Always the same pigs ...
A year ago, I put an essay by Phoebe Jenkins about Smekkleysa online (17. May 2007) www.phoebejenkins.co.uk/smekkleysa.html.
Today I present you another paper about Smekkleysa aka Bad Taste Ltd Label.
This Paper was presented @ the Druid PhD Winter Conference January 2004 @ Aalborg, Denmark.
Author Margrét Sigrún Sigurðardóttir
University of Iceland
This paper builds on theory of creativity in social context and strife’s to understand in general the environment that encourages creativity, and in particular the case of Bad Taste ltd. The Paper will look at theory about; creativity social norms and the willingness of individuals to resist social norms in spite of the cost of doing so. The theory of social network and how these theories can cast some light on the formation and distribution of ideas such as new music. The main finding is that the international success of Bad Taste did not happen over night but lies in the background of the members. Their attitude towards social norms, coloured by the punk movement and surrealism as well as their social network and their prior experience of the international independents music industry.
This paper is based on my Masters thesis at the University of Iceland. The main aim of the thesis was to answer the following question.
How did Bad Taste ltd. manage to break out of the traditional frame of music, to create a new kind of music and succeed internationally?
Bad Taste ltd. is a fairly well known Icelandic music production company (although its founders are reluctant to use a business term such as a company about the; group, umbrella or key ring). It is the home of the Sugarcubes, Björk, Sigur Ros and Minus.
The products of Bad Taste are in many ways unusual and range from the Icelandic musical heritage, classical music to jazz, pop and the hard rock of Minus.
The reason for choosing Bad Taste as a case of creative environment was twofold.
Firstly, few (if any) would deny that Bad Taste in general and the first years with the world fame of the Sugarcubes in particular were very successful creatively. Secondly, a better understanding of the surroundings of one successful case might help in formulating what could possibly be named necessary conditions for success.
In an attempt to answer the question above theory of creativity and social norms where explored. The point of view is historical, building on the claims of Albert and Runco (1999) that ‘when’ determines ‘what’ in creativity. With my background in philosophy looking at history from a dialectical point of view comes naturally, but the claim that Hegel’s concept of thesis and antithesis is specially appropriate when studying creativity will also be made.
It is, however, not enough to have a creative idea. The claim to the title of creativity can not truly be made if the idea has not been put in to action and approved of at least by part of society. The paper looks at theory about social norms, and their role in forming opinions, it will also look at social networks and the role of these in distributing new ideas.
The history of Bad Taste ltd. is a rather interesting one, and various books and interviews have been dedicated to the topic. However, there is no room to do the story justice here and only a fragment of the information gathered about the company will be presented.
The outline of the paper is such. The introduction will be followed with highlights of the history of Bad Taste, after which the theory listed above will be described and discussed. The case of Bad Taste will be used as an example in the theoretical chapter along the way and the theory used to cast light on the case. In the final chapter an attempt will be made to draw some general conclusions from the specific case of Bad Taste ltd.
A brief history of Bad Taste
Bad Taste was founded in 1986 when the subculture of punk was standing at a crossroads. The golden years of ‘Rock in Reykjavík’ from 1980-1983 had been documented in a film in 1982 and in 1983 the radio show Áfangar, the only radio show in Iceland that played alternative music (Note 1: At the time there was only one state owned radiostation, with very limited time for music.)
was cancelled. In the final show the hosts where allowed to broadcast live from a concert, and to make the night more memorable they convened their favourite musicians from the punk scene to form a super group for the evening. The group liked working together, they took the name Kukl and where playing with Crass a few weeks later at a big Concert in Reykjavik. Kukl played most of their concerts in Europe and not in Iceland. This was partly because they had with the bands they came from, found that the audience for their kind of music was very limited in Iceland, but also because one of the members, Einar Örn Benediktsson, had moved to London to study and soon got involved in to the anarcho punk music scene through the Crass group.
