Best of 2019 I by I 20.12.19

Interdependence, or how I learned to love again on the dancefloor

Most curious journeys start with a thread of accidental discovery. At the beginning of the year I wrote an article for CTM Festival titled ‘Interdependence’, an inviting term which I plucked with very little understanding of its origin. The essay discussed networks of care in response to the topic of mental health, a constant theme in popular music’s discourse. Around the same time, artist and theorist Mat Dryhurst, coincidentally, began to meditate on what it could mean in terms of protocols – ways in which the music industry could be re-engineered digitally to make a level playing field for both artist and listener.

The term also cropped up in the British arts world as part of themes for Manchester International Festival and Art Licks Weekend and came back again recently when Holly Herndon mediated a short-lived online argument between Grimes and Zola Jesus. Trying to make sense of the term begins with the simple agreement that structures of power must change for us to survive. It is undoubtable politics in music has come to the fore, in particular electronic dance music which was built on black and queer histories. Artists are also critiquing structures of the industry, as well as creating institutions of care from the ground up. This essay reflects on the various ways interdependent thinking and acting appeared to me this year.

In April, Red Bull Music Academy announced it would close at the end of October after 20 years of operations. Along with staff redundancies, RBMA’s workshops, lectures, residencies, Daily, events and radio station ceased, however the company has since published its archive online for free. Although skeptical of corporate mediatization in music, the pain of some of music’s brightest journalists and those that supported the company’s activity was palpable throughout the community.

With the announcements of organizations like Red Bull Music Academy and Berlin Community Radio closing its doors this year, Mat Dryhurst proposed new ways to organize the digital music industry, adopting journalist Liz Pelly’s critique of independent artists working for Spotify in a similar manner to a driver working for Uber. Under the new rules, we are all free to release music independently online but only tracks optimized for streaming, along with the all-but-necessary buy-in of PR management, afford an artist a semblance of worthy financial reward. To supplement this, artists rely on work as subtle brand patrons, such as Red Bull, to access studio time and live music opportunities. Over the past year the house all but fell, causing a large number of painful redundancies in the electronic music industry. Dryhurst’s work speculates that models of interdependence could depart from the indie label model via cooperative labels and bargaining networks that cater for each aspect of the music community, from venues to zines and studios, utilizing digital tokenization and blockchaining to scale up efforts. 

Björk at Red Bull Music Academy Festival NYC, 2015 // Photo by Maxwell Schiano for FACT

Dryhurst’s concerns are predominantly structural, as the so-called independent mode of producing culture means increased isolationism. The popular platforms are exploiting individualism in music, as he tweeted rhetorically “[a]re Facebook and Spotify really your enemy, or are they just more ruthless about executing your ideological position?” While Dryhurst is expertly critiquing the economics of music from the top down, physical relationships in spaces must be explored in tandem.

In October at Unsound, Dreamcrusher performed a solo set at Manggha, where incense-burning and noise collages gave way to an intense cathartic moment of dancing, moshing and crowd-surfing. Many were witnesses, including artists, DJs, writers and promoters across the US, Europe, UK and beyond. At the end of the performance, my friends from local and international scenes embrace as if we were suddenly bared naked as Dreamcrusher’s set was seemingly cut short.

Although interdependence can be simply boiled down to “two or more states depending on each other for existence” an extended explanation can be found in social theorist Judith Butler’s work:

“[T]here’s a limit to individualism, although each of us are obviously negotiating our individual solutions… we can’t do that as radical individuals. We can only do it by entering social space, demanding different kinds of recognition, producing certain kinds of bodily scandals in the world, and, also, acting in concert with other people as a way of changing what it normative and what is not …. I think underlying all of this is the idea that we are interdependent as we try and attract certain social transformations that affect us at very personal levels” (link)

Bodies don’t just occupy space but activate them, making them safer or more dangerous to particular people depending how the spaces are organized and who on occupies them. Increasingly, coalitions of minority artists and audiences have been reworking spaces to become safer as a way to create havens in spite of other venues which put their communities in danger. Promoters such as ATHE, Sisbis and Radical Womxn’s Dance Party (RWDP) in Liverpool hold parties that challenge the normative structures and behaviors of nightlife that excludes marginalized people. This ranges from providing advocates on the dancefloor when anyone feels in danger and posting up accountability statements inside the venue, to setting up dry bars for Muslim audiences and maintaining a womxn, trans, queer and non-binary inclusive door policy. Rather than working in consort with the music scene to better other club nights, RWDP only concern themselves providing a safer space for their community and using door takings for direct action: “The collective ask their venues and audiences to practice politics that welcome womxn and queer bodies. The project does not aim to demonstrate the violence in social relations elsewhere, simply to facilitate a safer togetherness.”

