New York, NY- Interesting times, interesting times.
I try to live in my little artistic bubble. But to no avail.
There was a time when my life-long artistic goal was simple: to create a body of work I’d be proud of.
This noble pursuit was soon challenged by the tragic realization that I quickly grow to hate most of my former work and that I have very little interest in listening to it or watching it. I immediately notice all the technical and tonal mistakes. Like an embarrassed parent, I see through all the sound and fury to the flawed desperate child screaming for attention, hopelessly trying to be cool when he never can be, trying too hard to be funny, pathetically trying to project seriousness and gravitas etc. etc. I may take reassurance from the fact that Bergman wanted to throw up when looking at his past work, or from Lennon’s line
“feel so suicidal, I even hate my rock and roll.” But at least they were making money! I barely have that consolation.
And now there is a new challenge…
The album is apparently dead. Song collections are a ghost of the past. The very existence of “song collections” was some brief aberration that could only last a few decades. The medium is the message. And the medium is the iPod. And children lead the way. And children’s attention spans are shorter than ever. Physical CDs will soon go the way of the dodo. If you go to MySpace you will see there is so much musical content in the
universe that lyric and melody are a debased currency. If you haven’t made it big by the age of twenty-two while the great capitalist hype machine can invest in your sex appeal, you might as well retire because nobody listens to music any more. They just buy image. Making records is particularly out-of-touch. You’d be more current to make a silent movie or write a novel on parchment.
Yes indeed, all this gives me pause.
It takes time and effort and even some cash to make a record. I’m probably gonna end up hating it anyway. And now I’m being told that records won’t even exist any more. “Son, your artistic pretensions are childish and unrealistic.”
Well, before I succumb and take courses in accountancy, let me briefly step out of my ivory walk-up and peer into the crystal ball.
Do I, Jonathan Spottiswoode, believe that the record – also known as the album or song collection – is finished?
The answer is…no.
Well, yes to the following:
Physical CDs won’t last very much longer…
People will increasingly make their own play lists and submit to the lottery of shuffle.
Yes, as always, greater democratization and avenues of heterogeneity will be heralded in the midst of increasing homogeneity, box office records, industry giants, and corporate advertising mastery of new channels of consumption and communication (myspace anyone? the perfect example of the two living in tandem – millions all passing through the Hollywood banner turnstiles.)
And yes, alas, in a world of billions and billions, the existential angst of “why bother” remains inescapable.
But… I don’t buy into the death of song collections.
When I was a teenager, I listened to the radio, watched Top of The Pops, made mix tapes, but I also bought albums by my favorite artists. If I could have got them for free I would have. But this is currently a question about the survival of an art form and not about revenue.
Today when I take a road trip, I notice that sooner or later the person in charge of the iPod settles on a particular artist. Ironically, amidst all the giddying choice it becomes reassuring to submit to a specific artist for a good half hour or so. In the parlance of cultural consumerism, listening to several songs in a row by a favorite artist is a very calming form of nourishment. Fifty Cent, Norah Jones, Paul McCartney – pick your poison. We still like our artists.
The saturation of information today may give one pause. But what is the reason for the overload? The computer. There is a constantly open spigot. Far more ubiquitous than the TV or radio. Of course, the big sites get all the hits, but your work has far more chance of being found by prospectors than ever before. And if it’s good the word can still spread. And spread more quickly.
And here we come back to song collections.
As physical CDs slowly phase out, they come back to life on our computer screens. The album art might look even better, lyrics are easier to read, and sooner or later the sound quality may even be better…
Like any songwriter, I understand that a small percentage of my songs will get the most attention. But I also know that there are some people who will trawl deeper.
I remember when I was a college student, my roommate had Bob Dylan’s Desire. I had never been a big fan of Dylan. I only remember liking “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Lay Lady Lay.” Still, after a few listens to Desire I became obsessed with the song “Isis” – the lyrics, the arrangement, and the whole way Dylan sang it. It was my true entrée into Dylan. Since then I have been a fan. And yet “Isis” is far from one of his most famous songs. It’s an album cut. Yes, an album cut from perhaps the greatest living songwriter, but still an album cut.
All artists need a point of entry, a first kiss, something to make you like them. Much like a character in a film or a novel. Once you like one thing by an artist, you’re much more disposed to like something else. A relationship has been born.
Thus for me, as a person who writes too many songs, the scattershot reality of the song collection may still be my only hope. Because you never know which song will be the key.
Also, with a seven-piece band, the effort to record a song well still justifies the extra time it takes to record several songs.
In the same way that consumers make sense of all the options the world throws at them by picking a specific artist to listen to, they also make sense of that artist by listening to collections the artist has already assembled. Let’s leave the greatest hits collection for later.
Okay okay I have tried my best to justify the decision to continue recording song collections, if not in terms of the market place, at least in terms of the continued relevance of the form.
But there is another justification, a more important one:
I am an artist! I write songs! Many of these songs need to be recorded. Tell a flower not to bloom and see what it says. If the flower blossoms in the desert, its colors will remain unappreciated, its pollen will disappear in the wind and sand. But it will still blossom. It has no choice.