By:Larm: a post modern crisis still engulfs the music industry

Samuel Breen

bylarm 225x300 By:Larm: a post modern crisis still engulfs the music industryScandinavia’s music industry is on the up. Thanks to oil money, government investment, and streaming services – the suits are smiling. But at the By:Larm conference in Oslo delegates and speakers are still depressed. We’ve been here before.

At Cannes in ‘82 Wim Wenders filmed Room 666, a documentary on the death of cinema. Then the film industry was in freefall with audiences departing for television. The documentary captures a dozen or so directors talking in a hotel room beneath the glow of a TV set. They were presented with questions on a sheet of paper, all with a post modern lean. One reads: “Cinema, is it an art about to get lost, an art about to die?”

Yilmaz Güney, a Turkish director who appears only in voice due to concerns of extradition from his homeland, speaks of a conflict at the heart of cinema. Drawing the battle lines between industrial cinema and artistic cinema.

Post modernism is rife with even Steven Spielberg calling for more modest investment in order to secure the longevity of Hollywood. “I’m one of the last who would argue…” But he does. The documentary is about how the golden age was dead. Cinema was dead.

In the By:Larm (pron. ‘bee larm’) newspaper the editorial ran with the headline, “Reports of the music industry’s death have been greatly exaggerated.” And remembering the directors sombrely argue this case for Wenders, perhaps creative industries are more susceptible to melodrama and morbid fascination.

Regardless, at the heart of this debate and at the heart of almost every conference/showcase/festival I’ve attended is the tension between the industrial and the artistic. In Room 666 Noël Simsolo argues that you’re either part of an industry that is dying or part an art form that is thriving. “It’s not Cinema that’s dead, it’s the people who make it die by making stupid films. It’s because they can’t make the films they want.”

The music industry has been in stagnation for years, 1977 was its commercial peak and it’s been downhill from there. Stagnation that bred conservatism. What industrial music has become is a dying, derivative embodiment of destructive forces. It has stolen the audience from the artists. It has made them out to be fools. It has suggested that music isn’t moving forward. That new, exciting sounds aren’t being discovered. And what has been created is a sub-culture buried under the weight of these commercial interests and values. Not a long tail but an outpost. A pocket where music continues to be explored, where artists continue to work at music’s future. Giving it life. Broadly creating a two tiered art form, torn between these parameters.

To listen to music at a conference is not to ask, whether it is good or not, but rather to think of it in terms of artistic or commercial merit. The industry would call for compromise. But that’s where we are. Artists crossing the picket line to get paid.

Although I disagree Anna von Hausswolff was the artist many By:Larm attendees would claim to have successfully navigated this polemic. Ich Bin Nintendo & Mats Gustafsson are brilliant despite existing at the artistic end of the spectrum. Neneh Cherry impressed as a collaborative project with Rocketnumbernine (an improv. duo from Walthamstow).  On the comfier side of things Guðrið Hansdóttir from the Faeroe Islands matches laconic, easy going folk tunes with traditional throat singing and sweet melodies. And Valgeir Sigurðsson pairs electronic love for Éric Satie (see: Jóhann Jóhannsson, Ólafur Arnalds) with the Gothic. In all of these acts you can hear the tension. Achingly trying to cultivate their ideas into something acceptable.

If Godard were here I imagine he would be fearful that industrial pressures are purging music of its artistry. Dispelling Scandinavia for its well versed musicology and conservatism. However I’d be inclined to disagree, especially when more music is being made available today than ever before. The view from the conference floor is that artistry is purging music of its industry. An idea much cheerier than the groans that greet it. Avant Garde! Advance!

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  • Rouffian

    Sandinavia and northern Europe generally (expecially Finland) seem to be music’s “Great White Hope”. There are literally hundreds of excellent bands/musicians performing in Sweden, Norway (even), Finland and Germany. Meanwhile Britain seems to be gradually turning into France; totally incapable of producing good popular music. It is sad, but thank the Norse gods, at least I still have an apparently limitless supply of brilliant music, shining out like stars in the darkness.

  • jacoboo

    It’s interesting that the music business reached its peak in 1977. Pop music became nostalgic around that date (punk was a 50s rock ‘n’ roll revival) and has been based on nostalgia ever since. I still think Britain has history on its side when it comes to popular music, which is good and bad. It’s good because music is always there and everyone seems to be an expert, just like every educated Italian is an expert on 16th century art. But there’s a tendency to get stuck in the past, managing ruins. Scandinavia is interesting, perhaps.

    But the article takes (as most people do) a Western-centric viewpoint. Music is happening elsewhere.

    I’m taking about Asia, of course. K-pop is sometimes awesome, and they’ve taken marketing and the teenage dream into the 21st century. Also there’s Japan. In many respects (CD sales, low piracy rates, lots of shops and hundreds more venues in Tokyo than in London and New York put together) Japan is the last refuge of the traditional music market. Artistically too, the Japanese have done far more exploration than anyone else in post-Beatles Europe. I wish people would take some time to do reseach on this. They do have sad copies of Western products, but these are in the minority. Because of their relative isolation, the Japanese seem to just do whatever they please, and originality is always good. Freak shows are too in the minority, by the way.

    And, well, I guess we just have to wait for China to take over. Apparently the Party is investing heavily in making pop music.And as soon as the children of the brand new middle classes have some free time (and they will) millions will start making music, without having to deal with the pop tradition. They can only look forward. It’s going to be fascinating, I think.

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