Category Archives: Politics

much more than a dispassionate record of events

The retrospective coloring of historical judgment shows that history is much more than a dispassionate record of events; it is a dynamic, living web of interpretations. We are not doomed to a false choice between purely objective facts and revisionism, with its often-groundless contestation of those fact[s]. Instead, we ought to observe, carefully and critically, who interprets historical materials, how, and for what purpose, as well as when and where. What does the 2022 equation V Day = Z Day in Putin’s Russia convey? Is it a simple betrayal of Soviet anti-Nazi fight? How does this betrayal unfold in the name of the very ideals and people it betrays? Only such precise questioning, which avoids readymade labels and conclusions, is capable of untangling the complexities of the historical web. And this is a lesson in the meaning of history, which Putin has taught us, largely despite himself.

Related reading, with more historical meat, in the latest from Adam Tooze.

design, marketing, and manipulation as ideological imperative

I seem to be linking Cennydd Bowles a lot lately, but why would one not? So here’s a nice, short injunction from the man himself, off the back of his having thrown out the question “when does design become manipulation?”, and being real unsettled by the answers he got:

Design influences. It persuades. But if it manipulates, something’s wrong. The difference isn’t just semantic; it’s moral. A manipulative designer abuses their power and strips people of their agency, reducing them to mere pawns. I see almost no circumstances in which that’s ethically acceptable.

So if you think all design is manipulation, please stop designing.

I think I’m pretty much on the same page as Bowles, here, though I think—as last time, when he was asking tech sector folk to show epistemic humility—there’s a structural issue going un(der)examined. Pose it as a question: why might so many designers, and/or people who know (or presume to know) what design is about, think it’s mostly a matter of manipulation? Because manipulation is what most designers who get a job with the label ‘designer’ on it will be paid to do, which in turn means that most courses meant to turn out people with qualifications as designers will (if they want to hit their employability metrics for the course!) be teaching them, implicitly or explicitly, that design is mostly about manipulation.

Now, some of this may be down to the nuance between manipulation and Bowles’s preferred terms, influence and persuade. I mean, I think of myself as very much A Words Guy, but I’d struggle to delineate the difference in those terms without writing at considerable length; this is always the challenge when it comes to values. Bowles’s tell-your-spouse-what-you-did-today technique, elsewhere in that post, is admirably efficient at highlighting the distinction as it manifests in our perception of meaning, but doesn’t delineate that distinction. I suspect Bowles might say it shouldn’t need delineating. And I would agree, it shouldn’t—but perhaps, in this less than ideal world, it does.

But why is that? Well, because of those structural forces I mentioned, which result in people with earnestly-held good intentions thinking in ways that ensure the continuation of the thing they think they’re trying to combat. Here’s another example, via friend-of-the-show Andrew Curry; if asking designers where influence ends and manipulation begins results in contortions and confusions, then what happens when a marketing guy wants to use marketing to solve climate change issues?

Well, what happens is the marketing guy—with the instinctive judo move that presumably comes from spending a great deal of your time trying to convince C-suite suits to fork over another tranche of consulting fees—will reframe the problem as being located in the firm’s customers rather than the firm itself. This is, of course, the classic neoliberal move of individualising responsibility for systemic failings—but, to be clear, it is coming from what I am going to assume is a sincere and genuine wish to reduce emissions.

The next step, though, is the clincher, because it’s the same one that informs most attempts at climate policymaking:

… marketers should stop focussing on their clients’ businesses and focus on their customers’ instead. They should, in short, start creating narratives about changing behaviour rather than moments of consumption.

Why is this the clincher? Because it’s a behaviourist model of human agency; it’s our old fictional friend homo economicus, just waiting to be given the right information, narrative or ‘nudge’ (as specified by various mutations of the long-since-discredited by nonetheless seemingly unkillable Information Deficit Model) that will ‘change’ their ‘behaviour’, which is somehow simultaneously rational (because neoclassical economics, and all that stems from it, insists on the rationality of the economic actor), woefully uninformed, and easily changed.

