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A Way of Offering Things to the World

pattern-man-books

Over the past months I’ve been watching, reading and listening to the poet Rick Holland prepare to release his new work: Pattern Man. It’s almost impossible to pick up an individual thread that would mark the beginning. All the nervous pacing back and forth, the throat clearing, the chance meeting, the phrase that leapt from a notebook, entered the eyes, exited the mouth, as the microphone cocked its ear dispassionately.

At some point you look up and realize that even you are in the middle of it. For me, it was listening pre-release versions of the audio tracks on my daily commute to work. On the tenth listen, it was as though I’d always known this music, this voice, these words floating through my consciousness as I sped down the freeway. The physical objects that herald the release of the work are now moving through the global postal system, making their way to an audience.

chrononautz

The Quietus has a nice interview with Rick Holland where he discusses both the poetry and the music in Pattern Man. I particularly like the section where he discusses his collaboration with Chrononautz, the live hardware techno improvisation outfit.

I really like space. Just responding to the sound, there was a groove there – an undeniable groove that I was drawn to – it wasn’t just straight four-to-the-floor.

To the uneducated – and I count myself in that group – looking at the table of gizmos that they’ve got, it’s quite hard to judge who’s doing what and how much control there is over the whole process. The joyful reality of it is: there isn’t that much control over it. It’s very hard to recreate the same conditions more than once and I am strongly interested in that as a way of offering things to the world.

There’s much more to say about Rick Holland and Pattern Man, but reading about this slightly out-of-control process embraced as a strongly interesting and joyful reality, makes me smile. This is strong poetry inscribed on the surface of improvised music. Music, as Yo Yo Ma and others, have said, is the space between the notes.

For some time now, poetry has enjoyed the stable surface of the blank sheet of paper. Rick Holland’s poetry challenges this convention. For Rick, the inscribed surface is always music.

You’ll want Pattern Man. Highly recommended. Get yours here.

Measure is the Measure of All Things

r-hitchcock

There’s a beautiful interview with the musician Robyn Hitchcock in the LA Review of Books. He talks about how the music business has changed and how he’s changed his own practice. But it was this sentence that really caught my attention.

People measure their lives out in fashion and in pop culture.

There’s a contingent that believes that the spirit of rock and roll has moved to the technology business and specifically the manifestation of creativity through the inter-network of connected computers. Even some in the rock music business have held that belief.

On the one hand we have the perception of geniuses moving the focus of their attention from one thing to another. The older view is that the genie moves and occupies a new home. In this view, it’s people who are attracted by the genius of a place.

Here’s a longer piece of Hitchcock’s quote from the LARB interview. When he comes to the current generation of young people, he says they will measure their lives in units of climate change. Sometimes you choose things; sometimes things choose you.

As they say, “Nostalgia’s not what it used to be.” Pop culture is now about the same age as I am. I was born in 1953, and rock ’n’ roll seems to have bubbled into being around the same time. Not many people around now actually remember when it started.

People measure their lives out in fashion and in pop culture. They have since World War II, since there’s been no enormous eruption to shatter everything. And everything has been recorded and then re-recorded or adapted to be on a new format, so sound recordings would go from being on a 33 1/3 LP to being on a cassette to being on a CD that came from the quarter-inch tape. But it keeps getting upgraded; you can listen to it on LP again now. It’s just that there’s now so much of it — people’s lives are measured out in, “Oh yeah, do you remember the Specials?” “Oh, right.” “Cyndi Lauper.” “Oh, I lost my virginity to ‘Time After Time’.” I mean, I didn’t personally, but you know, somebody probably did. Or “I had the best hangover of my life after going to see Blur.” You see people feeling about the Stone Roses the same way that I felt about the Jefferson Airplane, and you see those people also getting older. I look around at the punks now, who are a few years younger than me, and they’re all coming up 60. There was a time when punks made me feel old, because I was such a determined Class of ’67 guy and I couldn’t really embrace ’77 fully.

It’s the currency. My parents’ generation had the war, my generation just had drugs, the next generation had irony, and the ones after that have got climate change. [laughs]

What does it mean to measure out your life in units of climate change? Before the apocalyptic moment, we get a call for absolute discipline in an effort to extend the runway, to defer the moment when the world as we know it, ends. But if you look at the way past generations have measured themselves, there was always a sense of freedom, adventure and possibility.

burning-man-fashion

At first, the measure of climate change presents itself as the end of freedom. Now we have to buckle down and impose the hard austerity that will save this world of ours. Any creativity is backwards looking. But the younger generation tends to gravitate toward the post-apocalyptic moment. After things have fallen apart, a different kind of freedom and possibility emerges. A new generation gap appears, and youth forges a new measuring stick.

On the other hand, for T.S. Eliot, it was coffee spoons.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

Song of the City

I want to call it a “song,” but it's really more of a hum, a drone. Less like a melody, and more like one of those eternal drone pieces by LaMonte Young. It's the sound that a city makes, but it's not something you hear in an ordinary way. It's a vibration that one's whole body can sense.

In the Sunday paper, a writer was documenting his interior journey, as his family was priced out of Brooklyn and moved to a suburb, up the Hudson River Valley. In passing, he noted, “I didn't really vibe with the city anymore.” What he was afraid he'd miss, was no longer there. The charge he'd felt was gone. And the process of attuning himself to his new environment was going better than anticipated.

