Bodies of Water LP Takes Moontype from Solo Bedroom Songwriting to Chicago’s Most Hyped Rock Trio

Photo Credit: Julia Dratel

It’s fair to say Moontype wouldn’t have become what it is today, a full-fledged rock band, without the interconnectedness of Chicago’s music ecosystem. That, and the power of friendship.

The trio, made up of singer, songwriter and bass player Margaret McCarthy, guitarist Ben Cruz, and drummer Emerson Hunton, released its debut LP Bodies of Water on April 2. While the album is just a month old, its tracks date back to the group’s years at Oberlin College, where they were all students of the school’s music conservatory. Then, Moontype was the minimal, bass-driven recordings born in McCarthy’s bedroom—performed solo at intimate gatherings and DIY shows—while the would-be bandmates orbited each other’s respective friend groups.

It wasn’t until after graduation, and each member’s migration to Chicago between 2016 and 2018, that they were reacquainted and eventually joined forces musically. On Bodies of Water, songs originally imagined by one take on a robust new shape, with the gusto and confidence that can only come from knowing you’re all on the same page; that the folks at your sides have your back.

“It’s a little bit wild,” McCarthy laughed over the phone, the morning the album dropped. “Me, Ben and Emerson got together this morning just to be like ‘Yay, we did it!’”

The solidity of their bond is apparent from the shotgun blast of opening track “Anti-Divinity”—where the clang of guitar and drums take off at the same time as McCarthy’s tender vocals. Withstanding the rumbling wall of sound created by Hunton and Cruz, she’s embraced intensity this time around compared to the song’s early iteration heard on her solo effort, 2018’s self-released bass tunes, year 5.

The album also serves as a showcase for her curious, intimate, and intimately funny lyrics, depicting human connections in the throes of ever-changing surroundings and youthful restlessness. Subtle yet lucid, McCarthy spins narratives that are just as provocative as Cruz and Hunton’s instrumentation. Despite Moontype’s humble beginnings as a one-woman operation, the band standing today is wholly collaborative.

Breathing new life into each of the four tracks from bass tunes (including “About You,” “Alpha” and “Stuck on You”) in addition to eight, more recently composed numbers, that newfound rush is maintained across Bodies of Water. According to McCarthy, the three-piece’s exploration of indie rock – ranging from soft, sparse acoustics to more experimental, textured, math rock and soaring shoegaze – would’ve been impossible for her to find without her partners-in-crime. “They’re incredible musicians. They take [the music] to particular places and have influences and listen to things I don’t listen to. This really is our band, the songs become something they wouldn’t be otherwise,” she says.

“I wrote all the skeletons that are on the album. The lyrics are mine and the feels,” she jokes before continuing to celebrate the trio’s chemistry, “but it wouldn’t have been the same if this band had different members in it or if it was just me. I don’t think of [Moontype] as my project. We fell in together really quickly and easily. When Emerson joined the band, he literally just started playing along and I was like ‘Okay, thank you!’ It was so good.”

Initially expanding with just Cruz after reuniting in the Midwest, the duo invited Hunton to jam with the hopes his steady rhythms would help fortify the songs they’d been rehearsing. Playing with Hunton in the past, Cruz figured the drummer’s abilities would naturally fill the space between he and McCarthy’s back-and-forth on the strings. 

Their perfect fit hasn’t gone unnoticed. In the months leading up to the album’s release, the band received high praise for lead single “Ferry” from The New York Times and NPR. Streams were bringing new fans and a bigger buzz. Noting the track’s lushness and balance of heavy and gentle, Moontype quickly became an act to keep your eye on and Bodies of Water, one of the year’s most highly anticipated releases.

With the band able to capture a noisier, more challenging sound as a whole, McCarthy credits Cruz and Hunton with inspiring her to dig into a more free-flowing, visceral expression vocally and musically – something that the projects she’d created in the past, geared more toward electro-pop, didn’t fully allow.

“I usually will write really late at night, playing kind of softly because I don’t want to bother my neighbors, and I’m singing in my room – it’s just kind of a quiet experience,” she recalls. “So many of the songs ended up becoming loud. There are plenty of bands that are way louder [than Moontype], but compared to me alone in my room, they feel loud and energetic. I think about ‘About You,’ where I was really in my feelings about this friendship when I wrote it. It was a very wordy song where I was just telling this story to myself, but when I play it with them I’m like, this is a rock song.

