"A crisis in music", take #2
(argumentative and confrontational)

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 ends meet?"

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 the audience.

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 magazines.

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 all ages.

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 surface.

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 money.

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