Sunday, 3 July 2011

The Times They Are A-changing

Ever since a weird friend of a friend left some behind some cassettes of Eno albums and his alien melodies got under my skin, I have watched Brian Eno's career with awe.  His music, his involvement as producer with Bowie, Talking Heads, U2 and others, his contribution to the "Long Now" project, collaborations with the likes of Jah Wobble, and his Oblique Strategies project ... all have been pitch perfect contributions to modern music and other culture.  He was profiled in The Guardian listings magazine this weekend, and one comment he made struck a chord with me: "It's insane that since the Beatles and Dylan it's assumed that all musicians should do everything themselves."   

Now, my generation grew up in that world where the overwhelming majority of pop tunes and more ambitious  rock pieces were clearly identified with specific bands or artists, and cover versions were somewhat ... shall we say ... sneerworthy.  I am now learning that this was in fact at the time a new thing, that pre-60's it was much more common for artists to perform songs written by others, Sinatra being a good example.  The best of these tunes from, roughly the first half of the 20th century are now the standards beloved of jazz bands everywhere:  these songs had the resilience to support adaptation by wildly different artists and still to retain their own character.

The performer/songwriter model that followed coincided with the flourishing of the recorded music industry as big business.  This industry has failed to navigate the digital revolution, and the way in which music is made and consumed is changing for good.  Technology means that the closed world of music creation and distribution has been opened to the masses.  There is no longer one pop music market, everything is fragmented and niche, and musicians make a living, if at all, increasingly from performance, using recordings for promotion.  Everyone can make music now and record and distribute it.  But not everyone who can perform half-decently has the skill to craft a good tune.

Over the decades, if anyone has known which way the wind has been blowing, it's been Eno. And now the Guardian tells us that [Eno has] "largely lost interest in the idea that singer should be at the centre of music and that pop music itself is somehow autobiographical".   Could this mean a new era of performers who feel free to pick and choose their material, and no longer feel obliged to write it themselves?  The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind ....