The past and future of music

Posted in books, culture, digital, emerging issues, music, social by thenextwavefutures on 5 November, 2008

I’ve written in the past about the future of hard-format music, but re-reading some of Bill Drummond‘s writings and interviews during the summer has brought me back to it. The manager-turned-musician-turned-cultural commentator, best known for his time with KLF, is a sort of one-person emerging issue for the music business. Reading about his latest project in conjunction with reviews of Travis Elborough’s recent book The Long-player Goodbye gave a sharp insight into the future of the industry. The rise of the long-format music artefact may have been a fifty-year blip.

Drummond’s announced that he’s quitting music more times than Frank Sinatra. Every time he seems to mean it, but he keeps getting dragged back in, though in increasingly oblique ways. It’s worth spelling out his current project, The 17, now the subject of a book, to understand its radical view of music, which stems from a kind of “recorded music fatigue”.

‘All recorded music has run its course’

In summary, he gathers a group of 17 people, usually from a workplace or social group, musical ability irrelevant, and has them sing a piece of music. This is then played back to them once, and the recording is deleted.

The performers are the audience; the moment of the performance is all there is. On the website, there’s a kind of a manifesto:

“All recorded music has run its course.

It has all been consumed, traded, downloaded, understood, heard before, sampled, learned, revived, judged, and found wanting.

Dispense with all previous forms of music-making and start again.”

Drummond is articulate, as ever, on the reasons for this:

The meaning any work of art holds – be it music, visual or literary – is always in flux depending on when it is being listened to, looked at or read and by whom. Without meaning, a work of art has no value or function… The above may be stating the obvious, but for me it was as if the meaning contained in all music was not just changing but draining from it, even as I listened. The more tracks that my iPod had the less there was I wanted to listen to… I tried various methods to re-engage with the music that was out there on offer. But the more I tried, the less it worked. Everything I heard, even the newest of tracks, was all beginning to sound old fashioned, from another era, already something in that museum.

‘The more there is, the less important music becomes’

The modern era of recorded music can be thought of as starting sixty years ago. The LP, at least as a commercial product, was unveiled by Columbia Records in June 1948. It took some time to take hold of the market, however, while a format war played itself out: RCA preferred the 7-inch 45 rpm record. One of the striking pieces of data in Jon Savage’s review of Travis Elborough is that in 1973 5,000 LPs were released; in 2005, the comparable figure was 44,000 CDs. The ambition of the NME Book of Rock, published in 1975, to be a record of all the rock music worth listening to, seems as remote now as a mediaeval almanack. As Savage observes: “This raises the question of value: the more there is, the less important music becomes”.

In other words, the music industry has created a surfeit of the stuff, which people are now sickening of. So perhaps it’s not surprising that people are increasingly buying individual digital tracks, or that they seem to value live music more than recorded music. There’s another story in here too, of the changing location of music. Elborough connects the growth of the long-player with the rise in US home ownership in the 1950s. In Savage’s summary, “the hearth became the centre of cultural and consumer activity, and a whole range of moods and music became available to fill that market.”.

The end of time, place, and occasion

Drummond, in contrast, takes this story into the 21st century:

As the decades slipped by we never noticed that all this music was morphing into becoming one overriding genre, that of ‘recorded music’. In the early years of this century one more subtle change in our relationship with ‘recorded music’ crept over a line. With the help of the iPod we could be listening to this recorded music anywhere, any time, while doing almost anything. … In allowing this subtle change we had finally cut the vast majority of music off from being about time, place and occasion, thus much of what gives music meaning was being castrated.

Of course, we don’t need to go all the way along with Bill Drummond’s analysis to conclude that it’s possible that the crisis in the music industry may be more profound (a crisis of meaning rather than just formats and generational change) than is usually understood. And I  think he raises another interesting question as well, about the extent to which cultural value is embedded in time and place. Umberto Eco said presciently in an essay 25 years ago that media had genealogy but no memory. I summarised this is a long report (the progenitor of “The Next Wave”) for Arts Council England and Foresight eight years ago:

They have genealogy because cultural invention spawns other invention, and together these create a language. They have no memory because, once invented, all swim in the sea of stories which surround us, on ‘gold’ radio stations, classic reissues, and late-night TV. 2001 rubs shoulders with Star Wars, and with Star Trek and Dark Star; Oasis with The Beatles and Radiohead with Pink Floyd ; ‘Days Like This’ with ‘Brown Eyed Girl’.

If everything is everywhere, then nothing is anywhere. There’s no particular place to go.


4 Responses

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  1. David Gunn said, on 7 November, 2008 at 3:01 pm

    Interesting. Though i do wonder about “If everything is everywhere, then nothing is anywhere. There’s no particular place to go”.

    Genealogy of music was always a dubious thing. And it always seems related to the desire to define musicians as important because they were “pioneers”. This also relates back to the growing emphasis upon authorship in music (rather than performance) throughout last few centuries (cf, of course, early american folk as the last flowering of an alternate tradition). Authorship, of course, is vital to the emergence of a music “industry” – first via creation and selling of scores and subsequently records. In short, the genealogy in music is intimately involved with the creation and maintenance of music industry.

    This of course relates to more general observations that perhaps history isn’t a linear, upward progress…

    So i wd suggest that this situation is only one where the music industry “has nowhere to go” – as the intellectual foundations of their biz model are undermined by changes not in format but in platform.

    To flip Eco, is it not the case that memory (felt and remembered experience and sensation) remains but genealogy (the established, canonical sense of who is important by recourse to linear narratives of progression?) is lost?

    Going back to Drummond’s book – after one of their first sessions with a school, Bill Drummond’s buddy takes him up on his ideas:

    “There is no way they will be able to relate to all your theories about recorded music being over and done with. For them it is only beginning. For them, music, especially recorded music, is opening up a whole new world, a world away from what they might concieve to eb the narrow confines of their life here. Just like Strawberry Fields did for you. As far as they are concerned, who are you to be telling them that all music that is being recorded now and that they might like is pointless, finished and probably rubbish?”

    In other words – is he just another grumpy old man complaining that his generation was better? And just as “genealogy of music” serves to underpin a flagging industry, Drummond’s own insistence about “the end of music” is a (perhaps unknowing) tactic to ignore the changing substructure of “music” (remix culture etc) as a cultural phenomena, and to keep those values and traditions which he values most at the top of the pile.

  2. unconventionmedia said, on 2 January, 2009 at 10:33 pm

    Interesting thoughts. Been talking a lot of these points with musicians and songwriters out of Nashville from our Unconventional South office. Changes bring great creativity.

  3. […] is a subject I have mentioned a couple of times before (Tony Wilson and others here, Bill Drummond here) . This is a short post to note that Brian Eno has offered some views on this in a recent edition […]

  4. […] your palate. In our too-knowing post post-modern era, when (as Umberto Eco said) media has genealogy but no memory it’s important to strip away the layers of interpretation and irony and try to […]

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