Monday, July 16, 2007

Exciting magazine find #2: Issue No. 46 of The Big Takeover, circa 2000.

This magazine was a fantastic and informative find – major highlights include extensive interviews with Joe Strummer, Pete Shelley, Hugh Cornwell, Supergrass, and Jon Langford and Tom Greenhaigh of the Mekons, plus brief interviews with Lou Barlow and Billy Bragg. Quite a collection for a single issue! As it turns out, Hugh Cornwell has a degree in biochemistry, Pete Shelley hates talking about Howard DeVoto (who now goes by original name Howard Trafford), and Joe Strummer considered Dave Davies' guitar riff on “All Day and All of the Night” the “king of all riffs.” Danny Coffey of Supergrass once vomited on stage with his family watching, and Ric Menck of the Velvet Crush stated, after sharing a tour with Oasis, that Oasis were “really, really into themselves, which is what happens when you're using a lot of cocaine.”

There was also a review of an Elliott Smith concert from February 22, 2000, where the reviewer noted 2000 tickets sold in a single day, prior to the release of Figure 8, and described Smith by saying, “He'd be as charismatic as old play-doh and as charming as a full ash tray if this behavior wasn't so consistent with the quality of his voice and his writing.” This behavior referring to the way he “shuffles onto the stage like a roadie about to set up the mic, blushes, embarrassed, half-waves, sits down, head down, and starts picking at his acoustic like he's unwrapping a sandwich.” Outside of music itself, The Big Takeover features some great typos; the headline above a piece on “Trembling Blue Star's” almost serves as competition for the Billy Bragg piece that makes reference to “Jonhnny Marr.”

But of real interest, considering the year in which the magazine was published, were the editorials on technology and progress as related to the music industry. The conflicts of downloading and CD burning, or for that matter, the CD versus vinyl debate – progressive formatting and music sharing methods in general – seemed to be of utmost concern primarily once Napster appeared less than a decade ago. Editor Jack Rabid, declaring himself “not a Luddite,” discussed the pros and cons of the technological revolution in musical distribution as the third major period of change in music (the first being the mass sale of sheet music so that consumers could sing popular songs at home, the second being the invention of recording). In all fairness, there were pros to declare, his example being the burned CD-Rs of rare Glide tracks and a broadcast of a show he'd been to, which would have been impossible finds without CD burning as a distribution method.

But he also made reference to the cost of music manufacturing, noting that the cost of pressing vinyl is cheaper than the cost of pressing a CD, yet how album prices for public consumption quickly rose from approximately $8 to (chain-store favorite price) $17, leaving us to wonder where the hell all those profits go.* Sales aside, though, Rabid reminded us that CD distribution through cheap reproduction and home recordings is largely responsible for the downhill movement of music in general; he wrote that crude home recordings were all musicians were capable of at one point because minimal equipment was available, whereas easily accessible, cheap recording equipment offers the option for aspiring musicians to contribute to “mass mediocrity.” In turn, he said, this has led to a major “excess of independent music releases” despite a static demand for music, cheapening and devaluing the “once thrilling concept of the independent LP.” Mind you, this argument came before the invention of MySpace or, forgive me, music blogs, when – never mind the disposable pop that sells records and gets radio airplay – online networking as a way of cramming in new faces and sounds was yet to be even a mere idea. From the music journalist's perspective, Rabid was able to put his argument into concrete numbers, throwing out the average of 600 CDs each month that his publication received in 1999/2000, thanks to the ease of CD-R burners, leading to a high ratio of barely-capable unknowns that the publication's music reviewers could not possibly plow through given the limitations of time.

Rabid stated that once it was “practically impossible to make and sell an album without major label backing,” whereas in the year 2000, making an album was a “ho hum proposition, as easy to manufacture as it is to forget.” This “sad state of affairs,” he predicted, would worsen as soon as it took “no more than a modem, a mouse, a point, and a click to download a band's new LP.” I think it's safe to say that going beyond his fear, Rabid couldn't have predicted that high-speed and wireless internet would not only make this possible, but at an even faster rate than the modem-requiring process, making music distribution even more efficient. Rabid called this overall democratization of music a step in the DIY ethic, “perverted to the most extreme degree.” His comparison of DIY punk from the 1970s and 80s was different than this modern approach, he claimed, because there is a difference between “anyone can do it” and “anyone can try it.” His distinguishing factor stemmed from the fact that it was once hard to get an album made, and that early DIY punk was a great scene because bands “tried” rather than “did” - they attempted to create the best music possible, offer valuable statements, and build their own followings through live shows.

Through easy music distribution today (today meaning 2000, though this is an even more drastic truth with internet networking in 2007), DIY now means that “anyone can put out an LP, regardless of any demand existing for it.” And there is so much truth to this; how many times have you, reading these words, been curious about what would result, were you to outfit your computer with ProTools and a microphone? Also of note here was the question of CD burning as a substitute for buying, with Rabid asking, “When someone burns a CD-R copy of an LP for you, do you have it? Or do you want to go buy your own copy?” In this respect, it's sort of a shame that CDs, while cheap and disposable, are longer-lasting than cassettes, which really were the ideal medium for temporarily sharing.

What most strongly struck me, though, was Rabid's dread of purchasing or downloading through the internet because of what it would mean to communities of music lovers. Just as I'd mentioned in a prior post that I considered music valuable for the outside interests it might spark (related authors and subjects being my particular case), Rabid claimed that music has always had great social potential and gave people common subjects on which to relate. His examples being that Stiff Little Fingers could prompt a fan to want to learn more about politics in Belfast, or that the Dead Kennedys might find fans developing interests in Cambodia's social issues. Rabid was in favor of eliminating the major label as middle man because it gives the artist more freedom in creativity and funding, but said that relying on the internet for downloads would eliminate a lot of the human aspect of sharing music with other people – never mind the sharing of audio files, but the sharing of ideas that arise after having a listen. I think he's pretty much correct on all fronts.

Anyway, I'm sorry to have turned this into an Andy Rooney-style rant and regurgitation, devoid of any concrete thesis or organizational method, but I'd like to leave you with a final idea, written in another editorial called "Art Vs. Commerce" by Michael B. Ackerman, Esq. This is relevant seven years later, what with that recent possibility of the RIAA charging internet radio stations additional fees (you know, the one that caused several internet stations to hold a day of silence in protest). Ackerman noted that while the RIAA meant to collect money from internet stations because artists would otherwise not get their proper pay from airplay, “there isn't a clause in most artist recording contracts that requires that such a payment be shared with the artist,” meaning those fees might be as mysterious a cost as the rise in price of manufactured CDs sold in mainstream music stores. If anyone knows new details about the legal side of things, such as whether recording contracts now reflect modern technology, please do share!

*This inequality in manufacturing cost and selling price leave me pining for more Dischord ads in publications, said ads having featured $10 CDs and $8 LPs since the beginning of time. Sigh.

Stiff Little Fingers – White Noise

*Have a listen and discuss Belfast with fellow music lovers. Also, buy the absolutely brilliant Inflammable Material if you don't already own it. This time I'll leave out the Amazon link and tell you to go to a store. Go to a store.

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