Beck Does Not Rant
In almost every interview he’s ever given Beck’s spoken slowly and softly. At times he has a detached persona, seemingly not because he doesn’t care but because he’s lost in his own thoughts. He’s reflective. He’s humble.
So it’s particularly peculiar to see music news sites spin some of his recent comments into posts with titles like “Beck Slams Music Industry and Spotify.” These posts all stem from a November 13th Future Heart article which extensively quoted an interview Beck conducted the day before with Página/12 ahead of his return to Argentina to headline Buenos Aires’ Planeta Terra Festival. Beck gave the interview in English, Página/12 translated it to Spanish for their Argentine readership, and I translated it back to English – a process that is admittedly flawed, but the best I had to work with. Since then I’ve exchanged numerous messages with Roque Casciero, the interviewer for Página/12, and he’s sent me an audio recording of his exchange with Beck to correct the inevitable errors in the translation of a translation. In fact, give or take words substituted with synonyms here and there, the gist of what Beck said survived in tact through the two translations. The real misconceptions that have spread all over the internet in the past few days come not from translation errors, but other (English) sites re-framing what Beck said into hastily thrown together, retweet-enticing, comment-engaging, click bait.
True to character, hearing Beck speak to Roque about the music industry and Spotify he’s clearly not slamming either. But that’s apparent to anybody familiar with Beck and either Página/12‘s or my posts, even without hearing the recording. It’s not an accident I didn’t mention Spotify until the seventh paragraph of my article (or in the final eight). His comments on the service were merely one part of a larger discussion about changes in the music industry and how they’re inevitable but many sites isolated that section to create an image of Beck on a tirade similar to Thom Yorke and others. The reality is he spoke about the service only as a direct response to being asked about it, and calmly at that. On the recording he is polite and low key throughout the entire seventeen minute interview, typically with a matter of fact, occasionally detached, tone of voice. He gives each question thoughtful consideration and seems genuinely friendly (at the end saying “Thank you, yeah good talking to you,” then warmly raising the pitch of his voice the way your favorite neighbor might bid farewell, “OK, bye. Thank you Roque!“) Yet sites have painted an impression of Beck in a combative mode. True, he doubted if Spotify is an economically sustainable model. And yes he’s disappointed with the sound quality. But he didn’t rant.
Hear for yourself in the below excerpts from the interview recording:
When you read his actual comments in context on either Página/12‘s or my posts there’s no indication he was trying to start a debate, or even join one. He was reflective, philosophical even. Where did these sites get a hint otherwise? To clarify once and for all here are two unedited quotes transcribed word-for-word directly from the interview recording:
“I think every once in a while you have to stand back and take stock of where things are and the music business is changing so much, and the way people listen to music is changing. So I really thought a lot about what does it mean to make music, do people care?”
“I feel comfortable making music and playing music [but] the music business side of it is I think alien for most musicians, it’s not natural. I think if you left all the musicians to their own devices and told them come up with a quote ‘music business’ it wouldn’t be anything like the business that we’re in. We’re in a business that was created by, by, you know, business people. And that’s the way the world works because everything – you know it’s like any other product they have to sell it, they have to figure out how to get it to people. But if you left it to musicians it would be something totally different, I’m sure. I try to keep that in mind.”
Where It’s At
How is it Beck stated the obvious and was suddenly being labeled a “Spotify hater” and portrayed as an “old man on the front porch going ‘that gosh darn music business is not the way that it used to be’?” Or, more generally, why is it sites spread a false impressions of Beck or anyone? Let’s begin at the start….
Roque Casciero is a veteran journalist whose resume includes regular contributions to Rolling Stone Argentina among other magazines, his book Arrogante Rock: Conversaciones Con Babasonicos, and an editor position at Página/12, where he’s worked for fifteen years. He’s also a journalism professor at Artilaria. And this wasn’t the first time he’s interviewed Beck. But all these credentials don’t relieve the pressure of being assigned his interview with Beck on short notice last week, leaving him without his usual prep time, then having to quickly translate Beck’s words to Spanish for his readers and write them into an article on a tight deadline. This perhaps set up his article to have minor errors, though comparing what he wrote to the recording there’s virtually no discrepancies. It was only after sites began copying The Future Heart English translations – re-framing Beck’s quotes into rushed posts – that what Beck actual said became distorted.
