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.
Let me begin with some residual New Year bonhomie by saying that the New Yorker‘s Alex Ross is not the problem here. It’s just that you sometimes need to take an inventory of the symptoms before starting on the cause. Last month I attended a talk by Ross on the release of his latest book. The talk and the discussion which followed were interesting enough, but throughout the evening I couldn’t help noticing that, although there were several women in attendance, every single raised voice in the room was male.
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.
Right Here is New Zealand star Boh ‘sister of Bic’ Runga’s US debut, and boy, does it depress. Scrupulously inoffensive, nod-along nonsequiteurs waft from every groove. Miss Runga is possessed of a decent set of pipes, and ably backed by collaborators including Whiskeytown’s Mike Daly and System of a Down’s Greg Laswell, but, technical aptitude aside, track after track here soars blandly, balladically by with no apparent desire to distinguish itself.
Okay, there’s the barely interesting ‘Evelyn’ (bemoaning a manipulative best friend) and the moderately affecting ‘Home’ (intervening in a friend’s emotional trainwreck), but the rest of Runga’s material proves that the only thing worse than a broken-hearted break-up is an album full of half-hearted break-up songs. It’s perfectly possible to do justice to this sort of subject matter, but Runga handles it with no hint of Jenny Lewis’ acerbic edge or Amanda Palmer’s scalpelsharp powers of dissection. The production ranges from plodding to watery to dreary to overblown, quite often in the space of a single song as a subsitute for genuine emotional expression. This is a soundtrack for slow-motion sighing by women who might like to fling themselves full-length on the carpet and howl out their shattered soul but fear messing their hair up and putting the boys off. And nowhere on this album, possibly pace ‘The Earth and the Sky’ – a watered-down ‘Origin of Love’ sans the subversion or originality (and Christ, wasn’t a heteronormative version of Hedwig just exactly what the world’s been crying out for?) – does Runga come close to capturing the heart-clenching, fist-pumping joy of the kind of love that would justify all this Vaseline-lensed moping in the first place. On the evidence of Right Here, our heroine’s better off without him, but nowhere near as better off as you’ll be without this.
I wrote a version of the above review about six weeks ago, and its memory has haunted me every day since then. The star and a half I felt moved to award the album at the time – the participants had, at least, turned up – have come to seem like a calculated insult to all other music ever made. The more I think about this album’s existence, the further down I slip towards baffled despair. I deplore the time I wasted on it, and the time which I am powerless to prevent being wasted by any other misguided listeners. I weep for the innocent instruments used to perpetrate this horror. I can only shrug in sympathy towards the good people of New Zealand, doomed forever by association with this, as if Crowded House weren’t already misfortune enough. I mourn the talent, work and opportunity so casually sucked into the creative void that this album represents.
There is, after all, no obligation for an album to be good. And there were so many ways in which this album could have been bad. It could have been an opus of obscurity, boasting a lyric sheet produced by flicking ink over twelve pages of Thus Spake Zarathrustra and giving what remained visible a couple of runs through Babelfish. It could have been a splendidly solipsistic splurge of grimecore performed by a credit-crunched Cambridge graduate convinced that the necessity to downsize to only one car imbued him with ghetto authenticity. It could have featured CIA-sponsored basslines designed to cause spontaneous involuntary defecation in the listener. These types of badness would at least have given me something to bite on. But no, Right Here doesn’t care enough about its audience or its critics to be anything other than boring, barren, and bland, bland, bland.
Round about the seventh spin of this album, I began to imagine Boh Runga off-record as some cackling demonette, hellbent on damning by association every woman thinking of picking up a microphone. But then I read the album credits and realised that the blame has to be more widely, and predictably, spread. Those involved with Right Here include the hack responsible for Meredith Brooks, one in a long grey line of string-pullers and script-hoisters in the mechanically effective marketing of artists – more often than not, female artists. Now, again, the creative method which sees songs written for singers needn’t invalidate the end product, as evidenced by gems as disparate as Joan Baez and Girls Aloud. Or even ‘…Baby One More Time’, the toxic genius of which loses nothing by its having been composed by a sparsely-bearded Swede. But this, the meagre going-through-the-motions of a boring, bland puppet whose strings are blandly and boringly pulled by the boring and bland? It may seem harmless, but make no mistake: this sort of music is a minor irritant, a piece of grit barely worth brushing away, but around which can coalesce a pearl of purest counterproductivity. The job of arguing for the agency, credibility, and even the necessary presence of women in music is still a depressingly difficult one. It’s hardly helped by this sort of pseudo-empowered postpostpost-feminist slop that ‘The Jeep Song’ should have seen crushed under Amanda Palmer’s chariot wheels.
