We haven’t heard too much from our very own Grinch this year; I suppose that means the restraining order worked. Unfortunately, he’s just reminded us that we have a contractual obligation to publish his annual High Five contribution. Feel free to read this, but please bear in mind that it contains bad attitude from the outset.
Why does every performer these days want to use a loop pedal? It was a challenge in the seventies when John Martyn and Brian May used WEM Copicats with real tape loops (well, where did you think the name came from?) to beef up their guitar noodlings. It was proper difficult then because you never knew when the tape would wear out or jam. Then KT Tunstall went on “Later” and suddenly every cheapskate player and singer wants to ditch the rhythm section and everyone sounds like everyone else. It’s a nice gimmick but it’s not a substitute for real players. Just leave the looper at home; it’s not big and it’s not clever.
What’s going on with festivals now? When I was a lad, you only had Reading (Jazz and Blues) Festival to contend with; Glastonbury was just a couple of hundred comatose stoners looking for ley lines and T in the Park wasn’t even in the horizon for Stuart Clumpas. Festivals only happened in the British summer month(s) and featured bands that everyone knew. And now there are mainstream festivals, corporate festivals, boutique festivals and bonkers local festivals with tribute bands, has-beens and newcomers. But watch your step; if you buy a ticket for a festival, buy it with a credit card, because there’s a pretty good chance it won’t actually happen – your choice.
I know, it’s a shocker; Madonna has a diva strop. Who would have predicted that? Ms Ciccone gets on stage just under an hour late in Manchester and what does she do? Well, most of us would apologise, wouldn’t we, but not Madonna Veronica Louise. No she rips into the booing audience and calls them diva bitches. There’s a lesson to learn here; if you have all of your light show (and your backup vocals and Autotune settings) stored electronically, then back the fecking things up, and not just once. Don’t use data loss as an excuse, because it’s no excuse, especially if you offer it up two days later. We all screw up; apologise and get over it. Your audience are paying your wages; never, ever forget that.
Well, we were all blown away by the stupendous Tidal launch this year, weren’t we? A motley bunch of rich musicians (and isn’t that Ms Ciccone again?) investing in a scheme to make themselves even more money, that’s just what we need isn’t it? The launch event looked like a failed PowerPoint training exercise, proving that musicians should stick to what they do best. It’s been pitched as an attempt to generate decent loyalties for writers, but it smells of elitism and the music-buying public have ignored it in their droves. If you still believe that music has any value, you can ignore streaming services completely and buy physical copies of your music.
So we’re all supposed to be streaming now and no-one wants to buy physical copies of music any more. Well it’s a bit confusing, but I’ll do my best to make it simple and use small words. CDs: apparently they’re on the way out at the same time as they’re on the way back in again. If you believe the insiders, CDs are about to become a premium product, for the second time as a medium for ultra-high quality sound, while vinyl sales (and record deck sales) are still on the rise in 2015. If the public are showing signs of paying to actually own musical artefacts, then I’m well chuffed, but my inner cynic starts to get twitchy when Tesco are selling vinyl again and ‘classic’ albums that were originally released on vinyl, then cassette, then CD, then online as MP3s and streamed versions are back to vinyl again. I’m just pleased I kept hold of all my old 8-tracks.
I was just drinking my cocoa and keeping up with all the modern trends in music by watching Jools Holland’s “Later” programme last night when I saw something so disturbing that I almost wrote to “Points of View”. On stage, straight after the wonderful Burt Bacharach, were two badly-dressed Northerners with a stolen laptop balanced on a beer barrel and a beer crate ranting, swearing and shouting over the top of what I think they call ‘beats’ these days. My first reaction was (I’ve been dying to try this out) ‘WTF?’ That actually felt quite good, swearing without really swearing. It might just catch on.
Sorry, bit distracted there. The more I watched, the more horrified I became. Why on earth did Mr Holland have two ill-dressed extras from “This is England” on his show ranting and drinking beer (which is very unprofessional on stage, I must say) alongside his usual smorgasbord of high quality modern musicians? At least the Happy Mondays played proper instruments and had something resembling tunes.
