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 piƱata 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.


Unknown said…
The U2 album has done them no favours, injecting their album into the music collection of millions has upset both the listener but also their peers, giving away music instantly devalues it in the eyes of the listener and on a world where more bands are trying to make it, its put U2 out of touch with the industry. Its sad, whilst I may not like U2s music, it doesn't mean I don't respect what they do. However to have it feel like the new album is forces upon you is a bit over bearing.

In the case of releasing albums without giving journalists a chance to hear them, does this act as a positive or a negative? Does it come across as the artist not having the faith that it will be well received? Or does it come across as the artist wanting the listener to decide for themselves without having any external influence, giving them a blank canvas as it were?