Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Interlude #2

This blog post is (sort of) a further reflection on some of the ideas shared in Interlude #1. 

I first heard of Nelsen Algren because of Dillinger Four, where he pops up in the words to DoubleWhiskeyCokeNoIce:

Nelson Algren came to me
And said celebrate the ugly things
The beat up side of what they call pride
Could be the measure of these days

If Dillinger Four liked Nelson Algren, I figured that he needed to go on the ‘to read list’. But it was a decade and a half later that I borrowed Never Come Morning off of a band mate, having had Algren pop up in some reading I’d been doing. I don’t want to spoil it for you by giving away the plot but Algren’s 1942 novel is one of the bleakest, nastiest things I’ve read in a while. The protagonists get fucked. Horribly. Obviously since I find grimness strangely cathartic, I was well into it.

But it’s the interview in the Seven Stories imprint that I want to talk about here, specifically a quote from Algren. I’m not really one for passages sticking with me, so this one was a novelty, a gem hidden in an otherwise forgettable interview from 1963:

Innocence is not just the lack of something. Innocence is an achieved thing. You can’t be unworldly without first being worldly. I mean anybody can be unworldly, I mean just duck the world. But to be innocent in the best sense is to have the kind of unworldliness that comes out of worldliness, to be able to see how people waste their whole lives just to have security (p.295).

I posted these lines on Facebook without really thinking them through and a friend replied, prompting a back and forth that amongst other things underlined the deliberateness of the words Algren speaks. Posting a quote on social media has the strange effect of decontexualising the words and gives them a life apart from the text they originally appeared so perhaps this is inevitable; not only is it apart from the original text, it’s also not like the people posting are sat on the bus flicking through sources when they reply on their smart phones. This is a useful observation in that it underlines how easy it is for those memes that float around forever with a couple of ‘meaningful’ lines nicked from something could be quoted out of context or against the authors intended meaning like I ended up doing by accident.

Nonetheless ‘innocence’ is not the first word that springs to mind in the final line in particular – ‘wise’ or ‘wary’ make more sense. I wouldn’t pretend to really know what Algren means by this word (the interviewer acknowledges that he’s hard to pin down on this) and I wouldn’t pretend to be well read when it comes to his work. I’m also not a theologian or any other an, ism or ist who might have some sort of informed handle on the meaning of ‘innocence’. It’s not much of a revelation then if I reveal that I found myself pulling interpretations about why these lines are quote-worthy out of my ass...

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Starting with the obvious, innocence is a minority position – to be innocent in the terms posed is an “achieved thing” and therefore presumably not something easily obtained. I would argue as well that by describing it as an achievement, in its “best sense,” innocence is something to be considered positive. Finally it sits in a vague contrast to wage labour, at least in its worst form, by having the power to see through “...how people waste their whole lives just to have security.”

 If innocence is thought of in terms of naivety, then there could be a sort of tragic aspect to the quote. If worldliness is equated to having tried to get by doing something against ones nature and being experienced enough to move away from this, then innocent-as-naive means coming out the other side with the belief that another way is possible. It is unworldliness in the sense of a faith in another world and being of that other (better?) world.

Naivety is not automatically a bad thing – perhaps a certain amount of naivety is a required to try to live a different life than the secure one the innocent considers a “waste”. If we knew how difficult a path that could be, if the difficulty and failure was really understood, would we start to walk it with the same sincerity? Is it possible under a totalizing capitalism to sustain a consistently radical life at all? If this innocence was ‘lost’, would it become clear that the alternative route taken was a stitch up too? This negative interpretation feels true to the novel and the protagonists’ naive dreams of escape, although here it’s firmly in terms of personal rebellion/redemption rather than any revolutionary aspirations. It’s tragic in the sense of running towards a fire exit that’s bricked up.  

Taken to a logical extreme, the implications of this are fucking terrible - a kind of paradox where the choice is between knowing how life is wasted on false solutions and doing it anyway or looking for another way to live that ultimately is equally pointless but you just don’t know it yet. It’s knowingly wasting your time versus wasting it unknowingly, doing something hopeless knowing it’s hopeless versus doing it with false hope. This ultra-bleak reading seemingly puts the innocent outside of “...how people waste their whole lives...” but it’s a false outside.

Arse.

