The Succulent Light From the Little Fires in His Eyes
334 · 21 June 01
In their desperation to rationalize and perpetuate not paying for music, Napster advocates have proposed a number of possible new business models for musicians. As best I've been able to sort through the variations, there are basically six ideas that have been put forth with some amount of seriousness. All six are heavily biased towards extremely popular, saturation-marketed, major-label commercial acts.
1. Give away recordings, charge for concerts and miscellaneous merchandise. This is easily the most popular suggestion, and is usually accompanied by some form of the assertion that "most musicians make their real money from touring, anyway". Although it may be true that most money in the music industry comes from touring, most of the musicians aren't making it. Most live musicians are playing club shows in their home towns, aspiring to one day headline club shows in their home towns, and maybe somehow reach the stage where they can draw enough people away from home for a tour to pay for itself. Of course most of these musicians aren't ever going to make a living selling CDs, either, but at least with CDs it's possible to make the numbers go in the right direction. The ideal form of commerce for small bands, ironically, is probably selling downloadable music, which minimizes material costs and, perhaps even more valuably, administrative effort. The second major flaw with asking musicians to live on concert revenue is that some of them don't play concerts. They're studio projects, or they have day jobs that they can't just leave for weeks on end, or they just don't like it. And the third major flaw, although this one is an indirect critique from music's limited point of view, is that the same questions are about to be raised in film and eventually in books, and what are you going to say then? Movies should be free, and actors must make their money touring the stage version? Books should be free and writers should start charging for readings? This is absurd. In what other field have you ever been structurally required to give away the most tangible product of your work and earn your money performing support activities? Never mind that if records are free, record labels won't make any money, so they won't be able to promote anybody, so nobody will be big enough to stage the arena shows where the money is to be made. I believe this one can simply be dismissed.
2. Micro-payments. This is usually treated as a minor variant on the previous idea. Instead of downloadable music being free, it's only nearly free. When you download a song you pay some negligible (to you) amount, with the presumption that for the artist the negligible amounts eventually add up. This is really in no artists' best interests. Major acts already have the power to extract macro-payments, as long as nobody gives their music away for free out from under them, so they have no incentive to settle. Minor acts' main problem is that they don't get very many people's attention, to begin with, not that price barriers scare them away once they've arrived, so micro-payments are only likely to reduce the potential value of each hard-won listener. The only people to whom this idea seems to appeal are technophiles, except when you remind them that they hated everything else they ever had to pay incremental fees for, and complained bitterly until whatever industry it was switched to a flat rate. Which leads naturally to:
3. Subscriptions. This is by far the most logical system for major labels, probably significantly preferable, from their point of view, to the decades of selling records they've been through. Modeled most immediately on cable television, this scheme involves listeners paying some twenty-dollar-ish amount per month for the right, however enforced, to download all the music they want. Revenues are distributed to the artists by the major-label consortium, in proportion to their share of the downloading. Note that this system is already in operation outside of the consumer sector, where clubs and radio stations and businesses with music on their hold systems pay subscription fees to BMI and ASCAP, who then distribute the proceeds to the responsible artists. Or some of them. Once again, the problem is that the top hundred or two acts represent the overwhelming majority of the traffic, so the minor ones get nothing. CD sales actually over-compensate minor artists, relative to their popularity, because the purchasing logistics set artificially high minimums and low maximums for music spending by messing with the granularity. The leveling of the major-labels' revenue streams, which is why subscriptions will be so appealing to them once they think about it for about five seconds, will also free them from the annoying need to take risks on new artists, which will lead to even more consolidation of marketing efforts around a small stable of reliable, cooperative, inoffensive acts, and independent labels and bands, even if they do wedge their way into the subscription system in principle, will be more decisively marginalized than ever.
4. Advertising. If we're going to take cable TV as a possible model, why not also broadcast TV? Records could have commercials. TV shows have commercials, and plenty of people still watch them. Radio has commercials, magazines have ads, movies have commercials at the beginning and product placements in the middle. It was funny and ludicrous when Sigue Sigue Sputnik did it, but it wouldn't be funny if everybody did it. Advertising has tended to turn every medium it touches into crap, but plenty of music is crap already, so it seems pedantic to object. Pepsi has already had this idea, and set about insinuating themselves into popular albums by co-opting a song (the Spice Girls' "Move Over") or the whole artist (Britney). Will people hate this enough to pay to avoid the ads? Maybe. Like TV there may be a hybrid model, where you can have the current hits free with the ads, and for an extra subscription get access to a wider catalog. This will homogenize major label rosters even faster than subscriptions alone, though.