Kukl lived for three years but towards the end it was clear that the new wave was not leading anywhere and the band members had grown tired of the seriousness of the music.
In the summer of 1986, when Einar Örn was back in Iceland, the idea of Bad Taste Ltd. was created around the former members of Kukl and their friends, many of whom came from a surrealistic group of poets that called themselves Medúsa. The struggling artists had all been working on their art but often lacked a forum for the production.
The name of Bad Taste is derived from a quote from Picasso, who is supposed to have said that good taste and frugality where the enemy of creativity. So the founders of Bad Taste ltd. turned this on the head and aimed at bad taste and wastefulness.
This can best be seen in the first two paragraphs of their manifesto which was
presented under the call for world dominance or death!
1. As "good taste" and "frugality" are the main enemies of creativity and wellbeing, Bad taste aims to fight everything that can be branded "good taste" and "frugality".
2. In the fight against the above ("good taste" etc.), Bad taste will use every imaginable and unimaginable method, e.g. inculcation, extermination, tasteless advertisements and announcements, distribution and sale of common junk and excrement.
This was followed by descriptions of Bad Taste awards, a radio station (Note 2: with the name ‘Skratti’ in English ‘Devil’) and a restaurant (Note 3 with the name ‘Drullupytturinn’ in English ‘the mudpit'). But in order to put any of these in to action the group needed money.
When the Reykjavik Peace Summit was held in Reykjavík in October 1986 the group decided to exploit the action and publicity surrounding the event. Friðrik Erlingsson went home and in one night painted a picture of Reagan and Gorbachev, a postcard was printed (twice) and sold ‘like crazy’. For the money the first single of the Sugarcubes was produced ‘Einn mol’á mann’ (One Cube per Person). The initial idea behind the Sugarcubes was to found a pop band, play less serious music than Kukl had played before and make money in order to keep Bad Taste going. Unfortunately, the first single did not sell very well in Iceland. As most of the underground music and literature produced at the time it was mainly sold by the group itself in the very few cafes and bars Reykjavik had to offer at the time. Still, Bad Taste did not give up. Einar Örn sent the music to his friend Derek Birkett whom he had met through Crass in London.
Derek was just about to found the label One little Indian and Einar asked if he didn’t want the Sugarcubes on the label, he would get everything he needed, the music and art work. The single ‘Birthday’ was published in England in August 1987 and a week later it was choosen as the single of the week in Melody Maker. The adventure of the Sugarcubes had started and did not end untill the year 1992 when they toured with U2.
The Sugarcubes where offered contracts bigger than Icelanders had ever heard about before, and when they turned them down, they where called ungreatfull teenagers by their countrymen. If those that talked loudest about the ungratfullness had realized that the contracts meant that The Sugarcubes would have had to give up a big part of the control over the music the voices might have sounded a bit different. The other more mainstream Icelandic pop groups tried to get in on the attention but the international agents were not interested in what Icelanders had previously considered ‘good’ pop music but were only interested in this strange band.
Right from the beginning, the money that came in through Bad Taste projects wasused for more creation. The Sugarcubes used the money they earned to bring other strange Icelandic bands on tour with them. Still, none of these bands got the same attention as the Sugarcubes had, and the cost of the adventure was to great for Bad Taste to continue when the Sugarcubes quit. Björk made a jazz record ‘Gling Gló’ which still sells well and in bad years this CD (along with one or two others) have kept the company on theout of the red. In the last few years the production of Bad Taste has grown once again, Bad Taste was Sigur Rós's home label but lost the band to an English label 4, as the contracts Bad Taste made with the bands allowed so much freedom that the band could easily walk out and produce the next record with the competitor. Today the contracts have been modified and Bad Taste now has first right to the next album of any artist that produces a CD under their name, although it still
leaves the artist with freedom to make the record they want.
