Thursday, 26 June 2014

Decompose


If left wing commentators view popular music as a problem, songwriting usually lies at the heart of the matter. This critique spirals out from a statement made by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology: ‘The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it’. Mental production in popular music is most often equated with the songwriting process. The danger, from a Marxist point of view, is that pop songs are no more than a reflection of the economic system that underpins their creation.
            In Marx's and Engels’ formulation we have the base (the economic system) and the superstructure (the political and cultural system). Marx suggested that ‘The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life-process in general’. This is where we get the idea that economics ‘determine’ cultural production. Engels did, however, add a proviso. He stated that, while economic conditions are ‘ultimately decisive’, the influence isn’t wholly one-way: ‘the traditions which haunt human minds also play a part, although not the decisive one’.
            The relationship between the base and superstructure is at the forefront of criticisms of popular music, whether these are made by academic theorists, journalists, fans or musicians themselves. For example, the indies vs. majors debate has rattled on for nearly a century now and is reliant on a belief that the major corporations’ economic systems are reflected in their musical product.
            These criticisms were at their most acute when records were mass produced. It was suggested that the standardized, factory-based nature of creating records was reflected in the standardized nature of recordings. This is what Theodor Adorno almost said. He hated popular music and he hated popular music songwriting most of all. Spelling out his thoughts in his ‘On Popular Music Essay’ of 1941, he claimed, ‘The whole structure of popular music is standardized, even where the attempt is made to circumnavigate standardization’. Adorno, along with his fellow Frankfurt school theorist, Max Horkheimer, coined the term ‘culture industry’ to make clear the link between the production of popular culture and the assembly-line manufacture of industrial goods. Adorno’s argument could occasionally be subtle, however. He pointed out:
Though all industrial mass production necessarily eventuates in standardization, the production of popular music can be called ‘industrial’ only in its promotion and distribution, whereas the act of producing a song-hit still remains in a handicraft stage. […] It would not increase the costs of production if the various composers of hit tunes did not follow certain standard patterns. Therefore, we must look for other reasons for structural standardization – very different reasons from those which account for the standardization of motor cars and breakfast foods.
Adorno’s answer was ‘imitation’. He suggested that, ‘As one particular song scored a great success, hundreds of others sprang up imitating the successful one’. This resulted in ‘the crystallization of standards’, which were ‘rigidly enforced upon the material to be promoted’. The major record companies  ‘institutionalized the standardization, and made it imperative’.
            Adorno’s views were echoed by Jacques Attali, the French economist and music theorist who acted as advisor to Fran├žois Mitterrand. In his 1977 book Noise, Attali drew up a Marxian historical account of musical development, equating four stages of music with four phases of production and reception. His account of the era of mass production was labelled ‘repeating’. Just like Adorno, he saw stultifying standardization:
Fetishized as a commodity, music is illustrative of the evolution of our entire society: deritualize a social form, repress an activity of the body, specialize its practice, sell it as spectacle, generalize its consumption, then see to it that it is stockpiled until it loses its meaning. Today, music heralds […] the establishment of a society of repetition in which nothing will happen anymore.
Also like Adorno, Attali stopped short of suggesting that the repetitive nature of record manufacture determined the repetitive nature of music. In fact, he viewed things the other way around. He argued that music ‘heralds, for it is prophetic’. Here, the superstructure precedes the base: ‘music is prophetic … social organization echoes it’.
Attali’s way of thinking has been pertinent in the internet age. We have seen music at the forefront of change. Along with pornography, it has been the most prophetic form of popular culture when it comes to dematerialization, piracy and transforming the economic base.
            It is therefore worth returning to the conclusion of Noise. Attali posited ‘repeating’ as his third musical era. He did, however, envision a fourth: ‘composing’. He had a utopian vision of a society that would be beyond commerce: ‘composition is revealed as the demand for a truly different system of organization, a network within which a different kind of music and different social relations can arise. A music produced by each individual for himself, for pleasure outside of meaning, usage and exchange’.
            If music can be viewed as being prophetic, then so can Attali. The internet has provided a ‘different system of organization’, it has produced a musical culture that exists outside of ‘exchange’, and it has made it more readily possible for each individual to create and distribute music. It has also, as I argued in an earlier post, produced a greater focus on ‘composition’.
            But where are our new ‘social relations’? Moreover, where is our new music? Despite all the economic changes of the present century, popular music could still be regarded as being standardized. In fact, songwriting has now moved beyond the handicraft stage to become industrial. Adorno viewed popular music songwriting as being ‘individualistic’. This may have been the case in the 1940s, but songwriting teams piece together many of today’s hits. While some people will work on the rhythm track, others will provide the top line. One composer can provide the lyric for the main melody, while a hip hop artist can be called upon for a middle eight of rhymes.
            Adorno and Attali were fixated with songwriting. For them, composition lay at the heart of all that was wrong with popular music. Consequently, it provided the solution if this form of culture was to get things right. Adorno also prioritized particular elements of musical creation: those that have been central to classical music, such as melody and harmony. It was these that popular music needed to improve. However, as Bernard Gendron has pointed out, if we focus on these elements it is possible to see ‘sameness’ in popular music. Conversely, if we focus on ‘timbre and connotation’ we can see ‘difference’ from song to song and between artist and artist. Gendron’s case against standardization is a strong one, but it remains subject to a ‘classical’ point of view. The response to Adorno’s criticisms of popular music doesn’t have to be found in songwriting; there are other and perhaps better ways of suggesting that the music is diverse. It can have huge variety when it comes to feel, inflection, groove and dynamics.
            Or at least this used to be the case. Looked at from one angle, developments within computing technology have transformed popular music economics; looked at from another, they have made the creation of popular music more conservative. The focus is now on composition, just as it is with classical music and other 'high' arts. Adorno and Attali might have considered this the route to musical utopia, but as their writing makes clear, putting songwriting at the forefront only makes popular music seem more standardized. Moreover, despite the transformation of business practices, the music hasn’t entirely escaped exchange. If anything, the creation of mainstream popular music is more economically motivated than it was when it was less ‘mentally’ indebted. We have lost a bodily focus on timbre and feel and replaced it with a cerebral one that is centred on planning and editing. Popular music still has its problems, but it is clear that songwriting is not the only answer. An alternative solution is to decompose.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Compose Yourself


