The news that Pink Floyd will release a new album this October shocked me so much that I could barely breathe. My thoughts raced, comparing the possibilities. Although I had just stopped at the library to do some rarely available quiet-time work, I knew that the first thing I would do was to look up the news on the internet to confirm it. It was the first thing I talked to my kids about over dinner, and I made sure they were sitting down before they heard the news. I was really glad that I had not heard the news before the lunch date I had just come from, since I would have talked of nothing other than Floyd. That probably would have been the end of that friendship.
My first set of thoughts was basically “Is Roger going to be on this album? Are they seriously going to produce an album of new material with Roger? What would that sound like?” Right away I realized that this was a ridiculous idea. Roger would totally swamp the other members beyond the point of having them there. Roger Waters has been doing his own thing for close to thirty years, and has made it clear that although he’s willing to reunite with members of the old lineup, he’s not trying to be Pink Floyd anymore. I’ve seen him perform twice, and it was mostly Pink Floyd material, but it was clearly the Rogerest of the Pink Floyd repertoire (in fact, once it was The Wall).
These thoughts of “reunion” vanished when I looked up the news and found that instead of a reunion they were actually doing something far more interesting. They still have material from the Division Bell sessions, including songs written by the late Rick Wright. After thinking about Roger, I immediately thought “Oh, how are they going to do things without Rick?” He will be there in Notorious B.I.G./Nat King Cole form, it sounds.
Sadly, before I found the actual news article, the first search items returned were a bunch of articles about people whining over a new Pink Floyd album. Pink Floyd, much more than other rock groups, seems to be subject to this kind of complaining from so-called fans. When Led Zepplin reunited with John Bonham’s son on drums, people didn’t complain, they said “Wow, now we can hear more than Page and Plant.” Nobody seemed to notice when Natalie Merchant left 10,000 Maniacs, and when David Byrne accused the remaining members of Talking Heads of fooling the audience, I remember their fans saying “That’s sad; he’s not the whole band.” So Roger definitely helped this happen with Pink Floyd by not only giving interviews about Momentary Lapse of Reason, but by suing Nick Mason and David Gilmour. I was glad that he decided to patch things up for Live 8, but fans don’t ever need to get involved in that kind of behavior.
Here’s why: musicians are not static entities, and neither are rock bands. Musicians are people, for one thing, and artists for another. They like to try new things, experiment and they don’t stop working, especially not when they have the creative skills of members of Pink Floyd. Musicians are always trying to produce something beautiful, and they would do it no matter what label you slapped on it. Consider that David Gilmour has been a member of other groups, and lent his studio and guitar skills to some of my other favorite artists, like Bryan Ferry and Kate Bush, and produced two (no wait, three) solo albums that are also great to listen to. Nick Mason and David Gilmour (and once Rick Wright) have twice toured as David Gilmour’s solo band, rather than Pink Floyd. The Division Bell is a great album: it increases the dynamic and harmonic range of one of the most dynamically and harmonically challenging rock bands, and also has moments of drama and comedy. The fact that it was the subject of a bitter feud between two people who you’ve never met has little to do with the content of the music (although one of the songs does come awfully close to making this matter).
When people complain about a new album not having the lineup they want, they are not complaining about music. I have always been puzzled by people at concerts who are not listening to the music, but might be looking at the stage persona of the performers (most of them are facing away from the stage or drinking beer). For many people, rock and roll is not at all about listening to the music itself, but about personalities. Again, I say, the personalities involved rarely have an effect on the music, save for changing the personnel that produces the music. I got over the lineup problem a long time ago when I realized that even in bands valued for their lineup, e.g. The Beatles, their albums contained scores of other performers, some of whom are very skilled, and some who are never credited. What matters is the content of the music, and it’s sure interesting who produces that, but it’s not the most important thing. Music is not baseball.
Imagine if Floyd had (a) “stayed together for the kids” and (b) kept on producing sequels to Dark Side of the Moon. They could have done The Darker Side of the Moon, followed by The Even Darker Side of the Moon. But they didn’t. None of their albums sound quite similar when listened to carefully. The only two that are fairly similar are Animals and Wish You Were Here, but neither of those sound anything like Dark Side of the Moon or The Wall. Do you want them to? If I’m really on a DSOTM kick, I can listen to the original, bootlegs and recent live versions. I don’t need the band to reunite so I can have more versions of a masterpiece.
Then there’s the question of authenticity: some people would claim that only the original lineup is worth being called Pink Floyd. Again, Roger actually made this claim. For some people only Pink Floyd with Syd Barrett is the real Pink Floyd. Now come on! I was puzzled with yet another reporter referring to Pink Floyd as a “psychedelic rock” band, which they haven’t been since 1968. This is just an extreme form of golden-age thinking.
All of these claims and complaints ignore the fact that the people involved don’t need to listen to your idea of what they should do. And again, I don’t think you would want them to. How could they produce anything interesting if they were doing it by polling their fans? Real artists surprise people, and I applaud Pink Floyd for doing just that. Roger Waters surprised me by how he put on the shows I saw — I never expected to hear “Dogs” live and I would have been disappointed if he had just replayed The Wall they way I listened to it at home. No, instead I got to see G.E. Smith and Snowy White on the same stage. I never expected that.
As for me, I’m still digesting what David Gilmour did in the eighties. I haven’t even gotten to his later solo work or work with Elton John and B.B. King. He was also a member/producer of Arcadia and Dream Academy, and I still don’t have any of their albums. The chance to hear new work from David Gilmour and Nick Mason together is a great opportunity, especially when I had thought it would never happen. Why bother to complain? Anybody who complains thinks they want Pink Floyd to be what they were in the seventies. However, if you had a time machine and could go see them, you’d probably be shocked at what you saw. It would probably far surpass your expectations in terms of great music and a great show, just guessing from the bootleg recordings that were available. However, a Pink Floyd record on its own is also a work of art that you can listen to any time, and there’s no reason that Nick Mason, David Gilmour, or Roger Waters need to produce another one. However, it’s awfully nice that they will, so let’s not complain.
Here’s an interesting idea: let’s not charge our customers an exhorbitant amount of money for a mediocre product! Music lovers have always known that compact discs cost about $0.25 to produce, and therefore paying more than seventy-two times their production cost has never made sense. However, adding another order of magnitude of stupidity, record executives have been screaming like victims for over ten years, and threatening their customers over peer-to-peer file sharing putting a dent in their profits.
My favorite example comes from a personal (or should I say “impersonal?”) experience: I’m sittin’ at my desk mindin’ my own business one day and receive an email on the local bluegrass music mailing list from Ken Irwin, the founder and president of Rounder Records. Ken was very excited to tell all of us that the Japanese government had sentenced a man to prison time for file sharing. His message was basically “Thank you Japanese government! This is what should happen to people who steal my money!” with the news article attached. How would you react to that? I took it as a threat, and even if it wasn’t, I emailed him back to tell him he was an asshole and I thought he was above such stupid record-executive behavior.
I got a slew of replies saying “Hey, Ken’s a nice guy,” and people willing to agree with him that file-sharing was the problem that was failing to put enough Sushi in Ken Irwin’s mouth. I reminded these people that I handn’t bought a compact disc in years because I DON’T HAVE ANY MONEY. Nor have I paid to download music from $Tunes because on-the-whole downloaded music sounds terrible. In other words, music lovers know that downloading music is not an alternative to buying physical media, however they are still not buying physical media because it costs too much money. It’s not worth it. It’s one thing to buy a Mobile Fidelity digital remaster on vinyl for $60 if you have the right equipment; it’s quite another to pay $18 for a CD that sounds terrible no matter what.
I would rather pay $5 for an amazing sounding record, or a used CD, explore my existing record collection, or use Youtube as an internet jukebox (it sounds like $hit, but it’s free, all I’m losing is musical credibilty). I’m not downloading music peer-to-peer and I’m still not contributing money to the record industry. The other problem is that I can’t buy new CDs because I can’t shop for them: (a) I have little kids who can’t really shop with me, and shopping is half the fun, and (b) the stores barely carry the music I would buy. They hardly carry any music half as old as me (i.e. most of what I listen to).
All of this would be immaterial if the price just went down. If all I had to pay was $1.99, I would go to Amazon.com right now and buy Kate Bush’s first three albums and willingly pay shipping. That’s $12.00 for at least two hours of absolutely brilliant music that would last me for decades. Then I’m giving plenty of money to these recording industry jerks. To do the same with current CD prices, I would be spending a significant part of the week’s groceries, and my family needs to eat more than I need good-sounding Kate Bush media. As Rob Dickens stated (finally!) this is exactly the problem:
“If we lived in a micro-economy, that wouldn’t be a decision,” he added. “You’d just say ‘I like REM’ and you’d buy it.”
The article continues:
Dickens pointed out how albums had become sort of an afterthought for artists in terms of profits a long time ago, Prince having given away copies of his last album for free with various European newspapers and magazines.
Let us also not forget that artists only earn $23.40 for every $1,000 in album sales.
This last statement reminds me of the costs the record industry has really paid for their stupid tactics. The costs of adopting victimhood is losing credibility, and denial — but of course the victims don’t realize that. The other cost is that the real music industry (that is, people who actually make music) has gone to a local level, artists are distributing music on their own terms, and fans are able to connect with their favorite artists through the web.
And since artists are able to have their say when they distribute their own products, vinyl is making a comeback (again). It turns out that musicians love vinyl just about as much as they love making good music. That’s what musicians care about. If they can make enough money to live on and play music, they are happy; just ask The Grateful Dead (they would have been satisfied to make a lot less, actually!).