crisis in music", take #2
By Beppe Colli
Feb. 11, 2016
What did I have in mind, exactly, when - about fourteen years ago - I
started thinking about the possibility of having a presence on the Web, something
which later evolved into Clouds and Clocks?
Thinking about it now, my ideas were not so
clear. But I really believed that when it came to the state of "difficult
music", things - for a long time already in perilous conditions both in
terms of actual sales and people's attitude when it comes to careful listening
- were heading for the worst, with real chances of creating something
"tangible" like a record album or having a line-up with the
capability to correctly execute difficult material as a living, breathing
thing, rapidly approaching zero.
I bet by now readers are gently smiling -
I'm smiling, too - just thinking about the dramatic disparity between the
problem to be solved and my meager efforts. Well, in my "apocalyptic"
perspective there's no real need to see clouds appearing over the horizon in
order to decide to get some wood, a hammer, and lots of nails, even if one is
perfectly aware that having a tiny Ark in one's garden is bound to look
ridiculous. Sure, there are also ethical issues at stake. But - to switch
metaphors - when there is a fire in front of you, I think the most natural
impulse is to get the nearest bucket at hand, and start throwing water on the
flames. What if others don't see any fire? No problem. What gets on my nerves are
people who do see the fire and - hands in their pockets - calmly talk about how
inappropriate that behaviour, with so tiny a bucket and so big a fire.
In my perspective, the "how" is
more important than the "what", or the "who". So it was not
my intention to create a gallery of my favourite artists, since I believe that
the way one listens to music can be "transferred" from one artist to
another. I also believe that having "names" as one's main topic of
attention is wrong, for two main reasons. The first being of a pragmatic
nature: people with mature listening habits can be discouraged by seeing for
the most part names they don't know. Then, because in my mind "good
music" does not equal "a set of traits". (A bit cryptic, this?)
In a very short while, I had to admit to myself that my belief that a
certain kind of behaviour was linked to one person's low earnings was totally
wrong. There were people I met who asked me to suggest some names of artists
whose music I regarded as worth listening to, and upon meeting them again I was
asked for more names. Alas!, when I asked them where they had found those
particular releases - and what price they had paid - their answer was always
"on the Web", meaning they had downloaded the music illegally. Here
I'm talking about professionals with very good earnings.
We all know the story, so I'll stop here.
But let's not forget the support this kind of behaviour has received under the
guise of being "a revolutionary practice" from those who wrote at
great length about "the ugly practices and ugly profits of the
majors", also "mega-names with giant appetites". This, in order
to titillate those "revolutionary" instincts connatural to plebs. The
most common guise currently being the polemic against those "blind and
passť" ideas that still regard property as physical objects, which now
have to be replaced by "sharing" practices of what is very often
something "immaterial". As Pete Townshend said, "Meet the new
boss/Same as the old boss", but his motto fell on deaf ears. (It's an old
story: lotsa whores, acting as local versions of Lester Bangs, protesting
against the "mainstream" under "new wave" flags.)
The most recent idea now being going back
to a past that - how convenient! - looks a lot like today. "Musicians have
to get their money by playing live, like in those days when the record industry
was yet to come. Anyway, why do musicians think they are entitled to having
money and a career, with all people nowadays having great difficulty making
What we lose is the chance to have new
works on a scale similar to The Dark Side Of The Moon. What would Gilmour and
Waters do today? They would record their songs on a computer, mix them "in
the box", get some plug-ins for the keyboards and echoes, a "modeling
amp" for the guitar, and call some friends to sing background vocals. No
Alan Parsons, no Chris Thomas, no width and depth, then a DR5 master that's
perfect for earbuds and mp3.
But we're also losing the chance to have a
group like Henry Cow playing live a kind of repertory that can only be honed to
perfection after months and months of rehearsals.
All this sounds quite intuitive, but it's
not. I know it sounds absurd, but there are multitudes who can't seem to
understand the amount of work implicit in a performance by Henry Cow. There are
also countless people who have never listened to The Dark Side Of The Moon
while sitting in front a pair of speakers, doing nothing else. Of course, there
could be people who find this music totally devoid of any interest, or who would
not change their behaviour even if they understood what I'm talking about. But
not even knowing what I'm talking about is a completely different proposition.
