Five years
By Beppe Colli
Nov. 26, 2007

Though it may sound difficult to believe, Clouds and Clocks is five years old today. (How time flies when you're having fun, eh?) This could be a good time to have a look into some of those "macro" trends happening in the fields we've often talked about in the course of the last five years. Trying to spot some new (social) trends, expressing our personal value judgment about them, trying to see if the fallout of trends that have been in operation for quite some time now affects things that to the naked eye may appear as being immune to those scenarios.

Though it could may appear like a masochistic act, there will also be some observations - though it's hard, reality can also look very funny, in a bitter way, under the right kind of light - about the way Clouds and Clocks has dangerously sailed through the conflicting expectations on the part of readers, musicians, record companies, and promoters from different Continents (in this respect, writing in more than one language obviously helps!).

It goes without saying: it's not for the faint of heart, and children will be definitely safer in bed.

Since man needs the proper amount of certainty in order to live - this being especially true in the present age, which has been called "the age of uncertainty" (at least, of this we are sure, it seems) - we've come to the conclusion that "One day the press will be on the Web". (Here somebody could say that the press is already on the Web, but let's proceed one step at a time.) First of all, due to the rising costs of paper, printing and transportation; then, because the /printed) press can't update its news content more often than once per day; then, due to the fact that readers increasingly demand those "TV-like" material they have grown used to; and, last but not least, due to the ongoing hemorrhage of readers, of which falling ads are the unavoidable consequence. We all know about the different ways papers and magazines have tried to get one foot on the Web while at the same time trying not to lose much ground at the newsstands; how attempts to make readers pay for "premium content" appearing alongside free content have for the most part failed; how the increase in the availability of broadband at affordable prices (for both papers and readers) has made it possible for some newspapers to change into some sort of online "mini-TV stations"; how, in parallel, the "selling of the eyeballs" to advertisers is now measured through the duration of one's stay on a given page, and not through the number of hits for any given page.

It goes without saying that - as a first approximation - the above scenario can be easily made to fit into different situations other than the news: for instance, by having the MP3 file of a song (in the case of a music magazine) or the trailer for a movie (in the case of a film magazine) as the equivalent of a piece of news shown as a video.

Though many pretend otherwise, when it comes to "what happens next" in the media field we are all groping in the dark (how funny it would be to have access to those triumphant proclamations announcing rich futures in the media world, and then proceed to ask for the opinions of all those workers who were made redundant!). Strange things happen: "Pieces written to appear on the Web must be brief and easy to understand since readers surfing the Net are always in a hurry and have a short attention span"; meanwhile, "pieces that have to appear in print must be brief and easy to understand, since nowadays readers are used at the simplicity of the Web content, and so when they read a complex line of thought they appear to lose the plot completely". (How funny to think of the way the Web was initially talked about: as the medium where, at last, all those constraints of costs of the physical papers would be no more, making it possible for writers to write at great length!)

(Here we could discuss how this situation influences the choice of topics that one can/can't talk about, but I think this is a topic that's quite easy to understand without using too many words.)

We've talked about newspapers and magazines that are already sold at the newsstands. But since sooner or later everything is bound to get on the Web, why should a new magazine be in a paper format? It makes a lot more sense for it to go on the Web without first going into paper form: to try to make a position for itself in the new medium, to create a strong "brand", and so get points over those who by necessity have to stay in the old physical format. Sounds easy!

It was more or less two weeks into October when I heard the news about the online-only US magazine called Stylus being about to close its doors. If I'm not mistaken, those in the know had already heard the news about three months before, and all had reacted with a certain degree of disbelief. In order to understand why, we have to go back in time a bit.

Taking advantage of the enormous possibilities offered by the new medium, more than a few magazines opened their doors as online-only. I think it can be said that the magazines which had the largest number of readers and ads (influence, prestige, and amount of retributions being somewhat more difficult to quantify; while we could talk at great length about the first two items, the third is commonly believed to be quite low on the pay scale) were without a doubt US PopMatters, Pitchfork and Stylus. (PopMatters also deals with movies, television, DVD-Vs and books; Stylus talked about music and movies; while at present Pitchfork has a music-only format.) All updated daily, with the by now classic "five reviews per day", news and interviews, etc. So?

The current situation of the international music press (of the paper type) presents a somewhat contradictory picture. Last time I looked, the most important Made in UK monthly magazines to have appeared in the course of the last ten years or so - Q, Mojo and Uncut - sold about 120.000 copies each in the Country that was once The Land of the Weeklies. Some time ago, the historical US bi-monthly Rolling Stone stood at about 1.250.000 copies per single issue.

It's obvious that in such a scenario the birth of a daily music magazine available for free is bound to change quite a few things. Fresh news, lotsa (free!) content are hard competition for those who still publish a print magazine. And with the growing availability of quite affordable broadband there is almost no limit to the number of audio and video files that readers can access for free. What could possibly go wrong with this picture?

Here there are obviously many things that have to be taken into consideration (starting with the quantity and quality of interviews and reviews), but I think it can be said that in the end the printed press has held its ground (though for how long it can continue to do so it's a whole different matter); while the "virtual" magazines, though they offered files, had to unexpectedly confront a different enemy, a competitor whose existence was impossible to foresee (for the simple reason that the availability of affordable broadband in such a quantity was impossible to foresee): the entity I like to call "the wordless magazine".

Going back in time, it can be said that music - i.e., radio - came before print discussions about it. That, starting from the 50s, with R'n'R and R'n'B, sound - and peer comments - came before written discussion in newspapers and magazines. It's entirely possible to see the birth of what we could call "the modern rock press" of the 60s (Crawdaddy!, Rolling Stone, Creem etc.) as "the way the music industry tried to reach a niche audience", perhaps adding a brief discussion about the birth and success of the FM radio.

But, provided they are of a high quality, an article, an album or a concert review, or an interview about/of/with Frank Zappa, the Beatles or the Kinks - besides obviously all being means to promote Frank Zappa, the Beatles or the Kinks (and besides the obvious circumstance of having been made possible by the fact that somebody bought the ads, and sent those album) - produce knowledge that was not there before and pass it to the reader, whose understanding of music will be changed by this. It's precisely due to their different approach to music that we can say that, say, Musician was a better magazine than Rolling Stone. This model can be said to hold water, I think, up to the birth of MTV.

Here we have to keep many different factors as a background: from the wide availability of the broadband that makes it possible for one to download all those files, to the degree of impunity that makes it a de facto "legal" activity; from people being used to listen to music of such a simplicity that it makes all verbal discourse "unnecessary", to the enormous quantity and variety of all kinds of activity that today are considered to be part and parcel of "a full life"; from the increasing amount of poor literacy, to the belief that "choice" is by itself an "empowerment" for those who choose; from the distrust towards any complex line of reasoning, to a blind faith in what is preferred "naturally".

So, what all new online-only magazines have to face - Stylus being the first to succumb - are those "wordless magazines" whose present incarnation are those systems of personal recommendations currently best represented by Where the simple act of listening to something that sounds similar to what one already knows, and likes, completes the whole experience without any need for a verbal stage. This doesn't entail that the verbal stage is made an impossibility; only that it is made "redundant", and is not at all a "typical" condition anymore.

So it's quite paradoxical that, in order to better cope with the current situation, online-only music magazines (but also, mutatis mutandis, the printed ones) appear to repeat the same mistakes of those news magazines that imitated TV in order to better (!) survive: publishing pieces of ever-decreasing length, while offering a larger quantity of the same things readers have access to elsewhere, i.e., audio and video files, often of the "exclusive!" type. (And who gets to be the Boss in a situation where a privileged access to unreleased files is the most valued resource a magazine can offer in order to attract readers it's not too difficult to understand.)

Ok, what's the importance of all this stuff for Clouds and Clocks? Better said, why is this stuff important for "our kind" of music? It obviously depends on one's point of view. A few years ago, on a Forum moderated by engineer, producer, and inventor George Massenburg of which I was a member, I was asked this question: why was I so interested in the dynamics of the mainstream, given the fact that my main point of interest, with just a few exceptions, were those uncommercial types of music that were apparently destined to remain liked only by the few?

If my memory serves, the discussion had started when somebody defined the current situation as being quite similar to the one just before the Beatles conquered the charts, with the audience being mostly interested in dancing, "easy listening" stuff, and singles, with just a few that liked the more "unconventional" stuff. At the time I believed - and I believe even more strongly now - that those preconditions that I considered as being favourable to the birth and survival of all "difficult" kinds of music, and which were present in those days, were on their way to extinction, the same being true of an "attentive" kind of audience.

All technical means available nowadays appear as being on the side of the musicians, from the means of recording being very affordable to those window shops such as MySpace that make it possible for one not to have to depend on any record company. Here opinions will fatally differ (and many things have a paradoxical side: though it's highly dubious that having a page on MySpace will make much difference, nowadays having a page on MySpace is not a choice anymore, but a precondition). But it's one thing to think about names that come from "a different era" (even if the different era in question is just a few years in the past), and another to think about the real chances of those who are supposed to use "the new means" to their advantage in order to make themselves known. It's one thing to talk about people like James Taylor or Henry Cow, who still really mean a lot to their audience, but to believe that a musician can in the end have the same kind of relationship with an audience at a time when nothing appears to be able to leave a solid memory... (Those who are interested in those topics are invited to read the blog written by Bob Lefsetz, a US attorney who deals with all things about the modern field of entertainment.)

To repeat: preconditions don't look too favourable. Francis Davis still writes lengthy pieces for the Village Voice, but how many writers today have to write, by necessity, "pills of wisdom"? And what about those movie reviews of ever-shrinking length where at the end of the piece one gets to see the trailer? Or those reviews of  albums by "classic" artists that offer a video off YouTube? And maybe it's just me, but the moments when the website Rock Critics appears to really come alive is when it deals with dead writers or dead magazines.

It goes without saying that the Net is so wide that the fact of expressing an opinion about it makes one potentially culpable of making a mistake. But I think that something can be said. A few magazines as "players that matter" have appeared, though - as stated above - it's the very concept of a "verbal knowledge" that appears to be on its way out today. Meanwhile (and this is the assertion one can be less sure about for sheer reasons of quantity), I have the feeling that, compared to just a few years ago, the number of "serious" blogs (by "serious" I mean, those that offer a real informative content) has decreased (the topic was recently debated on Rock Critics, with many different opinions appearing). The core of the matter appears to be the fact that anything that's created in one's "free time" - which doesn't mean "as a hobby", of course - needs a lot of time, just like those record companies of the uncommercial kind, whose releases are not supposed to originate any profit.

It's often said that deriving an impression of insufficient competence from the brevity of the most part of music writings which appear on the Web is not a correct way of thinking. From my personal experience as a reader I think I can say that the average level of competence of those who write really stinks (the thing assumes dramatic proportions when the album to be reviewed is a re-release; sure, most of the time those who review a historical album don't have the original release at their disposal - but how can a snare drum that sounds like a gunshot be considered as the same snare that appeared on the original album from the 60s?). It goes without saying that brevity can work well as a smokescreen for those who make shoddy work; it remains a mystery why readers are supposed to fork their money, hard-earned or otherwise, on the basis of such meagre arguments.

Talking about paper magazines, I think it can still be said that Down Beat and Mojo still manage to do their job pretty well (which doesn't mean they don't have any faulty parts, of course!).

Two things strike me really badly. First, shoddiness reigns everywhere. Let's just consider the obituaries about a musician whose work was not really very dear to me (this as proof of my being objective), Joseph Zawinul. It's absurd how so many profiles didn't mention his important contributions to (synthesizer) sounds, and his immense influence in the field (there is also a piece by Eno titled Zawinul/Lava!).

