Alexandra Pringle, Editor-in-Chief of Bloomsbury Publishing, the company that brought us Harry Potter as well as the likes of Margaret Atwood and Howard Jacobson, begins her talk by explaining, “I was an academic failure; I spent my whole time reading novels when I was pretending to work. My parents didn’t really know what to do with me.” Instead of university Alexandra sent “36 letters to 36 schools” in Italy, and taught English there.
When she returned, she lived in the East End in a tiny room, with “lots of mice” and a “rat in the chimney”. Working at a magazine she was paid £5 a week, her rent at £4 a week. She’d teach English to anyone who would pay her; “I did the whole Chilean embassy”. During this period of her life, she “had the most heavenly time”. Thanks to her boss she was taken to the most glamorous events London had to offer: “I had two years of being indescribably poor and going to the best parties.
“Then I made the mistake of marrying an artist. Then I had to earn some money because he certainly wasn’t going to.” It was then that Alexandra started working for Virago Press, a company that was set up in 1973 with the aim of publishing works by primarily women writers. “It was the most exciting moment of feminism. We were there to change the world and we kind of did”. Carmen Callil, founder of the company and Alexandra’s boss had a “reign of terror…but i learnt everything I needed to know about publishing. I was frightened really quite a lot of the time but anyway I survived. You just worked all the time and cried in the lavatory sometimes and carried on.”
After quite a number of years living this way, at the age of 36, “rather miraculously…I was offered the job of editorial director” at Hamish Hamilton. What followed was four years of corporate life and “I was finally going to parties again”. But there were a lot of internal politics and it seemed all about people’s careers and stabbing one another in the back and “I just thought ‘life’s too short for this’. So I became an agent. I jumped ship.” She was an agent for four and a half years which was “fascinating”. In agenting you really discover a writer and foster their career in a way that you can’t in corporate publishing.
But Alexandra didn’t completely abandon corporate publishing. Having lunch with Liz Corder one day, she was told: “I want you to be me”. Alexandra took four months because she “knew it was the single most important decision of [her] career” and then accepted. This was 1999. “It’s very slow…growing into the editor you’re going to be – you have to be very patient.” However, “what I’m really proud of is that Bloomsbury’s turnover used to be seven million, now it’s between 17 and 20 million” and with the same number of staff. On the other hand, “the budget looks like hell” for next year, “it’s really hard to make money in books”. “You live with the fear all the time. You have to be fantastically optimistic”.
Bloomsbury, after all, is “a bit of an anomaly”. It was created in 1986 with the aim to publish quality books for the mass market but it’s a PLC and it’s independent. “In 1999 it was still quite a cottage industry, but we had Harry Potter and Harry Potter kept us going.” Since then it has had a number of brilliant writers. Not least Samantha Shannon, who wrote The Bone Season while she was in her second year at Oxford. Alexandra says Shannon “brought back the excitement of discovering a new writer. It’s just one of those incredibly sweet stories”. It has so far sold 250,000 copies. “We got it into the best sellers list in three continents within the first week of publication.” Shannon was just 21 and “almost had a breakdown” completing her finals, but nevertheless got a 2.1. “You just think: ‘yes, this is how it can be.” She laughs, however, that “most of the time we fail”.
And publishing is not an easy business to be in at the moment, given the changing nature of how stories are transmitted. Yet Alexandra is sure that “paper books have their place”. “As far as a publisher is concerned, a book is a book” and often it is easier to produce them electronically. “E-books are very sweet things, they’re great.” They “mean that more people have to the ability to read in more places”. Furthermore, they increase the number of impulse buys: “My husband reads a review and then buys the book straightaway on his Kindle”. And as a publisher, “you want a lot of impulse book buying”. On the other hand, thanks to the e-book, publishers are “all making more effort to make books look beautiful”. “I think we all feel that they have their place and they’ll be fine. We’re optimistic.” Sadly, however, “what is going to happen to bookshops? We don’t know.”
Bloomsbury, however, is doing very well. Alexandra describes the first time she went to India, where she was waiting in a cab and a little boy tapped on the window, selling pirated books. He had Harry Potter, Margaret Atwood and William Darymple, all published by Bloomsbury. “I gave him money but didn’t take the books. ‘Wow, we must be popular in India’ I thought.”
Alexandra ends by saying “I think there are people that are tortoises and people that are hares; I was definitely a tortoise. But publishing is a good place for tortoises because you need to grow and develop.”
It’s easy to dislike Justin Bieber or One Direction. They’re worldwide celebrities with loads of money and popularity, just for being pretty faces. They don’t even write their own songs. You are definitely more talented than them.
