Sunday, 26 December 2010

Snakegrinder vs. Radioactive Records- Musicians, The Consumer and Who Owns What

Published in 'Off Kilter: The Cult Achive', 2008. N.B: This was written a few years ago and now reads to me as a bit too polemic and naive. I still have massive sympathy for Snakegrinder and people like them who have the music they've made stolen from them. But I don't think I was anywhere near rigorous enough in my interrogation of the consumerist culture that polices and transposes value in momentary terms. Never mind. You live and learn. I still think the article has merit if only for Steve Robert's input and the cautionary tale of Radioactive Records.

The current fair-trade consumer climate seems at odds with the diminishing value put on hard copies of CD’s. As more and more artists opt for internet releases and with illegal music downloading becoming more acceptable, companies like Radioactive Records are able to make a profit on music that an artist has not granted permission for them to use. One of those artists, Steve Roberts from the band Snakegrinder, speaks to us about his battle to own the rights to his own music. How far is the consumer to blame for such theft?

The music industry is facing a crisis. As it becomes more and more easy to download music through the internet, CD sales continue to decrease. The causal relationship remains obvious to those in the know. Why trek out to a record shop when you can get Prince’s new release with your morning paper? Trent Reznor has bowed down at the alter of digital technology by leaving his record label and persuading fellow artist Saul Williams to release his album through the net. The business acumen behind this is the belief that a digital release will generate sales in concert tickets and merchandise. That’s where the real money lies. Investing in hard copies of music seems about as foolish as allowing a drunk relative to put your life savings into a local pyramid scheme. As business savvy as ever, Madonna has now decided to leave the unsafe hands of Warner Music for a ‘music promotions company’ called Music Nation. At about this time, Warner Music’s stock hits an all time low. Not a great week for the CEO’s.

But monetary considerations aside, Reznor maintains that there are altruistic elements at work here: "Personally, I would like people to support artists. After all, we as artists dedicate our lives to producing the best music we can. It's [the changes in the music industry] been a painful process for me personally. But should I be angry at the audience that wants to hear music so much, an audience that is so passionate about hearing it they go online to get it two weeks before the music debuts? No, I want them to be that way." [1]. And yet, there is a sinister flipside to his reasoning as there is when Radiohead tell us that we can pay what we want for their new album if we pay at all. Music becomes as available and assessable as fast food and therefore becomes throwaway and meaningless. The fact is that in our capitalist society, how much you pay for an item does directly reflect the instrinic value you put on it. When you purchease anything gourmet, for example, you enter into a mutual agreement with the manufacturer that that piece of cheese or meat or whatever is worth the extra money you decided to spend. So, what does it say about the value being put on music if we’d rather download for free than pay a tenner for a tangible cd? Reznor confuses passion with impatience. Anyone who is truly passionate about an artist would be willing to wait two weeks to buy the cd and support the artist. The relationship between musician and listener becomes unstable when the musician has to hand out his records free at a show and states that he would ‘like’ to be supported rather than expecting to be supported.

Do musicians have the right to demand compensation for the albums they put out? Should the listener, or more cynically, the ‘consumer’, be given the entire agency here? These are the important questions that came to mind when I first got into contact with Steve Roberts, member of 70's blues-rock group Snakegrinder and founder of Newark, Delaware's 'alternative community'. Here's what happened to his band and their music in their own words:

"In the Spring of 1975, when the dissolution of the band, Snakegrinder and the Shredded Fieldmice, appeared inevitable, we decided not to go gently into that good night of Rock and Roll oblivion without preserving some of the fruits of our 5 years of labor. Being that do-it-yourself digital recording was not even invented yet, we managed to scrape a few hundred dollars together to record 3 tunes in a small, local studio. In August of that year, the band ceased to function as a working organism.

For Christmas of 1975, the band was talked into doing a reunion concert. A great success, but not enough to bring the boys back together permanently. Many people, however, asked about buying a recording. Two of us decided to put up the money to get a record made using the previously recorded tunes. (Yes, wax fruit. No CD’s yet.) When it was agreed that we would have a second Christmas concert reunion in 1976, we bought more studio time to record 3 more tunes to flesh out a full length LP, which we hoped to have ready for the second reunion. The record wasn’t finished in time to be distributed as Christmas presents but when it arrived in the Spring of 1977, the two of us who had put up the money and worked on the project sold enough of the 500 copies very quickly to cover the costs of the second recording session and the manufacture of the records.

Most of the rest of the recordings were given away to fans, friends, and family. Once the band had broken up, it was never our intention to get rich from it. We simply wanted to share the music. Imagine our surprise, when nearly 30 years later, we found our album for sale, in CD form, on several sites on the Internet! After a few e-mail inquiries to a few of these sites, we discovered that a company called Radioactive Records was selling the album. Of course, we contacted them – we were very curious as to how this came about. All-in-all our initial collective reaction was one of delight. We had become “known” and digitized!

