Liberation Through a Lack of Interest: The No-Audience Underground
Please note – this article was originally written for a Czech music magazine to introduce a portion of a UK-based DIY music and art scene to their compliment in CZ…it is, somewhat ironically, important to consider “audience” in any subsequent reading of this text, and it is my hope that criticisms of this text will be formulated with this audience in mind
Liberation Through a Lack of Interest: The No-Audience Underground
“there is no ‘audience’ for the scene because the scene IS the audience”
Rob Hayler is an electronic musician and sound artist working under the name Midwich. Hayler is one-half of Fencing Flatworm Recordings -a micro-label releasing a plethora of musical abstractions by various colourfully named personages- and editor of the blog Radio Free Midwich, which, among other things charts the development of a Northern England DIY experimental music scene that nobody cares about, and one that doesn’t care about anyone else either. In other words, Hayler is a very active example of the type of musician responsible for the local continuity of DIY and experimental music in his region, and by extension the sort of person one finds in the substrate of underground music scenes everywhere. What is different about Hayler, and according to him, many of the musicians whose work he is most involved with, is that they do not care whether I write this or not. They don’t care if you listen either.
“When I first coined the phrase at the turn of the century it was because I needed a succinct way of referring to a scene that contained wildly diverse creative endeavours: from blood-and-spittle power-noise to the daintiest bowed singing bowl.”(Rob Hayler)
Hayler coined the term No Audience Underground several years ago to describe a scene in which there where no passive listeners, but rather an energetic community of active contributors. It is no secret that the audience for many experimental music gigs consists of other musicians firstly, followed by a layer of artists from other disciplines, and then finally, perhaps a few “standard audience” members, by which I mean people coming to the concert simply to listen, with no personal artistic relationship to what is happening onstage. A friend of the bass player on holiday from Zlin, perhaps a colleague tagging along to the gig after a long shift at the ice cream factory, or someone’s mom account for this small percentage of listeners. Meanwhile the rest of the audience consists of people who might normally be found on a “guest list” for a mainstream band at a larger venue: the friends performing in or promoting next week’s concert, publishing the recordings, or writing criticism. As audience members are seen as active participants, the entire social role of the audience and the function of the music produced there is redefined:
“The roles one might have – musician, promoter, label ‘boss’, distributor, writer, ‘critic’, paying punter and so on – are fluid, non-hierarchical and can be exchanged or adopted as needed.
I must stress that this is not a snobbish clique of insiders obsessively tending to every aspect of their hobby … but a friendly and welcoming group who have realised that if they want it to happen then they have to make it happen themselves.”
It is also interesting to note that although NA-U (an abbreviation for No Audience Underground credited to Joe Posset, an extremely active Northern English noisist) could in many obvious ways to contrast the views expressed by Milton Babbitt in his much sited 1958 essay published in High Fidelity magazine, “Who Cares if You Listen,” there are some important points of contact as well. For example, Babbitt expressed a problem in his essay’s exposition:
“This composer expends an enormous amount of time and energy- and, usually, considerable money- on the creation of a commodity which has little, no, or negative commodity value. He is, inessence, a “vanity” composer. The general public is largely unaware of and unintereste in his music. The majority of performers shun it and resent it. Consequently, the music is little performed, and then primarily at poorly attended concerts before an audience consisting in the main of fellow
‘professionals’. At best, the music would appear to be for, of, and by specialists.”
The solution to this problem, at least in part, has been to embrace electronic music. A practice in which the performer, composer, and audience could be the same person, in which the process of the creation of the work lay solely with the creator of it, and one for which the aesthetic criteria for the sonic artwork would be determined by the decisions and aspirations of the creative musician alone. These are approaches so common today as to be completely taken for granted as normal in the production of music as an independent artist, even though in context Babbitt worked in very much an ivory-tower studio while today’s experimental musicians materialize their noisy visions in their basements with charity shop cassette recorders and hacked guitar effect pedals.
In a society where artistic merit, or value in general, conflated with perceived financial worth, it is interesting to note some commonalities in the approach to economic thinking expressed above by Babbitt, a largely “academic” composer working in the 1950’s and the heirs to an ostensibly post-punk/noise scene. For example, to again quote Joe Posset:
“The trade thing is a bit ‘our way of shaking hands’. It’s also a great way to keep the filthy lucre out of the equation. I sold one CD-R on that last tour. Just one; and if I ever find out who bought it I’ll give them the next posset slop report just for showing so much faith. But I came back with a stack of CD-Rs, tapes and vinyl the height of medium sized milk jug through trades with other bands, DIY labels and well-prepared punters. They will keep me spinning & smiling until December….Sociologically ‘alternative economy’ is one of the many interesting things about the n-au.”
Another perhaps surprising parellel in both thought and verbage can be seen in Richard Serra’s characterization of the relationships between sculpture, architecture, and late 20th Century Western Culture:
“…the ‘viewer’ is fiction. Basically this is my response to sculpture. I know there is absolutely no audience for sculpture, as there is none for poetry and experimental film. There is, however, a big audience for products that give people what they want and supposedly need but not more than they understand. Marketing is based on this premise.”
In terms of architecture right now, a lot of people have a need to build and a lot of clients are concerned with what is considered ‘relevant’. This creates a situation in which both client and architect receive criticism and advice on how to serve. Since there is no audience for sculpture or poetry, no one demands that they resist manipulation from the outside. On the contrary, the more one betrays one’s language to commercial interests, the greater the possibility that those in authority will reward one’s efforts. Architects have justifying phrases for this behavior. They call it ‘being appropriate’ or ‘compromising’. When Robert Venturi’s pylons for Federal Triangle in Washington, D.C., were criticiszed for not being symbolic enough, he returned the next day with the American flag atop each pylon. This is the kind of self-justifying pragmatic compromise I am talking about.” Richard Serra, in conversation with Peter Eisenman, 1983
So then, the No Audience approach, as characterized by such diverse artists as Hayler, Babbit, and even Richard Serra, can also be seen as an approach of No-Compromise to market pressures, as compromises have been rendered entirely unnecessary, whether in regards to the pursuit of money or fame, the two indicators of value used to characterize mainstream artistic production. Thus, when the celebrated music critic Simon Reynolds characterized Hayler’s approach as “melancholic” at a conference on DIY art and media in 2012 at Tillburg’s Incubate Festival, and suggested that the No Audience approach symbolized a general tendency within DIY culture which threatenes to bring about its own “inconsequentiality” by eschewing a depedency on an audience, Hayler responds:
(Simon Reynolds on DIY culture
“The extent to which you commit yourself is entirely your own concern. You don’t have to sound punk either, or cop a snarling attitude. Simon Reynolds, betraying an old-fashioned punknosity, suggests the underground should define itself in opposition to the mainstream. Quaint, eh? In turn I’d suggest that it is far more radical to ignore it. The machine loves to be raged against – what it can’t bear is to be shrugged off as irrelevant. Which, of course, it is.”
Thus, we engage and commit ourselves to the level of our own concern, and determine our own degrees of engagement and interest in our artistic pursuits, which, after all, is what a whole lot of both post-Romantic and DIY post-punk rhetoric suggests that participation in music and art are all about. The No Audience Underground further suggests a framework for engagement with society as a whole, and a liberating way of being in the world, in which each individual constructively opts-out.
Some Radio Free Midwich articles of note: