misunderstanding the discussion: thoughts on the wire

April 12, 2020 at 8:56 pm | Posted in musings, no audience underground | 9 Comments
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COVER121

On 10th April 2020, in the depths of the coronavirus pandemic, Derek Walmsley of The Wire magazine posted the following tweet:

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Equating promos drying up with a lack of activity is a familiar complaint from music journos and would usually only evoke eye-rolling.  However, Derek’s references to ‘waiting’ and the ‘current moment’ mean he is obviously referring to the situation now, under the pandemic.  This tweet garnered exactly the response anyone paying attention might expect: the DIY underground people pointed out that there is actually a vast amount of activity going on at the moment, more than anyone can keep up with, and the biz people pointed out that businesses were closed and revenue uncertain and as such any delays were unfortunate but simply explained as a result of the pandemic.  It also got a bunch of likes and a load of ‘pick me!’ tweets from those with warez to punt (no shade on them, by the way, gotta take yr chances).

I pushed back in this exchange (you may note that the times are a little screwy due to whether I was replying to a tweet in reply to me or in reply to Daniel Gregory who was also early into this discussion):

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Derek clarified/doubled down with a response I thought was, at best, tone deaf:

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…and I somewhat lost my rag:

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I was going to leave it there but when I noticed Derek’s jaunty one-line sign off this morning I couldn’t help but further express my exasperation.  Mea culpa:

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Fiery stuff. So why do I care?

The first issue of The Wire I bought was #121, March 1994, Elvis Costello on the cover.  I was a third year undergraduate philosophy student looking to ‘upgrade’ from the weekly inkies, by then in terminal decline (and if it sounds like I was insufferable, that’s because I was).  Rarely has a product so neatly fit the requirements of its consumer.  Each issue would be closely read and I would carefully note the publication date of the next.  Eventually I subscribed and, all told, didn’t miss or throw away an issue for more than a decade.  I lugged the pile – IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER – with me through several house moves.

Then I got sick of it.  For years my sub was renewed on the strength of the music it covered.  There was nowhere else I could get the skinny on the stuff I was excited by. Also, coming from philosophy (BA, MA, two years of a part time PhD in philosophy of language before I jacked it in) I had a very high tolerance for the hackademic tone.  Increasingly, though, I had confidence in my own taste and knowledge and had friends who also shared both.  At this point I was able to step back and see the medium was actually clouding the message.  The white space and angular design that, ironically, makes it feel cramped and claustrophobic.  The dry house style that vacuumed joy and colour out of even the most thrilling subject matter.  The unchanging reliance on established formats.  And so on.

At a time when the blogosphere was rapidly expanding and starting to suggest strategies for dealing with the phenomenon of limitless availability The Wire was still recommending which album we should spend our pocket money on.  I called Oxfam and asked them to bring the van ’round.

Since that cathartic bowel movement (it’s true about the van) I’ve bought The Wire once or twice a year for long train journeys (remember them?) and remain largely underwhelmed.  You may ask why I still bother.  I think I approach it in the same spirit that Charlie Brown approaches a football being held by Lucy.  I live in hope that despite my experience telling me otherwise, things will change for the better.

Here’s an example of me hoping for the best.  Aside from getting arsey with each other in the twitter exchange above my limited personal interactions with Derek have been perfectly lovely.  I also have it on trusted authority that the magazine has noticeably improved under his stewardship so fair play.  We met face to face following his interview with Mariam Rezai at TUSK 2019 and, via email afterwards, he commissioned me to write a short piece on ‘hobbyism’ for the last end of year issue (#431).  I was sceptical at first but I thought that if anyone was going to do it then I was a pretty decent advocate.  I also thought it would be churlish of me to refuse given that I’ve always banged on about the paper needing more voices from the no-audience underground.

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And so the curtain was drawn back.  I was given a deadline, a word limit, beats I was requested to hit and the term ‘hobbyism’ (or ‘hobbyist’) which Derek suggested and isn’t really part of my usual critical vocab.  I submitted a draft then a surreal, breakneck editing process began.  Small changes made or suggested which seemed to me to reduce the fluidity and vividness of the piece.  The word ‘bollocks’ was removed (yes, The Wire emasculated my writing).  Clarifications and additions were requested and then mostly not used.  At the last minute the alleged final draft had to be re-edited as they’d managed to somehow duplicate a passage in the text.  When published I was pleased at its reception but, as a writer, it isn’t an experience I wish to repeat.

