Something left unelaborated in my review of Echotone (from the last two posts: here and here) is a larger uneasiness with the instrumentalization of independent or underground music — the reduction of pop music culture from an end in itself to a means for other ends.  Although this isn’t a new critique of post-punk music (i.e., music groups inspired by the DIY ethos of recording and distribution and/or the modernist impulse to push the envelope artistically and expressively), Echotonespecifically highlights a quite contemporary context: indie-rock groups’ affinity with “creative city” economic development schemes.

But there’s another context, also related to the so-called creative economy, and also urban in its manifestation, but maybe more pervasive across pop music culture and the generational zeitgeist.  It can be gleaned by comparing Echotone with another recent film about an urban music scene: The Beat is the Law, a 2011 documentary directed by Eve Wood about Sheffield, England.

The Beat is the Law is the sequel to Wood’s 2001 documentary Made in Sheffield.  Whereas the latter documents Sheffield circa 1978-83, focusing on post-punk (in the narrower, generic sense) groups such as the Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, Vice Versa (who went on to form New Pop icons ABC) and the sadly forgotten Artery, The Beat is the Law picks up around 1984 to tell the story of the Cabaret Voltaire-inspired groups like Clock DVA and Chakk; the acid house crews centered around FON Studios and Warp Records; and on into the mid-90s Britpop era with local heroes Pulp and the Longpigs.  This period specifically reflects the dismal depths of the Thatcher era, when the Miners’ Strike tore Sheffield apart, and the effervescence of the New Romantics and the New Pop gave way to the kitchen-sink non-glamour of the Smiths and the C86 indie-pop shift.  The contrast to the subsequent euphoria of British acid house and then New Labour’s electoral victories is stark, and it gives The Beat is the Law an emotional arc that its highly worthy prequel maybe lacked.

Watching the documentary, I was struck by a peculiar juxtaposition of sentiments concerning the role and value of music as recalled retroactively by various Sheffield musicians.  On the one hand, they refer to “all these dark, intense people making music in nightclubs” (to quote Pulp’s Russell Senior) during 1980s Sheffield.  To some extent, this conveys the proto-industrial aesthetic of groups like Chakk, with their early attempts at “found percussion” (used more successfully by contemporaries like Test Department and Einsturzende Neubauten) and an earnestness toward their art that precludes crass rockstar ambitions (of the kind observed, say, in Liverpool groups like Echo & the Bunnymen or The Mighty Wah!).  Sure, such seriousness could also just be another word for youthful pretensions.  After all, take away the artistic adventure found in Cabaret Voltaire and its ilk, and you may be left with a lot of dour young men in their 20s expressing their dourness to other dour young men (and women!) in their 20s.  However, The Beat is the Lawsuggests this attitude is of a piece with the cultural climate in Sheffield at the time, particularly its tradition of labor militancy and its wide local support for a socialist welfare state.  This is a seriousness that draws on longstanding modernist impulses, found within art and politics, to cast out the old and usher in the new.

On the other hand, Jarvis Cocker remembers how Thatcher’s neoliberal government and the sober Victorian ethos which it sought to resurrect viewed musicians at the time: “To be in a band in the mid-80s was, I guess because most people were on the dole, you just should have had ‘loser’ tattooed on your head, you know.  There was no respect.”  This official dismissiveness suggests the limits of the seriousness described earlier could go.  Playing in a band is a trivial hobby, properly confined to leisurely pursuits and abandoned once work and duty call.  And Thatcher made the call for work and duty very loudly and clearly as she sought to eradicate the permissive “dole culture” and compel Britons to fend for themselves as individuals in the neoliberal labor market.

I’m struck by how the serious triviality that Sheffield musicians understood their art to represent during Thatcher’s England contrasts powerfully with the trivial seriousnessthat pop music seems to embody in the present day.  In 1980s Sheffield, the idea that music could be a dignified calling, much less a foundation for economic development, is completely absent.  And if punk and other underground musical expressions rejected the restrictive dictates of traditional authority, it’s not clear that they necessarily challenged the limits between work and leisure that Thatcher emphasized; if anything, they sought to extend the boundaries of leisure over the domain of work in an undefined and, admittedly, not always thought-out way.

