Monday, November 19, 2012

Cheap Seats 10: Chris Cutler Interview

Today we've got the final interview of the Cheap Seats series, and one that I've been looking forward to since it was conducted all the way back in July (time flies when you're leading a double life!) inasmuch as it nicely caps the interview collection by not only encapsulating an independent musician's perspective, but also that of an owner and operator of an independent music label with a long career in non-commercial music.  As a musician, Chris Cutler is perhaps best known as the drummer for Henry Cow and Art Bears, but like the other members of those groups his recordings and performances have spanned innumerable notable collaborations and solo projects that encompass and cross too many genres and ideas to even attempt cataloging them.  In addition to his percussion skills, Cutler is an experienced lyricist, composer and writer/speaker on various musical topics and, finally, is the creator and operator of Recommended Records (ReR), which has released and distributed an eclectic array of music (most of which broadly falls under the experimental and avant-garde umbrella, and much of it falls in my "absolutely essential" category) since its creation in 1978. 

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.

Seeing you mention the difficulty for present-day musicians to reach truly new territory has really got me thinking.  Perhaps it's easier in hindsight to see this, but it seems that the first innovations at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries were still a part of the process that had been driving the evolution of Western music up to that point--gradual abandonment of the accepted harmonic and compositional rules.  It seems like eventually, both in the "classical" sector as well as in the popular music world, the limit of rules that could be abandoned was pretty much reached.  It's difficult for me to imagine that there really is any place for future musicians to go that's really as unexplored or fundamentally fresh as what happened in the early 20th century. 

As fundamentally fresh, perhaps not. Not yet. We are living through a paradigm change, and those don’t come along very often—but—then, so were Machaut, Palestrina, Monteverdi, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Sibelius et al, all of whom were exploring writing and tonality, the new paradigms that they were trying to come to terms with, and obviously there was still room for innovation and development then - as now. We are at the beginning of a long phase of discovery, mapping and excavation in which it’s not the abandonment of rules and constraints that is important (because loosening and abandonment are finite: when you reach no-rules or random structures [like Cage] you come to an endpoint, a cul de sac…and all entropic heat-death universes are essentially identical: life has stopped for them). On the contrary, it is through coherent forms of organization that what is new will emerge. And that field is still wide open.

Right now we are mapping a major cultural shift as sound recording (a concrete memory of actual sounds) competes with writing (an abstract memory of instructions). In this I think our era exhibits some affinity with the thirteenth century Ars Nova – 150 years of experiments that marked the overlap of biological memory (a subjective, impermanent, but concrete, memory system) with writing (an objective, permanent, but abstract, memory system)….. but I deviate, and this is a vast (and I’m sure contentious) subject. For anyone interested I have written about it at some length here; it’s also the subject of an online radio series I’m in the middle of preparing for the Museum of Modern Art Barcelona, the first episode of which is now online.

Though it's probably an impossible question, where is it that you think music could go in order to break out of its current paradigm, assuming that paradigm includes all of the 20th century's advancements?  What sorts of musical particulars remain unexplored to their fullest extent?  In my attempts to conceive an answer I imagine it would take some growth on the part of the average listener, since few people's ears seem to have assimilated the advancements of the early 20th century (i.e. dissonance, atonality, loose structure, rhythmic uncertainty) to a point where they can even be considered a place from which to go. Then again, there wasn't exactly a pre-existing market for things like serialism, musique concrete or AMM when they broke onto the scene...

Yes, we are all learning new vocabularies. Some of us actively through the rarified activities of the experimental music community; most of us subliminally through film and TV soundtracks, exposure to other cultures and the accidental montages endemic in modern life. We are living through a period of accelerated evolution in which a whole menagerie of new musical life-forms is emerging, some to survive, some to disappear, some to merge with others to form novel hybrids. That is a normal function of evolutionary mechanisms, especially in periods following mass extinctions. The result is a rich environment in which flexible and enduring forms emerge. But it would be foolish to try to predict what these might look (and sound) like, because it’s not just mutation and reproduction that are at work, but also changing ecospheres (audiences and cultures). In other words, there are just too many variables. Musicians make proposals and suggestions, explore and report back. They do experiments and present conclusions in the hope that a word, a phrase, a method, an insight will survive into the next generation and add some contour to the shape of the future. And right now there are countless territories to be explored. Knocking down the door was not easy, but figuring out what to do next—in the changed conditions on the other side of the revolution—is infinitely harder.  Enough for those who want to get their teeth into.

