Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Mrs Thatcher, enterprise culture, and unintended consequences

The talk I gave last week at CCA on cultures of collecting and curating music turned out to be eerily topical, and not quite in the way that I intended. Not only because I found out whilst bashing it together that we have almost reached this year's Record Store Day, but because Mrs Thatcher finally exited the planet, right on cue, just as I was digging up memories of living and working in London in the late 80s.

I was there in the year between school and university (1987- 1988), working as a shop assistant in the High Holborn branch of Farringdon Records. This period was arguably a kind of zenith for the music retail trade, before the massive megastores had completely taken a grip, before the World Wide Web, before Amazon, and at a time while the affluent classes were pumped up on a wave of credit and would think nothing of spending £11.99 or even £14.99 on a full price CD. And we still sold LPs and cassettes too.

Farringdon had three branches, one on Cheapside in the City, one on High Holborn and a smaller shop on Lamb's Conduit Street from where its owner Mr Schulman counted the takings and most of its thriving mail order business operated. I can't remember that much about the history of the company, but I know that its founders had started out selling records from a stall in Farringdon Market. The company specialised in selling rare and deleted classical recordings, which had eye-watering mark-ups, but which still offered great value for the customer - we'd buy in the 'product' at 50p or £1 a unit and sell it for £3.99, £4.99, or even £7.99. 300 - 700% margin! Decent niche markets, and we had a reputation for specialist knowledge and good customer service with a worldwide reach.

It was there, in the months following Mrs Thatcher's third election victory - the autumn of the great storm and a great stock market crash - that I first learned that we priced up 'product', put it on shelves in categories, and bought it in 'units'. In that year between school and university I learned a huge amount from the expertise and knowledge of my more experienced colleagues - in the typical fashion that so much learning and informal apprenticeship on the fringes of the so-called 'cultural economy' occurs, and also in that way that record shops become cultural destinations in their own right - places where people share enthusiasms, make discoveries, and meet.

Around the same time (1985 to be precise) the consumer music music technology magazine Sound on Sound launched, marking the beginnings of a big shift from analogue to digital technologies in music, and also the rise of affordable home music production gear, which heralded the demise of big bucks recording and some sort of democratisation of access to affordable music production technology. So there was a sense in which from the seismic shift charted by Walter Benjamin in his landmark essay 'the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction' we were beginning to see some of the consequences for art/music in an age of digital reproduction. All this went much further (and that was the topic of last Tuesday's talk) but in this blogpost I'm thinking more about that late-80s period, and the ways in which we're still living through the consequences of it.

At trade fairs, talking to sales reps, and getting slightly involved with pop music retail, I learned about the entity called 'the music industry'. I wondered about this term long before I read any of Adorno's stuff. Then I went off to the Cambridge music faculty where the only trace of any discussion about the relationship between music, economy and power was in fairly positivist accounts of Henry Purcell's London, patronage and political allegory. The bigger questions of the relationships between music, economy, society, institutions and policy were mainly ignored, the implication perhaps being that money or politics - and certainly 'the music industry' - were too vulgar as topics to consider in relation to the canon of great works (or the celebrated 'imaginary museum') with which we were mainly told that we should be concerned.

Fortunately the libraries and bookshops were good enough for me to dredge up some reading that had a much bigger effect on my thinking than anything I was formally taught - books like Evan Eisenberg's "The Recording Angel" (1987),  Christopher Small's "Music, Society, Education" (1977), Richard Middleton's "Studying Popular Music" (1990), John Shepherd's "Music as Social Text" (1991) and the brilliant MIT anthology edited by a collection of US-based cultural studies scholars/anthropologists: "Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures" (1990).  So I stumbled across cultural studies and popular music studies by accident, as this sort of thinking wasn't really 'encouraged' within the cloisters of the Cambridge curriculum at that time.

In the vacations, in something of a dialectic between the world of abstracted ideas and the need for material subsistence, I went back to work at Farringdon Records to earn some cash, but by that point it had been bought up by the massively expansionary Our Price empire. Mr Schulman, ever the shrewd entrepreneur, managed to sell the company at the top of the market for an undisclosed sum (there were rumours that Our Price had paid more than £2 million) and he, presumably, retired on the proceeds. The company was never the same after it became corporate - for a while it expanded, eventually becoming a branded franchise in the Royal Festival Hall, but by the millennium it had run into trouble and eventually disappeared off the map altogether, like so many of its peers.

It's interesting to think about the atmosphere of London at that time. Ken Livingstone's GLC, which amongst many other populist offerings had championed youth arts, cross-community festivals and policies to promote cultural diversity, had just been abolished. A swaggering post-industrial economy of retail, finance, fashion and media was getting into its stride, for those that were in a position to participate. And swathes of the city were beginning be 'remodelled' in the huge urban experiments of the London Docklands Development Corporation.

The core of Thatcherism, despite the jingoism and the rhetoric of self-enrichment and self-development through hard work, was the decimation of Britain's manufacturing economy and the promotion of rapacious greed and self-interest above all other values. We were moving into a realm of informational exchange, of service providers who serviced other services, of global trade based on 'knowledge exchange' rather than physical exchange, accompanied by an intensification of culture-as-commodity. This atmosphere is captured very well in the video for the Pet Shop Boys' breakthrough single. It's a haunting audiovisual essay on London as a world of glittering surfaces, of blank anomie, of sideways glances and a "west end town in a dead end world", presented with a knowing, studied boredom that captures the ambivalent, libidinal intensity of a restless, money-oriented society.

