05.22.2024 | News

McIntosh and Sonus faber Team Up with 4AD on Stunning Listening Event for Adrianne Lenker’s Bright Future

Adrianne Lenker McIntosh listening event

It probably goes without saying, but here at McIntosh, we spend a lot of our time talking about high end audio. Yet, as an industry, our fixation on ‘gear’ and ‘precision engineering’ can often find us straying a little too far down a technological rabbit hole. All of us are guilty of it. We get so caught up in the sonic qualities of a product offering, that we lose sight of what it’s built for in the first place: To elevate the listening experience from ‘everyday’ to ‘extraordinary’, and in doing so, connect us to music we love in wholly new and transformative ways.

It was therefore a great thrill for us to recently receive a call from Casper Mills, Global Product Manager at leading indie record label 4AD. Casper had a tantalizing proposal for us. An artist on their roster – the peerless Adrianne Lenker – had a new album dropping in the coming weeks. As a thank you to her most dedicated fans, 4AD were hoping to organize a listening event for the new album. A chance for attendees to really drink in every track from the new record. Would McIntosh be willing to help take this fan experience to the next level, by supplying a world-class sound system for the event?

Adrianne Lenker McIntosh listening event

We jumped at the chance to help out. What followed was unique, and wholly special. A convergence between music, art, and fan experience that represented a perfect distillation of the experiential power of high end HiFi – and its ability to sprinkle magic over the music it reproduces.

We sat down with Casper Mills from 4AD to find out more about the event, and Adrianne’s stunning new release. Along the way, we tried to dig into why – in the unforgiving climate of the contemporary music industry – events like this can hold a key to deeper artistic and commercial success.

Introducing 4AD and Adrianne Lenker

“Ultimately, everything we do is for Adrianne and her fans…”

There’s not many labels out there with the qualitative pedigree of 4AD. As part of the Beggars Group family of independent record labels, they’ve carved out a now long-established reputation for representing truly creative and musically individualistic artists. This reputation was forged in the 1980s through artists like Cocteau Twins, The Pixies, and Bauhaus, and sustained through the 90s and 00s with acts including TV on the Radio, St. Vincent, and Bon Iver.

Now, in 2024, 4AD’s roster remains a ‘who’s who’ of the most thought provoking and critically revered alternative music. Dive into a collection of their recent successes, and you’ll find Indie-Pop darlings Future Islands, Arthouse-folk sensation Aldous Harding, and Alt-Rock icons The National, to name just three. Indie label they may be, but 4AD’s roster includes some hugely popular acts and artists. Is there a fine balance to tread there? Casper explains.

"We're a fairly big indie label, but we still only put out around ten new records a year. We’re not here to operate at scale, and throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see what sticks. We put out a handful of records a year and work hard to make sure all of them stick."

4AD’s approach to artist development seems to be fundamentally based in a desire to do things the right way. There’s no quick fixes, no big spending ad buys – they choose their artists carefully, and then they ensure those artists get the support they need to flourish with each release. That takes genuine passion, patience and belief – three things that, in the contemporary music industry, can often be found wanting.

Adrianne Lenker McIntosh listening event

That passion reveals itself as soon as Casper starts to talk to us about Bright Future, Adrianne Lenker’s stunning new record. "It’s just a devastatingly beautiful and emotional record…I believe Adrianne is one of the best songwriters of our generation. It speaks to many people in so many individual ways."

It’s hard to disagree with Casper’s assessment of Bright Future. Adrianne has released a slew of brilliantly compelling records – both through her solo output, and with her band Big Thief. But it's no exaggeration to call Bright Future truly original, the kind of career defining record that comfortably elevates an artist above the relentless maw of a noisy and crowded market. Its intimacy is, at times, almost unsettling, like you’re party to thoughts too personal and painful to be aired this openly. But Lenker seems to understand that great art should invite even the most casual listener to take a step out of their comfort zone. It's a shimmering triumph of a record, fully deserving of its place at the forefront of discussions for ‘best album of the year.'

Bringing the record to the fans

“…the response from the fanbase is ‘I feel heard’”

“Adrianne’s fans are increasingly fervent and passionate... a really strong community has built online around her music.” Casper explains. “That, along with the deeply intimate nature of this new album… meant it felt really important to cultivate a moment where her most hardcore fans could have a really memorable first experience of it."

With such an impassioned fanbase, dedicated listening events felt like the perfect medium to truly celebrate the launch of Bright Future. "I guess listening events are a bit of a trend at the moment," Casper tells us, "...but immediately when I heard the record I knew we needed to do something special with it." A series of intimate listening parties were planned across the globe, with no more than 50-60 attendees per event. The goal? To create a space and experience that felt commensurate to the power of the record itself, and give Adrianne’s most impassioned fans the opportunity to take in this remarkable new album in a way they’d never forget.

Adrianne Lenker McIntosh listening event

4AD were keen to take these events as far and wide as they could. “We tried to do it as globally as possible within the means that we had,” he says. “We tapped into Beggars Group who have offices all over the world… immediately we wanted to do NYC, Los Angeles, and London, but then we really wanted to have a properly global picture and speak to Adrianne’s fans in as many places as possible."

Manila, Mexico City, Taipei, and Tokyo were all added to the events list, along with Melbourne, Brussels, Dublin, and Amsterdam. Why did it feel important to make the tour this extensive? “Someone in Manila was so shocked that this was even happening and wasn't even sure it was real,” Casper tells us. “I think we take it for granted living in big music industry cities, but when you speak to fans in these places that artists like Adrianne aren’t necessarily big in, the response from the fanbase is ‘I feel heard’”

This fan-first approach became absolutely central to the theme and development of each event moving forward.

