On suicide
By Beppe Colli
March 9, 2009

The financial condition of most independent record companies was already far from rosy well before the current global recession made the horizon grow even darker. Among the many potentially fatal factors, the precarious health of many distributors is maybe the most important: it has happened many times before, even in the recent past, that a state of insolvency on the part of a distributor, with the logical consequence of due sums becoming impossible to get, turns out to be the proverbial last nail in the coffin.

By now, one gets to hear many dramatic news in the course of a month, but the one that impressed me most (and I know I was not alone) was the severe downsizing, layoffs included, by Chicago-based US indie label Touch And Go. And I think that the amount of press these news were given, on and off the Web, meant that for many this event was considered as being symbolic of a bigger change. (The particular article I refer to here, titled Touch and Go Records shrinking, cuts ties with independent labels, written by Greg Kot, appeared in the Chicago Tribune on February 19, 2009.) Touch and Go had celebrated its 25th birthday 2006. In a catalogue of about 400 titles, there are albums by Big Black, Jesus Lizard, Butthole Surfers, the Mekons, Slint, Calexico and TV on the Radio. Touch and Go also manufactured and distributed albums by such labels as Drag City, Atavistic, and Kill Rock Stars.

The press release mentioned "the current state of the economy", a definition that could have many different meanings. Given the fact of sales obviously going down, one couldn't help but wonder why. This question may sound strange, but selling less could mean either that a particular sound is not "in" any more, or that more people (illegally) download the stuff for free. Getting data would be great, particularly about the difference related to age brackets. One could speculate, in fact - even if one assumes the "downloading factor" as being a "natural trait" of today's young people - that the fact of dealing with an "indie label" could work as an "added value" item that could shelter older people from the temptation to maximize their "instant gain" (as in "it's there for me to take, so I'll take it"). Which could work as well for other indie labels, in different cultural contexts.

Unfortunately, though I was burning with curiosity, all I could do was ask. And ask I did, sending one question to four individuals, all quite different in age and occupation. Their answers:

1) the first said that both the "not in fashion anymore" and "crisis by download" were the main culprits;

2) the second regarded the "cutting edge" factor as the main reason, with many listeners migrating to "newer" sounds - and labels;

3) the third thought that the "general crisis" was to blame: "when even EMI has problems...";

4) the fourth said "recorded music is over, plain and simple".

If indie labels are obviously in a bad situation, what about newspapers? Another well-known, grim picture. And that the present crisis spares no one is made apparent by the current drama unfolding at the New York Times (by the way, I recently discovered they have a very nice, multi-voiced blog about songwriting called Measure for Measure). I was frightened to read an article by Paul Harris appearing in The Observer on Sunday 11 January 2009. Titled America's most revered newspaper is latest to be hit by financial woes, its dramatic subtitle being Like so many US papers, the New York Times is besieged by both the credit crunch and an online media revolution.

It goes without saying that most of the paper's problems are quite easy to guess. But what about the complete picture?

Here I had the privilege to read a very detailed article which appeared in... the New York Times on February 9, 2009: Resilient Strategy for Times Despite Toll of a Recession, by Richard PÚrez-Pe˝a.

One gets the full picture: revenue from ads in the paper, how many workers, the budget, digital revenue, dividends, share value, debt, the magazine's plan to sell the 19 floors it occupies in the new building designed by architect Renzo Piano, all the mistakes that were made (those that had been possible to foresee, those impossible to foresee, and those quite difficult to foresee) as seen by independent analysts (the biggest? the magazine's buy-back of their shares at a very high cost in the period 1998 - 2004); hopes and perspectives followed (though they are obviously more difficult to foresee in the current climate). The article is online, so I can stop here.

