Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Terre Talks [II of III]: from disco to distro (via promo)...
Without further ado, here is part II of our III part Q&A with the first lady of Marxist deep house as well as the man responsible for the love bomb that caused the house explosion in Kami Sakunobe back on 2006, Terre Thaemlitz... this time, following on from pt I, which focused on production, the questions cluster around issues of distribution and promo mo fos. Bombs away.
It strikes me that an understanding of distro is utterly essential for anyone who wants to know what kind of capitalism they're living in (generally). What is implied when such dysfunctional distributive processes and distribution systems are some of the key factors that makes or breaks artists, sounds and scenes? I know you've thought a lot about this, so I leave the response very open...
It's very difficult for people to understand the functions of distribution, since these processes are reified and become obscured even to those in the business. I mean, I've written many detailed articles on the subject, and I myself do not believe I understand the process. In a way, we are forced to function religiously because life under capitalism demands a degree of faith - and like faith in a religion, our faith in the general goodness of processes of distribution and access makes us blind to many of their corruptions... because we socially rely upon them, culturally and economically. And if we fail to trust, we find ourselves excommunicated and facing social difficulties that make everyday life nearly impossible. For example, if you were to eradicate from your life all goods with links to inhumane manufacturing processes, ecological destruction, etc., you would find not only your quality of living would change so radically that you would lose everything you know, but also that you would lose connections to family, friends, employment, etc... It's really an excommunication. So the act of critically examining capitalism is an act of blasphemy, as one can easily see in the continued villainization of Marx.
Within this context, labels and distributors buy chart placements, reviews, etc. It's industry. This hasn't been a surprise for many decades. I think after the Billboard chart scandals of the '60s and '70s most people stopped believing the popularity of an item had anything to do with the public's actual opinion of it's quality or usefulness. We're all accustomed to first-edition books hitting the store shelves with "#1 Best Seller" already printed on the cover, all of which is determined not by consumer purchases, but by the quantity of retailer pre-orders received by distributors. And retailers are pressured to place those large orders, too. These are the numbers that determine popularity. It's like the US presidential voting system - people want to believe their vote counts, but it's all about the electoral college... and even when they are confronted with this, such as with G.W. Bush, their faith is great enough to pass forgiveness and continue sharing in the myth rather than revising the system. Or it's like Catholics and abusive clergy. Most consumers are sheep, and they're okay with that. It makes life easier, and even then life is plenty miserable. So asking people to unpack this stuff, and willingly make their lives more difficult, is not something those who have been conditioned to believe in their own self-entitlement are likely to do willingly. That's all of us. In this context, music is still pretty much just as Funkadelic laid out 33 years ago in the lyrics to "Promentalshitbackwashphychosisenemasquad" (Google it).
All of this is implied in how distributive processes make or break artists, sounds and scenes. Helping make people aware that music is just as corrupt and dreamless as the rest of their lives is what I've been spending a lot of energy on over the years.
Apologies in advance for the rant: Chris and I have had a lot of exposure to promo over the past few years with ssgs (more and more of it)... not much of it has been positive! In fact, most of those involved seem to me to be total fucking parasites, rent seekers who exploit a nodal point in a distributive system which they set up as a 'gate' and then charge admission – pace Bono 'you ask me to enter, and then you make me crawl'. From where I'm sitting, it seems that promo has also corrupted what little critical reviewing and curation was going on on the various websites (with a few bright shining exceptions). I am continually disturbed by a percentage of online readers who no longer appear to know or understand the difference between (an attempt at) critical reflection, contextualisation, journalism, opinionated ranting, and flagrant marketing... the word 'content' is king here... and then on top of that, there's the basic situation where Artist spends a year making a beautiful record. 'Old paradigm reviewer' (PC feeling sorry for himself) spends two weeks trying to listen carefully to the record, then three hours writing a review. Content consumer takes umbrage to review and/or record, and writes an off-cuff dismissal, which also, weirdly, simultaneously enacts the auto-abrogated right to review album and reviewer, without critical engagement. but the other day, Chris received this email, which says it all:
"Dear Chris, 'XXX Distribution' is a young aspiring digital distributor for electronic music in YYY - Germany. Even though we are specialized in electronic music, we also cover a large amount of other genres as well. We would be pleased if you are interested in a close cooperation with us and may like to write reviews at your blog for upcoming releases. In exchange you will receive the releases for FREE."
(NB capslock is not mine)... question: how can we understand the dominance of promo in the political economy of today's electronic music?
Promoters and agents are the used car salespeople of the music industry, for sure. I've always understood they are part of the industry, but I try to minimize my direct interaction with them. When I license a release to a label I will generally let them promote it as they normally would since in that case I am submitting to them as an employee of sorts, but in 18 years I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I've done paid-advertising or other out-of-pocket promotion on my private Comatonse label's releases. Promotion really makes me feel dirty, which is one reason I don't do Facebook, Myspace, Soundcloud and the rest. (The Comatonse website is more of an ironic and sarcastic hype engine, which fewer and fewer people seem to find since they are always looking for content in those major websites.)
