My last post started to examine the value of record labels in the Music 2.0 industry, but was left somewhat unfinished. Well, I won’t be finishing it today either, because there’s far too much to examine to do so in one go. I do think that labels have a continued value to artists, but it is the responsibility of labels, and musicians, to figure out exactly what each one of us can do, and what our new roles ought to be. Some things are now easier for musicians than ever. Making a recording, getting it onto iTunes, creating an awareness of their music online, all far simpler than it ever was. So simple, that a band really doesn’t need to go mortgaging their careers to a major label deal just to get those things done. Labels now have the responsibility not of making the product, but of getting it heard, sold, loved. Again, the musician also has responsibility for that, in the Music 2.0 industry, where fans demand levels of interaction with their musical idols that were unthinkable twenty years ago, it’s actually pretty demanding for the band to achieve. It’s another moment where the whole series of demands that consumers make in the Music 2.0 model seem more difficult than they should be, and are stacked in the favour of the consumer rather than the providers. Since writing my last post, I attended a really enjoyable live gig by Rob Sawyer and his band, and was well impressed by both the quality of musicianship and the stagecraft of the act. At the end of the gig, there were CDs for sale, and a healthy queue of people lining up to buy them. Clearly, there is still demand for recorded music, on CD. I’d say that some thirty or so people bought an album, at ten euros each, myself included. Quite a good result for a Wednesday night gig. Looking at the CD itself, it’s in a simple cardboard cover, the type that costs about a euro eighty or so per unit to manufacture. The gig itself was at a venue that pays around two-hundred euros per gig. There were three members of the band, plus one selling merchandise. Sawyer seems to have based himself on this stretch of French Atlantic coastline during the European summer months, and then tours his native Australia during the southern hemisphere summer. It’s a great strategy, aided by the fact that his music fits very nicely into an acoustic/roots/rock mileu that is now the soundtrack to the surf lifestyle. He’s seen his audience and he’s chasing it hard. Nevertheless, the next morning I saw him and his bassplayer emerging from a pretty ratty campervan, so it’s not a life of immense luxury. The problem is that the approach Sawyer is taking is textbook Music 2.0. Every discussion I have read about music, and how difficult it is becoming for musicians to make a decent living now that there is so much music, so little attention, and so many ways of getting it for free, includes at least one petulant voice saying that ‘recorded music is not real music anyway. Playing live and selling your merchandise to a loyal fanbase is the new way forward’. Well, it might pay for a few campervan summers for a singer in his twenties, but it won’t put food on the table when the sheer inconvenience of endless touring becomes intolerable. There is an invisible wall that can keep a band playing pubs and small festivals for its entire career. Usually it ends with one or all of the band’s members deciding that, seriously, they’re not going to be able to do this forever. That wall is based on the fact that, if you have to actually perform live to make sales, your income is restricted to the amount of punters you can physically put yourself in front of. Fine if you’re playing three stadium gigs a week to fifty-thousand or more fans, but not fine if you’re pulling in a very respectable three-hundred or so. Even filling a hall with three-hundred people is beyond the capability of most bands or acts, unless they have some sort of a professional promotional platform. The ‘buzz’ created by a live performance is not enough to deliver any significant fanbase growth without some serious legwork on social web, radio play, print media and television. This is the flaw in that other great hope of Music 2.0 – the fan-funded revenue model. If you consider for a moment the Slicethepie or PledgeMusic models of generating revenue, the invisible wall becomes more obvious. Say you need ten grand to record an album, and you have a thousand fans willing to split that cost, you’d feel pretty happy about that. Unfortunately, once the album is recorded, and your thousand loyal fans have their copy (which they were loyal enough to pay for up front, and wait for), who do you sell the rest to? Your loyal fanbase already has its product, and quite possibly does not want you to become so successful that you move beyond the small venues where they can chat to you after the gig. You have the CDs to sell at gigs, but the fans already have them. You could go back onto PledgeMusic and ask that the fans come up with the cash to help you promote and distribute the album, but, frankly, what’s in it for them? So your big hope is to make enough money out of live performances to live on. How many live performances can you do a week? How many can you actually get? How much can you charge for each? How many people at each gig will be new fans who might buy a CD? How do you get the time to compose and record new work when you’re gigging all the time? Without the additional revenue of record sales (sales that take place around the world, without you actually having to be at the point of purchase), fanbase generation from gigs is a closed circuit. Truly, if we condemn our musicians to a life where sales of recorded music are only realistically to be expected at gigs, the rate at which our favourite artists start giving up on music as a career will be astounding.
Tag Archives: indie
Time was when it looked like music 2.0 was going to work. Cheap recording equipment and free access to worldwide digital distribution was going to free musicians from the tyranny of major label deals and allow them to market and sell their own music, to their own fans, without middlemen taking a cut or controlling content. Unfortunately, what musicians failed to figure into the equation was that, given the opportunity to get music for nothing, many so-called fans would actually just take the music, unconcerned by whether the musician got paid for it or not. Musicians got screwed again, but some of them decided that they could build an aura around their act, and use it to sell stuff that wasn’t music. Keep making the music, let it go for nothing, but make a ton of cash out of t-shirts and box-sets. It was their music, their decision to let it be perceived as a worthless byproduct of the t-shirt and pink-vinyl novelty-record trade. It’s a revolting development, in my eyes at least, but it’s a decision that’s been forced upon musicians who want to eat. If their music has become equal in importance to the design of a promotional flyer, so be it. It’s their music. If it creates the impression on the public that music is no more than a disposable means of attracting them to a glorified clothes shop, and if that impression has a knock-on effect on other musicians, tough. So far, so good. But what if it’s not even their music they use as the livebait? What if it’s someone else’s? In yet another of my attempts to change the music industry with extreme grouchiness and foul language, it’s time we had a look at this. I promise an upbeat and optimistic blogpost soon. Soon, but not today.
I always feel that the 1990s were bracketed, musically, by Nirvana’s Smells like teen spirit and the Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony. It’s quite possible that neither of those songs were actually released in the 90s, I’m not great at hard data and pure facts. If you want hard data and pure facts, just fuck off to Wikipedia or Google. I predate both, and one thing I do know is that facts aren’t worth a damn without the ability to build something out of them.
