Do Boards of Canada Owe Fans a Boxset?
The argument over whether or not a musical artist owes anything to their fanbase polarises opinion and can lead to heated debates. On the one hand it could be argued that someone who makes music should be allowed to follow their own muse wherever it takes them in order to satisfy the creative urge within. If they decide to take their music in a wildly different direction or go on an extended hiatus whose business is it but their own. The individual who creates the art should have control over how it is distributed or commodified. But where would the musician be without the fan who buys the records and goes to the gigs thus enabling them to keep on creating music. So does it work both ways, does the musician owe anything to the lifelong devoted follower, have they entered into a mutually beneficial relationship where each has a part to play? The musician can’t exist without the patronage of the devotee and the fan’s life is a drearier place without the music they love.
Take the example of Paul Weller who split The Jam when they were at their peak to form the soul-infused Style Council leaving many Jam fans bewildered and disappointed. The largely working class mod army felt disenfranchised with Weller’s apparent transformation to 80’s sophisticate. Drummer Steve White recalled the situation: “The fans were not happy, and there are fans that are still not happy now about that decision 40 odd years later.” The parka-clad devotees had found someone to believe in, someone who understood them and didn’t speak down to them. But did that mean Weller was forever required to churn out spiky guitar anthems sung with spittle flecked belligerence for the rest of his career? Of couse not.
We enter more of a grey area when it comes to artists sitting on huge archives of unreleased material. Some musicians are more prolific than others with Prince coming to mind as someone who recorded a phenomenal amount of unheard music. Luckily for fans this music is gradually being drip-fed to the public with potentially huge amounts of money to be made by his estate. Rumour has it that Prefab Sprout’s increasingly reclusive frontman Paddy McAloon has recorded at least five unreleased albums without much prospect of them ever seeing the light of day. Sometimes fans take matters into their own hands like in the case of the unreleased Beach Boys album Landlocked from 1970. It was pieced together from bootleg recordings and tracks that were subsequently released on later albums. Previously unreleased versions of Beach Boys tracks are often far superior to those that actually got released with Big Sur and Wind Chimes being obvious examples.
When it comes to artists working in the field of electronic music the story gets even more intriguing. These boffins are often solo acts working out of home studios not dependent on other musicians to collaborate with. One such act is the prodigious Cornish eccentric Aphex Twin who in his most prolific period in the mid-Nineties was churning out multiple tracks every day. As a teenager, Richard D. James built his own equipment to make wonderfully esoteric music in his bedroom. When he eventually got round to releasing records in the early nineties he did so using multiple aliases across various labels in order to avoid flooding the market. He took a step back from the music scene after the release of the intimidating Drukqs album but an unusual sequence of events brought him out of semi-retirement.
A test pressing surfaced on Discogs of an album planned to be released in 1996 under the Caustic Window alias. The price tag was an eye watering $13,500 so members of an Aphex Twin fan forum (We Are the Music Makers) set up a kickstarter campaign to buy it and distribute digital copies among backers. They raised $47,000 and subsequently sold the record on eBay to Minecraft creator Markus Persson. The profits were distributed between the backers, the Doctors Without Borders charity and Mr. Aphex himself. Richard seemed genuinely touched by the gesture and he began to reassess his attitude to his fanbase ultimately releasing one of his most accessible albums Syro in 2014. But even more significant was the so called Souncloud dump in which James gave away almost 300 tracks for free on the music sharing site. Much of the material was made up of primo Aphex Twin cuts that may have never otherwise have been heard by the public. It felt like a thank you to the fans who had supported the artist over the years.
This brings us on to Boards Of Canada (label mates of Aphex Twin at Warp Records) about whom even more myths and stories have circulated. They are rumoured to work from a disused nuclear bunker in the Scottish countryside as part of the mysterious Torquoise Hexagon Sun collective, recording their music on computers with no internet connection to avoid hackers stealing their work. The air of mystique created around the duo only helped to promote their early releases like debut album Music Has the Right to Children with its mix of eerie analogue melodies and blunted hip-hop beats. They seemed to go as far as to create fake entries in their own discography with tantalising titles like Acid Memories, Play by Numbers and Hooper Bay. No physical copies of these releases have ever surfaced which raises questions about their authenticity but plenty of fakes turned up on file sharing sites.
Sometimes miracles happen on the internet and so it was in the early 2000’s when a very unexpected event occurred. The contents of two cassettes turned up on file sharing sites purporting to be the work of Boards Of Canada. Although they sounded fascinating and appeared legit, their were still serious question marks over the authenticity of the tapes following all of the fakes that had been produced. There were no comments forthcoming from Torquoise Hexagon Sun on the issue. But then in 2005 physical copies of the cassettes were listed for auction and BOC finally broke their silence in an attempt to prevent the sale thus indirectly confirming their authenticity. A statement was issued explaining that the tapes had been given to friends and shopped around to record companies as demos. The duo argued that they didn’t want fans to listen to the tracks in low res mp3 quality and that they were intending to clean up the tunes and repackage them with other unreleased music in a box set with exclusive artwork.
This was enough to call off the horses and provide a mouth-watering prospect for devoted fans. And so the pair retreated to their secret bunker and we waited . . and waited. Fast forward to 2013 and an interview to promote the Tomorrow’s Harvest album where the duo explained that the extended hiatus was partially due to them gathering together and archiving their extensive catalogue. But surprisingly it wasn’t for the purpose of preparing the tracks for release, it was so that in time they could be passed on to their children. It felt like a slap in the face to some fans and the prospective box set was never mentioned again. A few obsessive fans on the WATMM forum have dutifully followed the group’s wishes and claim to never have listened to the bootleg tapes choosing instead to wait for an official release which may never materialise. So do BOC owe their fans a box set or is it better for us to listen to the bootlegs in their slightly degraded form and let the sound blend with our analogue memories to create something new in our minds that never actually existed. That is kind of what Boards Of Canada’s music is about after all.