Perfect Sound Forever

Simon Frith

Interview by Jason Gross (May 2002)

Depending on how you see music journalism, Simon Frith is either a sinner or a saint. After the late '60's, rock criticism began to show signs of intellectualism but when a multi-degree threat like Frith came along, academia truly became part of the equation. In his columns for publications on both sides of the Atlantic and in books such as Sound Effects and The Sociology of Rock, there was on display an accelerated level of thoughtfulness and discovery (especially displayed in his genre-defining 'think pieces') of what was really under the veneer of popular music: not the grimy little secrets and dirty lies but what was the true mechanism of the system. To some, this was manna and to others, this was totally against what the spirit of rock and pop was all about. Either way, the writing game had changed and with it, the landscape of its discussion was altered.

 As always, Frith is straddling the realms of education and journalism. He has spent the last three years as a professor at Stirling University in Scotland's Department of Film and Media Studies. At the same time, he has recently edited The Cambridge Companion to Rock and Pop. This interview was done focusing on his essays on the pop music industry and the question of 'what is pop?'

PSF: Why don't the laws of supply and demand apply to CD sales where most of the best-selling items are the same price as the least popular items?

It's a peculiarity of the cultural industries altogether. When you look at things across the board, it's the same as with films- you pay the same to see them regardless of how much it actually costs to make. Clearly, in the record industry, not only do you roughly pay the same price for practically any record, but the retailers will likely discount a popular record to bring you into their stores. On the whole, the more demand for a record, the cheaper it's likely to be, at least in the short run. I think it's simply to do with the way in which the music industry depends on a cross-costing sort of thing: they all invest money on things that don't make money and then they make their money back by selling huge numbers of the ones that do make money. So they're not in the business of trying to balance out details of all the different products that they make, that other companies might be into. They're in the business of maximizing sales of popular items and trying to minimize the sale of unpopular ones. Their 'supply and demand' works in a slightly different system than other sorts of companies.

PSF: Do you see that system changing with the upheavals that have been happening in the industry in the last few years?

It's always been a kind of an assumption in the cultural industry that people don't choose titles by price. They might chose to go to one shop or another shop where a record is cheaper, but they don't choose Eminem rather than Pink or The Streets for price reasons (another reason why all records cost much the same and price variations are mostly a matter of retail discounting). With digital CD's, records can now live forever and there is far more back catalog available and less incentive to buy of records that just came out. So then I suspect that this kind of costing is beginning to have an effect. Back catalog is cheaper and people aren't more likely to buy something that's new, that they never heard of and (also) it costs more. I think that's going to probably expand as we get more digital downloads and those sorts of things although I think that's actually a different market. The increase in availability and choice is going to be huge so the price is going to be a more significant part of that.

PSF: You've talked about how music is omnipresent in our lives. Do you think that 'silence' is going to become a commodity then?

Yes, I think is partly. I think if you look at very expensive holidays where they guarantee that you're get away from people and only hear the sounds of nature (other than the sound of the airplane landing or your car driving off), you'll already find that it's a commodity that people pay for. People will buy particular houses and have fences just to keep themselves away from the world. It would be interesting when people start selling records of silence.

PSF: Well, you have Cage's "4:33" piece...

Yeah, but that's not hugely popular. (laughs)

PSF: As the world gets smaller and smaller, how difficult will it be to maintain distinct music styles?

I'm kind of optimistic about that. Although everybody gets to hear the same sounds in one sense, you'll find people that have different local concerns and traditions. Musicians all over the earth are amazingly adept at finding a personal, intriguing sound and making something new out of it. So if you're out looking for that thing, you'll find Jamaican music- it's been long based on a peculiar hybrid of all sorts of other musics from Europe, Africa, South America and the U.S. And yet, something very distinctive emerged out of it. Jamaican music wouldn't have been possible without all those other things and on the other hand, there's nothing else like it in the world. I feel that this will go on happening as long as you have musicians going on, trying to make a living.

PSF: With media consolidation, is there a challenge against this? Will it become more difficult?

I'm optimistic about music more than I perhaps would be about other media simply because I think music still matters to people in live terms. You can go see a local musician play in a club down the road but you probably won't be able to see Michael Jackson play there so in the very least in that way, there'll always be some interest in local music. No matter how much a chart-topper sells and however much the industry is going to dominate that, they're never going to take away peoples' needs to see music for themselves.

I think one of the things that we really don't know yet is that in lots of ways, the digital revolution has made it possible for that sort of music to move down to the consumer without any huge corporate structure in ways that probably wasn't possible before. Distribution is much easier. It lets very small music scenes communicate with each other without dealing with AOL-Time-Warner. Whether that will all last or whether the digital music system will remain free and easy remains to be seen. It's too early to tell.

