Monday, September 28, 2015

How The Song Machine overwhelmed the Old Way of making pop

John Seabrook writes for The New Yorker about the frontier between music, commerce and technology. In his fascinating new book The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory he describes the changes that have occured in the last twenty years in the way the hits are made and played.

If they could only clear the rights to the music, it would make a great movie. It's got characters: the fiercely-driven young mouseketeer Britney Spears who started off assuming  anything she was told by an adult was the law and wound up checking out of a rehab clinic after one day and shaving off all her hair in public; Clive Calder, the parsimonious, publicity-shy, allergy-suffering South African who sold his company Jive Records at the top of the boom for almost $3 billion dollars; Lou Pearlman, who made a fortune out of managing the Backstreet Boys, spent it propping up a bunch of fraudulent ventures and is in prison as a consequence; a long-haired Swedish metalhead called Karl Martin Sandberg whose genius for grafting the chord progressions of European pop music to the brutal cookie cutter rhythms of American hip hop would transform him into Max Martin, the most successful songwriter and producer of the 21st century.

Seabrook calls it the "track-and-hook" business. It starts with some kind of rhythm bed, engineered for maximum dance appeal by a specialist in the art. The track may then be sent to numerous specialists in coming up with the "top line". Everybody competes to see who can fashion the most compelling one. The weirder and more arresting the effects the better – these people are endlessly ingenious – but it's an article of faith in the Song Machine that the listener should never be too far away from the comforting embrace of a chorus close enough to what they've heard before to render it naggingly familiar after three listens.

Next to the Song Machine's appliance of science and fierce creative competition, there doesn't seem to be a lot of hope for the traditional nice-words-and-music pop song. You just have to look at the charts. Next to this stuff everything else feels flaccid. Ryan Adams' recent decision to make his new album a cover of Taylor Swift's Max Martin-produced and written "1989" is less  a homage than a white flag raised over the ramparts of the Old Way.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

No peace for the garrulous

Seem to be spending a lot of time talking for public consumption at the moment.

The Word In Your Ear evening that Mark Ellen and I recorded last week at the Islington is now available as two separate podcasts, the first featuring world’s leading lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe who’s worked with the Rolling Stones and lit the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics; the second featuring Paul Du Noyer and Laura Barton (above), talking about Paul McCartney.

I’m on Saturday Review tonight talking about Ai WeiWei’s exhibition at the RA, the new film 99 Homes, the new book by Margaret Atwood, the one-woman show Fake It Til You Make It and Music For Misfits, an upcoming BBC Four series about indie music.

Next weekend I’m at the Cheltenham Literature Festival anecdoting with Mark, Kate Mossman and Paul Du Noyer and talking to Will Hodgkinson about the famous “who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?” editorial in The Times at the time of Mick and Keith’s drug trial of 1967. On Monday October 5th I’m talking to Mark Lewisohn about his massive Beatles biography at King’s Place.

Future Word In Your Ear events include Dave Cavanagh talking about John Peel, Chris Salewicz on rock stars who died at the age of twenty-seven and Jon Savage on 1966. You can add your name to the mailing list here.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Audiences will eventually be paid to go and see unknown bands

Budweiser are running an ad at the moment featuring an unknown Canadian band The OBGMs playing a club gig. The twist of the ad is that when they go on stage they're amazed to find themselves playing to an enthusiastic full house rather than the usual mix of blood relations and unimpressed locals. The audience have been provided and bussed in by Budweiser.

This is an interesting inversion of the traditional "dreams come true" advert, which recognises the fact that the supply of middling bands is now far greater than the demand for them could ever match and it's therefore the band rather than the audience who need to have their wishes fulfilled.

I was talking to somebody recently who was launching a gigging-focussed social media site. I told him there was more chance of getting the bands to pay for access to the audience than vice versa.

I wrote a column a few years ago speculating that we would soon reach the point where audiences were paid to turn up at non-star gigs. This ad is another step closer.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The day ITV broke out

My grandfather always called ITV "the soap programme". Not that "soap opera" was common parlance in September 1955 when ITV was launched but it was assumed that any TV which wasn't funded by a licence fee was paid for by detergent advertising, which was to a certain extent true.

