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.


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.


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.


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?


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?


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 

Monday, 1 May 2017

Bad Apples: Two // Three

Part two of a series of posts reflecting on almost a decade of DIY culture - focusing this time on live recordings, bootlegs and tape and CD-R labels. For an introduction to this series, click here.


2008: Bootleg shows. You can get a pretty good recording out of an mp3 Dictaphone. They’re pretty expensive but one of your student mates will have one I bet. It probably will fuck up pretty badly if you are trying to record a full band, but its fine for acoustic shows. And you can then download it to your PC, edit it with Audacity into separate tracks minus all the blah-blah bullshit and then you can do what you want with it. Maybe you could upload it to a blog so everyone can listen for free or maybe you could burn it to CD-Rs and put it out as a limited release? PS – it’s polite to check with the people making the music before you do this of course but you already knew that, right?

2017: This fragment was inspired by a live recording of an indie pop band called the STAY TOGETHERS. That band featured people who were on or would go on to be in a bunch of punk bands like GORDON GANOS ARMY, CIRCUS ACT and YOUNG ADVENTURERS and Chris had used a digital Dictaphone to capture what I’d hoped would be released as a demo before it fell off a cliff. As far as I’m aware, the only track released from it became part of Degrees of Separation comp about a decade later.   

What attracted me to that long-lost demo, beyond it containing a ton of total bangers, was the cheapness of the recording. I love the accessibility of making a demo from just playing a house show. I've never had much money and a lot of what I was involved in was about finding ways to make things happen with what I had to hand rather than letting a lack of equipment or finances or knowledge stop me.

Of course, a couple of years later I realised that Chris had a particular device that was designed for recording music and that it wasn’t just a regular Dictaphone. By this stage, I think I’d borrowed a regular recorder and had a crack at bootlegging some shows. I can’t remember what happened to the mp3s or what they were like but I vaguely remember that the lead was lost and I couldn’t work out how to get them off the device. Alas, those sets are lost to posterity... Meh.

2010: See Toby’s excellent A Load Of Stuff That Happened blog for something similar to this.

2017: We are used to thinking of a record as a 'a thin plastic disc carrying recorded sound in grooves on each surface...' so it's also worth remembering that a record is also 'a thing constituting a piece of evidence about the past...' It is the capturing and sharing of an (often fleeting) moment, warts and all, the process of which has shifted away from making grainy VHS cassettes like the Southcoast Hardcore 2003 comp to YouTube channels full of live footage of bands and crowds going off. Hate5six, with its hub of high quality recordings of hardcore bands, is of course also a particularly great - and long running - go to for this kind of material.

Having played out a bit recently for the first time since the beginning of the decade, it's been noticeable how many more videos circulate in the aftermath of a show and how listenable a lot of them now are. This is clearly a positive, but like with most forms of convenience, I wonder what is lost. Are these films treasured like the much-rarer recordings from the pre-internet era? Is there some sort of middle ground - DVD-R compilations perhaps - that give streamed material a greater sense of permanence and curated boundaries? And returning to the original meaning of this fragment, given the increasingly good quality of footage, are bands ripping the sound to make their own affordable releases?

Capturing the moment was what Toby was trying to do when he collated a lot of footage of DIY bands in one place alongside some of his writings:

I started [A Load Of Stuff That Happened]  as I had a moment of realisation when I was watching some bands at the Cowley Club in Brighton around 2007. I was seeing some fantastic UK bands on a regular basis but there was a high chance in a few more years some of these bands would be no more, and a few years later possibly forgotten with some having never recorded a note. I wanted to document this time, to show it had happened as there's a ton of these part-time bands playing every UK town most nights and for me at that time these bands were important and formative and live recordings can be a great way of capturing why.

It's also part of what we were trying to do with In On The Secret.


