Never Once Reflect

The Sinking of the Titanic: 7 final thoughts on RBMA’s demise

1: This was not investment. It was an advertising budget. These are similar but not the same. An investment requires a direct return. An advertising budget also requires a return, but less direct, more diffuse. Just as any company would, after finding that their advertising campaign wasn’t reaching its market, or that that market had already been tapped out, they reallocate it elsewhere. It’s very 20th century thinking, actually. If a company figured out that their radio ads weren’t reaching enough of an audience, they’d put more money into print ads. An easy way to think about RBMA is to replace the word “Academy” — or “event” or “lecture” or “radio broadcast” or “historical essay” — with “ad”: Red Bull Music Ad.

2: Although it employed and advanced the livelihoods of many people who were passionate about music, and excellent at their craft, Red Bull was not a benevolent patron of the arts. (See #1.)

3: It was not about building local communities. Otherwise, they would have used local venues with local employees, hired local PR companies, grips, riggers, sound engineers, and ultimately respected grassroots local scenes. They did none of these.

4: The vast archive of RMBA materials is historically significant for at least two reasons: A: superficially, it is a repository of often interesting, often important, and often informative talks, essays, and the like. B: subcutaneously, it is a repository of what a corporate brand regarded as interesting, important, and informative, as well as how those narratives were subtly curated and sculpted to reflect and represent Red Bull’s brand identity. Examples of this include their history of Montreal’s Post-rock scene, Montreal’s Torn Curtain history, &c. Here, they de- and re-historicise to suit their own narrative, aligning their product with things that had nothing to do with Red Bull — scenes that were in direct ideological opposition to everything Red Bull stands for. In this respect, an archive is all the more necessary, as a cautionary tale, if nothing else, against anything like it in the future.

5: There is a question about whether or not the loss of RBMA will be a loss for culture at large. Some of the music RBMA rubbed up against existed already (Iggy Pop, Bjork). Some of it was concurrently emergent (Flying Lotus). Some of it was produced from the ground up, and/or immediately co-opted into the Red Bull brand ecosystem. This goes for their journalistic arm, too. Some people who wrote RBMA materials (Will Straw) had other careers, and didn’t really need the gig. Others (talented freelancers like Chal Ravens or Harley Brown) are likely more dependent upon an RBMA pay cheque. So there is a continuum — from co-opting and infiltrating already-existing cultures, to producing an artificial bubble — upon which everything they touched can be placed. Of course, Iggy Pop and Bjork won’t really suffer from RBMA’s demise. What Red Bull “made from scratch” is most at risk of disappearing, and most in need of immediate attention.

6: Here is a sinister thought: what if RBMA was really an assassination attempt of an entire scene on the part of a corporate conglomerate? I would argue that electronic/experimental/dance music communities are among the most progressive, most radical, and ultimately most dangerous cultural waves to come along since the illegal rave culture of the early 1990s. Did the corporate brands figure out how to nip these movements in the bud by sponsoring them from the get-go, and then pulling the plug just as they were gaining momentum? How calculated this nefariousness was, or if it even existed at all, is up for debate. But it’s possible. And if you consider the scale of wealth and power at play, it almost seems plausible.

7: This is a time for sympathy. If you’re in an abusive relationship and your partner dumps you, it’s you who has won, even though it might not seem that way for a long time. Unfortunately, in many instances of abuse, the victim continues long afterward to make excuses and apologies for their abuser. Hostages eventually feel pity for and even solidarity with their captors. A drowning victim will often fight and sometimes take down with them a would-be rescuer. Love, empathy, and healing are what we need now. We’re on dry land. We’re safe. Where we go from here is entirely up to us.

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Dead Bull: reflections on RBMA’s failed experiment in murketing

The comedian Dave Chappelle has a smart and riotous routine about being right in an argument. He describes the veracious person as “the most uncomfortable motherfucker in the room.” It’s a position for which there are no prizes, Chappelle believes: “I was right at an orgy once. Nobody fucked me.”

Reading the announcement this morning that Red Bull Music Academy and Red Bull Radio will cease operations as of October 31st, 2019, I acutely feel Chappelle’s pain. I have been banging on about this for years. And I get no pleasure in saying I told you so. But I did tell you so. I tried my best to warn that what Red Bull was doing amounted to little other than gentrification of an entire scene, that it was an artificial bubble created by a careless corporation, that RBMA was nothing more or less than a 21st century advertising campaign to perpetuate an 18th century economic model, that Red Bull had terrible business practices, that it is an unhealthy product to consume, that despite its ostensible commitment to culture, its founders have questionable politics and hold outright racist beliefs. When nobody would commission my research, I published it on my own — here, here, and here.