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Since this is meant to be a blog about hardcore punk, let’s bring this back to DIY in its most radical sense. This interpretation seems to dovetail nicely with the academic concept of “productive failures” I referred in my previous post. It’s pessimistic and ideologically charged argument to proclaim there is no ‘outside’ of capitalism, the attractions of post-modernism not-withstanding. Certainly it won’t be found as a form of practice unless it’s searched for. Since I’m not super smart and I can’t be bothered to read any more right now, I also don’t understand how acts where different logic prevails fit into this argument, like all those Facebook Events promising that no one will be turned away for lack of funds. This seems to me to overtly challenge the underlying logic of profit-is-the-bottom-line/if-you-can’t-afford-it-fuck-off neoliberalism, albeit using a platform that seems more evil every day and in a venue that’s probably a profit making space. Is this just marking the limits of what can be currently done? COMPLEX.

It’s also important to remember that many critics of capitalism either try to live up to its demands and find them impossible or are hobbled from the start – it’s not always a choice position. Hope that fails is better than no-hope that doesn’t try, perhaps not materially but certainly in terms of the quality of how our lives are lived. If we only get one shot, might as well make it an interesting one. Regardless, no one’s going to find a better way of doing things unless they try and we might as well get tinnitus whilst we do it.

Of course, this reading assumes that we’re trying to tear down capitalism. The moving beyond meaningless labour could equally apply to setting up a vegan cafe (for example) and the naivety that this would be easy to do and always more enjoyable than a life of office temping. Naivety as positive is also an interesting inversion of infantilisation – if this means belittling radical ideas as ‘childish’, then this reading of innocence counters it by suggesting that a degree of naivety is needed to see an alternative path beyond a dissatisfying “security”.

Algren, meanwhile, thought he was talking about getting fucked over by Hollywood.  

 (Normal service will resume next month).       

Monday, 2 October 2017

Interlude #1

Books on punk, particularly academic ones, often feel problematic unless they focus on a particular scene in detail and do the leg work to put the voices of those involved front and centre. The Ballerina and the Bull, by Johanna Isaacson, doesn’t at first glance even seem to be a book about punk given its subtitle “Anarchist Utopias in the Age of Finance.” I probably wouldn’t have picked it up at all if I hadn’t read an extract about the Bay Area on the Repeater blog, but I did and I eagerly awaited its arrival before demolishing it in a couple of days.  

I don’t want to go into all the reasons why I found it a difficult read, but I do want to take a month off from my usual writing to pull out a few key (academic) concepts that I think are useful for understanding my own relationship to DIY.

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Building Failure: Writing about Mordam Records and its relationship to the economic boom in San Francisco, Isaacson notes the impermanence and precarious nature of punk institutions and projects as they come up against the limits of neo-liberal economics – such as Mordam being priced out of its warehouse space by gentrification (p.65). Borrowing from Lauren Berlant, the notion of ‘cruel optimism’ is useful:

The optimism in these moments of the “crisis ordinary” can be seen in the vibrancy of these social experiments, but the “cruelty” of this situation is that attachment it allows is to a problematic and precarious object or situation (p.66).

DIY punk projects are exciting and offer new possibilities but are also almost always going to end in some sort of disappointing failure, even if that’s only a winding down or stagnation. Our excitement is for something that is unstable because it can’t fully move past the limits of living under neo-liberal capitalism and its “crisis ordinary”, the daily problems we all face trying to make ends meet. This precariousness of course isn’t limited to our projects, but also of our own lives:

..the fantasy of the good life characterized by economic success has been disrupted by contemporary crisis and the “fraying” of fantasies such as meritocracy, upward mobility, job security, intimacy and political and social equality (p.65). 
 
As the economy continues to pretty much tank, the amount and type of change in many of our lives can make it hard to keep something going long term. This makes me think also of cities where universities supply a constant coming and going of people involved in projects. Basically you’re pinning your hopes on something that is exciting because it offers a break from the usual bullshit but is unstable from the outset, as anyone who has tried to keep a DIY hardcore punk band together will tell you.

These “productive failures” though are complicated in that they may provide other positives. They can show the invisible limitations of what is currently possible, not as a way to show that our ideas are impossible but to show that there are walls we never knew existed that we somehow need to work out how to smash through:

As Stacy Thompson points out... a productive failure... highlights larger structural contradictions and the impossibility of true independence from the system (p.67).

The discussion in The Ballerina and the Bull focuses on Lookout! Records. Echoing themes that I’ve drawn on throughout this blog, for Issaacson, Lookout! was a failure in terms of not being able to economically challenge the commercial music industry. But with this failure comes success in that for a while it was able to exist outside of a lot of that economic model and for bands involved in the label – who were unable to make a career of it but none the less avoided contracts and were paid a better split on royalties than bands on commercial labels - the ‘work’ involved was considerably less shitty because it was something that they did for reasons other than paying the bills. So in losing one thing, something else was gained, which is a question that I often ask myself: what am I losing here if I adopt this practice or that piece of technology or buy in to this institution (or whatever)? 

The labels failure to maintain its original business model (ugh) at least keeps visible the issues with the music industry that motivate a lot of DIY labels so that the critique isn’t lost. I feel like Lookout! is a poor example, chosen because the whole chapter is focused on the Bay Area. But the point still stands. Every project that collapses and burns out is at least an:

...idealistic failure [that] “preserve[s] the possibility of a potential social organisation that [does] not yet exist.” Unable to overturn the current system it “render[s] its logic visible and suspect (p.68).”

I.e. we might not win but by existing regardless, we call bullshit on your shit and one day, we’ll find a way to fuck you up.       

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I Don’t Want To Grow Up: The rhetorical power of infantilization is hinted at throughout book but expressed most clearly at its end. I can’t explain it any better than this quote:

Anti-capitalist gestures and hopes deserve anti-capitalist analyses that don’t fall into the easy neoliberal rhetoric of “maturity” and “realism”... The rhetoric of immaturity has come back in force with reaction to anti-austerity movements in Greece, Spain and elsewhere, with such infantilizing tactics as that of Christine Laguarde, president of the IMF, demanding, during negotiations with Greece, to speak to “the adults in the room.” This discursive infantilzation of struggle is part and parcel of a long legacy that bridges colonialism and neo-colonialism, as entire nations are economically conquered in the name of “civilising missions” to control supposedly child-like peoples... Instead of supporting these dichotomies between youth and maturity, we must analyse characteristic “youth movements” with what Ernst Bloch calls “militant hope,” keeping alive alternative logics and potentialities (p.136).

Wordy, right? But how many times when we express some sort of anti-capitalist DIY logic or practice are we told to be realistic, that we’ll grow out of it or that we’ll look back and see ourselves as naive and stupid? It’s a way to shut things down – ‘shush, the adults in the room are talking’. 

One of the points that I often come back to is how in my late twenties, I felt like I had to reassert myself against the logic of a world that seemed to be saying ‘time to stop fucking around, your an adult now’, as if I’d had my 10-15 years of hard fought space and I should throw my soul out the window and become an estate agent. It helps to understand this as a rhetorical tool of capital rather than personal failure next time people start talking about their mortgages and you wonder if it’s ok to ask if you can move into their shed.



Anyone remember when we used to believe that music was a sacred place and not some fucking bank machine? Not something you just bought and sold? How could we have been so naïve? Well, I think when all is said and done, just cuz we were young doesn’t mean we were wrong.         

Friday, 1 September 2017

Bad Apples: Ten // Eleven

Part six of a series of posts reflecting on almost a decade of DIY culture - focusing this time on putting on an “event”, writing letters and some thoughts on electronic communication. For an introduction to this series, click here.

Ten:

2008: I’m into the idea of an event. By this I mean something that’s a big one off. Let’s make some effort to make the night something to remember! Why don’t you get everyone to dress up in smart clothes for that local band show and do a punk prom, complete with prom king and queen… Or maybe you could bootleg the show, take peoples contact emails and then send them a copy as an mp3/sendspace link… Or get a piñata. Drunk punks with baseball bats would be interesting…Or I once read an old Crimethinc pamphlet [2017: note that referencing Crimethinc in 2017 does not imply endorsement...] about this kinda thing. In amongst the usual purple prose there was a rad idea which basically boiled down to seeing how many bands could play in a finite amount of time (eg: an hour)… Or a local punk house sometimes builds a fuckin slide on their stairs out of wood. That’s something to see and remember though I doubt it’d pass a risk assessment… So yeah. The ideas are pretty endless really once you think about it. (And kinda dumb too).

2017: This fragment partly inspired a previous post entitled The Best Things Happen in Secret. I won’t add to it, except to underline that the ‘payment’ I get from playing in a band isn’t financial. It’s getting to see other cool bands I didn’t know existed, meeting good people – and crucially, having a story to tell. I want to go into work on Monday with the wildest anecdote about my weekend, even more so now I’m sober and I can see that there’s sometimes a laziness about using drinking as permission to do something ‘crazy’. The most memorable punk shows are often the ones that are most removed from your parents’ idea of what a gig should look like. Putting on fancy dress to get drunk doesn’t count either (fuck right off).

Eleven:

2008: Write a letter. Yeah it’s slow. Yes it costs money. Yes it takes effort. But all that shows you care. It takes no effort at all to write a comment on my Myspace page, and that’s totally cool. I know were all busy and you might not have much to say to me beyond “are you going to that CIRCUS ACT show?” And I think that any way to communicate and keep people together is a good thing. But it’s much better to get a letter someone had to sit down and write, and then put in an envelope with beer mats, post cards, mix tapes, and other free shit they collected. You get something permanent you can look at when you find it in a shoe box in 2030 and it showed that someone cared enough about you to do something the hard way for once all those years before.