In our house we only had BBC. When ITV first arrived in 1955 we didn't have it. That must have required a different aerial. We didn't get that until years later. I remember I was at a friend's house and tried to wangle myself permission to stay for tea to watch "Champion The Wonder Horse". My friend's mother said, why didn't I go home because, you never know, you might be able to watch it there.

I trudged home reluctantly and found my mother and sister having tea in front of the newly-adapted TV and, magically, "Champion The Wonder Horse".

Meals were never taken in front of the TV in my house. This was a very special day. Two channels. Bewildering choice.

Friday, September 18, 2015

This isn't the first time the NME has changed - but it may be the last

This isn't the first time the NME has changed.

I remember when it was called the New Musical Express and had adverts for Petula Clark's new single on the front page. That wasn't long after it was briefly known as "New Musical Express incorporating Accordion Times". I remember when it was so desperate to be "a lifestyle title" it had suicide on the cover. That's suicide, not the New York duo Suicide. In its time NME has been all over the map.

But I think it's fair to say that only today's move to free distribution could be described as "shit or bust". I don't think there's any coming back from this. It either works or that's the end.

This is what it means. It's going from being a two-revenue stream business - advertising and circulation - to being a one-reveue stream business - this will stand or fall on whether it can attract enough advertising to make it profitable.

Advertisers like a little "edginess" and all the other qualities that have been associated with the NME in recent years, but what they like most of all is big numbers. Despite what you may think, it's not simple to give a away a publication to the right people. They have to want it, at least for the next fifteen minutes.

The advertisers you need are not the music companies and promoters, who simply don't have the budgets. The ones you need to support this enterprise are banks, beers, fashion, phones, hair products and the other firms whose products don't appear to sit at the centre of NME's world (although of course they're very much at the centre of the lives of their readers). Hence you're going to need "an editorial product" which is far more high street and far less niche than the NME has been in recent years.

For what it's worth, they've made a very good start with Rihanna for the cover of their re-launch issue. But they will know that it's not about one issue. They have to find a way to deal with the full range of contemporary pop while still being identifiably the NME. Week in, week out. It's a tough task.

If it doesn't work then it will be sold off to some independent who will say they're going to keep it going as an "online-only" proposition and then quietly disappear.

If it works then they're going to be kicking themselves for not having done it ten years earlier.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

God Bless The Internet

Last night I sat and watched an hour-long lecture about the Potsdam Conference of 1945 by American historian Michael Neiman.  I really don't know why people make all this fuss about going to "uni". You could have a perfectly adequate higher education from the Internet.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

I have seen the future of expensive hi-fi and it's not for me, I'm afraid

To a demonstration of high-end home audio from Linn.

This is apparently how the new hi-fi dream works. You buy a pair of tall speakers which can be shrouded in appealingly-designed covers to make them look more like furniture than audio equipment and an inscrutable-looking box which houses the streaming unit from which all the music is chosen via an iPad. The idea is you have all the music in the world available via a service like Tidal, you choose what you want and the bidden sound magically manifests itself in the air.

The system sounds great. It's undoubtedly the future, or at least one of the futures, but it's a hereafter which will have to get along without me.

For me music has always been indivisible from stuff. That's not simply because music was the sole channel for my male instinct for acquisition. It's because the whole process of falling in love with music was inextricably bound up with holding it in my hands and this wasn't just for the obvious reasons.

This deep bond between a thing which is intangible and the vessel that traditionally carried it goes beyond simply being able to read the sleeve notes. With a physical product it was clear that you owned it because it sat on your shelf. The physical product sealed and deepened your relationship with the music and the people who made it. With each revolution of the label you absorbed all sorts of ideas about the culture which had produced it.

It wasn't all romance. It was marketing and branding as well. The cover of a twelve-inch long-playing record always managed to persuade you that the music within was rarer and more precious than it actually was. That same music, which was immediately less valuable once on the less charismatic carrier CD, can now be summoned by the stab of a finger on the screen of a tablet and consequently seems to have no value at all.

You can find hundreds of pictures of starlets of the fifties and sixties apparently "relaxing" at home listening to a bunch of gramophone records, strewn across the floor around their recumbent bodies beautiful. That was the dream of good living in those days. Stuff as far as the eye could see.