PSF: You've talked about generalizations of record collecting habits where girls are 'dupes' and boys are 'cognoscenti.' How do you find this so?

It's just that there's a very strange thing and who knows where it lies? In a course that I was doing, it came out about different peoples' record collections. I found there was a huge difference when we were talking about it in a social way with boy versus girl or whatever. One of the few generalizations you can make is that if a boy likes a record, they'll go out and buy all of them (by an artist). You find that when boys buy a Bon Jovi record for instance, they have to go out and buy all the Bon Jovi records, whereas girls may have two. And the boys are very contemptuous of girls, thinking that they're not serious listeners. And that just kind of struck me through a lot of anecdotal experience- just to hear how girls listen to music, that they're not collectors like boys are. And that's something with a very long history and that goes across any number of cultures too. Being collectors and cognoscenti seems to be a very masculine attribute. How you actually explain that, I absolutely have no idea- what sort of cultural or psychology things are at play and such.

PSF: Is there the possibility of a sea-change with that, especially with the advent of the riot grrl scene and groups of labels springing up around that?

No, not really. I think that was extremely important in giving access to women to make music but I don't think it's particularly had a major effect on collecting. I'm fairly certain that if you survey people, you'll find that girls are more likely to have female acts in their collection than boys are. That doesn't mean that they collect every single riot grrl record, which I'm sure some boys do.

PSF: You seem to see music journalism as mostly a feedback mechanism for the record companies. Is that a fair characterization?

Yeah but I didn't mean to knock critics in particular- I was just speaking about how it works within the industry structure. I think what record companies get from critics is that they're the first people to respond to a record with a degree of independence, given that they're trying to keep in touch with their readers who they're writing for. Therefore, record companies get an early indication of whether this record is going to work or not or whether it's worth promoting or not. I think that's quite significant as well. On the whole though, I don't think critics have a lot of influence on what people chose to buy. Hearing a record is much more important to them than reading about it.

PSF: In that context, you're talking about reviews instead of think pieces?

Yes. Most (music) journalism that you see is day-to-day, week-by-week where people are responding to something on tour, somebody playing a gig or somebody's record that's just come out. Think pieces, which help define a genre, may well become that much rarer.

PSF: What are the purpose of those (think) pieces then?

I think partly it's to do with a way for a freelance journalist to make money by selling a story! (laughs) You know, fitting in an arts page and being an intellectual of a certain sort. I think in less cynical terms, they can be important in kind of articulating the beliefs of a particular sort of musical community so you have a (written) record of a particular genre at a particular time. NME, one of the last remaining music weeklies in Britain, still articulates more or less what it sees to be the taste of its readership, what they mean to the history of rock and what sort of band they've taken up and why. They give people in the industry and the audience a term to talk about. I don't think that happens until after the event though.

PSF: What is the importance of those kinds of pieces to the readership?

I don't know. When I was on Melody Maker (another British music weekly), we always discovered that from the readers' point of view, they were infinitely more interested in news and reviews and upcoming concerts than they were in think pieces. People would read about artists that they were interested in. It was unclear whether they were interested in reading intellectual think pieces about the state of music. I suspect think pieces about music would have to be considered more along the lines of think pieces about other art forms rather than in the context of rock journalism. In other words, if you take a good think piece journalist like Bob Christgau in the Voice, he would be read alongside other pieces about literature or art or theatre.

PSF: But you'd also see record reviews there (the Voice) too.

Yes but they seem to me to have a rather different function.

PSF: On a different topic, what about the importance of radio and how it creates communities? Is this still possible with the consolidation that's been happening with Clear Channel? In the States, DJ's are doing the same show that's being broadcast in many different markets.

I'm sure you're right about the States and I haven't really been there long enough to listen to radio to know. In Britain where there's always been a national radio service, which is different from the States obviously, there are specialist shows on in the evening which have some function of binding particular communities (particularly around dance scenes). But I think the only place where it really matters in Britain is actually Pirate radio. It's much more localized and they broadcast to and for particular ethnic groups or particular taste groups in the area. It helps to bring in an edge of illegality as well as a musical community.

PSF: How much of that culture still proliferates in England?

It's very locality dependent. There are a lot of Pirate stations in London and in big cities like Manchester. Not very much here in Scotland. Our radio is different from yours particularly with commercial radio. I think the BBC, both locally and nationally, still has specialist music shows which aim at very specific audiences and matter to people, particularly outside of the metropolitan centers. There, you have a different feeling that you're not particularly part of what's going on in the city.

PSF: Is that because there's so few national broadcasting stations in England?

Yeah, it's partly because of that. There's very few national broadcasting stations anyway- BBC's the only non-commercial one. The other commercial ones are either talk, sport or classical music or mainstream American-style pop program, which really don't have much influence on anybody who gets listeners.

