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Flickr and Disco - click opera
February 2010
 
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Thu, Jul. 3rd, 2008 10:23 am
Flickr and Disco

What does it mean to art-direct your own life? I don't know, all I know is that it's a hell of a lot of work captioning and rotating something like a thousand photographs (it felt like a thousand, anyway) documenting the last month of your life. Not the last month, I mean, just the latest one. The past month. Argh, words! Anyway, to see my selections from the thousands of digital images I've snapped in various locations over the past month, go to my Flickr page or load up the slideshow.

Meanwhile, if you understand Spanish you can read the first of a new monthly series of music columns I'm writing for Playground, a new Spanish webzine. Con el disco, como con la música Disco means "As with Disco, so with the disk", and it's a piece about how records, as physical objects, are going underground now, just as Disco did at the end of the 70s.



Since the piece appears on the site only in Spanish, I'll provide an English translation here. But before I do, a reminder that I play the Faraday Stolichnaya Festival at Vilanova i la Geltrú (approximately midway between Barcelona and Valencia) tomorrow night.

AS WITH DISCO, SO WITH THE DISK

The official story of Disco sees the genre spinning through a cycle:

1. Disco starts life as something almost secret -- the party music of urban American black and gay subcultures.

2. Disco goes overground thanks to the success of Donna Summer and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.

3. Disco experiences over-exposure, burn-out and backlash.

4. Disco returns to the same underground subculture it emerged from.

5. Disco reappears, a few years later, in the form of Detroit and Chicago house music.

Most commentators see the underground and overground parts of this story as a sort of dialectic, each as necessary as the other. Disco's marginality, before and after its mainstream success, gave the genre a kind of laboratory in which to concoct the startling originality we hear both in Donna Summer's first hits and, ten years later, in Kevin Saunderson's. Commercial failure, then, doesn't have to be -- in the words of those infuriating falsetto Bee Gees -- "tragedy". Like crop rotation, it's part of a fruitful cycle.

The story of Disco has become the story of the disk -- that is, of the plastic-oriented music industry itself. The internet has made selling mainstream music in physical formats, and enforcing copyright, unprofitable. As a result, major parts of the record industry are doing what Disco did at the end of the 70s: going back underground, back to the lab. Far from dying, pop music is going underground, entering a period of exciting experimentation.



What is undoubtedly dying is the landscape of 20th century pop music. Almost all the seemingly-megalithic, seemingly-immortal institutions of commercial pop music -- as I knew them as a British person growing up in the last century -- have vanished. There's no more Top of the Pops, the TV chart show that dominated my childhood. All but one of the British weekly music papers have disappeared. John Peel died and wasn't replaced. Huge retail chains like Tower and Virgin shut up shop. Richard Branson sold his British and American Virgin stores, and this month it was announced that the two New York Virgin Megastores would close.

As for the record labels, those 80s icons Prince and Madonna know which way the wind is blowing. Prince released his last album, Planet Earth, as a free CD on the cover of a newspaper. But giving the plastic disk away wasn't a sign that Prince's career was over; far from it. He immediately sold out 21 nights at London's 02 Arena. Madonna's last record deal wasn't just a record deal -- it included slices of her concert and merchandising revenue too. As a recording and performing musician myself, I know it very well: live shows used to be ways to promote records, but now it's the other way around.

One reason concerts are alive and records are dead is that there's a new value in things which can't be uploaded as digital content to the internet. I call this phenomenon "the post-bit atom". It also explains why the art market is booming. Art and music have become social occasions. An art opening or a concert (or, even better, an art opening with a concert included) is a chance for people who spend all day in front of computer screens to see their fellow human beings and share an intense, loud, colourful, real experience with them.

Art and music are also "distinction machines": efficient ways for people to sum up complex clusters of values -- social, political, aesthetic and ethical -- and connect with like-minded souls. None of this is going to become less important any time soon.



Like Disco at the end of the 70s, the disk is going underground. Where it does survive, music on plastic is elliptical, obscure, artisanal. We all thought they would go out of business first, but it's the little shops which are surviving. On New York's East 4th Street, Tower Records used to tower over specialist independent shop Other Music. It's the indie store which has survived; the gigantic Tower fell two years ago. In London, the Virgin Megastore may have disappeared, but funky little indie Rough Trade is flourishing: last year it opened Rough Trade East on fashionable Truman's Yard, and this year the new store won the British High Street Retailer of the Year Award. Which is extremely ironic, considering that Rough Trade has always been the very opposite of "high street".

