Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Success Ratios, New Music and Sound Recording Copyright

The journal Popular Music has recently published my article ‘Success Ratios, New Music and Sound Recording Copyright’. This piece draws upon several posts that I have featured on this blog, including ‘There’s No Success Like Failure’, ‘Should the Masters Own the Masters?’ and ‘The Loser’s Standing Small’. The abstract is as follows:
This article addresses the uses that record companies have made of two rhetorical tropes. The first is that only one in 10 artists succeed. The second is that they are investing in new music. These two notions have been combined to give the impression that record companies are taking risks both economically and aesthetically. They have been employed to justify the companies’ ownership of sound recording copyright and their system of exclusive, long-term recording contracts. More recently, the rhetoric has been employed to combat piracy, extend the term of sound recording copyright and account for the continuing usefulness of record companies. It is the argument of this article that investment in new music is not necessarily risk-taking; rather, it is the policies derived from risk-taking that provide the financial security of record companies.
Tantalising stuff, eh? If you have access to the Cambridge University Press database you can access the article via this link. If not, I hope to have more material published on this subject in the not too distant future.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Mark E. Smith 1957-2018

Nobody told us that popular culture was going to make us feel old. Nevertheless, as the deaths of childhood heroes occur with increasing frequency, my generation is being alerted to its mortality.
It’s hard to take in Mark E. Smith’s death, coming so soon after the passing of Cyrille Regis. Regis was my main idol when I was 10 and 11 years old and I was completely obsessed with football. I switched allegiances to music when I was 12. Within a year or so The Fall were my favourite band.
All Fall fans have their moment of entry story. Mine takes place during a woodwork lesson at Blackminster Middle School during the spring of 1980. I had smuggled a tape recorder into class. My friend Stuart Freer brought with him a recording of the live album Totale’s Turns, which we some how managed to listen to while our classmates were smoothing edges and drilling holes.
It was the funniest thing we had ever heard. We concentrated on the bizarre pronouncements of Mark E. Smith. The fantastic spoken introduction to the album: ‘The difference between you and us is that we have brains’. Further taunting of the audience: ‘Are you doing what you did two years ago? Yeah? Well don’t make a career out of it’. Taunting of the band: ‘Will you fucking get it together instead of showing off!’. And general piss-taking of popular music norms: ‘This is a groovy number’. Our favourite track was ‘Cary Grant’s Wedding’.
It was an odd way of getting hooked, though. The album is out of tune and poorly recorded. It’s got the most amateurish of all of the Fall’s amateurish sleeves. A scrawled black and white front cover, listing the unglamorous locations of the gigs, and a typed back sleeve, headed ‘Call Yourselves Bloody Professionals?’
Yet I saw them as a pop band, offering a parallel but plausible alternative to the contemporary charts. This feeling was compounded by the brilliant run of records that followed: the singles ‘How I Wrote Elastic Man’/ ‘City Hobgoblins’ and ‘Totally Wired’; the album ‘Grotesque (After the Gramme)’; the mini-album ‘Slates’. These rockabilly-driven releases are still my favourites by the band. They have the best lyrics too.
I spoke about these records at the Messing Up the Paintwork conference on the Fall, which took place at the University of Salford in 2008. I argued that Smith placed his music alongside pop: the Fall commented on the charts and they wanted to be in the charts. My thoughts were eventually polished up and published in the book that followed.
The conference was revelatory. Not only were there some great papers about the group, it was clear that Mark E. Smith welcomed the academic attention. He did not make it in person, but he did broadcast a telephone call at the post-conference gig. His former manager, producer and several family members were present. I spent much of the evening talking to his mum. She was absolutely lovely and she revealed a different side to the usual acerbic portrayal of her son. He was devoted to her, sending her postcards from every territory the band visited, as well as giving her money whenever he could afford it. I asked her if she worried about him. Of course she did.
The last Fall song that I listened to before Smith’s death was ’50 Year Old Man’, a latter-day triumph that is as hilarious as Totale’s Turns. Smith made it to 60 but it was clear he was dying. The pictures that emerged of him before Christmas revealed as much. I was checking fan websites over the holiday season, fearing for the worst.
What an incredible legacy, though. The Fall are one of those underground bands who deserve to be overground. Their music – like that of the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart – will live on for a long time. It’s been great hearing them on the radio and on the news over the last few days. I was also glad to hear them being played at a children’s party that my daughter was invited to. The kids liked it, I think.
‘Life should be full of strangeness’, Smith sang in ‘How I Wrote Elastic Man’, ‘like a rich painting’. He gave us this richness and for that we should be eternally thankful.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Cyrille Regis 1958-2018