So it must be some kind of performance art then or some elaborate joke. Was it a pair of drama students satirising the quality of modern pop music by creating something so obnoxious and unmusical that it was totally unlistenable and then setting out to see how many people they could con. Or maybe it was the media; someone saw an absolutely terrible pair of hip-hop or post-punk, or whatever they are, performers and decided to play the ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ game; tell them how good they are and then build them up in the music press. If you do that for long enough, one of the inkies will pick up the story and bearded Hoxton types will be saying how they loved their earlier work. Amazingly enough, they’ve been doing this for eight years, apparently. The NME does this sort of thing all the time; how do you think Pete Doherty got away with it for so long.
And talking about the NME, what on earth happened to that? I had one thrust into my hand at the railway station the other day; it’s free these days, so I thought I’d check which giants of modern music they were featuring. There was a piece on drug cartels that could have been researched using Wikipedia and the “Ladybird Book of Crack and Cocaine”, the famous music journalist Katherine Ryan (really) writing about Piggate and MeghanTrainor and a six-page plug for the resurrection of Chis Moyles. Just remember that NME used to stand for New Musical Express and this is someone who can get away with playing three songs in an hour. There was once a time when the NME had writers who were vicious, opinionated, clannish and supercilious but at least it was worth reading; I don’t think those days are ever coming back.
But what about Sleaford Mods, you say? They’re not from Sleaford and I’m sure Mr Weller wouldn’t approve of their version of mod couture and they still look like the people I pass every morning waiting for the off-licence to open. I wonder what that lovely Mr Bacharach made of it?
By the way does anyone know of a good product for cleaning cocoa stains off a carpet?
So, another week in the music business and the hot topic is copyright again; that’s surprised everyone hasn’t it? Apple announces its new streaming service and a great introductory three month deal which it proposes to fund by not paying any royalties to artists. Predictably enough the Anne Robinson of digital rights management rides to the rescue. After taking on Spotify last year, Taylor Swift took aim at Apple this time with an open letter which has forced Apple to rethink its strategy of giving away other people’s earnings. Predictably again, it sparked off an online debate about hypocrisy when a photographer sent Ms Swift an open letter about photographic rights. It’s amazing how quickly these ‘debates’ descend into playground name-calling and tribalism; have a look for yourself but it’s not for the faint-hearted. Anyway, it’s all happy now because Apple has backed down and the artists will be paid.
While all that was going on centre-stage, you could easily miss another bit of copyright news being made which wasn’t attracting the attention of the popular and powerful Ms Swift. Various British music industry bodies, Musicians Union (MU), UK Music, and British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA) if you must know, have combined to request a judicial review into the creation of Section 28B of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. Now that’s a real headline grabber isn’t it? In really simple terms, the government has inserted a clause (Section 28B) in the legislation, to take effect from June 2015, which made copying of CDs legal for personal, private use although you probably thought it was fine to do that anyway. The judicial process is far from over, but Mr Justice Green has upheld the review application.
On the face of it, these industry bodies are using the same principle as Taylor Swift, claiming that artists are losing royalties and that the industry shouldn’t allow this to happen, which is very noble of them, but if that’s true, then why take twenty years to decide that we shouldn’t be allowed to rip our CDs so we can listen to them on the train or create playlists for parties. Unless it isn’t just about that.
One of the remedies suggested by the music industry is a levy on recordable media (CDs, hard drives and so on), which has been tried in other European states. So call me an old cynic if you like, but surely their real concern is that the blank media industry is reaping the benefits of digital copying and the music industry isn’t getting its share. The UK proposal is a levy on blank media collected by an agency and shared out with artists. You don’t need a PhD to see that there’s absolutely no link between which songs are copied and the money coming in, so a huge and unnecessary bureaucracy has to be created to work out the collection and distribution process (supervised by the UK music biz). Anyone think that’s fair? And there’s an assumption that all digital media sold is being used for copying music; you can call me paranoid, but I have several hard drives and countless DVD-Rs full of original photos and there’s no way I’m paying duty on those so some chancer can copy Celine Dion’s Greatest Hits to flog in the market at Elephant & Castle. It’s like the whole class having to stay behind because the teacher doesn’t have the bottle to take on the bully.
