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Radiohead, again

“I like the people at our record company, but the time is at hand when you have to ask why anyone needs one. And, yes, it probably would give us some perverse pleasure to say ‘F___ you’ to this decaying business model.”

Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, October 2007, speaking about their release of In Rainbows via the band’s own website.

When Radiohead released In Rainbows in 2007, the internet buzz could be heard from space. Available via a ‘pay what you like’ platform, the album was touted by every Music 2.0 devotee as an example of the new music landscape, a landscape in which the traditional major label approach to selling music was destroyed forever. This, they told us, was the future. A band, recording an album themselves, taking it to their fans, eschewing the gluttonous pricing system of the fatcat major corporations and allowing fans to enjoy the music whilst compensating the band directly. What’s more, it came from an act with a solid, devoted fanbase, rather than from some desperate wannabes who were hungry enough  just for the public’s attention to consider fair payment a reasonable sacrifice in return for publicity. Radiohead didn’t need publicity, they already had the fans.

Let’s get one thing straight. Radiohead have never cheated in any way. They gigged like maniacs in the early 90s, relentlessly. They gigged in the shitty little dives that weren’t even considered traditional live venues. I remember them playing Tracks in Portrush, Northern Ireland sometime around 1991, in a nightclub that was and still is better-known for alcopop-fuelled nights full of students sitting on the dancefloor to ‘rock the boat’. Achingly-hip and packed with major label a&r men it is not. Nor was Tamworth Arts Centre, where my wife saw them around the same time (I hadn’t met her yet, incidentally). The band made sure that everyone got a flyer for their mailing list, and made sure that they used that mailing list to its fullest potential. What I’m saying, is that in terms of fan outreach, Radiohead were doing it right before the internet even existed in any significant way. Whatever you think about their music (I’ve never been a fan) is irrelevant, what matters is that they developed their fanbase, made it a devoted fanbase by doing everything exactly the way that a band whose fans matter, should. They toured, they kept in contact, they NEVER compromised their sound or took any factor other than the music into account when they made it, they innovated and mutated and evolved their music with every release. No cheating.

It went really well for them, as we all know. Massive adulation, massive critical success, massive commercial success, massive fanbase. Somewhere along the way, they decided that it was time to release a record without the collaboration of a record label. Their reasons for doing so are unclear. For many successful bands, a label is something of a millstone. Labels traditionally offered a sizeable advance to a band, based on what they felt the record would sell. If the label thought the record would make millions of pounds’ worth of sales, they’d advance the band some of that money, and recoup it from the record sales. Music publishing splits are complicated, and are bargained over in advance. Songwriters get one payment per record sold, performers got paid another amount. Songwriter royalties are untouchable, but performer royalties can be bargained with. The more of the performer royalty the performer is willing to sign over to the label, the more the label will advance them. This is grossly oversimplified, and the complications are myriad, but the general idea is sound. However, a band in Radiohead’s position in 2007 might well wonder what purpose their label served them. They had financial success, so needed no advance. They had a fanbase, so needed no marketing. They had live demand, so needed no help getting gigs. They had critical acclaim, so had no need for help in getting reviews. Another aspect of the label system is that a certain amount of the money a label makes from a successful act like Radiohead inevitably gets lost on paying advances to new bands, or established bands, who don’t become commercial successes. Labels, to get anywhere, have to take risks. They have to gamble on those bands that might go huge. No label has the funds to only sign acts who are sure-fire successes, because those acts, obviously, demand bigger advances. The unfortunate part is when an act does well, and then realizes that it’s success is subsidising the ones who don’t do well. They may well just ask themselves ‘why do we need a label?’.

Guy Hands, (who was at the time CEO of EMI), responded to the news in a now famously-leaked memo, entitled simply ‘Radiohead’. In it, he acknowledges the need for major labels to move beyond the system by which successful bands subsidize the less-successful ones:

In this note, I want to address what Radiohead’s decision means for EMI and what it means for artists generally.

For EMI, this is a welcome reminder of the new digital world in which we operate and the need to focus on the services we provide to our artists.  Those artists break down into three categories:

•    Those who are already established and in whom we have invested heavily;
•    Those with whom we are working to make really successful; and
•    New, start–up bands.

EMI needs business models which work for all three categories, the reality being that the vast majority of the third category will fail to achieve commercial success and have historically been cross-subsidised by the first category.

