Monday, September 14, 2015

Remembrance of things

The past is a mysterious place, famously described (in The Go Between) as a foreign country because ‘they do things differently there’. Though we may choose, or try, to live in the present we are confronted by our past in more ways than ever, it is omnipresent. The past is inescapable.

As with most things you can blame the internet for this. All social media is a constant reminder of a time and a place, perhaps often one that you’d rather have escaped. Facebook is the core culprit, constantly telling you about something you did, or posted, two or three years gone. It is difficult to forget anything, except probably the important stuff.
My Facebook is a link to a community of distant souls, separated by time and occasionally continents. It is a reminder of the person you once were or have tried to be. I am frequently amazed and bemused by things I discover of which I had no recollection. I recently wrote a piece for The Birmingham Music Archive on The COD Club, a venue I ran for a period in the late 80s. A short time later I discovered I had the dates completely wrong – I had relied on an accounts book kept of attendances and artists but it seems that I’d started the accounts book at least three months after starting the club. Now I have no way of knowing when it started and who the first band actually was.
I am now in touch with many former friends and acquaintances from that era and once again Facebook is to blame. Few of them have changed much, retaining the humour and spirit that was essential to being a struggling performer. Indeed many continue to perform and are still struggling - but often with something more to show for it.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A bird in the hand

The music industry lacks originality, this much is obvious. Success in one genre begets imitators and a crush to assimilate into the mainstream. Every niche is pummelled into a trend that could extend its shelf-life but is as likely to smother it in its infancy.

The status quo that prevails means slightly less of Status Quo (sorry) and more conventional pop and manufactured dance sounds, traditional four-piece bands playing rock are the novelty, trawling the undergrowth to collect a sufficient number of fans that they may have some kind of longevity. As I’ve often said, it was never easier to make and distribute your music, never harder to actually get it heard by a lot of people.
A few years back I wrote of seemingly deliberate attempts to confuse two pop-soul singers, John Newman and Sam Smith: same haircut, same artwork, similar dress, copycat collaborations and eventually the same kind of success. It didn’t harm Smith that’s for sure but did it damage Newman? At the time he seemed to think so.

Of late I’ve been perplexed by similar sounding band names to those that already exist or once existed, a process that’s beginning to suggest we don’t have enough nouns in the English language. This feeling was confounded by the discovery of a new act called Bird, who happens to be a female singer-songwriter, not to be confused with Birdy of course. As with Sam & John, Bird and Birdy are not dissimilar or certainly not individual enough and operating in significantly different musical spheres to avoid confusion.
Additionally the way we now find our music – often on streaming or search sites – will cause a confusion that must have been contemplated. I’m beginning to long for a system such as that which operates in stage and film, where to belong to the actor’s union Equity you must have a unique professional name. Clearly it’s too much to ask for, not only do the record companies want identikit sounds they also want brand confusion, it’s a clear or confused route to success.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Mind your language

There is always a row about how to quantify success and it is rarely more evident than in the music industry where a large number of factors contribute to an act’s profile and reputation. A well-reasoned blog this month pointed out how the industry is in danger of painting itself into a corner over how it measures sales and reports success.  The complaint being made was that we all run the risk of downgrading our most valuable financial asset (the album) by confusing what an album actually is.

For the sake of being contrary I would actually argue that the industry’s most important asset is now the single. I’ve made the point before (two years ago!) that we’re in the age of the mega-track and the growth and popularity of streaming is only more likely to enforce this point. People continue to consume music in their own traditional (and new) ways but their entry point to the album is always likely to have been through hearing a single, it is the definitive gateway drug – an earworm that drags you to purchase. A mega-track will always result in increased album sales for the artist concerned but the lack of one can kill an album. It remains the best advertisement and should also exist as a stand-alone revenue source.
It’s all in the measurement, perhaps, but forget the formats and think about sales – whether single or album streams, downloads or physical. You can read it in many ways and too much into it.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

At home he's a tourist

It should be possible to live in a world where pretty-much everything is based on fact, on hard statistical evidence. We have the historical data, we have the computers and we have a wealth of brainpower: more people than ever having had a university education combined with very well-educated individuals who are living longer.

As such no important decision of great magnitude should be made without hard evidence to back it up. Sadly we are still the victims of political mismanagement and self-interest, of abuse by major corporations and their minions. Mostly this passes us by, newspapers have been hollowed out, eviscerated, and the messages they carry are often for the purposes of their rich owners rather than ours. Occasionally a few heads will rise from the trenches and point out insane inaccuracies such as in this letter from major economists criticising George Osborne’s plan to make deficit reduction into law. Unfortunately it’s not the first time he’s been criticised by educated folk, I need not remind you that his party was re-elected with an increased majority.
As I said in April 2013 the truth is out there but we’re often too lazy to find it. There is a certainty that very few in the media are willing to lead us to it. Instead we are often misled by statistics and the 'interpretation' of fact. I was partly privy to some of this misdirection earlier in the week when I saw reports of UK Music’s  report into ‘music tourism’.