Disks now survive as a kind of underground art form in their own right: limited edition box sets of high-quality 7-inch vinyl with hand-painted sleeves, fetishistic souvenirs of a vanished age of mechanical reproduction. If they ever do return to the mainstream, the way Disco did in the late 80s, it'll be due to some radical reinvention, some apocalypse. Perhaps electricity will become incredibly expensive, and the wind-up gramophone will return. Perhaps it'll emerge that iPods and too-loud live shows have made a whole generation deaf, and perhaps atavistic copyright lawyers and legislators will succeed in banning online music distribution completely. Yes, and perhaps pigs will fly.

We should probably just accept that the disk -- though certainly not music -- is underground forever now, dead and buried. Let's dance on its rotating plastic grave! Wearing lab coats!

23CommentReply


(Anonymous)
Thu, Jul. 3rd, 2008 10:27 am (UTC)

live shows used to be ways to promote records, but now it's the other way around.

This has quickly become the idée reçue of think pieces about where music is heading. But I have a feeling it's going to work out rather like blogs: ie, anyone now can publish what they like, with a potential audience of millions. What actually happens is that a few dozen blogs get phenomenal audiences and the rest average two or three readers. With music, yes, Prince and Madonna will continue to make millions with the "free music/wickedly expensive concert tickets" model. But what about the artists who were more or less making a living selling 10 or 20 thousand CDs? These people will be squeezed. The upshot will be that there will be a bit less money generated by the music industry, and on top of that it will be less equitably distributed. Sure, some people, like your good self, will be able to diversify into art or journalism or whatever. But the very necessity of that underlines that the model will be a failure for anyone but the most commercial artists. There will be fewer people making a living from music alone.


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desant012
||||||||||
Thu, Jul. 3rd, 2008 01:39 pm (UTC)

Nah, those people don't make a living off of music ... that's the case with underground music always. Some dude with a day job goes creative, and if it's good enough and taps into a particular audience, wallah, underground phenomenon.

None of the popular underground artists really tour that much or at all. It's just people making music, and I think that's one of the positives of the new digital age. Some kid in Sheboygan can enjoy Blank Dogs in the comfort of his own home, it's not just the privilege of people who happen to live in Brooklyn, NY. Though that kills some of the privilege of location for the people mobile enough to get around, but it can be seen that it's a positive destruction considering how expensive and inaccessible both living and traveling is these days.

If you want to be creative for a small audience, then yeah, you might have to have a day job despite what people who lived in the 50s and 60s cluck about 'selling out' (back then you could be a garbage man and make nearly the same salary as a corporate executive thanks to progressive taxation). The idea of being the starving artist in a squat is purely 19th century Romanticism; I mean, do you want to die when you're 25, too? So baby boomer.

Anyway, from my experience most people just make music to be part of the social aspect of it ... friends in the local scene, the pleasure and energy of preforming for an audience, seeing your ideas out in the open, etc. etc. The problem is making a living these days may swallow more free time than it allows.


ReplyThread Parent
karawapo
ale/pepino
Thu, Jul. 3rd, 2008 11:08 am (UTC)

That was a very inspiring column, written in perfect Spanish.

Did you write the Spanish text yourself? I ask because it sounds cleaner than Spanish Spanish. If you did, did you write it in Spanish from scratch or did you translate it from an English draft?

Looking forward for your columns at Playground.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Jul. 3rd, 2008 11:50 am (UTC)

Did you write the Spanish text yourself?

Good Lord, no! I have a little Italian, but no Spanish to speak of. But I'm glad it reads well in the language. Thank you, anonymous Playground translator!


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karawapo
ale/pepino
Thu, Jul. 3rd, 2008 12:30 pm (UTC)

I think it reads like you writing in Spanish so I love the translation. You all did a great work and I'm waiting for more.


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Thu, Jul. 3rd, 2008 11:11 am (UTC)
Two faces of Prince

I agree what you say about live (http://www.piratbyran.org/?view=articles&id=114) and contrary to anonymous above I see the opportunities for medium-sized bands and artists to perform more as music communities form and network. Smaller bands from Sweden for example are often able to tour the US with small budgets because people have heard them and come to see them and independent organisers in different cities are able to share costs. And let's not forget those low-fare airlines that sustain (though not in a very environmentally sustainable way) both the international music and art community.

