The <1000 Club: self-flagellating through the crisis

This time we champion Nico De Benito, maverick creator of experimental, earwormy leftfield pop

Got any gigs booked? Or still biding your time? As a partially-vaccinated young person, it feels like a minefield trying to balance supporting artists and venues with safeguarding your health. It doesn’t help that the government have put far more onus on personal responsibility and “doing your bit” than sustainably supporting our industry. The serious damage that Brexit is causing touring musicians only makes matters worse. All the while, Brexit Minister David Frost is on record saying that the current European touring crisis isn’t his responsibility.

And where does this leave small and mid-level touring artists? In a recent interview with NME, Loud And Quiet Album of the Year runner-up Kelly Lee Owens spoke about failure to negotiate visa-free travel and Europe-wide work permits. Owens is a successful musician by any metric, and yet she had to cancel her upcoming European tour due to the lack of security and the high cost of securing visas. “What I wanted to highlight was that this is actually a structural problem doing serious damage to individuals,” she said. “My individual anxiety isn’t the thing that’s preventing me from touring. It’s a structural issue.”

This structural issue expands far outside of just touring, or Covid, or even Brexit. The devaluing of culture, income stagnation and increased living costs are all part of that system: a system that expects consumers to save the economy without giving them the means to do so. Artists, musicians – and yes, independent music publications – are relying on a small pool of passionate and dedicated supporters, who are often not all that well off themselves. As fans ourselves, we’re aware that subscribing to a magazine might mean a few less quid you have towards buying a record or attending a show.

And that brings us back to streaming. If you’re living payday to payday, a Spotify subscription is the most logical way to support a large amount of music at once, in theory. You can explore new music, fall in love with small artists, and then support your faves physically or on tour later on. But as explored at length in this column, it’s more complicated and messy than that. The company’s mismanagement of streaming royalties makes you feel hopeless about how our industry moves forward. 

But then another artist with not-enough streams comes along, and I find myself once again urging you, dear reader, to go bump that number above 1000 plays. The artist I’m recommending this month is Nico de Benito (FKA Apollo), whose first streamable single under this moniker is a hell of an introduction. ‘Corrosive’, their only song on Spotify, is a gorgeous ode to self-hatred. It opens with the line “I walk out in front of cars hoping they will take me, knowing they never will”. It only gets bleaker from there. And yet, there’s a welcoming and addictive quality to the song, in part thanks to gorgeous baroque piano that buoys their despondent melodies, as well as the wry sarcasm that undercuts the song. 

It’s hard to parse how serious Benito is being here, and that heady mix of conscious absurdity and unabashed self-flagellation really makes the song stand out. Their unreleased debut album will be titled Unreliable Narrator, and ‘Corrosive’ nails the drama, spectacle and complexity that its title suggests. 

The song blends shimmering pop bombast with graceful classical elements, and that juxtaposition is played off wonderfully in Benito’s vocal performance, which is dejected and dramatic like a capricious thespian playing to the cheap seats, during a play they’re not actually that invested in. Despite the high-drama, the song is a strange sort of earworm – catchy, hypnotic and off-putting at the same time.

Nico de Benito is an established composer, who among other ventures has worked as a touring violinist for Julianna Barwick. Now, they step out as a solo artist under their own name; they have two gorgeous EPs on Bandcamp, which explore off-kilter dance pop, operatic personal storytelling and a widescreen instrumental palette. 

Their music reminds me of everything from Björk to Bronski Beat, These New Puritans to FKA Twigs, while remaining something all of its own. But ‘Corrosive’ is surely their most exciting statement so far. When their album drops, they deserve the chance to share it widely on stages around Europe. It’s impossible to tell if that’ll be possible outside of our gloomy shores. But step one is listening and engaging. The music community is in a moment of crisis, but new and exciting artists keep creating through it.