Eight Years
By Beppe Colli
Nov. 26, 2010

"Crazy to say it, but there are probably more good records coming out this year than in the '60s, but they probably won't be remembered because they're not changing anything." Ben Folds interview quote from: A Brill Building Of The Mind, by James Medd - The Word, Issue 91, September 2010.

Strange but true, today Clouds and Clocks is eight years old. Of course, if our pugnacious little webzine got here looking quite fresh and vital, or decidedly exhausted and short of breath, is something readers will have to decide for themselves. As per our usual on the day of this anniversary, we'll now discuss what has recently happened when it comes to those three items - products, industry, and the audience - that meet at the intersection where our work is produced. Bumpy traveling ahead, of course, so: not for the faint of heart, and better put those children to bed.

One question I often ask myself is whether on the Web there is more, or less. Of course, readers will wonder what kind of time-space I'm looking at. Compared to what: Three years? Five years? Eight? As I hope it will become apparent in a short while, this is really not that important, what I'm searching for being not really metrical quantities in a strict sense,  but current "trends" (and please let's consider this word in its more rigorous sense). So, more or less, of what? Here a for instance should do.

Last week I happened to read a nice profile about Tom Zé written by Robert Christgau for the Barnes & Noble website. I'll immediately admit that when it comes to matters of personal taste there are not many critics whose taste is more different from mine than Christgau's. But at the same time, this US writer has so much professional acumen, so large a background, and so clear a prose, that it would be foolish to ignore his side of things. So, the reasons why I read Christgau are quite obvious: if somebody exists who can make me "get" Tom Zé - whose kind of music, by the way, is not among my favourites by any stretch of the imagination - well, this man is Christgau. And when I say "get" I mean "give me a fresh perspective, also some means of interpretation that it would be very difficult for me to derive from the mere act of listening".

At this point, things should be clear enough. So we can answer that question. Sure, let's account a margin for error, the Web being quite a large entity. My answer is that, if it's intelligent, profound stuff we are talking about, nowadays on the Web there's less and less. And so I think that the old adage according to which the Web's always changing, and for one thing that dies and disappears a thousand others will take its place is proven to be false.

It goes without saying that if it's other things we are talking about - such as (free) audio and video files, communities, ways of connecting, social networks, data banks, and now "clouds" - the answer could be very different.

The problem I'm dealing with now is the constant disappearing of intelligent items of the kind mentioned above, a phenomenon that I consider as being due for the most part to the constant disappearing of (normal) ways of remuneration that are predictable and adequate. It goes without saying that on the Web one can easily find lots of stuff: websites that are the creation of record companies and managers, sometimes surreptitiously; reviews that are written by "friends" who have a vested interest in the sale of the stuff; interviews where sensitive matters are never investigated, discussed, or even mentioned; plus, the usual amount of incompetence.

This entails that it's highly unlikely that those who lack strong criteria of judgment will be able to derive them from this raw material. Of course, an infinity that appears as being made of indistinguishable parts - like the grains of sand in the desert - is something that is impossible to make sense of; provided these are the real conditions, what often passes for the "richness" of the Web turns out to be the main reason why many people abandon the ground. Which is as true for readers as for artists.

Every time I have a look around I notice that places and voices I had become accustomed to as being a part of the landscape are no more. I think I can only try to imagine the sense of solitude and frustration experienced by many artists who by now don't really know "to whom" to talk to, and "how". I recently noticed that a couple of new releases I had in my hands had been produced thanks to "donations": money that actual listeners and fans sent; and I'm sure there must be more of those, of which I don't know about, my only first-hand experience with this kind of matters being the subscription model adopted by (UK) Recommended Records in order to make their new releases financially viable. But those were different times indeed, also a very different ratio of artists and potentially interested listeners.

This problem concerning "scarcity" I noticed about music-related writings is by no means limited to that field, as it's quite easy to see by looking at the parallel scarcity in all fields concerning information. So the reasons for this problem must be investigated elsewhere.

Having fallen in a deep recession at the end of the 70s, the music industry really got back on its feet only with the advent of the CD, when an enormous quantity of people bought the "catalogue" all over again in the new format.