Anyway, seems like Prince have two sides to him. On the one hand going from selling reproducable products to performances. On the other suing the pirate bay (http://www.techradar.com/news/internet/web/prince-village-people-to-sue-pirate-bay-233374) (together with village people for downloads of YMCA), suing a norweigan label (http://www.rollingstone.com/rockdaily/index.php/2008/06/26/prince-sues-norwegian-record-label-over-covers-album/) for doing covers of his songs and even trying to get fans to remove images of him from the internet (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2007/nov/07/musicnews.topstories3)(!).

monki (http://www.blay.se)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Jul. 3rd, 2008 12:06 pm (UTC)
Re: Two faces of Prince

Yeah, I certainly don't endorse Prince's behaviour in other respects. But artists are often the worst kind of control freaks; it's what makes them good, and what makes them bad.


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harveyjames
harveyjames
harveyjames
Thu, Jul. 3rd, 2008 12:16 pm (UTC)

Good post!


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qscrisp
qscrisp
Thu, Jul. 3rd, 2008 12:21 pm (UTC)

I hope you don't mind me advertising what I believe to be a great radio show for discovering new/obscure, etc., music, here - The Peter Harris Experience.

It's broadcast on Phonic FM.


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niddrie_edge
niddrie_edge
raymond
Thu, Jul. 3rd, 2008 12:22 pm (UTC)

"there's a new value in things which can't be uploaded as digital content to the internet."

The whole reason I and many others used p2p in the early years of this century was to obtain things which were physically and financially unobtainable. DJ's obscure crates, unreleased or deleted albums and movies, old comics. I too released my vinyl from its dusty cupboard and ripped the Kazoo Orchestra and some obscure 7" singles from Bruce's store. Taped interviews and sessions were more of a challenge.

Now, everything seems a click away. Other Music, Cherry Red and others are great for the rare rereleases forged by online demand. I basically reconstituted a 2001 Gilles Peterson radio show from online sources last night. Saved ripping the tape.

I am still trying to get my head around Jacques Attalli's book Noise in relation to all this. His book projects forward from the late 70s a vague cut up performance it seems. Tony Palmer's recently rereleased DVD of the TV series All You Need Is Love ended in 1975 with a disillusioned Lester Bangs saying the scene was dead and the programme focussing on The Marshall Tucker Band and Mike Oldfield as the future!

Prince did 21 nights! Its almost a lottery getting to see a big act these days. I would include Morrissey in this category. He was cheap compared to Leonard Cohen!

There's a charming comic strip here which may be relevant.
http://catandgirl.com/view.php?loc=611

As for disco, I am intrigued that one of the originators of the segued instrumentals all night party in the early 70s, David Mancuso was an acolyte of Timothy Leary.

Its also amusing that Saturday Night Fever was an article by Nik Cohn that was in essence a fraud. Tony Parsons once said Punk began in an Ilford disco and that Young Americans was the first punk album because of its influence on working class haircuts.



Edited at 2008-07-03 12:31 pm (UTC)


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jul. 3rd, 2008 12:30 pm (UTC)

It's sort of misleading to say that Disco started in the underground when what people to consider to be the first disco song, "Rock Me Baby," went all the way to #1.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jul. 3rd, 2008 12:36 pm (UTC)

The big trend now with both black and white music is toward more democracy.

It used to be, at least until the mid-late 90s, black R&B had pretty sophisticated chord progressions, extended harmonies, etc. Now it's mostly stripped down drum patterns, and minimal synth stabs.

Go look at the top album lists on Pitchfork for the last couple of years, then go listen to the music on itunes. It's all electronic drum programming, samples, spare synths and effects. It's the kind of thing anybody could put together on a demo floor unit at Guitar Center. There're hardly any guitars, hardly any organic sounding keyboards or acoustic instruments.

Success in the rap/r&b and indie rock worlds is inversely proportional to your ability as a musician.


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philentropist
philentropist
philentropist
Thu, Jul. 3rd, 2008 02:48 pm (UTC)

This post reminds me of a show I saw by Thomas DeFrantz at MIT called house music project.


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cheapsurrealist
cheapsurrealist
Dave Nold
Thu, Jul. 3rd, 2008 03:55 pm (UTC)
Nostalgia

I remember the first time I heard The Smiths. I thought Bert Jansch had gone electric.

I had to go down to 6th Street (the scariest street in San Francisco) to a store called Rough Trade Records where they sold Rough Trade Records and there I bought the 12" single "What Difference Does it Make".