Stereogum was the first to republish my translation with Tom Breihan astutely (and comically) referencing Beck’s ambiguity towards Spotify by calling his piece “Beck Joins The Anti-Spotify Club, Shares Spotify Playlist.” Tom was also clear with readers regarding uncertainties in the translations, specifically which film Beck compared watching on your phone to listening to streaming music. I published my English translations last Wednesday night, Stereogum republished first thing the next morning, and several sites followed within an hour after. I tried not to put word in Beck’s mouth and clearly note when I was speculating, and Tom was careful to note possible errors, but most of the sites that followed weren’t so attentive. Read the posts in the sequence they were published and you can almost see a direct correlation – the further they get from the original articles, the further they get from the truth. This is a dynamic that plays out on music news sites constantly.
It doesn’t matter which site breaks news, all the others will quickly copy it into their own posts, each interjecting their own interpenetration – usually not of the information source, but rather the report it copied from. There’s a big difference between writing a story after observing its developments for some time, and throwing a piece together in minutes that’s nothing more than another site’s work paraphrased. Even if the latter is trying to be accurate they’re prone not to be because they don’t grasp what they are writing about the way an author does who has taken time and effort to follow a story and figure out how to put it in words. It becomes like a game of “Telephone” where the copiers doesn’t recognize how their minor rewordings and rephrasings imply false impressions that in turn become the basis of further errors in the posts that copy them. This isn’t to say the problem is “lazy journalism.” To be sure, some of these sites are successful only because of pure will – writers tirelessly racing against their perception of the speed of music news, and obsessively looking for more stories to report. Rather it’s to point out many sites lack the necessary resources to get facts straight, or even to update errors.
For example, while translating the original interview I suspected Beck compared the sound quality of streaming music to watching Citizen Kane on your phone, though the title I had to translate was simply “El Ciudadano.” The following day I confirmed the film with Roque and updated my post. By then numerous sites had already copied the quote as “The Citizen” without noting I was unsure what Beck had said to begin with. I’ve since left comments or tweeted at many of these sites to correct this or other false impressions they created taking Beck’s quotes out of context. Only Stereogum has updated their post. Some have deleted my comments, as though they are opposed to being corrected.
An accurate, thoughtful approach takes time and focus which continues even after the story is published and the initial wave of traffic has subsided. But time and focus are luxuries most sites simply can not afford, especially when they are writing numerous posts at once. They operate on a model that demands them post quickly, numerous times per day. The more pages they post, the more traffic they can draw, the more ad revenue they can earn.
Which isn’t to suggest they’re greedy. After all, writing music news on the internet isn’t exactly a lucrative career for anybody, but what’s more it’s not uncommon for posts to be written without any pay, even on established sites. Aspiring writers get more exposure than they would if they published any other way (and possibly free concert tickets, or other goodies), and the site gets the content its very existence depends on for free. It’s a win-win, except for the readers, the real losers in this situation. Even as losers though it’s hard not to sympathize with the sites when the conditions of their tasks are considered. Hate the game not the player, as the cliché goes. Well maybe don’t hate either in this case, but be aware there’s plenty of reasons to distrust the players. So let me make this clear – just as Beck wasn’t slamming Spotify, I’m not dissing these sites. We’re both merely pointing out inherit flaws in the systems. And in both cases, we the people (the media consumers) get what we pay for.
If we are to try to understand why misinformation and misconstrued impressions are so common on music news sites we have to understand their need to constantly and quickly post leaves them reliant on extensively copying other sites. We have to understand the limited resources they’re budgeting – including who is doing the writing and what is their incentive to get the story right. And we have to recognize the most successful sites are merely riding a wave of a culture in flux (while the less successful sink).
“It feels like important artists put out a record and after one day nobody’s talking about it,” Beck mused to Página/12 last week. “They’ll talk about it for the day it comes out and then…(laughs)…and then tomorrow fifteen more records come out, and then the next week another thirty records. And there’s new bands every week so I feel like for a lot of musicians it’s taking a little while for everyone to acclimate to the new environment, to figure out what it all means. And I think we’re still figuring it out as a society. What does all this mean? What is this doing to our brains? What is this doing our nervous systems and our souls?”