Thatcher also had an ambivalent but utterly dependent relationship with the media industries. It's a cliché to say it, but she was one of the first European politicians to consciously develop her persona and her party as a 'brand' with the help of her close friend and confidante Lord Bell and image-makers for hire Saatchi and Saatchi.  She looked across the Atlantic to the advertising techniques of American politics to manufacture the necessary consents for neoliberal globalisation, working in tandem with Reagan's Republicans and her allies in the right-of-centre press to offer a consumerist utopia to those families that fitted the aspirant mould, with nuclear family values at the core of the offer.

Despite her espousal of 'traditional values' her government did much to deregulate and liberalise media channels. Arguably this was as much to with the the proliferation of affordable information technologies, lower barriers to entry/production costs/and increasing co-production/internationalized media markets/ the residue of the libertarian ideas of the 1960s and 70s - as it was anything to do with government policy. But in particular, the formation of Channel 4, the rise of the independent production sector and the global success of fashion, advertising, media and music industries meant that by the end of the '80s huge quantities of corporate cash were swirling around what had begun to be described as the 'cultural industries,' which had a far more hedonistic, ostentatious and cosmopolitan style than the stark formica-clad austerity of Thatcherite Little England domesticity. (but the alliance of austerity for some and consumerism for others, or maximising private affluence, with the consequence of public squalor is a theme in Tory rhetoric that I've commented on before)

This TV advert, versions of which aired incessantly on LWT between 1986 and 1991 (and maybe in cinemas as well, but I can't remember), captures the atmosphere of the period rather well. It's a smart and economical bit of storytelling, in which a lone aspirant young musician finds his way through with the help of a cool, older role model of an iconic Black sax player. Its a story of aspiration, mentorship and cosmpolitanism, in a multicultural London, where the power of music binds people together across race and class divides, boiled down into a tight one minute narrative, cut fast, with a grainy, documentary feel. Of course in this fiction the point is that they bond over a beer, but it's a very clever bit of execution. I wish I knew who was responsible for it.

In the figure of the aspirant young entrepreneur of the ad we can also see the traces of subsequent narratives (mythologies?) of 'talent' and individual achievement and informal apprenticeship. But the ad also showcases the spaces of the city as spaces of possibility - the transformation of the young fan who can't afford a ticket and is kicked out of the club, via a chance encounter busking on a central london bridge, rehearsing in a shabby flat, to a mainstage gig at Dingwalls Dance Hall in Camden. So it encapsulates some of the rhetorics of possibility and transformation that were present in attempts to codify and advocate the value of cities as creative spaces - as places that could allow citizens to unlock their desires and dreams - as well as make money in the new economies of culture.  Thatcher (and Major's) Enterprise Allowance Scheme, (which after 1997 morphed into 'New Deal') allowed those young unemployed people who could raise £1000 to reinvent themselves as 'cultural entrepreneurs.' I remember in the work I was doing from the early '90s onwards that we took the rhetorics of 'vocational and enterprise education' and turned them in order to build more project-focussed, applied curricula and make 'partnerships' with 'industry' - which was more often likely to mean working with a self-employed sole trading artist than some glittery multinational conglomorate.

Geoff Mulgan and Ken Worpole's work for the GLC, followed by much work undertaken by the Comedia consultancy, amongst many others, provided a new rationale for public investment in culture - as a foundation for economic growth, regeneration and "talent development", which, eventually, was enthusiastically taken up in the Lottery-fuelled cultural building boom of the mid-90s and morphed into the breathlessly entrepreneurial "Creative Britain" rhetorics of New Labour, - and which, until recently, formed the thematic spine of the master narrative of Creative Scotland, transposed northwards.

Enterprise culture, cultural industries, creative's a long and windy road, described in detail in this very useful survey by David Hesmondhalgh and Andy Pratt.

Another way of thinking about the rise of cultural industries policy discourses is as a kind of civic (and latterly, national) counter-narrative to the threat of permanent redundancy and decline; framing the entreprenurial city as a competitor for 'talent' in a global positioning war for cultural advantage - in an economy where  'symbolic capital'  matters as much as any other kind. As we wrote in both 2000 and 2005, taking a cue from Sharon Zukin, the unanswered question is who really stands to benefit from this competitive city branding? And what can be done to ameliorate the exclusionary effects of competitive city policies?  Hyper-branded cities, culture-as regenerative spectacle, and event economies, and their (recent) origins in the Thatcher-Heseltine axis of the mid-80s (although we mustn't forget the World Fairs and Festival of Britain, etc)  are brilliantly satirised by Jonathan Meades in this programme from 2005.

Angela McRobbie captures some of the traces of class struggle that remain in the precarious state of young people's aspirations for 'creative careers' in this piece that pre-dates the crash of 2008. And for recent reflections on these matters it's also worth reading this, from Geoff Mulgan, one of the people who started it all, before Richard Florida c(r)ashed in.  My money, what little of it that I have, however, is I think on Greg Sholette's thesis on 'dark matter' - on the ways that non-commercial, unofficial oppositional cultures provide the materials that become appropriated by the art market/offical cultural economy. And it follows that the critical importance of the marginal, the informal, the unofficial as a source of cultural vitality is in perpetual struggle with official narratives, with Big Policy and cultural masterplans. What if, paradoxically, value creation ultimately resides in the free exchange of gifts? Or in making places where people would like to live, but also can afford to live well? Nonetheless, until an alternative economy is built, making a living from dark matter is something of a challenge. But I'm really looking forward to hearing him speak on this topic at the Cultural Hijack event that we're running in London on 25th May.