The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Wreath Lectures

2011: Celebrating The Continued Shattering Of Our Culture
Luke Turner , 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

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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.”

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.

Alex Jones
Dec 13, 2011 1:43pm

A fantastic piece of writing - among many on this consistently excellent website. I'd love to write for you guys some day :). Keep it up.

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Luke Turner
Dec 13, 2011 3:14pm

In reply to Alex Jones:

Thank you Alex, very kind. We always welcome new ideas, just email us with them and samples of your writing.

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Dec 13, 2011 4:07pm

Yeah, seconded. Top stuff as usual Quietus. You guys are the Larry Sanders Show of the interwebs.

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Joseph Knight
Dec 13, 2011 6:29pm

I discovered the Quietus this year -- love it to death, check it daily, and hope it has many more years of success.

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Dec 13, 2011 8:53pm

I think the true testament to the success of The Quietus is the honesty of intent with which it's delivered. So many other publications (both print and online) are so geared towards a certain aesthetic sensibility and eager to be seen at the fountainhead of whatever zeitgeist is hip right now that they often end up almost becoming a parody of themselves in the determination they have to be "niche" or "cutting edge" in one way or the other, they don't represent the genuine magpie taste of what is probably the majority of people out there.

At work we have Spotify on and today we had Sisters of Mercy, Benga, Japan, Trentenmoller and loads of other stuff and the last track everyone was singing "No Scrubs", and this is why The Quietus deserves it's success and why it's successful in the first place: it's appeal lies in it's universality, just like the real world.

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Dec 14, 2011 9:02am

A very interesting piece. Thank you! However, one thing which has always interested me about sites like yours is whether you actually manage to make any money with it. I mean, can you afford to pay your contributors decent money for their efforts? Or is The Quietus done only as a labour of love?

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John Doran
Dec 14, 2011 12:04pm

In reply to Eldritch:

We pay for a lot more of our work than we used to. If things carry on as they have been going, then we should be paying a reasonable amount for all feature length copy within two or three years. I'm not sure, given that we don't charge a cover price and that internet ad revenue is much lower than in print, whether we'll ever be able to pay for absolutely everything but that is our aim nevertheless. Luke, Rory and I only earn a low part time wage for doing a full time job on tQ however. We all make up our wages to a survivable amount by doing freelance.

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Dec 14, 2011 1:19pm

The only music site I visit daily. Kudos guys!

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Dec 16, 2011 8:58am

Many sites have, this year, had a good moan about what has been so wrong with 2011. It's therefore very heartwarming to see somebody take that and feed it back into the loop and realise that those same gripes can actually cause other much more positive results if you just take the time to care & look for yourself.

My top ten of the year was jammed full of self-releases or items bought direct from artists and where some friends seemed to bemoan the lack of choice this year I'm still catching up as there was so much to interest me.

Great article and an even better spirit.

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Horacio Castillo Perez
Dec 16, 2011 2:01pm

I wonder,though, if we're not in the dawn of the creation of new arbiters of subcultures... the interpreters of the kaleidoscopes formed by the shattered pieces of what once was the stain glass picture in the cathedral of Culture.
Keep shattering!

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Doo-Doo Bagpuss
Dec 17, 2011 5:40pm

I stopped reading at 'year on year traffic growth'. Are you selling shares or something?

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Luke Turner
Dec 18, 2011 1:45pm

In reply to Doo-Doo Bagpuss:

Traffic has increased every year since we started. Therefore there is "year-on-year traffic growth". It's a shame you fell over at that point, as you might have enjoyed the rest. Your loss.
PS if you're a multi-millionaire who might like to buy some shares while letting us to continue to do entirely what we want with no interference, do get in touch. It'd be nice to be able to do this for more than a part time wage, seven days a week.

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Doo-Doo Bagpus
Dec 18, 2011 10:42pm

In reply to Luke Turner:

Alas I am not, but for what it's worth the two things which occur to me are maybe delegate to some of those enthusiastic part-timers out there, and diversify (whatever that means). On closer inspection I concur with the more complimentary comments above, maybe wasn't what I was in the mood for reading at the time is all. Did seem to be a slight FT tone creeping in there, but then it's a serious subject. All the best, and sincere thanks for the website which I enjoy immensely.

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Jan 1, 2012 9:21pm

Very true about print media focusing on a relatively narrow musical scope compared to other art forms. Ruddy love the Quietus - I admire your independent spirit & determination. Happy New Year gents, Cheers

P.S. May i ask, is the freelance work you mentioned doing to keep afloat also musical journalism? If so which websites/mags? Thanks in advance

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Jan 9, 2012 4:43am

Yes I find I spend a lot of my internet interest time on your site. Read stuff I agree with and stuff I don't. The Quietus site has introduced me to lots of good music that I would not have heard of. Many Thanks to all your contributors.

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L. Lucas
Feb 7, 2012 4:50pm

I just discovered TQ late last year while running down reviews for "Ersatz G.B.". I've always searched for music, never counted on the radio, and I look forward to some new "finds".

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Apr 6, 2012 8:07am

Blow you, also the talking cricket as the years, Chen! I'm afraid even what all don't know the talking cricket.......

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