Thursday, December 11, 2014

Record of the year....

The annual parade of lists has begun. A cavalcade of opinion that naturally coincides with the end of each year and, as a happy happenstance, with the peak purchasing period for recorded music. You can blame Christmas and unimaginative people for that.

I always read the top albums of the year lists, at least those in the publications whose tastes are usually reflective of my own. The latter qualifier seems to be harder to establish every year but so far it has included looking at Q, Mojo, Rolling Stone and The Guardian.
My motivation in the past was to see how many I agreed with; lately I look to see what I’ve missed 

I am as engaged with music and have probably listened to more new things than I usually would this year but I have been moved by less of them than I’d have hoped. The lists thus far are not helping much. Naturally I’m ignoring the artists and certain genres that are outside my listening preferences even allowing for my broad tastes. I can exempt a bunch of stuff I have already heard and was ambivalent about (Alt J, Bombay Bicycle Club, et al) and ignore the swathe of similar sounding singer-songwritery types (Ben Howard, George Ezra) that have failed to move me.
I have been cross-referencing where possible and presuming that if an act makes two or more lists then it must have crossed a threshold of combined tastes and quality. Doing this and even allowing for the normal ‘qualifications’ and disclaimers forged in the cauldron of subjectivity, there are a few incongruities that are beyond my comprehension.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Songs of Future Past

The future is Ginger?

Technology spawned the album. Production and distribution fuelled its rise, aided in no small way by artist experimentation. The advancement of technology has now killed the format but the artists remain devotees. They bemoan the deals and decry the new distribution but still they package their songs in small collections and irregularly release them unto a largely uninterested world.

So far there are no platinum album releases this year. It may be due to poor quality product, unbundling, streaming or any number of factors, including the domination of music genres where albums matter far less than hit singles, who knows? What we do know is that, regardless of this obvious decline, as is usual in the fourth quarter of any year we will be deluged with big album releases.
This has always been a huge bugbear of mine. I know already that there are far more albums being released in the next few months than I have the free time to listen to. I know also that I won’t be buying any of them until I’ve listened to them and waited a few months for the price to drop through the floor – as is now usually the case. Despite the advances in tech we are still shackled to the practices of the past – single, promo, album, tour, rest, record, repeat.

It’s a mystery (to me) why bands are still locked into the album vortex when the evidence seems clear that the consumer no longer cares. We are all more heavily involved in our favourite artist’s day-to-day habits, we consume their outpourings via social media and feel like we’re closer with them than before but we still don’t know why they wait a year (to five years) to burden us with 8-12 songs, it’s an overload – possibly a welcome one but definitely outdated.
Some artists are experimenting outside the mainstream. Long ago The Wedding Present went with the one track per month idea and others are adopting that mindset, slowly. Ginger Wildheart was always a likeable and industrious chap and his new subscriber package is a lot closer to what I expect of other so-called innovators. A £30 subscription gets you 36 brand new songs released at a rate of 3 per month plus demos and rarities from his archive. Obviously it requires an investment and few of us like many artists enough to engage with them in this way but it is undoubtedly a clever move.

Like many similar ideas it only really works if you already have a reputation, a following and some devoted fans who’ll readily buy into the concept. The road to reaching this point is inevitably a long one and seemingly getting longer still. All this said I think he’s nailed it. I will inevitably wait for the physical ‘greatest hits’ package but I doff my metaphorical cap to him. Soon it’ll be time for someone substantially better known to try the same. I look forward to that and hope it’s someone I care for enough about.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Songs of ambivalence

I began this month’s blogging escapades inspired by U2, Prince and Thom Yorke to try and answer the question ‘why are artists still releasing albums?’’

The truth is that I still listen to a lot of new albums but fear I’m in a rapidly decreasing minority. My listening habits cannot be applied to the greater music-loving community and if I ever play a full album in earshot of my 16 year-old son I’m liable to hear the complaint that it’s all ‘too samey’, even if he likes the artist concerned. His habits could also be incompatible with the wider general public but they may be a lot closer than mine. His generation are itinerant browsers, easily-bored, frequently flitting between one trend and the next and usually engaging with music via YouTube, one track at a time.

Even though I am semi-committed to the longer format, I frequently only listen to a full album once or twice, skipping tracks on subsequent plays. If I’ve bought them at all it will only be as a result of price-efficiency (never at full price), in a physical format and in the knowledge that there is a chance I will have the desire to play the bulk of the songs again at some point.