5. Voluntary contributions. Music is free, but there's an easy way to send some money to the artist if you want to. This one is laughable on the face of it. With the entire weight of a culture based on money as a value in itself bearing down on them, people in general will not give it away when they don't have to. Which leads to:
6. Pay in advance. Artists go ahead and get to work, and meanwhile they solicit donations to their cause. Once some set amount of money has been donated (into escrow, in one model), they release their work into the public domain, and everybody can have it, whether they donated or not. This copyright-obsoleting scheme has conceptual cleverness to recommend it, but not much else. It turns a market based on production into a market based on promises, which will be unpleasant to participate in on either side. My guess is that a great number of people who would have made good albums under the fond illusion that they might pay for themselves, and then seen them not succeed, will be dissuaded from ever completing them. New artists will be locked out entirely. Extremely popular acts will be caught between seeming intolerably greedy if they set their release-point realistically (it's one thing to ask for only $15 from each person and then happen to get it from several million of them, it's quite another thing to demand hundreds of millions of dollars up front), and being compelled to work at an insupportable rate if they set it too low.
The closest I've seen anybody come to trying model six is Marillion's approach to Anoraknophobia. They didn't ask for "donations", and they haven't put the album into the public domain, but they did start taking pre-orders a year before the proposed release date, hoping to raise enough money thereby that they could afford to make the album without taking an advance from a record company and giving up any of their rights, leaving them free to sign purely a distribution deal, once the thing was complete. The bad news, of course, if you're hoping for this to be evidence of a noble revolution in the music industry, is that the fan-base Marillion entreated were built during many years on major labels. The bootstrapping problem remains. The good news, if you like small heartwarming stories of somebody trying something vaguely idealistic and not getting completely screwed as a result, is that a lot of people answered Marillion's call. They were hoping for ten thousand pre-orders, and planning for eight. They got 12,674. If you sent your order in before some date that I spaced out and missed, you are listed in the many pages of credits in the booklet. Anybody who pre-ordered, before or after the credits date, received the limited edition of the album (thus the enthusiastic response, a cynic would say, and probably be right), which comes in a children's-book-looking hard-cover package, and includes a bonus disc with one extra song and some demos and making-of videos of songs from the album proper. I don't have the standard edition to compare the booklets, but the limited one has, in addition to the list of names, long prefaces from each of the five members, including an explanation from Steve Hogarth of the album's title, the band's salute ("anorak", the British term for what we'd call a hooded parka, also serving in the UK as a slang insult for which "geek" is the closest American translation) to everybody willing to stand up, admit that they care passionately about something uncool, and face the inevitable small-minded ridicule. The cover art features a cherubic grid of such courageous souls, proudly holding up the coat hangers that they've had the guts to remove their anoraks from. Unfortunately the band neglected to retain American graphic-design counsel, with the potentially disastrous consequence that I suspect most people here would have to guess, if asked on the street, that the iconography represents Kenny, from South Park, announcing his intention to become an amateur abortionist.
The album itself, Marillion's twelfth studio record, Steve Hogarth announced on the band's web site with the boast and admonishment "You're all wrong about Marillion. Whatever you thought you knew about this record, forget it." Frankly, I didn't take this as a good sign, and a record you've asked your existing fans to pay for up front would be an odd one on which to embark on a totally new direction. Those 12,674 people paid for this record in advance based precisely on what they thought they knew about Marillion. The whole pay-in-advance idea is predicated on the artist delivering predictable work, which is arguably another serious flaw in it. But a) I don't mind subsidizing experimentation, and b) it was hard to imagine, Hogarth's protestations notwithstanding, that on their dozenth album Marillion, heretofore known for assiduously methodical stylistic evolution, would suddenly execute their first quantum leap to some entirely new style. As we all knew perfectly well when we sent our money in, Anoraknophobia would be another Marillion album in the time-honored style, some sort of fluent cross between Crowded House-grade songwriterly pop and flowing neo-progressive pomp. There would probably be a couple of loud, driving guitar songs, a couple of long, wistful, atmospheric ballads, and some stuff in between. At least one of the songs would have plainly ill-advised lyrics, and at least a couple would be admirably understated, poetic and touching. Hogarth would sing in his choirboy-just-finishing-his-first-bottle-of-wine voice, Steve Rothery and Mark Kelly would trade liquid guitar solos and twittering keyboard runs. We would smile, and congratulate ourselves for being part of the support network that made it possible for one of our favorite bands to make this basically unsurprising album under surprising conditions. Maybe there's a new economic model lurking in this experience after all. If bands can afford to make their records outside of the major-label system, then perhaps the mainstream music industry can be reconstructed as strictly a marketing and distribution system, and we can save the next Prince the time it would have taken him to write "slave" on his face every morning. Freed from their developmental role, and the attended risk and expense, maybe the major labels won't feel such pressure to make every new band into megastars, and can let them find their own natural level. Maybe this is the beginning of the end of a lot of evil.
