The Wire

In Writing

Collateral Damage: David Keenan

June 2011

Following Chris Cutler's response to Kenneth Goldsmith's filesharing Epiphany, David Keenan looks at the fallout from music's shifting economy, from the perspective of his webshop and record shop Volcanic Tongue.

There was a piece at Glasgow School of Art’s 2010 Degree Show that generated equal amounts of hilarity and disbelief in the city’s underground music community. Based around a series of ‘re-imagined’ sleeves for a run of underground classic albums ranging from Harry Partch’s Delusion Of The Fury and Sonny & Linda Sharrock’s Black Woman, the ‘installation’ was made to appear like a record shop, with the artist’s intent being to “instil the sense of excitement and discovery that I have experienced in record shops, and all that I feel I have learnt and been inspired to do from visiting them”.

For a small fee – the artist was insistent that the music was provided “free of any charge” – you were able to purchase your own version of an album complete with a CD burn. And if you were unable to attend in person, the artist offered to provide a Rapidshare link where you could download a pirated version of the album at your own leisure.

It was a stunningly ill-conceived piece, a ‘celebration’ of record shops and underground culture that used both the logic and the tools that would serve to bury them as a memorial. But it underlined the degree of incomprehension of the economic realities of sustaining a viable counterculture even among active members of the culture itself.

Of course, hard economic truths have never been popular within a culture that tends to be avowedly anti-capital, and this antipathy towards anyone who is seen to be involved in commerce – on whatever negligible scale compared to mainstream economies – has resulted in what Chris Cutler correctly identifies as the repositioning of artists, musicians and other cultural workers at the very bottom of the food chain, disdained and ripped off because they’re not actually doing any ‘real’ work anyway (Collateral Damage, The Wire 328).

This is the Protestant work ethic at its most insidious, with a mixture of guilt and contempt for people who work at what they love and for whom suffering is not an integral component of their day-to-day existence. But when it gets to the point that underground artists have their work stolen and passed around by self-described ‘fans’, then the very structure that allows artists the non-economic time and space to devote to the mastery of their art is obviously at stake.

It’s not difficult to unravel the kind of logic that would make piracy and theft of an artist’s work a backhanded compliment. Such an impulse is already deeply ingrained in fandom. The rise of the bootleg LP comes from the same urge, an understandable feeling that somehow the music belongs to the fans and that by making more of it available, issued as limited edition LPs as with the first Trademark Of Quality boots, you are further promoting the artist and returning the love. Compared to the vision and effort that goes into the best bootlegs, which still feel like an artistic badge of honour, posting an album to a filesharing site is an insult. Cheap digital piracy treats musicians, record labels and record stores as if they were public servants. That’s disrespectful.

The combination of instant gratification and superficial knowledge that the internet provides, coupled with an entry-level concept of Marxism that confuses anti-capital rhetoric with a vague notion of ‘entitlement’, means that consumption for easy consumption’s sake – which goes hand in hand with the disenfranchisement of artists and cultural workers – has come to seem like a revolutionary activity. Poor Anne Muir, the first person charged with illegally sharing music online in Scotland, was at least honest about her motivations, blaming her impulsive downloading on low self-esteem.

Digital downloads – not to say Wikipedia entries, music blogs and even sites like UbuWeb – encourage a superficial engagement with culture. The quality and depth of interaction between an individual and a piece of art is no longer paramount. It’s all about how much you’re packing. The internet is a great, dull leveller, throwing out Cecil Taylor bootlegs and scans of rare mimeo zines as indiscriminately as virals for underarm deodorant. The idea of the quest, the concept of an encounter with art that happens in the context of your own life, is rapidly being replaced by an endless series of simulacra. I read with delight recently an interview with artist/publisher Trevor Winkfield and his account of a teenage pilgrimage on a bicycle in the dead of winter to view Kurt Schwitters’s abandoned Merzbarn in the Lake District in the late 1950s, and of the farmer giving him the key and letting him stay inside for as long as he wanted. What an unforgettable encounter with a piece of art!

Still, despite all the messages of doom and the climate of hostility towards the arts in general, I don’t feel unduly concerned. Mainstream art and music has long been about the endless cycle of consumption. There’s nothing truly new here, and people with a more serious interest in art and culture will always want to refuse to experience it by proxy. There are already signs of a reverse in the form of a reinvesting of energy and imagination into ‘obsolete’ media. The cassette is more popular than it has been since its heyday, with many imprints offering a cassette version of LP and CD releases. Labels like Medusa, Child Of Microtones, Winebox Press, American Tapes, No Fans, Faraway Press, Time-Lag and countless others have established themselves by producing recordings in limited handmade editions with an intimate relation to the music distinguished by a tactile aspect that defies reproduction.

So arts funding has been slashed? Good. Is there anything more contradictory and hypocritical than a ‘radical’ music festival that’s essentially government sponsored? The future for the underground lies in refusing these narcotic compromises while daring to create its own economy. So bookshops and record stores are disappearing from our high streets? Then leave the high streets and explore the possibilities of other creative spaces.

My own record store, Volcanic Tongue, is based on the first floor of an old cottage with an entrance down a side lane, and everyone who visits us thinks that we live there. Every day we have customers nervously peeking around the door, unsure of whether it’s a ‘legitimate’ trading space or simply someone’s collection on display in the back room of a house. Well, it’s a bit of both, and the effort it takes to find it, never mind to come in and browse, is part of the experience, the feeling of stepping off the map altogether, a feeling that’s harder to come by in our Google Street View world.

But this is where I think we’re headed. Limited handmade editions on ‘obsolete’ formats available direct from the artists themselves, impromptu record stores in unofficial spaces (Aaron Dilloway runs an appointment-only record shop from the basement of his home), house shows as pioneered locally by Glasgow’s Open School, pop-up shops, labels run from bedrooms, a re-engagement with the expressive possibilities of presentation, a new emphasis on mystery and difficulty... And the best thing is, it will no longer be a Google click away.

Read Kenneth Goldsmith's Epiphany on filesharing in The Wire 327 here and Chris Cutler's response to it in The Wire 328 here.

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