Taking Popular Culture Seriously: Public Service Television and Popular Music Heritage July 26, 2012Posted by wallofsound in Abstracts, Music History.
An abstract for a proposed article I have submitted to write with Paul Long
This article explores the ways in which the BBC has scheduled popular music programming on BBC4. Launched in March 2002, BBC4 was the Corporation’s first foray into the digital distribution of television programming. For the station’s originators the channel was a site for high-quality and distinctive programming, especially in music, offering a serious approach to its subjects in tandem with a commitment to myriad listening and viewing pleasures. Peter Maniura, the BBC’s Head of Classical Music charged with formulating the channel’s music policy, has said that his intention was to ‘broaden the mix and give more depth and volume’ and to give airtime to popular music genres not usually covered on ‘mainstream’ channels. Janice Hadlow, BBC4’s original controller, has said that the channel aimed to challenge viewers: its goals in music programming ‘allow people to enjoy what they know and love already, but also about introducing an intelligent and discerning audience to new and challenging music’.
The channel offers music-themed nights, or extended seasons of music programming, often acting as a testing ground for new approaches to music broadcasting by the BBC. Friday night has become the point in the week in which popular music programming, and music theming, is concentrated. An evening’s schedule will usually be built around a new BBC documentary production supported by rebroadcasts of material taken from the BBC’s extensive television music archive.
We ask: how have BBC4 programmers managed music commissioning and scheduling across broadcast, online forums and social media platforms? And in what ways is the material presented in the Friday night slot understood in relation to a wider set of practices around popular music heritage exemplified by magazine such as Mojo or Uncut and Simon Reynolds much-discussed Retromania thesis? We suggest that the ongoing ‘curation’ of pop’s heritage (which perforce involves a contribution to defining that heritage) and archival retrieval by the BBC of its own recordings, highlights a history of the treatment of popular music and ways of treating its forms seriously as behooves the public service remit.
The nature of this programming is exemplified by the Britannia documentary series and one-off films which concern the history of musical genres and related cultural activities in the UK. Beginning with Jazz Britannia in 2005, subsequent contributions include similar treatments of folk (2006), soul (2007), dance music (2007), pop (2008), prog rock (2009), synth (2009), blues (2009), heavy metal (2010) and lately punk (2011) (see: Long & Wall, 2010; Wall & Long, 2011). With notably high production values, extensive archival research and interview schedules, such programmes utilise an impressive wealth of media sources, as well as many original contributions from performers and critics. Original documentaries are screened alongside repeats from the BBC TV vaults such as complete episodes from Jazz 625 (1964–65) or compilations of available performances from series such as Monitor (1958– 65), Colour Me Pop (1968–69) or The Old grey Whistle Test (1971–87).
Stomping Ground: How Northern Soul Built a Dance Community
There are a number of myths about the UK Northern Soul music culture which tend to disguise how soul fans have operated as a self-sustaining community over the last forty years. Drawing upon my own experience on the scene, and my published research, I’ll be highlighting three of these myths and examining how a networks of venues and DJs established a body of recorded music and forms of dance as the basis of the Northern Soul community. In doing so I want to ask some questions about the place of venues like Wigan Casino, the conventions of dancing at a Northern night and, perhaps most controversially, the role of class, gender and race on the Northern dance-floor.
I’ll be delivering a presentation on this theme at Symposium on Soul Music and Community in the Lord Mayor’s Parlour, Manchester Town Hall, Albert Square Manchester, M2 5DB
There will be a new edition of the book I wrote with Paul Long out soon. This is how you’ll recognise it.
The X Factor in a thousand words June 17, 2012Posted by wallofsound in Music in the media.
A few months ago I posted an analysis of The X Factor in 100 words. It was an abstract for an essay accepted for a new book, Mythologies Today. The book aims to return the Roland Barthes’ famous essays from the 1950s exploring the ideological operation of French popular culture. I have always admired Barthes’ essays, and particularly his written style. The way he discusses his subject — the meaning of popular culture — is not simply a report of his analysis, but an unfolding investigation of the way language functions to naturalise ideas.
I have now completed my full essay. At 2500 works it is at the upper end of the typical length of a Barthes essay. I have distilled that essay into 1000 words.
The X Factor
Here, x marks that factor that we cannot define and so struggle to name, standing for that elusive quality. The show intertwines the quest to find the person with that elusive quality, with the contestants’ personal journeys of self-discovery. In the narrative arc of this series, each weekly programme sets out a stage of the journey of discovery, repeatedly calling upon the ‘backstories’ of the contestants as we join in the quest for the x-factor, which is to be found in ‘the recording voice’ of the winner. The X Factor is a production line for the end of the age of the record and the start of the age of something not yet formed, let alone named. The X Factor turns the process of star-making into the textual form of a new music commodity. The music industry used to make stars to sell records, the programme makes records to sell the process of making a star. It superficially resembles elements of the television talent contest, the docusoap story of pop star lives, and the variety show, but The X Factor is as much the creation of the practices of the music industry as of television.
In establishing itself as a successful television format, The X Factor has come to represent the story of discovery and fame, but in the beginning the programme needed to establish a frame of reference for us as viewers by drawing upon the life stories of the judge-mentors. Simon Cowell, the music label entrepreneur, Louis Walsh, the pop group manger, and Sharon Osbourne the rock manager and docusoap star. Later, the judge-mentors – Dannii Minogue, Cheryl Cole, Gary Barlow, Kelly Rowland and Tulisa Contostavlos – increasingly personified the very music stars that the contestants aspired to be. Each judge-mentor represents a distinct emotional archetype: Cowell, the teller of truth; Walsh, ‘the gusher’; and Osbourne the nurturer. Cole later stood as the teller of a deeper truth, buttressed by the sense that she had experienced what the contestants were going through in a way that Cowell and Walsh just had not.
The role of judge and mentor is unstable within the myth of the quest for the x-factor, and makes little sense in the televisual logic of the talent competition. However, in the mythical world of fame-making the emotional archetypes are more important than the functional roles they initially represent. The dynamic of these characters also requires a third functional role and emotional archetype. Initially this was former pop journalist Kate Thornton, reprising her role in Pop Idol, and in later series, Dermot O’Leary repeated his Big Brother persona, combining the functions of narrator, interrogator and contestant’s friend.
