Saturday, 15 July 2017

Where is the Public Interest in Business-to-Business Licensing?

At the end of June I spoke at the 19th Biennial IASPM Conference in Kassel, Germany. My main theme was blanket licensing and how it is under threat: some artists are refusing to licence their songs to streaming services; some publishers are withdrawing their repertoire from broadcast licensing; and Blockchain technology has been proposed as a means of individually licensing the use of music in venues, shops, hotels and industrial premises, as well as for individually licensing broadcast and online. For me, these developments are not good. If blanket licensing goes, the public will lose its democratic access to music. Artists will suffer too: the winners will no longer compensate the losers.
            My talk drew on a blog entry from last year and it could be considered out of date. Twelve months ago there were many celebrity holdouts from Spotify and there was much talk of 'windowing', i.e. restricting the availability of new releases. Today, this is no longer the case. Spotify has become an aspirational brand. Artists, record companies and publishers are no longer restricting their content on this streaming platform.
            This latest phase does not detract from my larger point, however. Blanket licensing is being eroded. We will miss it when it’s gone. You can access my paper via my academia.edu page.

             

Monday, 3 July 2017

Fear of Musicking

There is a bias amongst some popular music academics. They are for musicians and they are against songwriters. This is not borne out of a need to venerate the incredible playing ability of certain artists, quite the opposite in fact. The desire is to move away from the idea of ‘artists’. Musicians can be viewed as workers. Theirs is a job of honest graft. In contrast, it is songwriters who carry with them the bourgeois notion of the creative genius, operating at a remove from society. This viewpoint is made clear in a recent call for papers for a ‘Working in Music’ conference:
As with any artistic production, music is also - and perhaps mainly - work. Such an idea is opposed to the romantic mythology from the 19th Century which conceives of artistic activity as coming from transcendental inspiration, impossible to rationalize, and of the artist as an exceptional being whose ‘talent’ would be irreducible to sociological analysis.
What we should be value is the work (the physical effort that is expended in making music) and not ‘the work’ (the musical product that is credited to an author). Christopher Small, with his neologism ‘musicking’ is key to this notion. He believes that we should think of music as a process - and thus a verb - rather than as an object - get rid of that noun!
To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance (what is called composing), or by dancing. We might at times even extend its meaning to what the person is doing who takes the tickets at the door or the hefty men who shift the piano and the drums or the roadies who set up the instruments and carry out the sound checks or the cleaners who clean up after everyone else has gone. They, too, are all contributing to the nature of the event that is a musical performance.
I’m in agreement with much of this. Music is social; we should take genius down a peg or two; songwriting should not be placed above performance in the musical hierarchy. This outlook generates some questionable claims, however.
            First, there is the idea that the practice of musicians is out of step with the legal and commercial perceptions of music. Simon Frith has recently argued that ‘The law treats music as a work, a commodity, intellectual property, something that can be owned and exploited’, whereas ‘Musicians think of music as a process’. But do they always think in this manner? The recording industry may have declined in recent years, but the goal for many musicians is still to make a recording. They also want to have credit for it. These musicians do think of music as a noun. Frith once described the process of popular music as resulting in an object:
The ‘industrialization of music’ can’t be understood as something that happens to music but describes a process in which music itself is made – a process, that is, which fuses (and confuses) capital, technical, and musical arguments. Twentieth Century popular music means the twentieth century popular record; not the record of something (a song? a singer? a performance?) which exists independently of the music industry, but a form of communication which determines what songs, singers, and performances are and can be.
I would argue that this still remains the case, regardless of the academic vogue for musicking.
            Second, there is the desire to conflate music-making processes. It is argued that the division of labour into composition and performance is a classical music conceit. Popular music, in contrast, witnesses a confusion of these roles. Musicians compose as they are playing; songs are produced communally. Frith stresses this point in his recent article, stating that ‘The law assumes music is authored, created by named individuals’, whereas ‘Musicians know that music making is an essentially collaborative, a social process [sic]’.
            Music making is certainly collaborative and the divisions between composition and performance can be blurred. This does not mean, however, that they are the same thing. Few popular music songs are notated, but most of them are written. This is most obviously true of the lyrics. The words are honed and they are crafted, and it is usually an individual who does this. It is also true of the music: chords and melodies are usually developed by individuals or by small teams of writers; they seldom emerge whole during the rehearsal process.
            There is, of course, the question of whether the chords and melody should be valued above other elements of music, such as rhythm and the timbre. Frith believes not. He argues that ‘The law describes music in terms of notes and tunes’, whereas ‘Musicians think of music in terms of sounds and textures’. Again, though, do all musicians think in this way? There are a lot of performers who still believe in songs, and there are many who believe (perhaps conservatively) that lyrics, melody and harmony should be given greatest compositional accord.
            The idea that performance and composition take place simultaneously is in some ways outdated. It harks back to the idea of the rock group: a band of musicians who work up their material in rehearsal or in the recording studio. This is not modern practice. Most contemporary hit records are made by solo artists or by collaborations between solo artists. These musicians usually have a hand in writing their songs, but they do not write them on their own. We live in an era of professional songwriters. Their job is to work on the notes and tunes. It is somebody else’s job to work on the performance.
            There is, however, one modern example where the lines between performance, composition and recording are truly blurred. This is the lone, electronic artist who writes, edits and records their material on a digital audio workstation. Ironically, this type of music making is the least social or collaborative of all.
            Finally, we come to attempts to solve the legal dilemma. If the law is an ass when it comes to performers, how do we make it into something better? One proposal that has been put forward is to regard performance as composition. Richard Arnold has argued for this. He believes that ‘in the field of popular music many works are created in performance rather than being written down first’. Lionel Bently’s solution is to forgo the conventional compositional copyright for popular music and instead have a copyright in the ‘original work of sound’:
The effect of this would be to save copyright law from being asked to invent ‘musical works’ (and, indeed, ‘performances’) in circumstances (as in much of rock and pop – but not all) where the musical artefact is created in the recording studio (and subsequently marketed, appreciated and consumed) by way of such recording.
This idea is problematic in two respects. First of all, it ignores the fact that many songs are not written by the recording artists. As noted above, it is rare today for hit songs to be worked up in a studio like this. Bently’s idea is also unworkable in respect of cover versions: artists whose songs have been covered are not likely to welcome the covering artists as co-composers. The second problem with this proposal is that it posits composition as the desired musical goal. Copyright will give due respect to performers, but only if they cast themselves as writers. Isn’t this where we came in?