But I agree, it seems things have changed in the past 5 years, with online promotion, etc. I mean, if one blog prints something, it's almost instantly mirrored verbatim on a billion sites by spider-bots. For example, last December RA ran an announcement for a Berlin performance of finished sections from my upcoming "Soulnessless" album, and I guess the writer - who I think was also connected to the event - was overexcited and decided to write the album would be released in January, 2011 (in fact, it's still in production today). Suddenly there were 50 or more websites with blurbs about the album being released in January. I sent an email to RA and they revised their site, but it was too late. We don't live in a world of little mistakes anymore, but quickly circulated soundbites that persist in archives as facts. And this lo-fi blog journalism is accepted right along with the lo-fi MP3s they distribute. With regard to coverage of my own releases, it's also very obvious that people will copy the press release verbatim and slap their name on it. I'm sure that's how it's always been - it's the purpose of the press release - but it's lazy.
For me, the most confusing thing these days are the online shop reviews, since these can sometimes be quite thorough and well-written, but ultimately they are shop advertisements to sell the records. It's gotten to the point where I've almost stopped updating reviews on my website, since the line between review and advertisement has gotten so thin - and I'm saying that as someone whose entire website is a deliberate spoof on self-hype and over-exposure! Compared to the old days of music magazines, the journalist-middleman has been eliminated. She now works directly for the shops or distributors who do their own journalism under their own brand names (Juno comes to mind). And although I could imagine someone trying to frame this in a good light, such as processes of industry becoming more transparent and visible, I can't see it as anything other than a step deeper into the belly of the beast - if only because this act of transparency is not coupled with our critical resistance or anger. Nobody should believe anything they read online without doing further research. And I think most people know this. But again, going back to the way in which blog commentary has become as vital and entertaining to readers as the articles themselves, people seem to just roll with it. And from an industry marketing perspective, our complacency is then mistaken for "enjoyment" or actually liking things as they are - so the industry spends more money on fostering this kind of journalistic framework, and it snowballs... until you end up with something like Yahoo! News.
But we should be clear the snowball didn't start with the internet. Talk about serendipity, earlier today I was looking at the gatefold cover to Miles Davis' 1970 album "Bitches Brew," and it contains all of these same elements. The vinyl inner sleeves are printed with Columbia Records' in-house promo-zine cleverly titled, "The Inner Sleeve." The sleeves are designed to look like a newspaper, with editorials, articles and reviews about other Columbia releases including, "Laura Nyro: a three-year-late listener's guide" by Pete Fornatale, "Wars Are Such a Devilish Thing" (remember, this was during Vietnam), and "Country Music, What Is It?" The centerfold of the album jacket itself has a diarrhetic rant about "Bitches Brew" by Ralph Gleason, which predictably starts, "There's so much to say about this music. I don't mean so much to explain about it because that's stupid. The music speaks for itself." Then, as promised, he goes on endlessly talking about nothing. Around the middle he writes, "I started to ask Teo how the horn echo was made and then I though how silly what difference does it make? And it doesn't make any difference what kind of brush Picasso uses and if the art makes it we don't need to know and if the art doesn't make it knowing is the most useless thing in life." This is exactly the model of contextually transcendental "soul" and "artistry" I was bitching about earlier - the value of which is always determined by "making it," although that doesn't matter, right? That would be shallow, and we're not shallow, right? Idiots. Clearly, there is plenty of usefulness in knowing that which "doesn't make it." Otherwise, all we have left are histories filled with cathedrals and castles, and I find no resonance for that kind of cultural tourism. That is how we've already become tourists within our own cultures.
As a DJ, another issue with promos is the endless mailings we get to download music. Of course, sometimes we get lucky and find ourselves getting serviced by amazing labels - it's similar to the euphoria of olden days if a DJ managed to get into a hot vinyl record pool with tons of amazing promos. But most of these MP3 promo sites have gotten increasingly complicated, asking for comments and rankings of tracks before we even download them, all judgements being based on the sound of low-quality web players. If you type comments without thinking, you later find that they've printed your comment in advertisements as though you are someone who wants to promote the project or have your name tied to it. It's not enough that we might be willing to play their track in a club or something, like in the '80s. Now everything has to be logged and documented. I don't like this at all. Especially the creepy YES/NO buttons asking, "Do you support this release?" What the fuck does that even mean? Do I support it? No, I don't fucking support it, whether it's an amazing track or not! At that point I'm just trying to get hold of the higher quality download so I can listen to it properly. And after I spend my time downloading it I will then decide if it goes in the trash or not. It's way too soon in the relationship to ask for a commitment, whatever "support" means! And clearly the nature of the question pressures people to click "YES," since clicking "NO" probably means getting dropped from the list... I assume? I'm lucky that I use an old Mac running OS X 10.3, and its web browser is no longer supported by most of these newfangled websites, so I can't hear them anyway. If a promo mailing seems interesting, I'll usually email the label and explain my browser issue, then ask for a download link to check them out without leaving comments. (By the way, it's completely messed up that so many sites require the latest web browsers, since software upgrades are clearly an economic privilege - and particularly difficult in poorer nations that First World people like to feel the internet is helping elevate so much. News flash: Your "global" sites are inaccessible! It's usually just because the site developers want to say they are using the latest Java or Flash, despite not utilizing new features... and of course with the newer sites there is a lot of back-end server-side marketing and research is also being accumulated, customizing advertising shown on your screen, etc.)
Provided the Pacific Ring of Fire keeps quiet, stay tuned next week for our final, third installment...