While the x-factor cannot be defined, named, or represented it can be experienced as sound. In The X Factor, ‘the voice’ functions to be heard and recognised, to be selected, and ultimately to be recorded. X is sounded but not marked; performed but not pronounceable.
Our own role as audience members is also mythologised. Just as the new forms of social media seem to offer a greater democratic participation than the old, X Factor seems to offer us a say in the A&R process we were once denied. And just as the old music industry insisted that, ultimately, we chose who the pop stars really were, we are assured that we have a role in auditioning the contestants. In the final stages of the selection process, we can vote for our favourites, securing their place in the future weeks. Even in the face of an insistence from the judge-mentors that a contestant is not good enough, we can, through our collective will, overturn that decision. This is an interactive role which extends beyond that of TV viewer to text voter, and further into the weekly post-show spin-off Xtra Factor, the online forums, and Twitter hashtag exchanges. However, when we have made such a commitment to an artists and their journey, we are much more likely to buy the record which is the end product of the process.
The X Factor is the new music industry at work: selecting the potentially talented raw material from the spoil; refining the potential of the contestants to the perceived requirements of the market; commodifying this output into a saleable record; and finally building additional forms of consumption into further saleable services that turn the primary text into a metatext. Cowell’s independent music and television production company, Syco, makes both the record and the television programme, and sells the former to pop fans in order to sell the latter to television networks. The networks themselves will pay significant sums because the popularity of the programme enables profits to be made by selling the viewing audience to advertisers. Just as the programme invests in the raw material of contestants who may have ‘the voice’, Syco invests in the production of a record to make a television programme, and the networks invest in a programme to buy an audience it can sell to advertisers. Each of these is a process of capitalisation, and while we are invited to share in the dreams of aspirant pop stars, it is the dreams and aspirations of the owners of this capital who ultimately benefit. While the contestants labour hard to develop themselves, the real returns flow to the holders of the capital resource.
At one level, The X Factor is the pop process laid bare; at another, it is the multimedia promotion arm of a record industry. That talent and opportunity are the keys to success is the show’s core message; fame and stardom the ultimate ambitions. The real opportunity, though, is to remake pop music for an age in which the record is no longer the bankable commodity it once was. Stardom is no longer the long-term process of capitalisation, but the short-term means to capitalise the audience. Ultimately, we all know this is all there; it’s just that we struggle to give it a name.
Jazz on BBC Radio 1922 to 1959 May 28, 2012Posted by wallofsound in Abstracts, British Jazz.
Here’s an abstract for a book chapter I hope to write if the editors get the green light from the publishers. It’s a development of an earlier proposal that went up to 1980. Your suggestions and comments are, as always, very welcome.
This chapter provides a detailed study of the ambiguous role that jazz has played in the BBC’s broadcasts from its inception as a broadcaster to its maturity as a corporation in the late 1950s. It will examine the institutional politics that lay behind programming decisions, the forms of jazz transmitted, and the programme styles that developed.
Both as a music and as a social practice jazz seemed to defy the cultural categories that the BBC used to organise its broadcast output. From the beginning, BBC staff were in conflict over whether the new American phenomenon should be classified as music or variety, and so whether it deserved to be treated as a new form of chamber music or a turn in an entertainment programme.
The BBC had a dance orchestra as early as 1928, but jazz was understood to be a foreign import: exciting for some, dangerous to British culture for others. There were broadcasts of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington band performances during their early 1930s tours, and Alistair Cooke’s American Jam Session later in that decade, but the Radio Rhythm Club and Jazz Club programmes did not start until the 1940s. By the end of that decade, the BBC had reorganised its output around three services, and jazz was mostly allocated to the Light programme, where the trad jazz scene was championed along with nostalgic big band programmes.
An interrogation of this history brings into sharp focus significant aspects of the BBC role as a key institution within British life, and the corporation’s uneven relationship with British and American art and popular culture.
Contemporary Jazz Collectives in the UK May 8, 2012Posted by wallofsound in British Jazz, Jazz.
Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester are broadly comparable UK cities based in the Midlands and the North of England, all several hundred miles from London. They each have self-sustaining vibrant jazz and improvised music scenes built around the activities of an impressively large contingent of young jazz players, many with close ties to the internationally-renown jazz performance courses found in each city. While they share some common features, a comparison between them raises some interesting differences. As we will reveal in greater detail later, these scenes are driven by ideas of jazz as a transnational progressive music, and collective organisation has developed as a means to sustain participation in what is understood by participants to be progressive music-making, even in the face of a difficult economic climate for such activities.
These localized scenes certainly reflect Will Straw’s (1997) suggestion that the local and the global are intertwined in the construction and development of localized music scenes. Straw contrasts a community, which he sees as a stable entity having a geographically-specific history, with a music scene which he presents as developing across geography, ever-changing and characterized by cross-fertilisation. This distinction between community and scene has proven to be a useful justification for the methodology presented here as this research found fluid and ever-changing relationships between all of the components within the scenes. To add further nuance, Sara Cohen’s primary analysis of other geographically-rooted scenes reveals a less confident conclusion: that scenes are fragile and threatened by cultural and technological change (Cohen 2007: 84). This work demonstrates that the fragility identified by Cohen is a central driver to the practices of adaptation and transformation in the music scenes we observed.
For the purposes of this article, the word ‘collective’ can be understood to describe a partnership of individuals who have achieved a creative or political consensus and who typically wish to operate via some sort of egalitarian system. Although jazz ensembles have historically been organized around the notion of a band and its leader, collective organisation is an idea that has had a great deal of power within jazz ideology. Jazz collectives have played a significant, yet neglected, part in the development of jazz having been associated firstly in the late 1950s and early 1960s with mainly black musical cultures in a range of American cities, and later with European approaches to free improvisation from the mid-1960s onwards. More recently, London-based jazz collectives of the twenty-first century, such as F-ire (Fellowship for Integrated Rhythmic Expression) and Loop, have been given attention by the jazz media. This article aims to examine collectives operating in cities outside of London, where the practice has received less attention, and where they take on different complexions and roles. We do, though, use published research on these other forms of collective organisation as a reference point in our discussion of our primary findings. In particular, we are interested in the degree to which there are continuities or differences in cultural practice and meaning between these the collectives at the centre of our research and those in operation elsewhere or at an earlier time.
