toward transparency and the ethics of the object of music


The Author Showing Physical Manifestations of His Hippie Ideals

A few days ago I sent an email to a dear friend. Until about a year ago, he ran the affairs of a record label I hold dear to my heart. This label has a new LP in the works which looks incredible. I’d like to write it up. The email was a simple inquiry into who I should contact to obtain a promo copy, and how to best move forward with shining light in the direction of its imminent release. The subsequent correspondence illuminated many aspects of my own thinking, as well as offering insight into some inconsistent practices within the recording industry. As our discussion unfolded, and I responded to his doubts toward the likelihood of my receiving a physical promo, it occurred to me that my readers are unaware of how I pursue record reviews, and the basic processes applied towards inclusion and exclusion. In an attempt to offer the kind of transparency that I believe so strongly in, I thought it might be helpful to discuss my objectives for The Hum, and highlight some of the conceits that guide it, for all to see.

The Hum is an act of principle. It is a selfless effort to support great art in an increasingly inhospitable context. It takes its cue from generations of remarkable countercultural periodicals (newspapers, zines, etc) who offered otherwise absent content – issuing texts which served the interests of the readers, not outside forces (advertisers, mainstream political agendas, etc). They attempted to inspire, offer perspective, and build community and collective support. Most narratives by their readers revolve around the breaking of the social isolation of dissent – “I realized I wasn’t the only one thinking this way,” and inspiring those readers to pursue their own efforts – “Because they did it, I knew I could too.” The Hum sets out to achieve some small effect to this end.

Charting the reasons I began these efforts would be impossible. They are too vast. This is frustrating. I want to allow readers as much insight, perspective, and transparency as I can. Unfortunately it’s an endless knot of intersecting streams. Though music has always been a defining influence in my life, my education and background is in fine-art. Most of my professional career was spent in the art world – both as a practitioner (I stopped making and showing work five or six years ago), and working in many prominent commercial galleries in New York and London. An increasing concern within that context is the relationship between critical oversight, financial interests, and advertising. It’s rare for a review to appear in a publication where the concerned gallery does not advertise. Given that publications are dependent on advertising revenue, their critical perspectives have increasingly fallen behind the “party line.”  It’s a self-validating cycle which has lead to a lot of inflated careers, bad art, economic insecurity, and very little trust. Though the origins of the condition have an inherent logic, it doesn’t excuse them. Critical objectivity in the arts is paramount. There is nothing more important. The currant “ouroboros” is compounded by an increasingly inhospitable economic climate. It’s almost impossible for publications who offer a alternate position to establish themselves and remain free of the influence (and necessity) of capital. This has promoted a consolidation of voices. The critical landscape is defined by a few publications who can only survive by “playing ball.”  My frustrations with this corruption came to define my departure points when beginning The Hum. Critical objectivity, and a belief in multiple autonomous perspectives are central concerns. I don’t want to be a definitive voice. I hope to be one of many trying to expand a landscape which is naturally disposed toward contraction. I want my actions and thoughts to encourage others to enter the discourse – to assert their voices, principles, beliefs, and critical positions.

