what i mean by the term ‘no-audience underground’, 2015 remix

June 14, 2015 at 11:20 am | Posted in musings, no audience underground | 8 Comments
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Bomberg,_David_-_Sappers_at_Work_-_Canadian_Tunnelling_Company

I haven’t written anything substantial about the term ‘no-audience underground’ for a while.  When asked about it I’m still referring people to the response I wrote to Simon Reynolds which was posted in October 2012 (and sometimes this post too from July 2013).  Plenty has changed since then, not least my own mind with regard to certain details, so here I’m going to rub the notion to a shine on the crotch of my cricket whites.  Let’s see if it still bounces in a usefully wonky manner.

[Note: this article is about 4000 words long so get comfy before proceeding.]

An appeal to authority

Firstly, I’m going to lay out a brief CV.  I wouldn’t normally bother – appeals to authority are both fallacious and a wanker’s move – but hopefully this piece will be read by people new to the blog and I’d like to summarise where I’m coming from.  OK, three paragraphs of cold, hard fact:

Hello.  My name is Rob Hayler and I am the editor of radiofreemidwich.  I am 43 years old and live in Leeds, UK with my wife and two year old son.  I work a moderately responsible, poorly paid clerical job in the public sector.  My politics are a confused mixture of hard left, anarchist and libertarian sentiments that can be summed up as ‘hypocritical ageing punk’.  For what it is worth, I have a masters degree in philosophy and a dilettante’s interest in economics and various aspects of culture away from music.  Despite being ‘high-functioning’ most of the time, I suffer with ever-present depression/anxiety which is occasionally debilitating (I’m off work with it now, for example.  This article was put together in lucid moments over a three week period).

Always a music fan, I became aware of noise, sound-art, experimental and free music (etc.) in the late 1980s and became seriously involved in the late 1990s.  I spent three or four years around the turn of the century helping run Termite Club, the legendary Leeds based gig promoter.  Around the same time I co-ran the influential CD-r micro-label fencing flatworm recordings and its tape-label offshoot oTo (a time documented by Bang the Bore here and here).  I have been recording and performing electronic music, mostly under the name midwich, on and off for fifteen years, have collaborated with the likes of Paul Harrison, Neil Campbell, Lee Stokoe, Daniel Thomas and Miguel Perez, have been part of the band Truant with Phil Todd and Michael Clough, and so on.  I have had a hand in well over 100 releases on, I dunno, 20 to 30 different labels.

After what was meant to be a brief break from music due to health reasons (that stretched on for nearly five years) I returned in 2009 with this blog.  RFM now garners between 2500 and 4000 visits a month and I have a team of five comrades contributing as well as writing myself.  The number of posts approaches 500, the number of releases reviewed is comfortably in four figures and the total number of words so far published is somewhere between 350,000 and 400,000.  Sometimes people say:

You should write a book!

…and I reply:

I already have, a fucking long one too.

There are other things I could mention – the eye for detail compilation, The Barrel Nut microzine, etc. – but you get the picture.  All these numbers, all this vigorous trumpet blowing, is presented as anecdotal evidence for the claim that I have some idea what I am talking about.

underground 1

What it means

In the year 2000 I coined the term ‘no-audience underground’ as a shorthand, catch-all description for the music scene I found myself in, specifically the type of gigs I was attending and the network of micro-labels, invigorated by the availability of cheap CD-rs, that fencing flatworm recordings was part of.

The music I was hearing ranged from the most delicate bowing of singing bowls to hour-long, incense-choked psychedelic happenings to three-minute PA-busting squalls of hideous feedback.  Nothing seemed to link these disparate sounds and performance styles other than they could be loosely banded together as ‘noise’ and that very few people seemed to be interested.  Thus, at first, the term was merely descriptive in a tongue-in-cheek manner.  I hoped the implied self-deprecation would counter its smart-arsed irreverence.  It was of a piece with other slogans that I entertained myself with at the time: fencing flatworm’s tagline was ‘loss leaders of the neo-radiophonics’, for example.  Sigh.  I look back with a weird mixture of pride and embarrassment, both as profound as each other.

Anyway, over the years, especially when revisiting the notion for this blog, the term has taken on, I hope, further depth and explanatory usefulness. Here there’s no reason not to quote myself from the Simon Reynolds piece:

…first I need to say more about another important meaning of ‘no audience’.  [Simon Reynolds] is worried that that a ‘transmitter requires a receiver’ and that there are too few of the latter around.  I’d reassure him that his concern is misplaced – it doesn’t work like that down here.  There is no ‘audience’ as such, in the sense of ‘passive receivers’, because almost everyone with an interest in the scene is involved somehow in the scene.  The roles one might have – musician, promoter, label ‘boss’, distributor, writer, ‘critic’, paying punter and so on – are fluid, non-hierarchical and can be exchanged or adopted as needed.  I must stress that this is not a snobbish clique of insiders obsessively tending to every aspect of their hobby (not a dirty word, by the way, who makes a living from experimental music nowadays?) but a friendly and welcoming group who have realised that if they want it to happen then they have to make it happen themselves…

…or, in a nutshell:

Thus, there is no ‘audience’ for the scene because the scene is the audience.