I don’t want an ovation. But the bulls have come home to roost, as it were. This was going to happen sooner or later. Maybe it’s a good thing that it’s happening now.

My goal with this writing on Red Bull was never to finger-wag or moralise. It was, rather, to shed light on Red Bull’s shady process, which I believed was holding us back more than pushing us forward, deflating rather than expanding consciousness, stifling not empowering music and art. The first step toward transcending oppression is to understand how oppression works.

Rather than pay for billboards along highways, or full-page ads in magazines, Red Bull pioneered what the journalist Rob Walker in his 2008 book Buying In called “murketing”: the blurring of the lines between what we buy and who we are. Red Bull also saw an opportunity in the dance music community, of reaching potential customers who were otherwise beyond the grasp of traditional advertising: the “unreachables”. Nevertheless, the experimental electronic music population was never going to be profitable enough for Red Bull to justify pouring millions of dollars into the scene. F1 auto racing. Football. That’s where the real money is. Despite the company’s best efforts, ravers apparently didn’t buy enough Red Bull.

What really upsets me is that Red Bull fundamentally saw RBMA as an experiment. Because it was just another form of advertising, front-to-back, plain and simple, Red Bull always knew that they could abandon whatever community they had helped to cultivate. When the petri dish got dirty, or didn’t produce the results they’d anticipated, they could toss it into the trash and start another advertising experiment afresh in some other burgeoning community. There was never a sense of responsibility on the part of Red Bull to the real people who increasingly relied upon their infrastructures for their livelihoods. I know of at least a dozen people who did excellent work for Red Bull, who brought tireless enthusiasm and energy to an employer that ultimately couldn’t have cared less about them.

The most immediate issue is jobs, a question to which the company has so far refused to provide a clear answer. Red Bull had a knack for attracting some of the best and brightest musicians, journalists, broadcasters, event coordinators, and the like. Some of these people will be out of work. This is a sad consequence of an artificial ecosystem’s collapse. Yet, I was denied freelance jobs because of my anti-RBMA stance. Publications would not run my research because they feared it would upset their advertisers, none more than RBMA. So, the employment question is not a clear-cut or straightforward one.

Another big question: what’s going to happen to all those lectures, all those interviews, the radio broadcasts, the essays and articles that RBMA produced? I hope that someone who is tech-savvy enough preserves them, because regardless of whether or not they were bankrolled with corporate funding, these are all important historical documents. They should in some sense be “nationalised” and archived for the public good.

Perhaps — and I hope this is the case — we are witnessing the dawn of a new era for music and media, an era which will be less dependent upon ad-driven revenue, and that will be more open to championing and amplifying critical voices rather than those who simply sing the company jingle. I hope that we are witnessing the end to our corporate-sponsored slumbers. Even the most hardcore proponent of Red Bull’s economic model cannot today come to its defence with any sense of dignity. Red Bull was never an altruistic, philanthropic entity. They were always-already after one consistent goal: to sell more Red Bull.

What we have before us is an enormous opportunity: the spectre of a scene which could be free — free from corporate tyranny; free of commodification; free from cynicism and unquestioning compliance. “Instead of seeking to overcome capital,” Mark Fisher wrote in the introduction to his unfinished book Acid Communism, “we should focus on what capital must always obstruct: the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy.” We now have those capacities immediately in our midst.

Ultimately, art cannot be used in the service of capital, because art is necessarily a refusal of what Terence McKenna called “the dominator culture.” We cannot look back to a time that seemed better or more comfortable — the swinging sixties; 1990s rave culture — purely because we are here, now. Yes, we can recycle the language and templates of movements gone by. Still, anything we create from this moment forward must be in the service of constructing new narratives, and the unwavering confidence that those narratives will prevail. What needs to happen is no less than revolutionary. Capitalism has never been inevitable. A world beyond it, however, is not only possible. It’s necessary.

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Music for Films: An alternate list to Pitchfork’s 50 best film scores

Pitchfork’s 50-best film scores list was published this week, in advance of the 91st Academy Awards, airing tonight on ABC. The list isn’t bad. Bernard Herrmann figures in, as does Henry Mancini. But Blade Runner’s Vangelis score can’t possibly be the best film music of all time. Of all time, really? Here are some things, both obvious and obscure, that Pitchfork missed:

 

The Conversation (1974)

David Shire’s melancholic score for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation creates the perfect atmosphere for loner Harry Caul’s adventures in eavesdropping. The editor Walter Murch also contributed electronic processing and technical assistance, creating those wonderful audio sequences zeroing in on Caul’s surveillance recordings. I believe this was the first film ever to give a “sound designer” credit.

