A crisis in music?
A pragmatic approach

By Beppe Colli
Feb. 1, 2016

I can't seem to remember the first time I read the sentence "If only more people knew about my music...". Maybe the first time I read a weekly music magazine? And it's entirely possible that this sentence had already been in existence for decades, even centuries.

On one hand, this is perfectly understandable: artists consider their creations as "necessary" (here meaning: the opposite of "arbitrary") and "perfectly logical", hence perfectly "understandable", so that it's the lack of comprehension that needs an explanation, not the fact of comprehending. It goes without saying that "If only more people knew about my music" the number of listeners could only be higher.

Putting aside the issue as seen under a quite banal "numerical" light - it's obvious that in order to have a greater quantity of people who appreciate one's music, the number of those who know about it and have access to it has to go up - what we see in action is a concept that regards a certain course of events as "natural", with an "external force" - something that is regarded as being potentially "removable" - acting as an obstacle. The river would flow freely, were not for those large rocks blocking the way. A kind of pattern that readers can easily discern in many fields of everyday life.

If I go back in time, I remember obstacles being considered for the most part as "external". "I've made an album, but my record company does not promote it. The music press give all available space to those already famous. I can't get any gigs, since promoters say people don't know about me. We've organized an alternative circuit, but the number of those who attend our concerts is not enough to keep the thing afloat. We don't have an independent source of cash flow, so we can't pay in advance for the manufacturing and distributing of our records." And so on.

But things have never been so simple, as testified by an exceptional witness: yours truly, i.e., me. I bought the Beatles' hit single Penny Lane, only to find the "B" side, Strawberry Fields Forever, totally baffling. A big fan of the first two albums released by King Crimson, for a long time I could not "get" Lizard. Having developed an appreciation for Henry Cow's first album, Leg End, I had a lot of trouble when confronted with the follow-up, Unrest. And I could talk at length about my experience as a radio DJ, hearing the airwaves freeze every time I played music that was deemed "too bizarre".

Better be clear now. With no pretence of "objectivity" whatsoever, I'll talk about what I see as a terrible problem, something which others could maybe define as "non-existent": the horrible conditions of today's "difficult music" (a quite complex issue, that of "difficulty", in the era of multitasking, when practically everything that requires one's undivided attention can be filed under "difficult to grasp"), with fewer and fewer albums being released, chances for artists to play concerts in venues located outside their own State or town increasingly becoming a mirage, the mere possibility of plotting an artistic career becoming quite aleatory.

That the problem is not exclusive to the sphere we usually call "avant-garde" will be apparent in a moment.

A few days ago I happened to listen to a CD featuring "some of the best music released in 2015" given as a gift by the U.K. music monthly Mojo (the problem is not specific to this source, by the way, about 50% of the featured tracks also appearing on a different CD given as a gift by a different music monthly I happened to see in the same week). Since a couple of weeks had already passed since David Bowie's death, after listening to the "Mojo CD", I decided to listen to the first David Bowie album I bought, back in the day: Hunky Dory.

I know perfectly well that at this point readers could accuse me of playing a dirty game, playing music by names which for the most part are just total non-entities side-by-side with a giant of modern music. But this is precisely the point: at the time Hunky Dory was originally released, David Bowie was a nobody, or worse: he was somebody who had released a monster hit - Space Oddity - in 1969 and who in the aftermath had made all the wrong choices. Who would have placed a bet on his name?

And so, Hunky Dory was not a complex production in the context of the times: recording sessions lasting two weeks, two additional weeks for mixing - here I take careful pre-production for granted - with the able assistance of Ken Scott, who was held in high esteem as an engineer but for whom Hunky Dory was the first production job.

Readers are invited to listen to the acoustic guitar backing in the first part of Quicksand, Bowie's quite easy to recognize 12-string guitar appearing at first on its own, then multiplied, with the "strumming" being replaced first by silence, then by an arpeggio, with a first crescendo culminating in a "stopped" harmonic, and a second crescendo majestically exploding in the stereo field. All this, in the course of the first minute or so.

Fact is, the whole system of studios, quality equipment, highly skilled engineers, and high level of musicality, all gave a "hopeful young musician" such as David Bowie a gigantic apparatus that nowadays has practically disappeared.

Hence, my question: Are listeners nowadays able to perceive the difference between a "non-entity" and a work such as Hunky Dory? Then: Are listeners willing to pay a price that could make it possible for an artist to create a work of such quality as Hunky Dory?

