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Collateral Damage: Alex Neilson on Topic records

February 2013

As the Topic label prepares to put its vast archive online, Alex Neilson sees unexpected connections between folk music's pluralist roots and the new routes promised by digital culture.

In 2009, Topic Records marked its 70th birthday by releasing Three Score And Ten – a seven CD potted history charting its origins in the pre-war Workers’ Music Association and its extensive documentation of traditional song and dance in the field and subsequent folk revivals. Now, one year away from its 75th anniversary, Topic is farming tributaries from its mighty river of song in the form of digital streams.

In January 2013 the label made 84 albums from its early catalogue available. By next January that number will have swelled into the hundreds, with particular mainstays of its roster profiled each month. Each digital issue is priced at £5.99 and will include PDFs of newly designed booklets containing original artwork and sleevenotes, with extra photos and tracks provided wherever possible. This is a painstaking reformatting of an archive more readily associated with the grunts of old sea dogs hauling on the bowline than the skittering of keys on the information superhighway.

Meanwhile, in 2012, the Association for Cultural Equity made available vast chunks of Alan Lomax’s collection of field recordings under the Global Jukebox project banner. Like Topic, this non-profit archive is having to adapt to seismic shifts in consumer patterns and using nascent technology to rerelease obscure titles. Other, more institutional repositories, such as the School of Scottish Studies, the English Folk Dance and Song Society or the Smithsonian Institute, have digitised their collections more for the purpose of research databases and to conserve the original reels from corroding in their libraries.

Topic boss David Suff sees commercial and institutional archives as mutually compatible, because Topic are focusing on material that has been commercially available in the past, reissuing out-of-print recordings with all of the original contextual notes and artwork. “Essentially the Topic project is using the current distribution method – digital – and including the information that was part and parcel of the previous distribution method – physical. That should sit well alongside initiatives like the EFDSS archive collections,” he says.  

But the interface of folk culture with digital technology poses problems. Recordings of folk music feel more than most other musical forms as if they belong to an evaporating past. The tactility of the songs and the methods of recording them are reflected in tangible objects: records and physical sleevenotes that provide socio-historical context.

These seem to be integral to our enjoyment of the music and our understanding of the culture that bore it. The records themselves become scrying mirrors to a refracted version of the land we stand on, one unencumbered by the stroboscopic bleatings of social media and the industrial scars of rampant capitalism, and one more in tune with the rhythms and rituals of its seasonal cycles.

Yet it is a misapprehension to think that listening to a folk song on an LP rather than an MP3 is any more of an authentic experience. The whole notion of authenticity in folk music is a dubious one, with early chroniclers such as Cecil Sharp revising and sanitising texts from oral sources that were deemed unsuitable for demure Edwardian sensibilities.

Obfuscation is inevitable in the Chinese whispers of oral transmission, while the porousness of folk songs gives rise to bastardisation and cross-germination. These things strengthen the tradition rather than diluting it. The internet enables this, providing opportunities to scout different versions of trad lyrics, for example; and the likes of Topic’s digitisation drive makes it easy to cross-reference material instantly from the mouths of source singers to aid new interpretations.

Suff acknowledges there is a danger of alienating the recordings from their origins but cites the wider availability of the music as the most important factor. In his view, concerns about geographical styles of performance being undermined are outweighed by the increased amount of information now available. “Others can then decide to research further,” he says. “Our ambition is to make previously published material easily accessible.” 

Across business and media, there is an ‘adapt or die’ attitude to emerging technologies, and folk music is perhaps more vulnerable than most artforms for consignment to the scrapheap. While the likes of the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, Celtic Connections and Womex are growing in popularity, they also largely perpetuate the same cast of middle of the road, ‘fair-trade folk’ acts, with very narrow parameters of acceptability and little of the grain, dissonance and mystery of the old field recordings that Topic are now reintroducing into the public arena.

These are the artefacts that indelibly branded my own conception of what music could be, and it is thrilling to imagine another generation of tech-savvy teens having a similar epiphany. By making the biggest number of titles easily available to the broadest number of people, Topic’s project is in keeping with the general shift of record labels’ business models, but could also be said to be democratising the music – if not at a grass roots level then at a fibre optic one.

Most importantly, the material sounds as vital than ever – from the sandpaper bray of AL Lloyd on Sailors’ Songs & Sea Shanties to the syncopated steel strings of Davy Graham’s epochal “Angi”, this is revolutionary music. Yet, aside from the profound beauty of the unaccompanied voices and the direct poetry of the songs, what can feel most astonishing when listening to the decrepit effusions of George ‘Pop’ Maynard, Sarah Makem and Phoebe Smith is imagining that these precarious recordings were all that Shirley Collins, John Renbourn and their contemporaries had to go on when they collided them with psychedelia, Early Music, rock and jazz.

It makes them feel simultaneously all the more evocative and elemental. Now, with so much information accessible and with media feeds flatlining information’s emotional impact, to hear a cappella singing floating from the agricultural to the digital age, speaking of imperishable themes of seasonal and existential love, death and rebirth, is an aesthetic shock and a cultural thrill.

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