When you were here before, couldn’t look you in the eye
You’re just like an angel, your skin makes me cry
If you were born any time after 1980, you can’t begin to understand the imapact that Smells like teen spirit had. I’m sorry about that, I truly am. I’m not saying that to dismiss you, or to underplay the importance of your own music scenes and songs. Music is now so fragmented and specific; so specialised and niche-dwelling, that there is a song to express the trials and joys of anyone’s life within just a few keyboard taps. If you’re a Wyoming farmer’s daughter with an unseemingly crush on your father’s tractor, there’ll be a song out there for you, and you’ll find it on Google. There’s so much music out there that everyone can find something that rings true to their experience. But who do you share it with? How can your worldview feel properly endorsed when the only art that expresses it is acknowledged by a few hundred others and no more? Honestly, if you had the fortune to have been an alienated teenager when Smells like teen spirit was a hit, it was like your life was expressed in those four minutes, and there was an army of others who felt the same way. It put the us in ‘us against them’. It radiated hate and anger and energy and if you didn’t have the album there was something odd about you.
I don’t care if it hurts
I want to have control
I want a perfect body
I want a perfect soul
And Bitter Sweet Symphony? Tacked on to the end of a political era (in the UK) that chewed its youth into a grey pulpy mass that was stripped of everything but the need to work harder than its parents to maintain a shittier lifestyle. The Criminal Justice Bill took away their right to protest. The student loan destroyed their ability to become anything other than lifelong indebted wageslaves addicted to a meagre affluence and so cowed by the threat of losing it that stolid conformity was the only option. ‘Try to make ends meet/You’re a slave to money/Then you die’
I’m just trying to put some context in here. I know I get all angry and ranty in this blog, and I’m guilty of a lot of ‘back in the day’ nostalgia. Let’s get this clear. I wouldn’t go back to the 90s for all the money in the world. They’re gone. The world has changed, music has changed, the people who listen to it have changed. I just want you to know that there was once a time when a song could have IMPACT. Worldwide, instant, impact. Smells like teen spirit had impact, just the same way that Blueberry Hill; Hard Day’s Night; Bohemian Rhapsody or Thriller did to their respective generations. If you think that Telephone or Born Free are your generation’s version of those songs then I’m really, really sorry for you. You’ve been cheated out of something very special.
I want you to notice
When I’m not around
You’re so fucking special
Why the Radiohead quotes?
Just last week the music industry’s saliva glands started secreting drool with the lustful intensity of a junkie dropped into an Afghan poppyfield. The reason being that Amanda Palmer (no, me neither) released a record via Bandcamp, that sold $20,000’s worth of product in the first FIFTEEN SECONDS of availability. The internet loves a headline and this was a beauty. The freetards could point at it to show that they’re not killing music; the major labels could point their bankers to it as proof that the industry’s not dead yet (and could they please borrow some more money now?); the denizens and doyennes of the Music 2.0 model could point, laughing heartily, and say ‘See! All you need to do is INNOVATE, and the money’s just there for the taking’. And me? The voice of BlancoMusic? Did I whoop for joy and start flicking through yacht catalogues, breathing a well-earned sigh of relief that the music industry is finally through the darkness? Did I fuck. Because I am a twisted and cynical naysayer whose first reaction to a piece of good news is always to find a downside. It’s a talent.
I wish I was special, but I’m a creep.
Palmer’s record is an EP of seven songs, all by Radiohead. She’s put two versions of Creep on there, so in fact it’s really six songs. She’s charging 84 cents (US) for the download. After she’s paid the 9.1 cent statutory royalty rate to Radiohead, and Bandcamp’s 15% service charge, she stands to make 1.1 cents per song. The record was mixed and mastered in a studio costing 450 dollars per day, so we can assume she has overheads to cover. Obviously there are ‘premium bundles’ for sale on the site, I’ll come to those later.
Cover versions were always a double-edged sword for musicians, both financially and artistically. The advantage was that traditionally, the cover was always the song that sold best. The disadvantage – it could cost you a lot of money. The royalties due to the performers of a song can be negotiated with – usually as collateral against an artists’ advance. Songwriters’ royalties, however, are non-negotiable, and the performers are obliged to pay the full rate to the songwriter on every sale, even if they have mortgaged their own performance rights for an advance.
Another difficulty with cover versions is the artistic side. Does your version bring anything new or valuable to the song? Some covers are great. Soft Cell’s version of Tainted Love is a cracker. Gwen Stefani arguably brings something to It’s My Life that was missing in the original. Other cover versions just expose the new performer as having significantly less talent than the original. The early careers of Boyzone and Westlife are testament. Still, sheer force of recognition can often be enough to make a cover-version a success. There is also the fact that, having already been hits, the songs are proven to have mass appeal.
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here.
Sometimes songs are covered in a spirit of contempt. Think of The Ramones’ version of What a wonderful world or Sid Vicious singing his take on My Way. The original is a vehicle for their own sneering message. I cannot quite figure whether Amanda Palmer, recording two versions of Creep, is doing so out of a sense of reverence, or of contempt. Radiohead’s version came to an audience already alerted to the self-destructive nihilism of angst-ridden youth. We’d just heard that in Smells like teen spirit. But where teen spirit was a sledgehammer, a blunt instrument of angst and frustration, Radiohead’s Creep was the precise, eviscerating scalpel that exposed and created the pain portrayed. Both bands used a counterpoint between emotive vocals and raw guitars to create tension in their narratives. Nirvana pushed that tension into aggression, Radiohead develop theirs into a warped passive-aggressive narcissism. The menace in Yorke’s whining vocal is serial-killer dark, it has the wheedling, cajoling nature of the date-rapist, suicide-threatener: ‘I wish I was special, you’re so fucking special’. Strange how much more dangerous he makes it sound than Sting singing ‘you’ll be sorry when I’m dead/And all this guilt will be on your head’. It’s a similar ethos though: that vain, wheedling power of the pitiful, passive voice. It’s used by subjects as various as the tied submissives in S&M clubs (you can’t hurt me without making me the centre of attention) to manipulative maiden aunts (oh don’t put yourself out for me dear, I’ll be fine on my own this Christmas). Yorke’s voice on Creep is enough in itself to make the point clear – this is self-pity used as an offensive weapon. However, for anyone who hasn’t picked it up by the first chorus, the mood is forced onto the listener by the crunching, broken-glass guitar figure just as the vocal comes to a crescendo. I’ll confess, I never much liked the song, it was always uncomfortable listening. For that alone, I’ll happily consider it a work of art.