The notion of the ‘progressive’ within jazz is less easy to define, and we seek to understand the idea from the perspective of the musicians and scene we have studied, rather than to set a definition against which we evaluate their cultural practices. In DeVeaux’s study, focused upon ideas and practices prevalent in bebop, progress is a personal and collective sense of improvement, often associated with creating new and more demanding musical performances. In particular, this was linked strongly to music education, innovation, African-American identity and an anti-commercialism (36-42; 278-9). Studies of the 1950s and 60s black arts collectives, and of the 1960s and 70s European collectives have also highlighted many of these same ideas (see, for instance, Carr 1973/2008; Wickes 1999; Tapscott and Isoardi 2001; Looker 2004; McKay 2005: 191-241; Lewis 2008). In simple terms progressiveness is the attribute of musicians who make progress. While we see these ideas as part of the discursive repertoire open to young contemporary jazz musicians in Britain, we found that they were adopted and adapted in distinct ways.
In conducting this research, we started with a broad analysis of the political economic structure of each scene, before moving on to examine the cultural relationships and practices which governed music-making in each area. As part of this research we interviewed musicians who self-identified as members of jazz collectives operating in Birmingham, Leeds or Manchester from the lists of artists included in the web pages published by these collectives. We recorded interviews in person, or over Skype, with a range of musicians, promoters and course leaders in jazz studies programmes. In setting out our findings we have organized the article into three sections. We start with an examination of collective organisation in our selected cities, arguing that they developed to create an economically-viable way of pursuing collective interests in playing live jazz and improvised music. We follow this with an investigation of the way that these collectives create a meaningful scene from ideas and music cultural practices drawn from both the jazz tradition and wider popular music. We evaluate in what sense and to what degree this could be understood as a progressive practice. Our analysis suggests that forms of naming drawn from jazz history, along with distinct approaches to live music and improvisation, are used to distance this scene from the dominant organisation of popular music, and from other local jazz activity. Finally, we look at the significance of jazz education revealing that the role of performance courses is both central and yet complex within the scenes. Although a relatively modest, localized study, our findings suggest that the practices of musicians off the bandstand are as important as their live music-making. Equally, we find that the ways that these musicians engage with jazz’s past in the present, the permeability of the boundary between jazz and other forms of popular music for these collectives, and the inter-relationship of this localized improvised music to its global presence are all important in understanding contemporary jazz practice. We also raise some questions about the way that the relationship of jazz education to graduate careers is usually characterised.
In each city, the collective organisation of musicians, for all its similarities, has had strikingly different orientations. In Birmingham, the collective activity has tended to focus on the organisation of performances in live venues and the use of the internet as a branding, promotion, and connective tool. This activity has been particularly welcomed by the publicly-funded regional promoter, Birmingham Jazz (now known as Jazz Lines), in their attempt to find new audiences for jazz. By contrast, in Leeds, according to our interviews with early activists, the collective activity emerged as a means to create a space for what was seen as a more progressive form of music-making than that supported by existing local jazz institutions. In Manchester the collective action is most apparent as a public face through a record label, and large-scale music ensembles.
The majority of the examples presented here are from the Birmingham-based collective known as Cobweb (Creatives of Birmingham Web). As part of its online branding, Cobweb describes itself as an independent jazz and contemporary music collective made up of around 40 active musicians. The collective attempts to promote its activities and provide a networking context in which Birmingham-based musicians can develop, collaborate and perform. The primary method employed by Cobweb to facilitate these activities is the organisation of regular live music events which have, over the years, taken place at a variety of venues across Birmingham such as the Yardbird and the Lamp Tavern (both in the city centre), the Brown Lion (in the city’s historic Jewellery Quarter), the Spotted Dog (in Digbeth, one of the city’s old industrial quarters redesignated as the cultural quarter), the Edgbaston Tap (in an upmarket suburb), the Drum (the black arts centre north of the centre), and the Cross (in Moseley, a Victorian suburb). Over the years the collective is recognized for its links to the following artists and ensembles: Aaron Diaz and Moon Unit, Chris Mapp and Gambol, Percy Pursglove, Sam Wooster and Husk, Sid Peacock and Surge and Macondo Village Band, Steve Tromans and the Howl Band, Lluis Mather and Noose, Jim Bashford, Rob Anstey, Mike Fletcher, Euan Palmer, Jonathan Silk and Sam Jesson. Many of these musicians are graduates of the Birmingham Conservatoire.
LIMA (Leeds Improvised Music Association) and EFPI of Manchester are collectives also closely affiliated with music schools, namely Leeds College of Music and The Royal Northern College of Music. LIMA (Leeds Improvised Music Association) characterizes itself as an experimental UK music collective engaging in musical activities ranging from performances in rock/DIY clubs, concert halls, and international music festivals, to interdisciplinary collaborations with architecture, dance, and film. There are approximately 25 bands that have permutated from LIMA’s 17 members. The most recognisable name is arguably trioVD, however, the collective claims an association with Matthew Bourne, Chris Sharkey, Christophe de Bezenac, Dave Kane, Petter Fadnes, Chris Bussey, Colin Sutton, Kari Bleivik, Paul Hession, Simon Kaylor, Ståle Birkeland, Richard Ormrod, Maria Jardardottir, Ninon Foiret, Jonny Flockton, Paul Moore, Rus Pearson, Simon Beddoe and Elisabeth Nygård. It also acts as an umbrella organisation for bands like LIMA Orchestra, trioVD, Bilbao Syndrome, Metropolis, The Geordie Approach, Sonic Stories, Sharkestra, Minghe Morte, EGG3, Inertia Trio, Klubbeduppe, Melatonin, Mort Butane, Swinepipe, Røyst, Curious Voice Duo, Bourne/de Bezenac duo, Argentinian landscape project, Le Temps de la Brume, Stockpot Stopcock, The Electric Dr M, The Points System, The Thin Red Line, Conquistador and Dave Kane’s Rabbit Project.