4 Bad Taste still handles their Icelandic market.
The topic of this paper is creativity and before looking at theory it might be wise to define creativity. There are many definitions of creativity but consensus has not been reached about any one of them (Pankhurst, 1999). A common understanding of the word creativity refers to something new and creativity is used to refer to something not seen before. This can be everything from being new to the creator to being new for the whole society. In this paper this loose definition of creativity will be used and the focus put on the interaction of the creator with his environment. The following theory was selected for the reason it might help in casting light on the environment that encourages the creation of something new – unseen.
Traditionally, research of creativity has been the study of creative individuals. There are however exceptions to this and researchers such as Albert and Runco (1999), Amabile (1996) and Chizentimihaly (1997,1999) have studied creativity in a social context. Creativity does not occur in a vacuum. Social factors influence the creator and the creation, and it is in the end society that judges ideas and art as creative or not.
In the study of creativity this paper will start from Csikszentimihalys model of
creativity. Csikszentimihaly describes creativity as the function of three elements. The Society, Culture and the Individual Creator. The production of something new happens with the interaction of these three elements.
Csikszentimihaly uses culture in a traditional way, but divides it into what he calls domains. Domains are linked to specialization. Everyone can not be an expert in everything, and like-minded people gather in domains of particular interests. Csikszentimihaly claims that the level of creativity, how fast new ideas spin forth, is a function of the interest a certain domain receives. Interesting questions and the finances to deal with them will draw more people to a domain and thus accelerate the speed of development.
The role of society in the model is to select and judge ideas as creative or not.
Csikszentimihaly divides society, similarly to the culture before, into fields. These are made up of experts in the domain, other artists and critics who have the expertise to judge the creations within the field or domain.These are the ones that society in general looks to when they are themselves making up their mind.
About the creative individual Csikszentyimihaly says that he is, even from early on, more likely to go against rules and generally accepted things in society. This individual will however not be named creative if he does not manage to persuade at least some part of society that his or her art is creative. Persuasion is thus in this model an essential part of creativity.
If the model is used to look at Bad Taste it could be said that by forming Bad Taste the individual artists moved the domain and field closer to themselves. With the joint forum for their creation they had a group of people they trusted to judge their art at hand. Their ideas where accepted even if it was only by a small group of society. Most of the individuals in Bad Taste could be described as individuals swimming against the crowd. Einar Örn, widely known as the first punk in Iceland, made speeches over the heads of his peers about their mindlessness and willingness to just follow. Björk was only 11 when she made her first record, but did not feel it was her record as she had not written the songs on it her self. And just the idea of forming a surrealist group of poets in a newly built suburb in Reykjavík in the 80’s does show a tendency for rebellion against social norms
Institutional economists have long struggled to explain the existence of social norms.
Economists such as Greif (1994) and Eggertsson (forthcoming) have shown that different cultural beliefs can lead to different institutional organisation, thus indicating that social beliefs and norms influence our economic behaviour. Traditionally, social norms have been explained as a shortcut for the rational man. Instead of rationalizing every single decision, the rational man makes decisions based on what is commonly accepted within his or her social situation. This does however not explain why impractical institutions persist, instead of being substituted by more efficient institutions (Egggertsson, forthcoming). If the sole function of social norms is to ease economical decision everyone that raises questions about the validity of norms should be welcomed, but this is often not the case.
Timor Kuran (1995) has studied what he calls ‘private truths and public lies’ – how individuals tend to hide their true opinion unless they feel that they are in an environment positive towards their own beliefs. One example about his would be a dinner party where the new decoration of your boss is the topic of conversation and you end up praising the decoration as beautiful even if you really dislike it. Another example could be political opinion where, in the company of people of different opinion than your self, you simply keep out of the conversation.
The cost of going against public opinion, or what is perceived as public opinion, can be high for the individual who can not detach himself from his social surroundings, and thus the majority plays by the rules (social norms) as this choice is the most economical choice. But if everyone always did everything like everyone else there would be no development, no change and therefore no creativity.
