the cost of free things part five: to stream or not to stream

February 2, 2011 at 4:47 pm | Posted in musings, new music, no audience underground | 4 Comments
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The final part of this series addresses a point on which Simon shows a greater fortitude than I can muster.  He writes:

‘Fortune favours the bold’, eh?  Whilst acknowledging that streaming cuts down the likelihood of being stung (bleurgh – I hate the sickly feeling that I’ve handed over good money for crap) it also nullifies the thrill of that first play.  I have to concede the point – he’s right – but I’m afraid I will continue to use Grooveshark, the previews available at Boomkat etc. to inform my choice of purchases.  This may appear hypocritical given my previous tirades against snippet culture but, in these straightened times, I’m simply afraid to waste money.

Also, I don’t just drift from one mechanically-generated recommendation to the next but use streaming as a way of checking out stuff I’ve been talking about, or have read about or is related in some way to what I have been grooving on recently.  For example: sharing a mutual fondness for hardcore punk, my mate Tim brings OFF! to my attention, I play a bit of this to Phil & Neil who both suggest I should check out Discharge, I wander off to Grooveshark and within minutes I am gobbing, pogoing and shaving a Mohican into my hair.  Serendipity in action.  Thus, I would be tempted to argue that this is an extension of the old digging in the crates behaviour.

Which brings me to my final point: I also have trouble with trusting reviews and can get behind Simon’s misgivings above.  Now, I love both reading and writing about music.  This may just be the rosy glow of nostalgia, but I think I was privileged to grow up during a golden age for the British music press.  Melody Maker versus NME, eh?  Sigh, anyway: the written word has moved me to seek out and listen to something god knows how many times – hundreds at least.  But here’s the rub.  Leaving aside Simon’s legitimate grumble that reviews can be exhausting verbiage, there is a wider philosophical point: words are not the music they describe.

Imagine two people who have never heard The Rolling Stones.  Poor lambs, eh?  Give one a pile of books and articles written about the band plus every photo ever taken of them and allow them a month of silence to bone up.  Sit the other one down and spend twenty minutes playing them your half-dozen favourites from Hot Rocks.  Which of them knows more about what the band sound like?  Yep, it’s lamb two.  Even the most accurate and helpful reviews become irrelevant the second you put the needle on the record.  A million words can be definitively trumped by a few minutes of sound.  This is where the internet comes into its own and why the situation today is infinitely better when we had to rely on the weeklies and John Peel.  If I want to hear something – not own it, not collect it, not archive it, not slide it into the bespoke shelving – just hear it then, rather wonderfully, I can.  All else follows.

The End – no more blogging for a few days as all this thinking has made my brain go tight and shiny.

the cost of free things part four: putting the hours in

February 1, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Posted in musings, new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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I’ll tackle a few related aspects of the word ‘investment’ but let’s kick off with the obvious one: financial.  This is less of an issue now than it used to be back in the day.  Music has, as far as I can recall, never been so cheap – even allowing for inflation.  I remember my first ever CD, ‘i’ by AR Kane, being about 12 quid which is only a fraction less than a full price new release today.  A CD reissue of the Discharge album I mention in the post below can be had for £4.49 post paid from Amazon.  This can hardly be much more than an original issue back in ’82 would have cost.  I am reminded of when punk/thrash albums wore defiant stickers proclaiming ‘pay no more than £3.99′ (or thereabouts).  I imagine this gesture would flummox today’s hipster, leaving ’em thinking: “er, yeah… why would I?”

Now, on the face of it, this is a straight-up, no reservations, good thing, right?  More stuff available to more people for a much smaller slice of our ever-dwindling disposable income.  Well, yes, maybe, and to claim that music should be more expensive seems wilfully perverse but, but, but…  When I see new albums for sale at £3 post paid I can’t help thinking something has been lost or devalued.  Who can make any money out of that?  No wonder theft is so prevalent: act like your product is worthless and people will have no qualms about nicking it.

Next up is your time – one way of investing in something is to put the hours in.  I touched on this in the previous post when mentioning digging in the crates.  That kind of getting-on-the-bus, traipsing-around-the-shops, haggling-with-stall-holders stuff, once a pleasurable way of spending the afternoon and an invitation to Lady Serendipity to smile on your efforts, is now no longer necessary.  Just stick Nurse With Wound list into Google and get downloading!  Again, this should be liberating – who wants to pay £200 to some collector scum for a scratchy album of euro-twats pushing shopping trolleys down concrete stairs in a car park (actually that sounds quite good but you know what I mean)?  As someone who doesn’t really care about packaging, formats, ‘original’ issues,  etc. this should be a huge boon for me shouldn’t it?  But, but, but… that way lies the huge, unloved archive I want to avoid. 

This is also closely linked to the final aspect of investment I want to mention: commitment.  In the age of ‘preview all tracks’ the temptation is to make snap decisions.  Another way of investing time is to repeat-listen, to ‘play something in’.  Many is the time I have declared ‘what is this shit?’ (notably with Acid House) only to eat my words when it becomes a lifelong favourite, or vice versa, to proclaim ‘this is the shit!’ only to be bored rigid with it two weeks later.  I have excitedly downloaded 90minute mixes only to groan in annoyance when the DJ dares to spend the first 5 minutes scene setting.  So childish (me, not the DJ).  Especially so in my beloved no-audience underground where music may be opaque the first time around and only reveal its charms on repeat listens.  Anything worthwhile takes time but this is so easy to forget in a world of infinite choice. As Otto’s parent’s say in Repo Man: “put it on a plate son, you’ll enjoy it more.”

“OK then, you miserable old fart,” says today’s hipster, “what if there is something I want but can’t have unless I spend more money than I can afford on some ‘collector’s item’ or unless I download it from a blog?”  Here’s my answer: if that really is the case then you can’t have it.  How’s that for a breathtakingly revolutionary notion?

You.  Can’t.  Have.  It.

This has nothing to do with legality, as I’ve said before I couldn’t care less about copyright, what I’m basing this notion on is the ephemeral and ever-progressing nature of pop culture.  When something is gone, maybe it is best to just accept that it is gone.  Why not spend the time and money saved investigating something newly produced, or getting to know something you already have a little better, or thinning out some of the unloved elements of your current collection or, best of all, creating something yourself?  Why clog up the hard drive/spare room at all?  Spend some time discovering artists you like, maybe take a punt on an artist new to you, then spend a few quid supporting them.  No need to bankrupt yourself, but invest enough time, money and commitment to show some respect and to give yourself pause for thought.  As for that impossible rarity, remember: you can’t have it – unless, that is, you happen upon it at the bottom of a cardboard box at the back of a charity shop.  And how delicious and life-affirming would that moment be?

OK, I was going to write something about reviews but this seems a good place to finish for now.

the cost of free things part three: serenDDDDipity

January 31, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Posted in musings | Leave a comment
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(quick addendum to part two: just pre-ordered the Galena CD thereby not only paying for something but paying for it weeks before it is released.  Feeling super-smug up here on the moral high ground.  OK, on with the show…)

As mentioned in part two, the finest consequence of my initial post in this series has been the response it provoked in the mighty DDDD.  Simon’s piece was not entirely in agreement with mine but chimed absolutely with what I was getting at and expanded eloquently on a couple of things I’d merely touched on or left unsaid.  I asked if he fancied providing a precis as a guest post for RFM.  He respectfully declined, saying:

…believe it or not, but experience has taught me that these hyper-fast-speed-written ddd rants are things of fragile beauty and if they’re meddled about with afterwards they collapse…

This is, of course, perfectly reasonable so I find myself feeling a bit sheepish for making the request.  Like showing my enthusiasm for a large action painting by asking the artist to point out the ‘best bits’.  How gauche.  Simon has indicated that he may comment further in future so, in the meantime, I will groove on three ideas he introduced: serendipity, investment and the nature and use of reviews.  Yes, I have shamelessly ripped out some quotes but don’t you dare use that as an excuse for not going to read his whole bit in situ.  

Serendipity

Defined as “a propensity for making fortunate discoveries while looking for something unrelated” and is a joy that has been flattened by infinite accessibility.  Simon says:

The pleasure to be had from digging in the crates is one that I had entirely forgotten, as is the discipline of selecting from a limited choice.  I realise that I had completely fallen for the ersatz serendipity of ‘inspired by your browsing history’ or ‘customers that bought this item also bought this’.  Why this apparently harmless and helpful service is actually hateful is that it is a mechanically generated marketing tool.  Worse, it is endless – the crate is bottomless and always full.  Click on any of the ‘recommendations’ and get six more.  A few clicks deep and you’ll find that buying more or less anything will lead to you being punted almost anything else.  Perhaps there is a new variation of six degrees of Kevin Bacon to be played via Amazon with a prize for whoever links Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing to The Circus in the fewest steps.

But is not the contemporary equivalent of digging in the crates searching the blogs for rare and otherwise unavailable goodies?  Well, yes, I feel the temptation but this is what leads to the amassing of ridiculously girthsome archives.  Leaving legality to one side, downloading involves no investment.  That will be the subject of the next bit.

Gotta do my homework now – school tomorrow.

the cost of free things part two: initial guilt audit

January 30, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Posted in musings, new music, no audience underground | 2 Comments
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So what have been the consequences of my New Year’s resolution to lay off the indiscriminate net-based consumption and pay for/think about my cultural intake instead?  Well, the most entertaining bit has been the charming response by Simon of the mighty DDDD but I will deal with that in its own post following this one (I just want to note in passing that his coining of the phrase ‘mechanically recovered guitar slurry’ in the latest issue had me snorting with laughter).  What we have here are the results of my first stock take…

Words: spoken mainly, some written

The greatest difference my decision has made is to my guzzling of audiobooks and podcasts.  I cut the latter in half just by being stern about whether they were worth my time.  A lot of whimsy went by the wayside.  The remaining list was split into two camps.  Those podcasts supported by sponsorship or advertising or paid for by the license fee could remain guilt free.  For the rest I had to make my first payment decisions: donate or ditch.  A couple more went to the wall.  I was left using the birthday money my dear ol’ Gran sent me to subscribe to Left Business Observer, thus allowing me to listen to Behind the News, to donate to The H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast and to Skeptoid, and to buy a couple of DVDs at Go Faster Stripe thus excusing my inexplicable addiction to the Collings and Herrin Podcasts.  I’m sure Nan would be proud of my principled stand.

