Going Viral

Pierre Flasse reflects on the future of music post-lockdown

Coronavirus has been an all-encompassing maelstrom that has affected every walk of life. As we grow accustomed to our own company, we’re turning our minds to the future, and how our society might change. The music and art worlds are reeling from the impact of a life behind closed doors. For lockdown entertainment, the National Theatre (alongside other arts organisations) have begun streaming live shows accompanied by a plea for money. A shocking article by The Stage released the figure that one fifth of all musicians think that coronavirus will end their career.

The consumer’s access to music has only been partially affected. Streaming services remain strong and Spotify still reigns on high. Surprisingly under lockdown, they have noted a slight drop in listening hours from isolated countries. Our demand for music is still being satiated by a robot, but the real element lacking is the taste of live music. A Spotify playlist can’t recreate the buzz of a throbbing amp or live instruments. This is endemic of what we’re really lacking in lockdown – the social aspect of music.

The industry has reflected this. The reason why chaos is ensuing owes to the fact that the social side of music pays musicians, gigs and venues. Although Spotify has announced a Covid-19 support fund (they might finally start paying musicians!), there have been some more realistic and ingenious ways to try and tackle this. It’s worth mentioning organisations such as Resident Advisor that have run fundraisers for venues with a huge page of references to charitable causes. Help Musicians has dedicated a specific emergency fund to musicians that have run out of money, and PRS have even dedicated some funds to give back to musicians.

Many artists have tried to start live gig streaming from their homes, with the very first Instagram TV gig from Swae Lee and a real Tiny Desk “Home” concert from Lianne La Havas. Despite this, the experience falls flat compared to the real thing. The content is washed with a macabre sense of faux reality – partially due to the environment and partially due to the loss of intimate connection from human physicality. We’re losing the very essence of music, feeling the sonic waves reverberating through our cells. Live music in this format is lacking: it is no substitute for the energy and life of live music. Even so, it is currently the closest thing we’ve got.

In 2018 MelodyVR took this a step further and for fans that had missed tickets to their favourite artists’ shows, they streamed the concerts to their VR headsets. It’s a new initiative that has worked with over 850 popular musicians such as Lewis Capaldi, Wiz Khalifa and even the London Symphony Orchestra. Whilst this is perhaps a fleeting glimpse of the future, it still loses the essence of live music being played and amplified in front of you, now transmitted through headphones. It’s possible, that combined with other new software such as Strap by Woozer that this could break the new frontier. This Strap transmits musical vibrations through the body, sensationalising the experience much closer to live music. Despite this, it’s perhaps a luxury that only the most popular artists can afford with many independents, and less popular genres without any airtime. That’s without even mentioning the cost of a VR headset and their lack of dissemination through the wider population.

Online music reflects a wider issue that we began seeing at the turn of the decade, with many artists cancelling tours, aware of the environmental footprint that they left behind. I am completely behind this decision as it represents a conscious recognition of the impact of their music. However, if the future turns to paying to hear a stadium rock band through a live stream on your laptop speakers, it does beg the question: what’s the point in paying for anything different from Spotify? If you lose the raw excitement, emotion and experience of a live venue, then what are you paying for? And if you’re not paying, then how does the artist sustain themselves?

This meets another issue: bars and restaurants are shut across the globe in tandem with music venues. The very same financial issues are facing these enterprises, aside from the fact that music venues aren’t in a position to offer takeaway food. A very real and sobering reaction to isolation is that many music venues will have to close from a lack of exposure to a working economy and musical landscape. It’s not just music venues whom face this, but all independent stores, and artists. Musicians and music suppliers have both been hard hit with the entire traffic of society held at red lights.