In the age of streaming might it possibly be the case that albums are created for four primary reasons:
a)      As artists are still enamoured with long-format recording processes.
b)      The commercial imperative – something to fill shop shelves.
c)       A theory that a greater number of songs on a streaming service will enable them to disproportionately ratchet up the number of plays they receive. A secondary commercial imperative if you like.
d)      An attempt to create value for money. The belief that you can increase the desire to invest money by leveraging a larger number of songs against the fan’s funds. This may be a misplaced hunch that demand is directly related to supply.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Songs of dissonance (aka songs in the key of live)

In retrospect writing a long piece about people’s inability to engage with albums due to decreasing attention spans was not the best idea I ever had. Perhaps writing is a bit like album-making, sometimes you want to capture every idea and cover all the bases. Those wedded to the process of creation possibly lack the self-edit function.

One of the unifying points I missed was that, aside from surprise album releases, the other thing that links Prince, U2 and Thom Yorke/Radiohead is that they are easily among the best live acts I’ve ever seen. The question I should have asked is whether these acts would excel in the live arena if they hadn’t spent the time creating so many albums? Was it necessary to produce a large quantity of songs in order to find a sufficient quantity to entertain an arena audience?
Finding the answers to these questions is not easy. The standard cliché is that practice makes perfect whether you align it to Gladwell’s ten-thousand hours theory or otherwise. Practice in playing live clearly helped them to be better live acts. Similarly the practice of writing so many songs should improve the ability to write songs, though this may be called into question by those recent recordings. In the past it is probably the case that the business model of the entertainment industry and its retail offshoots required a relatively constant flow of long-playing recordings or albums. With that assumption it can reasonably be stated that U2, Prince and Radiohead did have to release albums in order to become great live acts. Whether this is still the case is still potentially open to discussion. My argument was that it is not.   

Friday, October 3, 2014

Songs of Indifference

Some time back, when major recording artists were revered rather than ridiculed and popular albums frequently sold in their millions, I used to be forced to attend ‘sales training’ sessions. The individuals who hosted these events were fairly fond of slogans and acronyms, one of their favourites being keep it simple, stupid – or KISS.

These things had a habit of sticking in your head so that even if you couldn’t remember the context you’d be able to summon the acronym. In retrospect this is probably evidence of their effectiveness. The acronym sprang back into my mind when I was contemplating this post in which I wish to encompass the contemporary topics of ‘surprise albums’, albums of any kind and one U2 album in particular.
I am keen to make the point – and hope to do so in the next 823 words – that it’s still about the songs, sadly ISAS sounds a bit too similar to a certain murderous caliphate and a worthless investment tool. My immature mind will always lead me in search of a sweary option and so, for want of anything immediately better, I’m currently going with the exclamation ‘people, it’s still about the songs’ and omitting the latter vowel and the initial definite article (that’s the t btw).

At any rate this is too much pissing around without getting to the point, even though that’s entirely relevant in this context. In the past few weeks we’ve been barraged by surprise albums, unexpected gifts and possibly irrelevant trinkets. U2 caught the most flak for cloud-bombing us with Songs of Innocence which claimed the ‘record’ for biggest album release in one day making it compulsory for at least 500 million people (those with iTunes accounts) to think about U2. The tech lifestyle title Wired described this attempt at cultural force-feeding to be even worse than spam which may be one of the least offensive responses it provoked.
Regardless of your opinion of U2 it was a very nifty marketing trick and even if you think it failed then you’re wrong, this made a bigger splash than possibly any of their releases in the last two decades. Unfortunately ignoring the outburst of opinion was tricky, everyone seemed to have one and be over-eager to express it like some weird online game of troll piñata where even expressing grudging or past-admiration was distressingly un-cool.

Within a few weeks Thom Yorke had dropped another unheralded solo-album while Prince sent out two on the same day. Prince is a serial offender, a clear studio addict who is prone to bursts of hyper-releasing, a double album here, a triple album there, he loves an album, he probably loves each of his 34 albums, the question is ‘do we’?  I seem to have been posing this question a lot in the last two years and yet few care and the artist community cares even less. They’re fixated on fucking albums; to them I have to say PISS.
Thom’s press release/statement was almost unique in being entirely about the form of distribution (bit-torrent, now not the bad guys apparently) without saying anything about the music – it said nothing about the music, not even song-titles. PISS. The snarky amongst us might claim – with some justification – that we don’t really need a new Thom Yorke solo album, we don’t even need an Atoms For Peace record but we might quite like a Radiohead release. All this pissing about means we don’t get what we want but then we (the consumers) are not the important people in this equation are we? PISS.

