capitalism

THEY'RE JUSTIFIED, AND THEY'RE AWKWARD, AND THEY KNOW WHAT PRICE IS MONEY

Prince was active in controlling his music so he would be involved in determining its availability both to fans and in commercial contexts such as soundtracks - it's not just about the money. Since his death a gaggle of his relatives in association with a bank have been working to maximise the revenues of his estate and as a result you will soon be able to stream some of his music. It's what he'd have wanted. Well, actually not. But in a consumer society people have a 'right' to more stuff because...well, because, OK?

Situations like this help me understand the stance of the KLF who in metaphorically torching their back catalogue ensured that such an outcome would never happen with their hugely popular repertoire. In doing so the financial loss dwarfed the million pounds they actually torched - and they got to control their legacy in a way that fits their stance as artists. The buzz about their return in some cryptic form in their Justified Ancients of Mu Mu guise 23 years after they went out in a blaze of something more chaotic and interesting than glory wouldn't have the same magic if their music was just another commodity to be plundered for the sake of a fill-the-airtime dance music retrospective for aged DJs to chat about on Channel 4.

Think about that should you hear Purple Rain in a burger commercial in the next couple of years. And be thankful the death of idiosyncratic creators removes the obstacles to accessing their creativity for exploitation across all media channels for your benefit, and the continued prosperity of the world economy.

When decisions are made solely on the basis of commerce, more often than not bad things happen. The distinction between Jefferson Airplane and Starship - their ultimate branding after being Jefferson Starship for a while - makes that very clear. In their first incarnation, their psychedelic take on the Alice In Wonderland story resulted in a song that's intricately woven into the history of late sixties American culture, Grace Slick's vocal on White Rabbit exactly the kind of thing many record companies would have wanted to moderate so as not to upset radio audiences in the midwest. A couple of decades later, their proclamation We Built This City was a statement of corporate intent, and had the sweet mystery and erotic allure of a spreadsheet.

We Built This City is itself about the desire of Slick et al to be recognised for their part in creating the musical landscape that record companies profit from, and is the sound of musicians crushed by that industry wishing they'd made some better deals back in the day and hadn't taken every opportunity managers lined up for them. Frank Zappa noted that the musical variety of the sixties didn't happen because of the execs at record labels, but in spite of them - old hands took chances on new music, and some of it became massively popular. Things went downhill when those execs hired people who at least looked like the bands and audiences of the day, whose typical desire was to put out pretty much more of what they liked when music was just entertainment, and not what they got paid for. Not that musicians have any sense of what will sell - one of Zappa's biggest moneyspinners was a whimsically created recording of daughter Moon Unit parodying the way her friends talked over a musical backing her dad concocted. Valley Girl led to marketing deals and a proposed animation series, demonstrating once again that pop will eat itself.

PWEI famously declared that Alan Moore knows the score, and that knowledge led him to run screaming from the mainstream comics industry and concentrate on work that he could not only create, but own. He'd signed a deal that made sense at the time, meaning the rights to Watchmen would revert to him when the comic went out of print. Only, it never has. And now it never will. Collecting it in graphic novel form wasn't enough for DC - more recently they've put out hardback editions of each of the 12 comics of the original series. Giving up on making amends with Moore, DC are now reinventing their superhero mythos once again, and this time embedding Watchmen into the core of that fetid lore.  It's the comics equivalent of Donald Trump's preference for being photographed in front of gold drapes at the Oval Office, heritage and status a frame signifying class supposedly shared by the subject of those images - the Vatican's been using that shtik for centuries.

With humungous corporations controlling the rights to more and more of the work creators have generated for decades, and digital media contracts typically set up to ensure the same continues to happen in new forms, the opportunity for artists to put out and control work they've cooked up diminishes, at least if they intend to make money from it. The question then becomes about goals and strategies, and pop having not only eaten itself but served itself up as next day's leftovers, weird mutations are happening. 

At some point, money ceased to be a measure of worth, and instead became something that could be gamed by elites to create more money. When people are getting rich on the basis of the possible future value of a hypothetical commodity, something strange is happening. You could argue it's decadent, only there's a lot of baggage around terms like that. Apply the same mentality to intellectual property, and you end up with Lego Batman - a digitally animated version of a plastic construction toy, used to tell a story about a billionaire who victimises mentally ill criminals concocted as pulp entertainment a few generations back. 

It's hard enough supporting yourself being creative. Stories about Van Gogh being valued only after his death get wheeled out at this point. Quite what he'd made of Sunflowers being available as a fridge magnet we can only guess. And why wouldn't it be? I saw a booth at a creative industries trade fair licensing images of Che Guevara after all, which helps explain why he's such a perennial icon, the Batman of revolutionaries. And Lego Batman? Against all the odds, it's a hilarious and sweet tale taking full advantage of the madness of that proposition. Inevitably, the soundtrack features a remix of We Built This City. It's a sign of the times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

IF YOU DON'T LIKE IT, OVERWRITE IT

Often, when I'm meeting someone for the first time, I'll say that I took early retirement at 25. It's a harmless and supposedly amusing way to avoid talking about something bigger that happened half a life ago, when I and about a third of the staff at an ad agency were made redundant.

I suspect I was the only one who left something like happily and willingly. And that's down to something that had happened a few months earlier.

This night wounds time. The expression has haunted me since I encountered it on the cover of Starless And Bible Black, a King Crimson album. It was there thanks to Tom Phillips, an artist most known for his work A Humument, where he took a Victorian book - A Human Document by W.H. Mallock - and created his own text from it by highlighting and connecting some words and phrases, and painting over the remainder.

Now, nobody much talks about Mallock's book. But what Phillips did with it lives on as a significant alteration of something that was already there. I wish the same could be said for the town centres I see across Britain, and sometimes elsewhere when I have been abroad. Centuries of urban development and complex local histories and understandings have been overwritten by the same few shops that can be seen again and again as you travel about, square footage consumed by voracious multinational businesses that populate their space with goods aimed at whatever demographic they've opted to feed on. Their logos are seared into our consciousness, because isn't that what brands do?

As space is corrupted, so is time. Retailers are seeking to co-opt the calendar with events like Black Friday, and National Pastie Week, but corporations haven't yet succeeded in redefining the way we structure time with the success that the Gregorian calendar had when it replaced the Julian one. Besides, raw human experience can still overpower prepackaged options. 

February 28th was my dad's birthday.

But the year I was made redundant it was overwritten by my brother Nigel's death.

He was at the wheel of a car he and some friends had stolen.

Dad had to identify his charred corpse.

 

This night wounds time.

 

And wounds can heal.

 

When we buried my brother, the route taken by the hearse took us past the homes we shared with Nigel as a family, in the order we'd lived in them. That wasn't planned by either of my parents. It happened to be the route that made most sense given where the journey started, and where it ended, chosen by the driver of the hearse. But that particular shape, recapitulating the years we lived and grew and changed together, inevitably felt significant. Well, it was significant - just unplanned. There's a reason Jung called synchronicity meaningful coincidence.

That journey was a condensed version of our lives with Nigel, much of the time spent travelling down roads we'd played, fought, laughed, argued. It's how they'd do it in a film, so is it any wonder I ended up writing scripts when life itself seemed to be overdoing the job on this and so many occasions?

And now it's a New Year, according to the calendar I favour. A blank page. And one which we don't have to write on at all, let alone with resolutions. But have a think, about the extent to which your choices are shaped by organisations that are only interested in you as a source of revenue. If there are people who treat you similarly, then pay them some attention too. Thing being, it doesn't have to be like that. You get to choose a lot more about your life than you might imagine, and it's worth doing if the result is trading a way of living primarily experienced through your economic value to others for one where you get to determine what's significant, and how you allocate your time as a consequence.

This needn't involved giving up a job and becoming a hermit or self-employed. There are plenty of people I know who find their jobs rewarding and worthwhile. And there are more I know who trade hours put into organisations that mean nothing to them for cash allowing them to enjoy their time outside of it. If that's a transaction that works, then good luck. It's best to be in charge of making the big choices in your life, than be forced into a major reassessment of how you live because of the death of someone you love.

After my brother's death, I moved to Nottingham. Yesterday, I took a walk through Beeston, the area I first lived when I came here. And part of what made that experience good is the choices I've made since have overwritten whatever I may have formerly felt about the place, let alone what created those feelings. Wandering through the place ('a seaside town without the sea', a much-missed friend put it once) and beyond, I walked through the university grounds, and spent time at a couple of arts centres there. You could say that a university is a brand, but even if that's the case I'm much happier with brands that decorate their space with opportunities to occupy time in nature, and with paintings, and the company of people out for a show or a walk with their children, than I am in a city where I could be anywhere judging by the familiarity of the names on the shopfronts.

Capitalism has imprinted its offerings on us in part through using what makes art work, and it's easy to mistake its products for our desires. Given that I'm writing this in a house full of books, DVDs, comics, CDs, and other paraphernalia of consumer society, that may be hypocritical to some extent. So be it. And I know that much of what I enjoy and pay money for goes on to shape my own creativity, and the stories I offer the world, and the forms in which I offer those stories. Maybe stories isn't your thing, but we've all got something to offer that you can't get by wandering around town and finding it for the best price. Whatever that something is, do more of it this year.