COUNTER POINT THREE
IDEALS + IDENTITIES issue three contemporary fandom - indie record labels - war commemoration
Counterpoint is an online publication featuring thoughtful journalism and considered illustration. Counterpoint is based in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The third issue of Counterpoint is themed Ideals + Identities. The articles in this issue investigate contemporary ideologies and the people behind them, examining the debates and discourses contemporary to our society.
THE IDEA BEHIND THE ICON
the state of independent record labels after the blogging boom
illustrators respond to this issueâ€™s theme
10 LEONARD & I behind the ideology of modern rock fans
14 A CENTURY OF REMEMBRANCE commemoration and national identity
firstname.lastname@example.org @_counterpoint counterpointjournal.co.uk Cover, inset photo: yashima
Hype machines Counterpoint examines the state of independence for boutique record labels and tastemakers in the aftermath of the great blogging boom Words: Sam Bradley Pictures: Bethany Thompson
At the time, he didn’t realise it. When Justin Vernon mailed his band’s debut album to the My Old Kentucky Blog, he was perhaps hoping for a favourable review or profile of the record. In truth, he had taken his first steps towards becoming one of the most critically lauded artists of the last decade. After rave reviews from music blogs and Pitchfork.com, the Wisconsin musician’s fortunes began to transform. Before long, the band had signed with indie label Jagjaguar, embarked on a worldwide tour, and For Emma, Forever Ago – Vernon’s self-produced magnum opus – was proclaimed as one of the finest records of hs generation. How did a band like Bon Iver manage to emerge from under the radar of the established music press? Whilst traditional tastemakers missed the band altogether, music blogs like My Old Kentucky gave the act the initial push they needed to capture that allimportant ‘buzz’ record labels crave. Justin Vernon’s story is not just an example of a songwriter’s tentative dreams come to fruition; it is also a brilliant example of how music bloggers in the late noughties were beginning to change the landscape of the music industry. Free from the strictures and limitations of the traditional music press, bloggers have radically changed the way audiences interact with new music, and the way that industry professionals think about bringing new records to listeners. The freedom of expression offered by online self-publishing provoked
experimentation in the form of music writing, but it has also allowed a new breed of critic to emerge. These new tastemakers, unbound by professional expedience, were evangelical about the music they loved, and in 2014 they’re more influential than ever before. The zealotry of the contemporary music blogger is expressed concisely by the unofficial motto of Song, By Toad records: ‘Because the world is wrong about music.’ Based in Edinburgh, the record label was conceived when design engineer Matthew Young decided that just blogging about music wasn’t enough. ”The idea was never that grand. It was rather to do a sort of assisted selfrelease; I’d find bands that I liked and see if they had demos or a little selfreleased EP and use my connections amongst the blogosphere to help them get a little more publicity.” In his living room-come-recording studio in Edinburgh, Young talks animatedly about the birth of the record label he now runs full-time. Although the label grew organically out of the original Song, by Toad blog, Young says that this itself was accidental. “I just started to write about albums I was listening to for my brother who was in the States. I don’t think he ever bothered to read it but I got to the point where I just enjoyed writing these little reviews of albums. And that was a blog, though I didn’t know at the time.” Sitting with a cup of tea amongst the debris of the latest recording session, Young tells the story of the label’s