In the recent past the music industry has tried to do it all over again, by adopting and promoting new hi-tech formats such as (rivals) DVD-A and SA-CD, both of which went under in a short while. These days there's a lot of talk about new high-resolution formats, such as the one called Blu-ray (Blu-ray Disc, so: BD). In a nutshell, I'll say that those high expectations for commercial success I read about will not be fulfilled, and for one simple reason: the big success of the CD format was not due to its "superior sound", but to a greatly improved ease of use, and greatly improved life expectancy, than those of the old LP and cassette, both qualities reaching the point of no return as soon as the Discman replaced the Walkman. Nowadays file portability is universally considered as a must, given the constant dialogue between the Web, computers, and those tiny personal listening devices such as the iPod that, when traveling in the car or on public transportation systems, for many people are the main - and sometimes, the only - way they experience music.

As it's to be expected, a whole series of questions arise. What about "hard goods"? What about (physical) shops? What about online shops? Will the new ways of consumption make it possible for people to still have "careers"? Here different points of view abound. As it has been widely reported, Brian Eno has talked about the end of an epoch, one when recorded music became a model (of consumption) that made it possible for many to receive compensation, and of the reasons why the factors that made it all possible are no more. Record companies appear to be undecided about whether to adopt a new physical format or whether to upload everything on the Web, for obvious reasons. As it has been argued for a long time now, while the audience appears to be quite able to appreciate very high quality when it comes to visuals - a fact which is the main reason for all things high definition and 3-D movies, for which people are expected to be willing to fork serious money - we know from past experience that the same is not true when it comes to high quality audio.

When it comes to music, physical formats are not feeling too well, as it's proved by the number of record shops closing every day, also by the shrinking space in the shops of big chains such as Wal-Mart, Borders, and Barnes & Noble. The vinyl LP has given lots of indie shops all over the world one last chance, but with no new investments in sight, and given the accelerated wear of the pressing plants that is due to its new success (a very peculiar paradox!), its future looks very bleak indeed. But the CD isn't feeling too well, either; here the last nail in the coffin could be the disappearance of optical readers from computers and cars: with no large volumes in production, a survival strategy like the one that worked for turntables and cartridges looks technically unlikely.

Meanwhile, those who still insist on buying CDs only get more and more frustrated. Quite a few CDs that sound "louder than desired", victims of digital distortion, do so 'cause the songs they feature are supposed to became iTunes files, and so they have to sound at the same volume as those other files they have to live with. Funny to notice that more and more albums that are sold in CD format lack some "extra" tracks that are only available... as Web purchases, some of them being "exclusive to Amazon" while others being "exclusive to iTunes"; here I have to say that paying for a full-price CD only to have to buy extra tracks that could had easily fitted on the same CD doesn't look like an intelligent way to make people desist looking on "torrents".

Quite a few experts agree on monthly subscriptions schemes - (low) monthly fee, unlimited access, files being transferable on multiple platforms - as the most likely future scenario. Hence, all illegal downloading is supposed to be bound to disappear since it would prove to be a lot less convenient than the new, legal scheme.

We are left with a big problem to solve, though: Will it still be possible for artists - and recording studios, sound engineers, and makers of high-end equipment - to consider their profession at a high level as a possibility in a scenario when the price of recorded music will likely reach a level that approximates zero? People who only sell music in order to sell the audio devices on which the music is listened to are not worried by this, of course. So it looks likely that "yesterday's music" - such as The Beatles, Hendrix, Zappa, The Stones, and so on - will stay with us as "past masterpieces" (how would they sound?), while when it comes to current music... well, we'll see.

We still we have to consider another main character in his sad story: the audience. But first let's have a look at these items.

Finding a receipt from 1996 made me remember the price of a new CD at the time: L. 40.000, or about 20 euros, which is exactly the current price. I wonder whether other items exist which today cost the same as fourteen years ago. But our perception of that cost has changed a great deal, from the at least tolerable then to the decidedly scandalous now. Which shows that something has really changed, but what?

A few days ago a post someone posted in a thread on a US Forum discussed how the old cassette featuring music a friend had recorded for him looked to him as something that was "lacking". It was not for sound quality reasons, the cassette in question sounding quite good enough. It was due to the cassette lacking all those ingredients - such as the LP cover, lyrics, various trimmings, etc. - that made his experience feel complete. So every time he bought the actual album he had a feeling of "upgrading". But what about those who have never experienced music as something different than a file on one's computer? One's experience is bound to be that of a "disposable" file which will never have a "real" value. And it's precisely this kind of change in attitude that proves to be an important ingredient in one's reluctance to attribute any monetary value to something that in itself is perceived to be disposable, easily replaceable, and so, basically worthless. This is a shift of consciousness with regards to what "owning music" means.

