When I finished work this evening the first thing I did was put some music on. I was the last one leaving the office so I put my headphones on at my desk, selected my punk playlist and turned the volume up as loud as it would go.
By the time I was walking out of the building I had Poly Styrene of X-Ray Specs shrieking the chorus to 'Oh Bondage Up Yours' into my ears over that classic distorted guitar of late 1970s British punk-rock, her, then 16 year old, band mate's saxophone playing and some poorly recorded drums. It was wonderful. I walked to the bus stop as the playlist continued. I wouldn't have cared if the bus didn't come, I'd forgotten my headphones for the last few days so I was enjoying myself too much to notice most of what was going on around me. As I got on the bus I sat amongst other tired people going home from work, they were falling asleep, their heads resting on the windows. I was getting re-energised, Jake Burns of the Stiff Little Fingers was explaining to me through the lyrics of "Alternative Ulster" that "They say they're a part of you, but that's not true! They say they've got control of you, but that's a lie!". By the time I was walking past the kids playing the street outside my house I was practically marching along to Rancid's, Roots Radicals.
In short it wasn't a bad commute home this evening and I like punk... a lot.
I first got into punk music in a somewhat serious way in the summer of 2002 (which I will now take you back to), it was the Queen's Golden Jubilee and the Sex Pistols had re-released God Save The Queen in celebration. I bought it. It was glorious. I was playing drums, badly, in a band with friends in those days and it was a lot of fun. We would record live sessions on a little tape recorder that had a built in microphone and imagine promoting the recordings and becoming famous. There was also a current of thought amongst us that we would probably change the world in the process.
Now I'm not suggesting that punk music is the only music worth listening to, but ever since I realised that music could make your brain explode or your face melt off or heart stop I've wondered why people listen to all that crap you hear on the radio, or on MTV. There is genuine talent in every genre; artists who love what they do, who are creative and experimental and sing about things they are passionate about. So why does it seem to be the most boring, unimaginative, soulless shite that get's popular?
Allow me to take some stabs as to why:
First against the wall in our search for who or what is responsible for crap music is the concept of intellectual property (IP).
IP completely redefines the concept of what you can own, it 'encloses' and 'privatises' thoughts, ideas, designs, sounds etc. and artificially labels them as private property. Access to these things can then be regulated by law; copying music without paying for it is called theft or piracy even though it deprives the original producer of nothing.
IP laws are forms of state granted monopolies, monopolies on the use of the products of someone's mind, which can be bought and sold. These have their roots in the mercantilism of colonial times where completely unaccountable, for-profit companies such as the Dutch East India Company (the world's first multi-national) were granted the sole right to conduct certain types of trade, either in a specific area or of a specific type. These monopolies were handed out to friends of those in power and were extremely lucrative, attempts to compete with them were squashed, brutally. This puts the big, artistically barren, filthy rich record labels in appropriate company.
In practice we live in a post-scarcity age when it comes to most types of information, including digitally recorded sounds. Music can now be reproduced with virtually no effort in a usable form right at the point of consumption; it's called downloading a track onto your phone and listening to it! This means that in a free market it would have little more commodity value than thin air. A big proportion of the millions, and probably billions being made off music is generated from forcing people to pay to access illegitimate IP. This is what gets people who don't care about music sniffing around looking for the big money. Sorry musicians but once you've recorded that music and put it out there in the big wide world you shouldn't be able to keep claiming it belongs to you and trying to make money off it, is that really so awful? Well, I suspect most of those artists in the charts right now would think it was pretty awful, but I also reckon that their the loss of their collective artistic legacy would not be detrimental to the human race so I don't care!
The effects of a centralised music industry
Another reason for crappy music is to do with the centralisation of industry. The level of centralisation of political power in a country, tends to be mirrored by the centralisation of industry (in state-capitalist societies like soviet Russia it was almost absolute). As more monopolies are handed out and competition is squeezed out with red tape that smaller scale groups can't meet and special privileges for the bigger ones our country is heading that way too. Big businesses are like giant pyramids with orders flowing down from on high. If it's those fat, bald rich guys in suits are running the show is it any surprise that the music is a little bland?
Big record labels are the result of a centralised music industry, the alternative is the colourful patchwork of smaller labels, self-employed musicians and musicians co-ops that you would find in a free market.
The big record labels don't give artists much control over their art instead they churn out 'manufactured music'. Lots of the songs aren't written by the artists, some songs aren't even written by 'artists' at all instead scientists come up with formulas for what will get stuck in people's head most successfully. The songs are about making money, looking just right, finding the perfect partner etc. The accompanying music videos are advertisements for a lifestyle that probably doesn't even really exist It is designed to keeping people coming back for more, always feeling like their own lives don't measure up, maybe hoping some of the perfection of celebrity musicians will rub off on them.
|I don't even know who these eejits are
Ultimately it is no different from all the crap churned out by all the other big corporations. Like the kinds of art you see in the 'home ware' section of Wilkinson's (high street chain store), mass produced generic pictures of some flowers or city lights to hang on the wall, copies of which will hang on the wall of ten thousand other homes. There might not be anything inherently wrong with them but you don't enthusiastically buy them all up and call yourself an art lover.
By censorship I'm not talking about an individual radio station refusing to play a song or a band drawing public criticism for their message or their actions. These things don't matter, they're simply a fact of life in a world where people have differing values and notions of what is acceptable. What matters are actual attempts to use force to shut people up.
Censorship of music can be official and organised, like a blanket ban on certain artists, (the kind of thing countries like China are into) or any form of official state enforced planned censorship. Rage Against The Machine once stood on stage naked for 15 minutes in protest against the 'Parent's Music Resource Center' (PMRC) who had successfully campaigned for the introduction of 'parental advisory' stickers.
It can also be much more unofficial and ad hoc, like police harassing a band with a revolutionary message, or turning a blind eye to assaults on them or damage to their stuff whilst providing free security at the gigs of 'safe' popular musicians. The anarchist punk band 'Crass' reported being constantly harassed by the police during the 1980s in the UK. Musicians are also often banned from entering some countries to play if their message is deemed to be too disruptive. In an increasingly authoritarian society, where anti-terror laws are used to silence all kinds of dissent self censorship is a genuine concern. If you are choosing to never record a track in the first place for fear it could get you into trouble you are still being censored.
How does this contribute to the popularity of crappy music? Crappy music, which is safe and promotes things that are making capitalists rich and has their stamp of approval simply does not get censored whilst things outside the box often do.
Solution - The liberation of creativity
It could be said that punk was supposed to be part of the solution to all this. It popularised the kind of music anyone with a bit of energy and talent could make, it came with the DIY ethic (write it yourself, play it yourself, record it yourself, produce it yourself, promote it yourself etc.) and a determination to be independent.
Smaller labels like Epitaph, run by musicians and for musicians may still be making money off illegitimate IP laws but they represent at least a step in the right direction, towards artistic integrity and the liberation of creativity. Even better than this are the small musicians co-ops and labels like 'Copyleft' (you see that they've done there?) whose tag line is 'no rights reserved'.
In general though if there is a solution here it is to try to support artists with integrity who love the music for it's own sake, go and see gigs down at the pub, go to a battle of the bands or whatever it is people do these days, start a band yourself if you want to. If you can abandon the big labels completely I think it is a worthwhile thing, although I think it's worth really trying to avoid the "punker-than-thou" asshole stereotype that usually comes with taking this course of action. Try to remain calm when someone says they're really into punk because they listen to New Found Glory, or whatever the punk-pop equivalent is in today's world. We're all allowed to have guilty pleasures.