conception. “The first thing we released was the first Meursault album [Pissing on Bonfires/Kissing with Tongues, released in 2007]. That album did so well [that] we were automatically a proper label. It didn’t quite feel like it yet, but that was all it took – us, a label, whether we wanted to be one or not.” Young might have expanded his reach beyond reviewing, but Song, By Toad is still part of a thriving blogging scene in Edinburgh and beyond. I met Jonny, known online as Edinburgh Man, in a pub on a grey day in the centre of Edinburgh. A pillar of the blogging community, Edinburgh Man is a weekly indie music podcast that
beams live out of Edinburgh to over 600 regular listeners across the world. Over a pint of IPA, he explains why he started making podcasts. “I’d wanted to do it for years; I’d pretty much listened to them since they started. “I started to get into more music podcasts and try and discover new music. So what the podcast has done really is to force me to go out and really search for new music.” For Jonny, podcasting allows him to promote the acts he likes whilst sharpening his own senses as a dedicated listener. “I think because of the podcast I started going to [more] gigs, and at that point I started becoming
friendly with people who were in bands in Edinburgh and in Glasgow. And I guess from that I became exposed to local music in a bigger way than before. “The show’s about forty-five minutes to an hour long, but I spend about three or four hours a week finding the music for it. I just sort of sit down in front of the computer and trawl through new music. The only criterion is that if I like it, then it’s going in the podcast. I try not to be snobbish about it.” In many ways, podcasts like Edinburgh Man are the descendants of pirate radio stations. But whilst the pop pirates of the sixties had to broadcast illegal tunes from the safety of international waters, today’s podcasters are aided by organisations such as the Association of Music Podcasting and the acceptance of ‘podsafe’ music by artists and record companies. Many of the tracks featured on Edinburgh Man’s playlists are self-produced by artists themselves. Jonny emphasised the importance of these records to the podcast, saying that “a lot of the music I play is self-produced and self-released. I think that’s often the most interesting music – I like hearing something that I’ve never heard before.” Online spaces like Bandcamp, blog sites and live podcasts now provide alternate environments in which artists can develop. The Scottish music scene supports a plethora of small, innovative labels like Lost Map, Fence Collective, Olive Grove, Electropapknit, and Gerry Loves Records. But Song, By Toad’s roster of artists includes not only Edinburgh alt-folk band Meursault, but
Miami psych-rockers Lil Daggers and Lancastrian songwriter Rob St John, amongst many others. In this sense, the occupation of online spaces by local scenes can allow musical communities to transcend geography. These acts are linked by shared philosophies, ideas and musical heritages, rather than their connection to Edinburgh. Matthew Young is optimistic, but also cautious about the future of selfreleasing artists. “You’re never going to do away with the gatekeepers. Between the contacts, an established reputation and the experience of having done it before, there are things that a good label will do for an artist that they won’t do for themselves. These are many things you can’t substitute with a self-release. “As enthusiasm for blogging has died down, there are now just a few places that matter, and we are getting back to the point where there are fewer gatekeepers. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have said that that was the case because back then it was almost like a neural network. Now it works through fewer channels.” After a decade of independent bloggers and do-it-yourself record producers wreaking change, it seems that the tectonic landscape of the music industry is settling down. But with figures like Young and Jonny behind the scenes, it’ll be far from business as usual. “Back then, you needed someone else’s’ permission to take part in the music industry,” says Young. “Now you don’t, and that’s great.”
In a world of signs, smoke and mirrors, it can be hard to draw distinctions between prevalent contemporary ideologies and the identities behind them. Steph Shaw (above) and Bridget Collin (right) respond to this theme in these original illustrations exclusive to Counterpoint..
