Music Features, Spotlights

Spotlight: Riots, Reasons And Ramifications

Like a significant proportion of the UK’s population, for the last few days and nights I’ve been all but glued to the rolling news networks, Twitter and any other source of information I could find about the rioting and looting that’s been taking place in the UK. It began in my home city, London, and then spread beyond, as far afield as Manchester, Gloucester and Birmingham, where one incident resulted in the deaths of three people. A police station was firebombed. In Croydon, a man was shot and later died. Police helicopters have been airborne within sight of my home for the last three nights and two neighbourhoods within a 10-minute bus ride of me – Lewisham and Peckham – were amongst the worst hit, with vehicles and buildings set ablaze, police attacked and shops looted.

For lovers of music, the huge fire at the Sony warehouse in Enfield, a building housing stock from over 150 indie labels distributed through PIAS (full list here), was a particular focus. From the music industry’s point of view there was an outpouring over this incident – reasonable enough, given the livelihoods at stake. Beggars Group chair Martin Mills estimated his labels alone – including 4AD, XL and Rough Trade – had lost their entire UK stock of 750,000 products in that one incident. Smaller labels, such as Sonic Cathedral and Angular, wondered whether they could afford to reprint their back catalogues, and how they would sell records. Assorted musings about whether insurance policies would cover all the losses began to appear, with stock insured only at cost price. The independent labels’ umbrella body AIM is urging music fans to support affected labels by buying downloads. For its part PIAS hopes to be able to begin shipping from alternative sources and new prints as early as next week.

The music industry of course, consisting of passionate people with heart, cares for more than just its products and profit margins. Already a campaign to help labels affected by the fire is underway, while beyond that Sam Duckworth was instrumental in organising volunteers to help clean up after the riots in London and Emmy The Great and Kate Nash have used their influence and hard graft to get essential goods to people burned out of their homes in Tottenham. Our friends over at The Stool Pigeon volunteered to drive the collected goods to where they were needed. A lot of people, in their ways, have been doing and are continuing to do their commendable bits.

After tweets, retweets, Facebook conversations and at least four articles begun yet unended on what to say about the riots, the context of losses due to the warehouse fire within it all, and the political ramifications and the proposed solutions and counter-solutions, and the claims and denials, I found this piece from Song, By Toad label boss Matthew Young saliently covered many of the points I wanted to make and more. With his kind permission it is reproduced here. In the meantime I hope that everyone affected by the riots recovers fully and speedily, and that the government will resist the urge to knee-jerk legislate away the UK’s freedoms, rights and privileges when Parliament is recalled from its summer recess today.

– Michael Hubbard

[Warning: long rant which, if you are just here for the music, you may not want to bother reading.]

It seems an awful lot of music people are suddenly really quite horrified by the rioting in London now that the Sony warehouse has burned to the ground and suddenly most of the best indie labels in the country are facing a serious, and in some cases potentially fatal, financial injury.

Some of the people running the labels affected are my friends, I am really concerned for them, and you know (or you should) by now how highly I value independent music. A lot of the larger indies will have the buffer, both financial and in terms of having access to spare stock in other places, that this will not be ruinous to them. Smaller labels, on the other hand may well not be so lucky.

Not all labels are insured against these things, and the smaller, less-organised and less financially established ones will generally be the ones who are not. And lots of distribution deals have clauses in there which state that the loss of damaged stock, even when in the hands of the distributor, is the responsibility of the label. If the label’s lawyers don’t catch that clause before anyone signs anything, then they might be really quite fucked.

Secondly, there’s the cost of replacing stock. Most record labels only make money through the act of selling records (seems obvious, doesn’t it). But that burned stock will have represented their capital investment (excuse me if I get my technical terms wrong, I am not an economist). The vast majority of the money we have ever spent as a label, and therefore the vast majority of the value represented by our business, is sitting in boxes with our distributors in London (no, not PIAS, fortunately) and in our spare bedroom around me as I type this.

To continue to function as a business you have to have records to sell, meaning the affected labels will have to make more immediately, but with their capital tied up in the ones which burned to cinders, then simply finding the money to do so might well be the kind of challenge which will be too much for some of them and they will fold. Simple as that.

But in all honesty no matter what was in that warehouse, this whole story is absolutely not about records, record labels, or anything like that. And I am kind of annoyed to see how many people have suddenly decided that after all that’s happened, now they’ve burned down a warehouse full of music, well that was a step too far. Oh right, so now it’s bad, is it?

I suppose there’s an element whereby people don’t really feel they have the authority to comment on what turns social and economic deprivation into the kind of violence we’ve seen recently, whereas a lot of the press I read and the people I know do know what could happen to labels affected by the warehouse fire, so fair enough, maybe. I still don’t buy it though.

Basically, yes, some people might lose their businesses. This is not something I am taking lightly, believe me, but come on, some businesses – equally unprotected by insurance – have been burned to ash. People have lost their homes, some almost their entire neighbourhoods, and what the fuck does this kind of violence do to the sort of social cohesion and mutual trust most of us take for granted?

And also, much of the tone of criticism of the riots has struck me as prissy, self-righteous and downright fucking reminiscent of the Daily fucking Mail. Even from my generally quite liberal friends. There’s been a lot of talk about this being mindless violence and it all being pointless, and the rioters doing themselves more damage than anyone else and goodness gracious why can’t they see that?

