Let's Talk about Money
By Beppe Colli
Apr. 20, 2010

I have no trouble admitting that I don't really have any clear ideas about the way readers will regard what I'm about to write, starting with my admission that the single item I found to be the most puzzling for me in recent times (my field of enquiry in this particular case being only, it goes without saying, what is reported in the big world of those media that, one way or another, deal with music) was the unanimous, vociferous consensus of "the press" about Have One On Me, Joanna Newsom's recently released full-length third album.

I'll immediately say that my argument here doesn't sit on any value judgment whatsoever, and that my initial disbelief was not due to the (enormous) amount of attention on the part of "the press" when compared to Newsom's new album (supposedly) being low-quality. It's just that I was quite surprised, to say the least, to see all this attention paid to an item that from a commercial point of view is a typical non-entity. That so many inches had been given to somebody who, when it comes to her position in the market, is "a practical nobody".

All this noise in the media reminded me of what had happened just before the release of, say, The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or the "White Album" Beatles (but let's not forget that at the time not everybody agreed with the same amount of enthusiasm about the real quality of those albums), or about Thriller-era Michael Jackson, or Madonna in her star days. Readers who are curious about this need only to access the usual Metacritic website and check the page for Have One On Me: there's a lukewarm review from Rolling Stone, and just one negative review, off PopMatters (though a very positive review of one of her post-album concerts now acts as a fine counterbalance to that negative review).

And when it came to singing her lauds, newspapers were second to no one: a famous critic such as Ann Powers wrote wonders about the album in her featured column in The Los Angeles Times; while The New York Times magazine featured a lengthy portrait-interview (and when I say lengthy I'm not exaggerating in the least: we're talking about 27.000 characters, or 4.600 words) by Jody Rosen ("the music critic for Slate") under the title Joanna Newsom, the Changeling (March 7, 2010). Rosen was very brave indeed, with torrid hyperboles such as "As a musician - in pure "chops" terms - Newsom has more in common with people like Eddie Van Halen and Wynton Marsalis than with indie stars like Banhart and the Decemberists".

It goes without saying that one could argue that all the attention given to the album is just a reflection of the very high quality that those who wrote those pieces - and those who assigned those pieces, and decided about their word-count - found in the work. What's so strange about this? My only question is whether this behaviour is indeed typical of today's media. Or is it unusual, maybe, just because that's just what such a vast, impressive, unusual talent deserves - hey, make it: demands - in so many words? I invite readers to decide for themselves. Just one caveat: those who usually mention The Velvet Underground "wrongly assumed to be minor talents at the time, and who sold nothing, but later became a primary influence on all rock groups that followed" are asked to keep in mind that the concept called "moral futurism" has already been proved not to hold any water (unless one has mercenary reasons to argue differently).

All this made me think once more about many sides of today's world when it comes to one's work and career - which is something quite important for those who care about the real chances of success for those who make uncommercial music - and to reality as it really is, behind the smoke and mirrors circulated by Public Relation Depts. (that's their job, right?).

This is a topic that's quite difficult to discuss openly and with ease today, now that the majority of music mags (and yes, those newspapers and general-interest magazines too) are even more closely entwined to an industry that with every passing day has more and more doubts about its chances of survival. Sure, empirical research was never those magazines' forte.

I have to confess that, even before those recent events, I felt growing doubts about what was for me a very peculiar state of solvency if one considers the amount of copies sold by Newsom's albums: given the limited appeal of an album such as her debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004), how in the world could an artist who records for not-so-rich-at-all indie Drag City afford to release an album like Ys (2006), with orchestral (!) arrangements by Van Dyke Parks, Newsom's harp and vocals recorded by Steve Albini, the orchestra recorded by Tim Boyle, mixing by Jim O'Rourke, analogue recording on two 24-tracks, and mixing and mastering to tape at world-famous Abbey Road Studios in London?

Already some writers have declared the decidedly unimpressive sales of Have One On Me as being the definitive proof that "the press" has no real influence any more on (what's left of) their audience when it comes to their purchasing decisions. But this is not what was on my mind when, a few weeks ago, I asked myself: How many copies has Have One On Me sold up to now, precisely?

