Not long ago I sent the following interview questions to some friends and colleagues who are all in some way engaged with countercultural music-making in Australia. The questions were my way of attempting to understand what was going on in our heads when we thought about the role music has and could have in our lives, as well as how music is evolving and why… or if it has temporarily stopped evolving, and why. What follows are the answers I received from alternative music radio host Angus Cornwell and Sydney singer-songwriter Bud Petal.
Some of the following I find rousing; some of it I emphatically disagree with; all of the responses are interesting. Likewise, the respondents seem at times both buoyed and annoyed by the questions – which I suppose means I’ve done my job, after a fashion. If you’d like a stab at answering these questions, I’d love to hear from you. Email me at wyatt [at] wyattmosswellington.com – if they add to the debate, I will upload them below.
[Update 9 August 2011: Tony Wellington‘s answers have been added below, forwarded to me with the fatherly proviso, “here are some responses from an old fart”; see particularly his answer for Q6, articulating one of the most important aspects of contemporary music production and consumption.]
Q1: At some point the abbreviation of “independent”, i.e. “indie”, became marketable as a sound and an aesthetic rather than having anything to do with independent production. Does this bother you at all?
Angus Cornwell: No. Certainly, it has created a lot of confusion amongst people who don’t know better and think the ‘indie sound’ represents more of a claim to the totality of music than it really does; and sometimes industry watchers who should know better conflate ideas of independence from the mainstream musical establishment and originality and resistance and solidarity and counterculture, &c, &c.. As a teenager I was a subscriber to the second category. Then, I would have thought indie music embodied all those confused ideas in my head and thought ‘wow – it sounds good (saccharine) for something that does all that.’ These days maybe I’d think ‘wow, it’s kinda disappointing for something that can do all that.’ But does it bother me? No.
Bud Petal: I’m not sure I’d say it bothers me. I realise that such a phenomenon exists, but as an artist the way my music is manipulated by marketing trends is something over which I have little control. I don’t feel a part of the music industry in the sense of a career musician making his living only from music (mainly because that’s not possible due to the nature of the music industry). I think that from the perspective of a music lover/consumer/buyer of records/etc. (i.e., someone who does not create music), marketing “independent” music and the nature of the music industry is more bothersome because the access to good, creative, unique, independent, etc., music has become very difficult.
The “indie” marketing phenomenon is a marketing scheme – it bothers me in the same way that watching a Pepsi commercial telling me how to be trendy or whatever bothers me. People who actually know what independent music is won’t be bothered per se because the same has happened to the terms “grunge” and “folk” and “blues” and “disco” and “surrealist” and “dada” and “absurdist” and countless other music and art movements that have been appropriated by the commercial and marketing companies. It just so happens that a significant amount of money available to artists resides in multinational corporations who have interests pertaining to market share and profits (there are interesting exceptions, but even in those cases the money comes from the same source). If artists want money from these companies, they are going to have to abide by the rules set by these companies. I don’t mean this to sound defeatist or fatalistic; artists for at least a couple of centuries have had to deal with the problem of making a living out of their art (I haven’t looked this up properly, but I suspect that the artists who had a steady income paid for by a wealthy philanthropist or by a government body were either in the minority or had similar issues as those artists signed to, say, a major record label these days). There’s a problem with how our culture and society values artists, though I think there is a disconnect between what the general population values and what the government and corporations value (the same happens with any political issue).
Tony Wellington: Back in the late 60s and early 70s there existed a genre widely known as “underground music.” This included anything that wasn’t mainstream, radio-friendly and pushed by the major labels. But the term has now been broken up into subgenres (psychedelia, progressive rock, space rock, etc.) and the useful moniker “underground”, with its connotations of grass-roots revolution, has completely disappeared.
I suspect the same will occur with the term “indie”. Originally it was designed to refer to non-mainstream music artists in the same context as “underground”. But, thanks to modern technology, music is continually heading well beyond the sweaty grasp of the corporate music industry. This is both a good thing (more variety) and a bad thing (lack of quality filtering). But in the end, “indie” will increasingly become meaningless as a useful catch-all. Like “underground” its days are numbered simply because its catch-all usefulness is waning.
Q2: The “indie” phenomenon still lays claim to a kind of authenticity of individual expression – this can mean anything from use of light acoustic or toy instruments, to lo fi recording qualities. Are we mistaken to hear these sounds as being any more authentic than highly “produced” sounds?
AC: Yes. But here’s some food for thought. Let’s play ball with lo-fi for a minute (I don’t care much for toy instruments myself).