 

Fletch (1985)

Of his cohort including Jan Hammer and Hans Zimmer, Harold Faltermeyer might be the most accomplished electronic score composer of all time. His 1985 theme for Fletch was musically, rhythmically, and technically complex, and lent a sonically innovative quality to Chevy Chase’s Philip-Marlowe-for-the-1980s character. Call it “neon-noir.”

 

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

I am surprised that Pitchfork would forget the cinema heavyweight Miklós Rózsa. The Hungarian-born composer wrote scores for nearly 100 motion pictures, and served on the music department, often uncredited, for over 100 more. He was among the most prolific and respected composers in Hollywood during the Classical era, providing music for Ben Hur, Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and many other cinematic masterpieces.

 

The Godfather (1972)

Nino Rota, who composed the scores for over 150 films and is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Federico Fellini, was one of the best-loved film composers of all time. The Godfather features at number 5 on AFI’s list of film scores, but is nowhere to be found on Pitchfork’s list — a glaring omission.

 

One Night of Love (1934)

The oldest film on Pitchfork’s list is The Third Man, from 1949. But music had been appearing in movies since sync sound was standardized in 1927. The widespread introduction of sound in cinema created an entirely new industry for Hollywood composers like Louis Silvers, who won the first-ever Oscar for Best Original Score for One Night of Love at the Academy Awards in 1935.

 

Black Caesar (1973)

The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, James Brown’s soundtrack for Larry Cohen’s Blaxploitation film Black Caesar provides the funky soundscape to this urban mob revenge story. Under bandleader Fred Wesley’s astute tutelage, this was Brown’s first foray into writing music for the cinema. Many of the instruments are slightly out of tune, bestowing a gritty sense of live spontaneity onto the film’s soulful soundtrack.

 

Metropolis (1927)

Although this music was not original to Fritz Lang’s film, of course, The Alloy Orchestra’s Metropolis score might be the best film music ever written. The ensemble has retroactively scored a number of other notable silent cinema classics such as The Lost World, and Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera. If you ever get a chance to see them accompany a film live, take it.

 

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Along with Paul Simon, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Enya, Peter Gabriel is World Music’s fifth pillar. His electroacoustic soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s controversial The Last Temptation of Christ was honored with a nomination for a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score. The recording also won the 1990 Grammy award for Best New Age Album.

 

Illtown (1996)

Nick Gomez’s over-the-top tale of heroin dealers in a coastal Floridian town benefits from the ethereal weirdness of Brian Keane’s ambient score. Keane’s work could be described as a combination of Brian Eno and Danny Elfman. Illtown’s music makes this otherwise pretentious movie soar. (Sidebar: this film was expertly cast by Sheila Jaffe and Georgianne Walken — Christopher Walken’s wife — who also cast Basquiat, Trees Lounge, and The Sopranos.)

 

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Leonard Rosenman’s avant-garde score for Beneath the Planet of the Apes is by far the best thing about this picture. Tom Oberheim, founder of the Oberheim synthesizer brand, provided technical assistance and even brought Rosenman one of his custom-made ring modulators to experiment with. These electronic gadgets contributed to one of the most futuristic-sounding scores of the 1970s.

 

Summer of ’42 (1971)

Aside from The Godfather, Michel Legrand’s unforgettable theme for Robert Mulligan’s coming-of-age romance, entitled “The Summer Knows,” might be the most recognizable film music of the 20th century. Giants like Barbara Streisand and Frank Sinatra have recorded versions of it, and the film itself was subsequently adapted into an off-Broadway musical. Legrand, who only recently passed on 26 January 2019, composed music for more than 200 films and television series. Expect to see him in the “people-we’ve-lost” Oscar’s montage tonight.

 

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Listening back: a response to Chal Ravens

Because I delight in this sort of dorkery, I’ve been thinking a lot about Chal Ravens’ tweet with regard to identifying the musical equivalent of a philosophy student’s relationship to Hegel — that Hegel is something one “revisits”. The assumption Ravens reckons with is that every salt-worthy philosophy student should already have a working knowledge of Hegel. Undisputedly, Hegel’s significance is paramount to the discipline of philosophy. So one does not read Hegel; one rereads Hegel. There is a professional embarrassment implicit here, too. Nobody is willing to admit that they’re reading Hegel for the first time. Hegel isn’t something that you simply stumble upon.