The vibrant drone of a city isn't an abstraction, it's the sound and feel of all the things in the city. When the composition of those things changes enough, the feel of the city changes. Some have a kind of faith that New York City will always be some version of itself. It's core hum will always throw off roughly the same set of vibrations. The hum of a city can be an addictive experience. You can see the rush of the city in the eyes of young people strutting down the sidewalk mouthing the words, “New York City,” to the rest of their crew.

SoHo, the area south of Houston street, has been ruined for a long time. The corporations chased the artists out years ago. But walking around SoHo now, one can feel the pre-packaged, bland, corporate cool even more. The vibrations that drew these corporations to that part of town are almost entirely gone. Slivers of the older SoHo manage, somehow, to continue to exist. They emit strong beacons, that are nonetheless swallowed by the roar of commerce surrounding them.

It's as though the experience, the sound of the city, had been replaced with a store, offering to sell you the sound of the city. And not the actual sound of the city, that's gone, it's an “amazing simulation.”

 

The Stream: Music Without a Container

A common complaint among collectors of recorded music is that they've had to buy the same music over and over again in different formats. First the vinyl, then the cassette, then the CD, and now the digital files. Somehow the consumer believes he is buying the “music” and not the mechanical means to play the recording.

The cost of producing and distributing physical containers for music recordings has played a large part in what consumers have paid for recorded music. As the cost of producing these containers goes down, the price of recorded music remains the same. The theory is that these expanded margins allow the record labels to invest in new and undiscovered musical talent. That rarely happens anymore, the capital is deployed into other kinds of investments. It's no longer considered a good investment to develop talent.

The cut-of-the-pie taken by non-musicians is enormous, even as the risk taken by the record companies gets less and less over time. All of the risk has been shifted to the musicians. If they show up with a built-in audience ready to buy product, then there's a contract waiting for them to sign. This is true in the publishing world as well.

The issue lost in all these calculations over the cost of producing and distributing various containers for recorded music is: what is the value of the music itself? Since, for the most part, all CDs are the same price, can we assume that all music has identical value? In this model, the differential in artist compensation is based on the number of units sold. Sell a lot of records, make a lot of money. Or as it sometimes plays out: take an advance on future units sold; don't sell enough units; end up owing money to the record company; work without compensation to pay off the debt.

If you want to understand how power and morality works in business arrangements, simply ask who is taking risk and who is being compensated for it. Imagine a business where an artist is asked to take most of the risk, but isn't compensated when the risk pays off. Reducing risk and increasing profit is business as usual for corporations.

The digital file download was the last remnant of the music container. The file was downloaded and actually existed on some device. Cloud-based services parked your files in a location where network-connected devices could access the full library without specific files being physically present.

The music streaming services have done away with the container altogether. You don't even get the files. The consumer only gets access to the stream. Since the cost of the container is no longer and issue, the price of the service is lower. If you look at it from the pure consumer perspective, it's a bargain. Let's say you're big music fan and you buy two or three CDs, or album downloads, a month. For the cost of one download, you have access to a huge library of recorded music streams. For the cost of 12 album downloads a year, you get access to all popular recorded music all year long. It's pretty obvious that the economics favor a mass migration to the streaming services, and that movement is backed up by industry stats.

We're familiar with the old story about musicians who were paid a flat fee to record a set of songs. Some of those songs were turned into vinyl records that became hits. The record company took in all the profits for record sales, and the musicians had signed away their right to a piece of the action. Over time that model was adjusted to give artists some compensation for record sales. But what happens when nothing is actually sold anymore? No music is sold, streaming service revenue is based on monthly subscriber payments. Turns out the value of an individual stream of a song is a tiny fraction of a penny. That's what the artist receives each time the consumer streams a song.

For the consumer, the risk of buying an unknown album becomes zero with a music streaming service. Since nothing is bought or sold, the consumer can take a bite and if it doesn't taste good, it can just be put back on the shelf. This lack of real investment changes the whole dynamics of new music discovery. (And by the way, streaming is NOT a discovery method prior to purchase. It replaces purchase.)

Ask any investor whether it makes sense to take uncompensated risk. This is the question musicians need to ask themselves. By releasing their new music to the streaming services, they've effectively eliminated any possibility of selling physical CDs or downloads. If sales of recordings is a significant part of a musician's annual income, streaming will quickly eliminate that income category.

Working outside the music industry system used to be considered big risk. It was a risk that limited the upside of sales and popularity because big distribution only existed through the system. Even the “independent” and “alternative” categories have ended up inside the thing they're supposed to be independent of, and alternative to. Since the streaming services take sales out of the picture, all that's left is the promise of the possibility of popularity. But like the risk, it's uncompensated popularity.

Musicians are already taking risks. A risk is an investment, and musicians need to figure out where they can be fairly compensated for the risks they're taking. Music consumers need to understand that they're part of a whole ecosystem. The idea that the world owes consumers free music forever is childish and self-centered. If you don't value music enough to pay for it, then you really don't value music much at all. Do you think fair-trade coffee is a good idea? How about clothes that aren't made in a sweatshop? How about seafood that isn't the product of slave labor? How about fair-trade music? Does that sound good to you?

 

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