2010: I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. It bums me out that instead of a pile of old letters, I’ve just got a bunch of saved emails and texts.

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2017: I can’t remember the last time I sent a letter that wasn’t just a note in with a zine or mix CD-R.

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It seems like a lot of digital communication is throw away. By this I mean that despite permanently sitting on a server somewhere, it’s somehow lost to us much quicker than analogue forms. Of course verbal communication is and always has been instantly lost whether its face to face or over a phone, but it seems to be that there’s not really a digital equivalent of keeping a shoe box full of letters that you might rediscover one maudlin afternoon and retread moments you decided were important.

I suppose that you might have an old email account with a saved messages folder but as we move from platform to platform, what happens to all these old interactions? I recently shut down that Myspace page without a second thought. Most of the messages I lost were banal of course but what about the ones that weren’t? SMS is even worse. Who keeps a stash of old Sim cards and working handsets to flick through on a rainy Sunday?

It’s not just personal history that’s hard to access. What will social historians look at? How will our grand children construct family histories? What will be the 21st century equivalent of finding a stash of letters in a house clearance? It seems a paradox that as more and more data is harvested forever – intrusively and against our wishes - our meaningful access to it long term is less and less. 

Although capital inserted itself into our communication before – after all, you had to buy a stamp and some stationary – it seems a markedly different relationship now. If I send you a letter, its then yours. You have it, theoretically until it rots away. But that old Myspace message is something else in that it remains mediated by the platform – you have to log in to access it. It’s a bit like having to go to the post office and show ID every time you want to reread a letter.

You can probably find a way to save it in another format, maybe there’s a way to archive your text messages in another device or platform, you can definitely print out a hard copy of an email if you like. But you probably aren’t going to, meaning that instead of a one off exchange, a corporation has a permanent mediating role in you accessing it. That’s something that’s become normalised, but really – it’s pretty odd. 

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Just so you know. That banner image on the Facebook event you used as the only form of promotion won’t be adorning anyone’s wall, flyer collection or retrospective scene photo book either.

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I don’t believe in ghosts, though sometimes I need to remind myself of that, just as I don’t believe in other superstitions but I’ll still rub the foot of Ted Bates statue on the way to a match and refuse to say anything positive in case it jinxes my team. But I’ve often thought that if I’m wrong and I end up coming back to haunt you motherfuckers, I’d probably end up haunting a hand set.

Are haunted phones a thing? It probably should be if spirits haunt the places where emotionally intense things happened. If ghosts are remnants of strong emotions that haven’t quite dissipated, then I’ve certainly got a pile of broken mobiles kicking around that I’ve poured love and bile into.

If you think about it, the kinds of wonderful, painful, ecstatic, regret-soaked conversations that our for-bearers had to have face to face in their stone hovels we can have on the go. That lingering energy would be a kind of decentralised haunting, not tied to any particular location now that we can break and fix our own hearts on buses, walking through parks, in train carriages, supermarkets, cars, lunch rooms... The other person isn’t even there. The location is inter-changeable as long as there’s signal. The tool that makes it possible though is constant. We’re pouring all this intensity into a little box of plastic and wires. All this epic psychic energy captured and chucked out into space - there must be something left over.

These obsolete, rundown phones are “dead.” Language hints at the possibility of a haunting already.

Boo.  

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(I should write you).

Some of the observations in this piece were inspired by the excellent book 'Filling the Void' by Marcus Gillroy-Ware. 

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Jump to fragment (links added as fragments are posted): Intro // One // Two // Three // Four // Five // Six // Seven // Eight // Nine // Ten // Eleven // Twelve // Thirteen // Fourteen // Fifteen // Sixteen // Seventeen 

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Bad Apples: Eight // Nine

Part five of a series of posts reflecting on almost a decade of DIY culture - focusing this time on compilation tapes and recycled releases. For an introduction to this series, click here.

Eight:

2008: Whilst we’re talking about being wary of technology – I made a comp CD for myself today. What a shitty experience that was, shuffling around MP3s on the PC so that I could burn them to CD so that I could play it on my stereo upstairs. Yeah, the end was the same, but the process was sterile and dull. Not like making a mix tape, where you get to listen to the songs as you record them so that you know everything’s in the right order and just generally kick back for two hours, drink tea and listen to music you dig with no interruptions. Sometimes having fun with the means is as important as getting the right thing in the end. Do things the hard way once in a while.

