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?

~ by yearzerowriters on September 14, 2010.

25 Responses to “The Song Doesn’t Remain The Same”

  1. This is why you need NEED your 1000 fans to even make it. You learn how to give enough to whet their appetite and then introduce them to the check-out cart. This is why if you love your artists, you WILL buy their stuff. You have to. They can’t do it without you. I see less and less conglomerate management in the future. Peer feedback is rapidly rising as an indicator of an item’s true value, versus “reviews” from professionals.

    Love an artist? Buy their stuff, and buy it often. Books and albums aren’t written overnight. Most can’t hold a day job in addition to keep up with their financial burdens.

    Show some love.

  2. I agree carrie, but when everything is reduced to commodity status & ‘buy their stuff & buy it often’, it tends to be more about the hard sell and less about showing love?

    There has always been word of mouth to create an upsurge of interest in any artist in the early part of their career. teh problem now is there are so many chattering mouths, so many cultural commentators through social networking, word of mouth for any one particular artist can easuily get drowned out by all the other barkers shouting out about wares.

    Marc Nash

  3. This is a great article, Marc and I apologize for not being more awake for a good response to it. We are not going to change the technology that makes us all possible, so how do we use the technology to our advantage? The hard sell is an annoyance and any good SM guru will tell you that connecting with your audience (buyers) is all about ‘relationships.’ It’s the relationships we build with our audience that will ultimately result in the payout (or not).

    Amanda Palmer made the case last year when she utilized Twitter to engage with her fan base, increase it, and, ultimately make money doing it. Music might be the easier sell, but in the end, that wasn’t what sold Palmer’s fans. What sold Palmer’s fan on buying her product was Palmer’s engagement with them. She could have been selling personalized rolls of toilet paper and they’d buy it.

    I do believe the kind of engagements we make are key, and I look at those clever sorts who have utilized Youtube, for example, creating their own videos and finding an audience. They do it by the quality of their engagement and, presumably, business acumen.

    We are seeing ‘trailers’ for books that look like trailers for films. Is there harm in that? No. Anyone can do it. The technology is affordable. But is it necessarily something people will want to read? The trouble we have is not that the industry is ‘tanking’ – it’s that there are so many writers – and many of them very good – who are writing fiction that no one wants to read. It isn’t commercial and readers today have been raised on commercial fiction. Just as pop music or rap music outsells classical every time – the lowest common denominator fiction is what sells. We will struggle with our more difficult pieces for reasons that have nothing to do with problems in the industry itself. We are writing for a very small audience.

    I wrote a piece a while back about Paramount Pictures opening up a new division that would focus on making more films a year – all under $100,000. The point being to find new talent, new niches and fill them for very little money. I would like to see ‘traditional’ publishers take a swing at this, too, instead of closing their ranks to promote only the Rowlings and Kings, try opening up to the niche markets, the smaller venues and, most of all, promote bookstores. I find the lack of support within the industry for keeping bookstores open to be an appalling thing – as if e-books, downloads and e-readers alone are going to keep the business afloat. It’s short-sighted and horrific in the extreme.

    Sorry to blather, hope something made sense. I appreciate you making me think about these things.


  4. Utterly cogent DJ, if this is what your analysis is like when half-asleep I am in awe of you!

    I especially agree with your penultimate paragraph, but I doubt it will happen for as you say the industry is tanking. Does it come back to my point about us becoming a visually literate culture rather than a printed word one? The book could just be a tiny niche art form within the giant story-telling/narrative pool dominated by TV, vid & film? Especially if as you say, anyone can make a film online and anyone shoot some footage on their mobile phone (mine hasn’t even got a camera on it).

    The only problem I have with your analysis of social networking and forging those relationships, is that I fear it is in the main writers talking and selling to other writers. It doesn’t have to be like this of course, but as yet damned if I know the way round it.

    Thanks for responding.

    Marc x

  5. Marc, I agree with you I think about the different physical responses to music and literature. I do think the more relevant parallel to literature is the art world, and what we need are the equivalent of specialist galleries – it’s no accident I call eight cuts gallery and eight cuts gallery press what I do.

    I agree with Carrie on 1000 true fans – and it’s there that live performance and social networking really come into their own.

    And then we come to where I disagree. I think you’re both right and wrong about business. I think as writers we DO need to focus 100% on the art, and to whip up enthusiasm about that. We shouldn’t think about business. We should take the view that as writers we’ll never be able to afford to give up the day job, so we scan focus in peace on the art. Whatever follows, follows. When I started eight cuts gallery and press I made the conscious decision that we wouldn’t even think about money – we would be a business 100% devoted to the art, and creating fans for it.

    I also think you’re wrong about generations – I think literature is hugely generational – all the New Beat stuff that’s out at the moment appeals to 20- and 50-somethings; we had the Gen X stuff, then Gen Y/slacker. Each generation has its literature.

