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.