Box Set Culture

I was first introduced to the box set phenomenon in 1974, when I received a collection of novels by J G Ballard for my birthday. This led to an on-off interest in sci-fi (Asimov, Aldis, Bradbury, Dick, Spinrad, Crichton et al). It also made me aware that curators (like librarians) have an enormous influence on the cultural content we consume, and the way we consume it. Even more so nowadays with streaming and on-demand services. Welcome to the binge society.

Welcome to box set culture (Image sourced from Unsubscriber)

With network TV being so rubbish (who needs more “reality” shows, formulaic sit-coms or re-hashed police procedurals?) I am slowly being drawn back into the Siren-like charms of Netflix. More on that in a  moment.

Box set culture has been especially prevalent in the music industry, despite or even because of downloading and streaming services. It’s possible to buy the complete works of particular artists, or curated compilations of entire record labels, music genres or defining eras of music. It’s a niche, but growing, business. In recent times, I have been lured into buying extensive box set retrospectives of major artists (notably Bowie, Pink Floyd, The Fall, Kraftwerk), as well as extended editions of classic albums (Beatles, Beach Boys), and first time releases of exhumed and near-mythical “lost” albums (Big Star, Brian Eno, Beach Boys again). I like to justify these acquisitions on the basis that they are significant works in the canon of contemporary music. But only die-hard fans would attempt to embrace the monumental box set put out recently by King Crimson – comprising a 27-disc compilation of just TWO(!) years in the band’s history.

Death (and/or lapsed copyright) has become a fertile ground for box set curators and re-issue compilers, whether in literature, film or TV, as well as music. I’m sure there are publishers and editors maintaining lists of their dream compilations, waiting for the right moment to release them (a bit like the TV stations and newspapers who keep their updated obituaries of the Queen on standby). Sadly, in the case of Mark E Smith of The Fall, his death was immediately preceded by a significant box set release (tempting fate?). And as for Bowie, he had no doubt planned his legacy (and now posthumous) retrospectives prior to his own demise.

On the other hand, streaming services create the false impression we are in control of what we listen to or watch. Unless we meticulously search, select and curate our own individual playlists, we are at the mercy of algorithms that are based on crowd-sourced behaviours that are imposed upon our own personal preferences. These algorithms are based on what is merely popular, or what the service providers are being paid to promote. And while it is possible to be pleasantly surprised by these semi-autonomous choices, too often they result in the lowest common denominator of what constitutes popular taste.

And so to Netflix, and the recent resurgence in pay TV drama. Binge watching (and box set culture in general) has apparently heralded a golden age of television (warning: plug for Sky TV). But depending on your viewpoint, binge watching is either a boon to shared culture (the normally stoical New Statesman) or results in half-baked content(the usually culturally progressive Guardian). Typically, the Independent is on the fence, acknowledging that binge viewing has changed the way TV is made (and watched) but at what price? Not to be left out, even Readers Digest has published some handy health tips for binge-TV addicts. Meanwhile, Netflix itself has released some research on how binge-watching informs our viewing habits (and presumably, our related consumer behaviours). And not everyone thinks this obsession with binge watching is healthy, or even good for business – presumably because it is not sustainable, as consumers will continue to expect/demand more and more at lower and lower subscription fees.

Meanwhile, for a totally different pace of binge-watching, SBS recently tested audience interest in “slow TV”. The free-to-air network screened a 3 hour, non-stop and ad-free documentary (with neither a voice-over narrative nor a musical soundtrack) featuring a journey on Australia’s Ghan railway. So successful was the experiment, not only did the train company’s website crash as viewers tried to find out about tickets, but SBS broadcast a 17 hour version just days later.

Next week: Infrastructure – too precious to be left to the pollies…

MoMA vs SFMOMA

As regular readers of this blog may have come to realise, any opportunity I have during my overseas travels, for business or pleasure, I always like to visit the local public art galleries. Apart from providing a cultural fix, these institutions can reveal a lot about current fashions, curatorial trends and even technology adoption in the elite world of marquee museums. Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to visit MoMA in New York, and SFMOMA in San Francisco.

Mario Bellini – Olivetti TCV 250 Video Display Terminal (1966) – MoMA New York (Gift of the manufacturer) – Photo by Rory Manchee

Both museums are housed in contemporary buildings which, in keeping with a noticeable trend among modern galleries and museums, emphasise their vertical structure. Compared to say, the 18th/19th century museums of London, Paris and Berlin (with their long, languid and hall-like galleries), these 21st century constructs force us to look upwards – both physically, and perhaps metaphorically, as they aspire to represent “high” art in a modern context?

Although I have been to MoMA many times before, there is always something new to discover among the touring exhibitions and permanent collections. On this latest visit, there were four standout displays: Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age (see illustration above); Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait; Max Ernst: Beyond Painting; and Stephen Shore.

Apart from the latter, there is clearly a statement being made within the format of “Title/Name – colon – concept/context/subtext”. Stephen Shore is obviously an exception to this curatorial technique. Here is a photographer, whose name I was not familiar with, but whose work seemed both familiar (everyday images and popular icons) and exotic (otherworldly, outsider, alien); yet also pedestrian (repetitive, mundane) and alienating (elements of the macabre and voyeuristic).