What do you think Henry Cow's career path would look like if they were just starting out today instead of the early 70's?  Is equivalent support like that provided to the band by Virgin available from other sources, or are experimental groups on their own in terms of funding and promoting their music?

I shudder to think. It’s also an impossible question. Henry Cow was contributing to a conversation that was current and, in that context, was making fairly radical proposals. Anyone now playing the kind of music we were playing then – as some of the new avant, prog and RIO bands are (their labels, not mine) – is necessarily working on the ground of nostalgia, not innovation: that conversation has long since moved on. What was new then—and answered a pressing need then—is old hat now, absorbed, tamed and superseded. So we’d need to look at the career path of a band whose relation to the present was somehow analogous to HC’s relation to its present. And that’s not easy, because in the ‘60s and ‘70s there was still a kind of mainstream, and Henry Cow, though on its fringes, was a visible part of the general conversation. Today there is no mainstream—and no shared language—just a set of increasingly disconnected dialects, of which what we would once have called experimental music is an isolated instance with no special privileges. A contemporary Henry Cow would have to address itself, then, to a small, self-selecting interest group through fan websites, Facebook connections, free-to-listen downloads, niche concerts and specialist labels. It would have little or no chance to participate in any more general cultural forum. I can only think of one band in the last 10 years that has made a real innovation in form and managed to cross over into the mainstream artworld, and that’s The Necks—and they managed only by a hair. Such a transition would have been so much easier in the early 1970s—and it would have happened much more quickly (The Necks plugged away for 20 years before the wider world took any notice; and still it’s only the fringe of the wider art world).

The support Virgin gave Henry Cow was corporate; the label had budgets and connections; it was fully represented in the mainstream press; it could afford expensive advertising and run a costly promotions department. More importantly, it could afford to absorb individual losses (for a while at least) by subsidising new or poorly selling bands from the income of its hit-makers. An independent label taking up a C21 Henry Cow couldn’t match any of this. At least in the 1970s major labels would get you a hearing, even if they couldn’t make you popular—and they were ready to back a lot of losers. But the losers had their day in the agora. Today you don’t get that chance. You might get a label that cares about music before profit, but it won’t be able link you to a mainstream public. It won’t have the reach. That said, Virgin—other than getting us into the game—did very little for us. They bankrolled our three studio albums (sending the invoices to us and taking the money back from the royalties we never received); they got us good press, and they put us into tours with Captain Beefheart, Faust and Kevin Coyne; otherwise they failed to get us any work. We had to extricate ourselves from their agency and get back to setting up our concerts ourselves. Likewise with recordings, Virgin failed miserably to get good distribution for us, because their licensees wanted Tubular Bells, not Henry Cow—which meant we were constantly touring in countries in which our records were not available. So it wasn’t quite all plain sailing back then either.

Your record label and distribution service, ReR, has been actively releasing and distributing non-commercial music since 1978; what were your initial impulses in deciding to create a specialist record label?

Someone had to do it. I set the label up initially to release my own projects (Art Bears, News from Babel, the duo with Fred Frith, & c.) because, after Virgin, I wanted no more to do with third parties; I thought it would be better to control my own output and outcomes. And once the structures were in place—most importantly the distribution structures—I could see no reason not to extend the label to include music that I liked by other people. After that, ReR grew as its catalogue grew, because there’s substance in substance. But essentially, I did it because I could, because I was inclined to, and because, politically and temperamentally, it suited me.

Do you find that today there's more or less of a need for intermediary independent music labels to help quality non-commercial music avoid marginalization?  How have the hurdles facing such musicians changed or remained similar in the intervening period?