My goals are simple – to draw attention to remarkable artists, labels, and shops that I think deserve more attention than they receive. To celebrate ambitious art, and try to help rebuild a context for music where listeners buy, support, and invest in physical formats – particularly analog ones. For these efforts I receive no monetary return. As long as I can manage (and I am going slowly broke), I hope to find ways to pursue this without advertising. From what I can tell from reader, artist, and label responses, I’m helping. My readership continues to grow well past anything that I could have imagined, which implies that there’s a hunger from what I am attempting to offer, and that I am building trust. Truthfully, I’m touched that anyone gives a shit. Hearing people’s appreciation has restored my faith, hope, and belief in what I am capable of. This is how the record reviews began. My original gestures on The Hum were largely dedicated to contextualizing and drawing attention to older recordings – things I loved that had fallen into the shadows. The blog stemmed from my desire to find a way to share things I wanted to – images, streams, videos, etc, but couldn’t easily place on the original site. As the blog’s audience grew, I started to hear from readers, artists, and labels regularly. Often, artists and labels who were fans of my efforts would ask if they could send me records, tapes, and CDs to review. Despite being a hardcore record collector, the thought of getting “free” records had never crossed my mind. There’s a catch. When you have a record collection the size of mine, it becomes a pain in the ass as much as a passion. You start to think of what you own (and want to own) differently. You begin to ask “do I really need this?” This became the the guiding architecture of my writing about music – asking if I need to own it? Thus, if I write about something, chances are I do, and that choice was not made lightly. I’m suggesting that the reader invest in a record that I believe in enough to add to my bowing shelves. If I’m offered a record that I’m not that excited about, I turn it down. I could take it, fudge a review, and sell it, but this would undermine my basic principles, the trust of my readers, and frankly isn’t worth the time and effort. I’d rather a more suited critic do it justice. It’s not that I don’t want people to hear about those given releases, or that they don’t have quality, it’s just that they’re not my thing, and thus wouldn’t enter my collection under normal circumstances. The Hum is a one man effort. I have to draw the line somewhere. This seemed like the most logical criteria I could establish.

Of course there is only so much I can keep track of, and only so much time I have to write. This is an inherent limiter, and often frustrating. I wish I could do more. About fifty percent of the records I review are the result of people getting in touch with me, and the other the result of me getting in touch with them. The unfortunate paradox is that the more time I spend writing, the less I have to keep track of new releases and hunt for great music. I’m increasingly reliant on others to draw my attention to them. As I’ve gone on, I’ve had a vast array of experiences. Most have been overwhelmingly positive, and stem from a remarkable position of mutual respect. My writing has put me in touch with incredible artists and labels who I have long held close to my heart. To hear that the respect I carry for them is returned, and that we are working toward the same end, has helped me understand how vast and important our community is, and made me want to work harder for it. For the most part labels and artists who get in touch with me are fans of my writing and want to send me LPs, tapes, and CDs to consider. In many of these cases, I’m already a fan of what they do, and it’s really exciting to hear from them. I started contacting labels because it occurred to me that if I was going to enter into the field of reviews, I should attempt to offer my readers as broad a range of material as possible. I began to understand myself as being responsible to a larger context which included the artists, labels, shops, and fans. I wanted to do the best job I could for everyone. In some cases I’ve gotten in touch, and am surprised to discover the label was already a fan. Some aren’t aware of The Hum, check it out, like what they see, and happily send me what I request. These labels represent the full spectrum – reasonable scale with high pressing numbers, down to tiny ones that only issue cassettes in editions of 50 – thus a variety of economies where offering a free record, and receiving a review represents a range of impacts. I don’t write negative reviews. I think its more productive to focus on what you support and ignore the things you take issue with. If I take the time to write about something, I’m going to do the best job I can, because I love it. Though rare, I’ve also encountered some real bummers. I’m disposed to think that everyone who embarks on starting an independent label has the best intentions at heart, so with regard to these, I try and presume that they are the result of a larger condition, and that sometimes less desirable elements of a broader context of music have bled into our borders, often without challenge or awareness. These experiences defined the email correspondence that I mention at the outset. Because of my inherent optimism, I don’t fault the perpetrators. I think that it’s easy to lose perspective in a world that has few critical voices. This piece is an attempt to offer some.

I’m more than aware of what it takes to keep a record label afloat these day. Regardless of scale, it’s hard. My sympathies are always on the side of people who take it on. Because labels take so much work to sustain, and usually represent the vision of one or a very small number of people, it’s easy for them to fall down the rabbit hole and lose sight of the larger contexts in which they exist. That’s were critics come in. We offer perspective and oversight – attempting to help all of the involved parties (fans and practitioners alike) define, build, and participate within broader contexts, as well as understand their place within them. From my perspective, the most defining questions within the contemporary context of music surround the relationship between physical media (vinyl, tapes, CDs) and non-physical media (downloads, streams, etc). Few people acknowledge the embedded objectives and origins of these formats, or how they have dictated the relationship between the major label recording industry and those who attempt to operate independently from it. For those of us who choose the latter, it is easy to presume success. In actuality, the mainstream corporate industry has always had a strong hand in sculpting our realities.

