Monday, 13 March 2017

Playing the Margins

One way to tell the history of rock ‘n’ roll is to look at changing profit margins. Musicians follow the money.
Jason Toynbee has argued that popular music is characterised by a high degree of ‘institutional autonomy’. Artists have freedom from capitalist jurisdiction. Toynbee believes that the music industries 'cede control of production (writing, performing, realizing) to musicians themselves’. I think he’s mostly right. Although popular music ‘belongs to capitalism’, popular musicians are not entirely in thrall to their employers.
One of the reasons for this is because musicians' jobs are diffuse: they write, they perform and they realize. Importantly, their employers in each of these fields are different: artists sign separate publishing deals, record deals and live performance contracts. They have further areas of activity that escape totalising control. Even the 360˚ deal is not all encompassing.
            History enters this matrix because the profit margins for each of these activities change and artists change direction accordingly. At present, for some, it is live music that is most economically rewarding. These performers are now making records to promote their tours, rather than the other way round. Publishing income has often outstripped recording income. It is this economic imperative, as much as an aesthetic urge, that had led many performers to become writers.
            Musicians are also subject to profit margins in the wider economy. There is money in live music for heritage acts and global superstars. At a grassroots level, however, the live music scene is struggling. In the UK many venues are closing. Upcoming artists are getting paid less for their performances. Sometimes they get paid nothing at all.
            One of the factors in play here is the profit margin on a pint of beer. This was greater in the past. Hence pubs and clubs could afford to give more money to live performers. They also wanted music because noise sells beer. As profits on alcohol have declined, bars have sought other ways of making money. One of these has been via food, on which the profit margins are high. The changing pub economy has not been great for performers, particularly loud or left-field ones, as noisy popular music does not go always go down well with a meal. The gastro-pub arrived in the 1990s, at which point cookery was being described as ‘the new rock ‘n’ roll’. It was also killing the old one.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Minstrelsy Mouse and Hillbilly Dawg

Mickey Mouse is a black man, or rather he is a white man dressed up as a black man anthropomorphized as a mouse. He is a minstrel figure. Just take a look at Al Jolson:


Now take a look at Mickey:



As Susan Willis has written, ‘I doubt any of today’s generation of cartoon consumers sees Mickey Mouse as a derivative of African-American culture . . . Nevertheless the black body that debuted in “Steamboat Willie” dancing a jig and singing and whistling to “Turkey in the Straw” makes direct reference to minstrelsy’.
            Goofy is a hillbilly. Originally conceived as Dippy Dawg, he has a southern drawl, wears crumpled clothing and is clumsy and slow. His primary creator, Art Babbit, viewed him as ‘a half-wit’, ‘shiftless’ and a ‘hick’.


From a popular music perspective, what is interesting about these two characters is that they run parallel to the stereotyping of musical genres in the United States. Mickey Mouse was first introduced in 1928. Three years prior to this, Ralph Peer of the Okeh record company had coined the term ‘Race records’ to categorize the music of the black artists that he was recording for the label. The term was swiftly utilised by other record labels and was adopted by Billboard for their charts of black music until their tactical switch to ‘rhythm and blues’ in 1949.
Goofy was introduced in 1932. He was reflective of a growing cult for hillbilly music. The term had been adopted for what is now called country music in 1925. Allan Sutton has argued that southern performers consciously fabricated their image as hillbillies, aiming to appeal to northern record buyers who were ‘not ready to give up [their] image of country musicians as isolated backwoods bumpkins’. Rex Cole’s Mountaineers (pictured below) were one of the first acts to exploit the stereotype.


The categorisation of ‘race’ and ‘hillbilly’ music enabled each of these genres to be targeted at its most profitable audience, but it also meant that they became divided from one another. They had shared common influences and had evidenced greater diversity before becoming codified. William Howard Kenney has written:
The industry rigidly distinguished between rural white and rural Black recorded music by creating and maintaining segregated recording and marketing categories. In the process, much of the richness and variety of cross-cultural assimilations disappeared from the records as musicians worked, seemingly without undue effort, to fit their music to their employers’ categories.
Mickey Mouse and Goofy are perhaps less segregated, however. When it comes to Mickey Mouse, it should not be forgotten that the key to minstrelsy was its duality. It was a white person inside the black mask. Although the form is guilty of gross racial stereotypes, it is demonstrative of identification as well as mimicry. To use Eric Lott’s terms, there is love as well as theft.
            Goofy is also more complex than first appears. On the one hand, he is a minstrel too. He shares Mickey’s white-blackness and he dons the white gloves. On the other hand, he is a black hillbilly. Babbit designed him as a ‘good-natured colored boy’. While it would be going too far to say that he is a prototype Ray Charles - a black performer who evidences a fondness for white southern culture - he is at least indicative of the cross-cultural currents of the south.
            Finally, I’m struggling to work out what it means that several white, R&B-inspired pop stars, including Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, began their careers as mouseketeers in the Mickey Mouse Club.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Slippery People