Then it’s even easier to dislike their fans. Firstly, anyone who buys this kind of music clearly isn’t worth your time of day. Secondly, they get hysterical about it. Primark is selling pants with all of One Direction on them, and someone must be buying them. They have Twitters devoted to messaging them incessantly, and defending them across the internet. Finally, their fans are teenage girls.
Pop music has always been dominated by discussions of misogyny, although it is normally focused on the purveyors of the music themselves. Scantily clad girls in music videos and lyrics which show little to no respect for women have made it harder and harder for people to ignore the sexism which takes place within pop music. But there is something far more concerning under the surface of all of this: the rise of the internet’s ridicule of teenage girls for fanatically supporting pop stars. Teenage girls have loved boy bands throughout history, and who can blame them? A set of well-dressed boys singing uncomplicated and catchy songs has lured in most girls between the ages of 11 and 18 since The Beatles had girls hysterically crying in the aisles of their shows. Yet last month, YouTube sensation Tyler Oakley tweeted saying: “If only tweens were as passionate about causes like feminism and gay rights as they are about defending pop stars who drink and drive”.
Let me begin discussing this statement by first saying that I do not condone Justin Bieber’s drink driving. In fact, Justin Bieber is pretty much irrelevant to the discussion, as we are looking at teenage girls. Modern media tells teenage girls what they should look like, how they should dress and what activities they should enjoy. No sports, but shopping instead. Dressing up and make overs instead of video games. Part and parcel of this is an expectation that teenage girls like celebrities and therefore pop stars. Add a healthy dose of heteronormativity, whereby young girls are expected to idolise boys who they want to be their boyfriends, and you will find a set of cultural expectations perfect for encouraging a generation of teenage girls obsessing over boy bands. Humans like feeling part of something; it’s why people support football teams or go to gigs together. And it’s why it’s so easy for teenage girls to buy into a product which has been packaged just for them. This is where the irony of criticising teenagers for their obsessions lies: society has set up those very things specifically for them to like and enjoy, which they are now being told they are liking or enjoying too much, or in the wrong way. So it seems hard to blame them for not being clued up on feminism or gay rights, when boy bands are what they are expected to be enjoying.
Yet, all it takes is a quick flick through Twitter to see tweeters moaning about One Direction or Justin Bieber fans, for being annoying and overly involved. It is no surprise that, as those young girls grow up to learn more about feminism and gay rights, they don’t become vocal about these issues, having previously been told to keep quiet about what they support. Furthermore, One Direction recently proved that the onus can be on bands to help make teenage girls more aware about global issues, by getting involved with Global Citizen. As part of the scheme, participants win points by carrying out tasks such as writing to George Osborne about corporate tax avoidance, the collection of which entitles entry to a lottery for gig tickets. The boy band hysteria can clearly be a force for good.
It is hard not to smell the whiff of misogyny on all of this. As young girls are criticised for what they vocally love, and have been told to love, young boys tend to be ignored for their similar levels of enthusiasm for sport or Xbox. The specific focus on teenage girls can only be seen as coming from a more universal societal unwillingness to let women voice their own opinions on anything. In a world where women’s voices are marginalised or told to quieten down, we should be encouraging our teenage girls to talk as loudly and as enthusiastically about whatever they enjoy, whether that is Justin Bieber or Germaine Greer. Demonising young girls for supporting what they are told to support is reductive and hypocritical; no one is criticising grown men who spend thousands of pounds on their football team or World of Warcraft. If we let the girls follow what they want now, they will be ready to shout for the issues that do matter more in the long run.
And finally, those pants in Primark with One Direction on? I bought them.
Despite guest performances from several big names including Beyonce, Katy Perry and Bruno Mars, this years Brit Awards suffered their lowest audience figures in fifteen years. Hosted for the fourth and final time by comedian James Corden, the ceremony was held last Wednesday at the O2 Arena in London.
Bastille and Disclosure were tipped for big wins with four nominations each, but only Bastille proved successful, receiving the award for best British breakthrough act. It was instead Sheffield-based indie rockers Arctic Monkeys who owned the occasion, performing hit single ‘R U Mine?’ are the start of the ceremony and then taking home both Best British Band and Best British Album for their acclaimed 2013 release, AM.
An appearance from the illusive superstar Prince took Ellie Goulding by surprise as he presented her with the Best British Female award, while Best British Male went to the one and only David Bowie, who last won the award in 1984, before his rivals for this year’s accolade, Jake Bugg and James Blake, were even born!
