Steven Wilson: The Gentleman Doth Protest Too Much (Part One)

Take a gifted and successful musician; add a dash of elan, a cup of pomposity, some shoulder chips for spice, ambition and sensitivity to taste, bring to a boil then let simmer and…voila, you have Steven Wilson.

Who, you might ask, is Steven Wilson?

Here is what I had to say, about the man and his band, Porcupine Tree, in early 2009:

Steven Wilson, in short, has been one of the better kept secrets in the industry for some time…(and) for anyone who suspects prog rock is (for better or worse) dead and buried, I offer only two words: Porcupine Tree. Led by the indefatigable Wilson, the band made strides –and accumulated a larger audience– with each successive album, culminating in what is (thus far) their masterpiece, Fear of a Blank Planet.

Here are some thoughts (also from early ’09) about what, at the time, seemed a rather quirky and refreshingly eccentric advocacy of “good sound”:

Wilson very refreshingly marches to his own beat, and his audiophile obsessions are likely to antagonize some of the folks who might otherwise become ardent fans. Their loss. Part of his promotional efforts for the new album included his systematic destruction of several iPods, an attempt to illustrate his contempt for the woeful sound quality of MP3s, and how the current generation has already grown accustomed to dodgy fidelity. He is not a fanatic, however.

I could appreciate, and even endorse his unashamedly sentimental but aesthetically sound stance on quality audio–and the associated commentary (both implicit and explicit) on contemporary laziness, lack of standards, and the less-than-joyful noise our digital files produce. And there is undeniably something quaint, if rather unoriginal, in his nostalgic lamentations for a not-so-distant time when things weren’t so crassly commercialized. Never mind the fact that this position, no matter how genuine or thoughtfully conveyed, is still a blend of crankiness and cliche, the familiar lamentation certain types express regarding each successive generation.

Some perspective would be required at this point, and it is necessary in order to contextualize Wilson’s monomania (pun intended). As it relates to consumer electronics (our toys), we must keep in mind that technology is perpetually in some state of transition. Movies, for instance, were silent, then shown on public screens, then available on private screens (TVs), and now they can be viewed on PCs and smartphones. Music went from vinyl to reel-to-reel to digital, with the hardware constantly becoming smaller to the point where a device holding thousands of songs can now fit snugly in your front pocket. Games have followed a similar course: from cardboard table-sized offerings to free wireless programs that can be played simultaneously by people in different area codes. An associated observation that scarcely needs mentioning is that, in each of these instances, appalled old-timers shrieked about how advancements such as movies with sound or music on discs represented, paradoxically, a backward step for the art form in question.

We can–and should–linger long on the myriad advantages and benefits CE has brought us over this past decade. E-mail and e-books alone have already saved entire forests, not to mention being environmentally-friendly upgrades over costly and inconvenient manufacturing and transportation processes. Remember when portable music meant a portable cassette or CD player that ran on short-lasting and expensive batteries? Now we have tiny, rechargeable devices where we can stores thousands of songs that are available wherever we roam. There are literally dozens of other examples, and not many of us would savor reverting back to the way it used to be.

And speaking of the halcyon days of yesteryear, would Wilson (or anyone) want to step backward into the rigged game we’ve only recently escaped from? With the benefit of hindsight, everyone now knows that the music industry, by taking so long to see the writing on the wall, squandered valuable time to adapt and innovate. The incredibly successful and occasionally sordid history of how records got made and sold too often enriched the labels and disenfranchised the artists (let’s underscore this very relevant development: artists are–or, if they are smart, stand to–make more money and consumers are paying less; the only people generally being left out of the equation are the greedy middlemen who run the labels and used to own the means of production and distribution). Certainly, great strides have been made in the last decade and they are all consistent with the notion of a truly unfettered marketplace that has served to empower musicians–and, by extension, their audience. As a result the benefits are manifold for artists and audience: the entertainment is delivered at a lower cost while greater profits are possible for the people who actually create the content. It is, in short, democracy in effect and yet another illustration of innovation improving an imperfect situation.

Earlier this summer I came across a piece Wilson wrote for Electronic Musician titled “In The Mix: Compression Blues”. In it, Wilson reiterates his withering disdain for cheap (see: free) files that are so easily obtained online. To be certain, Wilson is an aficionado of sound and his street cred (as a musician, producer, and thinker) is unassailable. Indeed, his work on behalf of music the way it should be heard is useful and even more than a little noble. He makes a compelling case that his cause is not merely a matter of optimal sound so much as a deterioration of the relationship we have with art (and artists). In his opinion, back in better days, we had no choice but to cough up money for a new album — or, for the subsequent generation(s), compact disc — and experience it. It was an investment, in other words, not only involving money, but time. And being obliged to familiarize oneself with the work, Wilson argues, involved a seriousness and awareness that seems to be missing today.

That’s fair enough, as far as it goes — and a little goes a long way. At this point, it seems safe to suggest, Wilson runs the risk of being viewed as a bit out-of-touch (at best) and a crank (at worst). To paraphrase Shakespeare, “The gentleman doth protest too much”. His impassioned diatribes, however legitimate and genuine, ultimately convey the less-than-open mind of a curmudgeon who can’t — or won’t — accept the inexorable forward progress that time and technology impels. For better or worse, this is reality, and it is our job — as artists, consumers and critics alike — to recognize trends and turning points and “roll with the changes” (to paraphrase R.E.O. Speedwagon).

Put another way, the question I am more interested in grappling with is how (or can) we balance the extremes so that good music, properly recorded and distributed, can garner a more fair allotment of our love and attention. This is not a trivial issue with the current ubiquity of digital content, much of it free via pirated or shared file exchanges. Put yet another way: is there room in our scared new world for a more old-school equanimity?

The long back story can be succinctly summarized by acknowledging that the battle for shelf space and wallet share was determined this past decade as soon as consumers committed to video, rather than audio upgrades. Flat panel displays, along with digital audio, comprised a one-two punch that knocked the wind out of home audio. Given the choice of upgrading their (increasingly irrelevant) CD players or investing in a high definition flat panel, the vast majority of American consumers chose with their eyes over their ears. In the meantime, the ease and affordability of digital files played on an MP3 player or a PC became the new normal. For the better part of a century, home audio was at the vanguard for all manner of music enjoyment; now it was in danger of becoming obsolete.

Or perhaps it wasn’t. We have seen a minor resurgence of LP sales (and record players!) and most importantly, high-end receivers have begun to incorporate MP3-player capability. As it happens, the digital music revolution may ultimately be seen as an ironic and unexpected gateway to a home audio revival.

Back to the future: will anyone buy CD players or speakers anymore? Even if those types of upgrades are unlikely for the foreseeable future, receiver sales should make steady progress and even yesterday’s home speakers will channel better sound quality than most docking stations. The other important consideration is that of saturation: now that almost everyone has upgraded their video, it is very probable that people will begin to refocus on their audio equipment. Certainly with the advent of 3DTV technology it makes sense to conjecture that dramatically improved visual capabilities will compel more sophisticated audio accompaniment.

The balance may never be restored (certainly not to Steven Wilson and audiophiles’ satisfaction) but it stands to reason that more music fans will be faced with the shock of recognition remembering how good things used to sound in the bad old days. Old school has its charms, but as we see time and again, technology compels convenient and attractive alternatives to give consumers more choices and harmonize the way things used to be with the way they will be tomorrow.