Some thoughts on ghost production

Recently there was a minor storm in the techno community on Twitter about ghost production. It revealed some underlying values about authenticity, integrity and individuality that I found intriguing, because they appear to be in conflict with certain fundamental aspects of how dance music operates.

So in this blog post I want to discuss ghost production, as a way to consider the question of whether authenticity and individuality are worthwhile aspirations in dance music.

(To anticipate a criticism: I realise that for many people dance music is all about the music, and it’s seen as a waste of time to discuss it or theorise it. I would respectfully disagree with that. Any vibrant art form will generate critical thought and debate around it, and these things can contribute to the vibrancy of the art form in question.)

Ghost production is an arrangement where a producer is paid to produce tracks to be released under the name of another artist. The ghost producer may agree not to be named, or may be given a production credit, but will not be named as the main artist. The ghost producer may create the entire track, or may be employed to assist with specific elements of the process. These practices are often frowned upon as a form of deceit, although some people see them simply as a pragmatic division of labour.

There are many other musical practices in which authorship is blurred: covers, tribute acts, sampling, artists employing songwriters, engineers, session musicians etc. It’s also easy to think of parallels outside music. Marcus Boon’s book In Praise Of Copying (free pdf available here) is a recommended read on this bigger picture, but for this post I want to focus on ghost production.

The recent Twitter storm began when one DJ (I’ll avoid using names, in keeping with the ghost theme) posted a question: why do people in the dance music scene complain about ghost production, but won’t name anyone using ghost producers? If it’s so bad, why not expose it?

In response, and with a hint of mischief, another DJ and producer posted the name of a well-known label, which he said he’d heard used ghost producers.

Things then kicked off big time, with a pile on of views alternately rubbishing the idea that such a respected label would ever do this, and conversely slagging off the label in question for using ghost production.

The label boss – himself also a respected producer and DJ – weighed in to reject the rumour in no uncertain terms. Before long, the Tweet naming his label was deleted and an apology issued. Within a few days techno Twitter moved on, and the ghost production kerfuffle was buried under a much more politically charged discussion of racism (see here and here for good summaries of that).

But to stay with the ghost production furore and think about it a bit more, it did at least neatly answer the original question. Definitive claims about who uses ghost producers are difficult – perhaps impossible – to make, because the very nature of ghost production, and the stigma attached, demands a high level of uncertainty, creating a haze of rumours and unverifiable allegations. It’s a bit like crop circles: once you know who makes them, the whole thing doesn’t really work any more.

While people disagreed as to whether the label in question would ever use ghost producers, there seemed to be broad agreement across the debate that the practice was at best problematic, and at worst appallingly duplicitous.

That agreement looks to me like an instance of what Foucault called the ‘author function’. This term refers to the practices through which certain creative works are attributed to specific individuals, thereby naturalising the idea that such works emanate from a person (or persons), belong to them, and can be accounted for by them. Foucault was writing about texts and authors, but the controversy over ghost production suggests that his arguments are equally applicable to tracks and producers.

(At this point it is worth noting that for Foucault, subjects are always produced. So on this view authors, as subjects, do not precede their works. Rather, works are retrospectively attributed to the person through whom they came into being, whose subjectivity as an author – or artist, producer, whatever – is then formed by that attribution. This point is fundamental in understanding Foucault’s thought, but also quite counter-intuitive. If anyone reading needs more explanation, email me at the address here and I might do another post about it.)

Foucault’s essay “What is an author?” discusses the author function in far more detail than I can do justice to here (the full essay can be downloaded here). But his argument is driven by a question that might be worth asking about dance music: is the author function helpful, or are there instances where, as a regulatory principle, it might be limiting?

When it comes to economic issues, such as revenues from streaming and performing rights, it is easy to see an argument for clear lines of ownership, given how little money most dance music producers make from their work, and how much exploitation has taken place over the history of the music industry. But there is nothing inherently economically exploitative about ghost production; the fee earned might well be more than if the producer had released the track under his or her own name. So the economic argument for maintaining the author function is not so strong.

What seems to be driving the disdain for ghost production is more like a kind of morality based on notions of authenticity and artistic integrity: a conviction that the ties that bind works to individual artists have an ethical value.

In relation to this point, Foucault makes a provocative claim: that the social function of the author is in fact to limit the danger posed by creative works, and hence to constrain their potential. Works are tied down, fixed in place, and held to account by mooring them to individual subjects, rather than allowing the possible meanings and functions of a work to proliferate free from such ties.

An ethical attachment to this kind of author function seems particularly ironic in dance music, because it is a cultural form that originated as part of black, working class and queer practices of liberation. Dance music arose from attempts to escape from, rather than conform to, dominant discourses and structures. That radical, oppositional side of dance music continues to thrive, alongside the more commercial aspects of EDM, house and techno.