Timor Kuran (1995) writes about individuals with an urge to tell the truth, that seem to get more pleasure out of doing so than other people and thus ignore the cost of going against the perceived public opinion. These individuals are the seeds of change in social norms. If enough people have privately shared the opinion of those few that strive to tell “the truth” together they reach a critical mass and a general change of opinion can begin to happen. Society is therefore dependent on these individuals for social norms and institutions to evolve.
This is also true within creative industries. Without change of opinions there will be no development of the arts. Everyone will be producing the same or similar works.
Castñer and Campos (2003) describe this situation by referring to what they call artistic innovation, making a distinction between the creation of yet another pop song and an innovative new form of music. With the name and their manifesto, Bad Taste ltd. defined themselves against the ruling social norm Bad taste is of course a relative concept. For there to be ‘bad’ taste there has to be ‘good’ taste. It is easy to draw a parallel between good taste and the concept of social norms, presented above. Good taste does in this context means the taste of the majority and bad taste does therefore go against the social norms, does not follow the rules.
But the relativity of bad taste does makes it hard to pin down. In the first paragraph of the manifesto of Bad Taste, good taste seems to refer to the taste of majority. But the concept does get a bit blurred and it is hard to know if the bad taste awards the group presented a few times to those that had shown exceptionally ‘bad’ taste, referred to the ‘good’ taste of the majority of the ‘good’ taste of the group it self.
The background of the group was in punk and surrealism, they where at the heart of the Rock in Reykjavik years. Three exceptional years in Icelandic music history when live music blossomed in Reykjavik. They had entertained their peers with surreal happenings and in general considered them themselves performing their art for art’s sake, ignoring the commercial side of the industry. Their taste was ‘good’ from their own point of view while the pop and disco the majority listened to was ‘bad’. In fact it could be claimed that they had formed a social norm of their own, a fringe norm that strongly coloured all their actions.
In spite of the belief that their art was good the young struggling artist did not sell a lot of art. They did not have big production houses behind them that paid for the production. The DIY line of thinking that dominated the punk culture in England was no less strong here in Iceland and there was a lively production of cassettes and copied poetry sold in cafes and bars. The DIY philosophy even got media attention where it was played against the bigger productions. Bad Taste did from the start choose the DIY line of thinking. The reason for this can be twofold. First, if an artist goes into a production house he often loses control over his art. Decisions are no longer up to him alone but a whole army of people with opinions about what will ‘sell’. The DIY mentality does allow the artist more control over his/hers creation, although it does limit the financial resources.
Secondly, in this case the DIY could however also be the result of no one wanting to publish the art which was so different from that which sold. And the risk of loosing money on the project was thus big. Artists on the fringe might therefore be forced in to DIY if they want their art published at all.
In any case the motto of the time ‘It’s not what you can do, but what you DO’5 lead the way and instead of sitting and waiting to be discovered (or death, whichever came first) Bad Taste went on their own quest to conquer the world.
The theory of creativity presented earlier and the theory of social norms have many common threads. The central theme is that development will only happen if there is someone ready to step outside that which is already socially accepted. But both emphasize the need for the acceptance of the idea for it to make a difference and be truly creative. An idea can thus not be said to be creative if it steps so far outside of what we already know and accept that we can not relate it to anything else.
To understand this the Hegelian dialectic helps. The thesis represents the commonly accepted social norm. The negative thinking that is represented in the antithesis does not step outside the frame, the new idea is formed by a reaction to what there already is and the synthesis is a bridge between the two and then goes on to form a new thesis.
5 A line Einar Örn was known to shout at the audience on concerts with his band Purkurr Pilnikk, but is originally from Bragi Olafsson the poet and bass player of the Sugarcubes
By switching over to pop the seriousness of the new wave was abandoned and the aim was to have fun (and make some money while at it). With the Sugarcubes it can therefore be said that the group went against two forms of norms. In their punk bands and the surrealist group they had already stepped outside the dominant social norm, they had formed a kind of fringe norm or subculture. But with the Sugarcubes they stepped out of this subculture without leaving it altogether.
