Seven years
By Beppe Colli
Nov. 26, 2009

Strange but true, today Clouds and Clocks is seven years old. As it often happens in cases like this, the event makes one think about the past, see what was indeed accomplished, and try to foresee what could be possibly done in the future. It's quite obvious that thinking too much about such stuff can easily make one become hyper-conscious about what (little) was done, compared to what's still to be done, with the decision to close down the shop as the only logical outcome. Not wearing the thinking cap, however, leads one to the unpleasant condition of traveling on "automatic pilot", so having what by all accounts is after all a kind of creative process turn into sterile routine. In the end, one has no real choice but to think about this stuff, since - in so, differently from those who respond to "outside stimuli", whatever their nature - one has to evaluate whether one's actual conditions are in accordance with one's stated goals.

Totally by chance, I had all the time in the world to think about the whole matter: the horrible noise coming from the above apartment currently undergoing complete renovation made it impossible for me to listen to music. Reading and thinking late at night, that was possible. Though I'm quite conscious of the far-from-perfect nature of this piece, I hope readers will want to read it to the end. This is just a first draft about the current situation, starring Clouds and Clocks, musicians, media, and various audiences.

I often think about the words a US musician chose for his first message to Clouds and Clocks - the site having been in operation less than two weeks - to highlight its purpose as he saw it: "Shining a spotlight on quality".

And  yes, this has always been our stated goal starting from day one: having quality come out of the darkness that usually engulfs it. Also, to communicate clearly what "quality" means to us.

I'm glad I can say my decision to start a webzine whose content could be accessed from all over the world - which obviously meant using English language (and I sincerely hope English readers will forgive me for the crimes I've committed against their language) - was the right one. I have to add that without the feedback coming from the United States this webzine would have been a lot poorer: musicians, labels, colleagues, readers, from that Country have showed  an attitude that's a sine qua non for those who want to live in the world having the odds in their favour being more than zero.

Funny thing about Europe: While in the course of these seven years I got very tasty (though occasional) feedback coming from countries such as Mexico, Turkey, Iran, Australia, and Canada, with just a few exceptions (coming for the most part from Holland) Europe was silent. Some France, some Austria, no Germany, with the United Kingdom acting as a living paradox: I got some messages from: the BBC, Al Jazeera's local branch, a few book publishers, a few record distributors (also from a few colleagues, actually), but not much else. To tell the truth, I have a couple of ideas about it all, and none that's optimistic about the current state of Europe. But talking at length about this issue is really outside the scope of this piece.

Italy is a strange case. I have to admit that in the last two or three years there have been a few more signs of life than the usual custom in the past, which is reason enough for me to decide to go on using a language that makes it virtually impossible for one to participate in any debate of worth. Given the familiar cultural framework so widespread in Italy, it's no surprise that a few Italian musicians of the "talent deserving wider recognition" type decided to make the effort to have their voices heard sending messages, etc..

It was only thanks to a quote by Scott Woods, of RockCritics fame, that I had the chance to read an article by Nick Southall which appeared four years ago in the Web mag Stylus (the fact that I got to know about Stylus only because it was closing shop reminded me of how big the Web is, and how difficult it is to say something accurate about it; one has to try, though). First piece of a regular column titled Soulseeking, it appeared on 2005-09-19 under the title Part of me has been wondering, for a while now, whether I simply donít care anymore. Southall's article deals with a typical case of "cultural bulimia" (my wording), after Southall himself, then at the age of 24 (in 2003), got broadband, with the obvious, logical consequence of wanting to stop listening to music,.

Which brings me to something I actually find quite funny: that listening to a lot of stuff, quite indiscriminately, is still considered as being something worth of praise, and never as the logical source of a deadening of one's critical faculties, and one of the main causes of superficial judgment. It goes without saying that I don't consider those who listen to just a few records out of ignorance as being something positive. But the notion of a "respectable collection" that was typical at the end of the 60s (i.e., 50 LPs) is a lot different from the order of magnitude that today is potentially available to anyone. (In the course of the aforementioned piece Southall has the number of albums released in the first two years of the current decade as being equal to all the albums released during the 60s.)

While talking about quantity, one doesn't have to forget about (lack of) quality. And this reminds me of the importance (and disappearance) of the gatekeeper, a word that for the purpose of this writing can be understood to mean "filter". The final result being not that a thousand Sun Ra are freed from their wet underground holes, and are now free to come to the open light, but that any person calling him/herself an "artist", is. Let's now investigate a few unpleasant consequences.

Listening to an unknown album (let's say, one that one happens to find in one's mailbox, waiting to be reviewed) is like breaking a vial and smelling its content: sometimes is smells like flowers, sometimes it's more like a sewer. After smelling sewer-like content for a very long time, since life is a finite quantity, one inevitably decides to get back to the old "personal recommendation" system.

Since listening to whatever comes one's way is today's norm (readers are invited to take this assertion as true, this point will be discussed at a later stage), musicians find themselves in the precarious position of having to abandon any notion of "career", meaning something that develops in stages. The same being true when it comes to record companies, management, and venues.