PSF: Changing gears again, do you see film and music's symbiotic relationship changing in the future where one may dominate the other?

That's something that you'd probably know how to answer better in the States than I would here. You still have the phenomenon that big hits on the single charts come from films, but that's always been the history. It's also helped along by radio or TV but films have always been very significant for the record industry, especially when you have the same films playing around the country at the same time. I suspect that the integration of these big corporations of film and music companies are setting a continual pace for 10 or 20 years and an overall package will dominate both films and the music- which films get released and on what schedule and how much investment is made is as much determined by film schedule as it is by music schedule. That doesn't really happen in Britain- we don't have that sort of film industry.

PSF: You've said that records are made for the media to get sold to the public. If that's so, why then is the failure rate so high?

One of the interesting questions would be, 'if they didn't concentrate so much on the media, would that failure rate be so high?' It's probably because the record industry is so big and that all sorts of people are doing different things. But I think the interesting thing there is the failure rate of people who are big stars. In the last twelve months for example, there was Mariah Carey. Given everything with the big push, it shows that this kind of thing doesn't necessarily work, anymore than it would if she was unknown without a large investment. So I guess there's still that uncertainty where consumers can't be manipulated with total efficiency.

PSF: How do explain acts that sell well without much praise from the media like Britney Spears or N'Sync?

I think that just confirms that critics aren't necessary for selling things. Those sorts of acts never reached their markets via the critics. Nobody rushed out to see what Rolling Stone thought of Britney Spears before they bought the record anymore than they would have done with the Monkees. The pop world pretty much doesn't really work with critics like that. The interesting question is then 'are there worlds which do work through critics?' On the whole, the answer is probably no. Famously, Led Zeppelin became huge even though Rolling Stone panned all their records.

PSF: Also, you had Motley Crue, who proudly displayed all the negative articles about them in their press kits.

(laughs) Yes, in the great tradition of Grand Funk Railroad.

PSF: You've said that the gate-keeper model (where certain stations or programmers or such allow only certain releases to reach a mainstream audience) is obsolete. Why are certain indie label releases able to outsell major label releases then?

Obviously, they may manage to get access and therefore, the gatekeepers played a role in letting them through and stopping other things. It may be that in some genres, there remain significant gatekeepers particularly in the indie sector in terms of critics or particular radio stations or particular shops. Although my gut feeling is that if they're really good... The key case would be Nirvana and how they outsold corporate music in some sort of ways. I suspect that what happened there was that MTV had quite a major significant effect in the sense that they're a significant gatekeeper. But I'm sure that there's other things going on with independent judgments to those being made by MTV or the sorts of deals being made by the record companies or groups.

PSF: MTV played their "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video incessantly so that obviously had a big impact.

That's right. Whether that was simply the influence of Geffen or whether it was simply the taste of MTV where they realized that this was a great video and made an audience for it, I have no idea.

PSF: You portray the internal battles at record companies as happening between the A&R and marketing departments. Wasn't it always like this? If it was, what's changed then?

I'm sure you're right! (laughs) Maybe it was just that people studying it at the time weren't aware of what (was) happening. I think what's really changed is probably that the market departments' powers have grown, partly just in terms of budget. Just as you see in the Hollywood film industry, you see a big rise in the cost of marketing a product, a film. The cost of production is matched by the cost of promotion. I think also the cost of promotion in the record industry has steadily risen over the last 30 years. Obviously, people who are in involved with those sorts of budgets are going to take on more power within the music industry and discussions about who to sign and how to market them. So my sense is that the model has changed since 30 years ago when A&R people tended to make the decisions about who to sign and then marketing people got involved in a discussion of how they'd sell them. Some people suggest that marketing people are now just as involved in the act of signing people so that they come into play at a much earlier stage to make their arguments and become a kind of equal corporate division.

PSF: You've also discussed the changes in microphones and how that shifted the power in the industry from the songwriters to the singers. Are you seeing that in a Marshall McLuhan sort of way as the message being the medium itself (the technology itself is more important than what comes out of it)?

Not exactly. I think it's more that the focus of attention to the music shifted. If you look at the relationship of the singer to the band from 1925 to 1935 in American jazz and pop, the vocal part seems remarkably short as opposed to the longer instrumental parts. Over a period of the next 10-15 years, the singer became more dominant because their voice could be heard- the microphone was louder and they could use their voice in a much more emotional instrument, parallel to the other musical instruments. Also, it's just simply because of the way that we respond to people and their voices. It becomes much easier to establish a personality with a voice. Selling the music through a personality becomes increasingly through the singer, through the song or the words. So a technological form enabled that change to happen. But I think that content is still relevant- I just think the content is now the words of the song, the emotional expression of the singer and so on.

PSF: Is there any other technology out there that you think will cause another shift like that in the music industry?