It’s too late to avoid marginalisation, but intermediary independents are still useful, I think. Not everyone wants to spend time and energy running a label. And, as I said, there’s substance in substance: a label acquires a reputation for its taste and orientation. And the cumulative weight of a catalogue helps everyone in it. On top of that, there are economies of scale: one-stop distribution, promotional contacts built up over time, a single administrative structure, shared overheads, and so forth. Though that’s less relevant today than it was. Setting up a label in the ‘60s—not to mention setting up a distribution network—was a thinking problem, and a practical nightmare. Today it’s pretty simple; all the machinery to do-it-yourself is already in place. 

How have the developments in music digitization and file sharing in the past 20 years affected ReR?  Do you find the specialist nature of your music encourages fans to support the artists and your label, or do sales still fall victim to file sharing, and what can be done to counteract this effect?

Sales are way down. How much that is do with the diminution of interest in the kind of music we support and how much to do with pirate downloads is hard to say. Perhaps the two are linked; perhaps what’s easy tends to be undervalued? Looking at the massive devastation visited on the industry over the last five years, I am sure that specialisation has helped ReR survive. A lot of labels have gone down—and the passing trade has all but dried up—but our core listenership has so far proved fairly tenacious, and it seems still to be engaged seriously both with the music it likes and with the culture of music itself as a communicative medium. It’s not background noise or personal soundtrack, but critically integrated into their lives. Bigger picture: all the high street music chains in England are out of business except HMV, which is essentially bankrupt and is only staying afloat on credit advanced to it by major labels who would otherwise have no hard media outlets in the UK at all; and they are not ready for that, yet. So, as the shops shut down, customers for our kind of music tend to come directly to us, and that brings gains that offset some of our wholesaling losses (though frankly, not enough of them).

It took six years, and a huge investment, to make the 10 CD Henry Cow box sets, yet two days after they were released everything was up for free on somebody’s share site. That was both depressing (lack of basic morality) and self-defeating (after a while, no such projects will exist to be pirated because labels will learn they can’t finance them and won’t make them in the first place). But free is today’s acceptable norm… So, what to do? Not much. We are setting up our own pay-to-download site (at FLAC quality rather than MP3) but that’s about it. Nor am I inclined to do much other than wait, and hope that quality will win out. For now, pirates and the industry dominate the debate - with a lot of loud, faux-moral shouting and posturing ensuring, between them, that no sensible, conciliatory voices can be heard. Like George Bush and Al Qaida they need tacitly to conspire in order to be sure that it’s their extremism that sets the rules of engagement. Civilians, caught in the crossfire, as always, will pay the price.

Funny you mention the Henry Cow box showing up on download blogs… I noticed shortly after I purchased my set and was briefly engaged in an unpleasant and unsatisfying exchange with the blog owner.  What, if any, action do you and ReR take to attempt to limit this sort of activity?  Is it worth it to request blogs to remove your material or is the inevitability not worth fighting against?

First off, I don’t really look. The Cow Box upload was something someone brought to my attention. In such cases, if I can, I ask for things to be taken down, though that seems more or less never to happen; most uploaders seem rather proud of themselves and fire back waffle about freedom—though they still meekly pay their internet providers, electricity suppliers and computer retailers, so I guess big corporations aren’t touched by the freedom bug, just musicians and independent labels. In their second breath the same people claim to love music. Perhaps they also think two and two makes seven? Sometimes it plays differently though. When I wrote to a site that had all the Recommended Quarterlies up for free and told them that quite a lot of it was still in print, they immediately offered to take everything down. We agreed in the end to leave what was out of print up—I have less of a problem with that—though, ideally, artists should still, if possible, be paid. However, in principle, I think keeping out-of-print works alive can be seen as a public service. That said, site owners should still—and easily can—ask before putting things up in the first place. Across the board, upload behaviours seem mixed: some are sociopathic; some confused instances of misplaced generosity; most reveal a combination of thoughtlessness mixed with an inchoate recognition of the absence of a simple royalty distribution structure to link into. Unhappily we live in a time in which the public’s moral horizon has shrunk to embrace me, me, me and not much else; so progress in this area is likely, at best, to be slow.

