[3 October 2007]
Photograph by Soul Portrait
Radiohead has announced on its website that its new album In Rainbows will be available for download from its website at a price to be determined by the buyer (on October 10) and in December as a boxed set of vinyl albums. Artists taking control for the selling of their recorded musical works, and the music being simultaneously an artwork and advertisement for itself is nothing new. Singer and lyricist Johnny Mercer founded Capitol Records in 1942, and in the same year the Musicians Union called on its members to strike to protest at recorded music being played on the radio for free, fearing that it was putting musicians out of work. We’ve circled back now to the realisation that was arrived at after the musicians strike, that the piece of music being played on the radio is an advertisement for the musicians and their live performances and other types of merchandise, as well as the record itself.
The recorded musical object may now be almost literally something throwaway. A few weeks ago the Sydney Morning Herald gave away a compilation Jazz cd followed by a soul compilation in order to make cheesy marketing puns, make your Sundays swing, give your Sundays soul with the Sydney Morning Herald. In July Prince gave away cd copies of his new album Planet Earth with the British Mail on Sunday. And Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell bypassed record stores and are selling their new albums at Starbucks. I’d buy Joni’s new album Shine through Amazon’s new MP3 sales center if it weren’t limited to the U.S.
What’s fascinating is how the new sales systems are subtly beginning to affect criticism. I first found out about Bruce Springsteen’s new album Magic from Bruce himself, through an e-mail, because I’d signed-up for his newsletter. A link directed me to Amazon.com for the preview of the video for the song “Radio Nowhere”. In the not-so-distant past I probably would have found out about a new Springsteen album from Rolling Stone, or a pre-release story in the New York Times. I don’t read the customer reviews or put much store by the purchase suggestions on Amazon.com but it occurred to me that while I’m making a purchase on something I already trust from another source (a William Gibson novel, because I read every novel he writes) I’ll listen to an Amazon.com podcast interview with Gibson and listen around the marketing pitches.
And I’ve unthinkingly gone to the author interviews on the website for the Powells bookshop when I want to find out something about a book I’m interested in. There’s an interview with Greil Marcus on Powells.com about his new book The Shape of Things To Come. I’m an indirect writer reading and thinking about things from a distance and probably too much of my fieldwork is through a trip to the library so I’m inspired by what he says about the directness of his writing, that insights come to him from visiting the places where events happened.
I’m a great believer in ambient research. Once I was talking with a woman who was writing a book on the Lindbergh kidnapping. I asked her if she’d been to the house where it took place — or, supposing the house might have been torn down, to the place where it had been. No, why? she asked. Because there might be something there that would open doors for you that no one else would ever think to mention, I said. That’s what I learned when I went to Zurich in 1983 to visit the site of the Cabaret Voltaire, where dada was proclaimed? invented? discovered? in 1916. It was on a strikingly twisted old-town street. Nearby was a plaque indicating the house where Lenin had lived before returning to Russia on the sealed train. The building that had housed the Cabaret Voltaire had a plaque too, with graffiti I tried to convince myself was interesting. But no one had thought to mention that a nightclub where the 20th century first announced itself was now the Teen and Twenty Disco.
And there are original essays on Powells.com. My friend Damian had been mesmerised by Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi and after swooning gloriously over the book myself (which I read in India, after staring at a sweetly kitten-like Bengal Tiger batting at a rope in the Mysore Zoo) I was compelled to read the essay Yann Martel contributed to Powells.com on how influence, inspiration and hard work led to The Life of Pi.
I visited all the zoos I could find in the south of India. I interviewed the director of the Trivandrum Zoo. I spent time in temples, churches and mosques. I explored the urban settings for my novel and took in the nature around them. I tried to immerse myself as much as possible in the Indianness of my main character. After six months I had enough local colour and detail.
I returned to Canada and spent a year and a half doing research. I read the foundational texts of Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. I read books on zoo biology and animal psychology. I read castaway and other disaster stories.
All the while, in India and in Canada, I took notes. On the page, in a smashed-up, kaleidoscopic way, Life of Pi began to take shape. I took a while to decide what animal would be my main animal protagonist. At first I had an elephant in mind. The Indian elephant is smaller than the African, and I thought an adolescent male would fit nicely in the lifeboat. But the image of an elephant in a lifeboat struck me as more comical than I wanted. I changed to a rhinoceros. But rhinos are herbivores and I could not see how I could keep a herbivore alive in the high seas. And a constant diet of algae struck me as monotonous for both reader and writer, if not for the rhino. I finally settled upon the choice that in retrospect seems the obvious one: a tiger. The other animals in the lifeboat ? the zebra, the hyena and the orang-utan ? arose naturally, each one a function of a human trait I wanted to embody, the hyena cowardliness, the orang-utan maternal instincts and the zebra exoticism.
I’m an intrepid consumer of media. Today I was standing in front of the foreign newspapers at my local newsagent in Kings Cross, trying to decipher them, grabbing at unfamiliar mastheads. And through the combination of training in analog 20th century journalism and writing about 21st century digital media (and talking to the inventors of new formats and artists who are experimenting with them) I hope I have a good radar for what’s worthwhile and trustworthy. Things are different with books and music. I’m a consumer first, my interest is mostly recreational. I tend to read and re-read the same authors and listen to and listen for new works recommended by musicians I’m already familiar with: I was a music journalist first, and most of the bands that I knew and wrote about as a teenager are still doing worthy, even extraordinary works. I can navigate around the marketing on sales sites because I don’t need to be sold, I’m already buying. But what about authors I don’t know about and that friends don’t tell me about, how do I find out about them if the Los Angeles Times Book Review page isn’t something I read very much any more and I’m suspicious of marketing without a context?