Six years
By Beppe Colli
Nov. 26, 2008

And so, those chilly winds blowing left and right notwithstanding, Clouds and Clocks has finally - and surprisingly - managed to reach its (temporary) destination: its Sixth Birthday (Congratulations! Hooray!, etc). There's no assurance, of course, that it'll ever get to be Seven, but not because we've lost any of the intellectual spirit, joy, and willpower we had at the start; it's what it's usually referred to as the framework, the scenario, the narrative, that today appears to be in quite miserable conditions, maybe beyond the point of any reasonable hope. Not to mention the ever-decreasing literacy rate, and so the difficulty most people have when trying to understand a complex line of reasoning.

So, it's a "brutal" analysis that follows.

Not many words were spoken as often as the word "crisis" during the... crisis that occurred in the Western World after the First Oil Shock of 1973-74. A crisis that became even more difficult to deal with when the USA renounced the treaty they had signed at Bretton Woods in 1944 - this happening on August 15, 1971 during the Nixon administration, while the Vietnam War was in full bloom. This crisis went on for a very long time, also due to the Second Oil Shock of 1979. It so happened that the word "crisis" became so common, in all fields of human activity, that saying it aloud exposed one to the danger of being considered quite ridiculous (a few articles even appeared bearing such titles as The Crisis of the Crisis Concept). And so, for a very long time the only safe way one could say this word was when referring to the nice album by Ornette Coleman (it's been out-of-print for quite some time now, I think) titled Crisis.

News that most US journalistic firms - both of the "paper" type, and (who could expect this?) as "immaterial" as the Web -  have been sending pink slips happen so frequently that nowadays the only reaction one gets is one of boredom (not on the part of those who were fired, of course). But the news of the most recent crisis (still underway as I write) have been met with a certain amount of disbelief, the last firing salvo being so fresh in everyone's minds. Considering quite different realities all together for brevity's sake, it appears that the historical US weekly Time was about to close its London offices; that the historical US bi-monthly Rolling Stone was about to fire some people (apparently, only in its clerical sector); while the highly celebrated New York "alternative weekly" The Village Voice was about to eliminate some staff jobs - this less than one year after the firings that had so impressed audiences worldwide (for instance, the firing of The Dean of the American Rock Critics, Robert Christgau).

We all know the reasons why: the hemorrhage of readership, decreasing revenues when it comes to advertising (with only some of this money migrating to the Web), the rising costs of paper and transportation (when it comes to the latter, it's the long-term trend that counts, and it goes in the opposite direction of today's temporarily decreasing price of oil). The present freeze in consumer spending due to recession, and the obvious freeze in ads by firms, only add to the pressure. "But these trends are fuelled less by the current state of affairs than by the belief that things won't get any better anytime soon", was what a few friends whose opinion I had asked for wrote to me.

While this is basically true of the Press in all their different guises, it's interesting to notice that when it comes to music magazines an additional factor appears to be involved: their being a subgroup suffering from "collateral damage" due to the collapse of CD sales (to which somebody adds: the decreasing of the "strong" type of interest for music of which the collapse of CD sales is a symptom or a consequence).

As soon as they went online (even in the case of one being a "minor entity" when compared to its "paper" size), papers started adding audio (and video) files, also Podcasts. Sometimes it's almost like being back in the old Radio Days. Here opinions are fatally bound to differ. But while it's obvious that the audio file is a worthy chance for all artists, groups, labels, and distributors that are "cut off from the distribution circuit that really counts" (this nowadays being the one dealing with news, I think, and not with the actual distribution of any physical entities), it appears that when those (music and video) files work as a kind of "special, quality content", they are bound to undermine the domain that's unique to the Press: the verbal.

When looking at those colourful announcements that appear on many paper magazines (but from the little that I know about the Web World, things there don't seem to be much different) that advertise the sheer amount of albums reviewed, one has to ask him/herself about the kind of readers these magazine are trying to lure. What kind of reader would prefer buying Magazine A - featuring 250+ CD reviews - instead of Magazine B - featuring "only" 200+ CD reviews? All reviews, by the way, being of the "four lines" kind (as we know so well, time is money) where nothing of consequence is ever said. Here one could ask whether readers would not be better served buying a magazine featuring "only" four or five quality features - sure it couldn't get any worse, but this is only a "theoretical" alternative.

And it's easy to see why: if we think about the Sixties, and the limited number of critics and publications then on the market, it's easy to see that there was a strong selection process then at work. (It's not that there weren't a lot of artists around, as proven by the sheer amount of nonentities that many have been trying to sell as having been "unjustly undervalued" in their day and age to an unsuspecting audience.) But when it comes to appreciating an album, the "average" Rock fan of the Sixties invested a lot of time and effort. (Entertainment attorney Bob Lefsetz recently reminded readers of his blog that in the Sixties a respectable collection of Rock music consisted of fifty albums.)

