Collateral Damage – The Wire

Hey, you! Get onto my cloud, says Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner, in a plea to musicians and listeners alike to embrace the new community spirit of cultural consumption

When British pop singer John Miles trilled, “Music was my first love and it will be my last/Music of the future and music of the past”, he could well have been celebrating the role music still plays in many of our lives today, despite the transformative impact digital technologies have had upon the means of both listening and production.

The conversation regarding the digital economy of music tends to bypass many of the more constructive aspects that have been born from this radical reworking of the familiar traditional models. The fiery debates continue to burn, so let’s sidestep those for a moment, look forwards not backwards, and explore the possibilities of engaging with these systems – colluding rather than quarrelling.

I have been professionally engaged in producing and performing music for the last 20 years, though my enthusiasm for all types of music stems from a very early age, having been exposed to both John Cage and Suzi Quatro at the very same time: one at school, one at home – no prizes for guessing which one had more influence upon me. (I don’t live on Devil Gate Drive). Very early on, I was conscious that music has always centred on a social engagement, commonly in performance; and quite unlike the solitary encounters of writers or visual artists, working independently in their studios creating unique objects.

However, there always remained a distance between listeners and the musicians themselves, often maintained via bombastic management companies and unresponsive record labels, which today has been completely usurped. Nowadays artists can mediate the experience themselves with the use of networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Ping and (in dwindling cases) MySpace, which have equally erased some of these boundaries and enabled an emotional relationship to develop between fans and consumers and the artists themselves.

It’s impossible to underestimate the value and impact of this direct line of communication, and personally I’ve felt more of a connection than ever with people who follow my work, or others with whom I’ve collaborated or respected. Indeed, countless times I’ve written ‘fan’ emails to musicians I’ve heard on The Wire Tapper CDs, for example, and the thrill of a personal response is still exhilarating. In addition, I still try to respond to every email I receive, whether it’s from commissioners of new work or a curious student asking a technical question, or a query for yet another signed photo (but that’s inevitably my mum asking for those).

A new creative aesthetic has arguably been born from these recent developments. My teenage years were occupied with exchanging tapes in the mail with other musicians and artists, often collaborating at tremendous geographic distances and entirely dependent on a sluggish postal system, to create primitive exploratory works which shall remain locked in a sealed box until after my death. Today the rapid speed, relative low cost and ability to collaborate almost anywhere on the globe at any time, has led to work that can respond to the moment and draw influence from this immediacy. Though this certainly doesn’t always lead to works of longevity, there’s something astonishingly alluring about the vibrancy and energy that cannot be ignored, with tracks sampling political speeches from that very day, or remixes of an artist’s singles mere hours after they are released. The invisible wires that vibrate between different genres of music now sparkle with new energy, connecting generations that might otherwise never have united.

I don’t wish to question whether these debates are generational, but I have recognised that many younger artists have embraced these technologies in a brilliantly inspiring manner, especially in the Noise and electronic scene. The meticulously claustrophobic recordings of American artist Lorn can be widely found online, both as official releases, but more significantly in three hours of demos, experiments and other playful deconstructions that he uploads to share with anyone curious enough to click on a link. Nosaj Thing frequently offers consistently enjoyable unofficial remixes of celebrated pop acts; Wiley has given away 180 tracks via his Twitter page; while the new album by LA artist IAMOMNI, produced by Tricky, is also freely available.

Each of these artists maintains a strong fanbase, and shows are always inevitably sold out in advance, while limited pressings of vinyl and even tape editions are produced for shows and mail order, and there seems to be an understanding that it’s essential these days to preserve the flow between creator and consumer. It’s about presence, availability, communication.

As a child of the 60s (not exactly a spring chicken myself, then), I’m often struck today at how frequently people much younger than myself speak of the internet and digital technologies as something ‘other’, as if it were not part of their global experience; that only their children use or operate for them when they need it, when for at least the last decade it has been a daily part of our lives. It’s fundamental to remember that the computer is a conduit through which we mediate much of our experience these days, whether it’s admiring a video of a kitten emulating Christian Marclay on the decks, downloading a new movie or album, or sharing our social adventures on networking sites.

In addition to my own website, which I have continued to update ceaselessly every month since 1996, I also turned to Soundcloud to share many sketches of productions and ideas and in less than a year have reached close to 20,000 listens and a myriad responses from people with feedback and comments. Marketing, once the exclusive preserve of record companies, has evolved into interaction, and the tools to sustain this are completely free. Admittedly, music cannot always speak for itself, so artists these days need to learn to create both music and an ‘experience’ that runs parallel with their creative careers, searching out innovative ways to make their work available on the open market.

As our culture moves into one of a ‘cloud’ environment, often delivered through mobile apps, our world will become one of access rather than ownership. Unquestionably the physical object itself will continue to hold fetishistic value for many, but it needs to offer something unique, unusual and inspiring. Even as a keen downloader myself, I have also purchased vinyl and CDs to the equivalent of annual childcare for a baby in the last six months alone.

More channels than ever are now available to freely access and listen to exploratory music. Unquestionably I wonder if BBC 6Music’s Freak Zone radio show would have been able to survive before these digital developments, with a teatime national broadcast of The Residents, Hatfield And The North, Mayo Thompson, The Pop Group, Sun Ra and Cornelius Cardew on one recent show. Online music services such as Spotify and Pandora have also stimulated an interest in an extraordinarily wide appreciation of music.

I may sound like rather an idealist, but genuinely more than at any other time in my career I feel more connected, more socially engaged with others in music than I could ever have anticipated. In the last year I’ve released six albums, from collaborations with Matthew Shipp and David Rothenberg, to scores for Dutch National Ballet and Flanders Royal Ballet, none of them released on major labels, and most bankrolled by my own savings. I’ve always seem them as postcards or musical business cards that remind people that I’m still alive and very much engaged in productivity, but not as the key focus of my trajectory. Music isn’t only exclusively about the product, but the experience around it.

The immediate feedback from performances, the banter to be found on Twitter and Facebook, can be addictive. Despite the shifts that punk imposed on a stable music industry, today is much more of a process of adaptation than ever before. We can’t step back; things will never be as they were, and that’s both the tragedy and the inevitable course of progress. For some, it’s time they fell headfirst into this socially engaging network, negotiating a new found land.