Letter #90


How are you? I hope you’re good. The sun is shining in London (or at least it was as I wrote this yesterday), and my mood is buoyant with sunshine music. In fact, this week’s mixtape is full of it. It’s music to soundtrack drinking a cold beer and smiling at the sun.

Sunshine aside, I am bloody shattered – a very intense period of pitching at work has finally come to an end this week, and as ever with these things, my body and brain have now gone into recovery mode. It’s not quite as dramatic as I make it sound, but it does mean lots of sleep, exercise, catching up on reading, catching up on music, and some much needed head space.

As I said above, the music this week is proper sunshine music. Sun-drenched, happy, can’t-help-but-smile music. I’ve also written up some notes, but I must admit that this week’s TL;DR is my to-read list rather than my have-read list.

Enjoy ❤️

🌪 TL;DR Section 🌪
  1. This long read on Compass Point Studio (the studio set up by Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records) looks amazing
  2. This story in the Guardian about unwitting disco cult hero Rupa Biswas is amazing
  3. Will posted about this last week and while its seemingly off topic, I think it ties back to some of the things I’ve written about before. Henry Rollins on finding his centre in iron.
  4. The evolution of the heavy metal subculture in Birmingham
  5. This feature on Nick Cave in the Quietus looks great
  6. Crack has a short film on The Comet is Coming
  7. I’ve become a tiny bit obsessed with the idea of hyperobjects. Things that are too big for us to ever fully comprehend. Like the climate crisis. Or privacy. Or culture…? This article on privacy is a good example.
  8. The latest star of RA’s The Art of DJing series is Derrick Carter, so obviously it’s compulsory reading
  9. I’m halfway through a very good summary of the best albums of 2019 so far, from NPR
  10. Fashion is stealing from music again. I like Raf, but this seems odd to say the least…
  11. Tim Burrows has written a brilliant article on Essex. A must read.
  12. And finally, I love that different areas of culture are starting to think about their impact on the climate. This from Chal Ravens is a great start. More please!
✏️ The notes ✏️

There are two things that I spend a lot of time thinking with regards to culture; how do ideas move through culture (how does something go from the edges to the mainstream), and how do cultures themselves change. I wrote quite a long essay a few weeks ago on how I believe ideas move through culture (in Letter 84), but beyond a few mentions, I’ve never really tried to articulate my thoughts on how overall cultures and subcultures can change.

You’ll have to forgive me a bit, as I’m going to use this space here to explore, rather than explain my thinking.

Let me start at the very beginning. Earlier this year, we (Initiative, where I work) launched a report that explored the current State of UK Culture. The idea was that we’d pull together a retrospective guide to the interesting and emerging subcultures that we believed would begin to have an impact on mainstream culture over the course of the next few years. Amongst others, we wrote about the emerging subculture that exists around nootropics and micro-dosing, we explored the female esports counterculture, we looked into the nascent culture of stay at home dads.

But there was one specific area that the team explored that piqued my interest. Audiophiles.

An audiophile is defined as someone who listens to more music than average and owns more expensive equipment than average. They’re clocking up more than 40 hours per week listening to music, and spend three times the average on audio equipment each year. They go to shops like Audio Gold in Crouch End, and Sounds of the Universe in Soho, and more than half of them see their record collection as a point of pride. They know what a rotary mixer is. They understand that a moving coil cartridge has nothing to do with a rifle, and that a valve amp needs to warm up.

There are a lot of these people among us here. In fact, you are probably one of these people. I think I can safely say that I am one of these people.

So my first thought was; are my team low-level trolling me? Turns out that they weren’t, and that the growth in this subculture was pretty huge.

In fact, a few weeks ago I was sat on the sofa feeling pretty zoned out after a particularly long day, when something throttled my attention. It was a Lucozade ad. It was all pretty standard, despite a big shift away from sports and into more general ‘endurance’ (although on this occasion I’ll spare you my adland strategist perspective). There was a young man learning to DJ, to his father’s annoyance. He’s practising for a big gig, and at the perfect moment, his father appears at the gig. Glorious. What a sunny story, told in less than thirty seconds. What grabbed my attention wasn’t the ad, but instead that the budding DJ was playing Bileo’s You Can Win. A rare-as-rocking-horse-shit soul single, repressed on Athens of the North a few years ago, and it’s stillhard to get hold of. A brilliant song, but a pretty leftfield choice from the creative department of the agency.

Then one morning I noticed that on CBeebies, the continuity presenters had two Technics 1210’s set up. Then I spotted a rotary mixer in a nightclub scene in a well-known British soap drama. And records for sale in Sainsburys.

It’s happened, I thought. The audiophile subculture has edged into the mainstream.

Then, my second thought was; I wonder what’s happening to the subculture as it grows and new people join it? As part of the report, we looked into those that were part of the growth of the subculture (so people who were new to it, rather than an established part of it). We used a tool called Recode, which helps us to understand the underlying drivers and motivations of people in different cultures – there are nine different dimensions, and they cover four broad areas; openness to change, group orientation, conservatism, and individualism. What I’d expected to see from the people flooding into the audiophile subculture was a bunch of people who were driven by a dedication and curiosity for finding new music, and a desire to share that experience with people.