The components of our current condition appeared during the early 80’s with the emergence of the CD. What seemed to be a organic evolution in technology, introduced a philosophical paradigm shift which ripples through our contemporary context. I’m sure the inventors of the Compact Disc had great hopes, but its application by the mainstream recording industry was cynical from the start. It’s worth remembering that it entered the world on the heals of the 1970’s “oil crisis” which saw vinyl production costs sky rocket. This helps us understand the CD as a realization of Late-Capitalist profit motives. Their cheap production costs maximized profits, while promising to offer more. This myth of “more” encouraged an entire generation to abandon their LPs, reinvest in music that they already owned, and subsequently place their faith in a format that was less durable and sustainable (ultimately needing to be replaced down the road) – the basic hallmarks of Late-Capitalism. I fall into the camp that embraced the LP because they sound better, are more durable, and are more appealing objects to interact with. In other words, they are the best delivery system for music. My relationship to LPs grew from personal experience. Like many members of my generation (not part of DJ culture), I began buying them because they were usually cheaper than CDs (and thus allowed me to afford more music) and because many of the records I wanted to hear were never issued on CD. It was practical, not fetishistic. My affection for them is the result of owning and listening to multiple formats. Of course CDs have some great attributes – most notable for long duration works, and allowing small independent labels to establish themselves and support great work with financial freedom. My issue is not entirely based on what they are, but rather why they exist, the fallacy of what they purport to be, and their lasting legacy. CDs represent the introduction of a brand of (now prevalent) cynicism in the recording industry. When they appeared during the mid 80’s they were seen as luxury objects, and handled with extreme care. A decade later they littered the floors of cars. They became regarded as junk housing for music. Why? Because consumers perception came to mirror the cynicism of the industry that produced them. I can’t tell you how many people I know who simply threw all their CDs away at some point. When I acknowledged this legacy a decade ago, I stopped buying them completely. As time went on I became fiercely opposed to the format, offering it the same regard as I held for the industry that introduced it. More recently my position has softened. As the readership of The Hum has grown, I have become more aware of who and what I feel responsible to. This has encouraged me to try and untangle how an “object of music” relates to its context and those who “consume” it, from what it is. A lot of great music is released on CD, and many labels can’t afford to offer more. If I ignore them completely, I do the artists, labels, readers, and potential fans a disservice. Most importantly, the CD has become the lesser evil. At least they offer fans something which they can protect, touch, read, and that will occupy a space in their lives. My greatest ire is now focused on the sale of downloads and streaming rights. It’s not that I think these things are entirely bad. They are convenient and mobile. If you are someone who wants to listen to music while you travel, there are few better options. For me, when I review something, they have become essential for accessing the music before the physical object arrives. I get why people like them, and they have a place in my life. I think offering a digital download with an LP or cassette is a great thing to do (because it is a free convenience that comes with a physical object). My issue draws from confusing them with a viable commodity in their own right.

If you are willing to understand the existence of digital downloading and streaming as an extension of the context of the CD, and thus connected to its cynical origins, we can start to unravel the questions that have come to define the current climate of recorded music – the physical object vs the non-physical. Most people site “illegal” downloading as the beginning of the end of the recording industry as we once knew it. What they’ll never mention is that “illegal” downloading was the result of taught behavior. It wasn’t just that the evolutionary technology of digital media allowed for the transfer of music as files, the culture which conceived of digital media encouraged it. The introduction of the CD was the manifestation of the industry’s reduced investment in the object of music. The consumer then mirrored this behavior, first reducing their own emotional attachment, and then by taking it to the logical conclusion, toward no object at all. Since this occurrence we’ve seen the implosion of the record industry – stores closing, labels hemorrhaging profits, attempts to persecute downloaders, and finally efforts to get on board and milk profit from downloads and streaming. What few people understand is that the industry will continue to fail because it has misinterpreted the context. They believe its definition grows from consumer desire. It’s actually defined by a consumer ambivalence – something that the corporate industry helped create and fuel. I set out to combat this ambivalence. Not only do I believe in the importance of investing in music, artists, and labels (by this I mean making a considered choice which exchanges the fruits of your labor for those of another), and living with that object so that you might learn from it and allow it to evolve over time, but I also believe in a more ethical application of Capitalism which fosters respect between consumer and provider. In other words, a producer offers the best product available, and the consumer responds with loyal patronage and investment. These are the defining attributes of Mid-Century American Capitalism – something destroyed by the Neo-Conservative greed given rise by Nixon, amplified by Reagan and Thatcher, and gaining such prevalence in the ensuing years that we no longer distinguish it from previous forms. It infects everything. Digital streaming and downloads are a symptom of this sickness.

