Critical Distribution (Praxis Newsletter 23)

We have always championed a way of self-organisation in manufacturing and distribution of records. This goes back to the very beginning of Praxis as a label. Teaming up with like-minded labels and exchanging records to locally distribute each others productions has been at the core of our idea of a meaningful distribution network, and still is. However the economic realities and the technological developments to put this idea into practice has gone through a number of mutations.
I would like to sum up these developments and show how the “underground scene”, under economic pressure, has eventually contributed to its own current demise, paradoxically, as it may seem, as it was “professionalising” itself.

Independent Distribution
The label Vision which I ran from 1986-92 was the precursor to Praxis and provided me with first in-depth experiences of the record “business”. Starting with a zine and cassette tape releases which were mainly distributed locally and through a small network of tape-distros, we started to press vinyl in 1988 and the situation changed, as press runs were larger and ambitions rose higher. Increasingly larger independent distributors were contacted and promotional copies were sent to the underground/independent music press.
This provided us with the experience that the independent sector to a large degree had just become a smaller mirror image of the commercial mainstream. The same mechanisms of promotion and marketing had set in, just on a smaller scale, but not less oppressive in the sense of being detrimental to a counter-cultural anti-spectacular approach.

Dance Distribution
With the rise of underground dance music in the late 80’s from House to Acid to Techno and beyond, the game changed insofar that it was often nameless white labels that gained wide circulation through being played by DJ’s at raves and parties. The record in many ways was not so much an end-product in itself, but a tool for the mix.
Dance music specialist record shops were constructed very different from “independent” shops, had a different layout and “energy flow”. Often only carrying the latest releases, the salesperson would play them to their audience who then would raise their hands to indicate they wanted a copy: A very different kind of record shopping than looking through racks of different titles.
Interestingly this posed again new problems to the distribution of more unusual, different material.Often the scope of what was acceptable to the people, often DJ’s, running the record shops, remained very narrow.

Underground Networks from Network23 to Subnet

When techno sound systems started to appear at free festivals they confronted the status quo of cultural consumption and re-defined the term “underground” for the 90’s. As a logical consequence an avenue was sought to bypass the established ways of distribution – whether major or independent – and form networks where artists and sound systems would be in control of – as far as possible – every step of the dissemination of their product. Unfortunately no one at the time managed to take control of the infrastructure of pressing the records, but from the moment they came off the press to the moment they came into possession of the end user this was attempted with considerable success.
Network 23 was primarily an offshoot of Spiral Tribe. Batches of releases were pressed and then self-distributed, mainly through the festival/teknival circuit. This had a tremendous impact at least on a section of the rest of the underground scene. Nevertheless while the form was radicalising possibilities, the content became increasingly predictable, a new development in musical style (Hardtek/Tribe was born).
Subnet was a direct response to what was seen as a new conformism, and a new network developed, trying to support a radicalisation of the music itself (the driving force behind Subnet was Stormcore, participating labels were Audio Illusion, New Skin, Praxis and many others) .
While these “pure” networks died by the end of the decade, there was still a lively network of labels and artists exchanging their releases and distributing them locally.

Decline of vinyl sales

Around the turn of the century a decline of record sales started to set in, at first barely noticed. One reason was that at the time there was a huge increase in productions, so it seemed natural that single releases would sell less. As the electronic underground was still in a phase of dynamic development based on the pioneering work that had been done in the previous decade, there was also an increased interest in these older productions, many, if not most of which were unavailable by the time.

This is where eBay came in as a marketplace for these unavailable records.
Ebay replicated and exaggerated that “now or never” moment every record buyer is/was familiar with when holding a rare record in her/his hand in a record store or a flee market.
As ebay was at the time still predominantly an auction house, this resulted in extremely inflated prices for underground cult records such as Network 23 releases, of which even the more insignificant ones would easily fetch three-digit prices.
With the advent of other user-generated platforms this would change, perhaps forever.

