Is It Time to Pull the Plug on PC Music?
The label have never been sure whether they're an art project or a major label, and ultimately they've fallen somewhere in between.
This article appeared originally on THUMP UK.
It's with a heavy heart that we might have to admit that PC Music might soon be kaput. And like that dusty Dell that languishes somewhere in the room your dad's incredibly reticent to let you in for reasons he'll never be able to explain, you might not be able to reboot it. You could try pressing the ON button with all your strength. You could even slap its lid a few times, swearing at the greasy monitor, and still there'd be no flicker of life. But rather than going down as the result of dodgy malware picked up during late night "research" sessions when your mum was staying at Aunty Denise's for the weekend, PC Music have been scuppered by disappointing releases and dodgy label decisions.
If your memory stretches back to the glory days of 2013, you'll remember the blog-buzz around Hannah Diamond's "Pink and Blue," arguably the strongest track to emerge from the collective to date. Sitting somewhere between Disney soundtrack fluff and angular art-school pop, it was catchier than velcro and a kind of musical equivalent to the vacuous emoji chat of the WhatsApp generation. "Bipp" by SOPHIE—a friend and collaborator of label head A.G. Cook, though not an official PC Music artist—was equally fantastic, all helium-sucking vocals and sugar-mainlining synth-work. Things back then, when we were all younger and less ground down by life's endless parade of frustrations, were looking good for PC Music. But since then, the whole movement has gone a little flat.
The danger with a conceptual work that concerns itself with the perversity of corporatism and late-late capitalism is that at some point you actually do need to engage with those things in order to eat. And like all starving young artists, the PC Music team needed to sustain themselves on more than one of GFOTY's beloved Starbucks coffees. Everything was fab at first: Lipgloss Twins expertly parodied the haul video phenomenon, and QT's presentation as an energy drink rather than an actual person was genuinely novel. Since then, though, things have become confusing.
And while art should and is a release and relief from the churning horrors that come with each and every day on earth, art that's set out to be making a comment surely needs to have some investment in reality.
As THUMP's very own Michelle Lhooq pointed out, the launch of the Pop Cube, their self-styled "Multimedia Entertainment Network," ballsed things up a bit for them. Lhooq asked, "Can the label's self-aware trolling of mass culture still work when it comes hand-in-hand with real commercialism?," and sadly the answer is a resounding thumbs-down emoji. Not to point out the obvious here, but it's pretty difficult to take anti-corporate messages wrapped up in Red Bull flags seriously. The fan-made argument that, actually, like, that's just PC Music being like totally on brand and like playing around with like post-irony doesn't hold up to much scrutiny. No matter how many post-prefixes you've got in your emerald-studded virtual holster, it's not good enough to rescue the profit-making contradiction at the heart of the project.
For a while at least, part of the label's magic was that it existed as a kind of pseudo-label. Until the end of 2014, the project lived pretty much entirely on a Soundcloud URL, a constantly updating gallery space for their zany take on pop and plasticity. At an alarming rate, tracks by the likes of comic sans producer Kane West appeared out of the deep blue of the web. It was the equivalent of a weekly Looney Tunes cartoon; a different character from the multiverse would be picked each week, with their own distinctive quirks.
Then came the paid-for downloads. Then the SXSW showcase. Then, finally, the releases through major label Columbia Records. Despite it being tricky not to come across like one of the I Used To Like This Thing When It Wasn't Really a Thing twats that clog up the internet like so many tangled pubes in a communal shower plughole, it really was more charming when it felt like the whole point of their existence was to prioritize the strangeness of the virtual over the cold, hard cash-centric state of the real. It's naive, obviously, to pretend that artists don't need to make some money to survive, but then perhaps that naivety was a pivotal reason for us tuning into what PC were doing. Or seemed to be doing, at least.
Beyond the conceptual framework falling apart, simple things—like the music—have deteriorated too. SOPHIE's much hyped album—while not an official PC music release—was a fluffed opportunity littered with some absolute shockers. It was a great example of the PC Music problem as a whole: if you've amassed a group of genuinely talented producers—which they undoubtedly are—then why devote so much time to dicking around with incredible vague "concepts" that require the listener to sink six layers into a web of irony. Why mock the pop you want to make? And, if we're being honest, how many genuine classics have emerged from the roster? A handful at most. Which isn't really enough for what was meant to be a revolution.
Perhaps the dwindling creative fortunes have something to do with the fact that some of the team seem to be spending more time working with other artists than on their own material. Certainly some of that collaborative action has borne riches—Danny L. Harle's recent Carly Rae Jepson hook-up is super-sweet pop at it's kooky best, for example—but there's been one "ft." too many. You can't just give A.G. Cook a ring if you're looking for a bit of glossy art-world edginess and expect things to stay fresh. The shock of the new—and it should be stressed just how genuinely radical the early PC Music material felt and how genuinely exciting the whole multimedia package felt, too—always becomes the dull hum of the familiar.
The expansion into the world of the actual seems to have taken it's toll on them, too. The precociousness that made the project so appealing as an online comment on the world of online comment hasn't—quite understandably—translated from URL to IRL. Showcases and Boiler Rooms, live sets and club nights have all been affected by a kind of flatness. Novelty often crumbles when faced with rigors of the environment it's setting out to mock or mimic. In this case, the idea that PC Music was music made for the hyperreal of the club fell a little flat when it was played in actual clubs.
The strength of PC Music was, and to some extent still is, that it was an art project that completely understood the context it situated itself within. Things change, though, especially in the realm of the virtual. Universality changes as much as the week's memes do, and as such context alters at a previously unimaginably fast pace. The glossily unreal, unreally glossy world that PC Music present in such a preening and pristine manner is, at present at least, disconnected from what's actually happening in the world. And while art should and is a release and relief from the churning horrors that come with each and every day on earth, art that's set out to be making a comment surely needs to have some investment in reality. Mocking faddy internet culture and rampant consumerism is a bit less interesting, funny, and incisive when you've decided to take the money and run.
PC Music have never seemed sure whether they wanted to be an art-project or a major label, and ultimately they've awkwardly fell somewhere in between. So, time to pull the plug? Or at the very least, to hit restart.
CORRECTION [August 25, 2016]: A previous version of this article failed to correctly identify SOPHIE as an artist who, though a friend and collaborator of PC Music label head A. G. Cook, is not an official affiliate of the label and collective.