Slow media might sound like a contradiction in terms but here we celebrate three media companies playing the long game, sticking to their guns and using their individuality to their advantage.
The media’s a crazy horse. A wild beast that bucks from pasture to prairie, forever seeking a new path; seduced and spooked in equal measure by the horizon. Plenty of media – newspapers, TV, software companies – behave like skittish colts in a gale. Sometimes they follow the pack off the edge of the canyon.
The way you consume news and entertainment is changing but it’s still news and entertainment. It’s still there. The rush to embrace the next big thing, the social networking site as news generator, the belief that the physical’s gone and died, that paper’s past it and that books belong in a museum was premature.
Monocle’s got no time for stick-in-the-mud media, but we’ve found three cultural brands that have found their niche and serve it stylishly.
EMI’s old London vinyl press, was bought in 2001 by two entrepreneurs. Its beautiful limited editions keep sales rising.
The arrival of CDs in the early 1980s was heralded as the end of the comparatively cumbersome vinyl. The boot is now firmly on the other well-lacquered foot however, with the digital revolution causing a polarisation between ease (digital) and quality (special editions such as vinyl). The kids may be walking around with their music collection on a micro- chip, but there’s also a growing trend of investing in products that deliver high-quality musical (and visual) experiences.
Housed in a dilapidated warehouse in the Victorian satellite town of Hayes, west London, is the secret weapon of a very 21st-century media brand – The Vinyl Factory (TVF). This is the location of the old EMI vinyl press, sold off for a song by the major music label in 2001 when the death knell of traditional records seemed to have tolled its last. “This is where vinyl was sent to die,” says TVF’s creative director Sean Bidder, and it doesn’t take a very active imagination to see the hulking iron presses as industrial skeletons in an aural elephants’ graveyard.
Die it did not, however, and the latest Nielsen SoundScan figures for 2008 show a growth of more than 90 per cent on the previous year, predicting sales will hit 2.8 million in 2009. This may only translate to a tiny slice of the overall album market (hovering around 1 per cent), but a growth sector in today’s music industry is the stuff of boardroom dreams. The EMI press was bought by entrepreneurs Tim Robinson and Mark Wadhwa, a calculated risk that Bidder explains was “based on a belief in the intrinsic value of British manufacturing and of quality as the point of difference in a digital market”.
The press is steeped in music-making history, from shellac gramophone production through to the birth of pop (The Beatles were first pressed here). Roy Matthews, the factory’s septuagenarian general manager and the designer of the original 1950s plant, still oversees the process as pellets of PVC are heated to 160C, pressed at 100 tonnes and cooled before being centered to +/- 1/1000 of an inch (using the highly technical tool of a rubber mallet).
But the place isn’t run on fogey-ish principles; it’s about meeting a need for craft. “We apply an art world mentality to music production,” explains Bidder. “Whereas music is currently all about cutting costs and shifting maximum units for very little money, we focus on the product and carefully limit our editions.” As well as the manufacturing arm, TVF has a retail space, a magazine, a publishing company and two galleries-cum-performance spaces to its name. “In the past, we may have just been seen as a manufacturer, but we now oversee an entire media process – from working with the artists through to design, manufacturing, live events and retail.”
Having produced highly collectable runs with artists such as Massive Attack, Pet Shop Boys and Damon Albarn, TVF has pioneered a new working relationship within the music industry. “Unlike traditional labels, we don’t want to own an artist. We collaborate with them on projects to create something special. Music fans might get 95 per cent of their music for free, but this means they are even more careful with how they invest that 5 per cent,” says Bidder. Although “breadth for free” may seem to be the future for much of the media, depth is always going to be valuable, and companies like TVF produce experiences worth paying for.
In midtown Manhattan, high above the bustle of the diamond district, Batty maintains a commitment to publishing stunning art and design books.
The Kindle doesn’t concern Mark Batty. He wrote an article entitled “The Kindle Can’t Scare Me”, in which the founder and president of Mark Batty Publisher (MBP) – a small art-book company, which has been around for six years and has four full-time employees – extols the virtues of the printed page, and sets out a litany of problems with Amazon’s digital reading device. Primary among these are the Kindle’s current inability to show design, and illustration, and these are two things that Batty, an Englishman who’s been living in America for 25 years, holds in high regard.
“My interest is, and has always been, in books as objects. It’s about a complete package. You can pick it up,” he says, while handling up a copy of The Noir A-Z, a board-book the size and shape of a brick, by Julian Hibbard. “It’s an experience.” Mark Batty Publisher, which now has nearly 100 books in its catalogue, produces, on average, three books a month from this office. “We’re more focused on subjects than personalities,” says Batty (below) on how he chooses a project. “After all, personalities cost a lot.” The titles are mostly niche (no less than two books have been devoted to charaben, the art of making boxed bento visually appealing to encourage children to eat it), but the disparate subjects, which run the gamut of popular visual culture, are united by one thing: everyone at the company likes them.
“We don’t take on books because we think they’re going to sell,” says Christopher D Salyers, the production and design director, “We all actually believe in these books.”
This philosophy, paired with a smart business model (MBP recently switched its distribution to Random House) has ensured the company’s growth continues to accelerate – notwithstanding the Kindle, internet, and an economic climate that you might think wouldn’t allow for an entire book about the signage of fast-food chicken restaurants (Chicken: Low Art, High Calorie will be published in February). “It’s been business as usual for us over the last few years, even as the publishing industry has collapsed under it’s own dead-weight,” says Buzz Poole, managing editor.