    BUT. And here again I think you’re misssing something – it’s not necessarily found in novels – I’d like to see you deal with zines

    • The art world to my mind is completely artistically bankrupt in that it is entirely determined by its market. It is all about exclusivity of ownership and collection, but not like the collector mentality of wanting to own every studio outtake of Radiohead, or bootleg concert for the sake of completion. Any art form that is viewed as an investment ceases to be useful art; it’s the same as trying to buy your house in order to make money, as against having somewhere to live… Art is a luxury good as I stated, to own a diamond encrusted skull or a Hockney original is for the brand name signature at the bottom way more than the pelasure of looking at it in your display cabinet or on your wall. Books, like records are mass-produced. There is no exclusivity about them, unless you are talking about chapbooks & hand-made editions.

      Unfortunately because the artist-writer now is charged with doing all their own promotion, you cannot help but devote tiem and energy to business. If self-published, quadruple that, since you are the sole proprietor of the business that is selling your book. It justdoesn’t seem feasible to close your eyes to this aspect and clinging rigidly to the artistic value only. I wish in some ways it were. But that’s old style thinking.

      Re generations,what you say about the Beats etc is something old being (trendily & temporarily until the next fashion) disinterred, not a new wave of young writers coming to reinvent it for their own modern age. It’s not quite the same thing. My problem is that so little new writing is actually ‘new’, but still stuck in the 20th (& therefore 18th & 19th) century artform of the novel. I have no desire for reading rehashed versions of novels, whether they were by Beats or Existentialists. Those ideas had their time. Where are we at now? Nowehere that literature seeks to engages with anyway.

      Marc Nash

      • Apologies, I thought your generational point was about readers not writers but looking back I see it wasn’t.

        ” Rock and roll can be sold as a rebellious, adolescent culture; literature cannot” – I just don’t think this is true.

        As i’ve mentioned elsewhere, I think you’ve bought into the mainstream’s obsession with the novel too much. The novel is dead. Yes, of course it is, but who cares? There’s a vast amount of non-novelistic literature out there that’s alive and well. I think many of us are to blame because we’ve bought into it too. We are still writing novels, and I think it’s almost like a gag reflex. At bottom I don’t think we have an answer as to why. We do it “just because” – in most cases because most of us still have that memory, somewhere, like a snake’s vestigial limb, of the time when we were going to be published the conventional way, and to do that the straitjacket we needed to squeeze into was the novel. It’s time to go back to artistic foundations. What do we have to say? OK, what’s the best way to say it? Maybe it’s a novel. Probably it isn’t.

        If you doubt there is amazing, exciting literature out there go and look at
        I haven’t chosen it just because it’s a blog – it would work as well as a series of pamphlets. “Small Slidable Plastic Tiles” may be the best thing ever written.

        • I think Paul Morley explains it with an exact parallel in music – we still write novels because we are beloved of the form, in the same way musicians still produce albums, even if they only ever exist digitally. It’s an intellectual and artistic choice. I grant there is plenty of interesting work in literature outside of the novel, as you know with my interest in things like typographies, my interest is to stretch the existing parameters of the monolithic block print novel form.

          Marc Nash

  6. Oh, and I very much agree about the importance of television – but instead of bemoaning it, what we need to do is get in the face of the media companies and call them out on it. The real problem is that when they do put literature on TV it’s the same old same old – no wonder people don’t go for it. We need to remind the media how protectionist it is, how the Booker and the Orange and McEwan and Pulman are not what’s exciting in literature. We need not to let them rest on their restrictive dull laurels until they start showing the exciting stuff.

  7. “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…”

    Good piece, Marc, and I broadly agree. A few random points:

    1. The publishing industry so far has been riding the recession rather well. It’s hasn’t been hit by the sales slump that his the music business, but maybe that’s because it’s come late to the digital party.

    2. Thirty years ago it was certainly easier for a ‘literary’ novelist to get published, but I don’t know whether it was easier to get READ. Publishers were happy to put out stuff that only sold in the hundreds as long as they had a few big names to keep the money coming in. Now they concentrate on the stuff that makes money and the small-run authors self-publish. Maybe the shift isn’t as great as it appears.

    3.”If literature makes a statement about you, it is only in terms of your individual taste, never part of any groundswell movement …” I know what you mean, but the late-60’s were full of cult books (Hesse/Pynchon/Heller) that reflected the era. In later years we had the cyberpunk of Gibson/Stephenson, but I’m not sure what followed that. Maybe the last cult author was Houellebecq, or maybe we should be looking at the graphic novel. There’s a literary cultural vacuum and you can’t just blame it on the industry, it’s up to authors to deliver stuff that people feel impelled to read, to read with urgency. Are those books being written? I don’t know.
    ” it’s that there are so many writers… who are writing fiction that no one wants to read. It isn’t commercial and readers today have been raised on commercial fiction.” (DJ) I don’t think it’s a case of commercial v. literary, it’s identifying and connecting to that literary audience which has always been a minority but often a substantial minority. And maybe when when find that audience, the novel form is not what they want.

    4. “We are seeing ‘trailers’ for books that look like trailers for films. Is there harm in that? No. Anyone can do it. The technology is affordable. (DJ). The technology is cheap but the trailers are crap. Generally. Because it’s not about the technology any more than writing is about the sort of word processor or typewriter you use. It’s about having something to say and the language in which to say it, not parodying, badly, an irrelevant form. Making a good trailer is as hard as writing a good poem.