The attachment to the individualising author function is ironic also because dance music is such a collective enterprise. All music is collective of course, but some forms of musical culture thrive by emphasising aspects of individuality. Rock music appears to have absorbed the 18th century idea of the virtuoso, reshaping it into the role of the lead singer. This person tends to be portrayed as an individual creative genius, acting as a focal point for the attention of the audience, and the personalised narratives spun around the music.

Dance music, by contrast, doesn’t require this cult of the individual in order to function. At its most basic, dance music brings disparate people and machines together, in ways that can involve radical depersonalisation, as individuals are absorbed into a mass of dancing bodies.

The same is true for the music itself. The art of DJing is precisely to blend one work into another, creating a seamless flow in which the contributions of individual artists are less important than the whole. The DJ’s role is to select and mix music to facilitate dancing, not to be singled out as a focus of attention. The idea of the superstar DJ can be seen as a reassertion of conventions of rock and pop – to put it more bluntly, a colonisation of dance music by these conventions, rather than something intrinsically fundamental to dance music itself.

If I’m right that dance music is a form of culture in which individual creativity is subordinated to the functionality of dancing as a collective practice of liberation, then ghost production is not intrinsically problematic. Its undermining of the author function is actually quite well aligned with the fundamentals of dance music. It might even serve as a useful reminder that successful DJs are not the sole authors of their own success.

To conclude: this blog post isn’t an argument in favour of ghost production. What I want to suggest is simply that it might not make sense to judge ghost production according to norms of authenticity that sit uneasily with core aspects of how dance music operates. Perhaps better questions would be things like: are ghost production arrangements fair or exploitative? Are the producers being remunerated adequately, compared to what the track might earn? And most importantly, is the music any good?

I’ve had enough of scheming

Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson, king of the gammons, has spoken again, and his phonographically registered verbiage has been pumped around the sewers of social media. Apparently he thinks that Donald Trump could do a great job of negotiating Brexit. Admittedly, it’s hard to be sure, listening to the audio clips on Buzzfeed, whether we are hearing the man himself or a beta test of an algorithm designed to speech-synthesise colonial throwback white male upper-class overprivilege. It hardly makes much difference either way though: the ‘Boris’ character is a seventh generation recording of Winston Churchill’s greatest hits, and Churchill was a British empire tribute band. It’s copies all the way down with this lot.

The comments confirm, once again, this fake posh overlord’s absence of self awareness concerning his chequered history with the truth, and its consequences for his credibility. This is a man who continually makes statements with little correspondence to the reality-based world: erroneously suggesting that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British woman jailed in Iran, had travelled there on business; insisting that he didn’t waste “a single penny” of the £46 million of public revenue spent on the failed garden bridge project; describing Africa as a country. And of course the £350 million for the NHS promise, written on the side of what my friend’s mum referred to as “that Labour bus” – a promise described by the head of the UK Statistics Authority as “a clear misuse of official statistics.”

This is a man whose first name isn’t even Boris. A man whose grasp of the truth of even his own views is so tenuous that before the referendum he wrote two newspaper columns, one advocating remain and the other advocating leave. Picture him with a little cartoon devil of Farage hovering on his right shoulder, pint in hand, urging mischief, while angel Cameron pleads into the left ear.

So when Boris says that max fac is viable, that the Irish border difficulties have been vastly overstated, that concerns about customs disruptions are “millennium bug” hysteria, or that no deal is a million to one chance (you can fact check this for yourself on any betting site, but if you’re pushed for time: he’s lying), does he not realise that, due to his track record, his statements actually lend credibility to the exact opposite positions?

Perhaps his most revealing remark was about how Trump’s approach to Brexit would work by creating “all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos”, and as a result would get things done. The Etonian clown turns out to be a crypto-punk, a scorched-earth Nietzschean for whom true acts of creation involve ripping up the established order. Boris and his hard Brexit chums think a bit of short term disruption – some companies closing down here and there, people losing their jobs, a few extra bombs around the Irish border – is a price worth paying for the medium to long term benefits, for which read: deregulation, lower taxes, higher inequality, and unscrupulous rich people getting even richer.

His comments expose the logic of Tory Brexit. The utter shambles of their efforts, the embarrassingly empty rhetoric, the apparent lack of planning, the petty infighting as the clock ticks down – these things are starting to look less like accidental incompetence and more like a deliberate strategy to engineer a disaster that can be exploited to Tory advantage, in the same way that weeds propagate more effectively in disturbed soil.

It is an approach that calls to mind the fictional Thatcherite chancer from the Pet Shop Boys song Opportunities:

I’ve had enough of scheming
And messing ‘round with jerks
My car is parked outside
I’m afraid it doesn’t work
I’m looking for a partner
Someone who gets things fixed
Ask yourself this question: do you want to be rich?