Catchy, eh?  I’ll spell out a couple of aspects of this in greater depth before going on to tackle some of the criticisms made and problems arising.

underground 2

Self-sufficiency, goodwill and relation to the mainstream

It goes without saying that there is next to no money available to prop up these endeavours.  Some may have principled objections to funding and sponsorship, all will agree that securing funding or sponsorship is no guarantee the final product will be any good (whilst shuddering at the memory of one Arts Council supported fiasco or another).  Most would probably dig a little help but can’t be bothered playing the game and find ways of getting it done regardless.  Thus saying the no-audience underground is self-sufficient is not to say that it is financially balanced.  If only.

There is a currency in circulation amongst us, however: goodwill.  From a piece called “our way of shaking hands”: trades and largesse in the no-audience underground I wrote in 2011:

…A certain amount of goodwill capital can be amassed but it can’t be hoarded in Scrooge McDuck-style coffers.  It needs to be fed and nurtured otherwise it will shrivel and wither.  Maintaining goodwill is more like tending a garden…

So why is goodwill so important?  Because money isn’t.  And here we need to consider the idea of trading off the standard indicators of success against others which may be more philosophically interesting.  Fame and wealth, as commonly understood, are not available to those pursuing fringe interests.  There is no screaming mob of fans to be milked dry of their pocket money with Astral Social Club 2012 calendars, there are no oligarchs wishing to be our patrons and, annoying as it may be when the rent is due, I suspect we sort of like it that way.  It means our ‘art’ and our ‘scene’, for the want of better words, can groove their own way uncompromised by non-artistic concerns…

Hence the prevalence of barter and other types of reciprocity that help keep the blood of the scene oxygenated.  This is a mechanism that nurtures self-sufficiency in the absence of money.

The term ‘self-sufficient’ can also be used to describe the drive with which many of these artists produce the work they do.  Some – most of the best – are compelled to create.  The absence of standard recognition might grate occasionally but is largely irrelevant.  These people do it because they have to or they love to or both.  That someone other than themselves might appreciate their art is great, of course – none of us are without vanity, but not necessary.  I know several people who, if shipwrecked on a desert island would be distracted from the business of survival by finding a shell that made an interesting noise when blown into…

Which brings me to the final point of this section.  If you asked our marooned friend what they thought was the relationship between their art and the mainstream I doubt they would even look up from the strange instrument they were fashioning from driftwood and seaweed.  There is a quaint, folk belief that a true underground should have some connection to the mainstream, ideally antagonistic – that underground culture should wish to change the mainstream, or at least to be a nuisance to it.  However, even allowing that such a nebulous, subjective thing as ‘mainstream’ could be usefully defined, I disagree.  There’s nowt noble about being a flea in the ear of an elephant.  Why waste time with the inevitable compromises that engaging with it, even negatively, necessitate?  I’d suggest that it is far more radical to ignore it and that is what many practitioners in the no-audience underground do – either as a matter of policy or, largely, by just shrugging it off as irrelevant.  What the fuck does the ‘mainstream’ matter?  We’ve got things to be getting on with.

underground 3

In summary, plus last toots on the self-congratulatory trumpet

So, the term ‘no-audience underground’ denotes a sub-section of the noise and experimental music scene which is largely self-sufficient due to its members being prepared to take on the roles necessary to get things done in a fluid manner, being receptive to the exchange of goodwill in the absence of money, being driven to create for reasons other than the standard measures of success and being largely indifferent to the mainstream, however you wish to define it.  Oh, and the number of people interested is enough to sustain it, more or less, but very small.

Exciting, eh?  I’m delighted to say that this notion has caught the imagination of some who have found it useful and/or, dare I say it, inspiring.  It has wormed its way into at least one PhD thesis and one MA dissertation that I know about and has been adopted for the title (and as one of the informing principles) of an ongoing research project that I have been interviewed for.  The idea has featured in sympathetic magazine articles and blog posts several times and, as has been previously noted, was mentioned in passing by the writer Simon Reynolds in his keynote speech on DIY culture at the Incubate festival in Tilburg.  My pride at the term being used by the Washington DC Sonic Circuits festival burst into unseemly joy when a parcel from musician and Twitter comrade Phong Tran arrived containing this item of clothing:

n-au t-shirt

What greater approbation could I desire, eh?  My contribution to cultural discourse immortalised on a T-shirt.  Nowt more affirming than that.

Criticisms and problems arising

That said, it hasn’t all gone my way.  When I first presented a fully fleshed out version of this idea I was, somewhat naively, unprepared for challenges.  I thought what I was doing was merely describing something I was involved with and found interesting and was expecting, if anything, wry smiles of recognition.  Pats on the back – that kind of thing.

