A&R time travellers and unnecessary reissues are stifling a new generation of artists, says Britt Brown. Where is our faith in art made by the living?
Unless one rejects the notion of free will, all trends betray truths about the time in which they occur. Granted, sometimes we’re unable to decipher the particular confluence of catalysts until years later when we’ve gained perspective, but such is not the case with the music industry’s latest infatuation: reissues. Their proliferation reveals a host of aesthetic anxieties, disappointments, and insecurities lurking beneath the surface of our 21st century music landscape.
This has nothing to do with the rational act of making a loved or admired recording available once again; maximising intellectual property to its fullest extent is common sense, and merits no discussion. What has developed in the last few years is closer to a form of A&R time travel. Rather than scouting active musicians whose fates are still in flux and thus less bankable, labels now stalk the chicer boroughs of sonic history for offshoots, footnotes, side projects, shelved studio experiments – anything with an aura of authenticity, because this is the quality we’ve convinced ourselves doesn’t exist in the present. It’s in many ways a mutated strain of the over-discussed retro-maniacal virus attributed to some recent waves of contemporary creativity. Except this time the victim isn’t the listener, the originality-seeker lost in a desert of nostalgic fabrications, but the next generation of aspiring artists, whose fans are being poached by freshly marketed ghosts from the past.
Let’s begin where you’re reading this very text: online. Few would dare take issue (publicly at least) with any facet of the internet’s radical democratisation of music and, on the surface, how could you? Gatekeepers are considered the sworn enemy of free expression so any reduction in their ranks is seen as a victory for the artist class, no matter what middlemen (studio engineers, distributers, record label staff, etc) get thrown out on the street. But the ramifications of this liberation are nuanced. While it’s wonderful and somewhat utopian that self-recorded, self-produced, self-released music is more plentiful and easily accessible than ever before, the glut of content has also explicitly devalued the art form itself – as much in the literal commercial sense as metaphorically, as an intangible human commodity. Supply and demand is not merely an Economics 101 cliché, it’s a universal code of conduct, and when violated the results are simple: the product’s essential worth diminishes. A flooded marketplace stupefies rather than stimulates consumers. And many a natural shopper’s response, when faced with overwhelming bins (or blogs) of unproven unknowns, is to drift towards the old and familiar, towards something they can trust.
Larger labels have leapt to satisfy this latent nostalgia, reissuing ever more unnecessary back catalogue titles, from thrift store staples by Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin to lavish anniversary editions of easily acquired, canonised-to-death classics by The Velvet Underground and Nirvana (mechanically padded with outtakes and memorabilia). Some of this is attributable to the recent rise in popularity of vinyl, which necessitates new pressings of anything with a profit margin, regardless of its widespread availability. And of course there’s the ageing but still financially viable collector class, for whom studio vaults are commonly scraped bare and packaged as premium rarities, be that some shit-fidelity Hendrix blues session or yet another D-grade dubplate of Studio 1 reggae instrumentals. But the capitalist facet of the reissue revolution remains the most superficial motive – and thus the least insidious. What’s unsettling is the subtext, and what it says about us, and our priorities, and our faith in art made by the living.
Debates have raged in the past few years regarding the relevance and integrity of internet generation music. Countless editorials have bemoaned our obsession with the past, the careless borrowing and imitation of period-specific styles and sounds. Are we being contemporary enough? Is artistic evolution a dead concept? What does it mean to sample a pastiche of a photocopy of an impression? Is music moving forward, or backward, or disintegrating in a hall of Youtube mirrors? Such iPhone-age paranoias clearly haunt an increasing majority of musicians, critics, and various interested parties because a feverish fetishisation of authenticity has emerged the last few years, which seems to only be picking up steam. The past has become a kind of holy land, and all its exports deified.
The beneficiaries of this religious conversion are countless: early 1980’s bedroom synthesizer tinkerers, Chicago or Detroit house or techno producers active between 1987 and 1994, anyone remotely influenced by Throbbing Gristle up until about 1990, commercially unsuccessful acoustic troubadours, government-funded European experimental archivists, pretty much anything recorded in Africa or South America or the Middle East before 1984, ignored female musicians of every stripe, the discography dregs of free jazz titans, John Howard Carpenter, any vintage new age material not released by Windham Hill – the list goes on. The artists and albums excavated feel selected as much for their 'realness' as anything else. The marketing for such projects affirms our ravenous hunger for stylistic authority, inevitably championing said artist/group as a forerunner of today’s watered-down derivatives. This attitude mirrors our profound respect for the dead, whose triumphs and failures are conveniently frozen in time, allowing us to dissect them, ignore what doesn’t interest us, and canonise their accomplishments however we see fit.
That said, every few years some savvy digger unearths an anomalous gem that’s long gone underappreciated (Dadawah’s Peace And Love – Wadadasow, Half-Dead Ganja Music by Vox Populi!, or Mammane Sani’s La Musique Électronique Du Niger come to mind), but such re-discoveries are rare. More often than not it’s just a lost minimal wave album that sounds like dozens of other minimal wave albums – only slightly less well known. Obviously it’s no crime to enshrine every kosmische rehearsal tape made on the European continent between 1968 and 1981 on quadruple vinyl, but it certainly adds no more to the cultural conversation than a new record by a 2014 unit overly enamored with Ash Ra Tempel would. And yet we’ve brainwashed ourselves into believing otherwise. Reissues are not subject to the same scepticism as contemporary creations; they are approached and written about politely, like a retiree with a potentially intriguing backstory – better not rush to judgment because who knows what they’ve seen, what they’ve suffered, what tumultuous histories they’ve endured? Their authenticity blinds us, and so we make great pains to cultivate an appreciation in ways we never would for a new artist. Familiarity indeed breeds contempt.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t take an active interest in history, or that musical archeology is not a worthy and necessary profession. Specialists in these fields have, should, and will always exist. But something feels fundamentally wrong about saving all our suspicions for our peers, for the rootless, for the rookies. Because renaissances require patronage to bloom. Brave new music is largely born from brave new listeners, people willing to take leaps of faith in their fanship, who don’t wait till the grave is dug to pay their respects. It’s time to wake up and acknowledge that, from a certain sober perspective, posthumous success is no success at all.