This weekend, I started to try to work my way through my pile of “to read” articles and I started with a pair by John Schofield: with Ron Wright, “Sonic Heritage, Identity and Music-making in Sheffield, “Steel City”” in Heritage & Society 13 (2021) and with Liam Maloney, “Records as records: excavating the DJ’s sonic archive,” in Archives and Records (2021).
Both are nice articles in their own right and continue Schofield (and collaborators) long interest in the archaeology and heritage of popular music. The first article looks at the urban context for the Sheffield music scene in the final decades of the 20th century and builds on not only familiarity with urban history, venues, and a bands, but also interviews with veterans of the music scene and a survey of a leading national magazine New Music Express (NME). Schofield and Wright argue that the city’s distinctive post-industrial heritage and relative “cultural isolation” (which they left a bit undefined) allowed for the emergence of a unique sound characterized by bands like Cabaret Voltaire, Human League, Pulp, and, most recently, the Arctic Monkeys. This traced not only the DIY culture of Sheffield where small manufactures emerged in the aftermath of the collapse of the steel industry. This culture of small scale adaptation amid industrial transformation (and in a post-industrial landscape) suffused the city’s music scene with independent minded producers, promoters, and musicians. The confluence of musicians at venues (often made available through abandonment associated with de-industrialization) and festivals ensured the regular cross pollination across genres. The sounds of Sheffield, particularly the drop hammer associated with steel production, likewise contributed to the Sheffield’s “industrial sound,” which they integrated into their music through the rise of digital technology.
The methods that Wright and Schofield employ seem relevant to any distinctive music scene in the US from the New York or Chicago jazz scene of the 1950 and 1960s, to the Detroit music scene of the 1970s, or even the distinct Philadelphia or Minneapolis punk and rock scene of the 1980s and 1990s. Even the dispersed urbanism late 20th century sprawls of Los Angeles or D.C. would seem susceptible to similar kind of inquiry.
The second article looks at record collections by DJs as important archives. Schofield and Maloney note that any effort to understand the ephemeral experience of DJ sets requires that we understand the archives on which they are based. That said, scholars have only rarely take DJ archives seriously with the exception of collections such as Africa Baambata’s at Cornell. Even then, we often reduce the archive to the names of albums or tracks and overlook the various indications for how DJs use their collections. These indications ranged from cue stickers affixed to records themselves (to aid with beat matching) to notes on record covers, wear patterns, and other signs of wear and tear associated with use.
Of course, there are intriguing models for how record collections have shaped in our culture. I can’t help but think of Harry Smith’s collection and eccentric interests have shaped our view of American folk music. Similar efforts to understand the libraries of important literary figures, such as my friend Shelia Liming’s work on Edith Wharton’s library, have unlocked new reading of their works. The ephemerality of DJ sets, however, make them a bit unique. The opportunities for spontaneous creativity through the juxtaposition of music creates opportunities for new ideas and new experiences of even thread worn classics. The genius of a DJ is the genius of someone else’s library, but one that exists just for a moment. Being able to understand the production of the moment through its material traces offers archaeologists and historians a window into the craft of a DJ and the experience of music.