Tuesday, 10 November 2009

COLOUR OUT OF SPACE 4 (Part Two: Fabio Roberti’s talk)

Above: a video run-through of some of the artists, many mentioned by me last time.

Fabio Roberti, DJ at a non-commercial radio station in New Jersey, led this talk and discussion on ‘Failure and the Technology of the 21st Century’. As he spoke, and quite improbably, a vintage car rally on their way Brighton seafront chugged to behind him! Who knows, perhaps the organisers cunningly planned it that way?

Roberti’s argument was that ‘technology’ was but a ruse for corporations to short-change us into formats of ever-worsening quality – from vinyl to CDs and finally the degredation of MP3s. Worse, their attempts to capitalise on music devalued it in other ways, for example MP3 players which encourage listeners to non-stop shuffle without ever actually listening to anything.

Though he underpinned this argument with strong examples, it’s possible to criticise. For one thing it all seemed to rest upon an all-embracing notion of ‘corporate power’, where their scheming is always one step ahead and we are but patsies. (Asserting for example that they knew from the beginning the lackings of the CD format, yet persevered for marketing reasons.) Yet are things actually so linear and monolithic? As the cartoonist Larry Marder once said, he got a job in advertising expecting everyone to be a diabolic mastermind, and was rather disappointed to find out they were all actually stupid and greedy and mostly preoccupied by not getting fired. As one example, net piracy may prick against the musician struggling to give up the day job but it also torpedoes the profits of those very same music corporations – it is scarcely their creature.

And as one attendee pointed out, “the elephant in the room here is capitalism.” Making such arguments against the music business, in isolation, is never likely to arrive at a comprehensive understanding of it. It’s like looking so hard at the fist you fail to see the arm and body it’s attached to. If songs are sold like soap powder, that is because they inhabit a world where everything is sold like soap powder.

But more to the point, as another attendee mentioned, when you’re at an alternative music festival surely the question is how such changes affect you. The way the internet is used to disseminate music might well be problematic, but surely the point is that it is already used in ways completely beyond it’s Cold War origins. It can change and morph, it can be used in a multiplicity of ways. And for a scene which tends to spawn high interest from low numbers, surely something pan-geographical like the net offers advantages.

But perhaps the real point was made by Ed Baxter of Resonance FM, that there has always been a symbiotic relationship between music and technology. For two famous examples, blues became electrified partly to sound the better on the emerging juke-boxes while Phil Spector based his sound on what sounded best on car radios. (I always fancy today’s R&B to be related to MP3s, with its skittering rhythms attempting to avoid the need for a deep bass sound. Whether there’s anything in that, however, would require someone who knows more about that music than me.)

But the real real point is going to be made by me. New media rarely kill their fathers, more often their getting up and leaving home gives their fathers a new lease of life. As the comics critic Tom Spurgeon once remarked: “The emergence of every new medium forces existing ones to retreat to their fundamental strengths.” The classic example of course, is the way photography freed painting from having to mimic or duplicate the world. Now we can hear music free from vinyl crackle or tape hiss, those sounds are suddenly thrown into relief and become interesting. We don’t necessarily have to take things as far as Reynols when they released Blank Tapes, a CD entirely composed of tape hiss. But we can look at those media the way an artist would paper or canvas, seeing what strokes sit the best upon them. Technology is not our enemy. Novelty, fashion and designer obsolescence are our enemies.

I’d have said all that but I was distracted by those passing classic cars...

And we still have that comics workshop to come...

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