17, By Bill Drummond

We can all agree that the music business is dying. But is avant garde choral music really the answer?

Jonathan Gibbs
Sunday 24 August 2008 00:00 BST

The business model under which the music industry has given us great pop music for more than half a century is defunct; you don't have to be the head of EMI to know that. The rise of file-sharing and the death of the physical formats – CDs and their antecedents – will change things forever, but nobody knows how. Meanwhile our shelves fill up with book upon book about music, almost without exception backwards-looking, dripping with nostalgia and awe for past glories. So this new book by Bill Drummond arrives like a flying saucer from a benevolent alien planet. It's the most thrilling book written about music I've read for years. It's defiantly, bracingly polemical; it might even be prophetic.

Open it and you will read: "All recorded music has run its course. It has all been consumed, traded, downloaded, understood, heard before, sampled, learned, revived, judged and found wanting. Dispense with all previous forms of music and music-making and start again. Year Zero now."

17 is part manifesto, part confession. It has useful and interesting things to say about celebrity, artistic practice and Drummond's own highly idiosyncratic career (in his own weary words, he "used to manage Echo and the Bunnymen, was a one-hit wonder with the The Timelords and ... tore up a 20-quid note or something"). In essence, though, this is a post-mortem on the corpse of music as we know it, and the document of an attempt to reconnect with its soul.

For Drummond, the internet didn't kill music, though it accelerated its demise. The sheer accessibility of huge swathes of all conceivable back catalogues has glutted our hard drives and flooded our ears. He describes his 11-year-old daughter downloading all the music by the obscure Seventies band Pilot after hearing one of their songs on an advert. There they go, sinking into the swamp of iTunes. He tries to limit his own listening – only debut albums, only bands beginning with a certain letter of the alphabet – but can't get excited.

No, the rot set in earlier, with the repeated failure of rock music to live up to its promise as "potentially the greatest art form of the 20th century". This is largely down to rock's insistence on endlessly reheating its own past – in contrast to black music, which continually "eclipses and makes redundant what has gone before".

The recorded formats, too, are to blame. Drummond is certainly being contentious when he calls Sgt Pepper "the worst thing that happened to recorded music in the 20th century" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" (released four months earlier) "the greatest work of art of the 20th century", but he is making an important point. The seven-inch single created the parameters for pop perfection. The LP stretched them to accommodate rock excess.

So what is Dr Bill's prescription for our addiction to recorded music? It is – and here he will lose some people – choral music. His world-saving concept is The17, an amateur choir, brought together for one specific moment, given an abstract score and encouraged to sing – no audience, no permanent record to be made. Its job is "not to make great music or even totally original music but to make music as if no other music had ever existed before".

Drummond provides a handful of scores (there are hundreds more, written by other people, on www.the17.org). "Age" is a good example. It calls for five groups of 17, split by age, with each choir given a note on the pentatonic scale to improvise around. The groups are recorded separately and the results then played back, mixed together, to the massed singers, then deleted.

There are plenty of objections to this, chief among them being that it is naïve, or conceptual art bollocks, or both. To give him his due, Drummond includes criticisms of his project, much of it external and unmediated. He 'fesses up to his urge to destroy what has come before, and his own susceptibility to nostalgia (he smashed his copy of "Strawberry Fields" with a hammer). But this self-doubt is more than matched by his courage and vision. 17 may not change your life, but I'm prepared to bet it will change the way you think about music.

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