Just by chance, I was able to consult Soundscan's figures about sales for the first week of Have One On Me, which at that moment were quite recent. As it's widely known by now, right from the time of its introduction, about twenty years ago, the sales tracking system known as Soundscan made it apparent that: a) sales of whole genres such as rap, metal, and country were systematically underestimated by previous tracking methods; b) the familiar picture of an album going up the charts and eventually reaching the top was just a myth, truth being that an album starts from the highest point, then goes downhill - unless singles or other tracks manage to reach audiences placed beyond an artist's core audience.

US sales of Newsom's previous two albums were said to be about 70,000 each, six and four years, respectively, after their initial release.

Total sales after week one for Have One On Me were 7,978 copies: 842 vinyl, 2,653 CDs, and 4,483 digital sales.

I have to admit I was more than a bit surprised by the high number of digital sales, given the fact that all physical formats offered a booklet with pictures and lyrics, at a price that was admittedly quite convenient (I seem to remember Amazon UK selling the 3 CD boxette at about 12, the 3 LPs boxset selling at about 20).

The album entered the Billboard 200 chart at #75, then it went down to #104 and #140 (so the first-week sales theory still holds water, after all). At the moment of this writing Have One On Me has appeared in the Billboard 200 chart for (just) four weeks.

Data from the Music Week report for sales in the UK show 34,551 copies for the first album (in six years), 45,762 for the second (in four years), with first-week sales for the new album at 8,481 copies.

These are poor showings, especially for the US, as The Los Angeles Times readily acknowledged after week one.

With just a few exceptions, sales for albums by people who are among my personal favourites amount to even less (sometimes, a lot less). Nonetheless, for somebody like Joanna Newsom these are not very encouraging figures. It goes without saying, of course, that there are many different ways to get "collateral" money, for instance having one's music appear in movies, ads, and the like. I decided to have a look at the chapter titled Licensing of songs that appears on Wikipedia's Newsom page: it's a long, and illuminating, list that readers are invited to access. Maybe due to a mental association with the news that in 2009 a track by Newsom - Sprout And The Bean - was featured in an ad for a bra by famous firm Victoria's Secret, I did a search on Google Images, where I easily found Newsom modeling for the Spring 2010 collection by Giorgio Armani.

It goes without saying that these are not the kind of jobs one finds by knocking on doors with one's harp under one's arm. So I wondered who was doing all the PR work. I did a web search, and this is what I found: Pitch Perfect by Jessica Linker, a firm of respectable size whose artist roster is an interesting read. On the firm's website, under Company Information, we can read that "Pitch Perfect PR is a public relations company (...). Founded by Jessica Linker, who has over eight years of public relations experience for Thrill Jockey Records and affiliate marketing/partner relations for RollingStone.com".

(On the web, totally by chance, I also found the news that "Jessica Linker is head publicist for Pitchfork, and runs PR for the Pitchfork Festival", but I really don't know for sure what all this entails, beyond a strong aroma of "conflict of interests".)

D ue to unrelated matters, I recently happened to enter a bar I'd never seen in a little town I had never visited before. On a TV screen there was a singer that everybody in the bar - the waitress, the man at the cash register, the clients - was quite familiar with: Lady GaGa.

This little episode is the perfect example of the fact that - though in ways that are obviously quite different from what went before - a "centre" still exists. The multiplication of places and occasions, the acceleration of the ways of consumption, the (short) attention span on the part of consumers, the contraction of time and space, are all factors that caused many observers to mistake what was just a multiplication of experiences on the part of consumers for a disappearing of centre itself. It's entirely possible, of course, that in the future (a future that's maybe already with us) sub-group Y will not even know about the existence of subgroup X's favourite singer, for obvious reasons. While it's entirely possible that the music which in the 80s was shown on then-brand-new MTV will be the last music of which there'll be a shared memory on a mass level. This doesn't rule out, however, the possibility that large masses share certain individual "objects", such as Lady GaGa.

I don't regard the idea of the Web as a pool of talents which Majors will use (here the Web is seen as being similar to those indie labels of the past) as being correct. While I believe that the trend that has subjects consume on their own stimuli they "all" share will continue for a very long time (readers are invited to notice that here I use the word "trend" in its rigorous meaning of the social sciences, not in the way magazines usually use it, such as in "New trends: bleaching the anus").

While it makes it possible for one to be seen in many more ways than before, this scenario doesn't offer equal opportunities, nor are they in any way "random". Sure, those who sing can do some modeling, and those who model can also sing; both can write books. But those financial resources that are oh so necessary in order to make one join a race where no real qualifications or gifts are needed are more essential than ever. Readers are invited to write a list of people who can be seen in a multitude of papers, mags, TV stations, the Web, for various reasons: albums, concerts, movies, fashion, love affairs, gossip, or acting as testimonial for this or that object of consumption (my personal list is potentially endless, from Peaches, Chan Marshal, and Beth Ditto to Scarlett Johansson and Carla Bruni).

As it's quite apparent by now, the future of "the press" - here including those specific sub-groups that appear on the Web - is very uncertain indeed. Things are very dangerous for those papers and mags which deal with music, for obvious reasons. Let's have a quick look at a brief list: a) for decades now, music has not been the exclusive realm of "specialized" press, dailies and magazines giving music mucho space in their "entertainment & culture" sections; b) "written" music has a formidable competitor in "audible" music, thanks to those audio files one can easily find everywhere on the Web; c) most artists who are really popular today can be enjoyed on a multitude of "platforms": clips, movies, ads, print- or video-based gossip, etc.

A couple of weeks ago I was having a look at PopMatters, where I noticed this: Call for Music Critics and Music Bloggers - PopMatters has openings for music critics and music bloggers - PopMatters is looking for talented music critics and bloggers.

I went on reading: We're looking for talented writers with deep genre knowledge of music and its present and past alongside a cultural generalist perspective with strong interests in many areas of culture.

A hard task, obviously. And a lot of work. I wondered what kind of money - serious money, I thought - was being offered for this proposal. When it comes to audience size and clicks, it's my estimate that PopMatters is not on a par with Pitchfork (but these mags are quite different, and not so easily comparable) but I don't think it lags too far behind. So I looked, in order to see whether I could see any actual money being discussed, and I saw this: "Note: we are unable to pay you monetarily at this time". Then it went on talking about the chances of one's work being read by more than one million readers per month, etc.

It goes without saying that I have no way of knowing if the true information I have access to is indeed typical in the larger scheme of things, but this is certain: for a long time the pact between (many) writers and (most) papers stated that reviews had to be written for free, writers receiving free "review copies" of recorded works that they could then (try to) sell. This is no more: On one hand, nobody buys CDs anymore. On the other, record companies can't really afford the price of p&p, so writers mostly receive a "variable fidelity" file they can listen to and review (for free). In a way, the "variable fidelity" file one has to download (on whose broadband connection? that's an interesting question) in place of the CD of old is not real news, if one thinks about the cassette tape one used to receive at the time when the vinyl LP was the norm. Trouble is, in the old days one listened to the cassette tape while doing other paid work. Being read by one million readers could be considered as being, somehow, a kind of "retribution". But who will be one's future employer, if even a mag whose readers can be counted in the millions can't really afford to pay for reviews?

Consequences are quite easy to spot: while some magazines now carry just a few record reviews, there are others whose word-count is so draconian to make any semblance of criticism an impossibility. While mistakes and superficial judgments tell of a very green workforce, or of overworked senior writers. What logic can be found here?.

As it's only to be expected, we can see a growing influence on the part of PR depts., both those which are part of record companies and those that represent a roster of artists. So it goes without saying that magazines can't really "just say no", especially when they desperately need the audio and video content that most consumers today regard as an indispensable ingredient of the "total experience".

Those who regularly pay a visit to those record shops that (still) sell recorded music, be they in physical or virtual form, have noticed by now that the number of vinyl re-releases of historical, classic albums has grown exponentially. While many new titles also appear in LP format.

I was quite surprised to see that quite a few tiny labels whose main job was to re-release classic titles, have gone under - or appears to be about to close: It happens that, noticing that re-releasing old titles could be financially profitable, Majors started raising the price for licensing old titles, and later started pressing their old back catalogue under their own roof. So, tiny specialized labels are mostly left with those unfamiliar names whose back catalogue is more a commercial risk than an asset.