2008: So you’ve done a record and you’ve got no money but you still want to make 1,000 copies, so you do. Then you have to pimp them out and you’re still broke and it puts lots of pressure on you all and you split up after 3 weeks. What about the inversion of this, i.e.: making deliberately limited runs that match the practical limits of your resources. Or putting out spray painted CD-Rs that you can make when you need them. [Now long defunct] local labels like Milliepeed Records and At The Library used to put out CD-Rs and it was an effective way of getting music to people.

2017: In the 00's, there was no super cheap way to publish our music except by hand dubbing tapes or burning CD-Rs. Limited runs are synonymous with record collecting these days, but that wasn’t on our radar when we spray painted CD-Rs in the garden before the first GORDON GANO’S ARMY US tour. We had no money and no label able to front up what was for most people we knew a lot of money to get them pressed professionally. It was the mid-2000s version of uploading the record to Bandcamp for download. I seem to remember the red paint seeping around under the disc and sticking it to the newspaper and ruining a bunch of CD-Rs.

It was the regular set up with Milliepeed, as Jim remembers:

CD-Rs just made Milliepeed work. I wanted everything to be cheap, so people would be more willing to take a punt on a record but spending hundreds on a run of ‘proper’ CDs put you at risk of being out of pocket, so you shifted them for a fiver. Being able to can burn/spray CD-Rs and photocopy inserts, meant you could sell whole albums for £1 without any risk of losing money! Plus it had the same aura as the cut & paste flyers that were one of my original draws to punk and  hardcore.


This fragment also reminds me of a couple of instances where bands I had played in limped over the finishing line. We’d held it together long enough to put out something and then imploded. I still feel guilty that the labels involved likely lost a ton on those releases. Bands (and labels) now seem to do their own risk-free digital distribution via Bandcamp whilst DIY labels do short runs of records and pre-dubbed tapes that they know they can shift.

This is the flipside to the moustache wax soaked revival of the audio cassette. Beyond hipster fetishization, it’s also cheap to do the sort of short runs that a DIY label can take a punt on and I've benefited from labels like Cult Culture and Circle House Records putting out material on this format. The Luddite in me loves that tape labels form a nice parallel to - and on the surface at least, a technological regression  from - the CD-Rs that served our need for affordable releases a decade ago. Jim from Circle House echoes the same sentiments as Jim Milliepeed when he explains:   

A big part of doing tapes over vinyl  is cost and practicality... vinyl is too expensive to produce and would be difficult to cart around with me when I’m moving, which I’ve done and will do every 6-9 months... They are the affordable way of being able to do a DIY punk label for me right now. There’s also the cost element for the people buying the tapes. It feels like with expensive shipping costs, dodgy exchange rates etc. records are getting more and more expensive to produce and therefore buy, pricing a lot of people out of being able to buy them, which sucks, whereas tapes are an affordable way to get a hold of great EPs and albums. 


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 

Friday, 31 March 2017

Bad Apples: Intro // One

Part one of a series of posts reflecting on almost a decade of DIY culture.


2017: I spent almost a year kicking around Canada. When I came back in 2008, I started a free zine entitled Bad Apples after a post card I saw proclaiming that 'it only takes one bad apple to spoil the barrel.' BA was a double sided A4 sheet folded in 4 to make an A6 pocket sized mess of tiny type that came out every couple of months. It lasted 4 issues, plus a transcript posted on a local internet forum for issue #5. It then had an afterlife as a poorly compiled anthology that I took to Australia with me in 2010.

I found a long section of fragments from #5 entitled 'Some shit to think about' on an old external hard drive and I've decided to republish it for a third time as a series of monthly blog posts. Including this introduction there are 18 sections. If I revisit this at the rate of two a month, that should be 9 months worth of writing.

Its cliché to proclaim that the past is a foreign country, but my I often find it difficult to unlearn hard lessons - and unread game changing books/unhear mind-blowing records - and put myself in the shoes of who I was. What I find particularly interesting therefore is that by accident, I've already started a conversation with myself by adding to this piece when it shifted from appearing on southcoasthq and became a print zine with the BA anthology. In these blog posts I want to add to this article a third time, so that not only do you get to see the changes I made two years after it originally appeared, you also get the thoughts of the author 9 years later.