Friday, 19 May 2017

That's Me in the Spotlight: Audiences and Musicians on Screen

I have recently had a chapter published in the book Musicians and their Audiences, which is edited by Ioannis Tsioulakis and Elina Hytönen-Ng.



My argument is that musicians learn to perform by watching other musicians on television, film and video, and that audiences similarly learn how to perform by watching the screening of audiences. I suggest that there have been various relationships between the screening of fans and musicians. At times, as with Elvis Presley’s first performances, audiences have provided an act of interpretation: their reactions help to attach meaning to the music. Later, with the British invasion and other examples of teen ‘hysteria’, the actions of artists and audiences are not always aligned. Here, the audience can be viewed as causing interference. The rock years of the 1960s and 1970s offer another model. Here fan behaviour can be frowned up. As such, there has been incompatibility between the rock aesthetic and previous form of audience representation. Finally, I look at the video era, which has brought interaction between fans and artists: everyone is filming each other. To buy the book costs loads of pounds, but you can access an earlier version of the chapter here.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

The Thicke of It

In my previous blog entry I discussed the difference between the ‘formalist’ nature of songwriting copyright and the ‘physicalist’ nature of sound recording copyright (hopefully, this is more interesting than it sounds). Basically, the copyright of songs expands beyond the format in which the song is embedded, whether that is sheet music or a recording. Consequently, plagiarism expands beyond the inscribed form. You can infringe copyright even when you do not copy the tune exactly. What is at stake is the ‘style and sentiment’ of the work. Sound recording copyright, in contrast, is bound by the recording itself. You can only transgress it if you use the physical incarnation of the work. If your recording sounds like another recording, but does not use that recording, then copyright is not violated. As a result of this difference, Anne Barron has argued that protection of songwriting copyright is ‘thick’ while the protection afforded to sound recording copyright is ‘thin’. Jason Toynbee welcomes this. He argues that the formalist conception of songwriting copyright has led to a ‘hypostatization of form’, whereas the physicalist limitation of sound recording copyright has enabled ‘phonographic orality’ to spread.
            This talk of thinness and thickness can be misleading, however. There are occasions when sound recording copyright is more restrictive and expansive than songwriting copyright. In the first instance, songs have to be ‘original’ works in order to attract copyright in UK legislation. In contrast, all sound recordings automatically receive copyright protection, whether they are inventive or not. Secondly, while there is a similarity between songwriting copyright and sound recording copyright in British law, in that transgression is limited to the copying of ‘the work as a whole or any substantial part of it’, there are differences regarding what makes a part significant. When it comes to songwriting copyright, case law has defined a significant part as a ‘a substantial, a vital, and an essential part’ of the composition; when it comes to sound recording copyright most people now believe that you need to clear any use of a recording, no matter how small. Thirdly, there are differences regarding which musical elements are protected. In his analysis of legal cases relating to the infringement of musical compositions, Simon Anderson has found that most decisions have been focused on ‘melody and lyrics, as these are the elements to which originality, and therefore copyright, can most easily be shown to exist’. Sound recording copyright, in contrast, encompasses all musical (and non-musical) elements that are present in the original recording.
            If songwriting copyright is thick, it is also loose. Composers are generally free to incorporate rhythms, timbres, chord changes and production techniques from previous works. They can even borrow melodies and lyrics if they are shown to be commonplace. Sound recording copyright, meanwhile, is thin but rigid. On the one hand, you can mimic huge swathes of previous recordings. On the other, it is not legally permissible to use even the smallest element of a recording unless you pay for it. This is very much a property law: trespassers will be prosecuted.
A further twist is that the thinness of sound recording copyright has enabled songwriting copyright to be loose. The performative and timbral elements of music are protected as sound; they are not protected as song. This is the case even if producers, engineers, bass players and drummers are being given a share of songwriting credits. By way of example, U2 famously split their compositional income equally between band members. However, if I were to copy the bassline of ‘I Still I Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ in my own song it is unlikely that I would be successfully prosecuted. If I adopted the main melody or Bono’s words, then I would. There is, however, one exception to this custom. Texture and rhythm - including Adam Clayton’s basslines - receive compositional protection if use is made of the actual recording. Sampling triggers the copyright in the sound recording and the copyright in the song. The latter occurs even if the compositional elements in play would otherwise fall foul of the ‘significant part’ test. It should be noted, however, that these compositional payments are being made because it is accepted practice within the music industries; they are not the result of case law.
            Are things changing? One factor that I missed in my analysis of the ‘Blurred Lines’ decision is that it offends the formalist and physicalist boundaries of music copyright. If Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke had sampled ‘Got to Give It Up’ they would have held their hands up: payment would have been made to Marvin Gaye (or his estate) as the composer, and to Motown (or their inheritors) as the owners of the sound recording. ‘Blurred Lines’ does not sample Marvin Gaye’s recording and nor does it use any of its melodic parts or lyrics. What it instead does is imitate the feel and the groove of Gaye’s record. These elements have previously escaped the thick looseness of songwriting copyright and the thin rigidity of sound recording copyright, and it is this freedom that has enabled writers and musicians to build upon each other’s works. Pharrell Williams is correct in his depiction of the threat of the ‘Blurred Lines’ decision:
If we lose our freedom to be inspired, we’re going to look up one day and the entertainment industry as we know it will be frozen in litigation ... Everything that’s around you in a room was inspired by something or someone. If you kill that, there’s no creativity.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