It loses something though, in being transferred to the medium of kooky, ‘ironic’ Lolita-voice. The ukulele doesn’t bring quite the same nuance to the piece either. I wonder what Amanda Palmer feels she brings to the song. Clearly her recordings are seen as a method to establish herself as a brand, out of which she can build an allegiance and devotion in her fans which she can mercilessly exploit via t-shirt and premium bundle sales. How lovely. What concerns me is the signals she is sending to the public, the ones who so desperately want to believe that filesharing helps artists. It’s always hard to convince people that the creation and recording of music is valuable and worthy of compensation. It’s harder still when musicians, in their pursuit of fame, are willing to undervalue their own works with 84 cent EPs or free giveaways. But whose voice is the loudest, and whose opinion sits most neatly in the consciences of those who want thier music for free? The one that tells them what they want to hear. Palmer though, is not just devaluing her own music, she is doing it to someone else’s.
One of the merchandise bundles she offers is a second-hand iPhone (worth $350). It comes with a DVD of out-takes and studio footage (value unknown, but not enough to be worth selling as a standalone product) plus a copy of the EP (value, 84 cents). Oh, she’ll call you up on the phone and sing you a song from the album too. How much? $1000. Can we just get this straight? Amanda Palmer considers a Radiohead song to be worth 9.1 cents. Her performance of it, down a phoneline, with a FUCKING UKULELE, she considers to be worth $649.16.
It astounds me that egos of this magnitude are not ridiculed into oblivion. Freetards will happily spout nonsense about how badly they were treated by the old music model because they were ‘forced’ to pay $15 for a CD. Well, it’s in your hands now, guys. This is the future of the music industry if you insist that Music 2.0 must prevail. T-shirts, hand-painted ukuleles and phonecalls that cost $649.16.
Or we could keep it simple. If you want a t-shirt go to a clothes shop. They have lots, made by people who know about making t-shirts. If you want some music, go to a band’s website and buy some music from them. They have lots, made by people who know about making music.
I’ll make it sweeter for you if you like. Buy three albums a year, every year. That way you’ll keep music alive. What’s more, the artists will get paid (which they don’t if you spend the money on Spotify or Pandora).
Here’s the kicker: if you buy three albums every year, we won’t care how much you fileshare! It won’t matter.
Sick of sugar-voiced Lolitas singing ditsy little cover versions? Want to hear a woman with a full-sized voice and a full-sized guitar? Try this:
P.S. I’ll be doing a post dedicated to reviews sometime in the next couple of weeks. If you’ve got some music you think I should review, get in touch.
Why are so many bands filling their social network feeds with cliches and wooly new-age platitudes? It seems to be impossible to open up a musician’s webpage without having some inane quote from Sartori, Lao Tzu or Sting being shoved in your face. In a way, it’s not that surprising. Musicians are looked upon to express what is usually inexpressible in words, through their music. A lot of them are quite good at doing so, but asking them to be as eloquent in written language, and things fall apart quicker than an orderly queue at a Ryanair check-in desk. The music business, and more specifically, the part of it that is devoted to presenting a public, interactive face for the musicians that populate it, is somewhat devoid of a vocabulary or symbology to fall back upon. That’s a pity, because it’s going to be demanded of them more and more as we get sucked into the great false hope that is known as music 2.0. It is my firm belief that the further continuation of music as a viable, self-sustaining activity will depend upon the music business employing techniques of persuasion and proselytising that were previously only used by shamen, priests and preachers. It’s the next step. Right now, the sale of a musical recording depends upon the buyer making a choice to spend their hard-earned cash to purchase a product that is available elsewhere for free (often in a transaction that is more easily performed via the illegal, immoral route than via the legitimate channels). At the moment, I see the music industry as depending upon the same impulses as charities. When music is available for free, without consequence for those who steal it, the hope that people will pay for it is dependent upon a sense of obligation or morality within those consumers. As anyone who reads this blog regularly will attest – I put a lot of effort into awakening and exercising that sense of obligation and morality. Enter the ‘Superfan’. The superfan attends every concert that is given by his chosen act. The superfan subscribes to the act’s blog, tweetfeed, MySpace account and Facebook page. The superfan is the wet dream of the faltering music industry: he is the tastemaking uber-consumer who will drag his mates along to gigs; purchase overpriced box-sets packed with ‘limited-edition’ crapola; hassle music critics on twitter to do features on his beloved band; rant viciously on genre-related forums about how his chosen act is the only authentic artefact in a slagheap of fakes and h8rs; will do the type of street-team PR for an act that fills gigs; and will pre-order albums that have yet to be written. There are music 2.0 ‘gurus’ who claim that an act needs only 1000 superfans to maintain a self-perpetuating level of success. The superfan is an entity that cannot be created by plucking at the charitable heartstrings of the average consumer. Awakening and exercising the sense of obligation and morality in the consumer, as described above, will never create a superfan, and this is precisely why the lumbering mechanics of major labels and superbands will never be efficient at creating them. A massive, massive amount of effort is being expended right now by departments of corporations devoted to ‘strategy’ and ‘demographics’ and ‘market trending’ on finding ways to create superfans. Most of that effort is stymied by an assumption that this level of devotion to an act can be created or manipulated by marketing techniques. Essentially, there are a bunch of goons in thick-rimmed square glasses and skinny jeans desperately trying to recreate Beatlemania, without acknowledging that even the most turnip-witted music consumer in 2010 has levels of media, PR and marketing savvy that would have won them the cold war, Eurovision song contest and Pulitzer prize if they’d had it in 1965. The superfan, if he exists at all, is too clever to be swayed by the hype that surrounds an act – he is driven to devotion by qualities that cannot be bought or faked. If I am to indulge in a rare moment of optimism for the music industry, it is this: that if the future of music depends upon the creation of superfans, then at least acts will become successful depending on whether or not they can move something within the souls of those they are heard by, rather than because they had the backing or budget simply to be heard by more people than anyone else. Don’t make the mistake of completely writing off the major labels in this either. It’s comforting to all of us who care about music to cast the majors in the role of dim-witted dinosaurs: too slow and unwieldy to dig themselves out of the mire they find themselves in. Comforting, but a false assumption. Major labels have A&R departments staffed by people who are devoted to new music, who love it and nurture it and tear their own hair out trying to convince the bean-counters and cheque-signers that the music they have found is worthy of investment. Right now, the A&R guys are under a lot of pressure to somehow fix everything that has gone wrong in music by finding the next U2 or Coldplay, thus reversing the demise of