(It goes without saying that discussing this stuff is like arguing against the fog and the hail, but I still think that a selection process, however imperfect, is preferable to no selection process. But it's a complex issue.)

Today's perspective goes in the opposite direction. There's an enormous amount of stuff that has to be dealt with in a specific way. All this stuff "looks for" the right place to be featured, at the lowest possible cost - something which in this day and age, when one's chances to "make it" are about the same as those in any lottery, but with meager prizes for the winners, coincides with those few minutes one needs to write a "review" while having a look at the press release kindly sent along with the music. One way or another, all pages have to be filled. Which goes a long way in explaining why even the most horrible, amateurish reviews (also articles and "interviews") get to be printed, instead of being thrown into the waste basket.

I think it can be said that 2008 was not a bad year for music. And even if it could be said that when it comes to "unconventional" music a bit of patience is all one needs in order to find good music, it's been a while since the days when "mainstream" music could be said to be in good shape. Alongside good music, the best mainstream releases of 2008 had the unpleasant effect of making me aware of the horrible quality of most reviews.

Sure, it could be argued that as a kind of "discovery" it doesn't account for much. Fact is, the more "unusual" kind of material I usually listen to doesn't get many reviews. So it goes without saying that a "bad review" can look like being "one writer's fault", not a trend of shoddy work. While doing a search (via Google, or an "aggregator" such as Metacritic) about a release that got many reviews gives us a field so wide that one's conclusions are more sound.

When talking about the various reviews of the recent Ani DiFranco album, Red Letter Year, one could say: good for DiFranco that she has a new fiancée and a new daughter, at least reviewers had something to talk about! Having said about a quite embarrassing similarity of some reviews to the album's press release, it's quite funny to notice that not many (better said, nobody) talked about the rhythmic realignment of the songs featured on her new CD.

No better fate for Ben Folds's recent album, Way To Normal: having said about a strange similarity between some reviews and the album's press release, it was quite funny to notice how nobody took the time to comment on the CD's horrible sound (one of the worst example of excessive compression since the introduction of the CD format). Sure, one can't ask too much of reviewers when it comes to similarities and even direct quotes (not even one from a song by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young!). But was it too hard no notice how harsh this particular CD sounded? While accessing a fan Forum and reading the opinion of a sound engineer on his personal blog  immediately gave me lots of material.

(We'll see how the boys will deal with the announced Beatles 2009 re-releases, in what promises to be a "Beatle year", when all the group's newly remastered albums - for the first time ever since the days of the original albums, also in mono! - will go on sale. I wonder on what "platform" different editions will be compared...)

Ignorance and shoddiness abound, without any limits. I've even had the pleasure to read reviews where the "critic" re-wrote the history of rock, according to his "selective" knowledge. What one can't help but notice is the hysterical tone of many reviews, an absurd combination of the need to sell something and an absolute lack of faith in the possibility of ever convincing anybody to actually fork one's hard-earned money.

My first prize for Best Shoddy Work for the year 2008 goes to a review of Harps And Angels, the recent album by Randy Newman. Nowadays musicians whose albums occupy a "niche market" don't get too many reviews, and usually in cases like this reviewers know what they're talking about. But it's not a rule. Things went OK when it came to Walter Becker's Circus Money, an album that - being self-produced and almost self-released - got few reviews (just in case, there's always the press release). But the Randy Newman album was on Nonesuch, a fact which logically entails... many reviews.

Since one is supposed to know about Randy Newman's ideas, and his use of the narrative device called "the untrustworthy narrator", it goes without saying that a song going by the title A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country should make one cautious when drawing any fast conclusions. Alas, one particular reviewer threw all cautions to the winds, calling this song "Patriotic, decidedly over-the-top", so clearly showing that he had no idea what he was talking about. I was not glad to hear things like "he's not one of the worst", or "but don't you remember...?", or "nobody reads this magazine anyway". So this is what we've come to, that we hope nobody will read a review? What if - 'cause of this review - even just one reader will get the impression that Randy Newman is a kind of "right-wing hawk"?

What about the audience? Well... Just as a quick note about a very serious matter, let's say that I believe the present crisis to be the first global economic crisis when one is actually able to read fantastic op-ed pieces - even by Nobel prizes! - that are written in a way that's quite easy to understand, for free, on the Web. But a quick chat is all one needs to know not many people bother with this stuff.

For the most part, people's interest lay elsewhere. And the new instruments called "aggregators" - the most recent one I know of being Tina Brown's The Daily Beast, whose motto is "Read this, skip that" - promise to put at one's disposal only what one is really interested in, and nothing else. Something that, under the present conditions (type of interest, type of attention, "pointillistic", not "cumulative", type of experiences, having as one's concept of "excellence" one that's more suited to a reality show), could have disastrous consequences.

The traditional media (Press) - from which Web media still appear to get their moves - are still on their feet. One can't help but wonder what will happen when they'll be around no more. We already know what happened with music.

© Beppe Colli 2008 | Nov. 26, 2008