This is supposed to be a blog about popular music, but the passing of Cyrille Regis has to be mentioned. He was my hero when I was a boy and he has remained a hero all my life.

Monday, 25 December 2017

Just Like Christmas?

Four years ago I wrote with optimism about the way downloading was shaping the UK’s Christmas charts. It was allowing old songs to nestle alongside the new, thus there were 14 festive classics in the 2013 charts. Mariah Carey was at number 13 with ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’, the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl were at number 14 with ‘Fairytale of New York’ and Chris Rea was at number 53 with ‘Driving Home for Christmas'. I argued that ‘One effect of the permanent availability of “singles” is that, more than ever, the charts are reflective of what is going on in the world’. I found it ‘hugely pleasant’ that ‘it is the right Christmas songs that are doing well’.
            In July of the following year the Official Charts Company began to include streaming figures as part of their tabulation of the UK charts. The effects have been criticised. The charts have slowed down (Drake’s ‘One Dance’ was number one for months) and pop tyrants have taken them over (Ed Sheeran had 16 songs in the top twenty in a single week). As a result, the formulas have been changed. The ratio of streams to sales has been increased from 100:1 to 150:1. Longevity has been handicapped: if a record has been on the charts for more than 10 weeks and its sales have declined for three consecutive weeks, its ratio of streams to sales is increased to 300:1. Profligacy has been penalised too. Artists are no longer allowed to have multiple chart entries. They are instead restricted to their three most popular tunes.
            But what can be done about nostalgia? The trend that I identified in 2013 has been amplified by streaming. Downloading made all songs available as singles. Streaming has made all songs available for free (if using ad-supported services) or for rent (if using subscription services). The charts used to monitor exchange value only. Now, with streaming figures included, they increasingly monitor use value. This usage is increasingly shaped by playlists. And the playlists of the streaming companies are oriented towards the hits of Christmas past.
            The results are there for all to see. This week’s Official Singles Chart Top 100 includes 26 Christmas songs. The vast majority of them are old. Wham! are at number three with ‘Last Christmas’; Mariah Carey is at number 4; the Pogues at number 7; and Chris Rea is at number 20. In the age of physical formats most of the Christmas songs that made the charts would have been new releases. In this week’s charts only a third of the Christmas hits come from the current decade, and just two were released in 2017. These new songs have not done well. Sia’s ‘Santa’s Coming for Us’ is at number 65. Gwen Stefani’s ‘You Make It Feel Like Christmas’ has edged into the charts at number 100.
            There has been outcry: newness is being thwarted. Writing in Music Week, Mark Sutherland asked: ‘What point is there trying to write a new Christmas song when the public is likely to just stream the classics non-stop instead anyway?’ I have been invited to comment on this phenomenon, contributing to Tom Fordy’s ‘Ed Sheeran versus Ed Sheeran: Why We're All Losers in the Race for Christmas Number One’ article in the Telegraph and Eleanor Lawrie’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas? Where are the New Festive Classics?’, which is available on the BBC website.
            There is still cause for optimism, however. On the one hand, these classic Christmas songs offer great collective enjoyment. On the other hand, canons are ever-evolving things. As James Masteron points out in the BBC article, ‘You consider something like the Mariah Carey song - it was a huge hit back in 1994, but I don't remember it being particularly notable as a cultural touch-point for another 10 years after that. It was only in the middle of the last decade that people began to wake up to the fact that, actually, this is a classic’. The same is true of Chris Rea’s single, Paul McCartney’s ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ and even ‘Last Christmas’ by Wham! They resonate more deeply now than they did in the years they were released. The past is always changing and nostalgia isn’t what it used to be (Ho! Ho! Ho!).
This slippage between the old and the new is captured brilliantly in Low’s ‘Just Like Christmas’:
On our way from Stockholm,
            It started to snow,
            And you said it was like Christmas,
            But you were wrong
            It wasn’t like Christmas at all

