May 30, 2014
It is a constant and consistently depressing truth that hard-won freedoms come with what seems like an obscenely disproportionate price tag. Ask anyone caught up in the horror of Baghdad or the nightmare in Homs what they crave for most, liberty or subjugation, and they will probably find the question irrelevant. They ask for respite and we give them a polemic to chew on.
Increasingly though, it seems that the cost of compliance is becoming similarly oppressive, equally unaffordable and ultimately untenable. All over the world, the price of labour is being driven into the ground as the gains of capital become grotesquely bloated and narrowly defined. Just when we thought the race to the bottom was over, it turns out we have a few more circuits to run. That leaves the poorest of the poor with a simple enough choice to make: which master will be the one to enslave them.
If this all seems remote to your own experience then I would ask you to ponder this. There is more than one common thread linking the global problems that “we can’t do anything about” to the very real on-going recession and the fake recovery in the UK. They include, but are not limited to, retention of capital funds that might usefully be invested in social portfolios, barriers to free and unfettered social enterprise, diminished opportunities for the individual and cultural atrophy.
Now, most of us in these as yet Un-splintered Isles are not eking out a living by crawling over mountains of garbage, or standing in an eternal line amidst the rubble of our homes waiting for water. We at least have a bare minimum of gas, food and lodgings, and of course debts. We have plenty of those and, as every fatuous politician in Westminster is wont to say, we cannot sustain them. And here is where the first thread finds the eye of a needle. What exactly do they mean by “we”?
This is the time of me, not we. Surely anyone can see that. We don’t want a nanny state (we are told), paternalistic employers are quaintly out-dated (we are told) and the police have better things to do besides keep the peace (it is said). Perhaps this is why the new model states we see around the world are copycatting each other like crazy. Theirs is a state is there to direct not to serve, employers are there to serve shareholders and the police are there to protect both of them from their disenfranchised citizenry. Now, if you are just a singer in a rock n roll band then you could ask, with some justification, “what has all of this got to do with me?” Well, you’re the one who started it, with all your starry talk of record contracts and a career in the music industry. Hardly a day goes by without forensic examination of the corpse of the major label business model. Yes, we know what is killing music. We get it. But the things that are killing your music are the same things that are killing real people elsewhere. They are underpinned by the politics of control through exclusion, and that despicable game is far from over.
The music industry was never very attractive, but it has morphed into something quite different as it marches into the 2020’s with its tunnel vision fixed firmly upon the approaching endgame. It is a hollow being covered in a thin, eggshell patina of faded glamour that only a child would find enthralling. That is why mainstream music is not music at all. It is as synthetic as cheese slices and just memorable on the palate. Poptart downloads are packed lunch snackables that are neither offensive nor nutritious, but our young, especially our young, have to be weaned off them. Music is made somewhere else. It is made in the music community and that is where it is heard, celebrated and preserved. Naturally, a community is something that cannot easily be incorporated. Sometimes, an artist, a group or an ensemble may have enough longevity and continuing relevance to become their own franchise. In other cases, the people who think in terms of gated compounds for a ruling elite think the same way about subsidy for higher artistic forms. It can’t be helped that they do not understand the mutability of those forms. Art should not and (arguably) cannot be corralled, and that is why it thrives when it is free to roam. If it is not liberated, then the result is art and culture that we are condescendingly given and not the kind we create for ourselves.
So, now you know you are on your own in a state of independence with all its scary heights and dungeon-black lows. The alternative may be worse still. You may find yourself knocking on a door that will never be answered. This is not because you didn’t knock loudly enough, or knock in quite the right way. You will not be answered because there is no one there to come to the door. If you stand there long enough, all those auto-response, do-not-reply out-of- office emails will suddenly start to make some sort of perverse sense.
There is, however, a massive chasm-wide distinction between a state of isolation and a state of independence. Nothing can happen where there is nothing for your actions to act against. The level and quality of communication via the Internet offers connectivity and insularity in equal measure. You may join a social group but you must abide by their strict terms. You can share as much as you like but it will not be long before you reach the limits of tolerance among your virtual audience. That’s about as open ended as we get, and all the time the platforms we use are being reconstructed into cages under our feet. The web has liberated us only as far as the next stockade, but there may be still be time to spring ourselves from the trap.
I hear wonderful songs and great music all the time, and I do understand the value that artists place on mainstream media exposure, and the reach that is still enjoyed by outlets like the Guardian and the BBC. I am not inclined myself to storm any citadels any time soon, for I have always found the love of the common people beyond those moated enclosures quite sufficient. Once upon a time beyond the city walls, a settlement became a hamlet that became a village that became a rare old toun. This is already happening as networks develop amongst real people with common cause in real places, particularly at smaller festivals and gatherings. There are some fantastic civic venues but they need to be populated more frequently and much more representatively. This activity needs to be ramped up in scale, and with wholehearted support from those who are in a position to empower. There is money in this country that is under lock and key in both the private and public sectors, and it should be released more freely. National lottery funding needs to be guided by a visionary strategy for re-establishing civic amenity, civic inclusivity and civic access. After all, it is money that was embezzled from a gamble-unaware section of the population least able to resist its mendacious allure. I would argue that the result will be a sense of opportunity, awareness of new possibilities and the restoration of civility. Hell, they might even reinstate our libraries to their former glory.
Of course there have been and continue to be flagship capital projects that seem to satisfy and disappoint in almost equal measure. A large, new museum in your hitherto overlooked town may or may not receive matching funds; it may or may not re-boot a local economy, and it may or may not kick-start town centre regeneration. But is that a strategy?
Nature, well-known in town planning circles, abhors a vacuum but property developers do not. They can squat on empty spaces for whole generations at a time and it matters not to them whether the good ground is scarred, screed or grassed over. We may well ask ourselves, having already found our beautiful cars and our beautiful homes, “Where is my beautiful venue set in its own gardens, with its six days a week programme of affordable events that is noted for hosting community projects and initiatives.” Where venues have been built (often as over-sized and grandiose mega gestures), their operators are rightly asking, “where are my operational funds to run this place on behalf of the community it is supposed to serve?” From the marketplace? Oh, do come on.
I do not expect artists and musicians who have become self-directed out of necessity to relish their independent status. Neither should they be dependent on society for gratuitous hand-outs. But a civilized society is dependent on artists and musicians to give much greater meaning to its existence, whether it is inside the citadel or beyond the city walls.
The engagement at civic level, and with private sector partnerships, must be based on a radically altered conversation about what we can do as opposed to what we cannot do. Many hard-working people do this already. Far from disregarding their considerable efforts, I am pressing for far greater support for them, and for that support to be radically opened up. Our society has to re-learn the true value of music through constant exposure using a variety of media. That means less reliance on manipulative Internet platforms and more investigation into the creation of bespoke means of distribution. This is the stumbling block for all of us. The means of distribution has to be re-built from the rubble left by the destructive force changes wrought by web commerce. The means of production, vexed though it may be, is less problematic than getting the music out there and turning passing interest into loyal and engaged audiences.
At the moment, web media and marketing are managed inconsistently across the artistic diaspora. That will correct itself as the web creation tools become easier to use and/or the price point for such services gets more realistic. Perhaps even more importantly than that, artists and collectives need to think hard about consolidating connections with each other and empowering capital to share and act upon anything that offers their community more control over distribution.
It is the only way to separate music from industry product, and that is why it requires institutional intervention to match community level enthusiasm. The alternative is a nomadic and despised minstrel community wandering through a pale, grey country of the culturally blind and the musically deaf.
Michael S. Clark