Rather wonderfully, I’ve discovered that Librivox will not take donations even if you want to make ‘em.  Thus this amazing resource is a truly guilt-free treat.  As such I have been spanking it hard and have listened to D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow (all 20 hours of it), Joyce’s Dubliners and lots of proto-SF by H.G. Wells.  And to think, before Xmas I was listening to endless podcasts where a stoned Kevin Smith laughs at his own jokes.  Life has been ratcheted up a notch.

The written word, mainly in the form of blogs, is something I’ve yet to get under control and may be the subject of further musings later.

Music, TV and Film

Well, obviously I’ve done no illegal downloading from blogs and I haven’t touched any peer-to-peer gubbins.  Following my mentioning OFF! in my end of 2010 review I felt compelled to buy the mp3s and, at 7quid for a 19 minute album this felt like a proper test of my resolve.  It’s great, of course, but I am still in pre-Xmas lurching from one new thing to the next mode and so haven’t given it the time to grow on me yet.  I’m keeping it handy – more on this in my next post responding to Simon.

I’m continuing to make the most of FACT magazine’s regular mixes.  Given that my main musical interest for twenty years has been electronic dance music, the prospect of one or two hours a week of free hipness cannot be passed up.  As this is supported by advertising I have no qualms about downloading, though it does feed my unfortunate craving for newness so will have to be monitored.

My talented friends have provided a couple of highlights.  John Tuffen has pointed me at another new 20 minute namke track, bass-exp, which takes a while to get rolling but is a proper head-down chug once it hits a stride.

Regarding TV and film, as I’ve never really downloaded either in the past, this one is easy.  Nowadays if I want a film I’ll buy it or go see it at the cinema or borrow it from the great library I’m blessed with at the Uni where I work.  TV is boring.

So that’s where it’s at.  More to come.  Yes, I know it is massively self-indulgent but enuff with the eye-rolling: I’m having fun.

the cost of free things…

January 7, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Posted in art, blog info, musings, new music | Leave a comment
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Reading John Lanchester’s recent London Review of Books article on how the web may be causing the demise of print newspapers got me thinking about how the internet has changed the way I consume cultural fodder.  The instant, free accessibility of almost everything has encouraged me in a kind of omni-dilettantism and has given free rein to my most vulgar archival urges.  A quick example from last year: RFMHQ is rocked by a long-forgotten song by Band X (name changed to save my embarrassment) on the radio and, drugged by the warm fug of nostalgia, I get it into my head that I love Band X.  An hour or two later, via the magic of the internet and at no cost to myself, the extensive back-catalogue of Band X, in its entirety, has accumulated on my hard-drive in high-spec mp3 format.  Have I listened to Band X since?  Of course not.  Like Wall-E (two Disney references in as many posts!  Must be some kind of Christmas hangover…), I gather together indiscriminate masses, squash all into uniformly stackable shit-cubes then pop ‘em out and store them in gargantuan heaps, never to be revisited.  Never mind discernment, or joy, or connoisseurship, just feel the meaty girth of my collection.

Obviously, this will not do.  I feel a New Year’s resolution coming on: no more indiscriminate cultural consumption, no more stealing.  I am still happy to stream stuff to try it out, and I will greedily and gratefully accept gifts from my talented friends, but now if I want something from outside my circle then I will pay for it.  Should someone provide a free-at-the-point-of-use-service that I like, a podcast say, then I will contribute by donating or buying some merchandise or whatever.  If I find myself disinclined to contribute then I will stop using that service.  I’ve not bothered installing any peer-to-peer software on the RFM laptop, nor will I.

Why then?  Well, first two reasons that have no bearing on my decision.

Number one: legality.  The arguments surrounding the issue of ‘piracy’ have been endlessly debated on the net and I am not going to rehearse them here.  Suffice to say: copyright is over.  Being pro or anti is like being pro or anti the dodo – it is simply irrelevant.  Here are two notes in passing that say all I want to say: a) all (ahem) ‘music’ that I have produced will eventually be freely available here and b) I consider one of the most pathetic episodes in the history of music to be Metallica suing for infringement.  What a bunch of Cnuts.

Number two: this decision is not about physical versus digital.  Whilst respectful of those that do a decent and appropriate job of presenting their art (see, for example, my many reviews of Sanity Muffin’s lovely tapes) I’ve long found the fetishizing of the physical formats and their packaging to be a refuge of the dull.  Imagine going to an exhibition of paintings and obsessing over whether all the frames match, or thinking that some awful daub can be justified by its extravagant frame, or refusing to view anything painted in acrylic or watercolour because oil is the superior medium.  Utterly ludicrous, of course, but views analogous to these are common currency in the world of music fandom.  As is the voodoo of audiophilia which is so scientifically ridiculous that even homeopaths laugh and point.  Mp3s can be just fine, man – get over yourself.

So my new insistence on coughing up the dough is not about revelling in the feel of the physical versus the cold anonymity of the digital.  A ridiculous, unvisited archive remains ridiculous whether it is choking up a hard-drive or lurking in the spare room threatening me with back-ache the next time we move house.  Nor is it about wanting to stay on the right side of the (anachronistic and unenforceable) law.  Like most things embarked on by men like me, tragically suffering from early-onset middle-age, this is about rekindling a feeling I had as a teenager, but tempered by a lifetime’s knowledge.  My perspicacity, once razor sharp, has been dulled by infinite accessibility.  I’m hoping that paying for things will add a moment of discipline to my cultural consumption and hence allow for my powers of discernment to man-up.

this is the 500th post on radio free midwich

September 6, 2015 at 5:58 pm | Posted in blog info, musings, no audience underground | 2 Comments
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rfmbylv

About forty minutes into my first experience of private healthcare I looked across the desk and, in a voice cracking with excitement and trepidation, asked:

So what happens now?

My meaning was small scale – when do I see you again? How do I communicate all this to my GP? etc. – but the doctor opposite (whom I won’t name for now) addressed the bigger picture.  He replied grandly:

Mr Hayler, I am the most senior psychiatrist in the City of Leeds – what happens now is that we fix this,

I began to cry.

—ooOoo—

2015 started with a dip in my mood and a swelling anxiety that I tackled using various weapons and strategies from my anti-depression arsenal. Then a work colleague coughed in my direction, I started coughing the day after and four unbroken months of viral illnesses ensued. Whilst I was in this weakened state my depression/anxiety ran around my feet – barking, jowls flecked with foam, black coat glistening – until I finally collapsed and it sat triumphantly on my chest.

A further four months passed. I had an uncharacteristically poor experience of NHS care which left me despondent.  18 years since my first diagnosis and no-one had ever offered anything more ambitious than ‘managing’. The cycle, as regular as the changing of the seasons it so often mirrored, remained absolutely unscathed.

However, this glum resignation was tempered by two more positive coincidences.  Firstly, the shysters at my bank repaid me two grand they’d stolen for PPI on a loan I had as a student in the 90s (seriously folks, if you had any kind of financial product in the UK at that time they probably fucked you with this.  Download a form from the bank’s website, fill it in, send it off.  Takes an hour, you barely need any of the details, they have to respond in eight weeks.  Public service announcement ends.).  Secondly, a fellow sufferer suggested paying to see a particular consultant psychiatrist privately, saying that his experience with the guy had been game changing.

Now, I have principled objections to private medicine – the idea makes me feel sick and angry – and I winced at the dough I’d have to hand over for the privilege but, but, but… something had to change.  Oh well, I thought as I trudged to the appointment, it cost more than this to fix the steering on our nine year old Ford Focus and my mental gears have been loose for twice that length of time…

The doctor was elderly with silver hair, pin-stripe suit and reassuring manner – the very model of the semi-retired, impressively senior healthcare professional – and within a remarkable half hour he had me pegged.  He argued, convincingly, that there was ‘nothing wrong with me as a person’ (meaning nowt substantial for talking therapies to get hold of) and that this was a brain chemistry problem that had a pharmacological solution – a combination of medications that had never been suggested to me before.  I was choking back the blubs at about this point.

There then followed two weeks of shenanigans as I got hold of the drugs needed and all has gone well since I started taking them.  I was actually looking forward to one of the main side effects listed: unusually fast, all over hair growth (!) but, alas, I do not look like Captain Caveman yet.  Things are moving in an interesting direction.  Keep your fingers crossed for me.

—ooOoo—

So why tell this story?  Why start the 500th post with 500 words about how I’m doing?  Well, partly it is offered as a ‘mea culpa’, an explanation as to why I’ve left much of the hard lifting to my colleagues here recently.  Mainly, though, it is because this is all personal – the circumstances of our lives affect the art we make and the way we respond to the art of others.  The way radiofreemidwich expresses this is, I think, one of its great strengths.  In fact, to play down the essentially subjective nature of what we are all up to is to misunderstand its purpose.  This point-missing is what makes the pseudo-objective, hackademic, would-be-journal-of-record writing you might find in, say, The Wire so joyless and unreadable.  In a nutshell: what we are doing is how we are doing and vice versa.  Here’s a couple of examples – first good, then bad.

