Further to our recent blog on the first time, I was thinking about the first 7" single I bought. That's not the subject of today's missive but it did cause a frantic search for it (found it - Heart of Glass by Blondie) during which I found another gem: Party Fears Two by the Associates. Weirdly they then played it on BBC 6 music later the same day.
(The UK is now a multinational joke. And a byword for inward looking incompetence and shameful self-interest after being Brexfucked by the dorm-buggered elite who run the country. But in 6 music it still has probably the best national radio station in the world).
If you haven't heard Party Fears Two you can check it out here and wonder how such a gloriously oblique slice of oddness came to bother the UK charts in 1982. For the full story on singer Billy Mackenzie, check out Tom Doyle's excellent The Glamour Chase.
Even as a teenager looking for alternatives to the chart bound sounds of the 80s, I remember initially being baffled by its out of the moment sound. Now I know that Billy Mackenzie, ably assisted by Alan Rankine, was actually following an illustrious torchsong course charted by Hoagy Carmichael, Judy Garland, Jacques Brel, Ella Fitzgerald, Scott Walker and a host of others. As ever the style leaders were way ahead of me.
All of this meandering leads me finally to a point about getting your non-mainstream or truly odd music heard. And comparing the situation from the era of the major label hegemony (let’s say 1960 to 2000) to today's digital democratisation. Like countless other artists, The Associates were originally bankrolled by their record company with an advance on a multi-album deal. Once Billy Mackenzie refused to tour and started to produce material which was different to the early tracks, the label lost interest and eventually declined to release his albums. Again a very familiar tale – you only need to look at the experiences of the recently departed Mark Hollis and Scott Walker, who both went from teen pop idols to ‘challenging’ solo artists.
The major record labels plainly were only interested in profit (and ideally a quick one) not in art. For them, there was always the next big thing round the bend which would continue to fund their bad business model and feed the trough for their coked up noses. Even the indie labels which sprang up in response to this didn’t find it easy as they often depended on the majors for distribution.
In contrast today’s music makers don’t need advances as they can make make music in their bedroom, rather than just using it as somewhere to practice singing into their hairbrush. They can self release on Spotify, Apple Music etc. They own and control the mode of production. You could argue that they will be more likely to reach higher levels of creativity because their labour is an act of personal creation and a projection of their identity, not an alienating means of survival.
In 20 years have we gone from the very definition of a capitalist system to a Marxist model of music making? Well not quite because there is still the thorny issue of distribution and making enough money to survive. In a capitalist model the owner of the mode of production only needs to pay the workers enough to survive and thus keep them producing. In our brave new world many musicians don’t even get that much in return for their endeavours.
But at least they can have a shot at it. Maybe with busking, live gigs, merchandise and some social media wizardry they can make a living doing what they love. Without an update to the previous (broken) model we would never get to hear great new music, ranging from unknown Blowtorch artists like Catsica, jamie and Earth Dad to recent unknowns such as Billie Eilish and Hak Baker. It's a conundrum but not unsolvable.