who make it someplace special?
Formerly with the band Say Zuzu, and our music editor in 2005, Jon Nolan was (and is) not only a world-class songwriter, but a great writer in general, and possessed of a restless, infectious energy which he always tries to attribute to simply too much coffee. Knowing firsthand how hard it can be to motivate oneself, Jon suggested that it would be great to have a deadline, and even better, a deadline that your friends were all on, too. He knew people who had participated in other similar creative challenges and had fun, but what if we issued our own, to our community?
We all agreed that this seemed like a great project. Even if only a couple bands finished an album, it would be fun. We sussed out the details (10 songs or 35 minutes, all original, no prizes) and Jon penned the text of the challenge itself. We put the word out in The Wire, and set up a website.
Our one worry was that no one would take up the challenge at all. It is a heck of a lot to ask from someone, to set aside a month to work on a project simply because we suggested it. We reached out behind the scenes to be sure some bands would get on board, just to make sure the challenge didn’t fall flat on its face.
But within the first few days, we met our goal of registering 20 participants. By the time the calendar ticked over into February, more than 200 bands had signed up.
How to measure a music scene
200 bands signed up? That was a number that so greatly exceeded our expectations, it was hard to fathom. Portsmouth was a city of only 25,000 people, and even though by counting the surrounding towns one could tally100,000 residents, there still simply were not 200 bands in the Seacoast.
At least, not until RPM. We realized then that we had to recalibrate how we thought of our local music scene, and stop defining it by the few dozen bands that played out regularly. The music in a community runs as deep as every musician in the region, whether they are active or dormant, professional or amateur. Just because you might have put down your instrument for a few years doesn't mean you can't pick it up again. Everyone who cared enough to make music was a part of the scene, and they were showing that by showing up.
At the end of February, the night before the deadline, we stayed open at the office until 9 p.m., receiving 90 freshly-made CDs, and we could not have been happier. Every musician who walked through the door was like a bedraggled Santa Claus bearing the gift of hand-made music. We were wholly overwhelmed by the response.
The next morning, another 75 CDs came in, bringing the total to 165. Reading through the liner notes, we counted just over 500 total individual musicians who had participated. This… was not what we expected. Yes, some of them were people we knew from local bands, maybe trying out a solo album, or digging into a new genre. But really, most of these names were new to us. They included a man we only knew as a successful restaurant owner. There was an older guy who hadn’t played anything in years, but dug out his 8-track machine from his garage to record an RPM album. Two young brothers had been encouraged by their parents. Several women who had never played out with bands wrote and performed a full album of music, and then some. There was a father-daughter duo. And on and on.
Here’s the thing. We did not know this. None of us knew this. And if we didn’t know—we who were in the business of deeply knowing our local music scene—then how could the rest of our community be expected to know? All of us were missing out on something important about living here together, and we didn’t even know what we were missing. Without even realizing it, we'd fallen, to some subtle and insidious degree, for the same old story, that the measure of music was fame, as determined by radio, television and money.
Fame is no more the measure of music than it is of language, yet we aren't afraid to speak just because we don't have our own cable talk show.
None of us start exploring music or any art form because we want to get famous. We start, that very first day, because we are drawn to the sound of guitar strings or the beat of a drum or the colors of paint or the notes of a song or the rhythm of words. And because the act of creating makes us feel more alive, and that feeling endures. RPM reconnected musicians with that fundamental, pure attraction. It was so damn simple, if you looked at it that way.
Greatly encouraged, we decided it would be selfish to keep this much fun to ourselves. In early 2007—an era just before the sun was to rise on Twitter and Facebook—we opened up registrations to the world, and musicians signed up from one unexpected country after another, from continent after continent. National Public Radio, BoingBoing and Slashdot picked up the story, and then many smaller outlets after that. When someone signed up from McMurdo Station in Antarctica, we officially had participants on all seven continents. By February, more than 2,000 bands had signed up and the die was cast: RPM was a global creative challenge, yet one built in large part on the the importance of community.
Listening / Party
From the first year, we always knew we had to have some sort of party to celebrate, but the scale of the response had thrown us off. What would be an appropriate way to celebrate the creation of so many CDs? There had to be music, of course, but what music? The answer was clearly that it had to be all of it. Enthusiastic organizer, participant, and local songwriter Chris Greiner hit on the idea of a listening party our first year, at which no band would play. We'd listen to music from all the discs received.
But even if we only played one song from each completed CD, that would still be 14 hours of music, far too much to play at one event. So we started at The Music Hall, then fanned out to four simultaneous listening rooms at music venues all across town, then spent the whole night listening to music. We published the playlist in The Wire, which musicians toted under their arms as they migrated from one event to another through the March night, hailing longtime, but rarely seen, musical friends, introducing each other, and congratulating each other. It was as if the working musicians who had served the Seacoast so well for so long had finally taken over the town and were treating each other like musical celebrities.