Apparently what I was advancing, though, was actually a theory and one that some considered not to make sense, or to contain controversial normative aspects (translation: I was being a punker-than-thou prick) or, well, you know what that internet is like…

I have to admit I took it badly, personally – especially when my mental health wasn’t great – and my reactions have varied wildly from the highfalutin’ to way aggro.  It was, as it were, a picture painted from life and I didn’t relish people standing behind me going ‘nah, mate, your perspective is off‘.  I’ve calmed down now though, so in what follows I’ll attempt to be fair and measured as I think there has been plenty for me to learn.

i. Genre labels are unnecessary

I’ve had this a couple of times.  ‘I hate labels like this’ runs the criticism, ‘you just like something or you don’t’.  I admit I have some sympathy with the view that there are only two types of music: music that rocks and music that sucks.  Defining genres is a game played by critics (myself included) to provide the comforting delusion that they are guiding musical development and thus relevant and useful.  If the point had been ‘I hate labels like ‘extraction music” I’d have had to take that on the chin (yes, that is one of mine).  However, the term ‘no-audience underground’ does not refer to a genre of music – quite explicitly.  It refers instead to the assumptions and working methods of a group of practitioners thus this criticism doesn’t apply.  It would be like saying: ‘I hate labels like ‘stamp collecting’ or ‘racquet sports’ or ‘diagnostic radiography’, you either like it or you don’t’ – a mild type of what philosophy calls a ‘category mistake’.

ii. My characterisation of the scene is defeatist, negative and insular

Because I focus on self-sufficiency, indifference to the mainstream and so on I have been accused of being negative and defeatist.  ‘Surely,’ the argument goes, ‘there could be a wider audience for this work and turning your back to it is wilfully perverse.’  Whilst I wish anyone showing evangelical zeal the best of luck, I’m afraid I can’t agree for two reasons.

Firstly, many years’ experience as a promoter, artist, writer and whatnot have shown that it isn’t true.  There are peaks and troughs, of course, and special events such as festivals do attract more punters now that at any time I can remember, but a wet Wednesday night at the Fenton, say, has attracted a remarkably consistent number of paying punters for at least 20 years.  From an article I wrote called the rewards of no rewards: musings on no-audience economics:

OK, leaving London to one side as it has its own rules, experience has shown me that most UK conurbations of city-ish size can rustle up 20 people interested enough in the type of experimental music RFM covers to turn up to gigs.  10 or less if you are unfortunate, 30 plus if your scene is thriving.  Should you wish to perform in this ‘arena’ then these people are your audience: the subset of this crowd who can turn up on that evening.

Marketing and promotion do little to alter these numbers.  This is because music of this type will always be a fringe interest but that fringe is well-informed and inquisitive.  As long as the gig is plugged in whatever the usual places are then the cognoscenti will find out about it and do their best to roll up.

Secondly, I see being realistic about this situation not as defeatist or negative but as liberating.  From the same piece:

…because no one is interested in what we do.  There seem to be two possible reactions to this undeniably true conclusion: a) shake your fist at the gods and complain about the unfairness of your genius going unrecognised and unrewarded or b) take strength from its gloriously liberating implications.  I say go with the latter.

…if you are driven to create by an urge independent of possible rewards then you can do whatever you want purely for the love of it and only subject to the constraints that we have to accommodate in every other aspect of our lives (money, family, employment etc.).  This simple, eye-opening fact is truly heartening and this blog is testament to the many terrifically talented artists who are grasping this opportunity and wringing as much joy as they can out of it, sometimes in difficult circumstances.

The charge of insularity comes from those who worry that what I am describing looks like a clique or club, forbidding to the newbie.  I can understand that concern and attending a gig with a single figure audience comprised of people who all seem to know each other can be uncomfortable.  However, again, experience shows that the crowd, whilst undeniably odd, are a friendly and welcoming bunch.  People have their own way of doing things but offers of help are met with gratitude.  In fact, I have a little theory about why there are so few arseholes knocking around.  From ‘our way of shaking hands…’:

My guess is that there isn’t that much in the scene that an arsehole would be attracted to, or get off on.  There is no fame to abuse, no hierarchy to enforce, no money to waste, no club full of beautiful young things to enthral with shallow glamour.  Not much room for an arsehole to really flex its sphincter.  Now, it would be wrong to say the scene is without vanity but prestige and respect are earned from a down-to-earth crowd of hard-working and dedicated artists and punters and any attempt to assign it prematurely, or hype it up to unwarranted levels, will be met with a scoff … In short: our standards of success are unfathomable to the average fuck-knuckle and instead attract the fine, upstanding citizens who see the value in sharing their book-smarts and fancy-pants ideas with other fine, upstanding citizens.

*Sniff* I’m welling up…

iii. Who wants to go to a show where the audience are all musicians?

Ermm… yeah, this is a weird one.  Last December RFM started getting hits from the Italian language version of Vice’s music off-shoot Noisey.  Investigation revealed a link in an interview with David Keenan about his piece on the death of the underground published in the Christmas edition of The Wire magazine.  Noisey ask Keenan about the ‘no-audience underground’ and he replies something like:

…But that definition – No Audience Underground – note basically it means that the public going to the concerts is composed of people who are themselves involved in musical projects. And this is shit, let me say. If you want to go to a rock concert, I not necessarily have to be a musician, too, in the same way if I go to a movie, do not necessarily have to be a screenwriter. This is just another of the current issues of the underground: go to the concerts, and the public are all musicians … Fuck! When I go to a concert I want to turn off the neurons, listen and let me take the music, I’m not there to “study” because I am a worker of the sector.

