The Song Doesn’t Remain The Same
Firstly I just wanted to say how indebted to the BBC’s Review Show linked above for prompting all I go on to discuss here. (And may I thank @SabotageBlog for pointing me in its direction on Twitter). The TV panel discussion is about the current state of music and its future direction and features the ever acute cultural soothsayer Paul Morley (in on the ground with Joy Division, creator of Frankie Goes To Hollywood etc). I just want to relate some of its salient points that are forever being thrust at literature as a working model for its own future progress. Along the lines of what the music industry underwent with downloads, together with production, distribution & marketing all becoming possible without middlemen from the environs of one’s bedroom, it’s said that online, e-books and self-publishing within literature are rapidly emulating these same trails. I’m fortunate maybe to be both an author and having nearly 20 years of music retail experience behind me in my day job, so perhaps I can make some sense of this comparison. Always with the caveat that these things are moving so rapidly, it all may have moved on again and radically changed by next year anyway.
The panel start off considering the huge leap in sales afforded to bands nominated for, and therefore afforded television coverage of, the Mercury Prize for music. What this tells me is that for all the reaching out of social networking, nothing beats this culture’s obsession with visual presentation. Yes you can display your personality on your blog and in your tweets, but when it’s writ large on a flatscreen TV, it stands far greater chance of going viral. Is it stretching things too far to say we have irrevocably moved from being a purely literate society more to being a televisual literate one? This is something authors have to face up to, at the very least in their promotion of their work, but more intriguingly perhaps in the presentation of the work itself. But back to television, while in France they have nightly programmes with authors, critical theorists and philosophers stroking their chins and pontificating, bookish programmes here in the UK just don’t seem to catch on. And though the initial Richard & Judy Book Club on their Channel 4 show was a great success and a real boost to several authors, nothing has really successfully followed in its wake to establish a literary foothold within British television.
Okay, now more specifically to the patterns proffered between music and literature. David Quantick (ex New Musical Express journalist) tells the camera in his pirate get up (visual pun) “Bands deprived of their CD mark up, should maybe find new ways to be interesting, new sources of income”. And indeed bands have risen to the challenge in many cases, cutting out the middle man and doing their distribution themselves, giving away cheap or free product online, because their main sources of income come from playing live (ticket sales) and merchandising. There is no doubt that music consumed online, has left its audience a greater thirst for live performances in the flesh from their heroes. But do we writers really think we can compete with our live readings and T-shirts? Of course thousands would go listen to a Ginsberg or Burroughs reading, in the same way as Led Zepplin or Pink Floyd would sell out a stadium tour. Yet these days Dellilo and Roth don’t have to give readings to plug their books. While what is there for us more humble bottom feeders in the literary pond? Even Roth & Dellilo don’t have coffee mugs and key fobs with their faces on to help boost their income as writers. A freemium model giving our work away does not match up to the music equivalent. Yes we can jazz up our readings as much as we can possibly imagine, attaching ourselves to live music, collaborating and co-existing with the visual arts. But amplified music, or even unplugged, just has a head start when it comes to sweeping an audience along. It is sonic, it is rhythmic, it is emotive, it is visceral and a good lyric can also appeal to the head. Now while live text reading can be all these things too, none can quite match the insistence of these elements when driven by music. Hard to get dancing or throwing a few shapes to accompany an author reading. There will always remain a cleft between the engagement called for by music and that by reading text; it apes a divide between high art and low art that I’m not sure I recognise as existing in reality, but certainly involves different responsive regions of the body. The live experience is a world apart between music and literature. Music offers the opportunity for a greater tribal communion. Maybe when stories were told around the campfire a few millennia ago literature could have competed. But when the book happened along, we pissed on the fire to put it out. Television and film have gazumped literature for the mass storytelling market. So now our audience initially experience us alone, one to one as they read our book in isolation. Bottom line, the author is far less likely to compensate for free product by other income streams compared with bands.
The shift in emphasis to self-promotion and self-marketing through social networking, is superficially appealing because it offers direct exchange between artist and fan. But what it means in effect is that all art is marketing now. Art cannot exist without the promotional push to tug people’s attention in what is a saturated market place. Left to its own devices to attract readers, a book would simply die of loneliness. Authors cannot maintain their personal privacy like they still could only ten years ago. Does anyone know what Julian Barnes looks like? No, because he had no need to have a high profile, but could afford to let his books do his talking for him. There WAS a cultural elitism aspect to the old system, that publishers were the arbiters of taste, but ultimately they were book fans and prepared to take risks and embrace difficult works. Now they are submerged both by the economics that mean they only concentrate on surefire bankable writers, plus the market is deluged with no curatorship by them or anybody else. Paul Morley makes the case that with all this product available and all this promotion to push and service it, there is simply no critical eye, no assessment, very little standing back & gauging larger patterns, since everything is atomised under the welter of material and all assessment is really dressed up promotion. I’m not saying there was never a large element of this at work within the industry, but now we are simply overwhelmed by a 100% correlation. Everything is business, even the lone author doing chapbooks if he genuinely looks to push them and sell; nothing is art. Nothing is about the book as a piece of literature. “All the talk” says Morley seems about “business models” and he’s right. Popular music always was about the commercial; profit derived from mass volume sales of relatively inexpensive product, as against visual art which is based on scarcity of product, ie the uniqueness of owning a Kahlo or a Pollock (with the same exclusivity as owning diamonds or sable fur). Either way, mass volume or the luxury good, both represent pure commerce over art. Is literature destined to go the same way, although it is hard to see which of these pure commercial models it could fit into. Like albums, it is relatively cheap to produce and relies on mass sales, but the numbers don’t stack up except for the Rowlings and Kings. The freemium driving up the cost of limited edition product suggests the high art model, but again, only a select few authors might attain that and only at the very top of their tree. Hard to see a progression up to that point. The main people this seems to work for right now, are those self-marketing gurus like Seth Godin. Don’t see too many fiction authors getting the cream in this way. Where is the financial sustainability that gives authors the chance to support the,mselves while developing a career and a back catalogue? The slashing of middle list authors from publishers’ lists suggests it simply isn’t there any more.
Again Morley asks what is music for and I ask the same for literature. The genesis of the novel was for a largely housebound Victorian readership and a bourgeois one at that. Things have moved on considerably since then of course and although we have far more of a universal literacy, the novel-reading public has not grown in line with that. Fiction of any stripe, be it heavyweight or escapist, seems far more an accessory of lifestyle. Something to do to while away dead time while commuting or flying. The downtime annual read on a foreign beach, of a book bought as a 3-for- 2 at Waterstones, or at the airport branch of Smiths. Of course heaps of people still read at home, in bed or in the bath, but it seems that all the rush to new reading technologies are a belated response to falling print book sales and attempt to bolster them by adapting them to people’s lifestyles. What the hell is literature for, if it is not to tell us about ourselves? To expand our visions and interpret the world? It’s not a lifestyle choice that’s for sure.
Finally an intrinsic difference between music and literature. Young Adult literature aside, books are not as generational an artform as popular music. Music wears its references and influences completely openly. Practitioners offer us up their own record collections in their work. Each new generation coming to music, discovers it fresh, as a largely self-conscious reinvention of something that has gone before. Literature lacks for any such vital freshness. That is not to say authors don’t also delve back into previous works for tropes and references, but it is far less enshrined in the art form itself. It is not held up as one of the highest values. New authors have to compete on an equal footing with Kafka and Balzac, for we are afforded no generational advantage by our contemporaneity. It is up to us authors here and now to create our own freshness, through the form of our artwork as much as its voice or language. Though a music that starts out as rebellious and outsider gets noticed and commercially defanged, the same mechanisms are not in place for literature. Music wears its entire history on its shoulders with pride and is in constant dialogue with it, abjuring then reconciling with the ancestors. Literature may well also have this dialogue with its antecedents, but there is no sense of rebellion or revolution or even moving away from it. Rock and roll can be sold as a rebellious, adolescent culture; literature cannot. Therefore the lifestyle the two art forms can be sold on are radically different. If literature makes a statement about you, it is only in terms of your individual taste, never part of any groundswell movement (again with the possible exception of books for younger readers such as Rowling or Meyer). This generational difference I feel is fundamental to why literature will not ape music in its economic & technological trends. Its market is fundamentally different.
Can we just get back to the art now?