By Beppe Colli
Jan. 10, 2012

If I only had a dollar
For ev'ry song I've sung
Ev'ry time I've had to play
While people sat there drunk

As it was to be expected, with the start of the New Year I started receiving quite a few messages regarding last year's sales when it comes to music. Looks like things are a bit more upbeat in the United States - for the first time since 2001, I think? - though the circumstance of the increase in sales being more or less equal to the unexpected success of Adele's new album, 21, is bound to make one quite a bit suspicious about the actual chances of the present recovery to signal the start of a solid trend. Well, somebody is buying all those CDs, so maybe the announcements of the imminent demise of the physical support, no to mention record companies themselves, will prove to be a bit premature.

I was greatly amused by an article on Metromix magazine (readers who want to read the piece in full can do a search for 20 Biggest Flop Albums of 2011) about... well, 2011's biggest flops. As it's clearly stated in the intro (by Andy Hermann), making a chart having actual sales and expected sales as one's raw material is not really a very scientific approach, but it sure makes for intriguing reading. I was quite surprised to read about sales (or, better yet, the lack of) of the album of the same name by supergroup SuperHeavy (featuring Joss Stone, former Eurythmics Dave Stewart and The Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger); also about sales of Lulu, the album recorded by Lou Reed and Metallica. First-week sales of SuperHeavy amounted to 17,000 copies (then the album dropped off the charts); while in the United States Lulu's sales amounted to 19,000 copies, with sales of fewer than 1,000 copies per week causing the album to drop off Billboard's Hard Music Albums chart. Readers will notice I'm drawing no conclusions from this (while I'm sure somebody will see this as sure proof of those albums' great quality).

The really hurting part - no need to look at the charts for this, sales being really meager - is the one about music I really, really like. When it comes to the more - ahem - "commercial" names, one can still think in terms of one "recharging one's batteries", so to speak; but when it comes to the majority of musicians whose work I follow quite religiously, it just means there's no money anymore to properly rehearse and record an album, even if one's "secret plan" is to give the music away, and hope for the best. (The fact of the high quality of Ben Fold's recent album with Nick Hornby when it comes to its recorded sound getting no mention whatsoever on most papers - the same papers which chose to discuss Hornby's literary work at the intellectual level of gossip - clearly shows that nowadays chances are quite slim even for albums featuring music that's intelligent, but also accessible).

I have to confess I was quite surprised by the gradual disappearance of any mention of the audience in most reports of live concerts which have been offered to me by musicians whose friendship I greatly prize. As it's to be expected, of course, it's the music that's actually played on stage that really matters, music being the reason one goes onstage. But bit by bit, in the course of the past decade, even those minor mentions of people in the audience - those who, I suppose, had paid for their tickets - disappeared. This I never thought to be a sign of musicians becoming nonchalant about their audience, but as proof of the audience "disappearing". Which can be seen as a sign of audiences getting thinner, or as a sign that artists started adopting a self-referential framework that's quite typical of all environment (such as classical music, or any subsidized cultural endeavour) where when it comes to financial matters audiences don't really count. Sure it's funny, after a long, detailed report about the music that was played, to see eyebrows going up upon hearing a question about type and size of attending audience(s), silence being proof of a sincere effort to try to recall if an audience of any type was, indeed, attending the concert.

Here is your reward for working so hard
Gone are the lavatories in the back yard
Gone are the days when you dreamed of that car
You just want to sit in your Shangri-la

The "grey" tones in a scale are those that are more difficult to discuss: there's no doubt about the meaning of words such as "rich" or "poor", but it's the quite large territory that's in-between that gives us the worst troubles. Me, sometimes I have quite strange ideas. For instance, I believe that those who, like me, wear glasses are, in a way, "rich": Once upon a time, a person who was quite near-sighted was bound to be an easy prey for a lion, or a spear. To cut a long story short, I have no idea about the way my computer works, or the way my data can travel so far away. With no real personal merit, and quite cheaply, too, I can use what technical progress and social productivity make available to me to use. I'm "rich". My knowledge of English and my studying Economy make it possible for me to somewhat understand what I read when I read papers on the Web, so trying to make sense of those strange times we're living.

Sure, there are many ways to play a role. Paul Krugman is a Nobel Prize, and I bet his day doesn't offer more spare time than a high-school teacher's. Well, I don't know how he does it, but he posts many times a day on his blog in The New York Times, he makes use of charts and graphs, answers questions, clarifies points, makes predictions, and so on. While I can say, having been a reader of US Business Week magazine for about a quarter of a century, that there was an Italian journalist who on Mondays published articles which were "greatly inspired" by what I had read on previous Thursdays on Business Week.

A few days ago I happened to read a newspaper article about "crisis and middle class", where a couple of forty-somethings - a high-school teacher, a clerk, two children - talked about those sacrifices they had to make in order to make ends meet. No rent to pay - they owned the house they lived in - for the most part their sacrifices amounted to: their children giving up tennis lessons and the swimming pool, the whole family stopping going skiing for a week once a year, those week-end trips out of town, the parents now not going to the theater and the movies (plus, of course, an attitude of "being on the alert" in everyday shopping). Sure, as everybody knows, newspapers are not necessarily accurate when it comes to reporting, for many reasons, but I was quite impressed by the act of renouncing movies and theater - "a blow to culture!", it was called - being made equal to becoming a moron in front of one's television. While the teacher - who had graduated from university! - expressed great astonishment that this "crisis in the economy - so unforeseen, and so severe" (!) had happened. "And I hope it won't last long, otherwise we'll be in trouble".

As usual, I was quite surprised that travels and theater were given the tag "culture". Not talking about the week spent skiing, it's not clear to me what's "cultural" about going from A to B (I won't bother readers with those tales of banal notions only becoming known for the first time to people while they were visiting countries - like Russia, or China - many thousand miles away from home), or going to the theater in a town (a town I happen to know very well, by the way) where there is no, nor ever has been, a Kevin Spacey changing the rules or a David Mamet rehearsing a new play. While the way somebody who's a teacher is in the know about the economy is more similar to the way people from thousand years ago regarded natural phenomena.

But it's getting harder
To describe
To the underfed

As it was quite common at the time, the dust jacket in my copy of the album didn't have any trace of those materials - those photos and song lyrics - that were featured in the original US edition. My knowledge of English language at the time - I had just turned 15 - was too poor for me to even recognize as "harder" that word that to me sounded like: "HAAA-DEH!". After a few years, when I happened to get those lyrics, I wondered why describing sailors to the underfed was getting harder. Sure, a sailor sails, and so he moves. While those who are underfed can be like that in quite a few different ways - from food, of course, to their being undernourished when it comes to knowledge. Too "weak" to move, it's entirely possible that those who are weak could come to regard an existence where movement exists as an illusion. Still wonder what this fragment means - still think about its intended, or possible, meanings.


Characters in order of appearance:

(B-side of Bad Moon Rising single by Creedence Clearwater Revival, released April 1969, also from the album Green River. Writer: John Fogerty)

Shangri-La (Single by The Kinks, released September 1969, also from the album Arthur, Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire. Writer: Ray Davies)

The Soft Parade (Song by The Doors from the album The Soft Parade, released July 1969. Writer: Jim Morrison)

Beppe Colli 2012 | Jan. 10, 2012