Eno talks about Obscure Records
with Kenneth Ansell

From Impetus 4, probably 1975-ish, kindly typed and supplied by Dave Shibler. This is the 2nd part of a 2-part article; the EnoWeb doesn't have the first part.

You seem to make yourself personally responsible and involved in the recording of the pieces, does this present any difficulties between you and the composer?

BE: There's not any argument really, because if I want someone to do a record it's because of what they do rather than because of what I want them to do. Again, since there isn't a commercial constraint in the sense that I sit there thinking, "God, I've got to make this commercial", I'm not trying to put this in the record either.

What I do find happens occasionally is that people resent this large amount of technology and think of it as a set of gimmickry that is there to distort what they do. You needn't regard it as that though. At worst you can regard it as a passive transmitter of what you do, but if you want to you can regard it as an active transmitter, a means of changing what you do into another format.

As I said earlier this was quite necessary for a number of the records because there is a difference between a performance piece and a piece you put on in your house, which doesn't have the additional area of visual events at the same time. Sometimes I suggest one or two production tricks like putting echo on things and the only reason for that is because studios are acoustically dead spaces so something performed in a studio doesn't sound like it would anywhere else but there isn't a lot of "trickiness" of that kind. There isn't a sense of resentment about it between the composers.

How do the various composers benefit financially on Obscure in comparison with how they would be treated if they had signed with a larger company?

BE: If they were signed by a larger company they would probably be better off, in fact. With Obscure, unfortunately, the percentage is dictated by Island and not by me. It's not high, but it's not low either, it's a moderate percentage. If almost any company signed them they would probably receive a comparable percentage. A company always gives a percentage on an assessment of its risk; it's not like signing the Beatles where you can afford to offer them 15% or something like that. This is signing someone who nobody else is signing, which gives the record company some kind of leverage: it's not as if you're hard to get. But then they can't be confident about the commercial concern of the thing.

How independent are you to act as you wish, and how tied are you to Island in terms of policy and product etc?

BE: I'm completely independent really. I just make the records and present them with the finished record and the finished artwork, they don't actually see what's being done until then. They don't mind that, the label started under the understanding that it was a label I organised, I think they're probably quite happy to have it this way. None of them profess to know anything about this area of music.

Do you think this area of music is becoming more acceptable (a) to the public and (b) to the organisations responsible for promoting and diseminating music for the public?

BE: Well what's happening -- though the record companies haven't yet realised this -- is that people are listening to music in a lot of different ways and for a lot of different reasons. There are a number of different instances of this which, regardless of what you think of them musically - whether you like or dislike them - stand as interesting examples of this. For example Tubular Bells is a highly successful record (the most successful record of this decade actually), and that indicates that people are quite capable of sitting and listening to an uninterrupted 25 minute piece of music which doesn't have lyrics and doesn't have all the things that were thought to be necessary to sell a record. And there are other instances like Tangerine Dream; the Terry Riley records have sold very well, terribly successful records those. Velvet Underground's Sister Ray - an incredibly good seller again. Some of the German bands, some of the Floyd's things.

They all indicate that people are moving into a listening pattern that is far less dramatic and assulting, they are capable of listening to pieces that go on for a time on a fairly level plateau and then fade out and disappear, i.e. that don't have some big climax at the end. Most of the Obscure Records have that characteristic - they exhibit a section from a continuum. The record companies continue to regard these examples as a kind of fluke, a one-off something that will never happen again; thus they continue to sign up groups that fit into the old mould of 3 minute tracks and so on.

This isn't to say that all this stuff will die out, there's still plenty of currency left in that and it will still go on. But developing parallel will be this new way of listening. Gradually what will happen will be that one or two record companies will suss out what is going on and will start to release records of it. The record companies aren't daft, they're interested in keeping in touch with the market because their survival depends on it. Also they're not interested in inhibiting the progress of music, a lot of people seem to think they sit there and say "Christ! This is a threat to capitalism, how can we stop it coming out?" But not at all, if they think they can sell it they'll release it. As soon as they think they can sell it they'll not only release it but put a lot of muscle behind it too. So when it does start happening it'll happen very quickly; I don't think it will be a slow drift.