That Thom works outside the out-dated record label structure is admirable, he may be pioneering a path for future musicians and artists and this might even include those who weren’t already made famous by the more traditional system. One thing is absolutely certain, if he was on a conventional label there’s no way on earth they’d have let him release one of his experimental-electro albums in the same week as Aphex Twin. The clash of the two is not unfortunate it’s stupid, even if Thom’s pricing structure ($6 or £3.68 to us) is very attractive.
I tend to think the future is still about the songs. A fact reinforced by listening to two of the albums concerned. The U2 trick worked on me, I’ve owned some of their recent work in physical form and not listened to all of it but the instant ubiquity of SOI was a boon. Some of it is alright, it’s very clear that they’ve invested time (and a lot of money) into trying to make a great pop album and on some songs they’ve succeeded. The same is true of Prince’s ArtOfficialAge. It’s a Prince album and the only one (or two if you count his other) of the above mentioned that’s available on Spotify. Both AOA and SOI were an experience that we’re all used to – a number of tracks with a couple of classics. Do we really need average songs from old acts? We just want the good stuff.

This piece really nails the detail of disruptive releasing and the possibilities for the future, it was also better and earlier than mine. I am compelled to throw my viewpoint in though and that is PISS. If U2, Thom or Prince had made a big deal of selling/promoting the killer songs and giving the filler away would it have made such a big difference? Big-selling albums are those, like Adele’s, where there’s a track-record (a recent prior selling big album with great songs) and a bunch of hit singles. We’re in the age of the mega-track, the Get Lucky era, if your album doesn’t have one or two then it isn’t going to sell shit, whoever you are. Think PISS.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

First blood

Credit where it’s due… we are bleating about recorded rock music being dead and Royal Blood pop up and score a number one album. Not only that but it’s the fastest selling rock album in three years.  I usually have issues with some of the music lumped under the label of rock but there’s no doubts here, Royal Blood is a proper rock album.

Kudos to them of course and slings and arrows to those who claim that the charts no longer mean much, that may be true but in the absence of many other measures of success it’s the best we’ve got. If you really want to criticise them you could say that the album is a bit short, one-paced and contains too many singles already released. It’d be pretty churlish though, it’s a great album, fine songs and we should all be celebrating the return of rock, it can only bring good things.
At any rate 66,000 albums in one week is pretty nifty, it means they outsold Ed Sheeran and everyone else last week. The only one who might claim more cumulative sales is Kate Bush with eight albums in the top 40 and eleven in the top 50. It’s a feat not equalled by many, very few will ever have that opportunity since getting to the stage of having eleven albums recorded is a significant feat in itself.

The key to success is obvious:  record some massive chart hits, evolve into more serious music (gradually), give very few (if any) interviews, play no gigs (for 35 years), act reclusive, get nominated every year for Brit Awards without having any records out, release highly-acclaimed material sporadically then surprisingly announce a tour playing only one city. I’m surprised no one else has managed it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

You can't stop the rock.....

Last week The Guardian (of all people) published a weird time-frozen piece about how women were abandoning pop for rock . It appeared to me to be an opinion rooted in 1970s thinking as that was the last time I recall rock being male-dominated. Caroline Sullivan oddly ignored a central fact which is that one of the biggest rock acts of the last few years, Paramore, is female-fronted. Presumably they don’t think that their audience is entirely male? Odd.

Last time I was musing on rock’s inability to break big these days. A contributory factor is the lack of airplay, a possible by-product of the acts concerned failing to write songs that will leap the boundaries and have appeal to all.

Radio 1’s rock show moving to a more palatable hour of broadcast will undoubtedly help. We may believe that young people no longer have appointments to listen but a broadcast time of 7pm will inevitably reach more casual listeners than midnight ever would. A year from now we may have a better idea of how rock is doing.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

For those about to rock?

What do you do about rock when everyone seems only to want pop? Ignoring the genre-mutations and blurred definitions we know that rock doesn’t die but when it goes this quiet is that somehow worse?

