Monday, 1 August 2011

hyperbole and raging at the imagined 'future'

I don’t really think of myself as someone who has a great deal to make public about our music industry (much as I may rant to friends almost daily), but I think that today, I have occasion to write something down, because of an event I attended last Friday concerning the ‘future’ of the music industry, and because of the death of Amy Winehouse. Not her death exactly, but just a portion of the reaction to her death, that smacks significant. I could complain at great length about the press, the inappropriate attitudes to addiction, the deeply unpleasant ‘club 27’ aspect of social networking sites. But that should all happen elsewhere. And it is an article that does that rather well that has prompted me to write this down. In fact, it is a comment underneath the article that encourages me to type.

On Friday evening I questioned glibly whether the music industry was not flogging a dead horse, but rather dressing the dead horse up in a period waistcoat and fucking and eating it at the same time. (There may have been worse and more stupid language, I don’t recall exactly).  It was clear to me that the future of the music industry has not really occurred to the industry yet, because arguably, the future of the music industry is already happening without them.  A certain manager of a certain era, told us charming anecdotes about his roster’s drug use, and wild parties before enlightening us with his groundbreaking model for a ‘new’ industry, which was, to do exactly what every single DIY or cottage industry or even small independent label has always done. Ie/ don’t spend loads of money on PR, radio plugging, booking agent fees etc, Do It Yourself.  Basically keep everything in house until you’re act is famous enough to sell on to a major.  ‘Level 3’ he called it. This demonstrates to me the sort of fear that seems rife within the industry. And it is fear, ‘Oh shit, they might realise that they don’t need us!’ How can the businessmen continue to make a living from musicians?

The relationship between industry and artist has always seemed to me to be a bit like that of the female and male Angler Fish. Mutually parasitic, but without which there is no possibility for breeding in the Abyss. What is unclear now, is which is which? Is it the artist or musician of plays the role of huge female that the male attaches onto, fusing blood stream and dolling out sperm in exchange? It seems to work either way. Which cannot be right can it?

The point is, I suppose, that people don’t buy as many records any more. That is why the ‘crisis’. Most often it is ‘illegal downloads’ that are blamed for this. It seems quite reasonable. But I’m not so sure that that is the issue. Being of the age that I am, I used to have cassettes. Blank cassettes, hundreds and hundreds of them. Compilation tapes, stuff recorded off friends, John Peel shows taken off the radio. Everyone I knew had tapes. I still bought records, I even bought cds, but I had a lot of stuff I hadn’t paid for. Nowadays, the only stuff I haven’t paid for are mp3s my friend Daniel sends me of rare soul 45s or hardcore he likes (other stuff sometimes too), or stuff that bands are giving away, because they have realised that digital music in itself has little commercial value. I find it hard to accept that piracy is the cause for the bottom falling out of the music industry. I’m sure it’s a factor, but I am starting to feel that there is something less tangible at work, something more moral, something about the results of greed….

I think that it is conceivable that the search for product, the attempt to recreate those rare iconic sparks that we flock to see, has rendered popular music without fiscal or emotional value. We have made our stars so disposable that we cannot respect them, let alone be awestruck by them. We don’t care about songs, but their dresses, their lovers, and most importantly their flaws. We are bullying jackals snapping the heals of those more impressive wolves because we just don’t like ourselves to let them be slightly larger. Which brings me to Winehouse, underneath Laurie Penny’s article that quite rightly condemns the tabloids for their hypocritical part in Winehouse’s life and subsequent demise, someone has written this,

Are we seriously arguing that AW is ranked up there with the soul greats such as Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder?’