It is also, as anyone who has read (for example) their Elizabeth Shove, utterly wrong. The reasons people do the things that they do in the hugely variable and particular ways they do them has very little to do with simple utility-maximising decision-making, and a great deal to do with context.

I could go on about the social practice model of human agency for hours, but I’m already drifting away from my point, which is this: the consumptive behaviours which Mr Marketer here wants to change were indeed shaped by marketing in times past, but assuming that merely pointing that behaviourist model at a different behaviour will be sufficient to reverse it is naive at best. Because the problem is not the behaviours of the consumers, or even (if you want to get all Uncle-Karl’s-Volume-1 about it) the scheming avarice of cartoon capitalists, but rather the complete and unquestioning immersion of both within an economic model that valourises, nay necessitates, the externalisation of costs.

This guy uses McDonalds as an example, and wonders why they don’t reduce their footprint by, say, somehow discouraging people going to the drive-thru in a gas-guzzler SUV. Why don’t they take more responsibility for their customers’ chunk of the emissions of the business?

First off it’s hard to calculate […] it is hard to track what customers and end users are really doing. These things are hard to measure.

To reiterate, again: this guy is sincere, I’m sure of it. I expect he’s even a nice guy. I wish him no ill. (Hell, he even notes that the Measurement Problem doesn’t seem to be at all insurmountable when it comes to targeting advertisements, or fine-tuning supply-chains for cost reductions.) But nonetheless, his conception of human agency—which is the foundation of his industry (Adam Curtis got you covered on that stuff), as well as the econo-political ideological keystone of the world in which we all live—means he can’t come up with a better list of things for marketers and their clients to do than this:

The next generation of marketers working on sustainability are moving beyond doomist thinking (yes, we’re in very, very deep trouble, now what are you going to do about it?) to an obsession with delivering genuine change.

  • Less shaping the narrative, more shaping behaviour.

  • Less ‘sustainability theatre’ workshops, more testing MSP (Minimal Sustainable Product).

  • Less internal focus and a lot more customer centricity.

  • Less risk management, more business model innovation.

  • Less reporting that reassures investors, more accurate measurement and responsibility for carbon being emitted.

In closing, we must do all we can to decouple growth from carbon emissions and unlearn the worst excesses of consumption behaviour. We need to 1) educate, 2) regulate and we need to 3) activate.

I’m starting by activating customers, unleashing the latent desire in all of us to reduce our carbon footprints through what we buy (or don’t buy), the choices we make and the habits we form.

I mean, that last line, there; as if “unleashing latent desire” (which, historically, has meant fabricating desires wholesale) isn’t exactly what got us in to this mess! Or the ‘graph above: decouple growth from carbon emissions? Sure, OK, that sounds like a nice idea, so we’ll set aside the historical fact that growth, as we understand that term in both the vernacular or the more specific economic sense, is entirely predicated on the emission of carbon, and we’ll look at your three steps to success and—oops, shit, stalled at number one, it’s the Information Deficit Hypothesis once again! Because if you think of people as programmable economic robots, that’s always where you start, that’s where marketing has always started, it literally cannot start from any other model, and that’s why trying to market your way to a carbon-free future is like trying to drink yourself sober.

Andrew Curry gets it, in his commentary on the above (my emphasis):

Of course, the problem with a lot of this is that meaningfully reducing emissions involves reducing consumption, especially by the most affluent. And even with business model innovation, it’s hard to maintain growth or increase profitability while reducing consumption. Marketers don’t get paid for doing that. The incentive systems are all wrong.

