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?
AM – Just looking around Leigh as an outsider, it always seems to have had a bit of an artistic vibe to it; do you get that?
PB – I’m torn on this idea; if you asked me where I would love to have lived it would probably be Greenwich Village but I’m not sure that that’s a good thing. You sometimes come from hick towns and you get the mavericks and the big fish in little pools but I’m not really sure that it matters at the end of the day. Obviously New York is a great residence simply because so many great writers came from there but if Lou Reed was born in Leigh-on-Sea what would he have written about?
AM – There’s no CBGBs here is there?
PB – Well there isn’t, but it would have been interesting, and vice versa; you get parochial writers who, well, what would they have done if they’d gone to town? I’m not sure it’s important; it’s certainly relevant, where you come from and where you write about. I don’t think it’s a prerequisite of something good. You can get blood out of a stone; you can, you’ve just got to try hard. Sometimes you’re swamped; now, having written from a local area that isn’t particularly bohemian, if I now went to New York, I’d probably overwrite everything and it would just be a mass of input and no way of filtering it. Which would be great; I’d love to do it if anyone’s got an apartment in New York.
AM – And that kind of leads in to “Dunfearing…”, which is the first part of a trilogy.
PB – I’m fond of these things; I get a lot of stick for it.
AM – It’s obvious that that there’s a tremendous sense of place in it. It’s a very West Country thing.
PB – The rest of the trilogy won’t be. You were probably the only person that picked up on the idea of approaching America as the only possible escape after the end of England; the only place you can go. That’s developing a little bit and the other two parts of the trilogy are written and I’m sorting out the third one but it’s more about how you escape the idea of getting old and the only way to do it is to reinvent a youth, which never really works and the idea of America is that it’s supposed to be the land of eternal youth no matter what age you go, so there’s a cynical angle to it as well but I hope that it’s more hope than cynicism: pragmatism.
AM – Do you think that the way the music business has gone over the last twenty years has allowed people like you to do what you want to do?
PB – No, I don’t. I actually think the music business is poorer for what’s happened to it. I would rather be struggling to sign to Warner Brothers, in a way. There’s a philosophy now that anyone can do anything they like, they can record it in their bedroom and make an album, which is fine, because the punk ethos is fine, but there is a difference. Yes, someone could thrash away at three chords and sing ‘I hate Margaret Thatcher’ and be played on John Peel; fabulous, but that was it. Now there seems to be a corporate mentality attached to do-it-yourself.
AM – It’s so difficult now, with music, to actually make any money.
PB – Which is essentially what you have to do. There were people around punk who never thought they’d make any money and a lot of them didn’t but they thought they’d got a chance of maybe an album and that’s it and they’re now working in IT or whatever and that’s what they wanted. The problem is, while you’ve got that ethos is that if people are taking it seriously, then they get lumped in with it and it’s ‘Oh, you’re still here, are you?’ and now it’s even worse because nothing’s taken seriously. To include lyrics with an album now is seen as pretentious.
AM – And yet, to me, “Dunfearing…” was actually a very nice packaging job, but we shouldn’t be talking about packaging, really.
PB – I would have agreed with you a while back, but now I go back to albums I’ve listened to and loved and I think these are beautiful things, regardless of the music, I would want this album; as a piece of art, as a whole.
AM – I’m accused of fetishing the whole thing; going for the vinyl and the nice gatefold sleeve…
PB – My mantra for that is accused by whom? I’m a great fan of the Oscar Wilde saying ‘The show was a success, the audience was a failure’; it depends who’s criticising.
AM – It’s a completely different listening experience now; I sometimes stick review copies on a little MP3 player and you have to pull this thing out of your pocket to check the track title.
PB – This is the first album I’ve done with a record company as opposed to putting it out on my own and Phil’s great (Phil Penman of Drumfire Records) but if you want tracks for radio, or the hit track (not the hit single, that never happens any more), I just think ‘I don’t want one’. That’s why I hate the download culture so much; ‘I’ve listened to this album twice, these two are obviously the best songs so therefore I’ll stick them next to my favourite Kylie song on my iPod’. Well, fuck that, what are you going to do with Lou Reed and “Berlin”; take a couple of tracks from that and stick it next to Miley Cyrus. Would we do it with art? ‘I think I like that third sunflower but I think it would look nice in the Velasquez, so I’ll shift it over and Photoshop it in to that’. There’d be outrage.
AM – I think Pink Floyd were entirely right…
PB – There has to be a first time for everything
AM – When they blocked the downloading of single tracks from “Dark Side of the Moon”.
PB – Funny you should say that, but it occurred to me the other day that if I blended my music in so that it tinkled out on one track and tinkled in on the next, nobody would be able to download it; don’t tempt me.