Of course then it won't be interesting anymore - but that's another problem. Robert Wyatt always says that the most interesting period in any ethnic music is the first couple of months that the middle classes get hold of it, and then they ruin it after that. For the first short while they put a tremendous amount of energy and resources behind it and then it flourishes but then it dies from its own dinosaur proportions.

I think it probably doesn't so much die as return to its natural dimensions and fall back into a truer perspective.

BE: Yes. In fact I think that's so, the Reggae thing was an example of that. All the papers were writing up and all the record companies were signing up Reggae bands, they didn't really mind which ones, any one would do, after all "They all sound the same, don't they?" It all exploded with Bob Marley, "the Messiah of Rock is here". But they couldn't sustain that kind of enthusiasm so it wilted after that.

The only thing wrong with that is that it leaves a sour taste in the mouths of everybody concerned, everybody thinks: "Uuuuh, Reggae, I bought two of those albums and it wasn't so hot after all". But to return to this other music and the way it's presented to the public; I think mainly it's a lack of suitable venues in England rather than lack of willingness of people to put it on because these kind of concerts aren't expensive to mount. In fact compared to rock concerts they cost bugger-all, they're very, very simple events to mount.

There are, though, two forces working in its favour. Firstly there is the general disenchantment with rock concerts which is very widespread. There's a very rigid formula at the moment for concerts, bands are practically forced to tour to promote their new album, and practically forced to play their new album in the correct order of tracks. The concert is there to promote the album because they cost so much to promote that you have to recoup in terms of record sales. Nobody makes money touring in England. But I feel sure that the only reason tours are so very expensive is because groups feel they have to present more and more elaborate stage shows, sets and lighting rigs. They won't play the music in a straightforward manner anymore. It's because they're following a single line of development. The one that exploded after 1967 and in the wake of the Beatles right back as far as 1965 or so.

But which I think is about to sink back to more natural proportions.

BE: Yes. I think so. It's like Concorde, which I feel is a great moral tale. When the idea of Concorde was first mooted nobody said, "Do we really need a super-sonic passenger aircraft?", all that was said was, "Look, we know how to make these supersonic jets, so let's do it." This is a very old concept of progress that if you can do it you go ahead and do it because it's the next step in a straight line of development. Now from my point of view it would have been more sensible at that time to ask if we really needed to build a plane that gets us to New York in 3½ hours or wouldn't it be better to actually reduce the 3½ hours it takes to get to the runway from Hackney, or something like that. A similar thing has happened now with groups; since it is possible to take 24 track mixers on the road with you and elaborate tape-drops and mellotrons and so on no-one stops and asks, "Does the music really need this?"

The response to a recent Mick Farren article in NME showed that people were really pissed off with these shows and were really sick of seeing these fucking great extravaganzas where nothing particularly interesting or new happened. As soon as that happens and the audiences start declining the promoters won't be putting on these kind of groups and so they won't exist for much longer, they will in fact have forced themselves out of existence. I hope what will happen is that there will be a return to music as a more intimate social activity than that kind of pure spectator sport that watching someone play at Wembley or at the Empire Pool is, which is a most depressing experience.

But more than anything else it means a return to smaller venues, so again it means you want a new breed of promoters who are interested in putting on the same concert every night for a week in a small place. Which means again that the returns graph is flattened out. For instance, how nice it would be to have Fripp and me playing every night for a fortnight in a small place because it's the kind of music that works in a small place, it does demand a fairly enclosed tight space. You want people to feel that they can wander into this place and sit down or wander about if they want to, not the feeling "I've paid £x for a ticket, I've got to sit here and enjoy it". Suppose they had only paid 50p for a ticket, if they didn't like it they could wander out half way through and perhaps come back in a bit later. You need a much more informal atmosphere so it's not like cinema any more, something's going on and you can partake or not as you wish, which again is the feeling I like about a lot of this music on Obscure, the feeling that you can leave it for a while and come back to it later; it doesn't force you into a particular mode.