            By the time we got to Oslo
            The snow was gone
            And we got lost
            The beds were small
            But we felt so young
            It was just like Christmas

In fact, this Christmas song is another that grows in stature with every passing year. It was released in 2004. It didn’t make the charts then, and it didn’t make the charts this year. Surely, however, it is only a matter of time before it makes a Spotify playlist. And then it is only a matter of time before it enters the mainstream canon of Christmas favourites. That’s unless they change the chart rules . . .

Monday, 4 December 2017

When do Productions become Productions?

Following on from the last entry, I’ve been wondering when it is that we realise that records are produced? My guess is that it’s the opposite to Jimmy Webb’s thoughts about songwriting. He realised that there was a process to composing songs because some of them sounded the same. In his case, it was follow-up singles that revealed the mechanics of the songwriters’ job.
            I think that we start to think about production when we notice that records sound different from one another. This is most revelatory when we hear two records by the same artists but they don’t feel like kin. It is then that it dawns on us that the artists are not solely responsible for the sound of their records. There is somebody else at work.
            I thought about producers later than I thought about songwriters. This may have been to do with the genres that were dominant when I was growing up. As I have previously stated, it was glam rock that sound-tracked my earliest years. Although the glam rock artists sounded different from one another, they all sounded like themselves. This is because they had the same producers throughout their runs of hits. Chas Chandler produced all the Slade singles. Tony Visconti produced everything for T. Rex. Phil Wainman, Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman were responsible for singles by The Sweet. Mike Leander sculptured the Garry Glitter records. These records were brilliantly produced, but the consistency of production masked the producers’ art.
            Punk was my next musical love. It was different from glam. Here, most of the bands had different producers from project to project. The Clash albums all have different producers and they have different sound worlds as a result. The same is true of the Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Fall, Stiff Little Fingers and many other punk and new wave acts. The results often felt like a betrayal. As a fan, you had bought into the particular sonics of a band. You also felt that the band was responsible for those sounds. You were let down.
            But then you started to reverse the process. Maybe the reason why those first records sounded great is because of the work that was being done by the producer. Maybe future records could also sound great if the right producer landed the role. Maybe I want to be a producer too.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

When do Songs become Songs?