What I'm hoping to do here is explore three things:

Firstly, what I was thinking at the time which I don't think was that dramatically different from the punx around me. Secondly, to show how technology and other factors superseded quickly some of what was written. Thirdly, to provide a window into what's dropped by the wayside since then. I'm not arguing here that anything is worse (or better) now but more that I wonder if any of these points will strike readers as original, controversial or coming from a radical direction that might be worth resurrecting.

What follows is a disclaimer of sorts from both earlier versions of this article. It seems like a good way to begin; if I could talk to me in 2008, I'd suggest that I chilled the fuck out because no one cares. Worryingly, this followed on from an electronic version of my per-zine that was so self censored that it basically too scared to express an opinion. It was mental illness creeping in around the edges and in 2011 I finally ended up on meds. Which is another conversation for another day.


2010: This article appeared in Bad Apples #5. This zine never got beyond being a transcript posted on the internet. I don’t even have the original word file. I did find it online though and this article was the only thing really worth saving. I’ve kept it pretty much as I found it, with a few 2010 edits [made obvious].

To quote the intro to the zine, this article was written in the context that it:

2008:  “ a list of ideas and thoughts that I don’t totally agree with but are things that I’ve been thinking about over the years. Some of them are contradictory. Some of them clearly wouldn’t work on a large, uniform scale. Some of this people are already doing. Please read it more as a spring board for your own thoughts rather than the gospel as written by Phil Chokeword, something to call me out/rip me over or as a personal criticism. It’s just a bunch of shit I thought/read about/stole and might even think is too dumb to act on. I’m not saying your band, label, zine or show is shit. If I was, I’d totally say that to your face instead. Some things are about pluralism and dialogue - there’s room for more ideas than just mine or yours. Take an idea and roll with it. Or not.”

2010: That disclaimer stands though it seems a bit epically cautious to me now.


2008: If you knew a good band was going to split up tomorrow, you’d go to the last show if it was in your town, right? And you’d probably dig it, knowing that this was your last chance to do so, right? So what if you knew that band was good and was only EVER going to play one or two shows or deliberately played only once or twice a year? Wouldn’t every show played be like the last show? Whilst we’re thinking about good things coming in finite packages, you can only stretch ideas so far before they reach their natural conclusions. This is why the fifth CD you put out probably won’t have as many gems on it as the first. So what if you only agreed to make one record with your band. And that was it. No watered down ideas, redone on album 3 not as well as on that first 7”. And wouldn’t you want that to be the best record you could write, so you’d make sure there was no filler too.

2017: The Say It Right Writers Circle I facilitated worked on this principle and was conceived as a 12 month project; when it seemed hard to steer it over the line, the finitude of it meant that it much easier to keep going because there was an end in sight. It psychologically was more manageable because it wasn’t going on forever.    

In a purer sense, I'm sort of haunted by this idea, even though I've never put it into practice with a musical project. The general trajectory is that even bands that start for the crack of it end up moving towards being more serious as they progress. I was and am concerned about projects peaking and keeping on going until they dissolve into shit art, acrimony and posturing where really, all anyone wants to hear is that first 7 inch anyhow.

I wonder about projects that have too much time/money/infrastructure/ego invested in them so that they become zombie institutions, no longer fit for purpose but too big to fail, like some sort of DIY RBS. What does it mean when spaces, bands, zines, collectives can’t be fully reformed but drift on, not quite what they should be, no longer meaning what they did but not quite falling over, taking up space and energy?

The opposite of course is equally problematic. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to see that impermanence is the state of things; nothing lasts forever, and new things start all the time. But what would it mean to advocate the continual tearing down of projects as they pass their high point? What does it mean to clear out dead wood to make space for what comes next? And what if what comes next is dog shit?    


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