In-between submission and publication I spoke to a comrade at a gig who’d had a similar experience. “It’s infuriating isn’t it?  If they didn’t want me then why did they ask me?” They said, summing it up precisely.  “Bollocks” thinks Charlie Brown, falling on his back as Lucy pulls the ball away again.

To raise concerns over The Wire, though, is a lonely business.  The gigantic majority of people obviously don’t give a monkey’s, which is the objectively correct response of course, but those with skin in the game are guarded.  At gigs, and in my DMs, people are willing to express exasperation but actual criticism is vanishingly rare, weirdly taboo, in public spaces like this.

I’ve puzzled over this before.  There is no reason not to be polite (well, usually) but are people really so desperate to keep in The Wire’s good books?  For the exposure?  A friend in the actual music business once laughingly told me that ‘no one plans campaigns based on coverage in The Wire’ and I know from eye-witnesses that a play to the hundred-odd people who listen to the radiofreemidwich show can lead to more downloads than a positive mention from Byron Coley.  I’m not judging though, if I had anything to lose I’d hesitate to burn bridges I suppose.

Is it because The Wire is ‘ours’?  Because it covers ‘our’ music?  I can’t find the exact quote but I remember the comedian Josie Long saying that it hurt to be criticised by The Guardian because that is like being told off by your parents (though, as an aside, if my folks were war-mongering, neo-liberal, Corbyn-hating, TERF publishers spending all day pissing on their legacy I wouldn’t care what they said, even if their cultural coverage was occasionally interesting).  I get this.  Who doesn’t want the validation of being mentioned in a magazine sold in railway station newsagents?  But the idea that The Wire is somehow… Daddy is, er…, no, I wish I’d never started that thought.

Anyway, seeing as I’m being frank let’s have it.  The Wire’s ‘journal of record’ demeanor is becoming increasingly absurd as barriers to access shrink and available content may as well be infinite.  Likewise the formats and approaches to criticism used are, to be charitable, extremely well suited to the monolithic distribution systems of the late 20th Century.  However, real questions need be asked as to the fitness of The Wire to account for this unprecedented moment in music.  Especially given the cloth eared tweets of its editor.

Speaking of whom – yes, we’d forgotten Derek hadn’t we?  My final tweet was, shall we say, ‘heartfelt and boldly expressed’ impertinently suggesting that he and his publication need to up their game.  How will he respond?  A blocking might be in order – I couldn’t complain, I suppose.  A positive acknowledgement of some kind would make him the bigger man.  As long as he doesn’t lean on that cliche of professional journalism: the weary dismissal of the pleb, as if the simpleton had just got the wrong end of the stick.  We’ve all seen it a million times but it never gets less disappointing as a tactic.  I mean that would be embarrassi…

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..oh.

—ooOoo—

9 Comments »

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  1. Beautifully written Rob, thanks for putting this out there! It’s such a frustratingly familiar situation.

    I’ve had my own strange conversation with Walmsley who similarly told me that I was wrong about something I’d experienced through The Wire reviews… Perhaps I’ll be able to tell you someday face to face.

    Hope you are well and managing the current weirdness!

    Bests,

    Ian X Sent from my iPhone

    >

    • Cheers Ian! Yeah, you’ll have to tell me that story ;-). I have your other messages – will answer soon@ We’re fine thanks for asking, hope all is well with you and your family. Rx

  2. Oh Rob, I’ve only been reading (well, skim reading) The Wire for over a year. I subscribed in haste to learn more about the NAU, avant-garde etc. as I was new to the whole ‘scene’ and wanted in. But all I ever read is pseudo-intellectual bollocks with a tiny bit about the music. The writing seems to try and reflect how darn clever the writer is rather then about the subject they are meant to be covering.

    I thought I was missing something, possibly being that dumb pleb, wanting to cancel my subscription but worrying I was going to miss out (on what I have no idea) but in this blog you have freed me.

    Cancelled and not sure I could ever bother to pick up a copy again.

    Zines, blogs……those are where it is for me – ‘real, honest, heartfelt, punk’ writing.

    Thank you, thank you 🙏🏻

    S

    • Thank you very much Simon, I applaud your decision and I’m delighted to have turned on the light! 😉 Rx

  3. Well said, dude!

    Ironically, I only discovered you and your show through that wire article. And I really like the show. I’d actually just assumed you were a regular wire writer. I’m not good with names so don’t know who any of the writers are. Like you, I used to subscribe way back, and now like you I only buy it when I’m at a train station about to go on a long journey for work.