It has been hard to escape the makers of T2: Trainspotting this week.
The director (Danny Boyle), the stars (Ewan McGregor, Ewan Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle) and the film’s composer (Rick Smith of Underworld) have been on the promotional trail. They have been discussing the original Trainspotting, which came out in 1996, as much as they have the new film. This is not surprising. As well as featuring the same cast, crew and characters as the first film, T2 constantly harks back to it. The new story touches the old one at the edges. This includes the music, which echoes the original soundtrack. Smith has included chords, textures and rhythms from ‘Born Slippy’, the Underworld song that memorably closed the original.


Much of the discussion has been about ‘Born Slippy’ itself. Speaking on the Today programme on Tuesday, Smith was asked how the song came to be in included in Trainspotting. He replied:
It was very serendipitous. Danny [Boyle] was using our album at the time, Dubnobasswithmyheadman, as what you would call the heartbeat or the tool that use to get the rhythm of the film together - without any intention of course of the whole film being about that album and the music - and took a break one day for a lunch, walked across the road, out of Soho, into HMV and saw the vinyl for ‘Born Slippy’ in the racks, bought it, as he tells me, and listened and immediately knew that that was how he wanted to finish the film.
This is a nice story, but it is not true. I know because it was one of my old friends, Neil Williams, who suggested the track for the film. He put the record straight on Friday, writing to Radio 5’s Film Review show, which was featuring Danny Boyle as a guest. Neil’s letter stated:
I was fortunate enough to be one of the assistant editors on the original Trainspotting movie. During the shoot it was my job to synchronise the picture and sound which meant I had the rare privilege of effectively being the first person to see and hear all the footage shot for the film. As these remarkable images and sensational performances came together before my eyes there was this overwhelming realisation that I was at the centre of something truly special. I remember Danny sending a music cassette from the shoot in Glasgow to our cutting rooms in London, which outlined his ideas for source music to soundtrack the film and on it were Bowie, Blondie, Björk, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop. There was also a note suggesting that we try and find dance music similar to the theme produced by Leftfield for Shallow Grave on which I was a trainee. Danny and I shared similar music tastes and we both loved the likes of Leftfield, Orbital and Andy Weatherall. I brought in a collection of CDs with track suggestions written on the cases in white chinagraph pencil, which we used to mark the edits on the film. I had a then little known follow-up single to the album Dubnoheadwithmybassman by Underworld, which was an album I knew Danny liked and I wrote on the CD ‘try track 2’. This was ‘Born Slippy’, a track which was often played at house parties I went to with my friends. There has been no greater moment in my film career than when Masahiro, the editor, told me that Danny had chosen it to be included in the film and showed me the initial edit of the astonishing end sequence. Some weeks later, after picture lock, I got a call from Andrew McDonald asking if I could come out to the sound mix and could I bring the ‘Born Slippy’ CD with me. I travelled out to the mix the same day, was asked if I could leave the CD there so that the sound technicians could transfer it as they didn’t have one. Andrew eventually returned the CD to me at the start of the next project, A Life Less Ordinary, so essentially it’s my CD that bears the now faded chinagraph note that is actually on the soundtrack of the film.
After hearing the letter, Boyle replied: ‘Ah. There you go. I remember Neil’.


