Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Euronymous's Epistles (pt. 3) - the political economy of DSP

The letters which Chagrynn sent me, allow analysis of the economic side of Øystein "Euronymous" Aarseth's independent record label, Deathlike Silence Productions (DSP). An analysis of the economic side of Aarseth's work is relevant for the understanding of Black Metal, as Black Metal should be seen as a Maussian 'total social phenomenon' rather than only a musical one. Black Metal is a aesthetic, religious, mythological, (counter-)juridical, economical and social phenomenon. Black Metal is bound up with all kinds of sociological institutions. The letters which Chagrynn sent me allow me to understand the way Aarseth conducted DSP in the socio-cultural context of that record label.

In the first letter to Morgan "Evil" Håkansson, DSP is still in a very early stage: "Yeah, we're distributing some records, we'll make a list when we get more. We must get DSP registered as a firm first also. But we quit the idea of making it non profit, because this takes so much time - I'm working 15 hours at least each day, so it'd just kill us." DSP's working methods were rather informal: "I don't know if you are interested in sending money first, that helps us a LOT in the process of starting up this label, we are really low on cash, but if you also are, I'm sending you the records first, and you can send cash when they're sold. It's up to you."

Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind in their 1998 book Lords of Chaos see this way of running DSP as evidence of Aarseth's ineptitude as a businessman.

What strikes me about this letter is the level of trust, the cooperative character of the behavior. Following Francis Fukuyama's 1995 book Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity, I'd argue that this level of trust not only point to a set of norms shared within music-oriented youth subcultures, but to a high level of trust in Scandinavian society in general. High-trust societies, like Norway and Sweden, do not have the need to negotiate and often litigate rules and regulations, that low-trust societies (China, France, Italy, Korea) have. From this perspective, Moynihan's disparaging remarks on Aarseth's business acumen might well reflect his American background, the USA being a relatively individualistic, low-trust (cynical) society compared to Scandinavia. Furthermore, one might hypothesize that Moynihan's view of Aarseth's naive or trusting way of doing bussiness also reflect Moynihan's LaVeyan Satanist ideology. This ideology promotes egoism in the form of an Ayn Randian agonistic capitalism with religious trappings. Aarseth opposed LaVeyan Satanism on theological and ideological grounds: "I can also say that I will NEVER accept any band which preaches CHURCH OF SATAN ideas, as they are just a bunch of freedom, and life-loving atheists, and they stand exactly the opposite of me." (sourced here)

By the time the second letter is written, Aarseth's ambitions have grown considerably. He hopes to expand DSP's operations by recruiting Håkansson as a representative of DSP in Sweden. "The plan is to organize a network of concert arrangers under the name Deathlike Silence also, so that a lot of bands can keep touring in different countries without problems. The idea is (to explain shortly) to get a guy to start up DEATHLIKE SILENCE SWEDEN, and manage the whole network with record distribution, concert arranging, promotion, etc etc, and even start up a shop only for underground stuff. He'll start up all those things as different departments, and get a guy to be the chief of record distribution, one for concert arranging and so on. In the end we'd have a great network for death metal which would be totally independent of the commercial market which is controlled by the big labels. So I was wandering if you'd like to join in as the chief of the DSP concert arranging department in Sweden or something?"

Aarseth's dreams of DSP as an multinational underground organization are a little grandiose, the type of fantasy inexperienced young people often have (Aarseth was only 21 at the time). I'm reminded of a friend, in his early twenties, one night proposed to start an tv station with a small group of friends - long before the Internet started to make such plans even remotely feasible. Nevertheless, this friend now runs a film production company, which proves that even the most unrealistic dreams can provide the impetus for very real businesses. Rather than proof of a lack of entrepreneurial skill, these dreams betray ambition.

Furthermore, one does not need to stretch the imagination to see residual traces of Socialist ideals in Aarseth's proposal. In effect, Aarseth proposes that DSP should become a musicians' cooperative, a business organization owned and operated by a group of Black Metal musicians and concert arrangers for their mutual benefit. Such cooperatives have their roots in Socialism. It should be borne in mind that Aarseth at the time was a member of a radical left wing political group called Rød Ungdom ("Red Youth"). A hammer and sickle (), symbol of Communism, are carefully drawn under each and every letter as part of Aarseth's signature, underlining the importance of Socialist ideas for Aarseth's personal identity.

The letters to Pocho Metallica, as well as the letters to Morgan "Evil" Håkansson, make clear how important the international underground network of Metal aficionados was for the functioning of DSP. "Now I have a big request for you, if you know any DEATH METAL bands from ARGENTINA, URUGUAY, BOLIVIA, PARAGUAY, or VENEZUELA, could you please tell them to write or give me their adress? I'm dying to get in touch with people from there! (...) Do you think that there would be any chance of setting up a Mayhem gig in ARGENTINA one day? It'd be a fucking dream coming true to play in South America! We have got great contacts in COLOMBIA now, at the end of this letter I will give you a couple of adresses! I suppose that you remember that I had my own record label (DEATHLIKE SILENCE), well now I'm looking for distributors all over the world, and I was wondering if you were interested in helping me! Everybody who sell [sic] at least 10 copies (or preferably more) of one album, will receive one free copy, + they can sell it for as much as they want. (...) You'll of course pay when you've sold them."

What is conspicuous about the relationships which the letters describe, is the absence of bargaining and negotiation. The relationships which were set up under the sign of DSP appear to be closer to the spirit of gift exchange than that of trade. Unlike 'normal' capitalistic relationships, the objects which Aarseth distributed through DSP were inseparable from the concrete relations in which they were exchanged, they were inseparable from the transferential pact which they sealed between Aarseth and the Metal aficionados with whom he exchanged letters. DSP can be seen as a ceremonial exchange system, as Black Metal Kula Ring. The DSP records had a value which exceeded (and, in a sense, undermined) their economic exchange value: a symbolic exchange value. Undermined? Yes, symbolic exchange should be primarily seen as a giving-away, as a loss.

The band members of Mayhem were as poor as church rats. The first letter explains: "And we'd like to at least get our expenses paid, we wont charge anything, but if you have the possibility to get us some cash for the gig(s), we won't mind too much... we're really broke, and it's great to get some money to help us to survive." From the second letter: "We didn't have places to stay for a while, Dead even had to live in a car." From the third letter: "We are fucking broke, else we might have afforded to pay some ourselves, we don't even have food here, sorry!" From the eighth letter: "Concerning the money you mentioned in your last letter to the goat, (for Merciless), take all the time you need. But we ARE very broke..."

If we relate Aarseth's grinding poverty to the 15 hour work day mentioned in the first letter, we are inevitably led to the conclusion that (regardless of Aarseth's entrepreneurial acumen) DSP wasn't successful from a commercial point of view. From an economic perspective, it was a waste of time. However, from a broader perspective however, the expenditure of the energy required for a 15 hour work day for an commercially unfeasible goal reveals DSP to be a 'labor of love', which does not answer the need for profit.

In an interview, Aarseth mentions dreaming of becoming rich: "I’d just like to have extremely much money. Then DSP would be a big company, we would all have the POWER in this part of the music business, and I would live in luxury with a harem and watch the children in Africa starve to death on video." However, I see these nauseating statements merely as attempts to shock the audiences of the interviews by transgressing the humanitarian, social-democrat ideals which dominated Norway at the time. They can not be interpreted as a genuine desire to accumulate capital - if it had been, Aarseth would have chosen a more remunerative line of work than Black Metal musician!

If DSP doesn't answer the need for profit, to what does it answer? To examine this, I turn to the Black Metal content of DSP's products - music recordings and concerts.