The seemingly unstoppable rise of former X-Factor runners-up One Direction continued with their receiving the Global Success award for the second year running, as well as the Best Video award for their song, ‘Best Song Ever!’
There were few surprises among the International awards, with New Zealand’s rising star Lorde picking up the International Female Solo Artist award, and French electronic icons Daft Punk receiving the International Group award, in recognition of their hugely successful Random Access Memories, and single ‘Get Lucky’.
Rudimental took home the award for best British Single, for ‘Waiting All Night’, while the Critic’s Choice went to singer-songwriter Sam Smith, whose breakthrough came back in 2012 with his appearance on Disclosure’s single ‘Latch’.
In the ever-cool Portland, Oregon, well-known rock bands abound, and Joanna Bolme has worked with most of them. That may be a slight exaggeration, but the 45-year-old undercover rockstar does seem to have had a hand in every awesome studio production in Portland since about 1996.
Over the last two decades, Joanna Bolme has been one of the stalwarts of indie and noise rock across the Pacific Northwest, though she’s as often behind the mixing desk as playing in the band so she’s managed to stay out of the international spotlight. She has mixed and sound-engineered for The Minders, The Chimps, No. 2 and the immortal Elliott Smith, an ex-partner (for whom she also put together a tribute album in 2006). Most recently, she’s played bass with Quasi and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, both live and on record, and she’s probably the reason Gary Jarman of The Cribs is now living in Portland – as her husband.
Bassists can often get ignored, even when they’re in famous bands, but having Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus approach you and say “we were just wondering if you wanted to come over and play bass. I know you’re pretty good” (as she reports on the Westword blog) must be an amazing experience. And she definitely is at least “pretty good”. It’s Bolme’s bass that drives along tracks like Quasi’s ‘Repulsion’ and gives the Jicks’ Mirror Traffic its unique groove.
Despite integral roles on so many punk-rock and indie classics, Joanna Bolme has managed to stay extremely down-to-earth in interviews, focusing more on her upcoming albums and projects than the successes of her past. Even though she can play most of the instruments in popular music, she shies away from calling herself a “multi-instrumentalist”.
I first encountered Joanna Bolme when reading about Gary Jarman, and I’ve always felt bad that I found her through her partner, as if she were secondary to him in some way. Since then, I’ve come to the conclusion that Gary was more likely to have been in awe of her than she was of him.
When I was about thirteen, I was madly into the Kaiser Chiefs. Writing that makes me feel like I’m introducing myself at an Arseholes Anonymous meeting, especially now the Chiefs’ lead singer Ricky Wilson is one of the panellists on The Voice. All the same, I loved them once, and as we look at our exes, we look at our past favourite bands – with disdain, and perhaps a little shame. Nevertheless, Kaiser Chiefs were my gateway into (better) rock music.
The way I fell in love with Kaiser Chiefs was through the internet. I don’t know what band forums are like today, but back when I was thirteen, they were really great fan communities full of people sharing articles, pictures, facts and gig stories relating to their favourite artists, and giving each other recommendations. Through the Kaiser Chiefs forum, I found bands like Maxïmo Park and The Cribs. Then, at some point, someone linked me to last.fm, a website which tracks your music listening and offers you personalised recommendations based on your taste, and through that I found some of my favourite bands.
Though we may be losing the wave-based culture of music fandom, I don’t think that musical communities have died out – they’ve just moved onto the web, and now co-exist instead of competing. Internet musical communities can be even better than real-life ones – they unite even the smallest fan groups, creating global social networks. Modern communications mean that friendships can be kept alive across huge distances, and musical taste is the perfect social glue. In real life, it’s all fine as long as you’re fashionable, enjoying the same thing as the people in your locale. On the internet, someone will undoubtedly share your taste, no matter how niche it is.
The internet is big. You won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. Over two billion people have access to it, and a lot of those like music. A smaller amount of those make music and a smaller amount of them actually put it on the internet. That’s still a lot of music on the internet – it’s practically saturated. Sites like Bandcamp and Kickstarter are great, but it’s so hard to actually get noticed. What’s more, so much is free, with Youtube and Spotify and other various sites, not counting the ease of straight-up piracy. So people get used to not having to pay for their music.
What this means is that, while there it’s very easy to get your music out there, and it’s entirely possible for someone in Zagreb to listen to that neo-folk EP that you recorded in your bedroom, there is a lot of competition between little-known bands, and people expect to be able to listen to your music for free. Getting out there is not necessarily any easier with the internet than without it, and the live music scene has waned now that so much is available for free wherever and whenever you want it.