I saw a bit of Black Star Riders with Tax The Heat at the Asylum last week. I have no doubt that it was the right venue, it’s a great room for proper rock and this was it. I couldn’t help thinking however that a band containing ex-members of Thin Lizzy and authentically performing those songs should really be in a bigger venue. Is this what it’s come to? Even when they weren’t littering the ‘pop’ charts the rock and metal bands of old were still routinely filling venues.
We can blame the economic situation and the lack of disposable revenue, we can even point to the high-ticket prices of acts like Eagles taking money out of the market but they seem like flimsy excuses. Rock doesn’t seem to have the cachet anymore.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The thicke end of the wedge

Much has been made of Robin Thicke’s indifferent album sales figures, hundreds in this country as opposed to hundreds of thousands for his last effort. We all love a bit of schadenfreude but the sheer quantity of glee could easily be pronounced professional trolling (by proxy?).

Politically-correct commentators seem keen to attribute his downfall to the backlash against the divisive ‘Blurred Lines’ and its borderline-‘rapey’ lyrics and dated misogynistic video but this is unlikely to be the case. The backlash started early and did nothing to diminish the vast sales of that mega-track or its accompanying album. If anything they contributed to its all-encompassing vastness. The well-deserved criticism also seems to have done little harm to the global domination of song-collaborator Pharrell yet Thicke gets to wear it like a crown of thorns.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Extreme indifference

Earlier this month I was at The Cornbury Festival where, for the past four years, I’ve helped in organising and managing The Absolute Radio Comedy Emporium. I also named it, casually ignoring the minor details of archaic terminology and factual accuracy.

In that four year period I have worked with the comedian & writer Max Dickins and, through a process of trial and error, we finally seem to have got the balance right. We put on family-friendly comedy and cabaret during the day and bigger names/upcoming talent later on. In one of this year’s cabaret segments we’d booked Phil Blackmore, a juggler who had appeared on Britain’s Got Talent. As he specialises in dangerous juggling acts – barbed wire wrapped baseball bats, chainsaws and fire, sometimes whilst riding a unicycle – we described him as an ‘extreme juggler’ and promoted his 3pm Sunday appearance around the festival site.

This ‘promotion’ resulted in a few people seemingly making a special effort to get over to the tent by 3pm which was lucky as he started slightly early with the fire juggling. He then proceeded to do a dangerous-looking trick with a Samurai sword, a bowling ball and a jelly baby whilst making a few jokes with the audience. He’d been on-stage about ten minutes when a woman left her seat in the marquee and made her way over to the steward by the entrance. She paused and asked ‘Do you know what time the extreme juggler is on?’

I tell you this partly to amuse and astound but also to indicate that clearly some things are not as obvious to everyone as they may be to you. You can make a mistake in under-estimating the audience but also in over-estimating them.

This is partly why marketing exists, the fundamental belief is that it is there to create a desire for something you didn’t know you needed, but it’s also there to remind you of what you’re getting. If an MC had come on stage at five minute intervals during Phil’s act shouting about how great the extreme juggling was then it might have achieved two things – it would’ve hyped up the audience and resolved that woman’s doubts.

Hype and signposts, that’s what it’s all about, you can survive without them but you may not excel. You can be as creative as you like, a true original, one of a kind but unless you (or someone else) are shouting about it then few will get to find out.

It’s a lesson not easily learned and often fairly difficult to achieve. Can you stand above the crowd without stepping on the heads of others? Sadly talent in itself is not enough, you may not believe the hype but you definitely need it.
When the chips are down, are you extreme enough.....

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The politics of disengagement

I gave up on party politics a long time ago. There seemed to be little impact that any individual could bring upon the major parties. Unless you were a major organisation or a rich benefactor your voice would be lost in the mass. The only time politicians and political parties have any need to listen is when they want your vote and even then, unless you live in a marginal constituency, don’t expect them to put in too much effort.

Voting in elections seems to many to be a similar waste of time and effort. It is one way to send a message though and that is what a minority (of a minority) achieved in last week’s council and European polls. The real statistic, as ever, was that the large majority (66%) of UK registered voters preferred not to bother.
Well done for that vote of apathy. You’ve collaborated in giving ‘power’ to a single-issue party into positions where they can have no influence on that particular issue. They’ll sit and collect the very privileges they claim to oppose whilst doing very little – based on previous evidence. All it has ensured is that the next twelve months of electioneering will be focussed on the EU and immigration, issues which impact upon a tiny minority rather than education, the economy, welfare and the NHS which matter to us all.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Death and taxes....perception and politics

I had originally intended to write about Gary Barlow a few weeks back – at the height of the ‘scandal’ – but, as ever, others were doing a better job of it and people’s positions were inevitably entrenched, often linked to their opinion of Gary Barlow and his music.  

The points I’d intended to make were fairly basic. Every major celebrity you’ve ever heard of is involved in actively seeking to reduce their tax bill. They employ accountants and advisors for this purpose and may not always be personally aware of the methodology used. You can argue that they should be more involved to ensure that the process is ethical but generally they’d prefer to keep their distance, it’s safer that way. They do their jobs (writing and playing music in this instance) and leave the accountants to do the boring bits. You only have to recall the numerous cases of famous people having to sue accountants/managers/staff for fraud/embezzlement to know that this ‘disconnect’ is true.

The British tax system is fairly complex and accordingly contains loopholes for intelligent and well-advised accountants to exploit. Parts of the system are even so vague and convoluted that tax officials would struggle to explain their purpose, much less enforce them. The levels of taxes set on earnings/income are also set in acknowledgement that individuals and companies will actively seek to avoid paying as much as they can. The Government know that people try to avoid taxes and subsequently they raise the percentage charged on acknowledged earnings (above certain levels) to accommodate this. It’s a poor system but it’s the one we have.

This doesn’t acknowledge that Gary Barlow was right, only that he’s not alone and is unlucky to be singled out in this way – partly as a scapegoat. The irony is that the band may tour again to pay off their bill which may involve the use of another loophole. Many musicians used to use a complex touring calculation to ensure they were out of the UK for a set time (linked to a specific number of nights – not days - per tax year) and could claim some form of non-domicile arrangement.  I don’t know if this is still possible but it was common at one time. Musicians were more aware of this one as it probably had to be explained to them and their families to justify such an ‘absence’.

My central issue with the icebreaker scheme that Gary and some of his TT colleagues used was that it sought to create losses through investing in intellectual property. Some of this was via new talent, often musical. It struck me that it’d have been a lot easier for Take That to use their considerable wealth and influence to provide actual funding for genuine talent. Had they invested properly and supported real musicians there would have been short term losses of course but also possible gains when that talent became successful. Perhaps the losses would not have sufficiently offset their tax burden but maybe the gains eventually would have? Some of the artists could even have recorded Barlow’s songs to give him additional potential to earn.

Record labels have consolidated and shrunk to a level where they only fund what they consider to be ‘sure things’ and often bail out too early. It was once thought that the live industry would pick up the slack in an attempt to stabilise the market and guarantee long-term touring revenues but this appears not to have been the case, at least not so far. Everyone’s only investing in established names. There is a considerable gap that successful artists could fill, using their influence, knowledge and experience as well as wealth. Gary & his cohorts may have missed a trick if not in offsetting tax then at least in consolidating their hero status instead of appearing to become greedy villains.

Friday, May 2, 2014

1979 vs 2014

In the second part of an unraveling thread I will continue to consider 1979, a seemingly random year but one where singles sales were unparalleled. This alone could give it the accolade of being the epicentre of pop. I was 15 back then and it all seemed relatively normal to me, adults had their music and we had ours and they fought a running battle in the charts and consequently also on Top Of The Pops.

We like to think of the music of our youth being cool, it is much easier to reminisce that the soundtrack of those formulative years was a blend of cutting-edge creativity rather than bland MOR or production-line pop. These things co-existed back in the day. 1979 may have been the year of the first 2 Tone releases but the 3rd best-selling single of that year was by Cliff Richard. Cliff was ahead of Lena Martell and her God-bothering faux-country rubbish (another former no. 1) but behind the mawkish film-tied Art Garfunkel.  It was as if punk never happened.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Nobody's on Top Of The Pops

No matter how much – or little - music is on TV some will always have an objection to it. The objections may vary from the style to the quantity or even the delivery but all they really do is support the adage: you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Music TV has to hit some common denominators and try to satisfy some of the people most of the time. TV is the vehicle delivering content to the masses who, by their number, are not likely to share the same tastes.

The process for selecting acts for Jools’ Later must be a tough one given that it is arguably the most important music programme in the UK on any medium. It wasn't always this way. Before the fracturing of tastes and the severance of ties to what we now call ‘appointment to view’ TV there was Top Of The Pops. TOTP had fewer issues of selectivity and snobbery since its function was to reflect the most popular songs in the country at that time relying on the sole form of measurement available, the singles chart. The chart was a measurement of popularity reflecting six or seven-day sales of physical format recordings, or records to you and me. I put this explanation in only for my own amusement.