“A lot of the things [other publishing houses] are doing are informed by what we’ve done,” says Batty, “but I take it as a compliment. After all, there’s always another idea.”
- EdgyCute (Harry Saylor with Carolyn Frisch, September ’09)
- Bay Area Graffiti (Steve Rotman and Chris Brennan, Jan ’09)
- Drawing Autism (Jill Mullin, Nov ’09)
- Shapes for Sounds (Timothy Donaldson, Oct ’08)
- Afrikan Alphabets (Sadi Mafundikwa, May ’04)
On location in beautiful cinemas across the city, the autumnal celebration of film is curated for cinephiles, not paparazzi.
“To understand the Viennale,” according to Hans Hurch, director of the Vienna Film Festival since 1997, “it’s important to know that a mutual relationship of trust has been built between the festival and its audience for years now. This relationship enables free and ambitious programming, and the audience trusts the Viennale in putting together a serious line up of high quality.” The Viennale (as the festival is near-universally known) has steadily grown a reputation for quality, boldness and imaginative programming among committed cinephiles since its low-key 1963 beginnings.
Over the decades the festival has found its identity as a meeting-point for those who are passionate about cinema: the fans; film-makers; critics; programmers of other cinemas and festivals. Avoiding the headline-grabbing, paparazzi-magnet distractions that mar so many better-known film festivals, the Viennale stands as a showcase of where cinema is, where it’s going, and where it has been.
Therefore, around half of each year’s programme comprises “vintage” or archive offerings, from august arthouse masterworks to crazed cult and kitsch oddities – Timothy Carey’s legendary underground opus The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962), complete with original Frank Zappa soundtrack; a pair of “lost” 1930s classics by Japan’s “Shakespeare of cinema” Kenji Mizoguchi; a dozen-strong Tilda Swinton retrospective.
These appear alongside meticulously selected current titles that lean towards the radical, challenging and politically charged end of the global independent cinema spectrum.
And it certainly helps that the films are projected in some of the most atmospheric, architecturally striking picture-houses in this grand city of Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder and Michael Haneke (not to mention Harry Lime.) There’s the 1950s canalside Urania, complete with rooftop observatory; the tapestried walls of 19th-century Kunstlerhaus and Metro’s ornate wooden booths; the colossal, functional splendour of the 1960s Gartenbaukino; and the classics-only Filmmuseum, tucked away under an ornate corner of the sprawling Hofburg palace.
The cinemas are used year-round for projecting films, but are at their most crowded and vibrant during the Viennale period. They’re handily located near the metropolis’s inner-orbital Ringstrasse – a short tram-ride for those who are conserving their energies for post-movie debate over beers in a kaffeehaus konsul. Typically sensible organisation in a stimulating city whose seventh placing in Monocle’s latest ranking of Liveable Cities is partly due to national and regional governments recognising the importance of long-established organisations like the Viennale, which take an uncompromising, rigorous yet accessible approach to culture. As Hurch notes, “The Viennale is the city’s only essential international film event and defines the city’s cultural autumn as a lively place of communication and exchange.”
Accident (feature, Pou-Soi Cheang, Hong Kong) The latest ice-cool thriller from East Asia, in which an assassination bureau carries out hits disguised as tragic accidents, is already slated for a Hollywood remake.
Berlin-Stettin (documentary, Volker Koepp, Germany) Viennale director Hans Hurch’s personal recommendation from this year’s line up examines the social upheavals in Germany since the Second World War.
Initiation (feature, Peter Kern, Austria) Hard-hitting tale of neo-Nazis on the streets of Vienna from one of the city’s most uncompromising writer-directors, a Fassbinder-era survivor.
Lourdes (feature, Jessica Hausner, Austria) Award-winning parable of faith and doubt from the most acclaimed of Austria’s younger generation – touted as the heir(ess) to Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl.
The Man’s Woman and Other Stories (feature, Amit Dutta, India) A major new voice from the sub-continent presents three stories exploring the relationships between men and women.
Monster X Strikes Back – Attack The G8 Summit (feature, Minoru Kawasaki, Japan) Exemplifying the Viennale’s ability to sniff out obscure, offbeat oddities, this politically-charged monster-mash plays like a collaboration between Noam Chomsky and Godzilla auteur Ishiro Honda.
Police, Adjective (feature, Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania) From the writer-director behind 2006’s arthouse hit 12:08 East of Bucharest, an audaciously cerebral take on the seemingly clapped-out cop-procedural sub-genre.
A Prophet (feature, Jacques Audiard, France) Hitting UK screens in late January, a hard-hitting prison epic from the man who brought you Read My Lips, showcasing an incendiary central performance from newcomer Tahar Rahim.
A Real Life (feature, Sarah Leonor, France) The Viennale always had a soft spot for France’s bad-boy thespian Guillaume Depardieu – who died at 37 in 2008 – and this romantic thriller, his final screen appearance, stands as a fine epitaph to a great, wasted talent.
The Woman With The Five Elephants (documentary, Vadim Jendreyko, Switzerland/ Germany) Surprise box-office success of the festival has been this absorbing profile of an octogenarian Ukrainian who, after traumatic wartime experiences, devoted her career to translating Russian literature into German. Ecstatic word-of-mouth led to round-the-block queues.