Real Estate's Martin Courtney and Alex Bleeker on Money, Streaming, Coming Together, and the Bygone 2010s

Real Estate's Martin Courtney and Alex Bleeker on Money, Streaming, Coming Together, and the Bygone 2010s
Photo by Sinna Nasseri

This is a free post from Larry Fitzmaurice's Last Donut of the Night newsletter. Paid subscribers also get a weekly Baker's Dozen playlist with music I've been listening to along with some thoughts and critical writing around it.

I've known Real Estate's Martin Courtney and Alex Bleeker for most of my life; we went to high school together in the moneyed suburban enclave of Ridgewood, and in various settings we had exactly the kind of good times that you'd expect suburban boys in northern New Jersey to get up to. Alex and I were both theater kids, which was its own thing; Martin and I both worked at the Stop and Shop, although I remember our tenures just barely overlapping. Most importantly, we shared a lot of music with each other constantly, and there's a lot of incredible music that I would've heard a lot later in life if it wasn't for them and our other peers we shared memories with.

I will also say without the slightest bit of bias, I swear, that I really like their music! I also think their music has gotten better as they've gotten older; the maturity of the songwriting continues to dazzle me, and of course the guitars hit the type of sweet spot that a bunch of kids raised on Yo La Tengo, the Feelies, R.E.M., et al all have. I think their latest album Daniel has some of their loveliest music to date, and I had a great time catching up with the two of them about music and our shared history.

Both of you have moved further away from our Ridgewood home than ever before. Tell me what that's been like for you.
I'm gonna speak about Martin's town first.
Martin: I can't quit the East Coast.
Alex: First of all, if it's OK with you Larry, I'm going to drop the veil for your dear readers that all of us went to high school together.

It was gonna be mentioned in the intro anyway.
We just need to get that out of the way and be open about it. You and I were in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream together.
Martin: The first time I heard Animal Collective, Larry, was from your Walkman. You put headphones on my head and played me "Who Could Win a Rabbit."

You lent me Modest Mouse's The Moon and Antarctica, Beulah's The Coast Is Never Clear, and Built to Spill's There's Nothing Wrong With Love. I burned you Songs for the Deaf and you said, "This is fucking garbage."
[Laughs] Modest Mouse is actually pretty off-brand for me.
Alex: Not at the time, though.
Martin: I was trying. All the cooler older kids liked Modest Mouse. I was like, "I'm gonna try to like this band."
Alex: I don't know why it feels like there was a dichotomy, but we were in the Built to Spill contingency. It oddly felt like you needed to pick one. I don't know why.
Martin: It's like the Stones and the Beatles.

I was recently listening to The Moon and Antarctica for the first time in a while, and I was like, "This is good...I'd rather be listening to Built to Spill right now though."
It was still there for you. The Pacific Northwest, the vocal intonations—
Martin: They somehow complete each other.

It's a darkness and light thing. Sometimes I think of Modest Mouse as evil Built to Spill.
I was a pretty happy-go-lucky guy, and the early Modest Mouse stuff is just so depressing, which is why I guess it's so popular with high school students. [Laughs] But I couldn't get there.

Back to Martin's town.
I'm not gonna out your town publicly, but Real Estate spends town in the Hudson Valley town that Martin lives in. We have a rehearsal studio there, we're there often rehearsing new material and hanging out. I'm pretty familiar with the town. It feels a tiny little bit like Ridgewood from when we were younger—when there used to be mom-and-pop shops and independent businesses, when it was in that state of flux. It's like a millennial version of that. There'll be a Brooklyn design store that shows up and people are like, "Oh my God, what is this?" But all of us aging hipsters are like, "Dude, the best coffee is there, you have to go." I wonder if Martin feels the same way.
Martin: It's pretty different in that it doesn't have that New York proximity. There's not much commuting going on. It's on a much different socioeconomic playing field. But everything's changing. I have three kids, so I send them to school, and so there's two versions of this town. For me, my friends, and the people who live here, it's very boring with two good restaurants. There's really no good food.
Alex: There's more good food than that.
Martin: Whatever. It's just a small town. I've lived here longer and my kids start getting further along in school, and I always run into people. But if you come here on a Saturday any time from June to October, it's insane—a tourist town. Every weekend, it's rammed. I can't go downtown because everyone comes up here to go to DIA:Beacon. There's a feeling that it's cuter than it's actually is, but in reality it's a lot of vape shops and a couple of cute shops. It's just a town.