So, how about an extra charge on every CD to account for a certain amount of ripping and copying? Well, one side of the argument is that no-one wants to pay for something that they can’t play on a device they use on the move, while, on the other hand, why should you pay extra if you have no intention of copying a CD? You could apply a charge when a CD is copied (or format-shifted) but who’s going to be happy about buying a CD from the artist’s website or at a gig to maximize the artist’s cut only to find that you then have to pay someone else for the privilege of listening to it on your media player. It’s equitable, but music buyers are going to be reminded of the cost every time they rip a CD (which is why MU, BASCA and UK Music don’t like it; they don’t look like the bad guys if you pay extra for a hard drive, rather than your music).
If the CD format is dying, and I’ve already bought a black tie, is this an attempt to accelerate its demise? If you’re buying a physical copy mainly to listen to it on a mobile device, why not just get rid of the middleman and buy it in a format you can load on to your media player? If there isn’t a physical copy you can eliminate the costs of artwork, packaging, storage and distribution and companies don’t need to worry about size of production runs when they sell on demand. If your album’s aimed at that hardcore who still want a physical package, then you can sell it on vinyl at a premium price and you can even throw in a digital download code, because it won’t increase your costs.
Let’s be completely honest about this; the music industry is going for the soft target again. Rather than try to take on organised counterfeiters, they’re trying to recoup their perceived losses by hitting, and alienating, music fans who have no objection to paying for a product. The business was quite happy to reap the benefits of digitisation in the production and distribution process but doesn’t like to see the customers using the same technology to shift formats for the user’s convenience. It certainly puts the eighties ‘Home taping is killing music’ campaign into perspective.
As always, the UK music establishment is frantically trying bolt the door when the stables have been empty for years while. Perhaps it’s one last cynical attempt to cash in on the punters who realise that they need to copy their CDs before the indestructible format vanishes and, ultimately, so do the CD players. So, if you’re one of those strange people that still believes in paying for music, you’ll have two choices: cheap and cheerful download or premium price (currently about twice the price of a CD) vinyl copy. As for streaming, well no artist I know is happy with their level of reward from Spotify, but the establishment’s comfortable with a lower percentage of an increasing volume for very little investment and the big players are now buying in to streaming services for their mass market activities.
Are there any alternatives to accepting the lower sound quality of MP3s and the high price of vinyl (and something to play it on if you didn’t save it from the first time round)? You could try uncompressed audio; Neil Young’s been touting his Pono format for a few years (other formats are available) and better internet bandwidth and bigger hard drives are making that more attractive now. Sound purists love it, but it’s a digital format and there’s no tactile packaging, photos or sleeve notes, and you could see it as just another way to resell back catalogue (again) in another format. Or maybe Cooking Vinyl MD, Martin Goldschmidt was right five years ago when he predicted the CD ‘will actually become a minority (non-mass market) format in the way that vinyl has’. Wouldn’t that be ironic?
So, what have we got this time then? A new premium-quality music streaming service; well, that’s just what we need; isn’t it? Especially when you line up a bunch of superstar investors for a launch event that makes the service sound like it’s going to put an end to world conflict. I’m not even giving you a link to the video of the launch because on the tedium scale it’s somewhere between a party election broadcast and watching custard set. Here’s the summary: two minutes of introductions (to a crowd that apparently hasn’t heard of any of the celebrity stakeholders), ten minute ‘inspirational’ speech from Alicia Keys, two minutes of signing ‘the document’ and two minutes of standing around looking embarrassed while someone tries to find a border collie or a cattle prod. Sixteen minutes and Madonna only hogged the limelight once; that has to be a record. I’ve had more fun at the dentist.
