Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The fairytale of excess

We all know that Christmas is a consumerist orgy loosely cloaked in some Christian tradition to keep us all from feeling too guilty, it is frequently a time when we require some excuses for the excesses of our behaviour.

On the big day itself, I’ve become increasingly aware of the quantity of marketing messages I consume. I suspect this is because they’re the only e-mails I’m getting and consequently they’re more obvious. For the last few years I’ve made a note of those companies and a vague promise that I would unsubscribe from their messages. This year I am following through on that vow.

The roll call of commercial entities that were certain I was desperate to hear from them on Christmas Day was:

Bamboo Clothing 
Banana Republic (2)
Body Shop
Coffee Tasting Club
Dr Martens (2)
First Choice 
Honest Brew
London Review of Books 
Marella Cruises
Ribble Cycles 
Richer Sounds 
Secret Escapes 
Teletext holidays 
Thomas Cook

All of them now find they have one fewer customer to sell to. If any have asked why I’m unsubscribing I will send a link to this blog.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

I'm with the brand

When The Killers toured to sell out audiences recently, they did so at half-strength. Two members of the quartet had decided to stop touring. 

Though they are original members and remain on the records, bassist Mark Stoermer and guitarist Dave Keuning, are no longer in the live line-up. When first explaining their absence singer, Brandon Flowers, said that ‘it’s hard to get four people on schedule’.

This caused me to wonder what, more vital, things they had in their diaries other than their day job. Did they schedule the recordings and somehow forget that an act usually tours to support an album release?

Presumably their absence had little effect since many reviews reckoned it ranked amongst their best performances. If I were Stoermer or Keuning this would worry me a little. Aside from their writing contributions it could be argued that they’re eminently replaceable.

Less than a month later Queen were on the same stages also boasting 50% of their original and best-known line-up, though for entirely different reasons. The billing of Queen with Adam Lambert, relatively unknown in this country, does little to deter people from spending £60-80 per ticket.

It prompts the obvious question of what constitutes a band and how many members can you remove whilst retaining the ‘essence’ of what that band is. It can be fairly few bands that survive losing their singer/front-man yet Queen has managed it, possibly due to the ubiquity, depth and popularity of their songs. Would Queen work without Roger Taylor? The absence of John Deacon, missing by choice, seems not to matter much but could it survive the disappearance of Brian May?

Friday, December 1, 2017

Drug of the nation

In celebrating the latest incarnation of The X Factor, Simon Cowell called it the ‘greatest A&R process in the world’. Of course, it’s nothing of the kind.

A&R or artist and repertoire is a function or a department found in record labels whose role is to find and develop artists, acting as their conduit with the label. The success of an artist can depend on the relationship between raw talent and how it is developed, recorded and ‘sold’ – A&R sits in the middle of this process.

Whilst not denying the obvious successes of X Factor and its subsidiaries, it is not involved in the process of developing acts. It is simply a processing plant, a sausage factory where each act is stuffed into a straight-jacket and paraded before the public. The success of X Factor has little to do with talent and a lot to do with television. It is a means of demonstrating how intense and sustained television exposure can sell anything.

Monday, November 27, 2017

The public (dis)interest

I used to despair of those who claimed no interest in politics, as if it had no effect on them. Latterly I’ve wished that I could be the same.

I’d greatly prefer that the pronouncements of Government didn’t send me into an inconsolable rage. That their idiocy, lack of compassion and hatefulness was irrelevant to me, instead of producing an apoplectic, fuming, bile-spewing monster.

Each day seems to concoct something new. Every hour it seems there’s yet another reason to hate them more. Perhaps it’s due to the ‘always-on’ nature of social media, drawing a new outrage to my attention on a minute-by-minute basis.  As they stumble from one pathetic blunder to another I twitch like an inebriated Kevin Spacey in a boy’s only casting session.

Boris Johnson thoughtlessly condemning a UK citizen to spend longer in an Iranian jail, pah! He never thinks ahead (or at all), why would I be surprised? Priti Patel lobbying for cash to fund illegal operations in foreign countries, whatever. Same old, same old. David Davies saying there are no reports on the impact of Brexit on industry when six months earlier he’d claimed there were between 50-60, yawn. They’re all fucking liars anyway why should one more lie matter?

Perhaps it’s the drip, drip effect like a form of infuriating water torture. One that’s more infinitely annoying than Piers Morgan’s Twitter feed.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Cast off

My relationship with radio is broken. Since slipping quietly out of the business I’ve largely stopped listening. I don’t apply my general habits to others so I recognise that I’m an anomaly. Radio is a great medium and means so much to so many, I’m just not one of them right now.

I know I will return to it but currently my listening is dominated by trawling through Spotify and a regular diet of podcasts. It’s been over a year since I wrote about the breadth and beauty of the form and, as a friend recently noted, the recommendation/discovery process for pods is unreliable at best. Note that I never usually call them pods.