I was totally wrong.

We found that the new entrants to the subculture were motivated by status and achievement. Two drivers that exist within the individualism segment of our research tool. When we dug into this more we found that it wasn’t all about the music at all, it was all about the bloody gear.

This genuinely upset me a bit. This was something that I truly cared about, and a subculture that I felt (relatively speaking) a part of, and yet there was this flood of people who didn’t share the same motivations, and instead wanted to buy into the subculture and use it as a means of showing off.

Audiophile culture had, as far as I was concerned, emerged from Richard Long and David Mancuso (which is almost certainly my naivety, but still). This insane desire to replicate as close as possible the sound of a live performance wasn’t just to show off, it was to create a moment of tribal togetherness – to recreate that primitive feeling of coming together over rhythm and emotion. To create shared moments of ecstasy. To heighten the state of consciousness of a group.

Yet here it was, being used to show off in expensive Zone Two duplex apartments.

Was I immune? Absolutely fucking not. The increase in availability and production (because of the increase in popularity) has increased the volume of stuff I buy. Artists who never would’ve released vinyl now do. There’s a burgeoning second-hand audio equipment market. Companies like Technics are producing new (and innovative) products for the first time in years. I feel the benefit, but yet I still question the values. I still can’t help but wonder how will these people change the culture that I feel I’m part of.

Does this influx of people change the core beliefs of the culture? Does it dilute the values? Or does the culture change the values of the new people? Do people become assimilated to the culture? Or does this create factions within a subculture? Will they kill it?

My hope is that people come in for the cultural cachet, but stay for the deeper sense of meaning and belonging. The experience of hearing really high-end audio equipment like four Klipschorn’s is pretty nice, but the fidelity of the equipment is a means, not an end. The feeling of near-celestial elation of being surrounded by people you care about, dancing in synchronicity to music that has soul… That feels as close to heaven as I think I’ll ever get.

I think it’s fascinating to look at other cultures where there’s either been a hostile takeover, or the culture has changed so dramatically that people have reneged their membership. Skinheads. Dada. Dubstep. The Labour Party. There are lots of examples across all sorts of cultures.

I’m not saying that the audiophile subculture is undergoing anything even near as extreme as the examples above, but  I definitely think it’ll be interesting to see how the subculture evolves as it becomes bigger (if it’s growth continues, that is). The rise of cassette-only releases, invite-only parties, and limited run fanzines are a pretty good signal that there’s a tug of war going on.

I’ve started to realise that it’s very rare that a whole subculture and all of its constituents head towards the mainstream together. I’ve also realised that the idea of people within a culture ’selling out’ is ridiculous. If cultures ebb and flow and split and merge into different factions, the very idea of someone who’s a constituent of that culture ‘selling out’ is just evolution. However it’s important to make a distinction between someone within the culture ’selling out’ and someone from outside the culture appropriating it. One is a natural evolution, and one is cultural theft. Dada moved to a weird political place through exploration of its own value system, while skinhead culture was invaded by the far right with a very different agenda and set of values.

So this brings me back full circle what makes a culture attractive to people that are currently outside of that culture? Is it the desire to belong, or the desire to be seen to part of something that’s growing? I think we operate on two distinct levels when it comes to cultural affiliation; there’s who we are, and then who we want to be. The closer that a culture can align with both of those, the better the fit. I suppose life is about exploring different cultures and trying to find the best alignment you can. In my mind, that’s where a clear sense of purpose and belonging exist.

📃 The tracklist  📃
  1. Sounds of the Deep Forest – Found The Beach
  2. Rebels – Sweetest Taboo (Soca)
  3. Julie Coker – Gossiper Scandel Monger
  4. Marcos Valle – Sempre
  5. Bosq – Backstrokin’
  6. Anderson .Paak – Twilight
  7. The Salsoul Orchestra – You’re Just The Right Size
  8. The Ritchie Family – I’ll Do My Best
  9. Paradise – Sizzlin’ Hot
  10. Free Youth – We Can Move
  11. Tower of Power – Only So Much Oil In The Ground
  12. Jamiroquai – Emergency On Planet Earth
  13. Quantic – September Blues
  14. Fouk – I’ll Be Down (Hugo LX Meteor remix)
  15. Dave DK – Jelly Legs
  16. David Hanke – Impala Roundabout
  17. Rick Wade – Find A Way
  18. Seven Davis Jr. – For Reals
  19. MD X-Spress – God Made Me Phunky
  20. Daphni – Just
  21. Cassius – Toop Toop
  22. Musique – Keep On Jumpin’
  23. Evelyn “Champagne” King – Aquarius / Let The Sun Shine In
  24. Betty Griffin – Free Spirit
  25. Tony Allen & Jeff Mills – The Seed
  26. Daphni – Cos-Ber-Zam Ne Noya
  27. Auntie Flo – Nobody Said It Would Be Easy
  28. Little Simz & Cleo Sol – Selfish
  29. African Express – Johannesburg
  30. Ensemble Entendu – Azalea Chuva
💥 If you enjoy this letter, then please take a second to forward this email, or share this link with a recommendation on Facebook or Twitter 💥
See you on the dance floor.
Love Will Save the Day

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