There are many ways to construct, shape and frame a history of popular music. From a focus on performers to a stress on cities, from theories of modernity to reveling in ‘the post,’ innovative music has been matched by evocative writing about it. One arc of analysis in popular music studies focuses on the record label. Much has been written about Sun, Motown, Factory and Apple, but there are many labels that have not reached this level of notoriety and fame but offer much to our contemporary understanding of music, identity and capitalism.
The aim of this article is to capture an underwritten history of 21st century music, capturing and tracking moments of collaboration, movement and contact. Through investigating a specific record label, we explore the interconnectiveness of electronica and city-based creative industries’ initiatives. While urban dance culture is still pathologised through drug scares and law and order concerns, clubbing studies and emerging theories of sonic media and auditory cultures offer a significant trigger and frame for this current research. The focus on Off World Sounds (OWS) traces a meta-independent label that summons, critiques, reinscribes and provokes the conventional narratives of capitalism in music. We show how OWS has remade and remixed the collaborations of punk to forge innovative ways of thinking about creativity, policy and popular culture. While commencing with a review of the origin, ideology and intent of OWS, the final part of the paper shows where the experiment went wrong and what can be learnt from this sonic label laboratory.
Moving Off World
Popular cultural studies evoke and explore discursive formations and texts that activate dissent, conflict and struggle. This strategy is particularly potent when exploring how immigration narratives fray the borders of the nation state. At its most direct, this analysis provides a case study to assess and answer some of Nabeel Zuberi’s questions about sonic topography that he raises in Sounds English.
I’m concerned less with music as a reflection of national history and geography than how the practices of popular music culture themselves construct the spaces of the local, national, and transnational. How does the music imagine the past and place? How does it function as a memory-machine, a technology for the production of subjective and collective versions of location and identity? How do the techniques of sounds, images, and activities centered on popular music create landscapes with figures? (3)
Dance music is mashed between creativity, consumerism and capitalism. Picking up on Zuberi’s challenge, the story of OWS is also a history of what happens to English migrants who travel to Australia, and how they negotiate the boundaries of the Australian nation.
Immigration is important to any understanding of contemporary music. The two proprietors of OWS are Pete Carroll and, one of the two writers of this current article, Stephen Mallinder. Both English proprietors immigrated to Perth in Australia. They used their contacts to sign electronica performers from beyond this single city. They encouraged the tracks to move freely through lymphatic digital networks for remixing—‘lymphatic’ signalling a secondary pathway for commerce and creativity where new musical relationships were being formed outside the influence of major record companies. Performers signed to OWS form independent networks with other performers. This mobility of sound has operated in parallel with the immigration policies of the Howard government that have encouraged insularity and xenophobia.
In other eras of racial inequality and discrimination, the independent record label has been not only an integral part of the music industry, but a springboard for political dissent. The histories of jazz and rhythm and blues capture a pivotal moment of independent entrepreneurialism that transformed new and strange sounds/noises into popular music. In monitoring and researching this complex process of musical movement and translation, the independent label has remained the home of the peripheral, the misunderstood, and the uncompromising. Soul music in the United States of America is an example of a sonic form that sustained independence while corporate labels made a profit. Labels like Atlantic Records became synonymous with the success of black vocal music in the 1960s and 1970s, while the smaller independent labels like Chess and Invicta constructed a brand identity. While the division between the majors and the independents increasingly dissolves, particularly at the level of distribution, the independent label remains significant as innovator and instigator. It retains its status and pedagogic function in teaching an audience about new sounds and developing aural literacies.
OWS inked its well from an idealistic and collaborative period of label evolution. The punk aesthetic of the late 1970s not only triggered wide-ranging implications for youth culture, but also opened spaces for alternative record labels and label identity. Rough Trade was instrumental in imbuing a spirit of cooperation and a benign mode of competition. A shift in the distribution of records and associated merchandizing to strengthen product association—such as magazines, fanzines and T-Shirts—enabled Rough Trade to deal directly with pivotal stores and outlets and then later establish cartels with stores to provide market security and a workable infrastructure. Links were built with ancillary agents such as concert promoters, press, booking agents, record producers and sleeve designers, to create a national, then European and international, network to produce an (under the counter) culture. Such methods can also be traced in the history of Postcard Records from Edinburgh, Zoo Records from Liverpool, Warp in Sheffield, Pork Recordings in Hull, Hospital Records in London, and both Grand Central and Factory in Manchester. From the ashes of the post-1976 punk blitzkrieg, independent labels bloomed with varying impact, effect and success, but they held an economic and political agenda. The desire was to create a strong brand identity by forming a tight collaboration between artists and distributors. Perceptions of a label’s size and significance was enhanced and enlarged through this collaborative relationship.
OWS acknowledged and rewrote this history of the independent label. There was a desire to fuse the branding of the label with the artists signed, released and distributed. No long term obligations on behalf of the artists were required. A 50/50 split after costs was shared. While such an ‘agreement’ appeared anachronistic, it was also a respectful nod to the initial label/artist split offered by Rough Trade. Collaboration with artists throughout the process offered clear statements of intent, with idealism undercut by pragmatism. From track selection, sleeve design, promotion strategy and interview schedule, the level of communication created a sense of joint ownership and dialogue between label and artist.
This reinscription of independent record history is complex because OWS’ stable of performers and producers is an amalgamation of dub, trance, hip hop, soul and house genres. Much of trans-localism of OWS was encouraged by its base in Perth. Metaphorically ‘off world’, Perth is a pad for international music to land, be remixed, recut and re-released. Just as Wellington is the capital of Tolkien’s Middle Earth as well as New Zealand, Perth is a remix capital for Paris or New York-based performers.
