simon reynolds, diy culture and the no-audience underground

October 7, 2012 at 9:45 am | Posted in musings, no audience underground | 20 Comments
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Click on the screengrabbed photo above to be taken to a video of the author, journalist and accomplished cultural critic Simon Reynolds giving the keynote speech on DIY culture at last month’s Incubate festival in Tilburg, The Netherlands.

“Why are you pointing me at that?” you might think.  I had the same thought when, as I was getting ready for work last Friday, I opened an email from the comrades at Pyongyang Plastics.  “Are you aware of this?” they chorused, “skip to 38 minutes and 40 seconds(ish).”  Perhaps you might do the same, watch a few minutes, and then return here.  If you have an hour to spare then feel free to watch the whole thing.  I’ll wait.

—ooOoo—

Done?  Interesting isn’t it?  And how flattering for me, midwich and the ‘no-audience underground’ to be mentioned in such a prestigious context.  I don’t always agree with everything Simon Reynolds says but his reviews were key in shaping my tastes via the halcyon days of Melody Maker in the late 1980s and I have followed his writing on and off ever since.  In fact, it is quite game of him to talk about me as I think I have only mentioned him ‘in print’ twice and was spectacularly rude on both occasions.  Firstly, I described his comment that Myspace was a ‘mass grave’ as ‘shrill nonsense’ during that interview with Bang the Bore (and though the image chosen is unfortunate, I have to admit that his comment is now irrefutable.  All hail Bandcamp).  Secondly, I singled out a piece by him as ‘beyond parody’ in an article I wrote against criticism which contained a lengthy takedown of the joy-vacuum that is The Wire magazine.  I suspect from comments made in his speech that the anti-Wire article is how he came to know about this blog’s existence.  He is a good egg, obviously.

Anyway, the speech is entertaining and thought provoking and I recommend watching it all.  I imagine everyone who is a regular here will think ‘hey, hang on a minute’ at one point or another, which is a good thing.  What you get for your hour is a brief history of DIY culture both before and after punk’s ‘Year Zero’ plus musings on the implications (practical and political) of new technologies for the meaning of DIY culture now.  It’s good stuff and I am now going to engage (more or less directly, mainly less) with some of the points he raises by offering an extended definition of what the phrase ‘no-audience underground’ has come to mean to me.

When I first coined the phrase at the turn of the century it was because I needed a succinct way of referring to a scene that contained wildly diverse creative endeavours: from blood-and-spittle power-noise to the daintiest bowed singing bowl.  On reflection, the only thing all these types of racket had in common was that almost no-one was interested in them.  Hence my tongue-in-cheek, irreverent bit of shorthand.

Over the years, especially during the time I’ve been writing this blog, my understanding of what was at first just a self-deprecating joke has deepened.  I’ll come back to the implications of the low numbers involved later but first I need to say more about another important meaning of ‘no audience’.  Simon (I’m going informal, we’re all friends here) is worried that that a ‘transmitter requires a receiver’ and that there are too few of the latter around.  I’d reassure him that his concern is misplaced – it doesn’t work like that down here.  There is no ‘audience’ as such, in the sense of ‘passive receivers’, because almost everyone with an interest in the scene is involved somehow in the scene.  The roles one might have – musician, promoter, label ‘boss’, distributor, writer, ‘critic’, paying punter and so on – are fluid, non-hierarchical and can be exchanged or adopted as needed.  I must stress that this is not a snobbish clique of insiders obsessively tending to every aspect of their hobby (not a dirty word, by the way, who makes a living from experimental music nowadays?) but a friendly and welcoming group who have realised that if they want it to happen then they have to make it happen themselves.  Simon raises concerns about the right-wing implications of self-sufficiency but the connection is not a necessary one and if you tried that argument on down here I suspect you’d get either blank stares or would be laughed out of the pub.