It’s now ten years since Ray Charles died. To mark this occasion Robert Elms asked listeners to his BBC London radio programme to request and talk about their favourite Ray Charles songs. I relished this half an hour of music. The first song chosen was ‘What’d I Say’, which is a good a piece of dance music as has ever been recorded. The second was ‘Georgia on My Mind’, which as a ballad is equally as good. In fact, when he’s at his peak, it’s hard to think of anyone who can equal Ray Charles.
            Charles was probably the first popular musician to be labelled a genius. He was also the one to whom the term was most consistently applied (check out those late 1950s/early 1960s LP titles). But where did his genius lie? To paraphrase Bob Dylan, whatever it was that Charles did, it wasn’t in the songwriting.
            Charles did write ‘What’d I Say’, but for all its innovative brilliance, the track remains bedded in the traditional 12-bar blues form. He didn’t write ‘Georgia on My Mind’, or ‘Mess Around’, or ‘Drown in My Own Tears’, or ‘Let the Good Times Roll’, or ‘Hit the Road Jack’, or ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’. Some songs for which he did gain a writing credit, such as ‘I Got a Woman’, are really old songs reworked.
            But what reworking! It’s in his skills as an arranger that Ray Charles’s genius lies: his bringing together of different musical traditions and his ability to get a band to explore their twists and turns. It’s also in his interpretative abilities as a singer: the timbre, timing and nuances of his voice. It’s also in his abilities as a keyboard player; the way that he gets a band to swing together; the interaction that he has with his backing singers, the Raelettes.
            Digital technology has encroached upon the areas in which Ray Charles excelled. The majority of today’s pop musicians arrange blocks of information on computer screens, rather than arrange charts for performing musicians. Sequencing and quantizing have taken the place of the ability to interact with a band (or to interact ‘live’ with a backing track, for that matter). The precision of autotune has replaced the grain of the voice. Artists gain their reputations for their production techniques, rather than for their musicianship skills. Moreover, when these artists play live, they remain subject to computerization. Even when their performances are not digitally controlled, they have to play with the rhythmic precision of a sequencer, or sing with the range and accuracy of an electronic device. The writing and the recording of their songs dictates this.
            I don’t want to argue that these technical innovations are bad or that great music is no longer produced. I would also like to underline the fact that the techniques that Ray Charles employed were also the results of technology; as with today’s hits, his recordings were shaped by the latest developments in instrument design, studio equipment, and microphone techniques.
What I would suggest, however, is that digital audio workstations put more pressure on artists to make a mark with their songwriting. Older records are as likely to make their presence felt through ‘feel’ as they are through their chord changes or harmonic twists. Today’s music is more rigid and compressed. New artists aren’t musicians foremost; their main occupation is as composers and editors.
            What are the effects of this? In the first instance, I would argue that it shifts the conception of popular music ‘genius’ so that it is now more in line with other art forms. It is the act of writing that is valued, rather than the life that is captured the tracks (I will explore the pros and cons of this in a later blog entry). Secondly, I would argue that it is now harder to create great pop music. Being a writer is not easy. Being Ray Charles wasn’t easy either, but in the past there were many brilliant records that didn’t have great writing, great musicianship or great arranging. They just had a great something. In his book This is Uncool: The 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk and Disco, Gary Mulholland outlines his ‘own personal Theory One of pop’. This is that ‘Everybody has one good single in them’. It’s my personal theory that it was the quirky magic of analogue recording that made this the case. A great digital audio workstation composition cannot be stumbled across in the same way. And so, for all the supposed democracy and opened access of computer-based music making, it actually makes pop music more elite.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record now in Paperback