And now, let's take a deep breath.

Mountains of books have been written about the current situation, with conclusions ranging from "clues" to "probable causes" to "parallel variations", with cautious attempts at "macro" explanations. So I really hope readers won't feel let down by the meager picture that follows.

We've all heard of people growing increasingly accustomed to multitasking, of how "instant satisfaction" becomes more and more important for people, of attention spans getting shorter and shorter. Whatever the cause, nowadays most people regard being bombarded by an endless stream of information as something quite normal. Meanwhile, people have more and more trouble understanding a written text that goes beyond the merely elementary. With the obvious exception of sport games, or things like sitcoms, reality shows, and movies which don't challenge one's mental capabilities, most people's perception of something of great length that requires one's constant attention for the whole of its duration is of something to be avoided; while all that goes outside the borders of what is already familiar, and so for this very reason is perceived as being "difficult to understand", is immediately discarded. This svelte portrait has much in common with that of those who've watched a lot of modern, commercial TV while being devoid of any real vaccines: a subject that has been fed lotsa baby food which requires no effort to chew, and digest.

When it comes to music, those people live in an eternal present, where nothing is investigated and all interconnections between musicians and music are not perceived, and so are absent. There's an enormous amount of contradictions that rarely emerge to one's conscious thought. For instance, one's preoccupation for the environment and safe foods can go hand-in-hand with "36 hours tourism", where one catches a plane with the same nonchalance as it were a bus. Likewise, one can feel that "freedom" can also mean being able to buy and sell counterfeit goods - while at the same time demanding to be protected by the unpleasant consequences on one's health of those very goods that were so freely bought and sold. Also, the government is asked to provided an infinite amount of  services - while any amount of taxation above the mere minimum is seen as a "heavy load".

Those who find those for instances not too alarming are asked to please consider this: According to a recent survey (I read about in the UK newspaper The Guardian) in the United Kingdom 42% of those who vote for the Labour Party regard the Conservative Party as the one more likely to act in favour of economic growth; not too different conclusions were reached by Paul Krugman in The New York Times when it comes to beliefs widely held as true when it comes to (so-called) Tea Party; this, though the naked truth as it appears on graphs and figures shows the opposite to be true. But in order to know, one has to read, and reading requires a lot of time and effort, and has to be done constantly.

The issue is made even more complex by the fact that - as it's been authoritatively and convincingly argued - nowadays the "Orwell model" (i.e., scarcity and surveillance) has been replaced by the "Huxley model" (i.e., plenty of fun and goods for everybody). And by the noted circumstance that, while they once inhabited different, separate worlds, nowadays the rich and the poor live in the same world - the world of the rich. The end result being that, now occupied with a thousand pleasant distraction (and let's not forget those laboratories on wheels going 'round the United Kingdom countryside to give those plain folks who live far from the city botox treatments), at the end of the day there's no time left to deal with the serious stuff.

As it will be apparent from my mentioning the opposition of the cultural framework devised by George Orwell in 1984 and the one devised by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, here my point of view shares Neil Postman's analysis as argued in his book Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse In The Age Of Show Business (1985).

Coherently with this outlook, my attempt at "putting a spotlight on quality" (these being the actual words chosen by a US musician at the time this webzine was just getting started) assumes that the subjects in question (i.e., those who do the actual work here, those who create the music that's reviewed and discussed here, and those who read what we write and listen to the music we talk about) share an attitude about time which - with a look at the calendar - we could define as being "pre-modern", or maybe just "pre-TV".

One's use of time is not, I think, something that's given much (conscious) thought, our behavioral patterns being governed by an "automatic pilot" of some sort that we are not even conscious of being "on" anymore. But if the quality of our attention when it comes to music (this is obviously something that can true of other aspects of our life) will be of a "superficial" kind, the temptation on the part of those who make music to "put inside" only the bare minimum will be too strong to resist. One more reason, this, to give extra points to those who do their work in ways that given today's general conditions can only be defined as being "quite irrational" when it comes to matters of money - especially if the money they spend is actually their own! Sure, it's quite strange to see more than a few people being so assured in their appreciation of those great musicians of the past, yet faltering so badly when it comes to perceiving that same greatness in those who work on their art today.

In closing, just a thought: nobody will do our share of the work for us, nobody will act in our stead. Readers are invited to consider this when they listen to "an old, great album".

© Beppe Colli 2010

CloudsandClocks.net | Nov. 26, 2010