Wish You Were Here is a glowing analysis into the growth of festivals and live music, a very well researched document that aims to promote the UK music industry. I cannot and should not criticise that but I could not help but notice some irregularities. Looking deeper into the methodology made me particularly suspicious of statistics that claimed the industry supported '38,238 full time jobs in 2014’.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Not waving but yachting

Deborah Orr pretty much nailed the Tidal argument and by making parallels with the ‘100 letter’ from businessmen protecting their own interests she did few favours for an artist community that sought to portray the thought that they were doing us one.

That artists are self-obsessed comes as no surprise to anyone, they’re not out-of-touch as such except that we’d be forgiven for thinking that they’re only in touch when they want something from you. To sell this concept in the thought that they’re giving something back was a sadly skewed idea(l). It’s the thinking of trickle-down economics or as Deborah says ‘what’s good for me is good for you’.

We all know that ‘trickle down’ doesn’t work but still some cling to it as part of long-held and celebrity-fostered aspirational beliefs – we’re all capable of being rich and famous. It was interesting to hear this echoed in a James Brown documentary on BBC4 recently. One of James’ faithful band members revealing that James thought that everyone was capable of pulling themselves up and succeeding whilst forgetting that not everyone had the talent and ability that he had. He went on to note that James’ efforts in other business areas never quite succeeded like his music. Artists always like to believe they can succeed in other areas and their fame sometimes allows this.
What Tidal needed was some point of difference. The pricing was standard with no freemium option – so much so that you’d think everyone was deliberately pegging at the same price, which in my opinion is too high. They’re offering a higher-end audio experience which again seems to play to the providers more than the audience; committed audiophiles are probably already nailed to Neil Young’s Pono mast. So it may only be in the area of exclusive content that Tidal can win. Perhaps by making the big stars part of the picture and promising them a bigger pay-out they will secure exclusives that other streamers can’t get.

I’ve long held the view that artists can and should share more, whether we should be paying for it is a different matter. If we’re obsessed with an act we want new stuff immediately, not to be dictated to by their release schedule and marketing plan.  If we’re not getting the finished article though is it worth a subscription fee? All the acts in the Tidal ‘room’ are control freaks, I can’t imagine that they’re planning any big roll-out of material you can’t get elsewhere or at times that don’t suit them. This may be a case of who blinks first but as Jay Z holds the reins I’m sure everyone is waiting to see what he might do, will he back up words with content? We should also ask (as Adam Bowie has) whether his existing record contracts give him the freedom to do so.

Famous artists have control of the media already; they are interested in being the medium and the message and you will only experience what they want you to experience, when they want you to experience it and perhaps now even how they want you to experience it. I heard another beguiling phrase recently about the difference between rich and poor being not so much about the have and have nots as the the haves and have-yachts. This is essentially the artist community (or at least the successful parts of it) getting on board once the boat has sailed, whinging that the existing terms aren’t fair (to them) but not offering a new solution to a problem we don’t have. In streaming and now with Tidal we are not drowning in choice as much as sinking beneath waves of confusion as well as a million poorly executed puns on water & waves – blame them they started it or, like the kings they imagine themselves to be, they think they can stop it.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Bay of Pigs

The Guardian chose to eviscerate James Bay (twice) last week partly for the crime of being ‘the boy most likely to’.

In doing so they repeated my belief about the BBC’s Sound Of and Brit Awards newcomer garlands being artless self-fulfilling prophecy. The problem is actually one of how the question is phrased. If we’re asked to choose a bunch of acts that are going to be successful then naturally we’re going to pick ones that have major label backing and are in the same territory as other acts that have already proved successful. We can see there’s an appetite for that kind of shtick and that there are many record companies willing to meet that demand. Backing a winning horse is about studying form rather than pointing to the one you like the best.
The music business is just that, it’s an industry that tries to pander to existing tastes. It may occasionally try to develop them but rarely from scratch. James Bay’s crime is simply that he is unremarkable: an identikit white pop-soul boy with some nice songs to suit his unthreatening, above-average-looking, boy-next-door persona.

I have long wondered why and how some acts break big leaving others unjustly unheard by the masses. It is often a matter of luck, timing or contacts. Do I believe that James Bay or George Ezra are better than, say, Dan Whitehouse or George Barnett? Some may consider them so; I suspect they are just luckier. Right time, right place, right representation.
We can kick James Bay (and The Guardian continues to do so) but he is simply a product of these times. Bland times, take-no-risks times, identikit times, follow-the-leader times – whatever you want to call them it doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Out with the bold

There’s a chance that current musical output hasn’t really become more conservative. There’s a big chance that there are pockets of ad hoc, left-field, anti-commercial dissent all over the place that remain unheard and unseen by the majority. There’s a chance that this stuff will break out and we’ll have a new revolution. There’s a chance that pigs might fly and that we’ll all live happily ever after but there’s a bigger chance that they can’t and we won’t.