Triumvirate reasons why some lo-fi is aesthetically appealing to me (in general, rather than making reference to the particular style of poetry that has grown symbiotically with it):
a) It entails a different set of values to highly produced music. In some ways the overhaul of conventional ‘sounds good’, and the secession from artistic control (an object of hi-fi production?) is liberating, easy. This can be a cheap way out. It can also open the door to new ways of thinking about music and new ways of listening to it. New priorities, new possibilities.
b) Beauty of ambiguity.
c) Hypnotic effects of distortion.
Some people are also interested in the technical side of distortion and the acoustics of this music. I don’t know much about it, but I think that’s a reasonable angle on lo-fi music, too. And we can’t forget that it’s associated with lots of desirable, romantic images in counterculture.
BP: I don’t exactly understand the term “authentic” in this context. If it means these works were created by a human using only their own skills and ingenuity, then everything is “authentic” and the term is meaningless. If it means the work is not derivative, then that’s a different and (probably moot) philosophical discussion because everyone has to start from somewhere. I’m guessing the marketing departments don’t want people to have a clear understanding of the term because it actually has no serious content to it. Countless other examples include: “the king of pop”, “album of the year”, “best song”, “the voice of a generation”, etc.
TW: Getting back to my “underground” reference above, the notion of lo-fi harks back to the prototype metal/garage sounds of, for example, MC5. Back in the 60s it was considered radical and revolutionary to produce an album loaded with distortion and grit – something the major labels would never consider (until they finally realised they could make a buck from it with the arrival of punk). It seems to me that modern lo-fi is seeking the same imprimatur of radicalism. Being non-mainstream in the music business is much easier today. Trying to stand out from the morass of non-mainstream music available is much harder. If your primary purpose is to demonstrate that you wish to break with convention, then listeners need to understand the conventions that are being broken. Trouble is, conventions have become increasingly slippery, and radicalism harder to pin-point. Personally, these days I prefer to listen to people who can wring new life from old conventions rather than those who eschew conventions for the sake of it. But I’m old, and younger people still need to feel they are rebelling against something – even if it’s harder to define what that something is.
On the notion of “authentic”, real authenticity can be generated using conventions no more or less than spurning them.
Q3: Obviously these sounds have roots in a couple of identifiable genres – punk and folk seem to be common reference points. Any reason why these genres appealed more to young musicians looking for influences to inform their own music?
AC: Easy chords to quirkiness of melodic structure ratio? Perhaps a culture within those movements which had certain values in common with the musicians? Punk and folk are both egalitarian at their core. That’s maybe the clearest thing they have in common. With that, inherent acceptance in these traditions of the plurality of ways to enjoy music?
It’s easy to be cynical. There is some good music being made by this new wave of musicians, IMO.
BP: I don’t think anyone can give any clear answers to why certain styles of music or musicians were selected as influences whereas others were not; it’s too complicated and unpredictable. For what it’s worth, I think a lot of it has to do with the values and interests a person has. A person who is a fan of the latest pop star obviously has completely different values and cultural interests to someone who owns the entire back catalogue of an early twentieth century minimalist composer. Some of it has to do with training and leisure time (one may not understand minimalist classical music or have no leisure time to explore the aims of such composers, or one may be baffled by the difference between the number one pop hit on the charts of last year and the previous year).
TW: Folk music has been around as long as humanity. Punk is a modern fad. But both have their roots in the fervent expression of social conditions. Woody Guthrie was lambasted for being a communist (though he never joined any communist organisation) and Johnny Rotten was labelled an anarchist (though he probably had no idea what that really meant politically). There will always be music which seeks to exemplify the heartfelt oppression of certain social groups – even when, in the case of punk, that cohort was disaffected, self-interested western youth whose “oppression” was really just indulgent teenage angst.
Q4: All of this has also meant less emphasis on musicianship and often exclusion of any need for virtuosity, which is looking increasingly old. Do you think the fading emphasis on musicianship is a reaction against something culturally endemic, and if so what is it rebelling against?
AC: It is easy to react to an artifact of the establishment where one is identifiable. The need for virtuosity may be considered as one, and this dialogue has been had at length on many fronts for about fifty years. I would like to think that these days alternative music is tending toward some happy medium where virtuosity is desirable, but it can be acknowledged that it is not entirely necessary in all domains.
In the wave of electronic music that has stormed Sydney in the last eighteen months (Gold Panda, Jamie XX, et al), virtuosity seems to be celebrated. An overconfident young DJ who played a set on Fbi Radio on Friday, 15th July observed that this new music could be seen as an adaptation of the scattered, glitchy, highly technical and… virtuous underground electro of the 1990s, finding a new home for itself in the mainstream.
