Mo' Stern Words from Betelgeuse
By Beppe Colli
July 9, 2017

As a brief preamble, here's a short anecdote.

It was Spring 2002, and after some serious brainstorming sessions we decided that we really wanted to launch our tiny webzine. So we bought a new computer (#2), much more powerful and versatile than #1, and so a perfect fit for our goal. Our musician friends, mostly from the States, strongly suggested that we buy a particular piece of software, one that could made it possible for us to adopt a DIY approach, with no real need to learn the much-feared "HTML code". The software was available for 800 euros, which was not exactly cheap for us - let's not forget we had already chosen a "no ads" approach, just in case people expected something in return. We sent the money to a firm in Holland, got the disk, ran the program, et voilą!

One or two years later we were asked - by people from Italy, who didn't appear to know each other - about the steps that were necessary in order to create a webzine like this one. No sweat, at least til we came to those 800 euros. It was at this point that we were always asked the same question: Was there any way to get the program "on the cheap", maybe a friend had a copy that could be bought at a reduced price, maybe a "cracked" version? (First time we heard the word.)

So, we thought, to most people this sounded like a plausible presentation:

"Hi there! We're the guys/girls from Clouds and Clocks. No favours done to anybody, a "no ads" policy, no backroom deals with record companies and distributors, no favours to any "special friends", we'll review all releases we get with equal honesty. We're really independent, and, by the way, we run everything on a pirated software program."

Fantastic, or what?

"But 800 euros is a lot of money!".

I still buy two newspapers a day: one national, one local. Then there's the stuff I read online from abroad, which I could not buy in paper form at the newsstand (I still remember the first "virtual" paper I subscribed to at the end of the 90s: US daily magazine Salon) but that it's possible to "pay for" in a number of ways.

Hearing this, most people react with a sense of great amazement. "Still buying 'papers at the newsstand? Wow, I find everything I need online!", or "You don't know how lucky you are, still having time to read, I can barely find the time to have a look at the titles online".

It goes without saying that the "everything" that's online is for the most part paid for by the price of the paper copy and the ads that still appear there. So a part of the price I spend to buy a paper is spent so that people can access the news for free, while the quality of the print edition goes under.

Unfortunately, newspapers in paper form appear to sell less and less, with ads currently nose-diving. If I'm not mistaken, digital subscriptions to the New York Times now number 2.200.000, which doesn't appear to be enough to counterbalance the decrease in physical sales and ads.

Simplifying a bit, we could say that the New York Times model is for the most part based on paid subscriptions, while the Guardian has a "free access" policy coupled with various forms of (mostly) voluntary contribution.

We could say that while the New York Times offers "something", the Guardian tries to stimulate readers curiosity in order to have them "click" on those pieces on display. Which does not (necessarily) imply a value judgment (the Guardian's coverage of Brexit and of various political events is excellent, just like the coverage of such facts as the recent fire in the "cheap skyscraper" in London, a story that's still covered today), even if one can't help but noticing various celebrities talking about stuff they don't necessarily know in depth.

The differences entailed by those models are quite large. I think it can be said that the New York Times offers (to the paying customer) a precise concept of what culture means: for instance, one can find obituaries for people who are considered as "important" with no real attention paid to their death working as "click-bait": Jaki Liebezeit, Larry Coryell, John Wetton, Geri Allen. The Guardian ran three pieces about Liebezeit, none about Coryell and Wetton, and one about Geri Allen that to me looked like a "special case" thanks to its author, John Fordham.

Let's not forget that models are not neutral. Of course, those who regard the "all you can eat" model as the new normal don't pay any attention to the quality of what they consume. This doesn't mean the problem is gonna go away anytime soon.

I think it can be said that if we talk about music the title of "event of the year" goes to the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles album titled Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

What we were asked to buy this year was not "the Beatles album" but a "special edition" in various formats whose centerpiece was the remixed version curated by Giles Martin, son of the highly celebrated George, the record producer who was the real "fifth Beatle".

This was to be expected. Compared to The Rolling Stones, whose career spans decades and who have tons of concerts and rarities ready to be put on sale in both audio and video, the Beatles discography is somewhat limited. So the only way to offer "something new" is to remix. Though on a reduced scale, those album remixed by Steven Wilson for such groups as King Crimson and Jethro Tull bode well, and made people accustomed to the idea of "audio retouching".

It goes without saying that the main point of the new work was for the most part absent in those newspapers and magazine articles about the thing, which offered lengthy pieces of very variable quality.

After the remixed version was released, I read with great interest those threads about the album that appeared on the Steve Hoffman Forum.