This year I found the BBC’s self-fulfilling Sound of 2015 even more depressing than usual. It was really a case of ‘is that it?’ Is that the best we can do? In the dying stages of 2015 Radio 1 had promised to resurrect rock music but their efforts seem not to have made it as far as warranting their validation for the year to come. The top five choices were all a bit meh and then some.
Predicting success for the likes of Kwabs or James Bay is hardly going out on a limb. Both have had ‘hits’ and radio playlists already, they are signed to major labels and are making pop/soul music that is great but far from challenging. Bay strikes me as being in the George Ezra school, good but not outstanding – I prefer my singer-songwriters to be saying something, or at least trying. Kwabs could be a true great, he has the lungs for it – if the songs are there (or can be found) he could be around for some time. Kwabs is unquestionably better than Sam Smith whose success has been astounding.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Islands in the stream

It’s a documented fact that the music industry made a catastrophic error on the issue of downloads, and file-sharing, being ponderously slow to capitalise on the potential for revenue and growth. They were technologically inept, strategically slack and slow to adapt, eventually handing control of the sector to tech giants like Apple who were able to dictate the terms of engagement.  

Having ceded control in this vital area you’d have envisaged them being a bit more alive to the next development and in cutting equity deals with key players in the streaming market you might suggest that they have been. Unfortunately they seem not to have considered the artists. They made the same error in developing CDs but were able to circumvent any great backlash by delivering significant sales. The dramatically slower pace of streaming revenue looks set to cause greater issues with the artist community as those in control of creating the content continue to rebel against their perceived drop in revenues and status.

Artists’ retrospectively bemoaning the content of their recording contracts is far from new news; it’s as old as the industry. Wherever money is involved there is always a degree of mistrust and record company contracts are among the more convoluted documents ever created by lawyers, which must be saying something. Added to this royalty statements are easily some of the most complex forms I’ve ever had the ‘privilege’ of trying to interpret. Only lawyers benefit from scenarios where acts sign an agreement as penniless hopefuls and contest it as successful, widely-known celebrities. These scenarios exist because contracts attempt to cover all eventualities, including developments in distribution which didn’t exist at the time they were written.

We can’t predict the future but we can waste a lot of time in arguing about it, without any resolution. This piece from July 2013 covers a lot of the territory very effectively and this feature gives a good idea for a potential resolution in streamingissues which will never be pursued. There’s a lot of noise and not a great degree of light. What we do know is that there are far too many streaming services already and other major players are rapidly joining the throng. Meanwhile the industry tries to accommodate them all like a drunk gambler backing all the horses in a race or a trick surfer with feet strapped to separate boards as the tsunami approaches.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Same old same new

Yesterday I shared my view that a lot of us that engage with music are in an ongoing spiral of repetitious behaviour. Like most people who get absorbed by sharing their thoughts and opinions I projected my world view onto everyone else when maybe this is happening only to me. It’s a curse of thinking – or writing – too much. Those of us who do it tend to extrapolate.

As for repetition itself, we are frequently told that music (like fashion) is cyclical and what is popular today may not be so popular tomorrow. I’ve generally believed this but I’m starting to stray from that point of view, particularly as we’ve become locked into a long period of pop/dance/r‘n’b domination.
Niche interests are now pursued by a niche audience who know where to sate their thirsts without troubling the mainstream music buyer or interrupting the status quo. Where once this niche may have filtered into the mainstream, as more people discovered it or as those with niche tastes moved into a position of influence, this seems to have stopped happening.

The big hit records of any period tend to be pretty middle-of-the-road, this is standard because any big hit needs a wide-appeal and that always comes from music that is centre-ground. Thus even in a period of music that we’d consider as revolutionary (say 77-78 for punk) the bigger hits were always going to be mainstream, traditional songs. The Pistols may have gone to number one in ’77 but the charts were dominated by Abba, Rod Stewart and David Soul. Connie Francis spent as many weeks at number one as Never Mind The Bollocks did, so did Frank Sinatra, and Johnny Mathis spent twice as long at the top.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

New year, same old scene

Though I try to change the routine, shake the system, I’m apparently a slave to repetition and nowhere more so than in my listening habits.

At each year end I find myself surveying the critic’s choices to discover what I’ve missed and where I agree, or generally disagree, with their verdicts. No sooner had I written last month’s post on that very subject when I discovered the NME had assembled a poll of polls that did the work for me.
It was easy to be disillusioned by some of the choices. I simply couldn’t get on with St Vincent and have to assume I am missing something. All I heard was a modern-day Laurie Anderson  which forced me into the same lazy and reductive habit I have of comparing new with old. In a similar vein I was tempted to reflect that Sleaford Mods were likely to be this (or last) year’s Flowered Up. In my case it seems that those who can remember the past are condemned to review it.