Though I would love to live in a world which is not defined by Capitalism, and I do my best to side step it daily, it is the context we live in. As a result, we must pursue ethical positions within it. If we can’t define the architecture, we can at least set the terms for participation. Our relationship to the arts, and those who produce and facilitate it, is a perfect place to begin. I’ve waded into the ethics and principles that define The Hum. They also extend to those who I choose to support. This has been one of the hardest aspects of doing what I do, and is often determined by my critical regard for streaming and downloading. The infrastructures that support their sale as autonomous objects have been enabled by a failure oversight. I know that many consumers are more than happy with them, but the parable of The Emperor’s New Cloths exists for a reason. Record labels are very similar to art galleries. They operate as arbiters of taste – (when working in good faith, and the interest of culture) choosing what they feel is of the highest quality, and best represents their philosophical and curatorial position. The critic operates as oversight, protecting the larger institution of culture, and those who interact with it. Lots of people are intuitively drawn to bad art. This doesn’t mean that they should be taken advantage of, or encouraged to invest in it. A careful balance between the proposition of culture (by galleries, record labels, etc), critical oversight, and the mechanisms of institutional support, is necessary for sculpting a cultural landscape which is both accurate and working for the greater good. In other words, intuition and desire don’t reflect truth. Truth is found collectively. I might intuit something about astrophysics, but I hope no one would trust it. I must defer to those who have put the work in. Within the mechanisms of the arts, if one component fails to operate in good faith and be held accountable by the others, the whole institution is at risk. Overnight, we can live in a context where gravity isn’t certain. Most often this occurs when an “arbiter of taste” allows profit motive, with a perceived consumer desire, to supersede their investment in culture, and the critical infrastructure fails to call them to account. Unfortunately this has become common practice – extending from increased difficulties in maintaining economic autonomy between the cultural arms. As I mentioned earlier, platforms of criticism (publications, etc) are supported by advertising. If this is placed by institutions which prioritize economics over their obligation to culture, a publication must choose between their own survival and critical integrity. Faced with this, how can a critical infrastructure protect their readers? It’s theoretically possible, but highly unlikely. In most historical cases, integrity was maintained collectively. Publications where able to hold outside interests at bay, and maintain high standards and a code of ethics through sheer numbers  – each holding the next to account. The fewer publications there are, the less accountability there is. How many publications does Experimental Music have? How accountable to their readers are they? How much trust is placed with them? Regardless of how you answer, or your personal feeling on these matters, they are questions everyone should ask. Given how little critique of downloading and streaming I have read in music publications – which is essentially a the selling a product for profit which costs nothing to produce, and not in the consumer’s best interests, one must presume the silence is complicity.