It's upstate New York.
It's perfect for what I need it to be.
Alex: Even though I'm on the opposite coast in Northern California, there's so much deep residence there. My town's even smaller than yours, and I really do know almost everyone—and if you don't know someone, it's because they don't want to be known, which is cool too. But on any given summer Saturday, locals are like, "I don't go to the grocery store. It's too much for me."

I wish I had something interesting to say about living in Bushwick, but it's almost exactly what you think it is in 2023.
The roots of this band are very deep in Bushwick.
Martin: We played our first show at—
Alex: The original Silent Barn, which is now—
Martin: We actually played our first show at Video Gallery, which is closed now. We opened for Ric Leichtung.

Shout out to Ric, a real one and a legend. Tell me about this new record when it comes to being a band and living far apart from each other.
The band is really spread out, and it's been spread out for a long time geographically. The shape of that has been changing, but as we're currently configured, I'm out here in California, Matt Kallman is pretty close to me—it's where he's from, and he ended up coming back here. Julian Lynch—who you also know but we didn't go to school with, but he was in our high school music scene—lives in Madison, Wisconsin, so he's right in the middle. Our new drummer Sammi Niss lives really close to Martin, which is great because they can get together and practice. It's been challenging and cool, and it's been like this for a few records now. When we have a busy year and we're about to be on tour, things aren't that different than being in a band and living in the same city. You're living in a van or a green room together. The different part is the songwriting.
Martin: The rehearsals.
Alex: The practice changes. But it's cool, because now when we get together to flesh out new material, we're really focused—it's like going to the studio. We usually go to Martin's town, which is why I know it so well, and we're like, "OK, we're here for a week, and we're doing this." I feel like I've structured my whole life in terms of trying not to have a 9-5, but when music feels like a 9-5, it's kind of awesome. It's like, "Whoa, we have a job."
Martin: I was so envious of the people in Nashville whose job it is to be in a studio 9-5. But it's been especially different the last few years since we didn't have the normal touring cycle for the last record. I made a solo record, we all have lives, I'm writing, other people are ostensibly writing as well, then I start sending demos to the band when I feel like I've got some stuff, and when it's 8-10 songs it's time to get some money from the label, fly everybody out, and book some time to rehearse. For this record, we were pretty well-prepared before we went into the studio. We had a random show in New York and we booked a couple days around that to start rehearsing, and we had three chunks of time up in Beacon—two weeks total—of working the songs out. Then things obviously change in the studio too. You wanna leave a little space for interpretation.

When I last profiled you guys for Pitchfork, you had a really good quote Martin: "Kids these days, they're all goth—or into house music." It was situating you guys as out of step in 2014 compared to what was going on in indie. I think that's probably still true, and it dovetails with this sensation I've had where a lot of my peers don't really check out new music anymore. They're situated in their comfort zone.
That's our fanbase.