2017: I still entirely agree with this post, but my own commitment to making tapes has fully waned. Part of this is due to practicalities. Realistically, how portable is an audio tape? I don’t have a Walkman anymore and what car can play a sweet mix tape on your 2017 summer road trip? Worse, if you make a tape for someone as a surprise present, what’s to say they can even play it? It’s the biggest elephant in the room that although tapes are cool, they’re also a weird retro flyer that comes when you buy a MP3 download code. Worse still, I found myself with so many bangers only available as MP3’s that I ended up burning play lists to CD-R then taping from the CD-R, which is just peak-nonsense.

But... I’m of a generation for whom a lot of the albums that got me into punk and hardcore came to my attention via tapes made by older mates and I can remember desperately taking a Gorilla Biscuits / CIV / Better Than A Thousand tape apart with a tiny screw driver to save the mangled mess inside. I’ve also a genuine appreciation for the format that goes beyond nostalgia. The limitations of an audio tape are also its strengths; how many times did a song that sucked on first listen worm its way into your brain because fasting forward through it was a pain in the arse? And even the warping, the stretched tape, the sound of decay is kind of nice if you think about it. That’s not poor quality; at its best, that’s the sound of how much you’ve enjoyed listening to it, of how much that music means to you.  

I’m not sure there’s a meaningful way to replicate that fragility. It must be possible to create files that decay, MP3’s where each play triggers a further process of descending into some sort of pre-programmed warping or white-noise. But what’s the point? Am I really arguing that a format that doesn’t corrode with each play should fabricate this out of some sort of romantic notion that the things I really like should turn to shit? I suspect I’d just keep master files anyhow and continually make new versions each time the ones on my player started to sound like arse.

I do sometimes find myself making 45 minute MP3s though, cutting and pasting songs from a play list in Audacity to make files that replicate C90’s. On my cheap player, fast forwarding within a file is about as much fun as it was on the Walkman I took on family holidays, so putting everything together in a MP3 that replicates the side of a mix tape also recreates that enforced listening experience. But it’s an unsatisfying way to ensure a new song sandwiched between two bangers ends up a firm favourite.  

Nine:

2008: Whilst we’re talking about tapes I’ve noticed that since people other than me still care about them, wouldn’t it be cool to do a limited run of tapes to go with your CD release? I’ve not tried them but a few kids on Collective Zine have mentioned Tapeline as a good place to get custom audio tapes. I read in a zine as well about people reusing old VHS tapes and dubbing live band footage or art projects on them. If you go charity shopping, getting a stash should be dirt cheap. Tape over the pushed out tabs and you’re set.

2010: We did this with the LIKE GRENADES EP (2017: Note - ripping off our friends in WHOLE IN THE HEAD) – it was pretty boring dubbing them all but it was quite cool to see a pile of 60 recycled tapes, all with download codes and all unique because I’d left the original recording on the other side- there was a ANT & DEC split tape, for example.

2017: I’ve already written about the tape labels as a life line for broke punks elsewhere on this blog. Around the same time as I was thinking about that earlier post though, the band I play in discussed releasing our own tape.

Following on from the success of In On A Secret - where live recordings of the bands that played the show were released as an online album - and ripping off an earlier 7 inch called ‘Same Shit Different Day’, the plan was pretty simple: record a small number of bands in the same studio on the same day and release the outcome as a compilation tape.

Alan from Hackjob put together the original compilation and explains the idea we were planning to brazenly steal:

For me punk is all about involvement. Right from the very beginning, gathering like-minded folks together has been a massive part of what gives punk its power and its longevity – see The Roxy, Dial House, The 121 Club etc for shining examples.

I wanted to do something similar on a small scale with ‘Same Shit, Different Day’. I thought it would be fun to create a snapshot of South Coast (roughly) bands at an instant in time, and recording everyone in the same place, on the same day, seemed like the best way of achieving it. The 6 bands on the 7” are very different musically so it was also a great way of demonstrating a cohesive scene – no egos, no fathing around, just get in there and blast it out. I was really pleased with the result...

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The plan was pretty simple. But like pretty simple plans conceived by punks the world over, our tape compilation never got off the ground.

Of course, it’s impossible to say if the reality of putting out a tape would have been as easy we thought. But we’d gotten as far as costing the release with help from our friends who run Cult Culture and Circle House Records, and got the hypothetical tape down to about £1.10 a unit. This was 99 pre-dubbed compilations, each with a card sleeve, an A5 insert, a label maker strip for the cover, tape stickers stamped with a star to show side A and 19 minutes of the best music that never even got properly discussed...  

