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Rock In Opposition

Article from Sound International, August 1978

A European music co-operative explained by Henry Cow/Art Bears percussionist Chris Cutler.

On March 12 at the New London Theatre, the first international Rock in Opposition festival was held here in London. Five groups played at it — Henry Cow from Britain, Etron Fou Leloublan from France, Univers Zero from Belgium, Samla Mammas Manna from Sweden and Stormy Six from Italy. Although it's still early days, we present below a brief description of RIO: its history, aims and organisation.

The structure of RIO is young and indefinite. It has five centres of various strengths and time will tell whether and how it will grow. As it stands it is more or less a co-operative of reciprocal aid between groups in different countries — each doing what it can for the others given their relatively different positions in their respective countries.


Historically, Anglo-American music created the European market. This put it in a position of power which has never been broken. Over the last 40 years, British and American companies have established themselves firmly throughout Europe, importing their products — and with it, their culture. In this way (and via TV soundtracks, muzak, films, etc) they have created and defined European cultural standards and the conditions to which all domestic industry and musicians must work.

Until quite recently, a European rock singer or group playing live needed to imitate British or American models. This is why a special form of musical and economic nationalism has always accompanied and defined the first moves made in all these countries in their efforts to break away from a doubly vampiric foreign culture — doubly in that it is not only culturally alien but also dominated by foreign businesses.

This nationalism has taken two immediate musical forms:
1) While European groups once had to sing in English, now they have begun to sing in their own languages (at this stage a distinct political act).

2) Instead of the blues or US pop they have started to draw either on mainstream European music or their own indigenous folk music.

This is not to say that foreign products have not remained the most popular. They have, and Bowie and Zappa can still pull the biggest crowds. Neither have local groups stopped imitating foreign groups — they still do, especially in the field of jazz-rock. But there is a strong substratum of national independence, and one which is growing stronger as it moves away from a reliance on foreign industry for support — because now of course, on an economic level, nationally-owned and controlled record companies have grown up as the market has expanded, and have even begun to challenge the foreign companies for sales. Unfortunately, the larger of them, even though they do challenge the economic rule of Britain and America, in no way challenge the cultural imperialism which this economic rule brings. Business is business and is first concerned with survival and expansion, and this means profit. What is profitable is still what already exists — and the struggle for cultural nationalism has not usually been good for business.

So where do musicians stand?

Well, as usual, getting a gig means being 'commercially viable' (a promoter needs to be confident of an audience) and this usually means, sooner or later, getting a record out. Getting a record out means being something a record company wants to invest in; something which at least will pay for itself, and this almost inevitably means that it reproduces what has been tried and tested already. If it is to be a little more speculative then the product must either fit into a general market trend, or be something which has already built up its own market, and one which is big enough to ensure a return. This is a real Catch 22 if you're not doing the right stuff.

In Europe, naturally, no English or American company has been much interested in building up local music — all their decisions in fact were taken overseas and their products imported. Their interests lay mainly in creating markets for that product.

If a local group did get a deal it was usually because they were imitations of foreign groups who, by supplying the concert need which was not fully satisfied by US and UK groups, had built up a following of their own — but audiences wanted to hear those familiar tunes!

Slowly though, national companies and groups began to make their mark; but for many of the groups, a second and more difficult obstacle remained: conservatism, for even amongst the 'alternatives' there was an insistence on orthodoxy (the dictatorship of 'market forces') and many independents operated a regime of artistic censures no less oppressive than those of the big companies.

Necessarily, these musicians eventually became involved in the broader struggle — for progressive music itself. This struggle was, and is, international.

The music business increasingly controlled culture on an international scale and this gave rise to an international response. But where the industry has been organised, the opposition has not.

Now the first tentative steps towards some kind of international consciousness and organisation are beginning to emerge — and this is what RIO is about — making all the advances in each country (record distribution, concert circuits and information, etc) available to people in other countries, helping to facilitate mobility, demonstrating that there is progressive music everywhere and that it will make room for itself to be heard, and that its strength lies in co-operation, not competition.