It is funny, though, that the people I know who still follow music closely are people from our hometown. The friends I still talk to back there are still very involved in seeking out new music. If anything, they're a sample group for me when it comes to figuring out who's popular with a certain listener subset—and one thing I've realized is that there is still a highly active listener base for "indie rock" in terms of what the three of us grew up listening.
Sometimes, we call—and you've written about this, Larry, and I read it, because it's serving me exclusively and explicitly—the bands that we broke with the "Class of 2009." We were part of what was happening there, but it was sort of an outlier as well. If you look back at it now, it was much more of a kind of "chillwave" scene, which we were lumped into because our music wasn't aggressive. But we never leaned on samplers or Italo disco beats. We've always been making...even at the time, it was kind of rare to break out of the basements and garages and onto the club stages, because it was being touted as, "Yet another return to guitar music." The previous time was 2001, with the indie sleaze and Strokes boom, but it was markedly different because we didn't have an edge, or an axe to grind. Our listening habits in the band were way more diverse than what we were making at that time, and if you look back to certain interviews we've said that, because we have this long history of music fandom together, we tend to make music that's foundational to what we appreciate in a classic indie-rock guitar context. Even going back to college rock or jangle—whatever it used to be called.
Martin: I know we would've loved our band in high school, which is a very nice thought.
Alex: With that particular style, we were making the right music at the right time. There was an outward interest in that genre, so we got some attention and stuck around and started to feel the flip of, "We're not the critical darlings anymore, but we're around—but there's not the greatest interest in our style of music anymore." We could feel that change happening, but now we've been around so long that we're our own version of classic. I'm really excited to get on tour and see this, because the last few tours there's been 17 and 18-year-old kids seeing us for the first time. And it's like, dang, you were 12, but now you're 17 and coming to shows all the time. You are like me when I got into Yo La Tengo! There was this history I knew I wasn't there for, but there were all these records I could catch up on. Guys I've known for years are now like, "This is my son, he was raised on your records!" It makes me feel old, but it also makes me feel good, excited, and cool. You stay on the wave long enough and it comes back around—and I hope this record cycle is like that for us.
Martin: I hope so. I hope we're occupying our own island at this point. Somehow, people are going to still associate us with—not that I think it's a bad thing—Beach Fossils or whatever, but we're still a very different band and very different people.
Alex: Good for them for still being around, though. Anyone in our scene that's still doing it...
Martin: They're doing awesome! They're doing really well. But in terms of the music we make...that was another thing I was thinking with this record: "I don't want to make an indie rock record, but I don't want to make a country record, but I don't want it to sound like indie rock." But it obviously does.
Alex: But you're not seeking the sonic trends of the moment.
Martin: It's true. When you talk about sonic trends, it's really just about what Gen Z is into at the moment, which doesn't really mean that much to me. I don't know what 100 Gecs sounds like. I've never listened to their music.
Alex: I know what it sounds like, but I know it would be ridiculous if we tried to sound like them.
Martin: There are people who will listen to that and also listen to us, so whatever. There's space for everyone. We have always listened to music that's way more diverse than what we make.

You know Gen Z is really into Duster now, right?
I do know that, which is really crazy—and maybe bodes well for us!
Alex: You know you're old when you start saying stuff like, "I'm feeling old!" But I'm accepting and comfortably interested in becoming a middle-aged person. You can see the retro trends catch up to time you've actually lived in. We saw the Meet Me in the Bathroom craze, and I was joking with this band, "You know what this means—we're next." We're gonna do a stadium nostalgia tour with Washed Out and Best Coast.
Martin: I wouldn't even be against that.
Alex: I mean, I'm joking, but I'm not.

Back to that class of '09 topic, money was kind of flying around more back then than it is now.
Three words: Green Label Sound.

What are your guys' "This doesn't happen anymore" memories?
Green Label Sound is definitely one, and we had a huge argument about it within the band. "We're not gonna put out a record on Mountain Dew's record label!" Now, if that offer came through...that shows you how much we're in this post-capitalist nightmare. I'll do it.

