“Things don’t come with intrinsic and timeless value. Where you place them in time, the context they fall in, is what charges them.”
“There are so many anniversary reissues out lately; does everything really need constant celebration?”
The above quotes might be worlds apart at the source (the former lifted from a Brian Eno interview in ’93; the latter lifted from my Dad over a recent Sunday roast), but both set me on a similar path of thought.
I’m not intending to throw my old man under the bus by making him sound, well, old – after all, he’s got a fair point. In his day, the goalposts of taste were more rigid yet less affixed. Phases of popularity lasted longer but ended abruptly, and in an unforgiving fashion; the shock of the new would take hold, sparking a speedy dismantling and comprehensive trashing of what was held aloft as ‘cool’ mere months prior. The idea that anyone outside of broadsheet fuds would be penning fawning oral histories on the 10th anniversary of Houses Of The Holy in 1983 was laughable.
It goes without saying that everywhere you look this conventional progression of trends has been completely and irreversibly pancaked. We’re awash in a sea of information, everything is fair game, nothing truly fades from view…and all of this is hardly news. The great levelling effect of the internet across the board is so obvious that pointing it out feels reductive, or even borderline patronising. But in spite of 23 years effectively knowing nothing else, it’s still tricky to unpick the implications of it all.
If we acknowledge a severe temporal disruption, then what of the rest? Does the lack of a specific given context become its own kind of undefined context; and if so, from where is Eno’s concept of charge derived? Are the limitless grounds for acceptance and appraisal impacting upon culture positively or negatively?
And why are there so many anniversary reissues out lately anyhow?
Okay, time to cycle back: this has all got a touch academic, and I’m admittedly confusing myself. Music is music, and music is good. That it reaches ever more people, and people reach ever more of it, is also a good thing (you can argue the toss against the potentially unhealthy effects of over-saturation, but that’s another debate for another time).
The hyper-accelerated pace of change is probably detrimental on some level: as well as being fairly exhausting to keep up with, scenes that exist in flux are by virtue likely to leave a diminished imprint on the collective conscience. But on balance, that transience is still mostly preferable to the unforgiving mob rule of yore, where creative expression was trampled into the dirt as soon as it was deemed passé, left to rot in bargain bins.
And as for constantly repackaging existing material centred around arbitrary dates and events? Almost always a cynical cash-grab. But there’s a crucial distinction to make between reissue marketization and a market for reissues – and two stellar ones that arrived last year pay testament to the fact.
Gigi Masin‘s Talk To The Sea and Craig Leon’s Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol.1: Nommos/Waiting stand shoulder-to-shoulder amongst 2014’s highest of highlights. The sounds are markedly different, but squint and the stories blur together. Both LPs were stitched together from singular music that saw original release decades ago via limited private presses; both arrived beautifully packaged via labels, Amsterdam’s Music From Memory and New York’s RNVG Intl. respectively, that have carved a reputation for appropriately delicate handling of historical artefacts; and both have completely revitalised the careers of their makers.
Turns out those rips in the space-time continuum aren’t so bad after all.
“What used to be ‘niche’ is now much bigger”
As beneficial (not to mention fun) as dredging the past can be for the listener, you have the wonder about the artists’ perspective. Having run the gamut from producing Richard Hell to feeding Bach into Moogs across a lifetime in the industry, Craig Leon isn’t exactly experiencing a jarring thaw after a period in the deep freezer, but you’d expect at least a few adverse effects nonetheless.
Thankfully, it transpires the opposite is true. By speaking to the gregarious Miami native for even a short period of time (last year’s extensive Q&A is worth your time too, mind) and it’s readily apparent the resurged interest in music he wrote 35 years ago still supplies no end of joy.
“It’s astounding to me that people will come see Nommos in concert. It’s really beneficial that labels like RVNG exist to open up these opportunities,” Leon grins. A stint manning A&R duties for Sire led him to work on definitive retrospectives of artists like Del Shannon, “whose music was about as obscure Stateside in 1976 as mine is today,” but while what he calls “the collector-completist mentality” has remained a constant throughout his career, the state of reissue culture has changed demonstrably.
