Love ukulele cover versions of Radiohead songs? Better not read this then.

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:

http://blancomusic.com/node/168

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.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Love ukulele cover versions of Radiohead songs? Better not read this then.

  1. Ash

    Blimey. That’s some bile. I agree, like, but that’s a lot of bile.

  2. Ken

    She’s no …er …shrinking violet.

  3. She’s certainly got balls! I don’t know, maybe I’ve misread her entirely. Reminds me a bit of Sarah Bernhardt from back in the day. I could probably have picked a much better example of the acts that use all the music 2.0 marketing to build a profile around sub-standard music. At least she’s got a real act going. My real issue is more with the culture that’s forced musicians into the situation where, to make a living, they have to resort to all this shock-tactic bullshit PR. Amanda Palmer is just the latest in a long line of acts who are (forced into) putting the promo before the music. And the price of the phonecall idea is really insulting to any poor sap gullible enough to pay for it.

  4. Ken

    Agreed. I wonder how many phone calls Nick Drake would have got through.

    • Ken, you beauty! I’ve been thinking for a while, in my customary upside-down way, about the use of extreme exclusivity in music 2.0. By which I mean, in simpler terms, the idea of deliberately creating a persona that is unpromoted, no interviews, no press releases, etc. Because, as is becoming obvious, the herd is now into hype and constant availability/accessibility. The obvious way to be slightly ahead of this (and slightly ahead is where every self-respecting act needs to place itself) is to be elusive, hard-to-get. I’ve been wracking my brains lately trying to think of an act who do/did it. Drake’s the perfect example. You’ve saved me some hard thinking there, thanks!
      With regard to my previous comment about how I should maybe cut Amanda Palmer some slack, seeing as she’s got a strong stage persona and all, I’ve changed my mind (again). Was flicking through some photography books yesterday and came across a shot of Lydia Lunch doing a very similar act sometime in the mid-seventies. I can’t very well credit AP for originality when she’s doing an act that every Greenwich Village Riot Grrl had down pat by 1980, and which has percolated down through everyone from Curtney Love to early Madonna. It’s like I’ve said elsewhere, in a very sarcastic voice:
      ‘oh, so if the girl with her tits out saying ‘cunt’ a lot happens to have smudged makeup or ripped stockings, it’s not porn any more, it’s feminist empowerment, right?’

  5. Ken

    I don’t mind her myself, but the phone stunt is just bizarre. It’s like Elton John doing your wedding for a million bucks on a slightly more pathetic scale. She’s engaged to Neil Gaiman, so I would imagine the wolf is a reasonable distance from the door, which makes all this even odder.

    I’m down with your exclusivity theory though. I’m certain that increased value in the future will be assigned to things that are not online. If you’ve got any sort of a following fans and stalkers will be putting up cellphone clips of you in Woolworths anyway. The important thing is that YOU are not directly involved – you’re a genius recluse who rarely makes public appearances and never gives interviews. Release your albums on vinyl only from your uninformative website, never make a video (fans can do that) and change the name of your band every 6 months. Here’s the do/don’t manifesto:

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