(I say ‘something like’ because my Italian is fairly hopeless so I am relying on translation by web browser…)

First things first: props to Noisey for knowing about the notion and thinking to ask – very thorough – and to David Keenan who is a writer I have always found very inspiring even when I disagree with what he says.  However: this is bonkers.  Look back at my definition and you’ll see I am careful not to say ‘all’ but to qualify it with ‘almost’.  I also include ‘paying punter’ as one of the roles.  It is perfectly possible to be involved and/or show your support just by paying in and digging the show.  It is also, of course, possible to turn off your mind even if you are a musician.  Part of what I enjoy about drone, for example, is its capacity to dissolve ego and that I ‘know how it’s done’ doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it on the most visceral level.  I can lose myself even when performing.  Isn’t that the point?  Also, wanting to study doesn’t mean the experience can’t be freeing and joyful.  I remember Termite Club putting on Sunny Murray and half the drummers in Leeds literally sitting at his feet at the front – many were treating it as a lesson from an old master, all were ecstatic.  I’m afraid Keenan’s characterisation of my position is just wrong, as are the conclusions he draws – he doesn’t even knock over his own straw man.  I’m hoping that there was some sense in the original that has been lost in the translation.

iv. My definition is tautologous and thus has no content

…in other words: all I’m saying is that the people who make up the scene are the people who make up the scene and that isn’t very helpful is it?  The ol’ philosophy graduate in me was momentarily troubled by this one as it has the look-and-feel of a ‘proper’ objection from a dissertation supervisor.  However, I think there is enough information contained in the extended definition – implications about attitudes, working practices and the like – such that I can be confident I am saying something.  Whether it is of use to you is a different question of course.  A more philosophically interesting criticism is…

v. My definition could be applied to other endeavours and only relates specifically to this noise scene because I specify that it does

This is my favourite objection, in fact I consider it less an objection than an invitation for further anthropological study.  The idea is that the definition of ‘no-audience underground’ contains nothing that intrinsically links it to the noise scene I am using it to describe apart from my say so.  It could just as well be used to describe groups engaged in other endeavours with a similar spirit.

My response to this is to wave my hand dismissively, say ‘yes, yes, whatevs’ and demand to be shown these other no-audience undergrounds.  What an exciting idea.  Sure, I can see broadly comparable groups in, say, mail art, fanzine culture and other musical sub genres I come into contact with but what of, say, trainspotting?  Is there a group of self-supporting trainspotters, driven by a dedication to their hobby, indifferent to the false dichotomy of mainstream versus alternative trainspotting, just grooving their own way?  Wouldn’t it be intriguing if there was?  Well, it would be to me anyway.  I’m happy to concede this one and just ask that in return you send me a link to your research.

underground 4

The well-connected outsider

OK, so what now?  I suppose the biggest developments unaccounted for above are Bandcamp and social media.

There has been some grumbling that there is no true underground any more because everyone is busy with the social media circle jerk – being friendly, connecting with each other around the world, sharing things unmediated by the former gatekeepers and so on, but I think this is a red herring.  I consider myself to be fairly well connected with an email address, this blog and a Twitter account followed by around 300 people.  Given that Twitter has half-a-billion users this fraction is statistically indistinguishable from zero.  Seriously, with my social media presence if I really did want to antagonise the mainstream I’d annoy more people by coughing at a Laura Marling gig.  And yet here I am: punk as all fuck.  So, yes, it is possible to use social media without tarnishing your underground credentials.

Bandcamp is more interesting.  In the ‘documents of a golden age…‘ post I poke the notion of punk as ‘year zero’ with a stick then go on to say:

In contrast, the freedoms offered by the internet are greater by orders of magnitude.  Via services like Bandcamp any sound at all can be made available to anyone on the planet with an internet connection, at no unit cost to either the artist or the listener, within minutes of it being completed.  Punk couldn’t compete with that: it’s as transparently democratic, anarchic even, as it is possible to be in a ‘music-related’ context.  Sure, engage with traditional elements if you like (running a label, for example, is a fun thing to do and still one of the best ways of organising a cluster of artists who share similar objectives) but you don’t have to.  The extent to which you commit yourself is entirely your own concern.

Emphasis added.  The consequences of that freedom are still being worked through now, two years after I wrote that, in a scene that has never been healthier (couple of examples here – not without precedent, I admit, but you get what I’m getting at).

Exciting times, eh?

In conclusion

Y’know, I was going to end with a stirring, poetical, rhetorical flourish but the more I think about it the more humbled I feel to be part of the scene I have been describing and the more simple I’d like to keep it.

So: should the term I have been defining and defending be of use to you then feel free to make use of it.  More important is to acknowledge the amazing work that I am attempting to crowbar into this pigeon-hole and the amazing people creating it.  What a fucking great crowd this no-audience is.

