Friday, December 20, 2013

Back and forth

It is the season to look backwards, and forwards.  We are besieged by various opinion pieces on the best albums of the year.  The Guardian has taken two weeks to countdown and has, in turns, been interesting and bewildering. It also has the obligatory ‘controversial’ best choice. We are fortunate that Spotify is now free on mobile devices so that we can listen to some of this stuff and make our own decisions, often wondering what the hell those Guardian journalists are drinking.

I was fortunate to pick up a copy of The Fly and their top 50 which, in common with Pitchfork, had the effect of making me feel out of touch. Not only had I not heard most of the acts, there was a lot of them I hadn’t even heard of. There lies the industry’s eternal problem, how to break through. I find these lists very useful as they’re a snapshot of what others think and – reading the blurb – you can often find where your interests bisect. From both all these sources and others I now have a list of acts I’d like to hear and will begin to work through it. Among those listed are:
Drenge

Vampire Weekend (I hadn’t bothered with this album as the last two didn’t do much for me)

Kurt Vile

John Grant (both of these long overdue)

Parquet Courts

Warpaint

Chance The Rapper

Fat White Family 

Looking forward the Brits Critics Choice Award has gone to Sam Smith (not to be confused with John Newman), it appears to be a fast-track to success in the way that these things are a self-fulfilling prophesy. The five previous winners absolutely back up this theory – Adele, Florence And The Machine, Ellie Goulding, Jessie J, Emeli Sande and Tom Odell.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Someone only we know

Sam Smith and John Newman are quite similar. To put this another way, they’re not sufficiently unique that their physical and stylistic similarities will allow me to distinguish one from the other. I’m not interested enough to make the distinction, this should be a warning sign for record labels and those people involved in their careers – particularly Smith’s as he’s launching later than the quite established Newman.


I can accept that their vocal style and material is different but I’m not entirely sure it’s enough. They both launched/broke via collaborations and they’re vaguely in the mould of Plan B’s Strickland Banks material which itself draws on soul singers of the past of course. The way that the world works these days you won’t be surprised to know that a Google for John Newman offers you Plan B as a similar search/artist whilst a search for Sam Smith offers John Newman……..






The music industry has history in this area of course. Any breaking act or trend is very quickly replicated in a grasping attempt to create a ‘scene’. How many identikit female soul singers did we get in the wake of Amy Winehouse’s success? Did Britpop really exist or was it all an industry construct to capitalise on Oasis & Blur?
It’s the type of ‘brand confusion’ that you’d expect from supermarkets trying to replicate the packaging of more established products.  This leads itself to cruel rather than favourable comparisons, who’d want to be known as the Tesco Value version?

It’s also relevant as the music industry doesn’t tend to outspend the larger consumer brands so any confusion is detrimental to all parties. If people don’t know which act they’re listening to how do you expect them to buy the tracks?

Friday, December 6, 2013

The numbers of the beast

There was praise last week for Iron Maiden, one of Britain’s most successful small businesses. I don’t know if the band would consider this to be high praise or not, it speaks well of their brand growth and values but commerce and art have always made slightly odd bedfellows, never more so than in the business of making music.

Acts are often coy about the grubby details of money matters, as if they consider such things beneath them. You tend to only hear from them when they feel they’ve been wronged, it’s always their preference to be seen as the oppressed and downtrodden. It benefits most of them to be seen as reactionaries or the everyman figure; they clearly feel that this makes them more lovable.
It’s probably true of all of us to a certain extent. It’s vulgar to talk about money and whilst that never bothered the hip hop fraternity or footballers, to give two random examples, artists try to be more sensitive about such things.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The rise of the mega-tracks

Robin Thicke was moaning this week. He’s getting good at it. He’s had to moan about his video being empowering to women when it’s clearly sexist tripe. He’s had to moan about being sued by Funkadelic and Marvin Gaye’s estate who he claims not to have plagiarised. He’s had to moan about Blurred Lines being banned when it’s ‘not naughty it’s just sexy’. Sadly for him an incitement to non-consensual sex is considered rapey in most civilised societies.

Having complained about the song not being played in places he’s now having to complain that people are playing it too much. Behind every hit is a writ and, like it or loathe it, Blurred Lines is a big hit. This is the problem that Thicke has this week. Blurred Lines is so big that he can’t get DJs or radio stations to play his other songs. It should be a nice problem to have and it is strictly an ‘old school’ issue.

When you’re with a major record label and you record a bunch of songs – one of which is considered to be a sure-fire hit – the label gets out its big-guns and you have a release schedule. That schedule is fixed around the hit with the focus meant to be on the album that contains the hit. This is why it’s so old school, the album should follow the chart impact of the hit by around a month at which time a second prospective hit is planned.

When your hit won’t die it throws the schedule out. The label struggle to get play for the second single which is intended to show your diversity or the mass of possible hits that people might get if they buy the album, they struggle to get this play because so many people are still playing the first mega-hit. People keep claiming the album is dead but the artists and labels still love the album, their entire schedule is based around it and this pattern seems unlikely, certainly unwilling, to change.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Raise a toast

TV comedy is hit and miss. In my case the mainstream stuff tends to miss the mark completely by being too general, obvious or frankly dumb. The niche or more ‘radical’ sketch and sitcom stuff is generally aimed at a younger audience – generally equally dumb but in a different way. In most cases I can’t tell if it’s over my head or completely beneath me.

As a result I tend not to bother unless it’s something I’ve watched for years (Peep Show), has been recommended by peers or features people – writers or actors – that I’m familiar with and admire.