Radiohead voted with their feet and released In Rainbows on their own. They did so on an ‘honesty box’ system, by which the consumer paid what they wanted to for the album. They also released a luxury physical box-set option, priced around £50 or so, I really don’t remember. One line of thought was that this was the way forward for the industry – treat the music as expendable publicity-fodder, make the actual money on the luxury options. Deeper than that though, was the trust that Radiohead put in their fans to pay for the download. Reznor and Gabriel and a multitude of bloggers and tweeters had been saying for years that filesharing and piracy were only used as a way of hitting out at the major labels and acts who had exploited fans for decades, and that given a fair price and a transparent approach to artist-remuneration the ‘problem’ of illegal downloading would go away. Artists would be compensated directly for their music by their fans, fileshared music would increase fanbase, live shows would comprise the majority of an act’s income and everyone would be happy. Aside from the fact that I consider ‘luxury box-sets’ and their ilk to be the slimiest example of fanbase exploitation there is (charging 50 notes for something that cost 5 to produce is, even by my label-manager standards, obscene), aside from that separate issue, the premise seemed fair enough.

There are a lot of conflicting reports about how In Rainbows did. The official line is that it turned a ‘healthy profit’. Rumours suggest that it wasn’t as healthy as anyone would have liked, and that the honesty box system resulted in a majority of consumers not being very honest. But those are rumours, and can’t be trusted as fact. Yesterday Radiohead announced the release of their new album King of Limbs. It will be released on Saturday, through XL Records (in the UK, via two different labels elsewhere), presumably part of the ‘decaying business model’ Yorke wished to say ‘F— you’ to. The pre-order site crashed under the weight of fans buying the album in the first ten minutes, which is gratifying to those of us in the industry. It tells us that, where there is demand, people will buy music. It also tells us that demand does not need free giveaways to be created, nor does it need any sort of undignified pleading and cajoling on the part of the act to achieve. There are no gimmicks on the Radiohead pre-order page (unless you consider a luxury cd, vinyl and artwork edition to be a gimmick. I don’t like such things, but they’re hardly a new idea), other than a chance for buyers to win a signed12″ version of the record. Again, hardly a Music 2.0 strategy, it’s been happening for decades, as have pre-orders. You can interpret the release however you wish. For me it is a return to dignity in the music business. A situation where the band simply puts it thus : ‘we have a new album, if you wish to have it, pay us this amount and we will send it to you’. Simple, fair, dignified for band and fan alike. No auctions of hand-painted ukuleles, no 1000-quid phonecalls where the band sing it to you, no ‘pledge 20 quid to have your name in the credits’ gimmickry. It’s true, those tricks are for smaller bands to make money out of a limited fanbase, but frankly, they’re becoming the hallmark of acts who are obviously resigned to their positions as unlikely to ever make a living from simply making and selling music. That’s why Radiohead’s version is more dignified for the fan – because they don’t have to wake up some day and realize that they once spent 600 quid on a hand-scrawled banjo decorated by a now-disappeared vocalist. Sure, Radiohead have a huge demand already, they can sell cds, it’s ok for them. Well, they got to that point by gigging, by building a fanbase, by getting a record deal that allowed them to develop and mature, by never compromising. They didn’t get it by clogging up people’s FaceBook walls with ‘check out my free download’.

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Music 2.0 and why it’s filling the world with platitudes

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?

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Why Prince is right

By now you’ll have had a good laugh at Prince, chortled righteously in disbelief at the latest mad-hatter outburst from his Purple Highness. In a statement that raised some interesting points, the most commonly snorted at was the Minneapolis Midget’s assertion that the ‘internet is dead’. This, to the social web-savvy twittering classes was the equivalent of the ‘you don’t sweat a lot for a fat lass’ chat-up line. The type of gambit that, even before the victim has stopped sneering indignantly, has done its job. It grabs the attention.  Hard to ignore something and hope it dies of neglect when you’ve just re-tweeted it to all your followers. Savvy play by Prince, and, my word, this is a savvy man. In the social media world of blogs, forums, comment boxes and twitter, the cheapest way to garner an aura of authority is to affect a world-weary cynicism. There are scores of web-users, whose ‘critically astute’ online reputations have been gained by eternally criticising the efforts of creative experimenters with the ‘oh, he’s so yesterday’ line. On this occasion, Prince got there just a touch before them, and their overexaggerated stage-shock reactions of ‘oh, we’ll all have to stop tweeting now, Prince says the internet is dead. Har har, what a loser’ are a secure a way of marking them out as the type of person whose defence mechanism is to sneer rather than to think. If these were the primordial plains of human evolution, they are the apes who would still be sneering at the other tribe’s gimmicky use of ‘tools’, right up to the point where the arrow went through their head.

