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Prairie Pop: Turn Off Your Radio


Copyright infringement, billboard “alteration,” an evil secret society known as the Illuminati, country music legend Tammy Wynette, the incineration of £1,000,000 in cash, and—most recently—No Music Day. These odd, interconnected events were engineered by Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, an anarchic British pop duo who used several pseudonyms, including their most well known moniker, the KLF. They were also pranksters and provocateurs.

In 1992, for instance, when the KLF were voted “Best British Group” at the Brit Awards, they bit the hand that fed it. Hard. During the awards ceremony, the duo performed an ear-bleeding rendition of “3 A.M. Eternal” with the grindcore metal group Extreme Noise Terror (an accurately descriptive band name, I might add). As they pummeled the audience with deafening decibels and distortion, Drummond fired on the audience with a machine gun filled with blanks. “The KLF have now left the music industry,” went the post-performance intercom announcement.

Not long after, they took the remaining loot they earned as pop stars (about £1,000,000) and burned it. It was the end of the KLF, but the beginning of several spin-off satires and commentaries, including Bill Drummond’s latest experiment, No Music Day. In the first decade of the new millennium, he produced a series of broadsides that used a simple-but-bold black, white and red design scheme—which he posted in public spaces and on the Internet.

All recorded music has run its course.
It has been consumed, traded, downloaded, understood, heard before, sampled, learned, revived, judged and found wanting.
Dispense with all previous forms of music and music-making and start again.
Year Zero now.

In many ways, this statement was the crystallized climax (or anti-climax) of Drummond’s “career” in the music industry. Drummond recalls that, “when Napster first hit the World Wide Web, I thought it was the best thing that had happened in the music business for the last 110 years.” With the advent of file-sharing networks, anyone with a computer and Internet connection could listen to virtually anything in the history of recorded music—with just one click of the mouse. He saw this as a fantastic turn of events, great for people who love music, great for music itself. But despite Drummond’s delight in seeing the century-old music business crumble due to changing technologies and the industry’s own unchecked greed, music’s newfound accessibility left him with an empty feeling.

“Recorded music was great, but it is over,” Drummond says. “Music has so much more to offer than something to block out reality of our bus ride to work or the pain of jogging in the park.”
He maintains that the promiscuous availability of music has fundamentally changed our relationship with music, especially because accessing the history of recorded music is as easy as turning on a tap. This has resulted in a perpetual, monotonous background hum that has the effect of canceling out the experience of taking in music.

“After years of believing in the democratization of cheap massed produced art,” Drummond tells me, “I have come to—or at least since I got myself an iPod—the opinion that it no longer works.”
Enter No Music Day, a holiday of sorts established in 2005 by Bill Drummond, which he refers to as “an aspiration, an idea, an impossible dream, a nightmare.” Drummond chose to observe it on November 21 because it immediately precedes St. Cecilia’s Day, the patron saint of music. In one of his posters, Drummond pronounced, in part:

ON NO MUSIC DAY:
NO HYMNS WILL BE SUNG.
NO RECORDS WILL BE PLAYED ON THE RADIO.
iPODS WILL BE LEFT AT HOME.
ROCK BANDS WILL NOT ROCK…
MCS WILL NOT PASS THE MIC.
BRASS BANDS PRACTICE WILL BE POSTPONED…
RECORD SHOPS WILL BE CLOSED ALL DAY.
AND YOU WILL NOT TAKE PART IN ANY SORT OF MUSIC MAKING OR LISTENING WHATSOEVER.
NO MUSIC DAY EXISTS FOR VARIOUS REASONS, YOU MAY HAVE ONE

Such statements could have been overlooked as the raving lunacy of an ex-pop star, but it struck a chord, so to speak. In 2007, the BBC embraced the idea, and Radio Scotland completely avoided playing music for a full 24 hours that November 21. The regular music used in Good Morning Scotland, for instance, was replaced by other sounds, and BBC News reported that other programs that typically featured music were substituted with “discussions, interviews and a chance to contemplate a world without music.”

However, it’s not as if Drummond wishes recorded music never existed—or at least ceased to exist after Thomas Edison, the inventor of the phonograph, tested his new invention in 1877 by recording himself singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” For him, recorded music was a good thing, but its time as a living medium has passed.

“Some come to an abrupt ending like the silent film, irrelevant overnight with the coming of the talkies,” Drummond says. “Others take decades to fade and die. Still others live on in evening class lessons, carried out by those in need of a hobby.”

In the history of music, sound recording isn’t really much more than a blip on the radar, a microscopic dot on a very, very long timeline. Given that, it seems strange that recorded music has become so naturalized and hegemonic, especially when there are so many other ways to make and listen to songs, sounds, and noise. Because of the excessive ubiquity of sound recordings today, Bill Drummond feels that people will begin wanting something different out of music—hence his command to “dispense with all previous forms of music and music-making and begin again.”

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It’s a radical gesture, though not at all shocking coming from a man who has spent most of his adult life contemplating the art and business of popular music.

“I believe that the creative and forward looking music makers of the 21st century will not want to make music that can be listened to wherever, whenever, while doing almost whatever,” Drummond concludes. “They will want to make music that is about time, place, occasion, and not something that you can download and skip over on your iPod.”


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