And that, in a very digressive blog-ranty way, is my attempt to explain why it is that so many designers think that design is basically manipulation: because most design is done in the ultimate service of capital accumulation, and as such it has failed if it does not maximise consumption. Doesn’t mean designers are bad people. Doesn’t even mean that marketers are bad people (though I can see the ghost of Bill Hicks raising an eyebrow at me). It means that the assumptions of neoclassical economics are so deeply embedded in every structure of our society that we can’t think outside of them… and it’s those assumptions, among which is the vital principle of increasing profit through the externalisation of costs, whether financial or otherwise, that have resulted in our treating the planet like a combination of cornucopian replicator and bottomless rubbish-pit.

I mean, sure, I would like it if we could get designers to think about what they’re doing, and whether they’re being manipulative rather than persuasive or influential, and to choose the latter over the former. That is a good goal! The problem is, if you did it really well, you’d end up with a bunch of designers finding themselves out of work (whether by choice, or through an inability to find morally acceptable gigs), and them being replaced by folk whose somewhat more straitened circumstances would—quite understandably!—make them less likely to undertake such reflections, and less likely still to act upon them.

Does that mean that it’s not worth having the discussions that Bowles and others are trying to have, here? Not at all. Any more fundamental change to the our ontological conception of the world and our relation to it is going to require a lot of that sort of reflection, and not just in the fields of design and marketing. But it’s that more fundamental change that we have to have as the utopian horizon of any and all such conversations, because otherwise we’re just twiddling with placebo dials (to use a design term).

Whatever label you choose to put on the tangle of systems-of-systems in which we are enmeshed, you have to start from the understanding that it is incredibly good at recuperating the many critiques directed at it. This ability is in no small part down to the magic of marketing, and of its more knowingly unethical siblings PR and ‘reputation management’; it really is stories all the way down. But another important element is, I suspect, the homo economicus model, and the individualisation of responsibility which it enables. While that model dominates, designer’s gonna design to manipulate (because the user could always choose not to follow the dark patterns, right?) and marketer’s gonna unleash those latent desires (because what could be wrong about making a profit from fulfilling the sense of lack you went to so much effort to engender in someone, right?) and ecomodernist’s gonna keep claiming that we can somehow, if we just innovate real hard while clicking the heels of the Ruby Slippers together, have growth without fossil fuels (because growth is an utterly unquestionable Good Thing, the rotten beam to which every other plank in this disintegrating raft is tied with twine and good intentions, and only some sort of primitivist lunatic who hated the less fortunate would not want growth, right?). They will do this because, on their planet—which is, to be clear, yours and my planet too, to a lesser or greater extent—these are completely rational and (crucially) moral things to do.

The problem is, that planet bears significant non-similarities to the one on which we happen to actually be living. The cognitive dissonance of that increasingly obvious disconnect is starting to get pretty serious; but as Latour has noted, no amount of recourse to capital-S Science and its supposed rationalities—which were originally sourced, long before the actual sciences got the names by which we know them, from none other nascent discipline than economics—can back us out of the alley into which they have already driven us.

So by all means, let’s highlight the distinction between manipulation and persuasion, between “behaviour modification” and treating people as sentient beings in webs of relationships, and all that other stuff—but let’s see that as the start of the process, not the end. Treating the symptoms will not cure the underlying malady.

And so the last word goes to Edward Abbey:

Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.

Solnit’s hope vs. Arendt’s natality

Rebecca Solnit’s definition of hope is so succinct a summary of my own definition that I assume I must have picked it up from her (and from others who got it from the same source). This version is from a new interview at LARB, which I’m stashing here so I can cite it properly going forward:

I never describe myself as an optimist. An optimist is someone who thinks things will be all right no matter what. It is the flip side of being a pessimist, which means thinking everything will be bad no matter what. What I am is hopeful. Being hopeful means there are possibilities, but it is up to us to seize them and make something of them. We will see.

Interesting to compare this to Samantha Rose Hill’s reading of Hannah Arendt’s definition of hope:

It was holding on to hope, Arendt argued, that rendered so many helpless. It was hope that destroyed humanity by turning people away from the world in front of them. It was hope that prevented people from acting courageously in dark times.