Recorded at the end of 2019 at Chicago’s favored Jamdek Studios, the pandemic shutdowns and uprisings over the summer of 2020 after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor pushed activity on the album’s final touches to the backburner to refocus energies in support of the movement.

The year would’ve formally introduced Moontype beyond the city’s tightly-woven scene, with shows scheduled alongside the likes of Ohmme and others. Admittedly, fellow local acts informed the band’s evolving sound once recording sessions had begun. Fans as much as they are active participants in the scene, working at venues such as Constellation and Sleeping Village helped Moontype’s members establish a deeper understanding of the sense of community at its heart. Through that infectious camaraderie, the band found an ally in mastering engineer Greg Obis and a home on the label he co-founded with Deeper’s Kevin Fairbairn, Born Yesterday Records.

“I met Greg [Obis] working at Sleeping Village. He was mixing there and when I started working there I was the stage manager and running lights.” Obis believed in the band’s sound and, after mixing one of their live sets at beloved venue Hideout and seeing the crowd’s reaction, proposed they release with Born Yesterday. 

“The three of us are all in other bands, too,” McCarthy adds, alluding to country outfit The Deals (which includes her, Cruz and Hunton among the “Deal family band”), “and everyone’s bandmates were coming to the shows. We wouldn’t be where we are now without all of those friends.”

The camaraderie and the community has “been so essential to really every part of my life here in Chicago. For this band, it’s definitely important,” McCarthy explains.

After an additional year of sitting on their finished material, the decision to finish the LP was unanimous, and the hype and kind words from the music press are everything a young band dreams of (minus the pandemic, which ultimately prevented Moontype from being able to do much with the recognition they’d received). As time passed, the album’s themes of longing took on new meanings to different listeners; revealing lockdown feelings of “separate but together” in song and lending a relatable, though unintentional, perspective on long-distance pandemic friendships. 

“I tend to really attach songs that I write to the time when I wrote them and the people I was thinking about when I wrote them, so for me personally those songs are still very much attached to that,” she describes. “For someone who doesn’t have those associations, some – if not all – of these songs about friendships and feeling distant could feel really relevant.”

As for many songwriters hoping their lyrics will follow their listeners and change as they do, leaving room for others’ interpretation is part of the appeal for McCarthy. It’s helped keep the tracks on Bodies of Water fresh, while speaking to their universal appeal and the band’s promising sense of longevity. 

“It’s been so long and I’ve listened to these songs so many times before. Now it’s just people hearing them for the first time. It feels really good, and I’m so grateful to all of the news outlets, but it is strange,” she confesses. “It’s a nice form of external validation; it just feels a little bit not real because it’s only online, it’s only on social media. We haven’t actually played a show in over a year, so it feels a little bit removed, you know what I mean?”

While live music’s survival has been challenged, Moontype – like many other artists – are looking forward to the possibilities of touring by the end of the year. Their first performance after Bodies of Water’s release was streamed live from Constellation on Saturday, April 3, and more virtual gigs are in the works. Though McCarthy stands as the trio’s chief songwriter, there’s heightened fervor in her voice when mentioning songs Cruz and Hunton have each composed for possible future release. New music, in general, reignites a spark in the conversation.

“We’ve been practicing only the songs on the record pretty much for the last couple months, and we’re so excited to start working on new songs,” she says. “Honestly, this spring is feeling like a really hopeful and exciting time. Spring in Chicago always feels exciting because everyone’s been inside all winter, but this year obviously – it’s a sign people are starting to get vaccinated; things are looking up pandemic-wise.”

With so many independent artists looking to make up for lost time, Moontype continues to take things in stride. 

“I can’t imagine moving into a crowded space right now,” McCarthy adds, regarding the impending return of concerts in the city as COVID-19 restrictions loosen and summer approaches. “I feel like the first couple times might be a bit awkward, but it’ll only feel good to be playing for people again. I can’t wait for our first show with an actual audience. We’re looking forward to it. We’ll be ready.”

Follow Moontype on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

A week after global protests calling for Justice at Spotify, the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers Chicago Chapter sees more action ahead

Members of the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers’ Chicago chapter protesting outside Spotify offices at 225 W. Illinois Street, Chicago, IL on Monday, March 15, 2021.

