Chris Cutler is a percussionist, composer, lyricist and music theorist, known for his work with the band Henry Cow, in addition to performing with Art Bears, Pere Ubu, Gong, the Residents and many more. After becoming disillusioned with the music industry at large, Chris founded Recommended Records in 1978 as a way to help support artists that operated outside of the mainstream, making him one of the first artists to wholeheartedly embrace the DIY approach. M3 asked Chris about the devaluation of music, the differences between SOPA & ACTA, and why print-centric copyright laws are struggling to cope with recording technology…
M3 – First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself, and what it is that you do?
Chris Cutler – I’m a musician; that’s how I earn a living.
I also run an independent distribution service and a label – I’ve done that since 1978. We’ve released about 200+ LPs and CDs to date. I also write and sometimes teach.
What inspired you to start making music? What is your own musical background?
Listening to a dixieland jazz band playing by a river in the open air when I was very young. That and the general climate at the end of the 50s and early 60s, when a whole generation identified itself through music.
Otherwise I’m an autodidact: I learned by playing, imitating and copying what I heard on records. And by working with other people – pulling one another up by our mutual bootstraps. I started with a 5-string banjo, then guitar, trumpet, flute, piano and finally drums.
What would be your preferred medium to listen to music (eg. Vinyl, CD, tape, MP3 etc.), and why?
In the 60s it was vinyl and radio. That’s all there was then. Now it’s CDs. They don’t scratch, they’re small and light but still an integrated object with all the tracks in the right order, artwork and information attached. I value that: an embodied object that retains its integrity. For me files are mainly a working medium, not an entertainment or for-pleasure medium.
Do you feel the idea of an album, as a piece of art that people will listen to from start to finish, has been undermined or forgotten about in the digital age?
Pretty much. There’s a lot of furniture-music style incidental listening going on today, a lot of dumping everything onto a hard disc/iPod and randomly accessing disparate tracks on shuffle. Different listening habits are emerging from the structure of the new media. And, as ever, the medium is the message.
Your band Henry Cow shunned the music industry and adhered to an uncompromising DIY ethos whilst active. Do you think the internet has made this approach easier, and enabled this sense of independence amongst young musicians to flourish, and if so, do you think this could ultimately spell the end for the traditional, top-down major label approach?
In one respect it’s easier, because anyone can record now (in certain limited ways, at least) and you have a public forum in the internet. On the other hand all the expertise that went with formal studios, and the ability to work with complex materials (like bands and orchestras) is attenuated or absent. Only a narrow range of music can be made at home. And although the internet is a public forum, it’s harder than ever to be found there in the overwhelming avalanche of stuff competing for attention. In the 60s anyone who wanted could have an overview of what was out there. That’s impossible now. So I suspect, overall, that things are much worse today than they were for us. There’s a race to the bottom going on. The old top-down label system is derided, but very often it supported complex, unaffordable projects; it’s policy was almost socialistic in that a few successful bands would pay for a lot of unsuccessful bands, but the unsuccessful bands would still get their records made and paid for and even publicized. Often they’d get advances larger than their records could recoup. That’s all over now. You’re on your own.
Why did you decide to form your own label, Recommended Records, and what would you say are the main contributing factors the label’s success over the years?
I formed a label because (pace what I wrote above) our experiences with Virgin were pretty dismal, and I swore never to work with commercial labels again (I did though – when I was in Pere Ubu I was arm-twisted to sign with Polydor – another bad experience). But I have always been a do it yourself character. It makes sense to me. ReR’s success, such as it is – well we are still here after 34 years – is down, I think, to the fact that I never made a commercial decision. I only ever followed my taste and my convictions. I think of ReR as a service rather than a business (though it has to pay for itself; I’m not stupid) and I haven’t tried to become popular or try to find things ‘the market’ might like. Therefore people trust us to mean what we say. Our function is to scour a vast field and select the few things people with a certain taste will like. So we are introducing them to music they don’t know. To risk their money, they need to feel able to trust our intentions.
Much has been made of the supposed death of the record store in recent years. Do you believe the digital age has killed the record store, and if so, do you think that this is a necessary part of progression, or a tragic loss?
I think the record store will come back – as a specialized, tailored service. The major distributors killed independent stores, and now the majors are all mostly bankrupt so there’s space opening up again that independents can fill. We’ll see.
There are definitely a lot of people that seem to take access to free music for granted these days. Do you feel that the abundance of recorded music that is easily available on the internet has in some way devalued the art form?
Yes. It’s a fact that music occupies a different place in people’s lives now.
They don’t invest so much in it. Easy access has bred a kind of normality. Strawberries used to be an event, but now you get them all the year round. Also the pseudo ideology of information wanting to be free is just an extension of free market Chicago school economics – part of the grisly legacy of Margaret Thatcher’s claim that ‘there is no such thing as society’. And easy access, free access, does seem to have radically devalued music. There’s a lot of musical fast food around: cheap, everywhere and made to be eaten on the run.
Difficulty is an eco-space that selects only the dedicated few, who are driven or who can be bothered, so when music is something you can grind out cheap from a machine, more people will do it but fewer will do it well, or value it. You do need to put in those 10,000 hours.
Do you think traditional copyright laws are still enforceable in the digital age, or do you think we will have to rethink the concept of copyright itself?
Copyright law was designed for a world mediated by writing – a wholly different world from that mediated by recording – with which it is incompatible. So it will have to change. Sooner or later… However, at present the beneficiaries of the old system don’t want to lose their profits, so they resist – the way governments and industry resist action to ameliorate climate change. What’s for the best is neither here nor there, it’s just a matter of money and power. So change won’t come easily.
Similarly, do you think copyright legislation has a danger of infringing on the creativity of artists who make use of a wide variety of samples?
Yes. Especially small independents. The big boys pay each other off and license the samples they use. Independents can’t afford to do that; it’s a legal minefield and everything legal soaks up money like a sponge.
What is your take on the recent SOPA/ACTA controversy?
SOPA is classic American imperialism in action; it aims to institute US law as world law and punish anyone who doesn’t do what America wants. US legislators are not interested in reaching agreements or considering any point of view other than their own. ACTA is more moderate, less universal, but it still fails to look at the issues and try to find reasonable, rational solutions; it still wants to shore up outdated copyright ideas that are no longer fit for purpose in the electronic age. In my opinion both would make bad law. And we certainly shouldn’t have to choose between them; it’s like asking a vegetarian to choose between beef and pork.
What do you personally believe the future of music distribution will look like?
The industry wants downloads, so that’s what’s likely to happen. I suspect my branch of music will become more like an art field and sell in editions; it will detach from ‘the record industry’. Hard media will become a specialist form –as vinyl is at the moment, though I don’t think vinyl is any kind of future; it’s nostalgic and a cult – but it knows its niche and that is the way things will be for a while I think.
Finally, what does the future hold for Chris Cutler?
If I knew that….