Fetish Packaging by Thomas Bey William Bailey
Above, a selection of unorthodox cassette casings curated by Ken Montgomery, founder of New York’s Generator gallery and sound arts label.
Vittore Baroni (of the TRAX cassette label + networking project) displays the packaging for a re-release of the various artists’ compilaton Notte Rossa.
If the sale prices of records offered on the discogs.com an online marketplace are your only source for determining who rules the musical roost, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a very strange world we live in. Just navigate yourself to the website’s ‘most expensive records’ list for the 10th of February, 20101, where a disproportionate amount of chart-toppers come from the bleakest peripheries of the Industrial music subculture. Through this list we can marvel at the $1,051 price tag accompanying a Les Joyaux De La Princesse box set, $831 commanded by a Genocide Organ 7” single, and $754 for another LP by the same group. Not to be outdone, the comparatively benign hip-hop artist Mistafide fetches over $4,000 for a 12” single of “Equidity Funk,” and Keefy Keef’s own eponymous 12” takes in nearly $1,200. Various house and disco obscurities also drift ashore on this list, with all the combined musical styles perhaps saying more about discogs.com’s pronounced electronica bias than about music fandom as a whole. Despite the very wide chasms in aesthetics and ideology separating the items on this list, their voracious collectors (at least those I’ve met personally) have at least one thing in common, in that they see their collecting activities as fulfilling a valuable socio-historical role. Namely, they feel that they are ferrying these objects across the river Styx into a new era where these artifacts’ distinct attitudes and messages will be better appreciated. Thus, the high costs paid for niche-market curios can be justified as being somewhat small in comparison to the glory reaped in the end- glory gained for helping the standard-bearers of one’s own lifestyle to survive a perceived dark age of ignorance.
Upon closer inspection of the items on this list, though, one thing becomes readily apparent: the records swapping hands for 3 and 4-figure dollar sums are often much more than just ‘records’, per se- they can occasionally be painstakingly constructed, lavishly packaged display pieces not merely meant to be heard, but to enhance the music’s metaphorical content by allowing the owner to participate in a bit of immersive role-playing. Take, for example, Les Joyeaux De La Princesse’s boxed set Exposition Internationale – Arts Et Techniques – Paris 1937. If you were to see it outside the context of one’s own record collection, it would seem like a private, bittersweet collection of correspondence and hard-won memorabilia: sepia-tinted photographs, pamphlets sealed with stickers and fastened with gold braids, postcards, rubber-stamped envelopes and a replica photo album from the pivotal event around which the music (burned to comparatively humble CD-recordables) is themed. As for that thematic content, The 1937 Paris Expo saw the pavilions of both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany erected across from one another, in a dark foreboding of the coming clash of totalitarian powers: artistic invocations of such crucible moments in history, arriving before outbreaks of apocalyptic fury, are a hallmark of the ‘neo-folk’ or ‘martial industrial’ circles that LJDLP inhabit. It’s precisely the reverence for the mythical periods in which these moments are situated, periods in which heroism trumped banal materialism and celebrity, that inform the creation (and deliberately limited availability) of packages like this one.
However, acts like LJDLP hardly have a monopoly on the ‘album-as-artifact’ approach. If we take a train away from the smog-choked Industrial music district and its abattoir shrieks, alighting at the glittery and pulsating nightclub district, we find that the latter can certainly keep pace with the former where inventive album housings are concerned. The special edition of the Pet Shop Boys’ recent album Yes, loosely inspired by Gerhard Richter’s mid-‘60s color block paintings (192 Farben, etc.), is advertised like something you’d expect to find in an Ikea showroom. The design notes for the deluxe 11-vinyl set beckon to us with “smoked Perspex box with magnetic outer fastening,” “Pantone colour printed outer sleeves, with full colour inner sleeves,” and “Giclée print and insert featuring colour key and credits.” Sexy! Elsewhere, a not totally dissimilar group of U.K. electro-pop heroes are already traveling the contemporary art museum circuit with a prime example of ‘album as artifact’: Peter Saville’s notorious ‘floppy disk’ design for New Order’s 12” single of Blue Monday, complete with its original conceptual blueprints, has a starring role in the museum catalog for Sympathy For The Devil: Art And Rock And Roll Since 1967, the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art’s 2007 survey of parallel developments in visual and audio art. Its alleged status as the ‘highest-selling 12” single of all time’ lends credence to the theory that novel packaging pays off when it engages sonic, visual, and haptic senses all in equal measure. Bernard Sumner’s lobotomized vocal on the original song, and its cold “one-two, one-two” synth-bass chassis implied a world where digitalization would soon take command, a world where the song’s flamboyant and festive disco influences were remorselessly translated into binary signals. The specialized, die-cut floppy disk record jacket (which featured the band’s name and song title coded as colors rather than printed alpha-numerically) perfectly mirrored the strange allure of the song’s impersonality and flat affect. Unsurprisingly, the record has now had its shelf life extended even further by being a prototype of 21st century “retro-futurism.”
