A note to our readers, 2011
By Beppe Colli
Jan. 27, 2011

No need to panic, please! These are the facts, briefly and clearly expressed.

Starting from today, Clouds and Clocks will take an extended leave. How "extended" is this leave, exactly? Well, this I couldn't say, right now. I know it won't be brief, and that it will be "open-ended". Readers are invited to trace a parallel with the by-now famous "extended hiatus" of US quartet Phish.

Our webzine won't "close". We'll pay the rent as usual, all written and visual material will stay here, fully accessible as ever, of course, so in a way it's just "business as usual". Which is just plain obvious, given the fact that today there are a lot of links (from musicians', fans', record companies', and distributors', also on Google and Wikipedia) that take readers from all over the world to written material (mostly written in English, I have to say) featured on Clouds and Clocks. And I'd like to see younger readers find here - well, not a "new frontier", exactly, but at least a different way to ask questions.

And this is the end of the facts, briefly and clearly expressed.

This is not the kind of decision one takes all of a sudden. Interested readers could refer to my traveling across a continuum as formulated in those Editorials where I tried to clarify what's ahead. It goes without saying that my increasing taedium when it comes to those newly released material I had the chance to listen to is not of a "subjective" kind (I'll get to it in a minute). In fact, it travels parallel to the deepening of those dynamics that I regard as being highly unfavourable for what I define as "quality music". Unfortunately, as I've already argued at length in the past, these are "trends" that it's highly unlikely to imagine as changing direction anytime soon. However, to me 2010  looked like a dividing line, if one has to judge from the number of musicians whose activities came to a halt.

It goes without saying that, as a responsible adult, I wondered about my mental health. Maybe I was a victim of the dangerous Meltzer's disease? As it's widely known, the disease - which takes its name from famous US music critic Richard Meltzer - presents some characteristic traits: patients who suffer from it start saying things such as "Music is not what it once was", "Rock music died long ago, in...", "Commercialism killed the creative spirit", and so on. One thing shows that the patient's conditions are turning for the worse: year after year, the moment where things started changing for the worse is placed further and further in the past.

I have to admit I started noticing my growing irritation every time I realized that listening to new album X, quite stupid and amateurish, made me impossible to listen to my old album Y. But this I need to clarify immediately, which depicts a situation that's typical of  "boomers", i.e., that they listened to a great quantity of innovative albums at a time where their understanding of music was quite rudimentary, and on cheap "lo-fi" producing horrible sound. The growth of one's knowledge, one's ears getting more educated, one's hi-fi system  getting better, all these factors make listening to those albums all over again something which goes well beyond mere nostalgia. (I understand this is not an easy point to get for those who listen to music "by the yard", nor ask themselves any questions - ever. A growing subspecies, this.)

This factor has to be added to pragmatic considerations, based on irrefutable biological data: given one's (very) limited time on this earth, does one listen to this - or that? A dramatic dilemma, once the sole province of those adults who possessed a serious collection of "classic albums" (and remember: it wasn't easy, once, to repurchase even albums that had appeared just a few years before), is nowadays anybody's problem, given the fact that practically everything's available online, for free. So: Do we really believe that those magazine covers featuring "famous names from the past" are mainly of interest to boomers? Let's have a look at the most recent issue of Mojo magazine, which I have right in front of me: Do we really suppose a young guy will listen to the new album by John Somebody instead of one of Neil Young's acclaimed masterpieces? And let's not forget this: Listening to Don't Let It Bring You Down also means listening to a beautiful Martin guitar made of choice woods, a "musical-sounding" microphone, a recording and mixing board that posses an individual sound, an analogue tape recorder whose tape gets pleasantly saturated by the signal; also, listening to the lead guitar part on Danger Bird means listening to an electric guitar where pick-ups, type and gauge of the strings, the vibrato bar, the signal chain up to the loudspeakers, the mics, and all the rest create a complex sound our ears find highly stimulating, even if those technical details are obscure to most. And now, let's try John Somebody's new one.