A documentary, clip-show, at the weekend reminded me of what a bizarre musical world we used to inhabit. It took as its base the year 1979 since this was when TOTP hit its highest ever viewing figures. This was due to a variety of factors including one of the three available TV channels being unavailable due to strike action. It was also the year when the UK was recording the highest ever sales of singles and what an odd range they were. The mish-mash of styles reflected competing trends in the UK from disco to punk and its sub-genre or variant ‘new wave’, this contributed to  a vibrant era  for music but it also threw up some oddities that are no longer visible (or viable?) today.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Start at the bottom

It bears repeating: it’s never been easier to make music, nor harder to make people listen to it. With mass media out of the reach of everyone except for the already famous and those who ride on their coat-tails it is clear that innovation is the key to creating and building an audience.

Others talk frequently about starting small, concentrate on converting individuals and with luck and perseverance the message spreads. This assumes that your ‘product’ is good enough of course; let’s go with that assumption for now.

I came across a band called Marmozets  recently. I happened to hear their single, heard that it was getting some decent plays from radio folk, noticed that they were on the Download bill and this caused me to mention it to my 17 year old daughter. She’s the target market and was already aware of them. The reason she remembered them so well was that she’s one of their Twitter followers – they also follow her. More importantly they’ve replied to her random tweets, they have a ‘relationship’. This alone means she speaks positively of them and is far more likely to support them in future. It sounds simple, it is simple – probably until the point that you get so famous that it’s difficult to have that ‘one on one’ relationship. In the short term that’s not a concern. Marmozets have got it right, they engage the audience and when the material is good enough then they have an ‘army’ of loyal supporters ready to ‘big them up’. The material is definitely getting there and they seem primed and ready for the next step.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Antique Record Show

Friday night and there’s f-all on television. It’s a bank holiday but the networks have abdicated responsibility clearly thinking that we’re all out celebrating the anniversary of Jesus’ death or we’ve all buggered off somewhere for the long-weekend. Perhaps they’ve projected their own lifestyles onto their viewing public. It’s a common enough conception; maybe it’s even backed-up by stats from previous Easter weekends. Whatever the reason it seems ironic that the best programme on television features a bunch of people watching television and making their own humourous and critical comments . Maybe this proves that TV, like pop, has finally eaten itself.

F-all on TV day is followed this year by Record Store Day. We have to forgive the Americanism as they invented the concept and it latterly became international. On the face of it the idea is great – create a reason for people to visit their local indie record store, host live music, stock exclusive product, job done. It’s a celebration of all things indie with a hefty focus on that genre that ensures that it’s largely preaching to the converted. The upside is that a lot of the converted also work in the media so it probably looks like a much bigger event. The pages dedicated to it in today’s Guardian, including this page three piece and the cover of the Guide with a feature lauding the indie labels alone would ensure that the event has served a great purpose.

As always though there are many detractors, including one on Twitter who coined my favourite phrase to encapsulate it all – product acquisition day. The queues outside indie stores this morning were there to hoover up the exclusive releases, the limited edition copies of tracks produced to commemorate the occasion. Yes, it has succeeded in getting these people in a shop but if their intent is just to sell the rare product on E-bay in order to profit then the rationale has been sacrificed to consumerism and greed once more. There may be no better analogy for the music industry as a whole.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Ghost Town (slight return)

According to The Coventry Evening Telegraph some people seem to have a ‘Field of Dreams’ philosophy to the lack of a city centre music venue. I wouldn’t expect them to appreciate the finer details but an assumption that this much-needed centrally placed venue would instantly solve all of the city’s entertainment woes is almost certainly misplaced.

The debate was sparked by two Coventry bands who have omitted the city from their current touring schedule. It’s not the first time they’ve done this and the lack of an appropriate venue certainly plays a part in the process, but it’s not the whole story. Touring cycles often alternate venues/towns/cities in order to avoid over-playing in a certain territory. Thus Wolverhampton/Birmingham, Liverpool/Manchester, Glasgow/Edinburgh can often be swapped dependent upon where the act played last.