the label in question. Impossible pressure on the A&R departments, and the reason why freelance A&R is such a growing sector within the industry at the moment – they’re all getting fired. Yet if anyone knows how to find superfans, it is the A&R guys. Why? Because they are superfans. If major labels can shift a bit more of the decision-making from the rigid and empirical realm of the bean-counters to the intuitive, emotional arena of the A&R guys, they might get somewhere. Fucking hell, my blog’s just turned into Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Anyhoo, where was I? Wooly platitudes. Yes indeed. Anyone notice how many band pages and twitter-feeds spout fatuous philosophical floor-sweepings these days? The ‘Worry is a destructive force in our lives, open your heart to difference and embrace every ‘failure’as an opportunity to grow and evolve’ school of heartwarming drivel? I actually just made that one up, but I’m sure it’s on the Facebook live feed of some band or other, if not in those exact words. Pick ‘n’ Mix spirituality. What you do is take a very cursory scan through the major faith systems of the world, discard all the bits that actually demand anything difficult from the believer, and pick out the touchy-feely quotes that offer solace. Either that or copy them out from The Little Book of Calm. Tough luck though, the snippets don’t work. Well, they do work, actually, but only when combined with the discipline and rigour of the demanding bits that go with them. Tucking into Easter eggs doen’t really have the same emotional kickback when you haven’t actually given up chocolate for lent. (Non-Christian readers – remove references to Easter and lent and replace with the appropriate substitutes from your chosen faith’s version of delayed-gratification/ascetic-enlightenment ritual. They all have one.) What I’m getting at, obliquely, is that musical acts which were previously called upon for nothing more spiritual than a heartfelt lyric or a thumping power chord, are now peppering their public personae with (admittedly facile) nuggets of text that endeavour to bring emotional succour to their fans. Now, in my ideal world, their music alone should be enough to do that. Frankly, in my ideal world a good piece of music will soothe the soul more effectively than all the sacred texts combined, even if the Dalai Lama were to juggle them whilst sitting on a blue whale and chanting ‘ommmm’. However, if we lived in my ideal world I wouldn’t be sitting on my kitchen floor writing blogs in the futile hopes that you lot might get your bloody PayPal details out and buy some of our flippin’ music, I would instead be having this discusion with Paul Gaugin in 19th century Tahiti, whilst I waited for the nubile island-girls to finish lovingly waxing my surfboard. Alright, alright, that was a digression. Well, why shouldn’t musicians throw some cod-philosophy into their social network profiles? After all, music has been used the other way round for centuries. When Johann Sebastian Bach sat down to compose organ fugues, he did so with the express intention of inducing the experience of the sublime in the assembled congregation of the church where he played. Depending on your level of paranoia about the workings of the Christanity, you can choose whether you wish to believe that he was a) accentuating their receptivity to the majestic power of creation through the medium of music or b) befuddling their simple sensibilities with disturbing sonic stimuli so as to render them emotionally vulnerable to dogmatic propaganda. Either way, it’s an effective trick. A good musician can use music to develop emotion in the listener; we’ve all heard it done on movie soundtracks. That’s their trade. Providing emotional solace via the medium of twitter-length snippets of ‘eternal wisdom’ though? Frankly, I’d rather base my emotional stability upon interpreting the shape of dogturds in my local park. At least it wouldn’t stink so badly. Are we offering them an alternative though? Music 2.0 is dependent upon a level of connection with the act, through social media, that is incredibly time-consuming to maintain. I’m not talking about established acts who log into MySpace once a month, posting details of their hilarious antics in the backstage jacuzzi at Glastonbury. Truly, there are attempts at fan interaction on major acts’ webspaces that read more like the golfcourse adventures of Bruce Forsyth and Jimmy Tarbuck than the annals of rock and roll excess that we ought to be seeing. Anyway, that’s not music 2.0. No act which existed before 2002 has any claim to being music 2.0 anyway. I am heartily sick of having acts pointed out to me as examples of how the web can be made to work for musicians when their profile, reputation and career were established in a period when paying for music was not seen as the act of an eccentric. For an act to develop any sort of fanbase through social media, gigs, radio-play, low-budget promotion and digital distribution, the amount of time spent updating their online profiles with original material is astounding. The absolute bare minimum, just to retain the attention of an increasingly fickle fanbase, is daily updates. Unfortunately, musicians often have no more interesting experiences to share with the world than computer programmers, traffic wardens or civil engineers. There are only so many times you can update your Facebook profile with variations on ‘did some scales today, tried making them a bit trickier by adding a random note each time I played them.’ So eventually the lure of the Little Book of Calm proves too strong to resist, and their profile fills up with ‘Smiles are the currency of the truly affluent’ and ‘The more people I meet, the more I am struck by how very similar we all are’-type shite. Apart from folk music, which has at its heart the obligation to express and celebrate that which is universal to us all, musicians have no responsibility to console, succour or soothe their listeners. Once again, the hoops we are forcing musicians to jump through are destroying the very qualities that we need them to maintain, in order to function as artists. This breaking down of the barriers between the artist and the fan, demanded by music 2.0, is steering music towards a bland and populist approachability that is counter-productive to their craft. If you give people what they think they want, we all end up with U2 and Coldplay and landfill indie. It’s not supposed to be democratic, it’s supposed to be messianic. Music should be capable of shocking us, challenging us, disturbing us and making us uncomfortable. This is why the death of the album is such a tragedy – cherrypicking individual tracks on iTunes that instantly appeal to us robs musicians of the platform through which their more complex and rewarding creations can be heard. Is there an alternative? I think there must be. For a new act, with great music and ability to perform it, the internet must now look like as restrictive and imposing an edifice as major-labels ever did. The weight of expectation is immense – the outrage from the online population to any decision that twists the norms is swift and savage. Watch what happens when a new act announces that it doesn’t wish to make full-length track previews available, or that it won’t sign up to streaming sites, or that is won’t even release mp3s. Conformity, demanded of acts by the attention economy in which they find themselves fighting for recognition, is becoming the price that is expected for a decent level of visibility on the web. The real creative types will recognise this soon enough, and reject it. I’m not sure what the alternative will be, because I’m not one of the creative types referred to, but it will happen. I wrote about one man’s rejection of what is now the monolithic establishent last week, I’d be interested to hear about any other acts or labels who are beginning to see the internet as an unappealing place for their music. Comments?