Now, I’m not about to gainsay Hannah Arendt, nor Rose Hill’s reading thereof—but nonetheless it appears that Arendt is using the term in a very different way to Solnit: Arendt’s hope is much more like Solnit’s optimism, or so it seems to me. (It would be interesting to do a proper philological dig into the etymology of hope, and its different expression in the various Germanic languages.) That leaves Arendt’s natality as a plausible counterpart to Solnit’s hope:

An uncommon word, and certainly more feminine and clunkier-sounding than hope, natality possesses the ability to save humanity. Whereas hope is a passive desire for some future outcome, the faculty of action is ontologically rooted in the fact of natality. Breaking with the tradition of Western political thought, which centred death and mortality from Plato’s Republic through to Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), Arendt turns towards new beginnings, not to make any metaphysical argument about the nature of being, but in order to save the principle of humanity itself. Natality is the condition for continued human existence, it is the miracle of birth, it is the new beginning inherent in each birth that makes action possible, it is spontaneous and it is unpredictable. Natality means we always have the ability to break with the current situation and begin something new. But what that is cannot be said.

(In the spirit of honesty, I must confess to finding something unsettling about the connection of futurity to “the miracle of birth”; perhaps this is an expression of an institutionalised misogyny on my part? I both hope and believe that it is not… but if it were, then by definition I would believe it to be something else, I guess. Which is another unsettling thought… and perhaps the more pertinent of the two unsettlements for me to address.

But the idea that “the children are our future” has always seemed to me—a childless person by personal choice, rather than by political conviction—as a way to kick the can of change down the road, even if not intentionally or consciously: “well, we’ve made a mess of things, but if we bring the kids up OK, they can sort it all out when we’re in our dotage!” And I guess that, as a recent exile from Rainy Reactionary Island, I currently find it rather hard to believe that generations in their dotage will actually accept their children trying to change anything at all while they’re still alive.

Which is not, to be clear, to claim that there’s some inevitable conservatism inherent in parenthood… though it is perhaps to suggest—as I believe many feminist and post-feminist theorists have already done at great length—that the nuclear family is the institution that does the majority of the cellular-level work of reproducing capitalist relations. I dunno… this is one of the may fields where I need to do a lot more reading than I already have.)

music doesn’t matter so much (and that’s ok)

[ Editorial note: this is an essay I wrote in 2014 for the last weeks of sadly defunct rock’n’metal blog Demon Pigeon. I’m repubbing it here today in response to this piece at Louder Than War, which not unreasonably laments the disappearance of a sort of music fandom which, even in my own personal golden age of the 1990s, was already starting to slip away.

I have not edited this afresh after digging it out of the archive, and I would almost certainly write it in a much less Extremely Online tone were I to try to tackle the same questions today. Note also that circa 2014, Sp*tify and its ilk were still comparatively small beer, and I had yet to lose my entire digitised collection of albums to the mechanical failure of a HDD that I stupidly hadn’t backed up. But the basic argument still holds, I think… and at some point, said argument will hopefully become a thread in the long rebuttal I’ve been planning to write ever since I read this Frank Geels paper, which distills everything wrong about the man’s theory of sociotechnical change, and combines it with the unmistakable spoor of someone arrogant enough to wander into a field where his usual superficial historical bluffing just can’t save him.

Anyway, yeah—it’s a long one. I hope you enjoy it. ]

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Over the last five years or so, I’ve come to the conclusion that music doesn’t matter like it used to, and that it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t matter.

The image that drove it home was a poster for some student shin-dig, an “iPod disco” – a night out where everyone goes to club with their own music player, and dances to their own beat as heard on their headphones. How utterly neoliberal is that? You couldn’t make a better metaphor for individualist consumerism if you tried. Music as wallpaper, a domesticated and utterly internal experience, rather than the communal channel of experience and story that even two hours of cheesy hard house in a backstreet Sheffield flea-pit manages to convey… despite seeming to privilege how much music matters to the attendee, the iPod disco does exactly the opposite: it privileges how much the attendee matters to themselves. And I consider this to be emblematic of a more general (if less extreme) decline in the importance of music as a central plank of youth cultural identity, at least in the UK.

