The EarthEar Story
The Voice of the Planet is the Muse
EarthEar began, I suppose, whenever it was that my wanderings in the wild turned in a long-lost moment toward some riveting sound. Perhaps it was trickling water ringing its tiny music amongst the quiet woods at the Big Brook, or the wind in trees along a hillside arresting my attention on an autumn afternoon. A seed was surely planted in me, though I no longer remember where or when it came alive.
I was pushing forty when, in the mid-nineties, I received a fresh assignment from Steve Kress at Crosswinds, a regional monthly where I'd been writing music reviews and cover features for several years. He was wondering what had become of the field of nature sound recordings, which had a brief burst of popular enthusiasm in the later 1980s, largely thanks to Bernie Krause's releases for The Nature Company and Gordon Hempton's Earth Sounds series and his Emmy-winning PBS documentary following the dawn chorus across America. These successes had built on Irv Teibel’s groundbreaking Environments LPs of a decade or so earlier, which had first brought field recordings out of academic and species-identification naturalist backwaters, and presented the sounds of the natural world as audiophile experiences meant to be listened to as part of our eclectic music collections.
Little did I know that this innocent freelance article would so insinuate itself into my life path, opening an avenue within which my passion for writing and editing on topics related to humanity's connection with the earth would find a new and invigorating focus. In place of the broad brush strokes of writing about ways that humans are listening to the earth, I found myself wanting to spread the word about a slew of compelling sound artists who were finding ways to let the earth share its own story, in its own "words."
For by 1996, the field of nature sound recording had been devastated by an influx of cheap products that were designed for innocuous "background" listening and "relaxation." These hour-long homogeneous recordings would supposedly bring a "stream" or a "rainforest" into your living room, massage practice, or meditation space, and thereby help you reconnect with nature, or yourself, or.....something. Yet in researching the article, a handful of discs came in that enlivened my ears, compelling portraits of place that were obviously both recorded and produced with something much deeper in mind. These included work by Krause and Hempton, still at it, along with several others, including Doug Quin (on Krause's Wild Sanctuary label at that point) and Steve Feld. Talking with the artists who piqued my interest led to referrals to others of like mind, heart, and ear, and within a year I found myself reveling in a diverse, environmentally-engaged artistic field that had been totally invisible (or, rather, inaudible) to me. These recordists each had his or her own distinctive artistic voice and "sound," the result of specific recording gear as well as individual approaches to positioning themselves in the field and of working with the studio, and I was convinced that they deserved a place alongside nature writers and nature film-makers, for their CDs were every bit as powerful as the best books, essays, and films, both as odes to the natural world and as incitements to engage it ourselves in our own ways.
To that end, EarthEar was born in 1998. With the (now obviously grandiose) goal of bringing soundscape art into public consciousness in the way that Steiglitz's attention to artists working with photography had lifted that medium from its documentary roots and popularized it as a creative art form, EarthEar's first three releases presented three sides of the emerging field of environmental soundscape art: The Dreams of Gaia took listeners on a 2-hour journey into the sounding world, drawing on some of the highlights of the work of 19 of the world's top recordists and producers; Forests: A Book of Hours was the most accessible of the experimental "mixes" of field recordings I'd heard, blending raw material from Kenya, Brazil, and Madagascar and moving through a day of sound with improvised woodwinds, electronic reveries emerging from the natural sounds, and original African choral pieces interspersed; and the book/CD Why do Whales and Children Sing? represented the "thinking man's exploration" of themes ranging from how animals and humans use and make sound, to the ambiguous role of nature sound recording as a way of "connecting" with our living world. The EarthEar catalog continued to expand over the next several years with releases that cumulatively presented some of the most authentic and rewarding expressions of several other approaches to working with the planet's voices, including two distinct immersions into full-on music-and-nature that listened deeply rather than offering facile mimicry of nature's tones, and two very different rainforest discs, both of which sent half of total revenues to the very places that were featured, along with a globe-spanning project that incorporated sounds of our "nearby nature" and urban worlds. The original vision of creating a line of CDs that shared the breadth of this emerging artistic medium was finding expression.
To make a long story short, EarthEar's day in the commercial sun had mixed results: despite rave reviews right out of the gate in Sierra, Whole Earth, even The Beat (a world music magazine, which gave Rainforest Soundwalks my favorite clip ever: "Play it loud, your pets will go insane!"), awards from New Age Journal (our first two releases won "Nature Sound Pick of the Year" and runner-up in 1999), and widespread critical appreciation that we were doing something very different than the background/relaxation norm, we were unable to get any significant distributors to pick up the line: it was neither placid enough for the new age market, nor "music" enough for traditional distributors. Awards, accolades, and appreciation are great, but actually having CDs in stores and selling to a devoted audience was actually more the idea we were after! My fantasies of creating a new mini-mass market that could finally allow these artists to make a living following their creative muses were not to be realized.
By 2003, it was clear that while EarthEar was an artistic success, it was a financial bust. Sales revenues never came close to covering the costs of even the most successful releases. An online EarthEar Catalog sold over a hundred titles from small labels and independent producers around the world, and sales from that kept cash flow up, but not enough. An attempt to reach out directly to store owners and become the supplier of quality nature sounds also ran up against the contraction of retail sales of physical CDs at the dawn of the online music era. So, in 2004, EarthEar shifted gears, no longer investing in new releases, and moving gradually out of the direct CD sales business; in the summer of 2007, we moved the large online catalog items to CDeMusic, and began regrouping to feature just our own releases.
As we move into our second decade, EarthEar retains the core purpose it had from the start: to present the most engaging of "straight" nature recordings and the most accessible of the "avant garde" approaches, and along the way, to stimulate listeners to connect more deeply with the soundscapes in their home places. Our new releases are now all artist collaborations: the artists fund manufacturing and have total artistic control, choosing for their own reasons to present their works in the context of EarthEar's line. They are free to sell CDs themselves and keep all revenues, and we split any modest revenues that come through EarthEar sales. From the start, EarthEar put the artist at the center of the equation, with all artists retaining complete ownership of all rights to their productions; with our current collaborative release approach, EarthEar is on all levels subsidiary to whatever the artist wishes to do with their work. We are now, simply, a context and community within which artists can share their work.
Meanwhile, my energy has shifted largely to a non-profit venture, the Acoustic Ecology Institute, which has become an internationally recognized resource and information center for all manner of sound-related environmental issues. AEI is the full expression of what was always a piece of EarthEar's vision: all these CDs are meant not to feed the illusion of bringing "nature" into our living rooms, but rather to stimulate ears so that we might all become more aware of the living, sounding world around us. While I now spend my days in more traditional writing and editing tasks for AEI, I love the opportunity to continue to shape the artistic vision of EarthEar in the ongoing evolution of this line of truly exceptional audio productions. For each of these recordists and sound artists, as for me, the voice of the planet is indeed the muse.