A new radio show on Resonance FM, Drivetime Underground, presents experimental music in a commercial, 'magazine'-style format – aiming to subvert it from within. We talk to its producer, Neil Luck, who has developed the project in partnership with Sound and Music's Composer-Curator programme.
The aleatory narrative of television as you lay slumped on the sofa, half-awake, with your thumb slowly pulsing your remote control.
Returning from your night shift, waiting for the baked beans to ping and the toast to finish, accompanied by the quasi-meditational healing session of the shipping forecast.
Tucked in bed with no company save for the endless scrolling of pointless opinions on Twitter...
But every so often, a divine intervention transfixes your evening ritual.
There was a time when mainstream media would invite controversy, but this kind of Trojan horse is becoming more of a rarity.
The schisms caused by subversion are central to the work of composer Neil Luck, which stands within a framework of chamber music constantly interrupted by ludicrous passages of concrète and trashy ephemera. For example, on his SoundCloud page the composition Le Premiere Sang is described as ‘a musical realisation of one of Arthur Rimbaud's 'Conneries', realised through the prism of Sylvester Stallone's realisation of John Rambo.’
Attracted, as well, to perversions – including a particular fondness for Killer Karaoke, where contestants create a form of “pop music modulated by fear... you think that if you did that in a gallery, you’d win the Turner Prize” – Luck’s practice seeks to challenge the stale air of the institution by injecting it with bizarre mainstream culture.
His new project, Drivetime Underground – a radio show for Resonance FM, which begins broadcasting on 7 May – is a translation of this creativity into something perhaps more curatorial.
The ideas behind Drivetime Underground
Drivetime Underground is Luck’s attempt to create a platform where much of the radio show is subject to subversion and perversion from a programme of performing artists and an audience able to buy airtime. He describes it not as “schtick or melodrama, but [like] a commercial radio show that employed the wrong people.”
“This show is about offering solutions, though not giving an overall answer or taking people on a specific narrative,” he says. “There are so many conflicting impulses in there that it’s about opening up space for [people's] own interpretation and reading.
“That might be politically or artistically worthy, or it’s complete shit. All those things are fine. It’s about throwing everything up in the air and seeing how it lands.”
The conditions of Drivetime Underground belong as much to Luck’s own aesthetic leanings as wanting to create a dialogue with artists he admires, and with an audience who can add their own slice of the surreal.
It is also borne from both his own experiences and London’s collective issues with surviving as an artist.
“You see [the struggle] not only in people's lives – having to take on day jobs or move out or whore themselves out artistically – but also in the way the institutions have reacted to that,” he says. “If you look at the programming choices, you see an increasingly populist attitude; the way you see them market themselves, the fact that massive institutions are being sponsored by questionable corporations.”
But rather than fight against the encroachment of the free market onto art, Luck’s perceived political ambivalence encourages artists to create in maverick ways. He sees these boundaries as new opportunities, and Drivetime Underground is his attempt to “kick up a dust, and deal with some situations that are there in front of us but brushed under the carpet, especially for the experimental music world… It’s meant to be a jarring and inscrutable statement.”
Perverting the programme
The artists selected by Luck come from a network of individuals who respond to the magic of radio. As well as a ‘bottom 10’ countdown (or count-up?) by Stephen Crowe, and on-the-ground reporters as far flung as Tokyo (Takahiro Tomatsu and Hiroki Azuma), curious projects include People With Vulvas, a play by Jenny Moore looking at the fetishisation of being an artist tied down with admin and awaiting their next rush as an email response from their curator pops up – an homage to a sex-education show based in Canada that Moore had grown up listening to.
Another side to commercial radio – advertising – has been exploited by composer Adam De La Cour, who has made a departure into B-movies, creating a short for an upcoming DVD by legendary schlock producers Troma. What interests Luck about De La Cour’s project is that “it’s not a knowing nod, but an honest B-movie… Part of the policy [of Drivetime Underground]’s honesty and sincerity, we realised, is that the show needs to be genuinely commercialised” to become an actualised radio experience.
Along with creating commercially viable content, an important facet of the project is audience participation through selling off parts of Drivetime Underground.
“There’s a few ways [the audience can participate],” Luck explains, “such as [purchasing] advertising space delivered live on air, buying their way into a top 5 playlist... the third offer is a shoutout. The fourth way is more traditional – we’re selling an audience ticket for each show, so they can sit in the studio and plug themselves in if they want, but it’s a more observational role.”
Luck has been proactive in selling advertising space, but despite the negligible prices, few institutions have been ready to pay up. “It’s interesting – we’ve contacted more mainstream establishments, even contemporary music labels, but they’ve been very put out by having to pay for having their music advertised. There tends to be more of an ‘I scratch your back if you scratch mine’ ethos to marketing music these days.”
A 'real' radio show
The effect that selling space has is to help reinforce the 'reality' of Drivetime Underground – which has “its own fiction and logic in a hermetically sealed bubble.” The audience is sucked into the bubble even in an effort to pierce it with subversive trolling; even through private capital. “We’re open to misuse and abuse,” Luck says. “For £400 someone could buy the whole marketing remit of the series to plug their EP if they wanted. It’s a level playing field, and I feel that’s very honest.”
The most pertinent concern, therefore, is something perhaps more insidious – for example, if a right-wing party were to buy airtime. “Secretly I was hoping someone would have hyper right-wing views,” Luck says. “Maybe I’ll make a feature myself: what would a hardcore right-wing avant-garde artist look like?”
But really: what are the implications if that were to happen?
“It would be the perfect outcome if they did; it’s the most pure articulation of advertising.”
This logic punctuates the 'safe space' of the arts, and draws attention to the counter-productive measures of the art world, where there’s no room for discomforting dialogue. While there is no desire on Luck’s part to attribute a certain ideal to Drivetime Underground – it is not meant to be 'purely satirical or critical per se', says the website – the honesty is disarming enough for most artists posturing for authenticity.
“Personally, the show isn’t about conveying a super clear message, it’s more about looking at this horrifically commercial world we’re plunging into, but embracing it at the same time,” Luck says. “We’re all setting up Facebook pages and curating our Twitter feeds. Most artists fully embrace that and have marketing identities. It’s inescapable, so let’s stop pretending that we’re not doing it. If it carries on like this, where will we be in 20 years?”
Drivetime Underground broadcasts on Resonance FM from 7 May to 8 June 2016, every Saturday at 3pm (repeated at 1pm the following Wednesdays). Listen at Resonance 104.4 FM / resonancefm.com
This project has been developed as part of Sound and Music’s Composer-Curator programme, which is supported by the Arts Council, PRS for Music Foundation and Help Musicians UK.
We are interviewing all of 2016's Composer-Curators here at The Skinny. Read our interviews with Composer-Curators Emma Welton and Isabel Jones & Duncan Chapman, and be sure to come back for more over the coming months.