Apart from the fact that the rioting in Tottenham was triggered by yet more excessive violence from a police force who seem to have developed a habit in recent years of acting as if they have absolutely no accountability for their actions (largely, of course, because they actually do not seem to have any accountability for their actions), to suggest that this current outbreak of violence is apolitical seems breathtakingly stupid to me.

Yes, a lot of the violence is being committed by people with no more in their heads than an explosion of suppressed rage, but this kind of pent-up fury doesn’t just materialise out of nowhere. This seems like a pretty clear and actually downright inevitable consequence of the increasingly out of control spiral of social inequality given its first serious encouragement by Thatcher, given full reign by free-market fundamentalist Tony Blair and being cravenly encouraged by Cameron, who seems to be using his premiership as little more than an opportunity to enrich anyone who treats him to a nice meal and some cocktails.

The disparity in wealth between the richest and the poorest in Britain increased so sharply under Tony Blair that it made an absolute mockery of his claim to be a Labour politician. This kind of wealth gap creates its own barriers, and a lack of self-determination and ability to influence your own circumstances will surely, faster than anything else, lead to the kind of outburst of frustration we’ve seen in London.

When you look at the handling of the debt crisis over the last few years, I am not sure if we should even be surprised that these riots are happening at all. Effectively, the richest people in society failed to control their greed to the extent that it caused a bubble, which eventually burst. Then, through the medium of government bailouts and a short-circuiting of the free market economy, they managed to engineer a response to the crisis they created which required the people they had fucked in the first place to pay for it, whilst somehow, almost unimaginably, they themselves became richer and suffered pretty much no consequences at all. What a lovely precedent to set, when it comes to the principle of being answerable for your crimes.

So after the City classes fucked things up for everyone, and we used tax money to make sure they didn’t have to suffer, and indeed in many cases were able to become richer still, it turned out that this shit had to be paid for in the end. Yes siree, it’s belt-tightening time, because we need to raise some money. Shall we do so by increasing corporation tax – or even applying it at all in the first place – or shall we perhaps do so by taxing the people who caused the fucking problem in the first place and who benefitted in spectacular amounts from helping themselves to our bailouts?

No, of course we fucking shan’t, we’ll fuck the poor instead. The Big fucking Society was always a code for ‘raping grass-roots social services in the arse’. Yes, ‘we could all do more’, and in fact I agree, we should all do more. But the Big Society is not about that, it is simply the false moustache applied to destructive reduction of investment in the institutions and workers who do their best to keep society held together, at actual street level, not in boardrooms or tax offices where rich people decide how best to avoid paying their fucking way in life.

Now, this probably comes across as the rantings of a bleeding heart champagne socialist, but there are some very simple points at the heart of this state of affairs.

We are creating a society were a tiny berclass of extremely wealthy people keep all the money and power to themselves, and everyone else has a fragment of their quality of life, and a fragment of their opportunity.

Things like the massive hikes in student fees and the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance create enormous barriers to social mobility, such that people are effectively prevented by accident of birth from having access to the life that they can clearly see others enjoying. Reducing the levels of policing in these areas and cutting foot patrols tells all the decent folk who live there: simply because of where you live, fuck you, you’re on your own, sorry. Eradicate youth community programs and young people in difficult areas have one and only one place left to turn. Isn’t this all really obvious?

This is basically a Third World model. Social equality and social mobility are pretty much the cornerstones of civillisation, are they not? The extraordinary concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny minority is, or should be seen as, the exact fucking opposite.

When you annihilate the support for people at the bottom of any ladder of status, you are destroying their ability to improve their lives by acknowledging that ladder. Recently society – and by that I mean the actions of government and the complicity of the people – has been making the poor pay for the comfort of the rich to the extent that society as it is currently managed has nothing to offer people at the bottom of the ladder, and is openly and clearly telling them so.

When people no longer have a vested interest in a system – nothing to gain by maintaining its existence – they are inevitably going to turn elsewhere when they can. Human beings need to feel some sort of ability to control their own lives, too, so when these things are taken away and your social status is determined by birth and geography, with no way to change it, then you couldn’t create a more potent brew of simmering, impotent rage if you tried.

And before you get your knickers in a twist, it should be obvious that trying to look at causation is by no means supposed to be a justification for the actions of many, or indeed most of the people involved in the riots. A lot of the looters are simply acting like dickheads; a lot really are just getting in on the act and enjoying smashing things up, and since everything first kicked off the kind of opportunism which has been piggy-backing on the initial outburst has been pretty damn sickening.

I am not encouraging it, nor making light of it, and I applaud and admire the efforts of the clean-up teams which have spontaneously sprung into being. I particularly admire the people helping shop owners protect their businesses, and people like this amazing lady in Hackney giving people a pretty sharp bollocking directly to their faces.

However, to say that these disturbances aren’t political is just wrong. Many individual motivations may be fuzzy to say they very least, and some may be downright despicable, but this kind of explosion of undirected rage seems pretty obviously a direct consequence of creating a society in which vast numbers of people feel they have no stake whatsoever.

You cannot get to the cartoonish levels of wealth inequality and the audaciously evil ways in which it has been nurtured, particularly since the credit crisis, and not expect that level of insult to vast swathes of society not to have some sort of consequence at some point. If no-one gives a fuck about them, why should they give a fuck about anyone else?

– Matthew Young

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