On Patronage

(Left) Momus chided for 'blatant commercialism'...
And now a word from our patron: The 1999 Camry Solara!

Rock Versus Pop

Stars Forever is an aesthetic test case full of beautiful paradoxes: The fact that it's actually dishonest to claim you aren't in pop music for money, the fact that the classical high art we're asked to see as 'priceless' was always produced at the behest of the wealthy and the powerful...

This record seems to have blown open some of the ridiculous paradoxes built into pop music and its guilty co-existence with capitalism. Art versus commerce, romanticism versus the postmodern, authenticity versus parody, individualism versus impersonality, idealism versus pragmatism, integrity versus loyalty, the past versus the future, patronage versus getting patronised, rock versus pop... They're the paradoxes that killed Kurt Cobain, but I don't think they'll be troubling us for much longer.

Radiohead Killed The Old Master

In the past, patronage was reserved for the privileged few. The industrial revolution brought the masses living standards which had previously been reserved for a tiny elite of the wealthiest. Industrialisation killed off one by one the highly skilled artisans who had made the baroque decorations in such splendid places as Louis XIV's Versailles, replacing them with shoddy mass market entertainers.

An odd paradox emerged. The less skilled these people were, the more they claimed the status of artists. They didn't have to make things any more (a convincing likeness, a beautiful sculpture), and in fact lost all practical skills, which they delegated to studio engineers, arrangers, machines. So their status became more and more nebulous and fetishistic. Like Prince, they were simply to be known as The Artist. Divorced from production but increasingly insistent on the charismatic aura of their talent, they replaced the kings and popes who had once been their task masters.

Trust the little guy's luck: As soon as he gets rich enough to be a patron himself, he finds that even the most populist, mass market artists are now too snooty to do anything but sign his autograph book and let him stand beside them in the photo.

But isn't there something wrong here? Wasn't the common man, not the artist, supposed to replace the aristos? And wouldn't it have been better for the artists to have kept some of their skills, their talents, so that the common man could finally enjoy the quality of life of Louis XIV?

It wasn't to be. Because along with industrialisation came Modernism. Decoration and variation disappeared from the world. Ornamented buildings were replaced by glass and steel boxes. Decoration and fantasy were out, and in their place came functionalism and uniformity.

The little guy still clings to his love of decoration, though, surrounding himself with 'bad taste' imitations of the lost artisanal products. Plastic candelabras, classical music hits played on the synthesiser, the architecture of Disneyland...

Then, gradually, things change. The industrial era begins to give way to the information age. Because computers are infinitely adaptable, and because the internet is a huge jumble of stuff which needs to be curated by each and every user, uniformity is replaced by customisation. Because digital forms are much cheaper and easier to manipulate than physical forms, a new breed of digital artisans emerges, selling their baroque wares directly to 'patrons' over the internet.

But this time, instead of aristocrats, ordinary people are in charge. And the art that results shows us that our monolithic and reductionist conception of the mass of 'ordinary people' was woefully inadequate. People are all unique, and all extraordinary.

Money Has No Odour

In pop music journalism, money is so all-permeating that it is invisible and unmentionable, and all that's left to talk about (since we can't see the wood for the trees) is some sort of played-out 19th century romantic concept of 'the artist'.

This artist (let's call him Kurt Cobain, or Richard Ashcroft, or Thom Yorke) is unsullied by all the money changing hands around him, the PR machinery, the payola, the offices and the phone calls and the merchandising seemingly at odds with his romantic subjectivity. He admits the existence of this surrounding machinery only as a problem, a challenge to his status as artist, even while he knows that it's the only means for him to create and legitimate his role as an artist. The music business, which simultaneously seems to create and negate him, becomes a worrying problem which, unable to resolve, he answers with the ultimate gesture of Romantic integrity, the only gesture left to him after a long process of alienation from the means of production and distribution and from his audience, a gesture of ultimate self-disgust and confusion. He kills himself.

No wonder Thom Yorke feels like a creep, Richey James carves '4 Real' into his arm, and Kurt Cobain blows his head off with a shot gun. We tell artists that they are way, way above the very structure they need to find the audience they crave and the very mechanisms that brought their art into being. We keep hammering home the essential difference between what they do when they create and what we do when we market and consume their creations. No wonder they are alienated.

We treat artists like children who must never learn that Santa doesn't exist. We keep them stupid with drugs, and we make sure above all that they don't realise a very simple fact: that commerce is really just a matter of putting a price on what you do, and selling it to the people who want it. There's nothing dirty or soul-destroying in that. There is no essential conflict between making art and selling it. Make your art, then go out there and take money for it. With pride.

(Or, like me, use every last penny of it to save a plucky little record label.)

