Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Gary Numan's Savage - and a tale of music categorisation

Normally Gary Numan would need no introduction.

However, a recent clash between the rigid categories some operate with and the creativity that characterises the likes of Gary Numan perhaps warrants one - just to put in context a wider point to be made here...

It is a tale of how a label, which once described the most innovative and category-defying music, could be gradually so narrowed by some music industry machinery that it describes, at best, a single musical stereotype.

Normally we have had labels widen so much that they became all-inclusive. Thus they have lost all meaning due to the music industry's attempts of filling the new box with anything they could not fit into other rigid boxes.

Here, though, we have the remarkable opposite trend in its terminal stages.

As one of the most notable names in electronica, with a long list of names from Prince to Trent Reznor to Marilyn Manson quoting him as key influence, Gary Numan is to electronic music what Philip K. Dick is to the more philosophical section of science-fiction literature.

Although Numan is an artist who has had a key role in bringing electronic music into the mainstream pop culture, his dystopian visions, introspective lyrics coupled with his instantly recognisable sonic Universe elevated him way beyond electro-pop - ever since his Tubeway Army mega-hits up to his latest concept album.

Savage (Songs From A Broken World) is again a dystopian and mesmerisingly philosophical work, with musical elements that range from the familiar but characteristic Numan sonic palette to Middle-Eastern flavours.

A superb follow-up to Splinter, again with Ade Fenton in the producer's chair, we get thought-provoking meditations on our world and our existence, while the music takes us from electronic rock constructs to symphonic heights that linger in one's mind long after the record stopped playing.

However, being a distinctive voice nowadays can clash with the mechanical image certain music "specialists" have about the Universe.

Billboard, the well-known chart company, needs no introduction either.

Their definitions of album sales are nowadays desperate and gloriously inept attempts of moulding and bending eminently outdated music industry business models onto the new rapidly changing shapes of the digital world inhabited by its digital consumers.

As difficult as it may seem, Billboard recently managed to surpass themselves in their attempts to define this, to use a physics analogy, intricate quantum physics-governed world with rigid Newtonian models.

They have decided that Gary Numan's new album does not fit their dance/electronica category. As they expressed it, the album is basically "not electronic", instead it fits in the rock/alternative category.

The technical details happen to be such that around 95% of the album has been produced on and with electronic instruments, by one of the most recognisable electronic artists of the last four decades. As Gary Numan himself has rightly pointed out, it is the most electronic record since his album The Pleasure Principle (1979).

But the problem revealed by the Billboard absurdity is wider than any debate about one's list of one's studio gear.

The telling and worrying aspect is that key names in the music industry are grasping at labels that used to denote the most boundless, experimental or more mainstream, sonic world.

While they grasp at these labels, in an attempt to rigidly categorise the vastly varied palette used by electronic artists, they end up narrowing and narrowing the field of view.

Electronic, in their  rapidly shrinking understanding, basically can only mean dance - but even EDM, electronic dance music, is a ludicrously meaningless label nowadays as it has countless vastly different sub-genres and styles.

Unless an artist fits into this ultra-narrow box, even the likes of Billboard need to resort to a radical re-categorisation - Gary Numan and Depeche Mode are now "rock/alternative"... Listening to their recent two albums make this categorisation a superb absurd tragicomedy.

We have had categories like progressive rock widening, widening, until they lost all meaning as they just became a bucket for music industry luminaries to shove any out-of-the-box creation into.

The same happened to new age, starting out with a defined (albeit dubious) scope and intent, but ending up with artists like Tangerine Dream and Vangelis being categorised as such...

Remember alternative rock? The one where musicians ended up all looking and, rapidly, sounding the same and far from being alternative expressions of anything?

However, the recent Gary Numan episode is showing something very different.

Instead of desperately widening the meaning of a, hence increasingly rendered meaningless, category, they end up constricting a vast category to something that becomes an ultra-narrow one.

They can only fit inside it a tiny subset of just one stereotypical mainstream incarnation of what the musical genre really used to denote.

The wider and more imaginative that genre was once, the narrower its actual use as a label has become.

The darkest effect of this mental constriction, stemming from still not updated business models and patterns of thoughts that go with it, is that it started to feed back on itself.

The major names in the music industry, the likes of Billboard, have become eminently irrelevant in the greater scheme - but until their irrelevance is final, unfortunately they are still affecting musicians - and how they are judged by other elements of the rusting echo chambers that Billboard & Co operate in.

Artists producing imaginative electronica without dance loops and archetypal arrangements are placing themselves outside the one and only rigid, narrowed to a point of singularity, box tthat he mainstream music industry can think in.

One has to wonder what cataclysmic infliction changed the same music industry giants from celebrators and promoters of the most innovative and stylistically boundless music into dangerous automatons that can only imagine that music as something confined to their mental image of a dance floor...

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