The Thin of It

In Britain, musical compositions gained copyright protection because they were equated with literature. The 1710 Statute of Anne – the world’s first copyright Act – awarded copyright to the authors of ‘published books and other writings’. This Act sought to regulate the book trade and it was originally conceived as covering the written word only. Nevertheless, it was successfully argued in the 1777 case of Bach v Longman that music ‘may be written; and the mode of conveying the ideas is by signs and marks’. Music could be captured in notated form. Therefore, it was held to be one of the ‘other writings’ covered by the 1710 Act.
There is a contradiction at the heart of this legal argument, however. Music could only be equated with books because literary copyright was no longer being equated with books. Anne Barron has charted the changing theorisation of copyright in the eighteenth century. It was formulated as ‘information technology law’ but became ‘intellectual property law’. The Statute of Anne, according to Barron, had a ‘physicalist’ conception of copyright. She states:
What we find in the 1710 Act, in fact, is the earliest manifestation of a now familiar legal technique for dealing with the definitional problems presented by intangible objects of intellectual property: the products of cultural technologies, and the forms that these products assume when they become objects of market exchange, are taken as real-world analogues of, or templates for, the virtual objects to which intellectual property rights attach.
Here the literary work and the book in which it appears are as one: ‘to trespass on this object, the defendant would have had to copy word-for-word by printing a facsimile edition’.
            Literary copyright expanded beyond this physicalist conception, however. According to Barron, it was eventually viewed in a ‘formalist’ manner instead. This transformation ‘involved identifying the literary object as an entity whose existence exceeded these surface details; identifying it, in other words, as a “work”’. Barron places the formation of this thinking in the ‘literary property debate’ of the 1760s and 1770s, which sought to determine whether there had been a common law property right in literary compositions prior to the Statue of Anne. Lawyers argued that ‘paper and print are merely accidents, which serve as vehicles to convey [...] style and sentiment’, and that literary expression is ‘somewhat intellectual’ and ‘detached from the manuscript or any other physical existence whatsoever’. Barron states that:
Here, the object of copyright is imagined to be an expressive form or system of signs, comprising not only signifiers (words, in the case of a literary object) recorded on, or embedded in, a physical substrate, but also the signifieds (ideas) to which these are linked and the manner in which both signifiers and signifieds are connected to form a unified whole; and what distinguishes this entity from other such entities is not only the ‘sentiments’ it conveys, but also its author’s singular mode of thinking and expressing these.
The result was an enlargement of copyright. It expanded in two ways. First, literary copyright was now ‘thick’. Authors and publishers could claim infringement for the theft of the particularities of their style and for the borrowing of sections of their works, whereas in the past they had only been able to prosecute the full and exact replication of a text. Secondly, as the idea of what constituted writing became more amorphous, it became possible to view copyright as encompassing more than just books. The copyright of music arrived on the back of the formalist reconfiguration of literary works.
The copyright of musical compositions was formalist as well. In the 1835 case of D’Almaine v Boosey, Lord Chief Baron determined that:
the most unlettered in music can distinguish one song from another, and the mere adaptation of the air, either by changing it to a dance or by transferring it from one instrument to another, does not, even to common apprehensions, alter the original subject. The ear tells you that it is the same. The original air requires the aid of genius for its construction, but a mere mechanic in music can make the adaptation or accompaniment. Substantially the piracy is where the appropriated music, though adapted to a different purpose from that of the original, may still be recognised by the ear. The adding variations makes no difference in the principle.
