Future is NOW : How we may use media effectively

What kind of crazy ideas can we dream up to extend the reach and influence of musicians and the music?  

Future is NOW : How we may use media effectively

AJ Dehany writes about Jazz Connective Public Round Table at the Vortex in London on 12 March 2020

At the Vortex during the London edition of Jazz Connective, an open discussion about the media in connection with the music raised many points of fascination even if overall there was a frustrating tendency to talk about general experience rather than ideas specifically relevant to media, and when discussing media to focus on older and familiar kinds of media rather than trying to push the envelope with fresher thinking about technologies and radical possibilities. Chris Philips (Jazz FM/Jazzed) spoke about his broadcasting experience over decades, which gave a sense of context about radio prior to and since the internet. Huw V Williams and Peter Slavid spoke about their experience of independent internet radio broad(or narrow)casting and blogging. These are hugely valuable but somewhat traditional ways in which people find out about music. They are certainly not going away, but they aren’t pushing against the structure in a radical way. 

How can we push against that structure? It’s a shame we didn’t get into new technological possibilities as much as I’d have liked to. Just a few days after this session we entered Corona lockdown and overnight the livelihoods of creative musicians were transformed, perhaps forever. In the workshop, the muddled format of the session didn’t help. The Vortex stage was still set up from the previous panel despite the session being envisioned as an open floor. There were plenty of excellent contributions and a sense of engagement and passion, but maybe we should have rearranged the chairs in a circle. It was also a little weird with Oliver Weindling and me sort of co-convening, though as the session progressed I tended to take a slightly more direct facilitating role. It was a tough session for me because I’d lately been robbed on the street, my phone stolen, sustaining some injuries that I couldn’t treat because all the shelves were empty of all painkillers because of pandemic panic buying. Apologies for being a little spaced out!

In lockdown 2020, now that streaming is our whole world, it’s weird to think back to this conversation in which streaming seemed somehow exotic. There was a sense of hesitancy about streaming gigs. Streaming is clearly a way of people to remotely encounter and experience music in a way that previously would have fallen to traditional media arbiters. You don’t need to read about it when you can literally see and hear it (even if remotely). But these possibilities extend into a rethinking of not just the media we use to experience music but the very way we make music at all. When Kenneth Killeen (Artistic Director of Improvised Music Company, Ireland) spoke up about the absolute necessity to get on board with more progressive creative thinking about our approaches to media, I very much wanted to amplify his points. I introduced an anecdote owing a little to the speculative thinking of science fiction; pushing beyond the scope of a workshop about media, but in an attempt to encourage some more radical thinking.

I told everyone about the most recent gig I’d been to, which as it happened was Whitney Houston, the beloved soul singer who died in 2012. In London in 2020 she was appearing in London on tour as a hologram. The experience is absolutely fkn crazy. The Whitney hologram doesn’t exactly look real but is somehow totally convincing. It’s like a horror film, not because it’s a ghost (although it literally is) but because somehow the self-consciousness of the impulse to absorb yourself in the suspension of disbelief permits that absorption. I was welling up throughout, every mf in the house was standing up and dancing, it was fourteen bangers and tragic power anthems one after another, the band was sick, they even gave the live drums a period production style, which is nuts level detail. It was like a cross between JG Ballard, Bladerunner and Red Dwarf. I haven’t fathomed a position on the ethics, exploitative or otherwise, the dangers and the philosophical and ontological dynamics of this whole thing, but it is undoubtedly powerful and very much a symptom of the contemporary. 

If that’s not your cup of tea (and why the hell would it be?) then imagine if John Coltrane were on tour as a hologram. Don’t try and be cool, there isn’t one of us who wouldn’t go and see that. I raised it as a striking example of thinking from way outside the box: someone at some point realised after Tupac died that the technology existed to put him (and later Whitney) back onstage in a way that evokes the feelings and feeling of a live performance. It’s also one of the most extreme examples of the music industry’s tendency to consume itself: we have an environment where you’d be much better off to form a good touring covers band rather than perform original work, where the appetite is for classic albums and bands reforming to classic lineups to perform classic albums, the appetite for originality from most of the public doesn’t seem ravenous. 