Many popular music academics argue against the cult of authorship. They think that it is wrong to look up to musicians and composers and it is particularly remiss to regard them as having some sort of unique genius. These theorists view popular music as an essentially collaborative form and argue that little of it is wholly original.
Nevertheless, as these conflicting stories reveal, the cult of authorship will not go away. If anything, it is proliferating. It is extending beyond songwriting and performance to encompass the sourcing of music for films. The ‘Born Slippy’ saga also illustrates the centralising tendency of authorship. It would seem fitting if it was Boyle who initiated the use of the track. After all, as Smith’s story indicates, ‘Born Slippy’ became the pulse of the film, it was the inspiration for a visionary director. It was also the start of an important collaborative partnership. Smith worked with Boyle on the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics, in addition to working on the sequel film.
            But it was Neil who first chose it. He deserves some credit too. The use of ‘Born Slippy’ helped to make Trainspotting a landmark film, while the film made ‘Born Slippy’ a landmark song. It had been largely ignored when it first came out. There had been a buzz about Underworld, following singles such as ‘Rez’ and ‘Spikee’ and the album Dubnoheadwithmybassman. But ‘Born Slippy’ was something of a flop. I remember discussing it with Neil when it was released, telling him that I found it disappointing. He was the only person I knew who was really into it. He was also the person who said to ignore the instrumental version, which the band original promoted as the main mix of the song. For him it was the ‘Nuxx’ mix that worked. The original single made it to number 57 in the UK charts. A year and a half later, following on from the Trainspotting movie, ‘Born Slippy’ was re-released with the Nuxx mix up front. It made it to number 2. Soon half of Britain was shouting ‘lager, lager, lager, lager’.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Playlists vs Playlists

Listeners have generally been suspicious of radio playlists. They represent the most obvious and perhaps the most extreme example of gatekeeping within the music industries. Although they now pool diverse sources of data, the general practice has remained the same: a small committee of radio employees is responsible for choosing the entire output of the station. Music is prioritised and sorted. In many cases it is consigned to oblivion. And this is not necessarily due to its quality. The committee is susceptible to gimmicks and bribes.
            We now have streaming playlists too. These rely on even more data than the radio playlists. They are also more numerous. A radio station might only have a limited number of records on rotation. The streaming playlists cover a wider of amount of music by genre and by mood. Some of these playlists are based primarily on algorithms. Spotify’s ‘discover’ playlists, for example, are determined by music you have previously listened to. These streaming playlists do still have much in common with radio playlists, however. Ultimately, it is down to a committee, or even an individual, to make decisions about inclusion.
            And yet many people look upon streaming playlists more favourably. It feels as though they cater for personal needs. Radio station playlists, in contrast, often feel as though they are designed for an idealised and stupefied consumer. This consumer, as with all idealised individuals, bears no resemblance to anyone who actually exists.
            I prefer radio playlists, however. And this is because they engender suspicion. The listener knows that their taste is being prescribed. This process works in much the same way as canonisation. The radio listener is subjected to a body of works, which is presented as the dominant culture in the field. When it comes to the canon, it is good to have knowledge of what a self-appointed elite has determined as the best that has been thought and said. And if you are a popular music fan, it is good to know the records that have been picked and promoted to be the most commercially successful. At the same time, however, this prescription gives you something to kick against. It encourages you to search for alternatives. It also encourages people to produce alternatives.
            Streaming playlists work differently. They are an example of the internet’s tendency to produce echo chambers. These playlists are designed for a ‘you liked this, now try this’ culture. The digital realm has been criticized on this basis precisely because it streams. People only encounter media that chimes with their own views. They only come across art that reflects their pre-established tastes. These listeners don’t get to hear a central canon of works and nor do they get to hear anything that challenges their algorithmic self.
            Streaming playlists are hugely popular. They are driving the successes of Spotify and they have provided stiff competition for pop radio. This is changing the musical landscape. The consequences are not necessarily good for either the mainstream or the underground. As streaming has risen to prominence the singles charts have become moribund. They are moving very slowly and there is little public awareness of what they contain. Although there is undoubtedly a lot of commercial music being made, there is no dominant pop culture. As such, there is no rallying point for musical rebels to gather around. They don’t know what to be alternative about because they don’t know what they are alternative to.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Song City: Two Writers for Every Performer

How many performers and songwriters does it take to create a recording? For those who grew up in era dominated by bands, there are two common answers to this question. The first is that a band will contain more performers than writers. The Beatles, the Clash and the Smiths are examples of four-piece bands that had songwriting duos at their core. The Who, the Kinks and Oasis are bands who had solitary writers. The other answer is that the performers and the writers are coterminous. The Doors, the Stooges, the Sex Pistols, U2, REM and Elbow are examples of bands that split songwriting credits equally between their performer members.
            Neither of these methods is currently in vogue. This is, in part, because bands are a dying breed, at least when it comes to mainstream success. Instead, it is solo performers who dominate the singles charts. These artists sometimes come together in collaboration or for battles, as signalled by the terms ‘ft.’ and ‘vs.’ that litter performer credits. The charts also feature duos, trios and some girl groups. There are, however, very few ‘traditional’ groups who play recognisable instruments. The other phenomenon is that there are now very few artists who write their songs on their own. They instead work in conjunction with producers and with professional songwriting teams.
We can witness both trends by looking at the Top 40 selling recordings in Britain in 2016. 12 of the songs were by solo singers acting alone. 11 more were by singers working in conjunction with producers/DJs/EDM acts, and one of these acts worked with a three-piece funk band. One was by two singers collaborating. Four were by singers working in conjunction with rappers. One was by a rapper working alone. One was by a four-piece girl group, another by a five-piece girl group working with a rapper. Five were by producers/DJs/EDM acts working without guest vocalists. One was by a four-piece dance-rock band, another by a four-piece pop-soul band. Finally, there was one song by an old-fashioned guitar, bass and drums indie/rock band: Coldplay’s ‘Hymn for the Weekend’.  Overall, the average number of credited artists on a hit record was 2.4. If you takeaway all the ft. and vs. artists this drops to 1.75.
In contrast, the average number of writers per recording was 4.6. Only three of the songs were written entirely by outsiders. This appears to be an old idea, as two of these three songs were cover versions. Shawn Mendes ‘Stitches’ was the only recently composed song in the Top 40 for which the artist did not receive a songwriters’ share. Conversely, only four of the songs were self-contained, i.e. the artists received no help from outside writers. Mike Posner wrote his hit ‘I Took a Pill in Ibiza’ alone; Gnash and Olivia O’Brien co-wrote ‘I Hate U, I Love U’; and Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots wrote their two big hits. Notably, the four members of Coldplay did not write their song on their own; they required help from five other songwriters. The reason why they are the only ‘old-fashioned’ band in these charts is because they move with the times.
Overall, six of the songs featured the artist(s) composing in conjunction with one extra writer; seven songs featured the artist(s) plus two writers; four songs featured the artist(s) plus three writers; seven songs featured the artist(s) plus four writers; two songs featured the artist(s) plus five writers; five songs featured the artist(s) plus six writers; one song featured the artists plus seven writers; and one song - ‘Let Me Love You’ by DJ Snake and Justin Bieber – was composed by the artists plus nine other songwriters. What is more, this plethora of credits cannot be put down to sampling. Only two of the songs have obvious composer credits for sampled works, and there are two more that might feature sampled writers.
            What does this all mean? Well, as my previous blog entry indicated, the money continues to be in the publishing. This economic bias accounts for the massed ranks of writers and for the growing number of solo performers. It also means that to achieve a top-selling song you have to move amongst the elite. You need to find professional songwriters to write with and you need to find successful artists to collaborate with. The digital age was supposed to bring with it a new wave of independence. Within popular music we have instead witnessed the growth of an internet jet set.

Friday, 23 December 2016

It's a Merry Christmas for Songwriters

Songwriters are earning four times as much as recording artists.
            We can reach this conclusion by using the work of Will Page, who is the go-to person for music industries’ statistics. When he worked for PRS for Music he would annually total up the British figures. Now that he is Spotify’s Director of Economics he is performing the same task on a global scale. He has discovered that our planetary music copyright business was worth $24.37bn in 2015. This represents a rise of $941m on 2014.
            In his findings, Page lists the money earned by the record company members of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI); the income of the publisher and composer members of the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers (CISAC); and the money that is going to the publishers directly. The results are as follows:

IFPI digital recordings                           $6.5bn
IFPI physical recordings                        $5.0bn
IFPI performing rights                            $2.1bn
IFPI sync rights                                          $0.3bn
CISAC performing rights                          $6.8bn
CISAC mechanical rights                           $1.2bn
CISAC private copying income                 $0.2bn
Publishing sync rights                                 $0.8bn
Publishing other                                            $0.8bn
Non-CISAC publishing mechanicals          $0.5bn