AM – I can’t do it, I can’t buy in to the download thing; I’d rather pay full whack…
PB – And be wrong. I’ve spent ten quid on an album and it’s been bullshit apart from the track I liked. That’s what you get; you can buy a sofa for four hundred quid and the leg falls off and that’s life, get used to it.
AM – So you’re going to be recording the second album in the trilogy soon.
PB – This year we’re doing the second. The third album is very ephemeral, but I want to get that done because I want to get on to the next phase. There’s a bunch of folkie songs that I’ve written and I want to get them out of the way, so I’ll do a double folkie album next year, but I might get two albums out before then. I’ll have to put out one on my own label because I don’t expect Drumfire to do it. It’s weird really; if Bob Dylan was still fabulously creative, I’d want an album from him every month. There’s an idea that you can only put an album out once every year or two years but The Fall make an album every twelve minutes; some of it’s all right, some of it’s not but I’d rather have that.
AM – That’s just reminded of someone that I know you admire, Jackie Leven, who would do exactly the same thing.
PB – That’s what I’m aiming for actually. Jackie recorded what he called his platinum albums for Cooking Vinyl. Someone would give me a tape from a live gig I did somewhere and I’d love to release that so and that’s why I kept my own label. I can put stuff out that’s not a big production number but it’s a bunch of songs that hang together well and say ‘Have a listen to this’ and Jackie did that really well. Other than that, I’ve got a good setup for recording that I use with a few people and Mark Elliott especially and it’s easy to do. We get the band together, rehearse it and record it. “Mercenary Thoughts of a Lush”; we went up to London and recorded the whole thing in two days. Bit of punk spirit and some people say it sounds like it but that’s what it needed to be with that bunch of songs. We could never have done that with “Dunfearing…”because it needed a bit of time but there should be room to do that.
Neil Young would be cruising about, just out for a drive and he’d drive down to New Orleans and hear a bit of music and end up writing ten songs and think ‘I need to record this’, so he’d phone up local musicians, get into the studio, record them and send them to his recording company and they’ll say ‘Well you only had an album out a month ago, you can’t do this’, and I’m with him, why not. If you love Neil Young, or whoever, and you hear that a month after you’ve paid out ten pounds for his new album, he’s got another one out, I think I’d find ten quid but apparently it’s an unwritten law that you can’t do this.
AM – What I find quite interesting is that more and more bands are rehearsing stuff, getting the songs right, going into the studio and recording as a band rather than doing separate tracks.
PB – I don’t exactly do that. I like the idea but I find it takes a lot more time because you have to do a lot more takes but certainly, with the next album, it’ll be a lot looser; it’s nothing like “Dunfearing..”. It loosely follows on from that album; the third of the trilogy ties it all together. The second one will be a bit ‘what’s this?’, but it’ll make sense with the third one. I’m already on to next year with the folkie album, trying to get into Pentangle now, God help me.
AM – That’s something to look forward to then.
PB – Well that’ll be a double album because there’s a lot of songs there. Just songs that I’ve written in a folkie/country style that don’t need a lot of embellishment so they’re easier to record. There’s a lot of them, so let’s stick them out on a double album, which no-one does any more; gatefold sleeve coming up here.
AM – I bought the Ben Watt album, “Hendra” on vinyl, a few weeks ago and that had a nice gatefold sleeve and lovely packaging.
PB – I had a drink with Ben Watt, once; a very polite drink.
AM – It’s a great album and it’s nice to hear that people are still making music in that way.
PB – Well, these Drumfire gigs I’ve been doing, I supported Clive Gregson and my first reaction was ‘Christ, he’s still going’ and Martin Stephenson played there as well (at The Cabbage Patch in Twickenham) and I thought it was great because you don’t to discover that they’re dead or working in Macdonald’s or something; they’re still out there playing and that’s really reassuring. They must love it. They must love and hate it enough to carry on doing it. Any ordinary, sane person would just say ‘I’ve had my shot now’, but the rest of us drink ourselves to death and write songs.
AM – The first time I saw you play was supporting Dean Owens in Clerkenwell at Drumfire gig. I spoke to Dean and he wasn’t happy because the venue was half-empty because they hadn’t used the posters he’d sent to publicise it and that must be incredibly frustrating.
PB – This was the other myth about myth about punk, that you used to have all these gigs going on everywhere. If you had a punk band or a new wave band or a post-punk band, you could probably get a few people to turn up but if it was a solo, forget it, it would be the owner and his dog, and his dog will hate you.
Which brought us neatly back, almost full circle, to Phil’s punk beginnings and the end of the interview.