The Thinking Machines display threw up some interesting juxtapositions: most of the devices and the works they produced were artisanal in approach – one-off pieces, requiring detailed and skilled programming, and not the mass-produced, easily replicated works we associate with most digital processes these days. Plus, even when the outputs were generated by a computational approach, the vagaries of the hardware and software meant the works were more likely to produce chance results, given the large role that analog processes still played in these systems-defined creations.

Louise Bourgeois’ work can still challenge our sensibilities, especially when conveyed through her lesser-known works on paper, even though many of the images are familiar to us from her sculptures and installation pieces (the latter represented here in the form of one of her giant spiders).

The exhibition of works on paper by Max Ernst also reveal another aspect of the artist’s oeuvre, although unlike Bourgeois, I feel there is greater affinity with his more formal paintings because, despite the different media in which he worked, there is a consistency to his image making and his visual language.

Across the country in San Francisco, this was the first time I had been to SFMOMA, so in the available time, I tried to see EVERYTHING, on all 6 levels. But I still manged to miss one entire floor, housing the late 19th century/early 20th century permanent collection.

The main exhibitions were Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing The Rules; SoundtracksWalker Evans; Approaching American Abstraction; and Louis Bourgeois Spiders.

So, less of the colon-delineated concepts compared to MoMA, and more literal titles – and you have to think that photographers, like Shore and Evans, don’t merit these sub-textual descriptions, because with photographers, what you see is what you get?  On the other hand, with Bourgeois’ Spiders, it contains what it says on the tin – giant spider sculptures.

I’d seen the Rauschenberg exhibition earlier this year at the Tate Modern in London, as it’s actually a touring show curated by MoMA itself. Seeing these (now familiar) works in another setting revealed aspects that I hadn’t appreciated before – such as the similarities between Rauschenberg’s collages and combines, and the mixed media works of Max Ernst and other Surrealists, for example.

The Evans exhibition was an exhaustive (and at times exhausting) career retrospective. In addition to many of his iconic images of crop farmers during the Great Depression, there were more urbane/mundane images of shop window displays, merchandising and branding – not too dissimilar to some of Shore’s serial photo essays.

Wandering through (or approaching…) the American Abstraction display was like immersing oneself in a who’s who of modern US art: Brice Marden, Sol Le Wit, Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still, Cy Twombly, Adolph Gottlieb, Morris Louis, Sam Francis, Ellsworth Kelly, Lee Krasner, Agnes Martin, Sean Scully, Frank Stella, Joan Mitchell…. It struck me that despite the differences among these artists, and their individual mark making and contrasting visual languages, the collection was very much of a whole – the familiarity of many of these works, in close proximity, felt very comforting, even though the original intent was potentially to shock, challenge or disrupt. That’s not to say the works no longer have any impact, it’s just that our tastes and experiences have led us to adapt to and accommodate these once abrasive images.

Finally Soundtracks was probably the weakest of all the exhibitions I saw, pulling together a mish-mash of mostly sculptural and installation works embodying some form of audio element. My interest in this vein of work probably started when I saw the exhibition, “Ecouter Par Les Yeux” many years ago in Paris.

Despite a few banal pieces (too literal or pedestrian in their execution) this current incarnation had some individually engaging and landmark pieces: namely, Celeste Boursier-Mougenot’s “Clinamen”, a version of which has been on display at Melbourne’s NGV in recent times; and Brian Eno’s “Compact Forest Proposal”, which I only know of through its audio component – so here was a chance to walk through the fully realised, and dream-like installation.

As 2017 draws to a close, Content in Context will be taking a (much-needed) break for the holidays. Having made 8 overseas trips in the past 12 months, the author is looking forward to spending some down-time closer to home. Many thanks to all the people who have made 2017 such a truly memorable year for me – for all sorts of personal and professional reasons. You know who you are. Normal service will resume in January, and have a safe, peaceful and uplifting festive season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright – Use It Or Lose It?

I was browsing in one of the last remaining record stores in Melbourne’s CBD last week, flipping through the secondhand racks for independent vinyl releases of the 70s and 80s. (I was in search of some sounds of the Paisley Underground, if anyone is interested.) The shop owner, who also runs a record label, lamented that there are a whole bunch of out-of-print recordings of that era that he wants to license for reissue in physical format – but in many cases, the rights have since been acquired by major record companies that have no interest in re-releasing this material themselves. Yet, when approached for permission, oftentimes they ask for prohibitive licensing fees, making the venture uneconomic.

The sound of the Paisley Underground (on vinyl, of course) – Image sourced from Discogs.com

The irony is, most times the major labels have no idea what they have in their back catalogues, because the content they own has been scooped up through corporate mergers or is still managed via a series of archaic territorial licensing and distribution deals based on antiquated geo-blocking practices. Plus, understandably, they are usually more interested in flogging their latest product than curating their past.

There’s nothing wrong with content owners wanting to charge licensing fees, but surely they need to be commensurate with the likely rate of return for the licensee (we’re usually talking about a small circulation among enthusiasts, after all). Plus, the original production costs have either been written off, or amortized on the books – so, given there is little to no new cost to the content owner, ANY additional revenue stream would surely be welcome, however modest?