Beck was talking about the abundance and pace of new music releases, but it’s equally true of their coverage. What is a speed of music news so brisk reporters don’t even necessarily understand what they are reporting doing to our perception of music? What is the never ending onslaught of music information, new releases and buzz bands doing to how we hear the music? This isn’t just a music issue of course, it’s all media. It’s the headaches that come with any attempt to stay “updated” in our current 140 character climate. It’s writers that never sleep. It’s Anderson Cooper “breaking news“every time he opens his mouth. After a while, it just feels like the news systems are broken.
The Information (a.k.a. The New Pollution)
Could it be this obsession with information actually isn’t helping us to be any better informed? After all facts can be hard to decipher as an event is unfolding and tend to only be revealed over time. What use is all this information anyway if before we can process it we’re head deep in yet more information (which may not even be accurate)? The pace of reporting and casual mistakes that add up are only partly to blame for the errors on music news sites however. They of course also deliberately spin musician’s words into the narratives that attract visitors seeing a headline on social media, in search results and elsewhere. It the case of Beck, it’s simple: label him a “Spotify hater” and traffic and comments are guaranteed from both actual Spotify haters that want Beck to preach for them and Spotify-hater-haters that want to weigh in on why he’s wrong. Posts on Thom York and others already proved it’s a hot topic, perhaps even THE hot topic of 2013 among readers of these sites.
Listening in hindsight to the recording of the interview Beck gave to Página/12 it almost seems as though Beck knew his words would get twisted. At the very least, he’s skeptical of how information spreads on the internet, directly saying so when asked about health concerns. It’s the only point in the interview when Beck is the one asking the questions. Below is the entire exchange about his health, transcribed word for word:
- Roque: “I read something that you have some health issues that make you stay home, or something like that. Did that have anything to do reality or was that just rumors?“
- Beck: “Yeah, I’m curious where did you see that?” [His tone of voice changes from the rest of the interview. He seems genuinely curious and perhaps bothered, but expressing it in a friendly way.]
- Roque: “I don’t know where I read it, I don’t know.“
- Beck: “On the internet?“
- Roque: “Yeah, sure.“
- Beck: “Yeah it’s interesting what you read on the internet.” [His tone of voice alters again to become more dismissive.]
- Roque: “Yeah, yeah people speculate.”
- Beck: “Yeah I have had some injuries. I had severe damage to my spine but it’s getting better now so I’m back making music but that was a long, long…[momentarily trails off as though he’s uncomfortable discussing the matter]… long recovery.”
- Roque: “Yeah because when you came last time [to Argentina in 2007] your moves were like limited in a way.”
- Beck: “Yeah I’ve been focusing more on guitar playing. I don’t think I’ll be able to do all those moves unfortunately but I think I can still put everything I have into it.“
Perhaps I’m misinterpreting this, but I hear a private person who is uncomfortable discussing his health and trying to get past the question to get back to talking music. He takes even more time than usual between words, and his tone of voice inflects emotion here more than in any other section of the interview, switching mood from one line to the next. Like Beck’s Spotify comments, he addressed his health issues only in direct response to being asked. And in both cases he barely spoke on the matter – mere blips in a seventeen minute conversation. The quote on his back was especially brief – essentially just one sentence skim of any details. Yet almost every music news site focused on these two aspects as if they constituted the entire interview. To reiterate, the above quoted exchange is the entire conversation about his health transcribed directly from the interview recording. Nowhere does Beck blame a “prolonged absence” or “delayed music” on spine damage.
Though Beck doesn’t fault an absence from music on injury, he does imply it kept him from making music in some (unspecified) capacity – which is why I included it in my article last week. The main reasons he hasn’t released a conventional record were discussed at length on the first half of my page. He’s been busy building a studio and producing other artists, he recorded albums but lost enthusiasm to release them and he’s been stepping back to observe the state of the industry. Only after ten paragraphs explaining all of this did I briefly mention his spine issue. Likewise the original article on Página/12 stuck the comment about his spine at the very end. It’s understandable that other sites focused on this, as it is the most newsworthy bit of the entire interview, but they mostly did so in a way that takes Beck’s comments and the severity of the injury on his music out of context from both his actual statement and the how Página/12 and I reported it.