After several back and forth communications with the proprietors of Radioactive – James Plummer and Steven Carr – we signed a contract wherein we would receive 1 pound (English) for every album sold. Seemed like a reasonable deal. Clearly we would have no way to audit the sales, but they appeared to be honestly forthcoming with their sales figures. So what else were we going to do? England is a little too far from Delaware, USA to keep our finger on the pulse. Both James and Steven seemed to genuinely like the music, and willing to deal once they were contacted. They said since there was no trail to get back to us, they couldn’t have negotiated a deal prior to them issuing the recording, and that they figured we’d find them after it was released. OK. That’s believable.

Then it began to get darker.

No monthly checks ever appeared. No e-mails were answered. I was contacted by several other artists and their agents who had recordings being sold by Plummer and Carr, in an effort to mount a lawsuit against them for piracy. Not so good."

Definitely not so good. Snakegrinder were the only ones to get as far as getting a contract drawn up with Radioactive records. A reasonable estimate would suggest that nearly all of their two-hundred plus catalogue were bootlegs with no permission by (or compensation for) the artist. Tellingly enough, when Steve asked them about having sales of their CD edited by a third party, Steven Carr told them that he’s have to ‘take our word for it.’[2] Whilst the lawsuit Snakegrinder were involved in fell through, victory did come in the form of a lawsuit filed by the Jimi Hendrix Estate over Radioactive releasing fourteen unauthorised titles. Carr and Plummer were forced to discontinue the releases- their biggest sellers- and were subsequently put out of business. Clearly, nobody fucks with Jimi.

What is remarkable is that, despite never seeing a penny from Radioactive, Steve does not come across as at all bitter or vengeful. A read through his painfully halting email communication with Carr displays his excitement at the prospect of having the CD released. When the agreement began to go sour, he continued to write them emails, handling the situation with grace and good humour: ‘Just checking to make sure you’re still ignoring us’.[3] Whilst other artists (understandably) want to cut Radioactive’s collective balls off, Steve remains pragmatic:

“Indeed, Plummer and Carr have behaved like dishonest parasites. A pox upon both their houses, unto the 10th generation…yada, yada, yada. But, all-in-all, without them, I would not be writing this article for a foreign publication. I would not be a member of an internationally known band. The music that we enjoyed making and put a lot time, effort, and selves into would not be heard. So how mad can we be? I know other pirated artists who are still trying to make a living from their music were very upset – rightfully so. But, even if Plummer and Carr sold a thousand of our CD’s, and we received our contractual remuneration, it would have amounted a few hundred dollars apiece - a small price to pay for bragging rights. I am not condoning what they did. It was wrong. They should honour their agreements and be punished for not doing so.

What I find more disturbing, is the large number of distributors who sell recordings without caring if the artists are being compensated. Rather like clothing, toys, or other retailers selling sweat-shop goods. There is very little conscience involved when it comes to making money – this isn’t just the domain of pirates and scoundrels – it permeates our consumer-driven, capitalist economy.”

His last point is worth stopping and thinking about. Businesses as disparate as Starbucks, Marks and Spencer’s and Topshop are now extolling the virtues of fair-trade products. ‘Vogue’, perhaps the ultimate materialist bible, recently featured an article which urged its readers to give up their taste for quick fashion and try to only buy staple pieces from ethically sound designers. And yet, it’s fine to take a musician’s work illegally, to pay hardly anything or nothing at all. I am not trying to downplay or trivialise the seriousness of sweat shop labour here. Fair-trade must become a non-negotiable fixture on our consumer landscape. However, there is no reason why we cannot extend such a principle to those artists who share their music with us. It is possible to live without that five pound skirt from Primark. But who wants to live without music? It becomes necessary then to re-negotiate the value currently being placed on music and be willing to pay for what we own. Art isn’t fast food and it isn’t a free-for-all.

