Nine Years
By Beppe Colli
Nov. 26, 2011

Funny how time flies when you're having fun... So true! Yet another year has gone, and today is Clouds and Clocks' ninth birthday. Hooray! So, as usual, I'll have fun thinking aloud about this and that, and looking for clues about what's in store.

For a start, I want to reveal all about a minor, private event: Not too long ago, a reader kindly promised to send me a T-shirt that says "Dour Power!". This is obviously due to my way of looking at things, an outlook which more than once has been referred to as being "apocalyptic" (though in this case I'm told that the intentions on this reader's part are to be regarded as "affectionate"). So, I get to wear a new T-shirt. Plus, I learned what "dour" means ("dour  refers to a grim and bitter outlook or disposition").

Which is true, but stopping here would be like telling only half the story. I have to confess that my attitude is very often quite pragmatic, as when one deals with Dystopia - a "negative Utopia", so to speak: "Things could turn out to be this way, so if you regard this as an undesirable outcome, you have to behave quite differently" (which takes us back to the old "if... then" framework). Sometimes analysis tells us that an outcome is unavoidable, but this too could be useful to know: "If you're looking for a new compensation scheme for working musicians, under the present conditions, well... don't waste your time".

Provided I understood correctly, sales of recorded music have gone down (again), the growth in revenue from the sale of digital files (a growth that some argue as being on the rise - others, in fact, think the opposite to be true) being far from compensating for the fall in revenue derived from the sale of "hard goods", i.e., CDs. (It has to be noted that "a file that's bought" means quite often "one song", as in "a single", as opposed to the various tracks that are normally featured on one CD.)

But if we look at the "20 or less" age bracket, what we find - which appears to be a common trait to all western countries - is that the great majority of people never pay for music, and not only that: they also believe that paying for something that is available for free is quite bizarre, and a fact to be explained. This behaviour is not confined to those genres we call "chart" or "commercial" music - it doesn't really matter here if we're dealing with ideological justifications of some sort, or just a kind of pragmatism derived from some "tradition" (as in "nobody I know has ever paid for this"). Variables like "age" and "culture" are more useful as factors which help us understand (which doesn't mean, of course, that there are no such things as "downloading grandparents").

Any successful item - be it a song, a movie, or whatever - becomes more and more similar to a gadget, limited life-span included. Typical consumers don't "grow", so the "slice" of people who sustained the work of all "difficult" artists becomes tinier and tinier. It goes without saying that, when it comes to self-perception, there a lot of people who perceive themselves as "cultivating all that's difficult and uncommon", but if one has a look at the "list", things are quite different.

Given this framework of "singular minds", there's no role left for critics. Things appear about to hit the bottom anyway. Just a for instance: according to a two-page article on Brian Eno that recently appeared in the magazine of one of Italy's most respected newspapers, "Eno was the founding member of Roxy Music, a group where he was the guitar player". I mean, what next?

Cruising the Web, I happened to read quite a few interesting debates, the best ones for me being "Will records companies manage to survive in a downloading-only scenario?, and "Will CDs cease to exist at the end of 2012?".

The debate about the end of the CD format - as in, it won't be manufactured anymore, as it's already been the case with cassette tapes and typewriters - is an interesting one, since it deals with the notion of "volume". When optical readers - those featured in computers and cars - will get to be replaced by different ways to read data, manufacture itself will cease. This was already a known fact. What appears to be a surprise is the sudden acceleration of change, a factor which could make those box sets that are at the forefront of the "hard goods craze" a lot less appealing, calling in doubt their future desirability. (I could be very wrong here, but the turmoil I seem to perceive when it comes to changes in the scheduled release of some limited editions/box sets could be due to a fear of a glut in what once was a seller's market.)

Anyway, it appears that the foreseen prosperous future when hi-res files will be sold at great profit won't materialize (as it's already been discussed everywhere, anybody can tell the difference between a hi-def image and one that's just average, the same not being true when it comes to sound).