On one level, that sounds ridiculous: you’re saying music doesn’t matter anymore? Now, with music more ubiquitous, accessible and diverse than it ever has been before in the history of humankind? How could it not matter?!

And sure, music still matters; it’s a crucial layer of cultural topography. But it’s not the dominant channel of subcultural ideas any more; it’s just one channel among many, all of which are busily being subsumed into the metachannel, otherwise known as these here internets upon which I am writing to you.

But before the internet, music was the internet.

Allow me to explain.

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First of all you, need to think of “the recording industry” as a system, as a medium; step back from the actual components of the machine – the radio stations, record companies, recording studios and record stores – and think purely in terms of function. Alongside magazines, pop records were the first medium explicitly marketed at the then newly-minted demographic of The Teenager; recordings had been sold before then, of course, but they were a less ephemeral sort of cultural product; albums that curated serious art by serious artists were marketed to collectors and connoisseurs. The 7 inch single was a way to make a fast buck out of the fleeting tastes of these strange new Teenager creatures. As history shows, this market expanded incredibly fast, and sideband channels of marketing and publicity sprung up around it; the business learned how to shape the tastes of its audience by carefully curating the novelty to which it was exposed. At the same time, the business became increasingly infrastructural as it expanded. This is unavoidable, because it is functionally similar to a telecoms company: it’s in the business of delivering messages to paying subscribers, and once the volume of messages becomes significant, it’s all you can do to keep on top of the logistics. Worrying about exactly which messages the subscribers want becomes mere detail; so long as the demand is there, you’re happy and making bank, but you’ve gotta keep those pipes flowing. A corporation is an economic entity, remember; it doesn’t have (or need) the capacity to care what it’s selling, so long as it’s selling it and making money.

But the machine doesn’t run without that demand, so the infrastructure had to be fed with novelty by the “creative” side of the business, the managers and A&R people, promoters and pluggers and hustlers of every stripe. Meanwhile, the first generations of pop listeners reached an age where they’d started their own bands; these are the first bands to have grown up believing that there could be music aimed specifically at them, at young people in their world. No surprise, then, that when they picked up their instruments they found they had things they wanted to say – things that no one would let them say anywhere else, on the radio, on television, in the newspapers. It was a generational backchannel, if you like; a peer-to-peer medium where youth could speak to youth. At no time in your life are you ever more hungry for new stories and new ideas than when you’re a teenager; outside of books and magazines (the latter of which were increasingly aligned with the music business anyway), music was the most likely place you’d hear the shibboleths of your generation spoken aloud. Rebellion, lust, desire, frustration, and the sheer shattering thrill and terror of being young and alive – to know someone else felt the same must have been an incredible liberation after the bland suits’n’boots orgman conformity of the post-war years. And while there was some money to be made from peddling saccharine conformity, the market turned out to be hungry for the forbidden topics – which was just fine for the recording industry: the forbidden could flow just as smoothly through the pipes as the wholesome. Hell, sometimes the forbidden flowed better, especially when someone outside the system tried to impede it; then as now, nothing heightens demand like a banning.

So maybe you can see what I mean now if I say that the early pop recording industry was like a very asymmetrical internet for youth, where a limited few (by the good graces of the infrastructural side of the business, who could make a buck from it) got the chance to publish new ideas and stories, and the majority could access and (to a limited extent) share those messages around. This is the era of the newly electrified Dylan, the early Beatles and Stones, the British invasion, all that stuff. The system is biased against certain sorts of message, of course, and in some cases very strongly; it’s far from an ideologically flat marketplace. But nonetheless, there’s more levity here than elsewhere, and the very narrowness of this much-desired channel makes it very lucrative indeed, especially as the wider world of business begins to recognise the power of the Teenaged pound, and the utility of an established hot-line to its most active and willing consumers. However, with a firm hold over access to the means of (re)production, the industry could maintain a broadly conservative control over the general tone: when the pipes are flowing fast, you want to avoid riling the regulators excessively. Only trouble being, the more successful your artists become, the more likely they seem to be to start cocking a snook at the establishment… and you don’t want to entirely stamp on that, because it’s so bloody lucrative, wot?