For the future there are now RIO tours under way in Sweden, Spain and Italy. There should be a second RIO festival in London in the summer, this time only with French groups: Art Zoyd II, Etron Fou, Camisole and Albert Marcoeur.

In another nine months or so we shall see how effective the whole project has become, how far it has developed and what facilities it can provide. But now — at least it's on the road.

The forms of 'opposition' we saw at the London festival vary from country to country. Thus a brief note on each of the groups who played there may be of interest.

1 Stormy Six from Italy

In Italy the record industry is nowhere near as highly developed as it is in the UK or France. There is no weekly pop press (or anywhere in Europe, in fact) and the monthlies tend to be of a much higher standard than ours as they do not have to serve the industry in quite the same way as ours (they are more independent). Also, Italians culturally discuss everything in terms our press would call too serious. Almost any Italian paper will confirm this. This is a relative view of course: Italy's no Utopia; and the UK is not without its exceptions.

Concert organisation in Italy is the province of the left political parties — usually any commercial promotion is a financial disaster, or Italian youths refuse to pay, or it is thoroughly vandalised so that promoters refuse to take the risk again. (I remember Santana leaving after only one concert last year, which was completely wrecked.) This is normal in Italy.

Franco Fabbri of the Stormy Six is also the President of L'Orchestra Cooperativa, a musicians' co-op in Milan with its own theatre called L'Arsenale (for concerts, music classes and workshops) and with its own record company and agency: L'Orchestra — a company with 20 releases to its credit. Their opposition to the music industry has already come a long way. Their performances are a mixture of simple and complex Italian folk music and mainstream European composition — graphically and definitely anti-American.

2 Samla Mammas Manna from Sweden

There are both musical and economic alternatives already set up in Sweden. The economic consists of 'Music forums' for concerts, 'Contact Net' for coordination and information, many independent labels (eg Silence, MNW, Nackswing) and two flourishing distribution networks: SAM (which accounts for 11% of domestic sales) and Platt Langarna.

But the musical 'Opposition' has a curious orthodoxy. It is either American rock music with left political lyrics in Swedish, or folk music. The Samlas are a kind of opposition to this opposition. They are fighting for non-American instrumental rock music — and even more unheard of, rock improvisation (there are hardly any other groups in Sweden doing this — only Arbete och, Fritid and Krāldjursanstalten spring to mind). Their path is a hard one, but while they seem to be rocking the alternative boat, they are vitally necessary, given the particular complacency of a system with a built-in 'alternative' that only goes half-way.

Both Stormy Six and the Samlas have won authority and respect in their own countries — compounded, of course, by the political climates there and the already-existing organisation for alternatives.

Univers Zero from Belgium

3 Univers Zero from Belgium

Univers Zero from Belgium, on the other hand, are in a totally different position. Belgium is worse than England — apathy is the rule. There is no alternative record or concert network, nor any interest in creating one — a bit of straight rock suitable as an accompaniment to beer drinking is the norm. So of course Univers Zero's position is by far the most extreme of all the RIO groups to date. And this shows in their music — which is wholly European and in an almost 'conservatory' tradition — though they are definitely a rock group (their PA, electric instruments and drum kit proclaim it). Unlike Stormy Six and the Samlas their very existence is a threatening posture to the crassness of their cultural environment.

Commercially they seldom manage to play but they have brought out one record on their own label, which is released in France on a new label run by the magazine Atem. It is interesting that at the London concert this group polarised the audience more than any other (they got less applause and sold more records). Like Henry Cow they are likely to find their audience outside their own country. Currently they are rehearsing a 12-piece expanded group consisting of themselves and French group Art Zoyd III (who should be over for the second RIO festival in June). Musically and economically, just to survive in Belgium requires tremendous dedication, and this is reflected in the deadly earnestness of Univers Zero's 'opposition'.

