New England Conservatory Alumnus Release Massive, Multi-Genre Music Compilation To Support Covid-19 Mutual Aid Networks

By Sam Potrykus for Brain Arts Org

May 16, 2020

Last Week local musicians Olivia W-B (RONG, Hairbrush, P.V.H.P., Other Joliah) and Raef (of Birthday Ass, JJ JHNSN, Tropos Ensemble) released a massive 3 vol. benefit compilation with 100% of the proceeds going to various Coronavirus relief mutual aid networks across Boston. Inspired by similar efforts in the music community THE BIG FLATTENING is a collection of work by current and former NEC students although it is not an NEC project - it is an entirely DIY, by-us-for-us effort. They tell me they wanted to create a space where multiple generations of music students across different genres could share their work and then share the albums with their very different musical and social networks, all while raising money to help folks through this difficult time. But I wanted to know more so I asked them a few questions here. Read on and right on!

UPDATE! The team has decided to do a fourth volume of the compilation because so many people have expressed interest. Here's the google form if you or anyone you know wants to submit; submissions are open to all current and former NEC students and are due May 31

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1. Hey Olivia! What do we have here and why do we have it?

Olivia: Hey Sam! This compilation is a pretty direct combination of desires – I've missed being able to walk around the hallways of the practice rooms at school and go to shows and hear what classmates are up to, and I've also been wanting to draw more connections between people I know at school who are really passionate about important ideas with people I know outside of school who are engaged in community organizing around those important ideas. So this compilation is a way of getting to hear what classmates are up to while also raising funds and awareness for grassroots mutual aid networks that have sprung up across Boston since the start of the spread of coronavirus.

Also, this was totally inspired by Jon Nankof's compilation that was released a couple weeks ago on Erased! Tapes, which is a fundraiser for Cosecha and Families for Justice as Healing. He brought a ton of amazing people together for that compilation, and it made me want to do something similar for people I've met through NEC.

2. We've always admired and supported bands/artists in the NEC community but what does that community look like with virtually all participants being Boston transplants?

Olivia: The relationship between NEC students and Boston is a little tenuous sometimes, I think. Like a lot of college students, I do think a lot of people who attend NEC aren't otherwise that invested in Boston as a place they'd like to live for much longer than a couple years after graduating. Boston is very segregated and it's easy for students to live here without necessarily having reason to connect to neighborhoods outside of where their schools are located.

I think I can best speak about it from my own experience, though... I lived in Boston for four years, then Worcester for six, before moving back to Boston almost two years ago. Throughout that time I've gotten to know multiple generations of NEC students just through overlap in DIY scenes. I booked and played shows in Boston and continued doing that when I moved to Worcester, and over time I would get to meet friends-of-friends who went to NEC, and friends-of-friends-of-friends who went to NEC... now I am an NEC student myself. I feel a shared connection with anyone who's gone through this program, even if we make very different kinds of music. So I think even though the student body can be as transient as many are in Boston, these relationships between NEC students and DIY organizers built through booking and playing shows together can extend and fan out in unexpected ways.

3. What was the process for pulling all of these folks together? Sounds daunting but obviously you got the faucet on somehow as we are faced with a staggering 89 tracks across 3 volumes..

Olivia: It was pretty easy! Raef and I reached out to everyone we could think of, posted in NEC student facebook groups, and asked faculty at school to share the word with students we might not otherwise cross paths with. There isn't a lot of representation from the classical department because I don't share a lot of classroom time with students from that department, but that's something I'd like more of if we release another volume. A lot of people I talked to were eager to have a meaningful deadline, a prompt to finally finish something they'd been sitting on for a while, or that they'd been waiting to find an outlet for.
Raef: Jumping in to add that many people we talked to are feeling emotionally as well as physically isolated from the separation coronavirus has brought. They were excited to contribute their music to something aimed at connecting us all.

4. Why did you choose to donate the proceeds to Boston area mutual-aid efforts as opposed to other relief funds?

Olivia: I chose the mutual aid networks because as soon as they started getting established I knew that I wanted to do something to financially support them. I think it can be really hard to raise funds for projects like these because they seem informal – they aren't registered nonprofits, they don't have a bureaucracy leading the direction of the organization, they don't have a PR or outreach department to aid in public image or fundraising. I also think that this sort of informality is what is so exciting about mutual aid networks – they are built on trust that the people involved are truly doing it out of their own investment in seeing their neighborhoods thrive. It's all organized on a volunteer basis, and you don't need any qualifications to contribute to these networks or to request assistance from them. I wanted to raise money to distribute to people in immediate need of financial relief, and this is a really direct way to do that.

5. This effort is exciting to us because after 10 years of working in experimental/independent music Brain Arts Org recently found its true calling at the intersection of DIY ethos and equitable community building. After all your years in the underground do you see this effort as simply a continuation of that work or does this mark a shift in focus and maybe an opportunity to expand the purpose and solidarity of fringe artists?

Olivia: I think this compilation is a cool opportunity to be like, hey! Look! We can share what we want to with each other, while generating funds for important work. I think the booking collective at the Democracy Center does an awesome job at this – probably every show I've been to there in the last two years has been a partial fundraiser for a really great variety of organizations. And it's always treated like a matter of course – like, of course they would raise money at every show to give to important community organizing, while also paying the bands and the space.

I bring this up because I think that is how DIY music scenes could become more politicized. I've had a lot of conversations with musicians who feel strongly about things that are messed up in the world but feel uncertain of how to make it overlap with their creative practice – not knowing if they could insert political lyrics into their songs, or if it's really their place to be talking about larger struggles during their set, feeling anxiety that they are not radical enough, or feeling guilt about privilege. But I don't think it's necessarily our jobs as musicians to aestheticize struggle* – instead of feeling a pressure to make our work seem political, we can brainstorm how to leverage our connections with each other and our resources to benefit organizing that is already happening. Like, I'm probably not gonna write the anthem of the resistance. But I can ask all my friends and their friends to throw in $7 and check out this call to action and come to this organizing meeting. As groups of people with such strong and specific shared interests, how can we develop our capacity to contribute to movements that are already in motion?