“our way of shaking hands”: trades and largesse in the no-audience underground

November 28, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Posted in art, musings, no audience underground | 2 Comments
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I wonder: does my telling you to ‘buy here’ ever result in you buying there?  Anecdotally, I’ve heard that a little money has changed hands as a result of my wittering, which is very exciting, but I suppose the answer is usually a sheepish ‘no’.  Hey, don’t sweat it – I’m just the same myself (and I still think that my ‘articles written to purchases made’ ratio is probably better than The Wire).  I read thousands of words about music in an average month and how much of it leads to commercial transactions on pay day?  Almost bugger all.  This state of affairs is only partly to do with my poverty or apathy, however.  I rarely have to spend much money as I ‘earn’ my trinkets through ‘contributing to the scene’ or benefit from the generosity of my talented friends.  Allow me to expand…

Joe Posset, RFM’s North-East correspondent, recently completed a sell-out tour in which he took his improv-dicta-madness to the alterno-stadia of the UK (Posset live in Café Oto can be heard here).  After returning home and enjoying a vigourous rub down from his Ukrainian masseuse, Joe lit a cigar and relaxed by catching up with the RFM articles he’d missed whilst on the road.  My comment quoting Andrew Perry on trades – “it’s our way of shaking hands” – really rubbed his Tibetan singing bowl and he dictated the following to his beautiful Turkish manservant:

As ever, I read your last post with interest.  Perry has a knack of hitting things bang on eh?.  The trade thing is a bit like  ‘our way of shaking hands’.  It’s also a great way to keep the filthy lucre out of the equation.  I sold one CD-R on that last tour.  Just one; and if I ever find out who bought it I’ll give them the next posset slop report just for showing so much faith.  But I came back with a stack of CD-Rs, tapes and vinyl the height of medium sized milk jug through trades with other bands, DIY labels and well-prepared punters.  They will keep me spinning & smiling until December and I’ve spread the p-word to a bunch of homesteads and families across the UK.  Everyone is a winner.

I found myself nodding in vigorous agreement and murmuring assent.  I mentioned that I have become one of those ‘well-prepared punters’, already in the habit of slipping a few midwich/Truant CD-rs into my pocket before venturing out.  Joe replied as follows:

Sociologically ‘alternative economy’ is one of the many interesting things about the n-au.  I know this is a wild stereotype but how come everyone is really clever too?  I’ve seldom met a thick or obnoxious n-au participant. They tend to be clever, well read, open-minded, polite polymaths…but usually skint too.  The trade off between riches (or at least the established ideas of success) and building up a killer collection of tapes and CD-Rs.  Ah…maybe that’s why we trade!!!

Leaving aside the self/scene-congratulation (momentarily – I’ll be coming back to it), and the shortening of ‘no-audience underground’ to a groovy academic acronym, Joe is obviously on to something.  Trade is, of course, the lifeblood of the scene in both of the senses that Joe uses the word: ‘trade’ to mean barter and ‘trade-off’ to refer to the choice between different standards of success.

The swapping of object for object is only the most straightforward type of barter/trade.  It saves everyone involved money and provides a risk-free way of picking up something new.  For punters it is a reward for generosity and open-mindedness, for distributors a way of circulating stock.  More interesting is the object for services rendered trade.  For example, the promoter of a successful gig may be ‘tipped’ by a grateful act with a pocket full of product.  Likewise, sometimes I have written about something I like on spec only for the artist to get in touch offering a no-strings selection from their back catalogue.  This is a good example of the joy and reciprocity in the scene: an attentive and appreciative punter is worth nurturing.  To be a member of the family all one has to do is express kinship.

It ain’t exclusively prelapsarian bliss though – sometimes this exchange is more calculated.  “Hey I dig your blog,” says label boss, “would you be interested in receiving a parcel of our stuff with a view to writing a label review?”  “Sure,” I reply, “on the understanding that I only write about what I like,” and we shake on the deal.  This is as close to ‘promotion’ as it gets but there is, hopefully, no possibility of it creating rancour as expectation is managed and, crucially, no money changes hands.