I share an occasional workplace with Matt Berry but I’ve never met him. I am a great fan of his work though; from the brilliantly under-rated Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace to his appearances in the IT Crowd he is always good value. I was obviously pleased to see Toast Of London turned into a series after its pilot last year.  

There are elements of it that play to my tastes, particularly the sessions in a Soho voiceover studio, but the entire premise of a slightly unhinged classic actor type reduced to scrabbling for work whilst retaining his huge ego is comedy gold.


All of this said I probably wouldn’t have bothered to write about it had it not been for last week’s episode, Bonus Ball. In many respects it looked like they’d saved up half the budget just for one episode with skits (Bond) and guest cameos (Michael Ball) but the real gem was only five minutes or so into the show when Toast and his arch-rival, Ray Purchase, have to dub some gay Euro erotica. I can’t recall laughing this much at a TV show in many years. Luckily YouTube has the clip.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Elvis and the Distractions, a different Oliver’s Army and other songs.

Two months ago I was being optimistic, finding my cup half-full, noting that the quantity of music releases that appealed to me were mounting up to the point of overflow. It took me most of the intervening time to find opportunities to listen to the bulk of those albums whilst also being distracted by other releases.

There is a risk, prevalent in the modern world, of choice-paralysis; having so much to choose from that it renders you inert. I struggled with this to start with and also its partner-in-crime: that terrible fear of disappointment – what if the artists you expect so much from actually fail to deliver?

That fear is enhanced by hype; we seem to be so starved of releases that the media and our peers are excited by that when one occurs they seem to go completely over the top about it. It was the hype that initially distracted me from listening to either the Arctic Monkeys AM or Arcade Fire’s Reflektor.

It’s a peculiar fault of mine that I get disgruntled and irritable when I find myself unable to agree with the mass of opinion. It’s not that I want to be part of the mass, more that I am angry about being misled. In that instance I also fear for the casual listener, the random folk who might be dragged in by media hyperbole. They might only buy a couple of CDs a year and if one doesn’t seem to match up with the hype it has been given who knows when they’ll believe in a review again.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Tech it or leave it out

Most developments in the music industry are the result of technological advancements or improvements. This is common to all areas from playing and recording, broadcast or performance to distribution and delivery. The great crisis of our age is not about streaming or illegal downloads it is about how musicians/artists earn. The person who solves that will be feted, likelihood is that it won’t be an artist though, it’ll be a businessman.

Everyone hated downloads, they destroyed sales (possibly). Apple’s solution of iTunes was driven by the hardware they’d created, they needed a one-stop store to sell the media to play on the machines – and they wanted control. No-one liked it, labels or artists, but they knew they had to get on board. There were few alternatives in the legal downloads game and most of those have now been crushed by Apple’s superiority.

Artists did not make those deals, labels could ill-afford not to and in the many years we’ve spent getting to streaming it still seems that business always takes the lead. It’s understandable, artists create art and business-people sell it – isn’t that the deal? If you look back far enough it seems that it was always the way but also that it was the acts that adapted quickest that profited most.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The not-so-dead 60s, out with the old and in with the ‘new’

Sometimes you hear a buzz and you’d be better off putting your ear to a hive than following the crowd. At others you’ve got to join the throng, play along and see what comes of it.

I wasn’t overly impressed by The Strypes, I get it that they’re great looking and they’re young and they play like they should’ve been around in the late sixties but sometimes it feels too forced, almost like it was someone else’s idea.


Of course I’m cynical, I’ve seen it all before, the ‘kids’ don’t care so much. To some of them it probably even sounds new. In that instance it is new – to them. In the same sense the industry wants so badly to create that ‘new’ (usually from the ashes of something familiar) that they’ll often trip over themselves trying to get there. There’s a lineage in all music, occasionally the industry mines the right seam and a trend develops.

Monday, October 14, 2013

David's discourse

We’ll possibly get to a stage where the Spotify debate is over, but maybe not. David Byrne has chipped in with a long and lucid justification of his feelings.

He differs from Thom Yorke et al in one crucial aspect, he seems quite rational – there’s no doubt that this is what the debate needs.
One point he makes clearly is that if Spotify and other streaming services replace the traditional forms of how albums are consumed, ie we all stream thus we no longer buy, then the financial model will not fully support musicians. Of course it could be that we’re a long way from this point and by the time we reach it there will be different revenue structures in place – the way artists deal with labels is changing all the time for example.

It may also be that streaming services also start to generate content that they fund. This already happens with the likes of Netflix (House Of Cards, etc) so it’s possible that Spotify could eventually pay for artists. What they’ll be happy to pay for is another matter of course; I’d stake my life that it won’t be avant-garde Peruvian nasal-flute tunes.

Thom's lament

It’s the scab he can’t help scratching. Thom doesn’t love Spotify, he doesn’t want to play with them anymore – he wants them to go away.

We’ve all been here before but there are no new solutions. Even in this latest interview, he may speak about it in more depth but we hear nothing new. He suggests only that it needs to go away before something new can emerge. Is this true?
Streaming seems to be the future; Spotify has hit a five year anniversary  with 24 million active users. YouTube is older still and its own figures  claim 1 billion unique users every month. In other places you can find a stat that suggests they have 3 billion views per day. To use ancient, pre-digital terminology it would appear that any attempt to change these habits would be akin to closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. We stream, that’s what we do.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Two Tribes

The music industry loves a controversy. Why wouldn’t it? Conflict usually equals column inches, social and other media coverage. They positively (or negatively) encourage it.

