I have an essay in this month’s New Welsh Review on the impact of digitization on publishing as compared to the music industry. I wrote it without anticipating FutureBook’s overview, which does commendable spade-work explaining the situation’s background, present and future, whereas I mostly just snark from the sidelines.
In essence: big publishing houses have, like velociraptors, watched and learned from the music industry’s floundering and are now primed to do better out of e-publishing. My piece also covers the Indelicates’ ‘post-internet’ site Corporate Records, the pros and cons of self-publishing, the unpleasant prospect of e-books becoming the new disposable mass-market paperbacks while physical product becomes concentrated on luxury hardbacks, and why Hodder’s dubious flipback format is the literary equivalent of the MiniDisc.
Perhaps ironically, it’s unavailable online, but the print copy is accessible in all good stockists, or at least all Welsh ones.
In recent days, the search terms leading the unwary googler to this place have heavily featured the words ‘alternative valentines playlist’. I did one of these last year, and, self-evidently, haven’t done another since. I have re-uploaded the file from last year’s post though, so if that’s what you’re after, it’s here: Happy Highly-Expensive Chocolate Day.
But what, pray, do you want with googling ‘alternative valentines playlist’ and variations thereon? Are you going to snaffle this playlist for substance or suggestion? Make your own, Madam: your other half is totally going to appreciate your own playlist more than one you downloaded from the bitterest Howard Devoto obsessive on WordPress. And if you don’t have another half, then I’m frankly baffled to learn that you spend your time doing anything other than making playlists and then playing them. I know I don’t.
Bandcamp drew its inspiration from intuitive blogging platforms such as WordPress. ‘[T]here, if you’re a writer, you can set up your own site that’s rock-solid for free. It struck us as crazy that if your artistic output happens to be music instead of text, that your options were bad.’
Bandcamp functions as a middleman site rather than digital DIY culture proper, but still. The expectation of profit from music is now firmly weighted towards auxiliary activities – touring, merchandise, licensing, ’360 sponsorship’ (hmm) – and the surgical excision of an artistic heart from the petrified industry establishment continues.
At a point where contemporary bands have as much edge as a beachball, the Indelicates have proved indispensable. Julia and Simon Indelicate have been in the vanguard of artistic response to new media, following the release of their 2008 debut American Demo by shaking off the coils of their label and founding the musical workers’ collective Corporate Records, on which this album is available on a pay-what-you-like basis. Their guitar and keyboard folk-punk owes something to the murky margins of the Nineties, notably Carter USM’s winning twinning of righteous sociological skewering with a lyrical patchwork of cultural references and wordplay, as well as the Auteurs’ and Pulp’s cerebral chic and puncturing of airy pretensions.
Recorded in East Berlin, Songs for Swinging Lovers is appropriately imbued with similar cabaret stylings to those of the Dresden Dolls. The pervading Weimar atmosphere draws implicit parallels between the present culture deconstructed here and a past culture gone softly dissolute and succumbing to totalitarian creep. An entire continent gets it in the neck in opener ‘Europe’, a stop-motion stagger of drunken piano, cymbals that clash like wine glasses smashed on bourgeois floors and piled-up images of queasy cultural decay. ’Be Afraid of Your Parents’ is a cautionary tale of entrenched liberal hegemonies, a nervy, tottering quickstep of Derrida-quoting dinner-partiers leading a fatuous and self-satisfied dance round the ruins of the decadent west, oblivious to the insinuation of encircling uniforms. As a metaphor it’s typically bold, and as arresting as the visual pun on the album cover.
Full of ferocity, disgust and frustration, its meat bloody and raw, Songs for Swinging Lovers seethes with the wish to be cleansed. ‘Flesh’ continues Julia’s cutting critique of contemporary feminism (“Hey girls, ain‘t you heard we‘re more concerned about the hegemony than the women?”), her voice a deceptive lilt with Simon’s sinisterly silky backing vocals beautifully conjuring up an appeased patriarchy breathing down her neck. The savagely sleazy ‘Your Money’ sticks it to the corporate world and the wide-eyed singalong ’Jerusalem’ lampoons private education’s gilded youth.
Elsewhere, the frenetic riffs, contemptuously drilled Rs and Julia’s hammered keyboards give way to reflection and yearning, making the album as much barricade as battering-ram. Contemplating flight to the border in ’Sympathy for the Devil’ or envisioning the calcified grotesques of ’Europe’ drowned by rising tides, Julia and Simon sound as if they’re bunkered against zombie-like hordes of encroaching socio-cultural horrors, both the last gang in town and the only lovers left alive. Their outsider stance is burlesqued in ’We Love You, Tania’, the insistent siren-song of Patty Hearst’s terrorist seducers, and critically examined in ’Savages’, a celebration of social rejection shot through with fatalism and self-doubt. ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ closes the album with a gently mocking lullaby for a generation whose short-sighted solipsism has elevated post-adolescent angst to an art form.