“The smaller label that’s willing to kill for something with a capped ceiling in sales is doing just as well as a big corporate that puts out 100 pieces of ‘product’, only to see 99 of those not even hurdle a few thousand copies.”
“But it’s not even a competitive thing. I don’t think one particular artist takes away from another. There’s no longer stigma attached. What used to be ‘niche’ is now much bigger,” and lands less clumsily, he reckons. “It’s totally turned on its head.”
“Sometimes records need the time and musical developments around them to blossom at a later age”
This scrambling is something reflected in the upcoming Online Radio Festival. The weekender’s inaugural line-up is tantalisingly diverse, and resolutely un-mainstream. Radna Rumping and Shane Burmania, two of the brains behind the operation, see the programme as a parallel of the amorphous state of modern broadcasting, affording “older music a new context, or obscure music a new audience.”
That the festival takes place in Amsterdam makes a lot of sense. Given the plentiful Rush Hour reissue series, moves into contemporary programming undertaken by the Muziekgebouw aan’t IJ concert hall, as well as the endlessly absorbing Red Light Radio–Vintage Voudou complex, the place seems to have an especial taste for glancing backwards while striding forward. Myopic retro-fascination this is not, but Burmania agrees that “there is an open attitude to older treasures that are still very relevant today.”
Young Marco, an ubiquitous presence around the city and everyone’s favourite Hüsker Düde, is better equipped than most to speak on it. “A lot of times the mentality is just not there yet for certain kinds of music,” he reckons. “It might be ahead of its time, or it just didn’t click at the time.” Burmania echoes the sentiment: “It’s hard to pinpoint exactly, but it feels sometimes records need the time and musical developments around them to blossom at a later age.”
Cobbling together unrelated musical movements by way of reasoning is a tempting default – did mid-00s Balearic revivalism open the door for chillwave and help brace younger listeners for accepting New Age without the presupposed whiff of deep relaxation tapes? Or was it the other way around? – but whatever the case, the last couple of years have without question presented a more conducive environment than 1986 did for Gigi Masin’s soft-tone undulations to find a happy home without all the baggage attached.
As his music suggests a perfect stillness, that’s really quite fitting.
“For a lot of people these reissues are new music, and are thus valued as such”
In amongst this hodgepodge theory of faintly-sketched lines and half-baked suppositions, a few concrete factors stand tall. Leon outlines a shift in the role of the audience, given that “the type of buyer” in his heyday with a moderate collection “have a significantly more passive way of engaging with music.” It goes without saying that the chasm has widened between those who make a concerted investment in music culture and those who don’t. Rewards await the subsumed that were nigh-on-impossible previously. A friend of Rumping’s “recently got a personal response from Ariel Kalma on a mix he did, and was overwhelmed.” Somewhat predictably, that’s RVNG on the assist.
Alongside little winsome idiosyncrasies, methods of distribution have also been affected by a generational infatuation with social interaction (parsing the pros + cons of which would require an even longer thinkpiece; again, another time). Their scope has broadened by orders of magnitude; previously the ingenuity existed, but not the infrastructure to support it. Marco underscores the point: “Gigi told me about an ad placed in an Italian newspaper for Wind, where you could send an envelope with any amount of money and he’d send you the record.
“I think Radiohead got beat on that by a good thirty years,” he smirks.
Arguably the key actors facilitating all this are the labels. A small coterie of notable names like Light In The Attic, PPU, Número Group and Awesome Tapes From Africa make a vital difference. There’s an unerring commitment to the cause – the sight of Awesome Tapes proprietor Brian Shimkovitz hauling a rack of market-stall magic up three flights of enormous Muziekgebouw stairs lends considerable weight to that (plus his shoulders) – but it extends beyond into something more tangental. In going the extra mile to help guide the flight paths of those riding a second wave, they bolster the internet’s inherently disruptive capabilities.
It’s fanciful to assume anyone’s dedication to digging is borne of lofty ambitions to cause fractional slippages in the fixed states of time and geography. But in a roundabout fashion, they do fuck with it. Take the case of Hailu Mergia, whose killer 1985 Shemonmuanaye LP was picked up by Shimkovitz on a trip to Ethopia and rubbed-stamped for re-release without much of a second thought, kickstarting widespread interest in his music. Waves of tours followed, including the pinnacle last February: he headlined Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center, having been a cabbie in the capital for nearly the entire 28-year interim period.
