My Trip To Tuscany
By Beppe Colli
May 28, 2009

Quite unexpectedly, a typical case of "family business" gave me the chance to spend a couple of weeks in Tuscany, at the end of March. Of course I went! I decided to use this opportunity to have a look around. I chose to avoid the "Internet & computer" dimension for the whole period of my stay - so "no Web-surfing, no e-mailing, etc." - giving instead my full attention to shops, newsstands, libraries, and the impossible-to-overestimate factor called "human contact".

Back home, while thinking about the whole experience, it suddenly dawned on me that in the course of those two weeks I had never heard anybody talk about music. Did I really expect this to happen? Well, I was quite embarrassed to discover that I had obviously maintained a kind of subconscious expectation from the old days, when it was (still) common to hear people talk about music (something which happened more and more frequently the more I traveled away from my hometown). It goes without saying that even today this is far from uncommon, provided one is in a record shop; but nowadays a record shop is a peculiar type of environment, and even in a record shop, a "hit and run" kind of behaviour is increasingly common, the verbal dimension being increasingly absent. When such a rare event takes place in a public space (the last I witnessed, about one year ago, it was two twenty-somethings talking about some guitar licks while devouring a granita) it's always people from a particular sub-group: those who play an instrument. It would obviously be wrong to assume that this entails the end of any discourse about this topic, given today's predominance of such things like chats, newsgroups, forums, and those various "personal communication systems". Still, one can't help but wonder, given the fact that this is type of dimension that's quite "opaque" to the investigation due to the very same circumstances of their use.

I was quite surprised by Tuscany's rainy weather - it poured almost every day. Hence, very long afternoons were spent sitting in my hotel. TV and reading material all came to the rescue. CNN somewhat managed to make the events of day appear understandable, while the anchors on the Italian news didn't really appear as having the skills (and the intention?) to make us understand "what" was happening. I frequently asked myself what chances to even begin understanding what was going on re: this "economic crisis" for any person with no real access to any written source of a certain degree of quality. Not wanting to access the Internet, still I had quite a few UK dailies at my disposal (but not The Guardian, which was not as easy to find as other papers), also the Herald Tribune. And talking about the "economic crisis", I managed to buy a new book titled La veduta corta (or, Short-term Vision), by Tommaso Padoa Schioppa, which I had not been able to buy before leaving (and which had just been distributed in Tuscany). I read this book with more than a pinch of sadness, since it's quite obvious that it is intended to work as "an introduction" (albeit a high-quality one) to an understanding of the current mess. MTV cheered me up, and I saw that the ballet featured in the new single by Katy Perry "quotes" the video clip for Pat Benatar's Love Is A Battlefield.

It was with a deep sense of fear that I entered every record shop I had the pleasure to encounter on my trip (and not just because the new CD by Gianna Nannini was the de-facto soundtrack to the whole Tuscany). This is not the best of moments for record shops. Nonetheless, almost everywhere one could easily perceive a sense of dignity. Everybody did their best in order to cope with a difficult situation: there were those who also sold t-shirts, those who sold cell-phones, those who thought specialization was the answer, while others betted on quality. Curiously, more than one shop had their stock of used vinyl abandoned on the floor or in difficult-to-access racks, while all vinyl sporting a 180 gr. sticker was treated quite differently; here, too, opinions differ: while some think the "back to vinyl" mini-boom to be over ("kids are already fed up with going out of the shop carrying an LP under their arm"), there are those who betted everything (well, all that's left) on it; all agree that any vinyl weighing less than the aforementioned 180 gr. is worth nothing (which probably accounts for the fact that - at the price of ingesting a lot of dust - I managed to buy the first album by Dreams on Columbia, the original USA edition, still sealed in its original wrap, for 10 euros). Quite unexpectedly, some of those who still work in a record shop have yet to become cynical merchants, and they often invite the potential buyer to listen to albums it's quite easy to see they really like ("Have you listened to the new one by Susan Tedeschi? She's Derek Trucks's wife").

Newsstands stocking a lot of magazines plus the rainy weather made me buy without remorse. I got the new issue of Rolling Stone, and it was with great disconcertment (not having seen it for about one year) that I found the magazine to have shrunk in both size and number of pages (maybe 'cause of Blender's competition?). Besides Mojo, Uncut, Word, NME, Q, Guitar Player, Down Beat, etc. I also spotted Bass Player (the issue with Paul Chambers on its cover), and Modern Drummer, whose cover story for the April issue was dedicated to the recently deceased Mitch Mitchell (the issue also had a nice surprise in store for me: unannounced on the cover, there's a fine interview with Morgan Ågren). Back to my hotel, I read the fine Mitchell article, featuring transcriptions of some instrumental passages, and an exhaustive analysis of his style. Since I couldn't go out, I decided to have a look at the other features, so I read the interviews with two drummers whose names I'd never heard before, so learning a few interesting things. After reading, I was quite surprised to notice that I was in a good mood, and I actually thought about listening to some music, whereas most of the times after reading I feel quite dirty, my deepest wish being to take a shower in order to take away that sense of dread and squalor that I'm afraid will stick to my skin forever. I made a mental note about being more selective in the future when it comes to my reading material.

