what i mean by the term ‘no-audience underground’, 2015 remixJune 14, 2015 at 11:20 am | Posted in musings, no audience underground | 6 Comments
Tags: david keenan, mainstream versus underground, no audience underground, shameless self-congratulation, simon reynolds
I haven’t written anything substantial about the term ‘no-audience underground’ for a while. When asked about it I’m still referring people to the response I wrote to Simon Reynolds which was posted in October 2012 (and sometimes this post too from July 2013). Plenty has changed since then, not least my own mind with regard to certain details, so here I’m going to rub the notion to a shine on the crotch of my cricket whites. Let’s see if it still bounces in a usefully wonky manner.
[Note: this article is about 4000 words long so get comfy before proceeding.]
An appeal to authority
Firstly, I’m going to lay out a brief CV. I wouldn’t normally bother – appeals to authority are both fallacious and a wanker’s move – but hopefully this piece will be read by people new to the blog and I’d like to summarise where I’m coming from. OK, three paragraphs of cold, hard fact:
Hello. My name is Rob Hayler and I am the editor of radiofreemidwich. I am 43 years old and live in Leeds, UK with my wife and two year old son. I work a moderately responsible, poorly paid clerical job in the public sector. My politics are a confused mixture of hard left, anarchist and libertarian sentiments that can be summed up as ‘hypocritical ageing punk’. For what it is worth, I have a masters degree in philosophy and a dilettante’s interest in economics and various aspects of culture away from music. Despite being ‘high-functioning’ most of the time, I suffer with ever-present depression/anxiety which is occasionally debilitating (I’m off work with it now, for example. This article was put together in lucid moments over a three week period).
Always a music fan, I became aware of noise, sound-art, experimental and free music (etc.) in the late 1980s and became seriously involved in the late 1990s. I spent three or four years around the turn of the century helping run Termite Club, the legendary Leeds based gig promoter. Around the same time I co-ran the influential CD-r micro-label fencing flatworm recordings and its tape-label offshoot oTo (a time documented by Bang the Bore here and here). I have been recording and performing electronic music, mostly under the name midwich, on and off for fifteen years, have collaborated with the likes of Paul Harrison, Neil Campbell, Lee Stokoe, Daniel Thomas and Miguel Perez, have been part of the band Truant with Phil Todd and Michael Clough, and so on. I have had a hand in well over 100 releases on, I dunno, 20 to 30 different labels.
After what was meant to be a brief break from music due to health reasons (that stretched on for nearly five years) I returned in 2009 with this blog. RFM now garners between 2500 and 4000 visits a month and I have a team of five comrades contributing as well as writing myself. The number of posts approaches 500, the number of releases reviewed is comfortably in four figures and the total number of words so far published is somewhere between 350,000 and 400,000. Sometimes people say:
You should write a book!
…and I reply:
I already have, a fucking long one too.
There are other things I could mention – the eye for detail compilation, The Barrel Nut microzine, etc. – but you get the picture. All these numbers, all this vigorous trumpet blowing, is presented as anecdotal evidence for the claim that I have some idea what I am talking about.
What it means
In the year 2000 I coined the term ‘no-audience underground’ as a shorthand, catch-all description for the music scene I found myself in, specifically the type of gigs I was attending and the network of micro-labels, invigorated by the availability of cheap CD-rs, that fencing flatworm recordings was part of.
The music I was hearing ranged from the most delicate bowing of singing bowls to hour-long, incense-choked psychedelic happenings to three-minute PA-busting squalls of hideous feedback. Nothing seemed to link these disparate sounds and performance styles other than they could be loosely banded together as ‘noise’ and that very few people seemed to be interested. Thus, at first, the term was merely descriptive in a tongue-in-cheek manner. I hoped the implied self-deprecation would counter its smart-arsed irreverence. It was of a piece with other slogans that I entertained myself with at the time: fencing flatworm’s tagline was ‘loss leaders of the neo-radiophonics’, for example. Sigh. I look back with a weird mixture of pride and embarrassment, both as profound as each other.
Anyway, over the years, especially when revisiting the notion for this blog, the term has taken on, I hope, further depth and explanatory usefulness. Here there’s no reason not to quote myself from the Simon Reynolds piece:
…first I need to say more about another important meaning of ‘no audience’. [Simon Reynolds] 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…
…or, in a nutshell:
Thus, there is no ‘audience’ for the scene because the scene is the audience.
