The Value of Music
By Beppe Colli
Jan. 19, 2003

As usual, just before the end of the year the estimated figures concerning the earnings of the music industry were released. Of course, these are only estimates, so the final figures could be different (and those estimates obviously don't include the sales from the Christmas season, which are said to usually account for about one third of the total sales) but this year they were waited for with a certain degree of curiosity - and not a little anxiety, given the market slump in 2001. An article by Jeff Leeds that appeared in the Dec. 29 edition of the Los Angeles Times so quantified the analysts' estimates: –8% for global music industry revenues and –11% for album sales in the United States.

It's obviously at this point that the debates always start: about the reasons why, about the price of the CDs, about all the technical and legal issues that are pertinent to the downloading phenomenon. An extremely predictable script that seems to have become more and more boring for many who are under the impression that at this point - in the absence of extremely strong legal measures - real life has reached the point where such trends appear to be practically unstoppable.

A point of view that's at least original - even if it doesn't appear to offer any practical solutions - is represented by the conference titled Why You Shouldn't Upload Independently Produced CDs: a text that Chris Cutler (a musician who's also an indie record company owner) presented in Budapest in 2001 at the Big Ear Festival symposium. (You can easily find this text on the Web.)

It was at the beginning of the year that I happened to read a thread titled The Value of Music. The discussion took place at (producer/sound engineer/inventor) George Massenburg-moderated Forum, where one can usually read about more "technical" topics. And for me it was a precious experience, since many points of view that were being expressed were of the not-so-common variety, even if (to me, at least) the whole proved to be far from satisfactory.

This - more or less - was the starting point: As the value of major label music falls, the value of all music falls. So, how can we independent artists and companies keep the value of our music up, if the value of mainstream music continues to fall?

Regardless of the specific outcome of the discussion, this is a very important point that's quite often obscured by the "ideological" nature of most debates, with the Majors starring in the "villain" role (a role - it must be said - that they portray effortlessly and successfully). The opposition between The Majors and The Independents - and the parallel opposition between the Majors'/the Consumers' Interests - has had the undesirable effect of masking some decisive characteristics of modern consumer behaviour. The consumption of music, sure, thanks to those technical means that nowadays are within anybody's reach. But those behavioural traits are common to all forms of modern consumption. A series of "trends" - obviously extremely well-known to sociologists - whose effects everybody faces in everyday life but maybe doesn't think long and hard about.

Picture this: a tiny room, a vinyl album, those covers - and song lyrics - so carefully scrutinized, a record player that's always the best possible (so sometimes it was only a Dansette), doing nothing else. That such a picture seems nowadays positively unreal - and maybe more than a little ridiculous - illuminates the fact that, yes, listening conditions have changed quite a lot. Were those listening conditions typical of those times? Well, yes and no. Of course, the majority of people didn't necessarily behave like this. But we can safely assume that - back in the days - the "rock fan" (only a noisy minority in the '60s, remember?) was really like that.

Like what, exactly? Well, first the LP was still included in the "durable goods" category (an LP is not "erasable"), so every purchase had to be pondered with a lot of care. Then, a certain understanding when it came to the music one had been listening to - that came out during those long discussions at the end of concerts. Then, a slow process of maturation of one's listening categories (those of you who in these postmodern times find the concept of "maturity" to be out of place, please feel free to translate the matter in purely descriptive terms), so the long hours spent listening to, say, the Beatles in a sense prepared one to appreciate King Crimson and - later - Henry Cow. And obviously at that point one could go back to listening to Beatles records all over again, to find in those old albums so many things one had not "got" before.

One trait that's typical of modern consumption is the prizing of the accumulation of experiences inside an extremely compressed time framework, where dedicating one's time to a particular "something" entails by necessity missing all the other things that are potentially within our reach. And so investing one's time in a singular object is not regarded as a potential factor of enrichment but as an irrational mechanism by which one would renounce other experiences. It goes without saying that in order to be as numerous as possible all these experiences have to leave us with the least possible amount of memories ( but of course this doesn't entail that those individual experiences can't be very strong).

Some examples will be useful. Let's suppose we spend the whole weekend at home reading a book. But during just one day - Saturday - we could instead: ride a horse, spend a few hours at the gym, meet some friends over an aperitif, go shopping, watch a movie, have some pizza and then hit the clubs, where we can surely meet a lot of people. Compared to all that, spending a whole day reading just one book doesn't seem much of a bargain. Or think about the old concept of "a night out" - dinner with some friends - which sounds absolutely limiting when compared to the endless encounters one can have just by spending a few hours in a place where a lot of people come and go all the time - or by going from one club to another in those streets where a lot of these places are located. Likewise, listening to a CD that to be fully appreciated needs a lot of attention and requires more than a few listening sessions is an absolutely irrational use of one's time when compared to, say, the ten CDs one could have listened to while at the same time: doing some computer work, surfing the Net, talking on the phone, doing some cooking, watching the news on TV and so on (it's not necessary to suppose the CD in question to be of the "difficult" type - just its being "subtle" will do).

The possibility of downloading music off the Net has made it possible for us to overcome the main obstacle to having endless experiences: the income factor (remember that, unlike food, there is no "physiological" limit to our cultural consumption). The files' low fidelity - which are usually seen as "adequate to the money spent" can be better considered as "adequate to our listening attention". Within this conceptual framework the media system is not the guilty party that's brainwashing the minds of innocent people - a concept that I've always found really difficult to accept as true - but the system that produces those goods - from music videos to the squashed, supercompressed CD masters - that are adequate to the amount and type of attention that the average person is willing to pay. Even if the present technical conditions will not become more favourable, the number of downloaders can only increase as people go from situation 1) paying for music that one listens to attentively (and so has value), to situation 2) a not attentive listening condition, to situation 3) asking oneself why one should pay for something that after all, all things considered, has so little "value".

By the way, it's very easy to notice that - so differently than in the past - fewer and fewer artists of the "difficult" or "subtle" kind succeed in getting appreciated by a significant number of people who are dissatisfied with musical genres they have "outgrown"; nowadays it's a lot more common to move "sideways": changing one's listening habits but only within a range of comparable musical difficulty.

Given this framework, it could be very interesting to argue about the musical characteristics of those different musical genres that we rank as "winners" or "losers" (I mean, outside what's in the charts). Linear development or having a narrative element don't seem to fare too well. On the contrary, indeterminacy, noise and repetition seem to be congruous with the aforementioned modern listening habits. Which obviously doesn't mean that those from the "laptop brigade" will shoot up the charts. But that maybe those traits of indeterminacy and impermanence that thirty years ago were so typical of the avant-garde - as opposed to the traditional way of doing things - nowadays play a very different role. Whether some players are unaware of this, I can't say.

© Beppe Colli 2003 | Jan. 19, 2003