Since a big number last caused me to take stock, the largest, most positive change here at RFM is the trio of Chrissie Caulfield, Sof Cooper and marlo eggplant joining the team.  That the writers here are split three female/three male is, I think, something worth noting in what is a depressingly male-dominated sub-culture.  Now, I didn’t arrange this with a big agenda in mind, rather a growing personal uneasiness led me to think about what measures I could take to redress the balance.  It got even more interesting once their articles started coming in.  To what extent could I edit these pieces or dictate their subject matter?  Whilst I would certainly be vain enough to enjoy watching the review pile dwindle as a sexually diverse staff churned out pastiches of my narrative whimsy, it turns out that these people (I’m including Joe and Luke now too) have their own styles and interests.  How am I to square my own, quite proprietorial (some would say territorial), emotional investment in this blog/scene with the collaboration I have invited?

I was reminded of ‘Mimesis and Representation’ by the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur – a short, elegant, difficult article I was obsessed with as a student twenty-odd years ago.  In it Ricoeur explains that we can understand fiction (he talks mainly about fiction but I think the point is good for art/writing in a more general sense) because we share with the author a common understanding of elements of the world, the author sheds new light on these elements by configuring them in a novel (pun intended) way and, having read/experienced this art we are returned to the world with our understanding of it, or at least of these elements, changed or augmented.  The notion explains how refiguring the blog is changing how I am as a person which in turn is influencing how I experience music as I refigure the blog.  Sheesh.  I thought I could just get some chicks in, pick up an award for ending sexism then stick cruise control on.  Turns out the situation is a lot more complicated than that.  It is kinda beautiful though.

Oh, and then there’s the dog fucking.

For months I’ve been sitting on a retrospective of very harsh noise, a four tape set packaged in a plastic VHS box.  The artist, whom I have met several times and have seen play live, has impeccable credentials.  The label is run by a lovely guy, infectiously enthused by the project and anxious to hear what I think.  The music is exhilarating, with that nostrils flaring velocity and/or scalding bath intensity that the best HNW shares.  But, fuck me: the packaging.

The whole project seems to be celebrating a *cough* ‘golden age’ of vile VHS-era pornography.  The cover, accompanying booklet and inserts are mainly crude, violent collages of crude, violent images at least one of which is a (grainy but explicit) scene of bestiality.  My reaction to all this was far beyond the prudish tutting I’ve directed at nylon fetishists like Miguel Perez or horror obsessives like Lee Stokoe.  It made me angry.  Think about it: this is not the sort of distant scandal or outrage that the twitterati trade ‘hot takes’ over.  This set was lovingly hand-crafted in a tiny edition and distributed to those in the know.  Like it or not: I am one of them.

So what do I do with this?  Do I go hackademic and attempt to put it in the context of early industrial culture and explain it away as perverse nostalgia – folk music of a nihilistic, affectless age?  Should I ‘do a Keenan’ and double-down, revelling in something truly underground: friendless and transgressive?  Can I/should I go to the trouble of separating the music – which I enjoyed on a visceral level – from its trappings or should I just trust my gut and say: no, this isn’t good enough?

It’s the latter, isn’t it?  I can’t just ignore or gloss over this kind of stuff any more.  As for ‘blog policy’ – well, it is to be decided.  Again, thinking about the music and its context has me thinking about the blog which has me thinking about who I am and what I believe is important which returns me to the music which returns me to the blog.  It’s like taking the central tenet of the no-audience underground (*ahem*) ‘theory’ – that the scene has no audience because the scene is the audience, that there isn’t an easy split between active and passive participants – and applying it at a deeper, philosophical level to my understanding of, well, almost everything.  My face is right scrunched up as I type this.

—ooOoo—

So how am I and thus how is the blog?  Well, returning to normality after a period of mental illness is like returning to your house after a burglary, or a flood.  The shape is familiar but things are missing, or ruined, buried in shit.  I’m not starting from scratch but washing off and reshelving my thoughts is going to take a while.  I have to admit to dodging the review pile during what feels like a transitional period, instead listening to podcasts and headbanging to pummelling techno by Regis and Surgeon but I can hear the gurgling of my tank refilling.  Soon the engines of the metaphor-generator will be roaring once more and I will return to the task refreshed.  Or I’ll get Joe to do it – one or the other.

So there you go – here’s to the next 500!

With love and thanks to you all,

Rob H

September 2015

—ooOoo—

[Editor’s note: logo in sand pic by Luke.]

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?

misunderstanding the discussion: thoughts on the wire

April 12, 2020 at 8:56 pm | Posted in musings, no audience underground | 7 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—

committing to this: TUSK Festival 2019

February 19, 2020 at 12:30 pm | Posted in live music, musings, new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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TUSK Festival 2019

Venues in Gateshead and Newcastle, 11th to 13th October

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[The usual provisos: I won’t be mentioning every act as creating An Exhaustive List Of Everything That Happened is not my bag. I won’t be mentioning everyone I spoke to either because I don’t want to allocate some to this ‘highlights’ package and not others. Safe to say that every conversation I had with you lovely people I enjoyed very much. It was a delight to catch up with old hands and to chat with new acquaintances alike. Lastly, I’m not cluttering what follows with links, nor topping it with a cloud of tags – I’d suggest having the TUSK Festival site open on another tab and hunting and pecking as appropriate. TUSK will fill the archives with videos in due course. There are fewer pictures this time, and very few of performances in progress, because despair at my photographic ineptitude led to a mass deletion whilst I was writing this.]

INTRODUCTION

On August 20th I posted the following tweet:

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As you can see it attracted a modest level of ‘engagement’. At first I was touched but then increasingly alarmed at the number of heartfelt well-wishing messages I received in reply. It had been interpreted far more seriously than I intended and, remembering that I have disappeared for lengths of time in the past due to mental health problems or whilst dealing with family emergencies, I followed up with reassurances that I was fine just busy.

I took comfort in rereading those replies in the following weeks when it became clear just how busy was just busy. Juggling summer holiday childcare alongside a difficult time at work and then moving house for the first time in seven years – for the first time since my son was born – left me gasping like a mudskipper hopping after the retreating tide. I ain’t complaining – life is, by and large, sweet and I am cushioned by a silky pillow of privilege – but the prospect of TUSK, the one time of year I spend more than a few hours free of responsibility, became an oasis in the distance. All tasks were split into two piles: ‘must be done before TUSK’ or ‘can wait until after TUSK’ and I shambled from hour to hour until…

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FRIDAY

…suddenly – ah shit! – like The Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog, it was upon me and I was folding my most tuskian t-shirts whilst shouting at the lad to sit down and do his spelling homework. The haze didn’t lift, nor did my teeth unclench, until I was on a train pulling away from Leeds station.

Mirroring my softening demeanour, the skies gradually cleared of pissing rain until the landscape resembled the cover of everyone’s favourite ambient collage album (see photo above, taken from the train window). Boarding at York, though unable to join me due to allocated seating, was JOHN TUFFEN (hereafter JT), TUSK newbie and designated festival buddy for the weekend – the guy I introduced to everyone as “He hosts Wonkystuff in York, records as namke communications…” etc. We convened at Newcastle station on arrival and strolled arm in arm downhill to Quayside and our hotels. My room had the same view as last year – pigeon shit / engineering – and after some swift unpacking I headed back out to Newcastle University for the afternoon show.

Embarrassingly, despite the walk being more or less a straight line AND using Google Maps, I still managed to get lost on the way. However, an indication in my change of mood was that I was chuckling at my own uselessness and entertained by a speed-mooch through city centre, rather than fretting or annoyed. If your phone calmly tells you to “Take the escalator to the first floor,” you know you’ve proper fucked up – it’s hard not to laugh. Luckily, once I hit campus I saw LAURA GREY (Hard Stare), LEE STOKOE (Culver, of course) and JAMIE STUART (Wrest, soon to perform) walking ahead of me and I hurried to catch ‘em up figuring they’d know where to go.

King’s Hall is a very large, very grand, wood panelled box used for graduation ceremonies and concerts. The impressive pipe organ it contains, more than two storeys high, looks so new (installed 2017) that I suspect an ante-chamber still contains the cardboard boxes and bubble wrap that it came packed in. After some chatting with YOL, PAUL MARGREE and other early adopters sitting nearby, silence fell for the first performance of the day. Jamie, now in full WREST mode, lay on the floor and indicated the beginning of the set by hauling himself to his feet.

NO WAY

He said, he shouted, he screamed, he rasped. Over and over. Walking around the room to bounce those two words off the walls, testing the acoustics, testing the audience. It was the first act of a ritual. He played acoustic guitar, he rattled and pounded a kettle drum. He returned to the voice – “Good people die, good people fade…” – repeating a few lines, perhaps improvised, maybe taken from a folk song, a sea shanty – raging anguish to sorry acceptance depending on the tone he chose. It was a mesmerising and, at the end, I laughed out loud during the stunned applause to see Jamie snap back into his affable Geordie self immediately: “Aye, thank you very much!”

Next, the pipes were cleared by ELLEN ARKBRO who used the organ to play a profound and enveloping set of room-filling drone. The venue was saturated with standing waves so dense that moving your head mere centimetres to the left or right would radically alter what you were hearing, despite the sound source being taller than my house. Everywhere became the centre, which made the hard transitions between notes all the more discombobulating – moments of turbulence in a flight across the desert.

As I was pulling myself together a very enthusiastic gentleman bounded up and greeted me: “Rob Hayler! You haven’t aged a day!” I didn’t recognise him but he was clearly delighted to see me again* and so I listened carefully and sent out conversational feelers whilst trying not to let on. Eventually it dawned on me that I was speaking to JOHN WHATLING, performing that weekend as JOHANN WLIGHT! My expression must have been hilarious as it twisted from bewildered to thrilled. John is a fellow survivor of the turn of the century CDr underground, producing work around the same time I was busy with fencing flatworm recordings. He ran a terrific label himself, the much missed Nidnod, and his thoughtful, beautifully paced, pastoral recordings – collages of drone, small scale found object noise, birdsong and the like – were maps of an alternate world, invitations to explore. Always reclusive, at some point he just disappeared entirely and his decade-long absence was sometimes speculated about in conversation. He became my Jandek. Then late in 2017 – HOLY SHIT! – a new album appeared on Chris Gower’s Trome Records. Recording as itdreamedtome, A.Y. is as good as we could have hoped for – seemingly delicate, actually thoroughly robust, a modest and beguiling triumph.