Do you remain optimistic that non-commercial music can generate an adequate source of income, paying for its own creation and affording its creators an adequate lifestyle, or should non-commercial musicians be satisfied sustaining their musical endeavors with a second, money- making career?

No. Hopeful, not optimistic. A lot of interesting music is already made by people with day-jobs. In America making a living from music (unless you play at a lot of European festivals) is hard unless it’s subsidised by regular employment in another field. But I don’t think we should be satisfied with that. One can also decide to be poor and live cheaply, which is what Henry Cow did.

What's your advice to today's aspiring non-commercial musician?  Across your years of experience are there any constants in terms of avenues musicians can explore in order for difficult music to be heard?  Is there some sort of cadre of musical intelligentsia to impress (here I'm thinking about artistic grants, endowments, etc.) and how do they make their choices?  What, for example, does it take for an artist to become "recommended" by ReR?

They don’t need advising, really. People who have to do what they do, have to do what they do - and one way or another, they will do it. The avenues are: get in touch with people who seem to belong in the same world as you, make recordings and try to circulate them. Plug away. And to impress—that depends on what world you are in. In the contemporary music world there are grants and bursaries, residencies and commissions, but these are not open to people in other fields. Funding bodies vary. Some are staffed by artists and critics concerned with the work, others are staffed by bureaucrats who need boxes ticked and don’t care about the work at all—in these cases I can say that you need to say your project is aimed at the whole community, involves children, ethnic, sexual and disability minorities, and is educational and multicultural—otherwise you won’t get a cent. It was much better under the Medecis. At least they understood the concept of quality and wanted to support the best. Which, I suppose, is rather how ReR works. “Be good, by my standards” is what it takes. That’s not democratic (I leave democracy to actuaries and accountants) but at least it’s human.

How do you personally seek out new music? 

I keep my ear to the ground; I hear bands at concerts; people send recordings to the label because they know who we are; I read reviews and scour record shops wherever I go.

What have you been listening to lately?

This week: Gloria Coates’ Symphonies 1, 7 & 14, Brian Woodbury’s Town & Country, The Beach Boys’ Smile Sessions box, Stockhausen’s Aus den Seiben Tagen, Walter Becker’s Circus Money, Takeshi Terauchi & Blue Jeans, Kare Kolberg’s Omgivelser and Thelonius Monk’s Big Band & Quartet in Concert. Nothing new there. 

As a musician, what's kept you going across so many years of non- commercial music making? 

What else would I do? I’m lucky, I travel a lot and I do a number of things I really like for a living. First and foremost I’m a musician. Through the label and the distribution I get to create (or support) new work without needing anyone’s permission, and to share things I like with people who seem genuinely interested in them. Then I lecture and write on topics that have fascinated me since I started to think about why music takes the forms it does. It doesn’t really take much to keep all that going, except the maintenance and acceptance of a very modest standard of living.

Are the musical questions you've striven to answer the same, or are they evolving? 

They continually evolve in their particularity - in their essence they remain the same.

What's your next project?

There are always about a dozen things on the go, in various states of immediacy, so I’ll just go for the next chronologically:
Writing: The second batch of one-hour radio programmes on C20 musical ‘probes’ for the Museum of Modern Art in Barcelona.
Concerts: A performance, with composer Richard Barrett, of two Stockhausen pieces at the Festival of Light in Birmingham.
ReR: Finalising three boxes: A 60th anniversary collection of works by composer and performer Jon Rose; a set of 6 CDs, a DVD and book documenting the career of the German band Cassiber (of which I was a member) and a 14 CD set of experimental music coming out of Eastern Europe in the 1970s and early ‘80s. 

Cheap Seats Part 1
Cheap Seats Part 2: Non-Commercial Music 
Cheap Seats Part 3: A Day in the Studio 
Cheap Seats Part 4: The (Un)Happy Accident 
Cheap Seats Part 5: Mix Mix, Stir Stir 
Cheap Seats Part 6: Kickstarter Campaign
Cheap Seats Part 7: Alicia Dara Interview


Unknown said...

Thank you Elliot, great interview!

Unknown said...

Thanks Elliot!