I can’t remember if I already put this one up, but if not, here it is. If so, here it is again.
I’m suddenly quite taken with the idea of putting music on YouTube. Discussed it last week, came to the conclusion that it represented a good way of making SubMachena (or other BlancoMusic material) available to listen to, without having to get into the complicated realm of streaming sites and whether or not they represent a net benefit to artists or not. The only downpoint I can see to YouTube as a promotional platform is that, well, it’s visual. The music is there, but apart from Nachete, the SubMachena songs up there so far, have a bit of artwork providing the visual content, and that’s it. What’s more, the image, as cobbled together by me on iMovie, does wobble around a bit in a manner that makes people a little queasy. Can’t be helped, let’s remember that these ‘videos’ are only supposed to be a promotional tool for the music, not an artistic statement in themselves. I’m still a bit annoyed actually, by the MIA Born Free video, specifically by it’s romanticization of a particular terrorist group whose actions destroyed the cultural, economic, and political landscape of the town and country where I grew up. If you saw the video and recognise what I’m referring to, you’ll know what I mean. If you didn’t catch the bit I’m referring to, or if you can’t figure out what I’m going on about, don’t worry. I’d prefer not to draw any more attention to it anyway. The issue is something to be thought about though. It’s a problem when self-appointed ‘artists’ assign political importance to their ‘statements’ when they don’t take the time or make the effort to educate themselves in the realities of the artistic references they choose to make. It’s truly time that music became the most important part of music videos, if only to avoid ‘event videos’ like MIA’s, which with a single shot trivialise and make illegitimate the sufferings of a very real people – not imaginary ginger-tops being hunted down by imaginary forces, but real people who lost their loved ones.
I am very sorry if this post means absolutely NOTHING to you, reading it. I am clearly a bit pissed off by this, and shouldn’t be putting it on here. Not wanting to identify the bit of the video that’s annoyed me so much doesn’t help either. Look, the point I’m making is that art should be left in the hands of artists, and if it is to have any genuine impact, other than shock-effect, should be left pure and undiluted by extra concerns such as shifting units (of the art in question, or of the music attached to it). To do anything less is to leave complex and sensitive subjects in the muddle-handed grip of people who do not have the intelligence or integrity to treat them with any sort of responsibility. And that’s not good for anyone, least of all the musicians involved.
Just got asked to put together an interview/op ed piece on SubMachena for someone, which I’ve spent this morning doing. Then, being something of a lazy swine, I thought to myself something akin to ‘Lo! It would be meet to publish this on mine own blog, thusly freeing up more time for Friday arsing about and suchlike’. Well, I do get tired, after all. Having the blog done before midday would be a relief. So, here you go – genuine SubMachena propaganda and spin fresh from the coffee-overloaded noggin of yours truly:
Personell: SubMachena – Robin Taylor-Firth (Olive, Nightmares on Wax), Rawle Bruce (Olive, Mil i Maria). SubMachena are sometimes joined by Sara Garvey on vocals (Nightmares on Wax, Ella May, BudNubac).
About the band
Between them, Robin Taylor-Firth and Rawle Bruce have played thousands of gigs over the last twenty years, from 50-seater bars to 50,000 fans at the Glastonbury and Reading Festivals. Their first collaboration, Olive, led to one of the best-selling records of the 90s (‘You’re Not Alone); whilst Robin’s work as keyboardist with Nightmares on Wax is a staple in the club scene, with platinum-seller LP ‘Smoker’s Delight’ its best-known work.
About the music
SubMachena Electro-dance with dub effects, Caribbean basslines, dark, heavy beats. Influenced by two-step. Ranges from a very traditional-style Jamaican dub reminiscent of Lee Scratch Perry to an intense, more contemporary take on trip-hop/bassline electro. Live show modifies the studio tracks with a focus on filling dancefloors.
SubMachena’s studio work is gradually building a reputation via dancefloors, remixes and social networks. They’re one of those ‘bands’ bands’ that insiders know about and respect, but that hasn’t quite crossed over into the public consciousness yet. They don’t have a PR company building up a superficial hype and ramming it down the public’s throat, nor do they have their music on streaming sites or any of the other now-hackneyed routes to viral publicity. Taylor-Firth, who over the course of his music career has sold tens of millions of tracks, prefers not to go frantically chasing the ‘band as a brand’ paradigm (by which new media is used to create publicity and devotion around an act, rather than its music, somehow hoping to monetize that aura of goodwill in increasingly undignified ways).