This is striking to me, not because it is right or wrong, but because it suddenly seemed that it was inconceivable that anyone at all might be ‘ranked up there’. So temporary and trite has our culture become. Nothing seems to be around long enough to earn a place among our pre-existing immortals. And if they are we hate them and mock them for it.  But why should Amy Winehouse not be ranked up with those greats? Her voice is iconic, her songs vital and raw, spawning, in their wake a whole host of slightly Spectory, saccharine sound-alike women. (See? Product. Whatever special thing that gets through and moves people is cast again and again each time a little sweeter and easier to swallow. A little easier to ignore. There are surprisingly few steps from Kurt Cobain to Ricky Wilson, but who could possibly believe in the latter? It’s not Wilson’s fault of course, he’s just been mispackaged, sold as rock when in fact he is Bucks Fizz in a blazer. A vile and unhappy Brundlefly of the corpse of Indie culture and Cheryl Baker). But Winehouse seemed to me to have made in ‘Back to Black’ a properly classic album, definitive of its time, whether you liked it or not. Influencial and copied, setting the tone for what followed. Give her a position among those other icons I say.

Just because we have cheapened and made demonic or own culture to the point where acknowledging that something is good physically sickens us, and we laugh in the face of Stacey Solomon because we don’t like to conceed that we put her there, on the television, because in the morning we look in the mirror and see the tortured faces of Jedward staring back at us while they fist fuck each other in public just for another chance to be humiliated on some Panel show, because we cannot bring ourselves to part with money any more for the obscene music that we have made and demanded, that we know is shit, doesn’t mean that we should not bow down to those rare moments when somebody does something beautiful or real, that secretly and wonderfully we all understand. They still happen, and the future of the music industry is simply to not forget that fact.


  1. First, great post.

    Then, see Retromania [Simon Reynolds] - relatively new things are increasingly rare, so if we follow genre A then artists X, Y and Z have already mapped much of the territory and we need to explore that before moving on to someone contemporary, who may just be a poor copy of everyone who came after Z.

    There are [probably far] less than 200 names that are part of the hardcore classical / jazz cannon from Bach until now - why should the ratio for pop [let's say from 1960] be much different? I.E. 20 - 30 'essential artists' [my math suuuuuuuuuuuucks].

    In short, in what ways did Amy Winehouse push things forward rather than diddle with the remains of others?

  2. these are good points i think, which probably demand quite long winded responses, but i'll try to be brief. you are quite right about the statistical decline in anything 'new', but those groundbreaking events still occur i think, (we might look at the huge ground between bach and harry partch and then again to james tenney?). but the 'hardcore classical/jazz cannon' excludes a huge amount doesn't it? with a great deal more than 200 significant innovators i would think. but the point here is not so much about winehouse's perceived innovation, but rather her cultural impact, which does not demand that she 'push things forward' necessarily. also, i think that if we view popular music's chronology what we are really talking about (to be massively over simplistic) is a vernacular song of 'folk' origin, rather than the arguably more institutional and educated classical or jazz repertoire, where reworking of learned or melody is and has always been the norm. i'm not sure that originality or innovation should always be the primary aspect to an artist's reputation or stature.... but this whole post is a bit of a knee jerk reaction, and i wouldn't claim that it is particularly considered or well researched! thanks for your comments though, a very interesting perspective, which i may well end up agreeing with.

  3. The hardcore cannon excludes a lot, but most jazz/classical enthusiasts would be hard pressed to name 200 before they got to those unduly left out.

    The 20 - 30 artists working in the pop [45 rpm] idiom - that's where the fun would start [A is ranked up there with the greats X,and Z].

    There are many, many hrs to choose from inre. recorded music, but if you want to impress the neophyte folk fan then you're stepping into the ring with the feelwheelin' Bob Dylan et al.

    Before recorded music you only had to compete with the best musician / signer in the village, and this simplified things somewhat.

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  5. i don't understand your third point?

  6. I may have been drunk at the time, but building on the shaky cannon of 200 idea, and assuming there's an average of 10 hrs recorded music representing each, then that's a lot of music to take in and come to terms with - anything new has got to fight through the old school to be heard if it's working in the same idiom and recycling the same mannerisms / tricks.

  7. well, perhaps. but the way people listen to and discover music doesn't work like that does it? we are not rationed out the originators from the start. there will be huge numbers of people who love amy winehouse who have never heard the shangri las. or primal scream fans who don't know much by the rolling stones. we begin with what is popular currently or what or parents and siblings are into, and some work backwards. or not. i just don't think that culture, fashion, trend and popularity can be convincingly theorised statistically in this way, which renders the significance of innovation or the potential status of 'master' a basic irrelevance.