Frank Zappa once made the point that he and his 1960s band – The Mothers – probably couldn’t have got a recording contract in a different decade.
This wasn’t the quintessential view his generation had of their formative years – you know ‘not-the-sixties, not-the-sixties – – – THE SIXTIES!- – – not-the-sixties,’ etc.
Zappa’s point was that at the time youth society was in a period of unprecedented change. Record companies – which had been pretty sharp on what constituted marketable product to that audience in the 1950s – didn’t quite know where things were going. And so they embraced such diverse things as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones – and, in total contrast, the LA ‘freak’ scene epitomised by Zappa’s band of the day. All he had to do was add ‘…Of Invention‘ to the Mothers band name (which was otherwise likely to be taken as a contraction for something else). Zappa argued that if he’d done that stuff in the 1970s – by which time record companies were back in the ‘product’ groove – he wouldn’t have had a look in.
It occurred to me that the same is probably true of writing. And music. And all forms of transmissible products of an artists’ imagination.
The change now isn’t a generational reaction to the societies that emerged across the west from the two World Wars. It’s a change that affects everything from the systems of economic productivity to the way we relate to each other. It’s being driven by technology. And I think it will be further reaching than anything from the ‘generation gap’ period – which was, despite the hopes of its advocates, a transitory reaction to the world of the day.
What we’re facing now is far deeper, because it isn’t to do with content, it’s to do with transmission. It affects all of us. The advent of cheap – even free – and easy communications has changed the world. And will continue to change it. We’re seeing it, for writing, in the way the traditional book-publishing and freelance markets have been turned on their heads of late by the arrival of e-books. We’re seeing it in the way that content of all kinds can be freely and easily sent around the world.
It’s as big a change, socially and economically, as the industrial revolution, when the Early Modern economy – with its village-based personal production and self-sufficiency – was overturned in favour of employment and mass production.
The funny thing is that Zappa actually predicted how music would go. In his 1991 book The Real Frank Zappa Book (of which I have a copy) he outlined the exact music distribution system we have today. He didn’t have the tech, but he had the mechanism. Cool or what? The guy was a genius.
He didn’t comment about writing and books, but that’s where those have gone too. Authors are going to have to find ways of adapting to a time of unprecedented change – a need that, literally, makes writers mothers of invention. Of necessity.
Oh – and here’s Zappa and the Mothers in 1968:
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016