The jury's still out on this but in a funny sort of way, the rise of digital technology where different sounds are being laid over one another in a particular mix has had the effect of moving voices from being the central sound. It makes the actual process of layering more significant. One of the things that used to be interesting about post-digital dance music and its rise was how much less important the voice was. The character or personality of the singer had been taken over by a soundscape in a song. I kind of doubt that this will have a major effect. I think that we still need personalities to grip onto though so those things in a sense won't go away. I think it has changed things a bit but I don't think there's going to that sort of complete shift.

PSF: What about Internet technology? How might that effect the equation of how songs are created?

It could but I think that at the moment, there's no real sign of that. It's very hard to predict with this sort of technology. It almost certainly will change things but at the moment, it hasn't changed compositional principals, it's changed compositional possibilities. People don't have to be in the same place at the same time at all. You can communicate and you can make your record 'virtually.' You can communicate directly with your audience this way also without a mediator- you can sit down, play something, put it in your computer and then someone else on their computer can download it without having to pass through any other mediator. So all those things are possible but I haven' seen anything that's really going to shift on the whole the way that music gets made and listened to. It's another possibility of communication but it hasn't happened yet where we're now communicating different things.

PSF: What about the rock power ballad? Why did you think that it was such an important development in music?

I think it was important because it was a hybrid between the popular sentimental song tradition and the rock tradition, which had appointed itself as an alternative to that. It's kind of interesting that they came together. I suppose more significantly for me, it came to define for generations the particular way that the articulation of certain emotions works, which is not irrelevant to the genres which it came from. It's kind of interesting it seems to me that the kind of convention of emoting became established in that period by taking what were seen as quite different traditions and fusing them.

PSF: You've said that 'it's misleading to equate pop with record sales.' Your theory is that pop music as measured by charts isn't really pop music per se?

I think I'm saying it the other way around- if something's not very popular, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's not pop. If you simply go by the definition of sales, partly you would take away that pop music that isn't even commodified. There's all sorts of popular music that you hear like childrens' songs or things that people sing at karaoke bars. You have to think of music-making not simply in terms of its recorded form.

The other thing that I was thinking was that pop also represents a kind of a genre so that there are 'pop' records that are made for this market. Therefore, I wouldn't want to say that they're not 'pop' records just because they didn't sell or make anyone popular. You can talk about it being a bad or a failed pop record or whatever it might be.

PSF: Is it more accurate to say that 'pop music' is the music of the people as opposed to what's on the charts?

No, I wouldn't want to define 'pop' as a music of the people either. That begs all sorts of questions about who 'the people' are. I think it's music that's available and that people can listen to without needing special education though they might need the experience of listening to that sort of music before.

PSF: You also say that you see pop as songs that we listen to without meaning. Does that mean that it's just ambience then?

Yes, I think it can be ambience. There's a kind of music that we all know. It's in the background but you don't really notice it. On the other hand, there's probably people singing along with it, remembering the words without even thinking about it. It really interests me with the sort of circumstances that records became something more than background.

PSF: That seems kind of a contradiction that these records can be part of the background while being something that actively engages peoples' imagination.

Yes, that's fascinating and then you wonder 'how does one find oneself switching one's attention like that?'

PSF: And the answer is...?

Who knows? If I knew that, I'd be making records! (laughs) I think it's partly personal and then we also find that we have enough in common. All of us have had the experience of being in a shop and hearing something where you think 'that's great- I gotta find out what that was.'

PSF: In your mind, what qualifies as good journalism?

I think good journalism does two things. One is that it surprises me. It's like what we were talking about where a record comes out of the ambience and strikes you. There's so many words written about music that no one could possibly read all of it. I would say that with 80% of what I read, from the first three sentences, I know what the argument is going to be and then there's no real need to bother. So good writing is something that makes me want to keep going. You think 'I wonder what they're going to say next?' or 'I wonder what they mean by this?' It can grab your attention and that can be with the style or the content or whatever.

The other thing I find in good music journalism is that you feel that this person has genuinely responded to a piece of music that makes me want to go and listen to it. That's a lot of music-industry journalism and personality journalism but I think that some people can write and make you feel that something is really happening in the music. That's a much harder skill to come by.

PSF: Why do you still write about music after doing it for so long?

I think it's probably the critic's equivalent of being a DJ. I think a genuine disc jockey is someone that, regardless if they're paid or not, has a desperate urge when they hear a record, to play it for somebody else. I think I have this (same) desperate urge when I think something about a record. I tell everybody else that they should think that about it too. (laughs) I still find that music makes me think. It's not that often that I have to do hack writing where someone's telling me 'you have to write about Elton John' and you think 'well what's there that's interesting to say here?' There's still enough times where I think that other people would be interested in what I have to say so I'm going to write it.

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER