By Beppe Colli
Nov. 12, 2017
A very large and complex puzzle that's impossible to "get"
at a glance. Many aspects are only present by implication. I'll try to be very
clear when it comes to those things that are explicitly stated.
Maybe readers are already familiar - the episode was widely talked
about all over the Web about a month ago - with the facts and figures that will
be discussed in a moment, but I think those things are worth repeating.
On September, 14, Rodney Jerkins - a
musician, songwriter, and producer who I think needs no introduction - made a
speech in Los Angeles in front of an audience of his peers. Transcriptions of
his speech appeared in many publications, with the title "I Wrote a Hit
Song with Justin Bieber. Want to See My Royalties?".
The person who wrote a hit with Justin
Bieber is Norwegian songwriter Andre Lindall, who went to live in the United
States, following his muse. Soon there was a hit, As Long As You Love Me, a
song recorded by Bieber, and a Top Ten of which Lindall owns 20%.
Here's the detail of the royalties Lindall
was paid as the writer of 20% of the song:
$149.000 is the total amount paid to him by
$53.000 is the compensation for 47.820
$765 for 1.509 spins on Sirius XM;
$258 for 38.225.700 spins on Pandora;
$218 for 34.220.900 spins on YouTube.
So, with the royalties he got from
traditional media for writing 20% of a Justin Bieber hit - something which is
quite similar to one winning the lottery - he could buy a house; while with the
money he got from the "new digital media" - which, as readers can
easily see, are the compensation for quite a lot of spins - he could (maybe)
buy a bike.
This is perfectly legal, and a consequence
of the fact that record companies negotiated the rights for themselves and for
others, too, so that "the others" often get such minuscule sums that
can't even be paid.
One can't help but wonder what will happen
when "new digital media" will totally replace the old model.
Starting with the old days of Napster, a lot of people have argued
that "music wants to be free", and that this is just a natural
consequence of the way History has developed, and that musicians will have to
provide for themselves. We all remember those talks about musicians having to
survive selling t-shirts at their gigs, and so on.
Now it's the "back to vinyl"
phenomenon that is said to be saving the music industry from collapse.
Having a look at those figures tells us
that the royalties record companies now get from the "new digital
media" are not so low, when one considers that "digital music"
is quite cheaper to make and distribute when compared to its
"physical" counterpart of old. Also, there are no percentages to pay
to wholesalers and shops, no returns, and so on.
Quite peculiar, this, those who once
protested against the record companies haven't acted in a similar manner in
order to criticize what is an oligopoly that has even fewer members than the
already tiny number of record companies of yesterday. No one appears to
criticize those agreements of dubious legality - I bet the Supreme Court would
have something to say about them - which give such meagre compensation even to
somebody who wrote a hit with Justin Bieber.
It didn't take long to understand that the diminishing of the sums
that the "physical item system" made available would soon submerge
both magazines and criticism.
No ads, no paper, no wages, no critics.
Things have only gotten worse in the online world, where - in parallel with
what happened in the world of "physical music" - there are fewer
expenses but revenues appear to be nose-diving, with readers/listeners wanting
to have fun for free, rather than getting sound information for a price.
"Criticism as a pass-time for the rich
who can afford to write for free" was in recent times a preoccupation for
the "Dean of the American Rock Critics", Robert Christgau, who in his
autobiography tried to show the parallel dimensions of "profession"
and "function" in the American society of his time.
Criticism appears to survive, if only for a
reason that's quite easy to see: one's need for an "objective
opinion". If the word "objective" doesn't sound too believable,
let's say "the opinion of somebody who's not on the payroll of those who
make and sell the items that are being discussed".
When the fishmonger says the fish is fresh,
the restaurant owner says the food is tasty and safe, the movie director says
the movie is highly creative, the songwriter says the song is quite catchy and
in its way profound, one really needs an objective view.
Of course, an "objective view"
can also mean "other peoples' opinion", something that is quite
different from "the opinion of somebody who's professionally
qualified". And as we know too well, if "everybody" see things
one way, why bother when "one" critic thinks otherwise? An attitude
that when it comes to music is more and more common as the music becomes more
and more "tactile".
Those who still relate to music in the old
ways, with an important role reserved for language, still value critics and
criticism quite highly, both on paper and on the Web. Though one sometimes has
the disturbing feeling that "old media" are artificially kept alive
in order to sell those old-style items for which online peer groups are a weak
source of validation, and so, a weak incentive to buy.
In the "nose-diving" wage scheme that by now appears to hit
those specialized roles of yesterday and their middle-class wages, critics
remember with a sense of nostalgia those $100 reviews paid by such monthlies as
Blender, and the time - so near, so far - when they angrily discussed the movie
Almost Famous and its treatment of a symbolic figure such as Lester Bangs.
