UPDATES – November 18th
-A new post with Beck’s quotes from last week’s pagina12.com interview transcribed directly from a recording of the interview (as opposed to the rough translations used in this post) has been posted here. In addition to clarifying exactly what Beck said about Spotify and his spine, it also reveals other updates, including Beck’s plans to record an album of Song Reader material.
CORRECTION – November 16th
Beck never mentioned David Bowie when discussing the increased pace of the music industry. Chalk it up to lost in translation of translation (apparently the confusion stemmed from him saying “the next day”).
UPDATES – November 14th
-Roque Casciero, the reporter who did the original interview for pagina12.com (posted in Spanish), confirmed the translations in this post are “reflected correctly.” The confusion over which film Beck compared listening to streaming music was like watching on your phone has been clarified. It’s Citizen Kane (not The Citizen).
-More tickets for the (technically sold out) November 24th Song Reader concert in LA discussed at the bottom of this article are being released in released in spurts. Hurry.
-Watch Beck live at Buenos Aires’ Planeta Terra Festival tonight at 9:45 EST here.
-Check out reviews with pictures from his recent shows in Uruguay and Chile. A great set of photos from Chile is here.
Beck played Chile, Uruguay and Brazil this past week, his first shows in the region since opening The Police’s 2007 South America reunion dates. In an interview published yesterday by Argentina’s pagina12.com ahead of Thursday’s mini-tour-ending set at Buenos Aires’ Planeta Terra Festival Beck explained the near six year gap between his last album (2008’s Modern Guilt) and his next (Morning Phase, due February 2014). (Thanks to the totally awesome Beck megasite whiskeyclone.net for bringing attention to this.)
What took so long? We already knew he was sitting on material. Beck revealed to Triple J radio last November he “started a record, largely recorded in 2008.” This followed mxdwn‘s extensive interview with Beck bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen mentioning Beck’s busy 2012 recording schedule. “I would estimate that there are currently about three or four albums’ worth of material floating around,” Justin said in October 2012. “Essentially, he has to decide which one he wants to finish.” Beck further confirms in the new interview with pagina12.com that he “had an album recorded in late 2008 and after a while it stopped ringing fresh… Now I’m releasing songs on my own label, slowly, yet I’m working on other albums” (note all quotes from pagina12.com were published in Spanish but are translated back into English for this post).
Between albums Beck took time to observe shifts in music. He tells pagina12.com “the music business is changing so much, and the way people listen to music is changing. So I thought a lot about what it means to make music, do people care?”
Citing an example in the frenzy leading up to the release of David Bowie’s The Next Day, which fizzled by the time the record was released, Beck continues, “it seems that major artists release an album and the next day no one talks about it.”
With the pace of music media as it is now and “new bands every day” Beck reflects “I feel for many musicians it takes some time to acclimate to the new environment, we are trying to figure out what it all means. As a society, what does it all mean? What is this doing to our brains, our nervous systems and our souls?”
Beck has expressed a similar uncertainty before, for instance when the NY Times asked him in 2008 about his plans upon completing his contract with DGC Records. It’s worth noting it took half a decade for Beck to sign with Capitol for the pending release of Morning Phase, and as recently as this summer was still reportedly planning to issue his next albums independently (as he did with three 12″ singles this year on his own FONOGRAF imprint). Could the decision of which label to sign with – or whether to sign at all – have been another part of the explanation for the nearly six years between his last album and his next?
“I think most musicians feel alienated from the business side of music,” Beck noted to pagina12.com. “We are in a business that was created by business people. And that’s how the world works, because music is like any other product they have to sell…But if left to musicians it would be something completely different, I’m sure. I try to keep that in mind.”
Beck’s evaluation of industry changes perhaps partly explain – or at least parallel – his decision last year to release new music only in the form of his Song Reader sheet music book. With both the FONOGRAF releases and the book he seems to be thinking through how he wants each piece of his music delivered to the world, as opposed to just issuing it all on conventional albums. The selling of a physical products also aligns with his view of streaming services. Prompted to comment on the recent controversy between Thom Yorke and Spotify Beck tells pagina12.com the rise of these sites are “inevitable, it’s something that is coming like it or not. But it does beg the question of how it can sustain because what Spotify pays me is not even enough to pay the musicians playing with me or the people working on the record. The model does not work.” He suggests Spotify rates being too low could change the music itself, as artists unable to afford to hire musicians, producers and engineers do everything themselves, “something that many people are doing and that is fine, but it would just make another kind of music.”
He can’t be that opposed to Spotify, as he recently shared this playlist from his official Spotify account. It’s an issue apparently on his mind though. “I think the saddest thing about streaming is the issue of sound quality,” he says. “It’s like watching Citizen Kane on your phone. That’s what people are listening to!”
Note it’s not clear from the translation if he means The Citizen, or Citizen Kane. The latter would make more sense contextually given its masterpiece reputation, but the former seems what pagina12.com wrote. UPDATE – Roque Casciero, the pagina12.com journalist who conducted the interview with Beck, confirmed it was Citizen Kane and the confusion stemmed from the film’s name being simply “El Ciudadano” in Argentina.)
He concludes “hopefully, we will find the way to change that,” referring to the low sound standards of digital music and bringing to mind the speculation Morning Phase will be one of the first albums issued on Neil Young’s Pono high quality audio format. In fact Pono has a deal with Universal, the parent company of Capitol. Though Beck doesn’t discuss this, he does praise Neil’s work in saying vinyl is “inconvenient but it is a beautiful object and I think it will outlast the CD. There are many opportunities to improve digital files and I know that Neil Young is working on a system for that… Eventually it will happen and people will fall in love with the music.”
Speculation aside, Beck specifies a few other reasons for the elapsed time since his last album. He took “a few years” building his own studio and producing other artists, saying of the latter it’s “just something that I always wanted to do but had not had time for in my career.” Speaking of his production work for Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Thurston Moore, and Dwight Yoakam he says “in the last five years I decided to have more time to devote to producing. I think it was healthy to be on the other side of the glass in the studio. I gained perspective from helping others.”
The most surprising revelation however is an unspecified health concern. “I had some injuries, I had severe damage to my spine, but now it’s improving so I’m back in the music. It was a long, long recovery. Lately I concentrated on playing guitar. I do not think I can move again as before, although I can give a lot onstage.”
Worry not. As anybody who has seen one of his recent electric shows can attest, Beck can still bust a move – just maybe not the splits he did in his 20s. Beck will be back onstage in the US on November 24th for a special Song Reader show at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles with guests Van Dyke Parks, Jack Black, Jarvis Cocker, Jenny Lewis, Childish Gambino, John C. Reilly, Moses Sumney and others. Beck’s father, David Campbell, will conduct the concert. You can win a trip to LA with free tickets to the November 24th show by submitting your own version of “Sorry” from Beck’s Song Reader to songreader.net. Download the sheet music for free, upload your take of the tune, or listen to others’ – here. For reference, a high quality bootleg of Beck’s version of the song from his Newport Folk Fest headlining 2013 set is above. By all means don’t stick with Beck’s styling’s though….