Some examples of how people can contribute in different ways may be illustrative.  Firstly: Kieron Piercy.  Kieron may be known to readers of RFM as one-third of improv troupe Spoils & Relics.  He is also a gig promoter of impeccable taste here in sunny Leeds.  Like all gig promoters he enjoys a good moan about what a stressful and thankless task it is but he obviously loves the music so much that he just can’t help himself.  Last Friday evening I was personally invited by email to a gig in Kieron’s basement where I saw Gael Moissonnier, Hering Und Seine Sieben Sachen and Melanie O’Dubshlaine in a very select gathering.  The atmosphere was magical, I loved it and what was terrific was there wasn’t a sniff of hipsterism about any of it: this was the only way the gig was going to happen, so this is the way it did happen.  Perfect.

Secondly: Andy Robinson.  Andy is label boss of Striate Cortex and I suspect the ‘3 inch boxes in editions of fifty’ that Simon refers to are his releases, possibly Star Turbine or Victorian Electronics.  Andy is not a musician himself (that I know of) so he pours his passion into handcrafting the amazing packaging that his one-man label is justly famous for.  It is his way of showing his love and appreciation of the artists that create the music that he cares so much about.  Simon says these objects are ‘presented in the form of art’ with a seriousness of intent, ‘as if’ for an audience.  I’d be less equivocal and say these objects are, without question, art.  I own paintings that were produced in an edition of, er…, one and are only seen by me, my wife and visitors to Midwich Mansions.  They are no less art for that.  Andy’s boxes are for an audience – a small but dedicated one.  He knows from hard work and experience how many he can sell.  Fifty is fine – think of it like an edition of a fine art print, rather than a hobbyist version of mainstream practice and it makes more sense.

Thus, there is no ‘audience’ for the scene because the scene is the audience (I feel I should add ‘ya dig?!’ at the end of that sentence).  Now on to numbers.  As I have recently argued, recognizing that this endeavour is only ever going to be of fringe interest is incredibly liberating.  Get over the fact that your genius is not going to grant you fame or money – no-one even remotely sane in the no-audience underground thinks that they deserve an audience – and you are rewarded with the realization that you can do anything you like subject only to the restraints that affect all others areas of your life: family, employment, money, the law (!) etc.  This is clearly amazing.

One thing I didn’t understand in Simon’s speech was the implication that the removal of the restraints on means of production that were encouraged by punk were great and democratic but the removal of restraints on means of production encouraged by the internet, software etc. are problematic.  I’m tempted to swat this away (whilst acknowledging that I’m being a bit naughty and kicking over a staw man – his argument is more nuanced than I’m giving it credit for) with a dismissive snort and repeat a notion oft used here: now it’s all about quality control.

These days, anyone (even Simon – dying to hear his synth experiments) can make something and release it.  The challenge, restraint if you like, for the artist is to rein it in, to only release the best stuff.  Simon wonders how he can keep up with someone who pushes out releases with the regularity of bowel-movements, even if he likes their stuff.  Well, simply put: you can’t and the artist is making a mistake.  I suspect the current stage we are in with internet based distribution is ‘kid in a sweet shop’ – everyone going crazy just because they can.  Some have already got very sick as a result – see previous posts on this blog about resisting the archival urge and giving up indiscriminate downloading (the cost of free things parts one to five etc.) – and it wouldn’t surprise me if a new phase of discernment, taste and quality control is around the corner.  Wishful thinking maybe, but, hey, in an age of infinite access the new restraints are obviously going to have to be internal and self-imposed.

A final word about the mainstream.  For Simon, to be an underground culture, rather than just a hobby or a private practice, there needs to be some connection to the mainstream, ideally antagonistic.  The underground culture should wish to change the mainstream, or at least to be a nuisance to it.  I don’t agree.  What’s so noble about being a flea in the ear of an elephant?  Whilst adopting some of the methods and vocabulary of the mainstream can be useful – a ‘label’ is still a good way to organise the presentation of music, for example – actual interaction with it is corrosive and unnecessary.  The mainstream will never be interested in what we do in any substantive or meaningful way and money eventually fucks up anything it touches so why waste time with the inevitable compromises that engaging with it necessitate?  Simon is right when he says I don’t give a shit, but let’s be clear that it is courting, or even acknowledging, a mainstream audience that I don’t give a shit about, for all the reasons given above.  I’m choosing to be free instead.  It’s way more punk, innit?