‘It’s not that we don’t know that stuff exists, or that we want to turn back time to the 90s or something. It’s just that none of it does anything except put the music into the background. You look at that MIA video, where there’s a bunch of kids running around in front of a bunch of cheap pyrotechnics, and bodyparts getting flung around, but the music is really weak. For a big label to survive now, each product it puts out has to make three times the amount of hype that it used to, just to break even. You’ve got to count on a third of the people listening to your music hearing it through a streaming site, another third via illegal downloads and, if you’re lucky, a third of them buying it legit. So you can either become part of that race for attention, or you can ignore it, work on your repertoire, and trust that the people out there who can figure the difference between a polished turd and a rough diamond will come find your music.’
The whole SubMachena approach reflects that ethos. There won’t be an album or a release schedule; nor will there be a pre-release publicity buildup.
‘Those things really aren’t necessary any more. The album industry was built upon the idea that your record was pitched towards being one of the three-to-five albums that the average person bought in a year. It had a shelf-life, somewhere in the region of two months, and got no push from your label beyond that window of opportunity. That’s not how people take their music now. Eventually, if we can work out the logistics to do this, what we really want to do is upload SubMachena tracks direct from the studio, the second they’re finished. Some months there might be four or five new tunes, others there might be none. It really doesn’t matter’.
The buzz that is building around SubMachena is slow-burning, subtle. Drop the name in an Ibiza superclub like Pacha, and it’ll be met with blank, dilated-pupil stares. Drop the name at one of the hipper Ibiza house parties though, and the reaction is different, but just as wide-eyed. The band has done remixes for the likes of Guts, and Gelka; is featured on George Solar’s cult ‘Comfy Dub’ compilations; fills the dancefloors at the hangouts of the dance music cognoscenti in spots like Formentera’s Blue Bar. Dropping a SubMachena track into your set is something of a display of credibility, the anti-hype equivalent of being in Laurel Canyon in 1972 and having a stash of Crosby weed to offer around.
The under-the-radar approach can’t go on forever, and the music will eventually be available to buy, but like most things SubMachena, there doesn’t seem to be much point in rushing it.
‘If I’m honest, it’s not been a deliberate policy to make things difficult to get hold of. Every artist wants their music to reach the maximum number of fans. But they have to be fans though. One of the problems right now is that music is just everywhere, ubiquitous, free. There’s no effort on the part of the listener to seek it out, and also, for the listener, it’s like a busload of screaming kids sometimes, all shouting “pick me, pick me!”. There’s no harm in making your music a little bit difficult to get hold of, asking people to try a little harder to get hold of it. Nothing is ever valued that’s too easy. If you put a penalty past Edwin van de Saar you’d value it a lot more than if it had been your seven year-old kid. It’s the same with music. No one sits down, lights a candle, cranks up the volume and then just clicks on a Spotify random playlist, do they? Music’s too important to just become background noise, and the funny thing is that it’s the Lady GaGas and EMIs and Spotifys of this world that are doing the best job convincing people of that, despite themselves. There are only so many more event videos that the majors are going to fund before they realize that people just aren’t really interested any more. The backlash will take the form of kids just going out and picking music because they really love the music – not the costumes or the political messages or the hype. We’ve put a couple of tracks onto YouTube now, just as a place where people who’ve heard of us can go listen. It’s not really fair to only let djs get the tracks. There’ll probably be some vinyl EPs coming out – nice heavy double twelve-inches, one track per side, real booming bass. Simple stuff, not those godawful “luxury box-set, limited edition, comes with a bottle of the band’s blood, fifty-quid-a-piece” ripoff crap. Just the record. We’ll get the tracks onto the BlancoMusic website too, probably decent bitrate mp3s or wavs. As for iTunes and streaming sites and the rest? Really prefer not to.’
Midi controller, powerbook and keyboard. Sometimes two hands just won’t do it. The morning was spent rearranging furniture and trying to make sense of the kilometers of cables in BlancoMusic HQ. Piano Segundo and SubMachena both use some complicated setups, especially with the dub element of SubMachena. Now at least Robin can get some practise at the art of playing three keyboards at once. All that Czerny and Chopin over the last few months will have helped.
Robin’s got something of a busy time ahead. Later this month he’s off to Ibiza to record the next Nightmares on Wax album with bandmates George Evelyn and Chris Dawkins. Between now and then there’s the production and recording of Vanito Brown’s album Cambios, plus continuing remixes of BudNubac and SubMachena work. Every once in a while he turns up with a silly grin and a USB stick with a new Piano Segundo track all recorded and ready. Clearly the man has a well-compartmentalized mind.
I’ve been putting music up on YouTube this week, although, to be honest, I haven’t done any today. Previously I’d been reluctant to do so, mainly because it seemed counter-productive to be making music available to listen to on the site without having a decent video to go with it. I’ve changed that approach mainly because it seems ridiculous to have a body of work here on my hard-drive stretching into three-figures’ worth of tracks, and not anywhere else. We are developing a fanbase, and it’s clear that in the new economics of the music business, fans are not likely to wait around indefinitely for new material from the acts they choose to spend their attention on. That seems reasonable fair to me, actually. Artists have rarely had much to do with the ‘lead time’ concept that applied to releases in the old music industry model. Frankly, having an album sitting around gathering dust on a record label’s hard-drive is the last thing that most artists and acts want, and the practice was developed more out of a wish to maximise profitability and returns than anything to do with ‘gauging the zeitgeist’ . Mainly, lead times were about making sure the album you released wasn’t competing with another similar release that might be more tempting to the kind of listeners who only ever buy one or two albums a year anyway. That, plus making sure that all the publicity and advance promotional effort could be co-ordinated to the same date. Doesn’t apply to us, what little promo effort we make for our music, is done on a rolling basis anyway.