Around this time, the capabilities of recording equipment and studios were also expanding rapidly, and the costs of getting records out into the market were falling, lowering the barriers to new contenders for the still small but ever-expanding roster of artists with access to the medium, plus new, smaller players among the record companies, piggybacking on the now predominantly infrastructural distribution side of the business. Music mutated its way through a myriad of forms, but the real Cambrian explosions come with the arrival, from the late 70s onwards, of affordable electronic instruments and home recording equipment, and the arrival of consumer-grade home duplication systems – the miniMoog and the cassette recorder, in other words, which had a significant part to play in the emergence of (post-)punk and electronica, and paved the way for the synthesiser-drenched 80s, the rave explosion, 90s grunge and alt-rock and everything else.

But it’s the ability to record and duplicate at home that’s important if we’re thinking about music as being a medium, because this is the point where the asymmetricality of access starts to trend toward the symmetrical: all of a sudden, true peer-to-peer transmission is possible (albeit slowly, with considerable loss of quality, and at not insignificant opportunity cost), as is cheaply obtaining and sharing the messages of “official” artists without recourse to the official channels. I reckon this technological shift has as much to do with the expansion of forms and styles of the late 70s and beyond as the sociopolitics of the time; it’s not just that there was so much more experimentation going on, it’s also that the experimenters could create work and disseminate it cheaply, as well as being increasingly able to bypass the gatekeepers of the medium and connect directly with audiences.

[ Editorial note: I had linked here to a page on the since vanished or otherwise moved website of some consultancy or other, using the anchor text “Does this rhetoric sound at all familiar?”. So please just imagine I’ve linked to some example of cynical corporate techno-optimism that fully supports and deepens my argument, OK? ]

So the industry lost some of its control, but gained from yet more growth in the overall market; so what if there were more bad messages in the pipe, so long as there were more messages? And while it got increasingly cheaper and easier for consumers to record and duplicate, the business still had the lion’s share of the power when it came to high bandwidth distribution, which allowed it to co-opt smaller channels once they reached a point where they need to scale their business up and onto the established infrastructures to keep their margins viable. Sure, there’s pirate radio, mail-order 7”-single clubs from marginal labels run out of someone’s shed, pirate radio stations, but that’s all little league shit; if you want the big reach, you need the big pipes, and if you wanna use the pipes, you gotta deal with the big boys… and when you do, they’ll take up your niche and commercialise it quicker than you can say “UK grime was once a viable and genuinely interesting music scene”. It happened to punk, to synth-pop, New Romo, C90 indie, to every successive sub-wave of the rave explosion, to grunge, Britpop, everything; as soon as a new message or idea hits the infrastructure, it’s everywhere, it’s ubiquitous, it’s over. This is why we talk about “selling out”, but it happens at a much higher level than individual artists, and it’s a two-way process. The infrastructural core of the business has to suck in novelty from the outer edges in order to fuel the machine and keep the pipes flowing; it’s like a black hole, in a way. Or maybe a sarlacc pit.

But the bigger the black hole, the greater the surface area of its event horizon, meaning the marginal ecosystem of independent artists clinging onto the edges of the infrastructure; so many voices out there, so many new stories! I remember being a teenager in the early 90s, with music being the only way I could gain access to any view of the world that wasn’t seen from what I now recognise as a white British middle-class perspective; it was the only place I could hear about the sort of politics that mattered to me, the only place I heard the truths that elsewhere went unspoken, the only place where lives that felt like my own were narrated. (Well, there were novels, too, but who reads those anymore, amiritez?) It was a crazy time – though I suppose the period during which you become an adult always looks like that, whenever you’re born.