—ooOoo—

liberation through a lack of interest: jorge boehringer on the no-audience underground

December 8, 2014 at 5:34 pm | Posted in musings, no audience underground | 5 Comments
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Jorge Boehringer, best known ’round these parts for his guise Core of the Coalman, is an indefatigable, shaggy haired polymath knee deep in all that is musically intriguing. When he got in touch recently to ask about writing an article on the idea of the ‘no-audience underground’ it was with great regret that I couldn’t find the time for an email interview. In contrast, I was knee deep in Duplo and nappies full of brightly coloured toddler crap. That wasn’t going to put him off though and, using a few links I desperately chucked his way and adding some original research of his own, he wrote it anyway. Good man. The finished piece appeared in Czech magazine HIS VOICE. Jorge explains:

…it is sort of like The Wire, it’s called VOICE – “his” Voice, which is a stupid name in English but it’s because h.i.s. stands for “hudebni informace spolecnosti” which means “musical information society” which is in fact a really important and great group of people for experimental music over there, a magazine of “other” music is what they call it…

Cool, eh? Ermm… probably. Alas, and to my shame, I can’t read a word of Czech so I had to sheepishly ask for a translation. Jorge obliged and I was flattered and excited to find that not only had he nailed it, but had called on some surprising sources new to me too. A flurry of interest on Twitter led to me asking permission to reprint it here and Jorge obliged again. What a gent. Following the article are the links that Jorge provided at the end of the original, following those are links to the magazine and Jorge’s own site. Please investigate – there is apparently plenty going on in the Czech underground that we should get to know…

Over to Jorge:

Liberation Through a Lack of Interest: The No-Audience Underground

there is no ‘audience’ for the scene because the scene IS the audience

– Rob Hayler, Radio Free Midwich

Rob Hayler is an electronic musician and sound artist working under the name Midwich. Hayler is one-half of Fencing Flatworm Recordings – a micro-label releasing a plethora of musical abstractions by various colourfully named personages – and editor of the blog Radio Free Midwich, which, among other things charts the development of a Northern England DIY experimental music scene that nobody cares about, and one that doesn’t care about anyone else either. In other words, Hayler is a very active example of the type of musician responsible for the local continuity of DIY and experimental music in his region, and by extension the sort of person one finds in the substrate of underground music scenes everywhere. What is different about Hayler, and according to him, many of the musicians whose work he is most involved with, is that they do not care whether I write this or not. They don’t care if you listen either.

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.

– Rob Hayler

Hayler coined the term ‘No-Audience Underground’ several years ago to describe a scene in which there were no passive listeners, but rather an energetic community of active contributors. It is no secret that the audience for many experimental music gigs consists of other musicians firstly, followed by a layer of artists from other disciplines, and then finally, perhaps a few “standard audience” members, by which I mean people coming to the concert simply to listen, with no personal artistic relationship to what is happening onstage. A friend of the bass player on holiday from Zlin, perhaps a colleague tagging along to the gig after a long shift at the ice cream factory, or someone’s mom account for this small percentage of listeners. Meanwhile the rest of the audience consists of people who might normally be found on a “guest list” for a mainstream band at a larger venue: the friends performing in or promoting next week’s concert, publishing the recordings, or writing criticism. As audience members are seen as active participants, the entire social role of the audience and the function of the music produced there is redefined:

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 … but a friendly and welcoming group who have realised that if they want it to happen then they have to make it happen themselves.

Video of Posset Live, Northumbria Arms, 2010

It is also interesting to note that whilst the idea of N-AU (an abbreviation for No-Audience Underground credited to Joe Posset, an extremely active Northern English noisist) could, in many obvious ways, counter views expressed by Milton Babbitt in his much sited essay “Who Cares if You Listen?” (High Fidelity, February, 1958) there are some important points of contact as well. For example, Babbitt expressed a problem in his essay’s exposition:

This composer expends an enormous amount of time and energy- and, usually, considerable money- on the creation of a commodity which has little, no, or negative commodity value. He is, in essence, a “vanity” composer. The general public is largely unaware of and uninterested in his music. The majority of performers shun it and resent it. Consequently, the music is little performed, and then primarily at poorly attended concerts before an audience consisting in the main of fellow ‘professionals’. At best, the music would appear to be for, of, and by specialists.

The solution to this problem, at least in part, has been to embrace electronic music. A practice in which the performer, composer, and audience could be the same person, in which the process of the creation of the work lay solely with the creator of it, and one for which the aesthetic criteria for the sonic artwork would be determined by the decisions and aspirations of the creative musician alone. These are approaches so common today as to be completely taken for granted as normal in the production of music as an independent artist, even though in context Babbitt worked in very much an ivory-tower studio while today’s experimental musicians materialize their noisy visions in their basements with charity shop cassette recorders and hacked guitar effect pedals.

In a society where artistic merit, or value in general, is conflated with perceived financial worth, it is interesting to note some commonalities in the approach to economic thinking expressed above by Babbitt, a largely “academic” composer working in the 1950’s and the heirs to an ostensibly post-punk/noise scene. For example, to again quote Joe Posset:

The trade thing is a bit ‘our way of shaking hands’. It’s also a great way to keep the filthy lucre out of the equation. I sold one CD-R on that last tour. Just one; and if I ever find out who bought it I’ll give them the next posset slop report just for showing so much faith. But I came back with a stack of CD-Rs, tapes and vinyl the height of medium sized milk jug through trades with other bands, DIY labels and well-prepared punters. They will keep me spinning & smiling until December….Sociologically ‘alternative economy’ is one of the many interesting things about the n-au.