Mayhem's Black Metal is a music which aims to provoke dread and horror through symbolic representations of tragic loss (degradation and death). It would go too far beyond the scope of the present post to analyze thoroughly the many ways in which unproductive expenditure is thematized in Mayhem's music: war, Satanic cultism, spectacles, cannibalism, and perverse sexual activity (sodomy, which deflects sexuality from genital finality) are perhaps the most important. All these represent activities which - at least in the primitive culture of Black Metal - have no end beyond themselves. They are not meant to be productive, but on the contrary waste utilitarian objects and human bodies.

As for the concerts: Mayhem may well be seen as a Satanic cult which requires a bloody wasting of animals in sacrifice - pigs specifically, whose putrescent heads are displayed on stakes during Mayhem concerts. As Aarseth warned Morgan "Evil" Håkansson in the first letter : "But be aware that we're having a pretty disgusting show, which includes pig heads on stakes, stench of corpses/rotting meat on stage, and some cool effects like that. And if the gig is very good, Dead will cut himself up and bleed on the audience." And from the third letter: "What more? Yeah, the stage show! If we had a car, we could bring some pig heads and stuff ourselves, but that's not possible in a plane. So if you can get some heads for us, it would be fucking great, it's hard to get the right concert feeling without. The best would be to have 4 heads on each gig, they will be destroyed during the gig! Tell me what you think! If you have to order from a butcher, you'd better do it pretty fast, as it probably takes some time for him to get them. Heads from pigs, goats, cows, horses and oxen are great. It's pretty important! Fuck, would I like to see that show with the butchery of a goat!"

These wasteful practices provide a symbolic context from which to analyze Aarseth's activities under the banner of DSP. They provide us with a background which helps us understand why Aarseth would work at least fifteen hours a day for no profit to speak of; and why DSP's practices resemble gift exchange rather than 'normal' business strategies.

DSP's activities cannot be reduced entirely to processes of capitalistic production and accumulation. DSP also answers a need to lose and squander. It presents us not so much with a for-profit enterprise, but primarily with a means for unproductive expenditure. The economic functioning of DSP is not so much the result of Aarseth's possible ineptitude as a businessman, but of the fact that DSP aimed at limitless expenditure.

Interpreted this way, it be becomes clear that DSP was a 'total social phenomenon' rather than merely a capitalistic one. DSP was bound up inextricably with the aesthetic, religious, mythological, and social phenomenon that is Black Metal. To paraphrase Bataille, Black Metal condemns the musician to "...the most disappointing form of activity, to misery, to despair, to the pursuit of inconsistent shadows that provide nothing but vertigo or rage." The Black Metal musician can use his music only for his own loss.

Post scriptum

Scanned versions of any of Aarseth's letters are still extremely welcome! Please send them to surrealdocuments [at]

Here is a YouTube video which compiles songs from albums that were released by Deathlike Silence Productions.

Here (link) is a page with the DSP discography.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While it is intesting to read Euronymous' letters, I think that the accompanying narrative seems to miss the point and somehow believes that DSP was unique in the underground music scene. There were literally hundreds of small labels and distribution companies in the black metal, death metal, grindcore, and hardcore scenes that never made money and relied on trades with other distro services. Every underground band will remember getting in touch with such labels to sell their demo tapes, many of whom would trade you for other items they distributed.

The entire underground music scene of the 80s and 90s was one big cooperative venture. DSP became popular and well known for various reasons, but it was not unique in this regard. These pseudo-intellectual interpretations of Euronymous and DSP really only add to the mythology surrounding early 90s Norwegian black metal. Aside from the almost cartoonish 'evil' comments (e.g., about watching African people suffer), DSP was just another underground label running things in the same shoestring cooperative way that every other label did. Although it should be noted that DSP did sign some greeat bands (I still have my original vinyl pressing of Merciless' first album, which was fantastic).

I cannot help thinking that the author of these narratives had very littke, if anything, to do with the underground scene (and had never glued a stamp in their life!) back in the day.

Anyway, thanks for posting these letters. They are very interesting. Just please stop adding to the myth of Euronymous - the man and the scene he created was interesting enough without post-hoc myths.

Mike F.B.