Bad News
By Beppe Colli
Feb. 14, 2012

Regular readers of this webzine know quite well that the "macro" perspective I usually adopt as a tool for a better understanding is often painted using the apocalyptic colours of an incoming catastrophe - which doesn't mean, of course, that the current situation is to be considered as being without any hope, hence the pragmatic reasons for my pointing the finger at its most hideous aspects.

So it was with more than a pinch of irony that I decided to call my first two editorials of the new year Doom and Gloom, a classic couple that's good for disasters of any kind. Just to anchor all those negative facts to something that I perceived to be quite immutable, I wrote in the former piece: "One thing leads to another, and so, by association, I decided to check if J. Hoberman still worked at The Village Voice." (..) "Yep, Hoberman is still there - or at least, he was on Wednesday, Dec 21 2011", a sentence which I obviously wrote with my tongue firmly pressed to my cheek. But I have to confess that, while writing those words, I happened to think: "well, let's hope Hoberman won't be the next one to be sacked".

"That took a turn on January 4, 2012, when my employer told me that my job was no more." (...) "Yesterday afternoon I learned that my position at the Village Voice had been eliminated. I’ve been a staff writer at the Voice since 1983, a regular film reviewer since 1978, and sold my first free-lance piece (...) as a virtual toddler back in 1972". So wrote Hoberman on his website.

I had a look online, found a few bits of information, some interesting stuff by (and also about) Hoberman (there's an interesting conversation starring Hoberman and The New York Times movie critic A. O. Scott from 2008, a celebration of the first thirty years Hoberman spent at the Village Voice). I also got a message from a reader based in New York who knows Hoberman who said the critic was "shocked but not surprised".

From what I understood, it was Hoberman's long standing at the magazine - he's not old, by the way, and he still teaches at a New York university - that's the key, given the belt-tightening still going on in most magazines, a higher pay, and better benefits, being proper to his position. Sure, this doesn't entail that the (young?) people who will take his place will necessarily be ignorant. But there's only one Hoberman, and there are not too many critics of a comparable quality. Will readers care? Will advertisers? Is there any future left for quality?

A few years ago, due to family reasons, I happened to visit a city in the South-Centre of Italy, a city I rarely visit and whose socio-economic geography is quite unfamiliar to me. Since I had a bit of free time, being reasonably hopeful I could find what I was looking for - after all, there are about one million people living in that city - I decided to look for shops which sold music, and also - I hoped - musical instruments, and sheet music.

I found none. Well, I found nothing that I thought to be interesting, the only minor exception being a shop which was part of a national chain selling music and books (not bad at all as far as chains go, a lot closer, say, to Barnes & Noble than to Wal-Mart). In a nutshell, what was missing was the kind of indie shop which sells "quality (import) rock items" alongside recent Henry Cow re-releases, and new albums by, say, John Zorn, or Wayne Horvitz. I pretended to be a private eye, stopped people in the street, became a nuisance to all those carrying a musical instrument, but nothing came out of it. There was just one man, a forty-something, who after thinking long and hard about it said "There was a shop that sold this stuff, quite near (...), but it closed its doors a long, long time ago".

It was at this point that it suddenly dawned on me that this was a city where a lot of public money had been spent for about forty years in order to keep "difficult music" alive. So I asked a friend whom I consider to be a reliable source how could it be that in a city like that there was no shop that sold any music by those very artists who had indeed played there. "Well", he said, "I'm sure they sell those CDs at their concerts".

But to me it appeared that one of the goals when it come to public subsidizing to the arts - the development of a critical mass of people in order to give birth to a "virtuous circle" - had been missed by a mile. It goes without saying that having the fact of buying music in a shop as an indicator could sound quite bizarre to those who consider free downloading as a permanent habit of any modern music consumer. But I think that whatever yardstick we decide to use in order to measure one's maturity - whistling polyrhythms, say, or 13th chords - asking a "consumer of quality goods" to behave in a similar way when it comes to music as to when s/he has to buy food, beverages, clothes, and trips to the islands, is not asking for too much. Had we to ascertain a sameness of behaviour - say, three copies sold - when it comes to both cities where arts are massively subsidized and cities where public intervention is absent, we could draw the conclusion that in this case subsidizing had no measurable effect. But maybe this is the wrong conclusion?

Just like so many things in life, public spending to keep art alive and flourishing is an unambiguous notion till we look at it closely. What's its goal? (This is not a minor point: If one doesn't know what it is, one can't measure its efficacy.) Historically speaking, the original goal was to bring down the economic barriers that make it impossible for lower classes to enjoy art. So, the price of access is greatly lowered, while producing costs stay the same.

Already the issue originates "practical" problems, since those genres that are classified as being "art" (let's remember all those struggles to have Jazz sit alongside Classical Music) are considered as a whole. This by necessity entails quite paradoxical effects, such as having David Murray playing for fifteen minutes The Kiss That Never Ends (a song so cheesy and saccharine that rivals Gato Barbieri's Last Tango in Paris) being listed under "Art", while Fiona Apple is to be found under "Commercial".