Another perhaps surprising parallel can be seen in Richard Serra’s characterization of the relationships between sculpture, architecture, and late 20th Century Western Culture:

…the ‘viewer’ is fiction. Basically this is my response to sculpture. I know there is absolutely no audience for sculpture, as there is none for poetry and experimental film. There is, however, a big audience for products that give people what they want and supposedly need but not more than they understand. Marketing is based on this premise.

In terms of architecture right now, a lot of people have a need to build and a lot of clients are concerned with what is considered ‘relevant’. This creates a situation in which both client and architect receive criticism and advice on how to serve. Since there is no audience for sculpture or poetry, no one demands that they resist manipulation from the outside. On the contrary, the more one betrays one’s language to commercial interests, the greater the possibility that those in authority will reward one’s efforts. Architects have justifying phrases for this behavior. They call it ‘being appropriate’ or ‘compromising’. When Robert Venturi’s pylons for Federal Triangle in Washington, D.C., were criticized for not being symbolic enough, he returned the next day with the American flag atop each pylon. This is the kind of self-justifying pragmatic compromise I am talking about.

– Richard Serra, in conversation with Peter Eisenman, 1983

So then, the No Audience approach, as characterized by such diverse artists as Hayler, Babbit, and even Richard Serra, can also be seen as an approach of No-Compromise to market pressures, as compromises have been rendered entirely unnecessary, whether in regards to the pursuit of money or fame, the two indicators of value used to characterize mainstream artistic production. Thus, when the celebrated music critic Simon Reynolds characterized Hayler’s approach as “melancholic” at a conference on DIY art and media in 2012 at Tillburg’s Incubate Festival, and suggested that the No Audience approach symbolized a general tendency within DIY culture which threatens to bring about its own “inconsequentiality” by eschewing a dependency on an audience, Hayler responds:

Video of Simon Reynolds on DIY culture

The extent to which you commit yourself is entirely your own concern. You don’t have to sound punk either, or cop a snarling attitude. Simon Reynolds, betraying an old-fashioned punknosity, suggests the underground should define itself in opposition to the mainstream. Quaint, eh? In turn I’d suggest that it is far more radical to ignore it. The machine loves to be raged against – what it can’t bear is to be shrugged off as irrelevant. Which, of course, it is.

Thus, we engage and commit ourselves to the level of our own concern, and determine our own degrees of engagement and interest in our artistic pursuits, which, after all, is what a whole lot of both post-Romantic and DIY post-punk rhetoric suggests that participation in music and art are all about. The No-Audience Underground further suggests a framework for engagement with society as a whole, and a liberating way of being in the world, in which each individual constructively opts-out, and while developed locally, it is interesting to consider that such an approach could have radical and global relevance.

—ooOoo—

Links included with original article:

Rob Hayler

Radio Free Midwich

Joe Posset

Kieron Piercy/Spoils and Relics

Cops and Robbers: DIY Gigs in Leeds

Eddie Nuttall/Aqua Dentata

Milton Babbit “Who Cares if You Listen” High Fidelity, 1958

Daniel Thomas/Sheepscar Light Industrial

Ashtray Navigations

Andy Robinson/Striate Cortex

Sara McWatt

Simon Reynolds on the No Audience Underground and DIY Culture, Incubate Festival, Tillbur, 2012

Some Radio Free Midwich articles of note:

https://radiofreemidwich.wordpress.com/2012/10/07/simon-reynolds-diy-culture-and-the-no-audience-underground/

https://radiofreemidwich.wordpress.com/2013/07/29/documents-of-the-golden-age-new-from-ashtray-navigations-aqua-dentata-and-helicopter-quartet/

https://radiofreemidwich.wordpress.com/2011/11/28/our-way-of-shaking-hands-trades-and-largesse-in-the-no-audience-underground/

—ooOoo—

Further links:

Jorge Boehringer / Core of the Coalman

The original article in Czech

HIS VOICE magazine

 

 

documents of the golden age: new from ashtray navigations, aqua dentata and helicopter quartet

July 29, 2013 at 7:30 am | Posted in musings, new music, no audience underground | 7 Comments
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Ashtray Navigations – Insect Descent (CD-r, Obsolete Units, OU-042, edition of 100)

Aqua Dentata – Ten Thousand Wooden Faces (CD-r, Echo Tango, etc02)

Helicopter Quartet – Where Have All The Aliens Gone? (self-released download)

ashtray - insect descentaqua dentata - ten thousand wooden faceshelicopter quartet - where have all the aliens gone

Musing on the quality of the releases above, and on the methods by which they found their way to me, led me to revisit some comments made by Simon Reynolds in that speech we talked about last year.  In particular, the bit where he seemed to champion the freedoms won by punk whilst being suspicious of the freedoms allowed by the internet.  He also bemoaned the lack of an audience for the avalanche of creative endeavour that is instantly accessible nowadays.  He worried that all this production needed validating by sufficient consumption and that the required level of consumption just wasn’t there.  Hence his reference to my notion of the ‘no-audience underground’.