Why do these people bother? What earthly use or ornament do they imagine they’re providing? I can think of no explanation less base than the simple profit motive. This is an album geared towards that market in slick, shallow and superficial music-like substance which is designed to slip down devoid of flavour, texture and nutritional value rather than sparkling on the tongue or, god forbid, sticking in the throat. This album is raw tofu sprinkled with saccharine. It’s a substitute for music. It’s not here to be listened to with anything approaching interest or enjoyment; it’s here to sell because it’s here. These people are in the business of music and they want your money. For god’s sake, don’t give them it. Fuck technical aptitude, fuck ‘soulfulness’ without soul. Fuck everyone’s fifteen minutes if they’re going to be spent in other people’s blameless, beauty-starved earshot. Show me magic, you bastards.
A few months previous, a friend and I were drinking in a former strip-club in Shoreditch, the interior of which is a fairly accurate rendering of what you’d get if Vivienne Westwood vomited up the Court of Versailles. And it might have been a response to the nightmarish surroundings, and it might just have been the peculiarly provincial guilt that results from drinking away your Sunday afternoon when you know full well your ancestors would have been back from chapel and bringing in the sheaves by now, but my god, everything, both visible and abstract, didn’t half look like shit. We stared into our glasses (half-empty, of course), and one of the conclusions to which we came, while aimlessly sticking the scalpel into the corpse of popular culture, was that the music industry is becoming entirely parasitical. I found that particular observation nudging its way back to the front of my brain last week upon reading this article.
The good news is that, as the article confirms, online piracy hasn’t in fact been killing music, merely forcing both it and the industry to adapt and evolve. Most revenue for bands now comes from live performances and merchandise. This is as it should be: if a record piques your interest, if a sound sucks you in sufficiently for you to go and see how it looks onstage, and if after that, you’re hooked enough to have it emblazoned on a badge and bedroom wall, all to the good. But underneath the sighs of relief can be heard the clank and whir of industry cogwheels. In the eye-wateringly ugly vernacular, bands and their managers are looking “for new ways of making money from a shrinking pie”. Not just the music industry, either: global capitalism, ever-expanding, is now extending its sweaty embrace through the medium of sponsoring bands – circumventing record labels altogether and striking deals directly with artists and managers.
And again, sure, this is as it should be for a given definition of music – one that ignores all that’s great about music and accentuates all that’s regrettable. What is the point of music, after all? Is it to make money, which admittedly is the point of most industries, including those which batten on individual creativity and imagination? Or is it to express, to entertain, to forge some connection between alienated individuals? If the latter, is that really best accomplished by hawking your talent and your ambition to a boardroom’s worth of number-crunchers whose ultimate responsibility is to their shareholders, and whose job depends on a product that isn’t actually music? To say nothing of the fact that bands may be choosing to associate with multinational companies whose records on ethics and human rights are decidedly grubby. Witness Groove Armada, cited in the Guardian article as having hitched their wagon to the immensely distasteful Bacardi.
Having your musical output facilitated, promoted or managed is one thing. But once you start looking to some monolithic entity outside the music industry for permission to exist as an artist you’re on very dangerous ground. Let’s be clear: it’s brands that have the power here. It’s laughable to suppose that corporate sponsorship won’t involve some process of approval and right of veto over the end product. The logic of brand-association dictates that advertisers are going to want to keep their pet artists, at the least, tabloid-friendly, and, at the most, hermetically sealed from associating with anything that isn’t bland, whitebread and squeaky-clean.
In 1993, Pepsi, who were in large part the originators of this brand/band marriage of convenience, had to hurriedly wash their hands of sponsoring the late Michael Jackson following unsubstantiated allegations of child abuse. Pepsi’s action was, in the circumstances, a fairly understandable piece of arse-covering, but, at the other end of the scale, consider the schmuck from S Club 7 who sailed close to scuppering his band’s deal with British Telecom for the singularly heinous and, for both a teenager and a musician, totally atypical and unpredictable act of smoking a joint. Without entering into the tedious can-and-should-music-exist-without-drugs debate, let alone that of can-and-should-SClub7-fans-exist-without-involuntary-euthanasia, consider the serried ranks of formerly smack-soaked musical sorcerors – Billie Holiday, John Cale, Janis Joplin, Nick Cave, Charlie Parker for starters. In a pearl-clutching world of increasingly invasive attention to the private lives of public figures, and increasingly powerful manufactured outrage, would brands be willing to sponsor any artist of that calibre if they were subject to the same family-unfriendly tabloid mercies as Winehouse and Doherty? And never mind actions, how about words: the overseers of brand-association are notoriously jumpy. Are artists going to be able to express an opinion on politics, religion or sexuality that might reflect badly on their chosen brand? Will we end up with companies only willing to wield their dark arts in the service of bands so established as to be untouchable or so new as to obediently, mutely, boringly walk the line? In which case I have seen the future, brother: it is Bono.
