to our readers, 2011
By Beppe Colli
Jan. 27, 2011
No need to panic, please! These are the facts, briefly and clearly
Starting from today, Clouds and Clocks will
take an extended leave. How "extended" is this leave, exactly?
Well, this I couldn't say, right now. I know it won't be brief, and that
it will be
"open-ended". Readers are invited to trace a parallel with the
by-now famous "extended hiatus" of US quartet Phish.
Our webzine won't "close". We'll
pay the rent as usual, all written and visual material will stay here,
fully accessible as ever, of course, so in a way it's just "business
as usual". Which is just plain obvious, given the fact that today
there are a lot of links (from musicians', fans', record companies', and
distributors', also on Google and Wikipedia) that take readers from all
over the world to written material (mostly written in English, I have to
say) featured on Clouds and Clocks. And I'd like to see younger readers
find here - well, not a
"new frontier", exactly, but at least a different way to ask questions.
And this is the end of the facts, briefly
and clearly expressed.
This is not the kind of decision one takes all of a sudden. Interested
readers could refer to my traveling across a continuum as formulated in
those Editorials where I tried to clarify what's ahead. It goes without
saying that my increasing taedium when it comes to those newly released
material I had the chance to listen to is not of a "subjective" kind
(I'll get to it in a minute). In fact, it travels parallel to the deepening
of those dynamics that I regard as being highly unfavourable for what I
"quality music". Unfortunately, as I've already argued at length
in the past, these are "trends" that it's highly unlikely to imagine
as changing direction anytime soon. However, to me 2010 looked like
a dividing line, if one has to judge from the number of musicians whose activities
came to a halt.
It goes without saying that, as a responsible
adult, I wondered about my mental health. Maybe I was a victim of the dangerous
Meltzer's disease? As it's widely known, the disease - which takes its
name from famous US music critic Richard Meltzer - presents some characteristic
traits: patients who suffer from it start saying things such as "Music
is not what it once was", "Rock music died long ago, in...",
"Commercialism killed the creative spirit", and so on. One thing
shows that the patient's conditions are turning for the worse: year after
year, the moment where things started changing for the worse is placed further
and further in the past.
I have to admit I started noticing my growing
irritation every time I realized that listening to new album X, quite stupid
and amateurish, made me impossible to listen to my old album Y. But this
I need to clarify immediately, which depicts a situation that's typical
of "boomers", i.e., that they listened to a great quantity
of innovative albums at a time where their understanding of music was quite
rudimentary, and on cheap "lo-fi"
producing horrible sound. The growth of one's knowledge, one's ears getting
more educated, one's hi-fi system getting better, all these factors
make listening to those albums all over again something which goes well beyond
mere nostalgia. (I understand this is not an easy point to get for those
who listen to music "by the yard", nor ask themselves any questions
- ever. A growing subspecies, this.)
This factor has to be added to pragmatic
considerations, based on irrefutable biological data: given one's (very)
limited time on this earth, does one listen to this - or that? A dramatic
dilemma, once the sole province of those adults who possessed a serious
collection of "classic albums" (and remember: it wasn't easy,
once, to repurchase even albums that had appeared just a few years before),
is nowadays anybody's problem, given the fact that practically everything's
available online, for free. So: Do we really believe that those magazine
covers featuring "famous names from the past" are mainly of interest
to boomers? Let's have a look at the most recent issue of Mojo magazine,
which I have right in front of me: Do we really suppose a young guy will
listen to the new album by John Somebody instead of one of Neil Young's
acclaimed masterpieces? And let's not forget this: Listening to Don't Let
It Bring You Down also means listening to a beautiful Martin guitar made
of choice woods, a
"musical-sounding" microphone, a recording and mixing board that
posses an individual sound, an analogue tape recorder whose tape gets pleasantly
saturated by the signal; also, listening to the lead guitar part on Danger
Bird means listening to an electric guitar where pick-ups, type and gauge
of the strings, the vibrato bar, the signal chain up to the loudspeakers,
the mics, and all the rest create a complex sound our ears find highly stimulating,
even if those technical details are obscure to most. And now, let's try John
Somebody's new one.
