If You Become Naked…

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.


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.


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Andrew Miller
May 8, 2011 at 5:55 pm

Good thoughts well writ­ten Simon. Have always loved the phys­i­cal touch­ing and com­muning with the record. And even look­ing at the grooves and “see­ing” the sound. Dig­i­tal bun­dles are eas­i­ly acces­si­ble remove some of the inti­ma­cy.

May 8, 2011 at 6:41 pm

Thor­ough­ly enjoyed read­ing your arti­cle.

Ben­jamin Mor­gan
May 9, 2011 at 3:04 pm

Anoth­er inter­est­ing blog from you. Lots to think about, esp. the com­ment on the death of rare. The Com­sat Angels exam­ple struck a chord, expect­ed for a CD of their first album for years before it appeared. I’m also very glad to have a decent Toy Love com­pi­la­tion on CD. Shame about Pro­peller.

May 12, 2011 at 5:31 pm

As a nerd Pro­peller record col­lec­tor I would be strong­ly opposed to any phys­i­cal reis­sue because it has tak­en a lot of man hours to build my exclu­siv­i­ty.

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