Thoughts From The Beach
By Beppe Colli
July 14, 2008

Thinking about today's widespread use (still on the rise) of modern "personal listening systems" can only lead to the conclusion that by now the whole great debate about the introduction of new, technologically advanced systems for recording/reproducing sound such as SA-CD and DVD-A can be consigned to the dustbin of history (at least, when it comes to the part concerning their mass appeal). It goes without saying that "Progress" won't stop, and there will still be many heated discussions about "lossless compression". But at this moment the framework is the one that's typical of the life of somebody who's always "on the move", busy with a thousand activities. Whereas the hi-fi system, hopelessly grounded to a physical place, increasingly looks like a thing of the past. Sure, there had been portable systems such as the Walkman (with its tape) and the Discman (with its CD); but they were both systems that had to have an inseparable physical companion/counterpart of a "solid" nature. While today, the object we call "file" appears to make music "immaterial", contributing more than a little bit in making it a "disposable" kind of entity which often presents itself as a mere appendix of the mysterious (and Free) vastness of the Net.

Doing a Web search about the release of new titles remade/remodeled using those new high-end formats (such as the SA-CD and the DVD-A), and their reviews, immediately tells us of the failure of an industry paradigm: the one that tried to sell "the Catalog", with new bells and whistles added, at a new, higher price, yet again; something that had worked to perfection at the time of the transition from LP to CD.

It still happens, once in a while, that one can read something interesting about the "translation" of a format into another, especially when it comes to famous groups that have already moved a lot of copies. This being the case of a (relatively) recent interview with sound engineer Nick Davis at the time of the release of the whole Genesis catalogue on SA-CD. Titled His Own Special Way, the interview was conducted by Christian Gerhardts.

Though these facts are already quite well-known, learning that the original mixes, still used in the editions called Definitive Edition Re-master, will disappear forever as a consequence of their being replaced by the new SA-CD editions, doesn't make for nice reading; so, those who were interested in listening to the original mixes better not sell the original CDs!

But what about vinyl? So spoke Nick Davis: "I don't think the first CDs are good. The remasters are generally better. Some fans still favor the vinyl, that it's better than the CDs, maybe they cared more when transferring to Vinyl than transferring over to CD, I don't know. The first batch of Genesis CDs was just awful."

Having promised to myself not to forget to remember about something that I personally find quite troubling ("how come nobody talks about this 'disappearance of the originals'?") I decided to think a bit more about this (supposed) "return to vinyl".

That the current (faddish?) infatuation for vinyl has a lot more to do with a "love for the object" than with matters concerning "sound" or "warmth" I think we can take for granted, given the fact that at least 99% of all LPs released nowadays which were originally recorded in analog come from a digital master. (Which digital master? Well, this is really an interesting question.)

Of course, one cannot really be surprised if vinyl becomes a source of income - though a "niche" one - for somebody while we wait for the ship to sink completely. But I recently recalled one time when I used to receive vinyl re-releases to review (as part of a job): I found myself puzzled by the lack of proper credits on many an album when it came to the names of composers (of both lyrics and music), and the publishing. Of course, one can always conjecture about a previous agreement which included the paying of a lump sum of money going to those who had composed the tracks, but this fact (of which I had become aware almost by chance) looked quite strange indeed. It goes without saying that there is a long tradition of bootlegs and counterfeits. But how can it be that I appear to be the only one (that I know of) who finds that having hundreds of vinyl re-releases licensed from Russia, of all places, on sale everywhere is a bit too strange?

Those who like to experience first-hand the damages that an empty rhetoric can cause need look no further than the heated controversy about the price of the CDs, the evil record companies, the de facto legality of unauthorized free downloading, and the like. As I've already written in the past, record companies are really indefensible. Unfortunately, this fact hides the fact that without a model of compensation whose future existence we can take for granted today it's not only the future of the "big names" that's in doubt. In fact, the opposite is true. But we all know about this.

Likewise, we all know that Gene Simmons from Kiss likes to court controversy, since he's perfectly aware that all that's "controversial", not "banal", accounts for a lot of free publicity. Having read quite a few interviews with Simmons in the last twenty years - he's always ready to take something to its most controversial extremes, while showing the link to most people's common sense - when I read those he granted this year I thought I knew what to expect. I have to admit I was surprised by how much I agreed with him when it came to the topic of "industrial relations". Readers are invited to search the Web for the interview titled Gene Simmons: Into The Belly Of The Beast, by Elmo Keep for, which appeared on 20 February, 2008.