But what about streaming and downloads? Surely all this back catalogue content is available from your nearest digital music platform of choice? Well, actually no. In many cases, “out-of-print” also means “out-of-circulation”. And even if back content is available to stream or download, the aforementioned geo-blocking can mean that rights owners in certain markets may choose not to make the content available in specific countries. (I’ve even had the experience where content I have purchased and downloaded from iTunes Australia is no longer available – probably because the rights have subsequently been acquired by a local distributor who has elected to withdraw it from circulation.)

Of course, copyrights eventually expire or lapse, and unless renewed or otherwise maintained, usually fall into the public domain (but not for many years…..). Again, nothing wrong with affording copyright owners the commercial and financial benefits of their IP. But, should content owners be allowed to sit on their assets, and do nothing with their IP, despite the willingness of potential licensees to generate additional income for them?

In a previous blog, I ventured the idea of a “use it or lose it” concept. This would enable prospective licensees to re-issue content, in return for an appropriate royalty fee or share of revenues, where the copyright owners (and/or their labels, publishers and distributors) no longer make it available – either in certain markets and territories, or in specific formats. To mitigate potential copyright exploitation, copyright owners would be given the opportunity to explain why they have chosen to withhold or withdraw material that had previously been commercially available. There could also be an independent adjudicator to assess these explanations, and to help set an appropriate level of licensing fees and/or royalties.

Meanwhile, on-line sites like Discogs.com provide a welcome marketplace for out-of-print back catalogue!

Next week: Big Data – Panacea or Pandemic?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Supersense – Festival of the Ecstatic

Taking a break from startups, FinTech and digital disruption, I spent the past weekend at this year’s Supersense at the Melbourne Arts Centre. This underground festival (both literally and culturally) is back after 2015’s launch event, with an even more ambitious yet also more coherent line-up. It was still an endurance test, and while there were several absorbing performances, in the end it felt like there was nothing that was totally outstanding.

Part of the problem is we are so overloaded with aural stimulation that it takes something truly special to capture our imagination. First, we have access to an endless supply of music (thanks to Apple, Spotify, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, BitTorrent, Vimeo, Resonate, Napster, Vevo, Gnutella, YouTube…). Second, what was once deemed subversive or cutting edge, has now been appropriated by the mainstream and co-opted into the mass media. Third, and as a result of which, when it comes to the avant-garde, there is a sense of “been there, seen that”.

Alternatively, perhaps after more than 40 years of watching live music my palette has become jaded. But I’m also aware that theses days, some of the really interesting and engaging “live” audio experiences are to be found in art gallery installations, site-specific works and interactive pieces. For much of the festival, there was the traditional boundary between performer and audience – even though the idea was to wander between the different performance areas, we were still very much spectators.

A large part of the programme was given over to genre-pushing performances.  But even here I realize that, whether it’s free jazz, improvisation or experimental sounds, there is an orthodoxy at work. Many of these performers are playing a pre-defined musical role, whether it’s torch singer, axe hero, R&B diva, stonking saxophonist, glitch supremo, string scraper, drone aficionado or ur-vocalist.

Some performers played the venue as much as their instruments (stretching the acoustic limits of the building). Some even ended up “playing” the audience (in the sense of stretching their patience and tolerance). And in the many collaborative pieces, the musicians were mainly playing for or against each other, somewhat oblivious to the audience. In such circumstances, the creative tension did provide for some interesting results; but as so often with virtuoso performances, the players that relied only on speed, noise, volume or however many (or few) notes they produced were probably the least interesting.

Overall, few performers offered much variety within their allotted time slots. For all the colour, range and styles on display, many of the individual sets were extremely monochromatic, with little in the way of transition or shade. The volume, tones and textures were always full on. Pieces lacked development, and did not reveal or explore the aural equivalent of negative space. I understand and appreciate the importance of minimalism, repetition and compressed tonality in contemporary composition, but I was also hoping for a more layered approach to these live performances, and even some juxtaposition or contrast.

The subtitle of Supersense is “Festival of the Ecstatic”, with the implication that the audience will be swept away on a (sound) wave of transcendence. When it came to being enraptured, as with so many things these days, less is more. So the key sessions for me included: Oliver Coates who mesmerized with his solo cello performance; Jannah Quill and Fujui Wang whose laptop glitches sounded like a version of Philip Jeck’s “Vinyl Requiem” using only the works of Karlheinz Stockhausen; Zeena Parkins‘ sublime piano drone harmonics; JG Thirwell‘s minimalist sound poem; and Stephen O’Malley’s plaster-shredding guitar feedback oscillation. Whether or not it was the intended effect, during a number of performances I actually found myself drifting into a soporific state of semi-consciousness – but maybe it was just fatigue setting in?

Of course, I am extremely grateful that this type of event exists – it’s essential to have these showcases, for all their limitations and challenges. But it’s a bit like being a tourist: there are lots of destinations we may like to visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there – and there are some places where it’s enough just to know they are there.

Next week: FinTech and the Regulators