Specialized objet d’art packaging also strikes a deep chord with groups who see themselves as the misunderstood vanguard of modern aesthetic life. One of its effects is to reverse recorded music’s nearly unchecked trend towards greater portability, making music once again something to be presented in one’s own inner sanctum, where it is contemplated and revered only in the company of close confidants. Especially when genres like ‘neo-folk’ are concerned (a genre with which the discogs.com list alumni Joyaux de la Princesse, Der Blutharsch and Death in June are allied), these objects should serve as crystallizations of a romantic, idyll / ideal based on pre-industrial handicraft, or on notions of Heideggerian authenticity and its attendant hostility towards art pour l’art. They become the totems of a culture that, in this case, is like an early 21st century echo of the early 20th century’s romanticist Wandervogel youth groups. Those groups’ reclamation of individual sovereignty via the Waldgang, or hike to the forest, has merely been replaced with an internal journey or ‘psychic quest’ more akin to the kind outlined in Herman Hesse’s novels. Still, one highly limited release by Der Blutharsch, Fire Danger Season, plays upon neo-folk fans’ inclination toward both of these exploratory tendencies: the otherwise inessential music of the release comes in an embossed leather army satchel, accompanied by a leather CD wallet also embossed with oak leaves and iron cross- suitable for playing at field marches and Waldgänge alike.
The ‘reactionary modernism’ of neo-folk music hardly marches in lockstep with the more personalized philosophical imperatives of the sound arts scene, although here is another area where unique housing for recordings contributes to their total sensory impact. Here we occasionally find the packages acting as a challenge to the listener rather than as a seductive come-on (although the possibility of seduction by challenge is never out of the question, either.) This recalls pianist Cecil Taylor’s famous admonition to listeners to make preparations before listening to his music –a fact that has raised the ire of peers like Branford Marsalis, who acidly remarks that he doesn’t try his hand at fielding baseballs before watching a ball game. A selection of handmade releases from the fringes of ‘cassette culture,’ sound art, and psycho-ambient music have taken Taylor’s prescription for listening one step further. That is to say, certain releases have required their owners to perform ritualized, preparatory actions before any kind of listening process can take place. The chaos-embracing sound / performance artist GX Jupitter-Larsen, who has his own history of producing such packages, also claims that “…there’s an impractical side [to hand-made releases].” He mentions just a few such instances of the impracticality aesthetic:‘A 1993 cassette release, entitled Yasha by MSBR (Molten Salt Breeder Reactor) aka Koji Tano, was packaged in a snapcase coated with layers of foam. Not easy to open at all. The artist and label that epitomizes the difficult fetish in tape the most would have to be AMK, and his label Banned Production. AMK loves packaging. Since the 80s, he has never wanted any two BP releases packaged alike. His White Hand Prologue/Epilogue cassette came in a tarpaper matchbox. His John Hudak tape Slumbrous Breathing was packaged in leaves. His Tac Try My Hand cassette, one of his favorites, was attached to a block of concrete. His Daniel Menche release, Dark Velocity, is a cassette in between metal sheets riveted to wood. It takes power tools to get it out. In fact, with many Banned Production releases, one has to practically destroy the package in order to access the contents. Even then, with almost all BP tapes, the cassette label is inconveniently glued over the holes. Meaning one has to cut or rip the label off the tape in order to actually play it.
