Monday, January 14, 2013

The Catastrophe... And What Comes After
The Wire magazine, June 2011

By Simon Reynolds

Sometimes, when I consider the immense transformations wrought upon music and fandom by the digital revolution, the word ‘catastrophe’ springs irresistibly to mind.

Oh for sure, there have been numerous upsides. Obscure music made readily obtainable. Esoteric knowledge opened to all. An eruption of quality music writing by non-professionals, much of it too eccentric, or theoretical, or personal, or fragmentary to be tolerated by most magazines. Getting lost in the memory maze of YouTube. New channels of communication and connection, virtual but lively communities of enthused like-minds and stroppy contrarians.

For the moment, though, I want to accentuate the negative. Let’s take a pleasure maimed, if not quite killed off completely. Shopping for secondhand vinyl: I can’t be alone in too often chancing on an intriguing record and then being halted just shy of purchase by the thought: “Hmmm, I can probably find this on the Internet for free... save myself $15... do I really need another record cluttering up the house?” Digiculture has here damaged a multifaceted set of pleasures: the thrill of the hunt, the risk of taking a punt, the tactile delight of ownership.

Curiously, revealingly, my crate-digging lust is shifting to another analogue-era object of desire: the vintage music magazine. Now and then on a blog you’ll come across a download link to a zipped file of scanned pages from an obscure fanzine or periodical, but for the most part these yellowing bundles of ink and paper have yet to undergo the fate of dematerialisation/dissemination that’s befallen almost the entirety of recorded music. Part of the sudden allure of old magazines is, I’m sure, that they retain a scarcity value that records have forfeited (at least in terms of pure sonic information: the physical records obviously retain potent fetish appeal in terms of packaging, the period flavour of the design and the label, etc).

But there is also a more elevated aspect to the attraction. Packed with uncommon knowledge, these vintage magazines provide the kind of information that’s hard to find on the internet owing to the particular way its archiving system is structured. Online, you can uncover a vast amount about an artist in terms of diachronic trajectory (discography, biographical arc). Much harder to reconstruct is the synchronic context: what was going on at the precise moment in time of a record’s release, whether in terms of the genre in which the group operated, the general state of music culture, or the political and social backdrop. A musty, yellowing 1970s copy of NME or Melody Maker, Creem or Let It Rock, is a precious capsule of circumstantial evidence: reviews and features about contemporaneous groups, but also record company adverts and the graphic design and typography, which ooze period vibe. You can’t fully understand the impact of glam rock without a sense of how drab and style-less regular rock groups looked then, of how visually depleted the whole media environment was. Likewise, the stark angular minimalism of post-punk groups and record covers derived its salient edge from juxtaposition with scruffy Old Wave and Stiff-style pub rock. A time-slice of history, stubbornly analogue, the vintage music magazine in some sense resists the decontextualising vortex that is netculture, that endless end of history that never stops churning.

Catastrophe is a melodramatic word. The way I mean it is less ‘act of God’ and more ‘act of Economy’. Just like the Industrial Revolution two hundred years earlier, the Digital Revolution had a stampeding quality, herd-like, at once willed and out of control. Industrialisation ripped up old folkways, uprooted populations, ravaged the environment, restructured society. It even installed a new temporality: labour paid by the hour, the seasons irrelevant, the cycles of sunrise and sunset overruled by the requirements of production and profit. Industrialization also brought undeniable boons: cheap consumer goods, the relative freedoms of the anonymous cities.

The digital revolution had a similar pell-mell quality, a feeling of impersonality and inevitability. From the internet to the MP3, the whole caboodle took off because it was technologically possible, and because people just went along with it. Paul Virilio famously argued that every technological innovation is also the invention of a new accident or disaster. The digitization of information and culture had all kinds of unforeseen, wrenching consequences. The compact disc, for instance, seemed to the record industry like a great idea. In the short term there was a boom off the back of back catalogue being issued as overpriced CDs. But somehow nobody in the industry foresaw that turning audio (and later video) into code would make it vastly easier to copy. At first this was old-fashioned piracy (CDs and DVDS being much quicker to copy, with less loss of quality than cassette, vinyl, VHS). Later, it all went haywire with the MP3. That was another invention supported by big entertainment corporations, and a classic case of the industry shooting itself in the foot. The broadband component of the file-sharing cataclysm was more to do with capitalism’s lack of central command: an innovation introduced in one sector of the economy (because essential to the furtherance of the internet) led to devastating consequences for another (the entertainment industry whose audio, video, games, etc got trafficked globally).