So why YouTube? Well, Soundcloud would seem like the obvious option in our position – putting the tracks up there and making them public links for people to hear when they want to. What bothers me about Soundcloud is that it’s a pay-to-listen arrangement. Users get a limited amount of time on their account before they have to buy a membership. It’s a bit of an impediment when you’re hoping people will take a chance on listening to something they’ve not heard before – to expect them to pay for the privilege. This isn’t some huge about-face on our part here at BlancoMusic. We’re still as stubborn as we ever were in our belief that music is a valuable luxury, and that expecting it for free is an insult to the very artists whose efforts go into creating something that will resonate within you. That doesn’t mean that those artists, and us, the label, should have no chance to let people hear the music without committing to a purchase. We’re not entirely without self-awareness here – we can accept that there are some poor misguided, cloth-eared types out there who, gasp, might not actually like our music! And we will endeavour to hunt them down and destroy them, obviously (joke). No, seriously, of course everyone should have the opportunity to hear a record before deciding they want to buy it, it never worked any other way. Still, it just seems that streaming sites, or any other site that charges people a subscription fee to listen to music whilst letting artists and their labels go unpaid for that music (or as near as dammit), break a bond of trust between artist and listener. Both listener and artist feel they are being short-changed, and in fact, they are. For the moment, even though we have no videos made for any of the newer tracks, YouTube seems like a good place to put the music. It’s free for everyone, it demands a certain interaction from the user rather than being something that just goes on in the background and gets ignored, it can be linked to from other sites, embedded into blogs and has a comments facility. Who knows, maybe we’ll even consider going back onto MySpace next!
Please excuse me today from writing a proper blogpost. We’ve decided that it’s time to start pushing SubMachena a bit, and the uploading process is taking quite a bit of time today. What I’ll do instead of writing, is post an embedded video to ‘Lef’ Handed Shite’, so that if you haven’t heard anything much of SubMachena yet, you’ll have more of an idea of what they’re about. Well, I call it a video, that’s a bit of a glorification. It’s just an image, to go with the music. Anyway, the music’s the important bit. SubMachena are a two-man unit: Robin Taylor-Firth and Rawle Bruce. If you’ve ever heard ‘You’re Not Alone’ by Olive, or even the Tinchy Stryder remake of the tune, you’ll be aware of Robin and Rawle already. The two were members of Olive back when the band formed, and after it split, stayed in touch, recording music with their other band – BudNubac. This track – ‘Lef’ Handed Shite’ was written by Rawle, the bassplayer, and is as big and bassy as you would expect from everything SubMachena do. Hope you enjoy it.
SubMachena are not always as dark as this, but when they do dark, they do it right. It astounds me that this video was made without a single professional actor, cameraman, director, gaffer, bestboy or keygrip. History is an ever-turning wheel, fashions and trends are as accurate an indicator of what stage of the cycle we’re at as any. I write this sub-Matrix rot mainly because I was drinking coffee in a bar yesterday which had VH1 playing on a telly in the background, and I couldn’t help but have my eye drawn by the music videos that were playing thereon. There was a decent gamut of them, mainly from the 80s and early 90s. One that stood out was Nena’s 99 Red Balloons. If you’re as old as I am, you’ll have no problem remembering the song – it was number one in the singles chart for so long that Top of the Pops actually played the original German-language version of the song just to break the monotony of the song’s seemingly unbreakable run as the chart-topping final track played on the show. The song had an unforgettable bassline and a manically energetic performance on vocals by a girl who made up for any lack of raw talent with her sheer enthusiasm for the task in hand. Pure pop, it also caught the Reagan-era zeitgeist by choosing the scenario of mutually-assured nuclear destruction as its subject matter. What was interesting, seeing the promo video again for the first time in about twenty years, was the sheer cheapo amateurishness of the whole thing. The budget, which can’t have been more than a hundred deutchmarks, was mostly spent on filling a field with smoke and plopping a few balloons (multi-coloured, there didn’t even seem to be enough cash to pick just the red ones out of a big bag) around the place. The singer and band wander around the scene, attempting to be picturesque. That’s about it. This song sold MILLIONS of copies, more than Lady GaGa’s entire catalogue. And it sold them on the strength of the SONG, not the controversy surrounding the promo video, not on the cut of the bikini that the singer might have worn or the strength of their live following or how innovative their social web presence was. It was a good song, people bought it. That was all.
Another standout on the VH1 show was Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Sweet Child of Mine. Again, the video cost about tenpence to make. This time it was made in a studio, just the band making a video about, making a video. Cool-looking people hanging around in the background, a cheap cloth backdrop behind the drummer, but essentially – long haired blokes posing about with their instruments. But the song, oh my, the song! It matters not an atom whether you like rock or not, the opening guitar figure of that song burns itself into the memory like a cattlebrand, and it just builds up from there. Another song that sold millions. Can you IMAGINE a metal track selling units in the mainstream market now? Can you remember the last UK number-one that wasn’t marketed predominantly at the under-15s? (Rage Against the Machine was a protest, so doesn’t count.)
See, what’s gone wrong is that the video is now becoming more important than the song, and that’s screwed. The last time that happened we ended up with Duran Duran’s lame Reflex, then Peter Gabriel’s pretty-forgettable Sledgehammer and a spate of mediocre songs tied to the monthly press-release describing the promo video as ‘the most expensive ever made’. It took grunge and acid-house and US punk to clear that dross out of the system, and it’s still not fully purged. The problem now is that, because streaming sites and P2P servers and YouTube and blogs divert so much of the attention an act gains into non-revenue areas, the amount of hype it takes to deliver a revenue from music is triple what it was in the 80s. Any act releasing a record now has to factor into its equations the effect that all those lost sales, whether they be lost to streaming or P2P; or to other entities such as phone credit, video gaming, reduced discretionary spending. That means that only the most sickeningly over-hyped products have any chance of making the kind of economic returns that need to be made by the entities that create the hype. In a nutshell – the amount of publicity and promo needed to propel Lady GaGa to number one costs millions. It brings in millions too, but the investments are enormous. The only bodies with that kind of investment capital are the major labels, so anyone who feels that they are helping bring about the demise of the majors by filesharing have got the wrong end of the stick altogether. They’re actually doing the very opposite – bringing the majors to the point where they are only willing to invest in a reduced number of acts which they know can be monetised. Right now, a couple of million invested in a GaGa video makes a whole lot more economic sense than spreading that money over five acts. Five acts will need just as much effort each to break through the audience apathy surrounding new acts. There is no easy way to break this cycle. If people really want the major labels to go away, for whatever reason they see fit, the only way for that to happen is by buying music by non-major acts. No low-budget act or label can afford to take the kind of losses to non-revenue music sources that the majors can soak up. Put your faith back in the power of a great piece of music and try to bear in mind that it doesn’t matter if it’s GaGa schlock or even if it’s highly-aware MIA killing redheads – in the end, these are just promotional videos, their job is just to promote the tune, not replace it.