Consequently, the copying of musical works does not have to be exact for infringement to have taken place. Composers have protection for both their signifiers and their signifieds.
            In addition, their copyright is ‘formalist’ regardless of whether their works are set down in sheet music or are captured in recordings. This is just. After all, if a musical composition is a form of writing, then so is a record. The terms ‘phonograph’ and ‘gramophone’ both derive from the Greek for sound writing. The analogue groove is an audio trace that is written with the ‘pencil of nature’. In my book Vinyl, I suggest that the groove ‘dissolves the difference between the signifier and the signified’. At the beginning of the 20th century, composers were arguing that, because the groove is writing, they should be able to derive royalties from sound recordings, just as they were doing from sheet music. In 1905, a French court ruling stated that:
Finding that disks or cylinders are impressed by a stylus under which they pass; that they receive a graphic notation of spoken words, that the thought of the author is as though materialized in numerous grooves, then reproduced in thousands of copies of each disk or cylinder and distributed on the outside with a special writing, which in the future will undoubtedly be legible to the eyes and is today within everyone’s reach as sound; that by virtue of this repetition of imprinted words, the literary work penetrates the mind of the listener as it would by means of sight from a book, [therefore] the rules of plagiarism are applicable to it.
A recording is nevertheless different to sheet music. Contributing to the early copyright debates, J. Drummond Robertson, manager of the Gramophone Company (later to become EMI), argued that each recording has three authors:
(1) The composer who writes the work; (2) the artist who performs it for the purpose of recording the sound waves of his voice; and (3) the inventor and mechanician to whom is due the possibility of registering and subsequently producing in commercial form a means by which these sound waves, the artist’s voice, may be reproduced.
Robertson and the heads of the other British record companies proposed a solution: there should be a separate copyright in the sound recording. This was granted in the Copyright Act 1911, which states that ‘Copyright shall subsist in records, perforated rolls, and other contrivances by means of which sounds may be mechanically reproduced, in like manner as if such contrivances were musical works’. There were various differences, however. First, this copyright was awarded to the ‘inventor and mechanician’ – the record company. Composers, meanwhile, were awarded a royalty on each record sold. Performing artists received no copyright rewards. Second, the duration of copyright was shorter: because it was awarded to the manufacturers, rather than to the composers or the performers, it lasted 50 years from the date of release and not for the life of the author plus 50 years. Third, this copyright was ‘thin’. Sound recording copyright has always been conceived in physicalist terms. You cannot prosecute a record for sounding like another record; you can only prosecute if the sound recording itself is being used. You have to pay for samples; you do not have to pay for interpolations.
For Jason Toynbee ‘the inferiority of the copyright in the recording, its purely physicalist definition’, is a good thing. He believes that it mitigates against a ‘hypostatization of form’. Performers are able to mimic the sounds of other performers, and so the dialogue of ‘phonographic orality’ is able to spread. We can find evidence of this in the blues, Dr Dre’s G-Funk, cover version albums of chart hits, and TV adverts that use soundalike performers. Why, though, should the record companies have sought a thin copyright rather than a thick one? The answer surely lies in the fact that it was good for them. By emphasizing the ‘physicalist’ nature of manufactured product, rather the ‘formalist’ style and sentiment of the composers or performers, it made their claims to the ownership of copyright appear more just. Formalist copyrights, as Richard Arnold has noted, ‘protect the creativity of authors expressed in their works’. Physicalist copyrights, in contrast, ‘protect investment’. This situation has persisted in the UK for more than a century. Sound recording copyright goes to the party that makes the arrangements necessary for the recording to be made. It does not go to the person who creates it.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Believe It, Chant It, Wear It

