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We Don't Need Them to Make Culture - or to Share It

by Robert M. Young

I often wonder why we depend on companies to tell us what counts as good culture. One reason is that they take on the task of separating the wheat from the chaff. An editor at a publishing company saves us the trouble of reading all the bad stuff and only recommends for publication what he or she thinks is the best . The same is true of music, television, films.

I'm as subject to this as the next person. I respond to adverts and displays, to charts and critics. It is often said that the consumer is sovereign and that the people who decide what to sell are only responding to the public's taste. I don't think it's as easy as that. Of course, the public has a say, but there is another side to it. It's what Gramsci meant by hegemony: the organisation of consent without the use of overt force.

I have learned this the hard way. I set up a small publishing company with little capital. I published what I admired, and it was widely praised. However, the market for the books was not large enough for us to be profitable. We ended up losing money and trying to expand into profit. After that phase we were only able to publish books for which we could find an American co-publisher, which meant that we were no longer really in control of what we published. We next took on a new investor and could only publish what he agreed to publish. Next we brought in a new managing director from a highly successful commercial publisher. Together they took over editorial control and eliminated the distinctiveness of the list and pushed me out (actually, I'd withdrawn a lot by that point). The trajectory was from autonomy to, in effect, being taken over and seeing the company directed back into the mainstream. It's a truism that you can make money more easily by going with the grain of the culture. If your aims are critical and subversive, it's not surprising that you are not popular enough for the 'product' to be self-supporting.

I have launched a new imprint in an attempt to revert to our original vision. It has two distinct features. First, we sell books by mail order only, at least in the first instance. This means that 100% of the cover price comes to us. If we were being repped (represented to the bookshops) by an agency, warehoused and fulfilled by another and sold in bookshops, we'd end up with only about a third of the cover price. The rep would get 15%, the distributor 15% and the bookshop 33%. By selling by mail order only we can break even by selling about a third of the number of books which was required before. On the other hand, only people in the subculture which we circulate will get to hear about the books unless they are well-reviewed.

Wouldn't it be lovely if we could get out of this situation? One way would be to publish on the internet. Anyone could download a book or periodical. If they wanted a printout, they could make one for themselves for a fraction of the cost of a printed and bound volume. Or we could propagate the writings on floppy discs. This would cost the price of the disc and postage and a tiny bit of labour, but it would still be relatively cheap.

I suppose this is the coming thing. But it raises a troubling question in my mind. I have known for some years that the means of production and reproduction of culture were relatively cheaply available. For example, a Sony Professional tape recorder has been around 250 for several years. Cassette recorders with two tape decks, specifically set up for duplicating, are now ubiquitous and are used to rip off commercial tapes. That means you can make music or talk programmes and reproduce them without the need for a record or disc or tape company to sanction and market it.

The same is true of video. You can buy a decent video camera for around 500 and a good one for twice that. You can buy a cassette deck which copies from another one for the price of a kit. Some have built-in copying, just like audio tape. You can even but a cassette deck which advances the tape frame by frame for under 1000 (I can remember when they cost hundreds of thousands then thousands) and can therefore do your own video editing. The net effect is that one can, in effect, be one's own film maker and reproduce the films without the need for a television station, theatres or commercial video merchandising.

Although it's illegal, the long history of pirate radio broadcasting in Britain has shown utterly conclusively that you can set up your own cheap FM station, so cheap that you can allow it to be discovered, have the equipment confiscated and start over for a few hundred pounds, perhaps much less. You just set it up to play tapes for hours and hours and never have to return to the site. I’m told that this practice has waned due to a carrot-and-stick approach by the government. They told pirates they wouldn’t get licences unless they stopped broadcasting illegally and then gave out many fewer licences than the pirates had been led to expect when they desisted in the hope of getting one.

Why don't we do these things? I think it's because we don't have enough courage to believe in our own taste and creativity. I also think — speaking for my own generation — that we really think 'they' are in charge of the technologies of cultural mediation. We also rely on others to be the gatekeepers, the arbiters of taste and the businesses which reproduce and sell the written word, music, voice, pictures, even though the internet, floppies and tapes could be reproduced and shared cheaply by our own networks.

I was involved in the developments in the 1970s and since, when people of dissident views set up their own periodicals and presses. However, these turned out to be not as cheap as we hoped, and most have gone under, have been sold to commercial publishers or have altered their editorial policies (i.e., their politics) to reach a wide enough readership to break even. I don't say all or even most have sold out, but they are certainly not autonomous in the way they were in the good old days when the division of labour was under attack, and collectives wrote, edited, sometimes typeset and printed and distributed their publications. I was once involved with a newspaper called Science or Society which specified that you had to be willing to sell it on the street or you could not be on the editorial board. This is pretty common among ultra-left publications.

I gather that the folk song world has its own taping and reproduction and distribution network something like what I have described above. I’m told that there is a video magazine calles Undercurrents which circulates in the form of videos, without benefit of commercial broadcasting. The internet is exactly what I mean. Anyone can put things on it, once they have learned how to work it (which I have not...). The result, of course, is pure anarchy, and the question of weeding out dross is on the horizon.

I think it is going to be hard to empower ourselves in this situation. On the other hand, having lost lots of money and been made miserable both by debts and new partners who I feel sure have destroyed the vision of my publishing company, I am very keen, indeed, to find ways of publishing (I mean this in a general sense to include words, sounds and pictures) which are not driven or distorted by commodity relations and the profit motive.

I intend this document to be an example of what it advocates. It is my first contribution to a network of hopefully subversive communications in my own area of practice. Since the only person I know how to reach is Victor Wolfenstein, I hereby launch the venture by sending him these thoughts. I hope he has someone to send them on to, and so it may begin. I am not unaware that lots of people already use the internet in this way, but this is my first venture in self-publishing in this medium.

23 Dec.94: robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk

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Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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