A few words about the way it works. To access the Forum - to read the threads - nothing is required from you, but in order to post one has to register (for free). Hoffman's Forum is totally ad-free, so the expenses - which this year came at $5,000 and which don't include the work of moderators, which is given for free - are covered by free donations.

In a few days, the issue about how the remixed Pepper sounded had a spectrum of answers.

One has to remember that those modern software programs and the cheap availability of broadband make it possible to broaden the empirical base of any discussion, so enriching the critical discourse.

Maybe nobody changed their mind, but the issue concerning "who really sang those 'aahhs' at the end of the middle part of A Day In The Life, John or Paul?" was argued with a larger dose of rationality.

No paper magazine is prohibited to act this way, of course. But the fact that in the larger scheme of things music mags have been assigned the role of "cheerleaders" has them providing enthusiasm by the yard. Those who buy new vinyl editions of albums by The Doors, David Bowie or Elton John already know - thanks to Wikipedia, YouTube and the like - who those guys are. What people don't know is if those new editions sound loud and compressed, or shrill and distorted, or if the new master is faulty, and if those already-existing buying options at our disposal are to be preferred.

In so differently from music, where the individual listener can access the music at least since the days of 78rpm and Victrola, for a long time movies could only be accessed in a public space: the movie theater. One read about those personal cinemas located in the homes of directors such as Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese.

Leaving aside the topic "movies on TV", the real revolution came with "movies on tape" - such as the VHS - which were available to buy, or rent. Something which accelerated with the advent of the DVD-V, less prone to damage.

I believe that this fact radically changed the relationship between consumers and films, and consumers and criticism. And I believe that - due to technical progress, and people's attitudes - this relationship will become in a very short while a thing of the past.

How many times did one watch a movie in a movie theatre, paying each time? Once or so. Even if "renting" represented a kind of "leisure occupation" - which doesn't necessarily mean it came cheap: does anybody remember the New York "combo" of pizza + DVD-V? - it's quite likely that being able to buy both "classic" titles and "new releases", sometimes not available at movie houses, made it possible for one to develop a more careful, profound kind of appreciation.

Here the model could be said one of "owning a limited number of movies, watched many times" type, in parallel with what was already the prevailing model when it comes to music.

Criticism "on a mass basis" was able to cultivate a greater degree of depth while at the same time finding a mass audience on the receiving end.

It's obvious that accessing movies as files instead of physical items changes nothing, per se. What totally changes the game is the possibility to consume things on a "all you can eat" model, where the price of the single act of consumption is negligible. The immense quantity of what's still left to consume makes it likely for one to adopt a pointillistic mode of consumption, which makes it less likely for one to think about what one has already watched, one's gaze being perennially oriented forward.

And so, though still indispensable (but let's not forget about those "viral" campaigns), criticism - a word that can have many different meanings, from "group of peers" to "software designed to suggest new titles to watch" - is at risk of creating cultural objects for nobody. And when a paper needs to cut, and nobody clicks on those reviews...

There have been better moments. Meanwhile, it's not uncommon, these days, to see the simple act of purchasing something filed under "fetishism of ownership".

How weird reading about "jazz in worse shape than classical music". What could ever be in worse shape than classical?

But that's the way things are. The charts - you know, Billboard, etc. - speak loud and clear. There's more. The empirical evidence shows jazz audiences disappearing at the same time of the large retail chains such as Tower Records and Barnes & Noble, with no real intention of shopping online.

Simplifying a bit, one could say that after the Marsalis/Burns period, "avant-garde" jazz never recovered. I wonder what would happen to people like Braxton or Mitchell, had they started today. Looking for whatever funds are available increasingly appears as the best choice, and this type of organisms really like objective facts like deaths and births: "One hundred years ago: Monk's birthday!" or "Coltrane's 50th!". But just like it happens with classical music, these are self-referential events, with no effect on the real world.

Let's think about Coltrane's fame with a "rock" audience. Once upon a time, fans of such saxophone players as Elton Dean, Mel Collins, David Jackson, Tim Hodgkinson, and so on could read about Coltrane being one of their main influences. One's appreciation of Coltrane's music was made somewhat easier by those long hours one spent attentively listening to the music of such groups as Soft Machine, King Crimson, Van Der Graaf Generator, and Henry Cow. Where are the rock groups whose music could work today as a kind of bridge to, say, Coltrane?

The recent solo work of Ethan Iverson, who at the end of 2017 will leave The Bad Plus, looks like a good specimen of what "a modern musician who can also play jazz" has to do in order to survive. Think about it. It was more than thirty years ago that a versatile, brilliant artist like Anthony Davis asked interviewers who discussed his work to use the term "new music" instead of "jazz".

© Beppe Colli 2017 | July 9, 2017