By Beppe Colli
May 28, 2009
Quite unexpectedly, a typical case of "family business"
gave me the chance to spend a couple of weeks in Tuscany, at the end of March.
Of course I went! I decided to use this opportunity to have a look around.
I chose to avoid the "Internet & computer" dimension for
the whole period of my stay - so "no Web-surfing, no e-mailing,
etc." - giving instead my full attention to shops, newsstands, libraries,
and the impossible-to-overestimate factor called "human contact".
Back home, while thinking about the whole experience, it suddenly dawned
on me that in the course of those two weeks I had never heard anybody talk
about music. Did I really expect this to happen? Well, I was quite embarrassed
to discover that I had obviously maintained a kind of subconscious expectation
from the old days, when it was (still) common to hear people talk about
music (something which happened more and more frequently the more I traveled
away from my hometown). It goes without saying that even today this is
far from uncommon, provided one is in a record shop; but nowadays a record
shop is a peculiar type of environment, and even in a record shop, a "hit
and run" kind of behaviour is increasingly common, the verbal dimension
being increasingly absent. When such a rare event takes place in a public
space (the last I witnessed, about one year ago, it was two twenty-somethings
talking about some guitar licks while devouring a granita) it's always
people from a particular sub-group: those who play an instrument. It would
obviously be wrong to assume that this entails the end of any discourse
about this topic, given today's predominance of such things like chats,
newsgroups, forums, and those various "personal communication systems".
Still, one can't help but wonder, given the fact that this is type of dimension
that's quite "opaque" to the investigation due to the very same
circumstances of their use.
I was quite surprised by Tuscany's rainy weather - it poured almost
every day. Hence, very long afternoons were spent sitting in my hotel.
TV and reading material all came to the rescue. CNN somewhat managed to
make the events of day appear understandable, while the anchors on the
Italian news didn't really appear as having the skills (and the intention?)
to make us understand
"what" was happening. I frequently asked myself what chances to
even begin understanding what was going on re: this "economic crisis" for
any person with no real access to any written source of a certain degree
of quality. Not wanting to access the Internet, still I had quite a few UK
dailies at my disposal (but not The Guardian, which was not as easy to find
as other papers), also the Herald Tribune. And talking about the "economic
crisis", I managed to buy a new book titled La veduta corta (or, Short-term
Vision), by Tommaso Padoa Schioppa, which I had not been able to buy before
leaving (and which had just been distributed in Tuscany). I read this book
with more than a pinch of sadness, since it's quite obvious that it is intended
to work as "an introduction" (albeit a high-quality one) to an
understanding of the current mess. MTV cheered me up, and I saw that the
ballet featured in the new single by Katy Perry "quotes" the video
clip for Pat Benatar's Love Is A Battlefield.
It was with a deep sense of fear that I entered every record shop I
had the pleasure to encounter on my trip (and not just because the new
CD by Gianna Nannini was the de-facto soundtrack to the whole Tuscany).
This is not the best of moments for record shops. Nonetheless, almost everywhere
one could easily perceive a sense of dignity. Everybody did their best
in order to cope with a difficult situation: there were those who also
sold t-shirts, those who sold cell-phones, those who thought specialization
was the answer, while others betted on quality. Curiously, more than one
shop had their stock of used vinyl abandoned on the floor or in difficult-to-access
racks, while all vinyl sporting a 180 gr. sticker was treated quite differently;
here, too, opinions differ: while some think the "back to vinyl" mini-boom
to be over ("kids are already fed up with going out of the shop carrying
an LP under their arm"), there are those who betted everything (well,
all that's left) on it; all agree that any vinyl weighing less than the
aforementioned 180 gr. is worth nothing (which probably accounts for the
fact that - at the price of ingesting a lot of dust - I managed to buy
the first album by Dreams on Columbia, the original USA edition, still
sealed in its original wrap, for 10 euros). Quite unexpectedly, some of
those who still work in a record shop have yet to become cynical merchants,
and they often invite the potential buyer to listen to albums it's quite
easy to see they really like ("Have you listened to the new one by
Susan Tedeschi? She's Derek Trucks's wife").
Newsstands stocking a lot of magazines plus the rainy weather made
me buy without remorse. I got the new issue of Rolling Stone, and it was
with great disconcertment (not having seen it for about one year) that
I found the magazine to have shrunk in both size and number of pages (maybe
'cause of Blender's competition?). Besides Mojo, Uncut, Word, NME, Q, Guitar
Player, Down Beat, etc. I also spotted Bass Player (the issue with Paul
Chambers on its cover), and Modern Drummer, whose cover story for the April
issue was dedicated to the recently deceased Mitch Mitchell (the issue
also had a nice surprise in store for me: unannounced on the cover, there's
a fine interview with Morgan Ågren). Back to my hotel, I read the fine
Mitchell article, featuring transcriptions of some instrumental passages,
and an exhaustive analysis of his style. Since I couldn't go out, I decided
to have a look at the other features, so I read the interviews with two
drummers whose names I'd never heard before, so learning a few interesting
things. After reading, I was quite surprised to notice that I was in a
good mood, and I actually thought about listening to some music, whereas
most of the times after reading I feel quite dirty, my deepest wish being
to take a shower in order to take away that sense of dread and squalor
that I'm afraid will stick to my skin forever. I made a mental note about
being more selective in the future when it comes to my reading material.
