Tuesday, 15 October 2013

And Oh My Gosh Derrida Was Right

I am with Somik regarding International Cassette Store Day. Maybe not quite about the vinyl side of things, because it is - for me, at least - a sharp drop down a slippery slope between enjoying the physicality of an object and fetishisation. But, as he says, there were no Cassette Stores.

Let's talk about physicality and access. To do this, let's use an example. An example by Stan Ridgway.


When I first heard this song - and I'm not defending it, but at the time I thought it was awesome - it was on a local radio station in the mid-1990s.

Because this was pre... Well, pre-everything we take for granted right now, it took some actual research to find out who it was. That is, if you class 'actual research' as calling the radio station on a landline telephone and asking the person there what the song was.

And that was that. Because to actually find and get a copy of the song - most likely on cassette tape - was technically unthinkable to my teenage self. Because it was - understandably, perhaps - relatively unlikely to be available at my local record emporium, and any shop it was likely to be available in was likely to be in London, which at the time may as well have been another planet.

Also, as bad as my taste in music was, I was able to recognise that actually travelling to buy a Stan Ridgway record was over and above any sane way of living.

Now it took all of five clicks to fetch you a link to Ol' Stan on Wikipedia and a couple more to get the embed HTML for the video above.

This is an example of the transitional period that I firmly believe we're in now, from what I'm going to call Repository Culture and onward to Lurching Culture.

Repository Culture, I would say, is something that sprung into existence with mass file-sharing networks - Napster, Limewire, and the like - but really started when the ability to convert/copy music from CDs to digital versions came about, so... maybe... Around 1999? That's the first time I remember anyone every actually borrowing a CD from me to make an MP3 copy.

(Also, technically, we're talking about a process where a digital copy of a song was recorded, mastered, converted to an analogue format such as a CD, then re-converted to a digital format, because that was The Way Things Were Done back then.)

Digitisation was the first step on the path to where we are now, because it allowed people to create their own repositories without having a room full of physical storage media. It also meant that, yes, people could share their CDs around, freeing content in a way not yet available to other media - yes, you could technically photocopy books or run off VHS copies of films, but you couldn't, at the time, really do much with them in computer terms.

So the first step, I would argue, was the creation of personal repositories. Then file-sharing changed all that again, because you could throw your repository open to the world, and anyone anywhere anywhen anyhow could download whatever they were looking for with only the slight risk that it wasn't what they were after or, as occasionally happened - I'm reliably informed - was actually 'questionable content' uploaded for the laughs.

This was only effective for as long as mass file-sharing - of the questionably legal or outright illegal kind - wasn't policed, which was technically only a short space of time in which people made hay and then, like a veil being drawn in or a curtain being dropped, it was Illegal and wrong. I know this because of all the FACT adverts hammering it into me. Seriously. YOU WOULDN'T STEAL A CAR

Repository culture, when properly administrated - if it was ever properly administrated - was A Good Thing, by my marking, because it meant being able to consolidate all your music in one place. Then came the advent of mass, proper downloading, which meant you could add to your repository without having the physical media in the first place. I may be making too big a thing of this, but being able to carry my whole iTunes library round on a single iPod was, at the time, kind of crazy. (Especially because it was about fifteen years of music purchases, only about 10% of which I was actually not embarrassed by. Seriously; Giantkillaz. That's all I'm going to say.)

Now, in the current stage, Repository culture has created a system whereby musicians who were mostly long gone and forgotten - for better or worse - can access a worldwide market previously never available. This is leading us, I believe, merrily towards the Night Of The Living Dead Bands, because no band dies anymore.

You may think they're dead. You may think they'll never come back. But if one member of a band is still extant somewhere, somehow, eventually they'll work out there's a market for their work with their dedicated fans and now, because it's cheaper and easier than ever before to make marketable media, the basic thinkign is, well, why not?

One example, presented without comment on merit - because I actually sort of like them - would be Mazzy Star.

Mazzy Star, whose current album is available in all good record stores - irony - have just released Seasons of Your Day, a new album which has had fair reviews (with the Times, if memory serves, making it their album of the week).

Mazzy Star's previous album, Among My Swan, was released seventeen years ago.

I'm certain there are dedicated Mazzy Star fans out there who fervently prayed (even if they never truly believed in it) for the prospect of a re-union of the Star, as no-one else calls them.

But... Seventeen years?

One more year and children conceived in the late-nineties afterglow of their last album would legally be allowed to vote, get married, and do jury service.

There's simply no incentive for a band to bow out anymore, because there's always that last reunion tour or new album or tearful reconciliation, only now it comes with a Digital Deluxe edition.

A better writer than me could more eloquently make the argument that lurching culture means newer artists are getting elbowed out of the way by the previous generation, the generation before that, and the generation before that, all desperately addicted to getting the hit in people's ears that will give them a bit more a retromantic allure.  A smarter person than me could say how this might lead to fascinating collaborations between new and old and the potential for unification between the musical ages, providing examples such as the comeback of Chic in the wake of Daft Punk's recent successes (although given that Daft Punk have been going for approximately twenty-six years, make your own judgements).

The worse and dumber parts want to summarize this as Get off the stage, Dad, you're in the way of the new bands.

The thing is, though, that the transition from Repository Culture to Lurching Culture is not, in my humblest opinion, a problem exactly. It's definitely something worth keeping an eye on. The problem is going to be, I think, one of supply and demand; if you're out there at the edges looking for something new, you hipster, how are you going to distinguish between the new new, the new old, the old old dressed up to look new, and the old old making a resurgence?

A final example; when I was looking for writing music recently, I decided to browse the cheap racks on the Amazon MP3 store. Because I'd seen the film recently, I decided to invest in the soundtrack to To Live and Die in L.A., via Amazon, which is by Wang Chung. The film is from 1985; the band started releasing albums in 1978. Having invested in it, it turned out to be what you might politely call a mixed blessing, but it was easy to access, download and copy to the portable music device of your choice.

But I was curious, then. Obviously, you want to know too, or you wouldn't have read this far:

The first thing you find out about when you search for details of Wang Chung?

The reunion album.

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