Just take a look what this motley crew (they’ve got one thing in common, but we’ll get to that) are so evangelical about; what are they actually trying to sell you? Basically, the sales pitch is that it’s like Spotify but better, which means you have to pay twice as much for it. I’m not saying Spotify is perfect but if the alternative is punters downloading illegally and artists being paid bog all, then I’m on the side of Spotify. Tidal isn’t an attempt to address the big issue of music having no value because you can download it free from any number of illegal sites, it’s purely about commercial rivalry; we’re better than Spotify but that’s reflected in the subscription price. Unlike Spotify, there isn’t a ‘free’ version of Tidal, you buy in or you don’t.
And then there’s “lossless” compression. In the words of John Lydon, ‘ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated’ – there’s no such thing as lossless compression. You can compress something so that it sounds reasonable on a phone or a media player, but why not try playing that same file through a decent hi-fi setup. No, don’t, that was rhetorical, it’s going to sound horrible; if you take information out of an audio file, it’s going to be noticeable eventually if your ears do more than keep your head balanced. If you stream audio, the higher the quality, the more problems you’ll have with buffering so you wouldn’t want to make things more difficult by introducing video playback, would you? Yeah, you just might, and you might want to introduce social features (nothing new) and have the music carefully curated (obviously not patronising at all – we’ll tell you what you should like) while you offer exclusivity (you can hear the new Beyoncé song here first).
So, the bottom line is that you can pay twice as much as you would pay for Spotify for the dubious privilege of “lossless” streaming which will sound just the same on your earbuds or PC speakers; anyone buying in to that yet? Thought not; how about new artists, surely an ‘artist-owned’ service would help to bring new talent through the system. No, not even a mention, so who benefits from this premium service? Easy, the bunch of artists on the stage at the beginning of this piece. The bunch of artists who have one thing in common; against the odds in the twenty-first century, have already made huge amounts of money from the dying embers of the music business. None of the artists involved in this enterprise actually need more money, but they’re happy to take if they can get it.
Maybe Jay Z’s pissed off that Dre managed to corner the market in headphones, but that’s no excuse for launching this ill-conceived ‘premium’ service. No-one involved with this project comes out of it with any credit.
Ok, NME, you’ve got some explaining to do and, no, it’s not about your obsession with Pete Doherty’s appetite for self-destruction this time. I bought the NME when it was New Musical Express and the emphasis used to be on new. Actually, to be completely fair, it still does new music and too much of it if you ask me. Every week there are at least twenty “great” new bands from around the world featured in “Radar”; that’s a thousand bands a year to feel guilty about not hearing, and that’s not counting the twenty “essential” new tracks featured in “On Repeat”. There is such a thing as too much music. But maybe I just slipped off-topic there for a second.
This might surprise you, coming from a cantankerous old git, but what’s the deal with all the old music in the “New” Musical Express. Apart from the regular features, “Anatomy of an (old) Album”, “Soundtrack of my Life” (old songs) and “This week in …” (old news), the cover features for the last two weeks have been twentieth anniversary pieces on “The Holy Bible” and “Definitely Maybe”. I’m not saying they’re bad albums; they’re not. I parted with my hard-earned for both of them – twenty years ago. So, apart from the front cover, each of these albums gets ten pages in the magazine as well. If you delve further into the back issues, there’s a fairly predictable 100 most influential artists piece (early August) and a Led Zeppelin retrospective (late May).
This is editorial content by focus group and the group must have been fifty per cent Hoxton and Dalston scenesters and fifty per cent old rockers from The Borderline and The 100 Club; sounds like a really bad sixtieth birthday party. So, what’s the target demographic (or whatever the current marketing phrase is for the people you want to buy your product) for big pieces about old music? Is it the Moss-thin, leather shrink-wrapped, pony-tailed Nick Kent wannabe who never stopped reading the New Musical Express, or is it the student who’s waded through all of the new bands and new songs and decided that there’s nothing there worth bothering with and it’s time to start looking back twenty years to find something decent. Can you imagine looking back from 1976 and thinking that you needed to find out a bit more about Pat Boone, Doris Day and Winifred Atwell? Thought not.