Yes, it has come to that. Strategies and tactics. It was always our hope at BlancoMusic that the business would be a bit of fun. Of course, there was always going to be an element of administration and organisation involved in recording and selling music, be we’d hoped that it would be minimal. Making music is fun, doing a&r is a blast, coming up with funky graphics and ideas for the website and album covers is creatively satisfying. Unfortunately though, it seems that the time is coming when we’re going to have to put away the fun and get out the spreadsheets. New business strategies appear, somehow, to be the way forward for the music industry. Actually, more the t-shirt and box-sets industry, as it seems to be becoming right now. The strategies proposed by new-media gurus (who very rarely seem to be musicians themselves, but often consider their experience in unrelated, non-creative sectors is perfectly applicable to the quite unconventional realities of music-making) are very time consuming and dull as a barrel full of school socks. What they boil down to, is creating an attractive entity out of an act – one which is so cool and lovable that the gullible public will happily part with their cash to own a piece of (hard, non-downloadable) merchandise that is somehow associated with that entity. Music should be seen as a part of the mechanism by which that magic attractant ‘cool’ element be constructed, and should be considered as an expendable pawn in the larger game of monetizing that cool element. Pity, because music is the only bit of the whole thing that’s actually worth anything.
Fighting the devaluation of music in our culture is becoming exhausting. It is truly astounding to us that such an important cultural element of our lives be relegated to the status of a peripheral attractant in the fight to sell pencil cases. Can we keep fighting against this overwhelming sense that music is absolutely brilliant, totally important, great for having in every moment of our lives, but not worth paying for? Who knows? I’m not even mad at consumers here, it’s the insulting profiteering by the streaming sites that riles me most. There is a point at which even the most righteous disgust becomes difficult to maintain. I’ve put the front cover graphic of BudNubac’s Que Se Yo up here today, because if we do decide to do an about-turn on our ‘dignity for musicians and downfall to the freetards’ policy, it’s the album that is likely to be first sacrificed to the tactics and strategies of the new music industry model. We haven’t yet decided on this. I’m actually discussing it on here as part of the openness and transparency that I hoped would be a part of the allure of BlancoMusic when we started the label. We’d always hoped to involve fans of the music with some of the running of the label, at least keep them informed. Properly informed, with real, honest interaction, not the self-aggrandising nonsense that makes up the majority of artist and label sites. One critical part of that came months ago, in a post I wrote about a Mil i Maria song that I don’t actually like much. One of the stipulations I made before getting onboard with BlancoMusic was about that very post. Would I be allowed say that there was material available to purchase on our label that I didn’t personally like? Would I be allowed a platform where honesty and candid opinions were allowed to be expressed, or would it just be a ‘this is how we roll at BlancoMusic’ PR rubbish? To me, that sort of transparency was the kind of unique selling point that would make us interesting, worthy of loyalty, and would bring people to our site to listen to our music, form an opinion, buy the tracks. It works well for the first two, but buying music just seems to be too much for people to get their heads around, now that they can pick it up for free whenever they wish. I wish that weren’t the case, because I really don’t want to go into the screen-printed t-shirts business. We’ll see, there’s a whole weekend to think about things. Hope you have an enjoyable one.
Some of the rage at mog.com has died a little, giving way to some pretty serious re-thinking here at BlancoMusic. If you missed yesterday’s blogpost, I’ll explain. BlancoMusic made a decision some time ago to withdraw our music from streaming sites, feeling that the scant financial reward recouped from even the most artist-friendly of the services (currently We7) was not worth the dilution of demand that comes from having the product you hope to sell available on demand elsewhere. There are lots of pro-streaming arguments too – it was always a debate. Streaming sites can be used as a means to publicise an act and bring its music to the attention of an audience who might otherwise have missed it. That’s about the crux of it. Fair point. Can’t eat publicity though, and I’ve yet to come across a single act who managed to actually make any revenue from all the whizzbang monetization schemes that are bandied about who hadn’t already built a large following either through gigging relentlessly and expensively; or who hadn’t already established their fanbase before 2001 or so. I’m happy to be proven wrong on this, purely because if there is an example, I’d like to copy exactly what they did. Most of the music 2.0 success stories involve some pretty hefty major label investment at some point in their breakthrough; or some industry-insider stringpulling; or heavyweight pr contacts. Hang on, where was I? Mog.com, yes indeed. Well, after a bit of moaning by me about how Last.fm were ignoring my requests to them to remove our music from their site, someone asked me if I’d checked if the music was on mog.com. I checked, it was, we have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting it off without engaging a California lawyer. It’s annoying.
Anyway, moan moan. I suppose what this post is going to be is the inevitable crumble of our will in the face of reality. If we can’t actually keep our music off streaming sites, it may be time that we abandoned our stubborn policy of trying to do so. We were trying to retain some dignity for our artists by pulling them back from the overactive attention-seeking shoutfest that is the online music marketplace. It seems like a shift in policy is inevitable. Thing is, if we are to do this, it won’t be just a case of letting mog.com and last.fm have he music and hope no-one notices. If we decide to embrace the music.20 models, we’ll do it with as much energy as we can muster, and on as many fronts as possible. Fan funding, pre-release auctions, box-sets full of worthless crap that somehow ‘connects’ us with the fans better than the music can do so alone. Oh yep, we’ll go for all the cliches and invent a couple of our own. Who knows, we may get to the point where it works. We may even get to the point where we don’t feel like a bunch of cynical exploitative hacks, whoring out the beauty and integrity of music for the sake of selling a few thousand ‘limited edition’ polo shirts. Who knows? Who knows?
Here’s a BlancoMusic tune to start with. Topical, if a little dated: http://bit.ly/9aiFDo