Discogs was initially conceived as a online discography database covering electronic music in 2000. In late 2005 it also became a marketplace whereby users could buy and sell releases featured in the catalogue. As the amount of releases listed and documented rose, it more and more became an important marketplace for selling both used and new records. More and more collectors as well as record labels, shops and distributors used the marketplace to offer products for sale. Records can be listed for sale at any price. This has had the effect, that truly rare records would often be listed at a very high price, but as soon as another user would offer the same record, they would usually undercut that price. With the steady stream of new users and the expansion of the marketplace, this lead to a deflation in prices. E.g. if the first copy of a record was maybe added at 20 euros, by the time ten more copies were up for sale, the record would often become available at ever decreasing prices, sometimes ending at next to nothing. Not only that, the impression is created that almost any record would be available at any time. This is the exact opposite of the hysteria that drove record prices up on eBay in the first half of the decade, making it much less urgent for buyers to “get that record now”, because they would feel it was the only opportunity to get it at all. On the contrary, the buyer is implicitly encouraged to wait, until another seller is listing the same record at an even lower price. Deflation is the result.

A similar development is bound to happen with files. Unlike records files don’t need to be reproduced/manufactured in order to be sold. They only need to be uploaded onto the particular platforms once. The buyer then gets a digital copy in exchange for payment. There is no manufacturing process of the product as such, no stock-keeping and inventory problems beyond accounting for a bit of server space and for sales. They can be copied indefinitely, and will be, even or especially after they are sold (or leaked to the respective networks), producing a situation where tracks endlessly replicate through the networks.
Bizarrely enough the phenomenon of “rare” files has already appeared and some files have “changed hands” for considerable amounts of money although there is no objective rarity of a file since there is no physical existence.

Linked to the fact that files will be shared and will replicate, music is now available to be listened to around the clock through internet radio stations, soundcloud pages, last fm, as well as tracks being ripped on youtube etc. However the quality of reproduction is very low, usually at 128kbps if not less. If it’s true that people are content with that, this is an interesting development – in the past, the argument to switch to a different format was always that the quality would be better… if the thesis turns out to be true that consumers are happy with the low quality of streams (and therefore don’t bother to buy, or even download, the high quality releases) it would mean that a development was in place that would contradict the belief that technical development was a part of a simultaneous technological progress.

While it was the case that “underground” labels could survive (or better: expand) by either using only underground distribution networks, or a combination of them and more established (commercial or semi-commercial) networks in the past, now a lot of these networks, as far as they still exist, have retreated to a strategy of selling as many copies as possible of their products directly to the “end user” rather than distributing them to other distributors or shops, which are increasingly seen as competitors rather than allies.
Like this they hope to re-coup the initial investment faster even if it means that a lot less records are eventually circulating.
While prolonging their own life span – for a bit – they are contributing to the overall crisis of the “scene”, since no single label or mail order is in a position to fully “exploit” the potential of a release.
However these decisions are generally not voluntary but forced on many labels by the sinking demand, or the decreasing readiness of the scene to purchase records (or files) – and thus give support to its activists.

How could these negative trends be countered?

In any case we cannot argue in favour of going back to “old” strategies for a number of reasons. Vinyl will never again be the one and only format to enjoy music, nor will it regain its position as the only format for DJing. With the internet an irreversible deterritorialisation has occurred.
Some argue that cultural workers making music should forget about creating any kind of commodities to sell, but should just offer everything as free downloads. The implication is of course if they don’t do it for themselves, others will and their work will circulate for free whether they want it or not.
Unfortunately we live in a society where money and commodities are not abolished yet, and those who demand free music will instead spend their money on playback devices and techno gadgetry. The result will be a cultural production where only the big corporations will survive next to hobby producers who have jobs and don’t depend on income generated by their music, plus a few state (or privately) sponsored “serious” artists. None of these environments are very likely to produce critical interventions on the field of culture that could put forward a serious kind of antagonism to the dominant ideology (the rare exceptions only prove the rule).

Such interventions will be fraught with contradictions from which counter cultures always suffered, from Proletkult to Punk. One could argue that they always be twisted into something counter-revolutionary, like Stalinism, or get recuperated by the Culture Industry.
Maybe 2012 is the point to test if there is still life in a critical application of non-stream-lined electronic dance music. For this however it has to re-emerge from the tiny circles it retreated to in the last years in order to reach an actually antagonistic dimension. But even if this were too grand a prospect, it will need the active support of participants in the widest sense, even if only to unfold its critical potential in a subterranean way.

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