The other thing I find hard to stomach is seeing the same names appearing everywhere all at the same time. Sure, albums are supposed to be reviewed when they are just-released. But how can it be that Nellie McKay was reviewed everywhere when she was pushed by Sony (but not in Italy, where Sony did not release her album!), and practically nowhere when she wasn't on Sony anymore? And what about Robert Wyatt? (Again, I use a name dear to my heart as proof of my being objective.) Quite funny to see the international list of reviews getting a bit longer every morning.  Was his new album so fresh and groundbreaking when compared to his past releases to justify this? Why so much sweat about it? It was sad to have to accept the fact that the real "independent variable" in all this was his new record company (here readers can check Metacritic). How could one take this kind of enthusiasm-on-demand seriously?

Now, what about Clouds and Clocks?

Well, when taking into consideration all the obvious limits of a business like this, I have to admit I'm not terribly unhappy about it.

Right from the start I saw Clouds And Clocks as a potential participant in the international debate, with no false illusions, of course, about how "trendy" or "the one who dictates the moves" it could became when it's "size" that matters. But thanks to the modern search engines that are available to anybody on a global scale, a "tiny" place is not necessarily "minor" - and it can be just as easy to find. I have to say I'm really proud of what has appeared on the site up to now, starting with the piece by Bettye Kronstad about an album recorded by her former husband, one Lou Reed, titled Berlin; a piece that a press less (shoddy? distracted? fearful? tired?) would have noticed, and talked about, in past times.

Those who knew about Clouds and Clocks before it launched know very well that at the planning stage it was not even sure whether the website would feature the Italian language. To be really clear, Clouds and Clocks is (from a cultural point of view) a "stateless website written in English". Surely it's not "Italian" in the sense we attribute to a dairy farm which makes and sells Parmesan cheese. This is a self-evident concept that, though it's clear to many (there are quite a few musicians who did their longest, more in-depth interviews available worldwide here at Clouds and Clocks), remains nonetheless opaque for those still reasoning on the basis of an old mercantile scale: the one which sees an "Italian" magazine as one that is written in Italian language and which has to get promos according to the records' release date in Italy; all this, at the time of the global P2P exchange, when it's also possible to buy beyond borders! (Though it doesn't come naturally to me, I understand that those who don't have much else to offer can't easily abandon their chance to run an "Exclusive!" kind of review, within the national borders.) Oh, well.

The main ideas here at Clouds and Clocks have always been: to formulate an adequate description of the music, and to serve readers. 'Cause I really think in the end this is the only way one can really benefit musicians making "difficult" music. To say it even more clearly, I don't believe at all in a kind of "friendly" website: one that celebrates good achievements, doesn't talk about failures, underplays the so-so works, never asks the "wrong" questions. I don't believe at all in this kind of "friendship".

It's an attitude that has made it possible for Clouds and Clocks to collect a fair amount of insults during the five years it's been online. They come:

from musicians whose works we didn't review (negative reviews are OK, but below a certain degree of quality the only appropriate answer is silence); from musicians whose works we reviewed in a negative way; from musicians whose works we lauded, but in a way that amounted to less than what was "needed";

from record labels and distributors, for obvious reasons;

from promoters who feared about their bread.

The thing that really surprises me is the fact that a lot of musicians don't seem to care about the audience. Sure, a tiny audience doesn't give much money. But what is a critic supposed to do, then? Is s/he supposed to write rubbish to be used as a cosmetic excuse when musicians ask for money from public funds?

What was said above a propos of online magazines proves that the future is uncertain, first of all because it's the prime mover of a lot of changes - technical progress - that's impossible to foresee. Meanwhile, I get the impression that the process of language getting more and more impoverished is almost beyond the point of no return.

Still, I remain curious.

Beppe Colli 2007 | Nov. 26, 2007