You'll pitch Mountain Dew!
Gimme the money. [Laughs]
Alex: We got offered free Taco Bell on tour. They were like, "We're gonna give you a Taco Bell credit card," and we were like, "We cannot take that, because we will use that and we will die." I don't wanna sound old here, but I am gonna sound old, and I'm sure I'm wrong about this, and looking back you're always like, "Things were different," and I'm sure there's 24-year-olds in amazing scenes where amazing things are happening that I don't know about, which is great. But I just said, "It's cool that people from our scene are still doing it," but there were also so many people adjacent to our scene that you wouldn't expect. I remember being at a party with Grimes and Tyler, the Creator early in our career, and we kind of got looped into this similar music scene. It was amazing to see those folks who was really talented and deserve it get springboarded, but also I remember Tyler, the Creator posting "Black Lake" on Twitter and being like, "This is my jam." That guy has expansive taste, I'm sure he's up on everything, but that's not happening for us anymore.
Martin: No, that's just people starting out on the same level and becoming more successful. You're always going to be like, "I remember hanging out with whoever who is now..." like the examples you just provided. I'm sure that's still happening.

What was interesting about the 2010s is that, right at the beginning of everything, there were all these new bands of different tiers of visibility that all became successful around the same time.
It felt like a potent time for a lot of different genres. I hope I'm not just coloring this from my own experiences, I'm sure there's stuff happening like that now, but as an instant nostalgic person, it felt like a poignant moment. There will be a remembrance of this period of music as well.
Martin: The recession, no one could get a job so they started a band, the proliferation of blogs so there were more people to write about us.

I also feel like, being in it back then, everything felt random in the moment—but when you look back, you can very much connect the lines in terms of how things go down. I mean, for Christ's sake, I was once told by another Pitchfork editor that the only reason Ryan Schreiber was OK with hiring me there was because he looked me up on Facebook and saw that the three of us were mutual friends.
I remember seeing "Ryan Schreiber is now following Real Estate on Myspace." In terms of the way the landscape was different, it was also pre-streaming, and I apply the modern landscape upon that time, but there wasn't Spotify.
Martin: Which was why there were so many blogs!
Alex: You had to discover music in a different way. There was more of a community, even though it was the internet, with a million Mediafire links.
Martin: I would love to make an income from streaming, but it's not like we ever lost anything.
Alex: At least we never made any money at all. [Laughs]

What's the long arc been for you guys financially?
Let me just say that I don't want to come off as ungrateful or unaware of the privilege of who we are, our sheer luck, where we are in the world, and getting to have some form of recognition and financial stability. I'm so amazed that that even happened. I don't feel like I'm owed anything, I don't have an axe to grind. However, it's really difficult.
Martin: It's hard out here, man.
Alex: You'll hear musicians say this a lot, but to this day, we're pushing 40, and we have to go play live to make any money at all. That gets harder. I've been trying not to talk about COVID, but that landscape completely vanishing for us for a certain amount of years has been totally detrimental. We're not in the situation we were before then. We're looking forward to a great year with a great record out in the world, but strictly speaking in terms of income, barring something unforeseen that we can't bank on, we have to go and play—which I'm excited to do—but it's like, "OK, we have to put out our record so we can go back to work." It feels very tenuous, and it's not very easy on any level.
Martin: From my perspective, I'm looking forward to playing concerts, but my life has changed so much in the last few years. I've now become a full-time stay-at-home dad, whereas my family life used to be centered around traveling once in a while. I haven't traveled in the past few years, so that dynamic has shifted. The fact that we're gonna have this busy year is really stressful for me. It's gonna put a lot of strain on my family and my kids. It sucks. I have to do this because I need to make money. The amount of money I make next year is dependent on how willing I am to be gone all the time, which I don't want to do. I struggle with it a lot.
Alex: The short-term interim message you're hearing from bands is "Buy tickets, buy merch, no more merch cuts." I'm not a Luddite and I'm not naive, and I don't think the idea of streaming music is inherently evil, or bad, or wrong—I use streaming platforms—but as an industry, we have to change how the system is structured. People are trying to create a Musicians' Union, which is really cool, but it's so disjointed. I don't know how to go on strike. "Cool, this is the time we're gonna go on strike, nobody tour." "Whoa, I gotta tour." You know? The stakes are high.
Martin: You're scraping by.
Alex: If you pull your music from streaming, that's cool, but then no one's gonna listen to your record.
Martin: You need to be on those platforms to sell tickets.
Alex: I wish things were a little bit more like film and TV. What if the platform for streaming was structured like streaming TV and video, where there were five completing platforms without everything on them? We do a deal with a streaming platform for our album to exclusively appear on there, and that would hopefully be substantive income. Listeners would have to have two or three subscriptions to hear everything they wanted, which would be worse for the listener...
Martin: But it should also cost more money to stream music.
Alex: Either way, where's the money going?
Martin: People would've spent $40/month on music before streaming took off. Whatever. I also use Spotify, but it does seem kind of insane and untenable that you can listen to everything for $15. Obviously not everything because I can't get my Joni Mitchell—I gotta buy those, and I'm happy to—but it seems broken, and there's no going back.

I use streaming so much because it's part of what I do for this newsletter, but if Spotify was like, "It's $100/month now," I would be like, "OK, here's $100 a month!" How much money should people be paying for Spotify? I always land on $100/month for some reason.
The value is extraordinary.

It's insane! It's insane.
We've cheapened the value so much by making it affordable, in a weird way. Look, I want all music to be free for everybody—
Martin: It already was.
Alex: But the value is insane. I play in Real Estate, but I also play in a lot of local and regional bands, where it's $15 at your local club. Even music fans being like, "Ugh, $15, can I get on a list?" Then you spend $70 at the bar like it's nothing, because alcohol has value. We've all subscribed to the notion that music doesn't have a cost. I don't mean to just single out Spotify, but I wonder, if it costs $100/month, would I be on there? Or would I be more specific about my listening habits and give money to artists directly?
Martin: You could just go on Bandcamp.

I'd pay $100/month without thinking twice, but I'm a psychopath. But it's funny, because people don't want to pay for music, and people also really don't want to pay for writing about music either. This isn't a "poor me" thing, but when I first started this newsletter I was like, "Hey, maybe I could make a living off of this!" Nearly four years later, that's not happening, and it will probably never happen—and I see politics newsletters making $60k/year, and I'm like, "Fuck off."
We've been displaced by the same behemoth. The mind wanders, but if we got $1/stream, this room I'm talking to you in would look a lot different.
Martin: Even if we got a penny per stream! Which is at least what it should be.
Alex: The editorial is now basically generated by AI. You provide a concierge service that was much more in high demand and is now for the discerning head. It's more necessary. You need someone who's going to sacrifice their mind and body to listen to all the music and point you in the right direction.

Yeah, I mean, I've worked at every terrible place in existence, and it's so much more rewarding to publish something myself and get one or two people saying "This is great!" than it was to publish something on, like, literally anywhere else, just to watch the piece tank in the ocean of social media.
On the artist side of it, which is what we've adapted to, we had a really good week when we announced the record. It was our day, and then it felt like our week! That is the best you can hope for. That week is gone, and it's not coming back—and it's everywhere.

Dan Bejar said that to me the last time I interviewed him—that he puts out a record and it basically disappears after six weeks.
This time we're in now is actually the most precious and valuable. That's the new cycle. When you go on tour, you work for what you did before the album came out—and it's great to connect with those fans—but the time before the album comes out, you can build the anticipation. But what I've been thinking about this week is that I know that it's not just those metrics and numbers. That's an easy game to fall into. You watch the traffic, we watch the listener count. But I know people are connecting to the music. It's not just about waves and trends. There are real people out there who will love the song. And that rules.
Martin: There's also the lifecycle of the album that lives on. There's records of ours that people really connected with early on, but even recent records like In Mind. After a few years, people say, "I listen to this all the time." People are still listening to this stuff.
Alex: It can feel really dystopian if you don't think about the humanity behind what's happening, which there is in abundance. As hard as it might be for all of us to do, it's really important for us to get on the road and talk to fans too. That's the good stuff.

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Jamie Larson