There’s probably a simple equation to be struck. Artist + average song + over-sexualised-video = meh, whereas Artist + average/bad song + stupid, exploitative soft-porn video x outrage from other acts/celebs = gold. We’re all so wise to these games that it probably gets harder and harder to manufacture such outrage. Rihanna tries it so often that it’s become a bore and Miley Cyrus really had to work hard – over a prolonged period - to generate her coverage. The master-stroke of course was to drag Sinead O’Connor into it.

Sinead is a character more often known these days for her forthright opinions rather than her incredible vocal talent. It’s sad that the focus is usually on the reaction she provokes rather than the content of what she has to say because – as in this instance – she has an intelligent and informed viewpoint, clear, concise and brilliant – we should want for more like her instead of the seemingly vacuous tabloid eye-candy we’re force-fed.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Welcome to the working week

When you write regularly it’s apparent that a fair amount of repetition will creep into your work. This is particularly true if the writing is focussed on specific subjects and those articles/blogs contain your opinions. Even given the flexibility of intellect and the general open-mindedness I try to apply, it is rare that an entrenched opinion will fundamentally alter. Sometimes I avoid repetition by trying to ignore the urge to write and simply bang my head against a brick wall instead.

I’ve long held the opinion that modern musicians do not work as hard as their predecessors. In fairness it’s probably a different kind of work with more worldwide travelling involved. The fact is that if you read any book about successful bands in the sixties you’ll find that they were constantly on a treadmill of recording and playing – and that playing often included multiple gigs on each night.
Things change, of course, and in particular the process of recording, releasing, promotion and touring has tended to fit fairly standardised patterns over the past thirty years or so. I am always disheartened though when I hear of a successful band ‘taking a break’ , it seems to me that this is counter-productive and risks the success that they have worked hard to achieve in the first instance. You wonder was it not what they were expecting or hoping for, is it ever?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

In the future no-one's getting paid

With the news that zero-hours contracts are becoming the norm for a large number of ‘workers’, it might seem that the doctrine of freeconomics is coming to us all.

How do you ensure your output has value? How do you make your experience count in coin? What value do your contacts and knowledge have?

We’re all only worth what someone else is prepared to pay for us or what we can do. There once was a ‘going rate’ for pretty much everything but the floor has dropped out of most markets.

If we don’t protect or value creativity there will be no purpose in its existence. Why would you bother to be creative if it doesn’t pay the bills? When will you get the time if you’re too busy working – or will it come when you’re on stand-by to work?

Friday, September 13, 2013

Reasons to be cheerful?

I find reason to be optimistic about the music industry today. In truth it is only a reflection of my own tastes, a reflection that I should know better than to extrapolate into accepted belief. I am more optimistic because – for the first time in a long time – there are quite a lot of albums that I’m interested in hearing.

It is valid argument that the album is a dead format, I’ve even suggested the same myself , but there are occasions when you like an artist’s work enough to want to hear a bigger selection of it. You want more new songs. In that respect the album still exists as a 'vehicle' – if the industry is fixated with it then the consumer has little other choice.

Some of the stuff I want to hear, or have been listening to this week, is not that new – Savages, The National – and some is not yet out – Arctic Monkeys, Arcade Fire, Elvis Costello & The Roots, Gambles, Mark Lanegan. Others are quite fresh releases – Janelle Monae, King Krule, Willis Earl Beal.

In some of the above cases – notably Elvis, Arctic Monkeys and Arcade Fire – I’m contradicting an argument I frequently use about ‘old artists’. In this argument I point out (often just to myself) that you/I probably own their best recorded material, do I really need to hear or own any more?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

A question of trust

I always liked Longpigs , the Sheffield rockers of the late 90s. I played them frequently on my Radio WM show; it clearly had a huge impact on their careers as they split after two albums.

They seem to be an instance where the individuals have succeeded in being greater than the sum of their parts. Guitarist Richard Hawley is a success in his own right of course, while frontman Crispin Hunt wheels out hits for others and is an impressive industry spokesman.
 
In his latter role he popped up at the BPI agm and echoed some of the points I was hamfistedly making about ‘trust’ within the industry, or the lack of it. His statements and suggestions are well worth reading in the Music Ally report of the meeting.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Europeans are coming (maybe)

We may have been part of ‘the union’ for over forty years but you could probably still easily recall most of the European acts to have an influence (or hit) in this country. It may be the one area of business where we continue to export far more than we import.

Ignoring the random breakthrough hits, one-off novelties and the like it appears that European labels are less able to exert their pressure on the UK. By which I mean that (ignoring cultural issues) if an act is big in the States you can expect the management and label to try and replicate that success across other territories. Is the same true for non-UK or non-Irish European artists?

It’s probably just as well, since we already seem to have more music than we can possibly hope to listen to. The Euro hit-factories contribute to the pop charts but at a more cerebral level is there any entente cordiale?

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Spot the elephant

In the ongoing Spotify debate there are numerous sides to the story and an obvious elephant in the room. If you agree with my theory that the only reason you’d stop streaming your music is that you think it’s detrimental to your sales then the ‘elephant’ in this instance is probably quality and popularity.

If I’m being charitable perhaps Thom & Nigel’s project is not suited to streaming as it’s not music that benefits from casual or background listening, it requires effort, the repeated listens that few of us (outside the rabid fans) have time for. It is also – essentially – a solo project and these are never as successful as the artist’s main activity, the stuff they became famous for.

Radiohead is not just a band, it is popular and successful enough to be known as a brand – people have faith in it and the material released in its name. The same is not valid for any project undertaken by the individual members of that band. This is as true for Thom Yorke as it is for Mick Jagger, neither will ever sell as much solo as they will within their known quantity.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Spot The Truth?