Besides Gianna Nannini, what else? A record shop greeted me with a pleasant sound coupled to a voice sounding halfway between Captain Beefheart and an ogre. The melody of this particular song easily told me it was Leonard Cohen (his album Live In London) that I was listening to. I meditated silently. It's quite strange an experience to find such an aesthetic, once sounding so dry, even austere, now dressed up like a Christmas tree. Given the deep financial troubles he's recently seen, the circumstance of Leonard Cohen's tour being a success obviously made me happy (I'm always on the side of the good guys). But I have to confess that such a sudden enthusiasm for a guy whose appeal has always been quite "selective" and whose albums have been gathering dust for years makes me quite suspicious. The same obviously being true of all the sanctifications I've seen in the last decade: Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, etcetera. Here one could formulate a few interesting hypothesis.

Another shop had something that sounded like a mixture of King Crimson, Pink Floyd, "generic" Prog, and "ambient" moods as its background music. I was told the name of the CD to be Insurgentes, first solo album by Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree. The record appeared to offer some interesting points, though I really believe that listeners with a deep background will find very few surprises there. As it always happens when it comes to albums like this, I have one question: Why such a large portion of the press is so stingy when it comes to giving some ink to people like him, and why that snobby attitude when it comes to this music, which they instead refrain to inflict on people like, say, Peaches? (Beth Ditto!) Here one could formulate a few interesting hypothesis.

Back home, I turned on my computer, and - first things first - I checked my incoming e-mail messages. There's a friend from the USA writing to me, on March 26: "No more Blender". These are really big news.

I still have a folder here where about eight years ago I started collecting news about this then-new US magazine with a bizarre style - a mix of Q's approach to music and Maxim's scantly-dressed philosophy - whose intention appeared to dethrone Rolling Stone. In a nutshell, Blender's circulation at the moment of its print edition ceasing publication was about 1.000.000 copies, of which about 50.000 were sold at newsstands, about 800.000 to subscribers (a usual mix for a US monthly). I still remember how many freelancers were happy about their being able - at $1 per word for 135-word reviews - to get $135 for a review appearing on a magazine printing 1.000.000 copies and whose issues would feature about ten times the amount of reviews of Rolling Stone. So, what happened? Simple: the ads went down - a lot.

And given the fact that Blender was a big magazine, and that its going down was unexpected for a lot of people, even given the current recession framework, there were lots of comments and figures around. On March 26, 2009 Nat Ives (Alpha Media Shuts Down Blender, on wrote that Blender ad pages for 2008 were down 31%, and 57% in the period January-April 2009. Figures for US monthlies being 12% and 22%, and 11% and 37% for Maxim, owned by the same publisher of Blender.

Lotsa comments, of course, from Robert Christgau (Poptastic Bye-Bye, with some interesting comments) to Jason Gross, who on his blog Crazed By The Music appearing on PopMatters asked the question: What Does Blender's Demise Mean For The Music Biz? (March 29), with lotsa comments from both sides of the ocean that are really worth a read. I found the one by Angus Batey to be especially noteworthy. Quoting figures, he put the NME problem on the table: "Its most recent ABC was 48,549 - down almost 25 per cent year-on-year and lower than Metal Hammer for the first time since the latter began publishing." (...) "(...) even NME’s rivals have tended to depend on it (...) to bring new generations of readers into the habit and custom of reading about music. If those titles are either dead or on life support, that means there is no next generation of readers getting the reading-about-music bug (sorry: that should be the paying-to-read-about-music,-and-also-paying-for-music bug)."

If that's not enough, a few weeks ago I started reading alarming news about a US monthly that's very different from Blender, i.e., Paste. There was a piece by Simon Warner in his blog on Rock's Backpages (Cut And Paste: Ad Slash Prompts i-D Crisis), and a few days later there was an open letter by Paste's Josh Jackson (A Letter To Paste Contributors, May 13) dealing with the problems, and the hopes.

The current problem is two-sided: on one hand, the current recession makes the disinvesting trend on the part of advertisers when it comes to the press even worse; but a whole lot of factors - and here's just a few: audiences getting used to multi-media, the multiplication of platforms, decreasing literacy, the disappearing of "undivided attention", more and more Web-surfing, a growing indifference when it comes to those "qualitative" factors that are "exclusive" to music - make it quite easy for one to foresee that the future will be very different from the past, and especially so as boomers will be replaced by individuals who have been socialized in the Net era, in a period when music has no comparable fixed physical storage device such as vinyl or a CD.

In a nutshell, besides the fact of ads on the Net being a lot cheaper than their print counterparts, it's only at one's own peril that one forgets that ads on the Net can appear under the guise of an elaborate pop-up, but also of "exclusive material", be they streaming or download, video or audio: all things that appear to be "self-sufficient", for which (so-called) "argumentation" is a useless ornament that a low-literacy audience (after many years of exposition to elementary TV programs) will never feel a need for.

Just before I came back home, while I was in one of those shops I visited during my stay in Tuscany that still sell musical artifacts, somebody expressed deep skepticism about seeing each other again inside that framework. And I fear it won't be the only change awaiting us.

© Beppe Colli 2009 | May 28, 2009