So, where do you draw the line? How many more “classic” album anniversaries can we dig out to fill a cover and ten pages that should really be devoted to new music? And what anniversaries do we have lined up over the next few weeks; Crash Test Dummies’ “God Shuffled his Feet”? We could get ten pages out of the (not very) subtle reference to right-wing poster girl Ayn Rand’s novel, “Atlas Shrugged”, and maybe an interview with Neil Peart to pad it out. How about Echobelly’s “Everyone’s Got One”? That got them a whole season on student summer ball circuit before they imploded; should be worth a few pages, and Sonya Madan’s back out there again so she should be happy to get the publicity. Where do you draw the line? Sleeper, Menswear, Lush, Gene? I think you get the picture.
NME, get a grip. If I want to act my musical age, I’ll buy Q or Mojo. Until then, I expect you to tell me about what’s happening now, not twenty years ago.
I know this might come over as a bit ungrateful, but I’m really hacked off by the way copies of albums are distributed by some promotion companies. I know it’s 2014 and I won’t be flown Business Class to LA while hoovering the gross national product of Colombia up my nose to interview the latest semi-literate rock wannabe, but surely it’s not unreasonable to want decent sound quality on album review copies. For anyone who’s even slightly involved with the music business (or any creative industry) it’s obvious that it’s incredibly difficult to make a living out of creativity these days; we all understand that. This isn’t nostalgia for a golden era when music journalists were worshipped and every artist’s ability was recognised and they were rewarded accordingly; it’s always been a business dominated by the need to cash in as quickly as possible, dominated by pond life who would sell their grannies for a Snickers bar, and you can find the evidence in virtually every music biography. You might not like the robust methods of Peter Grant, but at least Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Bonham and John Paul Jones saw some financial rewards from Led Zeppelin.
So where was I? Oh yeah, promotion copies. I know margins are tight and it’s difficult to quantify the benefits from sending out physical review copies, but there has to be a better way than transferring a bunch of MP3 files. I always prefer something that pops through the letterbox rather than into the inbox, but that’s not just me being old-fashioned. With a physical copy, you get the writer credits, possibly the lyrics and, if you’re really lucky, some sleeve notes from the artist; with an electronic copy you get a press release (if you’re lucky), maybe a photo and a few hyperlinks. I don’t mind doing a bit of research but if you’re reviewing a really new band, chances are that the website looks good but tells you zilch and the only other stuff you can find is YouTube “videos” filmed on the singer’s friend’s phone; it’s not helpful. I don’t even mind getting back to the promotion or PR company to request more information, but I have a piece of advice for you. It doesn’t matter how clearly you think you’ve worded your request, it will take at least three more attempts to actually get the information you need from the intern who’s been delegated the task of dealing with incoming email. And just bear in mind that you’re trying to get the review out before the release date.
And you know who’s to blame, don’t you. We all are, because we’ve all bought in to the hype about digital music reproduction and then compression of file sizes so we can carry our music collections around in our pockets. I’ve got nothing against portable media players as first line of defence on public transport, but how much of that stuff do you actually listen to? I bet you have songs on playlists that you skip every time they play. What’s that all about? So, now we all accept compressed formats that work for the industry because they don’t have any overheads like retail and physical storage space to worry about and they can keep copies of everything that’s ever been digitised, unless the artist refuses to play ball (take a bow the surviving members of Pink Floyd), and nothing is ever out of stock or deleted. There’s an added bonus; you don’t get patronised by a shop assistant when you buy something that’s even remotely commercial and you can have great fun trying to work out which algorithm recommended Ed Sheeran and One Republic for you. And because the transactions are all electronic, its’ easy to record sales and streams for chart purposes. A friend of mine got to 298 on the singles chart because a couple of people were heard whistling his song at a bus stop.
Seriously though, a physical review copy would be great; some of us can even play vinyl but CD’s still ok (and it fits through the letterbox), but an electronic copy isn’t the end of the world if it’s in an uncompressed format. It takes slightly longer to download, but it’s a better quality than its compressed and stunted sibling and, as a bonus, you could send an electronic press release and a jpeg of the artwork. See, it’s not really that difficult, is it?