© 2008 Emma Mould


[2] From an email correspondence provided by Steve Roberts

[3] As above

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Living In A Mood So Blue: The Confessional Singer-Songwriter/Poet

Published in 'Off Kilter: The Cult Archive', 2008

I tapped my own head:
it was glass, an inverted bowl.
It is a small thing
to rage in your own bowl.
At first it was private.
Then it was more than myself:
it was you, or your house
or your kitchen
- 'To John Who Begs Me Not To Enquire Further' Anne Sexton

To confess in a religious sense is to ask forgiveness. It is a private and often anonymous process between confessor and God. To confess in a literary sense is less about forgiveness than it is a reflection on the confessional process. The two texts that would be placed first in a confessional cannon, if there ever were to be one, would surely be St. Augustine's Confessions and Rousseau's 'Confessions'. Both would set up the 'I' as knowingly subjective and very much comfortable with such subjectivity. Confessional writing would become more widespread in the Cold War politics of the 1950's when there was a clear contradiction between what citizens saw to be true and what they were toldto be true. To write confessionally, to write from the 'I' within was, in many ways, a reaction against the Orwellian half-truths produced by politics. To immerse yourself in your own subjectivity, to basically state that the only truth you know is your own, is to reject grand narratives and reclaim the individual experience as a site of artistic interest.
Perhaps one of the biggest misunderstandings of the confessional position is that it completely negates culture in favour of a single-minded narcissism. But as I mention above, confessional writing rose out of culture as much as it was produced by individuals. It is an artistic response that involves culture but refuses to speak from an empirical or objective viewpoint because no such viewpoint exists. In this way, it owes something to Nietzsche and Foucault's consideration of the genealogy of knowledge and the instability of truth. There is no such thing as a pure knowledge or a pure truth.
It seems a shame then, that confessional writing is often reduced to the pointless ramblings of some mad bitch with no artistic integrity. Of course, the rise of whiny emo musicians and trashy newspaper kiss-and-tell's hasn't helped. For me through, the true meaning of confessional writing remains philosophically and academically rigorous, particularly in line with post-structuralism and post-modernism. It is an acceptance that the individual cannot quite view themselves outside the ideological forces that have constructed them; therefore, it deals in partial truths, in unreliable narration, in a scepticism of the notion of an authoritative self. However, what confessional writing cannot avoid in its alliance with post-structuralism is that other claim that language can never fully encapsulate meaning due to its slippery elusive nature. Perhaps this gap is one that the confessional singer-songwriter can fill due to their access to, not only language but also, sound.
It is in sound that the confessional singer-songwriter can truly hand meaning over to the listener. Unlike lyrics, sound resists inscription and seems to speak to a more visceral, even semiotic, part of ourselves. I'm not suggesting that the lyrics of the confessional singer-songwriter does not only have an ability to emotionally affect the listener. The lyrics of Jackson C. Frank's 'Blues Run The Game' is chilling in its depiction of a perpetual misery that can never be eluded, like being trapped in a maze with no exit. Anyone who's ever experienced major depression will recognise the feelings of resigned hopelessness to such persistent sadness. When the lyrics of this song are considered in light of Jackson's subsequent hospitalisations for mental illness, his homelessness and loss of one eye due to a random shooting, they also take on the aura of premonition. However, it is the sound of Jackson's voice on songs written about forty years later which doesn't speak the blues as much as it is the blues. At the end of his life, his voice became more weather-beaten and tentative, as if it barely has the will to go beyond a low growl. Like Billie Holiday's cracked and damaged vocals on Lady in Satin, it is the voice itself that speaks of tragedy more than any words can.
Jandek's lyrics are actually quite incomprehensible but again, it is the sound he produces that suggests a kind of reclusive madness. His guitar is deliberately discordant and jarring, almost painfully so. It is literally like being forced to inhabit a confused and lost mind, groping around for anything tangible to hold onto. His music isn't exactly the most relaxing to listen to. But perhaps it shouldn't be. Such exploration of the human psyche probably shouldn't have to be an easy listen. It should feel as painful as it is. By contrast, Dory Previn juxtaposes a cherry early- Joni Mitchell delivery against illusions of incest and parental abuse on her album, On My Way to Where. She sounds like she could be singing about ladies of the canyon but the disquieting fact remains that she isn't. Nico's harmonium on 'Frozen Warnings' sounds like a scream for help on an album that, to paraphrase Frazier Mohawk, is not one you listen to as much as it is a hole you fall into.
This is the undeniable appeal of the confessional position in the arts for me. It is not as simplistic as reading a diary entry produced by the artist. It would be foolish for anyone to read a piece of art completely biographically. However, the best confessional writing can not only remind us of the connections between the personal and the cultural but also, demonstrates the reciprocal relationships between the two. The individual is dependant on the culture they are situated in when determining their own meaning but this goes both ways. History is also dependant on the subjectivity of the individual to determine its overall meaning. Confessional writing then becomes 'more than myself'; it opens itself up to encompass all that is around it. Confessional singer-songwriters, in particular, can offer the listener the opportunity to crawl into such emotive music, to make it their own. It has the capacity to remind us that the personal is political, that the individual experience may be subjective but that doesn't mean that it doesn't have something to tell us.