The new version of the old debate about Spotify payments to artists illuminates only one thing, no-one in the music industry trusts anyone. Thom Yorke & Nigel Godrich may (or may not) have had good intentions but I can guarantee that some people will still be a bit sceptical about that.

They may be making a great point and they may also have re-ignited a healthy debate about ‘streaming’ in general but in the process they’ve definitely emphasized the fact that they’ve got a new album out – and you can no longer stream it (unless you go here of course).

The more cynical among us might claim that the only reason to stop an album streaming is because it’s having a negative effect on sales, Spotify themselves suggest otherwise in a recent report but the terms of reference (comparing only a limited number of selected albums in one territory) could be contested.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

In too deep, beyond b-town

The term ‘second city’ has become a millstone for Birmingham of late, it emphasizes a healthy inferiority complex and the self-effacing nature of the general population but it’s far from brash and shiny and does little they reckon to encourage tourism.

People in marketing circles have taken against it and started using things like ‘The Business City’ as a catch-all phrase, probably as it has a lot of conference venues. What we’ve needed for some time is a thriving music scene that shouts beyond the boundaries of the city, it seems that we may now have that but the name it’s been given won’t do the city many favours.

B-town just sounds a bit naff to me, hardly reflective of a city this size with a vibrant culture and arts scene. Like Madchester it possibly encompasses a range of acts who share a certain ‘sound’ and ethos but whenever I hear b-town I think of b-team (again the second string) and toytown which hardly seems fitting.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The taste of trust

Who do you trust to tell you what to listen to? The British public is passive, like sheep, and conservative in its tastes. It needs to be herded and led; we need someone to show us the way.

Industry spokesman Bob Lefsetz  echoed my oft-repeated views recently using slightly different terminology, claiming that we need a filter. He’s right because the access to music is greater than ever, allowing the past to compete with the present/future and it’s hardly a fair fight. If you can listen to something familiar (that you’re likely to love) or try something new (which you may hate), which way are you going to jump? We’re all sheep to a greater or lesser degree.

Lefsetz chose to use the Spotify top 100 tracks for the basis of his piece, reflective in some degree of the zeitgeist but potentially skewed by the overwhelming conservatism and perhaps also the younger age-range of the average Spotify user.

Similarly I could use the UK top 40. If the current chart reflects popularity (as is its function) then I am considerably further out of the loop than I thought. I might recognise the acts, having read about them, but of those 40 songs I think I’ve only heard 9.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Do you believe in rock ‘n’ roll radio?

My first recollection of hearing and liking music is linked to radio. It was 1972 in the kitchen of our maisonette, 20 Pennington House (it no longer exists), in deepest Oldbury. The track was School’s Out by Alice Cooper and I have to presume it was being played by Radio 1, though I don’t specifically recall that bit.

I was probably in the right age group to appreciate the growth and spread of radio in the UK without even being conscious of it. I have great recollections of the presenters from that era and now recognise our family must have changed loyalties to BRMB and Les Ross at some point around the time that Dave Lee Travis took over R1 breakfast from Noel Edmonds.

Even then I still thought it was just about the music, I recall haranguing the aforementioned Mr Ross (about heavy metal) when he opened a fete at St Mary’s Church in Bearwood and made my radio debut as a phone-in contributor to Les’s Jukebox Jury with my negative contribution on The Crusaders’ Street Life. I was late for school as a result of that, though school never seemed as important as radio.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Degrading the past, devaluing the future

It’s all about ‘education, education, education’ a famous politician once said. Given the mess we’re now in it’s hard to say whether he was right – perhaps those he educated (x3) have yet to take centre stage and revitalise the economy. In which case I hope they get a move on.

In politics it seems that it is hard to take a long term view, this may be due to the temporary nature of Government and the belief that the impact has to be achieved within one term or a second becomes unlikely. It is clear that Govt. depts. think like this and cabinet ministers more so. Their next appointment rests on having been seen to achieve something – often different to actually achieving anything.

There can be few other reasons for the attention that education ministers past and present give to the issue of examinations and marking systems. They clearly think that this is something we all understand and that by trying to have an impact upon it they can garner our support.

As ever what is less clear to the untrained eye is whether the tinkering really makes any difference. Education has clearly improved and the school system appears to be producing children with more qualifications at higher grades. Apparently this isn’t good enough and fails to produce the right type of ‘graduate’ – or so the current incumbent in the ministry would have us believe.

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Human Yawn

This is the last of my forays into the tube (for now), I don’t want to start repeating myself – there’s enough of that around already.

We’re aware that the ‘appointment to view’ has largely disappeared. TV caters for this with ‘catch-up’ and plus one services as well as repeats scattered around the schedule. A large percentage of us also have our own way of addressing the issue with our PVR/Sky+ type systems.

As much as is possible I avoid watching any programme shown on a commercial channel in real time or live. The reasons for this are not merely to escape the advertising, some of which I like (the new First Direct commercial is great art), but also to skip what I find most annoying about reality or documentary programming – the reminder sections. You’ve all seen these segments, normally occurring immediately after a commercial break, reminding you of what you’ve already seen and the central crux of the programme. Treating us all as if we’ve got attention deficit problems or limited memory functions, perhaps this is so as we clearly forget we shouldn’t bother watching factual programmes on commercial television.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Are you content?

