Last year the MTV Russia music awards decided not to offer a Best Rock Band category, which - needless to say - ruffled quite a few feather amongst representatives of that genre. One of the most outspoken was a well-respected band from the southern city of Ufa, known as Lumen. Whilst complaining about the decision, the group's members also admitted their full awareness of the logic behind MTV's decision.
That rationale was twofold. Firstly, the nation as a whole has tended towards increasingly conservative genres, now adding to the pop playlists that developed in the 90s the MOR mediocrity of "chanson." Tales of starry-eyed lovers (i.e., hope) or browbeaten Nobodies (consolation). The country's eleven timezones seem decreasingly willing to believe in any form of sung rebellion, no matter how ironic.
The second problem with MTV concerned not only public taste, but the manner in which playlists are themselves composed (i.e., even before they constitute the possible scope of that taste). Advertisers, whose funds are the very lifeblood of radio companies, call the shots, and the last thing they want is to scare off listeners. This was commented upon by Lumen's frontman, Tem Bulatov (below):
"Of course we understand that almost all Russian radiostations are commercial, and therefore depend upon advertising revenue. It looks like we're not sufficiently famous nationwide to get our songs on the radio. Since we scare off advertisers with our music, we're simply not going to get it onto commercial airwaves - so we understand perfectly what the general situation is.... Everybody is busy with their own affairs. We sing songs, and the radio stations go about making money."
Despite this cold shoulder from the capital, Lumen are widely known and respected. The band has been in existence since the end of the 90s and - by way of a little context - were declared Group of the Year at the 2008 Russian Alternative Music Prize (RAMP). In the previous year the nation's music press had showered them with equal praise. True, these awards are coming from the same generic territory in which MTV shows little interest, but among the rock fraternity, Lumen are increasingly establishing a reputation as one of Russia's most admired outfits.
This week marks the release of their fifth album, entitled "Peace" (Mir).
Simultaneously with the album's release, Bulatov has offered a few observations, if for no other reason that the word "Mir" has three meanings: Peace, (Planet) Earth, and - in a slightly more archaic framework - "traditional village community." Bulatov recently said that "once the album was already recorded, we started looking for a word that would reflect the essence of what we'd done. That's how we came up with the name 'Mir.' All the songs on the disc come together like the bits and pieces of a puzzle. They form a common image and statement of how we see the world ['mir'] today. Our thoughts on the matter run through the songs like a common thread."
He continues: "The album contains a few songs about love, since it'd be hard to imagine the world without it! All the same, we didn't pass over the angrier topics. There's a sense of justice that sits deep inside every individual, a feeling for what's right. I'm constantly prompted by that same feeling that things should be different in the world. At any given moment, somewhere in the world, people are destroying one another... beneath the indifferent gaze of international TV audiences. That's how the theme of war made its way into some of the songs, too. They're all saying pretty much the same thing: 'This is not normal! There should be peace!' The way things worked out, therefore, two meanings of the word 'mir' are relevant when we're talking about these new tracks and the ideas behind them. Both of those meanings, in fact, inform one another, since what we've got here is a world in which there's insufficient peace."
The aesthetic needed to match this worldview started sounding less and less suitable for any companies selling toothpaste or chocolate bars on MTV. "We wanted to give the album a dirtier, fuller sound. Some kind of overloaded noise coming from the drums, bass, and vocals... 'cos that - in our opinion - is what'll transmit the sense of the album best of all." The CD's audible distortions, therefore, are designed to reflect an external state of affairs.
We wanted to give the album a dirtier, fuller sound
Lumen may - as they say - be addressing a moral outrage they feel as international conflict, but when it comes to domestic issues of direct, daily consequence to the band, we can see that media indifference is also affecting the group's ability to even be heard. The same primetime banality that brushes off distant suffering (precisely because of that distance) is equally unwilling to risk advertising revenue by giving airtime to anything but dancing teens and/or consoling tales of midlife melancholy.
This problem, strange though it may seem, does work on occasion to the band's advantage, in that many online portraits of Lumen celebrate the fact that their fan base and cohorts of admiring journalists have both been established without TV or radio support. Lumen's very ability to take any kind of moral stand on issues relating to modern media requires that the same media shun them. It's the need for distance or standoffishness that lets Bulatov claim that "we really don't want to become stars! I always get the impression that famous people are really lonely... And there are some moral or ethical issues tied up with fame, too. We could take from the Bible or philosophy, but even my own thought processes bring me to the conclusion that things [in the world] should be simpler!"
If musicians don't appear on mass media outlets and don't get paid as a result, income will come from record sales. Since, as we all know, piracy still decimates that area of the Russian market, ticket sales become vital. True enthusiasm and loyalty - both from the musicians and impoverished fans - comes, therefore, from concert-going: "The main thing for us has always been the number of people at our concerts."
The main thing for us has always been the number of people at our concerts.
What with the current crisis and piracy coming at the same time, Lumen have offered the new album online for free, but if a CD copy is purchased, it also includes a special code that operates as free entrance to any Lumen concert during 2009. That way the band hope to bypass piracy (to some small degree), increase concert-going numbers (and therefore word-of-mouth PR), all whilst maintaining the moral propriety of CD-quality sound... and not illegal, low-fi mp3s.
What's interesting is the degree to which this ethical outrage is expressed in ways akin to Russian rock of the 1980s. In search of a vocabulary to contradict modern problems, Lumen often resort to the rhetoric we'd associate with figures such as Viktor Tsoi - whose memory they have helped to preserve at special retro-concerts. Then, as now, rock music needed the opposing force of a corrupt social system in order to pontificate about better laws or lives. A clear-cut system of moral binarisms emerged as a result.
The song on "Mir" that operates as a de facto title track is "All The Faith and Love In This World" (Vsia vera i liubov' etogo mira). It tells - in oblique terms - of nuclear threats, ecological disaster, and a suspect faith in government per se (even if we're told that "our commanders will always save us.") The chorus' cry to arms declares that "we've seen how they're wiping out peace/the world! So... that means... TO HELL WITH THEM!" The precise target of this ire remains unclear, but it is obvious that Lumen are drawing to great effect upon a sense of the world/community/peace in terms that rallied the forces of democracy - via rock music - at the end of the Soviet Union.
According to that logic, we're left not only with the sad impression that 1991 made a lot of mistakes - but also that Bulatov et al are suggesting we roll back the clock... and try everything once more. It order to get it right.