can blue men sing the whites?

bbc 4's latest big music documentary tells the story of the british blues explosion of the 60's. and it's brilliant; if you ever wondered just how and why a bunch of mainly middle class white boys from the home counties ended up imitating, developing and then exporting american black folk music back to its birthplace (and what's more, to a white audience who were completely unaware that this stuff had ever existed), this is the film for you. there are some great observations from most of the key players en the scene. even keith richards makes sense, and the fab val wilmer gets a lot of screen time.

it's not music i'm particularly fond (apart ftom a bit of fleetwood mac) of but there's no denying the passion and commitment of people lke tony mcphee or paul jones or chris dreja or even eric clapton. but what struck me was that all of them (except john mayall perhaps) were really aware of how odd it was that they should be obsessed with the music of people they had very little in common with. being unable to get sweets as a kid because of lingering post war rationing doesn't really equate with lynchings, segregation and enforced poverty; they didn't have the blues as such, but they wanted to play it nevertheless; something in it spoke to them.

anyways, here comes the rant. the prog set me off thinking about the way music travels across cultural boundaries and all that malarkey, and how to a large extent it's mediated and increasingly accelerated by technology. throughout all of the participants recalled the thrill of discovering this strange, alien music through records, and how they would travel miles to knock on some strange bloke's door just because they'd heard he'd got a muddy waters album.

this might seem rather quaint now, but it wasn't all that long ago - forty years or so. but before commercial recordings and the radio, such cultural transmissions would have to happen orally (should that be aurally maybe?), through people singing or playing to others actually in front of them. it's weird to think that even the most rabid and well monied follower of beethoven in the 19th century would probably only get to hear any of their hero's symphonies once or maybe twice. imagine only getting to hear 'dark side of the moon' or 'never mind the bollocks' or 'rumours' or whatever just the once. now there's a thought.

even in the early 60s though, the rate of assimilation was pretty slow compared to now (even despite all the speed that keef and his chums were knocking back). and while it may be great that at a few strokes of the keyboard we can hear pretty much anything from baka pygmy music to tuvan throatsinging to eskimo whaling songs, on the other hand i think it does have implications for how musical culture develops. nothing like that blues explosion will ever happen again. those conditions don't exist anymore. things are too fragmented these days, too fast to allow anything to develop at its own pace.

it seems to me that a lot of what currently passes itself off as cross cultural musical exploration is just simple cut and paste (often literally so now given the possibilities of digital recording). we get the bland horrors of the afro-celt sound system or any one of bill laswell's casual frankenstein creations. the end results are nearly always lowest common denominator. the richness of musics evolved over centuries are reduced to a bunch of exotic signifiers; a sitar here, a couple of tabla hits there, a few strums on a kora or a burst of the uilleann pipes or a hardanger fiddle, usually stitched together over a lame dub beat. why is it always dub, i wonder. maybe so middle aged white people like me can dance to it at WOMAD and not get too out of puff.

i'm not advocating that cross cultural collisions shouldn't happen at all. that would be silly. it's just that they're happening too fast. nothing's allowed to develop or grow, just slapped together to feed our hunger for novelty and sometimes the rather wet liberal notion that we live in some kind of nice global village where all cultures are equal and music is a universal language. er, no we don't. they aren't. and it isn't.

personally, as a white and (i admit it) middle class bloke from kent struggling to find some, er, 'identity' as a musician, i feel a bit rudderless in a lot of ways. and so i can see why this stuff happens. it's easy to be cynical (i certainly don't find it a challenge) but at the root of it all there is i think maybe a genuine search for some kind of identity and community. some 'spotty 16 year olds from dartford' (in the words of keith richards) found it in a shared love of strange and powerful music from thousands of miles away that they managed to make their own. but as the song goes, those were different times. maybe i should learn some hop picking songs...

rights and wrongs

'the music industry can create has ears only for the rustling of money; its heart pumps with the blood of the murdered.' (from henry cow's final press release - 1978)

'the music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. there's also a negative side.' (hunter s. thompson)

i suppose when those words were written it was clear to anyone of a left-leaning or anti-capitalist bent (or just plain old hippies) just what the music industry was; a bunch of big corporations making money by either exploiting and manipulating the god given talents of creative musicians or creating pre-packaged crap for teenage girls. etc etc.