Television was once the drug of the nation, it used to pacify us all simultaneously as we gathered around those life-changing events like the moon-landings, the 1966 World Cup Final, The Morecambe & Wise Xmas Special, Den & Angie’s Christmas Day bust-up, a serial killer being run over by a tram in Corrie......I could go on but you’d eventually notice the similarity in all of these things, they happened a very long time ago.

These days very few things provoke that ‘appointment to view’, we’d all rather time-shift or catch-up. It’d be debatable whether you actually saw that jaw-dropping, stage-managed performance live on Britain’s Got Talent, X Factor or whatever – you may only have cottoned on at a later stage on YouTube. That was certainly the case for Susan Boyle, a moment in time that programme makers have been desperate to re-create ever since. Yes, it went viral – it created talkability – but did it benefit the advertisers who were there in the moment?
In essence it probably did because even though more people saw it on YouTube or via Facebook shares it still helped to create the brand of ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ which would’ve helped ad sales and possibly even share prices for ITV. More than this it ushered in an era where the TV companies joined the great content race, the battle to generate a blip of interest that would be emblazoned on a billion eyeballs. It became all about the content.

Friday, May 3, 2013

TV, or not TV?

I like to kid myself that I only watch intelligent Television, documentaries, debates, the news, quality drama. The truth is that I’m just as likely to vegetate in front of trash as the next person, sometimes it’s just too much effort to hunt down the good stuff.

I’m unnaturally obsessed by the obese, absurdly interested in travellers and continually astonished that people will bare everything to the cameras and an audience of millions. Combining fat and gypsy in the same programme title has been like ringing Pavlov’s bell for me, they could only have topped it by adding embarrassing in there somewhere – it’s clearly true so why not?

The simple fact is that these programmes are running out of steam, they need to tap a new vein. After watching a reality-doc that purported to reveal how travellers fund their lifestyles which then did nothing of the sort, instead reverting to the ‘let’s show more garish gypsy weddings’ formula, I’m pretty much done with that format. Ditto Embarrassing Bodies, Sex Clinics, Secret Eaters and those others that prey on closet-exhibitionists or the seemingly stupid for our voyeuristic pleasure.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Let's Be Frank....

These days there’s no alternative, you have to be in for the long run, playing the long game and hoping that the long tail can be yours. Short cuts may lead to short term success but it may not be sustainable.

The indie stars that were meant to save us from this pop hell have either fallen away or imploded, forced to fly too close to the sun they could not maintain the altitude. You know who they are or, more to the point, who they were.

Enough riddles though, a case in point is Frank Turner. Frank has been around. Twelve years ago he was in a punk band, Eight years ago he went solo. He’s now on his fifth studio album. That’s a lot of effort, a hell of a lot of songs, a huge amount of touring – hard work, basically.

Maybe he could afford to put the work in because his parents are rich, I don’t know the detail of how but he’s now selling out tours so whatever way you have to find, whatever pays the bills then that’s what you have to do I guess.

There’s a chance his time at Eton instilled him with a sense of entitlement, perhaps it increased his self-worth to the point where he knew he couldn’t fail. He’s clearly a clever bloke and the arguments about the music biz being full of over-privileged white boys are largely disproven and probably for another time. 

Frank could be a case study. For now it’s about the music.




Saturday, April 20, 2013

Give me some truth

This is the information age. Now, more than ever, info abounds, the truth is out there. This may not apply to every subject under the sun and you can be sceptical about some things you may read online but dig deep and you can learn.

I was sidetracked in my last post by a rage of differing thought when what I’d meant to simply say was that we need not listen to the ill-informed or those who skew a message for their own purpose, we should be able to see the truth somewhere.

These thoughts were prompted by two issues. The first was the differing views of politicians and pundits upon the austerity measures and benefit changes wreaked by the ‘honourable’ Gideon Osborne. The fact that both sides were able to argue and claim polarised opposing views was anathema to me. Someone, I thought, must be able to do the sums and calculate which parts of society are now better and worse off – to settle the argument. As it happened I was fortunate to catch a BBC news bulletin where they attempted to do this (sadly I can’t find it online) and as it turned out we were all worse off to a large degree – if not now then very soon.

Quite often the data is out there, generally it’s the case that there’s some vested interest that prevents it being shared with us. In the situation above you may argue that the best evidence would be in the calculation of the difference expressed as a percentage of previous household income. The fact that I know this – when I barely passed maths at school – means that it can and should be calculated and always shown as evidence when this debate rages.

The problem may be that the news exists not just to share what happened and when, but to demonstrate those ‘occurrences’ as a form of entertainment, they have to illustrate rather than state. If they were to just say ‘this is how it is’ then the opportunity to have two differing political viewpoints debating it would be irrelevant.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The truth is out there

Possibly the most frustrating thing about the many thousands of words I’ve digested on the Thatcher subject is how deeply entrenched people’s viewpoints are. It might be predictable that she was feted by the right and hated by the left but it is frustrating that some will not allow for a tiny chink of doubt in their strident opinions. This wouldn’t be so offensive were they not insistent upon sharing those strongly/wrongly held beliefs at every available opportunity.

Enough time has elapsed that we can view her rule for what it was and the long-term effect that it had upon the Country. In the last blog whilst skirting the subject myself I was keen to point to a vast number of articles I’d read on her. Reviews and opinion pieces I’d spent time on because I wanted to check my own beliefs and judgements – to check if, and to what extent, she could be blamed for this mess that we’re in.

Naturally there are grey areas and my leanings and empathies were always likely to be with the writers and opinion formers whose thoughts and reasoning correlated most with my own. What I tried not to do was leap upon every wrong-headed or idiotic statement that some were keen to repeat across every social media outlet throughout the last two weeks. Like many, I had reached Thatcheration (my favourite mash-up word of the week) point long before the over-priced and over-blown funeral.