Questions of potential corporate control are of course less pressing than the central one: what sort of craven, tapwater-blooded and tapioca-brained cynic forms a band with a view to letting themselves be sponsored by Red Bull? Nobody wants to see a singer fearfully glancing over her shoulder for her paymaster’s approval before she puts her mouth to the microphone, and no band worth a second of anyone’s time signs up for it. Who are you, Coq Roq? Haven’t we seen enough of the unedifying collapse of culture into product placement, and of the mainstream’s more insidious cultural cherry-picking? Never forget the capacity of major labels, from consumables to clothing chains, to burst a subcultural bubble; they swoop in, magpie-like, and sell off our shiniest, sexiest symbols in a way that sucks them dry of any significance they might once have held. Sod the hippie wigs in Woolworths, man; they’re selling Libertines tunics in Topshop. Your scene turns to ruined, co-opted, demographic-targeted dust the instant the admen lay hands on.
Maybe this response is just a reactionary jerk of the knee, but it all makes me deeply suspicious, and deeply despondent. You shouldn’t be able to trust your musicians – Christ no, without exception they’ve always been a collection of the desperate, dumb, deranged, damaged and deluded – but you should be able to trust the music. You should be able to take it as read that music is more than a money-making proposition. If approval by global corporate brands is to be the hoop through which aspiring artists jump in order to gain readies and recognition, then the free publicity and critique provided by blogs and forums is going to be more necessary than ever.
Back in the speed-addled, black-eyelinered days of my early adolescence, the NME had bite, balls, and brio. And it still had nothing on Melody Maker. Every Wednesday lunchtime saw me, lower lip bitten with anticipation, heading into town to snag the latest issue of each; our newsagent stocked all of three copies, and I never found out who, if anyone, bought the others. For me and others like me – small-town, provincial or suburban kids beyond the pale of London’s bright lights, with mass internet access as yet untapped, gazing wide-eyed on stories of the gig-circuit – the weekly music press served as a channel of cultural discovery and as the cool older brother we didn’t have.
So scalpel-sharp was music journalism at that time that I can still recall features, reviews and even some lines from them, both the building up and the demolition jobs. Taylor Parkes skewering the Cult of Richey with a cutting You don’t deal with depression by making it the focal point of your personality – you have to rage against it, perpetually. Neil Kulkarni’s still-astonishing wrecking-ball swing at Kula Shaker and the post-Oasis consensus (Crucially, retro-accusations are less important than pointing out how deadly dull the bulk of this LP is, in a way that only true scumcunt hippies can be: “K” … shits itself in fear of the future (1973) and stinks of living death) which at the time made for what felt like genuinely revolutionary reading.
And yes, it was fucking political. NME’s former editor Neil Spencer claims the pre-Britpop music press treated music as part of a wider oppositional culture in which the angry and intelligent political consciousness of bands like S*M*A*S*H and Asian Dub Foundation was considered an asset rather than an embarrassment. Encompassing the world beyond music, as well as music beyond the mainstream, the NME and MM took on fascism, racism, sexism, Morrissey, Thatcher and Blair. More sophisticated than the sledgehammer sludge of many more overtly political publications, a certain left-wing sensibility shone through the best of their writing like sunlight through stained glass.
But, as every Libertines fan knows, the best things never last. Whereas Spencer blames IPC for the NME’s political castration, the decline and fall of Melody Maker has been generally attributed to its enforcing of what Parkes and Kulkarni identified as a ‘kid’s taste’ PR-led consensus and its aimless chasing of a demographic which already had Smash Hits. The latter half of the Nineties, with its rapid turnover of scenes and genres, saw the paper hitch its wagon to a succession of shortlived stars, including Nu-Metal and, notoriously and prematurely, RoMo, before its last-gasp glossification and eventual merger with NME.
The gulf between then and now is perhaps most apparent in the NME’s current attitude to the industry and its failure to adequately define itself against a cultural mainstream. Whereas Kulkarni trained his sights on mainstream radio and MTV as peddlers of the creativity-crushing Kids Consensus, the NME now revels in unholy commercial alliances, sponsorships and tie-in deals. The dangers inherent in this trend were exemplified in 2005 by the controversy over its Top 50 albums list. The ensuing furore both dealt a blow to what little of NME’s credibility remained, and proved that the paper had fallen prey to a system largely built on mutual backscratching where, yes, there’s only music so that there’s new ringtones.
The NME’s present incarnation – a dishwater-dull industry cum-rag with an editor who resembles a spoon in a suit – is of course merely reflective of a more widespread erosion of choice and illusion of independence which currently infects most aspects of culture and politics. The music industry in particular will always aspire to Johnny Rotten’s vision of ‘a bloated old vampire’, and nothing has filed down its fangs so much as the relocation of sharing, discussion and critical analysis of music to online publications, networks and forums. As for the NME, appearing in its pages these days is akin to standing on a moonlit Transylvanian balcony in a billowing nightdress bellowing ‘Come and get me, Vlad!’; you’ll be drained dry and thrown aside for something juicier within weeks. Hope lies in the blogs.