The paperback version of my book, Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record, is now available. The publishers, Ashgate, are selling it for $31.46 on their American website and £16.19 on their rest of the world website, making it more affordable than the hardback version. The paperback has a new preface and new, full-colour sleeve. There’s also an interview with me about the paperback, which can be found on the Ashgate blog.


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Thursday, 5 June 2014

Record Collecting 3: Obsolescence and Scarcity


Record collecting isn’t only about foot fetishism; it’s also about obsolescence and scarcity. As indicated in the earlier post, these factors have helped to fuel the fetishism of the vinyl record. They do nevertheless require some analysis of their own.
            Obsolescence was originally the result of advances in technology. The analogue record experienced a series of significant developments: the change from analogue to electric recording in the mid-1920s; the substitution of shellac for vinyl in the 1950s; the battle between vinyl and the CD in the 1980s and 1990s. While some consumers were quick to take on board these new technologies, others rued the transformations taking place.
            Compton Mackenzie, the first editor of the Gramophone, served as a prototype for a certain strand of record collector. In 1925 he railed (almost incomprehensibly) against electrical recording:
The exaggeration of sibilants by the new method is abominable, and there is often harshness which recalls some of the worst excesses of the past. The recording of massed strings is atrocious from an impressionistic standpoint. I don’t want to hear symphonies with an American accent. I don’t want blue-nose violins and Yankee clarinets. I don’t want the piano to sound like a free-lunch counter.
In 1949 he also questioned the introduction of the vinyl LP:
I ask readers if they want to feel that their collections of records are obsolete, if they really want to spend money on buying discs that will save them the trouble of getting up to change them, and if they really want to wait years for a repertory as good as what is now available to them? . . . The substitution of a long playing disc is not a sufficiently valuable improvement to justify the complete abandonment of present methods of reproduction.
Robert Crumb, meanwhile, found the shorter playing time of the 78 superior to the LP, ‘I don’t like to have music on as background, or listen to while I work. That’s what I like about 78s, they force you to get up every three minutes and decide what you want to listen to again. It keeps you focused’.
Mackenzie and Crumb might sound as though they like making life hard for themselves, but they also sound like lovers of vinyl. Some vinyl advocates (me included) commend the fact that the format has a shorter duration than the CD. They also valorise the fact that you have to turn the records over. Sean O’ Hagen has stated, ‘One of the many awful consequences of the invention of the CD, that curiously unlovable artefact of Eighties-style musical modernity, was that it put paid to the notion of the A-side’. Other vinyl fans have found virtue in having to fight through dust and blemishes to reach a layer of musical sound. Evan Eisenberg has written, ‘We listened harder in those [vinyl] days. Music was made doubly precious by the thicket of noise from which it had to be plucked’.
Each ‘advance’ in technology has provided an impetus for collecting. There are those who have rejected the new ways and searched for prelapsarian records instead. 
            There are other ways by which records have become scarce. Shellac discs were worn down by styli and were easily broken. In addition, in times of shellac shortages, record buyers were encouraged to return old records so that they could be pulped to help to make new ones. There were also more piecemeal advances in technology – improvements in recording techniques and advances in the constitution of records – that quickly rendered recordings out of date.