Alvaro Serrano via Unsplash
A few that I mentioned previously are still staples – The Allusionist, Freakonomics, Ted Radio Hour, This American Life, The Untold - but, as I’m consuming up to ten episodes a week whilst commuting, I constantly need fresh blood.

Blood has been the basis for many of them. I’ve been a fan of the true crime genre for years and the plethora of podcasts focussed on unsolved crimes or miscarriages of justice have provided a fertile resource for my, often grim, entertainment. Among these you’ll find Someone Knows Something, Convicted, Up and Vanished, Murder In The Lucky House and many others. Some have more to recommend than others and the pace can sometimes drag but find a story that interests you and the narrative can keep you involved for many a long haul.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

These adverts

They follow me around

Hourly, daily

Haunting, insinuating

They don’t seem to know that I’m a man

My buying decisions are immediate or not at all

Instantaneous or prolonged

But they do know

Few women are shopping for shaving subscriptions

Boxer shorts, bomber jackets

They know, yet still they chase

With their repetition, their re-marketing

Their consumer analysis, sales cycles and targeting

They do know me

Where I am, what I want

And still they come

These adverts know me too well

Monday, September 25, 2017

It’s all catching up

There’s a lot to be said for ‘letting go’. In my intermittent pursuit of self-help, I’ve read a lot about it. Forgetting the mishaps and flaws that drag you back is invariably good advice, you can’t change the past so why dwell in it?

If only it were that easy. Our characters are created by the melting pot of our heritage and experiences, we can attempt to banish some bad bits but they are inevitably part of who we are.

My perception of the path I pursued to get to this point begins in the early 1980s. A regular gig-goer and avid reader I tried to combine my passions by writing about music. I started scribbling some thoughts for a monthly paper called Brum Beat. They seemed to like what I did – or just needed someone to help them fill the pages – and consequently I became quite prolific.

It got me into a lot of gigs and provided a physical and mental escape from a desk job with Sandwell Council that wasn’t much more than a means-to-an-end existence. I didn’t have the greatest grasp of English but I was eager and driven to emulate the music-writers of the time that I liked: Paul Morley, Julie Burchill and their ilk. I was deluded.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Making nonsense of it all

I was waiting to make sense of it all, but there was no sense to be had.

I was writing to clarify, to make sense but no sense was possible and nonsense may well be preferred.
Then I heard that Alan Bennett say: ‘Writing is talking to one’s self’. Does that ever make sense, talking to yourself? I’ve often tried to give myself a pep talk, to provoke myself into action. It rarely works. Yet I still had the desire to write.

In recent times the written word has become the only word. My children’s generation rarely use the ‘phone for its invented purpose, they mostly exchange text in one form or another. The spoken word has generally been my ally. Is there much better than a well written and delivered speech, monologue, lecture or soliloquy?  
In the age of Trump we’re unlikely to witness many of those. It was the spoken word that brought me back here. In a podcast I heard Seth Godin, entrepreneur, author, blogger and all-round-thinker, say that it was our duty to tell ‘our truth’ and tell it regularly. He suggested daily but that’s inevitably a step too far.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Be like Ed?

Want to be more popular? Ask yourself: what would Ed do?

If we acknowledge that the current criticism of Mr Sheeran may be, at least in part, due to jealousy, is it better to wonder what lessons Ed can teach the music industry and musicians generally?

He is clearly the right man for these times, one who can straddle pop and ‘RnB’ whilst keeping a semblance of credibility, hanging with the right icons and failing to offend the majority.

That’s the superficial stuff. He is a singer-songwriter in a singer-songwriter dominated industry. One who understands the power of song to make connections, a story teller with a populist eye.

His songs resonate with a wide audience, old and young. Universal themes and generic melodies that are standard and traditional. The big selling stars of the current music business are those who have cross-generational appeal, something achieved by acknowledging the past-masters.

To some people, I know that will seem like an apologist’s summary for trite and all-too-familiar songs and structures. It is no exaggeration that I listened to ‘Divide’ once and recognised similarities with many pre-existing hits.  Accusations of plagiarism are best left to lawyers, for now we only need note that Ed rules the roost and that should be good news for British music.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Familiarity breeds content

“If you recognise an animal or plant, then it hasn’t killed you yet.”

In Derek Thompson’s new book, Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular, he explains, in evolutionary terms, why we prefer things that we already know. It’s an interesting lesson in how the familiar will always triumph.

Ed Sheeran’s domination of this week’s singles chart  has provoked much chatter, most of it about whether the charts are ‘broken’. The inclusion of streaming stats, meant to reflect the growth of hearing over owning – following in the footsteps of airplay stats, has led to Sheeran owning the top five and the bulk of the top 20.