Reading many reviews of large boxes and
"properly done re-releases", one gets the feeling that those objects
were not necessarily in the hands of those who reviewed them, at least not with
the proper amount of time one needs to write something profound while meeting
one's deadline. As it's easy to see, one week is not enough to really listen to
a box featuring 2.8 days of concerts, in various formats.
It's difficult to believe that a reviewer
that has never seen, or listened to, the original version of an album whose new
re-release "just like the original album" s/he has to review has other
choices than trying to guess right, and hope for the best.
When it comes to recorded sound, there are
those who - of course! - talk about "different strokes for different folks
and all that" and "splitting hairs", but I think that getting
compressed files is not the ideal solution when reviewing releases that are
said to be of the "audiophile" kind.
Let's talk about things that "hit the
eye", such as the (low) number of pixels that makes a lot of today's vinyl
re-releases look "washed out".
I still remember - let's insert a moment of
levity in this discussion - the cover of a vinyl re-release of the highly
celebrated Rolling Stones album Exile On Main Street where the cover image was
tinier than the usual 12" square, so at a certain point on the right the
image ended... only to start again, with more than a few pictures appearing
The quite elaborate cover of the Rolling
Stones album Their Satanic Majesties Request in its re-release version has been
examined with much attention, revealing shoddy "copy and paste"
Photoshop work intended to hide the fact that the original images were missing.
One can't help but laugh when reading about "a fantastic cover that looks
just like the original".
But the modern world makes it possible for us to access things that
didn't exist before. For instance, the Web makes it possible for people from
all over the world to participate in discussions where everybody can add their
So one can read that in the 70s the words
"Babylon by the Bay" were a nickname for San Francisco, something
that adds meaning to the Steely Dan song Babylon Sisters, and that one can read
thanks to somebody who lived there in the 70s.
These communities where people's
participation is voluntary could be regarded as being a collective equivalent
of the work done by yesterday's critics.
But the "for free" nature of
people's efforts has a serious drawback: that while it takes a lot of people to
get interesting results, the number of active participants is quite low.
For those who are fans of things that are appreciated by a minority -
"difficult music" being one of them - the gradual disappearing of
those "serious magazines for the masses" has consequences that are
impossible to counterbalance.
If one accepts the idea that "modern
rock criticism" was born fifty years ago with U.S. bi-monthly Rolling
Stone, the notion that "the new" and "the industry" walk
side-by-side should not be enough to make one think that the work of critics
has been "dirtied" by the proximity.
The fact that nowadays one can easily read
whole archived libraries makes it possible for one to see that such people as
Jon Landau and Stephen Holden could investigate the work of such an artist as
Paul Simon in depth. When the music became more difficult there was a serious chance
of things going bad, and there are many examples of this happening.
There's a crucial passage here: the
possibility of formulating a distinction between a serious magazine and one
that is not as serious, or not at all. I know quite well that there are those
who profess that such a distinction is impossible to make. I also know quite
well that many people who hold this belief write poor pieces for shoddy
To be more precise, having a quality
magazine print in the same issue serious articles about Metallica, Richard
Thompson, and Henry Kaiser - or about Sting's, Phil Collins's, and R. Stevie
Moore's personal studios - makes it feasible to talk about Richard Thompson,
Henry Kaiser, and R. Stevie Moore.
The fact that nowadays newspapers and magazines
of any type and size give a lot of space to music makes it difficult for a
quality music magazine to survive. Sure, there are a lot of "niche
artists" who are interesting for a "highly specialized
audience". But who will pay for those magazines' contributors?
We still have people who in the international panorama, within their
individual area of expertise, can shed light on their subjects. For instance,
when it comes to songwriting, Paul Zollo, who also wrote a book called
Conversations with Tom Petty, published in 2003.
When Petty died, Zollo wrote - on the
website of the magazine American Songwriter, on October 6, 2017, under the
title On The Life And Times Of Tom Petty - that in the introduction penned for
that book Petty wrote that Zollo would show up "ridiculously prepared, to
the extent of knowing how to play the songs himself".
"This was true", writes Zollo,
"as knowing the song from inside out, and understanding its ingenuous
architecture, is the only way to truly discuss the totality of a song with its
Readers who have patiently read up to now have noticed that my
attention has been devoted to things that could be defined as "obstacles
of an external nature" for the good health - or survival - of (music)
But there is another aspect, something that
- as a Trojan horse - enters a part of criticism that could be defined as
"internal" and "constitutive", and in the end fabricates
"simulacra" of critical objects.
For reasons that will become clear in a
short while, those "simulacra" progressively take the place of
criticism, depriving it of space and oxygen, in the end becoming part of the
class of "obstacles of an external nature" discussed above.
Complex, difficult? Not at all, as I'll
show in a minute.
Let's think about three famous architects - for instance, Renzo
Piano, Rem Koolhaas, and Thom Mayne. While their buildings greatly vary when it
comes to their style, function, philosophy, they all share an important
feature: they don't fall down.
We can separate man-made objects in two
large categories: "those that when built badly fall down" and
"those for which this criterion is not applicable".
Society "chooses" and
"decides" which parts of life are to be closely watched and
regulated: it's not possible for one to become a doctor unless one has passed
certain exams; buildings and bridges have to be tested in prescribed ways, the
same being true of medicines and cars.
A record review cannot
"collapse", and the critical realm is one of those society
"chose" not to "regulate".
One can say that the arpeggio that opens (Don't Fear) The Reaper by
Blue Öyster Cult reminds one of the Byrds. Some time ago, the group guitarist,
Donald Roeser, who penned the song, said the arpeggio was the same one that
opens the song Born On The Bayou by Creedence Clearwater Revival, only faster.
So one can say that the arpeggio reminds one of the music of the Byrds, but
that inspiration was found elsewhere. But arguing that the guitar parts of this
song remind one of Led Zeppelin is false, and it is an "eternal" kind
of falsity that doesn't change with time.
For those who don't like "pop"
for instances, one could say that the synthesizer piece created by Brian Eno
that starts the Matching Mole song Gloria Gloom reminds one of Tod Dockstader's
music, particularly his composition Quatermass. One could listen to both pieces
side-by-side, then arrive at one's conclusion. One could call Brian Eno asking
him about it. What one cannot say is that the Eno piece reminds one of Touch by
Morton Subotnick, because it's not true. The fact that this assertion is false
can be demonstrated.
Let's now imagine a continuum where on one side there are assertions
like the ones discussed above, on the other there are assertions like the ones
"The new album by ZX is a freedom
shout more devastating than any past releases the dirty and maudit rock has
vomited up to now."
"The new album by XZ cancels those
porous limits the singer stood by, while here she chooses a fluid identity
while not reneging on her past in its liminal sense."
For a long time now I've regarded this kind
of writing as a screen behind which those who are not prepared, or haven't done
their homework, hide.
It goes without saying that the above
sentences are impossible to confute, also meaningless.
It goes without saying that no society can survive while letting
"freedom of interpretation" as represented by the quotes sketched above go
rampant in all walks of life.
So there are realms of knowledge - for
instance, designing computer chips or devising new ways to make forensic
research available to A.I. software programs - where one "cannot
Also other realms - for instance, that of
"humanities" - where one can safely argue that pigs can fly.
There are newspapers and magazines where
people say whatever they want about whatever facts with no fear whatsoever of
being challenged. Whole nations or social groups that believe what they want.
Sure, sometimes as a collateral effect one
has a Brexit or a President Trump.
I still remember those times when (in a record shop, or on the radio)
I listened to the sound that starts the world-famous Emerson, Lake & Palmer
song Take A Pebble for the first time. I immediately wondered "what is
this?". Those questions are often the starting point of a better
I won't use the word "objective",
but the expression "internal" to the object. Categories may change,
but the meaning of music has to be found "inside" the music.
A quite widespread trend - mostly in the
United States, though one could argue that the roots to this can be located
elsewhere - is the one that regards music as an expression of a different
"thing", and that argues that in order to understand the former, one
has to investigate the latter. And the first thing one has to investigate is
something called "identity".
The - ahem - porous borders of those
articles make it possible for some to write "meaningless"
assertions - the summation of various fields of knowledge in their raw
form - and sell them to the press all over the world, at the expense of
articles that put music on top.
Readers are invited to picture university
courses where students are taught the "right way" to deal with the
arts, a bunch of graduates fighting in order to get those few jobs still
available at those newspapers and magazines that still pay contributors, a
clique of writers lauding each other, and a tour when one talks about a book
which deals with "porous identities". That's reality.
Even if Ann Powers has never been one of my favourite music writers,
in time my reading of her articles had me worried, with a slow but deliberate
progression on her part from something that could still be recognized as being
the fruits of critical work to a dimension that with more than a little effort
could be defined as "cultural".
Powers has generously granted interviews
while promoting her most recent book - Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black &
White, Body and Soul in American Music - with a whole chapter available to read
for free online. If one is permitted to judge a whole by one of its parts, I'll
say this book reminds me of those books that in those horror movies make those who
read them go insane.
But I've always thought that the Gold Medal
of new criticism should go to Prof. Amanda Petrusich of Gallatin University,
New York, staff writer at the New Yorker, contributor to many magazines that
still give one a paycheck - from Pitchfork to Esquire - also writer of three
I have to immediately make it clear that the piece I'll discuss below
was not chosen for being her worst - in this respect, Petrusich's many
interviews are something else - but because it's recent and definitely
I didn't purposely choose the most
meaningless sentences. For those who are curious, the piece can be easily
accessed on the New Yorker website under the title Free Falling with Tom Petty,
October 3, 2017.