One doesn't need to be a math wizard and a champion of probability
theory in order to consider the fact that each month so many music magazines
manage to discover exactly the same "new names worth writing about"
out of the great amount of new releases coming out each month - five thousand?
ten thousand? - as nothing short of miraculous.
Joking apart, the theory that has the Web
as a level playing field offering equal opportunities to all shows instead how
expensive the amount needed in order to have a durable attention span on a mass
scale. With the "specialized press" in a ghostly state, modern sources
don't have music as the source of charisma, the most profitable kind of
sponsorship deals living in a happy combination with those traits of an
artist's "visible life" that are the prime motive of fascination for
Meanwhile, people's inclination towards
conformity has not diminished, with the scant attention given to a fine work
such as Paper Wheels by Trey Anastasio as proof of the terror on the part of
many writers to be regarded as passť, and the herding mentality when it comes
to the applause given to the work of Kamasi Washington as the desire to be
lighted by the flame of what promises to be a new trend.
One of the expressions that really get on my nerves is "by
now...", especially when it's apparent that the condition that's talked
about is not disagreeable to the speaker. "By now musicians have to learn
to adapt", "By now people don't want to pay for music anymore",
"By now a movie ticket at ten euros is totally out of the question",
and so on.
But things are never so definitive. Should
we have proof that the produce we get from faraway countries is full of
pesticides and chemicals we would not accept a line of reasoning such as
"By now the deal has been signed", and we would ask for the agreement
to be modified or repealed. In time, our attitude when it comes to waste, air
pollution, the quality of cars, and so on, has changed a whole lot.
Here readers could argue that it's one
thing to act in order to avoid any damage to oneself and one's loved ones,
another to act in order to protect "others" we don't really care
about. Right. But we all make efforts in order to protect "the
green", parks we'll never visit, and statues we'll never see, except in
I'm aware that in order to buy the
"mastered by Steve Hoffman" edition of a CD I like I have to spend
considerably more than for a different version that I can find quite cheaply
anywhere on the Web, but when choosing to buy the "Hoffman version" I
decide to: a) purchase something I consider to be of better quality, and b) do my
part in order to make an honest master engineer like Steve Hoffman go on
producing quality things that can also work as a yardstick for young people of
I was puzzled to see that a lot of people who used to buy
"difficult music" and attend concerts by "difficult
artists" nowadays don't seem to behave any differently than the majority:
they are "living the life of the rich" while having "poor man's
earnings" thanks to the possibilities that modern technology gives us, and
fuck the consequences. And of course, every one of us can easily summon a long
list of wrongs one has suffered since the days of the cradle in order to
"justify" one's present behaviour, however questionable on the
Beyond the economic aspect proper, in my
opinion the most serious damage is that by making it possible to have the act
of consumption as totally distinct from the act of purchase, the current way
one relates to things falls under the realm of "whim", something
which has one jumping from one object to another without developing any kind of
attachment, something that will make all but impossible for one to develop a
"solid" kind of preference that could eventually lead one to spend
From a personal point of view, I lament the
disappearance of "quality albums". As readers perfectly understand,
even if artists and groups get to earn humongous amounts of money, it would be
irrational for them to spend it on something different than what, by
definition, is not downloadable.
But what is the "right price" we
are willing to pay for music? For sure, things have changed a lot. For a long
time, groups like Eagles and The Rolling Stones were reluctant to offer their
concert tickets at prices exceeding, say, one hundred dollars, for many
different reasons. But after seeing scalpers selling those tickets at five
hundred, even one thousand, dollars, time and time again, those groups decided
to offer their tickets at those prices, themselves.
Here is my question again: Why are we so
willing to spend, say, from one hundred to one thousand dollars in order to see
The Rolling Stones in a venue with horrible sound, paying a lot of money for
parking fares and mediocre hot dogs, while in order to see, say, Evan Parker,
the average price we find acceptable is about fifteen euros? By now, we know
the answer to the first part of the question: Because attending that kind of
concert is like going to the Mardi Gras, not to "just a concert".
Agreed. But why those who consider music as being the one and only reason to
attend a concert attach such a low monetary value to their concert experience?
This is the unavoidable question we have to answer.
© Beppe Colli 2016
CloudsandClocks.net | Feb. 11, 2016