"Art and music can't thwart coercive states, and when faced with a Taser they prove to be feeble weapons. But they can be amazing catalytic tools for creating models of another social reality as well as asking questions about the existing one." Richard Thomas on minted petit-bourgeois pugilists, the end of year chart and the class politics of Black Friday
Towards the end of last year I was asked to provide two top ten charts featuring my highlights of 2014 in terms of new releases and rereleases. This was embarrassing because it meant that I'd have to out myself: I didn't buy any records in 2014. Nor did I buy any in 2013 or 2012. In fact, I think the last time I bought a new record was 12 years ago. I just don't have that kind of relationship with music anymore. I don't selfconsciously try and keep up to date with new releases, I don't fetishise commodity forms like box sets, digipacks and limited editions, and I certainly can't financially afford to indulge such a habit. However, I still have an active relationship with music: I write it, I play it, I record it and I perform it.
Very occasionally friends who are artists or who run labels give me CDs, LPs or cassettes, and I get mailed CDs to review, but that's the extent of my consumption of physical, recorded music product. But I actively listen to music every day: I listen to live music, I listen to radio broadcasts of music, but most significantly I listen to music or watch music videos online – so the only thing I pay for is overpriced and inadequate access to fibre optic cables.
I used to make records in the mid- to late 1990s and early 2000s but I went on strike in 2002. I had become tired of dealing with indie/alternative record companies. Independent from what? Alternative to what? When you're operating in a capitalist free market economy in pursuit of profit, using nomenclature like independent or alternative is an absurd denial of reality. I only ever encountered complete conservatism from much of the alternative music biz. An industry which, from my experience, was nothing more than a front for laundering cocaine cash. It certainly had very little to do with art.
Anyway, the web has put paid to that business. The fact that I can summon up almost anything I'm vaguely interested in auditioning for free online just kills off any desire to spend wads of cash on products that often turn out to be disappointing and overpriced. I don't want to be an advocate for a pseudo-dematerialised, corporate dominated, mass surveillance system – the internet is more panopticon than panacea, but at least it’s cheap.
Living in London, a city that expropriates cash from its citizens millisecond by millisecond, most of one's earnings are spent on extortionate rents and bills, and very little is left for tangible cultural commodities like 180 gramme vinyl LPs.
Indeed, this fiscal dilemma is particularly acute right now. The blizzard of commodity shrapnel reaches its frenzied zenith around Christmas and New Year. The high street, the search engine, the social media, the necrotic print media, all are corpulent with end of year lists, top ten predictions, LPs of the year, reissued LPs of the year, best downloads, books, phones, tablets, tweets, GIFs, cats. And after all of that, there’s the January sales. These taxonomies of ephemeral objects leer at you, smugly reminding you of how inadequate and incomplete your underpaid, undernourished, precarious life is. These Lord Haw Haw paeans to capitalist realist consumer orthodoxy are chimerical and omnipresent. If they prove anything, it is that augmented reality will be a constant hell and that the media is by and large bankrupt. But who am I to talk? In a way this column is connected to that spectacular omnipotency. Yet, my culpability is nothing compared to that of my peers in the big media conglomerates.
The political aesthetics of consumerism recently came under a troubling form of skewed scrutiny. Black Friday 2014 was notable for images of crowds of people scuffling over TVs in supermarkets and wrestling each other to the ground while packs of media cameramen sucked it all up.
But the true story about Black Friday is how the real vulgar and barbaric consumption was actually being committed by the media, and how the mainstream corporate media and political class perpetuate the idea that the working class are venal, violent morons who believe in nothing other than obtaining consumer goods so they can watch themselves being mocked about it on the UK TV Channel 4 documentary Benefits Street.
The mainstream media shame poor people for becoming impassioned about access to commodities they ordinarily can’t afford, but do we see the media apply the same level of scorn to those that camp overnight outside Apple's shops just to get a slightly thinner version of the phone they already own? A few jibes maybe but more often it’s accompanied by approval and the odd factoid about consumer spending. Why? Because of a class bias and the fact that those media enterprises themselves are contingent upon advertising revenues from product manufacturers. The media's toxic reaction to Black Friday was another manifestation of the increasing normalisation of class hatred, racism and social cleansing in the UK. I write this in a city that is driving the poorest into oblivion, a city that has poor doors that are mainly marked EXIT.
However, this is not quite the same city that you, dear Wire reader, live in. You might well live in London, but your version of it leaves you with a much less sour taste in your mouth. In fact, the taste in your mouth is either tempura soba, mutter paneer or halibut with caper buerre blanc. I know this because you too have been profiled, taxonomised and homogenised as consumers, but in a more benign manner than the way the media portrays the proles.
Yes, according to market researchers YouGov, readers of The Wire like to buy stuff and let's face it, you can afford to. You are minted, with a ‘spare’ disposable income of up to £1000 a month. You are the crème de la crème, you're in the ABC1 social grade, you're a man and you are somewhere between 40–59 years of age and you work in IT. You self-identify as left of left but it’s not Full Communism. Your end of year charts tend to be jam packed with releases by Swans and The Flaming Lips. You might listen to them in MP3 format in your Nissan on your way to Luton airport to take a flight to Barcelona or Berlin, but you certainly won't witness those acts live. Yes, the stats again reveal that only a small portion of Wire readers actually attend concerts. You're probably preoccupied with playing basketball or snooker or doling out sucker punches while boxing, you petit-bourgeois pugilists. I'd invite you to follow me on twitter but I guess you're far too busy reading bon mots from the likes of @eddieizzard, @Aiannucci and God forbid that toff @stephenfry. Procrastinating, no doubt. I know you're prone to this. From time to time you also feel withdrawn and misanthropic but you also like to think you're alternative, funny and independently minded. You're quite variable (or should I say hypocritical?). You claim to avoid high street chains but despite this claim you do most of your shopping in Sainsbury's. Some of you would quite like to appear on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. Maybe you should. After all, you're 'more sophisticated than most people'.
But that's all a load of bollocks.
Escaping this spectacular hallucinatory tyranny of images, facts and stats might appear impossible. That's quite understandable but that feeling of entrapment should really be lent no credence – that sensation is a myth that one is sold, like limited edition vinyl, the ephemeral internet or stats that delimit the world and people’s places in it. It is a Stockholm Syndrome-like product delicately woven by powerful agencies that have a vested interest in making our apparent powerlessness seem so intrinsic yet paradoxically attempt to convince us that we, in our individuality, are supreme. Art and music can't thwart coercive states, and when faced with a Taser they prove to be feeble weapons. But they can be amazing catalytic tools for creating models of another social reality as well as asking questions about the existing one. I think this is where our attentions should lie. What does this music mean? What is this for? What are the political and social relations of this music?