Wednesday, 17 December 2014

How do you like your Hits: Overdetermined or Underdetermined?

It’s amazing that any wannabe artist thinks that they could be signed on the strength of their demo recordings. And maybe nobody ever is. Perhaps the procedure exists in order to give musicians (and audiences) the impression that success is the result of music alone.
            There are at least two reasons why it’s impossible to judge an act’s potential from its demos. One is that the success of a recording is overdetermined. Record companies line up a number of causes in order to effect a hit. The music if obviously important, but so are the various promotional activities that are put in place. Chief amongst these is the creation of a ‘star text’. As Andrew Goodwin has pointed out, there are various narratives at play in every recording. One of these is the narrative of the song; another is the narrative of the star. They reflect upon each other. The star’s life forms part of the story of the song, and the song forms part of the star’s story. Unsigned artists face a problem: they have no narrative depth. Hence the record companies’ conservatism when it comes to signing acts. Hits maybe the surest way of creating stars, but stars are the surest way of creating hits.
            The other difficulty in judgement comes from the fact that hits are underdetermined. They are launched into the world with no guarantee that they will be a success. This isn’t just because artists and record companies don’t know what they are doing and can’t judge the mood of the public. On the contrary, the most knowing popular music is made with full consciousness that it can’t assume the activities of the public. It is deliberately unfinished. The skill lies in allowing some room in the music for ‘articulation’, ‘participatory culture’, and all those other re-appropriative tactics that cultural theorists delight in, while at the same time ensuring that this audience activity doesn’t lose cite of the original recording. Here we come full circle. A star text both helps to make these reworkings possible, as well as to keep them grounded; just think of all the audience activity that takes place around a Madonna or a Morrissey, as well as the sales of recordings that these artists generate. Once again, this causes problems for anyone judging a demo recording. How on earth can they foretell the audience’s interest, not just in taking the music up, but also in taking it over?

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Vinyl reviewed by David Atkinson in Folk Music Journal

David Atkinson, editor of Folk Music Journal, has written a warm review of Vinyl. He says, ‘I wanted to notice this book because I think anyone interested in the history of recorded sound will really enjoy it. It takes an imaginative approach to its subject and it is both highly informative and readable’. What’s interesting about the review is its slight trepidation. Atkinson begins by saying, ‘It is possible that some readers might baulk at my including a brief review of Richard Osborne’s Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record, but I would maintain that, like it or not, songs, including folk songs, have long enjoyed an existence as material objects, and that for at least a century that material existence was embodied in analogue records’. Here he’s tapping into the anxiety that the folk music world continues to feel about the recorded form. On the one hand, this anxiety could be considered strange. As Atkinson points out, recordings have been the primary way of preserving (as well as promoting and creating) folk music for more than 100 years. Many folk fans will have first come to the music via records, and recordings have been central to the development of some strands of folk (including the folk revival of the late 1950s/early 1960s, as I detail in my book). On the other hand, this anxiety should not be gainsaid. It is too simplistic to dismiss folksong as merely being fakesong and its audience as middle class rustics trying to imagine the music of a romanticised working class. There is a power in some of the best folk music that reaches backwards to a world before recorded sound and sideways to a milieu that wants some relief from mediation. And folk music songs don’t have to be ancient to achieve this transcendent state. Each country has a traditional culture that is there for all to share and to build upon. We might live in a world in which technological mediation is dominant, but that doesn’t mean that this technology engulfs everything completely. That said, the folkies are right to be afraid.