To coincide with Bleep’s feature on Touch, they caught up with founder, Jon Wozencroft, and asked him a few questions behind his “not a label” that has been releasing music for over 25 years.
Can you tell us why you started Touch?
In 1981, there was a spirit abroad, a brief moment where it seemed that it was possible to be pioneering, critically-engaged and popular at one and the same time (as opposed to populist…). History tells us that the year zero of Punk, 1976 into 1977, was when (musical) culture was transformed and new forms of distribution emerged. 1979 to 1982 was when this truly bore fruit, in terms of achievement… Closer, Metal Box, 20 Jazz Funk Greats… These records were in the charts. Inconceivable now.
Secondly, along with the emphasis on film/projections used by the Sheffield bands Cabaret Voltaire and The Human League, there was the sense that Post-Punk music was reconnecting with the sensory ambitions of the psychedelic era. We took the cue that this could be extended into a publishing platform that was expressly audiovisual.
The precedent of Factory Records and Industrial/TG was obviously a big influence. The first manifesto and ambitions of the embryonic Psychic TV project were a major spur to action, as was the example of the Residents and Ralph Records.
Are you quite dogmatic about what kind of music gets released on the label?
No, simply that the logistics of our organisation means that we don’t have the time to sift through demo tapes – as it says on the T-shirt, we are not a record label – but we are always open to new ways of thinking about sound and music, and at the same time closely involved with the development of the artists we do work with. We never passively process the finished projects we’re handed, there is always a good deal of collaboration involved. Curatorial listening gives rise to a certain method of art direction, we can’t explain how it works, it depends on each artist and their work.
You have openly talked of your admiration for artists such as Joy Division, Augustus Pablo, which artists outside of the Touch catalogue do you admire?
Very many – the dedication of Arvo Pärt, the jouissance of Jon Hassell, the pulse of Basic Channel (especially Rhythm and Sound), the intrigue of Wire (though gloriously they have become collaborators in various different ways).
Recently we have made contact with Eleh, whose work for Important Records has been a revelation. The kinship we have with Editions Mego and Sähkö represents just two examples of a shared ambition, though the end results are quite different.
Returning to the question, is it conceivable that Joy Division and Augustus Pablo will be considered along the same lines as Bach and Beethoven in 200 years time?
The way that people have been consuming music has changed greatly and rapidly in the last half decade. Do you feel that this has had an impact what you do and the music that Touch has released?
Of course. We are not only doing this for the way things are now… It’s attempting to have a long term view of this compressed time we inhabit.
Where do you envisage music as a commodity and music consumption going in the next twenty years?
Evan Eisenberg wrote a very persuasive postscript to his book The Recording Angel when it was republished a few years ago. It’s one of the best books ever written about recorded sound, first published in the late 80s. He postulates that soon, there will be a global jukebox where everything ever recorded will be instantly available – well, this isn’t very far off actually, but there’s still no way that The Hafler Trio or the first Eleh 12 will fit any compressed audio format.
What in fact is being proposed, is that music will become like air. This is an extraordinary ecological condition that nobody really talks about. Imagine… one breathes music… Well of course this has always been happening and in some senses it’s a return to the essential condition, sound being part of the lifestream, but the difference here is in terms of mental space and perception.
You can imagine in 10 years time there will be a levy on clean air, just like there’s a levy currently on gas, electricity and broadband. Broadband – therefore entertainment – will become free, and everything else will become more expensive. Music will be needing its own version of Greenpeace.
Can you tell us more about the background of using photography over typography for the sleeve art? Visually and musically, from Philip Jeck, Fennesz, Chris Watson, to your own photographs, there is a strong connection with the natural world, can you tell us more about this relationship?
This interview with Philip Sherburne hovered well around this question.
Of course there is much more to say in retrospect about the strange disappearance of graphic design and typography as a way of expressing artistic practice. Graphic design, curiously, seemed to burn itself out in the mid-90s… This thing about being popular and experimental at the same time was neatly assimilated into mainstream visual culture, from Raygun and MTV to the High Street.
Photography somehow is a rogue development of postmodernism. Something that is fascinating, for example, is how one can possibly be a bad photographer. Also, look at the way people exchange photos set against the way people exchange music. It’s a time-based question. You can look at a photo for a nanosecond and get something from it, but in spite of the compression and the random shuffle mode, a 3 minute song still takes 3 minutes to listen to.
John Peel on the other hand got so many records and tapes that he reckoned it took him 15 seconds to tell whether anything was any good. Or was it 7 seconds? It doesn’t matter. When you have so much music, you can hardly tell the Beach Boys from the Bay City Rollers, it’s as Paul Virilio wrote, an essential loss of perspective. Or according to Baudrillard, The Final Illusion. You could say that the sense of perspective pioneered by the Renaissance artists, exploded by the Romantics, split in 3 by the Dadaists, finally ends up in a black hole of pattern generation and repetition.
So much for futurism! The only reference left is the natural world. It is natural, whatever Virilio, Baudrillard and Dworkins or Darwin says about it.
Photographs are a vehicle. The first idea is to try and steer an obvious illustration away from the music. These two should be contrapuntal, counterpoints, not in any way to do with the music, as such. This much I learned from working with Neville Brody, Peter Saville and others. They never paid that much attention to the music, but made beautiful responses to it. The main chemistry I had to add was only my way of listening, I also suppose intuitively I was choosing an area that nobody had really highlighted on — I wanted to study a subject that wasn’t harnessed to digital upgrades, but reflected all of those conditions. The natural world offers a mode of visualization as if it could be a litmus test of inner space.
Over the past 25 years, we have seen independent labels come and go; distributors go bankrupt and we witnessed other huge changes in the music industry. Can you tell us what the key has been to Touch’s survival over the years? And where do you see Touch in the years to come?
The key to survival is an open mind… how can anyone have any idea what will happen next? I guess we survived because we got this early lesson, it’s not about following anything. To love what you do in a progressive way is the main thing… To be prepared to go against the grain.