Ten Years
By Beppe Colli
Nov. 26, 2012

Though it sounds quite inconceivable, it's my duty to announce to the world that today Clouds and Clocks is ten years old. Hooray!

And while the deafening applause that greeted this solemn announcement dies down, I carefully blow the dust from the heavy stick that I reserve for the most solemn occasions, as I begin making my point.

Quite a few times, in the course of the past decade, I've asked myself if I really felt like going on with this silly idea of mine. Which is perfectly normal, and definitely to be expected, since what we're dealing with here is an enterprise which doesn't contemplate even the possibility of any monetary remuneration, and which, by necessity, has to find its own logic and aims within itself. What's more, this work has to take it for granted that, somewhere, quality music worth telling about does indeed exist - an assumption that those magazines that deal with "new releases" acting as a "consumer guide" can do without.

I have to admit that once in a while my faith in this endeavor breaks down, the situation appearing to me as totally hopeless. Sure, one can always count on a beautiful, fresh, innovative album to appear anytime, but it's that grey, oppressive shade that seems to submerge the whole landscape that sometimes makes me such a pessimist about the future.

In an effort to give an empirical base to my judgment, I read again my piece titled 22 from 2002, which appeared in January, 2003: a piece that I wrote to tell readers about a few albums that had been released that year and that I thought were worth mentioning but I had not been able to review, since at the time this website did not exist yet. Well, compared to that list, I don't think that today's panorama has any reason to fear humiliation, even if I have to admit that, once in a while, it's only thanks to a re-release program - such being the case this year with Frank Zappa's catalogue - that the current year can hold its own.

Unfortunately, those much lauded "past masterpieces" can make one have to confront very unpleasant truths. For instance, that the quantity of excellent albums released back in the day easily outnumbers today's list. That the whole system made of recording studios, sound engineers, producers, and people who invented and built audio devices, added quite a lot to recorded music - it's not only grand pianos, excellent mics and mixers I'm talking about, but all those mental innovations that a musician cannot invent on his/her own. There's also the whole heritage of studio musicians - their chords, their performing techniques, and their sheer ingenuity (I recently watched the DVD-V off the Classic Albums series which deals with the recording of the Steely Dan album Aja for the second or third time, and I think there's not a better example anywhere of what I'm talking about) - an heritage that's just about to evaporate. There's also the feeling that nowadays albums arrive as totally separated entities, while in the past they appeared as being parts of a larger whole, pieces that talked to one another both in technical and musical terms.

What I just said makes the appearance of any item featuring very good music as something even more prodigious, making it almost compulsory for any reviewer to tell all the people, while also adding one's personal warmth and gratitude. But it has to be said that nowadays most musicians appear to be demoralized and disillusioned, standing between a past that won't come back and a present where actual sales are better left unsaid. Sometimes it's quite easy to perceive that all available stamina have been spent on the process of actually recording and releasing an album, while one's awareness that no review or interview will ever be able to turn the tide makes one opt for keeping a very low profile.

Many times I've talked about the disappearance of critics, and of all "middle layers" which used to stand between the subject and the object. I've also discussed the way this process is often perceived by most members of the audience as being a moment of liberation, something which deprives critics of any legitimation (and hence, of any chance of retribution). While younger people don't even suspect there was once a life when a different panorama existed.

Whatever one thinks about the possibility that things could change in a foreseeable future, the present situation has musicians in a very difficult position, being that they are forced to work very hard just to be seen (very often adopting "sensationalistic" strategies) in a world that's nowadays really infinite, while at the same time being perfectly conscious that any tiny amount of attention they'll succeed getting will be impermanent. (A condition they share with politicians and public figures in general.)

Linked to a "pointillistic" attention is one's perception of one's choice as an act of "empowerment". I've often talked about how some consequences entailed by the notion of "empowerment" when it comes to music appear to be related to the long-period process that puts the weight and the cost of one's acts on one's shoulders, as a consumer: at the supermarket, the act of getting one's goods by oneself, later to pay with one's credit card, using automation; the analogous actions one performs at the gas pumps and the various places when one gets charged (highways, subways, and the like); all the operations one performs from home via computer, etc. We have to notice that while the "middle layer" disappears, what is said to compensate for the increase in the number of people who are out of work is the larger amount of freedom and independence for the consumer, who now can access all available utilities with no restrictions whatsoever. (A condition for which U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher coined the phrase "A doctor of my choice, at the time of my choice".)