The unavoidable outcome appears to be that record companies as we know them will vanish soon, which appear to leave most people unmoved: When was the last time record companies took care of art, and their artists, anyway? This could be a long, complex debate, but for now this will suffice: The conglomerates that dealt with recorded music kept afloat a mix of recording studios, engineers, producers, and all sorts of devices (the complex know-how required when it comes to making decisions about recording, arranging included) which is totally out of reach for those musicians who own themselves, and which, given time, will for the most part disappear.

It goes without saying that this discussion can appear as futile: If record companies as we know them will soon disappear, but nothing will really change for those musicians who play "difficult" music, aren't we just wasting out time? Maybe so.

For reasons beyond my will - the laser in my CD player #1 being in need of repair - I've been listening to a lot more vinyl albums than my usual. As it usually happens to me, I was surprised by how many hours I managed to spend listening to music without that horrible sense of aural fatigue that I experience every time I listen to a lot of CDs (I hasten to add that my system is quite balanced when it comes to quality - there is no $12,000 cartridge sitting side by side with a $400 CD player). As usual, I noticed that the volume knob went up a lot higher that when listening to CDs, but the sound was never "too loud". And I've read about similar occurrences to know this was not due to any personal idiosyncrasies on my part.

Just to be clear, one of the most recent vinyl albums I own is the one simply titled Robin Holcomb, released in 1990 (the first Robin Holcomb LP featuring just her songs). So I'm not talking about re-releases, or digitally sourced albums.

I was quite astounded to see how bad, for the most part, the music I've listened to in the last twenty years or so has got, compared to what I bought during the "LP age", when it comes to appeal and coherence in sound. There are (of course!) quite a few exceptions to this, but for the most part what I hear is recorded music going backwards, fast. It goes without saying that things can be different when it comes to a string quartet, or a piano-saxophone duo. And of course innovative music will make one happily ignore all sorts of evil things (but innovative music has not exactly been in abundance lately). Which is a good explanation for the boredom I experience while listening to a lot of CDs I find in my mailbox (but thanks anyway for thinking about me!), and the increasing amount of "militant listening attitude" that's needed to rightly encourage those who are "almost there... but not yet".

If one adopts a "macro" perspective, all sorts of similitudes appear. Let's just think about the gradual disappearance of the "middle layers", individuals now happily taking upon themselves all sorts of roles and goals, which are experienced as an increase in the amount of freedom at one's disposal. Above all, an increase in "autonomy", as in "creating one's set-list, searching the Web for things that one - not the (so-called!) critics - really likes, according to one's taste. If we look at the "shape" of different processes, it's quite easy to see that, say, the freedom of searching for things on the Web with no filter doesn't look too different from putting gas into one's car in an unattended gas station, or doing all there is to do while shopping in a mall, from putting goods on the transport, to properly handling the bar codes, to paying with our credit card (unfortunately for the artists, surveillance systems when it comes to stealing goods on the Web are not as efficient as in a mall!). While in the current climate there's a growing feeling that - maybe - the pendulum has swung too far in one direction - i.e., autonomy and atomization - and a little bit more "central regulation" wouldn't hurt.

What's certain is that we are living in a "pointillistic time", with all the consequences that are logically entailed by this process. (Sounds banal, but a lot of careers - some big, some tiny - started with a simple gesture of having a look at "who plays what where" on an LP cover, then spending days connecting the dots in a discography.)

A couple years ago, U.K. daily The Guardian (making lists being an accepted pastime over there) asked readers to list songs dealing with nostalgia for one's first love, or a very important love story as lived when young. A few hundred answers later, here was the chart: lotsa songs from the 50s, even more songs from the 60s, quite a lot from the 70s, not so many from the 80s, even less from the 90s, one or two from the noughties.

Now I'll leave readers to ponder this humble anecdote, while I wait for the aforementioned T-shirt.

Beppe Colli 2011 | Nov. 26, 2011