Over the last decade, as Post-Marxist discourse has become trendy within the art world, questions regarding the value of labor have begun to bleed across the borders of the culture industry. When I began The Hum I considered it something akin to philanthropy. I wanted to give back to a culture of music which has brought endless joy and enrichment into my life. I wanted to champion its remarkable spirit, and encourage new listeners to join it. Despite my overwhelming support and enthusiasm, I hoped to offer an objective voice free from the motives of capital. This is complicated. When I write a review, I want my readers to support the artists and labels, which means buying the record. I make this clear to the labels I correspond with, and I make this clear to those who read the reviews. I want to bring a release greater attention, hope people will share in my excitement, and invest in the physical object of music. This means that not only am I involved in Capitalism, I am encouraging others to engage with it. By participatory role within this mechanism, my labor then has value within the terms that define it. I do this knowingly through my belief in supporting (and having an extended relationship with) the arts. The only system that currently supports recorded music is Capitalism. If pursued ethically, it is not a bad option. It often achieves creative autonomy that other forms of support rarely obtain (but without oversight, also places it at great risk). The question remains – if the only return I receive for my efforts is a copy of the release, does this represent the value of my labor and an economic exchange (barter is a from of economy) which risks compromising my critical autonomy and integrity? The answer is elusive. Historically, music journalists have always received promo copies to review from. When the only available way to listen to a release was an LP (and thus according to my arguments above, the best form of delivery), and journalists were paid by a magazine for their labor, there were fewer grey areas. For one, they did not have to concern themselves with the ethic of the object itself. In those days there was a stronger sense of critical autonomy and power, and less to contend with contextually. In the current climate I am forced to stitch together a patchwork of ethics to address the changing circumstances. Writers like myself who run blogs (without advertising) do not get paid for our labor. A reader’s decision to buy a record we recommend holds no consequence to us. We are promoting its value abstractly – as art and for its cultural worth. Despite this, we are still part of the system of Capitalism. Our labor has a value and necessity. We are attempting to reestablish a critical landscape destroyed by the cynicism introduced by digital media. We are changing the terms. By asserting new criteria, we are capable of rebuilding our readers’ trust in the idea of having a sustained relationship with art. I believe that everyone in the culture industry should do this, but it has to start somewhere. Bloggers are essentially consumers, using our experience to look out for the interests of other consumers, and offering guidance. The paradox is that in order to champion the efforts of the artists and labels that I am, but also look out for listeners like myself, I have placed myself in an economic reality where I can no longer afford the records that I encourage others to buy. I quit my job, left NY, and am living on pennies in order to do this. This is also something that I explain to labels.

I doubt that my readers will challenge the ethics of my receiving a review copy of a record from a label or artist. It’s part of a tradition that we are all aware of and accept. If critical objectivity is maintained, and the practice is universal, and equally applied, I wouldn’t think about it. Because I take the position of a fan, a record collector, and thus a consumer, but am stone cold broke, it’s a nice perk. The question becomes complex when labels believe that downloads or streams are a reasonable substitute. Because I take the position that physical media is the only viable and ethical way to buy and sell music, am encouraging fans to invest in those objects, and believe that the ethics of music are connected to its form of distribution, I am then forced to question the ethics of such a label. When I review something, I believe that an LP is the best format through which a label can offer their customers music. This is always the departure point. If they have done this with care, and at a fair price, I except that they are making a personal sacrifice (because digital formats have a higher profit margin) and thus looking out for the interests of their consumers and artists. If a release is issued on cassette the reasoning is almost always based on a belief in analog, financial restrictions, and a desire to deliver music to their audience on a physical format at low cost. I nearly always offer them my faith. CD’s I’m (predictably) less willing to approach, but when I do, I ask myself questions about the viability of the project on other formats (for example a five hour work would be prohibitive for most labels and buyers on vinyl), and what the economic reality of the label appears to be. If they are a little guy embarking on ambitious projects with little possibility of return, of course I am going to support what they do. They are giving and risking all they can, and operating in good faith. Any release that is sold exclusively as a download, will not be touched under any condition. If a label cannot invest in the music or their customers enough to offer them the best format (or product) possible, I will not invest in them, and actively encourage others to follow my lead. They should stop muddying the waters until they are financially solvent, brave enough to risk failure, and offer their customers a reasonable exchange for their labor. The digital download is unethical, and does a disrespect to artist, customers, and all the labels that put the work in and risk everything to bring fans the best object they can.