My decision to take a rest has a very dramatic background: I really like to listen to new music, as attested by all those live concerts I attended: from Pan Sonic, to Chokebore, to Meira Asher, that's a lot of rubbish I caught in the act! While I'm quite lazy when it comes to the Web, most new albums come my way thanks to a record shop in my town, whose owner patiently listens to my (mostly piquant) comments. It's simple: on the left (client perspective) are the most recent issues of the monthlies, while on the right are the new releases. So: Record of the month (the review) is on the left, while the Record of the month (the actual CD) is on the right. Recently, I seemed to notice that many reviews have a new undertone of uncertainty, like an emphasis that's unsure of itself. And what's that? Writers are starting to doubt the new releases they celebrate, or are getting doubts about their actual commercial relevance? Either way, the amateurish tone of their arguments is the same as ever.

The choice is not between "past" and "present", of course. Here I have to gladly admit that the number of new releases that I greatly enjoyed in the course of the last few years was "substantial", if not "overwhelming". But I'd like to stress the fact that, while it's obvious that saying "Music died in 19..." is absurd, saying "There'll always be good music" is not too sane either, given the ever-increasing imbalance between the actual investment (of both time and money) that's necessary to nurture good music, and the potential return on that investment. A magazine that deals only with "new releases" and that gets most of its revenues from those advertisers that distribute the very same albums the magazine reviews has no need to formulate a clear "larger framework". But what about the rest of us?

If we talk about a "greater framework", I have to say I'm increasingly perplexed about the mere possibility that musicians get their proper share. So I was quite surprised to read a recent article by US music critic Ann Powers (who's not dumb). In the past, I had read quite a few posts by (entertainment lawyer) Bob Lefsetz on his blog, where he speculated about the possibility that selling a series of various little objects, in time, instead of those full-length albums we are used to, could be a remunerative path for both artists and record companies, while keeping the modern-day fans attached to both artist and purchasable object (my wording, of course).

"In pop music, a whole new way of doing business." This is the title of an article by Ann Powers which appeared in the Los Angeles Times, January 16, 2011. Here are a few selected excerpts.

"Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips told a Rolling Stone reporter of the group's plan to record and share a song a month instead of producing another traditional album. (...) "We want to try to live through our music as we create it, instead of it being a collection of the last couple years of our lives."

This sounds quite strange to me.

"This is part of a larger trend, touching all corners of the culture. A few voices in the wilderness still profess longing for old-fashioned masterworks. (...) Increasingly, however, artists across genres and media are excitedly experimenting with ways to break down old hierarchies between high and low, casual and formal - even finished and unfinished work."

But what's an "unfinished work"? And who could possibly want to pay for a thing like that?

"Great music is now constantly becoming available in ways that force us to reconsider what we're hearing, and how we listen. For half a century, musicians and fans have congregated along two poles: the album and the single. (...) The problem is, we still haven't devised a language to describe the increasingly vibrant area between the two poles of the studio album and the hit single (...), this territory of remixes and B-sides and EPs and homemade tapes. And in 2011, this realm is increasingly where the action is."

"That's not because artists have stopped making deep, complex, cohesive albums. (...) Musicians are coming to terms with exposing themselves creatively in something closer to real time."

That's fantastic!

"Listeners - especially public listeners, like critics and people within that drifting iceberg known as the 'music industry' - need to find ways to accurately assess this work, to promote it, to help it claim space next to the "real" releases that still dominate year-end lists, reviews sections and marketing plans."

This is clear, right?

Having read the article, a friend of mine sent me this comment: "Extending her argument, if someone from Flaming Lips proclaimed 'My entire life is reduced to a string of 15 second interactions with my smartphone, so from now on I'm only producing 15 second chunks of music in between my twitter obligations, and agile fans can catch them for 15 seconds on my website' she'd  have to write about how perfectly 21st Century that is."

Beppe Colli 2011

CloudsandClocks.net | Jan. 27, 2011