20 Comments »

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  1. No comments left because none of you hobbyists give a fuck?

    • Heh, heh – now, now Scott, I’m sure everyone is terribly busy burning CD-rs or something. I’ve exchanged a couple of pleasant and thoughtful emails with Mr. Reynolds himself who tells me that he will take on board some of my counter arguments when he is next scheduled to give this talk. Groovy.

      WordPress stats tell me that I’ve had loads of referrals from facebook so I presume there has been some mention of it there – I can’t see for myself as I don’t have a facebook account. After only a few days this is already in the top ten most popular articles I’ve posted so someone is reading it…

      Back to screaming noise shortly…

      love, Rob H x

  2. i found myself nodding in agreement w/ much of Retromania, but do you really think i’m gonna burn 40 mins of my precious time listening to some guy blether when i have new recs by theo parrish, EVOL, heatsick, Decimus, Ash Navs, etc etc sitting here waiting to be experienced??????

    for what it’s worth, i’ve always felt uneasy w/ the “no audience underground” tag too = even if we’re all in the gutter, many of us are looking at the etc etc etc

    • …at the stars!? You still dreaming of that Rihanna collaboration, Neil? The ‘scene’ I describe is not the metaphorical gutter. My point is that it exists outside of the ‘gutter -> stars’ continuum. Or at least it can do if you can’t be bothered engaging with all that. Should you wish for world domination then go for it, man, I couldn’t wish to be dominated by a better chap. I take your point about prioritising time (someone said to me not long ago ‘all videos are too long’ which made me laff) but you read the guy’s book which presumably took longer than an hour?! Love, Rob H x

  3. i know it’s meant to be funny (like No Fans Records), but who wouldn’t want an audience? Yr kidding yrself if you really think yr outside any sort of performer/audience continuum, however much you at times appear to be. You make music, you write a blog, you are pleased when someone well-known mentions you, etc etc. It’s natural, relax.
    Still no word from Rihanna, mind. I may have to give up on her and focus more on Britney. But, damn, i love those “eh! eh!” s…

    • Sure, of course I like it when things I do are well thought of and I’m happy when a blog post or piece of music proves ‘popular’. I don’t mind having an audience – I’m as vain as the next guy and will bask in praise all day long should I get the chance. It is indeed natural and I do find it exciting. The point is that I, and many of the people I know and write about, do all this stuff without the expectation of reward. This is the key shift in emphasis: an audience is a bonus, not a motivation. The possibility of courting an audience doesn’t even occur to some and is dismissed (rightly in many cases) as pointless or unnecessary by others. If shipwrecked alone on a desert island with nothing but a monotron most of these (us) loons would spend all day making it wail for their own amusement… Rx

      • see, i don’t think this is anything new – in fact, it’s a weird subset of musicians/artists/writers who do it mainly for the attention … everyone else has no choice + wd do it whatever. It’s like folk clubs. And it was the middle of the 90s when i was telling everyone “noise is the new folk”, vis a vis the relationship between audience, performer and “quality” (whatever THAT may be).

        Or maybe i’ve just spent too long in the (small audience) underground + i’m not exposed to the full horrors of The Biz enough that i have a fairly benign view of fellow-artists.

