By Beppe Colli
Nov. 26, 2011
Funny how time flies when you're having fun... So true! Yet another
year has gone, and today is Clouds and Clocks' ninth birthday. Hooray!
So, as usual, I'll have fun thinking aloud about this and that, and looking
for clues about what's in store.
For a start, I want to reveal all about a
minor, private event: Not too long ago, a reader kindly promised to send
me a T-shirt that says "Dour Power!". This is obviously due to
my way of looking at things, an outlook which more than once has been referred
to as being
"apocalyptic" (though in this case I'm told that the intentions
on this reader's part are to be regarded as "affectionate"). So,
I get to wear a new T-shirt. Plus, I learned what "dour" means
("dour refers to a grim and bitter outlook or disposition").
Which is true, but stopping here would be
like telling only half the story. I have to confess that my attitude is
very often quite pragmatic, as when one deals with Dystopia - a "negative
Utopia", so to speak: "Things could turn out to be this way,
so if you regard this as an undesirable outcome, you have to behave quite
differently" (which takes us back to the old "if... then"
framework). Sometimes analysis tells us that an outcome is unavoidable, but
this too could be useful to know: "If you're looking for a new compensation
scheme for working musicians, under the present conditions, well... don't
waste your time".
Provided I understood correctly, sales of recorded music have gone
down (again), the growth in revenue from the sale of digital files (a growth
that some argue as being on the rise - others, in fact, think the opposite
to be true) being far from compensating for the fall in revenue derived
from the sale of "hard goods", i.e., CDs. (It has to be noted
that "a file that's bought" means quite often "one song",
as in "a single", as opposed to the various tracks that are normally
featured on one CD.)
But if we look at the "20 or less"
age bracket, what we find - which appears to be a common trait to all western
countries - is that the great majority of people never pay for music,
and not only that: they also believe that paying for something that is
available for free is quite bizarre, and a fact to be explained. This
behaviour is not confined to those genres we call "chart" or "commercial"
music - it doesn't really matter here if we're dealing with ideological justifications
of some sort, or just a kind of pragmatism derived from some
"tradition" (as in "nobody I know has ever paid for this").
Variables like "age" and "culture" are more useful as
factors which help us understand (which doesn't mean, of course, that there
are no such things as "downloading grandparents").
Any successful item - be it a song, a movie,
or whatever - becomes more and more similar to a gadget, limited life-span
included. Typical consumers don't "grow", so the "slice" of
people who sustained the work of all "difficult" artists becomes
tinier and tinier. It goes without saying that, when it comes to self-perception,
there a lot of people who perceive themselves as "cultivating all
that's difficult and uncommon", but if one has a look at the
"list", things are quite different.
Given this framework of "singular minds",
there's no role left for critics. Things appear about to hit the bottom
anyway. Just a for instance: according to a two-page article on Brian Eno
that recently appeared in the magazine of one of Italy's most respected
newspapers, "Eno was the founding member of Roxy Music, a group where
he was the guitar player". I mean, what next?
Cruising the Web, I happened to read quite a few interesting debates,
the best ones for me being "Will records companies manage to survive
in a downloading-only scenario?, and "Will CDs cease to exist at the
end of 2012?".
The debate about the end of the CD format
- as in, it won't be manufactured anymore, as it's already been the case
with cassette tapes and typewriters - is an interesting one, since it deals
with the notion of "volume". When optical readers - those featured
in computers and cars - will get to be replaced by different ways to read
data, manufacture itself will cease. This was already a known fact. What
appears to be a surprise is the sudden acceleration of change, a factor
which could make those box sets that are at the forefront of the "hard
goods craze" a lot less appealing, calling in doubt their future desirability.
(I could be very wrong here, but the turmoil I seem to perceive when it
comes to changes in the scheduled release of some limited editions/box
sets could be due to a fear of a glut in what once was a seller's market.)
Anyway, it appears that the foreseen prosperous
future when hi-res files will be sold at great profit won't materialize
(as it's already been discussed everywhere, anybody can tell the difference
between a hi-def image and one that's just average, the same not being
true when it comes to sound).