Musicianship is not dead, people just don’t understand it. It’s like drinking sugar when you’re first starting to drink coffee – you need trainer wheels. Gold Panda, for example, brings the best of the inaccessible and resets it in a tolerable – even enjoyable – format, without compromising its complexity.
There is an increasing complexity and elegance (and new culture of experimentation! Gwen Stefani, I’m looking at you in particular) of the production that lies under mainstream pop of late. Mainstream pop is supposed to appeal to everyone. This borders on conspiracy theorising, but I think that even in popular gangster rap, there is a dog-whistle effect. For a sophisticated audience it has quirks of production, subtexts to read and honestly a fair amount of tongue-in-cheek irony, emotional intelligence and drama. Often there is an interesting, embedded cultural or political statement being made, too. Kids from Mt Druitt will covet the blingin’ lifestyle and the escape from suburbia, and the rest will soar over their heads.
N.B. Orthodox western musicianship’s values, the worship of originality, the beauty in authenticity, the requirement of virtuosity, the appreciation of people attempting something that is difficult: all just values – not universal!
BP: Whose emphasis? The record labels’? If so, I don’t think their emphasis has changed because their structure and aims have not changed. They aim to increase profits, and that has unfortunately meant taking advantage of unknown artists and forcing them into a mould and tying them into a contract. That can’t be so easily done to a virtuoso because they have the upper hand (assuming of course they are not just, say, guitar-playing machines but rather artists who wish to create their own artworks). A talented musician is less likely to be swayed by the major labels’ promises of making them a star, though there are exceptions of course. The record labels’ emphasis is only on increasing profits (to varying degrees of success and ferocity); whatever brings them to that end they will pursue. So I don’t think that the record labels’ emphasis on musicianship is a reaction to anything – the emphasis wasn’t there in the first place (I also think this is true objectively; it would be interesting to see a study on what kind of artists record labels have supported in the past in comparison to now, as I suspect there has been little change in the last few decades at least).
Or maybe you mean the emphasis of the public or music fans? That’s a different question. Maybe it is true that there is less value now placed by our culture in artists. Though I’m sceptical because it seems to me that the roots of such values are intertwined with many other factors. Cultural values can change very drastically within a short period of time, even when the actual practices of artists changes very little in the same time frame. A drastic example is Weimar Germany, which was the peak of European civilisation in the arts and sciences and seen by many as perhaps the period with the highest level of intellectual production in human history, and within less than a decade Germany sunk into the depths of human depravity in the Nazi era. So it’s difficult to say whether an emphasis has faded and whether it’s a reaction to a cultural zeitgeist. It’s too complex. People are affected by many outside factors and it takes constant vigilance to remain close to ideals of cultural values and respect for artists and human rights and a myriad of other values and ethical principles that can be erased without hard work on the part of the population.
TW: Punk was a direct reaction against the requirement for musical ability. Garage likewise. Rap similarly. These genres sought to return music from the grasp of commercialism back into the control of ordinary people.
Unfortunately, thanks to the commercialisation of music during the last century, plus globalisation generally, music critics and music consumers are driven to make comparisons at a world-wide level. Contrived hierarchies are flaunted proffering the supposed best-of – whether it’s a rock guitarist, sousaphone player or scantily clad dance/performance artist (Lady Ga Ga, Kylie Minogue, etc). That’s a pretty daunting set of exemplars by which to judge one’s ability. Musicians are today forced to live up to impossible standards as they are continually compared to the world’s best.
Here’s something to mull over. Before music was recordable, it was a more utilitarian, participatory art. Extended families and friends would gather around (with or without accompaniment) to sing together. As soon as it became marketable through recordings, the simple pleasure of music performing was taken from the hoi polloi. Music suddenly needed an audience (i.e. paying consumers) to justify its existence. I have read that, back in the early 1900s, one in every 3 Australian households had a piano, and many had zithers (which were sold door to door). These instruments weren’t used for money-making, individual expression, or even showing off. They were used for simple communal pleasure.
Today many houses have a guitar. But they are rarely used to bring people together as in the pianos of old. Rather they are strummed by those who tend to fantasise about performing before an audience. Today music doesn’t serve a function unless it has an audience.
Q5: Another element which seems important to many listeners is to hear a unique personality behind the music – which often seems to translate as highly apparent eccentricity, especially an eccentricity which appears genuine. Why do we value locating eccentric art-makers?
AC: See “Brands, Fakes & Authenticity” by David Boyle.