Leonard & I Counterpoint takes a look at the ideologies at play behind rock and pop fandom in the 21st century Words: Phil Smith Pictures: Abi Woodhouse
In a typically enigmatic and modest interview response, Leonard Cohen falls silent when a question is posed to him: “Why are people so fascinated by you?” He claims it is no indication of excellence or talent on his part, only that there in an inherently morbid fascination in watching a man lay bare his woe on stage. Perhaps he has a point. It certainly seems resonant for a media which revels in the public disintegration of pop stars, watching them arrive as innocent, excitable youngsters and departing broken, jaded and bruised. Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan have already passed down this route; watch Miley Cyrus on her wrecking ball and the sense of inevitability is crushing. This doesn’t seem to be a celebration of excellence, merely a cruel form of public embarrassment. Yet, to frame it in this way fundamentally misunderstands the importance music plays in our lives and in shaping our identities. I watch Miley Cyrus twerk and am convinced that it is a hollow exercise because I have no empathy or connection with her. To many however, she is a central part of childhood, her newfound sexual expression relatable to those who have grown up alongside Hannah Montana. Though her obvious vulnerability is a distressing indictment of our society, it certainly doesn’t make her music meaningless. These folk may watch my beloved The National and see nothing but five middle aged white blokes moaning about their anxieties, when in truth they have very little to moan about. They are almost certainly right. This is the beauty of music. It is a
forum in which concepts such as truth and fact are given room to breathe. Every song spawns a thousand stories, shaping the identities we portray to those around us. Watching that Leonard Cohen interview, it is so obvious that I was destined to fall for his music. His poise, charisma and aura have a magnetic quality. He is at once what I am and what I want to be. An expression of my teenage hopes and a testament to their fading. His shy, painfully quiet demeanour is like looking in the mirror, having spent a lifetime making people uncomfortable and being pleaded with to fill awkward silences. He is also, however, the hilarious antithesis to everything I have become as I mercifully left teenage brooding behind me. Cool, charismatic, a ladies man. A genius. Leonard has come to represent a central part of who I am, a bridge between the difficulties of adolescence and the more settled, comforting rhythmic patterns I now frequent. In ‘Sing Another Song Boys,’ he rumbles: “They’ll never ever, ever, ever reach the moon again/at least not the one we’re after.” I’d get this tattooed on my forehead if it wouldn’t leave me destined to end up on Jeremy Kyle along with my despairing family. It represents what his music is to me, a touching reminder of the dreams I once had and the growing sense that they were not founded in any sense of reality, and that this is probably a good thing. To many, though, Leonard Cohen is a grumpy bastard. They are most probably right. Perhaps there is an interesting
point in this. Music often forms such a key part of our identity because it has such a powerful nostalgic element, as one riff or hook can immediately evoke our past and move it into our present. At times, a symbolic track can be like an indulgent scrawl through an old Facebook album. Some songs exist to us only as a reminder of a certain time, a certain event. One song can be warm and comforting to someone, yet utterly galling for another. This is particularly resonant because so much of our foremost musical experiences occur during adolescence, that time of hilariously fiery emotions, when friendships and relationships blossom and jolt with comically seismic significance. Going to a Catholic allboys school taught me many things:
the beauty of male camaraderie, how to recite Markâ€™s Gospel and, most importantly, the beauty in a pint of Guinness. It comprehensively and definitively failed to prepare me for women, however. Those years between sixteen and eighteen were almost completely occupied with music of brooding. It brings to mind a young Joseph GordonLevitt sitting on the edge of the bed in the opening scenes of 500 Days of Summer, in love and hearing the prophecies of Morrissey for the first time. In this moment, you know he is both instantly liberated and also totally and utterly fucked. From this point on, he wears his love of The Smiths like a scar won in battle, firmly believing
