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
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
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-à-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
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
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
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 "così fan tutti" to Fred Frith, Penguin Café
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
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
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
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