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Turning over the typically magical packaging in my hands, I felt myself close to tears. However, it got even better. In March of this year I was astounded to see that he was PLAYING LIVE, on the bill of the Listen to the Voice of Fire festival in Aberystwyth alongside fellow travellers HAWTHONN. I was furious with jealousy that I couldn’t go. When I saw that he would also be appearing at TUSK, thus RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME, I was so excited that everyone I spoke to for two weeks after the announcement was treated to a breathless version of this paragraph. And finally here we are. We gushed at each other for a moment longer then, as the room was being cleared, I introduced him to Lee, gathered up JT and along with CRAIG JOHNSON of Invisible City Records trotted back for the evening session, with JT and I stopping to eat at the lovely Super Natural Café on Grainger Street – highly recommended.

[*We had actually met before. John later reminded me that in 2004 he was at a gig I played as midwich supporting Vibracathedral Orchestra in Trinity Church, Leeds city centre. I apparently kept him company before and after the show so I’m glad to hear I was a good egg. I vaguely remember it – I played at the desk, sound-tracking an old cymatics video and used hair clippers to get the buzzing tone I wanted alongside the MC-303 – but it was around the time that a bout of depression led to me taking a lengthy break from music and memories of that era are smeared and dark.]

The evening session on Friday of TUSK is always a rush of glad-handing and saying hello as we settle again into SAGE. Walking up the path from the Swing Bridge I was amused and awed, as ever, by this bizarre confection. Part noble arts venue, proud to be publically funded, part Ballardian vision of corporate blandness lit in sickly boiled sweet colours. I think I love it? I’m certainly old and tired enough to be immediately institutionalized by the helpful staff, open space, decent toilets and high quality rooms. Don’t worry about losing your underground credentials though – you’ll soon be sat on the floor watching the people on stage yelping and squawking. Speaking of which…

Interrupting my project of introducing JT to every person in the building that I knew, then getting to know more so I could introduce him to them too, was ACRID LACTATIONS, the first act of the festival ‘proper’. Seeing Sue and Stuart perform is a rare treat and it was an accomplished set of (semi?) improvised malarkey. Sue’s saxophone cracked and loosened a little of the remaining uptightness I’d brought with me and I was won over by the water play and the funny-bordering-unnerving duet with a tape of baby cries. Following this was MIR8, expanded to a trio for TUSK, and whilst I wholeheartedly approved of the breath-catching bass I was fidgeting too much to give it the consideration it deserved so retired to the bar for more conversation hopping.

Next, THE ROLLING CALF were one of the highlights of the festival and inadvertently provided me with the title for this piece. The trio of ELAINE MITCHENER, JASON YARDE and NEIL CHARLES started slow and, despite it being clear they were reaching for something very special, ten minutes in I was slyly plotting a path to the exit. Something stopped me getting up though, maybe the shame that I’d just done the same during the proceeding set from MIR8, and I found myself wondering: c’mon Rob what are you here for? During the recent months of being just busy I’d been reduced to bumping-into-doorframes tiredness whilst still feeling compelled to multitask. This led to an unhealthy state in which my attention span was hopeless but I couldn’t rest, instead stumbling from one task to the next, interrupting myself, enduring the tyranny of a heavily annotated ‘to do’ list. Elaine Mitchener’s ululations had cut through all that – lemon juice dissolving the grease gathered around my thoughts. Fuck it, I decided, I’m committing to this. The set proved to be a marvel – spacious, free to surprise yet sharply focussed with the players seemingly locked into a telepathically shared purpose. Like all the best improv it existed essentially in the moment but connected to something timeless. The performance, which had started tentatively, grew into an extraordinary multi-limbed mythical creature, fascinating and beautiful.

I’d learnt a lesson – partly due to circumstances allowing me some perspective, partly about how to play the rest of the weekend. Realistically, an hour of music, no matter how good, wasn’t going to shift the bad habits I’d developed but it suggested a tactic. I was committing to TUSK and I’d commit to individual performances by simply making it difficult for myself to leave. If I was stood right at the front in full view of the act, or wedged into a space surrounded by people or, as we shall see, sat in a dark room where the tiniest arse-cheek squirm became part of the performance, then that would give me pause to challenge the desire to leave. I could remind myself that I am not in a doggedly-crossing-things-off place, instead I am visiting an adding-unique-things-to-the-sum-of-my-experience place. TL;DR – dude, enjoy yrself.

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[I can’t remember when I met Glory, known round these parts as THE DOLL or CORPORAL TOFULUNG or GINONDIAMONDS, for the first time, or discovered that IAN WATSON was present, but it is likely to have been around now so let’s pretend it was. Blimey, the genius polymaths of the no-audience underground count was very high indeed. You couldn’t have thrown a limited-edition tape in handmade packaging without hitting at least one inspirational character on the back of head. What a joy.]

Any need for strategy, however, was left outside as we descended into Sage 2 for MARIAM REZAEI & LASSE MARHAUG who were joined by a string quartet for the premiere of their piece The 42 Mirrors of Narcissus.  This performance absolutely stripped my screw thread, left me spinning.  Mariam’s astonishing skills as a turntablist, seemingly sprouting extra fingers to blur the fader, was augmented by her own voice, the unifying sweep of the quartet and the apocalyptic dark humour of Lasse’s vinyl abuse.  Whilst most of me was enjoying this on a purely visceral level, what was left of my high end functions were delighting in trying to figure out how it fit together.  The quartet were playing from a score and Mariam was cueing them, conducting with nods and looks.  She also had her own score which she was dramatically discarding, sheet by sheet, as they worked through it.  “How is this written down!?” I marvelled (more on this later), before my reverie was punctured by being hit in the chest by a piece of vinyl from a record shattered by Lasse.  I picked it up as a souvenir.

vinyl fragment

Due to basking in a post-set mind-shimmer, and enjoying the swinging social scene in the bar, I missed the beginning of AUDREY CHEN’s set and only lasted ten minutes when I finally did head in.  This is not due to the quality of her performance, which was clearly glorious, but her deciding to perform in the middle of the Northern Rock Foundation Hall, rather than on the stage at the front.  A claustrophobic crush had developed near the door where patrons were too confused or too polite to elbow through to the relatively clear space behind her. All the middle-aged beardies like me were sticking together like Velcro fastenings in a pile of laundry so I went back to the chatter.

The day ended with SUNN TRIO and for me this fried, psych rock was exactly what I needed to carry me over the finish line.  I was amused by how they played with almost no regard for the audience – no eye contact, no gaps between songs for applause, just noodling until it all fired up again.  Waist deep in their own vibe, leaning against a gale that we couldn’t feel, they roared through it with a satisfying, shambling precision.  At the end of their set I said goodnight to a random selection of the nearest at hand, walked downstairs to the concourse, closed my eyes, clicked my fingers and was magically transported to my hotel room.

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SATURDAY

I woke early, as ever, but groggily remembered yesterday’s self-help revelation so resisted the urge to do something.  Instead I stayed in bed and listened to MATT DALBY’s lovely audio review/diary of the event so far on Soundcloud and lived the late night fringe vicariously through Mariam’s Instagram posts.  Fuck me, BLOM are magnificent.  Eventually I pulled myself together, met JT at 10am and we returned to Super Natural where we were joined by PAUL MARGREE to gorge on vegan breakfast.  I had a smoothie made from fruit, veg and the kind of beans you’d usually need to swap a cow for so I was well set.  We bounced back down the hill and across the river.

First up was SWISS BARNS, a duo of JORGE BOEHRINGER (best known to me as Core of the Coalman) and AILBHE NIC OIREACHTAIGH and, as it was to be followed by a talk, the NRFH was full of rows of chairs.  The comfort was most welcome and, to my embarrassment, I can’t tell you much about this as I was perhaps a little too ‘relaxed’ for its duration.  What I do remember I enjoyed a lot, just don’t ask me for details.

I was very much awake for what came next, though: DEREK WALMSLEY, features editor of THE WIRE magazine, interviewing MARIAM REZAEI.  This event (in combination with her triumphant performance the night before and her involvement in a magical set to come later this day) cemented, I think, TUSK 2019 as Mariam’s festival.  Her charisma, intelligence and ethic – her presence – seemed defining this year, more than ever.  The stage was set up with turntables arranged battle style so Mariam could demonstrate technique as she answered Derek’s questions and I was fascinated by her account of her background, her struggle to be taken seriously in the turntablism competition scene as a woman, her work expanding the medium and collaborating with others and her views on where things stand for the art in the digital age.  All of this delivered with a self-deprecating wit filtered through a finely tuned bullshit detector.  Towards the end Derek asked the floor for questions and I stuck up my hand to ask about the score I mentioned above.  I’m very glad I did as, unbeknownst to me, it turns out that Mariam’s PhD was about notating turntablism and she later sent me some example pdfs which I have studied with bewildered delight (two pages chosen at random reproduced below).