It is size of the collections and the increase in the money that has attracted headlines. Nevertheless, Page is also keen to point out that there is ‘a misconception about the David-Goliath relationship between labels and publishing’. The publishers are not dwarfed. The overall income for songwriting copyrights is $10.4bn (42.7% of the total), while the income for sound recording copyrights is $14bn (57.3% of the total). According to Page:
When you factored in all the monies that flow to PROs [Performing Rights Organisations], publishers and songwriters, they were much more neck-and-neck in true value than often perceived. However, how that money then flows from firms (labels, publishers and collectives) to individuals (artists and songwriters) is an entirely different conversation.
Page does not enter into this dialogue and it is easy to understand why. It is hard enough getting the total income figures from industry organisations, but at least this information is available. In contrast, the contract details of songwriters and recording artists remain private. As such, it is difficult to determine the percentage royalties that they are receiving from their publishers and record labels. Moreover, these royalties vary from country to country and from artist to artist. These royalties have also varied through time. Songwriters and performers who signed contracts in the 1950s or 1960s, for example, will generally be on lower royalty rates than artists who are signing contracts today.
But the conversation is still worth having. It provides a means of assessing the relative prosperity of songwriters and recording artists. And while the precise details of contracts are not known, some general figures are available. If all artists were on contemporary UK contracts, the splits would look something like this:

Sound Recoding Copyright $14bn
IFPI digital recordings            80%-85% record labels/15%-20% recording artists
IFPI physical recordings         80%-85% record labels/15%-20% recording artists
IFPI performing rights             50% record labels/50% recording artists
IFPI sync rights                        50%-85% record labels/15%-50% recording artists

Songwriting Copyright $10.4bn
CISAC performing rights                           20%-25% publishers/75%-80% songwriters
CISAC mechanical rights                           20%-25% publishers/75%-80% songwriters
CISAC private copying income                  50% publishers/50% songwriters?
Publishing sync rights                                  15%-35% publishers/65%-85% songwriters
Publishing other                                            15%-35% publishers/65%-85% songwriters?
Non-CISAC publishing mechanicals            20%-25% publishers/75%-80% songwriters?

Although some of these splits can only be estimated, these percentages would place the income of songwriters far above that of recording artists. Their take home would be something like $7.75bn, while the overall copyright income for recording artists would only be $2.1bn.
Songwriters would also be in a better position than recording artists when it comes to non-recoupable royalties, the money that cannot be used to pay off advances. At least £3.4bn of the songwriting income would be free from recoupment. In contrast, the only element that would be non-recoupable for recording artists would be the $1.05bn earned from their 50% share of the IFPI performing rights.
            These total figures would have to be reduced, however. At least half of the worldwide copyright income is derived from back catalogue. Consequently, there will be many recording artists and songwriters who are on less favourable percentages than presented here. However, even though the totals for songwriting and recording would come down, there would be an even greater bias in favor of the writers. Old recording contracts tend to be more punitive than old publishing contracts are. The percentages for the artists are proportionally lower and the terms of the contracts last longer. Moreover, songwriters have been guaranteed at least 50% of the performing rights income in most territories for over a century. This is the biggest single income stream and it is non-recoupable. In contrast, recording artists in many countries are still not guaranteed equitable remuneration for performing rights income. Although this 50% share is now mandatory throughout the European Union, this has only been the case since the Rental and Lending Rights Directive of 1992.
            The money is still in the publishing.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

From Where to Despair?

Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Hot Chocolate's 'It Started With a Kiss' have much in common. Hamlet is brilliant and yet there is something wrong with it. T.S. Eliot put his finger on it: ‘Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear’. For Eliot any emotion in a work of art must have an ‘objective correlative’, i.e. if a character is feeling something strongly, the reasons for that feeling must be found in the work of art itself. He outlines ‘a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion’.
            And so to Hot Chocolate. ‘It Started With a Kiss’ starts out simply enough. Errol Brown sings the verses in his sweetest voice. We are taken back to his youth; he is stealing kisses with a girl in the back row of a classroom. The two of them promise to marry, but she is only eight years old and he has just turned nine. In a later verse they reach the ages of sixteen and seventeen respectively. The tune is still sweet, even though Brown realises that he can no longer hold on to her love. The choruses take us from these childhood memories right up until the present day. The music is lilting, numbing us to the slight foreboding in the lyrics. ‘It started with a kiss’, Brown trills; ‘I never thought it would come to this’.
            Nothing prepares us for what follows. ‘YOU DON’T REMEMBER ME, DO YOU! YOU DON’T REMEMBER ME, DO YOU! YOU DON’T REMEMBER ME, DO YOU! The tune jolts suddenly and there is utter despair. Brown is so in excess of the facts that you worry about his state of mind. You hope to dear god that no one has left a bare bodkin lying around.
            There is a difference between Hamlet and ‘It Started With a Kiss’, though. What spoils Shakespeare’s play makes the Hot Chocolate song. In fact, one of the great pleasures of popular music is when an objective does not correlate. It is the strange gaps in songs that give the listener room to enter in.
I’ve been there, Errol. I’ve been there.