My decision to take a rest has a very dramatic background: I really
like to listen to new music, as attested by all those live concerts I attended:
from Pan Sonic, to Chokebore, to Meira Asher, that's a lot of rubbish I
caught in the act! While I'm quite lazy when it comes to the Web, most
new albums come my way thanks to a record shop in my town, whose owner
patiently listens to my (mostly piquant) comments. It's simple: on the
left (client perspective) are the most recent issues of the monthlies,
while on the right are the new releases. So: Record of the month (the review)
is on the left, while the Record of the month (the actual CD) is on the
right. Recently, I seemed to notice that many reviews have a new undertone
of uncertainty, like an emphasis that's unsure of itself. And what's that?
Writers are starting to doubt the new releases they celebrate, or are getting
doubts about their actual commercial relevance? Either way, the amateurish
tone of their arguments is the same as ever.
The choice is not between "past" and
"present", of course. Here I have to gladly admit that the number
of new releases that I greatly enjoyed in the course of the last few years
"substantial", if not "overwhelming". But I'd like to
stress the fact that, while it's obvious that saying "Music died in
19..." is absurd, saying "There'll always be good music" is
not too sane either, given the ever-increasing imbalance between the actual
investment (of both time and money) that's necessary to nurture good music,
and the potential return on that investment. A magazine that deals only with
"new releases" and that gets most of its revenues from those advertisers
that distribute the very same albums the magazine reviews has no need to
formulate a clear "larger framework". But what about the rest of
we talk about a "greater framework", I have to say I'm increasingly
perplexed about the mere possibility that musicians get their proper share.
So I was quite surprised to read a recent article by US music critic Ann
Powers (who's not dumb). In the past, I had read quite a few posts by (entertainment
lawyer) Bob Lefsetz on his blog, where he speculated about the possibility
that selling a series of various little objects, in time, instead of those
full-length albums we are used to, could be a remunerative path for both
artists and record companies, while keeping the modern-day fans attached
to both artist and purchasable object (my wording, of course).
"In pop music, a whole new way of doing
business." This is the title of an article by Ann Powers which appeared
in the Los Angeles Times, January 16, 2011. Here are a few selected excerpts.
"Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips told
a Rolling Stone reporter of the group's plan to record and share a song
a month instead of producing another traditional album. (...) "We
want to try to live through our music as we create it, instead of it being
a collection of the last couple years of our lives."
This sounds quite strange to me.
"This is part of a larger trend, touching
all corners of the culture. A few voices in the wilderness still profess
longing for old-fashioned masterworks. (...) Increasingly, however, artists
across genres and media are excitedly experimenting with ways to break
down old hierarchies between high and low, casual and formal - even finished
and unfinished work."
But what's an "unfinished work"?
And who could possibly want to pay for a thing like that?
"Great music is now constantly becoming
available in ways that force us to reconsider what we're hearing, and how
we listen. For half a century, musicians and fans have congregated along
two poles: the album and the single. (...) The problem is, we still haven't
devised a language to describe the increasingly vibrant area between the
two poles of the studio album and the hit single (...), this territory
of remixes and B-sides and EPs and homemade tapes. And in 2011, this realm
is increasingly where the action is."
"That's not because artists have stopped
making deep, complex, cohesive albums. (...) Musicians are coming to terms
with exposing themselves creatively in something closer to real time."
"Listeners - especially public listeners,
like critics and people within that drifting iceberg known as the 'music
industry' - need to find ways to accurately assess this work, to promote
it, to help it claim space next to the "real" releases that still
dominate year-end lists, reviews sections and marketing plans."
This is clear, right?
Having read the article, a friend of mine
sent me this comment: "Extending her argument, if someone from Flaming
Lips proclaimed 'My entire life is reduced to a string of 15 second interactions
with my smartphone, so from now on I'm only producing 15 second chunks
of music in between my twitter obligations, and agile fans can catch them
for 15 seconds on my website' she'd have to write about how perfectly
21st Century that is."
© Beppe Colli 2011
| Jan. 27, 2011