Oh, there’s a lot of opportunities
If you know when to take them, you know
There’s a lot of opportunities,
If there aren’t you can make them,
Make or break them…

Upcoming events on sound and space

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be presenting at two events that both look excellent.

Tuned City in Ancient Messene, Greece, 1st-3rd June 2018

I will be presenting about an audio drift I made for the ruins of Kilmahew and St. Peter’s Seminary. Ancient Messene is a collection of ruins, so hopefully this work will fit with the place.

I will be playing examples of how sound art methods, such as working with binaural recording and portable audio players, can disrupt the conventional heritage approach to history. The heritage industry promotes the idea that history is a fixed, linear chronological narrative, confined to the past, which should be clearly and unambiguously represented to people to help them learn about history, e.g. through the audio guides that give factual information to visitors at heritage tourist attractions.

My presentation will be about how can audio be used in more playful and generative ways to reconfigure places. By using techniques such as binaural recording to create spatial illusions, and overlapping multiple sounds and voices, audio can remind us that history is ongoing, that places are always happening in the here-and-now, that events are multiple and messy, and that there is no single ‘correct’ version of what a place ‘is’.

Audio also physically moves bodies – pushing ears and skin and from there hooking into the nervous system. With my audio drift people reported feeling compelled to slow down at points, or to hurry away from certain areas of the site. One woman was drawn by some watery audio to a stream – and then slipped and fell in (disclaimer: no one was hurt. Thankfully.) So narrating a place through audio is not just about representing facts to people. It can be a visceral experience, in which learning happens in an embodied way. In ruins, there is particular potential for using audio to amplify uncanny and haunted atmospheres.

Symposium on ‘Sound and space: theory and methods in sonic geographical research’ at Cardiff University, 5th-6th June 2018

This event is free to attend, although places are limited. There is more information here:

http://blogs.cardiff.ac.uk/geographyandplanning/2018/03/26/sound-and-space-theory-and-methods-in-sonic-geographical-research-symposium/

My sonic geography collaborator Jonathan Prior is organising this, together with urban cultural geographer Mark Jayne. Day one will be presentations from invited speakers including me. Day two will be a more hands-on sonic geography methods workshop led by Jonathan.

My presentation will be about working with voice audio as research data rather than only as a precursor to textual transcription. Voice audio can be used to productively disrupt dominant paradigms of voice: by propagating voices as vibration, experimenting with the machinic media ecologies that constitute voice, and rewiring the relations between voice, space and place. I will be presenting some examples of experimental styles of voice audio, again drawing on my Kilmahew audio drift, to illustrate creative ways of editing voices and using contrapuntal polyphony (to borrow the term used by Glen Gould to describe his solitude trilogy of radio documentaries).

You can read more about my audio drift for Kilmahew and St. Peter’s Seminary in this paper here: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1474474014542745

The paper is open access so you don’t need a university subscription to read it.

Authors into the future

Skeletor lookalike, patriot and speaking as a mother Andrea Leadsom recently attracted ridicule for accidentally suggesting that Jane Austen was one of our greatest living authors.

Yet it is unfair to single out Leadsom, who has had both children and a glittering career in investment banking, for such a simple slip of the tongue.

Leadsom’s entire political party routinely confuses polar opposite concepts. The Tories have misidentified weakness as strength, instability as stability, uncertainty as certainty. These walking contradictions and doublespeak merchants have in recent years convinced themselves that Theresa May is capable of effective leadership, that Brexit can be a success, and that Liam Fox deserves a senior ministerial position rather than to be hunted down using pitchforks, shackled into stocks in the village square and pelted with rotten turnips before being harnessed to a hayrick and made to tow it to market with a pack of feral dogs biting at his unshod heels.

Even Leadsom’s own surname seems mistaken: lead some what? Some sort of badly-organised church hall jumble sale for a charity that later turns out to be a front for offshore money laundering? Her incompetence so obviously exceeds even that of the current incumbent that the faintest whisper of Leadsom as a possible future party leader sends black clouds of dread billowing across the soul.

Little wonder, then, that Leadsom struggled momentarily to differentiate between being alive and having been dead for 200 years. For zombies, such distinctions are not clear cut.

Far more important than her minor mouth mishap was what Leadsom said next: “I think many of us probably wish she were still living.”

Now here is a sentiment with which no right thinking person could disagree. If only Austen could have been kept alive!

What better to reassure us, at this time of turmoil, than a living connection to Britain’s golden literary past, whose twilight glow still glimmers in our rose-tinted rear-view mirrors.