This wasn’t just a new story as coronavirus hit. For many, the virus has been a nail in a steadily burrowing coffin from lack of support from the government. According to the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, close to 50% of clubs open in 2005 have gone out of business in the last decade. It’s hard to specify one sole cause, but in many towns and cities there is a recognised lack of support for smaller and independent venues. For example, in Manchester it’s widely recognised that the council is reducing licences for venues out of the city centre to try and centralise gigs and music, causing a stream of popular venues to lose patronage. There needs to be a joint recognition from governmental forces – local and national – to protect the individualised communities and music scenes that represent the UK today. Austerity might be “over” but we’re likely about to face another recession, and they need to work twice as hard in tandem with individuals to build pillars of support for the industry.

Will we have a music scene to return to? Venues and artists are vocal, but individuals and consumers need to support them in any way possible: buy the albums and vinyls that you’ve been putting off, support online fundraisers and keep the word strong, online and in person, to keep access to music ongoing and thriving.

To read up on many more causes, follow this thread on Resident Advisor to see the range and breadth of communities supporting the music scene

The Rajasthan Kabir Yatra

Pierre Flasse and Gopal Singh discuss how music is keeping cultural dialogue alive in Rajasthan

I am on the Rajasthan Kabir Yatra, a weeklong travelling folk festival across Rajasthan. A yatra (pilgrimage) in the name of Kabir, a sufi poet from the 15th century, it prides itself on love, social discourse and peace. Every morning begins with all the yatris and musicians engaging in a satsang – a circle where the all the music and poetry sung together, encourages discussion and connection with one another. Then we travel to the next village and sing, listen and dance until the early hours of the morning. We are only at the beginning of the week but the emotional and physical intensity of the yatris, musicians and atmosphere is undeniable. I sit down with Gopal Singh, the director of the festival as volunteers are in motion around a beautiful old fort and school to create the stage for the third evening.

To start things he describes the story behind the yatra and the meaning it has: “In Rajasthan we have different musical and cultural traditions in folk and mystic music, which take place in informal spaces that we have in the community – the satsang – a circle of ‘the seekers of truth’. They sing together and share their music from the mystic poets like Kabir and Meera, and the whole idea of this musical space in society is to celebrate the diverse musical history we have in mystic traditions. You might follow the Kabir sect, the Sufi sect, or other traditions, but in the sharing space of satsang everyone is welcome to share the space, music and the poetry.” Importantly, he describes why the festival has been important to local communities: “There is no discrimination, there is no hierarchy, that one follower is better or superior. This is very crucial to create the bond within the community itself; because in India we have different caste systems, hierarchy in religions – we are all aware of it. So this space actually breaks these boundaries.”

Across much of India, music works in a form of patronisation. Music is played privately by caste musicians in higher caste homes as a form of entertainment, memory and documentation of history. But Gopal sees this festival as outside of that tradition. Although much of the music, instrumentation and sound is similar, the content drives a different purpose: “This isn’t traditional folk music, we are actually not patronising the musicians in this form. We are building the space for the dialogue of the power of mystic music, because when we talk about Kabir and Meera, their philosophy talks through different lenses. Music is just one part, but poetry is important here. So through this Kabir Yatra I want to create a space not only for the music, but for poetry and spirituality. In the folk music generally we talk about the songs and the music is more dominant. But in the mystic music the poetry is very important.” He goes on to describe the real depth and societal importance from the poetry: “the message is crucial; it has to be conveyed. Not the music. This is not entertaining music, this is not an entertaining performance as in folk music. In this space, the sharing is important. Traditionally people used to sing one song in the night and have one hour of discussion on it. This discussion is important; they speak about the poetry, its depth and the discourse. Sometimes they don’t agree on the interpretation and they challenge it.”

Despite this journey to spread Kabir’s message and engage with the community, Gopal is completely reluctant to glorify their work. He rejects the idea that they are providing something, even though this does provide something for the community and yatris themselves on a platform that doesn’t normally exist. He says: “The implications I don’t know. I haven’t done an official case study, so whether it is really going to help or not, or if people are enjoying, how people are taking it up, or how the community is responding. I don’t know what sort of impact it is creating, so I won’t say that. I can’t claim that I am creating a platform.”

