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?

1989It goes without saying that each generation gets the pop stars it deserves. Of the ones remaining and still performing, Madonna, Boy George and Prince belong to what could be called my era, not too shoddy. This current batch of kids will eventually become nostalgic about Beyonce, Adele and, I’m sorry, One Direction. In the last five years Taylor Swift has been riding their coat-tails with her persistent country -pop and, for better or worse, she may turn out to be the biggest pop star of them all, certainly of 2014. “1989”, Swift’s fifth album, is not only the year of her birth but also refers to the eclectic and idiosyncratic musical chart toppers of that same year, part of my era, and which allegedly inspired her to finally, and somewhat predictably, make the full transition to that of a pop star.

Max Martin has produced and written for the cream of Billboard magazine’s sweethearts over the past decade and a half and Swift called on him to help with a clutch of songs for her last album, the gazillion-selling ‘Red’. Those tracks were the ones that provided the album with a contemporary pop sheen, dubstep and more heavily electronic soundscapes featured, and some of its biggest hits. Martin returns here with the weightier task of almost full production responsibilities of “1989” and co-writes with Swift herself. He does a consistently robust and appropriately timeless job here and, between the two of them, the songs are frequently sharp, smart and exhilarating and avoid any of the obvious potential pitfalls; no features, no EDM and no Dr Luke.

The best moments here, and there are many to choose from, are the more thundering and urgent guitar, drums and synth tracks that call to mind pop acts such Go West, Simple Minds and Kelly Clarkson. “Out of the Woods” is not only the biggest success here, Swift’s sneer is surprisingly apparent and the gulping repetitive chorus is perfect, but almost the most lyrically competent and stylish. “All You Had to Do Was Stay” with its cheeky vocal nod to the Eurythmics, “I Wish You Would” and “Bad Blood” all provide rollicking middle-eights, tight arrangements and artful choruses that all make the intended impact. “Style” is an elegant mid-tempo electro soon-to-be chart topper which offers up the hookiest chorus – and that’s saying something here – and “Wildest Dreams” is as close as Swift gets to a mood piece although it owes quite a debt to the omnipresent Lana Del Rey sound.

The rest of “1989” is serviceable enough but lacks the passion of the better tracks and struggles to live up to the album’s conceit. “Welcome to New York” is not only one of the very worst, most insipid songs written about the city – and also a rare moment when the album also slips into musical parody of the period it’s influenced by – but it is almost a genuine reflection of it as seen through the Swift’s eyes as a recent, over-excited new comer. It also highlights just how bland and naïve lyrically many of these songs are; Starbucks lovers, it’s all good, haters and players and “How You Get the Girl”, even if used with irony, make the album sound like a massive corporate tie-in with a particular brand of young girls who can afford to live in a big city. Since the album’s release Swift has indeed, and not without controversy, been appointed as an official ambassador of New York; it wasn’t like this with Debbie Harry.

If Swift were to be a representation of the very best that pop could offer in 2014 then “1989” would confirm that pin sharp songwriting and hooks were still in abundance and lush, enveloping production was of a consistently high standard. But within the genre that is only one part of many essential components. Her previous albums have been built on an authentic and believable persona where it was possible to identify the style of the song – the actual sound of it – with the singer; here she sounds technically proficient but for the main part generic. The major players of the last thirty years right up to and including Beyonce and Adele have all developed a sound that is quintessentially theirs but Swift has failed to do that here; there is nothing exceptional or original about the way “1989” sounds. It is unlikely that her next few records will see a return to country music so maybe they will continue to build on Taylor Swift’s respect for pop and see her as confident enough to be as unpredictable and individual as her idols; or maybe she is readjusting the standard.

How About NowYou might have heard of Ags Connolly if you’re a MusicRiot regular; he’s had a few mentions here and he’s been quietly collecting followers and impressing critics for a while now.  His debut album, “How About Now”, features strong, sometimes very personal, songs, sympathetic playing and arrangements and powerful plaintive, vocals.  I’m sticking with the catch-all term “country” to describe these songs, although Ags prefers “Ameripolitan”, and the roots are much more in fifties and sixties country (or the later” outlaw country”) than in anything you’ll hear on the country charts today.  The overall sound of the album (produced by Drumfire recording artist Dean Owens), certainly reflects these influences.  It’s not the squeaky clean country-pop of Taylor Swift or Kacey Musgraves and the raw lyrical references are reflected in the arrangements and the playing.

The musicians recruited for the album are all first-class players.  In addition to Ags (acoustic guitar and vocals), they are: Stuart Nisbet (electric guitars, pedal steel, mandolin and vocals), Kev Mcguire (stand-up bass), Jim McDermott (drums), Andy May (keyboards), Roddy Neilson (fiddle) and Dean Owens (vocals and acoustic guitar).  I’m a big fan of rehearsing a band to performance level before recording live in the studio to get a very cohesive and immediate feel.  It’s not for everyone but, with good musicians, it can work really well; it certainly has on “How About Now”.  Virtually everything was recorded live with only a few overdubs of mandolin and piano and, incredibly, the title track, with its minimal arrangement and pleading, emotive vocal, was recorded in one take.  Now, that’s impressive.

The album opens with the straightforward honky-tonk of “When Country Was Proud”, listing some of Ags’ influences (mainly early-period Johnny Paycheck) and lamenting the position of country music in the media  today before moving into the melancholy reminiscence of “Good Memory For Pain”, featuring understated backing vocals and some nice fiddle.  “That’s The Last Time”, with its stripped-back production, is the first of a set of damaged or broken relationship songs including the slower “Get Out Of My Mind”, the rockabilly feel of “The Dim And Distant Past” and the slower “She Doesn’t Need me Anymore”, which emphasises Ags’ vocal range.

The album is particularly successful when Ags takes traditional country lyrical themes and gives them a modern English twist.  “I Hoped She Wouldn’t Be Here” takes the “best friend’s girl” theme and sets it in a group of friends in a local pub, while “I’m Not Someone You Want To Know” locates the hard-drinking, morose loner looking back at better times in an English pub.  “Trusty Companion” is a surprisingly uptempo take on the quest for a soul-mate while the mid-tempo “I Saw James Hand” is a very personal fan letter to one of Ags’ more contemporary influences.

This album is a very British version of the type of country music played before the advent of the clean, more poppy Nashville sound.  You’ll hear a lot of nice clean guitar and pedal steel licks here, but there is a raw edge to the production as well.  “I Saw James Hand” features some Hammond and a distorted guitar solo, while “She Doesn’t Need Anyone Anymore” even has some controlled guitar feedback.  The sequencing of the album is perfect, opening with the lively, backward-looking “When Country Was Proud”, working through poignant and nostalgic to finish on four very personal songs set in the present including the beautiful closer “How About Now”; surely that song has to get a single release.

It’s easy to do this kind of music very predictably but Ags Connolly, Dean Owens and a very gifted band have produced an engaging and ultimately uplifting album which looks back to a time when country was less polished musically and lyrically while placing it in a very British setting.  Top album and great artwork as well.

Release date February 24 on Drumfire Records (DRMFR017).