"Taking down the Tory government, one song at a time" (The Guardian)
Have you heard? Music’s dead. No one can make money out of it any more, what with all the pirates and the file-sharing and the lack of respect for copyright. And if no one can make money out of it, then no one’s gonna be interested in it any more. Stands to reason.
Wrong. Take it from us, as relics of a bygone era: music’s never had it so good. As soon as you could commodify music (wax cylinders, then 78s, then vinyl, cassettes, 8-track cartridges, touring showcases, publishing contracts and so on), The Man found ways of making money out of it. They called it the music business for a reason. Emphasis on the business.
Now, back in the early 80s we resisted this. But we largely had to resist it by resisting the whole concept of presenting our music as something that could be bought, sold or distributed. There were those who said we were cutting off our nose to spite our face. After all, if the likes of Crass or Conflict could adopt an entirely DIY approach, why couldn’t Thee Faction?
The answer always seemed obvious to us. That scruffy, anarcho-punk, marker-pen-and-photocopier approach demonstrated exactly the lack of ambition on the left that we were fighting against. Surely the point of a socialist alternative to the music business was that we could do exactly what big business did, but in a non-exploitative way which didn’t commodify the fruits of our labour. We wanted a music industry – not a music business. What the anarchists were doing was even more irrelevant to us than what EMI were doing. It just perpetuated the idea that socialism was some kind of low-rent, poor relation of capitalism where things would be greyer and less glossy. We didn’t picture socialism like that, and we didn’t want our comrades to either.
So we turned a blind eye to the bootleggers, and accepted that if we couldn’t get our hands on the means of production of packaged music, we would just accept that we’d be remembered as a live band. OK, some bootleggers, most notably Soviet Beret, got special treatment, and had access to the live mixing desk at some of our bigger gigs. But we never released any official ‘product’, because, back in the early 80s, there didn’t seem to be a way of doing so without signing our lives away to The Man, or accepting some kind of miserable anarcho route to greyness.
So when we hear that the internet is killing the music ‘business’ we couldn’t be pleaseder. Because now we can do what we’ve always wanted to do. We can create our own music industry where what we produce isn’t packaged as if it was cobbled together by a couple of crusties on some discarded rizlas. We can put together the foundations for a socialist music industry. If people value the product, but The Man can’t make money out of it, that sounds like the birth of a better society to us.
So what’s changed between then and now? How is the production of At Ebbw Vale so different to what we’d have had to suffer back in the day?
1. “The Studio”. A recording studio in 1985 followed the rules of capitalism, as laid out in Das Kapital, to the letter. There was land, buildings, equipment, staff and, ultimately, an owner. Now? Well, At Ebbw Vale was recorded in situ, but even the spit and polish we have added to the live recordings has been done on Dai Nasty’s computer, at the DDRofR&B and Feargal’s House of Punk. The equipment is ours. The expertise is ours. The means of production are entirely in the hands of Thee Faction.
2. The Record Company. Back then we had a choice: a big major, or a shambolic indie. The difference? Budgets and distribution. We don’t need the former – we own the means of production. The latter? Nothing need stand between producer and consumer now. No one brokers deals between musician and listener. The internet allows the musician to distribute direct to the listener. So WEA’s ability to put your record in every branch of Woolworth’s and Our Price is meaningless. What does this mean? It means that we, and our old friends at Soviet Beret, can now operate in exactly the same way as a major label. Except that we create our own ‘business’ relationship with them, with overlapping ‘ownership’, personnel and ‘control’. Socialism, as GDH Cole envisaged it.
3.”The Product”. Now, here we are deviating from today’s norm. It’s an artistic decision more than an industrial one. We’re sticking with vinyl. We know that we could go straight to the ‘marketplace’ with digitised versions of our recordings, delivered via the internet, and without the need to employ anyone else’s services. But we believe in the strength of the 12″ record – in the ability of a 12″ record sleeve to deliver meaning and message far beyond that which a downloaded track, or a CD digi-pack ever could. So we’re going through friends and comrades in the movement, both in the UK and in our old stomping ground of Bulgaria, to put together a proper vinyl album. But we set the price ourselves.
4. “The Packaging”. We’ve already talked about the commodification of music happening the moment there was a means of mass-distributing it. Well, it’s pretty bleeding obvious that printing was exactly the same. So, back in our day, you either had a team of graphic designers and printing presses behind you, or you had a biro and some photocopying time. Right now, Kassandra Krossing is sitting at her laptop putting the final touches to the sleeve and label designs for At Ebbw Vale. And it looks superb. Exactly as we want it. No one from Soviet Beret is going to challenge it. What Thee Faction produce is exactly what will appear on the record. How’s that for Complete Control, Strummer?
5. Marketing and Distribution. If we had released a ‘proper’ record back in 1985, we might have expected one of two things. Had we signed to a major, we’d have seen posters on disused buildings, glossy adverts in magazines, radio pluggers, slick salespeople talking record chains into buying hundreds, and attempts to interfere with the Gallup machines to give us a higher chart placing. Had we gone with an indie, there’d have been a Chain With No Name advert in the inky press featuring our record, along with several others, perhaps some flyers outside gigs, and a couple of vans driving around the independent record stores trying to offload two or three copies onto a dreadlocked shop assistant who only works in the record store cos she’s allowed to smoke in there. And it would have been fingers crossed for a Peel or Jensen three-minutes-of-fame on a weekday evening. Today we and Soviet Beret are in total control of the marketing, with a budget of zero. Through this blog, our facebook page, and through a number of cheeky plans that Billy Brentford is currently hatching, we can reach much of our potential audience. They can order a copy of At Ebbw Vale, which will be posted to them. They will receive a beautiful 12″ piece of vinyl, and a CD with digitised versions of most of the songs on the vinyl, so that they can listen to them on their MP3 players and whathaveyou. We may also opt to distribute those digitised songs via the internet, so long as each recipient agrees to receive a proper copy of the vinyl album as well.
6. Money. The only people who made money out of records were record companies. OK, the odd band might have bucked the trend. But for every U2 there were a thousand bands who never recouped what their record company ‘invested’ in them. Cos that’s all record companies were – glorified banks. Moneylenders with a marketing team for hire. Now we own the means of production. Recording cost nothing. There’s nothing to recoup. So we’ve got some costs to cover – our comrades in Bulgaria pressing up the vinyl, for example. But once we have covered those costs we can then distribute any surplus to good causes – to each according to their needs. We’re en route for socialism, brothers and sisters.
So if you’ve been wondering why Thee Faction are finally releasing a record, after all these years, then that’s why. The music business is dead. Long live the music industry. With the parasites and the scavengers ripped out of it. And just the industrious, those who work, thriving and dignified.
Watch this space for more news of At Ebbw Vale. It’s not long now….