  4. Yeah, you are right about it not being new – perhaps the internet gives it a new(ish) shape but the attitude has been around forever (in the talk Mr. Reynolds gives a potted history of DIY that starts way before punk) and I suppose it exists in all kinds of small scale activity. Your comment that ‘noise is the new folk’ has made me laff before ‘cos it is bang on. Your putting of “quality” in scare quotes strikes fear into my heart ‘cos I think that really is a weak point in my argument and probably merits some serious thought on its own. Given that I claim that quality control is essential, what on earth does it mean ‘down here’? I dunno. Do I have to reread Robert M. Pirsig?! Ugh. R x

  5. Rob – thanks for outing me as the person who was ninth on the whole planet to watch this particular Vimeo and still be awake when he came to its only good bit – mentioning you – note that the only laff Mr R got during his IMHO very boring lecture was when he quoted yr “no audience underground”. Seriously, I hope that you will be asked to give this lecture next year.

    • Hey Simon, awww… yr sweet but c’mon – it wasn’t so bad. Not great theatre perhaps but a few nice hooks to hang an argument on. I spent many years in and around academia and Mr. Reynolds is Peter Ustinov compared to a lot of those professional bores. Hmmm… maybe I *could* give a lecture! I’d definitely put more jokes in… R x

  6. I enjoyed reading Philip Best’s typically furious/miserabilist views on Incubate festival – http://philipbest.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/ballroom-blitz.html

    Recently read and quite enjoyed Retromania but was left thinking ‘hmm, the guy hasn’t got much of an idea about the real underground of now’. I had a little contretemps with Mr Reynolds a while ago over his treatment of power electronics in Rip It Up and incorrect citation of my Bang Out Of Order as being ‘right-wing’ in some internet footnotes, he was pretty civil about it all…

    • Hey Simon, cheers for commenting. Yeah, PB’s comments are most amusing – why do it if he hates it so much? Because he enjoys hating it I suppose… And yeah, SR seems personable and open to disagreement which is commendable. R x

  7. Missed yr Reynolds thang & all this…good to catch up. Just slight disagreement re release quality control – raised as a Termiter, I see much noise etc as more like jazz than anything & thus every ‘artist’ has a ton of sessions, all of which are worth a listen to the very keen, less so for the less committed – I like the way Simon from the Hobs has taken to describing in interviews how the Hobs have certain ‘proper’ (or whatever) albums & then other bits on top – just like general music fans might buzz off Coltrane “Blue Train”, I might go particularly for Ascension & some may go really really deep & pay a lot for everything. I mean, I really like a high percentage of Neil’s stuff but I don’t always wack em straight on if I get em & I’m not gonna chase em all down, but I’d still like to hear em all at some point…Maybe not every tape click (works for Inca Eyeball, mind), but why not every live set, every try-out? Just depends how much yr into that particular person’s thang 😀 Phil, Blackpool

    • Hey Phil, cheers for commenting and, yeah, I agree. I don’t think I would stand by that particular point any more – I’ve changed my mind since writing this piece and now see things more along your lines. The work rate of people like Kev Sanders and Daniel Thomas has taught me to be more ‘jazz’ about it ;-). I now see this cavalcade of releases as pages from a journal, or plates in an atlas… Love, Rob x

  8. […] are organized, promoted, documented, and inscribed in the event geography of the city. Riffing on a locution coined by Rob Hayler, the British musician Jon Marshall describes the experimental music scene of Western Russia as a […]

  9. I’ve absorbed your blog in tiny little sips over the last couple of years and goes together with various events I attended in that same time frame.

    I’ve kept at my music for a stupidly long time considering how little it has acheived by ratio. In fact penuary and infamy seems to be the way of it. It becomes quite difficult to explain to people who politely inquire what I’ve been doing with my life. In fact I think more than a few think I must be mad.
    But I recognise myself in the language you use and the topic of your discourse. The same with that I. Sven’ pamphlet “Supernatural strategies….” (see the last chapter).

    The further out I get the weirder the music gets and the more difficult engaging with the mainstream (where all the extroverts are?) becomes. It’s got to a point where I don’t even want to share anymore. It’s not without some bitterness. All the audiences seem to want entertainers, clowns or, even worse, covers bands. Doing covers used to be seen as dead embarrassing. Now it is the preferred thing. Or if not covers then certainly make it easily recognisible as heavily inspired by a tight genre. Metal, Jazz, Country. They draw crowds all the time.