4 Etron Fou from France

Etron Fou from France are in a special position, different nationally from all the others so far mentioned, because in France there is a whole school of groups who are just beginning to get organised. France is a big market for all sorts of music — there is an audience for everything and musical consciousness is high. France is producing the greatest number of interesting new groups anywhere in Europe. They have already reached a second stage in national music development. The first, in the early Seventies, growing up around Magma (aggressively European) and Gong, has now become a kind of Establishment and divided into a maze of offshoots: Zao, Surya, Weidorje, Yochk'O Seffer, Faton Cahen, Teddy Lasry, etc and of course a large number of Magma-influenced new groups. But this strata, though leading the home struggle, did it by forcing the record industry to accept them (helped a great deal by Giorgio Gomelsky who worked closely with Magma for years).

The second wave is emerging outside the industry and is musically more diverse: such are Etron Fou Leloublan, Art Zoyd III, ZNR, Camisole and Heratius Music Corp. amongst others. Not that these groups are new — many are almost as old as Magma but now there is a space for them and they are beginning to create their own space. There is a new organisation growing around them for concerts and a new independent distribution network for records.

Etron Fou have their own label but more important are part of a collective economic and artistic 'opposition' arising out of the special climate in France.

Fred Frith, Cow guitar player

5 Henry Cow from Britain

Finally Henry Cow from Britain. Henry Cow were signed to Virgin and they learned the hard way the problems of trying to play their music and work through a normal business-oriented record company, even an apparently 'progressive' one. The laws of commercial operation call their own tune and in the interest of expansion and profit the business follows — finally the accountants take over the company. So it was with Virgin, and for Henry Cow what started as a good thing (having a record out, distributed, promoted, etc) turned slowly into a bad one — huge recording 'debts' and the increasing unavailability of their records outside Britain. They found themselves in the curious position of doing 90% of their work in Europe (seven months a year) in countries where often their records were only thinly available as imports. This is a direct legacy of Highest Common Factor licensing: you license the whole label to whoever offers the most and is the biggest. Virgin licensed foreign companies to have Tubular Bells, which they pursued with acumen, but groups like Henry Cow, who required a different sort of investment (time and commitment), were soon no longer released, being 'unviable'. When H Cow released their Concerts record through Compendium and L'Orchestra, small interested companies, they sold three times as many as Virgin, faster and for far better royalties.

These things, and Virgin's own chosen path, eventually led to disaffection with that company, and business in general — and also to Virgin's disinterest in the group, being financially unviable.

In case no-one knows the way UK companies like this work it is as follows: the company pays the studio (in Virgin's case it was its own studio) for 3½ weeks — about £8000 worth of studio-time. The group receives a royalty of (in H Cow's case which was normal) 6% — equivalent then to 16p. From these 16ps the group has to pay back the £8000 (@ 50000 sales to break even). You can see this is not a realistic way of working for a group which doesn't sell a lot of records — and when sales are out of their hands and in the hands of the company — and when the company is busy with other, more lucrative products and not getting the record to the group's market (in the Cow's case, Europe), the whole operation becomes a great millstone for both parties.

Henry Cow began inside the industry (as did Magma) because Britain had a strong tradition of being a producer of experimental music and there was a market then. This situation changed and the group was forced to realise that the only protection lay in working outside the industry, which was by then actively hindering their progress. They found their particular support in Europe, where they became quite popular and influential. Rock In Opposition is one legacy of this progress, but it belongs to each member in each country.

I hope that no centralised organisation grows out of RIO, that it remains a loosely knit co-operative with as many centres as it has members and as many members as have need of it.

The London address for information and records is: RIO, (Contact Details).

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Publisher: Sound International - Link House Publications

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Sound International - Aug 1978

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Alternatives to 'Product'

Feature by Chris Cutler

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