that it is an integral and central part of who he is. People tend to assume my brazen love of Billy Bragg is fuelled by my politics and the red rose I wear on my coat. In truth, however, it is founded upon the fact that his back catalogue contains some of the most simplistically beautiful songs about being a teenage boy ever penned. These years are more important than any in determining our sense of self, and music more often than not proves to be a crucial tool in asserting our newfound identities, and also in the assumptions and impressions we make about others. Once the bond between us and our music is sealed in these early years, it is almost impossible to break. Far from a mere tool of nostalgia, many continue to explore for new music and new artists who can highlight, articulate and annunciate truths about our changing lives and new experiences. Hearing The National a month before leaving home for university is a classic example, their music becoming a central part of my plunge into full blown adulthood. When their sixth album Trouble Will Find Me was released in 2013, there was one line in particular that resonated, and has almost come to act as a perverse mission statement for me. On the track ‘Demons,’ lead singer Matt Berninger is apologetically broody, lamenting as the song reaches its climax that, “when I walk into a room/I do not light it up... fuck.” A eureka moment, one that summed up ninety per cent of my experiences at those awkward parties. Initially, I’m terribly shy, awkward, wedged in the kitchen corner. Then, all of a sudden, I’m too drunk, stood on a
table screaming ‘Toploader’. There is a comic kind of empowerment in this line, the equivalent to me of that moment in a club when ‘Single Ladies’ comes on and a swarm of women start twirling their ring finger. So music plays a variety of roles. Much of the music I listen to, I listen to simply because it makes me happy and want to dance. I do not pretend, no matter how much I wish it to be so, that I empathise and fundamentally get Prince or Sister Sledge. It just loosens my hips. Someone, somewhere, however, will be emotionally invested in different ways in these very same artists and songs. It can be a simple mood lifter, or a deliberate tool of self-indulgence. Its beauty rests in how differently we respond to each individual line, beat and rhythm. However, there is no question that how we perceive the music we do and don’t love can become a crucial part of the identity we assert. This is why questions like, “What was your first album?” matter to silly folk like me. In probably the most moving scene of 2006 film The History Boys, teacher Richard Griffiths discusses a poem with student Samuel Barnett. He describes the most precious moment in reading as that in which the author identifies a feeling, an emotion that we had previously thought unique to ourselves. The sensation is akin to a hand reaching out from the book and taking ours. Music does this too, but it can go even further, for the hand can then be lead down hundreds of different roads into new chapters, becoming in their own way a part of our personal stories and identities.
A century of remembrance Counterpoint investigates the culture of historical commemoration and the First World War Words: Piers Barber Pictures: Jessica Ip
Too much or too little; too left-wing or leaning too far to the right; trying to cover too much new ground or retracing tired theories. Marking a notable anniversary of an important historical moment is a near impossible task, yet failing to honour one correctly can prove disastrous.
Official commemorations are one of the most tangible and influential examples of history directly moulding national identity. They are vital not only in informing a public about an event which directly affected their ancestors, but also for providing a new window through which to assess our fluid and elusive present, indecipherable solely through analysis of current affairs. This year, Britain turns its attention to acknowledging the centenary of the First World War, the colossal four year global conflict which changed the course of the 21st century, ending empires and leading to the deaths of around 16 million people. From 2014 to 2018, memorials will take place in the form of wreath-layings, concerts and exhibits. Around 150 new books are due to be published on the subject in Germany, whilst France can expect around twice as many new titles. In Britain, David Cameron will make funds available for children to visit the battlefields of the Western Front. The BBC plans 2,500 hours of television, radio and online programming on the subject before 2018. Over the next four years, the story of the most enduringly influential historical
event for centuries will be repeatedly retold. It is essential, then, that it is done so responsibly. Recognition of the war’s centenary poses substantial challenges to its organisers. They have a duty not only to correctly honour those who lost their lives and livelihoods – they must also be savvy to the present day issues which the anniversary will inevitably bring to light. The vitality of European relations, for example, will be placed in increased focus. For some commentators, the anniversary will be a moment to highlight the benefits of international cooperation – since 1945, after all, structured and considered efforts to build healthy European relations have kept the outbreak of international conflict at a commendable minimum. Yet the anniversary falls at an awkward moment. Our continent exists in a state of unrest: disillusionment and unemployment have prompted the virulent, often violent, rise of nationalist groups campaigning against the EU and its root principles. Such sentiments will only escalate as elections for the European Parliament elections in May draw closer. As anyone with a vaguely nuanced knowledge of Great War will testify, the implications of such impassioned nationalism can prove devastating. The risk is clear: if handled poorly, these commemorations will not help to heal wounds – instead, they could open them wide once again. Britain finds itself in an especially delicate situation. Here, the conflict which left the heavy legacy of almost a million British deaths continues to