In modern times, goal #1 ("bringing light to darkness") goes hand-in-hand, in various combinations, with goal #2, which reads "keep musicians alive", at least up to the point when the full effect of goal #1 has been felt. So the fact of a musician selling three copies at each of those ten concerts played in a given nation is not to be considered as a failure, the real successful event being those ten dates the musician played. But who's the one choosing those musicians, and their compensation? To those attending those concerts, the money spent is "our", i.e., also "my", money. But when one sees those bright grateful eyes, and hears those grateful "ad hominem" thanks musicians often formulate from the stage, instruments still in their hands, it's easy to understand that musicians know perfectly well that what's important is not to know "whose money is this?", but the person who signed those checks that will make it possible for them to pay those bills during the winter back home.

Whatever one's ideas about this, there are two items that should always be present when we talk about public intervention when it comes to the arts: the "teaching" moment - which has to be continuous, and of a high quality; and the "advanced" quality of the music funded (which should be a given, I know, but it's a notion that often gets to be "misunderstood"). But with every step, new necessities have been placed upon the old ones, starting with the new need to fund "local" realities. The factor known as "Circenses" chooses public intervention as a mean to celebrate a city - it doesn't matter if it's a new building, a movie Festival, or music. The "local" dimension is well served by celebrating something that's peculiar to that place, hence "mushroom fair in the birthplace of...". Or it could be a big, expensive Festival designed to work as a "seasonal attractor" to get more tourists to visit the region.

The funny thing is that it will be precisely those realities that are the most interesting, and, quite often, not at all expensive to fund, that suffer first, since "being really difficult, and not expensive" doesn't work too well in times when being a "strong attractor" rules. (Let's also think about those very expensive "Premières" of "original productions" funded by regional powers that feature local musicians, works that will stay dormant forever after the Première.)

What stays intact from the old times is a total indifference to costs, a side of the story that not many people - and anyway not musicians, theatre owners, nor those who rent halls, sound systems, transportation, nor hotels, magazines, papers, webzines, critics and audiences alike - bother to think about.

Had I to answer quickly a question about the way Italian press has changed lately - here I'll immediately say I'm only talking about that tiny slice of newspapers I read - I'd say that the change confirmed my worst suspicions (which I felt were founded, but which I secretly hoped to be false): the majority of those who could afford to spend the last fifteen years without ever bothering to open a book once did exactly so (while having a look at bookstore windows will prove that those very people somehow found the time to write many books), while sitting in a position of "opposition forever" that promised to be eternal, given the fact that the coalition in power appeared to overwhelm all other forces. Alas!, the government crumbled - once again, for "external reasons" - and the babbling that followed only showed that those who were supposed to having read possessed no ideas to even understand what had happened, let alone think about what had to be done. A few even became "unemployed, but with a stipend".

There's also the fact of the disappearance of the specialist, meaning "one who really knows his/her stuff". If one looks at the way movies get covered in the press (theatre is no more), one sees that the space reserved for reviews by professional reviewers is extremely tiny; whole pages being given to those cheerleaders and megaphones whose work walks side-by-side with a movie, from the moment it gets written to the day it's shown in theaters. The new fact is that those movies which seem destined to be blockbusters are not reviewed by professional reviewers, but by "prestigious people working at the paper", who are obviously competent people, but not necessarily so when it comes to movies. Even more space is given to those "versatile" people who could maybe do one thing well, but who (of course!) do four or five. While when it comes to music, it's time for an "open door" policy (even Lana Del Rey!).

Looking in the general direction of music, including what's on the Web, it was totally by chance that I happened to update my notions about what's nowadays considered "acceptable". Having nothing better to do, I did a search about ¿Which Side Are You On?, Ani DiFranco's recently released album. Those five or six Italian reviews I found offered to me a quite dispiriting picture of the state of my nation. Quite generic and vague (a colleague of mine from the USA warned me about not thinking too badly about music writers who only have a few words given to describe an album, but being vague on purpose and wasting precious space in order not to show one's ignorance about said album is something else), most reviews read the same, as being "inspired" by the same press release; quite vague, yes, but suddenly acute and knowing about something such writers could not possibly know; they also presented themselves as a "contribution to revolution", while in fact being only servile (which I have to admit has been an Italian specialty starting with those glorious times when Punk was King).

One would be very wrong to think this is only typical of fanzines. One recent example from a professional magazine where one could think there's a lot of professional layers of control in place is from issue #1246 of magazine Il venerdì di Repubblica, 3 febbraio 2012. I happened to see a tiny article titled In marcia con Ani, la folksinger che sogna di cambiare il mondo (Marching with Ani, the folksinger who wants to change the world), by Anna Lombardi. These quotes by Ani DiFranco appear: "Amendment talks about genre inequalities, and it's constructed just like an amendment. Mariachi talks about those who don't have a home. Hearse is a kind of protest about world's many inequalities". (...) "But the one I love the most is Unworry, which features the banjo playing of the great Pete Seeger." Funny thing, no story matches those titles, and Pete Seeger is not featured on that track. (I waited for a correction to appear in the following issue, but no.)

If things stay this way, Italy won't get far.

© Beppe Colli 2012 | Feb. 14, 2012