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?

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