I hope it doesn't sound strange if I say that I know (and read) the New York Times much better (and more frequently) than the Italian "left-wing newspaper" (the one with the highest circulation of that particular political area, or "the tallest dwarf") l'UnitÓ. Recently, I happened to read strange rumours about money problems that seemed to announce severe cuts. The article I'm using here as my main source is the one that appeared on leading Italian newspaper la Repubblica on March, 4, by Concetto Vecchio titled Sciopero all'UnitÓ, nuovi soci in arrivo (or, l'UnitÓ on strike - new investors to be announced soon). Though sales were on the rise after a renovation in style by the new editor, the annual figure read like this: "costs: 30 million euros, revenue: 19 million euros, with additional 4-5 million euros from public subsidiary; this leaves a yearly hole of about 7-8 million euros left to fill." There's only one cure: fewer pages, fewer workers, newsrooms to be closed. It's not clear to me - nor I could seem to manage to find something on the Web - if there's an additional debt (and how big, and how costly) to be served.

Sure, the newspaper's vivacious Web site - which I would define as rich, with many visitors, offering videos and editorials, exchange with readers, articles, comments, columns, comics, blogs, fashion and weather forecasts - doesn't really look as being conductive to an increase in sales of the physical paper. And given that ads in the papers have gone down (well before the present crisis), that ads on the Web come extremely cheap is a well-known fact.

It was strange reading some people's reactions in the blogs: many asked "what will we do then?" (in case the paper would close); some advanced the idea of raising the price of the paper at the newsstand (from 1 euro to 1.20); others thought that shutting down the (physical) paper was the right thing to do, with only the Web page - so nice and rich - to be left standing ("what a fantastic idea!", I'd say).

Some time ago I happened to read an interview with Bob Dylan (and I really believe that the interviewer was Paul Zollo) where the musician said, more or less, "there are too many songs already"; and "even if nobody wrote songs anymore, there'd be enough". A stance that at the time I found puzzling, but that in recent times I've come to consider as being quite reasonable when talking about records (here I use the word in its old general meaning of "albums").

It's been a long time since not a few musicians of the kind who play "difficult music" started admitting that, yes, sometimes their albums are "occasional", mainly made in order to make their existence known to managers and promoters, and to be sold at concerts as a kind of nice souvenir.

But what if there are no concerts anymore?

It's funny how many complex issues can sometimes be reduced to their "elementary" components.

I'm at the newsstand of some airport. I'm having a look at the Foreign Languages section of the press when on the cover of a magazine I spot the impossible-to-mistake lamp that one sees at the start of every Pixar movie. It's this issue's cover story, bearing the title Creativity at Pixar. The magazine - whose name I've heard, but which I've never seen before - being the Harvard Business Review. The issue is the one that's current (I mean, it was then): September, 2008. The issue is priced at 12 euros. I have a look at the table of contents: the other main pieces in this issue don't look too promising to me, given my interests, and a closer look confirms me this. So, I'd have to pay 12 euros in order to read just one article. I have to admit the article is pretty long, it's nine pages of mostly text. I have a look at the name of the author: Ed Catmull ("Ed Catmull is a cofounder of Pixar and the president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios"). The topic discussed in the article is clearly expressed in its subtitle: "Behind Pixar's string of hit movies, says the studio's president, is a peer-driven process for solving problems".

What to do?

Here one could think: "wonder if I can find it on the Web, for free". Or: "maybe it's no good". Or: "12 euros!". One has also to take into account the number of times one has been burned before.

I choose the buying option.

The article is pretty fantastic, a precise, perceptive, and intelligent description of those decisional processes that lead a complex organization, and of the (self-reflexive) ways an organization has at its disposal in order to go on, maximizing quality and minimizing mistakes.

And so this is the question: Is there an article (whatever its topic) we consider to be worth 12 euros?

Because this is the main point: Paying in order to keep alive a magazine that can commission, and then feature, an article of that calibre. And to have an institution that can produce the "object" the article talks about.

Here I can only quote an old dictum from (I think) the 60s: "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything".

ę Beppe Colli 2009

CloudsandClocks.net | March 9, 2009