It goes without saying that there is no reason for this scenario to imply that musical development has to stop. However, one cannot help but notice that many "new" things - which sometimes are not bad at all, when considered by themselves - when compared to the "originals" appear quite small. And it has to be noticed that this kind of judgment is by no means exclusive to those who were there the first time, and so cannot be said to represent the familiar "nostalgia factor". A new language is always more vibrant, more alive - though by necessity not as "perfect" - than the same language in its "refined, evolved" stage.

It often happens that musicians prepare two programs (one line-up working during the winter, the other touring the open-air Festivals) to go down easy for both audience and promoters, with no real risks taken in the music. It happened to me, a few years ago, that I found myself liking the rock quartet Colossamite a lot more than the Dave Douglas "electric" quintet and the much-lauded group Tortoise. On first hearing, the music played by both Douglas and Tortoise could have been considered as "better", but this was only thanks to its aural pedigree, which the act of listening superimposed on what was in fact played, which considered by itself was quite poor indeed. There was also something very funny at work, like the musicians were not only working for their dinner, but actually waiting for dinner-time to come (in Italy!). In so differently, Colossamite appeared to play for real, with much energy and gusto, like a lot more than a fee was at stake.

What I find particularly revealing is that for many years now every time I get asked who among the "new faces" is releasing quality music the first name that comes to my mind is always Nellie McKay, who - please take notice - is a soloist: a musician who developed a personal aesthetic on her own, sitting at the piano. Will it ever be possible for the Henry Cows, the Frank Zappas, the Steely Dans of the future to survive?

Just a quick P.S. More than a few times, artists whose work can be considered as being "difficult and uncommercial" have tried to make good use of those things that technical progress has invented, from being able to press albums with no record company involvement to creating an independent distribution organization. The only quantity that has always been underplayed is the low degree of interest all media have towards these musics, which could have made things even worse had those new borders been less porous than they proved to be.

But since "social networks" are mostly used by audiences who on average are a lot younger than those who have a strong interest for music that's "difficult and uncommercial", it's quite unlikely that they could be of much help to those "difficult genres". (The importance of the new "social media" for the big success among young people of more than a few US singers currently filed under "Country" is clearly discussed in an article by Jon Caramanica which appeared in the NY Times, on August 2, 2009 under the title Countryís New Face: Itís Young and Blond.)

Every time I have doubts of a factual nature about something I'm writing, I kneel down. However, this peculiar position doesn't stand for a hopeful gesture, it only indicates the place in my filing cabinets where I keep all those printed materials I use to check facts.

It happens more and more frequently that I think that - if not actually kneeling down - some of my US colleagues could at least check their facts on a Web 'pedia. Even articles which are supposed to be "in depth" statements - the last two I read were about Jethro Tull's recorded output, and the album Let It Bleed by The Rolling Stones - have such serious mistakes they almost become quite funny.

Which is not really surprising, in a way. For many young people, the image of Julius Ceasar and Napoleon having dinner in the same restaurant is not absurd, and the same happens when it comes to the outcome of low-paid, under qualified workers whose prose is not checked anymore (middle layers really being a thing of the past) that nowadays is practically the norm when it comes to music magazines.

Here I have to add that what I am mostly familiar with is the Web press, written in English. It's obvious that print magazines such as Down Beat, Rolling Stone, and Mojo are to be lauded due to their accurate fact-checking, before their degree of acumen comes into question. But I'm not really convinced that the Press can always be said to be better than the Web, and especially so when it comes to the Italian scenario. Many years ago, I predicted that most Italian mags were about to fold down in a minute or two, and I was obviously very wrong (in fact, they appear to have multiplied). What I hadn't foreseen is the drastic lowering of the minimum standard of quality for any printed paper to be called Press, which has practically made it possible for music mags to lower themselves towards a "Web standard" while at the same time keeping their place at the newsstands.

And it's obvious that those bills have to be paid every month. The folding of many US magazines that sold in the neighborhood of 500.000+, and the downsizing of those whose sales were in the 1.000.000+ bracket shows that there's not a lot that paying customers can do when ads go really, really down. Consequences are clear: Nellie McKay's first album gets a nice push by her record company? then, lotsa reviews, even the cover of the Culture supplement of The Sunday Times; no more contract for Miss McKay? so just a few reviews of album #2, some of which reviewed a scaled-down version which actually never went on sale; a new label for album #3, but Miss McKay doesn't yet appear as being a priority for her new label? so, just a few reviews; now it's album #4, and this time there's a strong hook? reviews appear everywhere. Just one question: How could one possibly trust a process whose outcome is so obviously directed from the outside?

In closing, just a general observation. The end of meaning as a unanimous entity can at first be regarded as bringing a degree of freedom: you think the Beatles are very important, I think the same of The Stooges, no one can prove the other wrong. But just like "avant-garde", the notion of "trend" needs a (non-linear) sense of development, which is understandable precisely because it's shared. Version #2 says, I put Tortoise on the cover, because... ("their mix of styles is original, they bring dub into jazz", whatever). Which is to say, these are traits that (to me) make this group sound better than others, i.e., to me these traits are highly desirable ("even though others can take their place as soon as these become mannerisms"). But if "better" becomes unverifiable, and a magazine employs more and more young people who have a "raw" understanding of this criterion, how could it possibly hope to argue in favour of a trend? This is impossible, so it's like all music mags are called "Things I Like".