Just a few quotes by Keep appear below:

"We're deep into an argument about the future of the music industry. I'm in the camp favouring the digital revolution and everything it symbolizes: the death of the record label, the power put back in the hands of artists." (...) "So if Radiohead is doing this - doing away with their label. However much money EMI would have put into recording and releasing and promoting their new album, 10 million - however much money it is..." (...) "However much money it is. That money is now free to be invested in new artists, is what I'm saying. They can now invest that money in new talent." (...) "Perhaps this revulsion with paying so much for CDs" (!!!) "stems from the fact that record labels have been getting away with murder for so long."

But what if the real point in the end proves to be not that something costs too much, but that the predominance of a "cultural bulimia" makes not paying for something a highly desirable condition?

"About the only time I listen to a CD is when I'm inserting it into my computer drive to rip it. Tell me all you want about sound quality, physical artifacts, I'll tell you about convenience. About having thousands of tracks a click away. About listening to more music than ever. And reading more news than ever online."

It's a fact: Bob Lefsetz can speak loud and clear (the sentence quoted above comes from a piece of his, titled Lee Abrams/Tribune, which appeared semi-recently on his blog). And it's thanks to the clarity of this sentence that the problem of what's in store for newspapers brutally appears.

It was apparent to all that, more circles forming in parallel to the growing availability of affordable broadband, with the multiplication of (free) choices regarded as "empowerment" in the background, the issue "music" would be followed by the issue "movies". But who could have predicted a "news bulimia"?

We all know about the increasing costs (paper, transportation) for the Press, and that a lot of ads (sales, personals) increasingly migrate online. Qualified observers talk to us from an "insider perspective" (there is a nice weekly column by Jon Fine, Media Centric, appearing on Business Week; there was an interesting article about the future of the dailies, The Daily Shrinking Planet, in the issue dated June 23, 2008). But news have a cost, and having an increasing amount of news inside a framework of decreasing revenues is not really possible. Here it's quite apparent that everybody is playing it "by ear", with dailies offering free TV pieces, read news, podcasts, movie trailers, and blogs galore, which are obviously designed to cultivate a faithful readership.

But what kind of readership? If the crux of the matter is that we're talking about a different "platform", there's no problem at all: we'll pay for a "virtual" newspaper just like we pay for a "physical" one. If it's a free newspaper "paid by our sponsors" that we're talking about, things are quite different. Here the scenario of the Western TV, the financial restrictions suffered by the Public Service, the attacks on it, are all well-known. And it should be easy to think about the complexity, and the costs, of a well-done program investigating "While the price of oil just went up again".

Just to scare readers, it's possible to trace a quick parallel between the fate of those magazines that deal with music and those giving us news, with the former category having long abandoned critical accuracy for "the avalanche" ("300+ reviews!") that refuses to make any choices (I'm touching this topic with a very light touch).

Now it's the time for a brief intermezzo of a "funny" kind (better be careful, though, and keep those anti-ulcers at hand). If one has a certain familiarity with music mags one will notice that:

a) after so many years of consensus, calling What's Going On Marvin Gaye's "legendary masterpiece" gets boring; it can be substituted by Let's Get It On or (bravest only) Here, My Dear;

b) there are so many groups today that are considered to be "unfit for publication" (one good example being Jethro Tull), but there are so many pages to fill every month; a nice trick is to freshly evaluate "an underappreciated album", saying mirabilia about This Was - the Mono edition!

c) sometimes it comes the time to say nice things about an album that - despite the circumstance that the artist was a somebody - nobody seemed to appreciate at the time of its original release; a good example being the first solo album by Walter Becker released fourteen years ago - which gets to be properly appreciated today, just at the time of the release of his new solo album;

d) nobody has fewer things to say than the person who calls a track or an album "impossibly rare".

By now we're all quite aware of the magnificent potential for communication and dialogue of the Web. Not everybody appears to be equally conscious of the potential for banality for communication itself.

It goes without saying that in a world bursting with facts the only chance to get noticed is to create a bigger fact. Hence, those groups getting back together recreating their legendary repertoire, trying to convince themselves - and others - that time has not really passed.

But in the age of reality shows and of the "confessions in public", the real risk is that of having countless "Road Diaries", "quick impressions from my trip", "the facts behind the songs", "I write these words while eating a baguette in Venice", "my first divorce", and the like - with the complicity of the potentially fatal rope that's having one's page on MySpace. Meanwhile, there are those who believe it necessary to donate to the public as many demos, B-sides, unreleased tracks, soundchecks, and written words, as possible (there are those in the audience who are ready to call an artist that doesn't behave like this, stingy).

I'm not advocating the return to old patterns of communication as practiced by such nobodies as Dylan, Beatles, Stones, Zappa, Fogerty; patterns that I hold dear, but that maybe won't work today. But can an art that gets totally exposed to the light ever become "larger than life"?

Beppe Colli 2008 | July 14, 2008