Catchy, eh? I’ll spell out a couple of aspects of this in greater depth before going on to tackle some of the criticisms made and problems arising.
Self-sufficiency, goodwill and relation to the mainstream
It goes without saying that there is next to no money available to prop up these endeavours. Some may have principled objections to funding and sponsorship, all will agree that securing funding or sponsorship is no guarantee the final product will be any good (whilst shuddering at the memory of one Arts Council supported fiasco or another). Most would probably dig a little help but can’t be bothered playing the game and find ways of getting it done regardless. Thus saying the no-audience underground is self-sufficient is not to say that it is financially balanced. If only.
There is a currency in circulation amongst us, however: goodwill. From a piece called “our way of shaking hands”: trades and largesse in the no-audience underground I wrote in 2011:
…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 goodwill is more like tending a garden…
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…
Hence the prevalence of barter and other types of reciprocity that help keep the blood of the scene oxygenated. This is a mechanism that nurtures self-sufficiency in the absence of money.
The term ‘self-sufficient’ can also be used to describe the drive with which many of these artists produce the work they do. Some – most of the best – are compelled to create. The absence of standard recognition might grate occasionally but is largely irrelevant. These people do it because they have to or they love to or both. That someone other than themselves might appreciate their art is great, of course – none of us are without vanity, but not necessary. I know several people who, if shipwrecked on a desert island would be distracted from the business of survival by finding a shell that made an interesting noise when blown into…
Which brings me to the final point of this section. If you asked our marooned friend what they thought was the relationship between their art and the mainstream I doubt they would even look up from the strange instrument they were fashioning from driftwood and seaweed. There is a quaint, folk belief that a true underground should have some connection to the mainstream, ideally antagonistic – that underground culture should wish to change the mainstream, or at least to be a nuisance to it. However, even allowing that such a nebulous, subjective thing as ‘mainstream’ could be usefully defined, I disagree. There’s nowt noble about being a flea in the ear of an elephant. Why waste time with the inevitable compromises that engaging with it, even negatively, necessitate? I’d suggest that it is far more radical to ignore it and that is what many practitioners in the no-audience underground do – either as a matter of policy or, largely, by just shrugging it off as irrelevant. What the fuck does the ‘mainstream’ matter? We’ve got things to be getting on with.
In summary, plus last toots on the self-congratulatory trumpet
So, the term ‘no-audience underground’ denotes a sub-section of the noise and experimental music scene which is largely self-sufficient due to its members being prepared to take on the roles necessary to get things done in a fluid manner, being receptive to the exchange of goodwill in the absence of money, being driven to create for reasons other than the standard measures of success and being largely indifferent to the mainstream, however you wish to define it. Oh, and the number of people interested is enough to sustain it, more or less, but very small.
Exciting, eh? I’m delighted to say that this notion has caught the imagination of some who have found it useful and/or, dare I say it, inspiring. It has wormed its way into at least one PhD thesis and one MA dissertation that I know about and has been adopted for the title (and as one of the informing principles) of an ongoing research project that I have been interviewed for. The idea has featured in sympathetic magazine articles and blog posts several times and, as has been previously noted, was mentioned in passing by the writer Simon Reynolds in his keynote speech on DIY culture at the Incubate festival in Tilburg. My pride at the term being used by the Washington DC Sonic Circuits festival burst into unseemly joy when a parcel from musician and Twitter comrade Phong Tran arrived containing this item of clothing:
What greater approbation could I desire, eh? My contribution to cultural discourse immortalised on a T-shirt. Nowt more affirming than that.
Criticisms and problems arising
That said, it hasn’t all gone my way. When I first presented a fully fleshed out version of this idea I was, somewhat naively, unprepared for challenges. I thought what I was doing was merely describing something I was involved with and found interesting and was expecting, if anything, wry smiles of recognition. Pats on the back – that kind of thing.