© 2008 Emma Mould

Flesh and Blood Love

Published in Helicon Magazine, 2006

‘I have problems with being that close to another body’.
‘I don’t know. Maybe something about the heat, the skin, the thump of a heart so similar to mine. I want to get inside you, really inside you. This is as close as I can get and it’s not nearly enough. It’s infuriating.’
‘But maybe intimacy isn’t about being that invasive. It’s not a competition; you don’t have to come away with a prize to prove you went there. You know me as well as you could ever know anyone. Most people don’t even get that close’.
‘You’re right, I know you are. Shit, I have to get back to work’.
‘I’ll be expecting you’.
‘I’ll be there.’

Henry is, for all intents and purposes, a very good boy. He does very well in his course at university, he works hard at his part-time job, he washes his sheets and his clothes regularly and never uses his overdraft. What he doesn’t say is that mostly, it feels like he only does these things by default. He doesn’t have many friends and the few times he goes out, he’ll stay out of the way and try to figure out what that song is they’re playing (last night: Pink Floyd's 'Another Brick in The Wall') and because he isn’t really there, nobody really wants to know him. Nobody wants to talk to a ghost and that is how he lives his life, always above it but never fully in it, like that will save him from all the bad things.
He rides his bike everywhere like a school-boy because his driving is shit and he likes being able to dodge traffic and being alone. Riding a bike is the ultimate refuge for the introverted. No one will interrupt you. Tonight is the middle of a very cold winter and the stars are full and sick in their fullness and it all feels like some kind of tableau we’re in. He barely dares to breathe as he leans his bike against the wall of her house and knocks once.
It didn’t occur to him until now just how much he wanted to be saved from this virus he couldn’t shake, this thing he dared to call a life.

She likes to smoke in bed. Her husband hates it, she says. But you don’t mind, do you? He doesn’t even through the cancer in the air is thick and he knows he’ll smell it on his skin for days to come. He likes that she has bad habits, vices because she wears them so well. She can slide them on like jewellery and in that moment you would forgive her all her trespasses.
But this isn’t love, not really, because what he’s really in love with is the idea of her he has in his head. If he really loved her, he’d open his eyes to the ugliness she possesses; the bad breath and the stubbly armpits and the fear, the fear that she’s really old and stupid and old and lonely and old. She knows all this but she would never say it, never ruin any of those silly juvenile visions he has going on up there. She likes that he comes here when he should be studying, that he calls her when he should be working. He’ll call her different names: ‘Mrs. Russell/ Ms. O’Conner/ Mr. Jameson, would it be possible to take up just two minutes of your time?’ Cold calling they call it. And they’ll have their little snatches of conversation where they can. Beautiful crazy moments like signposts to remind them both that things don’t always have to be so fucking awful.
He sleeps on his side, curled up like a baby. She’ll have to wake him up soon. But god, she loves that wiry body of his, the one he’s always so fucking self-conscious of, she loves that it loves her too, responds to her in kind.
And of course- there’s really nothing wrong with being someone’s fantasy. Nothing wrong with being a kind of concept rather than an actual person. People die along with the flesh-and-blood love they inspire. That’s just a cold hard fact. But concepts- concepts get to smoke as much as they want and they get to stay perfect.

‘Why is it that I find it easier to talk to you here rather than when we’re actually together?’
‘You’re braver here. You ask a lot more fucking questions too’.
‘Sorry; does that annoy you?
‘If it did, I wouldn’t be here. I thought that-‘
‘Hang on…….great. Supervisor’s coming over for a chat. Maybe I’m finally getting fired’.
‘Hah. I’ll cross my fingers for you’.
‘And toes. Fuck, I hate my life. Speak later’.

It’s coming up to that time when the sky is just starting to let colour bleed into it, when they say goodbye. It’s nothing big, she’s not sentimental and neither is he although they have their different reasons. For him, it’s that cool detached affectation/ fear because there’s so much he hasn’t felt yet, so much he can’t feel properly. But for her, it’s just that she’s too tired for that kind of thing, she’s done it, been there and the fucking t-shirt too.
She stays on the landing in her dressing gown while he lets himself out. The cold hits him like a slap to the head and he pulls his scarf on tighter around his neck. Out here, he will go home and go to work and go to school and be the same sad character. Sometimes we just can’t rise above circumstances. Sometimes that isn’t weakness, sometimes that’s just the way things happen. And when it does, those left trapped deserve to have something, anything make them forget for just a while. That is what this whole thing is. They both take it on the chin and she’ll go back upstairs and he’ll cycle out and away, white-knuckled, orange light bouncing off the cereal box reflectors his Dad put in for him when he was twelve.
They’ll stop seeing each other eventually.
One day they’ll learn to forget each other.
We do what we have to.

© 2006 Emma Mould