The issue is that if he starts speaking about the event in terms of a platform, it would detriment the internal and communal value of the yatra. He explains that the intention was to, “reclaim the space of satsang that exists. Satsang is the space of truth seekers, a gathering of true people. This sharing space was the whole idea of creating the Rajasthan Kabir Yatra, so that’s what I mean when I say it’s not a festival – it’s a pilgrimage, a journey. It’s not one venue. Why are we going to villages? We are going to see the music there. Their performances, their poetry, their musicians, the landscape is very important. So through this travel, actually we are finding those spaces that already existed but were not available.”

The space exists from a lack of a one previously in Rajasthan. It’s worth saying that folk pilgrimages like this exist in other states in India, but pioneering one in Rajasthan was difficult as there wasn’t enough support, until the police saw the value of the event: “The police found it really relevant to take this music to the places that are communally sensitive or tense. Of course, when you talk about Kabir, you talk about love, you talk about humanity, you talk about how we can live together in love. You don’t need to see things in the lenses of identity, caste, community and creed. We are just human. So informally yes, I mean of course I talk to people, the police and public and I can sense when they talk and praise and they feel the energy of this music that there is a positive impact.”

Personally, I can say that the events are both emotionally and physically the best I’ve felt in an incredibly long time. From the music, feelings and dancing together and how it is all built up. Gopal said this was due to the nature of the journey of the festival. When we do this together, we live the emotions all around us: “When you do the Yatra, sometimes you’re hungry, tired, sleep deprived. So your body starts talking to you. All things will happen, then your body and mind will align and join the journey. So the music you are hearing, the sound, the energy, the transition you are hearing is actually going through, what: your body. But if you come to just consume the music then it won’t go in your body, it will just go. You are not alone, when the performance is going to start, when we eat and travel – other people’s energies are also involved there. Everyone is impacted together.” This is where the real transformative power of this event and in the community lies. All the previous attendees know what it is like, with the energy, dance and spirituality. They tell everyone about it, and so then everyone has an expectation of the energy should be like – everyone’s emotional and spiritual expectations culminate together because if they expect it together then it will happen.

When we speak about the future, Gopal is again reluctant to assume the event will continue: “I don’t see a future. It’s not about going well or bad. In 2012 I started the first Yatra and then I had to stop it. For 3 years I tried and it didn’t work. But then in 2016, something happened and the police collaboration began. So I don’t think things are really in our hand. If it has to happen then it will happen. We need to stick to the philosophy of the Yatra that we are trying to imply. Otherwise it will create a whole contrast that we have to do something to create it, let’s grab some money it has to happen – no. It doesn’t need to happen. If it’s not required it will not happen. If it is required then it will happen, I don’t know how. So you don’t need to worry about it. That’s the only way.”

Gopal Singh

The impression from Gopal is one of purity in intention and execution. The music itself takes on a different role on the journey. I’ve never been in such a position where I felt acceptance, openness, music and poetry speaking between such a vast group of people. I sat down to talk about music and we delved into a dialogue about the impact of the message of Kabir himself. At the heart lies the philosophy of the festival and it carries everybody across the week. The energetic spirituality that permeates every individual from the musicians and yatris to the volunteers and organisers is phenomenal and it’s safe to say that I’ll be a regular attendee for the following years to come.

Genre Fluidity

When it comes to music, Pierre Flasse asks – are we moving to a post-genre world?

The picture is all too familiar. At a party with new faces and the regular conversation markers pass by until you realise there is a connection in the room. You discover a similar music taste and the sparks fly: “I love afrobeat! Do you know Fela Kuti or Dele Sosimi?”

Afrobeat is technically any combination of West African music and jazz influences with a focus on the interplay of rhythm, percussion and live energy. For me, it’s a platform for political speech, crazy drumming and getting down to slick horn lines. But that’s one person’s interpretation. It took momentum under Fela Kuti in the late 60s in Nigeria with the modernisation of native harmonies, and political confrontation, which swept across the African continent.