From those last two paras alone it will be quite clear where I sit on the subject and I don’t intend to dwell on it, others have already done a much better and more in-depth job. I did try to read a wider cross-section of thought though, not just those that mirrored my own. Now, more than ever, this information is available to all of us – we don’t have to parrot the bigoted or wrong-headed comments of our Facebook friends we can actually search and find information with relative ease. Sadly it seems that we still don’t.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Six Feet Under

With age comes maturity, at least that’s the theory. Age should at least provide most of us with the knowledge of when to ‘hold our tongues’, giving us the ability to know and recognise the time and place to be polite or to make a point. Some are blessed with the wisdom, grace and authority to be able to do both. Unfortunately they are the minority and I am not among them.

This week has provided numerous examples of emotive outpourings and public venting that may have been best kept private. In the days before social media the bulk of it would have been. There is a time to stop and consider the impact of your views upon others whilst pausing to look at what theirs actually are. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with them of course but if all you have is spite and bile your maturity may ask if it’s really worth sharing.

That’s the theory anyway. Instead we react first and think later, often failing to question whether we’ve added anything to public understanding, popular belief, interest or knowledge. We share for the sake of sharing, just to join in – that’s why it’s called ‘social’ media I suppose.

The two women who dominated the news agenda fit ‘nicely’ into my proposed diatribe but with so many people seizing the same opportunity and shaking it senseless it was a bit hard to keep up and keep track, I only wish I had a £1 for every time I read the politely ineffective word ‘divisive’.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Blood, Sweat, Tears

What does it take to break through? It’s the big music industry question, the one for which there are no easy answers. I would always say it is a combination of factors – hard work, perseverance, great songs, ability, luck and timing/fashionability. Of course you can add any number of others – being naturally photogenic never hurts in this image-conscious world for example. So, good looks, great talent, bloody mindedness plus blood, sweat and tears and not necessarily in that order.

Naturally there are exceptions, I recently read TraceyThorn’s autobiography and she made the early years sound pretty easy, perhaps it was rose-tinted reflection or maybe that’s how it was for her, others seldom find it that simple.

A good example of this is Biffy Clyro who probably only stepped into most people’s consciousness in the last four years – even mine only slightly prior to that. They’ve actually been together since 1995 which means it took them twelve years and three albums to build enough of a following to break through, with another two albums and years to become mainstream or big enough to sell out arenas. If that sounds like a long-haul then perhaps you’re not as committed as they were?

They are the epitome of the general belief that the songs will out as even their earlier, more ragged albums contain some real gems. The one that stood out for me during the LG Arena gig last month was from the 2007 ‘breakthrough’ album Puzzle.



Take the pieces and build them skywards indeed. I doubt I’ll ever tire of hearing that track.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Who stole the soul?


White man pinched the blues and developed Rock N’ Roll but it’s never been quite so easy to steal the soul. Whether it’s in the timbre of the delivery or the content of the songs, soul music generally sounds more authentic when it’s black.

Of course there are major exceptions and no racial boundaries to any music, if I wanted to make any more radical generalisations I’d suggest that the biggest cross-over hits will generally come from white artists whatever the genre. I could also get into the gender politics of it all and point out that if you want to be a big star at the moment then you will be a pop soul singer and preferably female. I’m sure I don’t need to name names.

This debate may be better saved for another day, I came here to sing the praises of new soul. It is always reassuring to be able to tip acts with connections to the Midlands and I do not hesitate to give repeat references to Jacob Banks and Laura Mvula. In the case of the latter you can hear real originality and a quirky approach to writing and performing, perfectly exemplified by the current single Green Garden.



Laura could be the slow-burning intelligent pop success story of the year and it’s no great act of prophecy to claim that she’ll be a star, she already is. Jacob is developing along similar lines, his voice is rich and the material is blooming. I can’t help but think his time is coming.



The beauty of his approach for me is his ability to deliver on many levels, the glossily produced as well as the simple live acoustic. Both have equal power and beauty.



Jacob and Laura have greatness ahead of them, maybe even BRIT Awards by this time next year. Remember that I said this, I’m likely to forget.



Flip over the page break for two covers.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Dentist Test

I recently spent 45 minutes in the dentist’s chair. This being a real dentist’s chair rather than the ‘legendary’ drinking game you can imagine that it wasn’t much fun. The experience was ‘enhanced’ by my practitioner’s choice of accompanying music, BBC 1Xtra.
 
I consider myself open-minded when it comes to music and I wouldn’t expect my dentist to play classical music in an attempt to relax his patients, I’d generally prefer that he was more relaxed than me. At any rate I’m sure no-one is brave enough to argue with their dentist.

I doubt I’ll be adopting 1Xtra as my station of choice, it isn’t aimed at the likes of me even if I’m far from immune to the appeal of repetitive electronic music.

Like a lot of music the cliquey genres and sub-genres have got out of control to the extent that it’s hard for those of us with a casual interest to define what it is that we actually like. Is that hardcore dubstep ragga with a tinge of electro house or just a decent song that happens to fall into the category of EDM?

Though I’d always hesitate to call myself ‘old-fashioned’ I suppose my tastes still bend towards what I might consider ‘authentic’ in that I may still prefer music that employs a degree of ‘real’ instrumentation whether that’s sampled or played live.

Clean Bandit fall into this category, teasing us with classical inserts in what is inevitably a very modern sound. It also plays cleverly with our conceptions of what EDM is.