For those with first-hand experience of the process, praise flows forth. “Music From Memory are doing a spectacular job right now,” says Marco of the imprint who not only Talk-ed to The Sea but doubled down with the recent release of Clouds, a collaborative effort between himself, Masin and Jonny Nash under the Gaussian Curve moniker. Leon is equally as effusive: “RVNG’s founder Matt Werth knocked himself out on my record. He’s done more than anybody I know of, of any record label, for such an obscure project.”
Burmania sees both labels as standing “for an aesthetic and state of mind that is much more important than when the music was made.” Whether days or decades old, time should only be relevant in relation to the end experience. “For a lot of people these reissues are new music, and are thus valued as such.” For her part, Rumping cites the example of voicemail-sampling curio “Icy Lake” resurfacing and crystallising a new ballroom-grime hybrid to demonstrate the warped way influences play off against one another when time feels less affixed to the grid, triggering flashpoints seemingly at random.
It’s a pertinent point. During my first run-through of the Gaussian Curve album, an instantly familiar piano line fluttered into my ear, which after a lot of flustered brain-wracking I traced back to Friendzone‘s “Chuch” (2011). I assumed it was To Rococo Rot‘s “Die Dinge Des Lebens” (1999) that had been sampled, but it transpired the band had in actual fact lifted the passage wholesale from Gigi Masin’s “Clouds”. Yet the version I’d heard on Clouds (2015) is in actual fact a repurposed version atop a bed of the original “Clouds” (1988); the 59-year-old was riffing on his 33-year-old self. This tiny motif has skirted along multiple timelines that overlap, interlock and fold back in on one another. But which holds up as ‘true’?
Think I’m getting confused again.
“Just imagine something you make takes 30 years before getting the recognition it deserves”
The Internet has made everything less linear: temporal and spatial concerns; accumulation and indexing of information; trains of thought (as you can probably tell). Barriers to entry have been flattened for consumer, curator and creative alive. It opens up paradoxical situations where more music is being made than ever, but there is less propensity for someone like Laraaji – whose sonic and visual identity would have not too long ago got him laughed out a shit-ton of buildings, so to speak – to languish. But does this boundary-less landscape actively cultivate a better climate for cryogenic career thaws?
“I think there is a very healthy state right now of open-minded people,” says Marco; it’s something everyone agrees on. The mechanisms of the industry may still remain imperfect, but various developments and distortions have coalesced over time to the point where, from at least a few standpoints, it’s never been in better shape. People are thankfully less in thrall to stark binaries of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ taste; artists are no longer put to the sword in quite the same manner. The contemporary acceptance of, and taste for, openness is a binding glue.
I’d wager there’s a heightened desire for honesty in there, too. As the strangehold of PR – a numbing cycle of puff pieces and stage-managed career moves – takes ever more entrenched root in ‘the underground’, people quest for narratives. Look at the trail for Lewis, or even something as organic as the Gaussian guys coming together for a record after simply enjoying one another’s company. Within a climate of 24/7 communication, connections forged and stories shared do help nudge it along.
(Of course you wind up with mischievous sorts taking advantage, as in the dubious cases of TB Arthur or Jürgen Müller, but for those pondering if false anonymity is in of itself a valid form of anonymity – another time).
If this all comes across as grappling optimistically for a tidy, wholesome ending – well, yes and no. There’s no definitive answer to be had, so no fixed conclusion to make as to what combination of flapping butterflies trigger a second wind to carry a Gigi Masin or a Craig Leon to receptive new audiences. But we’re not just talking fabricated plotlines. These are real musicians who, through a combination of fortune and circumstance, are at long last getting the attention and appreciation their music deserves.
“Just imagine something you make takes 30 years before getting the recognition it deserves,” puts Marco. “I think a lot people would become bitter or give up, but Gigi is full of positivity. And he is extremely grateful.”
Well that’s quite a good thing, all told.
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