We crave originality in some respects, and there’s nothing more compelling and MORE ACCESSIBLE than authenticity. Maybe it’s our socialisation, maybe it’s some inbuilt biological mechanism that mistrusts contrivance – in the same way some compulsion in our nature prefers symmetry, the appearance of simplicity, etc., we prefer authenticity. It’s easy to understand, it’s easier to get into. It feels safe. And it’s hard to contrive something convincingly.
Music is mostly an escape. Would you prefer to escape into something that is real, beautiful, tried and true, or inhabit some synthetic structure with infirm edges and uncertain hospitality, and maybe a hole in the bottom?
BP: Eccentrics might be valued because they represent to others what human ingenuity is capable of; maybe people find them interesting in the same sense that the Freak Shows and circuses used to be valued; maybe people value eccentrics for their bravery in standing up to the mainstream culture. People search out eccentric art-makers because people are looking for something different – they feel unique, important and smug in the fact that they alone sought out and found these artists that few people know. Though at the end of the day (and especially in the current explosion of new music via online sites) only very few artists will be superstars and known worldwide in the same way The Beatles were in the 1960s. I think the media and tabloids focus on eccentric personalities because there is so little to distinguish between mainstream pop stars signed to major labels. The music-listening public know the differences. They may not care or ignore the facts but they are aware of them. So I guess people seek out eccentric art-makers because they are aware that what they see on the major television music channels is not all there is and that there is better and more important music being created. Though I don’t think people seek out eccentrics as much as they seek out the music they know exists but is not represented in the mainstream tabloids. That’s not eccentricity per se.
TW: We are overrun with music choices. In my teen years, it was easy to make oneself aware of every recording artist available. Today that would be impossible. Spoilt for choice, we live in decadent times. It’s no wonder some music consumers seek a hint of underlying personality – because that’s some guarantee of interpersonal connection between listener and musician. But I agree that, in a world of advertising artifice and contrivance, affectation is often mistaken for individualism.
Q6: What role has the digital revolution played in determining the kind of music countercultural artists are making now? (i.e. ease-of-acquisition of recording equipment, ability to disseminate music online and the subsequent passing of power from music labels to libraries like iTunes)
AC: I don’t think I know the answer.
The digital revolution has opened ample avenues for production and dissemination. Equally, the digital revolution has made people lazy, stupid, complacent, uninquisitive, bored, boring, and more s**thouse than ever before.
It is easy to generate content. It is easy to get heard. It is easy to connect with your audience, if someone else already cultivated one. It’s still just as hard to break up the dirge.
BP: The digital revolution has allowed many people to make music much more easily. It’s a wide spectrum ranging from using a beat machine and looped vocals to a whole band recording an album in their lounge room playing only acoustic instruments. Both were not possible until the last couple of decades or so. The former was not possible at all until electronic music, the latter became much cheaper and thus now allows many more artists to record in high quality and relative ease. Though the question of how the digital revolution has changed the kind of music people create is difficult to answer apart from the obvious truisms that it is cheaper to make music and disseminate it worldwide and that certain kinds of music were impossible to create before the digital revolution. I think more people are making music now than in previous decades, though that’s due not only to the digital revolution but also, among others, due to more leisure time available to people and a reduction in instrument prices (acoustic, electric, and electronic). I wonder if the claims that significantly more music is being made these days than in past decades have more to do with the availability of the music online, rather than actually more music being produced. A lot of music would never have been recorded were it not for the cheap home recording devices now available; so it’s probably more accurate to say that more recorded music is now available.
TW: The digital revolution has resulted in more music being available, as more people have access to recording facilities (in their own homes). This is both a good and bad thing. But its most important impact has been on listening habits. The easier it is to access (i.e. download) music, the less the consumer invests of their time and effort in its consumption. Instead, a sort of off-hand, almost disconsolate listening habit has evolved.
In the analogue era, I would save up my money, make a special trip to the record store, and very carefully choose my purchase – often based on prior research. Then, at home, I would sit down and play the LP from side one through side two, listening intently. In other words, I would give every music purchase my undivided attention. That’s because of the level of effort required to choose, purchase and consume the music.
I don’t see that attitude in today’s music consumer. Instead they are inclined to have lots of music available, but played (often in compressed form) as audio wallpaper to other activities. Today’s younger music consumer rarely devotes significant time to simply listening to the music. Invariably the music fills an audio void whilst they do something else.
Today songs and tracks are downloaded, compiled, played randomly etc. There is no longer the sense that an “album” is a discrete, complete work of art in itself (including LP cover). There is no information about the musicians, instrumentation or recording available. It is no longer easy to follow the careers of studio and supporting musicians, let alone music producers. Music has devolved into a mass consumer item that is disposable and ubiquitous. As a result, its social relevance has significantly diminished.
