Back Home
By Beppe Colli
Aug. 31, 2010

It's funny to notice, almost all of a sudden, how (and how much!) the reality of my "coming back home" has changed, all in the last few years. My mailbox is still there, and inside it I can see the usual magazines I still subscribe to in their physical form, those CDs and LPs I ordered before leaving, and some promo CDs begging to be listened to (so one has to face the eternal, impossible-to-solve dilemma once again: Does one listen to them, and so face the peril of looking at one's CD player with hate for at least a couple of weeks? Or maybe it's better for one to ignore them, and so risk missing that "Masterpiece of the Century" that will change our aesthetic perspective forever?).

But I feel I now miss that feeling of "coming back to the world" that followed a period of "separation". And this is a "cut" that I regard as important (one's appreciation of music surely is made more perceptive by long periods of silence; do our overloaded senses make us capable of appreciating only the rawest, most low common denominator kind of vulgarities? could we still appreciate Nick Drake? better still, would Nick Drake decide to stop trying to make himself heard amid today's turmoil even earlier than the first time?).

Still, our present state of "perennial connection" has its share of advantages: starting from those early Internet Points (and those brief connections for a quick look at one's mailbox, and one's favourite newspapers), we've gone to laptops, "pens", late-generation "cell-phones on steroids", till one's "world away from home" is not so different from "being at home". Movies to watch, music to listen to, Twitter, Facebook.

From my personal point of view, I have to say that the fact of being easily connected gave me the chance to hear all the bad news piecemeal, instead as a big lump that lands on my desktop as soon as I get home. And this year's bad news were plenty.

News coming from "musicians who play difficult music" are obviously not all fun and games, with CD sales being almost non-existent, and no concerts to talk about; meanwhile, bills are piling up. "So what's new?", I hear you ask. Well, I have the feeling that we've gone down just one more step - again. Sure, having so many "musicians who play difficult music" while "courageous listeners" become scarcer and scarcer doesn't help (having teenage sons who make parents their slaves doesn't help, either). But it's the social framework that appears to have changed, almost beyond the point of recognition.

Just by chance (and no, I don't really have the time to talk about it at length), in the course of the last few months, some friends and I were engaged in a peculiar exchange of ideas. I have to admit I was quite surprised when I noticed that a friend of mine was putting forth some very "apocalyptic" ideas, the "apocalyptic perspective" being a brand that has always been the exclusive domain of yours truly. To put things in a nutshell: complex thoughts, reviews that lack grades, long arguments that don't immediately state their point of view... well, there's no market for them now.

Let's have a look at the big picture. Nowadays even people whose name is far from unknown have to create "big hooks" to appear in newspapers and magazines. Now please compare this with those full-colour pages that newspapers (newspapers!) dedicate to the "sexual politics" of Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Ke$ha, and so on. People at the papers will tell you that when running against a "two-headed cow" those graphs showing the fall of the GDP will lose every time, and given the papers' financial spreadsheet being in the red... In the end, one sells what sells, really.

(There's so much confusion... But in the end one has to have somebody to believe in, especially if it's politics we are talking about. Well, it appears that those with a poor education are really doomed - just check the article titled Building a Nation of Know-Nothings, by Timothy Egan, which appeared in The New York Times, August 25, 2010.)

The "famous names" have to run the same race, too, as shown by the mad trend when it comes to re-releases, where "gigantic" appears to be the word of the day. If every album, no matter how mediocre, deserves its own Deluxe Edition, well... What about the true masterpieces? For a moment, the recent Beatles re-releases - those "mono" and "stereo" boxes with the "right re-master" job - looked like they were the winning trend, but then came The Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street "on steroids", against which even a properly re-mastered Jimi Hendrix has bound to suffer.

Hence: Bowie's Station to Station, the "colossal" version, featuring CDs, LPs, a bootleg, a T-shirt, and ticket stubs; a 4CD box set of "unreleased" Hendrix; all Lennon all over again (40 years, etc.) (could McCartney be far behind?); an 8CD box set of Dylan's old albums - for the first time in mono! Is there really a market for all this stuff? Or are these boxes the main province of collectors from all over the world (and a potential source of counterfeit goods)? With a few exceptions, I really can't tell.

One can't help but notice that the quality of reviews of old albums by "big, historical names" (again, the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street comes to mind) are really no better than what is usually reserved for new releases. On one hand, "useless expenses" are to be avoided, so what's the point of  interviewing, say, Carlos Alomar about his "upbeat" strokes on Stay when there is a press release already at our disposal, with all this free material about "his stay in Los Angeles, the set of the movie The Man Who Fell To Earth, The Thin White Duke, and his later process of cleansing in Berlin"? On the other hand, there are not many people working at newspapers and magazines now who possess the know-how that's absolutely indispensable in order to comment on things such as mastering and re-mastering (we're talking about what is, after all, recorded music!), hence the topic not being discussed, or a casual comment being added on the side, as something of no real importance.

Which brings me back to a Lou Reed song called Dirt: "They'd eat shit and say it tasted good/If there was some money in it for them".

In recent times I've had the pleasure to discover a blog from USA that deals with all things artistic called ARTicles (subtitle: The blog of the National Arts Journalism Program). I've checked the names of those dealing with music, and I saw some familiar names: Larry Blumenfeld (The Wall Street Journal), Francis Davis (The Village Voice), Robert Christgau (Barnes & Noble Review), Sasha Frere-Jones (The New Yorker), and Ann Powers (The Los Angeles Times, where Powers has her own blog, Pop & Hiss). Here I like to mention a name I was previously unfamiliar with: Laura Collins-Hughes, who has an excellent blog called Critical Difference.

