Music | In The Middle with Mississippi Records

Mississippi Records co-founder Eric Isaacson pins the prominent reissue label’s success down to one thing: there was no-one else putting out the music he loved on vinyl. Of course, actually taking off requires a good deal more to go well, and Isaacson was keen to fill Hyde Park Picture House in on this as part of their tour, titled “A Cosmic and Earthly History of Recorded Music according to Mississippi Records”.

Starting off with gospel, blues and folk, Isaacson soon found himself shipping several thousand records per week, despite having no prior experience in the music industry. Spending no more than an hour on each record’s artwork (and they’d have several releases planned per month), Isaacson worked with the quote “Patience is a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue” above his desk, releasing and selling with little difficulty – even if the first 40 records carried spelling mistakes. “When [the label] started, vinyl records were the cheapest way to buy music, now they’re the most expensive way to buy music.” In an age that has seen several consecutive rises in annual vinyl sales, Isaacson reckons they’ve become a boutique product. He’s very much used to the cyclical nature of things, though, but also acknowledges that the reasons why can remain elusive.

DSC_64681Isaacson’s recalling of the history of recorded music is admittedly American-centric, mainly honing in on the mainstream focus. After introducing the sounds of a dying star (it sounded like apocalyptic free jazz, if you’re curious) and the environmental reverberations inadvertently recorded into ancient pottery, he emphasises disdain for Thomas Edison, whose phonograph (somewhat unfairly) eclipsed the works of Édouard-Léon de Martinville. Edinson became in charge of approving any and every record that could exist then, and most were novelty pieces – laughing records, the sounds of sober, solemn horns being interrupted with eerily hysterical laughter. Isaacson’s concern lies more with the ultra-centralised authorisation process of the music then, and the negative consequences and forces surrounding a single figure that once held a monopoly on any recorded music that was released.

The talk segues into the 1920s, a time that Isaacson considers to be a golden age of sorts, with record companies documenting the music of ethnic minorities using more efficient and effective electronic recording technology. According to Isaacson, the one-two punch of the Depression and World War II neutered more creative efforts, with minorities no longer being able to afford records (so their music stopped being recorded) plus the huge propaganda V-Disc push. Mix it all in with a period when record labels realised they could use a select few artists to represent entire genres, capitalising on, well, capitalism, and Isaacson’s anti-major label rhetoric starts to ring true.

It’s after this that things start to get a bit messy; the next several years saw the civil rights movement flourish and music along with it, and after that sprang things such as punk. We’ve already been warned about the paranoid nature of this part of Mississippi’s account, though Isaacson surely overplays the outlandishness of the claims that follow in order to cover himself. The Mississippi co-founder goes on to explain how hippy culture was commodified and the idea of individuality was then packaged and sold to the masses in the wake of the media’s new-found understandings gleaned from the CIA’s research and investments made into mind control. Yeah. Still, Isaacson makes a notable case, drawing relationships between industry figures and naming names. He then puts us through a montage of culturally horrific moments of the ‘80s and ‘90s; there’s a white American in an Italian food advert singing a rip-off of “Macarena”, an ice skating routine to the sounds of Nirvana that features some sort of special move commentated as the “mosh pit power roll” and, of course, Vanilla Ice.

Between all the talking, three label acts take to the stage, surely picked to demonstrate the variety and finesse of the music that Mississippi Records deal with. There’s Lori Goldstein, who silences and awes her audience with sweeping cello movements, ending her first piece by whistling a melody through a long moment of heart-stopping elegance. Dragging an Ox Through Water, who sounds like the aftermath of throwing Smog down a well and recording it. But firstly Marisa Anderson, a guitarist whose tangible influences include gospel and blues of both American and West African heritage. Between instrumental interpretations and Elizabeth Cotton medleys, she introduces a song as, “A public domain song, by which I mean a folk song, by which I mean a song that belongs to everybody – and not just record labels.” Anderson reckons these melodies have been around for a long time – claimed by the church and the state as a result of circumstance but carried through generations before them, and generations ahead too.

That kind of attitude ties into the underlying theme of the event: the cyclical nature of things and the idea of rebirth. Isaacson infers that there will be times in the future where recorded music can truly flourish, even in this world of major label dominance, though it’s up to us to fight our way there. A lot of the things we face have occurred before – Stanford Research Institute’s old algorithms that figure out how to sell things to music buyers is very similar to the way social media seems to work today – but we should take caution in any battle lines we draw.

He suggests that these highly marketed, purpose-built chart-toppers still make some people feel good, and exist to serve the purpose of being what some people need. That’s all well and good but caution should be taken when we’re overfed with pleasantries; the niceness can be stifling. Mississippi Records were so successful at first because they were the first to do what they were doing, but they surely exist because they had to exist. And for all the talk of the cyclical nature of music, the reason what they put out still sounds so good despite carrying melodies from seemingly-ancient times, the reason none of their art seems dated is perhaps because they exist outside of any particular time. Recorded or not, folk music will remain.

Tayyab Amin

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