The internet has massively affected the logistics of musicianship, and has really just raised the base amount of exposure that everybody gets. It’s still just as hard as before to get past that level, especially with all the additional competition. It’s important not to view the internet through rose-tinted glasses – in many ways, it’s made life harder for new artists
The monumental shift to internet music consumption has changed the way we all think about music. For some artists, it has proven to be a huge aid in their musical careers.
Go-to no-bullshit record engineer Steve Albini (below) is an outspoken advocate of the internet in terms of its potential for exposure. Whilst he has helped major label groups, like Nirvana, to make records, Albini has always been a firm supporter of independent music. He has talked in interviews about how the shift in the industry, while scaring the major labels, has allowed independent bands to find an audience and to become autonomous sustainable units. He used the example of his own band Shellac, who, because of the fanbase the internet has allowed them to reach, have been able to finance and manage their own tours without having to spend money on management and PR companies. This means that they have been able to tour places as far-flung as eastern Europe, something which just wouldn’t have been possible before the internet.
Sites like SoundCloud allow unknown artists and bands to upload their own material for free for the whole world to listen to and share. Dylan Baldi used MySpace to create numerous fake band accounts to share his original music. It just happened that the one picked up by promoters was Cloud Nothings, whose awesome 2012 album Attack On Memory was engineered by Steve Albini.
The internet gives bands the opportunity to act completely outside of the music industry. Bands can even become their own producers, using powerful software, such as Ableton and Logic, downloaded from the internet. Whilst the internet acts as a platform for mediocrity, it has also given artists the tools to be noticed and to build a career on their own merit.
In a recent interview, Laura Jane Grace, lead singer and guitarist of Against Me!, stated that her greatest moments of gender dysphoria before coming out as a trans woman were when she was on stage and in her interactions with media. When an artist is on stage, they perform more than just the music. This is why pop music is so obsessed with brand image. Being on stage affects people, and so they act in a way that they might not necessarily do otherwise. Does anyone know what Kanye West is really like? Obviously with the dawn of social media we can have more insight into a person – Amanda Palmer is an example of a musician who has whole-heartedly embraced this – but still, being in a public space with potentially millions of people getting your updates equates to a similar performance. When there are thousands of people observing this performance and reacting to that persona, it creates pressure to conform to that image. This dichotomy of the public and private personas seems very much related to what Grace was talking about: her jarring experiences of the public reaction to her appearance as a male punk frontman.
The genre has quite a history with gender, especially in the early years. The New York Dolls massively toyed with gender, presenting themselves as stereotypes of women; as did Patti Smith, especially in her iconic androgynous portrait on the cover of Horses. Likewise, The Ramones and Debbie Harry of Blondie pushed their own gender to unprecedented levels, while Iggy Pop’s aggressive stage presence and vocals were held in contrast to a feminised appearance, such as in the cover of Raw Power. However, despite the undeniable huge impact these artists had, musically and socially, they all were almost exclusively heterosexual and cisgender (i.e. not identifying as transgender). More modern artists such as Against Me!, Limp Wrist and Condenada morph the male cis-het aggression that punk had developed into a queer force of liberation. Punk evolved as a reaction against the mainstream, as all subcultures do, and so a queer element formed. The queer is othered by society, but punk is an active choice to other the self from society, and so the combination of the two is a way of self-determining identity.
This is exactly what Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues is about: a reclamation of Grace’s trans identity. This is one of the factors that make it one of the best punk albums released in recent years. The album presents the issues of her trans experience, going through songs such as ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’, in which the first lyrics of the whole album are “Your tells are so obvious, shoulders too broad for a girl”, presenting the direct issues she faces, then ending with the dolefully triumphant ‘Black Me Out’, which channels the punk’s rage against society: “Black me out, I want to piss on the walls of your house/I want to chop those brass rings/Off your fat f*cking fingers/As if you were a king-maker.”
Together, these songs represent the violent revolutionary spirit (see ‘Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ’ – “You’re gonna hang like Benito from the Esso rafters”) and the rage against the system that is omnipresent in all good punk. Moreover, Grace’s individual experience of otherness allows her to go even further; her greater oppression at the hands of society, of misogyny, transphobia and transmisogyny, allows her to unleash a much greater reactive force, and therefore her output is vastly amplified compared to the angry straight white cis males who have dominated the genre in the past.
