Value of Music
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.
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.
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
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".
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
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