Component
Cost per unit (99 units)
15p
70p
A5 tape insert (b/w copying at the library like a proper punk rocker, 2 to an A4 sheet)
5p (10p an A4 b/w copy)
2p (£1.50 a pack)
7p (£6.31)
10p

(You can have this one for free).

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Incidentally, there was a predictable ending to recording over pre-dubbed tapes. I eventually accumulated a shoe box full of cassette singles that I’d periodically picked up whilst charity shopping. This treasure trove of ancient, shitty music sat quietly rotting in the background through a couple of abortive bands until eventually the moment came to tape over them. I passed them to our bassist to do the dubbing duties and it turned out that every one was warped to fuck. Every last tape. And that was that.   


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Jump to fragment (links added as fragments are posted): Intro // One // Two // Three // Four // Five // Six // Seven // Eight // Nine // Ten // Eleven // Twelve // Thirteen // Fourteen // Fifteen // Sixteen // Seventeen 

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Bad Apples: Six // Seven

Part four of a series of posts reflecting on almost a decade of DIY culture - focusing this time on doing things for free. For an introduction to this series, click here.

Six:

2008: Most things cost money. It’s shit if you haven’t got much. Now, there’s two schools of thought about this. The first is that if you do something for free, then people assume it’s not worth looking at, since nothing that doesn’t cost anything can be worth anything. I prefer the second idea, namely that it’s vaguely subversive not to charge for this zine. I get to give it to people without worrying if I make my costs back because I’m not trying to. It doesn’t reduce my writing and interactions to simple buyer/seller based financial transactions (“Hi buy my shit, yes?”). And hopefully people get entertained for free. And yes I lose money. But less than if I spent all the time writing it doing something else. Plus money isn’t the only way to measure value. Other currencies include enjoyment, satisfaction, creativity and community.

Seven:

2008: I’m pretty much some kind of semi-Luddite. I’ve a natural suspicion of being sold gadgets that do something I can already do, no matter how convenient they are, and I’m about 5 years behind everyone else with the internet, that great big shopping catalogue that lives in my PC. The internet is, however, great because, if you are really broke and want to contribute to the death of print media, the post service and the music industry, you can publish things for free (blogs), make and download radio shows (podcasts), upload your bands demo for all to hear (Myspace etc) and stalk your ex on Facebook. Then you can make fliers or spam people about your shit and it costs less than actually making physical things! I think download only releases are pretty horrible because I like to actually have something physical to hold. I also like to have the lyrics and artwork to look at and I think this is an important part of the release too. But at the same time, it costs very little to upload mp3 files so that broke punx can download them for free. You can always do both like we did with LIKE GRENADES.

2010: Also check out killyourown.co.uk and ifyoumakeit.com  [2017: both sites seem to be dead, though IYMI is still online and worth a look] for a creative way to combine pay-what-you-can-afford downloads with physical releases. Most records on both sites are available physically but you can download them for free or a donation which goes to the bands.

2017: I’ve been thinking about this post perhaps more than I should, because it seems to me there’s a lot to unpack here and lot of it remains controversial in some way. Myspace is long dead – I got around to shutting mine down recently and it was a time capsule from a decade earlier with an overly confusing interface – and all the people who want physical releases buy them and those who don’t, don’t. But the idea that a DIY project can be free is still polarising and much too long to address comprehensively. These are just some thoughts on fragments six and seven.

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It seems pathetic to me that you shouldn’t do something for free because if someone doesn’t pay for art, it doesn’t have any value to them. That’s a bleak assumption that the value we as individuals put on something is dictated by how hard it hits our pockets. Are we really arguing that if you give someone a zine rather than sell them it for a quid they’re going to enjoy it less? And if we are going to argue this, is this a good thing? Shouldn’t we be doing more stuff that challenges this logic?

The act of doing something free can feel like throwing shit at a wall and seeing what sticks. Just as when you flyer for an event and a bunch end up on the floor, when I did Bad Apples there were always a few copies discarded. But would those people have bought a zine in the first place (or bought it and drunkenly left it on the bar) and how many people got a copy of Bad Apples and read it who never would have paid for the zine? Rebounding shit vs shit smeared on the brickwork I guess. 

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“...If I shoplift an album from my local record store, no one else can buy it. But when I download a song, no one loses it and another person gets it....” – Aaron Swartz

However you feel about downloading, there is in this quote a valuable point: if you download (or share electronically) material, it doesn’t disappear, it duplicates. That process costs nothing. If you’re trying to make money, this causes a problem because it’s in your interest to make sure you have a finite resource, either to control the price through supply and demand or to simply make sure you shift all your hard copies to get your money back. But if you don’t care about that then the problem becomes a solution because you don’t have to stump up a ton of money making physical copies that you lose money on. All this is seems so obvious now that it almost becomes invisible again and worth reiterating.

