The Wire

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In Writing

Collateral Damage: Robin Rimbaud

September 2011

Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner hails the new community spirit of social networking sites that encourage direct communications between artists and listeners.

When British pop singer John Miles trilled, “Music was my first love and it will be my last/Music of the future and music of the past”, he could well have been celebrating the role music still plays in many of our lives today, despite the transformative impact digital technologies have had upon the means of both listening and production.

The conversation regarding the digital economy of music tends to bypass many of the more constructive aspects that have been born from this radical reworking of the traditional models. The fiery debates continue to burn, so let’s sidestep those for a moment, look forwards not backwards, and explore the possibilities of engaging with these systems – colluding rather than quarrelling.

I have been professionally engaged in producing and performing music for the last 20 years, though my enthusiasm for all types of music stems from a much earlier age, having been exposed to both John Cage and Suzi Quatro at the very same time: one at school, one at home – no prizes for guessing which one had more influence upon me. (I don’t live on Devil Gate Drive.) Very early on, I was conscious that music has always centred on a social engagement, commonly in performance, and quite unlike the solitary pursuits of writers or visual artists, working independently in their studios to create unique objects.

However, there has always remained a distance between listeners and the musicians themselves, often maintained via bombastic management companies and unresponsive record labels. But nowadays artists can mediate the experience themselves using networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Ping and (in dwindling cases) MySpace. Social networking has erased some of these boundaries controlled by the music industry, enabling fans, consumers and the artists themselves to develop an emotional relationship.

It’s impossible to underestimate the value and impact of this direct line of communication, and personally I’ve felt more of a connection than ever with people who follow my work, or those with whom I’ve collaborated or respected. Indeed, countless times I’ve written ‘fan’ emails to musicians I’ve heard on The Wire Tapper CDs, for example, and receiving a personal response still gives me a thrill. Which is why I still try to respond to every email I receive, whether it’s from commissioners of new work or a curious student asking a technical question, or a request for yet another signed photo (but that’s inevitably my mum asking for those).

A new creative aesthetic has arguably been born from these recent developments. My teenage years were occupied with exchanging tapes in the mail with other musicians and artists. These collaborations were conducted across tremendous geographic distances and they were entirely dependent on a sluggish postal system, just to create primitive exploratory works that shall remain locked in a sealed box until after my death. The high speeds and relatively low cost of internet communication have made it possible to collaborate with people almost anywhere on the globe, leading to work that can respond to the moment. Though this certainly doesn’t always lead to works of longevity, tracks sampling freshly broadcast political speeches, or remixes of singles appearing mere hours after they are released, have a vibrancy and energy that cannot be ignored.

I don’t wish to question whether these debates are generational, but I have recognised that many younger artists have embraced these technologies in a brilliantly inspiring manner, especially in the Noise and electronic scenes. The meticulously claustrophobic recordings of American artist Lorn are widely available online, be they ‘official’ releases or, more significantly, the hours of demos, experiments and other playful deconstructions he has uploaded to share with anyone curious enough to click on a link. Nosaj Thing frequently offers consistently enjoyable unofficial remixes of celebrated pop acts; Wiley has given away 180 tracks via his Twitter page; while the new album by LA artist IAMOMNI, produced by Tricky, is also freely available. Each of these artists maintains a strong fanbase, and shows are always inevitably sold out in advance, while limited pressings of vinyl and even tape editions are produced for shows and mail order. It’s about presence, availability, communication.

As a child of the 1960s (not exactly a spring chicken myself, then), I’m often struck by how frequently people much younger than myself speak of the internet and digital technologies as something ‘other’, as if it were not part of their global experience; and they have to ask their children to do their internet business for them. It’s fundamental to remember that the computer is a conduit through which we mediate much of our experience, whether it’s to admire a video of a kitten emulating Christian Marclay on the decks, download a new movie or album, or share our social adventures on networking sites. 

In addition to my own website, which I have continued to update ceaselessly every month since 1996, I have also turned to Soundcloud to share many sketches of productions and ideas. In less than a year I have reached close to 20,000 listens and myriad responses from people with their feedback and comments. Marketing, once the exclusive preserve of record companies, has evolved into interaction, and the tools to sustain this are completely free. Admittedly, music cannot always speak for itself, so artists need to learn to create both music and an ‘experience’ that runs parallel with their creative careers, searching out innovative ways to make their work available on the open market.

As our culture moves into one of a ‘cloud’ environment, often delivered through mobile apps, our world will become one of access rather than ownership. Unquestionably the physical object itself will continue to hold fetishistic value for many, so long as it has something unique, unusual and inspiring to offer. Even as a keen downloader myself, in the last six months alone I have also purchased vinyl and CDs to the equivalent of the annual childcare for a baby.

More channels than ever are now available to freely access exploratory music. I wonder if BBC 6Music’s Freak Zone radio show would have been able to survive before these digital developments, with a teatime national broadcast of The Residents, Hatfield And The North, Mayo Thompson, The Pop Group, Sun Ra and Cornelius Cardew on one recent show. Online music services such as Spotify and Pandora have also stimulated an interest in an extraordinarily wide appreciation of music.

I may sound like an idealist, but more than at any other time in my career I feel more connected, more socially engaged with others in music than I could ever have anticipated. In the last year I’ve released six albums, from collaborations with Matthew Shipp and David Rothenberg, to scores for Dutch National Ballet and Flanders Royal Ballet. None of these were released on major labels, and I bankrolled most of them with my own savings. I’ve always seen them as postcards or musical business cards that remind people that I’m still alive and very much engaged in productivity – not as the key focus of my trajectory. Music isn’t only exclusively about the product, but the experience around it.

The immediate feedback from performances, the banter to be found on Twitter and Facebook, can be addictive. Despite the shifts that punk imposed on a stable music industry, today is much more of a process of adaptation than ever before. We can’t step back; things will never be as they were, and that’s both the tragedy and the inevitable course of progress. For those who haven’t already done so, it’s time to fall headfirst into this socially engaging network, negotiating a new found land.

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