Let’s set the record straight. There was no “recent decrease” in music making in the last five years. If anything, he’s been prolific. He’s recorded several unreleased original albums; remade classic by the Velvets Underground, Skip Spence and others in his Record Club; contributed to movie and TV soundtracks (including this Twilight duet with Bat for Lashes); covered Sonic Youth (on a split Record Store Day single, with them) and John Martyn (twice, on two separate tributes); honored avant garde composer Harry Partch with this track; collaborated with Black Moth Super Rainbow’s Tobacco; teamed with Third Man Records (first remixing The White Stripes’ “The Hardest Button to Button” for Vault Package #10, then recording a new 45″ with Jack White); was one of several artists to donate a recording of “I Only Have Eyes For You” to (multimedia artist) Doug Aitken’s “Song 1” Hirshhorn Museum 360 degree video projection installation; remixed Philip Glass, produced and played releases by Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jamie Lidell, Thurston Moore, Dwight Yoakam, Feist, Karen Elson and Childish Gambino, ventured into the world of video game music, created an ambitious interactive video of himself covering Bowie with a 167-peice orchestra, and started his own FONOGRAF label to release a series of twelve inch records.
How could Rolling Stone and others – supposedly existing to inform readers – not know about his releases? Has their access to Wikipedia been blocked? At the very least anybody writing about Beck in any capacity should be aware of his Song Reader projects, a major accomplishment that in itself warrant the (presumed) “absence” since his last standard album. What’s worse is the claim he doesn’t dance anymore, a flat out lie created from pure speculation. No, he doesn’t move like he did in the ’90s, but with or without an injury he’s 43. Tiger Woods doesn’t have the same golf swing he had in 1997 either. So what? He’s still the best in the world.
Buenos Aires’ Planeta Terra Festival – November 14, 2013
What makes the claim that he doesn’t dance all the more absurd is the very night the news of his spine injury exploded around the net there was a free, global webcast of his headlining set at Buenos Aires’ Planeta Terra Festival. Anybody curious if Beck could still bust a move need only watch his singular spaz steps during “Debra” and “Get Real Paid” in this stream, or his King of Pop fancy footwork for a killer cover of “Billie Jean” segued to “Sissyneck.” It was an energetic, mostly loud show. During the instrumental bridge of opener “Devil’s Haircut” he slung his guitar to his side, slid to the right in a move straight out of his Odelay tour handbook, and took off dancing. After following that with a noisy take on “Novocaine,” he dug into the beginning of “Loser” with a menacing, metallic, sludge, shred, slide attack. Like the coda of “Soul of a Man” later that night, there were bits in “Loser’s” intro that if isolated could have been confused for Black Sabbath. An apparent nod to the Argentina audience, “Loser” (“soy un perdedor”) was the start of this set’s “Spanglish” trilogy – with “Hotwax” (“Yo soy un disco quebrado”) and “Qué Onda Güero” – that established a level of physical intensity for the show that could not be ignored. Only during a handful of mid-set songs played on acoustic six string did he stand in place. More often he jumped, pranced around the stage, or out and out danced. At one point he, bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen and guitarist Smokey Hormel fell to the ground in dramatic rock star fashion. During some tunes – “Que Onda Güero,” “Tainted Love” and “E Pro” for instance – he’d grab the microphone off the stand and dominate the stage with a blend of hip-hop swagger and classic frontman showmanship. Even when playing guitar straight through, such as “Novocaine,” he refused to keep still. Full of frantic energy, he’d bend down on a knee one moment, then stand tall with his guitar lifted to the side of his face the next. The set ended with Beck working the crowd on “Where It’s At” – placing his axe perpendicular on the ground and his foot on the instrument’s side, then sitting on a speaker, coyly suggesting the need for quite time as the crowd continued chanting the song’s signature riff. He had given his all by shows end and left the stage in a group hug with the rest of the band. Watch a bit from early in the show for yourself below:
Setting The Record Straight
So yes, Beck thinks Spotify’s system needs work and is saddened by its sound quality. But, as noted in my original article, he also recently shared this playlist from his official Spotify account. Hardly the actions of a “Spotify hater.” And true, he admitted “severe damage” to his spine and implied it kept him away from some aspect of music making, but he said nothing of it being a reason he hasn’t released a conventional album since 2008 or it prohibiting him from dancing at current shows. He also spoke about many other areas of his career, some included in my article last week, others not. Below is a collection of complete, unedited quotes transcribed directly from the Página/12 interview recording.