Here the matter gets really complex. In fact, there are two main points of view about this. One argues that, with the main exception of those "guidelines" that make it possible for people to properly function at work, "young people" - to greatly simplify a quite complex matter, let's say "those post MTV-Playstation" - are for the most part virtually illiterate. While the other point of view argues that "there's still hope".

I place myself in the "totally without hope... up to a point" camp, deriving a certain irrational amount of hope from the practice of having "vis--vis" arguments.

On one hand, one could say that the current favourable moment when it comes to sales of vinyl and "the rock catalogue" could work as the basis for the start of a new dialogue. What's more, the accumulation of knowledge in the decades following the "great music explosion" makes it possible for us to have a better understanding of what was once produced, thanks to articles and profiles which appear in such "technical" magazines as Sound on Sound and in volumes of interviews and memoirs discussing the work of producers and engineers who contributed so much to many music masterpieces. In a way, we could define our understanding of music as being "an endless process". And so, we could call those who deal with the work of David Bowie as "The ever-changing clothes of The Great Chameleon" as "anuses". (That the great majority of newspaper articles which appeared after the man's death followed these coordinates tells us of the desperate times we live in.)

But would such an "enlightened listener" be willing to pay for something s/he can easily get for free?

It's at this point that the issue about "If only more people knew about my music..." sees the arrival of a brand-new item: the fact that someone's liking won't necessarily translate into someone's expenditures. We could say that legal streaming has eliminated the last obstacle towards a dimension that's seen as perfectly "neutral" and "having no consequences", with the issue of the inadequate amount of monetary compensation given to artists seen as "an unevenly balanced contract" whose outcome is of no concern to listeners.

(One could also say that the growing market share of streaming, when compared to the fall of revenues derived from the sale of downloads/physical copies, doesn't bode too well for the condition of maturation of listening, an intimate relationship with a piece of music being its necessary precondition.)

Now I'm gonna provide readers with some figures. In my town, in a context that I regard as being quite common, one could say that:

100 euros is the cost of "dinner for two" in a restaurant, when not going "full tilt" when it comes to fish or fine wines;

50 euros is the cost of "dinner for two" in a so-so restaurant;

14 euros is the cost of "brunch for two" in a nondescript place.

If one considers those prices, it's obvious that one's refusal to purchase a CD cannot be justified on a price basis. It goes without saying that if it's not one CD we are talking about, but "all the CDs I want", nothing can be done.

Even in these crazy times, not everybody is suffering equally. Were I asked to mention some names of artists who appear to prosper, I'd say Steven Wilson and The Aristocrats. Sure, they've also built on a preexisting basis: the group Porcupine Tree for Wilson, their being featured musicians in more than a few successful ensembles for the members of The Aristocrats.

Wilson has also managed to sell "limited edition" copies of his work, so creating a good source of self-financing for himself. While The Aristocrats have traveled far and wide, selling signed copies of their albums after each concert.

It's at this point - readers beware - that I have to discuss the most repulsive side of this topic.

Not long ago, I was talking over the phone with a friend of mine, discussing the scarcity of concerts of "difficult music", even at a moment like this, when the concert scene is booming. One can't fight numbers, of course, and so, if in a given town there are only ten Evan Parker fans, well...

But why - I asked him - those ten Evan Parker fans can't be asked to pay one hundred euros each? Ten multiplied one hundred equals one thousand, and if one assumes there are ten fans in each of five cities...

But nobody would come, with tickets at that price - my friend replied - and I bet Evan Parker himself would not even consider playing under those conditions.

(Of course, I hasten to add, I haven't the slightest idea of the proper market compensation for an artist such as Evan Parker, or anybody else. I just thought about him 'cause I simply like his music, and because, as a solo saxophone player, a concert of his would make things easier for a promoter.)

But why - and this is a question I'm asking readers - we assume that nobody would pay one hundred euros in order to see Evan Parker play live?

At this point, I hope readers won't get bored if I have a look at the concert scene in my town.

The city I live in - population: a bit under three hundred thousand people at last count - is located in a part of the Country not too rich when it comes to farms, factories, and general employment, though some "leopard skin" features tell that more than a few evade, or elude, paying proper taxes.