    I also totally agree with your last point about writing networks being predominantly writers talking to other writers, sometimes existing within a comfortable little bubble that has little contact with the world outside it.



    • I think I agree pretty much with all of this. In terms of what came after cyberpunk, I think you are absolutely right to point to graphic novels. And you are also bang on that it’s up to us as writers to deliver.

      Point 4 is so right as well – I’ve felt under the cosh a lot because I can’t even afford a basic digital camera let alone the tech to produce any kind of trailer. But you’re right – technology is a tool, a shell – it’s what we put in that shell that matters – hi tech is not a short cut

    • Point 2 is bang on the money (as it were) for me. Nopw the only alternative for such stuff seems to be self-publishing, which has a whole credibility burden of its own to shift from its shoulders right now. I do think those books are being written, judging by what I’ve seen out there on blogs etc, many not even self-published yet. What’s not happening is these books seeing the light of day. That comes first and foremost from the industry’s barriers put up to them for whatever reasons and secondly from the uphill battle of the individual writer to elbow their way into the saturated marketplace.

      Book trailers on the whole are lame, because people haven’t thought them through as to what they are actually for. Most neglect to put in a single line of text. Any freely available template software is going to look crap. I always look at it as bearing the relationship to the book, that the pop video does to the song it’s charged with promotion (and we all know how much money can get thrown at those); like you say, the video should work as a piece of art in itself, but one designed to lead the viewer back to the book. I don’t know if mine will have achieved that – I’ll post them as soon as they’ve been edited – but a lot of thought went into storyboarding them properly.


  8. “Book trailers on the whole are lame, because people haven’t thought them through as to what they are actually for…”
    Actually I think the term ‘trailer’ is a misnomer. Movie trailers are heavily condensed films, in book terms the equivalent would be selected extracts, the sort of thing you might see on the book covers with reviewers quotes. What we are really talking about here is a book advert, a commercial.

    And here the problems are clear: ads are the most expensive form of filmmaking and audience expectations are high (and maybe we don’t like the idea of making an ad anyway). To think of cheap, effective, punk alternatives needs a lot of imagination – but this is filmmaking not literary imagination, and it is unfair to expect writers to have it. Very few promos are made by the musicians, and maybe writers should collaborate with film makers and artists if they are going to make something that works.

  9. Man, you should cut up those paragraph chunks a little…my eyes, my eyes…

    I agree with Dan. It’s only a problem if you want to be a King or a Rowling.

    A better way is to keep the day job and never write professionally. Then you can write whatever you like, whenever you like, and there’s no self-friction. All you have to do is try and get those 1,000 readers.

    • the clincher/kicker being that last sentence…

      Yeah, long paragraphs AND white text on black background…

      I don’t agree about room only at the top or nothing. I don’t expect to make any money out of writing, let alone do it full time. But it’s the midlisters who are getting culled.


      • Yes, it is the midlisters who are getting culled, and there’s a whole swathe of new talent waiting to filter up into the whole. My issue with recent commentaries on the publishing industryu is that people are saying that the current culling of the flabby middle class dross that has expected an audience like its birthright for the last gazillion whatevers is a bad thing.

        • show me where the exciting talent is replacing them either in the public consciousness or the world of letters itself?

          Marc Nash

  10. And actors/actresses should do author readings…

    • See I’d agree with that, only part of your sales shtick is you, the author, your personality… Ho hum…


      • Marc, as you know I have signed Oli’s Charcoal up with eight cuts gallery press. I agree with you completely about writers reading their own stuff, but in Oli’s case – well, Oli is a marketer’s dream without ever appearing in public, however much I’d like him to.

      • Then get the actor to pretend to be you. Or not. But have writers ever used actors in this way? I genuinely don’t know, have they?

        But I’ve never seen an author reading that couldn’t have been done better by someone who knew what they were doing. And I will find someone to act out one of my things one day to prove I’m right.

        • I think the whole JT Leroy thing proved this was possible. JT never existed. The books were written by Laura Albert, and the public appearances were made by Savannah Knoop. The little boy Jeremiah Terminator Leroy never existed at all.

  11. “it’s the midlisters who are getting culled…” yes.

    But I’m not sure I agree with the novel is/isn’t dead debate. I think the novel will continue to co-exist with competing forms just as the short story, cinema, theatre and the pop song, long past their prophesied sell-by date. The novel might seem dead until you pick one up and it changes the way you see the world, or at the point where what you have to say, what you need to say, fits that form better than any other. And if people are not interested in what the literary novel has to say, then maybe that’s because it’s saying the wrong things.

    I have a problem with the notion of obsolescence; usually it’s a trick to make us buy something new. And sometimes what at the time seemed to b e revolutionary later can appear to be merely a whim of fashion.

    • I agree, see my response to Dan above. My artistic choices as a writer revolve around the novel. When the material demands other media, then I heed it and have written screenplays, graphic novels and in the past stage plays. But my heart lies with the novel.

      Marc Nash

  12. everyone, can you tell me where i can learn the arts lesson like above?

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