Clearly a band would always want to play their home-town but nothing would be more embarrassing than failing to sell out in your back-yard, having a guest list that’s bigger than the box office sales print-out may also be a big issue. Tours take a number of factors into consideration from regional popularity to an area’s general population and prosperity.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The anti-marketing marketing angle

Blame Bowie. By issuing a single and album that few people even knew was being recorded he started a trend that we now seem to be seeing a lot of, the ‘stealth-release’. For once in his illustrious career he wasn’t the first to do this but the PR splash he created is one that others are ultra-keen to replicate.

It is a trick you can only consider attempting if your fanbase is already huge and your reputation mature enough to survive it. Everyone else is already releasing material into the ether without much fanfare, now it seems that the famous think that they can also get away with it.

It’s a risky business. By easing back on the marketing you are essentially only reaching those who are actively engaged with you, those who are likely to see the Facebook updates or the shared tweets. You may rely on the hardcore to do the work for you but there is a potential that you may not reach the unengaged mass, the normal fan, the casual participant, basically most people.

Friday, February 21, 2014


Lo, it came to pass that of the 9 Brits Awards I attempted to predict  I got 6 right, 66%, very similar to last year. It could be stated that the whole thing is a bit predictable. The performances and the speeches are generally safe, the host is usually rubbish and the voting is generally skewed towards ‘rock’ music even if the prevailing trend is overwhelmingly for pop/RnB. Had I thought more about this latter point I’d have predicted less for Disclosure.

It’s always useful to remind yourself what The Brits is now about – publicity in all its forms. It is a showcase for the industry, a big TV production and a chance to be talked about. This year they may have excelled, becoming the most ‘tweeted’ about show in UK TV history – 4.14 million tweets which equates to 78,000 per minute. Given our current obsession with social media this alone would have made the show organisers scream WIN and give James Corden a new contract, which is great news for everyone of course…..

Of course it’s not just that. The show also puts music in front of people in a way that no longer happens on this scale or in prime-time. It makes One Direction fans (those who’ll watch anything that features the band, however briefly) put up with music they’d never otherwise see as they’re otherwise One Dimensional. Being a prime-time show it also attracts people who don’t watch music shows or channels, people whose relationship with music is passive at best.

The presence of the latter usually results in large sales spikes for those acts who are invited to appear and particularly those who win awards. It rarely matters that we might’ve all thought they were crap, derivative or uninspiring. Last year’s sales spikes were particularly impressive – 320% for Ben Howard and even 62% for Emeli Sande and  you thought everyone owned that album already.

In these times of strife for the music industry it’s still hard to knock The Brit Awards, it may not be your cup of tea – or mine – but it is very effective.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Brit of all trite

History dictates that I should pre-empt the Brit Awards with my predictions of who will win what. I had a 64% strike rate last time  with 7 of the 11 attempted. I was hedging my bets on a few though which I will also repeat this time around.

I should have got around to it before the day of the event, you can be assured that if I rigged it by doing it afterwards I’d get 100% and call myself Nostradamus thereafter.
The truth is that it’s a lottery and I feel a little more out of touch this time around but having made those qualifying remarks I should just get into it.

All the nominees are here and these are my ill-educated guesses:

British Breakthrough Act              

My instinct is for Disclosure but it could go to any of the nominees, London Grammar is a good second shout.

British Female Solo Artist          

I genuinely haven’t a clue, where’s Kate Bush when you need her? I despise Jessie J though so it has to be Ellie Goulding or Laura Mvula.

British Group                           Arctic Monkeys or One Direction

British Male Solo Artist             David Bowie

British Single                           John Newman

International Female Solo Artist               

          How I would love this to be Janelle Monáe, it’s surely going  to be Lorde

International Group                                   Daft Punk

International Male Solo Artist                     Bruno Mars

MasterCard British Album of the Year          David Bowie or Disclosure

Time will tell. Put some money on Clean Bandit for next year though.

Friday, January 24, 2014

From hate to rate

Year zero: 1976. The time that punk was acknowledged as a genre and its formative bands made their great advances. We had Anarchy In The UK and the biggest selling single was.......Brotherhood of Man’s twee-Eurovision ditty, Save All Your Kisses For Me. Abba’s Greatest Hits was the best-selling album.

1977. Sid joined The Pistols, Nevermind The Bollocks was released. The best selling single? Wings, Mull Of Kintyre. 7” singles were a punk-staple but no punk singles featured in the fifty most popular. Other artists represented more than once were the likes of David Soul and Showaddywaddy, even Emerson Lake and Palmer featured. Once again Abba had the biggest selling album.