Score 2Score 1

[Aside: The other upshot of asking my question (and of being named by Mariam in her answer) was that I was clocked by Derek.  “Rob? I recognize your voice from the radio.” He said, referring to my podcast/Mixcloud show, and so afterwards I went up to say hello.  I was a little nervous because I have been very rude about The Wire on this blog before, not all of it tongue in cheek and most of which I’ll happily stand by, but we had a perfectly friendly conversation and I left with a couple of freebie issues of the magazine tucked into my bag.  Some weeks later Derek got in touch to commission a short piece for the year-end issue about ‘hobbyism’ in the underground and despite the fact that I am not used to having an editor, a word count or specific beats I’m asked to hit I thought, fuck it – I’m a pretty well-qualified advocate.  Issue 431 if you’re interested.  Yeah, accuse me of selling out but you losers won’t be laughing when I use my sweet new contacts and influence to secure funding for my next audio-visual installation project.  Now shush whilst I fill in this grant application…]

After this I found myself in a delicious state of contentment and ANDY WILD, Mr Crow Versus Crow, and I chatted nice as we strolled to new TOPH/TUSK fringe venue Alphabetti Theatre.  I’d not been to this place before and was completely charmed by it.  We wandered through the small, book-filled bar into the venue which already seemed half full only to be asked to leave whilst they finished setting up – what I’d assumed to be the crowd was actually the cast and crew for the coming performance!  Blimey – actual theatre.  Back in the bar I admired the TOPH LIBRARY: big plastic tubs containing a complete run of DAVID HOWCROFT’s N-AUT tape label, a folder cataloguing the work he’s done recording and releasing live shows in the area and a complete run of ANDY WOOD’s TQ ZINE too.  The spirit of this exercise is perfect – generous, fun, an expression of self-sufficiency and heartfelt appreciation – and it is humbling to see.  More power to ’em both.

TQNAUT archive 1TQNAUT archive 2

We were called in and I settled into a back row seat next to fellow naughty kid JON LEE (DISCOINSOLENCE, STAPPERTON) for LUKE POOT PRESENTS RICHARD AND JUDY: THE OPERA WITH THE LUKE POOT ALLSTARS BAND.  Luke, well turned out as ever, talked us through some key events in Richard Madeley’s life and career using projected slides, clips of theme tunes and punctuation from the dozen (?) players wearing Richard masks (plus one Judy – the villain of the piece) who squeaked hand-pumped air horns behind him. The incantation of ‘Richard Madeley’, repeated whenever Luke said the name, caught on in the audience who began to shout it out crackerjack style (I fear Jon and I may have started this) until it became a surreal mass heckle.  By the time Luke dramatically told of Madeley’s father dying the audience weren’t taking anything seriously and many, myself included, couldn’t help laughing at the inappropriateness of it all.  This caused one of the Richards to crack up (fess up YOL, I know it was you) and after that proceedings were pretty much fucked.  Most entertaining.

luke's opera

After the interval, the second performance was Roughtin Linn by THE CUP N RINGS, comprising DAVID HOWCROFT and SWARMFRONT (of which Mariam is a member – this was the other set I referred to above).  Here’s some context from the flyer that had been left on every surface at Sage the day before (with apologies to David for brutally editing it down):

Roughtin Linn is a huge outcrop of natural sandstone.  it is the largest prehistoric decorated outcrop of rock in Northern England.  It also has a hidden valley with a waterfall.  Much of the art decoration is of the cup and ring type and what is also interesting is the variety of motifs.  The waterfall is hidden in a gorge and adds to the power of place because I do believe … places do move us with a sense of their importance or beauty.  And water is a substance of beauty … a truly living thing.

Copies of rubbings of the prehistoric art were distributed on A3 sheets of paper.  The space was dressed with tree branches, a bowl of water and other mysterious objects and we looked on with growing anticipation.  David began his performance with no fanfare, quietly claiming the space, crouching over his tools. He stripped to the waist and used tree cuttings to gently scourge himself. Other vegetation he taped to his arms. He had some sort of chalky white clay which he mixed with water, beat into a paste and painted himself with. This mesmerising pagan ritual was accompanied by a growing roar from Swarmfront. Starting with a relatively peaceful swirl – rock pools being refilled by a rising tide – this developed slowly into an all-consuming rush of flood water.

CupnRings3

I found it profoundly moving. There was nothing here that was at all arch or pretentious. The set was presented with absolute sincerity and unreserved commitment by artists collaborating to express a celebration of nature and a connection to deep human history. There was a wider context too, known especially by the locals on stage or in the audience: David is loved. He has been a stalwart of the North East scene for decades, a humble and enthusiastic force for the good with an irreverent sense of humour. I looked around the room during the show and I swear you could see this on people’s faces. The vibe was incredible – we were willing him on. I cried during the applause at the end.

I walked back into reality with Andy Wood, Jon Lee and JT (who had been soldering with FARMER GLITCH and joined the event half way through). We talked it over and I compared the joyous revelation of what we’d just seen to the largely boring and cynical ‘transgressive’ performances we’d endured back in ye olden dayes of noize. As the sparkle began to fade I noticed the street we were on appeared to be nowt but kebab shops, some sporting pools of multi-coloured vomit in their doorways. Drunks were already staggering into traffic despite it only being late afternoon. God, I love Newcastle.

[Aside: Tweets from me and Jon somehow made it into the packaging of the N-Aut release of the set, as did a little piece of card that made me laugh by featuring the covers of Cut by The Slits on one side and Y by The Pop Group on the other. Heh, heh – David putting his mud into context there.]

CupnRIngs2

Back in my hotel room I read the excellent CHEWN ZINE PRESENTS WHAT TO EAT IN NEWCASTLE AND GATESHEAD DURING TUSK whilst mindlessly wolfing down a generic slop-in-mayo sandwich bought at the railway station and mulling over these missed opportunities.

[Aside: …and in-between that sentence ending and this one beginning, two months passed.  The Tories win the election, Christmas with the family was lovely, Simon Morris dies.  The pace of real life continues to leave me three bananas short of a speed run every day.  I made no notes during TUSK so a battered copy of the programme plus my equally dog-eared memory will have to suffice in getting this done.  LET’S GO.]

Having been to his opera earlier I skipped LUKE POOT’s solo effort and my evening began with KA BAIRD.  Her take on vocal shenanigans, which had become an unofficial theme of the weekend, was unique and discombobulating.  Her two mic set up and octopus-level, brain-in-each-limb hyper-kinetic performance left me beaming, exhilarated.  The good vibes continued with ERNIE K FEGG who, along with drummer AL, treated us to some clattering rockabilly dada, joyfully tugging on the last teddy boy’s string vest and bellowing their catalogue of ALL types of love, even crustacean love.

Ernie

Then: JANDEK.  I was excited, nervous even, having been a fan on and off since the turn of the century.  I used to trade fencing flatworm recordings CDrs for Jandek CDs with Eddie Flowers of Crawlspace.  Christ, that feels like a lifetime ago.  Alas, it wasn’t for me.  Hundreds there were clearly digging it but I left after 25 minutes, unmoved.

Next we were beckoned into the luxurious surroundings of SAGE HALL 1 – all seating, perfect sound, capacity in four figures – for something really special: MOOR MOTHER X LCO.  I marched down to the middle of the very front row (“We’re committing to this are we?” asked JT, who had been informed of my strategy by then) and this time my anticipation was fully justified.  Centre stage but set back, part of a semi-circle of musicians from the LCO, MOOR MOTHER performed and conducted a new piece called The Great Bailout.  The subject of this work is the slave trade, how the profit generated built many of the ‘great’ cities of the UK and how the owner class was richly compensated when the slave trade abolished.  It was a deeply troubling performance – sad without sentiment, angry without catharsis.  It laid out the human consequences of misery as a business and asked uncomfortable questions about continued complicity.  There were no concessions to it taking place on the Saturday night of a festival and when MOOR MOTHER looked up sharply at the engineer during a problem with the sound it felt like she was admonishing the whole audience: “well, what are you going to do about this?”  It was brilliant.

I remained choked, dealing with a bite much larger than I could chew, until CEYLON MANGE, the trio of KAREN CONSTANCE, DYLAN NYOUKIS and BILL NACE allowed me to swallow.  They sat as close together as the three wise monkeys of a mantelpiece bronze and, although I couldn’t see what was on their tables from where I was sprawled, what emanated was a judder and gurgle of pleasingly indeterminate purpose, skilfully presented with a charming wry humour.

The night ended for me with ABUL MOGARD back in SAGE 2, a replacement for an indisposed ELEH.  I was familiar with both this artist’s music – a winning brand of industrial ambient – and the infamous false back story of an outsider musician discovered.  Suffice to say that, despite a density of dry ice that would have made Andrew Eldritch cough, it was clear the bloke on stage was not a retired Serbian metal worker.  I was probably not the only smart-arse cracking ‘oo, looking good for his age, eh?’ jokes.  The performance was, of course, without personality but I was well up for being enveloped in viscera-rearranging bass until the call of my bed began to cut through it.

mixed message

SUNDAY

Waking early again, I fought the urge to be busy and instead listened to the latest from MATT DALBY whilst hungrily watching the stallholders of Quayside Market setting up.  When I finally did leave the hotel I immediately bumped into… JT!  He was taking the air having earlier met a guy he’d arranged to sell a synth to.  How enterprising.  We looked for gifts, bought flapjack and discussed a standard suite of middle-aged talking points – health, family, responsibility – with a cheerfulness borne of a short time away.  Amazing how quickly a sense of perspective and purpose can return should the opportunity arise.

We split again back at SAGE and I ate an embarrassing number of sausage rolls whilst waiting for my most eagerly anticipated set of, well, the whole year I guess.  Taking the Sunday lunchtime slot was JOHN WHATLING, that is JOHANN WLIGHT.

Johann

John knelt on a rug in front of the stage in the NRFH amongst a carefully ordered collection of small objects and other equipment recognisable as ‘kit’.  I went and sat as close as possible, nothing between us but a few feet of space crackling with my giddy excitement.  The set was a beautiful meditation – understated, free, spacious yet clearly plotted and with a masterful overall control that suggested concentrated rehearsal.  John’s nerves were unmistakable (he obsessively neatened his instruments in fallow moments) but he held the room enthralled, stopping time for the music’s duration.  At the end he nodded sheepishly in thanks as we applauded.  My shit was so utterly lost that I nearly knocked my glasses off trying to wipes tears from my eyes and clap at the same time.

