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.