What about the money?
By Beppe Colli
July 14, 2015

Bass player, singer, songwriter, and - maybe most important - "mastermind" of world-famous US rock group Kiss, Gene Simmons is certainly not shy when it comes to courting controversy, especially when the ensuing brouhaha can prove to be a source of publicity for himself and his group. So nobody was really surprised when Simmons - his quotes on Planet Rock were amplified by other media, including the website Blabbermouth on June, 19 under the title "Fans killed the music industry infrastructure that is needed to support new artists" - declared that not record companies, but music fans, are the real culprit when it comes to today's problems in the field of music.

"I blame the fans. Because the fans have decided en masse - in other words, the masses have decided - that they should get free music, download, fileshare." (...) "They killed it. They killed the infrastructure."

Said Simmons: "And you are not hurting Kiss; we've been around a long time and we make a good living." By destroying the infrastructure that also functioned as a "lender of last resort", fans destroyed the chance of having "the next Elvis, the next Beatles, the next Kiss".

On July, 9 Simmons's argument appeared to find an echo in the words of Peter Mensch - Metallica's manager, also former manager of renowned groups such as Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Def Leppard - in the course of an interview with BBC Radio's Today program. "Now you make one tenth of that money on record sales and streaming." (...) "Rather than owning music, music lovers care more about convenience - which means having a library of their favourite songs."

Simmons's point of view - which he had already expressed in public before - was extensively debated in the US Forum moderated by famous master engineer Steve Hoffman: thirty pages in a few days. At about page eighteen, somebody wrote: "I've decided not to contribute to the discussion, because usually this kind of topics makes the worst traits of the members of this Forum emerge, which is exactly what has already happened."

What had been said?

I was quite surprised to see that many who had contributed to the thread attacked Simmons in light of the low quality of the music released by Kiss, with posts like "How come you're doing the talking? It's groups like Kiss who have destroyed music", and "If the demise of the music industry means we won't see groups such as Kiss anymore, well... it's all for the best", and so on.

There were also, of course, those who attacked Simmons not for who he was and represented, but for what he really had said. In a nutshell, their arguments went like this:

The times when groups consumed large quantities of champagne, groupies, and cocaine are over.

All work positions in the United States are in danger of disappearing, why would it be any different when it come to musicians?

Musicians can survive by selling concert tickets, T-shirts, and CDs, why protest?

Record companies have always robbed musicians, no need to lament their fate.

Some of the best musicians have often worked at day jobs, no reason why today's musicians are granted a different fate.

Musicians have to stop trying to use record companies and managers as a crutch, they have to learn to do it all themselves, recording their songs on a computer, having a lively website offering videos and unreleased tracks, involving their fans in what they do, giving away (some of) their music, becoming entrepreneurs themselves, and - as we all know it happens in any enterprise - those who are not good at it, are doomed to fail in the marketplace.

The mood of the discussion reminded me a bit of those who, in the "Punk" days, looked at those "giant groups" of the day as "dinosaurs", favouring a "return to the roots of rock 'n' roll" as simple music. We know what happened then: "Dinosaurs" - the Beatles, the Stones, Floyd, Zeppelin, Elton John, Billy Joel, Eagles, and so - are still alive and well, while those "minor" groups that went on making "difficult music" died from asphyxia.

But there's more.

It's quite possible that today's state of things will prove to be irreversible. And it goes without saying that those who came of age in the days of "easy downloading" won't regard the act of downloading as something that has anything to do with "piracy" or as an act of defiance, the act of downloading being seen nowadays as something "natural". And the fact that the act of downloading is increasingly replaced by streaming cancels those debates about "ownership", while putting all issues about "proper compensation" in the background: those who pay, in fact - by watching ads, or in cash - have no reason to develop an interest in the way earnings are shared.

But even if the current situation proves to be irreversible, we don't have to forget what we are losing.

The whole called "record companies" - and entity that entailed distributors, promoters, the press, and so on - was a "technical" entity ready to be used.

Not all artists make music that can be replicated outside the studio, or are necessarily suited to working as a live act in close proximity to an audience. By accepting the "live" clause as an unavoidable constrain, we condemn people like Tod Dockstader or Nick Drake to obscurity. Sure, maybe Nick Drake could record his songs at home, and sell them online. But how many would notice? Those few copies he sold at the time were counter-balanced by the selective process artists were allowed to enter the studio, the prestige of his record company Island, the good reputation of his producer and engineer, the good taste of record reviewers of the time, and the "freewheeling" style of many radio programs of the day.

Henry Cow were made known by Virgin, made available by the record company who pressed their albums, talked about by those who wrote in the music papers and by those who had time on the air. In different conditions, who would have been aware of their existence? Do we still believe that "being visible" equals "having good chances of being seen"?

Far from being an opportunity, being forced to be "an entrepreneur" condemns the writer of a novel to be the main character in the movie taken from the novel. And if it's true that actual sales are just a tiny part of revenues and profits, it goes without saying that a lot of factors such as sponsorships, expensive videos, "viral" campaigns, "fake" fan clubs, "rumour factories", and so on, have by necessity to become an integral part of any enterprise that has to deliver a good return on capital. And anybody can understand what degree of maximum complexity can survive inside such a framework.

Readers are invited to listen to the first couple of minutes - a manual on the different ways a rhythm section can place accents - of Heart Of The Sunrise, the closing track of acclaimed Yes album, Fragile. Or to the whole song. We could ponder the fact that at the time Fragile went Top 10 in the States, was performed in concert, proving to be an influence on Todd Rundgren, and - later - Trent Reznor. An album that was all over the radio, all over the world, and a template for many. (This is also my personal homage to Chris Squire, who died recently.)

The "available infrastructure" also included the enormous amount of recording studios, mics, engineers, musicians, and know-how. Maybe it took only two weeks to record Lou Reed's Berlin, but it goes without saying that today recording an album like Berlin would prove to be impossible. Being in London meant having at one's disposal people like Jack Bruce and Aynsley Dunbar, being able to call Steve Winwood to make a pass on the harmonium, and to feature B.J. Wilson on two tracks. (It's entirely possible that Wilson recorded his parts in three hours, and maybe with the cost of his session today one would be able to buy a fine plug-in...) While overdubbing in New York meant having the best wind players - and the Record Plant echo chamber - at one's disposal.

Sure, it's entirely possible to argue that when it comes to recorded sound and creative inventions, the most recent album by David Bowie is on a par with such albums as Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, and Aladdin Sane.

As I already argued above, it's obvious that those who came of age at the time of "easy downloading" will regard the current state of affairs as a "natural" condition, and will never think about the issue of proper remuneration of artists and writers.

Some say: Wasn't it like this, in the old times when radio ruled? Who thought about issues such as artists' remuneration? Right. But we have to think a bit about the context.

In the 60s Italy was a much poorer country than now. However, chart singles could sell as much as one million copies, sometimes sales of one hundred thousand being regarded as a failure. Sure, there were fewer ways to amuse oneself. But the price of a single, not to mention an album, was not something one spent carelessly.

On the other hand, at the time radio was not "just like the Internet". For the most part, songs were broadcast one in a while, up to the time they were still "current". There was the Top Ten, once a week, on the radio. Could we really regard this as being the same of having complete, unlimited access to whole discographies by whoever artist one desires? Could we really regard that cheap cassette tape recorded for a friend as being the same as sharing an album with the whole world?

Talking about money, and the various ways to spend it, implies entering a quite subjective territory. We could say that usually it's scarcity that makes goods highly desirable (if only one could download shoes...).

But the subjective value one attributes to a given sum has different sides.

On a personal level, I clearly remember that I've always regarded the price I paid for a single or an album as "cheap", when compared to the value that music had for me. Even now, I can't really believe that by spending just a little money I was able to buy such albums as Stand Up, In Search Of The Lost Chord, Waiting For The Sun, Willy And The Poor Boys, and Renaissance (Mellow Yellow I received as a gift, Uncle Meat was a double, so a bit more expensive). I'll spare readers my list of singles (but: I bought Proud Mary, and - totally unexpected, this - on the B-side I found Born On The Bayou!).

I've always regarded as bizarre the fact that, by spending a little money, one could get unlimited access to something whose enjoyment I've always regarded as a privilege of immense value, a potential source of growth whose confines were the same ones as the listener's. A door to infinite, for cheap money! (For me, this is just true today. What is the "real" value of a ticket to watch the movie Inside Out?)

I hope I won't offend too many people when I say that I regard the way some people regard musicians - better said, their works: those "self-indulgent solos", "who cares about such difficult stuff", "why don't they get up their fat assess off their chairs, and start playing live?" - as something that mirrors their (lack of) self-esteem. A kind of condition that, instead working as a reason to better oneself, becomes contempt for those products one would never be able to create but that one needs in order to have fun. Hence, one's attitude towards artists, who are regarded as mere buffoons, or like someone who "come to think of it" is "just like me", and "who would have to thank me for my bothering to devote part of my time to those songs", which in the end "have no real" value. A terrifying thought.

Beppe Colli 2015

CloudsandClocks.net | July 14, 2015