Back To The Future

Which is more honest, the subscription publishing system of the 18th century, when poets would gather enough subscribers to pay for printing a batch of poems and then write them, or the romantic posturing of the nineteenth century, when poets would claim to be indifferent to their audience and totally separate from the systems of publishing, promotion and marketing? Rock at the end of the 20th century is just a tired rerun of Romantic ideology, with the role of Keats played by the late Jeff Buckley.

Paradoxically, the more uniform and capitalist the system of art production became, the more we were sold the image of the individualistic artist, head in the clouds, far removed from all practical concerns.

The Romantic movement of the 19th century reached its final expression in the suicide of Kurt Cobain, the last expression of the ludicrous hypocrisies built into the industrial age. Now we are in the Information Age, and all that Romantic stuff about integrity (which really masked an inept, inelegant and inefficient system of mass marketing) is about to be swept away.

What we will have in its place will resemble a mixture of the past and the future: A return to the 17th and 18th century systems of patronage, subscription publishing, wit and decoration.

The only difference is that now, you don't have to be an aristocrat to get a piece of the action. Just digitally literate.

In the Sonicnet editorial about Stars Forever, Chris O'Connor talks about 'Pet Sounds' as though it were pop's great masterpiece. Antonin Artaud saw the 'worship of set masterpieces' as the great sickness of 20th century criticism, and the construction of a pious critical canon of approved works the most cowardly instinct of the bourgeois class.

But such canon-building (and with it, embourgeoisment) is happening increasingly in rock criticism, where joyless works full of self-important self-disgust and whining, conservative mistrust of the modern world like Radiohead's 'OK Computer' become instant classics, important artistic statements of integrity, rated and catalogued in a growing plethora of pompous and pious 'Encyclopaedias of Rock'.

What we're seeing is the simple energy of unpretentious commercial ideas, like the Beach Boys' original premise of making music to complement the sports activity of surfing, gradually metamorphosing into a great tradition of rock respectability, an unquestionable critical canon cast in stone, a pantheon of dull and worthy masterpieces.

From Pop To Rock And Back Again

If you like, it's the transition from pop (lively, young, ephemeral, commercial, undocumented, craven, opportunistic, constructed, insincere, suburban) into rock (weighty, literary, self-important, mature, Romantic, alienated, bourgeois, well-documented, sincere).

The ideal pop band sells a lot of records in a short space of time then disappears. The ideal rock band lumbers through the decades like Pink Floyd, making increasingly pretentious and self-disgusted concept albums. They both sell a lot of records; the rock band, which stresses its artistic integrity, is a better long term investment. Some, like The Beatles and the Beach Boys, make the transition from pop to rock. You can usually see their self-importance growing with their beards. They are still the same creative animals underneath -- responsive, attuned, opportunistic -- and in retrospect we see that rock bands have always been just as influenced by fickle fashions as pop bands. They just use terms like 'classic' and 'timeless' a lot more. They make a lot more fuss about their integrity and their alienation from both the music industry and their audiences.

18th Century Spunk

Maybe artists were right to be alienated from a system in which they lost contact with their audiences, and (since they were the only ones to receive, as Marx said, the fruits of their labour) also the day to day experience of their audiences. I'm simply replacing 19th century concepts about the rock artist's alienation from industrialisation with 18th century spunk, enterprise and pragmatism.

The information age is going to make everybody more like an artist -- individual, creative, hands on, proactive, responsible -- and therefore artists will no longer be special, different and isolated. They will be like the rest of us, approachable, malleable, responsive. We will all fulfill each other's artistic needs, and fill the world once more with love, communication and decoration.

In all the debate about my new record, nobody seems to have pointed out that there is something pluralistic and democratic about this new version of patronage; that it depends totally on the direct contact an artist can now have with his audience through the internet.

Stars Forever may be about saving a record label, but in the end it's like an elephant saving a mammoth. Ultimately it foreshadows the downfall of record labels as surely as industrialisation foreshadowed the downfall of the nobility.

Look, how could this be any more clear? A bunch of people are helping me save a record label by sending me, directly, through a website, large sums of money to write the songs they want to hear. I am passing all the money on to the label so that they can stay in the business of selling CDs with my music on them in stores... to the very people who have just approached me in person, waving thousands of dollars and telling me their needs.

These people have the power, the responsibility and the sheer bloody fun of patrons, but right now we're still all pretending that the ultimate goal of all this is that they'll go back to being good little consumers afterwards, and that I'll go back to being the regal, lonely and totally unaccountable artist.

Who are we trying to kid? Pop music just changed forever.

Momus, London, January 1999

Previous Columns:
On Columns
On Flatness
On The Couch
On The ROM
On Quality
On Image
On Oasism
On Scenes
On 1996
On Unsuccess
On Negritude
On The Job
On Hong Kong
On Ghosts
On The NME
Story Of An Eye
On Transgression
On Shopping
On Curators