Despite friendships in electronic music blossoming on social media platforms, the need for physical communion still remains as relevant as ever. Silent Weapons, an event series run by PTP label owner Geng (and an event I had the pleasure of performing with DeForrest Brown, Jr., Dreamcrusher and more), acts as much of a community gathering for socially- and economically-marginalized artists and audiences. Although the music varies wildly from industrial to techno, hardcore to free jazz, all share an affinity with Geng and one another. The dichotomy between artist and audience also collapses, both playing their bit in fundraising for immigration charities and prison bail-outs for minority people. Equally as important to Geng is the community that forms around Silent Weapons and how it provides material autonomy for the scene. “We don’t need this big budget, big platform bullshit,” he says. “We don’t need these corporations with energy drinks and this other bullshit. We need to maintain control of what’s ours.” Although Silent Weapons doesn’t provide the international coverage of a Boiler Room performance, it reminds us of the power of working locally, particularly in the face of boom-and-bust projects that charade as industry opportunity. Sustainability is key.

xin releases their debut album Melts Into Love on Subtext Recordings in September. The record follows the blueprint of Fis’ recent releases on Subtext and Saplings Records, divesting the sales to plant trees through Eden Reforestation Projects. This in turn is creating people-managed nurseries and planting sites in villages across the world.

It is of no doubt that the earth is hurtling towards irreversible ecological disaster without radical changes in consumption, of which the music industry plays its small part in. Kyle Devine, writer of Decomposed: The Political Ecology Of Music, highlights that rather than non-physical record releases allowing for greener listening, digital streaming have contributed to a sharp rise in greenhouse gas emissions from cloud data storage, up to 350 million kilograms over the 21st century. While Devine calls for transparency and regulation of the streaming industry, others advocate buying second hand or downloading, Saplings Records’ Oliver Peryman, aka Fis, went one step further by carbon offsetting record releases through planting between 25 and 35,000 trees since its inception in 2018.

Artist and researcher xin has been involved in Berlin’s technopolitics community since their arrival there, with both of their vocations playing a part of exploring the late Mark Fisher’s concept of acid communism. “The concept entails the synthesis of various forms of consciousness raising; one example he glaringly misses is that of environmental consciousness raising, and how that folds into feminist, anti-racist, decolonial, leftist, etc., projects too” xin writes, “…we as a community have largely neglected to talk about or act on the climate crisis, though thankfully this is changing.”

Album art for Melt Into Love

While acknowledging the limitations of music within politics, xin understands the role culture has to play in changing the way we think and act: “I don’t think major shifts in policy, behaviour, infrastructure and so on happens without a substantial cultural shift.” Here, context is key; it is impossible for music to remain outside of the political sphere, particularly when so many bodies are surrounded by precarity, violence and uncertain times. Music as a political carrier, whether it’s Holly Herndon’s album Platform or ‘Vossi Bop’, creates the conversation but also music has its role to play in experimenting with interdependence. Acting interdependently ultimately means caring and affordance, and thinking interdependently interrogates the personal role of creating structures that support people, networks and beyond. For many, including myself, interdependence could perhaps be nothing more than a rebranding of solidarity, but with culture increasingly being utilised as a (hopefully) temporary salve in the absence of structure welfare across the UK and beyond, it is vital to think what role culture has in providing an institution of care.

I finish this article in the wake of a new Conservative government and also hearing “interdependent” crop up again through Lynne Segal saying we have to attack “the ideology that can just look after themselves rather than that we’re all interdependent and must care for each other and indeed the world we’re in.” That must happen in all aspects of life. We cannot isolate our careers or vocations in music from it.

Jon Davies is an exhibitions and events producer, freelance writer and musician based in Liverpool. Producing as Kepla, he has made work with DeForrest Brown, Jr. and Nathan Jones on PTP and Entr’acte, most recently releasing a solo album Within The Gaze, A Shadhavar on Alien Jams. He also works for Metal and Granby Four Streets Community Land Trust and contributes to The Wire.

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