Labelling practices helped to limit the reach of recordings. In the first half of the twentieth century, genres were targeted towards particular groups of listeners. Race records, for example, were supposed to be the preserve of black Americans, while hillbilly records were aimed at a rural white audience in the southern states of America. It has been argued that some of these audiences did not look after their records. One of the early white jazz record collectors, Stephen W. Smith, complained that ‘Copies which found their way into private homes were usually not given the best of care since many of the Negroes, for their own reasons, did not care to change the needle frequently enough to save the record surface’.
The net effect of each of these practices was that many early records automatically became scarce. Discs that record companies had considered outdated or marginal nevertheless managed to attract interest beyond their expected lifespans and beyond their expected constituencies. Some of these discs also began to change hands for large sums of money. The record companies hadn’t expected this.
They did, however, cotton on to the idea. Independent companies were quickest off the mark. By the late 1970s they were artificially manufacturing ‘rare’ records. Here, Thurston Moore identified a significant change:
50s and ‘60s collectibles were created by accident. Some rare performance or unique label design would get issued without much thought and the item would get discovered later. But by the time new wave happened, people had had enough ‘historical resonance’ with records that they self-consciously created collectibles.
As John Cooper Clarke pointed out, the late 1970s was a period in which gimmicks played loud. Chiswick released a limited edition LP that played at 45 rpm (Skrewdriver’s ‘All Skrewed Up’), while the Private Stock record label released a 12 that played at the abandoned speed of 78 rpm (Robert Gordon’s ‘The Fool’). Richard Myhill’s ‘It Takes Two to Tango’ claimed to be the world’s first square-shaped single; Alan Price’s ‘Baby of Mine’ was the first in the shape of a heart; Cooper Clarke’s own ‘Gimmix! (Play Loud)’ was triangular and orange. The latter was among a rash of coloured vinyl records, reaching a peak with the 1978 Devo LP Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, which was issued in grey, red, blue, yellow and green vinyl, while black was ‘also available’. Records were also given double grooves: Cooper Clarke’s ‘Splat’ / ‘Twat’, featured parallel clean and rude versions of the same poem. What made many of these gimmicks stand out even more was that they were issued in limited edition runs.
These techniques did not pass without comment. In 1977 New Musical Express produced a special edition about the cult of collecting, which pointed out that ‘The record as artefact has become the standard ploy of the record business in 1977’. In ‘Part-time Punks’ the Television Personalities sang about the collector’s dilemma: ‘They like to buy the O Level single | Or ‘Read About Seymour’ | But they’re not pressed in red | So they buy The Lurkers instead’. The major record companies reacted with consternation (Maurice Oberstein of CBS fretted, ‘Suddenly we are not in the music business, we are back to selling plastic’) and with imitation (in 1978 the NME reported, ‘Thanks to the independents showing them the way, the major companies have now discovered a new way to sell you things you perhaps didn’t want in the first place’).
            Record Store Day is a direct inheritor of this tradition: all of its releases are limited editions. There is nevertheless a crucial difference between these records and the punk-era collectables. The late 1970’s records were meant to be heard. In fact, the aim was often to attract a mass audience; by today’s standards these ‘limited’ pressings were issued in large numbers. The idea was to sell a significant quantity of records in a short period of time, thus gaining higher chart places and increased exposure. Jake Riviera, head of Stiff Records (perhaps the most inspired late-1970’s label when it came to gimmicks) stated that he was going for either ‘stabs at the chart or collectors’ items’. Record Store Day is focused on collector’s items only. It’s not just the records that are scarce, so are their sounds. The danger with this is that if the vogue for vinyl is centred on the format’s cuteness, rather than on its ability to harness and signify music, the cycles of fashion could render it obsolete.