EFPI is a record label based in Manchester comprising musicians and promoters who wish to explore improvised, jazz and experimental music. Founded by Anton Hunter (The Noise Upstairs), Sam Andreae (Freedom Principle) and Ben Cottrell (Beats & Pieces Big Band), EFPI describe themselves as an umbrella organisation with the goal of promoting their own work and the work of musicians connected with them. On its website, the label claims to enjoy ‘healthy professional and artistic relationships’ with other UK musician-run organisations such as the F-IRE, Loop and Cobweb collectives. EFPI have been affiliated with groups like Beats and Pieces Big Band, HAQ, Aaargh!, Silence Blossoms, 265 Quartet and Trio Riot. By way of comparison, London’s F-ire collective names 27 bands from 12 core members including Polar Bear, Finn Peters Quintet and Acoustic Ladyland. Loop collective claims 23 bands out of 17 core members. Outhouse is probably the most recognisable group to have emerged from Loop.
Although jazz as a form of music has been distributed primarily through records, and our understanding of its history and meaning is based upon these texts, at the heart of its music-making discourse is live performance, particularly the celebration of improvisation. In this age of recorded music and online music culture, we found that the notion of ‘liveness’ was still central to the ethos of the young musicians in these jazz scenes. Our analysis suggests that, in all three cities, it is possible to discern in the operations of a collective a clear political economic purpose: to create a financially viable space in which to pursue their interest in the artistic ideals of jazz. We also conclude that this speaks to the motivation of young musicians to work in diverse musical forms and to understand jazz performance, particularly improvisation, as a collective act that represents and communicates important values.
The musicians that have contributed to this study tend to view the life of a jazz musician as an attempt to fulfil artistic ideals. Describing the personal motivations of musicians in these local collectives, one Cobweb member remarked: ‘we decided that we wanted to be true to an artistic vision rather than to have something stable in a financial sense’ (interview with authors). Given that a large number of musicians earned part of their living outside the collective scene, in teaching and doing the occasional lucrative function, gig or tour, it is notable how much of their interviews focused on the importance to them of the collective, and that the latter opportunities were most often presented as ways to earn enough to carry on with the artistic practices they valued.
The place of the musicians in our study within this semiotic and organisational field of practice is of interest here. First, the musicians we studied self-identified themselves as ‘collectives’ eschewing the naming systems in use in our pop and rock examples, which most often deploy nouns associated with larger forms of commercial production: ‘corporation’, ‘factory’, or ‘organisation’. It is also notable that the names of jazz collectives under analysis here specifically relate back to the first and second generation of jazz collectives. Cobweb, LIMA, and EFPI, along with London-based collective F-ire, use initials or acronyms to formulate their names in echo of AACM, BAG and PAPA or ICP and SME. Second, the contemporary collectives share an emphasis with the earlier collectives on a political economy and culture of live music-making, while these other examples broadly operate in the mediation and dissemination of music as recordings.
Nevertheless, none of the musicians who contributed to this research presented their activities as a serious attempt to reproduce the practices of jazz collectives from the past. A co-founder of LIMA remarked:
I don’t think we sat down and discussed the links with other collectives. What we saw with F-ire and the earlier European collectives was that it was a useful brand, and that if we stuck together under a certain umbrella, people would notice us.
In fact, as we have shown, the idea of collective organisation in the UK tended to be a London-based phenomena, and the bands that carried it into the 1980s and 1990s dispensed with the collective tag when they named themselves Jazz Warriors and Loose Tubes, emphasising a black American post-bop tradition and a more British humour respectively. Collective organisation, as it pertains to jazz music making in Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, is a localized phenomena with intrinsic links to city spaces, cultures and individuals. One thread that ties together most of this activity is the notion of achieving creative independence, expressed in these terms by a member of LIMA:
It’s the independence that you get. You don’t have to answer to anything or anyone. It’s empowering being able to do these things without having to ask for handouts. We had the ability to go out there and perform without spending any money on it.
While most jazz musicians within these scenes engage with collective practices in an attempt to sustain their artistic growth and remain true to an artistic vision of self-expression, in practice, the organisational work has as much in common with a DIY independent punk or rock aesthetic than typical pop or jazz production routines. Through the attention that these jazz musicians award to live performance and improvisation, it is evident that distribution and consumption are intentionally woven into the experiences shared by live audiences. Unlike labels such as Motown, jazz musicians tend to avoid repeat use of a stable cohort of musicians in different musical settings. Instead, each ensemble starts out with its own individual musical and artistic goals. Again, though, the young contemporary musicians do not connect their activities to the more overtly political founders of the DIY rock ethos, like Crass, nor do the activities themselves represent the sorts of collective political action promoted by the anarcho-punk movement.
For the jazz musicians who have participated in this study, the practices of collective organisation do signals independence, financial sustainability and artistic growth, even if these are not understood in the political terms of the past. Nevertheless, these are values that have great power in the lives of contemporary jazz musicians and are frequently employed and reflected upon by those working within urban jazz scenes. It is within these urban scenes that most live performance activity takes place and collective activity within jazz typically orientates around live work. When jazz musicians self-consciously describe themselves as being members of a collective, they are drawing upon, and pointing to, a range of attributes that they have identified as desirable, such as ideas of collective power, reinforcement of creative goals, shared economic resources and resistance to commercial influences.
An important aspect of this study is the role of jazz studies courses in these regional jazz scenes. The role of jazz education in jazz culture has been the subject of some debate since such courses became institutionalized in universities, schools of music and conservatoires. Stuart Nicholson’s contribution summarizes the common accusation that a standardized US approach encourages stylistic conformity contrasted with a more eclectic European approach (Nicholson 2005: 99-127). Nicholson’s discussion is limited only to issues of musical style and does not address questions that relate to the political economy and culture of self-sustaining scenes. In contrast, David Ake’s (2010) more thoughtful discussion of the role of jazz education notes its absence or marginalization as a theme in both jazz histories or contemporary analyses. He argues that jazz education is seen unfairly by its critics as ‘unhip’, stifling of innovation, and associated with conservative tendencies in jazz However, there has been very little research on the actual relationships between college jazz programmes and vitality or diversity in jazz scenes.
