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16 January 2015

Tracey Thorn: Do we really want to watch P J Harvey drinking tea and plugging in studio leads?

From bonus tracks to signed T-shirts to private concerts, do we end up here, selling not just the finished record, but every moment of the process? 

By Tracey Thorn

The news that P J Harvey is planning to record her new album in a glass box, viewed by the paying public, sent shivers down my spine. Not from thrilled anticipation, I hasten to add, but from sheer unadulterated horror. Dear God, I thought, is this the way it’s going, the next logical step on from the crowdfunded album, with all its personalised extras? From bonus tracks to signed T-shirts to private concerts, do we end up here, selling not just the finished record, but every moment of the process? 

Turns out, though, that in this instance it’s not a moneymaking stunt, or a publicity gimmick, but a work of art. Polly will be recording behind one-way glass at Somerset House in London, the idea being to turn the space itself into a “mutating, multidimensional sound sculpture”. For the price of your ticket you get to watch and listen for just 45 minutes, between the hours of three in the afternoon and 6pm on a weekday, so it’s pot luck whether you’ll witness anything happening at all. 

As has already been pointed out, she isn’t the first to do this, being beaten to it by an Australian band called Regurgitator, who in 2004 recorded an entire album in public, filming and broadcasting every moment. Being on view 24/7, as on Big Brother or I’m a Celebrity…, makes people forget the cameras are there and lapse into being themselves. Letting people watch for just three hours is less real, more obviously a performance. It even reminds me of those awful afternoons when record company execs would turn up in the studio and you’d have to look busy, trying to make something sound like a single. 

Anyway, Polly’s appearances sold out quickly, confirming my belief that people buy very strongly into the idea of music being magic, and long to peep behind the curtain to witness the miracle in action. The event has the potential to demystify, but the public’s enthusiasm for it stems from the notion that everything an interesting artist does is interesting and worthy of attention. More, that we have the right to see it all. 

I’m old-fashioned, I know, but I still think that a huge part of being an artist is being an editor, knowing what to leave in and what to cut out, what to show and what to hide away. I hate the completist collector’s approach, wanting to hear every demo, every unfinished version. When Ben and I compiled the deluxe versions of our old albums, we were ruthless in our rejections, often coming to the same conclusions as we did the first time round. Songs were almost always left out for the simple reason that they weren’t good enough, and I believe that’s how it should stay. 

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In this day and age the leaking of unfinished or rejected material online is harder to prevent – witness Madonna and her recent demos. The P J Harvey recording is a show, not a theft; nonetheless, it reminds me of all the other ways in which audiences strive to get ever closer to the artist, wanting more and more intimacy and less and less filtering of the work. The modern pop star is accessible like never before – which is lovely when it means chatting on Twitter, less so when it means fielding complaints about postage and packaging that come directed straight at you. At times like that you can long for the old days of mystery and managers. 

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So, much as I love P J Harvey, I don’t want to go and watch her record. To my mind there’s something demeaning about it – her being gawped at, our little noses pressed up against the glass. Plus, it seems all too likely to be 45 minutes of a lead not working, a cup of tea, a mike stand drooping, a squeaky drum stool, and an engineer trying to trace the source of an inexplicable hiss. 

Yet here’s my real objection, and it’s personal to me. The studio is my sanctuary: a secret, private place where the very fact that I can’t be seen is empowering and inspirational, enabling me to get on with making stuff. I once auditioned from inside a wardrobe, and now d’you know what Polly Harvey has done? She’s only gone and blown the bloody doors off.