July 24, 2015
In researching both MusICA and Shout Out! Pirate Radio in the 1980s (as part of my Researcher-in-Residence award at the Institute of Contemporary Arts) it made me consider how the ways of disseminating niche or marginalised new music have changed over the last decades. In fact, this is an area I am currently researching in my own PhD. MusICA and Shout Out! Pirate Radio in the 1980s have proved valuable case studies.
How has the dissemination of new music changed since the founding of MusICA? In the early 70s, as the Minimalist scene was buzzing in downtown New York City composers such as Terry Riley, Philip Glass and Steve Reich were developing their reputations and major record labels were beginning to take notice. The LP was the primary means for disseminating music
and these composers, with their backgrounds in the galleries and lofts of Manhattan, quickly recognised how best to exploit this.
Keith Potter (2000) explains how Riley’s now seminal work In C was primarily experienced by listeners in LP format ‘packaged in a style redolent of the period when the idea of a rock album with integral aspirations was still new’. Reich’s first imprint, Live/Electric Music, featured original artwork by William T Wiley and the sleeve for Glass’ Music in Twelve Parts (Part One and Two) by Sol LeWitt.
These close associations between visual artist and composer meant there was a particularly strong design aesthetic and this was revolutionary at a time when most classical music was packaged with reproductions of old master paintings and/or austere photography. Their LPs sold in numbers which gave many hope, not least to Robert Hurwitz (Columbia, ECM and current President of Nonesuch Records) who recognised that contemporary music could appeal to more than just a specialised audience. Up until then Glass points out that he had been content with gallery turnouts of around twenty-five!
By the time that The Steve Reich Ensemble and The Philip Glass Ensemble made their first appearances in London in 1971 (at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and Royal College of Art respectively), their friend and fellow composer Michael Nyman had spread the word and they enjoyed a rapturous reception with an audience that included David Bowie and Brian Eno among others. Their musical process and design ethic have since permeated every part of the music industry and they are rightly lauded amongst contemporary and popular music audiences and musicians alike.
The Shout Out! Pirate Radio in the 1980s exhibition reinforces the importance of pirate radio as a tool for disseminating black and urban music at a time when these were glaringly neglected by mainstream radio. Music that might have been heard by relatively small groups at illegal blues parties or sound system events, at those Kiss FM’s Gordon Mac described in my
earlier piece, was suddenly out there for the many to hear. This in turn fuelled a growth in independent record shops and live events and very quickly the music disseminated into wider culture.
What can composers and musicians working today learn from these two examples? What tools are available to disseminate their music? It is now almost a given that new contemporary music is released with more considered artwork. There has been a proliferation of online resources for self-broadcasting, as Elizabeth Johnson described in her recent ICA blog post Voices of Dissent: DIY Radio in the 21st Century. However, I think the important lesson to be learnt is that each of these scenes was artist-led and that context was at the heart of the artistic content itself.
Today this means adopting composer-led curatorial initiatives and strategies to create an ecosystem in which to produce, exhibit and disseminate their own music; not too dissimilar to that of the independent artist-curators operating in the visual arts. Arguably with this approach and a thorough understanding of the digital space can composers and musicians reach a far wider audience and impact on the greater cultural consciousness.