In parallel to the fall of sales of recorded music, there's been an explosion in the number of live concerts, something that nowadays can be regarded as being perfectly normal. Let's have a look at those figures. Not terribly famous groups regularly sell two hundred seats. More famous names regularly sell six hundred. Sitting 1,200 people, the only theater in town that hosts music concerts is always sold out. A nearby venue, with a capacity of 7,000, is always sold out, many times even six-eight months in advance of any given concert. Ticket prices go from "starting from 20 euros" to "starting from 41 euros". Some artists sell out two or three nights in a row, for a total of - let's count them - 14,000 and 21,000 people. There's a billboard in front of the house where I live which lists those concerts that are about to go on sale, so I keep current.

Here's the question: Why fans of "mainstream" music are glad and willing to pay 250 euros for a family of four in order to see somebody they like, and the very idea of spending 50 or 100 euros in order to see an artist like, say, Evan Parker sounds absurd?

Some could say that in order to spend that kind of money one has to earn it first, but it would be a quite stupid thing to say, given the fact that in the town I live in there are not 21,000 rich people. Somebody could maybe hypothesize the existence of an inverse correlation between income and difficulty of music, painting a picture of homeless people listening to mp3 files of Ornette Coleman's music while shaving under a bridge in the morning?

While talking with people about this, I was offered the following explanation: "Those who pay that kind of money in order to attend concerts by "mainstream" artists are not really paying to listen to the music, but to attend an event where the music is just a part of the whole, and not even the most important." Which leaves me totally unconvinced, for a long series of reasons.

We'll talk about this some other time. But let's think about this, for just one moment: Have we never met somebody who listened just because "cos fan tutti" to Fred Frith, Penguin Caf Orchestra, "an album on Ralph", John Zorn, Material, Kip Hanrahan, President, Naked City, and "that album on Knitting Factory"?

Anyway, the really difficult question is left unanswered: Why "hype" manages to convince a baker to part with 250 euros in order to take his family of four to a concert by Italian mainstream artist Marco Mengoni, while the very idea of spending 50 or 100 euros to attend a concert by Evan Parker sounds totally absurd?

At this point, I wouldn't like that what up to now has been a highly civilized discussion would turn into a  rough and noisy quarrel, as it happened in 2007, when my two editorials about the closing of the New York venue Tonic gave some readers the impression that I was in favour of the instant abolition of any public subsidy when it comes to the arts, music included.

However, let's have a look at the current situation. I'd say that a subscription to a series of jazz concerts has the price of each concert at about seven euros, with concerts that are not included in the subscription being priced at about eighteen euros. At least, this is my current experience.

As I've previously stated elsewhere, a "symbolic" price of admission to a work of art was originally intended to partially remove the obstacles of economic nature that made it difficult for members of the lower classes to appreciate the "true art" that could elevate their spirit.

In time, however, such as low price has increasingly come to signify being in the presence of something of very low quality, the low price being the only reason to convince buyers to choose a piece of merchandising of intrinsic low quality (for instance, the pig's innards, or chicken feet), something that otherwise nobody would bother buying.

In the end, this practice of "friendly pricing" has produced quite undesirable results: While the usual "economic motivator" has made it profitable for both venues and promoters to deal with those names that people are willing to spend for in order to see, the habit of paying cheap prices in order to listen to "difficult music" has had the unwanted consequence of making the majority of musicians stay home.

For this writer, the fact of attending concerts by musicians such as Roscoe Mitchell, Hugh Hopper, Hans Reichel, Steve Lacy, Chris Cutler, Paul Bley, Mike Keneally, and so on is like going to Paris to see La Gioconda. The difference is that it's La Gioconda that comes to my town!

The "profit" vs. "subsidized price" dichotomy also appears to have made a lot of people quite lazy. Sure, "the live experience is not downloadable". But in the meantime, is not possible to have a group playing "live from afar" - say, in London or Berlin - on the large screens of a (inter)national mini-circuit of clubs or venues in one of those nights of the week where nobody ever comes? Is not possible to have meetings and mini-seminars? (but not like the ones hosted by those bullshitters who already pollute the air from those music monthlies). What about a "Live from Cutler's house"? But not "on the Web, and you can easily pay by credit card, and watch the thing on your computer, whenever you want". I mean really live, and far from one's home.

Nothing can be done?

Beppe Colli 2016

CloudsandClocks.net | Feb. 1, 2016