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Lost In The Label Labyrinth

May 25, 1986|JOHN VOLAND

You step into your friendly neighborhood record store. You're after a copy of Philip Glass' latest album, "Songs From Liquid Days," but since it's been out a few weeks now, you don't find it immediately.

A slight bewilderment comes over you as you scan the bin markers: Top 40, Adult Contemporary, Easy Listening, Country, Punk, Post-punk, Heavy Metal, Classical, "Pops" Classical, New Age, Salsa, Fusion . . . and on and on. Radio programmers, record company executives, critics, journalists and even some musicians might use these terms as a way to describe the tremendous volume of music created, recorded and released every year, but they're just words to you.

In fact, you don't even know what kind of music "Songs From Liquid Days" is, since you haven't heard it on the radio, either: the classical station hasn't played it, and neither have the pop stations. All you know is the artist's name.

Welcome to the Label Labyrinth, into which musicians and artists whose music doesn't fall within the neat, established boundaries of the easily marketable get lost or--as is happening more frequently in the free-form '80s--stake out a place outside the normal genre territory.

Some of these labels are transitory: Acid Rock, Progressive Rock, New Wave, Third Stream. Some seem permanently etched in the cultural consciousness: Avant-Garde, Be-Bop, Rhythm and Blues. Many musicians resent being "imprisoned," as composer Steve Reich put it, within these categories; but to buck the preordained, label-laden delivery systems--radio and records--means risking whatever potential audience the musician hopes to reach.

Or does it?

There are portents that the traditional pop/classical dichotomy may be undergoing a metamorphosis. Philip Glass and Steve Reich have upped the electronic and loudness antes--thereby removing themselves from the "contemporary classical" caste--and play now to increasingly larger and more devoted audiences. And these audiences resemble no particular classical or pop gathering; rather, there are strong elements of both.

Windham Hill--a multimillion-dollar record company that founder/guitarist William Ackerman created with $300 and personal taste as his only guide--offers an array of artists whose music is as slippery to pin down as a freshly caught salmon; the company sells more LPs with each passing year.

Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (and, nowadays, his sax-playing brother Branford, who was a member of rock singer Sting's "crossover" jazz/rock band) records and performs jazz and classical works with almost equal aplomb--and record company demographics show the same audience is buying both kinds of records, though not in equal amounts.

Are we really becoming less label-conscious? Is public taste changing in the way it selects its music? Are pop and "serious" musics joining forces into one broader discipline?

The answers, based on conversations with musicians and record executives, seem to be: yes, sometimes and perhaps.

Michael Stearns, a synthesist/composer with seven records to his credit, has made his career in what has been dubbed "space music," electronic creations that contain as much silence as sound.

But the music itself is what Stearns calls "a metaphor of what it means to be a human being--and human beings can do many, many things." He checks off the influences he's absorbed: surf music, psychedelic rock of the late '60s, classical music of the early 20th Century and trance meditation music. Like most musicians, he dismisses the "space music" rubric specifically and labels in general.

"I make a point of not labeling myself," he says. "And when other people do it, I let it roll on by. When the sound track to 'Chronos' (for which film Stearns supplied the music) came out last year, the San Diego classical FM station started playing it, even though they didn't really know it wasn't at all a classical LP. They just thought it sounded good, so they played it. I wish more radio stations would relax a little and do that."

Stearns feels categorizing labels originated and now exist in the marketplace specifically to "satisfy the minds of the marketing types--to set them at ease that they're dealing with something quantifiable." He adds: "They're concerned with how to get the music into the record stores and onto the radio, so I can understand part of that. I mean, I want to get my music out there, too.

"But this ruthless categorization, this rounding-off of corners. . . . It's something peculiar to this country, I think. If it doesn't fit into the prescribed categories, they call it 'fusion' or 'New Age.' But overseas--on the BBC, for example--they tend to play a wider gamut of music, and they don't ghettoize it. They just give it equal time."

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