It is perhaps our fear of irrelevance that leads music students to the kind of self-deprecating humour usually focussed on how ‘out of touch’ the Oxford music course is. I used to think so but now I’m not sure this is the problem it is made out to be. If by relevance we mean that the course should reflect the statistical music preferences of the country than the course is far from relevant, being based around ‘classical’ music. But isn’t the assumption that the course should be doing this rather presumptuous? Pop, rock, dance, hip-hop, all of these are doing just fine without the intervention of Oxford music graduates to tell them how they should be doing it. In fact, the Oxford syllabus is not all that different from the music departments of most English universities, most of which have a similar preference. Stressing the out-of-touchness of the Oxford course can feel like a thinly disguised assertion of an Oxfordian superiority that ignores our similarity to other faculties and our dependence on these external influences. We’re in touch with them, you might say.
I would further add that we are all ‘out of touch’ in some way when it comes to music – a heavy metal fan is unlikely to be knowledgeable about K-pop, and a listener of Radio 3 is unlikely to pay much regard to Algerian Rai singers. The assumption that music can be reduced to what is relevant and what is not does it a disservice, because being out of touch is really a demonstration of diversity. To claim to cover what is ‘relevant’ is to make a dangerous and restrictive value judgement; instead we should accept our partial perspectives rather than claiming some kind of superiority or dominance (something universities are often in danger of doing). No, the Oxford course is not relevant to everyone but neither is any music, and this is exactly how it should be.
My worry is that some think the music course isn’t relevant because its object of study, classical music, appears to be reaching a lower proportion of younger people in Britain today than in previous generations. I would be the last person to invoke the moralistic argument that art has lost its way, or any other such nonsense. On the other hand, I would like to recognise that though the Oxford music course concerns itself with the same repertoire that can be found in the haughty practices of concert hall music-making, this repertoire is still valuable to a substantial audience, and continues to present us with interesting problems.
In fact, this is where the Oxford music course excels. Students are expected to learn more about the Western musical canon, but its academic centrality is also appropriately challenged. This is achieved by studying anti-canonical subject matter, including medieval music, women composers and hip-hop. The ‘Musical Thought and Scholarship’ module, colloquially known as MTS, is equally helpful in this regard, which involves critiquing classical music’s public institutions, such as the concert hall and the opera house.
I would make changes to my course if I could, no question. But I defend its core focus of the ‘art tradition’, since as music students we are presented with numerous opportunities to critically re-examine what such a term might once have meant, or what it might mean today. Though somewhat behind literary studies, modern musicology has developed a rich critical theory, and it seems to have been proven that the field is capable of acquiring a progressive bent. Ultimately, the course is relevant because it has preserved an exciting musical repertoire, tempered by generous amounts of self-scrutiny. What fun!
If the name ‘Vini Reilly’ rings any kind of bell in your mind, chances are you’re thinking of the iconic closing scene of cult movie 24 Hour Party People. Factory Records’ Tony Wilson, played hilariously by Steve Coogan, is confronted by a drug-induced vision of God himself (who, in turn, looks suspiciously like Tony Wilson). The spectral hallucination’s parting advice is for him to “get in touch with Vini Reilly; he’s well due a revival. Maybe even a Greatest Hits”. Indeed, even though Factory’s heyday has long since passed, and Wilson himself is no longer with us, this advice still remains true.
Before Joy Division, before New Order, and before the Happy Mondays, Factory Records’ first signing in 1979 was the Durutti Column, fronted by an enigmatic, compelling figure wielding a ghostly, ethereal voice and the guitar skills of a virtuoso. Particularly as an instrumentalist, the tacit shadow he would cast over the ensuing Madchester movement would be enormous; the sparse, intricate beauty of his guitar arrangements would contrast sharply with the meat-and-potatoes punk rock of yesteryear. In Vini Reilly’s guitar parts reside the quintessence of that amorphous genre known as post-punk.
Ask most people to name the greatest guitarist of 1980s Britain, and most would say Johnny Marr. Though it’s fair to say that the distinctive, chirping riffs of the Smiths defined the 80s, it’s equally fair to say that, without Vini Reilly and the Durutti Column, the Smiths, and indeed post-punk itself, would have been radically different entities. We need only look at their 1980 debut The Return of The Durutti Column to see the musical map by which the Smiths traced their path. As if we need further convincing of the respect Reilly commanded, and still commands, amongst his peers, we need only look to Morrissey’s 1998 solo debut Viva Hate, the solo work considered to be the closest to the Smiths in its quality; arranged, played and given its Smiths-esque timbre by Reilly, in a style he himself developed.
There are few musicians whose talent and influence are so at odds with their lack of widespread recognition; while the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante describes him as “the greatest guitarist in the world”, Reilly himself describes his own greatest work as “s**t”. Perhaps we should take God/Coogan at his word and grant him the recognition an innovator of his status deserves.