Updated: May 12, 2020
Bill Drummond thinks that we have reached the end of recorded music. His thinks that 'real' music makers are looking for new ways to create and share their work - like his '17' project, in which he's recording 100 choirs of 17 people all singing a single note, which he will play back to them at a one-off, never-to-be repeated event, before destroying the recordings. Bill Drummond might be mad. And I love him for it. WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONARE? To set this in context, he was behind KLF, the acid house group that made a fortune in the early 1990s, then incinerated it to kick off their 'K Foundation Burn a Million Quid' tour. He also considered cutting off his hand at The Brit Awards, but had second thoughts on that one. Since then, he has popped up (I was about to say 'on the art scene', but Drummond really transcends that sort of pigeonhole), acting as one of life's agents provocateurs, challenging conventional wisdom, posing difficult questions, and generally making people feel uncomfortable. His latest notion is that recorded music is dead. The more I think about this, sitting at my PC, listening to some easy jazz on Windows Media Player, the more I think he's onto something. Here's a summary of the story so far: 1.The most important artist in the history of recorded music is... Enrico Caruso. In his short life (he died aged 48) he made over 220 recordings of tenor arias which meant that his public could now listen to him at home. While that appears to be stating the blindingly obvious, that's because we've all grown up with it, and assume it to be part of the 'natural' state of affairs. In Caruso's time, that was as significant a leap as powered flight. It changed everything. He reached an audience with a representation of his work that hitherto had been the preserve of those who could get to La Scala or The Met. It was the beginning of the 'democratisation' of music. In his way, he was the Bill Gates of the early recording industry. Edison and, later, Berliner may have created the hardware platform, but Caruso created the software. What did a member of the gentry want with an ugly wooden box and a great horn stuck on top of it? In itself, they didn't - but they did want to listen to and to show their friends that they listened to the world's greatest tenor. 2.The most important day in the history of recorded music is... 5 July 1954, when a young truck driver walked into Sun Records to record a couple of songs for his mother. Fooling around between takes, he sang 'That's All Right (Mama), and the legend of Elvis Presley was born. Putting aside Presley's importance as a cultural icon, his significance in this context is that prior to recording, he had no musical career. He was entirely created by the record industry, a reversal in the relationship between artist and medium. 3.The most important year in the history of recorded music is... 1966, when The Beatles and Glenn Gould made the same, paradigm-shifting decision: they would no longer play live: Classical pianist Gould wanted to concentrate of the Bach canon, and felt that the intimacy of the chamber genre couldn't be communicated from the concert platform; For The Beatles, the decision was more complex, but there's no doubt it was heavily influenced by the fact that the techniques they had started to use on Revolver (tape looping and early sampling) couldn't be toured. Sgt Peppers would be impossible to perform live. And so the template changed again. The record (more specifically the album, by now format-of-choice) became an artefact in-and-of itself. Not a device for promoting the live performance, but an artwork that would stand alone. 4.The most important technology in the history of recorded music is... the mp3 file. Think about how it is changing our relationship with recorded music: * The album is redundant: through iTunes, Napster or any other file sharing site (legal or pirate) we can now pick and choose our tracks; * Music is ubiquitous: we can play it anywhere, any time, in almost any circumstance. Muzak used to be limited to lifts, hotel lobbies and shopping centres. Now we take our own aural wallpaper wherever we go; * There is no barrier to access: we can now reach any artist, any genre, any song, any composition, any time. And that ease makes us lazy. Music has become background sound, filling the empty spaces of our days, and plastering over the sonic mess of everyday life. Drummond points out that before recording technology, music was context-depended: from orchestral compositions for State occasions to folk-songs in the field. Once it could be packaged and transferred into another setting - more importantly, any setting - it started to lose its meaning. Which in turn, diminished its value. It is the paradox of the democratisation. When something is available all the time, at very little cost, we value it less. This is not an argument for exclusivity; rather it's just pointing out that when the tap can be turned on at any time, we take water for granted. And with that, the thrill has gone.
The thrill of knowing that your favourite artist's new record would be released in three months. Saving your pocket money to buy it. Selling stuff at school to make up the difference. The bus trip to town on Saturday. Entering the record shop and seeing its bright cover, smelling the cellophane wrapper, turning it over and reading the track list - the liturgy for the mass that will follow. Handing over the money, receiving the plastic bag and realising that the prize was yours. Cuddling it on the bus ride home, the hero returning from his/her quest. Rushing upstairs to your bedroom, turning on your record player, and then, and then... The black circle, etched with a fine line that fragmented the light on its surface. Your hand, palm-spread as wide as possible across the underside, balancing it with care so not to mark the surface. Two hands now, fingers either side of the round, lowering it gently into place. Start the turntable. Bend down, eye-level with the needle. Gently lift the arm and ...pause...anticipation...will it be as good as...swallow nervously...holding your breath... you drop the needle onto the surface...the speakers 'bump' then 'hiss' then...it begins. And it's the best moment of your life. It is glorious. Today? Point. Click. Type. Listen. Forget. WAKE ME UP BEFORE YOU GO-GO Do not think that this is a Luddite's blast against the new and a return to the 'good old days'. I love the web to the point of addiction. But there is no doubt that a lot of the ritual has gone, and with it, the magic. This is what Drummond - with his off-the-wall, left-of-centre performances - is addressing. More specifically, he's asking us to wake-up. If you're one of 1700 people to have participated in his choral project, and you know that when you hear it in its full performance, it is the only time it will ever happen and that it will be destroyed immediately after - wouldn't you pay attention? Like you did the first time you placed the needle on that album. The quality of that moment wasn't in the music itself (the experience is equally relevant to the classical collector, the punk and the Roller's fan). The quality was in the attention. In the film Diva, the plot centres around a pirate recording of a operatic soprano who has never made a record. The only way you can experience her voice is to see her live. She believes that scarcity increases the quality of the moment. That truth and the iPod are not easy bedfellows.
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