One has to suppose that the obituary of a
very famous artist will say the most important facts while also offering some
interpretative keys for those readers who'll want to go deeper.
Here's a key passage:
(...) "and I've often wondered if the
verse that opens the song "Free Falling" (...) "was in some
small way an accounting of his own beginnings".
Which is an excellent interrogative. Which
- alas! - gets no answer. But at least one knows that Petrusich asked herself
The song's first verse, Petrusich writes,
goes like this: "She's a good girl/Crazy 'bout Elvis/Loves horses/and her
boyfriend, too". (...) "A list of the things that he thought should
matter, the things that could get a kid through." That's for sure. But to
whom should they matter, to the girl in the song or to Tom Petty? The
distinction is important, but the answer never comes. Anyway, one knows that
Petrusich asked herself this interrogative.
Tom Petty was an important artist, in both
quality and quantity. What can one say about this?
"Surveying the work now, it's hard to
surmise a single narrative, or to properly quantify exactly what he meant to
rock and roll."
Well, I understand that surmising a single
narrative is hard. Also properly quantify exactly.
In the end, one is left with this
"How do you sum up that kind of
career, draw conclusions?"
An interrogative those who have to write
the obituary of a famous artist think about long and hard before writing, in
order to offer readers an answer. But here the enormity of the task at hand
appears to make Petrusich speechless.
Luckily, it is Petty himself who appears to
offer an appropriate interpretative key from the afterlife:
""You don't know how it feels to
be me", he cautioned on "You Don't Know How It Feels", from
Fair enough, but this doesn't appear to be
a pertinent observation to what had been argued before.
I seem to remember that in the same song
Petty also says something like: "So let's get to the point/Let's roll
another joooooint...." - maybe he's suggesting a more appropriate way in
order to find an answer to those unanswered questions?
(I don't know if it's true, but there are
those who swear that after John Lennon composed I Am The Walrus his cook
started bringing him tiny little fishes in the raw, inside an iron bucket,
throwing them at him from a distance, having confused the song with real life.
The cook was soon fired.)
An observation of great importance comes to
us under a humble verbal guise:
"Yet I'm fairly certain Petty knew how
it felt to be us."
Which is bound to raise a lot of doubts. We
don't know how it feels to be Petty, at least the one who sings the song. Yet
we are certain we know he knew how it feels to be us. How can it be?
Here it is! After a colloquial expression -
"what kills me" - intended to signify that someone who knows the word
"liminal" is not that far from "the streets", Petrusich
drops the bomb:
"Petty understood how to address the
liminal, not-quite-discernible feelings that a person might experience in her
lifetime (that's in addition to all the big, collapsing ones - your loves and
losses and yearnings)."
If one has to take it seriously, this
assertion appears to be similar to the old "ontological argument"
about the existence of God, which was rejected by Kant (I seem to remember
something featured at the end of his Critic of Pure Reason, perhaps?).
But why Petty is supposed to be the only
one possessing those qualities? What can we say to those still reading this
We have an answer!
"I can't think of another songwriter
as tuned in to these in-between, transitional moments - to the blank spaces
between our catastrophes and triumphs, when we are desperately trying to sort
out what comes next. When we take to running."
I don't know about the part about running,
but the part about "desperately trying to sort out what comes next"
definitely reminds me of someone.
Driving safely to the conclusion, here's at
last a solid proof.
"I have, at various points in my life,
cited Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' "Greatest Hits" as my
favourite record of all time. He's such a distinctive singer, with his own
syntax and emphasis and tone, and that mysterious patois; I loved his work
enough to love him, too."
What to say? Bravo! Except for the part
about the "mysterious patois", which I'd like to be better defined,
except for the fact, of course, of it being mysterious.
But can citing an album as "my
favourite record of all time" "at various points in my life"
prove to be enough as the writing on the tombstone erected by such a
distinguished U.S. magazine?
It's not with joy that I wrote this piece, nor its ending. But I
firmly believe that critics must defend rationality.
The overflowing of such articles as the
Petty obituary clearly show the tragedy we live in and the one that's to come.
The exercise of criticism as an exploration
of "something" "out there" which can be rationally argued
is getting replaced by a crazy mixture that fuzzily assembles what is believed
to be true, morsels of texts almost randomly linked, faulty parallels between
what is part of one's life and other people's narrations as they are
subjectively reworked, in a critical exercise that wants the freedom of
literature while declaring itself to be a true description of the world.
It would be a very bad thing even if this
nonsense were confined inside a University class. If those barriers still left
standing will fall down, there'll be no future left.
© Beppe Colli 2017
CloudsandClocks.net | Nov. 12, 2017