Which Way Forward?

By Eddie Harrison, 26 September 2008

In recent times, goes one popular argument, popular music has experienced a move away from the icons of previous decades towards a facesless, anti-charismatic pop 'activism', whose hidden, misanthropic, or at the very least drugged up, exponents hide behind computer terminals in darkest suburbia plotting their course within the pop world, before hiring the obligatory bimbo to give the necessary aesthetic appeal and lyrical sophisication which only they can truly provide.

This is partially true. With a Roland 303 (bass) and an 808 (drums), the need for 'live' musicianship has become increasingly redundant. Who needs a bass when you can use a Sub bass, capabel of audio gymnastics? Or a drummer, when you can programme your own, or sample someone else's?

But in other ways this assessment is rather inaccurate. For we have, at the forefrunt of what can loosely be termed techno music (incorporating a myriad of sub-genres), in DJ's and producers, all the icons, all the performers we could possibly hope for - it's just that very few of them are stars in the traditional sense of the word.

Arguably, the lack of an identifiable, digestible, 'star value' system within techno has helped to keep the product itself somewhat unattainable for major record companies, and therefore underground and relatively subversive as a result. The typical hungry record executive, therefore, often finds himself firmly locked out of the pantry, unable to enter for reasons too obvious and too numberous to mention. But should he go on a diet? Or will the food, as is often the way, become so doctored, widely available, and easily reproduced that even the original recipe will lose its appeal?

At the moment this is unlikely, for the simple reason that, in the diaspora of contemporary dance music in general, small is beautiful. In recent years, the profusion of white-label 12 inch records (quick, non-company releases, usually limited to a few thousand copies), and concurrent growth in the number of small scale record companies in major British cities, has almost single handedly helped to keep the record industry afloat. This is non-conglomerate-friendly music; by the underground, for the underground. But for how loud? Could it be that the continuing importance of technology in music is going to take the power away from this group of people? - a case of the sharks gobbling up the minnows - or is a more optimistic outlook feasible?

In what is a famously nepotisitc and corrupt industry, wherein both producer and consumer often have little conrol over the product itself, the notion that technology can empower individuals in previously weak, or even vulnerable situations has many adherents. Some of those involved in making the music see a strong potential in using technology for what they see as radical change. One such duo, The Future Sound of London, are fully aware of the possibilities of the Internet, in particular, becoming a direct channel of communication between themselves and their audience. A recent 'tour', accompanied by veteran guitarist Robert Fripp, involved their studio based performance being fed down British Telecom's digital phone link to a series of local radio stations, with graphic images being simu­lataneously sent down the Internet, to be downloaded, doctored or merely observed by their recipients; giving new meaning to the phrase 'audience participation'.

Similar catalyst for change - at least as far as audience participation is concerned; ownership is a different matter- lie with CD-rom and CD-I, 'Peter Gabriel's Secret World' - with its written text, thirty minutes of audio, hundred minutes of video, and hundred full colour photographic images - may smack of grandiose self indulgence, but it is the tip of an industry altering iceberg.

The recent London launch of Cerebrus, an independent company who transfer digital tape recordings onto database before making them available to the public on the Internet, could also set a precedent; with organisations missing out the industry in the middle by taking the product directly to the consumer and possibly, just possibly, forcing a reorganisation of the industry's internal structure. Possibly. But with all the urgent talk of late, with the continued use of words like 'empowerment' and 'participation' one or two questions from the listener's point of view beg to be asked. How much, for example, do the present, 'E' influenced generation really want to participate in music in an interactive fashion? The select few who have access to the various technologies might, but what about the twelve-inch buying masses? Can they make the change from passive listeners to active game players? Do they have the desire?

Interaction, this year's buzzword, does not necessarily correspond to everybody's idea of recreation. Indeed, there are many who argue that the opposite is the case. What is important, though, is the possibility of interaction and participation. For those who actually desire it; the choice.

Whether or not this choice becomes widely available in the near future remains to be seen, of course, as no one really knows what the future holds. Or do they?