Of (illegal) downloading
and all that stuff

By Beppe Colli
Oct. 11, 2007

Let's have a look at some of the topics and news that have piqued my interest in the course of the last few months. See if we can make sense of it all. There's no prize, of course, but lotsa fun is to be had by all.

1) By now everybody knows about the new Radiohead album having been available for pre-order, with potential buyers being able to choose how much to pay for downloading it. Cool! So, lotsa articles about "independence", "new business models", etc. (Do these guys have a smart publicist, or what?)

2) With sales of (physical) CDs decreasing, and sales of digital singles definitely on the rise, more than a few articles have appeared, with titles such as "Digital music singles flex muscles, kick sand on antiquated album". Alas, since profits have gone way down as a consequence of this very fact, record companies are not so happy about the whole matter!

3) As a logical consequences of diminishing CD sales, record shops/whole chains are closing left and right. The case of Tower being by now well-known, the Virgin Megastores now sold, and HMV feeling the squeeze when it comes to profits, it was the case of Fopp (the last UK chain standing to act as a significant outlet for independent labels) going bankrupt that really made waves, though in this case it looks more like the case of a firm overextending their financial reach than one of not enough sales. (A good overview can be found in: The vinyl frontier, by Adam Webb, The Guardian, Friday July 6, 2007.)

4) For those who don't think this is bad enough, there is the unpleasant topic of sound quality. The absolute zero attention given to this topic by most of the press notwithstanding, there were (at least) three very good articles I read: No taste for high-quality audio, by Jack Schofield (The Guardian, Thursday August 2, 2007); The Future of Music, by Suhas Sreedhar (spectrum.ieee.org, aug07; alongside with the text, the piece presents various specimens of audio waves); and Producers howl over sound cut out by MP3 compression, by Joel Selvin (The San Francisco Chronicle, Monday, August 13, 2007).

5) Meanwhile, while I still wonder about what one can really find in Second Life, and what Web 2.0 really means, a very interesting article, Notorious Nobodies, by Bryan Appleyard, appeared in the Culture supplement of The Sunday Times International, July 29, 2007.

6) So it was only logical at this point that somebody would propose the closing of the Net (only for five years, though): Sir Elton John, in the piece tiled Why we must close the net, which appeared in (UK) The Sun on August 01, 2007, only to be instantly greeted with ridicule all over the world. From what I understood, the points he raised were not at all undeserving of serious debate when it comes to music, but... (Maybe we need somebody a lot younger to raise the same points again?)

Let's talk a little about those now.

1) What I found absolutely hilarious about the whole Radiohead thing was reading those belligerent comments by those who discovered that one could pay as little as 1p for downloading the album, but that a 45p credit card charge would be added! All hell broke loose! Fortunately, it was soon discovered that if one paid 0p the transaction was still valid, but no credit card charges were added. (Or so I'm told.) Phew... Financial ruin being avoided, all now was calm.

2) For reasons that are too many to mention here, for a long time now, the music business has invested the biggest part of their money and hopes - and most media attention has been given to - in "disposable" kind of acts, who live (or die) by the single. In this respect, if people now avoid buying albums released by these very acts, Majors have only themselves to blame.

3) With all the talk about the CD being practically dead, we usually forget that "it still accounts for more than 90% of the market in value terms" (see the aforementioned Guardian piece, The vinyl frontier, by Adam Webb, Friday July 6, 2007). So, at this point, given all the reasons we know so well which perfectly explain why people can't possibly consider buying CDs as something which makes any sense whatsoever, I'd really like to see a good journalistic survey about the reasons why people still insist in buying them.

4) Sound quality is a topic that for a long time now has been greeted with scorn, as the province of people with a lot more money than sense (or taste in music). Not too long ago, I read somebody somewhere arguing - a propos of hi-fi - "fidelity to what?", as it was a position blessed with great profundity. Of course, for "Punk" the topic of sound quality simply did not exist (and if it did, it was only in a negative sense, as in "Prog sucks!"). While in a post-MTV world - both for the audience and the record companies - "what you see is all you get".

5) The whole point of "Life on the Web 2.0" is well beyond the scope of this writing. But be sure to check (at the very least) the aforementioned piece from The Sunday Times International.

6) I have to confess I am absolutely no expert when it comes to all things Elton, but I seem to remember reading in an old issue of Zigzag that he still remembered - from the time when his first album was being recorded, I think - when he and Bernie Taupin anxiously waited for importers to get them those US LPs they had ordered; how glad they were when the albums arrived, while if they didn't, the whole day was ruined. Well, it was just a couple of days ago that I read somewhere - on a USA blog, or something - about what a bad move had been for her record company to have Annie Lennox's new album entirely available for streaming a week before its release date; and how all the magic of discovering it for themselves after the regular purchase was now lost. Well...

