A Sunday rant:

I’m a passionate advocate of the noise that emanates from the digital music explosion. It thrills and excites – and as Russell Brown says here

The internet revived and reinvented my relationship with music.

I don’t think I ever lost my relationship – it was, after all, a big part of my job to maintain that link. That said, I don’t think he’s at all alone in that, and I wonder what sorts of sales of some items – especially the more eclectic and edgy stuff that really make the musical planet revolve – we’d be seeing in 2011 if the internet hadn’t given renewed and ongoing life to catalogue oddities. When I was a wee lad, a record rarely had a lifespan of more than 10 years, unless it was Sgt Pepper or the ilk – and even then it was tenuous: Sgt Pepper had been two years deleted in NZ on the day John Lennon was shot.

In Auckland in 1975 it was impossible to buy the Velvet Underground or Stooges catalogues – some six or so years after release. CBS had deleted all the Dylan albums pre-1970 and Phonogram had done the same to all The Who catalogue. There was not a single James Brown release for sale in New Zealand – not even a hits collection. Marvin’s Let’s Get It On and What’s Going On lasted some three years in the NZ EMI catalogues.

NZ local catalogue suffered even more. In that same year, 1975, EMI had not a single 60s NZ album for sale – of the dozens they recorded in the period 1962-1972.

Of course the CD was the crucial item that changed that – record companies made a small fortune reissuing everything they could get their hands on – full price versions of things that they had sat on for years – or at least many of them but not all by any means: large chunks of the music made by people for record companies over the previous decades remained – and remains – in tape vaults. Sometimes the artists themselves pleaded with the labels to release items just to have the pleas fall on deaf ears – and were usually met by a similar refusal to let the artist reissue their own recordings 1 when the label refused to.

The reissue frenzy, though, largely died out in the physical world as CD sales plummeted and it was harder and harder to justify the cost of a beautifully packaged and annotated reissue of obscure bits and pieces. I, myself, have been trying to find a way to do a physical Propeller retrospective, but the simple fact is that it would be easier and less stressful to take out a large wad of cash and give it to someone in the street. Things like this sell in the tens now. It may end up as a deluxe digital package – with a CD sampler – but my dream of a perfectly gathered Propeller box is likely to remain just that in the near future.

Enter digital – and slowly but surely the availability gathers pace again. I really liked this article in Slate by Bill Wyman (no not that Bill Wyman, this Bill Wyman) about the end of rare:

Fast forward a few decades, and we’re approaching a singularity of sorts—one in which the digital convergence, in a gradual warm flash, is nearly complete. If you were born to this it’s an unshakeable, seemingly permanent feature of the world. The rest of us marvel that a significant part of everything out there that should be digitized and made available has.

On one hand, of course, it celebrates piracy of sorts and is the kind of story that would perhaps have the Universal Records exec who blocked repeatedly the Comsat Angels issues until these enthusiasts managed to force them out in fits. In the interim UMG launched something called Lost Tunes which was at best half-baked and now seems to have ground to a halt.

On the other hand, it celebrates a big part of what Russell means when he says:

The internet revived and reinvented my relationship with music.

I’m no slouch at collecting music – I have a ridiculous (Brigid might use the word obscene) – amount of music but the digital world has allowed me to fill all sorts of gaps and thrill at items like the incredible Revolution 1 (Take 20) which links together all the various Revolutions as a semi-coherent work:

That article celebrates the discovery of the lost or the misplaced, and such is a huge part of this digital thing of course. However, more than that, music has been reinvigorated by the buzz of the new – by the crazy remixes or re-edits – or simply by having so much new, fascinating and absorbing sound pushed at you all the time. The frenzy gives life.

The argument goes that it’s harder and harder to make money from releasing music – I don’t know if that’s true as it was always almost impossible to make money from making recorded music. Almost nobody did. The mythology of the artist who no longer gets the royalty cheque he or she once would have because people are stealing his or her music is mostly just that: a myth.

However, what isn’t a myth is that a vast percentage of those who now make music and put it into the marketplace – the ones who supposedly can’t earn a living from it – would never have had the opportunity to do so ten years ago. The sheer volume of music issued now is staggering.

In 2000 there were 35,000 albums issued in the USA. In 2008 that had grown to 105,000 albums. In the UK the figure was some 30,000. Who cares if only 6000 sold more than 1000 copies. They were made. It’s a flurry of activity and it can all be blamed on the internet. It’s momentum. And such momentum is a major cause of the renewed thrill that music giving to so many. The last time the music industry had that sort of vibrancy was in the post-punk period when the every two-cent band issued a string of 45s and caused an explosion in inventiveness that still resounds today. Or when the early hip-hop and house records were tossed out by the hundreds.

Don’t let anyone tell you that good music gets drowned in noise. Musical invention is the result of extreme noise, of activity. Another example was the garage band/first-punk flurry of thousands of singles in the years after The Beatles – around the world. It gave New Zealand it’s rock’n’roll golden age in the 1960s. It gave the world the good and the bad parts of the late 196os and the 1970s. No garage band explosion=no Bowie, no Velvets, no Iggy and so on. They didn’t spring from a quality controlled stream of releases.

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As an aside – there is a thrill I miss and it may be one that others – leftovers from a recording industry that was filled with black vinyl and even silly little silver discs like myself – also miss, and that’s sometimes the joy of holding a brand new copy of an item that you’ve overseen from day one – you’ve watched it being written, sat in the studio all the way through, mastered, directed the art and then sent it off for manufacture.

Yes I know that many – most – releases still come back in a finished form at the moment but singles have all but disappeared as physical items and the percentage of albums that are going to exist only as a series of ones and zeros – especially compilations and reissues as they become less and less viable – in the next few years is, from my silly sentimental vantage point – upsetting.

I’m off to find some new noise…..

Show 1 footnote

  1. As an aside I’m a big fan of the use or lose it provisions that the Europeans have legislated.