‘Tectonic’ rather than ‘catastrophic’ is a calmer, more dispassionate word for what’s happened these past 15 or so years. There has been the media-cultural equivalent of a shifting of the continental plates, causing a new ‘land-mass’ to emerge out of nowhere: the internet, which really is closer to a New World than a new medium. Such a seismic passage from what could be called the Analogue System to the Digital System has inevitably left a host of wreckage in its wake.

The Analogue System – based around vinyl and tapes, print music magazines, terrestrial radio and TV broadcasting– created particular kinds of affects, modes of identification and convergences of social energy. Because it was largely organised around the physical movement of information-containing objects (records, magazines), it had a particular sense of temporality, structured around delay, anticipation and the Event. The Digital System – based around the dematerialized information flows enabled by the MP3, netradio, YouTube, blogs and webzines, et al – has a different sense of ‘culture-time’, one marked by a paradoxical combination of instantaneity and permanence, speed and stasis. Online is all about the this-minute tweet you can’t remember half an hour later and the persistence of the past as a readily accessible archived resource (a YouTube of T Rex from 1972, a 1967 Stan Brakhage reel at UbuWeb, a pirate radio session from 1993 via some old skool rave blog).
Under the Analogue regime, time was tilted forward. In Digiculture, time is lateral, recursive, spongiform, riddled with wormholes. It is characterized by operations like cut and paste, simultaneity (keeping open multiple windows), rewind/fast-forward/pause using mouse and cursor, saving things ‘for later’, fitting cultural or news experiences into your schedule (I won’t watch that major Obama speech as it happens because I can always catch it later on YouTube). One’s control of time is vastly more flexible than under the Analogue regime, but one’s experience of time is vastly more brittle.

The digital landscape emerged gradually and it has certainly generated new ways of experiencing and discovering music. Yet overall it’s hard to avoid concluding that the intensities possible under the Analogue System have been replaced by distraction and a kind of restless ‘circulation for its own sake’. Fanatical identification with an artist, scene or youth tribe has given way to drifting eclecticism and ‘partial allegiance’. The album, as a cohesive artwork whose internal temporality the listener submitted to, has been displaced by the playlist and the mix. Music increasingly functions as a mood modifier or background sound for the multitasking listener.


An Analogue>Digital analogy. Under the Analogue System, culture was a complex but delicately balanced set of channels or pipes through which culture-stuff was pumped. For the most part this was a one-way transmission. Because the pipes were narrow, you had a cultural economy organized around scarcity and delay, which created affects of craving and anticipation. What happened with broadband is that the pipes dramatically increased in size, by a factor of a hundred or a thousand. Moreover, these conduits became traversable in both directions. Everyone could be both a transmitter and a receiver. They could distribute their opinions, publically document their lives or interests, and traffic in music or other cultural data outside the usual channels (the ones that required remuneration of the producers of the culture-stuff).

The repercussions of this jolt to the hydraulics of culture were massive and manifold. When everybody enjoys both instant access and total access, it stokes an insatiability, the delirium that I gesture at in the title of my book Retromania. When music became effectively ‘free’, consumerism was unshackled from all constraints. But because the channels are traversable in both directions, not only did the music consumer’s greed become limitless, so too did generosity. I understand only too well my own, almost literally insane compulsion to acquire more music than I could ever conceivably listen to, to the point where storing and managing it becomes a burden. What I don’t quite understand is the bloggers who hurl (in almost the vomitous sense of the word) vast quantities of sound up on to blogs or message boards, filleting the entire discographies of artists that they seemingly admire and care about. You might call the syndrome ‘oversharing’, except that that the term already has another Web 2.0 meaning: the unguarded, minutiae-oriented self-documentation encouraged by blogging and Facebook-style social networks. In both cases, ‘too much information’ is the appropriate response.

