999 Words

Red Bull Music Academy Blues

As I write this, at least a dozen cranes are presiding over Southwest Montréal’s up-and-coming condo boom. It’s a story that Williamsburg Brooklynites, or Mission District San Franciscans, or Gastown Vancouverites, or Londoners of Hackney will find only too familiar: once a light-industrial and staunchly working-class community, the area known locally as Griffintown is undergoing a massive “revitalization”; read: sweeping gentrification.

Culturally speaking, gentrification typically wipes out whatever creative community might have previously thrived there. But Griffintown is different: here, cultural events have been woven right into a cunning redevelopment narrative. Rebranded as part of the city’s “Quartier de l’Innovation”—a hub for the creative class—Griffintown in particular has been sold as the city’s newest hipster neighborhood, an alternative to the Plateau and Mile-End’s cultural hegemony: an “urban oasis”.

Look for example to last Friday’s Red Bull Music Academy Drone Activity In Progress. This event series began in 2013 at the Knockdown Center in Queens, and is franchised out to reconditioning communities around the globe. Staged in a disused warehouse that ironically now serves as a sales office for the chic SE7T condo project, the Griffintown edition boasted most of Montréal’s fiercest noisemakers including Drainolith, Kara-Lis Coverdale and headliner Tim Hecker.

Still, hold no illusions that Red Bull cares about this district. They don’t care that the cost of a single-family home in the Southwest borough rose by 18% over the past twelve months—the highest increase seen anywhere across the city; they don’t care that a nearby 18th century archeological site was recently demolished with no consultation or oversight; or that an historic housing co-op was irrevocably damaged and razed without warning, its longtime residents losing all of their earthly belongings; or that industrial noise from around-the-clock work is disturbing sleep; or that dust and debris deteriorate air quality; or that frequent water main breaks make drinking water unsafe; or that, despite this localized influx of capital, the entire city is suffering from what the CBC, in an on-the-nose nomenclatural gesture calls “extreme neglect”.

Red Bull doesn’t care about this music scene either, or especially about music in general. Red Bull’s sole purpose is to sell Red Bull—wherever, to whomever, however—in as much quantity as possible. Kanye loves Kanye like Red Bull loves Red Bull. In 2015, according to data-gathering website Statista.com, the company raked in nearly one US dollar per person on the planet, making it by far the world’s most profitable energy drink, and among the more ubiquitous global brands. How? Since the 1990s, Red Bull’s advertising tactic has been to get involved in absolutely anything and everything. Slowly, we bought it.

The former New York Times “Consumed” columnist Rob Walker coined a useful term for this strategy: “Murketing”, or murky + marketing: blurring the borders between what we consider to be traditional advertising and authentic daily life. Defined by Walker, murketing is increasingly confusing the things we buy with our fundamental identities: simply, who we think we are is ever-more based upon our marketplace choices. Lifestyle branding is nothing new. What is new, though, is how apparently every possible lifestyle now seems to sport a Red Bull sponsorship: from windsurfing to space jumps to art spaces—and musically speaking, from Mumford and Sons to last Friday’s drone show.

Yet, Tim Hecker’s audience is a far cry from Mumford and Sons’: it’s not particularly popular culture. For Red Bull, ostensibly, there is no pile too high, and no hole too deep. What does it say when even our most underground artists and effervescent scenes are not beyond the reach of a behemoth branding machine? The question becomes: Is the scene fundamentally different because of corporate sponsorship? And after the fog clears, the answer is a resounding yes.

Previously, this kind of thing might have taken place in a DIY loft or other venerable venue, with little advertising beyond perhaps a Facebook event page (or a flyer before that) and word-of-mouth—precisely the sort of murky strategies Red Bull has appropriated. It would be organized locally and cost relatively little money—another façade that RBMA worked hard to construct. But people would arrive on bikes and on foot, not in Ubers. There would be no valet parking, no hastily installed ATM machine, no guest-list exclusivity and no omnipresent trademark imagery, as there was at the RBMA event.