When we are very young it feels as though songs have always been there. In fact, some of our earliest song memories retain this sense. It seems odd to us that there is a person out there who sat down to write ‘Wheels on the Bus’ or ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’, just as it seems outrageous that ‘Happy Birthday’ could be in copyright.
            Once we can talk we can make songs of our own. Kids soon start to come up with tunes. This is true folk music, borrowing lyrics and melodies from previous works and melding them with something original.
At some point we also start to like contemporary music. We begin to see films and videos of pop stars. They don’t seem to be doing much. Making music is easy.
            There is a time, however, when we begin to realise that there is a craft to songwriting. 
When does this occur?
In my case, it was power ballads that did it. My 1970’s youth was saturated with the brilliant racket of glam rock. Nevertheless, the era also had love songs such as ‘Without You’ by Nillson, ‘My Love’ by Wings’ and ‘The Air That I Breathe’ by the Hollies. To me, these songs felt composed. Their wide-ranging melodies and controlled emotional heft could not be conjured out of thin air. I knew that I couldn’t make music like this myself, and with that realization I understood that there must be someone who could: there are songwriters. It was only later, after struggling more seriously to make my own music, that I realised it’s as hard to create ‘Come On Feel the Noize’ as it is to create something quieter.
The great American songwriter Jimmy Webb recently provided a fascinating answer to the question. For him, it was record company policy that revealed the songwriter’s art:
I was languishing by the radio listening to songs, and I made a connection. Brenda Lee would have a big hit with ‘I’m Sorry’, and they’d come up with another record that sounded a little like ‘I’m Sorry’. Not too much like I’m Sorry, because that would ruin it. There was an epiphany; I became aware of the process that was going on behind the scenes. I divined this process on my own.
This flies in the face of mass cultural theory. If Adorno is to be believed, the standardization and pseudo-individualization of popular music will turn people into passive dupes. Yet here they are inspiring them. It was this industrial process that made Jimmy Webb want to become a writer himself:
Then, later, I would find out that in the industry it was called a ‘follow-up’. There was a name for it. So I was writing songs. I remember writing a song called ‘It’s Someone Else’, and I thought, ‘That would be a great follow-up for The Everly Brothers’ ‘Let It Be Me’’. And 25 years later I told Artie Garfunkel the story, because he loved the Everly Brothers, and he ended up cutting it. I was 13 years old when I wrote my first follow-up.
Moreover, Jimmy Webb was the most idiosyncratic of the professional songwriters who emerged in the 1960s. This is the man who wrote ‘Wichita Lineman’ and ‘MacArthur Park’. You can love the mechanics and you can know the mechanics, but this does not make you mechanical.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Baby, You're a Firework

Everyone loves fireworks. On Saturday night I went to the huge display at Alexandra Palace, an annual event that is prompted by the anniversary of Guy Fawkes’ attack on British parliament, albeit that Fawkes and politics are curiously absent from the celebrations these days. There were thousands of people there. It was one of those rare occasions where you see a true cross-section of London’s population: all ages, all sexes, all sexualities, all nationalities, all races and all faiths. There’s a problem with fireworks displays, though. The first explosions are always astonishing, but how do you sustain attention over a 20-minute set? It can all start to seem a bit tedious and wasteful. At worst you feel like Aimee Mann in her song '4th of July', which commemorates America's fireworks night: ‘Today's the fourth of July / Another June has gone by / And when they light up our town I just think / What a waste of gunpowder and sky’. You know that there will be a climax at some point, but climaxing is about the only thing that fireworks know how to do.
            There is an answer to this fireworks conundrum. Why not try dancing to them? Dancing is always interesting. It can be enhanced, further still, by visual effects. The Alexandra Palace festival was sound-tracked by DJ Yoda. He was brilliant, weaving together short bursts of music from a large array of genres. He was also thoroughly modern with his faith in the past. Yoda knows the musical state of play. After 15 years of downloading services and a decade of Spotify, there is an audience that knows a huge amount of music and is open to all types. You can play anything from any era as long as it’s good and it’s right. And so we had songs drawn from the 1950s to the present day, and from styles as diverse as hip-hop, folk music, trance, post-punk, jazz-funk, soul, movie soundtracks and mainstream pop. We danced to Deodato’s version of Also Sprach Zarathustra and we danced to the Beastie Boys’ ‘Intergalactic’. The biggest hits of the night were a remix of the Weavers’ ‘Wimoweh’ from 1952 (a song, it seems, that we have all grown up with) and a brilliant segue of New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ (from 1983) into Rihanna’s 2011 hit ‘We Found Love’ (the trance clichés of this track are irresistible). Of course the whole thing ended with Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’. Except it didn’t. There was an encore sequenced to ‘Feelin’ Good’, Nina Simone’s classic from 1964. These are great times to be a DJ. And they are great times for explosive dance.