Of course there are still people who care enough about music to listen attentively and to treat it as the skilled art form that it is. But overall, the decadence of overexposure inevitably leads to contempt, and I sense that attitude creeping into the consumption of music. Thus today many consumers simply assume that all music should be freely available, that musicians don’t automatically deserve payment for their efforts, that the quality of the recording is less significant than its availability, etc. Perhaps, eventually, after years of downloading compressed files from Russian websites, some folk will feel the urge to seek out a genuine hi-fi listening experience – and be prepared to pay for it?
Q7: It appears increasingly difficult to make money off any kind of intellectual property now. Does this disincentive matter at all?
AC: I don’t know. Probably. It’s not easy to be a career musician – to specialise. But it never has been. The landscape is just different now. There’s probably a clearer path to success, but at what price?
American-dream style, today pretty much any competent, intelligent person *could* become a successful mainstream musician. But what sacrifices would they have to make?
There is this interesting problem that affects me as a barista as much as it affects any musician worth their salt: simply, what do you make? Do you give them what they want? Do you give them what you want? Do you give them what’s good for them? Do you educate? Do you insulate? Do you masturbate? Everyone has a different purpose.
Some people just make music for themselves. Some people want to be famous and rule the world cause they have daddy issues or something. No two people are not on fire. But anybody can be on fire. That’s what’s important.
BP: I think the prior questions should be ‘to what extent was it ever possible to make money off intellectual property – and who was making that money?’ Like I mentioned above, I don’t think there is much difference in the financial status of artists in, say, the last 50 years (that statement has to be defended though). The intellectual property of artists seems to be the least valued in our culture but I don’t think it will be a disincentive to many because money is not the reason why artists do what they do. The same goes for any creative pursuit; there’s the classic story of Einstein who was working full time as a bank clerk and in his free time was working on his relativity theory that would revolutionise physics. That of course does not mean that since artists would do what they do anyway, they should not be paid for what they enjoy doing, but it does mean that the difficulty of making money off intellectual property will not be a disincentive. (Though as a side note, this difficulty does not exist in, say, the biotechnology industry, where intellectual property is a multi-billion dollar industry.)
TW: The internet has seen a massive shift in popular attitude regarding intellectual copyright – not just in music, but also film, writing, photography, etc., etc.
Humans will always be driven to be creative, either from some deep inchoate drive (e.g. ancient cave paintings), or, more often today, from a desire to be noticed. We are tribal creatures suddenly thrust into urban conglomerates. The result is attention-deficit, because we are surrounded by strangers rather than familiars. Individualism is one means of coping with the loss of familiarity. It is therefore inevitable that the arts draw people who seek both attention and personal validity. This is the real payment that most artists seek.
It is a genuine shame that artists are now struggling to maintain control of their creative endeavours, and to be paid adequately for them. If artists seek validity, then surely payment and respect are two key means by which they get their fulfillment?
I imagine that, in the future, governments and arts bodies will end up finding further means to assist artists to continue their work – particularly as direct artist-consumer transactions continue to dry up. We have already seen this intervention with the introduction of public/educational lending rights fees to authors, and the more recent introduction of money being paid to visual artists each time their artworks sell at auction. In the end, it is only through a better understanding of the value of arts to society that such measures can be put in place.
As a footnote, it is interesting to sit here in Australia and contemplate the social standing of the arts. Compared with cultures that enjoy long histories of artistic endeavour, we in the New World are incredibly dismissive of the role of artists. In Europe, for example, being an artist is a valued profession, with society at every level appreciative of the importance of the artist’s role. Here an artist is more often viewed as being a skiver. Sportspeople generally enjoy higher social standing than artists. Artists and intellectuals are too often viewed with suspicion in a culture founded in rural colonialism. Still, I’d rather be undervalued and living in the Lucky Country!
Angus Cornwell also offered some final words: In sum, I sometimes wonder whether the payoff would be greater if I were simple. I look at Victor Oatmeal (my mostly imaginary nemesis). I look back at myself (imagine I have a mirror). In my youth I bought the Indie Dream, but I did it wrong, or the dream wasn’t working like in the manual or something and I ran square into its glass walls. I wonder if I could reverse back out and keep flying with more flying skills and experience and buy it back and live simple and be happy. Mr Oatmeal is not happy, but there’s one thing he doesn’t have to worry about. There’s one thing he can believe in.
Nah – I’d rather f**k with the ether.