cast a shadow longer than in any other nation. Now, it will be reassessed at a moment when an already brittle national identity is under attack from a host of other immensely challenging issues – youth disinterest in politics, an uncertainty over the future of Scotland, and growing concerns over the implications of immigration. At a moment when the strength of European cooperation is set to be applauded, Britain lies further from the mainland than it has for decades. It is worrying, then, that the most prominent feature of Britain’s First World War commemorations so far has been an unsophisticated and highly futile one: a petty political dispute over who was to blame for the war’s outbreak. The debate began in January, when Education Secretary Michael Gove
launched a strangely inappropriate attack on the “left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders.” Despite some “mistakes,” Gove argued, Britain’s role in the war was “marked by nobility and courage,” making the idea that the war was a “misbegotten shambles” and “series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite” little more than a “myth.” Boris Johnson, London’s Mayor, went further, arguing that the war was “overwhelmingly the result of German expansionism and aggression,” the strength of which compelled Britain into a “struggle to frustrate these deranged ambitions.” This, of course, is the same Britain which withheld the vote from forty percent of its population at a time when Germany offered full male suffrage; the same Britain that was allied with tsarist Russia and which
had failed to offer justification for an illegal seizure of African territory just years before the conflict’s eruption. For Johnson’s agenda, though, such context was clearly trivial. The debate prompted ripostes from a host of opinionated commentators from various backgrounds, political standpoints and professions. Historians such as Niall Ferguson and Sir Richard Evans had their say. Rarely, though, did the conversation escape beyond the example of petty political pointscoring originally set by the politicians. Dignifying and honourable, it was not. In the case of the First World War, there are few black and white facts: generals were not all just members of a heartless upper class, sheltered in grand villas hundreds of miles from the nearest mud-caked trench. Arthur Currie, one of the Allies’ most competent generals, was a failed insurance salesman, for example. Deserters were not just innocent sufferers from shellshock, but often petty – occasionally dangerous – criminals. The same ambiguity applies to the very roots of the war itself. Attempting to identify a guilty party is, of course, entirely missing the point of the centenary commemorations. Claiming in a Daily Mail article to have the definitive answer to a highly complex issue – which has, after all, been debated by professional historians for a hundred years – was little more than dismal politicking. Even if they had brought the most astute and sophisticated levels of historical analysis to the debate, the idea that politicians would attempt to impose
their interpretation of a historical event on their public is a highly troubling one. This was a highly complex war, driven by motivations and meanings that were fluid and multifaceted and driven by a relentless momentum difficult to define, even at the time. It was not a conflict capable of being be neatly defined as either a dramatic mistake or heroic, principled crusade. Politicians were either lamentably ignorant of this fact, or pursued their agenda regardless. This clumsy partisan dispute is a timely reminder of Britain’s continued struggle with the legacy of the Great War. Despite the Allies’ victory, the war may well have had a more enduring effect on the British than any other population. By initiating the growth of new global powers and independence movements, the war prompted a critical turning point in British imperial thinking. Our role in the world has, of course, remained largely undefined ever since. Johnson’s article praised postwar Germany for being “frank with themselves” and “agonisingly thorough in acknowledging the horror of what they did.” Johnson cannot afford to be blind to the grim irony of his words: Britain – with its lengthy and ugly imperial past – hardly has history on its side, after all. We still have considerable working out of ourselves to do. Embracing the value of history provides the opportunity to appreciate our heritage and allow facts and considered analysis to eradicate the potential danger of imagined myths. What we learn from the past will also dictate our future, though: it is essential that we remember it responsibly.
CONTRIBUTORS Words piers barber sam bradley phil smith
Pictures bridget collin jessica ip steph shaw bethany thompson abi woodhouse
Editors sam bradley bethany thompson
you can read about our contributors at counterpointjournal.co.uk/writers or /illustrators 18
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Our third issue 'Ideals + Identities' features the best of independent journalism and illustration.