Four years on
By Beppe Colli
Nov. 24, 2006

Difficult to believe, but true: on November, 26 Clouds and Clocks will turn four years old. Should we rejoice? Well, it depends on one's point of view. Do I still have fun doing it? Well, "fun" is not the word I'd choose, but if I scan the horizon I don't see any signs of anybody giving up. Did I keep the promise I made when I wrote my First Editorial? Well, here I believe everybody will have to make his/her own mind about it. What has changed during those four years? Well, this is an interesting question, which I'll try to answer at length.

Let's start examining what has changed for this writer. For a start, I didn't renew my subscription to about half a dozen magazines: one "virtual", the others still printed on paper. The case of the virtual daily (Salon) is quite simple: for various reasons (but I imagine the financial side to have played an important part), the magazine gave more space to the topics I regarded as being the least interesting for me, while doing the opposite for the topics I cared about the most; what's more, a few contributors I liked were nowhere to be seen anymore. Case closed. For the other (paper) magazines, things are different. Talking about my most recent non-renewal, I'll say that there is a point beyond what blatant whorism and lack of competence in performing even the simplest critical tasks (old contributors getting fed up, or finding greener commercial pastures, new forces being guys/girls who have great trouble even in putting Napoleon and Julius Cesar in the right temporal sequence) cannot be tolerated. Case closed. When it comes to magazines of a more "technical" type such as Guitar Player, Bass Player and Keyboard, things are quite different: I'm absolutely sure their respective editors are doing everything that can be done to make things the absolute best, given the present climate, but to me, as a reader, this is not enough (then the situation becomes the one of the dog chasing its tail, as in: "readers are asking for this, and this is what we are giving them" - right, but what happens when readers find the stuff they are asking for, for free, on the Net?).

Let's check the situation at the newsstand. The European edition of the financial weekly Business Week ceased its operations starting January 2006. Rolling Stone (here I'm obviously talking about the US edition) I don't even find worth reading about mainstream stuff anymore. There are two (US/UK) monthlies that I regard as doing their job quite well: Down Beat and Mojo. It's obviously a precarious situation whose future is quite uncertain. The paper mag has been a successful historical experiment in connecting artists and readers, and I see no reason why this shouldn't possibly work on the Web (I consider the various subscription/purchasing possibilities one finds available at Sound on Sound UK to be an interesting experiment). Obviously, reality is very different, especially when it comes to getting ads and paying contributors. The dividing line, I think, is the existence of an audience (which, it goes without saying, will always be a "niche" one) still possessing traits like wanting, asking for and paying for in-depth coverage (which doesn't necessarily mean "more pages").

A curious coincidence: A friend of mine sent me some scans of record reviews that had appeared in an Italian weekly (called Ciao 2001, which I don't think anybody regards as being a high point in music journalism) about thirty-five years ago. It was a bit funny reading those reviews, sometimes a bit naive, (but where the writer hade made an effort to clarify things - to his readers, but first of all, to himself - whose cultural distance is absolutely not easy to perceive today) but which nonetheless revealed a critical effort and a sense of duty which today we can only define as being "of another time". More or less at the same time, another friend of mine wrote to me that - having read about the announced re-release of three very nice Joni Mitchell albums from the mid-seventies (Court And Spark, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns and Hejira) she had read (considering her age, I'd say for the first time) some reviews and articles about those records (they are all freely available on a website devoted to Joni Mitchell); her reaction was one of surprise: "How can it be", she wrote, "that today's music criticism has fallen so low?" (which is quite a stimulating question, right?)

Has the Web changed the way I live? Here the best example I have is this: About ten years ago, when I bought a brand-new book by George Ritzer titled The McDonaldization of Society. An Investigation into the Changing Character of Contemporary Social Life, I was saddened by my not being able to know more about certain things the author referred to. For instance, Fredric Jameson's essay titled Postmodernism, Or The Cultural Logic Of The Late Capitalism. I was also curious to know more about the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, designed by John Portman. Today those questions (and a thousand more) are for my mouse to explore. (I am really puzzled when I hear people saying they stopped reading the day they got a computer.) Different stuff? There are sound documents available online about (almost) everything (provided one had the possibility to record them in the first place).

But this is not the way the average surfer uses the Net, right? Well, we already know the answer. (Some useful elements for looking at this picture can be derived by doing a search for "George Ritzer", "Zygmunt Bauman", "Neil Postman", and - especially referring to his book Bowling Alone - "Robert Putnam", and adding "interview". Try also looking for "Giovanni Sartori", and his book called Homo Videns.)

We all know that today's consumers consider dealing with as many stimuli as possible at the same time as a top priority. And we all know that the widening of the amount of choices, even more so if the price is low, is seen as an "empowerment". We all know that the outcome is a drastic simplifying of the scenario ("in the same amount of time it takes you to "get" just one record of yours I'll listen to five of mine"). The satisfaction one is looking for must be of the "fast" kind. Meanwhile, one's ability to verbalize disappears. This is our background.

We already knew that technical progress is one of the most important motivators for change. The now common visual dimension made possible by the cheap price (and availability) of broadband (here I'm talking about things like MySpace and YouTube) has put the item "music" in the background (does anybody mention the word "copyright" anymore?). Trying to keep themselves up-to-date about current events (and obviously quite confident they won't get fired, whatever silly things they write), some commentators have accepted the "empowerment" argument. So I ask: who will decide to spend money to rent a grand piano, a nice studio and some excellent microphones if - with the disappearance of the CD - all music will have by necessity to be downloaded as a compressed, bad-sounding file? Are we getting richer - or poorer? (Discussing these things can make one's ulcer bleed.)

Looking at things from a musician's perspective will obviously show an apocalyptic scenery. For those who play "commercial" music, the chance to earn money goes hand-in-hand with ads and sponsors - of both the overt and covert type (keep an open eye on those videos and lyrics). Maybe it's difficult, in the modern world, to feel sorry for musicians who are millionaire (but why should one feel sorry for those who download for free and spend whatever money they have on drinks and clothes?) or who confided in their catalogue as their pension plan. But I think about those musicians (whose records I own!) that I see doing concerts that are definitely below them for sheer financial reasons. And what about those strange types - sharks, really - who for one reason or another happen to administrate some public money that gets to be spent for concerts? Seeing musicians having to deal with those kind of faces is not a pretty sight.

Well, things are not fine. And I think that the notion of the "Sixties" (i.e., the years 1964-74) being a "singularity", and not the beginning of something incredibly good, is not disputed anymore.

A melancholic ending, a difficult scenery. But nobody promised things would be simple, right?

Beppe Colli 2006 | Nov. 24, 2006