Yes, you heard right. Never in my music writing dreams did I think I’d ever be published in Rolling Stone… but there we go!
An article for Crack Magazine, October 2011 about mytholgy in modern music. Co-written by me and Adam Corner.
STORIES WITH MUSIC TO TELL
Have you heard the one about Aphex Twin being Welsh/dead/responsible for every piece of unattributed electronic music for the past half a century? And what about the ‘real’ identity of two-steppin’ masked producer Sbtrkt? (Clue: it’s a bloke called Aaron Jerome, but don’t let that stop the rumour mill).
Electronic music loves a good yarn – be it fact or fiction. And if it isn’t implausible myths and racy rumours doing the rounds, there’s plenty of elaborate characterisation to get your teeth into. By night, Drums of Death is a bizarre voodoo techno clown with a drum machine and a winning growl. By day, he’s an amiable, chubby Scottish guy. MF Doom has built a career on being a masked mystery (although having a suitcase full of killer rhymes has helped too).
Alter-egos and stage personas are nothing new – for bands or electronic acts. But electronic music has always seemed to lend itself more willingly to secrecy and anonymity. Why is it easier to hide behind pseudonyms, aliases, multiple recording names, masks and banks of equipment when playing with your computer than thrashing around with a guitar? Why do myths and elaborate, fictional back-stories have such an appeal in electronic music?
New label Dramatic Records shows just how far the blurring of fact and fiction can go – it only puts out music from fictional artists. All the releases come with elaborate, embellished and totally made-up back-stories, and whether or not the label even has different artists is questionable.
Endless House Foundation, for example, is supposedly an act dedicated to a club that only existed for a few weeks in a Czech forest. The fact that the club never existed in the first place for anything (let alone a further fictional creation) to be dedicated to, only adds to the fun. And in an age where a perma-avalanche of information is available around the clock – tweeting out at you from the blower in your grubby mitts, or seeping in by osmosis through the ether – a bit of made-up nonsense is a strangely refreshing antidote to the hyper-reality of the cold light of day.
The clean lines of a carefully constructed lie make the hodgepodge of truth look boring by comparison. You can clog your brain with the most tedious titbits about your favourite celeb: what they had for breakfast (Twitter); where they went out for lunch (FourSquare); what songs they listened to on their Ipod (Last.FM). With a bit of digging around on Google you can zoom in and peer through their window.
Some argue that this level of access to artists is a good thing for music fans. It means you get unprecedented access to people you admire and look up to. It means you can track them as they disappear from the ‘scene’ for recording sessions that can take years – follow their blogs, see how their work is progressing. You can listen to demos as they’re worked on, see artwork and behind the scenes shots of videos. You can send them messages on Facebook, and sometimes they’ll even reply. The distance between fan and artist has reduced to the click of a mouse button.
But is this empowering? Is it fuck. The banality of the hero under constant observation makes you long for a dose of make-believe, where nothing (and everything) happens. Artists have lost their intrigue. No longer are they mysterious, ethereal beings – connected to the creative source of the universe through their talents. There’s no space any more for us to create narratives around our favourite artists, or around the music they make. Everything is spelled out for us, letter by nauseating letter. And the closer you get to your favourite artist, the more you realise how very far apart you are.
There was a mystique that surrounded artists before the age of the internet. A mysterious fan club at the end of an anonymous PO Box address in Leamington Spa was the closest you could get to obtaining personalised news about your favourite band. But lest this sound like Luddite nostalgia for an age of badly tuned FM radios and a packet of salt n shake crisps, consider how much we seem to lust after the lure of the fictional, the fantasy information that can never be fully assimilated because it doesn’t actually exist. Part of art is appreciating the work without the overbearing influence of the artist. Without hearing about their moans and groans about public transport, wiring plugs, or various fungal infections. Leave us alone to love you from a distance: or at least make up some bullshit and let us roll around in that for a while.
