|Nathan West: Naked Eye - Peter Namlook, A Guy Called Gerald, Matt Black|
Nathan West has seen the future of music, and it's anti-corporate.
Plaster Timbalero, a CD of mildly diverting Latin Jazz performances released last month on the Californian Concord Picante label, is the veteran New Yorican percussionist Tito Puente's 120th album release. Or thereabouts: according to Concord's Nick Phillips, "no one really has an exact count of Tito's recordings, including Tito himself." Around the same time that copies of Master Timbalero arrived in the UK, a German musician called Peter Namlook released five CDs of Ambient electronic music on his Frankfurt based Fax label. Namlook keeps more rigorous accounts than Tito Puente, and these CDs brought the number of albums issued by Fax (under a variety of pseudonyms, all fronts for Namlook) by mid-June to 143.
Tito Puente's massive output makes sense in the way it allows us to get a fix on the vapour trails left by a musician whose career has floated across the last five decades of popular music, from 40s Puerto Rico to 50s New York and ending up at a West Coast mainstream jazz label. Peter Namlook, however, has spent the greater part of his musical life sealed into the same Frankfurt recording studio and only released his first Fax album in December 1992; and he's been releasing them, in limited edition quantities, at the rate of around two a week ever since. What kind of logic can we glean from that?
One possible answer lies buried beneath the detail of a number of events, fragmented but gradually coming together, that connect with the rapid advances that have occurred in both music and information technology over the last ten years, as well attendent developments in such musical genres as Ambient and Techno, and the inability of the global record industry to respond on any kind of creative level to the challenges presented by such initiatives.
In March 1990 I interviewed A Guy Called Gerald. The previous year Gerald had released a single called "Voodoo Ray", a resolutely strange and hypnotic piece of Acid House that somehow made the jump from underground cult status to the nation's Top Twenty. By the time I spoke to Gerald he'd signed to a major record label, Sony/Epic, having left the Liverpool independent label Rham in very acrimonious circumstances, and was already embarked on a trajectory that would take him from independent success to corporate failure virtually overnight. We talked about his forthcoming album, Automannik. "I finished the tracks six months ago," Gerald sighed, "and they're still not out. The stuff I'm doing now is completely different, but they [Epic] are saying, 'We can't put it out yet; the tour's not arranged, the artwork's not finished.' Tour? Artwork? What's wrong with a black cover with my name on it?"
In making the move to a major label Gerald had inadvertently allowed his music and career to be subsumed inside a labyrinthine nightmare of bureaucratic infratructures, executive advance planning, internal faxes and inflexible release schedules, all unable to keep pace with the day-to-day shifts of such an errant, nascent music as Acid House. Gerald suggested an alternative means of producing and releasing his music, which would involve him being left alone in his Manchester home studio from where he would issue white label singles in limited editions of 500 every time he finished a track. Four years on, Gerald's dream has become Peter Namlook's reality; and both carry serious implications for the music industry.
In recent months, various Ambient luminaries, such as Matt Black of Coldcut/Hex, have been proselytizing a world where, for a nominal fee, music would be downloaded directly from the musician to the end-user/customer via modems, PCs, BBSs, fibre optic cables, and recordable CDs, thus removing the need for the record company middle man. In certain knowing circles such ideas are already regarded as futurist cliche, but Peter Namlook's method of working, releasing records independently at such a rate that they hardly seem to exist in real time at all, grounds this cyberspace utopia with some temporal credibility.
Namlook's approach to the dissemination of music, and his tactics of industry subversion and by-pass, are appealing for a number of reasons, some of which have to do with the amorphous nature of the kind of music issued by Fax. Mostly it makes sense in a way that A Guy Called Gerald would understand, by allowing an on-going documentation of a still evolving music like Techno. On another level, it allows music to recede from a sense of spectacle (to become ambience, if you like); to disengage from the big corporate moment when the album that has been three years in the making is released in a blaze of publicity, which will be rekindled over the coming months by a variety of album related spin offs (singles, videos, and now the. CDRom and the CD-i), none of which have anything to do with music. This is how the record industry sustains itself, and if a group like U2 were so bent on subversion they would be releasing an album a week too, instead of offering up such epic marketing opportunities as Zoo TV.
In a recent issue of the US technology magazine Wired, there was a quote from Esther Dyson of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a kind of cyberspace civil rights group. "The fundamental thing is to overcome the advantages of the economies of scale," she said. "So the big guys don't rule." Dyson was talking about keeping the Infonet free from corporate raiders, but the same arguements (implicit in the activities of a musician like Peter Namlook) can be applied to the production and control of music.
The record industry is incapable of confronting the cultural shifts, social ruptures, artistic innovations, and advances in technology which birth such musics as Ambient and Techno. Instead it reduces such phenomena to bureaucratic minutiae by absorbing them into existing marketing strategies (witness a company like Philips, who developed the interactive technology of CD-i but only seems capable of understanding such an open-ended multmedia platform as a device through which to resell old video footage of Sting and Eric Clapton). The examples set by Peter Namlook, A Guy Called Gerald and Matt Black offer musicians and their audiences a viable means of removing themselves from the corporate game plan. The theories are in place, the ethereal pathways and digital conduits are being laid. We have the technology.
[Author: Nathan West]