The precise story above happened to me last month, and I met someone who played me their favourite afrobeat tracks, who, incidentally had never heard of Fela Kuti and the product was an eclectic combo of rap, dancehall and R&B, to the name of some artists such as Iyanya and EL (Elom Adablah). This is afrobeat of the 21st century, a relation of the 70s Kuti strain, but actually an entirely different sound under the same label. This confused me, and yet piqued my interest – how could we call these two different musics by the same name?

After some research of my own, I discovered that this is afrobeats: a slyly placed ‘s’ changing a multitude of rhythm, percussion, instrumentation and style. However, the ‘s’ is so often lost by the artists, and from this simple misspelling arises confusion between the two musical second-cousins. To be clear, these artists are doing nothing wrong. They create modern and approachable music within a label that defines their identity. The artists of the new genre see themselves as pioneers of a new movement, however the issue arises from semantics as they are sharing “afrobeat(s)” with political, historical and musical legends whom speak a different musical dialect. As a result, one genre and label ends up sharing a cluttering of sound.

Why is this important? Genre comes from two places. In one sense it is a creation by the record label conceived to help sell music. Another creation can be by social sub-culture where groups create a musical style and ideology against a standing norm. The concept of genre comes from a human desire to understand, and we understand by compartmentalisation. However this idea of creating music firmly within one genre actually negates the natural process in which music is made.

When you make music, you are acutely aware of the direction of your sound, and of your own influences but you rarely think “this record is 20% neo-soul, 30% R&B, and 50% jazz”, which actually would sometimes be a more accurate depiction. Naturally, we are the product of our influences and these are rarely one particular style of music – it’s a postmodern society with a postmodern mixing of music. To try and create music that is quintessentially “reggae” or “blues” is on the surface quite easy, as there are musical features which would identify the genre, in the case of reggae: offbeat guitar stabs, a laidback bass groove and smooth horn riffs all underneath a soulful voice. However due to individual tastes, the music might increase the tempo and fall into ska. You might have a tendency towards low frequency synthesisers that transports you into the realm of dub. By pigeon-holing into sub-genres, we potentially lose the fluidity to move across genres as freely as we might have with “rap” or “jazz”.

Why has this reliance on sub-genres appeared? In one sense, people don’t necessarily identify with the overarching musical terms. We have a society with an inconceivable amount of music being made and circulated. With that, individual identity can be difficult to appreciate with so much music; perhaps the sub-genres reflect each artist’s need to wave their hand in the crowd and be noticed. It comes as the population of the world increases, smaller communities of niche interests will keep appearing as a protection of the new and individual.

But are these genres still relevant? Take Hiatus Kaiyote for example. I personally would place them within jazz. A friend of mine refers to them as soul, and another would call it electro-pop. Go to a concert by Nils Frahm and you will spy within the audience: music students, sesh-heads and grandparents. Each group ascribes the music as a different genre – one of structural minimalism, one of grungy techno and another of “classical”.

Genres are important to define our own choices, influences and ideas. However we live in an age where music isn’t just recommended to us by friends who understand our tastes, but algorithms, whether random (YouTube) or precise (Spotify) – that often defy traditional genre tastes and encourage fluidity between styles. We keep on creating more and more sub-genres to try and explain the music we hear, resulting in names like “future soul”, “catstep” and “ectofolk”. In EDM there is a multitude of sub-genres such as complextro and fidget house separated by a mere few BPM. What does it all mean? In a semantic multiverse, it all really feels a bit pointless when our individual conceptions vary from person to person.

So, maybe my jazz is different to your jazz, which is the same as Sarah’s second wave funk, but somehow is also the same as Dan’s neo-soul. Sub-genres are becoming useless pigeon-holes in a bracket as wide and ambiguous as “rap” or “rock”, that are down to the semantic taste of each individual. The way forward is not through individual definitions, so maybe it’s time to ditch genre entirely.