Chalk this contradiction up to the inconsistencies of youth if you want, but other musical forms have also asserted the centrality of everyday life (into which ‘leisure’ can be fit, although doing so highlights the fact of alienation along the way) over the demands of work and duty.  Think of folk music in the sense of people’s music, or performers of religious music.  Composing and performing music can be the basis of a sustainable livelihood in these and other musical traditions, but rarely do they constitute the relations of production for an ascendant economic class as they do in the creative economy today.

And so we come upon the greater context for the instrumentalization of independent or underground music today.  Sheffield of the 1980s was very much part of an industrial economy.  Austin today, by contrast, is very much part of a creative economy — or, if you’re skeptical about the spirit of empowerment that the term implies, then an economy in which the production of entertainment, design, and services are the chief value-added activities in highly developed nations, regions and cities.  Music has been swept up in this economic shift, with little critical awareness or effective response by musicians on the whole.  Indeed, indie rock musicians have especially let the ‘serious’ task of making a living colonize their music, lifestyles, their generational references, even their affective repertoire (melancholy, irony, nightlife exuberance, etc.).

It’s in this context that we should be troubled by the otherwise sensible priorities of many musicians today to make musical creativity their full-time job, for instance, or to protect their intellectual property from piracy.  Not to keep the finger pointed solely at musicians, of course.  To return to a conclusion from my last post, so long as the entertainment industry and other sectors extract surplus value from musicians’ creative activity, such priorities can make sense in some circumstances — they can even have the whiff of “fighting back against the corporate machine” about them.

It’s an axiom in economic geography that, in their form as material, empirical activities, economies don’t magically encompass the whole of a nation-state; economies are always unevenly developed, which among other things opens the door for talking about regional and urban economies.  To extend the example I used earlier, if Sheffield of the 1980s was very much part of an industrial economy, London at the same time was already part of an emergent symbolic economy.  Of course, the production of culture has always been a key role for cities, like London, so prominent as to be deemed cultural capitals.  By the 1980s, London’s music sector had already been well integrated into a broader industrial commodity-producing economy, a point that’s evoked in Paul Morley’s response to a question by Simon Reynolds (in the latter’s 2010 volume, Totally Wired: Postpunk Interviews and Overviews).

OK, Paul, now you have to explain to me that Manchester jingoism thing you all go in for, the absolute contempt for London!

London is a metaphor.  It represents everything that’s conservative about that business approach to culture and art and entertainment.  A laziness.  Back then it was so pronounced, you really felt like the country wasslanted, physically slanted at a gradient, so that everything slid down to London.  You did feel annoyed about it.  I’ve never been as vociferous about it as Tony Wilson.  I wasn’t so much pro-Manchester as anti-London.  I often say, ‘No great band has come from London,’ and then people say, ‘The Stones and The Who.’ But I say, ‘Since then…’  And it’s sort of true, when you think of the bands that came out of London, like Spandau Ballet.

There was something about the favouritism too.  You felt like if a band came out of London, they’d be signed.  In Manchester, the sense that you could do it yourself led to a greater amount of independence.  The Buzzcocks doing Spiral Scratch on their own label New Hormones was quite a stalwart thing—you thought, ‘My God, what an astounding thought’ (pp. 326-7).

This suggests the setting in which musicians might challenge the economic overdetermination of their art could be urban in nature, pursued in the geographic pockets left behind by the creative economy.  These spaces and communities can be found all over, albeit beneath the global complex created by musicians selling music (which conceivably can be “made anywhere”) in the global commodity market.  All of this is to say, musicians creating in these places probably won’t make a living off their art.

But is that such a bad thing?  In the era of Occupy Wall Street, should we direct music to the ‘serious’ undertaking of careerism?  Will the solidarities needed to mobilize against unfettered financial capital and growing social inequalities necessarily originate out of the trivial commonalities of lifestyle and sensibility?  Perhaps we can commit art once again to express and inspire the particular experience of life — as it did in Sheffield 1980s and, obviously, so many other places — rather than heed the call of value-adding and economic development in a creative economy.