Apparently what I was advancing, though, was actually a theory and one that some considered not to make sense, or to contain controversial normative aspects (translation: I was being a punker-than-thou prick) or, well, you know what that internet is like…
I have to admit I took it badly, personally – especially when my mental health wasn’t great – and my reactions have varied wildly from the highfalutin’ to way aggro. It was, as it were, a picture painted from life and I didn’t relish people standing behind me going ‘nah, mate, your perspective is off‘. I’ve calmed down now though, so in what follows I’ll attempt to be fair and measured as I think there has been plenty for me to learn.
i. Genre labels are unnecessary
I’ve had this a couple of times. ‘I hate labels like this’ runs the criticism, ‘you just like something or you don’t’. I admit I have some sympathy with the view that there are only two types of music: music that rocks and music that sucks. Defining genres is a game played by critics (myself included) to provide the comforting delusion that they are guiding musical development and thus relevant and useful. If the point had been ‘I hate labels like ‘extraction music” I’d have had to take that on the chin (yes, that is one of mine). However, the term ‘no-audience underground’ does not refer to a genre of music – quite explicitly. It refers instead to the assumptions and working methods of a group of practitioners thus this criticism doesn’t apply. It would be like saying: ‘I hate labels like ‘stamp collecting’ or ‘racquet sports’ or ‘diagnostic radiography’, you either like it or you don’t’ – a mild type of what philosophy calls a ‘category mistake’.
ii. My characterisation of the scene is defeatist, negative and insular
Because I focus on self-sufficiency, indifference to the mainstream and so on I have been accused of being negative and defeatist. ‘Surely,’ the argument goes, ‘there could be a wider audience for this work and turning your back to it is wilfully perverse.’ Whilst I wish anyone showing evangelical zeal the best of luck, I’m afraid I can’t agree for two reasons.
Firstly, many years’ experience as a promoter, artist, writer and whatnot have shown that it isn’t true. There are peaks and troughs, of course, and special events such as festivals do attract more punters now that at any time I can remember, but a wet Wednesday night at the Fenton, say, has attracted a remarkably consistent number of paying punters for at least 20 years. From an article I wrote called the rewards of no rewards: musings on no-audience economics:
OK, leaving London to one side as it has its own rules, experience has shown me that most UK conurbations of city-ish size can rustle up 20 people interested enough in the type of experimental music RFM covers to turn up to gigs. 10 or less if you are unfortunate, 30 plus if your scene is thriving. Should you wish to perform in this ‘arena’ then these people are your audience: the subset of this crowd who can turn up on that evening.
Marketing and promotion do little to alter these numbers. This is because music of this type will always be a fringe interest but that fringe is well-informed and inquisitive. As long as the gig is plugged in whatever the usual places are then the cognoscenti will find out about it and do their best to roll up.
Secondly, I see being realistic about this situation not as defeatist or negative but as liberating. From the same piece:
…because no one is interested in what we do. There seem to be two possible reactions to this undeniably true conclusion: a) shake your fist at the gods and complain about the unfairness of your genius going unrecognised and unrewarded or b) take strength from its gloriously liberating implications. I say go with the latter.
…if you are driven to create by an urge independent of possible rewards then you can do whatever you want purely for the love of it and only subject to the constraints that we have to accommodate in every other aspect of our lives (money, family, employment etc.). This simple, eye-opening fact is truly heartening and this blog is testament to the many terrifically talented artists who are grasping this opportunity and wringing as much joy as they can out of it, sometimes in difficult circumstances.
The charge of insularity comes from those who worry that what I am describing looks like a clique or club, forbidding to the newbie. I can understand that concern and attending a gig with a single figure audience comprised of people who all seem to know each other can be uncomfortable. However, again, experience shows that the crowd, whilst undeniably odd, are a friendly and welcoming bunch. People have their own way of doing things but offers of help are met with gratitude. In fact, I have a little theory about why there are so few arseholes knocking around. From ‘our way of shaking hands…’:
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 … 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.
*Sniff* I’m welling up…
iii. Who wants to go to a show where the audience are all musicians?
Ermm… yeah, this is a weird one. Last December RFM started getting hits from the Italian language version of Vice’s music off-shoot Noisey. Investigation revealed a link in an interview with David Keenan about his piece on the death of the underground published in the Christmas edition of The Wire magazine. Noisey ask Keenan about the ‘no-audience underground’ and he replies something like:
…But that definition – No Audience Underground – note basically it means that the public going to the concerts is composed of people who are themselves involved in musical projects. And this is shit, let me say. If you want to go to a rock concert, I not necessarily have to be a musician, too, in the same way if I go to a movie, do not necessarily have to be a screenwriter. This is just another of the current issues of the underground: go to the concerts, and the public are all musicians … Fuck! When I go to a concert I want to turn off the neurons, listen and let me take the music, I’m not there to “study” because I am a worker of the sector.
