My favourite album of last year was Formulas by Waler. In fact it’s become one of my favourite albums of all time. I can’t say enough good about it.
It strikes me as being a somewhat feminist album, which they say was not intended particularly. It also strikes me as being a revolutionary tract of sorts, being shot through with the sense of being a people, and being openly critical of formulaic individualism, and being conscious of the absurd power that entertainment industries and the media have to define the meanings of ordinary people’s lives. It also strikes me as being a spiritually conscious album.
It’s totally concise. There’s no flab on it at all. It works between camp Italo Disco and early 90’s dance music in an ironically formulaic fashion. I believe they believe every lyric on there. It is the sound of total conviction.
So, we loved that they asked to release it through our small indie label/collective Zang Productions. Well, mostly. Some Zangers said they didn’t get it at all. Perhaps another sign of a great album?
Then, not too long after the release they, Vince and John, phoned me to ask if they could burn all the stock. That’s what they want to do. All hard copies of the album to be burned. Having a certain connection with things apocalyptic, I felt quite good about the idea right away. But still, there needs to be a reason, doesn’t there… What’s the reason? On this subject it’s hard to get a straight answer.
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Even by Zang’s standards the album has been a big flop since it was released in 2010. We wanted to get it ready for a gig where they were following Bob Dylan (that never quite materialised). We got wowed by the big names and we rushed it. Besides that, Waler got so disillusioned with the gig scene that they pretty much gave up playing live, and that doesn’t help you break even. Is that part of it? The nasty scenario of having a load of boxes of unsellable CDs by the sofa, calling you a loser every time you walk by.
Since the Zang collective pools its money to support whatever projects arise within the family, the whole stock burning idea is quite controversial. Right now, Waler are £300 under, which seems like a lot to burn when you’re small-timers. They might be impeding the prospects of the next release. Zang happily cuts losses where a project doesn’t break even, but when a band wants to burn all the stock for artistic reasons…? It’s a question.
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They’re not merely disillusioned with the album. They both completely love it, actually. This gesture has the air of a philosophical proposition of some kind. A piece of performance art… a prophetic statement… It smells like frustration at the impotence of the music scene; the subjugation of music to mass culture’s narratives and to its saleable mediums. Music should really be a mode of expression through which ordinary people can speak loudly into their culture, to challenge and change it, and to beautify it. Vital music has to exist independently of mass culture’s dull and controlling momentum and its stifling monopoly on its mediums. The idea of burning that dream of fame which involves disseminating your product into the households of ordinary people… I like that.
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A lot of people see it as a commentary on the changing landscape of music mediums. This is the age of the mp3. Hard copies are now a slightly archaic thing, and bands wanting to emulate the mediated dreams of touring and selling their CDs are getting disappointed these days. A bizarre statement. Is it a respectful requiem for the CD, which has been usurped by progress? Or is it a sort of shrewd cull of a useless old medium?
I got this email from Vince a while ago…
If the medium is the message, then the message of the mp3 format must surely be “none of this really matters.” For a song to be compressed into this format, it must be emptied of its drive, emotion and spirit, in fact, its meaning. In this context, Black Sabbath sits alongside Kylie Minogue and says much the same thing. Public Enemy means the same as Rick Astley. It is not just our musical heroes who have been fed through the formulaic meat-grinder, but the music itself. I think it’s what Kierkegaard called levelling. It’s the eradication of distinctions between high and low art, underground and mainstream, popular and niche.
If we want our work to have any impact, is it the best format to be using?
Obviously for a band who have just decided to burn all their CDs, this is a slightly worrying thought. Did we attack the wrong medium?
We would do well to bear in mind Neil Postman’s assertion that each new technology is a Faustian pact. It gives us something, but it also takes something away. If mp3 takes away both the meaning and value of music, is it something we should surrender willingly?
Do you agree, or have any thoughts to add?
This got me thinking about mp3s. What Vince said rang true to me: this medium says that none of the songs really matter – they’re just nice. But why does it say that? I thought three thoughts. First, that the mp3 is historically associated with the private listening device – the iPod. Second, that mp3s are bought online, probably on your private computer in your home. Third, as John had pointed out, you can’t lend someone your favourite albums on mp3 – it defies lending or sharing. It even defies looking into the face of a shop assistant or having to leave the house. And it’s born of a culture of personal or private listening, not communal. It has a segregating force that takes music away from being the radically empowering and unifying, and communally beautifying form that it might be. Listening to Public Enemy for personal amusement is ok, but I think they had bigger designs than that in mind.
In a way it looked like a bit of a blow for the argument for burning the CDs, but at least the argument was going some interesting places.
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I watched the documentary on YouTube about the KLF burning £1 million in cash, and nobody really cared or took any notice. If people didn’t care about that, why should anyone care about a completely unknown band burning £300 worth of their CDs? It is comedic! An unknown band wants to burn £300 worth of their own album, which almost nobody has even heard, and the £300 didn’t even come from them – so it’s not even costing them anything.
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Sometimes the whole idea feels dark and nihilistic and depressing to me. I think John and Vince also feel that way sometimes. An attention seeking gesture of despair… destruction just for the hell of it. But sometimes it does seem to make sense – like they want to make a toxic stench so unbearable that the local scene has to wake up from its sleep walk of emulating mass culture.
I’m not sure where this is going. It’s an interesting question.