Beck On Releasing “Song Reader” Recordings with Peers (and maybe even fans)
“We have been working on that. We’re just trying to get different musicians to agree and I hope that happens soon.”
“If we got people to participate in a compilation of the songs I think that would be great and I’d also love to do another compilation of the versions that fans are doing. There’s some really good versions out there.”
Beck on the Unissued Albums He’s Recorded in the Past Five Years and Their Release on His 12″ Vinyl Series
“I’ve recorded albums but I just haven’t put them out, for different reasons. I spent a few years building my studio, I was producing other bands – you know I had a record that I recorded in 2008, at the end of that year (static on recording, briefly cuts out). After a few years I just felt like the music wasn’t as fresh to me. So I could’ve put it out in 2010, maybe, and it would’ve…(Beck trails off, leaves sentence unfinished)…But I started to put some of those songs on these twelve inches. I’m doing a series of twelve inches for my own label and those songs are coming out slowly but in the meantime I have a few other records that I’ve been working on.”
Beck on Producing Other Artists
“I love working with other musicians and being a part of making records. Helping other musicians is really fulfilling to me but it’s hard to make it work. A lot of bands are just looking for people to work for free. And you can’t pay the rent that way, but I’ve never been motivated by that. I’ve always tried to do things that felt right.”
“It’s something I always want to do. Earlier in my career I didn’t have time so the last five years I just decided to make more time to do those kind of things. And I think it was healthy to get onto the other side of the glass.”
“I think that’s healthy for any musician to get perspective but also to help somebody else.”
Beck on Playing Acoustic Shows
“There’s two sides of the kind of music I’ve been making since the beginning. I started out more as a singer-songwriter who played folk and blues music and then eventually that grew into experimenting and bringing in everything I could. But they’re really different – you know it’s the same train but it’s two different tracks.”
“My guitar player [Smokey Hormel] played with Tom Waits and Johnny Cash, so there’s all kinds of things that he can do that he doesn’t get to do when we’re playing the rock song, when we’re playing ‘Where It’s At.'”
“When we’re just playing songs from Odelay there’s a lot of things, there’s a lot of their talent that you don’t get to see. So the acoustic shows really more than anything for me it gives the opportunity to really show these incredible musicians.”
Beck On The South America Tour
“The musicians that I’m coming down with I’ve played with for seventeen, twenty years.”
“It’s very rare to get them to go on tour with me but they all want to come to South America so I convinced them.”
“I always enjoy coming down there. The audience is incredible and every band I talk to that goes down there has the best time. When we played in Santiago that was one of the best audiences I’ve ever had. And we haven’t been to Brazil in over ten years. It’s very special to get to come down there. And it will be special to have these musicians with me.”
Beck on Vinyl and the Future of Digital Audio
“It [vinyl] is inconvenient but it is a beautiful object and it will be here longer than CDs, so that’s nice. But I think there are a lot of opportunities with digital files to make them better and I know that Neil Young is working on a system for that and I have my own archives that I’ve been working on for years of high res music. It will happen eventually and then people will fall in love with music again.”
Beck on Spotify
“It’s inevitable because it’s coming whether you like it or not. But it does beg the question of how it can sustain because the amount of money that you get from Spotify doesn’t allow you to actually pay the musicians or the people who work on the record. The model doesn’t work yet. So either we have to figure out ways to get people to help us make records for free or take a lot less money, but the way that it is now it doesn’t work. So I’m not sure, something’s going to have to give. But if I were to have to try to make my records and make them from the money that you get from Spotify I wouldn’t actually be able to make the records I’m making. I would not be able to hire other musicians and I wouldn’t be able to get someone to master my record. I’d have to do it all myself on a laptop which a lot of people are doing, which is fine, but it would just make a different kind of music.”