(I say ‘something like’ because my Italian is fairly hopeless so I am relying on translation by web browser…)
First things first: props to Noisey for knowing about the notion and thinking to ask – very thorough – and to David Keenan who is a writer I have always found very inspiring even when I disagree with what he says. However: this is bonkers. Look back at my definition and you’ll see I am careful not to say ‘all’ but to qualify it with ‘almost’. I also include ‘paying punter’ as one of the roles. It is perfectly possible to be involved and/or show your support just by paying in and digging the show. It is also, of course, possible to turn off your mind even if you are a musician. Part of what I enjoy about drone, for example, is its capacity to dissolve ego and that I ‘know how it’s done’ doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it on the most visceral level. I can lose myself even when performing. Isn’t that the point? Also, wanting to study doesn’t mean the experience can’t be freeing and joyful. I remember Termite Club putting on Sunny Murray and half the drummers in Leeds literally sitting at his feet at the front – many were treating it as a lesson from an old master, all were ecstatic. I’m afraid Keenan’s characterisation of my position is just wrong, as are the conclusions he draws – he doesn’t even knock over his own straw man. I’m hoping that there was some sense in the original that has been lost in the translation.
iv. My definition is tautologous and thus has no content
…in other words: all I’m saying is that the people who make up the scene are the people who make up the scene and that isn’t very helpful is it? The ol’ philosophy graduate in me was momentarily troubled by this one as it has the look-and-feel of a ‘proper’ objection from a dissertation supervisor. However, I think there is enough information contained in the extended definition – implications about attitudes, working practices and the like – such that I can be confident I am saying something. Whether it is of use to you is a different question of course. A more philosophically interesting criticism is…
v. My definition could be applied to other endeavours and only relates specifically to this noise scene because I specify that it does
This is my favourite objection, in fact I consider it less an objection than an invitation for further anthropological study. The idea is that the definition of ‘no-audience underground’ contains nothing that intrinsically links it to the noise scene I am using it to describe apart from my say so. It could just as well be used to describe groups engaged in other endeavours with a similar spirit.
My response to this is to wave my hand dismissively, say ‘yes, yes, whatevs’ and demand to be shown these other no-audience undergrounds. What an exciting idea. Sure, I can see broadly comparable groups in, say, mail art, fanzine culture and other musical sub genres I come into contact with but what of, say, trainspotting? Is there a group of self-supporting trainspotters, driven by a dedication to their hobby, indifferent to the false dichotomy of mainstream versus alternative trainspotting, just grooving their own way? Wouldn’t it be intriguing if there was? Well, it would be to me anyway. I’m happy to concede this one and just ask that in return you send me a link to your research.
The well-connected outsider
OK, so what now? I suppose the biggest developments unaccounted for above are Bandcamp and social media.
There has been some grumbling that there is no true underground any more because everyone is busy with the social media circle jerk – being friendly, connecting with each other around the world, sharing things unmediated by the former gatekeepers and so on, but I think this is a red herring. I consider myself to be fairly well connected with an email address, this blog and a Twitter account followed by around 300 people. Given that Twitter has half-a-billion users this fraction is statistically indistinguishable from zero. Seriously, with my social media presence if I really did want to antagonise the mainstream I’d annoy more people by coughing at a Laura Marling gig. And yet here I am: punk as all fuck. So, yes, it is possible to use social media without tarnishing your underground credentials.
Bandcamp is more interesting. In the ‘documents of a golden age…‘ post I poke the notion of punk as ‘year zero’ with a stick then go on to say:
In contrast, the freedoms offered by the internet are greater by orders of magnitude. Via services like Bandcamp any sound at all can be made available to anyone on the planet with an internet connection, at no unit cost to either the artist or the listener, within minutes of it being completed. Punk couldn’t compete with that: it’s as transparently democratic, anarchic even, as it is possible to be in a ‘music-related’ context. Sure, engage with traditional elements if you like (running a label, for example, is a fun thing to do and still one of the best ways of organising a cluster of artists who share similar objectives) but you don’t have to. The extent to which you commit yourself is entirely your own concern.
Emphasis added. The consequences of that freedom are still being worked through now, two years after I wrote that, in a scene that has never been healthier (couple of examples here – not without precedent, I admit, but you get what I’m getting at).
Exciting times, eh?
Y’know, I was going to end with a stirring, poetical, rhetorical flourish but the more I think about it the more humbled I feel to be part of the scene I have been describing and the more simple I’d like to keep it.
So: should the term I have been defining and defending be of use to you then feel free to make use of it. More important is to acknowledge the amazing work that I am attempting to crowbar into this pigeon-hole and the amazing people creating it. What a fucking great crowd this no-audience is.