They moved up to Haight Street for a while and then disappeared taking Reckless Records of London with them. We still have Amoeba.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago when I was visiting London. I was overcome by nostalgia when I saw a Rough Trade record store. I went in and purchased some nostalgia - Scritti Politti's "Songs To Remember". On cd.

On the cyclical nature of the disk:

Isn't the plastic/vinyl/shellac record back where it started? Something to promote the artist's live show when he or she came to your town. Early recordings couldn't match the live performance. Then in the sixties, artists started to use the recording studio in such a way that made it difficult or impossible to reproduce the sound of the record on stage.

Well, anyway, here's to all you artists in lab coats.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jul. 3rd, 2008 04:36 pm (UTC)

hey, hello nick, just a little nerdy remark concerning your schematic summary of the disco moment;

you should add the italo-european continuation of the thing (from 1978 on, european electronic disco was as crucial in the emergence of house music than west coast based hi-nrg), and maybe underline the fact that the movement was not purely an american one, but rather a continous exchange with europe from the beginning - from the great ian levine's intense promotion of black pop music in the 60s that helped many american DJs in the early days of the movement (say, 1970) to rediscover their own roots to the HUGE input of French producers.

olivier


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Jul. 3rd, 2008 07:47 pm (UTC)

Salut, Olivier!

Yes, I should have dwelt more on the European thing -- the Donna Summer reference did hint at it -- but I guess I just wanted to make a neat circular schematic model with the idea of underground experimentation and overground success in a constant dialectic. America / Europe would have been one binary too many for my purposes! But you're absolutely right.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jul. 3rd, 2008 09:32 pm (UTC)

American culture is European culture, basically, so I don't think there's really a binary. There's been a constant, unbroken stream of borrowing and sharing that hasn't really stopped. and if you beg to differ, you've never been to suburban Germany or England. If either nation were bigger landmasses filled with those suburban and rural parts like the US is, they'd be as ignorant, fat, and as badly dressed as the darkest American stereotypes of a Euroman. It's all the same garbage, people like to hype up the differences for the purposes of European superiority or American superiority. It's the same thing with slight deviations, such as, the English common law nations vs. Continental law nations, etc.

Kraftwerk helped gives us electronic dance which led to hip hop, Moroder late disco and hi-nrg which led to Detroit techno and house, etc. Our similarities are greater than our differences I think.


ReplyThread Parent
microworlds
microworlds
Sparkachu Maelworth
Thu, Jul. 3rd, 2008 05:52 pm (UTC)

all I know is that it's a hell of a lot of work captioning and rotating something like a thousand photographs

Do you know how to batch edit in Photoshop? The rotating would take a lot less time if you just make Photoshop do it for you!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Jul. 3rd, 2008 07:43 pm (UTC)

My Photoshop is broken -- basically if I try to save more than two images it invariably crashes on the third.


ReplyThread Parent
microworlds
microworlds
Sparkachu Maelworth
Thu, Jul. 3rd, 2008 10:59 pm (UTC)

Then I'd do it for you for free! Though I don't know if that will be a longer or shorter process than before...


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Jul. 3rd, 2008 11:01 pm (UTC)

My own personal Bangalore!


ReplyThread Parent
microworlds
microworlds
Sparkachu Maelworth
Thu, Jul. 3rd, 2008 11:03 pm (UTC)

You know my email address, I'm basically online all the time so it wouldn't bother me to do it for you! All you'd have to do is kick back and think of those captions while Photoshop does the grueling job of rotating your pictures.


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Thu, Jul. 3rd, 2008 07:20 pm (UTC)
The weather is here, momus is beautiful.



Greetings from Cape (http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.truecolorearth.com/tce-Cape-Hatteras.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.truecolorearth.com/tce-Cape-Hatteras.htm&h=720&w=720&sz=75&hl=en&start=70&tbnid=a9N7ZHJ5kvrxNM:&tbnh=140&tbnw=140&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dhatteras%26start%3D60%26gbv%3D2%26ndsp%3D20%26hl%3Den%26sa%3DN) Hatt (http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1861/september/fort-hatteras-bombardment.jp) eras (http://www.lauragivens-artist.com/images/cape-hatteras-s.gif).

That's me just above the first dogleg momus. 5.8 miles north of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse.

We have been replaying the Poison Girlfriend song over and over--it has become the soundtrack to our trip.



-vronsky


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