2011: Celebrating The Continued Shattering Of Our Culture
, December 16th, 2011 08:02
Kicking off 2011's Wreath Lectures, Luke Turner argues that the continuing fragmentation of our culture and consumption is to be welcomed, and will bring forth new joys
A question we’re often asked is whether we would ever want to run a Quietus magazine, as if to appear in print is the ultimate dream of any writer or publisher. Perhaps, were paper and print costs not soaring and offline ad revenues not declining, it might be a nice thing to contemplate, but then only for a fleeting moment. For the great strength of online publishing, and I believe the reason why the Quietus has posted year-on-year traffic growth since we founded the site in 2008, is because we are able to find a strong niche of our own while at the same time spreading our arms wide in welcome to supposedly fringe concerns. When my good colleague and friend John Doran first persuaded me to join him in pitching the Quietus it was his – correct – belief that we should never try and second guess what potential readers might want, that we should follow our instincts, and cover what we love and find interesting rather than what might get us higher traffic. This is something that we’ve stuck to until this day.
Which is why 2011 has been such an interesting year to be writing about music. You only have to look at our list of favourite albums of 2011 (and, indeed, 2010, 2009, and 2008) to see that we’re currently living in a time where music has shattered and fragmented. We no longer have a defining cultural orthodoxy in either the mainstream or the underground. The paradox is, of course, that this has largely been driven by the internet, opening up new possibilities just as rampant illegal filesharing closed them down thanks to reduced revenues. A straw poll I conducted among a sample group of friends and contacts working at independent labels suggested that sales were between 20 and 50% of what they were a decade ago. This of course makes it less likely that record labels will take risks, increasingly leaving bold decisions to those on the fringes. But with what great reward: our top ten of 2011 features three essentially self-released albums from Cut Hands, Perc and Death Grips. Azari & III, Wild Beasts, Katy B, Tim Hecker and Prurient, meanwhile, were all released on independents.
Where does this leave the critic? We live in a time where the decline of the traditional media means that far less space is given to artists who might be considered marginal. It has long baffled me why the print media, with some exceptions, will give space to relatively obscure visual art, literature, film or dance, yet insists on a narrow focus when it comes to music. When researching an interview on Einsturzende Neubauten’s Blixa Bargeld (though this goes for most artists who began in the avant-garde) for this site on Rock’s Backpages and other digital research platforms, it’s striking just how massively the page counts accorded to artists of their ilk have declined since the 80s and 90s. A culture of conservatism and fear of crediting the audience with an intelligence to look beyond telly talent show pop or mainstream indie prevails. Yet as circulation declines, these outlets of the old media – including television, and radio – are sending readers in their droves to the Quietus and other digital publications and communities.
The great advantage of working online is that we don’t need a cover star to sell copies. Google is our front page, dragging in readers from all over the world to explore whatsoever might interest them, be that music from Africa, extreme metal, pop or the avant-garde. So long as your content is strong and trusted (eg. No kowtowing to PRs, no following the consensus, not being afraid of challenging your readership) readers will continue to return. The internet is a chaotic place, but the joy of web publishing is to act as a gatekeeper or lens to create order out of that maelstrom of ideas, thoughts and material. There are great treasures out there just so long as you are prepared to work hard (or allowed us to do the work for you) to find them.
The same goes for artists: I've always seen Sunn O))) as a case in point. Though they have released no new material in 2011, Nurse With Wound’s rework of OO Void is a highlight of the year and exemplifies Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson's musical curiosity. For Sunn O))) have mastered the art of dominating and profiteering their own niche, able to sell out a 1410 capacity venue like London’s Koko and have a huge swarm around their merchandise stand afterwards. A remarkable feat for a band whose basic essence is two men in robes playing repetitive, gargantuan riffs. Many other groups of their ilk are now following similar creative and business models.
Among new groups, this pattern of self-sufficiency seems to be replicating, be it in Dominick 'Prurient' Fernow’s running the Hospital label and shop as well as moonlighting in Cold Cave, Perc’s three-pronged attack of label boss, DJ and boundary-crossing LP (Wicker & Steel), or Factory Floor’s releasing acclaimed singles on different labels that will appeal to different groups of music fans. Then of course there's the always-thriving mixtape culture in hip hop. Labels like Soundway and Analog Africa, meanwhile, collect the wonderful sounds scattered around the world, and make them more accessible than ever before. Success now comes with creativity and lack of complacency, from finding your audience – or several audiences – and being unafraid to both engage with and challenge them as you try to inspire yourself to create the new.
This will hopefully create a feedback loop that will return to affect the wider culture. Just look at how dubstep, originally a niche concern with a scene essentially based around one London nightclub, has infiltrated the mainstream via Katy B, Skream and now Skrillex. One might detest the latter aesthetically, but when was the last time a sound born in a UK underground movement infiltrated the US mainstream?
So cheers to 2011, and here’s to an even more exciting 2012, with more new music and evolving forms. In our series of Wreath Lectures over the next week or so we’ll be celebrating some of the defining characteristics of the year, from the computer gamification of music to the trouble with false folk, why our culture is not sinking into torpid retromania, new developments in social media, and continuing revolutions in electronic music. This is a difficult yet fascinating age in which to live. If those of us on the supposed fringes, whether artist, record label, writer, musician or fan and consumer, stays bold and true to our cause, then there is no reason why our ideas and passions might not begin to spread out back into the wider consciousness. As the great Leonard Cohen sang in one of his finest songs, ‘Anthem’, “there is a crack, there is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.”