“We got music. We got rhythm. Don’t exploit us with your algorithm!”

That was just one of the slogans chanted by dozens of musicians and supporters outside of Spotify’s Chicago offices on Monday, March 15. Organized by the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, Justice at Spotify was an hour-long demonstration calling for the streaming giant to pay artists a penny-per-stream, among other demands and material interests, to help build more sustainable, equitable, and inclusive music communities.

Naturally, the group of protestors did what they do best—make noise. With a drumline, tambourines, horns and more, the crowd wasn’t deterred from its mission by the day’s fierce winds and snow. Throughout the day, the events repeated across the globe in cities like San Francisco, New York, Toronto, Stockholm, Madrid, Melbourne, Frankfurt, and others.

The music and live entertainment industries have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Performance venues across the United States have been shuttered for a year now, causing a ripple effect of putting touring musicians, sound engineers and lighting technicians, event photographers, DJs and more out of work. Even with Congress passing the $15 billion Save Our Stages Act as part of the December 2020 COVID-19 relief bill and continuing efforts helmed by NIVA (National Independent Venue Association) and CIVL (Chicago Independent Venue League), concert halls will be the last to fully re-open once we’ve returned to a shred of “normalcy.” While some venues have recently re-opened for bar service in Chicago, this remains the truth despite optimism toward summer festivals from city government.

According to Billboard, the Small Business Administration hasn’t even started accepting applications for the grants yet—meaning funds won’t arrive before May. And though the SBA recently announced venues would be able to apply starting April 8, open doors don’t necessarily equal packed shows making enough to keep the lights on.

For artists, a year without touring—the way most actually make money—further exposed the way they’d been misled and taken advantage of by platforms that wouldn’t exist without them. Last Spring, the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (and soon after that summer, the Chicago chapter) was born out of necessity, fighting for transparency and fair compensation for those who often work multiple gigs to supplement their music earnings and don’t often qualify for unemployment benefits despite the hours dedicated to their craft.

“Companies like Spotify have savior complexes. They will say they’re trying to save the livelihoods of musicians everywhere and that they invented this amazing new way for musicians to make money when they really are not compensating the workers who create that content they offer,” Andrew Clinkman, member of UMAW’s Chicago chapter and its streaming subcommittee, and anchor for last Monday’s event, explained.

Clinkman plays in bands Marker and Spirits Having Fun, and worked as a guitar teacher pre-COVID. Luckily, he’s been able to continue to do so virtually.

Musicians, he argues, aren’t viewed as workers contributing to the value of Spotify’s platform. Similar to the organizing around securing protections for drivers and delivery persons for services like Lyft and Instacart, currently considered contract workers, Clinkman says there’s a clear division of labor that Spotify is either “refusing to acknowledge or completely oblivious to.”

He believes in the former.

“We’re literally asking for pennies,” he continues. “They love to hide behind the opacity of the algorithms; how everything is determined technologically. The money is there. We all know it. Get it together.”

UMAW launched its campaign focused on Spotify’s exploitation in October last year. According to the union’s calculations, each stream is worth, on average, $0.0038. Spotify, which surpassed revenue targets in Q4 according to Variety, is currently valued over $60 billion–with 155 million paid subscribers and 345 million total users.

When announcing the year-end results, CEO and founder Daniel Ek said, “Despite global uncertainty, it was a great year for Spotify.”

Apart from streaming pay, UMAW is asking that Ek and Spotify adopt a user-centric model that recompenses artists directly (akin to Soundcloud’s new “fan-powered” royalties pay system based on overall listening time instead of streams), transparency regarding closed-door contracts, reveal then end existing payola or pay for play, credit all labor in recordings, and “end legal battles intended to further impoverish artists.”

The platform uses a “pro-rata” model, which pools all revenue and distributes it to artists according to what UMAW calls “a complex scheme;” ensuring that acts with the most resources behind them—the household names at the biggest labels—accumulate a greater percentage of streams. No one’s expecting to get checks of the size the top 1% of artists—Ariana Grande, Drake, Billie Eilish, Cardi B—receive. But that 1% often receives 90% of the streaming revenue thanks to the existing model, even if you never listened to them.