The fact that all three jazz scenes we examined were based in cities with internationally-known jazz programmes, and that large numbers of the collective members had studied on those programmes is prima facie evidence of the importance of jazz education in each of the scenes. As researchers, we initially speculated that perhaps the young musicians were applying lessons from their studies by taking direct inspiration from American or European collectives of the 1960s or 1970s. However, this is not the case. The jazz collectives in Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester are not coherently or consciously operating in a tradition; the process is more organic and autonomous than expected and the inspiration for collective activity is more widely diffused. Neither do musicians appear to be learning didactic lessons from jazz history courses about how to organize themselves, but are instead taking inspiration from what is absent in the courses, such as a focus on free playing, improvisation, self-marketing and live work with a host of different musicians. To refer back to Straw’s comments about the construction and development of music scenes, the collective organisation of contemporary jazz musicians in the UK is less about the localized community and more about learning how to operate within an existing infrastructure in order to develop new, eclectic, potentially global scenes.
Historically, one way that musicians have learned about the philosophies and objectives of music collectives is through the free training programmes instituted by cooperatives like AACM and BAG. Dave Laing describes collectives like the AACM as ‘musicians’ self-help bodies’ (2002: 325), and these organisations have done a great deal to educate and empower musicians living in cities like Chicago and St. Louis. Likewise, the work of UK based collectives have long been associated with ideas of community music, or with the educational jazz outreach programmes of music schools (Carr 1973/2008; Higgins 2007; McKay and Higham 2011). While not overlooking the importance of self-help learning within the collectives, the existence of the jazz programmes is important at three levels. First they attract a sizable number of new and talented musicians from across the world to the cities each year. Many remain in the area, and these graduates form the backbone of each collective. Secondly, the structure of a jazz education, in which musicians must play with a range of other musicians in different combinations and playing different forms of jazz provides an encultured blueprint for the operation of the jazz collectives; members permutate themselves into different ensembles to enable them to play in a variety of different ways. The college courses, along with the institutions of the local scene, also seem to establish some sort of notion of the jazz establishment against which the activity of the collective is meaningful.
Members of Cobweb have noted that there is very little overlap between Conservatoire students and older, more established, Birmingham jazz artists. One Birmingham based jazz promoter saw this partly as a generational divide, but also a sense that the younger musicians view experimental expressions of avant-garde free playing to be their domain versus the more traditional straight-ahead jazz played by the older generation. One Cobweb member described his perception as follows:
People who go to music colleges tend to be younger, or perhaps a bit more open to learning new things about the music. If you’re prepared to waste thousands of pounds studying jazz at a Conservatoire, then you are probably more open to exploring things as an artist. If you haven’t had that, you’d probably be a bit more mainstream and go where the work is.
Contemporary jazz musicians who are also members of Cobweb characterize their pursuits as passion-led. A local jazz musician and member of Cobweb stated: ‘wanting to be better at your instrument and express yourself more easily is really the main thing. I don’t think anyone would go to the Conservatoire thinking ‘I want to be a jazz star and this is my route to it’. It’s more of a self-exploration thing.’ Indeed, these routes to self-exploration are rarely rewarded with personal fame or commercial success. The desire to explore the boundaries of artistic freedom can even conflict with the requirements of educational assessment, as one Birmingham-based jazz musician noted: ‘the more creative musicians might find it hard to exist at the Conservatoire because it’s hard for what they are doing creatively to be assessed within that criteria.’
We should first explicitly answer our version of DeVeaux’s question that we posed at the outset of this article. For these locally-based musicians at least, collective activity gives them an identity as a progressive jazz musician, the means to participate in the sorts of regular and diverse music-making situations they desire, and the opportunity to use improvisation as means of achieving a satisfying aesthetic experience. This is a notably different sense of progressive than that used by either DeVeaux’s bebop musicians, or the earlier generations of collectives. On could almost say it was an idea of progressiveness with out an overt political notion of progress. While use of the term collective, and the naming of the groupings themselves, ties back to other historically-located collectives, the practices adopted by the groups are not directly modeled on these collectives, but on ideas of the less politically-motivated end of the spectrum of DIY activities within rock music. The music colleges from which many of the collective musicians have graduated offer important lessons about the purity of musical experience and the technical skills to deploy them but, in the musicians’ minds at least, much of their activity is set in opposition to the colleges, and indeed the older local scenes.
This article has examined the conditions under which the production and dissemination of music are organized by young jazz musicians in three major UK cities. In particular we examined how collectivisation is institutionalized in the working lives of young jazz musicians to organize a series of live venue club nights into a viable scene, and allow then to play in a multiplicity of settings in what some of them understand is a postmodern take on jazz improvisation. We argue that the semiotics of collective organisation is as important to the musicians as its political economics. Both are more important than any sense of political progressiveness. This certainly suggests that the role of the European conservatoire, in Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester at least, has a more complex relationship to graduate music-making than suggested by Nicholson.
We have also been able to point to questions in wider popular music studies about the economic organisation of music, and the relationship between the global and the local. These young musicians, at least for a while, turn their back on the traditional career paths of the recording industry, while at the same time using some of the basics of live music promotion and an approach to the branding of the music which gives a prominence to venue and collective over the single stable band or the single musician. Equally, it asks us to produce a sophisticate approach to understanding how contemporary practices relate to those of the past, to education, and the actions of an individual musician in a local scene to the globalized ‘planet jazz’.
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Laing, D. (2002). The Jazz Market. The Cambridge Companion to Jazz. M. Cooke and D. Horn. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 321 – 331.
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Looker, B. (2004). Point from which creation begins : the Black Artists’ Group of St. Louis. St. Louis, Missouri Historical Society Press.
McKay, G. (2005). Circular breathing: the cultural politics of jazz in Britain. Durham, Duke University Press.
McKay, G. and B. Higham (2011). Community music: history and current practice, its constructions of ‘community’, digital turns and future soundings. Swindon, Arts & Humanities Research Council.
Nicholson, S. (2005). Is jazz dead? : (or has it moved to a new address). London, Routledge.
Straw, W. (1997). Communities and scenes in popular music. The subcultures reader. K. Gelder and S. Thornton. London ; New York, Routledge: 494 – 505.
Tapscott, H. and S. L. Isoardi (2001). Songs of the Unsung: the musical and social journey of Horace Tapscott. Durham [N.C.], Duke University Press.
Wickes, J. (1999). Innovations in British jazz. Volume One, 1960-1980. Chelmsford, Soundworld Publishers,.
 All quoted statements are from interviews with the authors. We have not included references to specific individuals, and in most cases the quotations represent views expressed more widely within our dataset.
 Jazz Warriors alumnus Courtney Pine, for instance, has pointed to the importance of Wynton Marsalis for the young black London jazz musicians in episode 3 of the Jazz Britannia (2005) documentary.
Music Heritage May 2, 2012Posted by wallofsound in Music History.
Heritage refers to those things that we inherit from the past, often to those things which somehow define or represent us. The idea that we have a popular music heritage – material goods which stand for the past of pop music – has been an emergent idea within museums over the last 20 years. Academics who have studied this phenomenon usually suggest that this represents as change in these institutions, which were originally established to protect our classical heritage, as a desire to take popular culture more seriously, and a commitment to making museums more accessible and relevant to a wider group of people. The notion of popular heritage represents the more substantial shifts in history as an academic study which we examined in chapter one, and a greater emphasis within history on popular experience and memory. It is interesting to see how these connected ideas have informed the development of different forms of museum and archives devoted to popular music. Chapter two briefly touched upon the establishment of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which clearly demonstrates how ideas of a canon of music greats has been extended to the idea of representing the history of country music in terms of objects representing the music’s heritage. This section briefly discusses four other examples: the short-lived National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield UK; the EMP Museum in Seattle USA; and examples from a city in the English Midlands, the Home of Metal, Birmingham Music Heritage, and the Birmingham Popular Music Archive. In essence this is an evaluation of two physically-located institutions which celebrate local and national popular music history, with three regionally-based projects, in either a temporary exhibition or a virtual archive, which celebrate the detail of one particular city’s music heritage.
In spite of their geographic distance, there are some striking similarities between the National Centre for Popular Music (NCPM) in Sheffield and the Seattle-based Experience Music Project (EMP). They were both established at the turn of the twenty-first century, they were both housed in striking postmodern buildings (the EPM designed by the architect of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Frank Gehry), and both featured state-of-the-art electronic displays and interactive technology to investigate popular music culture. They also both struggled to cover their costs because visitor numbers were so much lower than originally projected. The Sheffield NCPM stayed open little over a year, while the Seattle EMP survives to this day, after many struggles, and in much adapted form. Taking analyses of the NCPM by Tara Brabazon and Stephen Mallinder (2006: 98-103) and of EMP by Chris Bruce (2006) we can start to draw some conclusions about institutions which present music heritage in this form. Brabazon and Mallinder suggest that the NCPM’s failure was in part due to its location and wider problems in establishing a ‘cultural quarter’ to regenerate an area facing the problems of post-industrial decline. Although the nearby northern English city of Bradford had successfully hosted a museum for photography, film and television, Sheffield certainly lacked other attractions in the area, while the EMP was built within an area of Seattle which included existing tourist attractions like the Space Needle.
Nevertheless, similar problems in attracting visitors motivated the EMP to reduce the space assigned to music and they added the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in 2004 to strengthen its appeal. Perhaps even more importantly this change represented a continued commitment of EMP founder and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen which allowed the building to survive, while the public funder of the NCPM could not provide funds beyond the initial capital investment. The NCPM’s reliance on new technology including a futuristic 3D surround sound auditorium introduced problems of reliability and, as Brabazon and Mallinder, highlight the technology placed an over emphasis on ‘music as a tactile craft’. Although the EMP uses new technology to feature interviews and performance footage, and most recently and ambitiously to play a collection of guitars, its offering is much more that of a traditional museum. Perhaps more importantly the EMP is firmly based upon the city’s connection to rock artists like Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana, and its strong association with grunge, which has been a strong feature of exhibitions within the ‘music experience’. By contrast, while Sheffield has a rich popular music history, and notable local musician Martyn Ware was involved in the development of the centre, Sheffield failed to signify either itself as the centre of a music culture to a large audience, or the obvious home for a national celebration of popular music. Unlike photography, film or television, music is often associated with distinct locales, and while Seattle has been successful at linking itself with a transnational culture of grunge, through Nirvana, and linking grunge to a longer history of rock guitar music symbolised by Hendrix, Sheffield’s scenes have tended to be smaller, and its successful stars have been understood as transnational pop performers. The NCPM’s emphasis in its exhibits and interactve technology on music as a commercial product, rather than a cultural interaction, exacerbated this difficulty further.
By comparison, the two case studies from Birmingham take a very different approach. Like Sheffield, Birmingham has a rich music history, but even when artists have become international names their origins in the Birmingham Music scene are not that well known outside the city. The city has been associated with heavy metal, a blues-based version of rock music which rose to popularity in the 1970s, and as the project name suggests Home of Metal tried to capitalise on that connection, making the rhetorical claim to being the genres place of origin. The focus for the project was a public exhibition in one of the City’s galleries exploring “40 years of Heavy Metal and its unique birthplace” which took place in late 211 (http://www.homeofmetal.com/events/events-list/birmingham-museum-art-gallery-home-of-metal/). Built around a huge collection of memorabilia, and strongly linked to the Birmingham-originated band Black Sabbath, the project engaged metal fans and the musicians to generate exhibition content, and reproduced much of the visual iconography of metal culture. The strength of the project was the simplicity of the concept, which attendees clearly strongly associated, and the diverse way in which the story was told and engaged visitors. In comparison to the NCPM and EMP, the Home of Metal was relatively simple, and as it used an existing gallery for a temporary exhibition, it was far less costly in financial terms. The exhibition tied a relatively well-known story to the commitment of fans, their memories and keepsakes, and some regional promotion activity. It is easy to trace the ideas of disruption, margins and mainstream and roots within the exhibition, and many of the core narratives which people use to make sense of metal were presented rather than explored. For instance, the idea that metal reproduced the sound of the Midlands’ heavy industry (rather than their love of black American blues forms) is given prominence. The exhibition was, though, far more open than the narratives of television documentaries, and far richer than, say, the BBC’s Metal Britannia programme.
