Friday, January 18, 2008

Give Me Dissonance or Give Me Death

When I was growing up, back in the Eighties, disposability was a glorious thing - something for young bands to aspire to. Pop is disposable, ran the argument, because it is the thrill of being young, of living in the moment. Pop is disposable because, once you've heard that spine-tingling riff a couple of dozen times, like an overchewed piece of gum its buzz has worn out, and it's time to move on to the next quick thrill. Pop is disposable because we live in ever-changing times, and the best music reflects NOW most perfectly; its significance tomorrow will be only as an archaeological layer on which the next frothy edifice can be built. And Pop - the music of the people - is the state to which all music should aspire. A truly universal, proletarian artform.

Could there really still be critics who believe this twaddle?

For me, while I know that what we put in our ears is as political as the diet of our eyes and tongue, this self-serving argument has nothing to do with my experience of music. Disposability is a disappointment; it's the moment you realise that the little charmer - who yesterday folded their gorgeous arms around you, breathed seductively in your ear and so fully penetrated your mind - is no soulmate, no rock for hard times; is nothing indeed but a pretty dilettante, without an original or useful idea in their head, who could no more wire a plug or bring up a child than count through a bar of thirteen sixteen time. I refuse to celebrate airheadedness and aculturality as any kind of achievement.

I want music that continually offers something new; that's worth a repeat visit to my eardrums; a re-imagining, a fresh experience with each revelatory listen. There's a lot more of this than you might think. It just takes some patience and an open pair of ears to find it. A subscription to doesn't hurt, either. No bubblegum on my bedpost - I am building a collection of music that will remain with me, my close companion until I die.*

I used to cling to the idea of "Experimental Music" like a dirigible in choppy seas, but nowadays music's emotion is more important to me than its novelty per se. Which is not to say that I've gone off music that challenges the ear. Rather, I'd argue that the ear must be challenged if there is any hope of communication on a musical level. But some settle for connection via the everyday language of speech alone, with the band just puffing alongside.

For it is the deviations from what is expected that reflect the opinions of the music's creators, their experience, their personality. The all-important what-it's-like-to-be-someone-else-ness that makes storytelling so compelling and connecting is right there in the composer’s necessarily singular choices. If not, hearing music is like having the kind of non-versation Al Swearingen from Deadwood so hates: "Do not repeat back to me what I just played in different fucking notes!" (The current UK scene needs to unhitch itself from the wagon of the celebrated but largely un-nuanced Arcade Fire. Go Godspeed instead!) Consonance is the very epitome of bland: Bach, Mozart and their ilk mercilessly subverted the very harmonic rules they invented to wring out feeling. We have to go so much further today to hit the real highs.

Recently I went to see Japanese "post-rock" outfit Mono. I don't really want to get sidetracked by the P-R thing, but - sorry! - they use drums, bass and two guitars; they produce all their own rhythms (no beatboxes or samplers); their music has melody and dynamics; it's all in either 4/4 or 6/8; THEY'RE A FREAKIN' ROCK BAND!! There's nothing "post" about them! Repetition and no vocals - is that all it takes to be on the cutting-edge these days? Bah! Anyways, they do make a lovely, lovely noise. The lead guitarist has an exquisite tone, and pulls convincing Andrew Latimer-style faces. In fact, every song seems cut from a chunk of Camel's mountainous 'Ice'. But will Mono keep me warm at night? Even when I've lost the rest of my teeth, and can no longer squeeze into a Medium? I doubt it. They don't have the stamina. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that, emerging from Brighton's seafront Engine Room where they played, a strong gust of sea breeze had carried them out over the English Channel.

I hate to say it, but there is about consonance - the staple harmonic arena of Mono and fellow travellers like Explosions In The Sky, Sigur Ros and Autumn Chorus - something weak and unsatisfying; a smoothness to which, like Pure Pop Disposability, many disparate and unlikely bands seem drawn, as if they can't wait to cast off everything that made their music interesting, special, different,... moving. I appreciate that this current crop of bands are, unlike pop entryists of a bygone age, trying to reclaim the bathetic allure of consonance as an art medium. And the peaks of this music can indeed be disturbing, as the best art should be: bleak in their unending, monolithic prettiness; or allowing some of existence's ugliness to protrude through the veneer. (Check out Pelican’s The Fire In Our Throats... for one of the best examples of this.)

Don't give me polish; give me rough, infinitely crystalline edges. Give me, in fact, large chunks of modern chart music: the wild syncopations of Missy Elliot and Kelis; raucous CSS shoutiness; the guitar grind and sample mania of Madonna and Britney - the best producers seems to have forgotten that Pop is bubblegum. Nowadays it's more like a radioactive gobstopper. (Though the sickly sweet vocal style that has plagued R'n'B since the 80s continues to ooze gooey tentacles, yielding toffee apples everywhere from Justin Timberlake to Avril Lavigne.)

Somehow, we never get around to actually throwing away the best Disposable Pop, because it snags us and refuses to let go. Music which requires passage through a pain barrier, some kind of dissonance, will often lead to the greatest long-term pleasure, because that barrier is precisely the price of admission to another soul.

It takes all kinds of culture to make a world, to soundtrack a life; I am not ashamed of the Abba and Duran Duran in my eternal jukebox, but I am vetting it for Rock-Post-Post-Rock taggers-on who slipped by while I was lost in thought, even as I enjoy recent discoveries such as the wild and moody 65daysofstatic. As with anything we do, music is only an adventure if you let it be.

*And yes, I did get a 160GB Archos - thanks, my gorgeous Lucy!

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

The $5 LP

I just paid for my copy of Saul Williams' excellent album, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust. I was reminded to do this by an editorial by the album's producer and evangelist Trent Reznor, in which he quoted the exact figures for the album's "sales".

Like In Rainbows, Niggy Tardust was available as a potentially free download, although it carried a suggested price tag of $5. Since I'd never heard of Williams before, I opted at the time to pay nothing for my my download, despite the slight ticking-off I got from the site. Seems harsh, but there's just so much music out there. However, the record is great, and clearly I'm not the only person who thought so because it quickly rose to the top of's "Artist Hype List" for that week.

Reznor's analysis, though, is a little bleak. He begins with the facts:

“Saul's previous record was released in 2004 and has sold 33,897 copies.

As of 1/2/08,

154,449 people chose to download Saul's new record.

28,322 of those people chose to pay $5 for it, meaning:

18.3% chose to pay.

Of those paying,

3220 chose 192kbps MP3

19,764 chose 320kbps MP3

5338 chose FLAC”

He assumes that most of those downloading the album were fans either of Saul Williams or of Nine Inch Nails, citing a lack of press coverage for the event. But, ironically I guess, it seems even Reznor underestimates the power of the 'net. As someone who takes an interest in digital music generally, but not NIN-related stuff in particular, I saw references to this experiment in several places and took a happy chance on downloading it.

What I read from these figures is a fivefold increase in interest in Saul Williams' music, and would assume that most of the extra listeners are newcomers, rather than people who already liked it, but not quite enough to buy the previous record on CD. (Of course we have no figures on how many people may have downloaded that album for free.)

David Gretton has the insightful suggestion that a follow-up email should have been sent to all us freeloaders, asking us if we liked the album and suggesting making a payment if we did. This is such a great idea it should be baked into the newly-emerging business model. People expect to try before they buy - good thing that they can, given the amount there is to try - but there's no harm in reminding them about the "before you buy" part.

But I strongly disagree with David's belief that there is little price resistance in the album market and that $5 is too low. If the suggested donation had been $15 I don't think I would have gone back and paid; I'd want physical product for that. To be fair, what he actually said was "fans are price insensitive" (my emphasis), although even that is a stretch. (I am still wincing over the £40 cost of my - admittedly lovely - Radiohead box.) But times have changed, and not everyone with a copy of your music is a fan. Yet. The great majority who have yet to make up their minds, and have increasingly large amounts of storage space to fill, are very price sensitive indeed.

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