 The issue than becomes in an over-saturated internet, how do you let people know your project exists?    

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The notion of non-financial rewards resonates even clearer a decade on. Perhaps this is sober logic but it remains clear to me that if you measure everything in terms of capital, you focus on the end exchange. Instead, I often think that whilst I may lose money on a project, how much money would I be spending to have the same degree of enjoyment consuming rather than creating? Of course I focus on money spent on alcohol here because I’m trapped to a certain degree in that logic but there are plenty of ways to spend outside of the pub. 

There are other forms of exchange outside the financial and Mauss’ The Gift is an interesting starting point. The simplest explanation of what Mauss is exploring is the potlatch (or potluck) where each guest has the obligation to bring a dish to the communal table. If we think of the free DIY project as a potlatch, if the artist brings free art of whatever kind to the table, what does the audience share with the artist and what obligation does this put on the audience? Perhaps an obligation to accept the gift – i.e. actually look/listen/engage - and provide community in return might be one way to understand this trade.


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I recently wound up B/W&Red Small Press because my interest in it ended exactly at the point where shifting what I’d helped bring into the world ended. Helping to write, edit or manage a project to completion is something that I loved and take pride in. Selling the fuckers doesn’t interest me at all.

Some of that is to do with the interactions involved. A sizable number of people I sold to were friends and whilst I’m not above spamming my work, it did feel uncomfortable to shift from buddy to sales person face to face. For someone who’d happily buy you a coffee on the basis of what goes around comes around, interjecting some sort of (diluted) market logic into a space that is outside of it wasn’t something that I found pleasant. I just wanted to go “keep your money, I just hope you enjoy reading it”.    

I know I wasn’t the only one. One Contested Ground contributor found the response to selling the zine to friends from a wider social circle particularly abrasive for the same reason; one of the contributors to the Say It Right anthology left copies for people to find in public rather than sell the ones received as ‘payment.’ Trying to cover your costs brings new dynamics to social interactions that it’s fair to say aren’t always positive.

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Although not technically ‘free’, Pay-As-You-Feel (PAYF) adds another dimension to this dynamic and one that I personally don’t have too much experience of. I can remember doing the door though at punk shows when having a waged/unwaged sliding scale was common place and the confusion that this sometimes created when you ask people how they classify a fair price or to self select - on trust - what they should pay.

Libby from Curb: The Real Junk Food Project explains something similar. Curb redistribute food that would otherwise end up in a landfill and sometimes cater at house shows and other low key DIY events in Southampton.

Often people can seem reluctant to accept PAYF events and ask how much they should pay. When you step back and say “I don’t know how much you should give, it’s up to you”, sometimes it baffles people. When society says “I’ll leave the food for someone poor or homeless”, the distinction between ‘poor’ and ‘not poor’ becomes a divide that is between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Pay As You Feel sets that aside because there's no set criteria to meet to access the food we provide... I think things are changing. At least in my community the practice of trading, lending and PAYF is becoming more commonplace, I think this changes how people value objects and interact with each other.

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Jump to fragment (links added as fragments are posted): Intro // One // Two // Three // Four // Five // Six // Seven // Eight // Nine // Ten // Eleven // Twelve // Thirteen // Fourteen // Fifteen // Sixteen // Seventeen 

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Bad Apples: Four // Five

Part three of a series of posts reflecting on almost a decade of DIY culture - focusing this time on crafting and projects with a local focus. For an introduction to this series, click here.

Four:

2008: We live in an age of mass production. Millions of identical consumer items roll out of millions of factories. This means that I can get a cheap TV but it also means that there’s a weird flawless uniformity to things since they’re all made to the same blue-print. That’s probably OK if you’re making cars but wouldn’t it be cool if each one of those records you’re making was slightly different? That’d show that a bit of thought and love had gone into them. I’d also probably treasure your shitty demo more if it was a unique one of a kind thing that no one else had exactly the same.

2017: Revisiting this, one of the things that jumps out at me is the proliferation of shit that’s marketed as artisan or bespoke which I’m pretty sure wasn’t on my radar, and certainly wasn’t the in-joke it is now, when I wrote the fragment. It’s interesting but sort of obvious that the drive for something “authentic” as opposed to generic and mass produced can be so easily be part of a marketing campaign. The DIY version of this is the collectible commodity that ends up flipped on Discogs or held in some airless collector stasis...  