Regarding the first worry, well, of course we should all be grateful to punk for wresting the means of production (partially at least) from the majors of the mainstream.  It showed that the music ‘industry’ could be run by and for fans and artists.  May I cheekily point out, however, that all the elements that made up the mainstream music industry were retained by punk: releases, tours, press, promotion etc.  Even, in some cases, old-school bullshit like management and contracts.  The fan/artist (stage/pit) divide was made more permeable but wasn’t eliminated.  That these means were co-opted by people who weren’t godawful wankers and who really cared about the music and the politics is not the same thing as jettisoning them altogether.  I realise that I am being naughtily revisionist in doubting the ‘Year Zero’ status of punk but you know what I mean.

In contrast, the freedoms offered by the internet are greater by orders of magnitude.  Via services like Bandcamp any sound at all can be made available to anyone on the planet with an internet connection, at no unit cost to either the artist or the listener, within minutes of it being completed.  Punk couldn’t compete with that: it’s as transparently democratic, anarchic even, as it is possible to be in a ‘music-related’ context.  Sure, engage with traditional elements if you like (running a label, for example, is a fun thing to do and still one of the best ways of organising a cluster of artists who share similar objectives) but you don’t have to.  The extent to which you commit yourself is entirely your own concern.  You don’t have to sound punk either, or cop a snarling attitude.  Simon Reynolds, betraying an old-fashioned punknosity, suggests the underground should define itself in opposition to the mainstream.  Quaint, eh?  In turn I’d suggest that it is far more radical to ignore it.  The machine loves to be raged against – what it can’t bear is to be shrugged off as irrelevant.  Which, of course, it is.

The second worry seems to be based on a misunderstanding of why we do what we do.  If we instead take as read that the primary purpose of most worthwhile creative endeavour is self-expression then this concern just dissolves.  ‘But where are the fans?’ Simon says, ‘what do you mean ‘fans’?’ I reply, looking up from the keyboard and glancing nervously over my shoulder.  It is lovely to have an appreciative audience, I understand this – I’m as vain and needy as the next guy, but this is a secondary concern.  In fact, aren’t we supposed to be suspicious of ‘art’ created with the audience in mind, that is, with an eye on the market?  Isn’t that what we call ‘product’?  Not very ‘punk’ is it?  Sure, I’ll settle for market-driven pabulum if I find myself in an undemanding mood but I’m equally sure that the stuff featured on this blog is created without any concern for how many ‘units’ it might shift.  We all appreciate the occasional reward – we work hard – but no one here needs a fist-pumping crowd to validate what they do.  A friend joked the other day that the ratio of artists to listeners on Bandcamp is 10 to 1, then was careful to add: which is how it should be.  I agreed, laughing.  The production of all this work is, in and of itself, a terrific thing.  What should we be doing instead?  Passively consuming CDs recommended by veteran cultural commentators presumably.  Ugh: boring.

So why rake over these coals again?  Well, these three releases nicely illustrate three choices about levels of commitment to the process, and give three crystal clear examples of the majesty that can be achieved by people following their vision irrespective of whether or not it will ‘sell’.  All are also expansively psychedelic, albeit in different ways, and thus suitable listening during the recent heat.

Ten Thousand Wooden Faces by Aqua Dentata comprises five untitled tracks totalling about three quarters of an hour.  They are presented to us by Eddie Nuttall himself via his ‘echo tango’ imprint on CD-r in the stylishly minimal, ‘wood grain’ print cover pictured above.  Once again I am impressed with his exquisite discipline.  This is electronic noise as tai chi performance: poised, muscular, subtle, focussed.

The first track features not much more than a tone hovering at midriff level whilst a rolling rattle seesaws to and fro around the stereo field.  I have no idea what the sound source for this liquid clatter might be but it calls to mind happy hours from my early childhood spent dropping endless marbles down a homemade run constructed from bits of cardboard and sellotape.  The six year old’s equivalent of meditation.  The second track is almost modernist in its austerity but I find this drone soulful and not the slightest bit academic or aloof.  It is like a Beckett play – formally minimal, intensely human.  The third track finds the gradual smearing of an early morning burglar alarm reconceptualised as the centrepiece of Eddie’s album.  Context is everything – sat here it is perfect.

The main event is the fourth track: an 18 minute stretch so magnificent that I feel compelled to coin a new sub-genre to account for it.  I used the phrase ‘tethered crescendo’ in the piece I wrote about Lucy Johnson but would like to flesh it out here.  What I mean is the type of piece that exists in an uneasy stasis and gives the impression that it could roar into chaos if it wasn’t being held delicately but firmly in place by the guiding hand of the artist.  I picture Eddie struggling with a sack full of drunken wasps or holding his hands stock still over a crackling, multipronged, malignant-looking, sentient Theremin.  We end with a short coda of dangerously wet electrics which, inevitably, short circuit and leave us in ozone-scented darkness…

Where Have All The Aliens Gone?, the new album by Helicopter Quartet also comprises five tracks totalling about three quarters of an hour, this time self-released as a pay-what-you-like download via Bandcamp.  It is fair to say I swooned over the first Helicopter Quartet album and I have been quivering with anticipation since hearing that the duo of Chrissie Caulfield (violin, synth) and Michael Capstick (guitar, bass) were recording their second (y’know, in a studio and everything, like a real band).  Expectations were high and I’m happy to say that they have been comfortably exceeded.

