Thursday, 10 July 2008

Rise Above, Again

Seeing Coldplay recently atop the charts for the first time in what is still an extremely commercially successful career, started me thinking about Radiohead and all that In Rainbows panic. It all seems a little overblown now. That paradigm still looks pretty much the same to me. So' i've boiled it down to the following.

Three schools of thought:

The first:

Year Zero: October 10th 2007. We all awoke to crumbling infrastructure, to zombie-like A&R staggering sun-blinded by the dawning of a new era. The peasants had stormed the palace. Radiohead staged a coup, killed a monster; slaying the evil beast of commerce while opening the door of possibility. We felt the ground move and we paid nothing for it. Unless we wanted to. But we were part of it. We collectively prodded that anachronistic monolith across the plank with its own sword. And we didn’t even need to leave our desk. We celebrated as a new pirate economy took charge, that was decentred, that was as much our own as we wanted it to be. The potential was limitless. It was easy, it was cheap, we went and did it. “The king is dead“ chimed the message boards and the press soon followed suit, because they follow us. We are the new power.

The second:

Fast-forward eight months and, funded by a somewhat derailed EMI, Coldplay stand imperiously at the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic for the first time in what no one would claim a commercially unsuccessful career. Oasis have freshly signed a three album deal with Sony BMG. No one can remember when the Charlatans or Nine Inch Nails last released a record they’d listen to if paid. And if you want to see Radiohead live having missed their last-however-many sold-out tours, there are plenty of tickets still available despite the apparent success of the In Rainbows business model. As confusion abounds, we – us, the loyal fan, the keen consumer - are pretty much left exactly where we’ve always been: at the wrong end of an oligopoly. Nothing has changed. Except this time, we’re deluded by the smokescreen of progress and agency. We see what was once wrong and as we log into iTunes, stream video content on YouTube, upload ourselves via MySpace and tell our friends all about it via Facebook are certain that we’re an instrumental, nay, an interactive part of this brave new world and need be dictated to no more, unaware of the blinding contradiction.

And the third:

None of the above matters.

If this all seems a little polemical, it’s because it’s the very same seductive rhetoric that has characterised the discourse built around the advent of digital media technologies and the Internet. The release of In Rainbows has been canonised as a watershed moment in the democratic evening out of a once ill-apportioned industry. And yes, superficially, Radiohead have challenged the incumbent powers in their bypassing of traditional industry models. Album sales do slide ever closer to oblivion, along with the brick and mortar retailers that afford the opportunity to purchase them, while EMI is haemorrhaging staff like a suicidal haemophiliac. And this is a good thing, right? So, how have Coldplay singlehandedly saved thousands of jobs, making only the foretold death of the music industry redundant? Surely the tide can’t turn both ways?

What this debate ultimately equates to is not that of an industry in flux; of an industry maybe in its death throes, maybe in stasis before reforming anew, maybe somewhere in between. It’s all too unclear, too apparent, all too corporate to be the main concern. Less clearly, what we see here is the process of production positioned as the fetish object; a fetishisation that permeates throughout a culture obsessed with itself, determined to reveal its mechanisms but surrender nothing. It’s apparent in the release of In Rainbows yes, but also there in The X Factor’s factory line, in DVD extras documenting The Making of… something or nothing, even present in advertising that so very carefully demonstrates how x plus y equals something we really don’t need but really must have because it’s real. It’s this very ideology that positions Radiohead as arbiters of a democratised new order, a paradox in itself and one that disguises why we should care in the first place.

Purposefully, there’s something missing in this argument thus far. Culture isn’t totalised. We are not a passive audience. We do have the agency to say no, to say yes, to switch off or make it our own. The public gets what the public wants and if it doesn’t, takes it regardless. Radiohead’s “Nude” remix competition has shown that, despite relying on the Apple affiliated iTunes and Garageband software. But if interactivity is merely the ability to choose what we consume, what’s the consequence of the ruse? The fetish of production celebrates the messenger and ignores the message. There is no art, only context, only ways of receiving it. The medium is tedium, indeed. What does this render the notion of art, or more specifically, music as art if not mere circumstantial noise?

That’s a depressing assertion, but not one without foundation. In Rainbows may have been critically lauded, hailed another addition to an already significant canon, but it’s all fluff when stood next to Radiohead the band; egalitarian doyens of change, golden hearted millionaires, the Captain Planet of industry and us their Planeteers. In Rainbows is significant because of its origins, because of how, not what it communicates. The conquest of art is now the conquest of successful mediation and the distinction between artists and entrepreneurs is purely ideological. Democratic potential can quite easily give way to neo-liberal opportunism and it’s difficult to distinguish between the ‘punks’ and the ‘punk capitalists’ because they look like the same person, carry the same signifiers, share the same end goals. The ideology of resistance is filtered through a capitalist logic of production, independence merely the freedom to decide how, not if you sell yourself.

Reading Richard Wagner’s The Art Work of the Future recently, I’m reminded here of his notion of Gesamptkunstwerk: the construction of ‘total art works’ in which disparate aesthetic practices combine to create immersive worlds of experience. Wagner was inferring the need for unity so as to enhance artistic expression, yet we now see this rationale subverted in the digital age. Radiohead have long furnished an insular world, one that In Rainbows has invited us to inhabit, but only on their terms, only at their will. In Rainbows still functions as a one-to-many communication model, we just now get to pick our own seats. The addition of the Scotch Mist YouTube videos and “Nude” remix competition have only furthered their aesthetic, cast their net wider, more tightly (re)defined what it is they are. Radiohead have supplanted one pre-existing monopoly with another: their own and we’re all implicit in it. If they were lone renegades, I’d acknowledge an anomaly. That they’ve apparently set a precedent, coins a sensibility and the connotations of the verb are purely intentional. What this signals? The death of the music industry, if that’s not too gauche a phrase, is the rebirth of the author. And the author is always tyrannical now matter how they choose to assert their power.

That said, that James Houston video is nonetheless pretty special. Radiohead must be beaming. Feel free to do exactly the same to any one of our songs.

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