As a ‘traditionalist’ (another word I hesitate to use in reference to myself) I always think it will come back to the ‘song’. If the song is good enough then it transcends the boundaries of genre and has an overall appeal. An increasing number of people can play well and/or create a sound but not everyone can write a song. The other test may be whether anyone can write music that makes you forget you’re at the dentists, that may be more of a challenge.

The next blog will be more soulful – examining the likely soul stars of 2013 – so as a segue here’s another burst of the excellent ‘Kids Like These’.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The wood and the trees

It’s hard to be a critic these days. Aside from the fact that everyone is one you also get to a level of age and experience where you find (or feel) that everything is being repeated. Your terms of reference are so much wider that you can hear and see new things but will always have something that you can compare them to – not always beneficially.

To illustrate this I recently heard Lewis Watson, feted by many and easily comparable to lots of other artists. Whenever I encounter an act like this I find myself able to appreciate their work but also ask whether I wouldn’t rather spend the time listening to Dylan, Drake, Young, Oldham, Cave or a host of other singer-songwriters.


I recognise the necessity of the new but when we all have the ability to dredge through the history of music via Spotify, YouTube and their ilk you realise that new acts are stuck in that impossible position of having to compete with the past as well as the present. It’s a hard slog to say the least.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Tao of Twitter


It’s hard to be a critic these days, there’s just too much competition. Social media appears to have opened the gates of hell to a yawning chasm of critique. Everyone’s got something to say and a lot of it just isn’t nice.

You can partially blame celebrities and their micro-tribes for this. Celebs have embraced Twitter for many reasons – the one-to-many communication they’re able to have with their fans, the ego-stroking they get from the growing quantity of followers and their (generally) ever-fawning praise and the fact that they can instantly get a snapshot of their meaning in the world by checking their ‘stream’.

Naturally this often back-fires, commit a mistake or do something seemingly controversial and the haters join the fray, pitching themselves into battle by hash-tagging or using your twitter ‘handle’ to ensure you get the message. Often you can rely on your devotees to defend you but many celebs (mostly footballers) have abandoned Twitter after being bombarded with scorn.

Monday, February 25, 2013

A Brit of alright?

It’s easy to mock the Brits and judging by the column inches, status updates, blogs & tweets it seems to have been an itch that few could resist scratching. Even my mum told me that James Corden was rubbish and she didn’t watch it.

Undoubtedly I have also been guilty of this in the past but of late I’ve come to terms with the intent of the awards, the function of the show and its reason for existence. If you look at it in these terms – some of which are outlined below - you’d have to acknowledge it is very successful indeed.

The awards themselves in the main recognise the success of British music – music being something we are still capable of manufacturing and exporting. One might viably argue that the likes of Adele & One Direction are not in need of further reward, their multi-million sales being sufficient gratification. This misses the point that success begets success and the status of the ceremony as two hours of prime-time television for mostly-British music is incredibly valuable indeed.

We’ll get to the sales figures shortly but in the absence of regular music programming on TV and in these fragmented times of YouTube, Facebook and whatever it remains the case that The Brits TV show represents a very valuable opportunity for musicians to flog their wares to the mass-market, to middle-England and those people who do actually like music but are not exposed to enough of it.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The single life


As noted in the last post  Auntie Beeb has been celebrating the Golden Age of The Album with a series of programmes, some of which have been better than others.
Today Britain’s biggest radio station gets in on the act, combining it with a Beatles anniversary and getting a random bunch of ‘famous’ artists to re-record The Beatles Please Please Me in the same 12 hour period that the fab four were allocated.

Are we not all bored of Beatles 50th Anniversaries yet? There are inevitably many more to come. Obviously PPM is far from their best and doesn’t really represent their groundbreaking work in the album format, the recording being merely a representation of their live act at the time. It’s a good programme idea of course and if you’ve got the budget and the cross-promotional abilities of the Beeb (it’ll be an hour-long documentary on BBC4 on Friday) then why not?
As well as being the anniversary of the day The Beatles went to Abbey Road it was also revealed today that Psy’s Gangnam Style had become the latest single to hit a million sales in the UK. The Official Charts Company revealed the 123 million selling singles back in November, since which four others have joined the list  - ‘Gangnam’ of course, 'Call Me Maybe' by Carly Rae Jepsen, 'Impossible' by James Arthur and 'We Are Young' by Fun.

As if to represent the strength of the single at present there have been fifteen ‘million sellers’ in the last three years which means that the current decade is in a good position to usurp the 1990s which had (up to now) produced the highest number of million-selling singles with 32.
The Beatles are on the list a few times of course, if there is something else to celebrate it should be that they were an act who were as capable on single as album format and they were very prolific. There’s a lesson here, perhaps some of our favourite rock acts might learn about it one day.

Friday, February 8, 2013

'bum deal

Just as I was ready to read the last rites on the passing of ‘the album’ Auntie Beeb decides to launch a resurrection job and bow down in its honour. Over the last three nights they’ve been hosting a discussion of sorts into the greatest albums in three wide-reaching genres, rock, pop and r ‘n’ b.

Despite being hosted by the great Danny Baker the debate on offer was a little sterile, no real arguments or disagreements to be had. It’s as if they’ve all agreed to be respectful of each other’s choices, where’s the fun in that? In a way it’s exactly the kind of thing you’d be expecting if they were in mourning for the format.