The brand name ‘Off World Sounds’ was designed to emphasise isolation: to capture the negativity of isolation but rewrite separation and distinctiveness with a positive inflection. The title was poached from Ridley Scott’s 1980s film Bladerunner, which was in turn based on Philip K. Dick’s story, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Affirming this isolation summoned an ironic commentary on Perth’s geographical location, while also mocking the 1980s discourses of modernity and the near future. The key was to align punk’s history of collaboration with this narrative of isolation and independence, to explore mobility, collaboration, and immigration.
Spaces in the Music
Discussions of place dictate a particular methodology to researching music. Dreams of escape and, concurrently, intense desires for home pepper the history of popular music. What makes OWS important to theories of musical collaboration is that not only was there a global spread of musicians, producers and designers, but they worked together in a series of strategic trans-localisms. There were precedents for disconnecting place and label, although not of the scale instigated by OWS. Fast Products, although based in Glasgow, signed The Human League from Sheffield and Gang of Four from Leeds. OWS was unique in signing artists disconnected on a global scale, with the goal of building collaborations in remixing and design. Gripper, from the north east of England, Little Egypt from New York, The Bone Idle from Vienna, Hull and Los Angeles, Looped for Pleasure from Sheffield, Barney Mullhouse from Australia and the United Kingdom, Ooblo from Manchester, Attache from Adelaide, Crackpot from Melbourne and DB Chills from Sydney are also joined by artists resident in Perth, such as Soundlab, the Ku-Ling Bros and Blue Jay. Compact Disc mastering is completed in Sydney, London, and Perth. The artwork for vinyl and CD sleeves, alongside flyers, press advertising and posters, is derived from Manchester, England.
These movements in the music flattened geographical hierarchies, where European and American tracks were implicitly valued over Australian-derived material. Through pop music history, the primary music markets of the United Kingdom and United States made success for Australian artists difficult. Off World emphasised that the product was not licensed. It was previously unreleased material specifically recorded for the label and an exclusive Australian first territory release. Importantly, this licensing agreement also broadened definitions and interpretations of ‘Australian music’. Such a critique and initiative was important. For example, Paul Bodlovich, Director of the West Australian Music Industry (WAM), believed he was extending the brief of his organisation during his tenure. Once more though, rock was the framework, structure and genre of interest. Explaining the difference from his predecessor, he stated that:
[James Nagy] very much saw the music industry as being only bands who were playing all original music—to him they were the only people who actually constituted the music industry. I have a much broader view on that, that all those other people who are around the band—the manager, the promoters, the labels, the audio guys, the whole shebang—that they are part of the music industry too. (33)
Much was absent from his ‘whole shebang,’ including the fans who actually buy the music and attend the pubs and clubs. A diversity of genres was also not acknowledged. If hip hop, and urban music generally, is added to his list of new interests, then clubs, graf galleries, dance instructors and fashion and jewelry designers could extend the network of musical collaborations.
A parody of corporate culture and a pastiche of the post-punk aesthetic, OWS networked and franchised itself into existence. It was a cottage industry superimposed onto a corporate infrastructure. Attempting to make inroads into an insular Perth arts community and build creative industries’ networks without state government policy support, Off World offered an optimistic perspective on the city’s status and value in a national and global electronic market. Yet in commercial terms, OWS failed.
What OWS captures through its failures conveys more about music policy in Australia than any success. The label has been able to catalogue the lack of changes to Perth’s music policy. The proprietors, performers and designers were not approached in 2002 by the Western Australian Contemporary Music Taskforce to offer comment. Yet Matthew Benson and Poppy Wise, researchers for that report, stated that “the solution lies in the industry becoming more outwardly focused, and to do this, it must seek the input of successful professionals who have proven track records in the marketing of music nationally and globally” (9). The resultant document argued that the industry needed to the look to Sydney and Melbourne for knowledge of “international” markets. Yet Paul Bodlovich, the Director of WAM, singled out the insularity of ‘England,’ not Britain, and ‘America’ in comparison to the ‘outward’ Perth music industry:
To us, they’re all centre of the universe, but they don’t look past their walls, they don’t have a clue what goes in other parts of the world … All they see say in England is English TV, or in America it’s American TV. Whereas we sit in a very isolated part of the world and we absorb culture from everywhere because we think we have to just to be on an equal arc with everyone else. We think we have to absorb stuff from other cultures because unless we do then we really are isolated … It’s a similar belief to the ongoing issue of women in the workplace, where there’s a belief that to be seen on equal footing you have to be better. (33)
This knight’s move affiliation of Perth’s musicians with women in the workplace is bizarre and inappropriate. This unfortunate connection is made worse when recognizing that Perth’s music institutions and organisations, such as WAM, are dominated by white, Australian-born men. To promote the outwardness of Perth culture while not mentioning the role and function of immigration is not addressing how mobility, creativity and commerce is activated. To unify ‘England’ and ‘America,’ without recognizing the crucial differences between Manchester and Bristol, New York and New Orleans, is conservative, arrogant, and wrong.
National models of music, administered by Australian-born white men and funded through grants-oriented peer review models rather than creative industries’ infrastructural initiatives, still punctuate Western Australian music. Off World Sounds has been caught in non-collaborative, nationalist models for organising culture and economics. It is always easy to affirm the specialness and difference of a city’s sound or music. While affirming the nation and rock, outsiders appear threatening to the social order. When pondering cities and electronica, collaboration, movement and meaning dance through the margins.