Songs For Swinging Lovers has a dark depth and complexity, not only providing the satire and savaging modern society requires, but also supplying its own self-questioning critique which acknowledges rebellion’s own pretensions and built-in obsolescence. Tomorrow doesn’t belong to the Indelicates – it never will, in a country that coined the phrase ‘too clever by half’ – but the remains of today should.
[Written for Wears the Trousers which is currently down for maintainance, hence this reposting of my latest. Longer and more rambling piece on the band to follow when I have the time.]
So. Farewell then, Malcolm McLaren, one of the best trolls of the twentieth century. With splendid synchronicity, last week also saw the passing of the Digital Economy Bill, railroaded through in Parliament’s pre-election wash-up in front of a pathetic forty MPs. The legislative enshrining of this particularly sweeping and short-sighted sop to failing business models shows up the UK government as shills to the interests of industry over democratic debate.
Take 1980. McLaren’s chosen wheeze that year was Bow Wow Wow, a fusion of Burundi, Latin, punk and épater la bourgeoisie which saw Adam Ant’s band backing child star Annabella Lwin. Bow Wow Wow have the distinction of releasing the first ever cassette single, a gleeful paean to empowerment through home taping:
In 1980, famously, home taping was killing music, and was definitely illegal. We kept doing it. And yet record companies somehow struggled on, charging exorbitantly for CDs and picking up and dropping bands unable to generate fast enough revenue as they did so. The reactionary blustering over home taping at the dawn of the cassette era parallels today’s filesharing debates, and today’s anti-internet arguments are more transparently disingenuous. The big-money industry model which has held sway for the past fifty years has been a blip, not a fundamental cultural cornerstone without which all popular music will collapse into dust. Artists themselves are adapting to the new opportunities offered by digital distribution and online word-of-mouth – go here for one obvious and shining example – it is an industry grown bloated on its previous parasitical lifestyle that can’t or won’t. It’s more than unfortunate that the latter is where the majority of money and string-pulling power still resides.
Discovering new music, and sharing your own, is and will remain one of the most fantastic, altruistic and mutually beneficial things that culture has to offer. The Digital Economy Act is not necessary to ‘prevent Britain’s creative industries haemorrhaging money’; it is a flailing, ham-fisted attempt to prevent Britain’s creative industries advancing to their next evolutionary stage. Death-throes are never dignified.
When I first got into music, in the moribund middle of the 1990s, not only was I living in a godforsaken postindustrial blackspot, but I was living there without the internet. The only place in my town which sold records was Woolworths, which sold the Top 20, on CD and cassette, and that was it. I once, as a thirteen year old Manicsfan, went into Woolworths and tried to preorder a copy of The Holy Bible. My enquiry was met with the same look of horror-struck uncertainty with which my mother, that same year, asked whether I’d been in a punch-up (I hadn’t; Rimmel’s ‘Gothic Miss’ eyeshadow palette and I were in our ill-advised experimental period, but the mistake is understandable). The nearest town whose emporia offered more cosmopolitan fare was an hour’s bus-ride away. In alternative cultural terms, the last one to leave my town had not only turned out the lights, but also painted the windows black and pissed on the stereo. Oh how I suffered.
I don’t often have cause to quote my homeboy Akira the Don, but I was pleased to see his recent departure from the Featured Artists Coalition and the reasons behind it, namely the FAC’s subscription to a damaging and Stone Age stance on filesharing: Akira the Don: Fuck the FAC.
Online filesharing has done as much to kill music as home taping actually did back in the 70s and 80s, ie bugger-all. The recommending and sharing of music between individuals may have inflicted some slight cosmetic damage on the music industry, as opposed to the fairly invulnerable concept of music itself, but the music industry is predisposed, cockroach-like, to adapt, evolve and endure. It isn’t going away, and neither is the principle of artists justly being owed for their work. The industry’s propensity to spot where quick and easy money can be made, however, appears to be the motivation behind its recent inclination to abandon, for instance, attempts to focus on the leaking of certain albums at the industry end and instead to parasitically batten on the least powerful and most isolated component in the chain: the individual music fan.
Among the list of FAC signatories to this squeeze, I am disappointed to see Billy Bragg, a life-long exponent of collectivism whose reputation has been built largely through linking music with political activism, and Patrick Wolf, of whom I myself would never have heard without the recommendation and, yes, downloads offered by friends. Both of these artists have subsequently received a considerable amount from me in terms of revenue from records, gigs and merchandise, and of my recommending them in turn. In an age where writing on music in the print media is increasingly less credible, far more musicians and music fans are turning to the internet as a means of discovering, promoting and facilitating music. To think that this cultural moment can be rolled back is at best naive and at worst jaw-droppingly entitled.
Let’s make a deal, though. Having noted all the FAC signatories, I hereby pledge neither to listen to myself, nor to play in the hearing of others, anything of theirs for which I have not legally paid. I will make no attempt to encourage others to hear their music before deciding whether to pay for it, but rather wait for the undoubted talents of these musical leading lights, and their polishing by a competent and patient industry, to dazzle the eyes of the multitude without any interference from so-called fans. How’s that?