For quite a few years now, the main stumbling block to our understanding of the situation we have to deal with - the point that really makes it hard for us to get to the heart of the matter - is the fact that The Majors are The Perfect Villain. In fact, hard as they try, nobody could ever invent a better one. Since by now we all know about them and their behaviour, it's time to move on: though they are the perfect culprit, the perfect scapegoat, and the perfect smokescreen, it's time to move on.

First, time and time again we've heard people argue that they don't buy music because "it's too expensive". Funny thing, they have pronounced said words showing a "burnt-CD holder" - and nowadays, one of those things that hold a respectable number of GB - while liberally consuming alcohol and food, attending concerts, pumping gas in their cars/bikes, buying clothes, getting haircuts, etc. Do we have to conclude that all this stuff is cheap? Or that the price of said stuff "mirrors their real value?"

Sure, Majors are impossible to defend. Does this mean we know all that goes on in the kitchens of the places where we eat, whether all those who work there have regular working contracts and benefits? And what about those faraway places where a lot of clothes are made? We can easily arrive at the conclusion that we refuse to pay money for music simply because (technically, and - in a practical sense - legally) we can. Which makes it possible for us to lead better lives than it would be possible for us, provided we had to pay for all the music we consume.

The often-repeated wisdom recites that "getting money from albums is a thing of the past: artists have to get their money from concerts and T-shirts". OK, agreed. For artists who made their name in the past it could work - maybe (though I'm curious to see this year's figures now that - thinking their only hope was in touring - a certain number of established artists all went on tour at the same time). But with the fast turnover of acts that are - by virtue of the nature of present times - absolutely disposable, which of the new names will be here in a few years' time?

Of course, the aforementioned solution does not really solve the problem of those who write songs but don't sing or play live, those whose music doesn't really work that well when played live, those who engineer and produce but are not touring musicians, those who for various reasons (age, personal appearance, etc.) won't be able to derive their income from sponsorships and ads, etc.

It goes without saying that not a lot of people have ever bothered thinking about sound. Having to do things "on the cheap" will make it impossible for us to hear on record again all those sounds which so clearly speak to us even if we don't necessarily notice them consciously, from the sound of the Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks... album to Laura Nyro's wet ambience on New York Tendaberry. Studios need money for equipment, technicians, engineers, and so on. Big valve microphones don't come cheap. Rent has to be paid. Of course, the demise of the big studios started long before downloading appeared. Certain types of music need certain kind of equipment, while others don't. But now a financial crisis means that only a certain type of sounds (most of them, quite cheap) will have to do for everybody.

It could be said that when it comes to sound one cannot really expect - or demand - much quality from something that's free. This could have been a true explanation in the past, maybe. But nowadays - just like it's happening with movies (does a lot of people really miss those large screens of yesterday?) - people live in a world where sound is increasingly confined to computers, cheap portable systems, tiny earphones, and the like, with a severely reduced fidelity (and a generation has already appeared that has never experienced music as tied to a specific support, like vinyl or a CD).

It's already been said that "it was always like this", with people in the 50s listening to music on cheap radios and record players, which didn't provide much fidelity. Sure, but compare these factors: a) the quantity of noise in the environment; b) the amount of music freely available; and c) the meaning of the act of listening, yesterday and today.

For technical reasons, music has become the perfect example of a product that best suits the contemporary attitude of short attention spans, volatile memory, and superficial interest, all things that go hand-in-hand with something being disposable, and so with a low price, or - better yet - free. The modern type of consumption - the "whim" - has found music as its perfect vehicle, where it's only the number of experiences that counts. Of course, there are still many things whose high price is a big obstacle to such an attitude (while, in certain conditions, it's the whole point of one's experience). But all that gets considered as disposable, becomes so.

(Paper) Magazines are now caught between a rock and a hard place: Give readers stuff that's deep, and they won't bother coming. Give them tons of stuff, and you'll be competing with those places on the Net which basically offer the same informations for free - but with a daily turnover. Meanwhile, now that bandwidth is less of a problem, some places on the Web have started offering videos and audio files as substitutes of musical analysis expressed in a language (the one you're reading) that people increasingly don't seem to understand anymore (and let's not talk about "things" that are disappearing as concepts, "introspection" being the perfect example). And there's no easy way out of this, I'm afraid.

Beppe Colli 2007

CloudsandClocks.net | Oct. 11, 2007