What is the musical equivalent of this? Who could be contemporary music’s Hegel? My first response was Dennis Wilson’s solo material, which got a laugh. This is certainly something that no seasoned music snob would want to cop to never having heard before. Sure, it’s rife with debaucherous, even murderous, lore. But after careful deliberation, I concluded that it’s not quite right for this exercise. Wilson is the sort of guy that rock snobs enjoy educating other snobs about. And his solo output was too meteoric — legendary, but not prolific enough to be canonical.

I gave it some more thought and decided that things like The Beatles or Bob Dylan were automatically out. Few of us can honestly remember a time of not knowing who they were. Even a Pink Floyd or a Velvet Underground was too obvious. And people like Wilson were too obscure for consideration. One could legitimately “discover” Pacific Ocean Blue without losing face (although the proper term in this instance would be to “rediscover” Pacific Ocean Blue).

The perfect analog to retreading Hegelian ground for the haute-musique crowd would be something along the lines of Robert Wyatt, or Kate Bush, or Harry Nilsson, or King Crimson. These artists hit that sweet spot of rock snobbery. Nerds universally consider them to be foundational cornerstones of great music — legends with lifelong oeuvres that influenced subsequent generations, across myriad genres. Yet they are also esoteric enough to be something senior rock snobs could strategically drop into a sentence to raise some eyebrows.

Thus, one does not “listen to” Robert Wyatt, or Kate Bush, or Harry Nilsson, or King Crimson; one “revisits” them. Bonus marks for citing a certain period or record: ergo, “I’ve been reconsidering Peter Sinfield-era King Crimson”, or “I’ve been listening back to Nilsson’s Pussy Cats, and wow, Lennon destroyed that poor bastard!”

As a post-script, I have never read Hegel, and I’m a goddamned doctor of philosophy. But I have read Žižek. So I feel like I’ve at least read a lot of someone else who hasn’t really read Hegel either.

Update: The American philosophy prof Robin James has argued in this tweet that The Beatles is indeed the correct analog to Hegel. But I’d like to stake my claim a little more clearly. (I’ve obviously already spent far too much time thinking about this, thanks Chal, but what’s a little more?)

It’s not just about assigning a musician or band to a philosopher of equivalent popularity or influence. It’s also about how we approach their works, or more importantly, how we say we approach them. Like Plato or Aristotle for philosophy, The Beatles are ever-present in pop music, so there is no need to “revisit” them. One could simply say, “I was listening to Sgt. Pepper’s the other day” and that would be a perfectly plausible and acceptable thing for a music snob to announce. Moreover, just as a philosophy student, when asked how they spent their summer might reply: “I read The Republic for the first time”, it would not be verboten to admit to never having listened to, say, With The Beatles, yet still be well aware of the Beatles’ discography.

Hegel, on the other hand, is foundational but not ubiquitous. So there is a need to go back to it every now and then. Of course, every philosophy student encounters Hegel for the first time (or in my case, never encounters Hegel), but it’s not about the admission of encounter. It’s about the reluctance of that admission. Therefor, as Chal points out, even when reading Hegel for the first time, one always “rereads” Hegel.

The four artists I proposed — Robert Wyatt, Kate Bush, Harry Nilsson, and King Crimson — are similarly “formative” but not necessarily omnipresent. So the music snob would have difficulty divulging to their music snob friends that they had never heard In The Court of King Crimson. The music snob could instead safely say something like, “I’ve been revisiting In The Court of King Crimson.” They might even add a little flourish like “… and I never noticed before how significant Ian McDonald’s contributions were!” just to lend a little extra plausibility.

Take me, for example. I’ve never actually listened to Kate Bush. But I wouldn’t be caught dead admitting it! So I’m going to go “reevaluate” The Sensual World now.

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OK Punk: notes on Mark Fisher’s ghost

Hua Hsu’s New Yorker review of Mark Fisher’s K-Punk compendium notes the “relentless energy” of his writing. What this means, in layman’s terms, is that Fisher wrote like a bandit. He produced an incredible volume of work via his blog, his columns, several books, and even through correspondence and comments sections. Fisher was always writing. And nearly two years after his death, there are still hundreds of pages of his missives to sift through in this new anthology.

Mark Fisher’s ghost has haunted me all year. My own book came out this spring via Repeater Books, a publisher that Fisher co-founded with fellow writer Tariq Goddard, from the ashes of an acrimonious split with Zer0, which they also helped establish. Among the first feedback I received, from multiple readers, was “Mark Fisher would have liked your book.” I took this as a complement, but it also bothered me for some reason. The reason, I understand now, is complicated.

