Music and the Machine

Last night I had the pleasure of speaking at Fig Tree as part of their Figtalks series in the Digital Shoreditch Festival 2012. This is what I had to say…

This opening is taken from a conversation between Bill Drummond and Tom Hodgkinson published in the Idler. (You can get it here)

BD: I don’t do Facebook. I don’t know whether it’s a generation thing
TH: Twitter?
BD: I don’t do that either. I’ve got too much in my life. Too much going on. What’s obvious to state, if I’m having a go at our culture, is that all it’s interested in doing – and this happened with music in the twentieth century – is turning us into consumers. You don’t have to make it anymore: we’ll have the experts, we’ll have the geniuses, we’ll have the good looking ones making it
TH: That’s what Rock n Roll is
BD: Yeah, that’s my big downer. I know that you with your ukulele are trying to break that down. And what I do with the 17 is another way of breaking it down
TH: The problem is though that there are levels of ability. John Lennon is a much better songwriter than I am. He’s the master carpenter
BD: That doesn’t matter. I mean, I find it hard to believe, but there may be people out there who are better at doing sex than me! But imagine if that trick had been done, from now on, you don’t have to do sex. All you people, we’ve got this tiny group who will do sex for you, and you just watch them, and buy into that. That’s what has happened with music in the twentieth century. It was taken away from everybody.

In the 1930s the author Aldous Huxley wrote an article for a paper suggesting that the art and music of the day was an active pursuit – sing alongs in pubs, chamber concerts at home – a shared participatory activity. He prophesized that as time progressed we would become less active in our pursuit of art, choosing instead to watch rather than do. The result would be less understanding of the art, a subsequent low boredom threshold and resultant higher demand for new art. The result… the creation of art spinning so fast that we would be engulfed in sensationalism.

In my mind this is exactly what has happened, we have become so passive, that to quote Bill Drummond again, ‘our music has been taken away from us’. It is a product of a massive machine that is not run by music lovers and us but by multi national corporations, driven by quarterly reviews, share prices and fear. If one is to analyse the music of the last 60 or so years the music has changed very little. If you write a song in a key you have a choice of 7 chords with which to make the song. 3 major chords, 3 minor and a slightly odd one that is rarely used in pop music. So 6 chords. A quick listen to the top 10 today revealed a set of songs that share the same 6 chords, often just 4 and these are the same chords that we have been recycling again and again for years.


The change has been technology. The birth of new instruments that enabled the same song to sound completely different. Similar in fact to surely the biggest con in music history, the CD, where the record labels of the day, having already sold albums on cassette and vinyl resold them on CD for a vastly inflated price considering the cost of manufacture. The birth of digital brought the same promise to the multi nationals but this time the public thought different.

The internet has been a complete game changer. It is now the tech giants that are using our music to make billions of dollars through advertising and music devices. Ask yourself this, what’s the point in owning an MP3 player if you haven’t got any music to put on it. I hope they reinvest.

As an artist today it is possible to control all aspects of your career. You can write, record, release, publisise, market and sell your music using tools that are either very cheap or free. With the correct strategy the internet has unleashed an array of opportunities we could never have dreamed of. To prove a point, early this year I wrote, recorded and released a track with the challenge of getting it from my head to national radio in a week. It is possible.

However what does this mean? This is no career move; the financial rewards working with any of the best casinos without KYC are too small. TV talent shows present a message of million pound deals, limousines and fame. This is of course complete nonsense but 10 million people plus will tune into shows like this every week and buy into it completely. The musicians are told what to do, have to sign horrendous contracts and perform music that fits a marketing strategy not something that resonates with our culture. The fact that a dancing dog trumped everybody in a recent show I think says it all. This is not giving people opportunity to participate; it’s voyeurism and a miss selling of a dream.

YouTube, SoundCloud and BandCamp logos

It is all of course not doom and gloom. The internet has provided us with an amazing resource and outlet for our ideas and passions. But the one very important thing that we need to do is choose how we use it. I started by mentioning Facebook and Twitter. What are these entities and do they actually bring anything to us? It could be argued that they are a massive pacifier. Like the soma that Aldous Huxley’s characters take in Brave New World when they are feeling a little off kilter. But do we really want our legacy to be that of fleeting comedic images of kittens and guns and signing the odd petition to make us feel politically active.

In Kandinsky’s 1911 book ‘Concerning the Spiritual In Art’ (and this is how wikipedia puts it) he compares the spiritual life of humanity to a pyramid—the artist has a mission to lead others to the pinnacle with his work. The point of the pyramid is those few, great artists. It is a spiritual pyramid, advancing and ascending slowly even if it sometimes appears immobile. During decadent periods, the soul sinks to the bottom of the pyramid; humanity searches only for external success, ignoring spiritual forces.

So rather than look for these great artists why not build this from the bottom up. We are all creative; we can all resonate with our peers. To quote Kandinsy again, ‘every work of art is the child of its age’ so let us progress not stagnate in pastiche.

Let us move away from the idea of international fame and distribution and concentrate on the microcosm. Our friends, families and local community whether it be online or in real life. It is too easy to get swept along in a wave of frantic doing online without actually achieving anything. We are the internet. It is of our making and most importantly it is our choice how we use it. Champion your friends who create, not for material gain but for the progression of art. Ask them to teach you, teach them something back and pass on that knowledge. Let our champions rise from this foundation through knowledge and understanding not efficient marketing.

The machine is ours, let us make it do what we want.

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I am a player, producer, label boss and staunch supporter of the independent community. In the interests of transparency, should I post any of my own material, my labels are Ambiguous Records and CRC Music. I am also on the board of AIM which is the trade body that looks after all the UK Independent labels. Read More...


  1. Tim

    I take your point, but I think you are slightly missing the point of Facebook, Twitter, et al to be honest – and so are those that are “frantic doing online without actually achieving anything”.

    You say we should “concentrate on the microcosm” and you’re right. But Facebook, Twitter, and SoundCloud let us expand that microcosm to beyond just our family and friends – they let us find a microcosm that doesn’t see geography as a limitation.

    The benefit of concentrating on small groups is that you can engage with them and turn passive listeners into active fans – and you can do this online if you’re doing it right.

  2. Al

    Hello Tim,
    I think you may be missing my point. What I mean is that people need to take responsibility for their actions online. FB and Twitter are very powerful tools if used right but only if used right. I was careful to say ” local community whether it be ONLINE or in real life” Too often artists go straight for global without concentrating on the foundation of a real fanbase. If you read my previous posts, I talk about creating community around the hub of a website and using social networks to extend reach but always bringing it back to a community. So perhaps my use of the word ‘local’ is misleading here. I mean it as relating to a particular point in space whether it be ‘cyber’ space or your local town. Foundations first – build from there.

  3. Tim

    Yup, I skimmed over that very important distinction. Whoops.

    I think we’re on the same page then really 🙂

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