The 90s also threw up the internet, the metamedium which would go on to subsume all other mediums, but it would be a long time before enough people had it that anyone could guess what it’d be good for. So it kinda bubbled along as a rather obscure channel-of-subcultural-backchannels until bandwidth and baud rates and processor speeds got to the point where Napster could happen.

At which point all bets were off.

As we now know with hindsight, the recording industry either hadn’t seen this coming or had chosen to ignore it; indeed, there are big sections of the industry only now slipping out of the denial stage and adapting to the new landscape. But everything changed once the opportunity cost for finding and duplicating a song and sharing it with someone became effectively zero; suddenly those messages were multiplying like gremlins in a swimming pool, pouring through a whole new set of pipes, under a whole new set of rules, beyond reach or control. Owning the recording industry’s manufacture and distribution infrastructure was suddenly an expensive liability… and the nature of the new distro channels was that it made your product laughably easy to duplicate infinitely, with no significant loss in quality.

I think this is where our relationship with music really began to pivot, because suddenly access to the music you wanted needn’t be a matter of expense: you could just have it, whether streamed or torrented or ripped or whatever. Music – not just contemporary music, mind, but increasingly the entire corpus of recorded music, everything that’s still capable of playback and redigitisation – became a resource, a commodity, an ocean of sound that our access to the internet allowed us to draw from effortlessly, without friction, and over a wider selection than was even conceivable beforehand. Yes, you still choose your music – but you choose it lightly, spoiled by choice. It’s not a hoarded pocket-money purchase, a long-anticipated mail-order CD of some obscure album that your local HMV didn’t have on its database; it’s a coat plucked on a whim from an infinite coat-rack. What do you want to wear today?

And hey, why not – this is not a bad thing. It’s just the way things are… and as many bad things as there are about the world and about the internet, I don’t think this is one of them. Nor is this one of those “OMFG music is DEAD these modern bands SUCK and you should all get the hell off my LAWN” sorta essays, either; music’s definitely not dead, it’s alive like kudzu, soundtracking our workdays as much as our playdays, thanks to tiny technology and better batteries. Music and musicians aren’t disappearing anytime soon; sure, it may be harder to secure the sort of mid-list careers that album bands could have in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but that’s because the labels can’t play the old “throw shit at the wall and see what sticks” approach to A&R any more; they don’t have the monopoly over distribution or promotional channels any more, so they can’t stack the deck so easily in their own favour. They were gamblers in the golden age, taking a chance on dozens of bands in the hope that one would be the new Beatles, Led Zep, whoever; it was a poor method, but it was the best one they had. (And if the rock biogs are to be believed, it could be quite a fun process, provided you didn’t let it kill you.)

But don’t believe the hype about the music industry being in decline. Far from it; it’s just abandoned the old infrastructural business model and merged with the TV and Hollywood conglomerates, getting into the “content” game, which is a game of stories within stories within stories, of which music is only one type among many. But selling music itself is a dead scene for anyone operating outside the Long Tail; soon as something’s in sufficient demand, piracy takes care of the supply problem for you, and leaves you out of pocket. You only avoid this by being obscure… and if you’re obscure, you’re not expecting to make any money from selling records, anyway, except as exactly the sort of connoisseur’s collection-piece that recorded music first got sold as: high-weight vinyl albums of obscure Williamsburg drone-pop quartets. These are artefacts, treasures; their value does not lie purely in the music that they encode. This is the last bastion of music really mattering to people like it used to: obsession, the expense of time and money. Try rewatching High Fidelity; it was always a little satirical, but now it looks like a send-up of the doomed relics of a by-gone era, twisted man-children angsting over their grown-up Pokemon collections. Defining yourself by the physical albums you own – how limited an idea that seems now! (If only because, well, shit – who can afford a spare room for the vinyl now the bedroom tax is in, eh?)