In later years, it wasn’t even possible to fit all of that music into one town (more than 800 CDs were completed the second year), so we encouraged people to host their own listening party wherever they were in the world and bring their own communities of musicians together to celebrate. There have been listening parties in Oakland, Jackson, Athens (GA), Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and St. John’s, Newfoundland. There has even been a virtual listening party in Second Life.
There was so much music, though, that trying to contain it to one night seemed foolish. That’s where the idea of The Jukebox came in: a place online for all the finished albums to live, so that everyone could check out each other’s projects after February was over, even if you didn’t live down the street from each other.
This was a little trickier ten years ago than it might be today. The 2006 Jukebox was built entirely in Flash. We uploaded all the CDs and album art to it ourselves, and it was awesome. But by the next year, the need for more capacity and flexibility prompted a redesign as an Adobe Air app. Later, we rebuilt again in ColdFusion, and then that was reborn yet again in Perl.
Inevitably we shifted from uploading all the songs ourselves, to asking participants to do it. At the start of 2016, the Jukebox contains more than 35,000 songs.
Think globally, scheme locally
One thing we wanted to encourage early on was for RPM to happen locally in other communities, as well as happening globally, and it always made sense to us that the mechanism would be similar to what it had been for us. If local papers could bring the challenge to their musicians, then they could be the custodians in their areas. After all, who would know their music scenes better than the people who covered it?
We set out to pitch this idea to dozens of other papers, but enjoyed mixed results. Most couldn’t bridge the gap between editorial and business: the editorial department of the paper didn’t produce events like this, but the business department didn’t put on any events that weren’t mostly a vehicle to milk large amounts of money out of sponsors. Most papers, it seemed, didn’t have a fun department.
But not all. The East Bay Express in Oakland, hosted RPM in their area for several years, and they were great to work with. And of course, there was Newfoundland.
News from the north
Enter The Scope, a paper for St. John’s, the capital city of Newfoundland & Labrador. It’s a city with a population of just about 200,000 at the tip of its metropolitan fingertips, perched on the eastern edge of this island in the middle of the North-Atlantic. Known for its bizarre sense of humour, its impenetrable dialect, and its terrible weather, the Rock is also known for its kickass music scene.
The Scope threw its weight behind promoting the RPM Challenge back in 2008, when the paper turned two. A respectable 22 RPM albums were produced that year, and the year after that the number shot up to 70. That number doubled by 2012 and has hovered around there ever since.
Why has the RPM Challenge caught on here? Elling Lien, former editor of The Scope, says it's something people the local music scene did anyway, but now there's a name for it. And, Newfoundland & Labrador has terrible winters and a tight-knit community, important parts of what makes RPM tick!
People in St. John’s actually look forward to February. Like in Portsmouth, you can’t go into a St. John's café in January without overhearing a “Hey! We should make an RPM together this year!” or a “What’s your RPM this year?” It’s become part of the city’s culture, a way to survive a hard month with creativity.
One element that really clicked in Newfoundland & Labrador was the idea that you can work on an RPM alone—in your snowed-in house on a rock in the middle of the ocean—but you’re never really alone. There are scores of other people around the globe who are doing the same thing you are at exactly that moment: spending time thinking about and making music. And if those people live close to where you are, or if communication is good enough, that feeling leads to a feeling of real community. The listening parties are full of such good spirit and nostalgia that they feel like reunions, even if people haven't met before.
Shared experience—it’s a powerful thing.
The Scope folded at the end of 2013, but RPM is still going strong in Newfoundland & Labrador. Elling Lien continues to champion the cause, now under his new creative endeavor, Unpossible. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation took up as media sponsor in 2014, and has been beaming the good word about the Challenge to every corner of the province, from St. John’s in Newfoundland to Nain in Northern Labrador.
We have had an indecent amount of fun celebrating the music created for RPM over the past ten years. We’ve made T-shirts and buttons, made documentaries and animations of several different flavors, set up cross-listening-party video calls, and had NPR’s Bob Boilen address the crowd in Portsmouth via Skype, a projector and a 30-foot screen. At the 5th anniversary, we hung all the CDs from all 5 years in long, glittering curtains around the Music Hall stage, and at the 10th anniversary we displayed all of them on stage in browsable record-store-style bins. In our tenth year, Portsmouth Community Radio beamed a global music marathon out to the world, playing one song from every completed album across all the time zones. At one listening party, we broke the “no live music” rule by inviting everyone there up on stage for one colossally fun jam.
Every year, we can scarcely believe our luck. Many people go their whole lives without a chance to be involved in a project like this, and we get host ground zero of a music explosion every year.
Hear and the future
RPM continues because of the extraordinary group of volunteers that have joined us over the years. Maintaining the website, building and rebuilding the jukebox, publicity, planning, graphics, events, making movies and sorting through thousands of new CDs, RPM is an event that builds community, which is built by a community, which is both local and online.
We can’t wait to hear what's next.
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