It’s fair enough to be reverential about a bygone age; perhaps that’s how they feel about it. Indeed now that pretty much all album tracks can be downloaded individually the concept of what constitutes an album (or a single) is debatable.  This may be why the ‘album’ is undergoing something of an identity crisis – what is it but a collection of single tracks, individual songs that can and may well be measured on their own merits?
In the past and in general it could be said of most albums that there were songs contained therein that would (by impartial observers) be widely regarded as ‘filler’, certainly not strong enough to stand alone in the commercial market and not good enough to appeal to anyone but fans. Even on the best-selling and most critically-acclaimed albums there are songs that won’t make it onto people’s playlists, they’re there to make up the numbers or to fill the time/disc. They’re also there because they’re not singles; they may be the act’s way of demonstrating their versatility beyond the commercial remit.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Tune for today

The Lash – Rent

Sometimes a name is all it takes and The Lash is a great band name. I haven’t researched if anyone else is currently using it but there are plenty of naff and unmemorable act names out there and this is not one of those.

The vid for Rent was apparently recorded for pennies entirely using mobile phones which is a good story even if it isn’t true. It looks far too professional to me but who has time to argue?

There’s more to hear here to prove they know their way around a tune and though that’s rarely enough they seem to be kicking up a storm in South Wales right now.

It’s a familiar formula: soulful foxy female with decent voice fronts an otherwise ordinary looking band but they certainly play with a bit of swagger and there’s few better ways to waste four minutes today.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The prophets of Jan

Ending the month as we started the year it seems appropriate to look at what myself and others are tipping right now. In the industry of new music no-one knows any better than anyone else and the public will decide. 

Kodaline are on a high and their hopes (forgive the puns….) of stardom may be bolstered by this single which is getting additional traction all over the place. This may be partly due to their BBC Sound Of 2013 nomination but they were also tipped by iTunes, Shazam and MTV, and have had radio support from Radio 1, the ever-more important Radio 2, Xfm and Absolute. NME also like them which matters a lot less of course. I find this inoffensively pretty but unexceptional, I feel that way about most things though and it’s already on the way to 100,000 YouTube views when it isn’t even released until March. The YouTube count seems to be the validation championed by most these days.



In a similar vein Milo Greene’s 1957 reminds me of a dozen other songs and bands of whom Temper Trap spring most readily to mind. They’re also heavily tipped, in their case by (amongst others) The Sunday Times Culture, The Independent, The Sun, Notion, Wonderland, 6 Music and The Guardian in their New Band of the Day column. Naturally it’s a concern that The Guardian can find a new band to recommend every day, it speaks volumes about the problems that the industry has and when they’re recommending so many acts then given the ‘throwing it at the wall’ theory you’d imagine that some will find success.

 

Milo Greene are from LA and have already appeared on David Letterman, Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno. You’d think that this alone puts them at the head of the pack, we’ll see. Staying on that side of the pond for something I do like and personally feel stands out, meet Kids These Days who seem to be fully embracing the freeconomics ethos by allowing you to download their excellent Traphouse Rock album for free.



This concept is beyond me to an extent, I understand the reasons for doing it but this is a finely produced, well-crafted piece of work that combines hip-hop, pop, rock and brass – you really will feel guilty that you got it for nothing (or maybe that’s just me). Alongside Everything Everything’s Arc and Biffy Clyro’s Opposites this is the album I’ve listened most to so far this year – I realise we’re only in Jan btw, that’s the point. Here’s their website if you want to know more

Ending closer to home and on a mellower note, Ben Drummond has been knocking around for a while and getting closer to success with each knock. He’s supporting both Olly Murs and Rod Stewart at the LG Arena this year and maybe it could be his year.
 
Ben also hosts an acoustic night on the last Tuesday of every month at the Jam House in Birmingham. He needs a bigger online presence but on musicianship alone he’s hard to beat.

 

 

Friday, January 18, 2013

'bum steer?


Critical commentators will tell you that the album is dead and the physical format you’re familiar with buying it on is even more of a rotting corpse. Yet still they’re made and still they’re bought. Not in the quantities of old and certainly not in the same places but enough to make the eulogy seem somewhat premature.
In 2012 UK music fans bought 100.5 million albums, not all of which were made by Adele, Emeli, Ed or Mumford – but a lot were. Over two thirds (69.1%) of the albums sold were on the CD format but the decline continues – total album sales slumped by over 10% and CD albums by almost 20%. The writing’s on the wall but the wall still stands if that’s not twisting the analogy way too far.

Growth continues in singles, in digital and even more so in streaming – there were 3.7 billion audio tracks streamed last year, equivalent to 140 per household. The most popular streamed songs were all pop and include one I don’t think I’ve ever heard - Titanium by David Guetta ft Sia – but I’m hardly the target market and I don’t feel that I’m missing out.

The album is sick (and not in the current usage of that word), it may be dying but it’s not dead yet. There’s a longer argument to be had about the concept as a whole but it’s a blog that I continue to struggle to write. Watch this space.

ALBUMS: UK MARKET VOLUMES BY FORMAT 2008 - 2012

Format
2008
2009
2010
2011
2012
2012 %
2012 +/-
CD
123.0m
112.5m
98.5m
86.2m
69.4m
69.1%
-19.5%
LP
0.209m
0.219m
0.234m
0.337m
0.389m
0.4%
+15.3%
Digital
10.3m
16.1m
21.0m
26.6m
30.5m
30.4%
+14.8%
Other*
0.154m
0.146m
0.104m
0.052m
0.147m
0.1%
+158.5%
TOTAL
133.6m
128.9m
119.9m
113.2m
100.5m
100.0%
-11.2%

* 'Other' includes Cassette, MiniDisc, DVD Audio, DVD Video, DMD and 7" box set albums.