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they wait a year (to five years) to burden us with 8-12 songs, it’s an overload – possibly a welcome one but definitely outdated.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.