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Idea: From the Lips of Momus

Base: Music Discussion
Keywords: Music and plurality
Date: Sun, 15 Dec 1996 08:34:36 GMT
From: unknown

Imagine Elvis never happened. Imagine Elvis Presley recording all his music for a dollar in the little booth where he cut that first 78 for his mother's birthday. And imagine a music industry which, instead of investing in a single massive star called Elvis, distributed ten thousand stars, all recording for a dollar, in totally different styles, all appealing to small, highly self-conscious cults in a fragmented society. A society in a state of fabulous confusion, exploding into fragments. Our society, now.

The music industry is changing organically, adapting to this new world of 'cults' -- tribes discovered one by one by the pioneering independent labels of the 70s and 80s. But many major labels still operate in the old way, investing huge sums in relatively few groups which they then try to bludgeon us into accepting as stars on the old model, acts which must cross over to the 'mainstream' or be dropped.

Why not spend less on more groups and market them more selectively than in the old monopoly days, when there was literally only the choice between Omo and Daz, or between the Beatles and the Stones? But the old ways die hard.


In the nineties things are very different. Society is fragmenting, the economy is contracting - - and computers are exploding the old order at several crucial points of the music business.

Making music: computers and samplers make it possible for anyone to make music. User Friendly MIDI computer systems are now cheaper than electric guitars, and you can record 16 bit digital sound at home. The results don't have to sound like Gary Numan either - - advances in hard disc recording technology now allow you to store up to 8 tracks of entirely acoustic sound in memory, monkey around with them, redraw them on screen, then master your CD directly from the computer: recording budget precisely zero.

Distribution: whereas in the old days shop managers could only hold general trends and blunt
maxims in their heads; (' The Jackson 5 are good sellers'), now detailed computer stocktracking TELLS the chain that they can always sell two Ofra Hazel records in Stornoway. Small fluctuations in taste are the important thing. Benetton have pioneered this, changing product lines in each retail site according to sophisticated information on what's selling where. Benetton also showed that consumer responsiveness goes hand in hand with an advertising celebration of the pluralism of their market. Gays and blacks became visible in Benetton ads because they were visible in their stock tracking technology. No matter that the rhetoric is one of unity . The 'United Colours of Benetton' are not united by having only one style of jersey to choose from. They are united because their very different tastes can be catered to by one chain. The new capitalism is based on the customising of products and the differentiation of markets. In other words, on the recognition of 'cults'. Where can I get a woolly hat like the one the guitarist in the Red Hot Chilli Peppers wears in the �Under the Bridge� video'?

Consumer choice: computerised digital media are replacing the 'shop window' function of radio and TV music coverage. The French music chain FNAC already has a digital listening post service which gives a forty second sound snapshot of every piece of music in stock, along with a digitised view of the cover artwork. It won't be long before this service will be available on your domestic TV. And the middlemen, the radio producers with their A lists and B lists, the store managers who decide from a wealth of experience (or prejudice) what the public would like, and how many copies would sell, will disappear. Music will be sold as digital information passed down optical cable directly to the home. People will become aware that there are musics much closer to their own needs and dreams than they had been allowed to believe.

Meanwhile CD ROM and desktop publishing are providing ways for ever-smaller musical tribes to beat their talking drums, to establish networks.


The feeling I get when I walk into a record shop is not that there is a battle of titans 'clashing for the number one spot'. That is the model of the old monopoly capitalism. Entering a record shop now, a good one like Tower or the Virgin Megastore, is like standing in C.S. Lewis's Wood Between the Worlds, where you can pick a pond and enter one of an infinite number of worlds at different stages of their evolution.

In the Wood Between the Worlds I can pick up someone's personal universe, take it home, swim about in it. How do the artists dress? What do they believe? What political utopia can we project from their sound, their lyrics? Where do they live, and what's it like to live there? Do they accept their original social role, or are they pretending to be something different? Do I admire them, straight up? Or are they charismatically raffish, low and immoral? What would they be like as sexual partners? Have they built an original world or are they just sitting tenants in someone else's prefabricated dreamscape? Will my Muslim girlfriend like them? Will I be tempted to sample their rhythms and pass them off as my own?