But we already have a practical example of this: fashion. And fashion magazines never explain the objects (clothes, hairdos, piercings) they feature: they are merely shown.

During a recent exchange of views, two quite different points of view emerged: "today people have no interest for narration/narrative", as opposed to "today people are still very interested in narration/narrative, they just don't want to pay for it". As it often happens in cases like this, the (e-mail) exchange being very quick, the main characters being quite busy, all made it impossible to continue the conversation, and so an important point never became clear: what exactly those who were arguing meant when they talked about "narration/narrative".

I strongly feel that for the most part today people have no real interest for narration/narrative. I'll try to discuss this, hoping readers will not mistake "narration/narrative" for "discussing song lyrics", though this is precisely what I have chosen as my example.

(My example deals with Italian culture. English readers are invited to "translate" my example.)

In the 60s, in Italy, not too many people had a good knowledge of English language. When "beat" groups came into fashion, and with the growing popularity of groups such as The Beatles and The Stones (and also The Hollies, The Byrds, Dylan, Donovan, and so on) a few weeklies started printing the lyrics to some songs that were in the charts: the original lyrics, a literal translation, and (provided it existed) the lyrics to the Italian cover version. Then it was the era of the album, and many rock fans were not exactly glad when they saw that a lot of LPs that in their original edition had the song lyrics printed on the (gatefold!) cover or in a lyric sheet which came with the album, in Italy had none. Other weeklies came to the rescue, printing lyrics by contemporary artists and groups, making their readers quite happy. Then a lot of "cult artists" were discovered - from English folk groups to legends of the US underground - while many lyrics that had never appeared in print started seeing the light of the day: a few monthlies come to the rescue. Then, tiny publishers started printing small books dealing with the matter, translations being far from perfect, and sometimes rich with "betterment", but original lyrics were included (meanwhile, more people spoke English).

What about today? Well, we know about the cost of copyrights. We know there are quite a few lyric books on sale. We know that, one way or another, finding lyrics on the Web for free is very easy. We know - check the thing called Erasmus - that nowadays a lot more people can speak English, compared to the time when Satisfaction was in the charts. This obviously explains why music mags don't consider featuring song lyrics as being an interesting proposition anymore. On the other hand, one would obviously expect song lyrics to be a strong topic of discussion when talk about music occurs, and especially so today, when names such as Nick Drake, Neil Young, and Leonard Cohen are so greatly in favour among those who like their music to be of the less commercial kind. So let's ask ourselves this question: how many of those who regularly buy or download music in respectable quantities show an understanding and an appreciation for the topics featured in the songs by those artists they so nonchalantly amass?

It goes without saying that it's at this point that the "time" element (as in "lack of") surfaces. Which is understandable, but only inside the context of an abridged book ("to go to the crux"), a movie that's watched when one is engaged on the phone (but on a wide screen, "quite a different experience"), frequent, short trips abroad ("this way I'll see more things"), albums being bought or downloaded by the ton ("I love a wide range of things, I am not happy listening to just one thing").

But if "narrative" equals "going deep", and deep analysis equals a lot of time, it's not the price calculated in terms of money that's the obstacle, but time: because this would be a use of one's time that would be perceived as being "inefficient" ("I don't have this much time for just one thing").

I am really convinced we are being confronted with a cultural agony, I just wonder whether one has to listen to all its death rattles.

What about the future, then? If one thinks about musicians who still play "difficult and unpopular music", it's obvious there is one important element that can be of great help: the Web. One can be accessed from anywhere on earth, one's music gets easily heard, listeners' feedback is easy to get. Alas, there's an element that can make it impossible for those musicians to succeed, and it's the Web. Its order of magnitude makes it impossible for one to be seen. Which doesn't mean that musicians are free to choose the exit option, since not having a presence on the Web equals being invisible.

Though always welcome, magazine coverage is not a practical remedy anymore, and not because magazines don't sell anymore. Since new names (dis)appear faster and faster, audiences get more and more fragmented, their "brand loyalty" when it comes to new names being a thing of the past, paper magazines have no real option but to give more and more space to those (one hundred) greats who are liked by the majority of readers (it's not for lack of imagination that the same people are featured everywhere!). On the other hand, by necessity, a web magazine has to feature five reviews per day, most of them being of the non-paid, very shoddy kind.

A bit of luck and some effort made it possible for me to find a few places on the Web where content is very good, but these appear to be mainly for those who are already familiar with all those difficult things newcomers never really like on first listening (and I've seen names of some renown listed among their contributors). The hard truth deals with a dramatic asymmetry: the number of musicians getting bigger every day, while the number of attentive listeners is in free fall.

© Beppe Colli 2009 | Nov. 26, 2009