In the days following UMAW’s Justice at Spotify action, the streaming platform unveiled a new effort, apparently months in the making, called Loud & Clear. In a series of tweets, CEO/founder Ek explained the new “royalty transparency” site was launched to “shed light on the complicated economics of music streaming.”

Notably, the company’s flashy graphics boast it’s paid over $23 billion in royalties to rights holders including over $5 billion in 2020 (up from $3.3 billion in 2017). It also notes that 1.2 million artists have over 1,000 listeners—it doesn’t, however, say how many artists total have a presence on the platform—and that 15%, or 184,500, of their catalogs generated recording and publishing royalties of at least $1,000. Buried beneath the positive spin and industry jargon, the company doesn’t directly acknowledge any of the specifics highlighted by UMAW or list long-term plans of action.

In response, the union released a statement which reads, in part, “We are pleased that Spotify has recognized the legitimacy of UMAW and the artists around the world who took action this week to demand better payment and treatment from the streaming giant. However, Spotify has failed to meet any of our demands.”

In a Twitter thread, UMAW continued:

“The company consistently deflects blame onto others for systems it has itself built, and from which it has created its nearly $70 billion valuation. We asked for transparency, but this website answers none of our questions about the sources of Spotify’s income in addition to subscriptions and ads, payola schemes for playlist and algorithm prioritization, or the terms of their contracts with major labels.”

Ahead of these developments, Greg Obis, co-owner of Born Yesterday Records, mastering engineer at Chicago Mastering Service, and guitarist in punk band Stuck, further described the trickle-down effects of Spotify’s measly royalty payments. As Obis points out, it’s the independent artists shouldering much of the costs.

“I’d been aware of this very brutal payment structure that exists in the streaming world,” Obis said on a conference call with Clinkman. “Seeing it from the audio engineering standpoint and the record label standpoint has been really formative. This is where the ‘AW’ (allied workers) of the UMAW comes in because… it’s the musicians who are paying the recording engineers, and need to go on tour and hire these people. The music industry is a whole ecosystem.”

With these artists carrying the weight, the idea of recouping expenses feels impossible. If people are seeking out new music and listening, the artist deserves their fair share of that spin. With the battle over the $15 minimum wage at the forefront of the country’s consciousness, debating what a “living wage” is and who qualifies to be paid one, UMAW co-founder Damon Krukowski put it like this in a recent piece for the New York Times Magazine Music Issue’s 5 Notes From a Quiet Year: “In order to earn the equivalent of a $15-per-hour job, you’d need 657,895 streams of your music per month—for each person in your band.”

“The first band my partner Naomi Yang and I were in, Galaxie 500, sees about three-quarters of a million monthly streams on Spotify,” Krukowski continues, “which earns the three members about $1,000 each. That’s for material we outright own.”

In many cases, “rights holders” are more than just the artists. That $1,000 is whittled down by the time any of it reaches the artist’s bank account. Detractors and skeptics of groups and actions like UMAW’s have questioned its expectations; pointing to long-standing abuses of power by major labels and management firms throughout history and suggesting not just anyone should be able to “make a living” off music; asking what “justifies” it. Cultural commentators like Bill Maher have attempted linking coverage of inequities in music streaming to tired talking points conflating merit, talent, and a world where “everybody gets a trophy,” all the while distorting the context and overall goals of the artists involved. Obviously, those invested in the collective consciousness have considered that.

On the phone, Obis points to a regularly regurgitated talking point many creatives, particularly musicians, hear when first realizing the romance of the “struggling artist” myth is anything but. “I think in this country we’ve so internalized, in different music communities, that making money for playing music is wrong or bad,” he says matter-of-factly. “I get into arguments with friends of mine all the time, and not like I’m a fervent capitalist or something, but it’s very wrong-minded for people to say you have to just be in it for the love or you have to always be an amateur. Eventually I realized it’s using the punk ethos for a perverse reason to never expect anything better for themselves.”

“It’s meager asks that we’re making from Spotify,” Obis concludes. “It’s very possible, it’s very reasonable to want to make ends meet by doing what you’re good at and what you love doing.”

Manae Hammond addresses the crowd at the Justice at Spotify protest on Monday, March 15, 2021.

At Monday’s rally, local artists Sophia Nadia of psychedelic rock outfit Cold Beaches and Indigo Finamore from alternative R&B duo Oux echoed similar experiences.