I just wish I liked it. I sure wanted to. I've had a year to actively anticipate this album, and when my copies arrived (I ordered two, trying to double my virtue) I put the rest of my listening pile on hold, and sat down to give this record proper attention from the very first play. That was nearly two months ago. When a record I've been eagerly anticipating jumps straight to the top of my priority list, and then doesn't get reviewed for two months, it's because of one of three things. Either I love it so much I can't yet bear the thought of crossing over to having already finished writing about it, or I'm waiting for critical mass for a theme issue, or don't like it and I'm trying to convince myself to change my mind. This ought to have been the first case, but it's the third. I don't like this record. I don't resent funding it, but Marillion earned my unreserved support a long time ago. If this were a new band, without a catalog of Misplaced Childhoods and Holidays in Edens behind them, I'd have felt cheated. Hogarth's warning is far more relevant that I would have ever thought to expect. If I'd been asked to edit this album, based on what I "know" about Marillion, I'd have junked all but two songs. "Between You and Me", the opener, is charged and pealing, as straightforwardly electric and propulsive as the most redemptive moments on Radiation or marillion.com, Rothery's melodic guitar solo towards the end worthy of introduction into the canon. "Map of the World" is slower, quieter, lullaby crescendoing into grand apology, on the order of "No One Can". The chorus, where Hogarth slips into falsetto as he sings "She's got a map of the world / Pinned up on her wall, / She's gonna go and see it all", could be an anti-"Fake Plastic Trees", a statement of faith, in the face of exactly the same overwhelming falseness, that it's possible for wonder to defeat corruption.
But that's it. It's not just that I don't like the others, it's that I don't think the band should have liked them, either. I want to be able to support this new direction, but it doesn't sound new to me, it sounds like they've lost track of their own identity and collapsed into a noodling, undistinguished jam band. Marillion always wrote long songs, but this is the first time I've felt like they made an album of music without an album's worth of ideas. "When I Meet God" and "Separated Out" are borderline for me at best, the former a pretty five-minute song that they botch by tacking an unrelated, meandering, four-minute coda onto the end, the latter a blocky, keening rock song that I feel certain a few more drafts might easily have lent some articulation or nuance. The five others just strike me as distended judgment-errors of various sorts. The nine-minute "Quartz" reminds me of nothing so much as Spinal Tap Mark II's "Jazz Odyssey", Rothery playing mindless wocka-wocka guitar over Trewavas' endless bass noodling, eventually modulating into silky light jazz, and then into shouty nonsense. Way too much of the idle blues "The Fruit of the Wild Rose" sounds like a Bad Company rehearsal tape to me. The eleven-minute "This Is the 21st Century" sounds like somebody accidentally turned on a cheesy drum-machine demo loop at too slow a tempo while they were all heavily stoned. "If My Heart Were a Ball It Would Roll Uphill", nine and a half more minutes right after it, is garish, soulless, and self-indulgent even by Marillion's standards. And "Number One", the lumbering bonus track, is a sniping attack on mainstream pop singers (Whitney Houston, Kelly specifies in his notes), which they might deserve on some level, but appended to an album nominally dedicated to passionate belief in the face of petty cynicism it seems perilously close to hypocrisy to me.
And I'm left to contemplate another form of one of the same questions I sat asking myself as it sunk in that I couldn't bear Guided by Voices any longer. Did I cause this? Is it just coincidence that Marillion tried their noble funding experiment for this album, and then produced one that seems undisciplined, uncharacteristic and unmemorable to me? Probably. But then, maybe not. It nags at me that the other one of my once-favorite artists that lost me like this, Jane Siberry, did so under strikingly similar conditions, starting her own record company to establish her independence and then using it to put out records in which I can no longer discern her genius. Maybe some artists need the pressure, after all, and by freeing them from it we encourage them to make these bloated lapses into trope. The question doesn't have the same urgency this time as it did for GbV, as I don't think Marillion have ruined their lives, just this one record. Any band that makes a dozen records is bound to alienate everybody at least once (Yes, Rush, Black Sabbath), and I'd guess many old Marillion fans disliked Holidays in Eden, which I loved, a lot more than I dislike this, so you could argue that I had this coming. Maybe you'll think "Finally they've relaxed and let these songs grow organically", or "Ah, Pete Trewavas' horizon-expanding side-gig in TransAtlantic is starting to pay dividends", or "Thank god there's no 'Cannibal Surf Babe' and nothing about OJ", and like it just fine. I hope so. I'm not enjoying not liking it. Maybe if I spent a couple more months with it, I'd find ways in. Brave was in many senses even less focused, and I still reconciled myself to it. But in Brave's case it took two more records, a live one and a making-of, the album itself wasn't enough. So I'll come back to Anoraknophobia in another form, if they ask me to, because maybe I'm just wrong. Until then, though, I'm done here. Listening to it this album is making me grouchy, and threatening to interfere with the other Marillion records by imposing a "Ah, remember when they were good?" subtext onto them. Maybe this is the band they want to become, and this is where they and I part company. Maybe this is a break they needed, and the next one will have a dozen perfect, glittering, three-minute pop songs. We'll see, when they ask me to advance them the money for the next one, which way I decide to bet.