There then followed a pleasant lull before the weekend’s greatest test of my ‘committing to it’ idea.  Here’s part of the explanatory blurb provided by THE SHUNYATA IMPROVISATION GROUP:

We play with mainly acoustic instruments exploring the balance between the ambient sound of the environment and our musical intervention  …  Part of our intention is to encourage listening to the environment we play in so please feel free to give your attention to all the sounds in the room.

Interesting, eh?  The band, joined by JOHANN WLIGHT who had rushed upstairs for a one-off collaboration, were scheduled to perform a two hour set in a white box conference/rehearsal room and, fuck it, I was going to get through the whole duration.  To give my will the best chance possible I deliberately sat with the musicians in-between me and the exit, thereby maximising the potential embarrassment of bailing early.

So, following a quiet welcome, we began and I settled pretty quickly.  As you might expect, I’m into the idea that all sound can be music (work colleagues are amused by my interest in gurgling radiators and squealing doors) and in that darkened room the contributions of the artists soon became one with the air conditioning, shuffling of chairs and the entering and leaving of stamina-poor part-timers.  At points though I have to admit to becoming restless, the urge to be DOING SOMETHING welling up like the need to find a vending machine after an hour on an orange plastic chair in A&E.  I did my best to let it wash over me, refocussing on the moment.  Being present.

Occasionally rhythmic heavy breathing suggested an audience member had succumbed to a nap and I can only hope I didn’t snore when I did so myself.  I must have only been asleep for a few minutes but it was long enough to dream I was chatting to two snakes.  There was nothing mystical about the conversation, they were fellow festival-goers and we compared notes on our favourite acts so far.  However, as the dream continued I realised that these were not ‘real’ snakes but crudely constructed sock puppets and that they were on MY OWN HANDS.  Thus a dream version of myself was chatting to second and third dream versions of myself about sets at TUSK whilst my actual self was sleeping through an actual set at TUSK.  Fucking hell – as if I needed further evidence of how tangled and overly complicated my thinking had become.  I woke bemused and chuckling, snuck a look at the time on my phone, and rode out the rest of the show until it ended with some gentle piano tinkling.  In the context of the augmented silence of the previous two hours it felt like a triumph heralding fanfare.  I’ve thought a lot about this whole afternoon since. It was an important and useful experience for me.

Sage

The next couple of hours were taken up with buying presents, sending soppy messages to my son, eating and deciding which cummerbund to wear with that evening’s tuxedo. I returned to Sage refreshed just in time for FARMER GLITCH. Whilst I’d been dreaming of snakes, he’d been running a workshop introducing some teenagers from the Sage’s Centre For Advanced Training to the marvel of handheld racket production via his own Atari Punk Consoles. They joined him for the performance: dressed smart, sat in a line and, initially at least, looking bemused. As FG conducted they loosened up and their delighted/embarrassed reaction to explosive applause from a venue full of weirdos, most old enough to be their parents, was very charming.

I have sometimes chuckled at the incongruity of acts booked by TUSK – YOL springs to mind – playing in the NRFH as it is basically a large and very well appointed school assembly room. The dissonance was never more evident than with MONDO SADISTS who started late and swaggered through a set of adults-only, tone-lowering, scuzz rock. It was glorious. Imagine a sixth form goregrind band playing a school talent show, pupils mad for it, appalled teachers pinned against the back wall.

Laughing, nostrils still flaring, we returned to Sage 2 for SONIC BOTHY. I knew nothing about this group other than what could be gleaned from the two line description in the programme and that ALI ROBERTSON, of the mighty USURPER, was a member. The band comprised half a dozen(ish) musicians and between them they conjured a beautiful set of semi-improvised modern composition with aspects of traditional song, jazz and other genres all part of the spell. What cannot be captured by that dry description, though, is the love radiating from the stage and how it touched everyone in the room.

SONIC BOTHY is an ‘inclusive new music ensemble,’ to quote their website, ‘…a group of musicians with and without additional learning support needs’ and two of them that night appeared to be on the ‘with’ side of that sentence: ADAM GREEN (front and centre, percussion) and ANDREW ROBERTSON (stage left, piano). As the audience at large, most presumably as ignorant as me, began to understand and buy into the performance the atmosphere became golden. Adam’s reaction to the rapturous response they received after the first track – a look of almost terrified shock instantly becoming full-beam delight once comforted by a fellow group member (NICHOLA SCRUTTON, I think) was very moving. Turfed out of MONDO SADISTS in full-on, cynical noise mode we now stood there smiling, swaying and urging them on.

Just as we were all settling into safe, middle class, patronising sentimentality, however, the vibe was undercut with a brilliant moment of humour. Suddenly Andrew, who up to that point hadn’t even raised his head, started waving his arms around and yelling. ‘Oh no, oh no,’ I thought, ‘what’s wrong? What’s triggered this?’ Then the rest of the band all stood up and joined in with a nonsensical, babbling argument, gesticulating wildly, obviously rehearsed. I can’t overstate how perfect this was. Not only a fourth-wall-breaking comedy set piece worthy of Andy Kaufman but a timely reminder to reflect on our attitudes but made in a non-chiding way entirely in keeping with the rest of the performance. Yet again I was in tears at the end of a set. A magical, unforgettable TUSKian moment.

magma context

What could follow that, eh? Not MAGMA unfortunately. This ‘wasn’t for me’ to an almost comical extent. After 25 minutes of pain I retired to the bar with others also blowing their cheeks out and shaking their heads. Still, I heard from die-hards later that it was a life-completing experience so live and let live, eh?

grupi lab

Luckily the joy was rekindled by GRUPI LAB. It seems very TUSK that a group performing Albanian isopolyphonic singing, a centuries old tradition with costumes to match, could pack out the venue at 10pm on a Sunday. The men stood in a huddle and sang a capella, chanting and taking turns to be the central soloist. Overtones emerged from the harmonizing and oscillated over our heads. It was thrilling. The atmosphere of good-natured cultural exchange was perfected by the presence of an interpreter in a suit with a clipboard, the son of one of the performers, who introduced the songs and chaired a Q&A session (!) halfway through. It was as wonderful as it was unlikely. JT, sat on the floor next to me, was grinning throughout.

Finally then, TUSK 2019 was closed out by THE NECKS. If I’m honest I remember little of this. Following SONIC BOTHY, GRUPI LAB and a lot of socializing my mind was scrambled egg. After ten minutes I wondered, like a total noob, when it was going to kick in and it wasn’t until the half hour mark that it really clicked with me. I enjoyed the gathering swell that followed very much but when the applause came I realised I’d been surfing not swimming. As we filed out and started saying goodbye at least two people of impeccable taste told me it was one of the best shows of the year. So let’s leave it there.

Back at the hotel I was too tired to sleep so I packed, metaphorically pulled on the crudely constructed sock puppets and mulled over the weekend. Thoughts about the music, the people I’d hung out with, being ‘just busy’, what that was doing to me and possible strategies for countering it all began to settle into different coloured layers. This process carried over into the morning – I nearly missed an announcement that my train had swapped platforms because I was cry-laughing about SONIC BOTHY again – and accompanied me back into real life.

So have things changed? A bit. That it took four months to finish this article is an indication of how little ‘spare’ time I still have (or perceive I have) but I also think it shows I’ve taken a healthier, less self-flagellating attitude to self-imposed deadlines. I’m still biting off more than I can chew but less frequently and I’m better at apologising when I do or avoiding it in the first place by politely saying ‘no’. I’m liberating as much life as I can – home, work, creative – from the tyranny of the ‘to do’ list. Mixed results, sure, but it seems to be a net positive. It’s funny, I always return from TUSK inspired but rarely can the lesson be stated so simply. Give yourself a chance: commit.

predictor fish 1

—ooOoo—

name your price – ‘value’ underground in the age of bandcamp

August 31, 2019 at 6:44 am | Posted in musings, no audience underground | 10 Comments
Tags: , , ,

name your price – ‘value’ underground in the age of bandcamp

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(Note 1 of 2: I started thinking about this piece almost a year ago – time passes as nothing, eh? – and have been inspired to dust it off and get it finished by RFM comrade Joe Murray’s article on ‘value’ in the no-audience underground published in TQ Zine issue #24.  Back issues and subscriptions available here.  Highest possible recommendation!

Note 2 of 2: I’ve illustrated this piece with some pictures of rocks I took on St Bees beach, Cumbria, during a recent holiday.  The alternative was screengrabs from Bandcamp which I couldn’t get to look interesting.)

—ooOoo—

In January 1990, as my 18th birthday present, my folks gave me a boombox incorporating a CD player – the first in our house.  The first disc I bought to play in it was i by A.R. Kane which cost, I think, about £12.  According to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator that is equivalent to an astounding £26 in ‘today’s money’.  In contrast, a while back I spent about £18 on the download of 50 releases by RFM favourite Stuart Chalmers.  I raised this money by selling downloads of most of my own back catalogue which I offered at a minimum cost of 50 pence for THE LOT.  As I started writing this article, noise Twitter was frothing over a deal whereby Kevin Drumm’s digital back catalogue of 113 albums could be had for $22.60 – 20 cents a pop.  And yet elsewhere I followed up on a random recommendation and found a physical release on tape that could be had for £6 but the download on its own was priced at a comically off-putting £1000.  Blimey!  What fuckery is this!?  In short: Bandcamp.  Its structure, its wild west pricing options, the implications of its very existence – raise all manner of questions about entitlement and respect, scarcity and giganticism, cost and value.  I’ll dance around the latter in this article.