What is it with NME and Pete Doherty (and Carl Barat)? It’s bad enough that they insist on force-feeding us his incoherent ramblings and telling us about the latest way he’s found of shortening his life but, come on, an NME cover and a six-page feature about the reasons for reforming for the Hyde Park gig. We know the reasons, and there are about five hundred thousand of them; it’s not a news story. But seriously, a cover and six pages; surely music fans in 2014 don’t even care about Pete Doherty any more, but for some reason he’s always been the darling of the NME, no matter what he does. I mean they even picked him in a taxi after one of his spells at Her Majesty’s for an exclusive interview. I should be more disappointed when the inkies fall for it as well, but who buys the Grauniad or the Torygraph for their music reviews?
The Libertines had a couple of good songs over a decade ago and the NME have been trying to sanctify Pete Doherty ever since; we really don’t care and neither should they. Maybe they just like to be seen hanging around with the bad boys; it wasn’t cool when Nick Kent did it and it’s still not cool now. I don’t care what he does to his own body but I do care when journalists think that “I’ve seen Pete Doherty taking drugs” is a story that we all need to read. This is a man who once described crack as “a bit moreish”, tongue-in-cheek, maybe, but still pretty dim. What’s the attraction of someone who is willing to steal his own bandmate’s laptop to sell for drugs? It’s not exactly sticking it to the man is it? But it’s made so much worse by NME writers glorifying his every action.
So how do they actually fill six pages with this story? Well, a full-page posed photo and a banner headline take up two pages before Matt Wilkinson describes how he spent an entire day on the phone to members of the band. While he was speaking to the NME idol, Doherty put the phone down and started to spontaneously work on a new song which, predictably, “sounds fantastic”. You two should really get a room, Matt. I’m not sure how the devoted Libertines fans feel about this, but at least Pete Doherty is honest about the motivation for the reunion and he defends the band’s right to do the Hyde Park gig for the money.
The NME also demonstrates the internal conflict at the magazine by asking two journalists to give opposing views on whether the Hyde Park gig is a good idea; unsurprisingly, both of them love the Libertines. Tom Howard thinks they should do it although it might be pants (or not perfect). Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but if I’m paying to see a gig, my minimum expectation is that the band can actually play the songs, and that’s the bare minimum. But it gets better; Jenny Stevens doesn’t want them to play and tries to convince us of the Libertines’ working-class credentials and solidarity with the workers; Pete Doherty’s dad was a major in the British army and that’s a long way from growing up on a council estate. Pete Doherty chose to be a waster while hundreds of thousands of genuine working class kids worked and studied and made a genuine contribution to society. So don’t try to sell me that spurious social solidarity routine. And can you really imagine Pete Doherty killing a man for his Giro?
If the members of The Libertines insist on repeatedly resurrecting the rotting cadaver of their band and punters are gullible enough to shell out £50 for a shoddy show, then let them get on with it but I can live without the NME giving its blessing to the whole process. There are probably dozens of good bands playing in London on July 5th, go and watch one of them instead.
There are two albums which were reviewed on MusicRiot on the Top 40 Independent Album chart last week, Neneh Cherry’s “Blank Project” and Stone Foundation’s “To Find the Spirit”. These albums have a few things in common; they’re both fourth studio albums, they both have guest artists, both were rated as 4* by MusicRiot writers and both feature guest performers and the similarity pretty much ends there. Except that, as Neil Sheasby, bass player and songwriter with Stone Foundation pointed out a few days ago, both albums were in the 30-to-40 section of the Independent Album chart, “To Find the Spirit” at 33, “Blank Project” at 38.
It isn’t a straightforward comparison; Neneh Cherry’s album peaked in the top ten a fortnight earlier while “To Find the Spirit” has just entered the chart in its first week. The interesting story here is the journey that each of these albums made to reach those chart positions. This isn’t a criticism of Neneh Cherry; it’s an achievement to get any kind of significant album sales at a time when the value of music has been so degraded by piracy and the industry has no time or money for artist development. Most of the bands I’ve spoken to recently have only the most tangential contact with the traditional music industry, usually at the distribution end of the chain.