Birmingham also has a number of online archives, which aim to assert Birmingham’s importance in national and international popular music. The Home of Metal has continued as an online experience, and encourages continued contributions from fans. The Birmingham Music Archive (http://birminghammusicarchive.com) and Birmingham Music Heritage (http://www.birminghammusicheritage.org.uk) are both broader and even more rooted in the idea of music heritage and culture. The archive’s strap line is ‘Celebrating Birmingham’s Popular Music History’, and it offers a breadth of information and personal comment on past scenes that embrace over 200 bands and artists, tens of clubs and live venues and local recordings studios, radio stations and record shops. The emphasis is on attracting contributions and comments from music fans and these is no totalising narrative beyond the idea of a participatory culture. Fans themselves, though, do tend to use ideas of disruption in their accounts, and the idea of scenes growing from the margins into the mainstream is common. The Heritage site focuses on “untold stories” presented in a basic information format of text, iconic images and video interviews.
All these examples of music heritage share the idea of a localised, but global music culture, but each has presented and investigated it in different ways. In comparison to the television structures, all of the institutions discussed here try and engage music fans, but they all tend to very traditional stories of pop’s past. Perhaps what is most interesting about the phonomena of music heritage is the extent to which it takes popular music seriously, and the very different ways in which it is utilised for other purposes. Celebration, promotion, regeneration, engagement and storytelling pull in different directions, and the enterprises seem more successful when their scale is manageable, their focus local and their engagement with fans strongest.
Pop History on British Television April 30, 2012Posted by wallofsound in Music in the media.
The first documentary series on popular music history was probably Tony Palmer’s seventeen-part series All You Need Is Love which was broadcast on the British commercial television channel ITV in 1977. The full series is now on DVD, and extracts can be found online.
At the time of the DVD re-release, the series was criticised for its celebration of various international rock artists as being the future of popular music, dismissing disco, and missing out on the then emergence of punk (see, for instance, Lundy 2008). The criticism seems particular pertinent because the final programme in the series looks at the future of popular music through now little-known artists when, at the very moment of its screening in 1977, the moral panic about punk reached its zenith in the UK. Given that punk has taken on a position as a landmark of musical development in post-1980s histories, akin to that of rock and roll in earlier histories, the absence seems important. However, this is to suggest that Palmer did not make his history totalising enough, and that pop histories is simply about citing well-known artists or genre styles. Looking beyond artists names, we are presented with a set of themes that convincingly anticipate the characteristics of twenty-first century pop. These include both Glastonbury-like post-consumerist, collective, sustainable lifestyle music, and pop as a producer’s medium, slickly devised with scientific accuracy in studio technologies. More interestingly, he uses them to assert pop’s paradoxical and manufactured character, contrasting highly abstract with very personal styles, and stadium success with intimate rural retreat. While he misses the emergent energy of punk he does highlight the fusions of rock, folk and ‘world music’ ignored in most histories and the synthesizer-based, programmatic music that gave us disco, electropop and rave.
In a longer study of the series, Paul Long and I argued that perhaps because the series predates the print-based totalising histories examined in chapter 1, it avoids an overreliance on narratives of disruption, as well as downplaying the idea of musical roots which had dominated an earlier generation of popular music analysis (Long and Wall 2013). However, the series does consistently deploy the contrasts of margins and mainstream that are common in other pop histories, and which Palmer uses to present pop music as the voice of the people and of individual genius. Both for the time, and since, the series uses a relatively experimental televisual language to investigate popular music and encourage the viewer to about how it is meaningful. However, too often it ignores the popular culture which made the music, and tends to evaluate artists in the terms of high art. Nevertheless, we concluded that All You Need Is Love, and Palmer’s other popular music documentaries, insist that we seriously consider the past of pop and the questions that they pose to us, while more recent television histories seem more committed to reiterating an answer we already know.
By the turn of the twenty-first century television pop histories had become commonplace in the schedules. The BBC in the UK has been particularly productive in making such history documentaries, with most screened on the digital cultural programming channel, BBC4. The range has been impressive, and the value of individual programmes signaled by their central place in a themed evening of programming devoted to the subject of the documentary. Given the BBC’s commitment to public service broadcasting, and the channel’s mission as “an originator of high quality, distinctive programming, … unashamedly intelligent yet stimulatingly pleasurable”, it is revealing to examine the well-regarded music Britannia histories of music in Britain. Starting with the broadcast of Jazz Britannia in 2005, the corporation has commissioned similarly named investigations of Folk (2006), Soul (2007), Dance (2007), Pop (2008), Prog Rock (2009), Synth (2009), Blues (2009), Heavy Metal (2010), Reggae (2012) and Punk (2012). Jazz Britannia created a template for following documentaries, with its history of jazz in Britain narrated by actor Terence Stamp, its impressive wealth of archival clips from television, film and radio, still images, press cuttings, and many original interviews with British jazz players from the post-war period, supported by critics and chroniclers of the genre. As part of our on-going study of the mediation of pop history, Paul Long and I have produced detailed analyses of the Britannia franchise (Long and Wall 2010; Wall and Long 2010). While the early Jazz Britannia and Folk Britannia programmes featured considerable innovation in bringing neglected parts of British popular music and culture to the fore, they did tend to work within totalising narratives. The jazz programme is constructed around a standard narrative of disruption in which the music moves back and forth between the margins and mainstream of popular culture. This structure also highlights the way that the programme mediates previous mediations of the music in the way it organises archive material from televison, film and the press. By this we mean the programme tells its story of the oscillating popularity of jazz in Britain using extracts of media material of the original events, which themselves offered a particular representation of their subject. Nevertheless, we concluded, in a comparison with the far better known, but often critiqued, Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary, we note that the programme does not take an existing story as its template, and genuinely tries to place British jazz in its cultural context.
