Sunday, 22 March 2009

Predictable, then, that I should write later than I thought, distracted once more by bland internet wanderings. Straight to it then.

Having just eaten, I reflect back on a weekend in which I discarded my antisocial mantle. Visited Kreuzberg last night to go and have fine malt whiskey with Lord Cry Cry in Madonna, returning late to his flat to watch odd stilted comedies and Deadwood. As I fell asleep I returned to the landscapes of Pynchon, brought on by the founding father desperation of the television and its voices. Woke up late, read scriptwriting manuals and books on Jamaican Dancehall before cycling home, past the Wagendorf, full of its brightly coloured caravans piping smoke through tin chimneys. Children were playing in the parks, the river was sparkling and I discovered new shortcuts, new dead ends full of churches and cobbles, new aspects of life. The city keeps on giving.

Reading the book on Jamaican musical history clarified a few thoughts on modern means of disseminating music. Nothing original here, but it reassures me in a peculiar way to think that this is one more cycle, one more reinvention. I, who is prone, to eulogising the modern age as necessarily unprecedented, find a quiet solace in thirty-year cycles.

Recording technologies in the late seventies and early eighties gave way to a proliferation of live recording in Jamaica, meaning individuals could bring portable equipment and patch straight out of the mixing desk. The promoters would charge for the privilege of recording, the cassette tapes were dubbed multiple times and then disseminated through networks of post and hand. Very rarely was anything charged for this, echoing the current trend of mp3 blogs to rip an artist's music and offer it for free as a download that, depending on the intellectual ownership rights, breaches copyright law.

The Jamaican tape model saw the spreading of the music as a boon, as a resistance against the soul-dominated mainstream radio agendas, as the biggest way to offer promotion of a certain soundsystem or group of artists. Foreign tours were built entirely on the reputation these cassettes sent out into the world. The benefits (and modern parallels) are obvious, especially for a marginal recording artist. Release the album for free, wait for networks and the hoped quality of the music to do their work, organise live shows on the back of a reputation. There's little different to the classic model of raising awareness, but the revenue streams are different. Live performances must be more engaging, drawing audiences in. Merchandise must be appealing, something more than the disseminated material (high quality alternative recordings, hand-drawn art). Collectability must be encouraged through rarities, limited editions and also encouraged through conceptual relationships between albums that makes trading and owning an entire back catalogue necessary.

In Jamaica this method allowed less famous artists to suddenly become well known and another parallel is illustrated in 2009 by everything the waning pitchfork media brand has championed. (Waning being important here of course – is this merely a subjective matter of taste on my part, or some deeper, more resonant and dangerous dilution caused by the model of distribution?). The method of getting music to the masses also has an interesting creative role too. Dancehall artists found that their new lyrical sets had made their way across the island much, much quicker than before. Oral tradition had accelerated, originators of words became harder to identify and plagiarism became rife. As an antidote, it became necessary – more than a congenial etiquette – to name check those that the lyrics were borrowed from. Plagiarism became accepted with credit (Creative Commons, stand up) and a new cross-pollination of ideas, themes and content occurred. So, there you have a rise whose graph can be mapped against one obvious in today's music. But, of course, there has to be a decline, surely? So, what became of that Jamaican scene, what signs pre-empted its death, what is there to be avoided if we are not to call our fates fate, but something more pliable?

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