Superficially, the fifteen-dollar entry fee for thirteen acts in a sprawling abandoned warehouse seems like a steal, until you realize who really ends up paying. Friday night’s show didn’t take place in an established locale. It was a pop-up event. This is an alarming and dangerous trend representing the Airbnb-ification of festivals, with no cultivated relationship to a permanent venue or staff, and no ongoing responsibility to the community. If a scene is defined by a group of people engaged in collective activity around a common interest, what we are left with, then, is a group of people collectively engaged in replicating a scene for commercial benefit—a scene-simulating scene.

This particular scene has been nurtured in Montréal since 2000 most visibly by the Mutek festival; a non-profit organization principally supported by the municipal, provincial and federal governments, and dedicated fans. Then Red Bull waltzes into town and drinks their vod-bomb milkshake. How can Mutek refuse partnering with an overwhelmingly profitable brand, its tendrils embedded in deep pockets? How can local artists say no to playing a stage with nothing else visible save a Red Bull logo? All of this community’s political momentum—chiefly its public, grassroots origin—has been co-opted into an elaborate energy drink sales pitch. We are forced to face the fact that this once-resistant music scene is now indelibly branded, and ultimately inextricable from the urban gentrification process. It’s murketing at work.

The lineup on Friday night was stacked with eight hours worth of performances—an impressive bill by any standard. Just how was an audience expected to stay alert for the entire evening? There’s always that fridge-full of sugar water behind the bar.

(Read Part II of this story here. Read Part III of this story here.)

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Never Once Reflect

They Filled the Ears with Fear: The Horror of Noise in 2015

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Prurient performs at Screamscape (YouTube)

Something went quite awry at a party I DJ’ed this past Halloween, at Montreal’s beloved Casa del Popolo. Over the course of the evening, one of the guests in attendance—some guy wearing a green plastic mask—became progressively more aggressive. During the second set, by a goofy local band called World Provider, plastic mask guy began jostling through the crowd, knocking into people around him. At the apex of legendary Toronto camp act Corpusse’s headlining performance, plastic mask guy started a minor fight at the foot of the stage with someone dressed as Kit Fisto. It was all very surreal, and I, of course, noticed along with everyone else.

As Corpusse finished up, I nonetheless started my closing set at top volume with a noisy track from a recent Shapednoise EP. Less than halfway into the song, I looked up from the turntables to see that masky badman had cleared the entire room. I immediately stopped the record. Like a tornado of one, he was in the middle of the dance floor screaming at us to fuck off, which we couldn’t hear until I pulled the plug. After threats, swinging punches in the air and an ultimately heroic intervention by Sebastian, the house sound man, green plastic mask finally exited the venue. Still, I couldn’t help but notice with horror that my Shapednoise track had been playing at the moment of such a lunatic freak-out – that the noise itself was covering up and maybe even fuelling a violent outburst.

2015 has been an especially horrific year, and that is evidenced in its noise. Sure, Shapednoise—whose 2015 collaboration with Black Rain Resident Advisor’s Holly Dicker called “a horror-techno workout”—might well be an easy target. But a wider array of notable albums this year has been shaped more broadly by noise.

Selim Bulut of Dummy instantly identifies Oneohtrix Point Never’s “heavier, noisier energy” on his 2015 album Garden of Delete. In his review of Rabit’s debut LP entitled Communion, Bob Cluness of The Quietus notes the record’s “militarised outbursts of noise”. Writing for Tiny Mix Tapes, Birkut claims that Prurient’s 2015 watermark Frozen Niagara Falls is characterized by “a crushing arsenal of noise”; Andy O’Connor at Pitchfork reassures that Dominick Fernow “brings back much of the harsh noise that faded away from his more recent works”.

Neither is this upsurge of noise limited to male artists, nor to those normally associated with a specifically noisy palette. Pitchfork’s Winston Cook-Wilson highlights Holly Herndon’s uncharacteristic use of “threatening sheets of noise” on a track called “Morning Sun” from 2015’s Platform. Jim Fusilli of The Wall Street Journal argues that Chelsea Wolfe’s Abyss is simply a modern iteration of Folk “with added noise and ambience”. Spin magazine has gone further, naming “Mutant Noise” the trend of the year.