The unavoidable outcome appears to be that
record companies as we know them will vanish soon, which appear to leave
most people unmoved: When was the last time record companies took care
of art, and their artists, anyway? This could be a long, complex debate,
but for now this will suffice: The conglomerates that dealt with recorded
music kept afloat a mix of recording studios, engineers, producers, and
all sorts of devices (the complex know-how required when it comes to making
decisions about recording, arranging included) which is totally out of
reach for those musicians who own themselves, and which, given time, will for the most part disappear.
It goes without saying that this discussion
can appear as futile: If record companies as we know them will soon disappear,
but nothing will really change for those musicians who play "difficult" music,
aren't we just wasting out time? Maybe so.
For reasons beyond my will - the laser in my CD player #1 being in
need of repair - I've been listening to a lot more vinyl albums than my
usual. As it usually happens to me, I was surprised by how many hours I
managed to spend listening to music without that horrible sense of aural
fatigue that I experience every time I listen to a lot of CDs (I hasten
to add that my system is quite balanced when it comes to quality - there
is no $12,000 cartridge sitting side by side with a $400 CD player). As
usual, I noticed that the volume knob went up a lot higher that when listening
to CDs, but the sound was never "too loud". And I've read about
similar occurrences to know this was not due to any personal idiosyncrasies
on my part.
Just to be clear, one of the most recent
vinyl albums I own is the one simply titled Robin Holcomb, released in
1990 (the first Robin Holcomb LP featuring just her songs). So I'm not
talking about re-releases, or digitally sourced albums.
I was quite astounded to see how bad, for
the most part, the music I've listened to in the last twenty years or so
has got, compared to what I bought during the "LP age", when
it comes to appeal and coherence in sound. There are (of course!) quite
a few exceptions to this, but for the most part what I hear is recorded
music going backwards, fast. It goes without saying that things can be
different when it comes to a string quartet, or a piano-saxophone duo.
And of course innovative music will make one happily ignore all sorts of
evil things (but innovative music has not exactly been in abundance lately).
Which is a good explanation for the boredom I experience while listening
to a lot of CDs I find in my mailbox (but thanks anyway for thinking about
me!), and the increasing amount of "militant listening attitude" that's
needed to rightly encourage those who are
"almost there... but not yet".
one adopts a
"macro" perspective, all sorts of similitudes appear. Let's just
think about the gradual disappearance of the "middle layers", individuals
now happily taking upon themselves all sorts of roles and goals, which are
experienced as an increase in the amount of freedom at one's disposal. Above
all, an increase in "autonomy", as in "creating one's set-list,
searching the Web for things that one - not the (so-called!) critics - really
likes, according to one's taste. If we look at the
"shape" of different processes, it's quite easy to see that, say,
the freedom of searching for things on the Web with no filter doesn't look
too different from putting gas into one's car in an unattended gas station,
or doing all there is to do while shopping in a mall, from putting goods
on the transport, to properly handling the bar codes, to paying with our
credit card (unfortunately for the artists, surveillance systems when it
comes to stealing goods on the Web are not as efficient as in a mall!). While
in the current climate there's a growing feeling that - maybe - the pendulum
has swung too far in one direction - i.e., autonomy and atomization - and
a little bit more
"central regulation" wouldn't hurt.
What's certain is that we are living in
a "pointillistic time", with all the consequences that are logically
entailed by this process. (Sounds banal, but a lot of careers - some big,
some tiny - started with a simple gesture of having a look at "who
plays what where" on an LP cover, then spending days connecting the
dots in a discography.)
A couple years ago, U.K. daily The Guardian
(making lists being an accepted pastime over there) asked readers to list
songs dealing with nostalgia for one's first love, or a very important
love story as lived when young. A few hundred answers later, here was the
chart: lotsa songs from the 50s, even more songs from the 60s, quite a
lot from the 70s, not so many from the 80s, even less from the 90s, one
or two from the noughties.
Now I'll leave readers to ponder this humble
anecdote, while I wait for the aforementioned T-shirt.
© Beppe Colli 2011
| Nov. 26, 2011