The governing undercurrent of The Hum is the idea that those of us who choose to pursue ambitious music outside of the mainstream, and who believe great art has more value than capital (and thus our labor), are members of a community. For many of us, the ethical conceits have their foundations in various iterations of the counterculture. We choose to set the terms of participation, are stronger together, and are reinforced by mutual respect and support. The themes are trust, and sacrifice, in the name of art as an ethical determinant. If you hold a place of standing in the world of music, you should be willing to do what you ask of your fans and customers – to make a sacrifice which places faith in the fact that you are getting the better end of the bargain. To exchange (or risk) your labor for something you want more than time – great music, and to offer it at the highest quality available to your circumstances. I try to apply this code to myself, and to those I write about. It is the rough criteria which sculpts these pages. The records I want to write about (because they hold great music) but do not, are released by labels that, through interaction, have forced me to question their ethics, and whether or not they are actually members of our community. The promo becomes symbolic. It represents a value in community, the importance of critical oversight, the reviewer as proxy for the consumer, a willingness to sacrifice (the cost of production) to defend these things, and a respect for my labor and contribution. When a label refuses to offer a physical promo, it might imply a breakdown of any of these values, or it may mean that they are simply operating within a context as they have encountered without question. Maybe they presume that downloads have more “value” than they do. Maybe they simply fail to see the importance of what bloggers are attempting to achieve. In a world with little critical oversight, it is hard to fault them, but we are all responsible with how we choose to participate with social and economic systems, and for the level of respect offered to those we interact with. Accepting an unchallenged practice does not make it ethical. Likewise, we must all take responsibility. If an unethical practice remains unchallenged, silence becomes complicity. My priority is protecting and promoting great art, and working in the interests of those who produce and consume it ethically. I am essentially vouching for the efforts of others, and in so doing risking my credibility every time I sit down to write. This is not a risk or responsibility I take lightly.  There also should be a distinction made between my role as a consumer, and my role as a critic. Just because I can’t vouch for an object of music, because of my perception of it’s embedded ethics, does not mean that I wouldn’t buy it myself. If I love the artist, but not the terms that conceived the release, I still might add it to my collection. As a critic I simply can’t recommend it to others. I also regularly write about contemporary reissues of records I already own. I have no interest in cluttering my life with second copies, so I won’t burden the label with a request. In these cases I am unaware of the ethics of the label because I haven’t interacted with them. Circumstantially, I am only able to vouch for the quality of the record and the artists. It’s a slight allowance I give myself. When surveying the ethical landscape of recorded music, the greyest areas surround platforms like Bandcamp. As a general rule, I support them. I love the fact that fans can purchase releases directly from a label or artist without the normal channels of distribution. I personally prefer to support record shops, because I believe in their value, but I also respect the ability to choose what percentage of the profits go to the artist or label (depending on which you buy it from). Being able to easily listen to the release online before you buy it is also great. Most artists and labels offer the ability to download the release and to buy a physical object (which is accompanied by a download). The problem occurs when the release is no longer in print, and only a download is available. This returns us to the ethic quandary we’ve encountered across this entire body of writing. My position is that the download (even if it’s all the customer wants) is not an ethical product. It can be given away or streamed for free, but it does not offer the consumer the best delivery system for music that means allow. It does not make a reasonable exchange (or sacrifice) for the labor it takes to purchase it. As consumers of music absorbed the ethics of the major label industry through the CD, it seems fair that the reversal of this process is also in the hands of those who produce music. As they often do, these kinds of reversals generally fall into the hands of dissenters – us! Thus we as a community have the ability to change the terms. To say that non-physical formats of music will be free, either joined to an object (LP, cassette, CD) or through streams (which now occupy the place radio once did). We can say that this is not an ethical way to sell music, and we refuse to participate with it. In so doing, we have a hope for rebuilding the trust and value that consumers once placed in recorded music, encouraging them to invest in it, and assuring a viable and sustainable future for the art we all cherish. We must lead by example, and refuse to accept contemporary circumstances as inevitable. Our future lays in the hands of the collective. Only together can we rebuild the necessary balance of respect between fan, artist, label, and objective critic, allowing great artists the freedom and future they deserve. Sometimes it all starts with a line in the sand. Sometimes it begins with a gesture of respect.

-Bradford Bailey



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s