And what about 2005?
By Beppe Colli
Jan. 9, 2005

First really big news of 2005? For this writer, it was the closing of the last manufacturer of professional reel-to-reel analogue audio tape left in the whole world: the Opelika plant, located in Alabama, owned by Quantegy. While it had once employed 1.800 workers - back in the days when the Ampex name was for many synonymous with tape - it now employed about 250. The firm filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which - since we're talking about a producer that had the world market all to itself (the last European manufacturer, Emtec - former BASF, AGFA - having already closed its doors) - says plenty about the commercial (non) importance of analogue in the present day.

It took all of three days - in the age of Internet, a small eternity - before the news got to the usually attentive Slashdot. But already for three days said news had been the focus of animated - even if in some ways resigned - threads all over those Forums where producers and engineers discuss such things - check the one moderated by George Massenburg. It goes without saying that the discussion saw the participation of Steve Albini, one of the most sanguine champions of analogue.

I'm ready to bet that with the lonely exception of those (paper) magazines that deal with these matters on a professional level, those news will stay there, on those Forums. "Not really interesting. Not sexy enough. Too difficult to get. Not relevant." All kinds of reasons can be found. The fact that the technical means of productions of music play a very big part in the end result doesn't seem that interesting to many - provided they are aware of this.

Which is absolutely paradoxical, since in an age where more and more drastic digital remastering occurs - nowadays there's not that much difference anymore between a "digitally remastered" snare on a Family album from the end of the 60s and one by Dr. Dre - music is an abstraction that doesn't appear to have a precise physical counterpart anymore. Meanwhile, everybody's ready to jump on the iPod bandwagon.

Again, Jason Gross has produced his end-of-year piece dedicated to the best writing about music (there are also the "Ignoble Prizes"). With the title of Best Music Scribing Awards, 2004 (I'd say about 150 pieces in all are discussed, and links are included) the thing can be found on the usual source,

Even a quick glimpse at the list tells us that the vast majority of those pieces - many of which were penned by reasonably known names - come to us from newspapers and general interest magazines. Which has not been big news for some time. Once the exclusive possession of a noisy minority, nowadays music - even of the most extreme kinds - is part of the giant background to everyday life in this modern world (at least, till the next big energy crisis). It's only logical, then, that all kind of papers cover it - and that they give shelter to writers tired of extreme (M)TV trendiness and of the growing illiteracy among younger readers.

It's not all fun and games, obviously - what kind of cultural event can nowadays be considered to be totally immune to requests of "shorter pieces! bigger photos!"? But the days when the notion that the best coverage of music was to be found in the pages of specialized magazines was regarded as self-evident are long over. What's more, tiny circulations and overworked reviewers with tired ears whose main source of income is the selling of the CDs they review doesn't speak in favour of profound, reliable opinions. (That many music papers cover the same long-awaited album all at the same time I'd define as logical. But that many music magazines happen to discover the same gem in the form of the first album by an unknown name by digging deep inside the endless flow of monthly releases is something that goes well beyond logic, and the law of statistics.)

The big news of last year? I'd say it was the increase in the number of CDs sold in the United States (+2.3%) and United Kingdom (+3%). In UK the number of copies sold was a record 237 million. This appeared to me even more stunning when an article by Dorian Lynskey titled Can One Live On Free CDs Alone? which appeared in the pages of The Guardian made me aware of the fact that a big slice of UK papers gives away a CD with very nice songs. What the possible implications of this trend for those music magazines that offer a CD as a decisive feature of their marketing strategy I'd say is not too difficult to imagine.

In the last few years I've increasingly felt let down by new albums of artists I liked, and more than a few times I got to the conclusion that the biggest problem was to be found in the recording and mixing of the albums. The main point seems to be that for many groups what we could maybe call "analogue knowledge" was such a natural thing that it had become practically invisible. Nowadays, digital recording systems such as Pro Tools are for many artists the most logical and practical choice. But the problems (and solutions) of digital require specific procedures which don't necessarily come cheap. Which could become a problem for those blessed with a personal sonic signature.

Three month ago US monthly Guitar Player presented a cover story that went The 50 Greatest Guitar Tones Of All Time. What about those timbres that are made anonymous by a "wrong" recording process? I already know the answer: these are the only available tools, given the budget; and if the "group" members live all over the map... Right. It's not a dilemma that's easily solved. But - though being fully aware that musicians are doing their best - maybe aficionados will say goodbye just the same, having become tired of listening to a music that doesn't move them anymore.

Meanwhile, we have bad news coming from the live front: not enough paying customers, short attention spans, people going to a concert for no precise reason, bad manners... A kind of sleepy concentration similar to that required by a TV set seems to reign in a lot of theaters and rooms. And people appear to having become indifferent to the production of music in real time, with the canned music of a lot of today's concerts and the pre-recorded music emanating from laptops increasingly appearing like two sides of the same coin.

The end of November, 2004 signalled Clouds and Clocks second birthday. I had though about writing something celebratory when the decision on the part of this site's provider to transfer their servers made the site invisible for a few days. So, no celebrations.

Readers can refer, if they wish so, to the first editorial, somewhere deep in the archives, to see whether what was announced two years ago did indeed occur.

© Beppe Colli 2005 | Jan. 9, 2005