The potential for getting lost in a fake Czech forest and stumbling across an imaginary club is more interesting than a 24 hour live feed from Bono’s beach pad. But what’s even more fascinating than the fictional biographies of the Dramatic characters is that like it or not, actual-factuality is gradually bleeding in. The press and blogosphere are actively developing the Dramatic storylines, blurring even further the boundary between fact and fiction. One blogger claims to have covered the opening of the fictional club that Endless House Foundation is ‘dedicated’ to: it is low-tech augmented reality, constantly evolving as people join in the conversation.
Intentionally or not, labels like Dramatic have stepped into the zone of unadulterated fan-dom, reacting against the banality of the overly familiar by removing entirely any sense of reality from their artists. And in ditching all the excess hyper-reality, fans can once again insert themselves into the narrative. As Dramatic Records put it, they’re stories with music to tell.
Words: Helia Phoenix & Adam Corner
A new mixtape, made a little while ago. I’ve not really been in the place/space to upload it and sort it out until now. But here we are. So now, enjoy! Right click on the picture to download, or left click to listen.
Dodos – Good
Explosions In The Sky – Postcard from 1952
Clams Casino – Fakest Year Ever
The Knife – Heartbeats (Rex The Dog remix)
Death In Vegas – My Acid Your Loft
ZZT – Zzafrika (Julio Bashmore remix)
Also thanks to everyone who left a message about their must-do Cardiff activities. I’ve compiled them all and they’ll be a feature on the forthcoming Hack/Flash podcast, which will feature yours truly, alongside Lee Underpass (maker of wonderful music) and man about town Carl Morris (who has his fingers in so many pies it’s hard to pick just one to define him by. I think he’d appreciate the room to breathe, so I won’t pick one). The first podcast is going to be recorded over the next couple of weeks, and due to go live on October 1st. I’ll post the link as soon as it’s up.
An article co-written by me and Adam Corner for Crack Magazine, published July 2011
MUSIC GETS PERSONAL
Imagine buying a song, but each time you listened to it, it was different. If you’ve got a Mac, you don’t need to imagine it – you can go to http://www.bronzeformat.com and listen to the first release on a pioneering new musical platform called Bronze Format (the track’s by Gwil Gold, who along with the producer Lexx created Bronze Format). There is no original – each time you listen to it, the pre-programmed parameters of the song gently morph so that every play is subtly different. It bears repeating: there is no original.
On its own, it would be easy to dismiss Bronze Format as a fun but ultimately self-defeating detour from the serious business of Listening To The Song. But other developments currently taking root in the musical landscape suggest that it might just be the first signs of a quiet revolution in the relationship between listener and artist.
Last month, the Kaiser Chiefs (of all people) released what they described as the world’s first ‘bespoke’ album – twenty songs were made available on the band’s website, and for the price of an album download, fans could choose the ten songs that they liked the best. Other than raising the amusing possibility of perhaps only a fifth of the audience singing along to any one song at Kaiser Chiefs gigs, the concept of listeners choosing their own musical adventure is a potentially powerful new development. It’s a transfer of power from the band to the listener – or more to the point, from the record company to the listener. When listeners start curating their own listening experiences, and the music comes straight from the band’s website to your portable listening device of choice, what is the function of a record company at all?
Perhaps sensing precisely this question floating on the winds of change, Bjork’s label One Little Indian have grabbed the interactive bull by its digital horns and are releasing each single from forthcoming album Biophilia with its own dedicated App, containing interactive games, so each person who listens to the song and buys the App will get a different post-purchase experience.
So is this just a desperate search for a way of monetising an industry that can no longer sell conventional products? Or is it the dawn of something fundamentally new – a level of personalisation that has never been seen before? The implications for ‘owning’ and ‘collecting’ music are potentially huge – if there is no longer an original version of a track, if you can curate your own album or get lost in your own app-song interaction, how will people share memories of ‘classic’ albums in years to come? There is no original.
