Citizen Bravo: 'While the price of music has never been lower, the environmental cost has never been higher'

Citizen Bravo: 'While the price of music has never been lower, the environmental cost has never been higher'

credit: Graeme O'Hara

Dr Matt Brennan's new project is an album released as a download, a musical installation and a piece of research

For Dr Matt Brennan aka Citizen Bravo's new musical project Build a Thing of Beauty, the world is surely experiencing its first ever album released as a download, a musical installation and a piece of research into the physical impact of recorded music. Not that the final element strictly counts as a playable element of the music, but the findings of research by Brennan, a reader in Popular Music at the University of Glasgow, tie closely to the way he's chosen to present his new music.

'The headline conclusions of the research would be that, while the price of recorded music has never been lower, from a carbon emissions perspective the cost has never been higher, and we have the numbers to prove it,' says Brennan, who was born in Nova Scotia and raised in New Brunswick, Canada, and who moved to Scotland in his early twenties to study music under Simon Frith; to 'learn how to take pop music seriously', as he has it. Brennan was also one quarter of Zoey Van Goey, who released two albums on Glasgow's Chemikal Underground label while they were active between 2006 and 2012 (and Chemikal are also returning from a short releasing hiatus to issue this album).

While fuller research is available at Brennan's website, the least surprising thrust of 'The Cost of Music' – co-authored with Dr Kyle Devlin from the University of Oslo – says that the relative cost of music is lower than ever (inflation-adjusted, a phonograph was $13.88 in 1907, a vinyl record was $28.55 in 1977, and an album download was $11.11 in 2013). What's more surprising, however, is that the environmental impact of non-physical music has also shot up; from 140 million kilograms of GHGs (greenhouse gas equivalents) in 1977 to 157 million in 2000, the cost of powering the technology used for downloading and storing music is now estimated at between 200 million and 350 million in the US alone.

'Although I'm very loathe to lend any credence to the idea that my parents' generation of Baby Boomers from the 1960s and '70s valued music more,' says Brennan, 'it's clear that people were willing to spend a much higher percentage of their salary for just one album, than people are to pay a monthly subscription to all recorded music ever in 2019. Hopefully by doing this work we can envisage a more imaginative way of consuming music than we do now. What would that look like? That's a good question. For me, it looks like the SCI★FI★HI★FI.'

The SCI★FI★HI★FI is the sculptural element of the recorded project, where the album is played on seven historic formats, from phonograph to vinyl, cassette, CD and streaming. Its appearances – including at Glasgow's Monorail Records this weekend as a kind of fringe event to this year's Record Store Day – take the form of a talk and a performed demonstration by Brennan, after which the audience can come up and take a look at it. 'So if you want to be inches away from a working 1905 Edison phonograph, you can absolutely do that and we can have a conversation about it,' he says.

Away from these contextual depths and layers, Build a Thing of Beauty also exists on its own as simply the first solo music Brennan has made since he left Zoey Van Goey, a project lasting several years which features production and musicianship from Andy Monaghan (Frightened Rabbit) and Malcolm Benzie (Withered Hand). 'Although if it sounds vaguely unprofessional, that's because I'm playing almost everything myself,' says Brennan.

'While I was thinking about releasing this album, or even whether it made sense to release an album in 2019, the more academic side of my brain started whirring, and I thought about the album as a historical artefact. Releasing an album now involves questions for any grassroots musician… Is it worth it? In an era when we're used to listening to music for free and having constant access to it through the internet, is there a way of somehow making the experience of listening to it a bit more memorable?'

With the SCI★FI★HI★FI, he believes he's discovered a means of listening people won't forget in a hurry. 'The point of it is to take the experience of listening to recorded music, and to try and turn it back into an event. While I was doing the research for this I saw photographs of crowds of people in the 1890s listening to phonograph cylinders for the very first time; even in these grainy photos, you can see in their eyes that hearing music is a transcendent experience for them, they can't believe what they're hearing. I guess this is an experiment in trying to recreate the perfect conditions for a more memorable experience of listening to a record.'

Build a Thing of Beauty by Citizen Bravo is out now on Chemikal Underground. SCI★FI★HI★FI can be seen at Monorail, Glasgow, Sun 14 Apr, as part of Record Store Day.

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