But the least interesting question, a question by now ridiculous and boring, is whether this group will be the new Beatles, whether they will 'cross over' and 'hit the number one spot'. Of what possible interest is it to me whether this group sells more than some different group working in a different style, supported by different music publications and appealing to a different cult?

In America, Britain, Europe there is no longer any such core. We still have the charts, but no-one seeing Snap cheek-by jowl with Genesis could imagine them to be playing anything like the same game. The sales which rocket them into apparent competition represent the scattered purchases of countless unrelated tribal subcultures of all ages and classes: rave kids, accountants, grannies, African students, indie/dance cross converts... No wonder poor old Top of the Pops, still clinging to a Reithian, pre-cable notion of One Nation, one 'pop' audience, is in such trouble. How do you show the same studio audience bopping to Mariah Carey and Altern 8? It's ridiculous even to try. That's why even the Chart Show can't succeed. And why radio is doomed. Will Prodigy fans sit quietly through Belinda Carlyle's new epic waiting for their cult hero's latest 185 BPM offering? At the moment they have no choice. But the new technology will shortly spare them their boredom.


It's not only essential to see that there are other racial and cultural realities in Britain, and that none prevails with unchallenged legitimacy, posing as some spurious 'mainstream'. It's also crucial to see that just because someone is black, it doesn't follow that they will produce or consume pop in a 'black' idiom. The new tribes or cults operate by what you could call 'elective affinities '. There is room for freedom and play in our decision to try one cult, with its attendant lifestyle, rather than another.

We all feel the pinch in the toe of our social roles sometimes. Rob Gallagher of Galliano propounds a black worldview. He is a white Londoner of Irish extraction. Barry Adamson, a black Mancunian, writes in the style of John Barry, the white film composer. His record label, Mute, run by the British-Jewish Daniel Miller, is often called 'Teutonic'. We live in an age where we can design our own cults, and, if we wish, narrow our minorities down to one. 'I think I�ll be the first white reggae artist to record in Japanese.' 'I think I�ll be the first Finnish indie rock crossover fan to get into Johnny Clegg.'

Morrissey is undoubtedly right that there will be no more 'famous international playboys', although he's wrong think himself one. Morrissey is rather one of the first of the new breed of figureheads for small, culty, fragmented audiences. Your Granny liked The Beatles, she didn't like The Smiths. The Beatles were 'mainstream', then lived through the explosion of that world of synthetic unity. You can hear it dying on the �White Album�. How could the mainstream contain both 'Blackbird' and 'Revolution No 9'?

The future will be a lot of musical shrapnel all travelling in different in directions away from the sixties. It will be acts like Morrissey and Nirvana and Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, each at the helm of autonomous little cults (or big cults). 'What music do you like?' will become a delightfully divisive and dangerous question. And the old unifying stars like Madonna and Michael Jackson will be seen as the last of their kind, global monoliths, relics of an age of monopoly capitalism which has been smashed to smithereens.

I don't think we're going to miss the big stars. Look at the things they had to do to court the mainstream. Elvis Presley hijacked the forms of black music and took them to the white audience. (In our time Vanilla Ice tried to do the same thing with rap but couldn't. Rap is too militant, and white music - increasingly retrenching in the US into its most racial form, country - can no longer claim to be the all-absorbing mainstream now that whites are just another minority).

Elvis publicly joined the army, made awful Hollywood films, couldn't face stardom and died a bloated mess. Is it hard to see the pressures which have made Jacko 'whacko'? Stars aspiring to 'mainstream' appeal have had to resort to increasingly ridiculous tactics. Michael Jackson has to be both black and white, and has become increasingly implausible to both races.

How many more performers must be sacrificed on the altar of our nostalgic wish to see 'one nation under a groove'? To stay sane, to stay plausible, pop artists must drop their claims to universal stardom. Let's abandon the nostalgia, let's drop the rhetoric, let's restructure the music industry. We now have a democratic technology, a technology which can help us all to produce and consume the new, 'unpopular' pop musics, each perfectly customised to our elective cults.

The King is dead. Long live the peoples!

Nicholas Currie

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