3. ORGANISATIONAL AUTONOMY / EXTRA-MUSICAL ELEMENTS

"We were the first independent record company in England to actually release proper professionally made video cassettes" - Peter Christopherson (Throbbing Gristle) [1]

Independence was nothing new by the time industrial music was christened. Almost every genre of music that had limited commercial potential amongst mainstream Western audiences (jazz, reggae, "world" music) already had a history of pioneering independent record labels, such as Sun Ra's Saturn, or the improv label Incus. Even the mainstream had its nominal independents, such as Island or Virgin. The setting up of Industrial Records was clearly nothing new, but it was important. Unlike other forms of popular music, industrial music was (and remains) critical of systems of power and control, and this criticism clearly extends to the record industry. While several punk bands competed for a major record deal, none of the early industrial bands had much taste for the compromise involved.

It has been argued that industrial music wouldn't have happened if punk hadn't freed listener's expectations; after all, groups like Suicide toured with the Clash, and bands like the Slits, with their complete inability to play instruments "properly" were arguably as Dada as anything that deliberately proclaimed to be so. Personally, I think industrial music would have happened anyway. The explosion in what was basically amateur musique concrète was the inevitable consequence of the collision between pent-up creativity and inexpensive outlets; and the subculture that was interested in "weird" music of various kinds predated punk and was already well established, if tiny. Certainly, the simultaneity of punk created an opportunity for "industrial" to be perceived as "popular" music, and thus reach a wider audience than might otherwise have occurred. Industrial music and punk shared for a couple of years a strong desire for negation, a strong desire to break (musical) rules and express disgust.

Industrial Records were as independent as possible from the mainstream, although this probably owed as much to its being viewed by its founders as an "art project" as it has to do with ideological concerns. Although fated to last no longer than the "house" band, Throbbing Gristle, Industrial Records proved enormously influential. While Eno, Kraftwerk, Faust (and other industrial antecedents) had felt it necessary to work with relatively powerful mainstream labels in order to reach an audience and make a living, Industrial Records taught many budding musicians that you could operate successfully at whatever level you chose. If you wanted to try and sell your records to a mass audience, a recording contract was always available with a major label (for example, Cabaret Voltaire signed up with EMI for just this reason); if you didn't want to compromise your music or ideas, it was still possible to obtain distribution and reach some sort of audience.

Some of the labels that began in the wake of Industrial have been long-lived and achieved some commercial success (Third Mind, Play It Again Sam), and some enormously successful (Mute). Others, like United Dairies and Side Effects have kept a lower profile, but still survive in mutated forms. Possibly more important than the record labels has been the so-called "underground" cassette network, the result of the discovery that it need cost next to nothing to record and distribute your music, thanks to the widespread and very cheap availability of home cassette recorders. Despite its ghetto nature, the network of cassette labels has allowed musicians (of the sort unsuited to live performance) to define goals other than fame or money. It encourages communication and cooperation between participants in different musical genres, and like the fanzine "world", provides an encouraging environment in which to make the transition from passive consumer to active creator.

To Jon Savage, industrial music's most important adoption of extra-musical elements came in the form of its use of film and video. Clearly, this was also nothing new; in a popular context, film was used by groups since the days of psychedelia. However, industrial music coincided with the early days of pop video production, and industrial musicians were keen to have a go and experiment. Bad quality, colour bleeds and feedback were inevitable results of primitive technology, but at least for industrial artists they formed desirable elements in their aesthetic.

Savage wrote in 1983 that the interest in video was important for more than aesthetic reasons. At the time, following the break-up of Throbbing Gristle, and a perceived end to the classic "industrial era", Psychic TV and Cabaret Voltaire (with their independent video label, Doublevision) were announcing to all who cared to listen that the next arena for their cultural activities would be television. Having tackled all they cared to of musical control, television seemed a far more relevant medium. Here, surely, was where the battle against indoctrination and manipulation had to be fought.

Unfortunately, it was never to be. The technology and techniques of television were already far in advance of anything these industrial musicians could bring to bear, and an understanding of and opposition to the mainstream television agenda was already well-established, both on the political left and within the television establishment itself. These have ensured that although the TV mainstream (like pop music) has remained unassailable by its strongest opponents, severe criticism is still often forthcoming from industry insiders.


Endnotes

  1. Throbbing Gristle on KPFA, interview in Re/Search #4/5, op.cit.