In the last Zellaby Awards post, RFM’s round-up of the best from 2018, I said of Bandcamp that…

My routine is well established: during the day I follow recommendations, mainly garnered from twitter, dutifully keeping a browser tab open for each.  On retiring to bed those that are ‘name your price’ are downloaded to my ‘phone, either paying nowt or an amount depending on proximity to payday or whether my paypal account contains anything I can pass on.  Those that require a specific fee are placed on my wishlist, triaged and either discarded or purchased according to taste and resources.  Releases acquired this way are listened to mainly via (surprisingly good) wireless headphones as I nod off, walk to and from work or busy myself around the house.  The huge majority of my life in music is now comprised of this process and I find it magical.  The efficiency, the frugality with which I can navigate an unimaginable catalogue, dizzying myself with novelty, whilst offering direct support to artists (who are sometimes also friends) is borderline miraculous.  I guess I can almost still understand preferring the physical exercise of crate digging – the rush of discovery, the thwap of sleeve on sleeve, tape hiss or run-in groove crackle – but I’ve no time for anyone who scoffs at my alternative.  There are problems of course – some big – but that doesn’t stop this being the most interesting thing to happen to music distribution since the mainstreaming of digital piracy in the 90s.

Since then I’ve started the radiofreemidwich show and, to feed that beast, have added clicking on interesting looking ‘supported by’ avatars and seeing what those people have in their collections too.  I highly recommend doing this – it’s an excellent way of revealing connections between sub-genres and geographical locations.  I should also mention that – full disclosure – I’m not arsed with physical objects anymore.  All I really want is to hear the music.  Sure, I appreciate a thought-through aesthetic and packaging can be fun and/or impressive but if your object comes with a download code then, to be honest, what you are really selling me is a slip of paper elaborately presented in kipple.  OK, let’s crack on with the ISSUES.

Occasionally I see twitter threads by artists bemoaning the fact that they can’t make a living from their music anymore.  ‘We’ve spent $3k on equipment and Spotify pays pennies’ was the gist of one particularly mind-boggling one I read recently.  My initial reaction is almost always the same: ‘well, who asked you to?’  If Spotify had commissioned their album then refused to pay an agreed fee then, sure, the anger would be righteous but it’s never that.  It’s usually more a burning sense of entitlement, propped up by narcissistic solipsism, wishful thinking and some garbled pseudo-memory of the ‘good old days’.  ‘I work so hard at this’, goes the thought, ‘why aren’t I being paid?’ followed by lashing out at piracy or streaming services or ‘the business’ and doom-mongering about the death of new music or whatever.  Lucky for me, the definitive rejoinder to this shite has already been written.  Allow me to quote at length from the best thing The Quietus has ever published:

It surprises many people that members of bands considered successful are also in full-time work, which personally I love – no one has a god-given right to make money from entertainment and, arguably, to make money you have to sell a crucial part of what you do down the river.

Yet the structure of our world is so based around wealth. When I’m at work as a postman one of the first questions I get asked the morning after a Hey Colossus gig is: “What money did you get?/How much were you paid?/Did you lose money?/MONEYMONEYMONEY!” It’s how most people judge success and failure. The band I do, with five friends, makes no money. For 14 years we have made no money. Every single penny goes into recording and rehearsing and new strings and mending broken things. We all have jobs. We write and record music because it’s fun, we’re lucky enough to play shows throughout Europe and we’re over the moon to drive to shows and play to 30 people… or more if the weather is right/no other bands are in town/there’s nothing on telly (these are the top three Promoter Excuses, straight from the handbook). Kind people will put the show on and feed us and let us stay in their houses or put us up in the venue. We’ve stayed in squats with no toilets or showers and we’ve stayed in surprisingly swanky hotels (spending the night pinching ourselves and taking photos like tourists), but both are greeted with open arms. More often than not the squat sticks in your mind for a longer time, often for positive reasons. This network, a spider’s web, holds us up. It’s built over time, handed down through the generations. Money is nothing to do with what we do, and the minute it has anything to do with what you create you’re done for, you’re a spent force.

Inspiring stuff, eh?  This is a big chunk of a short article by Joe Thompson from the band Hey Colossus published in 2017 (which echoes thoughts I’ve published before).  I’ve always had a soft spot for this lot partly because my oldest friend, Tim Hall, used to be their drummer and partly because of this wholly admirable attitude (Joe has a book out about the band which I’m itchin’ to read).  I’m not sure I go the full Bill Hicks but Joe is pretty much right on all counts isn’t he?  Do it because you love it, do your best to make it sustainable: no-one has a god-given right to make money from entertainment.  This does not mean that it is OK for streaming services or unscrupulous promoters to rip people off, nor that money should never change hands, nor that grants or other financial help should never be available, nor that everyone is not entitled to a level of security and dignity no matter who they are or what they do (talk to Toby Phips Lloyd about that).  The answer to the question ‘Do they owe us a living?’ is, as we all know, ‘Course they fucking do!’ but those bewildered, angry artists on twitter aren’t arguing for universal basic income are they?  And if they choose to make selling their art crucial to their financial wellbeing then there are unpleasant consequences that the DIY scene, as personified above, doesn’t even have to consider because its priorities are elsewhere.

Bringing this back to the subject at hand, Bandcamp strikes me as a pretty solid attempt to square the circle.  Whilst casting side-eye at the cut taken by both Bandcamp and the egregious PayPal, this platform provides a way of expressing your support by buying from what is basically a digital merch stall.  Artists and labels get to sell their art on, more or less, their own terms (certainly less restrictive terms than are traditionally allowed) and pocket the dough, minus the rake.  This seems a healthy turn – sure, money is changing hands for product but the directness and immediacy seem to shift the emphasis from ‘selling something’ to ‘supporting the act’.  The exchange is disentangled from the ‘business’.  Which brings me to the strange and exciting topic of value in a world where cost is almost free-floating, attached to content largely by whim.

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It has always been the case that ‘success’ in what I have termed the no-audience underground is not measured by traditional material yardsticks.  There is no money, obviously, no fame, no retiring to a life of boat drinks.  I have spoken before about the true currency circulating being goodwill and it is more analogous to lifeblood oxygenating the scene than actual cash changing hands.  Joe Thompson mentions the wider DIY scene being ‘a spider’s web’ which is a poetic image and, I’d add, it is goodwill that keeps those freaky glands pumping fresh silk into the mesh, repairing holes and stringing new loops.  Whilst we do get very excited when something fantastic suddenly appears fully formed (*cough*) it is difficult for hype to take hold as kudos is garnered organically, through word of mouth and the hands-on involvement of scene members.  Thus respect has been (largely) uncoupled from competition and, as such, is both robust and available to everyone.  No-one gives a fuck about your sales figures.

Bandcamp’s flexibility in pricing allows for this attitude to be reflected and retained.  Whilst there are material factors that have to be considered when flogging physical stuff and no-one should begrudge anyone raising dough to cover costs and time, there is no further cost to the artist associated with selling digital copies of their work aside from the slice of pie that Bandcamp/PayPal take (I have concerns about the serious environmental impact of all that humming machinery in climate controlled server farms, of course, but am reluctantly leaving that to one side for today).  This has led to some bewilderment as a bunch of punks attempt to negotiate supply and demand at its most slippery, no more so when discussing the gloriously divisive ‘name your price’ option.  Before we hike into that wilderness, however, we have to examine a few of the other digi-sales strategies I’ve seen on Bandcamp.

The first is simply not to have any.  Take, for example, the wonderful Asta Taunus by Culver on Invisible City Records.  Craig of ICR has an exceptional ear and his roster is rock solid (including – full disclosure – me) but he won’t mind me saying that his ‘model’ is absolutely standard: everything listed on a Bandcamp page, physical editions of 50, name your price if you just want a download.  Lee Stokoe’s Culver fits right into the aesthetic but is resolutely, pathologically offline so what to do about the digital?  Easy – just don’t offer it.  No streaming previews, no download thrown in with purchase of the physical object, no download option at all.  If you want to hear it you buy the tape.  It’s perfectly possible to set up a Bandcamp listing like this and whilst it might aggravate us toga-clad future people with our ‘food pills’ and ‘flying cars’ and ‘smart phones’ there is a bloody-minded purity to it that I respect.

The second option for artists and labels who wish to prioritise physical editions over downloads is to create a regular looking listing but charge a comically enormous sum for the download only option.  For instance, after being transfixed by Yoni Silver’s performance at the Hijinks Ensue all-dayer at Wharf Chambers here in Leeds I rushed to Bandcamp to secure further listening.  Immediately I tripped over the solo album Ape on Hideous Replica, described as ‘strangulated bass clarinet’ – perfect! – but the download was priced at £666.  I get the joke and I guess it’s to encourage people to buy the physical edition but, oddly, a download is still included alongside any purchase.  The sidebar suggests that if a listener wants a download they should contact and pay the artist directly but no contact details for any artists are provided!  It’s on you, mate: off to twitter and google you go for a bit of stalking then send your sheepish email/DM explaining the situation and asking for a link.  Bit embarrassing, innit?  I suppose it could be argued that the artists thus have autonomy to set prices and benefit accordingly from the arrangement but they have chosen to go through a label and not self-release these albums so is it too much to expect the label to handle digital distro (which costs nothing) and some bookkeeping?  I’m not throwing shade here – Hideous Replica do fine work, releasing intriguing music by terrific people – just genuinely perplexed.  Hideous Replica already has a perfectly functional website on which releases can be bought without downloads and snippets can be heard via embedded Soundcloud links.  I understand wanting a presence on Bandcamp – it’s where it’s all happening – but why not just replicate this there?  Culverize the listings – no downloads, physical merch only – and include links to the Soundcloud snippets in the release descriptions.  It is also possible to have releases available to stream but not for sale or download, the only option being to ‘share’ it via social media.  Stick a link to the existing website for purchasers in the description and all bases are covered. Huge prices for downloads don’t make any sense.

So what would be appropriate?  Charging exactly the same amount for the download only option as for the physical object?  I’ve seen this many times and there is a near-Culveresque bloody-mindedness to it that I can almost get behind:

How much is the tape?

8 EURO

…OK, and how much is just the download?

