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:

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


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.