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Chelsea Wolfe performs at Brudenell (Photo by Al Overdrive)

In his foundational book Noise: The Political Economy of Music, Jacques Attali asserted that the moment when noise entered the modern musical lexicon was the “essential fracture” between past and future, resounding “a world in which brutal noise was omnipresent”. But what sort of criticism is appropriate to these works today? How should we approach this new kind of noise, and what does it signal? In search of answers, let’s travel down some known dead-ends for a moment.

Should we merely describe the work? At a time when anyone with an internet connection can listen via any number of cheap, free or stolen channels, that project becomes more like directing traffic. And nobody wants to write “stabby synths” or “grinding beats” any more than anybody needs to re-read those hackneyed descriptors.

Should we look to a biography of the artist? Does it matter that Daniel Lopatin had an awkward adolescence? The notion that nature or nurture produces artists and works of a certain ilk is one fraught with peril. It simultaneously normalizes those who fit a mold and exoticizes those who do not. There are also countless dead artists about whom we will never know personal details. And yet their works persist.

Should we seek the artist’s intentions in making such a racket? Does Dominick Fernow intend to make us laugh, or instil fear, or something else? Artists’ intentions are just as often uninteresting as otherwise. Once a work is made public, the artist gives up his or her rights to have an audience experience what they intended. Again, decisively, we cannot dig up dead artists and ask after their intentions.

Should we interpret an unintentional intention into the work, or about the artist? Is there something specifically “Urban” to be read into Prurient, or “Rural” to be found in Chelsea Wolfe, or “Digital” discovered in Holly Herndon? In the immortal words of The Dude, “Yeah, well, y’know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man”.

Should we build stories around works of art? Shall we construct narratives as to their place in our personal lives, or within culture at large? Is Daniel Lopatin a Rockist? An EDMist? A joker, a smoker, a midnight toker? The idea of a master narrative is suspect, and a number of minor narratives only serve to dilute the message – assuming there ever was one.

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Oneohtrix Point Never performs at Villain (Photo by Maxwell Schiano)

Should we champion artists as innovators? Shall we point out that Oneohtrix Point Never was the first electronic producer to release remixable MIDI files rather than digital audio stems? Is this interesting or important? Not really. Plus, someone will always come along and argue an earlier precedent.

Should we stand to defend artists against attackers, real or imaginary? Shall we insist that Daniel Lopatin is just as worthy of canonization as, say, Trent Reznor, or Holly Herndon as Delia Derbyshire? These equations are arbitrary. And they ignore the historical specificities that have real effects in determining which kinds of cultural artifacts endure.

Should we pull the old switcheroo? Shall we argue that even though Chelsea Wolfe is a marginal, underground artist, that her new album is the one that will truly prove her importance? This can’t work when the margins are constantly being re-enfolded into the centre – at a time when Taylor Swift can top the charts with accidental noise, and when a once “indie” publication can be subsumed by Conde Nast, forever entangling unlikely bedfellows.

Should we eroticize this music? Shall we extol Rabit’s “militaristic outbursts of noise” for their textural qualities, ignoring any potential political agenda? We can’t even. Because noise resists eroticism. Unless that eroticism is intrinsically sadomasochistic.

Should we attempt to study the artist as if she or he is a patient under psychoanalysis? Shall we speculate that Dominick Fernow’s onstage antics reveal issues with intimacy? Or that Garden of Delete is a harbinger of doomsday? These diagnoses often reveal more about the analysts than their subjects. Analysis is accessory to Freud, and a 20th century conception of individuality and authorship. This logic breaks down when we realize that even the works of solo artists—perhaps especially those—are actually products of a whole equation.

An ecosystemic view is more promising. We’d do well to consider each of these variables amidst a landscape modelled by everyone from PR personnel to label management, tech bros to journalists to festival curators, and bloggers to the individual by way of social media as co-constructors of each and every work of art. And this is not to mention the role of algorithms, which probably make more noise about music than anyone these days.