You want the proof that music doesn’t matter? Look at the charts. Sure, they were always topped off with obvious pop puppets, but now even they are carefully groomed and manufactured – in public, and at great length, as part and parcel of the whole spectacle – long before they ever release any actual tunes one can buy. And when they are released, they’re a sideshow, a vestigial legacy-mechanism by which you get the act to chart, and thus to be talked about more. The money in pop music nowadays is all in using it as the honey coating on bigger and more easily monetised media spectacles like television or cinema, or as a demographic shorthand in advertising material. Simon Cowell’s exploitative franchises have made him many fortunes, but hardly any of that came from record sales: it comes from the ad slots that appear around his programs, from the licenses to reuse his formulae in other territories; he’s not selling music, he selling the idea of selling.. Music’s just the scent of fresh-baked bread piped out from the front door of his underground-railway-themed sandwich shop, so to speak; its job is to get you in through the door.

(This, in fact, is not that far away from the old Tin Pan Alley model of the early 60s, or Pete Waterman’s “hit factory” model of the 80s; the only difference is that now it’s easier to monetise the artist selection and development process than the resulting musical product.)

However, there’s masses of other stuff going on, little subsubgenres and scenes of all sorts popping up all over, outside the dominant channels of promotion; how can I say music doesn’t matter when more people are making it or going to listen to it than ever before? But at the same time, there’s a sense that everything’s been done before, everything’s been said already. Caught in the atemporality of postmodernism’s end-game, all that’s left to us is quotation, pastiche, mash-ups and covers and remixes. The possibility of newness is nowhere to be seen.

To repeat: music still matters, but it matters in the abstract, as one aspect of the sensorial tapestry that is our cultural lives. It’s not a lifeline like it once was; there other channels where youth can speak to itself, even if they’re increasingly clogged with the detritus of capital and commerce. It doesn’t have to carry all the weight of our hopes and fears any more, or our politics, our dreams of futurity; there are other ways to make the world hear us, and while they may not be much more effective, they’re surely no less so.

(And maybe I’m wrong, and a few miles away there’s some urgent new musical subculture coalescing in some grotty little venue, the first true Next Big Thing of the Internet Era, set to blow people’s minds and give them a star to steer by. I wouldn’t be sad to see it; hell, I’ve spent years watching hungrily for it. Put me out of my misery, y’know?)

But ultimately it doesn’t matter that music doesn’t matter so much, because the internet subsumed the recording industry, absorbed that systemic function into itself, perfected it, balanced the asymmetry (a bit). Oh, it’s no utopia, no matter what Silicon Valley and its boosters may claim to the contrary, and there’s a lot of work to be done before we’ve shaped the internet into something that serves us all instead of just a few. But even so, the messages are still getting through, whatever the platform, whatever the medium… and it’s never been easier to send your own message back out there and see what happens.

And that’s what always mattered about music in the first place.

the n-word

Storing this one away here against the next time some wise-arse starts going on about how some people bandy the term around without anyone being able to define it: ganked from yer man Phil Burton-Cartledge, here’s Wendy Brown’s (2015) definition of neoliberalism from Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution:

… as a normative order of reason … neoliberalism transmogrifies every human domain and endeavour, along with humans themselves, according to a specific image of the economic. All conduct is economic conduct; all spheres of existence are framed and measured by economic terms and metrics, even when these spheres are not directly monetised. In neoliberal reason and in domains governed by it, we are only and everywhere homo oeconomicus, which itself has a historically specific form. Far from Adam Smith’s creature propelled by the natural urge to ‘truck, barter, and exchange’, today’s homo oeconomicus is an intensely constructed and governed bit of human capital tasked with improving and leveraging its competitive positioning and with enhancing its (monetary and nonmonetary) portfolio value across all of its endeavours and venues.

pp8-9

That’ll do.