The interesting part (the one that practically nobody pays attention to) is that the amount of money that gets to be spent to build new pressing plants for vinyl is: zero. So, every time (I'm making this up, of course) the best US presses are busy printing new Beatles re-release, and those Jimi Hendrix re-releases keep the best European pressing plant quite busy, others have to migrate to... the glorious remnants of Eastern Europe.

But what I find to be quite amusing is modern consumers' behaviour - which is perfectly in accordance with modern theories about the matter. Those who angrily protested in the past about the rapacious price of a CD - 20 euros - are now quite happy to spend that kind of money, and more, to buy something that in terms of quality is much more erratic, and whose digital origin is an absolute certainty. From what masters those LPs are sourced remains a mystery, the same being true of those audio treatments in the EQ dept. that are intended to make the new edition sound "contemporary". So it's apparent that nowadays buying LP resembles more and more the old "ostentatious consumption" of decades ago, when people filled their brand-new home libraries with plenty of books whose covers had big gold letters that nobody would ever read.

That this kind of consumption is destined to remain sterile is proved by the fact that almost nobody has developed an interest for the original editions of said albums, whose prices (with just a few exceptions for those rare cases of collectibles) have tumbled, thanks to the "180 gr." phenomenon. So the reason why a heavily reverberated sound on an album originally released in '67 is an "impossibility", or why is it that acoustic guitars so different in size, type of wood, and construction method cannot really sound the same, will forever remain a mystery.

Here we can see a favourite method of the industry of consumption: When the present is all digital miniature, with no physical storage medium for music that way it was with LPs or CDs, a "heavy" physical objects stands for a time when "only those in the know had a genuine appreciation for music" - "just like you today, buying heavy vinyl albums".

This could be funny would it not be highly depressive, like living for the second time the passage from LP to CD, which was the topic of an article (Re-mixes: Cosmetics or Fraud?) I wrote about twenty years ago.

In the end - for all the abovementioned reasons, to which readers are invited to add their own - these are difficult times for those who deal with "difficult" music. No sales, disappearing audiences, no "career" concept whatsoever, the struggle to get a few of those subsidized concerts (whose number decreases every day), and now even asking fans for money (!) to record a new album, more tired moves which go nowhere. On the other side, the expectations of those few members of old audiences still lending an ear, which - when compared to the new harsh reality - don't appear to fall down fast enough.

Some of my heroes were in Modena, on March 1, 2010, for the World Premiere of Comicoperando - A Tribute to the Music of Robert Wyatt. Here are just a few names (interested readers can read the whole bunch on the Web): Dagmar Krause, Richard Sinclair, Annie Whitehead, John Edwards, Chris Cutler. Did I go? No. I live very far from Modena. What if I lived near to Modena? No. I was unconvinced by the whole matter. And I feared a disaster.

Of those involved, the only famous one is the one receiving homage. I see him featured and reviewed in Mojo, I know he's featured and reviewed in The Wire, his albums are still in print, and easy to find, his name is not forgotten. He's not the kind of artist whose music desperately needs to be rediscovered. Sure, it can be said that Robert Wyatt's music is not as widely known and appreciated as it would deserve to be. Agreed. But in order to make his music more widely known, the one paying homage has to be somebody who's a thousand times more widely known than Wyatt - a David Bowie, say, or a David Gilmour - not somebody who's (comparatively speaking) a nobody, lest one have the unpleasant feeling that the homage is just a chance for those paying homage to raise a buck.

What I feared was - some musicians being not terribly compatible, repertory being quite difficult, three days' rehearsal for arranging and playing being a joke, amplification and mixing being prone to play very nasty jokes indeed especially in cases like this - a train-wreck. So I stayed home. Since I was not there I can't give readers any nasty details, but from what I've heard quite a few of those who attended (most of them having traveled for a few hundred kilometers) were not amused. "With two days' rehearsal this was the best we could do". "I didn't drive for hours just to attend an open rehearsal".

It's just a matter of money.

Beppe Colli 2010

CloudsandClocks.net | Apr. 20, 2010