I visited Hull at the weekend. It is a great place and is highly deserving of its role as UK City of Culture 2017. Hull has a strong artistic history, it has an interesting contemporary network of artists and musicians, and it deserves a leg up.
            Being there reminded me of a recent email conversation thread amongst the members of IASPM. The subject was football chants, in particular the many reuses of ‘Guantanemera’. The opening participant wanted to know how this song came to the attention of football fans.
            The answer appears to be relatively straightforward. British fans probably adopted and adapted the song after hearing the 1966 hit recording by the Sandpipers. There have been many great variations on the theme. The most famous is probably ‘you’re only singing when you’re winning’, but my favourite mentioned by the respondents was a version sung by Spurs fans when Man City visited White Hart Lane in 2009. Liam Gallagher was in a corporate box. He stood up and made gestures at the home supporters. In response, they sang ‘you’re just a shit Chas and Dave’. Gallagher was unusually gracious. He applauded the Spurs fans and sat down.
            My own contribution to the thread was to raise another point. Rather than considering how do songs become football chants, what we perhaps need to ask is why do some songs remain football chants. Football fans are always utilising hit records, but only a few of these will enter the canon of great chanting songs that are used by fans of all teams. A musicologist would be better placed than me to explain why, but it is clear that the successes need to have great tunes that have captured the public’s imagination and that they lend themselves to public singing. It also appears to work best if they have short phrases that can be sung in loops. Lyric settings are important too. The tunes that last tend to be adaptable to short phrases (usually fewer than 10 words, chanted over and over – no rhymes allowed!). They are also adaptable to different phrases: it is key that different fans can use different sets of words.
‘Guantanamera’ fulfils each of these criteria, taking its place alongside such hardy perennials as ‘Tom Hark’, ‘The Conga’, ‘Go West’, ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag’ and the chimes of Big Ben. The repetitiveness of its original lyrics also serves as a guideline for the chanted adaptations. 
And there is another reason for its success. The most memorable and impassioned singing at football matches usually comes from away fans. This is particularly the case when a small team is playing away to a big team, and comes into even greater focus when the away team is losing. The home team can be ahead in terms of the score line, but the away team can claim victory in terms of the passion and volume of the fans’ singing. ‘Guantanamera’, in its ‘you’re only singing when you’re winning’ incarnation, is perhaps the key song for this scenario.
Hull City have their own twist on this. The team is currently languishing in the relegation zone of the Premier League; they are underdogs even when they play at home. Their fans have come up with the most self-deprecating of ‘Guantanamera’ rewrites. This season they have been chanting ‘you’re only here for the culture’. It works particularly well when they are playing elite London teams. The phrase has become so popular that you can buy it on a t-shirt. What is more, it’s being sold by the official Hull City of Culture website, rather than by the football team. Culture eats football eats pop.



Wednesday, 29 March 2017

The Rough with the Smooth

I caught a cab at the weekend. The driver was listening to Magic radio. Virtually all London drivers listen to this station or to Smooth FM. Magic promises to ‘play more of the songs you love, keeping the UK in a good mood whenever they listen’. It offers the biggest and most comfortable hits performed by major recording stars. Smooth FM is similar. This station will provide ‘your relaxing music mix’. Like Magic, it plays big hits by big names.
            I asked the driver why these are the preferred stations. He told me that it’s not for the passengers. It’s hell out there on London’s streets; the atmosphere is intense and aggressive. The drivers need this music to keep them calm. Many of the songs have a low tempo; they slow the drivers down. My driver told me that when he’s not ferrying passengers he likes listening to the frantic pop of Capital Radio. When he is driving he likes the Carpenters and Lionel Ritchie.
            There’s another reason too: these soft songs are made of tough stuff. They may not be aggressive, but they are certainly durable. They became hits for a reason and that’s because they bear repeated listening.
            He was a nice bloke. I felt calm too.

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.