I wasn’t exactly thinking of craftisvism – but I was thinking of a less alienated process of making something, or at least a closer relationship to the item produced than something that rolled off the factory line. It’s easy enough to make things unique after all when your producing dozens rather than hundreds of items, so why not hand decorate whatever it is you’re making so that the imperfections or deliberate quirks make each one different?

This to me seems something of statement of intent; something that says the person who made this actually touched and hand finished what your holding as opposed to it being made in a factory far away from the label or publisher or writer or whatever, who never even knew it existed bar as a number in a spread sheet or in a financial return. In that way, if you really stop and think about it, buying a hand numbered zine makes it much more personal than the majority of books on your book shelf. Its clear that someone touched what your holding and it meant enough to them to hand alter it, rather than the easy myth that it suddenly appeared in the world without any labour.

There’s of course limits to this; you aren’t going to use a tooth brush to flick paint on 50,000 tapes but you might 50. So it also says that whoever made this is small. Small might not always be small forever and small doesn’t mean “not shitty people”, but generally speaking, in a world where we celebrate endless growth as the ultimate goal, it’s good to stand up for the little guy - particularly if it’s through refusing to compromise that they stay little.      

All this seems to be going against the grain of things. When you can leave a chain store in one city, fly half way around the planet and have the same experience in the same chain, to empathize difference and craft-person-ship, even if it’s on an insignificant level, is probably worthwhile still.

Five:

2008: The internet is great and so is the postman. We can talk to the world from our homes and more importantly I can hawk my useless crap globally. I send this shitty zine to Canada and Australia! WTF. But wouldn’t it would be cool if sometimes we deliberately just wrote for our local scenes and didn’t try to get any bigger than that? You could write songs about your mates or how your town is a hell hole and everyone would totally get it. Another good thing about keeping things small is communication – if people know you’re writing directly to them, they might be more likely to communicate back and create dialogue. A good example of this kinda logic is the STE Bulletin – this primarily exists as a listing for Southampton people so they know what’s going on locally. And handy it is too.

2017: Rich STE on the STE Bulletin:

“Think Globally, Act Locally!” was the cliché that we took to heart in the S.T.E. but all clichés are at least grounded in reality. Sometimes this internationalism was literal – I remember after one gig our house being full of Americans, Germans & Norwegians along with us reserved Englishmen. At all times though, we took a localised slant on ideas, words, music and actions from all over the world. Sometimes these influences took a while to disseminate to Southampton and these days global communication is much more instant but the principle remains the same.

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Here’s a thought experiment for you. For arguments sake, let’s say that a scene is a community of people with an active interest in something. Community is a rightly contested word, but in this case it is a bit of a zero sum concept – you are either part of it or you aren’t, it something that has a border and you sit on one side of it or another, no matter how permeable that might be. These sides don’t have to be in competition, they can be fluid and there doesn't have to be a value judgement about which side is best. But for our purposes, you’re either in or out.

How do we describe that boarder? If we approach it as dividing off a physical space, it’s probably most familiar. It’s a geographical area, a building, a neighborhood, a space, a city. But it’s also possible to describe community in terms of time – a bunch of people coming together from/in no fixed geographical location for a period, perhaps to achieve a certain task. The boarder of the community here is temporal – it didn’t exist before a certain point and doesn’t exist after a certain time. Another concept of community is unity through a shared interest or activity. Here the boarder is between those who have the required interest in (for example) pop punk and those who don’t. Some communities combine all of these boarders. That’s OK for our purposes.

The experiment is this: having this very simple definition of a community, what happens if you take your creative project and either erect, move or tear down one of those boarders? What happens if you make those walls invisible or insurmountable, distant or close? For example, what would it mean to be in a band that was bound to a physical community that was defined by a particular city? What would it mean if that same band wasn’t tied to a particular community based on interest?

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It strikes me that part of why some of the outcomes of this experiment seem ridiculous is because we’re conditioned to think that growth is a good thing. Putting barriers and limitations on what we do doesn’t make much sense in that context; if we’re looking to maximise some sort of audience, to open up new “markets”, then choosing not to do something you could do, choosing not to grow as big as you can, obviously runs counter to that. If we measure success in numbers, in size, in units then this fragment is even sillier. 

But should we always be doing that? What do we miss when we think this way? What relationships do we undermine and water down? What opportunities and practices do we overlook that could reflect a fulfilling way forward for our projects?

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Jump to fragment (links added as fragments are posted): Intro // One // Two // Three // Four // Five // Six //Seven // Eight // Nine // Ten // Eleven // Twelve // Thirteen // Fourteen // Fifteen // Sixteen // Seventeen