    John Sinclair advises taking the vow of poverty because then you could do or say whatever you liked and that that was what was valuable. David Thomas declares Musicians Are Scum And Cowards because they too often pander to audiences and crave popularity.

    I took the step of naming my “record label” (a box of tapes and CD’rs in a box under the bed) 0friendsrecordings in 2001 when I thought I’d better start trying to get some of it about (evidence! evidence!) with whatever means I had. A Guardian article about Billy Childish about his DIY ethos and catalogue confirmed it was possible to do quite a bit independently, until i realised that I was so fringe that it made what he did look like seriously mainstream success. He could put out records!

    I can’t be bothered to put on many nights because there really is literally no audience. The gig gets recorded. It just goes to show what can be done if you really try. 🙂 So on the insularity front there are levels, definitely.

    David Keenan, yeah, well, he obviously doesn’t know in actual fact does he.
    Simon Reynolds doesn’t either. Isn’t that video just a long winded self-validation? He’s out of a job! All the interesting stuff is happening anyway without editors or commentary from non-practitioners! One of the most joyful things about some of the events I’ve been to lately (ok I’ll name names: Supernormal, Tusk, Torfest, Total Inertia, Other Worlds, Sin Eater) is that the vast majority of people there are practioners. People like Simon Reynolds are the priests who are vying for the place of intermediary between the mystics and the masses where I thought the future lay in paradigms where everyone has some sort of mystical collatoral which is available to anyone who dives into an artistic practice/life.

    Since the flood of myspace and so on it is almost impossible to have conversations like “You know that band xyz?” Nope, never heard of them. There’s so little common ground anymore and when there is it quickly congeals into formulaic regurgitation. I was delighted when I was at one of the aforementioned events and even amongst a gathering like those the enthusiasts present have totally different musical collections. There’s so much stuff out there! Simon Reynolds thinks this is awful but it just means that we’re in a different time now to the Classic Rock tm era. Now the audience has the opportunity, should it please, to swim in the oceanic waters. Take a voyage! You could navigate entirely your own route and travel paths that are truly unique. There will come a time when the results will be very interesting. Bring out your temporal sonic hoards!

    If things were really how they looked then the no-audience underground is a place most people somehow fear to slip into but it’s likely that they couldn’t find it if they tried. Or from an audience perspective it’s just completely incomprehensible to them. They just aren’t there.

    Dwellers on the fringe get the lesson about the Value being in the Effort, not the Result. It alters the perspective and the perception. The world changes.
    I fear the whiff of formal notions of beauty/quality/value – the X Factor, basically. Concensus reality. Bubbles.
    Popping bubbles gets you disinvited and your very existence……is written off as bad art. Ho hum.

    • Hey twowls – many thanks for the lengthy and thoughtful comment – much appreciated. It will come as no surprise to hear that I agree with much of the above. Do we know each other? Please feel free to introduce yourself at a show (or on here or via twitter or whatever) if not. With love, Rob H x

      • We haven’t been formally introduced but I’m sure we’ve probably been in close proximity a few times. My RW name is Richard Chamberlain. I dare say we’ll be at the same event this year at some point. I think I sent a couple of tapes for review not so long back (Quisling Meet and one with two owls on the front). Looking forward to more from midwich.

  10. while I’m here I can’t resist (bumptiousness alert) posting these links to musical works I’ve been involved in from the last couple of years or so.
    https://richardchamberlain.bandcamp.com/
    https://listeningstation.bandcamp.com/
    https://quislingmeet.bandcamp.com/
    https://thefloatingvariable.bandcamp.com/releases
    https://slunkenshun.bandcamp.com/releases
    for your perusal like.

  11. Feel free, feel free. During the recent handover to RFM’s new editor I checked the pile of physical objects and there are no tapes from you but you did send some links (to the Substation gig etc.) which I think are in Joe’s hands now. Thanks again Richard and please do tap me on the shoulder should you find yourself within arm’s length… Rob x


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