Neneh Cherry was operating on a fairly tight budget with “Blank Project”; it was recorded and mixed in five days (featuring guest appearances from Robyn and RocketNumberNine) by Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, generating a certain level of interest in the project outside Neneh Cherry’s own fanbase, which is still reasonably healthy after a long time out of the spotlight. In the weeks leading up to the release there was a significant amount of interest from the trade press and even the inkies in the UK; the physical release was in vinyl and bonus CD form with the CD containing the almost obligatory remixes. So, signs of a marketing budget there. Maybe not a huge budget, but enough to get the album into the mainstream media.
Stone Foundation have been doing their thing for about ten years, building up a local, then national, then international following; putting in the hard graft, basically. The band has played as Stone Foundation and has also backed touring soul singers such as Nolan Porter and Joe Harris, building a reputation and a hugely loyal fanbase. There’s no complicated organisation in place here; no manager or entourage; just seven very gifted and committed musicians (plus long-time production collaborator, Andy Codling) with a total belief in what they do.
“To Find the Spirit” has a few guest appearances too. Nolan Porter, Carleen Anderson, Pete Williams from Dexys and even Paolo Hewitt are all there. The album even has a remix; the Dennis Bovell dub of “Don’t Let the Rain”, which is available on all formats. The promotion campaign was minimal, focussing on social media and a support slot on The Selecter’s anniversary tour, but still the album managed to break into the official Independent Album Top 40.
It would be easy to moan about how much better it was in the good old days when artists got huge advances and only toured in support of an album, but that model just doesn’t apply any more. Most artists now only make money by touring, and a lot of that income is from merchandising. Take a step away from singles charts and there are thousands of talented and hard-working musicians taking control of the recording, marketing and distribution processes (physical and electronic) to get their own material out into the marketplace with very little help from the mainstream media. The MusicRiot writers try to cover as many artists as we can who are working in this way (as do thousands of other websites) but it’s only effective if our readers actually do something about it. It’s so easy to try before you buy these days that any music lover should be able find new artists doing something interesting and appealing if they make the effort. It’s all going on out there but, despite 6 Music’s slightly patronising campaign, it won’t come to you automatically; you have to make the effort to go out and find it.
So I say thank you to Stone Foundation and the other artists and labels we’ve featured recently; The Brothers Groove, Roscoe Levee, Bandhouse Records, Drumfire Records, Ags Connolly, Phil Burdett, Dean Owens, Jo Hook and Geoffrey Richardson, Noel Cowley, Pete Kennedy, Aynsley Lister, Vera Lynch and the Billy Walton Band. All of these artists are making their own wonderful live and recorded music while doing whatever else it takes to allow them to keep on making music.
Now go out and support them.
229, The Venue? It’s easy to get to because it’s part of the International Students’ House complex just across the street from Great Portland Street tube station. Venue 2 is a basement room with a stage at one end and a bar on one side. The acoustics are reasonable so it’s not a bad place to watch up-and-coming bands. My mission tonight, if I choose to accept it, is to have a look at London alt-indie (let’s leave the description at that for the moment) band, Vera Lynch. In keeping with their highly eclectic sound, the band has a multinational line-up with members from the UK, USA, Hungary and the Far East. They are: Sándor Sztankovics (drums), Ted Barker (bass), Keisuke Nishikawa (guitar), Brian Pistolesi (guitar) and Guy Harries (vocals).
If you could splice the musical DNA of Dick Dale, Ennio Morricone and English ‘80s post-punk, you might come close to defining the Vera Lynch sound; you might even want to throw a bit of early Bowie and INXS in there. The band has an EP out at the moment, “Evil Cowboy Surfer Songs” (to be reviewed here soon), and you might expect to hear all four songs from the EP as part of a short live set, but it doesn’t work out that way because, well, this is Vera Lynch. In fact, only two songs from the EP, “Fire” and “”Evil Cowboy Surfer Song”, make the live set. The band opens with “Dog in the Club” and then “Lost Property”, “Horror Doctor”, “Child of Jago” and the anthemic closer, “The End of the World”, follow the two songs from the EP.