    But actually I’d been meaning to write to you for a while because I thought your piece was the best thing I’d read in there for years. Really refreshing. I even took photos on my phone of it and excitedly shared it with some mates. Because you articulated something I’d been feeling about music and making music for a while but hadn’t been able to express.

    I found it genuinely inspiring. And after reading it, something clicked in my head about the music I’d been making. I’d been getting slowly more and more miserable about it. And wondering if there was any point to making it when no-one is listening to it.

    So anyway I read it, and it spurred me on a lot. I’ve now finished off a bunch of tracks, and organised them online into two albums. And I feel chuffed with that – I never thought I’d be able to achieve that. And I’ll keep making them – I’ll keep making them so long as it’s fun. And who knows, one day maybe my great-grandkids will find them and get a kick out of listening to some retro 2020s music.

    So thanks for the article and thanks for recording the show!

    Sam

    On Sun, 12 Apr 2020 at 21:56, radio free midwich wrote:

    > radiofreemidwich posted: ” On 10th April 2020, in the depths of the > coronavirus pandemic, Derek Walmsley of The Wire magazine posted the > following tweet: Equating promos drying up with a lack of activity is a > familiar complaint from music journos and would usually only evoke e” >

    • Hi Sam, thanks for writing such a touching and inspiring comment – I really appreciate it and I’m delighted that my piece in The Wire resonated with you – that was exactly what I was hoping it might do. Glad yr digging the rfm show too. Send me a link to yr music! Rx

  4. Good Morning-I read your post, and agreed and forgot about it. Today I scribble sums on a pad wondering how to finance my pipedream esoteric noise meandering, a folly, a hobby. That is all fine-no one is coercing me! But after years and years subscribing to something, The Wire, and even once or twice getting a positive few sentences (across 20 plus years), I thought…wouldn’t it just be a better magazine if they bought 95% of the music they reviewed. I guess they may turn around and say ‘we do’ but if that were true-I doubt it-then why bother puffing up anyone that it is an open door and all you need to do is submit and it is worthy…The money would go directly to the makers. …I must admit to feeling aggrieved by having longstanding ongoing and intermittent contact with the organ (not just them mind, The Quietus was just as bad), yes they would be reviewing this, yes it sounds interesting etc etc oh yes we can fit that in, and for us ‘wee folk’ who hang on the -whatever the expression is of these organs of ‘the official’ underground, it was/is just a massive waste of time. Under the Radar indeed-the number of times The Wire features the same old same, well financed experimentalists, it is (sour grapes form me for sure), a pointless contrivance. I lament the fact that for too long I have laboured under the belief that it is anything of worth. Of course, I am now accursed & doomed to ever get anything ‘reviewed’ by said bastions of X. Thank the gods at least for sites of interest like yours (and others) outside the mainstream and now obviously to me antediluvian mags. Time to cancel my subscription and support someone via Bandcamp maybe. Grumbling over!

  5. Cloughie put me on to your blog … an all-too familiar tale! When you’re paid to do something, only cash investment makes real. I’d be interested in what you’d make of The Free Musics by Jack Wright, an attempt by a saxophonist to explain how professionalism kills music. Cloughie, by the way, could never get time off work to contribute to our live sessions at Resonance FM, but he’s been a fantastic contributor to our lockdown “xenochronic” period … It was me commenting on the fact that only contributors appear to listen to the broadcasts which prompted him to send me to your blog – the original “no audience” one from 2015 and the recent Wire debacle. It caused me to reflect on different generations and their musical proclivities, a screed I could forward to you via email if you liked …

    Ben Watson
    AMM All-Stars

    • Hey Ben, thanks for commenting and many apologies for the delay in approving and replying to you – I’m off work and avoiding most of the online and social media world for the sake of my mental health. Lovely to hear Cloughie has been busy too as we’ve somewhat lost touch. I would very much like to read your screed – I’ll copy this message to the email address you provided. I’d like to thank you too – more than 20 years ago I read your review of John Coltrane Live in Seattle in The Wire and laughed at the certainty with which you declared it ‘the finest recorded music the 20th century has to offer’. I bought it on the strength of that sentence and many doors opened as a result. With love, Rob


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