Taking the long view on popular music

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To Norway, for nostalgia

Debates about the future of music raged at the By:Larm festival in Oslo.

Neneh Cherry in concert (Getty Images)
Neneh Cherry in concert. Photograph: Getty Images

By:Larm Festival, Oslo: February 13-16

It’s hard to say exactly when rock music became an intellectual pursuit, or whether it should be. But the latest raft of discussions on vinyl and rock heritage represent the arrival, on prime-time TV, of a debate that was until recently rather abstract, reserved for people within the industry worried about their jobs. The problem is that when the same ground is trodden time and again – devaluation of product leads to devaluation of art itself – it’s all negative. The older generation draws a chasm between themselves and the younger, suggesting the young just don't love music the way they do.

So it was refreshing to see the debate broadened out at Oslo’s By:Larm festival this weekend. The event (a kind of “rock” symposium by day, showcase for hot Scandinavian bands by night) made you realise that we’re lucky to be caught in the middle of this huge cultural shift – because it’s making us talk and it’s making us care. Discussions about digital music turn into discussions about globalisation, provoking a kind of fist-waving, coffee-house resistance in small pockets all over the city. At the seminar called Who Owns My Record Collection, someone recalls how Bruce Willis apparently tried to bequeath his vast iTunes collection to his daughters only to discover that it doesn't technically belong to him and will revert to Apple after his death (the story was a hoax, designed to draw attention to the fact that we're only "renting" the music we buy). Damon Krukowsi (from the dream pop band Galaxie 500) draws a parallel between music and bookselling, comparing the fate of small record labels with that of small suppliers at the hands of Borders and Barnes & Noble. He was a bookseller himself, for a while: he noticed that the large stores were ordering anything with “Paris” in the title, because it looked good on their displays. Spotify needs to start cataloguing with a depth that reflects the power it has over music consumption: those who pay for its services should be able to search by producer, bass-player, lead-guitarist – not just artist and album.

The guests talking at By:Larm are a certain kind of musician. We’ve got a lot of time nowadays for “non-popstars”, the artists who used to be in bands, who now write books, make films, as well as turn out the occasional record. Bill Drummond, Julian Cope, Tracey Thorne: these people seem to represent the survivors, the mavericks, equipped with the brains not to get too starry-eyed about the old days and find new things to do.

It’s among these people that some of the most positive views can be heard. Bob Stanley from St Etienne – who looks like a bus driver, writes books on architecture and is more interested in making films about London than writing songs – points out that every record belongs to the format it first appeared in, taking some gloss off the love affair with vinyl. “Edison stood by the wax cylinder as the ultimate format until he died,” he points out; tapes and CDs were loved by those that grew up with them: digital has a value too, we just don’t quite know it yet.

Ten years ago there may not have been a packed house for an hour-long Q & A with Neneh Cherry, but then again ten years ago her most recent album – recorded with skronking Swedish jazz trio The Thing – would not have got extended, positive coverage in all the broadsheets either. We are far more open-minded to music than we have ever been. We honour the backstage men, the producers and arrangers, in a way that we never did before, partly because we’ve realised they all have something interesting to say. Van Dyke Parks (composer, producer of The Beachboys’ SMiLE, member of Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention) is a kind of Mark Twain figure in music now, hired for his aphorisms and outsider observations on the world of rock: “Zappa couldn’t tell a joke without a victim to it...” “Harry Nilsson was a conformational guy. Tell him what date you were born and he’d know what day of the week it was”. But it’s his comments about the future that give Friday night the feel of a political rally. “We are a global village: rock has become the lingua franca. As Phil Ochs said, "I would be in exile, but everywhere’s the same".

Parkes, 70, has recently been working with Skrillex: the 25-year-old producer called him claiming they’d “destroy the world together” and that was enough. He wonders whether we’ll go back to old models of private patronage for musicians in the absence of royalties. “I am not an old codger who refuses to move with the times. I am an 'old hippie' – which is what people say when they mean a liberal.”

Debates about the preservation of culture are always political. We’re not “moaning” about the good old days in music – we’re just in the grip of a kind of cultural anxiety that has returned time and again throughout history whenever things seem to be changing at a pace beyond our understanding. When the future looks like the new dark ages, nostalgia is the obvious refuge. In the past that nostalgia has been applied to literature, or painting, or poetry, or architecture. Now it’s simply music’s turn.