There’s a delirious quality to the archive fever raging across the web, from YouTube to the legion of collective blogs dedicated to particular backwaters of culture or zones of sensibility. It’s like some kind of blind, data-swarming drive, as if we are ants or bees building a vast construction whose ultimate purpose is beyond our ken. Which is perhaps why techno-utopians are so tempted to talk mystically about the noosphere as an emerging macro-intelligence. But another way of seeing it would be as a gigantic data dump, the collective archive as landfill.

Digitech virtually enforces this kind of activity by making it so frickin’ easy to upload and share, but still leaving just enough of a dopamine buzz that these acts signify ‘achievement’ to our brains. That’s the neurological theory of internet addiction as espoused by Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Another explanation draws on post-Freudian psychoanalysis. Developed by Jodi Dean in Blog Theory, the core idea is that the compulsive pleasures associated with netculture – down-and-uploading, tweeting, updating, searching – engage us on the level of drive as opposed to desire. Our transit back and forth across the net is not really in pursuit of an object of desire, but for the intransitive sensation of going. More primal and basic than desire, drive is associated with repetition and regression: it’s not the quest for the (impossible) object that will fill lack, but a kind of enactment of loss itself. Dean analyses our participation in digicultural activity in bleak dystopian terms of capture, the ensnaring of human energy. I’m not entirely convinced that desire has nothing to do with it: you go on YouTube or comb the blogs because in the past you’ve found delicious morsels of culture-matter; there’s also a neurotic dimension rooted in the anxiety of missing out on something. But Dean’s theory does account for the addictive, kill-time aspect, the way that you can fall into a trance on the computer and the hours just fly away.

Probably the most disconcerting and provocative idea in Blog Theory is the suggestion that the cultural worth of doing-it-yourself has been voided by its recuperation by digiculture’s interactivity and participatory mechanisms. When pre-formatted platforms such as Blogger and Bandcamp bring once arduous activities (producing a fanzine, self-releasing music) within the reach of anyone who can be halfway bothered, the result is an excess of access and a glut of artistic production. Digiculture is an exact inversion of the Situationist notion of the Spectacle. That concept emerged in reaction to the post-World War Two expansion of the mass media, with its centralized and unidirectional broadcasting. Situationists like Guy Debord critiqued entertainments that enforced passivity and isolation, and called for participatory situations that breached the barrier between art and everyday life. This in turn influenced punk and the subsequent DIY explosion of micro-labels that persists to this day. In this schema, doing-it-yourself was not just about unleashing your personal creativity: regardless of any political content to the art, it was a political act that threw down an egalitarian challenge to the professionalized culture of media and the hierarchy of stardom. The existence of the mass media and the mainstream was what gave DIY its utopian charge: you were ‘answering back’ the monologue of the monoculture.

Digiculture is the Anti-Spectacle: now we’re all doing it for ourselves, incessantly. The passing of the Analogue System makes it possible to see the benefits of the Mono-Mainstream (TV networks, major labels, government-run public broadcasting). This apparatus created mass experiences, mobilizations of energy and desire. But it also brought into being undergrounds, subcultures that grew in the darkness, outside mediation. In time, these would break through into the mainstream, via certain libidinally charged thresholds (in UK terms, the weekly music press, Top Of The Pops, Radio One). They would change pop and be changed by it. It was hard to break through, but if those barricades could be surmounted, things would then get propelled into mainstream consciousness and couldn’t be ignored. This antagonistic symbiosis of underground and overground resulted in a dialectical process of renewal and recuperation that kept music moving.

For my generation – who grew up when the 1960s was very much still a presence in the culture and who then lived through punk, post-punk, hiphop, rave – what you might call our cultural libido (what turned us on, what roused us) is inextricably bound up with these moments of breakthrough. But that entire cultural terrain is disappearing. The netscape means that there is an increased tendency for music to find only the pre-disposed.

The Analogue System was centripetal, its flow-structure innately resisted entropy. Digiculture is centrifugal because it is designed to promote individualization and differentiation at every level. Consensus and convergence become harder to achieve. Scenes fragment into micro-scenes. This atomization can even be detected at the level of the artistic self: auteurs ‘disagree’ with themselves, split up into multiple alter ego and side projects. When creating/documenting/distributing become so easy, the volume of output increases monstrously. Digital is based around encoded information and near-infinite storage; analogue culture involves costly materials. Because, say, taking a digital camera snapshot involves far less existential weight than using film, you’ll take dozens of pictures in rapid succession, then sift through for the best take. In music, the effect of digital technology is not simply that there’s many more musicians putting stuff out there, it's that each individual musician generates so much more, thanks to minimal costs for recording or materials.