Fast forward in a random fashion to 1990, the best-selling single? Unchained Melody by The Righteous Brothers, Phil Collins had the best-selling album. 2001’s top three? Shaggy, Hear’say and Kylie. If there’s a pattern to be derived from these random years it is only that the music you remember may not be the stuff that was most popular. Seismic shifts in culture, music in particular, are not always reflected in sales.

I was pointed towards The Telegraph web-site for a repetition of my own views that the BBC’s Sound Of and others are essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy. They seem to have taken the concept a little further though into the territory of individuality, self-determination and Beeb-bashing.

What the BBC do, similar to the BRITs/awards/best of polls and other helpful aggregators and compendia of tastes is provide sign-posts, a guide. They tell you what’s likely to be big and you can choose whether you like it. The Telegraph guys may suggest that you should make up your own mind  but you’d have done that anyway.

The problem is that most people are so conservative in their tastes that radio stations increase their audiences by provide less choice and variety of music – despite often claiming the opposite. This piece from the Wall Street Journal  is specific to American stations and audiences but relevant worldwide, it is utterly depressing. At a time when we need a revolution in music we are sadly faced with more of the same. Perhaps it was always this way, just not as obviously.

The music that is most influential is not always that which is successful. You can make up your own minds but a little help to navigate the mass is always worthwhile. The Telegraph could do this for their readership and it might make a difference. The probability is that we'll carry on as always but it is better to try and fail than fail to try and moan about others doing so. Their point may have been made to promote Luke Sital-Singh but they only succeeded in pointing out that they could've praised him earlier. Nice work. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

How to get ahead in the music business

It seems the only way to get ahead in the music business this year is to be named Sam Smith or to feature on someone else’s very-poppy, dance-crossover Euro-smash. Better still to be called Sam Smith and also appear on a couple of poppy-dancing-smash hits. Smith, it seems, can do no wrong.

Smith recently topped the BBC’s Sound of Poll for this year as well as being the Brit Award winner for act most likely to – or whatever it’s called. Previous recipients of either award have tended to do quite well for themselves, the dice being heavily loaded in their favour. To win both is just greedy though and it seems as though that problem I have about distinguishing Smith from Newman is unique to me and certainly not holding Sam back. If you can be bothered to read most of this piece about ‘collaborations’ you’ll see that Newman doesn’t seem too impressed by the comparison though. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The end of the year as we know it.

If you’re in any way depressed about the state of modern music then it might be time to look away, change channels or simply go off-the-page. The end-of-year charts simply back up what you already knew – guitar based rock or ‘indie’ music is very firmly in decline.

While research commissioned by the BBC suggests that genres are of less importance to today’s music consumer the labels and media appear to be following an agenda that is predominantly urban, EDM or pop-led. In this instance the stats don’t lie.

UK Best selling singles of 2013

1. Robin Thicke feat TI and Pharrell - Blurred Lines  
2. Daft Punk feat Pharrell - Get Lucky  
3. Avicii - Wake Me Up  
4. Passenger - Let Her Go  
5. Naughty Boy feat Sam Smith - La La La  
6. Katy Perry - Roar  
7. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat Wanz - Thrift Shop  
8. Pink feat Nate Ruess - Just Give Me A Reason  
9. OneRepublic - Counting Stars  
10. Justin Timberlake - Mirrors  

The full forty is here in all its gory detail and, as I don’t subscribe to the theory that Passenger, Imagine Dragons or Bastille are even remotely identifiable as such, you’ll be searching in vain for an act that would be traditionally known as rock or indie.

As you might expect rock fares a little – but not much – better in the albums format.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The landscape of the electric lady

Given their ubiquity it is often said that opinions are like arseholes. Pursuing this thought you might also add that those who like to express their opinions with the greatest frequency and volume are also like…..well, you can probably see where I was going with that.

In the context of musical appreciation and its many foibles we need the opinionated though. We need those arbiters to sift through the mass and present us with the nuggets, the must-listens and the like. There’s too much out there – past and present – and the average person, even the average music-lover, cannot even scratch the surface. In the main people (in this country) rely upon radio, other media and their friends and until the streaming sites get better at honing their algorithms this will probably remain the case.

I had been relying heavily upon the end of year summaries featuring the top albums of 2013, trying to work out which of the featured albums/artists I’d probably like and hadn’t heard. Where the lists converged I made a point of trying to catch up with those albums. In general, although I’m probably only half-way through my ‘research’, I wasn’t overwhelmed.