Sunday, February 3, 2013

My Bloody Valentine: An Unintentional Music Industry Cautionary Tale



Last night, My Bloody Valentine released a new record for the first time in over two decades.

The news that the record was available to order through their website soon turned into reports of the website crashing, followed by waves of complaints (including ones from yours truly) that the website couldn't process their online order.

Thankfully, the band simultaneously uploaded the new tracks on their official YouTube account for the world to hear.

If you're a fan, I would highly recommend listening to the new record yourself before the inevitable deluge of MBV commentary that will hit the internet in the coming days. I'm sure most of it will focus on their musical legacy, the comparisons to "Loveless", the supposed quirkiness of lead songwriter/visionary Kevin Shields, the parameters of the "shoegaze" genre, how "mbv" sounds too different/not different enough from their last release, etc.

The angle I hope music writers pay attention to, however, is the band's contentious history with the music industry - one that, on multiple occasions, almost completely sabotaged their ability to release their best work the way it was meant to be heard.

After all, if you read through relatively recent interviews with Shields, a cautionary and all-too-familiar music industry tale emerges.

Basically, you have a band of Dublin-based, drug and party-fueled squatters in the late 80's who start to get buzz over their new sonic and musical direction. What follows (at various points) is the band rejecting offers from two major labels; recording a seminal record over two years and purportedly bankrupting their label and pissing off numerous engineers in the process; having their recordings and tapes confiscated due to debts and lack of money; band tensions and near break-ups; their label being purchased by a major label; an aborted drum 'n' bass-influenced record, Shields leaving the band for legal reasons; signing to a different label and battling over access over the original analog tapes (in which the label denies their existence until threat of legal action); years and years of promising a new record; reuniting for a handful of live appearances that reaffirm their mythic reputation; more promises of a new record to the point of it becoming a running joke in certain music circles; finally calling everyone's bluff on the eve of a string of live appearances in Japan.

Granted, we do live in an age of endless reunion tours. But just a fraction of the My Bloody Valentine legal story would destroy most bands beyond reconciliation. Given this historical context, it's incredible that "mbv" was ever released to begin with, and that Shields even bothered to continue work on a record he started recording when he was nearly half his age.

In a Pitchfork interview, Shields sums up his thoughts about the music industry:
I'm no victim here-- this is just the way it is for everybody. It's a bit like being in the middle of a battlefield and getting shot in the arm and going, "Why me?" I mean, to put it very, very, very simply: The corporate system is fully psychopathic, and any creative people who enter into business with any of these organizations come up against a lifetime of issues. You just deal with it as you go along. It'll keep on happening until people reorganize the organizations.
And in regards to his seemingly unusual productivity gap, Shields told Quietus:
If for some reason I can't make a great record, I won't make a record at all. Because all you get is a little bit of money, which goes really fast anyway. It's easier to do nothing and live on nothing than it is to do something and live on something when you're running around compromising.

...

It's like, being on the dole is better than being in a shit job, so long as you've got an interest in your life. Because if you're in a shit job you don't really have that much more money, and then after a few years your will to live begins to dissipate. The idea that it's good to do stuff just for the sake of doing it, it's a myth, I think. It's a lie. It's a very 80s concept – everything, everything being about productivity. The whole underground was about that too: groups were always saying "do stuff, do stuff, don't just sit around!" Well, I don't believe in that. Even though I know it feels brilliant and I love it. I just... don't believe in it.
I don't know who technically owns the publishing and distribution rights to "mbv" right now. But for all of last night's flack about their website issues, going through Sunshine HQ and YouTube may have been the band's best option for controlling the distribution of their new work, while adapting to the current internet-free-for-all era of the music industry.

Even aspiring musicians who lack the status and mythology of a band like My Bloody Valentine can (and really should) learn a few things about what got them where they are now - and where to avoid music industry exploitation wherever possible.

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