This is why the discographical arc of your typical underground musician has gone nuts recently. From Lil B to James Ferraro, Wiley to Sean McCann, unspool an endless stream of mixtapes, limited cassettes, podcasts, web-only remixes. Fandom is no longer organized around anticipation, waiting with baited breath for an album your favourite artist has laboured over for months or years. Being a fan now means keeping up with the non-stop emissions of your cult icon. Some major talents can sustain that level of output without drying up, but for the most part it has led to redundancy and a flattening of the artistic landscape (fewer ‘event releases’ or ‘landmark masterpieces). Such saturation bombing has sparked a kind of retroactive appreciation for the filtering effects and in-built delays of the Analogue System.

The endzone of digital facilitation is people who can’t even give their music away: the mass graves of MySpace. Everybody talking, nobody listening. In the topsy-turvy world of digiculture, the scarcity economy of music has entirely gone... replaced by a scarcity of consumers and spectators. Momus’s celebrated maxim that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 people might have been over-optimistic. You can even imagine some future European Community subsidizing people to be uncreative, mere passive recipients of cultural transmissions.

When everyone is DIY-ing, the act of putting out your own music or magazine loses much of its ethical and political charge; it becomes something you do, a pastime or hobby. Another problem for the concept of ‘underground’ is the curious spatiality of the internet, which creates the illusion that everything is somehow equal, on the same level: the flat plane of webspace. Real and enduring inequities of media power and prominence still exist but they are disguised. The New York Times occupies the same amount of screen space as Not Not Fun’s website. Neither seems any more accessible or less ubiquitous than the other. The dialectic of invisibility/secrecy and visibility/publicity that worked so well during the Analogue Era has been tampered with.


The final and most disorienting effect caused by digitization is the principle concern of Retromania: the phenomenon that William Gibson and Bruce Sterling have recently been theorizing in terms of ‘atemporality’. If you’re under the age of 25 and have grown up with a relationship to music based around total access and the erosion of a sense of sounds belonging to a historical sequence, thinking about music in terms of development through time becomes alien and unrecoverable. When music is distributed across the virtual spatiality of the web, styles seem to connect to each other much more through sonic affinity or uncanny trans-temporal echoes (ghosting, prophesy) than through a chronological logic (causal chains, stylistic evolution). You can get peculiar reversals of time’s flow: a later group feels like it has influenced a group from the past, which in turn comes to seem like a pale copy or unrealized prototype.

It's as though the space-time of culture has been flipped on its axis: the place once occupied by the future is now taken by the past. Which is why the orientation of so much music making in the last decade has taken the form of retro-activity (see The Wire 319). In the 60s, during postpunk and mostly recently with the Techno-rave 90s, artists sent out sonic probes into the beyond. Nowadays, they’re no longer astronauts but archaeologists, excavating through layers of debris (the detritus of the analogue, pre-internet era). The exploratory impulse survives, but its accent has shifted from discovery to rediscovery. They’re questing not so much for the unknown as the lost. This is still a utopian impulse, grasping for something beyond the artist’s immediate reach. But if McLuhan and Marcuse were the philosophers of the 60s, then Benjamin and Borges are the avatars of our ‘time out of joint’ era.

It’s not just the fourth dimension that’s affected either. This upending of cultural space-time means that modern musicians are as post-geographical as they are post-historical. Ideas of local scenes and regional sounds dissolve like sugar in water. Issues like appropriation and cultural property become as irrelevant as the distinctions between decades.