Their sound (‘drone rock’? ‘dark ambient’? I don’t know) is dense and rich, each element absorbing in its own right, all contributing to a mysterious but coherent whole.  It is like finding an ornately inlaid wooden casket containing a collection of exquisitely handcrafted objects: what might be a bear, carved from obsidian, a female form cast in an unplaceable grey/green metal, an abstract pattern, possibly even unreadable script, scrimshawed onto yellowing bone.  All irresistibly tactile, all fascinating, all revealing aspects of the character of the unknown and long dead collector who gathered them together.

It is cliché to describe simplicity as ‘deceptive’ and efficiency as ‘ruthless’ but both phrases are perfectly apt in this case.  There is no waste, no let up, the emotional demands of this music are unmistakeable.  Despite the jokes about torturing aliens on its Bandcamp page, this is a deeply serious music but, like Aqua Dentata above, it is epic on a human scale.  Allow me an anecdotal illustration.  The other day I found myself walking home from work chewing over some difficult news.  No need for specifics – suffice to say that aged 41 years old I find myself surrounded by young children, elderly relatives and am occasionally (still) shocked by mortality and frailty in my peer group. In short: I am now a grown up.  This album was playing on my walkman at the time and it resonated so perfectly with my mood that at one moment – it could have been the violin’s entrance in the title track, maybe the guitar in ‘Hunter Gatherer’ – it pulled at me so irresistibly that my mental jenga pile collapsed and I found myself crying, hard, whilst waiting to cross a road at Sheepscar junction.  Remarkable.  I think HQ can consider that a standing ovation.

Finally, we have Insect Descent by Ashtray Navigations, a pro-pressed CD-r in full colour digipak lovingly produced in an edition of 100 by American label Obsolete Units.  Yet another five track album but this one is a monster 73 minutes long.  The music herein was recorded by Phil solo (can I make the ‘on his todd’ joke?  Hah! – I just did!) back in 2008 but, mysteriously, has languished unreleased since then.  I don’t know the story but no matter – all’s well that ends well and we should thank Obsolete Units for doing their duty in making it available.

We begin with ‘The Trail Of The Long Wet Mystery Fruit That Dropped Into The Lion’s Mouth’, two minutes of scene setting psychic alarums – the kind that might go off in your head when you realise you’ve just taken twice as many magic mushrooms as you originally intended.  We are then launched into ‘Insect Descent Trajectory’ which is 12 minutes of orgiastic delirium.  Picture a neon-lit pit full of writhing, multi-limbed, demigods wearing nothing but day-glo body paint.  Every protuberance is for fucking with, every crevice and orifice is to be fucked.  Yeah, Phil uses the medium of the guitar overdub to paint a vivid scene.  The bip-bop, electronic percussion track that accompanies the squalling is hilariously strutting, bad-ass, daring you to laugh at its rinkydinkyness.

The wet electrics that ended the Aqua Dentata album resurface as the main component of ‘One Million Pleasurecards All Painted White’ – 23 minutes of guttural rumble, like the drainage system of a large, Northern, post-industrial city attempting to clear its throat before announcing something important.  This growling throb is leavened by guitar occasionally bobbing to the surface – giant fuzzy dice emerging miraculously unsullied from an oil-slick filled bay.

By the time we get to ‘Fake Aeroplane’ the mushrooms from earlier have well and truly kicked in and you find yourself fried and sitting on a park bench at 4.30am. “Up!” you murmur and the bench launches into the air, “vroomm!!” you suggest and the bench flies you towards the raspberry dawn.  “Somewhere nice please,” you politely request and, after fifteen minutes of blurred landscape below, you land gently in the setting for the final track. ‘Sweeping Song’ is a masterfully sustained 20 minutes of blissed-out heat, tropical but made comfortable by a sea breeze.  It is the aural equivalent of laying on your back, spread-eagled, on a beach and slowly working your fingers and heels into the sand.  The rhythm track that starts, somewhat surprisingly, at around 14 minutes marks the dawning realisation that this might be the most awesome afternoon of your life…

So there we have it: three album of the year contenders in one blog post.  One available direct from a terrific microlabel, the others direct from the artists concerned.  You don’t even have to pay for the Helicopter Quartet album if you have nowt spare (though please bung ’em something if you can – it is well worth a donation).  All done for the love of it, because the drive to do it is irresistible.  All created outside of any commercial concerns and with little, if any, reference to ‘the mainstream’ at all.  Never mind the music industry, here’s the life affirming genius.

Truly, people, we live in a golden age.

Aqua Dentata

Helicopter Quartet

Obsolete Units

simon reynolds, diy culture and the no-audience underground

October 7, 2012 at 9:45 am | Posted in musings, no audience underground | 20 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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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