Designing for the emotional experience

‘We need this to be HiFi…that is a must’

Adrianne Lenker McIntosh listening event

The next step was to fashion these events into something unique, personal, and transformative. For the London event, the perfect venue was secured – Sessions Art Club, a stunning Grade II listed dining hall in Clerkenwell.

“We wanted it to feel almost like you were listening to the record from the living room in the recording studio itself. We wanted to give fans an accurate depiction of how the record was made, and transmit that intimacy into the event.” Getting this close to the music would require a very special sound system. That’s where McIntosh came in. 4AD had partnered with McIntosh on a similar project for songwriter Scott Walker a number of years previously. When contact was made, we brought in our local distributor Fine Sounds UK, and Fine Sounds UK’s Country Manager Andrew Oattes enthusiastically replied to the request.

“…it was the easiest first conversation. We explained what we had planned and the response was just ‘Great, let's do it.' They were very generous… Andy came down at like 5:30am on a Sunday to facilitate and make sure everything was perfect.” To ensure the process remained as seamless as possible for all involved, Fine Sounds UK partnered with KJ West One – one of London’s foremost high end audio retailers. The team at KJ West One kindly acted as local supplier for the exhaustive selection of premium electronics that would make up the listening event’s sound system.

With the assistance of KJ West One, a world class sound system was specified and supplied, carefully curated to deliver the intimacy and closeness that Casper was keen to create. “Playing directly from vinyl was crucial to the event. The whole record is AAA, it’s never touched a computer.” Staying true to this analog commitment, a McIntosh MT5 Precision Turntable provided the source, with 350 watts of clean McIntosh power per channel coming from a MA12000 Integrated Amplifier. A pair of Sonus faber Serafino loudspeakers completed a truly formidable listening set up.

Adrianne Lenker McIntosh listening event

“As a label, doing these sorts of events you have to find people that you can trust to deliver… my thinking is, ‘I'm going to have faith that this is going to sound amazing.’ And guess what? It does!” And did the sound system bring an added level of refinement to the event itself? “Obviously this world class sound system is important, but for us it's also about what the sound system is trying to create,” Casper tells us. “…and that's this transcendent experience and a very strong connection to listening to music.’

With playback secured and in place, attention turned to what else could be done to further elevate the fan experience. “It’s hard to get people to go to shows now, let alone listening events,” says Casper, “ the question is often ‘what’s the incentive to come to these events?’ In order to answer this question, Casper and his team began looking at what they could do to really take the event to the next level – starting with the venue dressing. Sessions Art Club was adorned in lush greenery, to reflect a very particular aesthetic theme from the recording sessions. “This record was made in a studio on the east coast of America, surrounded by and filled with nature… they dressed the studio with plants and flowers during the recordings and we really wanted to mirror that as much as possible.”

This granular attention to detail even extended to the timings of the events themselves. “While we were planning the events, Adrianne mentioned that they’d only recorded tracks in the mornings. The band got up at about five or six, recorded till lunchtime, then went for a walk or a swim… it was all about capturing the energy of the morning.” In as many venues as possible, Casper’s team planned the listening events as morning sessions to mirror the cadence of the recording process. “…it was just one way we went above and beyond to make it feel truly unique for fans.”

The enrichment of the fan experience reached even further into the event. Beautifully designed lyric booklets were handed out to each audience member, adorned with illustrations from the artist herself, alongside shots from inside the studio. “It was amazing seeing people pouring over them at the events,” Casper tells us. All this would seemingly be plenty to whet the appetite of even the most ardent and discerning fan, but incredibly, the value-adds didn’t stop there. In London, fans were invited to bring an old t-shirt along to the event, and whilst they listened to the record, these t-shirts would be screen printed with hand-drawn illustrations from Adrianne.

Adrianne Lenker McIntosh listening event

So what was the fan response to this remarkable degree of carefully considered detail? "It was genuinely emotional to see how much it all meant to them…I think those fans will go and tell everyone they can about this record. They will be the biggest champions to their friends and online…and that's what really matters."

Listening events and ‘the fan experience’

‘The fans are the most powerful champions for an artist’

Through the planning and execution of this event in London, Casper and 4AD’s commitment to delivering for the fan and the artist is clear for all to see. But is there a wider commercial benefit to events like this? “Partly it's about community and fans and bringing them closer to the music, but commercially it's also about selling records… everyone has a right to want to sell records.”

For artists and labels, finding and engaging an audience has never been more challenging. Events like the Bright Future listening party can bring something tangible to a music experience that is more transient and online-focused than ever before. “Now more than ever, it's hard to break through the noise,” says Casper, “…the amount of releases going up on Spotify every day is dizzying. Doing these kinds of events helps to break through that noise a bit because online there's just so much, it's overwhelming. I think there’s a place for these listening sessions because it's a real-life experience.”

There’s a potent lesson here that crosses the short divide between the music and HiFi industries. Building a movement, over a market, makes for a much more dedicated and vocal customer base. Casper agrees. “You can digital market something, and put billboards everywhere, but nothing matters more than fans yelling about it… we did hardly any outdoor for this album, this is where our marketing spend went. Because this is what is going to amplify this record – fans that care enough to shout about it.”

To finish, we bring it back to the listening experience. We ask Casper, ultimately, what can high fidelity sound bring to events like these, and to the listening experience for music lovers more generally? “It comes down to how you listen to music, right? We’ve created an environment where everyone can get the absolute best from this record… whether you’re an avid gear-head or someone who is just here to be truly swept away by this music. Sometimes, that’s all that needs to matter.”

Bright Future by Adrianne Lenker is out now. Thank you to Casper Mills for generously donating his time for this interview.

Written by Lee Broderick