Fourth World Music was a theorem devised by Jon Hassell in the early 80s: the mingling/mangling of ancient and modern, ethnic ritual and Western hi-tech, as put into practice on his own albums like Possible Musics and Dream Theory In Malaya, and paralleled by works by Talking Heads, Byrne & Eno, Ryuichi Sakomoto, and Holger Czukay (who could claim to have reached the Fourth World ahead of everyone with 1969's Canaxis, not forgetting Can's 'Ethnological Forgeries' series). Blogger Kid Shirt has been mooting a successor concept, ‘Fifth World Music’, to tag a new strain of neo-geo exoticism and tribal vibes in recent underground music. Beyond the specific sonic coordinates Kid Shirt has in mind, the idea of a Fifth World strikes me as being extremely applicable to the postgeographical/post-historical archive-space that is the Internet, and to the superhybrids emerging from a historically unprecedented situation/predicament where not only virtually everything happening across the world is accessible but where virtually everything that ever happened is at our fingertips.

Despite the atemporality of so much contemporary left-field music (tracks that could have come out in 1991, 1972, or 1983), one way you can sort of tell the time with today’s music is the emergence of a new aesthetic of maximalism. More than just a response to the supersaturation of input and influences, it’s also a result of musicians exploiting the scope for micro-surgical intricacy offered by audio workstations. The new maximalism is not extensive, as it was with Progressive rock and jazz fusion, but intensive: a convolution that doesn’t involve structure (song cycles and side-long album pieces, like houses with too many extensions) but the density of events and layers per bar. Digi-tech encourages the finessing of micro-edits and subtle tweaks; it favours sound design over focus and thrust. If there is an aesthetic that defines our time then it’s one of exquisite clutter and generic indeterminacy. Seen negatively, a sort of dithering; framed positively, an affirmative embrace of everything (what philosophers call ‘plus/and’ rather than ‘either/or’). That these aesthetic characteristics bear some relation to the zeitgeist is indicated by the way they crop up all across the leftfield music spectrum, from TV On The Radio, tUnE-yArDs and Gang Gang Dance to Flying Lotus, Hudson Mohawke and Nicolas Jaar.  

Gang Gang Dance's new album Eye Contact starts with the words: 'I can hear everything. It's everything time.' Increasingly with the Post-Everything Generation, you get a kind of splayed sensibility, an artistic self that is diffuse and centreless: Hype Williams, Mosca, Pyramid Vritra. When on "The Age of Information" Lil B says, “I’m on computers profusely”, I don’t think so much of the endless ripples of web buzz and tweet fame encircling him, so much as the peroration of Jean Baudrillard’s 1983 essay “The Ecstasy Of Communication”, an unwitting prophecy of networked culture and psychology:“The schizo is... open to everything in spite of himself, living in the greatest confusion... [defenceless before] the absolute proximity, the total instantaneity of things... the overexposure and transparence of the world which traverses him without obstacle. He can no longer produce the limits of his own being... He is now only a pure screen, a switching centre for all the networks of influence.” The corollary of this ceaseless influx is constant out-flow. Like a rap James Ferraro, Lil B issues an endlessly spewing spoor of creativity, not through limited edition cassettes but mix-tapes that are really unshelled spurts of immaterial data.

A creature of another age, I find it hard to imagine how anything artistically coherent can be created under such overloaded conditions. That said, the Analogue Era ideals of community and resistance achieved through music (as developed in the 1960s) were ailing by the 90s, and digitalization simply put those notions out of their misery, leaving a clear space for music to be repurposed. But most of the artists who’ve come to the fore in recent years retain an experiential memory-sense of what fandom and creativity were like in a cultural economy of scarcity, distance and delay; their sensibility was forged during the 1990s, when the Analogue System had yet to be fully displaced. The next generation, who’ll have never known anything but the internet, music for free, superabundance and atemporality, might well be better equipped to navigate the profusion. Who knows what uses their music will have, the shapes it will take, or the kind of convergences it will bring about? 

For the moment, though, an awful lot of music remains bound up with sign-play. It is meta-music largely dependent on its echoes of past radicalism (Sixties rock, postpunk, 90s rave), or conversely, on its witty, frisson-laced inversions of orthodox notions of what makes music edgy, experimental, important (as with hauntology and Hypnagogia’s attraction to the functional background sounds or glossy commercial pop of yesteryear). But when sound styles finally shed all those ghost-traces of History and achieve a perfect non-referential blankness, the past will cease to be a museum or even an archive, and become simply a set of resources: material to be used without reverence or nostalgia. No longer pointing to the past, music will perhaps be ready to reconnect to the world happening beyond the screen.

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