There’s a trio of opinion pieces up at Wire magazine’s website right now, all of them about the effects file-sharing has on labels, artists, and listeners. Between UbuWeb’s Kenneth Goldsmith and ReR’s Chris Cutler, there is a wealth of good information and great insights that I think music-lovers everywhere would do well to ponder.
And then there’s David Keenan, who many might know for his book England’s Hidden Reverse (which is well worth reading). His contribution to the debate is mind-boggling for its reductive sheen, over-simplistic scope, and pretentious banter, not to mention its convoluted logic and presumptuous tone. Bemoaning the effect of digital music on artists and labels, he subsequently praises the return of super-limited cassette releases (with horrible sound) and the slashing of arts funding in education, a phenomenon that I assume is as present and detrimental in Scotland as it is the USA.
This particular example of lunacy sticks out like a sore thumb:
So arts funding has been slashed? Good. Is there anything more contradictory and hypocritical than a ‘radical’ music festival that’s essentially government sponsored? The future for the underground lies in refusing these narcotic compromises while daring to create its own economy.
“[Creating] its own economy” is a strange and ambiguous phrase, which Keenan does nothing to explain. It seems especially out of place in a series of essays devoted to the fiscal woes besotting the music industry. What does David have in mind? Tape trading? Bartering for food? Playing in subways for coins? If he means something like generating an economy among a small group of people, that does little or nothing for artists who want to make music or art of any kind without compromising due to financial woes. Furthermore, he gets his facts wrong. Reading back over his opinion, I recalled a passage from Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise:
David Monod, in his history of music during the American occupation [of Germany], writes that OMGUS [Office of Military Government, United States] inadvertantly helped to bring about a ‘segregation of the modern and the popular.’ Darmstadt and similar organizations were wholly subsidized by the state, the city, and the Americans. They had no obligation to a paying public.
That’s page 383 from the softcover edition printed by Picador in 2007. The entire chapter, titled “Zero Hour,” does a great job of explaining how experimental music after World War II was funded, at least initially, by government organizations. If Darmstadt isn’t a name you’re familiar with, then maybe you’ll recognize some of the composers that attended courses there: Milton Babbitt, Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Morton Feldman, György Ligeti, Olivier Messiaen, Luigi Nono, Henri Pousseur, Karlheinz Stockhausen, David Tudor, Edgard Varèse, and Iannis Xenakis. It’s a virtual who’s-who list of some of the most radical composers (and performers) of the last 70 years. Entire labels, which I don’t think many people would hesitate to call underground, make a living releasing performances of music by these very people. I think we might even draw feasible connections between these musicians and the music released by Chris Cutler’s ReR label.
So why should we be happy about funding for the arts being cut? And how precisely will that help anyone, whether they’re a listener, label, or artist? That’s a rhetorical question. It won’t help anyone, and either Keenan knows it, but forgot, or he’s simply too caught up in the idea of an underground to care what happens when people are denied the luxuries he’s afforded.
I’ll be writing a full response to all three pieces, and I might submit it to Wire, but I wanted to post these pieces before doing that. Maybe give myself a little space before firing off an inchoate response. Still, Keenan’s “insight” smacks of a smug attitude and overgrown hubris. Who in the world is happy that more people are becoming less educated? Is that really a necessary sacrifice for the music industry to survive? And there’s no doubt in my mind that this is about industry: the question concerns whether artists can survive if people are downloading their music for free. It isn’t a question of whether art participates in industry, because this is obviously one place it does.
That’s besides the point, though. There are already enough self-obsessed artists out there; do we really need a self-obsessed critic to compliment and champion them?