What a comfort it would be to come face to face with the esteemed author, and find her still registering vital signs at the age of 242 years. People would queue around the block for an opportunity to see the decaying flaps of her ancient skin, to stare into her blind rotted eye sockets, to hear the rasping of her artificially ventilated breath. They would watch entranced as her skeletal hand creaks outwards, pen trembling, wasted muscles replaced by electric motors, to autograph a barely legible ‘JA’ in the front page of a crisp new paperback of Pride and Prejudice.

At such a ripe vintage, no-one would expect Austen to be capable of producing new fiction, as that would probably prove disappointing, like when Harper Lee finally followed up To Kill A Mockingbird, or when Morrissey did that book that everyone hated apart from Terry Eagleton. What we want from our centuries-old literary giants is not fresh copy but repeated affirmation of their greatest hits – a more modest goal, and surely achievable within our lifetimes by cutting edge medicine.

I therefore hope that Leadsom, who has said that men should not be employed in childcare because they are potential paedophiles, will now act decisively to support research into maintaining the life of noted writers far beyond the usual span of human days.

It may prove too late for Austen, whose buried dust is probably past the point of reanimation. But what about sustaining our current literary talents indefinitely?

Imagine our descendants 200 years hence: the hardened survivors of desertification and sea level rise, scraping by on the last remaining pockets of habitable land. If only they were able to ask a still-living JK Rowling why Harry and Hermione never got together, it might lift their weary spirits enough to carry on in the face of ecocatastrophe.

Two centuries of hindsight would make for fascinating, if heated, discussions about the planetary apocalypse with environmentalist writers such as James Lovelock, his disheveled, barely-recognisable husk of a body pumped full of stem cells and tubes.

At the weekends, exhausted from days spent scouring for fragments of viable food or huddled in tunnels to escape a nuclear winter, our dwindling species might find welcome distraction in a meet-the-author with E.L. James’s nervous system preserved in a chamber of crackling plasma.

These undead authors will be hooked up to computers, enabling them to speak like Stephen Hawking, their vocal chords having long since disintegrated. The only exception will be Stephen Hawking, who will have reprogrammed his software to emulate the voice of Jane Austen.

Roland Barthes proclaimed the death of the author, but with Leadsom we can dare to dream of a world in which authors don’t die, they just lose the capacity to exist independently of medical hardware. As a mother, Leadsom may be unable lend her time to furthering this worthy cause, but as a Tory MP and former investment banker who managed tens of thousands of multi-billion pound accounts, she would surely be well placed to help raise the required funds.

Election adverts, grime and Tory artificial unitelligence

Yesterday I went onto YouTube and was served up a Tory election campaign advert at the start of a video I wanted to watch. It attempted to discredit Corbyn by depicting him as a supporter of terrorists such as the IRA, and hence a security risk. Material from interviews with him had been taken out of context and crudely edited together. It was like the work of an inept right wing Cassetteboy and smacked of desperation.

What made me laugh was where the ad was placed: on the video for a Novelist track. Novelist is one of the current rising stars of grime music. So the Tories are now trying to promote their party by hitching onto a predominantly working class, predominantly black, anti-establishment, anti-police urban youth culture.

The Tory’s algorithms must have missed the whole #Grime4Corbyn movement, and the fact that in 2016 Novelist dropped Street Politician, a track spitting white hot rage against the government and the police. Its chorus is a loop of David Cameron’s voice repeating over and over “keeping people safe is the first duty of government”. Think NWA’s Fuck Tha Police updated for generation Brexit.

Targeting an anti-Corbyn advert via a Novelist video is like trying to flog the Communist Manifesto in Fortnum and Mason. Who out there searching for grime vids would be tempted to vote for Theresa May on the basis of badly produced scaremongering about Corbyn? Most grime fans will be too young even to have have any memories of the IRA. Maybe the bots missed the sarcasm of the Cameron sample, reading it as a straightforward call for tougher policing.

There has been a lot of debate recently about the use of big data to influence elections. Both the Leave and Trump campaigns have claimed that part of their success was due to using data analytics to target adverts tailored to appeal to specific groups of undecided voters. For the 2017 election, the Tories reportedly hired social media experts (so we haven’t had enough of experts after all) including Craig Elder, Tom Edmonds, and Jim Messina. It has been claimed that “All three are highly rated for their ability to target adverts to specific demographic segments.”

But it wouldn’t take much AI to figure out that I am not remotely in the Tory swing voter demographic. I work in a university education faculty, a position from which supporting the Conservatives would be an act of self-harm; I’m on the Guardian website every day; I’m forever tweeting my dismay at May; my YouTube searches are mostly for 90s dance music and minimal techno. I’d need a lobotomy to vote Tory.

Is this the best they can do? Perhaps artificial unintelligence is to be expected from a party whose leader would struggle to pass the Turing test.