“Is it normal to be homeless if you’re a musician working 60-70 hours a week sometimes?” Nadia proposed to the crowd, to roaring “No’s.”

“Is it normal to have to fight for the bare minimum to be compensated a cent a stream? I think it’s absolutely embarrassing that we have to stand here today to prove a point,” she persisted. “Spotify’s hiding behind their corporation to try to take advantage of us so they can profit off our hard work, while filling the pockets of musicians who are already millionaires, and I think it has to be stopped.”

When Finamore got on the megaphone, they said that after their band was added to Spotify’s “Best Non-Binary Artists of 2020” playlist, streams of their single “Queer Like Me” passed 25,000. They eventually received a royalty check for $45. A penny-per-stream system would’ve paid the band $250, which could cover costs such as a few extra hours of studio time (some of the city’s most noted studios start session rates at $65/hr), or merchandise printing and shipping costs, for example.

“I mean, how are you supposed to put a dollar value on a song?” Anna Holmquist of the group Ester and host of the Bad Songwriter podcast asked on a phone call the Friday before the protest.

“What makes one song better than another? There are some that are ‘bad,’ but people love songs in different ways,” Holmquist points out. “A song or album that was there for me, that’s worth a lot. So the fact that you’re streaming that song and crying to it and that artist is getting .003 cents for your experience, that sucks.”

Holmquist, a member of UMAW’s accountability subcommittee and national steering committee, senses Spotify has artists in a bind – especially smaller acts like theirs. Without the platform’s discovery capabilities, they argue, it’s as if independent artists don’t exist to promoters or booking agents. Spotify’s ubiquitousness and cornering of the market allow its detrimental practices to succeed, and the Taylor Swift move of removing one’s music from the platform could do more harm than good – especially as the future of live music remains uncertain.

“Not being on [Spotify] just cuts out another revenue stream,” Holmquist sighs. “If you’re not going to be on any of the streaming services, then you’re choosing not to make money, which – with the amount of money you make from being a small DIY musician – feels rough. If you’re putting money into albums – albums that cost money to make, that cost money to promote – then you better try to get as much money back as you can.”

As important to the union’s success is reinvestment in what it means to be a music community. Once COVID-19 vaccine distribution increases and scenes actively rebuild, both Clinkman and Holmquist see it as part of UMAW’s job to facilitate access to appointments (as different opportunities may be available to vaccinated musicians) and other protective measures, connect with other localized groups working toward safer, equal music spaces and opportunities, resources on navigating DIY recording and touring, and address the unnecessary sense of competition propelled by Spotify and others.

It’s part of the industry’s “trap,” Holmquist expressed, to make indie artists feel there’s only x-amount of slots for their type of sound despite claims of “giving a million creative artists the opportunity to live off their art” by the likes of Spotify. UMAW insists on lifting each other up.

“We demand moving to something that is reflective of the diversity of artists on the platform and encourages artists to do their own thing,” Clinkman rebuts. “There’s something anti-competitive, in a positive way, about demanding things in that way. UMAW is a symbol of being able to band together and understand this is all affecting us in the same ways. If we’re all pulling in the same direction and working together, we can make it better for each other.”

Monday’s final artist on the megaphone was Manae Hammond, also of Oux and breakout band Hospital Bracelet, who spoke on behalf of the DIY Chi Mutual Aid Fund. Co-founded alongside Zoey Victoria and Sarah Thomas, the group gave micro-grants to artists-at-risk in the midst of the pandemic last year. Hammond said the mutual aid’s efforts are in “lockstep” with UMAW’s mission; what she described as helping musicians and artists through “building dual power” and organized action.

The global shutdown in 2020 put a spotlight on many things taken for granted—one of them being the power the arts, particularly music, have in giving us hope in dark times. Music has always provided an escape from the chaos and acts as a shared language for discussing some of life’s most difficult, complex topics. For some cities, it’s the largest part of their identity and why they’ve become storied destinations. In a year that saw us sheltering in place, unable to travel or ignore what was unfolding in the streets and in Washington, music (as well as literature, film, television, etc.) proved to be vital to our survival. We need all facets of the music industry to work for the artists committed to this understanding, not against them.

“This is just the beginning,” Clinkman told the crowd before it dispersed Monday afternoon. “We’re going to escalate. We’ll be back. They’re going to hear us.”

Follow Union of Musicians and Allied Workers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.