Besides Gianna Nannini, what else? A record shop greeted me with a
pleasant sound coupled to a voice sounding halfway between Captain Beefheart
and an ogre. The melody of this particular song easily told me it was Leonard
Cohen (his album Live In London) that I was listening to. I meditated silently.
It's quite strange an experience to find such an aesthetic, once sounding
so dry, even austere, now dressed up like a Christmas tree. Given the deep
financial troubles he's recently seen, the circumstance of Leonard Cohen's
tour being a success obviously made me happy (I'm always on the side of
the good guys). But I have to confess that such a sudden enthusiasm for
a guy whose appeal has always been quite "selective" and whose
albums have been gathering dust for years makes me quite suspicious. The
same obviously being true of all the sanctifications I've seen in the last
decade: Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, etcetera.
Here one could formulate a few interesting hypothesis.
Another shop had something that sounded like
a mixture of King Crimson, Pink Floyd, "generic" Prog, and
"ambient" moods as its background music. I was told the name of
the CD to be Insurgentes, first solo album by Steven Wilson of Porcupine
Tree. The record appeared to offer some interesting points, though I really
believe that listeners with a deep background will find very few surprises
there. As it always happens when it comes to albums like this, I have one
question: Why such a large portion of the press is so stingy when it comes
to giving some ink to people like him, and why that snobby attitude when
it comes to this music, which they instead refrain to inflict on people like,
say, Peaches? (Beth Ditto!) Here one could formulate a few interesting hypothesis.
Back home, I turned on my computer, and - first things first - I checked
my incoming e-mail messages. There's a friend from the USA writing to me,
on March 26: "No more Blender". These are really big news.
I still have a folder here where about eight years ago I started collecting
news about this then-new US magazine with a bizarre style - a mix of Q's
approach to music and Maxim's scantly-dressed philosophy - whose intention
appeared to dethrone Rolling Stone. In a nutshell, Blender's circulation
at the moment of its print edition ceasing publication was about 1.000.000
copies, of which about 50.000 were sold at newsstands, about 800.000 to
subscribers (a usual mix for a US monthly). I still remember how many freelancers
were happy about their being able - at $1 per word for 135-word reviews
- to get $135 for a review appearing on a magazine printing 1.000.000 copies
and whose issues would feature about ten times the amount of reviews of
Rolling Stone. So, what happened? Simple: the ads went down - a lot.
And given the fact that Blender was a big
magazine, and that its going down was unexpected for a lot of people, even
given the current recession framework, there were lots of comments and
figures around. On March 26, 2009 Nat Ives (Alpha Media Shuts Down Blender,
on AdAge.com) wrote that Blender ad pages for 2008 were down 31%, and 57%
in the period January-April 2009. Figures for US monthlies being 12% and
22%, and 11% and 37% for Maxim, owned by the same publisher of Blender.
Lotsa comments, of course, from Robert Christgau
(Poptastic Bye-Bye, with some interesting comments) to Jason Gross, who
on his blog Crazed By The Music appearing on PopMatters asked the question:
What Does Blender's Demise Mean For The Music Biz? (March 29), with lotsa
comments from both sides of the ocean that are really worth a read. I found
the one by Angus Batey to be especially noteworthy. Quoting figures, he
put the NME problem on the table: "Its most recent ABC was 48,549 - down almost 25 per
cent year-on-year and lower than Metal Hammer for the first time since
the latter began publishing." (...) "(...) even NME’s rivals
have tended to depend on it (...) to bring new generations of readers into
the habit and custom of reading about music. If those titles are either
dead or on life support, that means there is no next generation of readers
getting the reading-about-music bug (sorry: that should be the paying-to-read-about-music,-and-also-paying-for-music
If that's not enough, a few weeks ago I started
reading alarming news about a US monthly that's very different from Blender,
i.e., Paste. There was a piece by Simon Warner in his blog on Rock's Backpages
(Cut And Paste: Ad Slash Prompts i-D Crisis), and a few days later there
was an open letter by Paste's Josh Jackson (A Letter To Paste Contributors,
May 13) dealing with the problems, and the hopes.
current problem is two-sided: on one hand, the current recession makes
the disinvesting trend on the part of advertisers when it comes to the
press even worse; but a whole lot of factors - and here's just a few: audiences
getting used to multi-media, the multiplication of platforms, decreasing
literacy, the disappearing of
"undivided attention", more and more Web-surfing, a growing indifference
when it comes to those "qualitative" factors that are "exclusive"
to music - make it quite easy for one to foresee that the future will be
very different from the past, and especially so as boomers will be replaced
by individuals who have been socialized in the Net era, in a period when
music has no comparable fixed physical storage device such as vinyl or a
In a nutshell, besides the fact of ads on
the Net being a lot cheaper than their print counterparts, it's only at
one's own peril that one forgets that ads on the Net can appear under the
guise of an elaborate pop-up, but also of "exclusive material",
be they streaming or download, video or audio: all things that appear to
be "self-sufficient", for which (so-called)
"argumentation" is a useless ornament that a low-literacy audience
(after many years of exposition to elementary TV programs) will never feel
a need for.
before I came back home, while I was in one of those shops I visited during
my stay in Tuscany that still sell musical artifacts, somebody expressed
deep skepticism about seeing each other again inside that framework. And
I fear it won't be the only change awaiting us.
© Beppe Colli 2009
| May 28, 2009