Since Fisher took his own life in 2017, his popularity has blossomed into a sort of immediate mythology. Memorial lectures and events have been dedicated in his honour; his specter has dogged every avenue of critical discourse: everywhere that the words “hauntology” (Derrida’s neologism), or “retro” (Simon Reynolds’ purview) or “capitalist realism” (a phenomenon that Michael Schudson outlined in his 1984 book, Advertising, the uneasy persuasion) appear, so does Fisher’s name. It’s as if his death bestowed upon his work some final authority. In some instances, it’s unwarranted, and since it can’t be contested, it could prove dangerous.

There are clear lines throughout his writing that connect the theory he read, the books and films and music he consumed, his radical, punk politics, and his poor mental health. There is an assumption bobbing just beneath the surface that suicide is the only logical conclusion, knowing what Fisher knew — the only viable solution to the complete refusal of authority. Either we accept the abhorrence/compliance double bind of capitalism, or we face death heroically, as Fisher did.

One of the often-recited Fisher-isms is that it’s easier for us to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. This idea has been reiterated to the point that it’s become a mantra for the left, and again, a perilous one. It’s perilous because it normalizes an unimaginative resistance. Instead, we are occupied imagining the doom-and-gloom that Control would rather we believe is inevitable. But it isn’t. Instead, we need to start imagining more and better alternatives. And every second is vital. It is not my place to speak for Fisher, but I believe that this was his point: if it’s easier to imagine the end of the world, then do the hard thing and imagine the end of capitalism!

The problem is that Fisher didn’t do that. He didn’t lead by example. He built a road, and led us all down it, and then jumped off the cliff when he reached the edge. Now it’s up to us to build a bridge, or learn to fly, or pray for divine intervention, or all of the above. At this year’s Unsound Festival, where Paul Rekret and I convened a workshop devoted to four of Fisher’s more optimistic posts culled from K-Punk, we discovered a community that’s willing to at least try.

Suicide has surrounded me in 2018. My best friend’s mother killed herself when he was still a child, and obviously this has affected him throughout his life. It’s something that we discuss often. Until recently, I felt stable enough, emotionally, to listen to him without feeling like it was taking a toll on my own outlook. But I’m not so sure now. I was disturbed by the story of Rich, the Alaskan Air worker who apparently stole an airplane and used it to do aerial acrobatics before crashing it, and himself, into a remote island in Puget Sound. The media event-ness of this story led some to postulate that it was fake news, a “false-flag operation”. America is so beyond fucked that either explanation is plausible. But the upshot is that suicide keeps bubbling up into conscious contemplation. And constantly seeing Fisher’s face in my newsfeed isn’t helping.

If Mark Fisher were truly radical, he would have refused to kill himself, just as he refused to believe that capitalism was the only possible version of modernity. He would have fought alongside us. But by taking the early checkout, he sold us out. And all we have is his unfinished roadmap.

I didn’t know Mark Fisher. I doubt that he was aware of me. Some of our writing overlaps in places. And I feel egged on by his absence. But it’s an unattainable challenge to live up to. It’s actually something I would have to die to achieve. Competing with Fisher on the Repeater imprint is what I imagine Dan Lopatin would feel like competing with Autechre on Warp, only if Autechre had killed themselves. The legend is just too great, it’s too overwhelming, there’s too much material, and it’s now enshrined in cyber-gothic lore that will live as long as digital ecosystems do.

I want to start imagining a post-Mark Fisher world, one in which his work slowly loses relevance. I want to envision ways out of capitalism, different modes of social organization, of currency, of value, pleasure and desire — things that can’t be commoditized. I want to think of a future in which we are optimistically, not pessimistically, resigned; one where it will be normal to assume that things are going to be great, not one in which we wake up every day and reload our negative operating systems, and reorient ourselves once again to the consciousness-deflating platforms that profit from the status quo’s infinite prolongation.

I think that’s what Mark Fisher would have wanted us to do, instead of banging on about how prescient he was, long after he could do anything about his purported foresight. Only then will Fisher’s ghost finally be able to rest.

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Forgiveness Rock Record

Karen Gwyer, 19 October 2018, Ausgang Plaza

The night was great; don’t get me wrong. Gwyer, local supporting act Anabasine and opener Musique Nouvelle were excellent. But the security guard at Ausgang Plaza was a little overzealous, to say the least. I was patted down, I was felt up, I was frisked, I was groped, I was manhandled, I was stripped, I was probed. We all know how painful that can be. And when it was over, I got back in line to do it again.

Continue reading on Cult Montreal…

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