Noise can be horrifying because its opposite is stillness, death. Noise signifies the ultimate horror in that its absence is even more horrible. Doubtless, the attackers who perpetrated the latest Paris atrocities at the Bataclan did so at least in part because of the dramatic shock of silencing a noisy rock show.

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Justin Trudeau pays tribute to victims at the Bataclan (YouTube)

We live constantly amidst noise, making more noise against the noise of the world. Noise is volume, and the volume in our sphere has been turned way up in more ways than one. Post-modernity is at once noisier in terms of its sheer sound pressure, and also because we are never-not overwhelmed by the leviathan volume of continuously flowing information. Noise pushes out all other frequency until any resemblance of signal is lost. Noise insulates us and allows us to continue functioning in the midst of inconsistency and unpredictability. This is horrifying when we turn the noise off and hear what it’s been drowning out. Like green plastic mask guy, noise enables us to scream and still remain silent.

If it stands that we as critics mustn’t add anything superfluous to works of art, our duties now more than ever are to lay bare what is actually before us. We do this in hopes of seeing or hearing or feeling the thing in its inherent thingness, outside of any conceptual framework or value apparatus, but undoubtedly shaped ecosystemically by all of those as well. Sometimes, we must remove even our own signal to hear the noise that surrounds us for what it is. And lately, it’s a horror show.

Rather than a description or biography, interpretation or new narrative—instead of a championing or defence, analysis or location, hermeneutics or even erotics—at last we need a horrifics of art.

Ryan Alexander Diduck

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Satire

Will Santa Claus Disrupt Music Distribution?

In addition to iTunes depositing MP3s straight to your computer, and BitTorrent charging for what is otherwise worthless, you may soon be getting your music from another unlikely content delivery service: Santa Claus. Yes, that jolly old soul of mystery, who usually confines his deliveries to Christmas Eve, has of recent months upturned the entire music distribution marketplace with his new start-up – Snta.

After an overwhelmingly successful Kickstarter campaign seeking to “disrupt first-generation reindeer games” raised more than six million dollars, Snta has firmly planted its footprint in the snow. This morning, dressed in customary black belt-cinched red-and-white suit and cap – which have become his product-launch trademarks – Snta’s co-founder and CEO Mr. Claus unveiled SleighBel, a new user-modifiable cloud-based storage service app, at many points ho-ho-hoing the crowd of journalists and businesspeople into veritable frenzy. Anticipating unprecedented growth, Mr. Claus moved his company in October from the North Pole to a disused warehouse in Williamsburg, where his team say they enjoy “bigger beards and better coffee.”

Similar forays into content delivery by the Easter Bunny (who launched eStrBx in late 2013) and the Stork’s fledgling Strk Corp. failed to generate the buzz Snta is currently relishing: Strk suffered from persistent bundling issues; and more disturbingly, eStrBx was charged with 2743 counts of sexual harassment on its first night of operation – none of them from clients. Both struggling companies have since been acquired, and shelved, by Apple. But following a strong I.P.O., Snta seems to be gaining traction where others fell short.

This could be because of its relative simplicity: orders are placed via Snta’s webshop, and delivered directly into users’ homes while they sleep. There is no signup required, and no software to install; however Snta has recently come under fire for its inherently intrusive platform – one startled customer reported seeing mommy kissing Santa Claus – and its questionable milk-and-cookie policy. Many have complained that a 4 x 4 foot chimney, the minimum bandwidth requirement, is still years away from becoming standard in most areas. And, as Naomi Klein uncovered in her latest exposé for the Guardian, the recent unexplained suicides of two elves have prompted an official inquiry into Snta’s dubious labour practices.

Whether or not Snta has the staying power of an Uber or Twitter remains to be seen: analysts project it will ultimately come down to whether consumers are naughty or nice. Partner and VP of marketing Mrs. Claus explained to Gizmodo, “Rooty toot toot and rummy tum tum.” But if its current “must own” status on “Mad Money” is any indication, we have only just glimpsed the beginning of Snta.

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