Lee Brackstone explores convergence – of art forms and creator/ audience roles – and finds much to celebrate.
It is perhaps time to acknowledge, accept and embrace the fact of the radical changes in the air when an independent family-owned publishing company is releasing a new album by one of the most consistently interesting pop artists of the age. Two weeks ago, Faber and Faber released Song Reader by Beck; his new album in the form of a beautifully designed (by McSweeney’s) folder, which contains 20 song sheets of previously unrecorded music. The challenge and excitement for Beck fans, and musicians schooled in music literacy, is to interpret, perform and record the songs themselves and share them on Songreader.net. What will be the result of this project, which is at once uniquely post-modern and old-timey in spirit? A dub-step version of Old Shanghai by Tulisa anyone? Or for the less urbane, and more arcane, a cosmic sludge metal version of Do We, We Do by Electric Wizard?
Song Reader has captured the imagination of readers, musicians and critics alike. And now as we head into the Season-to-be-Jolly, there’s a certain festive timeliness to it, as images of families and friends around the piano sight-reading sheet music spring to mind. But Song Reader, though entertaining as all albums and books should be, is more than mere entertainment. It perhaps tells us something profound about the way the physical, performance, and digital worlds are starting to genuinely cross-pollinate and converge. Song Reader exists in an exquisitely designed physical edition; and yet versions from it can only (for now) be heard online at www.songreader.net. There’s something beautiful about this. A unique musical experience has started its life in the most old-fashioned of ways (pre-gramaphone, for god’s sake), yet can be heard on Soundcloud. Song Reader articulates the paradoxes of being a listener, performer and consumer of music today and refracts them so we don’t quite know where the concept starts and the idea takes over. Arguably as well as any other physical product coming out of the book world this century, Song Reader sits in the middle of the physical/digital tussle.
‘The Times They Are-a-Changin’, Dylan sang back in 1963, and fifty years on our engagement with Beck’s hand-grenade tossed into the desolate landscape that was once the music industry, should make us think more broadly about what it is publishers are charged with doing right now and in the immediate future. I always wanted to be an editor (at least from my mid-teens that was where my instincts took me: to look at literature, pass comment and judgement; then shape this as argument for a work’s values or otherwise) but at the close of 2012 and another radical year of innovation, excitement and despair, I’m not sure what that means any longer. Or at least I’m sure the definition of the role (and more broadly that of a publisher: it is easy to confuse the two) is no longer as straightforward as it once was. Read, edit, lunch with agents, write copy, choose jacket livery, rave and pass on to the trade to further shape the experience for the reader. This, simplified to the max, was the job of work involved. Lunch is now mournfully sacrificed most days and as the experience of buying has migrated online and the physical thing increasingly matters less (they tell us), where does the value lie in being an editor and bringing your passion, articulacy and commitment to the table?
I am two months into a radical attempt to re-calibrate these questions and values at Faber, as we start up a new business called Faber Social. Building on publishing instincts and experiences that navigate the sometimes clashing, sometimes complimentary worlds of literature and music, Faber Social will bring the performance, energy and risk-taking attitude back into a world that can look dangerously grey on a bad day. Who needs publishers? the growing band of self-published (and successful) authors are heard to mutter. And if this question isn’t addressed and engaged with head on there may well be few publishers left standing to answer the charges leveled against us in years to come. The digital revolution has been a kind of emancipation for all writers; and publishers, so often (and wrongly) seen as gate-keepers, unwilling to admit all but the chosen few privileged enough to live in certain boroughs of North London (a myth I take great pleasure in tearing up), have to change to keep up with the creative and commercial realities of this new world.
So what form will that change take, as we all talk about doing things in a new way yet find ourselves in limbo between a world dominated by relationships between author-agent-publisher-bookseller and perhaps, a more simple and (ultimately) more traditional partnership that might principally involve publishers expressing themselves directly to readers. Publishers are fond of talking, debating, and fretting. They are not always good at ‘doing’ and this is where and why we often, justifiably, come in for criticism. Faber Social will do a lot of things, bringing performance, conversation (online and in person), back into the centre of a publisher’s responsibilities to the talent it curates and represents. Books are at the heart of Faber Social but ideas are the neuro-system and the book (physical and e) may just be one way we can represent the things we care about, and want to create an audience for.
I recently toured with Julian Cope to promote his mighty Copendium and over the course of three evenings he insisted on introducing me to the stage as his ‘patron’. I was hugely flattered by this, of course, but more instructively it made me think about what Faber Social is and can be in these times of upheaval and uncertainty about ‘things’ – by which, I mean, the ‘things’ we make. Honesty, intelligence and sometimes sheer bloody-minded conviction that what we care about will be listened to, are perhaps the values that will carry us through on our bumpy passage to the next world. This, allied to bravery and the imaginative freedom to express ourselves and our passions in fantastical and improbable and sometimes ridiculous ways. Bringing together music and literature with the visionary intensity of a Cope or a Cocker. And occasionally we may be lucky enough to come across something like Song Reader by Beck which makes us ask: Just what the fuck is going on?