By contrast, the programmes which followed made use of the format of the two first series as a formula, and the some of the documentaries feature very superficial narratives. In Pop Britannia, the story is constructed around the idea that “for the last 30 years, British pop has been locked in a constant struggle between the forces of art and commerce” (BBC 2007). While this emphasis on art versus commerce in many ways reflects one of the themes Tony Palmer utilised in his productions in the 1960s and 1970s, Its use in Pop Britannia as the key narrative idea it is crudely totalising, only assigning meaning to different aspects of British pop on the basis of the degree to which they are perceived to be artistic or commercial.
Because the music Britannia programmes are so conventional, following a pattern established in many ways by Tony Palmer, it is often hard to see how else pop music history could be investigated. A useful contrast here is a programme made by the same producer/director responsible for the jazz and folk Britannia series, Mike Connolly, and presented by music journalist Paul Morley. Pop! What Is It Good For? was broadcast on BBC4 in 2008 as part of a themed three-weeks of programming that included Pop Britannia. Its form and approach could not have been more different from the latter programme, however. The conceit at the heart of Pop! What Is It Good For? is that we are watching a ‘made as-it-happens’ investigation of pop in which director Connolly and presenter Morley investigate how to make a programme about pop. Like all television, though, it is highly calculated. Built upon Morley’s 2003 book Words and Music, a 360-page investigation of the relationship between a series of records with which Morley was then obsessed, the programme concentrates Morley’s earlier argument into a journey of investigation around six songs. In an example of this connected reasoning, the programme title puns on the title of Edwin Star’s ‘War! What Is It Good For?’ At the outset the presenter poses a series of personal propositions over a montage of images from the music’s past: pop songs reflect and organise our consciousness; they compile memories sticking the past together, “showing me the future, the possibility of possibility itself”. Taking the theme of art and commerce common to Palmer’s work and Pop Britannia, Morley investigates it as a tension out of which pop culture is created. Narrating a journey across the UK to unpick how pop is made, marketed and consumed, director and presenter connect pop music as recording with its processes of production and personal identity. Cleverly taking Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ – for Morley “a song about a song – and connecting it in his own mind to US late 60s punk band the Stooges, 70s Euro-disco artist Donna Summer, and minimalist art composer Philip Glass. The programme then unearths the story of how it was made, assigned to Minogue and then promoted through interviews and demonstrations with the record’s producer and video’s director. Media archives here become fragments of memory, often presented on a split-screen with images of Morley assiduously pursuing his quest. The presenter and, slightly less often, the director pervade the programme personalising the investigation. Pop, the programme implies, is no longer something to place in an objective chronology, and organise with a totalising story, but a sophisticated web of meanings and cultural meanings. The six selected records take on the metaphor of six degrees of separation, in which one pop record is only ever six steps away from all other records, and the connections between records tell us something much more substantial about the culture of pop than the authoritative ‘voice’ of conventional documentary style.
BBC. (2007). ‘Pop Britannia: Episode Guide.’ from http://www.bbc.co.uk/musictv/popbritannia/episodes/.
Long, P. and T. Wall (2010). ‘Constructing the histories of popular music: The Britannia series’. Popular music and television in Britain. I. Inglis. Farnham, Ashgate: 11-26.
Long, P. and T. Wall (2013). ‘Tony Palmer’s All You Need Is Love – Television’s first pop history’. Sights and Sounds. B. Halligan, K. Fairclough and R. Edgar. New York, Routledge.
Lundy, Z. (2008). ‘All You Need Is Love’. PopMatters.
Wall, T. and P. Long (2010). ‘Jazz Britannia: mediating the story of British jazz on television.’ Jazz Research Journal 3(2): 145-170.
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I would be very interested in hearing what you think about the proposed cover for the second edition of Studying Popular Music Culture. Email me at wall.ofsound9 at gmail dot com
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum March 12, 2012Posted by wallofsound in Cultural critiques.
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The idea of a Hall of Fame, and later a museum, for a style of popular music builds upon late nineteenth century idea of celebrating the achievements of great people in a space set aside to memorialise them. It is interesting that country music was one of the first genres of music, in 1961, to be championed in this way. Based in Nashville, and housed in a dedicated museum since 1967, the institution is an important landmark and visitor attraction in the city’s music district. Building from an initial trio of inductees – Jimmie Rodgers, Fred Rose and Hank Williams – the Hall of Fame has been expanded usually by two or three artists a year over five decades.
In itself this shows how important tradition and the role of individual artists are within country music, as well indicating the acumen of staff at radio station WSM who initiated the notion of a country hall of fame. The station is the home of the long-running country music programme, The Grand Ole Opry. The Hall of fame is, then, an excellent example of the way that country music has distilled the value of folk authenticity into a commercial popular music. The museum website uses a quotation from Garrison Keillor, an American humourist, radio presenter and author, to make the point very clearly:
Country music is still devoted to the lyric and to the telling of stories, which people love and people need. Country music artists took what they heard around them, material that was in the air and that was common currency, and they made something entirely new. This is a museum that preserves their memory so that they can continue to inspire creators in the future. It’s also a museum that honors the people who their music was made for. Those people are all of us, people who’ve ever been lost or confused or sad or felt excluded. This museum helps to preserve these tributes to our condition. (http://countrymusichalloffame.org/mission/)
Certainly, Keillor’s words capture the way American forms of popular music, and country music in particular are seen to have distilled the traditional ballad story form with the idea of populism to celebrate ordinary people. He also tries to resolve the paradox that these collective values are seen to be carried by strong individuals, by suggesting the museum honours both artists and audiences. Although country music is sometimes thought of as highly commercialised to those outside, for fans it is the epitome of American vernacular values. The museum building is modelled so that its widows look like piano keys, and a tower is shaped to represent CD and vinyl records and the transmitting antenna of WSM. Although it does not usually articulate the sorts of radical politics associated with other folk movements in North America, Europe and beyond, country music is nevertheless perhaps the most influential contemporary music rooted in ideas of European vernacular culture.