THE OBGMS ENTERED 2020 WITH A NEW RECORD AND SOMETHING TO PROVE. It had been three years since the Toronto-based band released new music and the group feared being forgotten. Like everyone else, though, their plans were wiped out by the pandemic. The trio nevertheless released The Ends in October. “We couldn’t let another year or two go by without showing people that we still do music,” says Densil “Denz” McFarlane, the band’s singer and guitarist.
The album received glowing reviews, but the inability to tour left them unable to capitalize on the hard-fought achievement. So, in a somewhat unorthodox move for what is, at its core, a garage punk project, they leaned into their love of hip-hop and dropped The Outsah Tape in January featuring Toronto-centric remixes of The Ends’ opening track. Says McFarlane of the decision, “We needed to find ways to bring people back to this music.”
Over the course of the pandemic, artists have struggled to find new and creative ways of engaging fans. Many have dug into their (not-so-distant) past, reworking, remixing and recycling material to make what was old new again.
This dynamic has been borne out in both one-off releases and full-blown albums like Small Sins’ recent orchestral version of this year’s Volume II, Jeff Rosenstock’s ska makeover of last year’s NO DREAM, or McCartney III Imagined, featuring covers and remixes of Sir Paul’s latest LP. But, as the pandemic subsides and artists are once again able to bring their music to the masses IRL, will extending a record’s press cycle this way continue to be a viable — and creatively fulfilling — way to keep an artist top-of-mind? The answer depends on whether you consider such projects acts of art or commerce.
Remixing a song as a means to getting it to No. 1 is great for pop’s one percent. But for the other 99 percent, who just a few years ago might have scoffed at the idea of remixes (especially artists outside of electronic music and hip-hop), it’s more about just keeping pace with the algorithm.
“The game now is: a lot of content,” says McFarlane. “Turning it around more is algorithmically better for you. So do it. The artists that can do that will thrive. The artists that can’t will have trouble adapting to this.”
Katie Munshaw, singer for Oshawa pop-rock group Dizzy, agrees. “You put the album out and it’s supposed to be all this content. Then one song from that album gets playlisted and the rest don’t get streamed.” Unable to tour last year’s The Sun and Her Scorch, Dizzy recorded Separate Places, an EP of collaborative versions of its songs with artists like Luna Li and Overcoats.
While content might be king in the digital streaming world, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be as creative — or as challenging — as writing all-new material.
Munshaw and her bandmates have had their music remixed in the past but found the process creatively unsatisfying. “We just send the stems off and you get back what you get back.” Separate Places allowed them to “hold on to the songs a little longer” and be part of the process. “Touring really exhausts a record in a way that you’ll never want to hear it again, and we didn’t get that experience with The Sun and Her Scorch.” It was also a chance to make connections with artists they admired at a time when human interaction is a rarity.
This was certainly the inspiration for future-pop artist ELIO’s recent ELIO and Friends: The Remixes album. “I’m addicted to releasing stuff and getting creative with videos and artwork,” says the singer. “It was a really great way to do it and also collaborate with my friends,” including co-manager Charli XCX.
Even if reworking old music is superseded by a return to the road, the long-tail changes to the industry are already taking shape. All the artists interviewed for this story indicated that the various remixes and reimaginings are already influencing the direction their music will take moving forward.
For Dizzy, that means embracing a more “pop-centric” sound on their next album, while the OBGMs hope to continue linking Toronto with other cities on future remixes. ELIO, meanwhile, hopes to make collaboration a more permanent part of her songwriting. She says, “It’s made me want to have more features on original songs, which I was a little scared of before.”