. . . And other choices

Music 2 byDavid Thompson

Those of us aged over, say, 30 seem to have become untidy and unwelcome in record shops. The music industry appears intent on relentlessly narrowing its focus, tailoring high-street megastores entirely to the needs of adolescents. In-store "radio stations" are an increasingly common and irritating feature, with an overdriven soundtrack of undifferentiated rhythm tracks punctuated only by urgent directions towards whatever overstocked item is the week's "essential" accessory. The instructional voice-over is presumably intended to reinforce cartoon identities and tribal lifestyle. Look at what I've bought. This is who I am. In keeping with the overwhelmingly visual preoccupations of popular culture, music has lost ground, both figuratively and literally, to videos, clothing and computer games.

Corporate assimilations - Seagram's swallowing whole of Polygram being only the latest example - and economies of scale are also reducing both the shelf-life and diversity of the music being stocked. Consequently, the high-street retailer is contracting away from an older and more discerning audience. In music, as in film and literature, an increasing proportion of financial and promotional resource is being diverted to just a handful of seasonal do-or-die blockbusters. The success of this perilous strategy hinges on the occupation of all possible space within the media and distribution systems. The underlying aim is simply to reduce freedom of choice by excluding any evidence of alternatives. In-store display racks that at one time held up to 100 different titles now typically announce just one release, the cover of which is repeated across an acreage of shelving. This hypnotic repetition denies diversity and stunts discrimination.

In response to all this, a number of adventurous and chronically frustrated small labels have begun to explore alternative avenues of distribution. On-line access, digital downloads and mail-order subscription services offer artists and record labels a more direct and profitable connection with enthusiastic listeners, irrespective of geography and the whims of distributors. One such label is SoundCircus, the brainchild of the pianist and composer Joanna MacGregor. In association with the CD journal Unknown Public and the producer James Mallinson, MacGregor has rapidly established the label's exploratory tone and sense of mischief.

SoundCircus's first three recordings span the gymnastic jazz of Nikki Yeoh, with Michael Mondesir and Keith LeBlanc, a double album contrasting John Cage's prepared piano works with interpretations by Django Bates, Talvin Singh and others, and an audio diary documenting MacGregor's rehearsals, performances and arguments with agents.

If the mainstream seems lost in its own maya of circular marketing logic, second guessing what will cause an indifferent audience least offence, MacGregor and her collaborators seem equally determined to confound expectation and reward curiosity. In conversation, MacGregor's defiant autonomy is persuasive, pragmatic and difficult to ignore.

"Conventional music distribution has come to hinder rather than help CD access," she says. "I can't tell you the number of times I heard that certain combinations of musical styles were not possible because 'the distributor wouldn't like it - they wouldn't know where to put it on the shelves'. I have a conviction that the listening public's tastes are far wider and more maverick than is ever acknowledged by labels, critics or merchandisers, who seem hell-bent on reducing the possibilities of CDs rather than using the medium to expand.

"I hate how everything has to be tightly categorised before finding a place in a high-street shop. It's clear that the artistic content of a CD is now profoundly influenced in advance by how the distributors will choose to define it - dance, classical, jazz, ambient. I'm interested in producing recordings that defy categorisation . . ."

SoundCircus's subtle and idiosyncratic packaging seems symbolic of both MacGregor's outlaw sensibility and the predicament now faced by many artists. "It was," she says, "a deliberate decision to produce CD covers that literally don't fit into CD racks in shops."

It seems possible that labels such as SoundCircus and Unknown Public, which see little point in the ugly struggle for high-street shelf-space, will grow in significance as on-line reference nodes for music lovers whose enthusiasm and discrimination are the very reasons they are increasingly neglected. Perhaps this is the start of an exodus of innovative music away from tangible retailing. As the term "underground" has been appropriated and parodied by a commercially digestible youth culture, emblazoned across all manner of high-street paraphernalia, perhaps the real musical adventure will be entirely off the map.

Nikki Yeoh's "Piano Language", Joanna MacGregor's "Outside in Pianist" and Various Artists'"Perilous Night" are available from SoundCircus mail order at PO Box 354, Reading, Berks RG1 5TX

This article first appeared in the 26 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The great Balkan lie