Perfect Sound Forever

The Middle Ground of the Techno Revolution

by Colin Newman
(October 1997)

The way that the middle America's indie culture has finally embraced electronica is nothing short of remarkable given that 2 short years ago, it began to feel the USA would never break out of it's almost willful (and certainly anachronistic) rejection of the form. Of course it's taken the inevitable "Atlantic Crossing" so crucial to the cross-over of ideas from underground to mainstream (or should I say Black to White?) to make this possible but then again where would the British music Industry be if it didn't have the US market to "re-export" to!!

But I digress. There is a wholly interesting subtext to the "electronic" music explosion wherever it has taken place- the twin & rather radical ideas of "all art on one platform" and "the means of production in the hands of the artist". Of course I'm talking about computers. I'm sitting staring (and occasionally picking my nose) in front of one. You may be sitting reading this at a terminal or in a paper version produced through the good offices of a DTP program into which these words were long ago cut & pasted. What has happened to music making (as had previously happened to text communication) in the last 15 years is that it has become progressively easier & cheaper to make the stuff with increasingly powerful computers in your own private space in your own private way. This is a revolution in our times. For a couple of thousand dollars (maybe less), anyone can produce in their own home master recordings which can be released. I'm not talking about lo-fi cassette either. Not only that but they can produce the items (CD master, artwork for films etc.) with which actual CD's and records can be made. Of course it's then a small step to go on and produce the CD's & records yourself. Voila, an underground is born.

Just stop and consider how different this is to the traditional route into the music industry. A musician or band has to rehearse, tour & book (at their own expense) into someone's studios to make a demo tape in the hope that an A∓R man from a record label will like them enough to put them in a studio (for several thousand dollars at least). A revolution in our times indeed! BUT the industry finds itself in a serious quandary indeed. At the top end of course, it's business as usual. The usual sad parade of the famous & the soon to be famous trotting out their inevitable product. The concept of newness has been passed over long ago in favour of marketable predictability. At the bottom end, there's the ever increasing pool of bedroom wannabes, angst-ridden lo-fi-nics & the just plain bloody weird! Yet what of the middle ground? Those who want to talk to other people besides their mum & their cat and who aren't interested in playing the major yawn game of the top end (i.e. all those computer jugglers, midi-wizards, angst-jangling bedroom balladeers & hard disk recording geniuses). In other words they can release their own music but how can they get it heard?

Here is THE major problem facing anyone who is interested in the new, the exciting & the dynamic in popular music. Plucking these artists from the relative obscurity of their Underground scenes and pushing them onto the mainstream is actually incredibly short term thinking. This has happened in the UK & most recently with drum & bass. The genre grew naturally out of the early 90's hardcore scene evolving it's own language of tiny sounding fast drum rhythms & big deep bass fleshed out with angular samples culled from dusty jazz records & countless other sources. For a time in '95 it seemed as if NO other music could possibly exist as in one vast sweep Photek, Bukem, Goldie, PFM, T.Power et al took in everything from the most angular urban rhythms to the most chilled & beatific new age nature-ambience. All that was in a year reduced by major marketing to "if you are going to buy one jungle record buy this one". The top names were skimmed and given far too much money for their own good, amounts which it is going to be very hard for them to recoup from while retaining the integrity and sheer fluidity of style on which their reputations are based. OK, so Goldie gets to be a star, Ronnie Size gets the Mercury award (in a fit of tokenism) and the mainstream gets to hear some soul songs with fast drums and wonders what all the fuss was about. However as far as the UK underground is concerned, D&B is dead and got replaced by happy hardcore & speed garage.

The solution can only be for a new middle-ground consensus. Not everyone is lucky enough to be around dynamic underground scenes when they are starting up but that doesn't mean to say that they should be served up a watered down soup deemed to be fit for mainstream consumption. Exposure to the best can only enhance critical facilities and lead to a more aware and adventurous record buying public. This is good for the record industry & good for the art. Otherwise we are faced by an increasingly alienated audience who can only conclude that "music must be shit" and that serves no-one.

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