In some ways, no one ever really hears a song in exactly the same way as everyone else – the myriad of memories (or otherwise) that contextualise the listening experience means that the sound in your head is never quite the same as the guy next door’s. Maybe all the new technology bundled up in Bronze Format and Biophilia are just making this subjective variability more tangible.
So how feasible is it that – someday – more music will be consumed this way? Some music is already a fleeting, one time experience. The Bays, for example, are a band who don’t release any recordings and only perform live improvisations that last an hour (or so). This idea of music as a transitory experience (rather than a commodity) has always set The Bays apart from other bands as a bit of a curio. The music industry made its millions on the assumption that music would always be packaged and sold. The Bays were a movement towards music that couldn’t be frozen in this way – they advertise themselves by stating ‘Performance is the Product’. Is Bronze Format the next step?
Inevitably, new technology will allow the experience of listening to music to develop in ways we can’t even imagine. Fighting the progress is like eating soup with a fork. But at the moment it is difficult to see how any movement towards transitory music could have much of an effect on the musical mainstream. Pop by definition depends on a song being recognisable for what it is.
So for the time being, the personalisation of music is something that will be explored by the auteurs – Bjork, Richie Hawtin or perhaps even the increasingly ADHD bass artist Zomby. But like any good boundary-pushing development, the exciting part is the potential. Where do we go from here?
Man, machine, music….repeat until no longer the same.
Words: Adam Corner & Helia Phoenix
Image: Adam Chard
It’s been ages since I did a mix. Here’s one, for your listening pleasure!
Listen on my tumblr (tracklisting there too), or right click the image below and save to your computer.
It’s been a while since I’ve done any “proper” music writing that wasn’t for a book. I think I had to go a bit cold turkey after Kruger Magazine folded – I had been writing for Kruger and editing its Reviews section for years, so when the mag shut down I felt a bit of a recoil from writing. I didn’t want to write reviews anymore. I barely wanted to listen to music anymore. I guess it was a bit like a bad breakup… but now, hooray, I’m over it! And thus the music writing can begin again. I’ve just started writing music news for the Shazam website. If you’re a music geek like me, it’s quite possible you’ve probably used Shazam in the past – when you’ve been out at a club or pub and a tune comes on that you’re desperate to know the name of, but no-one you ask seems to know …. you call Shazam, play some of the song down the phone and they give you the name and artist. I remember one very (very) hazy night at Glade Festival a few years ago when a friend and I must have called Shazam about 20 times…
Anyway, bringing it back up to date – today Shazam has 150 million users across 200 countries worldwide and their numbers are on the up. And rather than calling up, these days most people are using their fairly swanky mobile app (there’s just been a big update to their Android app). As part of that, they’re creating more written music content for their blog. Which will now be even more awesome than it was already, as it will also feature me!
In other news, I’ve also co-written an article about how music is changing to become a totally personalise experience with the rise of technology like Bronze Format and also Bjork’s new album, Biophilia. My writer-in-crime is Adam Corner, electro-whore-house-pioneer and newly reformed say-yes-to-everything-and-worry-about-it-later-man. You can see the article in the next issue of Crack magazine.
I was a guest on the lovely Bethan Elfyn’s Amazing Radio show this week, doing a book review – bit cheeky, but I reviewed a book I had written! That’s ok, isn’t it?
Bethan Elfyn – Amazing Radio show 6th June 2010 (I’m at 50 minutes in)
I was profiled (very incorrectly) by Robin Ince on Steve Lamacq’s 6 Music show earlier in May. Listen to how wrong he gets it on my tumblr
I may have mentioned before that I’m part of a community art group here in Cardiff called hackflash. Yesterday Adam and I went out and did two photoshoots – one for our We Are Cardiff web project and one for the hackflash website.
I did a post last night on the hackflash blog– go over there to check it out
I’ve written up some background on We Are Cardiff for the Guardian, who are publishing it on Wednesday. I’ll link to that when it’s up rather than boring you with all the same guff twice.
In the meantime, here’s a wee mixtape I’ve made for autumn. Enjoy! Click the picture, or if that doesn’t work, click here to download.