Jazz especially finds it tough to make people take notice of anything new without falling back on the ghostly sense of the older music. I mentioned that BBC Four had recently broadcast given jazz some good exposure thanks to the Jazz 625 programme, a recreation of a short-lived but remarkable live music programme that introduced mainstream audiences in the sixties to the most radical jazz artists. Jazz 625 was originally broadcast in black and white, but to me the nostalgic invocation of the new show also being in black and white didn’t hit home. For me, exciting contemporary artists like Robert Mitchell don’t need to be presented in black and white to placate a mainstream audience. It tends to fuel the notion that jazz is a nostalgic backward-looking music, which is something I feel the media ought to push against. The problem is it’s all about clicks. 

The most cynical elements of the music industry have always profited from our baser and more retrograde conservative instincts, and the hologram is the latest stroke of evil genius. Surely creative musicians can also benefit from the technological advances and innovations that have occurred and that will continue to enable experiences that would previously have been unthinkable. Even our current climate of concert streaming was unworkable a decade ago. Is there any way living musicians can make use of holograms? It’s already been tested in the realm of politics, sending out a candidate to virtual hustings, as far back as 2014 in India, in 2017 in France and in 2019 the President of Indonesia went out on the campaign trail as a hologram. Just now under lockdown, the US band Real Estate have created an Augmented Reality show that maps a venue onto any room into your home via your phone so you can interact with the virtual performance space: https://realestatequarantour.com/

What kind of crazy ideas can we dream up to extend the reach and influence of musicians and the music? We need to think crazier. There are also implications for sustainable touring, a conundrum which has been discussed a lot at Jazz Connective and was the subject of the earlier session that day. It’s somewhat relevant to a discussion of media because touring often stands in for media. Legacy acts like UK rock stalwarts Marillion and Status Quo (or Euro-ravers Scooter or Rednex, or in jazz the Chris Barber Big Band) haven’t had a column inch in a newspaper in decades but they make a living from touring an unapologetically loyal fanbase. Media attention is irrelevant. Jazz musicians too are dependent on the networks of venues and grass roots organisers. But what happens if we can’t tour any more? In 2019 UK pop-rock act Coldplay announced they would not be touring until they could do so on a carbon neutral footing. I know musicians who have tried to go by train and boat instead of flying. At present it is too exhausting; travel is dominated by planes so the infrastructure isn’t there. How can technology step in? 

The lockdown is presenting some tentative answers to these questions. More so than ever, artists have to interact directly with the audience. During the workshop I introduced Liran Donin of Led Bib, whose recent album was accompanied by short art films for each track. The band performed live to the image at the Rio Cinema Dalston. I hoped to draw attention to the way in which the films were not just works of art in themselves; they extend the scope of the music into multimedia directions (we also talked about painting and dancing interacting with the music as exciting developments). Relevant to media, these films also have a promotional element: instead of waiting for the call from the South Bank show or for a feature in Jazzwise you can make your own films and put them on YouTube or Vimeo and they will do the same essential job: of drawing attention to the music. This is the essence of Amanda Palmer’s dictum “We Are The Media”. Using Patreon and social media Amanda Palmer  has created a worldwide fan network that supports and sustains her work without relying on the support of record companies or conventional media. Her model is one of the most successful and dynamic case studies in the business.

Where does this leave journalists and DJs and traditional media interlocutors? This is a question that these workshops have devoted a lot of time to, and the answer is always that technology, specifically the internet, has fundamentally changed the relationship between audience, critic and musician. With the superabundance and availability of culture we tend to need more than ever someone to direct, to curate, taste. The Jazzed app is a dedicated subscription streaming service for jazz, but has a limited reach compared to Spotify, which tends to centralise attention onto a dwindling number of mega-artists. The platform has even started to mutate into a paid-for channel for record companies. Many people in more niche music find it completely hopeless. There is a worry that it pushes out anything but the music that is backed by the biggest dollar. There’s a sense that the more inquisitive minds in the public realise this and therefore abjure monetized platforms and playlists. Therefore bloggers and podcasters still have a role in introducing people to music; perhaps even more so than traditional DJs, particularly where automated playlists have been creeping in. In a hologram landscape of nostalgia ghosts, there’s still a need for the human guiding hand to lead us into the new dreams of technology. As the lockdown is proving, radical solutions are not only necessary, they are possible. They may already be happening.

AJ Dehany is based in London, locked down in Teesside, and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk