Osama Bin Laden is dead. And according to Adam Curtis, director of THE POWER OF NIGHTMARES, this might spell the end of the myth of the Osama Bin Laden the neo-Conservative movement constructed: the embodiment of pure evil, the leader of the bad guys against which they were entitled to be ‘good’.
Whether you agree with this thesis or not, there is one paragraph in Curtis’ piece which is undeniable:
‘One of the main functions of politicians – and journalists – is to simplify the world for us. But there comes a point when – however much they try – the bits of reality, the fragments of events, won’t fit into the old frame.’
What’s going on in the book industry right now is an attempt to interpret events which are far too fluid and fragmentary, that defy a convenient narrative and resist easy explanation. ‘Disruption’ is a word so overused it has almost become meaningless. When ‘disruption’ becomes the predominant trend, what then do we call it – permanent flux? A whirlpool of postmodern symbols spinning into the void?
I was reminded again last night of one of the key areas of contention – the redefinition of the roles in the industry. Amazon launched a Romance imprint yesterday. So we ask the questions we just finished trying to answer, again. What is a publisher? Can a retailer become a publisher? Can an agent be a publisher? Does an author need any of them?
Isn’t the really obvious question why we are bothering to go through the process of trying to work it all out again when we clearly can't create an easy explanation? Are we in so desperate need of comfort? Evidently we are.
Let’s look at a new band and a record label. Not the music industry ten years ago. Now.
In order to make any impact as a band you have to disrupt the status quo. Twas ever thus. You might have heard of a teenage rap collective from LA, currently doing promo in Europe. They are called Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. They are very good. One of the many reasons they are receiving so much hype is they are confounding, once again, the ‘norm’.
Look at that ridiculously long (and nonsense) name, for one. So far they’ve given everything they’ve recorded away for free on oddfuture.com, their gigs regularly break down the barrier between audience and performer, and one of their members may or may not be in a military establishment in Samoa. In an interview with Zane Lowe they protested that rap was but a hobby, that they are just as interested in making their own videos, and skateboarding. They are awkward and disingenuous and young and naïve and wise. All at the same time.
So we reach for comparisons. They’re a collective like the Wu Tang Clan. They have a puerile willingness to offend like early Beastie Boys. They have the delivery and character-creation of Dr Octagon. Their gig last Friday at Village Underground was billed as the anti-Royal Wedding. Bedecked in union jacks, it was a deliberate reference back to the (now achingly prosaic) Sex Pistols’ gig on a boat on the Thames during the Jubilee in 1977. The NME jumped in with a cover story: ‘I don’t give a fuck about the Royal Wedding’. We take comfort in creating a mythology with known referents. It’s easier, more comfortable.
Less comfortable is the fact that such a progressively-minded bunch of skater kids actually broke through because of performance on television (as astounding as it was). Their mainman, Tyler, the Creator, has a one album deal with Xl Recordings. XL are putting out only seven albums this year. The first was by Adele, which has burst through the mainstream selling millions off the back of a Brits performance, Radiohead’s King of Limbs – which we all got excited about because look, it’s actually a print publication! And the third is Tyler’s.
What’s the lesson here? What’s the *model*? It’s pretty elusive isn’t it? It’s dynamic if you’re generous, it might even be accidental, plain lucky, if you’re not. Someone once described XL to me as an ‘agency’ not a label, Richard Russell in a car ride to see Gil Scott-Heron last year had an epiphany: that they should treat recent artist Gil Scott-Heron like a record label with a back catalogue. Shifting sands right?
What are the rules anymore in media when Tyler the Creator’s favourite magazine VICE started as a hipster-friendly free magazine, but is now also a television company with documentaries on the front page of CNN? The debate at the LBF about whether publishers will be irrelevant in the future was flattened when everyone for and against the motion claimed they were a publisher, according to various definitions of ‘old’ and ‘new’ ways of doing things.
We are in a period of amenable chaos, where failure can be touted as a strategy towards success. As Simon Cowell, the mogul with the X Factor when it comes to rejection and failure – on a programme where even the winner is damned to obscurity – said last series: ‘Embrace the madness’.
We’re in a marketplace now where there are sales channels and platforms for an enriched, interactive Al Gore app about Climate Change, a die-cut work of art where one author uses another’s book to create something new, and insta-ebooks about Bin Laden’s death.
The current climate is often compared to the Wild West. Book publishing has entered its American Era. You can be who you want to be.
The risk is that in the face of a fragile high street and as ebooks encroach more into print sales, ‘digital’ becomes the bad guy in a convenient myth of our choosing.
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