8 EURO

…err, hang on a minute…

8 EURO.  8 EURO. THE COST OF DOING BUSINESS WITH US IS 8 EURO. 8 EURO OR FUCK OFF. CHOOSE.

…but there is something about this strategy that makes the outside corner of my right eye twitch.  Earlier I mentioned that nobody should grudge an artist or a label recouping costs when flogging physical goods but a flat price seems to ignore this reality. Producing and posting a tape involves time and money at each step, selling a digital copy of the same content (after the Bandcamp listing is created) does not.  As such, it’s hard not to think of yourself as a ‘mark’ if you don’t want the tape, a listener to be milked for max profit in order to subsidise those that do insist on their STUPID CLACKY PLASTIC BOXES.  *Sigh*.  Anyway, the best thing about divorcing price from production costs is that, for the first time so far, a notion of value independent of objects can be inferred.

Bearing that in mind, we move to what seems to be the sensible option but is actually the most philosophically interesting so far: selling downloads for what feels like a fair and reasonable fraction of the full price of the physical object.  The psychologically acceptable sweet spot seems to be around two-thirds, or half once postage is taken into account.  Thus if a tape priced at £6, or £8 including postage, has a download-only option on sale for £4 then we all fold our arms and nod in approval of this obviously fair and reasonable state of affairs.  There are no costs to cover so it is fair and reasonable that an amount accounting for those costs be removed from the price.  Simple, eh?  But there is a magical weirdness gathering in these sums.  If costs relating to production and distribution are removed, and what remains is not a joke (£666) or a denial of reality (8 EURO), then what is it?   I’m tempted to say what remains is an honest attempt to put a value on the content alone.  That £4 is for THE ART.  Thus art, in this case recorded music, is something that can be valued, and on this platform paid for, independent of the costs of production or the existence of an edition on a physical format.  The means of doing so – money – is crude but the principle is established, which is the philosophically interesting turn.

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Finally then, having hacked through all this undergrowth, we get to the jungle temple that is ‘name your price’ – the option to pay what you want for a download, which can include helping yourself to it ‘for free’.  The usual, expected exchange is financial, of course, and most seasoned Bandcamp users must have rules-of-thumb about what they can/will throw into the hat (see the account of my routine above).  However, this option is not universally appreciated.  I’ve seen one tweet calling for it to be axed (seriously) and other conversations in which punters have expressed unease that it is ‘on them’ to decide what a release is ‘worth’.  Not only that, it occasionally brings on a ‘quo vadis?’ moment of existential plummeting for some artists too: if a listener can legitimately offer no money in exchange for your work then why are you doing this, what even is it that you are doing?

I have some patience with the first of these concerns. If price is divorced from production then the listener is just as well placed to determine value as the artist or label so they need to think it through (or at least read to the end of this article) and figure out a responsible rationale for their consumption.

I have more sympathy for the second. If an artist or label has got as far as choosing the ‘name your price’ option then they are already likely beyond the whiny narcissism I dismissed earlier. I understand, though, that it can be disheartening to shape a work of art around your soul and have no fucker even tip you pence when taking a copy for themselves.  It is possible, I think, to wholly agree with Joe Thompson on why we do what we do, or with my account of the no-audience underground’s self sufficiency, and still be fed up about it because a) most people in noise are skint and b) the idea that value = money is so beaten into us by society.

This despair is often expressed in what I’ll call the ‘coffee argument’. People think nothing of dropping mad quids on unnecessary luxuries like, for example, fancy takeaway coffees but won’t pony up for music, goes the complaint. This always causes much puzzled head scratching on my part.

Firstly, no, they don’t. Well, some do, I guess, but speaking as a perpetually brassic music obsessive with family responsibilities I measure every purchase.  Secondly, if coffee was freely available from public drinking fountains it would not be unreasonable for people to take it.  Or, to use a more accurate analogy, if a bunch of coffee enthusiasts shared a coffee delivery platform on which they could offer the results of their experiments in roasting and blending to coffee drinkers in return for donations, we might expect the more palatable to take the largest share of the business and those that taste like sump oil and hagfish slime to find a niche audience of skint coffee perverts at best.

Thirdly it occurs to me that most of the art and music that has inspired me I’ve bought in sales, charity shops, second hand or bartered for.  I’ve also borrowed stuff from libraries and friends, soaked up what I’ve heard on the radio and seen in galleries and, of course, in the modern era helped myself to a lot of music via Bandcamp.  A work of art’s value to me seems to be an entirely separate matter to its originally assigned financial value.

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Which brings me, at last, the the point where I can name my price.  The first thing to say is that if I have any money spare then you are welcome to it.  Dipping into funds remaining at the end of the month to fuel a hobby that means the world to me or passing on anything in my PayPal account seems as natural as reusing jiffy bags and *ahem* unfranked stamps back in the pre-digital era.  I’m also more than happy to pay for compilations in aid of charity or help friends out who are in a financial bind by purchasing something if I can (*sigh again* one day I’ll fit into that medium sized Penance Stare t-shirt, ONE DAY).

However, in other circumstances I have no qualms at all at naming ‘zero’ as my price.  In doing so I mean no disrespect.  In the absence of available cash I’ll lean on other definitions of value and payment that are native to the DIY/no-audience underground scenes.

The first thing I can offer is barter.  I have dozens of releases available on Bandcamp – as midwich, as see monsd, in collaboration with others via my page and others – and almost all are freely downloadable.  I’d be delighted if you helped yourself.  It’s (almost) taken over from the archaic practice of swapping CDrs and tapes at a show as our way of shaking hands.  The most popular release I have posted, by some distance, is the midwich/earth trumpet collaboration which has been downloaded, at the time of writing, an amazing 139 times. Grateful as I am to the 12 punters who also paid money for it, I bear no grudge against the 127 who didn’t because, well, it’s like being given indulgences that forgive my own downloading-for-nowt of others.

More important than this possibly contentious notion of ‘credit’ is the pleasure to be had in knowing that someone is listening.  It might seem preposterous to say ‘I’ll pay for your download by listening to it’ but in our world, where projects can be profoundly personal and many attract a double digit audience at most, knowing someone is paying attention can be very gratifying and validating.

I use the word ‘attention’ deliberately because the quality of that listening is important too.  In the paragraph about my Bandcamp habits quoted earlier I mention listening on headphones as I go about my business but if, say, I am walking to work then aside from the 5% of my brain I am using to avoid treading in dog shit I am ALL YOURS.  In return for a download I offer full, respectful, contemplative, open-minded attention.

Which of course devours time, the most valuable currency of all.  As part payment for a download I will put down every concern I can let go of and give your music exactly the amount of time you have decided it needs. At least, usually more.  Think about the crap we wade through every waking fucking moment in order to survive and yet still being able to command a section of someone’s day like that.  It’s magical.

It needn’t stop with the time taken to listen attentively though.  To keep the goodwill oxygenating the scene, or the spider’s web in a good state of repair, part of the price of a free download is the tacit agreement to boost it if you dig it, to pay it forward.  Some cultural heavyweights might publish a blog running to three quarters of a million words amassed over a decade, or have recently started a modest but appreciated internet radio show on mixcloud but there is no hierarchy here and, frankly, a positive tweet is all it need take.  That’s how I find the majority of the new music recommendations I follow up on and taking part strengthens a virtuous circle linking both the new and the established.

Paying the minimum, 50p in the UK, is useful too if you can manage it.  A common gripe from artists is that they’d rather listeners just took their release for free instead of paying such a small amount but that is missing the point.  For those listeners with a Bandcamp account, doing this adds the release to their collection thereby making it more convenient to listen to (well, marginally – the Bandcamp app isn’t good), makes it viewable as a purchase to those browsing that collection and adds their avatar to the ‘supported by’ list.  As I recommended earlier, clicking these avatars and snooping around the collections of others is a great way of forging connections and, again, finding stuff new to you.  Yes, yes – you may roll your eyes at the jaunty email notifications Bandcamp sends about the 34p that’s on its way but perhaps instead you could try getting over yourself?  This is cheap, friendly gesture that benefits everyone.  That you get a share of what is basically a service charge is not a reason to moan and, despite it being tiny, once you’ve collected a couple you can do the same favour for someone else.

(Aside: a similar line can be taken on the purchase of whole digital catalogues at discounted prices.  I’d argue the main points of buying one is to get the lot into your collection, with the benefits described above, and to support the artist with a financial boost to morale.  It’s a show of good faith.)

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So where are we at? Has this all been a self-serving ruse to justify me being a cheapskate?  Hmm… perhaps I shouldn’t have planted that thought.  No, let’s say: no.  What I hope I have shown instead is that whilst money is, to state the obvious, useful, welcome and necessary if you wish to recoup the costs of producing physical editions, it needn’t be the the only measure of value in the DIY/no-audience underground.  Striking a balance is difficult, as the examples I’ve used establish, but it’s when we get to ‘name your price’ that the air-cushioned sole of theory meets the sticky pub floor of praxis.  Payment – any payment – being optional forces an examination of motives and priorities, both for artists and listeners.

Money can be offered, of course, but we also have the opportunity of reflecting the wider values that hold our scenes together.  Barter reinforces the non-hierarchical nature of our endeavour, attentive listening is profoundly respectful and nothing helps create and maintain bonds better than sharing your time.

I feel sheepish offering this as a conclusion, like I risk coming off as punker-than-thou or naively utopian, but, horrified at the shitstorm of venality that surrounds us in the wider world, it seems important to stress there are non-financial means of payment and of allocating value that are expressions of the same qualities that make our scenes so rewarding and joyous.  That I start each episode of the radiofreemidwich show with ‘Hello comrades!’ and end it with ‘be kind to each other’ is an entirely deliberate summary of my position.

In short: I put a gigantic value on our work, but not one that is reducible to money.

 

Rob Hayler, August 2019

—ooOoo—

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