How would you say the state of non-commercial music (as a whole) in 2012 differs from when you first entered the professional music world in the late 60's/early 70's?
In the late ‘60s there was a handful of major labels and an almost non-existent independent sector. The idea that a band could release its own LPs was not in the air (though there were a few visionary exceptions, mostly in other fields—such as Sun Ra’s Saturn and Harry Partch’s Gate V labels, though lacking any general distribution, these were effectively invisible). And there was the additional problem of distribution: you could make a record, but how would you get it into the shops? A tiny monopoly of distributors dominated the market, structurally tied into the needs of the majors; anything outside that was too much trouble. So bands didn’t think of going it alone, instead they looked for labels. And that meant major labels or their specialist subsidiaries.
On the other hand, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s—through a complex set of special circumstances—both labels and public were looking for novelty and innovation, and these are things that an essentially parasitic music industry can’t manufacture, so they had to chase after them instead, meaning that it was still possible for outsiders to get into the game. In addition, there was a moderately healthy gig circuit routinely programming new bands, and these were gigs that paid. Support groups didn’t play for nothing then, or ‘pay to play’ as now; they got reasonable money. So the sign-posted way to success was to get onto the ladder and climb up into the system. And it seemed to work. So there was no thought—and no reason to think—of finding a public in any other way.
This picture has now changed beyond all recognition. The old patriarchy has long collapsed and the few surviving major labels face ever-diminishing sales, so they invest what they have in safe mainstream product or dirt-cheap back-catalogue reissues. The old practice of ploughing a healthy percentage of turnover back into speculative releases—testing the water and discovering new talent—has long since devolved onto more energetic, less profit-oriented, independent labels, the first batch of which emerged in the late ‘70s, part of the mini-revolution that was Punk (swiftly followed by its more canny beneficiaries, the New Wave). In that environment, if a band rose to the top, a major could buy it up, thereby avoiding the cost of speculative research. And occasionally an independent might be able to hang on to a success and edge a little closer to mini-major status.
In this climate, all but very mainstream bands had to aim to be signed by independents or release their own records. The independent marketplace expanded crazily throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, at the same time fragmenting into a mass of disconnected and self-contained specialist niche communities. Everything changed: a relatively inclusive mainstream (Beefheart and Sinatra had coexisted on the Warner catalogue) fractured into a major, hits-only, mainstream while a multiplying catalogue of subcultures peeled away, disappearing from the general conversation altogether. So, as the nature of the listening public changed, bands’ ambitions changed along with it.
Looking back, Henry Cow was extraordinarily lucky: we, like many other bands of our era, having strayed across—or broken through—the common-practice fences, had been pitched into the wild, uncharted territories of extended electrification, new instruments, hybrid compositional techniques, cross genre borrowing, radical recording practices, unfettered improvisation and controlled noise… a relatively uncharted terrain. Most of those territories are mapped now, so the sense of possibility and discovery has inevitably dimmed. Of course, there are other terrae novae, but they are not—as they were for us—in such plain sight. I hasten to add that that is not because we were smarter; it’s just that we were just lucky enough to be active during an untypical historical hiccup. The next musical breakthrough will come along in its own time, as they always do. Meanwhile, consolidation, revival and minor modifications of existing forms will continue to dominate a musical climate no longer particularly supportive of experiment and innovation. In other words, it couldn’t be much more different now than it was it the late ‘60s, or much harder to survive in.