It goes without saying: reading about this stuff will also have the very unpleasant effect of making one even more aware of how bad the situation is when it comes to journalistic, and critical, work dealing with the arts, firing and restructuring being the order of the day for quite some time now. Today critics face a double dilemma: on one hand, a magazine devoted to quality writing about arts will go under; on the other, the required brevity when it comes to word-count - and let's not mention the "friendly" tone that's sometimes required when writing a review, okay? - for this kind of writing (hey, what happened to quality movies?) makes it impossible for a writer to deal with his/her subject with any semblance of depth. It has to be noticed that this makes hiring a low-skill, low pay, worker in place of the high-skilled, proportionally rewarded, critic, a lot easier.

Lately, one famous name from the rank of music critics that belong to the organism behind ARTicles (if I'm not mistaken, rock critic pioneer John Rockwell) made this proposal: "Let's think about doing a quality magazine dedicated to the arts. Do you think this is the kind of idea that could fly?" The debate goes on (check their blog for details).

It's perfectly normal that every time one feels things are going "wrong" one tries to understand "why". Since time immemorial, the weight of the reasons for most things going "wrong" has been placed upon the shoulders of "young people". When it comes to the topic at hand, "young people" are guilty of: downloading music by the ton, for free, with no worry for the actual consequences of their own behaviour; this while being inside an endless flow of information, a fact which causes their objects of interest being shallow and temporary.

There's an interesting discussion (still going on as I write) in Steve Hoffman's Forum, in a thread titled Will Music ever be as important to young people as in the 60s and 70s? Implications are clear: Since nowadays young people have countless ways to spend their time, compared to what was available to young people in the 60s and 70s, music is just "part of the scene", often in the form of a background/wallpaper; this explains why most of what they listen to is, at best, low-quality, if not rubbish; hence, "difficult times" for "quality music". This is not an explanation that, as stated, really holds water, but the thread features many interesting points.

There was one post I found incredibly amusing. It went: "Audiophiles have a very rigid way of defining listening to music. Apparently, you aren't listening unless you are sitting in the "sweet spot" in a catatonic state. (...) Most people aren't interested in listening by their definitions. We need to come to terms with that".

The point that the person writing that appears to miss completely is that in the course of any human exchange what we measure is not the distance between loudspeakers or between loudspeakers and our ears, but the actual content of what is said as expressed in the only language - that is, verbal - at our disposal to communicate this stuff. If what is said makes sense, the way our loudspeakers are placed becomes secondary. Unfortunately, experience shows things ain't like this.

As it's widely known, the music industry is in dire straits, with no real chance in sight to change the present course of things. So it was with great interest that I read a very long article by U2 manager Paul McGuinness. Originally published in the August 2010 issue of British GQ under the hopeful title How to save the music industry, it's now - legally - available on the Web.

His proposal is not new (in a way, it resembles the old idea of taxing blank tapes and disks): to place a tax on Internet Service Providers (I.S.P.). "If broadband" the reasoning goes "is more and more powerful, and if its main use on the part of the consumer is downloading music and movies, why not impose a surcharge on I.S.P. to compensate copyright holders for those missing revenues?" (It has to be noticed that, when asked about their behaviour, many people who download music and movies illegally actually reply "I already paid a lot of money for my computer, and broadband", as if s/he subjectively considers the downloaded goods as already paid for by the money that's actually spent.)

Readers will have no problem guessing what kind of posts were sent about Paul McGuinness article (they appear at the magazine's website). There was a post I found extremely puzzling (since it states as true something that is false, and can be easily demonstrated to be false): "The solution to the music industries problems is to sell music more cheaply. (...) 3 Dollar digital albums are the future. Let the physical CD go extinct, and sell WAV and MP3 files online for 3 bucks. Arcade Fire is doing that and they are selling albums like crazy with their new one Suburbs. Music is unaffordable. Its priced way out reach for people at over 10 bucks an album. If you like music, and you want to listen to new albums all the time you simply can't afford to at that price. The economics are screwed. Don't forget music is entertainment. How much can one person justify spending on entertainment? Alex 19 Aug 2010".

Are Arcade Fire really selling their new album for $3???

Reality is very different: Amazon Digital Discount Helps Arcade Fire Hit No. 1, was the title of a piece by Ben Sisario (The New York Times, August 11, 2010).

"The Suburbs, released last week, has sold 156,000 copies in the United States. (...) Amazon sold digital downloads of the album for $3.99, while iTunes and other digital stores had it at $9.99. (...) Neither Merge nor SoundScan would say what proportion of the bandís sales last week came from Amazon, but the discount clearly helped: 62 percent of the albumís sales were as digital downloads (...)."

"Since Amazon opened its MP3 store in 2007 it has been competing aggressively against Appleís iTunes, the dominant music seller". (...)

"Amazonís boost is usually gratefully accepted by artists and record labels. But some record executives also worry that the fire-sale pricing may further devalue recorded music." (...) "Amazon typically selects an album to promote and sells it at a loss, by paying a label its standard wholesale price - usually about $7 - while offering it to fans for $3 or $4."

© Beppe Colli 2010 | Aug. 31, 2010