If there is a currency in circulation amongst us it is goodwill.  A certain amount of goodwill capital can be amassed but it can’t be hoarded in Scrooge McDuck-style coffers.  It needs to be fed and nurtured otherwise it will shrivel and wither.  Maintaining a stock of goodwill is more like tending a garden.  Thus, for example, when Rob Galpin tells me he created his charming tape ‘Like a Diamond in the Sigh’ by Crochet with the express purpose of using it for trade I get exactly what he is up to.

So why is goodwill so important?  Because money isn’t.  And here we need to consider the idea of trading off the standard indicators of success against others which may be more philosophically interesting.  Fame and wealth, as commonly understood, are not available to those pursuing fringe interests.  There is no screaming mob of fans to be milked dry of their pocket money with Astral Social Club 2012 calendars, there are no oligarchs wishing to be our patrons and, annoying as it may be when the rent is due, I suspect we sort of like it that way.  It means our ‘art’ and our ‘scene’, for the want of better words, can groove their own way uncompromised by non-artistic concerns.  I don’t want to come over all Bill Hicks here but money does tend to corrupt what it touches and its influence is insidious.  Whilst it would be nice, of course, to be able to sell-out a meagre run of CD-rs, if only to fund the next forlorn project, garnering the commendation of our peers can be way, way more important and satisfying.

Now on to us (almost) all being ‘clever, well read, open-minded, polite polymaths’.  Again, and at the risk of sounding incredibly self-serving, Joe is correct.  I think the only time I have encountered anyone really unpleasant and/or with money is at the power-electronics end of things which, especially on Continental Europe, seems to attract dilettantes and would-be decadent trustafarian idiots who feel they have to put on an air of misanthropy to impress their inexplicably beautiful, porcelain-skinned girlfriends.  Otherwise drone/improv/noise/whatever seems to be full of exactly the type that Joe describes in such flattering terms.  There is plenty to find maddening if you are the easily maddened type: individuals may be ripe with preciousness, woefully disorganised and/or ambitious to the point of delusion but I don’t consider those flaws to be unforgivable.  Much noise is the sound of its participants struggling to chew the unwieldy lumps they have bitten off and there is something hilarious, charming and heroically noble about that.

So why are there so few arseholes?  My guess is that there isn’t that much in the scene that an arsehole would be attracted to, or get off on.  There is no fame to abuse, no hierarchy to enforce, no money to waste, no club full of beautiful young things* to enthral with shallow glamour.  Not much room for an arsehole to really flex its sphincter.  Now, it would be wrong to say the scene is without vanity but prestige and respect are earned from a down-to-earth crowd of hard-working and dedicated artists and punters and any attempt to assign it prematurely, or hype it up to unwarranted levels, will be met with a scoff.  Ridicule is used to puncture pomposity but not in a sneering, back-stabbing, hipster way.  Instead wry amusement is used to call shenanigans on any attention seeking behaviour.  In short: our standards of success are unfathomable to the average fuck-knuckle and instead attract the fine, upstanding citizens who see the value in sharing their book-smarts and fancy-pants ideas with other fine, upstanding citizens.

Don’t it make you feel proud, eh?


*Aside: our Mexican cousin Miguel – of Oracle Netlabel and La Mancha del Pecado – has been perusing online photographs of eminent participants and has noted a no-audience underground equivalent of the Innsmouth look.  He wondered, tongue in cheek, if there could be such a thing as ‘genetic drone disorder’.  Admittedly this notion is hilarious, almost irresistible, but I don’t think that there is a biological reason for us being a bunch of oddballs.  I suspect instead that if we were all tall, handsome and cut like a freakin’ steak we’d be too busy being idiots and/or ruling the world to worry about booking the Fox & Newt and struggling to get a nine volt battery into that fuzz pedal…


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  1. Prelapsarian eh? Had to get my dictionary out for that one. Best post by miles Mr. H

  2. Well how kind, sir, how kind. There could be more to say on this topic so there may be a ‘part two’ in 2012… Rob H x

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