Today's good life is measured in access to experiences rather than stuff. I understand that. If you were to invest in a Linn system, or something comparable, the amount that it would cost you would say a great deal about the value you attach to the experience of good sound. The problem is that if you attach the same value to your idea of good music (and everybody thinks they know what good music is) you are also going to want to be able to see and touch the physical manifestations of that music.

The future as envisaged by companies like this is a future lacking the very thing that got me at least as excited as I was excited by the music itself - the records it came on.

I went with my friend Brent Hansen, who does have an expensive hi-fi. What Brent does these days is buy the records he wants on expensive vinyl. He then uses the enclosed code to download a digital version to play on his phone. It wouldn't do for everyone. Then again, the future of recorded music is a multi-lane highway. Not everyone will travel the same way.

Friday, September 11, 2015

A Little Light Music with Jarvis Cocker

Went to the Albert Hall after my usual bedtime last night to see Jarvis Cocker's Wireless Nights Prom. The world's largest sitting room was bathed in blue light, reflecting the programme's underwater theme.

The programme included Wagner's "Flying Dutchman" and John Williams' "Theme From Jaws", Ronald Binge's "Sailing By" and Echo & The Bunnymen's "Ocean Rain", Tim Buckley's "Song To The Siren" and The Beatles' "Good Night".

The high spot was Barry Gray's "Aqua Marina" from the TV series "Sting Ray". You've not lived until you've seen and heard a tune like this, which is the epitome of cheap music, played by the massed ranks of the BBC Philharmonic and the Manchester Chamber Choir.

You can hear it here.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

One is not really stoked to meet you

One of the Queen's key strengths is her poker face. She never looks particularly thrilled to be wherever her schedule has happened to take her, unless it's a racecourse. She doesn't look particularly excited to meet whoever she's meeting. She doesn't feel the need to compose her features into a rictus of feigned delight.

It is difficult to imagine her being excited, let alone "psyched".

Thank God for that.

Monday, September 07, 2015

The great thing about a 60s education was nobody told you you were special

When I look back at my upbringing in the 50s and 60s I don’t remember anyone ever telling me I was in any way “special".

Nobody suggested there might be a novel or a symphony inside me. I don’t think we ever had Creative Writing. In Art I don’t think we were ever encouraged to “let our imaginations run wild”. They just put things in front of us and we drew them. In drama we never improvised. We read the script. We learned poetry. If we wrote any poetry we were encouraged to keep it to ourselves.

I realise that by contemporary standards this may seem a terrible denial of the natural creativity of youth. It doesn’t bother me a bit.

When it came to school report time our teachers had nothing to say about us that couldn’t be condensed into a sentence. “Is struggling in this subject but occasionally calls for a life-belt” is one I remember. Teachers didn’t ask for our views. They didn’t pretend they found us fascinating.

We didn't mind. We knew we were lucky. We went to grammar school and by the time we got out National Service would be abolished. Therefore we had nothing to complain about and little to congratulate ourselves on either. Our education and upbringing seemed designed to communicate one message and the message was “you’re not all that".

When I read about the apparently intolerable pressure faced by today’s sixth formers I can’t help feeling it’s the inevitable corollary of a system that affects to believe everyone’s a bit more special than they are.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Smells like 1971. Feels like it too.

I watched "Sunday Bloody Sunday" yesterday. It's on You Tube.  It was directed by John Schlesinger in 1970 and came out in 1971. Every frame reeks of London in that period of time.

Glenda Jackson plays a recruitment professional who's having an affair with toy boy Murray Head, who's also carrying on with Peter Finch. In the first few minutes of the film we see her washing down pills with Scotch and trying to make a cup of instant coffee by putting a cup of Nescafe under the hot tap. She drinks from an enormous flagon of wine. We're not meant to interpret this as meaning she has a drink problem. It's the standard behaviour of lots of people in the film.

Everybody smokes. They smoke so much that at times it seems a film about smoking. When Finch goes to the all-night chemist in Piccadilly Circus everybody in the queue is smoking. At one stage she spills ash on the carpet and then rubs it in with her shoe. People used to do that and say "good for the pile".

Just as you can smell the smoke, you can also feel the cold. She and her boyfriend get into bed to keep warm. Even when she goes to visit her wealthy parents in their very salubrious house they're sitting having dinner at a splendid table with the only heat in the room provided by a two-bar electric fire.