punk changed all that; or at least that's what we thought. for a wee while there was a sense that the 'industry' was back in the hands of the musicians. but only for a wee while. as henry cow went on to say in their press release, 'independence is only a valid first step if revolution is the second'. soon enough labels like factory, rough trade, stiff and beggars banquet started to either behave like the majors or actually (and often covertly) become owned by them. and the majors became less interested in signing stuff that was 'left field' or whatever.

but back in them days, cassettes were the enemy. it was not unusual to unwrap your latest vinyl purchase and find this on the inner sleeve.

a more honest slogan written with the benefit of hindsight might read 'home taping is eating into our short term profits, though it probably allows for grass roots dissemination of our product and will in the long term probably result in greater sales'.

what is really offensive about that original slogan was the complete identification of 'music' with the industry that grew up as soon as it was possible to commodify it. it was an attitude that pissed everyone off, not just revolutionary socialists and freeloaders hoping to add to their hawkwind collections without paying a couple of quid.

it's interesting that the 'legality' bit was kind of tacked on there. nowadays confronted with the evils of filesharing, the industry has got serious; witness the recent spate of arrests, fines and raids on downloaders and uploaders alike. in the last day or so it's emerged that rapidshare are now, er, sharing their data on uploaders with 'rights holders'. so the clampdown continues...

it's kind of hard to have any sympathy with a music industry that's behaving like a slightly psychotic ex-lover towards its customers. or ex-customers. but there again, the vast majority of those ex-customers aren't looking to create a utopian community of shared music creation and listening free from the dead hands of commerce. they just want the same stuff they usually get. they want to hear it on the radio, watch the videos on the telly and see their fave fab pop stars mumbling away about fuck all on T4 or whatever. but they don't want to pay for any of it.

so i suppose what all this comes down to is 'ethics'. and there's a lot of weird little rules that music sharers employ to either salve their consciences or to act as some vague legal disclaimer - totally fuzzy will only host downloads of music released more than 2 years ago for instance.

my own ethics are hopelessly muddled too. i've downloaded a lot of music for free from blogs. some of it i can justify because either a) i've gone on to buy the cd or even a legal download or b) i own the original on vinyl or whatever. stuff i don't like i get rid of. so, a) seems fairly watertight to me should any 'rights holders' come knocking on my door. b) is probably less so. downloading old stuff by long dead musicians seems perfectly ok to me. after all, who gets the money? legally indefensible though. after all, i wouldn't steal a car, would i...

brian eno
often goes on about the idea of 'conferred value' when it comes to art. a painting or sculpture often has little intrinsic value. its monetary value is determined purely by how much someone is prepared to pay for it. sometimes that can be manufactured through hype, but mostly it's a complex and unmappable set of circumstances that make this happen. what's happened with the music industry is that it's taken on the job of conferring value for us. of course there are millions of copies of 'sergeant pepper' around so it's not quite the same (see walter benjamin for details), but you get the idea. i suppose radiohead's 'pay what you like' experiment was an attempt to put the onus back on the, er, 'consumer'. and it didn't really work (at least without the physical release). even radiohead fans like a free lunch.

i've made a fair bit of music that i've put up on t'internet for free download. it didn't cost me anything to make really apart from my time. realistically i can't be arsed to try and get some way of making money out of music, and i've got a proper job so i don't have to. so that's a 'vanity' project i suppose. if someone approached me to put it out 'commercially' i probably wouldn't be interested. on the other hand i've recently played on two upcoming albums that did cost money to make. studio time, mastering costs, duplication, etc etc. and all self-financed. it's still not cheap to do that stuff. fine if you're sitting at home surrounded by software plug ins, but if you want to use 'real' instruments there's still costs involved, and if you want to make an actual cd you can sell rather than a bunch of mp3s. the bottom line is that if someone started putting that stuff out on a blog i'm not sure that i'd be that excited about it.

it may be an unfashionable view but i still labour under the delusion that somehow musicians should be paid for what they do. even radiohead. it may have taken a bit of a knock recently, but it's still a capitalist world out there. there has to be a way of cutting out the middlemen and getting some kind of sensible way of renumerating musicians - enough to keep them in pot noodles but not cocaine, perhaps...

come the revolution, comrades...