It’s quite a spectacle; the band look great and they play together as a very tight unit, moving through varying musical moods with style and panache and providing a bedrock for the lead vocals. Guy Harries is mesmeric and messianic, a twenty-first century Ian Curtis (but with a sense of rhythm) who transfixes the audience with his scary, stary-eyed delivery and a voice that might just have a hint of Freddie Mercury in there as well. Musically and visually, they are impossible to ignore and you really should make the effort to go out and see them.
If you want to see Vera Lynch live in the next few weeks, you can see them at The Dolphin in Hackney on Friday February 28 or Underbelly in Hoxton on Friday April 18.
Ok, you weren’t expecting to find Noel Coward here were you? Well, it’s about time you had some proper culture instead of all that pop music nonsense. In the play “Private Lives”, the character Amanda has the memorable line “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”, which has been quoted virtually everywhere. The broadsheets love to give pop thinkpieces an intellectual feel by throwing this one in, but there’s a whole new slant on it now. Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich (and a few others) are having hissy fits about the financial returns from Spotify, but they’re missing the real target by a country mile.
The problem isn’t that consumers are only willing to pay a small amount for music. Most of the traditional teenage pop/rock/r’n’b (add your own genre as applicable) music consumers have grown up with the assumption that music is free if you know where to look for it, so why would you ever pay for it? Things used to be really simple; you heard a song on the radio (or in a club) or read about it in the NME and went to your local music shop and bought it on 7” vinyl, 12” vinyl, cassette or CD, depending on your age. The record company took a huge slice of the profit, but the artist got paid, particularly if they had a good lawyer and they wrote the song. The music business panicked in the seventies over home taping, but still pushed the development of digital technology in the eighties not realising they were opening a can of particularly fat, juicy worms.
Digital recording and processing; you can make and keep perfect copies of everything and there’s no degradation no matter how many generations of copies you make. No more tapes or master discs to worry about storing (or having stolen by the band when they don’t like the mix or don’t think their piece of the action is big enough). And then the realisation dawned that if Sony (other labels are available) could make perfect copies, then it was only a matter of time before some under-nourished geek in a bedroom in Dollis Hill worked out how to crack the code and make their own perfect copy, which they generously circulated around the world with that new internet thing. And they were actually complicit in the process when they got behind recordable formats such as Minidisc and Digital Compact Cassette (ask your dad, kids).
Of course it was easy to do a quick and dirty remaster for CD on all of your back catalogue and get the punters to pay to hear them again with a clarity you promised they wouldn’t believe. Have you heard some of those early remasters? Some of them are actually painful to listen to, but we bought into it and duplicated our vinyl with CDs. But the physical CD market was quite healthy because the audio files were massive and transfer speeds on the internet were painfully slow. So, there would only be a problem if someone worked out a way of speeding up the internet and making audio files much smaller; that wasn’t going to happen, was it? MP3 and broadband sorted that one out with a little help from those lovely people at Apple and soon we were downloading MP3s as well.
Of course the music industry tried to defend itself with copyright protection systems (which didn’t work) and litigation (which also didn’t work), so we’re in a position now where creativity has virtually no value. Bands are being asked to pay to play in venues, musicians are being asked for permission to use their work in films for free (for the exposure value) and music writers and photographers are working for peanuts. It couldn’t get any worse, could it?
Of course it could. In a typical “four legs good, two legs better” move, the music industry is showing an interest in Neil Young’s PONO full-fat, uncompressed music delivery system (which Shakey’s been trying to flog for years now, with no success) after years of squeezing sound files as small as you can to get them to sound good on an MP3 player or a phone. It’s CD all over again; if this system ever makes it to the market, then it’s an opportunity to persuade the small market sector that still believes in paying for music to shell out for their favourite albums yet again. But we won’t get fooled again, will we?