Streaming was included to give stability to a chart that was adequately reflecting the death of physical product purchases. I’m slightly more interested in what Sheeran’s domination means for the album format. On one hand it shows that, for those who are popular, it is valid. If people are listening to all the songs then the album has a future. Conversely it suggests that for some others, failing to dominate the singles chart in a similar way, possibly means that few people are consuming the whole album however famous you are.

It’s all Ed’s fault

There is a certain strand of commentary that seems to be blaming Ed as if it’s a crime for being popular. In this instance, it should really be a case of don’t hate the player, hate the game (to adopt popular parlance).

Ed Sheeran has simply proven, as has Adele, that it is still possible to be a huge recording artist with significant impact – and sales.

As far as I know, on one listen and a quick scan of reviews, Ed set out to make a huge hit album. He nailed it.

If ‘Divide’ is commercially crafted and predictably populist it’s hardly hurting anyone, no-one expected free jazz. Sheeran isn’t pretending to have artistic pretensions or a desire to be the new Leonard Cohen. Aside from that, he has time to develop that artistry and to diversify should he choose to do so. He could also now afford to give away his artistic experiments if he goes in that direction.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The ruling asses

There’s an easy conclusion to be drawn from our political woes. We love to be ruled.

It’s 2017 and we still support and fund the monarchy, so that points towards this supposition. Far more relevant though is the obvious realisation that we like all of our politicians to be cut from the same ermine cloth. 
It is, to a degree, logical that we warm to the bright, smartly-dressed, well-raised and educated in society, that we should want them to lead us. Is it logical though that most of them should’ve studied at Oxbridge establishments and an overwhelming number have the same degree – Oxford’s Philosophy, Politics & Economics? There’s a good reason why The Guardian called it the degree that rules Britain.

It is still painfully hard for children from poorer families to achieve high standards of education and getting to Oxbridge is such a pipe dream that those who do so are still likely to be featured in their local newspaper. It’s an achievement. If you’re from the northern half of the country even more so. The Daily Mail, whom I hate to link to, even notes that ‘five top schools send as many pupils to Oxford and Cambridge as 1,800 state schools put together’. This is inequality and we continue to vote it in.

Monday, February 13, 2017

We can't handle the truth

The truth is subjective it seems. Mine is different from yours. What we want to believe greatly influences what we will. We are each living in our own version of reality.

Facts are incidental since we all find our own, only accepting the ones that support our world view.  We want to live in the bubble of perpetual affirmation, sharing our righteous views with the lovely and like-minded. Stepping outside your own worldview is an uncomfortable thing to do, so we don’t.

In my own lust for logic I have been bewildered why those who have a duty to do so, frequently fail to give us the real story however unpalatable. The truth is that it is not in their interests, hence they choose not to. Teresa May can’t tell us that we’re going to hell in a handcart as people might hold her at least partly responsible. Any decisions that might be in our long-term interests but cause some short-term hardship are blatantly avoided. This short-termism has got us to where we are today, but some of us seem to like it that way.

Funding the NHS? They dare not raise taxes because people don’t like that. Instead they blame GPs for not operating a 24/7 service, whilst knowing that this is impossible. Nor will they ever admit to underfunding health, education, the prison service, policing, etc. even when it seems transparently obvious. Instead they’ll point to the money (or occasionally some ‘miraculous’ extra money) that they have ‘promised’.

We all know what Government promises look like. Many unaccompanied young refugees know it far too well. Abandoned in France during a bitter European winter they may wonder how the tide turned so quickly against them. It was essentially the tale of two photographs. A dead boy on a Greek beach had even the Daily Mail in their corner, some months later and a photo of a few arriving refugees who looked older than 10 led the borders to be bricked up again. Politicians promised to honour their duty to these unfortunates, it didn’t last long. Who wants to be led by those who abandon the less fortunate for the minor political gains in appeasing the ignorant?

Facts are often uncomfortable. They conflict with the stories we want to hear. We want to know how fabulous our country is, how brilliantly our economy is performing, how we lead the world and are so ridiculously independent. The age of spin has led us to a darkened corner of alternate facts and blatant lies. Those who’ve led us there have a duty to do better but they never will unless we hold them to account.

We must decide what kind of world we want to live in: blinkered or open, kind or cruel, real or fake. Do we want big ideas or tiny tantrums, future-thinking or history-worshipping? Logic or spin, fact or obfuscation, rationality or rigidity? Do we yearn to be led by those with massive brains or little hands, passionate optimists or vicious bigots?

Nothing is as simple as that. It is no left or right, yes or no. We have forgotten how to compromise for the greater good. Instead we have become polarised, rigid in our opinions and unflinching in the face of alternate arguments or opinions. It doesn’t matter how we got here, we just need to find the way out.