The result was what the pop press called surreal pop music but could also, in the dialectical light of this paper be called a synthesis between the new wave and pop.
If we use the theory of Csikszentmihalyi to describe creativity, the question remains if the antithesis can truly be judged as creative? Is it not the synthesis, that which has the power to form the new thesis that is the most creative, in finding the balance between the generally accepted and the extreme.
As stated previously a creative idea is worthless without at least a part of society accepting the idea as creative. Although members of Bad Taste believed that they where doing the right thing they needed the approval of the society to truly make the change they wanted to make.
In the famous paper ‘The strength of weak ties’ Granovetter (1973) writes about the network between people as a means to transfer information and knowledge. His theory is that with only strong ties between people islands of strong ties will form.
Within these islands the people are in close contact and their knowledge, ideas and opinions will soon be the same or very similar. This might easily have happened within Bad Taste. The group and their friends all enjoyed the same kind of music and they met to listen to each other play and party together. A island that stood slightly outside the dominant social norm. They needed weak ties if they wanted to break out and conquer the world.
From their experience with their previous bands they knew that the audience for their kind of music was not large in Iceland. Even if they had made the decision to perform a lighter kind of music, that probably more people would understand and relate to, the first single of the Sugarcubes did not sell very well in Iceland. It was through a weak tie to England that Bad Taste broke out of the island. The network they used was one they had built up through the years with Kukl and even before that. Through this network they had access to knowledge about the independent music industry. The members of Bad Taste knew what they should be aware of when the big companies started the bidding war on a contract with the Sugarcubes. Thus the band never spoke with the agents separately but always as a group.
This paper started out by raising the question as to how Bad Taste managed to break out of the traditional frame of music, create a new kind of music and succeed internationally.
The theory presented in the paper indicated that creativity lies in going against the social norm, or that which is already accepted. Everything created within the social norm could have been predicted, and is therefore not new – creative. It was however argued that for an idea to be judged creative, it needed to be accepted by the very same social norm it went up against and persuasion therefore build in to the concept of creativity.
In this light, the antithesis rejecting the social norm, by stating the negative, is also fairly predictable and creativity might therefore be argued to be highest where the creator manages to draw both opposites together and form a synthesis. The synthesis will then, if it gains followers, form a new social norm.
From the theory presented the answer seems to lie in the way Bad Taste decided to step outside the social norm and openly choose to be different. Although many of them had done so individually before Bad Taste, the formal group was the critical mass needed for them to be heard within Icelandic society. With a group behind you it is easier to dare to be different and the social cost of doing so is lowered. This group was however not big enough to gather enough followers for their art to truly succeed in Iceland and it was not until they received international recognition that they did so.
Possibly this was because they were in Iceland known to stand against the mainstream and were thus judged as not understandable by the majority.
Still, Bad Taste did manage to break out of the traditional frame, between the mainstream on one hand and the fringe on the other, and create new kind of music. But their success internationally would not have been possible had it not been for the network the group had build up over the years, an extensive network of weak ties, people they had meet on concerts, in recording studios and through their import of independent music over the years. But the network is not enough, they also needed the courage to use the network to gain knowledge about the industry, as they did. This and the attitude of the rebel, that does not just accept the social norm as given, helped them in getting contracts that gave them bigger artistic freedom than generally known.
As a result they did not have to abandon their creation for something more
mainstream. It could therefore be argued that the attitude toward business Bad Taste takes is no less creative than their approach to music. Before the Sugarcubes they had prided themselves in not selling, and their attitude was still to produce their art for art’s sake. In their use of social networks and playing the record labels up against each other, they used commercial means. The result was a big contract, but on their own terms. With these two, a good contracts and music that was not only new, but also of high quality, their international success was possible.
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Smekkleysa @ www.smekkleysa.net
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