A little supplemental research shows that Jupitter-Larsen’s inventory is just a small sampling of what this underground network is capable of- my friend Jessika, once an employee of the Anomalous Records store in Seattle (r.i.p.), even claims to have encountered one grisly ‘art edition’ cassette packaged inside the dead husk of a roadkill animal. In all seriousness, though- what these examples of ‘difficult’ packaging suggest is that elaborately hand crafted (or artfully damaged) packaging of recordings can function as critiques of the instant gratification common to the information age. A symbolic bit of risk or work is required, whether aided by means of power tools or a strong stomach, in order to secure the eventual reward of music. Considering that some of modern sound art’s influence comes from the enlightenment-through-endurance methodology of 1970s body art and performance art, this attempt to kinetically involve listeners makes more sense. While this usage of custom packaging seems far removed from the introspective contemplation accorded to the striking objet d’art packages of neo-folk and martial industrial music, they do have just a little bit of kinship: both cultures are, in their own way, dead set against a world in which art is no more than a ‘mirror’ commenting upon the present set of circumstances. Right down to the materials selected for a sound work’s packaging, art should provide an opportunity for an exit from the house of mirrors.
However, it may be a little premature to assume that any artist favoring art editions over conventional packaging is providing us an altruistic service. In the estimation of marketing psychologist Robert Cialdini, anyone can be a ‘compliance practicioner’ wielding artificial exclusivity and scarcity as powerful ‘weapons of influence’: this is especially true in romantic subcultures like neo-folk, where scarcity is often equated with uncontestable ideological purity and occult wisdom. Meanwhile, for the more heavily populated electronic dance music cultures, in which only micro-variations on the season’s musical theme are permitted, producers still need a way of distinguishing their product from dozens of others, and so custom packaging is often no more than a gamble on securing a larger piece of the market share. Producers of hopelessly limited art editions, whatever their intentions, are not naïve: they know that they are working in a field that relies, moreso than most professions, on converting emotional response into financial benefit. They know that emotional responses to claims of scarcity and exclusivity will regularly take precedence over more complex cognitive processes, forcing panicked consumers to commit quickly. The more cynical music producers out there are surely also aware of the music speculator market, and speculators’ propensity to invest in the kinds of items mentioned in this piece: just note the number of artfully-designed, limited vinyl albums that now come with bonus CD-recordables or ‘download cards’ featuring the same material as the record, so that collectors won’t have to downgrade their resale value by actually placing them on a turntable!
It’s impossible to guess at the intentions of musicians who favor the more unorthodox packaging schemes, and to say whether their actions are done as a gift to their fans or as a boon to commodity fetishists. If the latter is the case, though, specially packaged releases are a considerably more expensive investment in the first place: speculators buying them for the purpose of resale stand to make a minimal profit, if any, because of this. If we look at the single most expensive record to sell outside of the discogs.com microverse (the autographed copy of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy, presented to Mark David Chapman shortly before his slaying of Lennon) the factors of random / chance occurrence and historical circumstance affect market value more than any type of extravagant packaging on its own. To be sure, many of the same artists who employ objet d’art packaging to deflect attention away from their mediocre music have taken this into account, too, and some play up the sinister or revolutionary nature of their own personae as a calculated P.R. strategy (when not outright fabricating these personae.) After all, the obsession with the musical ‘other side’ of inflammatory public icons, from Charles Manson to Louis Farrakhan, has elevated their cachet among record collectors. Therefore, emulation of criminal or anti-establishment archetypes seems like another good way to ensnare some extra listeners and speculation-minded buyers. The fusion of specialized packaging with the development of personality cults has, over time, proven an irresistible approach for the world of industrial ‘noise’ music- the result has been a glut of absolutely worthless, fatigue-inducing recordings, more offensive for their condescending marketing than for the re-heated “taboo” content. Our friends Genocide Organ are right there in the thick of the “they might be real insurgents!” trend, teasing us with a paucity of available background information and with records wrapped in Confederate flags (yes, this is the one that went for $831.)
In those cases where artistic focus is diverted towards crafting more potently glamorous and rare fetish items to house audio recordings, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to believe the quality of recorded sound will suffer. Cialdini remarks that, where such objects are concerned, “the joy is not in experiencing a scarce commodity but in possessing it […] it is important that we do not confuse the two.“3 While he doesn’t explicitly condemn people who favor the latter option, he does suggest that making scarcity the sine qua non of emotional or spiritual gratification is a mistake. I’d think music will always be able to provide these types of gratification, whether housed in a diamond-encrusted case or in nothing at all. And, yes, that’s hardly a rare sentiment in and of itself, but it’s one that I feel is worth holding onto.
(1) See http://blog.discogs.com/2010/02/top-100-music-w-highest-selling-price.html
(2) GX Jupitter-Larsen, personal correspondence with the author, July 2009.
(3) Robert B. Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, p. 267. Harper Collins, New York, 2007.
This article reprinted from the Vague Terrain website.