I have to admit that, having come of age in a period when vinyl - first 45 singles, then 33 LPs - were mass mediums, at first I didn't consider the CD with much joy, for a long series of reasons I've talked about in the past and that I won't repeat here. However, though being far from perfect, the CD was a honorable compromise, though it still needed two (outside) features: a middle layer made of competent critics, and a type of "undivided attention" analogous to what was normal in the age of the LP.

As it's widely known, all this changed a whole lot, even more so today, when everybody is able to access a virtually unlimited amount of items in the guise of digital files thanks to cheap broadband.

A decade later, it's quite easy to see who were the losers: those who write the "software" - meaning, those who write and perform those lyrics and music we so gladly listen to everyday - and also those entities which are linked to the afore-mentioned "software", record companies included. To determine who are the winners, one has only to think about the ways people access that "software", and on which platforms those files are listened to.

In parallel to the situation I described above, users can now fully access files with no need for a "physical" shop. Provided they survive, record companies will save on all costs like pressing, printing, transportation, percentages, etc. While musicians, once record companies are no more, will be free... to find their audience.

So this appears to be the future: "low quality" files in mp3 format for those who don't want to spend, or simply don't care about sound quality, "hi rez" files for those who do. And while the mp3 format has been a reality for quite a while now, those hi-rez formats are supposed to take the place of turntables and CD players when it comes to those who care for sound quality, turning the tide for the agonizing hi-fi industry, "audiophile" labels included.

But from which masters those hi-rez files are supposed to come? From the original analogue (or digital) master tapes, or from squashes, limited, compressed, remasters, which will make mincemeat of the original work? What will we talk about when we'll argue that The Beatles, or The Velvets, or Zappa, accomplished "this"? Will "this" equal "that"?

I'll give readers a for instance.

At the time of the most recent Beatles re-releases on CD - the remasters which appeared in 2009 - a few Beatles fans noticed that on one of the most famous Beatles songs, featured on one of the most famous Beatles albums, Abbey Road, something was obviously missing : the sound of the toggle switch (pickup selector) made by John Lennon on his Epiphone Casino before the solo in his song I Want You (She's So Heavy) (check at 2:21 and 3:43). The Beatles community all over the Web heard this quirky "innovation", which - like others on the 2009 re-releases, and even before - wiped one famous moment from the original track.

But those kind of discussions take place (on the Web) in very specialized places, where attendance is limited, and whose (monetary) survival has never to be taken for granted. On the other hand, for a long time now - at least, since the LPs were replaced by CDs as the platform of choice - newspapers and magazines have avoided those kind of topics, which they define (for reasons of convenience, and also to conceal incompetence and a mercenary attitude) as being "too technical" and "of interest only for a minority".

I could not help but notice what I guy I knew - he was quite younger than I was - told me after he listened to a new CD I was listening to the moment he came to pay me a visit, unannounced, at my home, when I asked him his opinion of that album. So surprised I was that I still remember it word for word. He said: "In the amount of time it'll take me to "get" one album of yours, I'll "get" five albums of mine". A sentence that I immediately wrote down. Readers are invited to think about the way this attitude - that was maybe in the minority at the time - is nowadays so widespread that one doesn't even notice it, and so typical of all modern ways of consumption.

The fact the nowadays one increasingly avoids all kinds of consumption that require one's undivided attention, and a lot of time - so making one actively avoid all kinds of "difficult" objects - is the death knell for all "difficult" music, while making one see only the most "superficial" layer of the "simple" works. The most dramatic consequence of this process is the disappearing of what was once called "maturity", the process of one gradually becoming more "mature" in his choices, the current attitude being more similar to the way children get tired of their toys, which are then discarded, only to be (temporarily) replaced by others.

Given the very dramatic condition when it comes to the state of the economy all over the world, there are those who nowadays foresee a "return to the old times" of people giving their undivided attention, and the return of "maturity" as a process, as an answer to a growing pauperism. But this is completely absurd, provided one correctly understands the dynamics at work.

I really doubt that - provided this was really our intention, of which I'm not so sure - in a world like the one we inhabit we could be able to turn back the clock when it comes to our modern attitude when it comes to the consumption of objects, which makes the survival of those who invent objects whose enjoyment need our "undivided attention" highly implausible.

I can only hope that Clouds and Clocks will go on, playing its part, which is, and always will be, "putting a spotlight on quality".

Beppe Colli 2012

CloudsandClocks.net | Nov. 26, 2012