So shall we laugh at Prince? Or shall we stop for a moment and ask ourselves whether this is a man worthy of having his points listened to? This is the man who gave us Sign o’ the Times; the multi-tasker who played every instrument on the Batman soundtrack; the man who knows enough about how the popular mind works to have penned Purple Rain, 1999, Nothing Compares 2 U, Alphabet Street. An artist who, when not composing the crowd-pleasing pop of the Bangles’ Manic Monday, can come up with works of musical erudition such as When Doves Cry. I am not in the slightest bit interested in whether you LIKE any of his work, or whether you think his creative peak has passed. What I would like you to do is ask yourself the question: ‘is someone of this calibre really someone whose opinions I should dismiss with a sneer?’ Because if you think that your opinion on the validity of the internet as a distribution and marketing tool for musicians is worth more than Prince’s, so much so that you’re not willing to even think about it, you shouldn’t really be reading this.

Because, after making the one statement that he knew would get him some viral attention, Prince went on to make some pretty good points. But perhaps you’re still not interested in those. Perhaps you’re still laughing at the idea that the internet is dead. Well, for some purposes it is. What do you do to differentiate yourself from the musical dross in 2010? Let’s say you are a disciplined and proven musical virtuoso, with the resources to make a professional-sounding record. Not only that, but you also have the cash, and respect, for a producer to come in and give your music a searingly critical once-over. To point out the flaws, the weaknesses and – far more importantly – tell you how to fix them? You’ve honed your act over the decades, put in the time. Well then, you have your record. Would you fling it out onto the web – to iTunes, MySpace, YouTube, Spotify, LastFm and Facebook? To flounder there under the same lousy, useless, chickenfeed conditions as the offerings of everything from some spotty d’n’b dj with a couple of tracks he ‘laid down on BandCamp, man’ to the most recent ditsy stageschool ‘chick with a stick’ acoustic singer-songwriter? Put it into an arena where every listener who gets that nagging earworm feeling when they hear something they love… can just go and hear it, at will, for free, until that nagging need is assuaged and replaced by whatever next draws at their capital in the information economy? If you’re about to say ‘well, BlancoMusic have music online, why do YOU do it if it’s so awful?’, the answer is that we’re forced to. We don’t have the resources or the profile to do anything than to bend over and let the internet shaft us where it stings. And it does sting. Believe me, when you know that every word you write, every note that Robin lays down in the studio, every re-tweet from a major newspaper critic is gathering you ‘valuable’ PR, it seems wonderful at first. But the truth is, internet PR is about as useful to making a living as a ‘Boycott Israel’ twibbon is to a West Bank school under mortar fire. For every hundred people who are moved by an online mention to check out BlancoMusic, ninety-nine will check out a song or two, or read the blog, or add it to their LastFm playlist or think, ‘cool, I must see if I can find that on Pirate Bay’. And on THIS, readers, I know of what I speak. Website visits to sales ratio? Somewhere in the region of 8,000 to 1. Oh, I hear the sneers now ‘but that’s just because your music’s shit, mate’. Grow up. It’s not shit.

What Prince has figured out is that the proportion of effort/return on pushing the internet user to actually BUY music, is not worth the resources it takes to do so. When 80 – 90% of your PR effort disappears into non-revenue online areas (piracy, Spotify), the PR needs to be 8-9 times as ubiquitous as in the pre-internet era to make the same gains. He’s done the sums, and has figured out that even if he only stands to make a penny profit on each CD that goes out on the cover of various European newspapers, that it’s worth more to him than a hundred million people retweeting a video clip of his track on YouTube. Newspapers are an established physical distribution platform, to make them the sole legal source of your music is a mark of genius thinking. Why SHOULD Prince make his music available to be listened to at will, for nothing (or as close as dammit) on YouTube, Spotify or Mog.com? For YOUR convenience? So that you can enjoy his work and display your musical credibility to your dinnerparty guests without the painful business of compensating the artist in question? Oh how RUDE of dear little Prince to deny you the opportunity. He’s an artist. Artists reserve the right, in fact, would not be worthy of the name if they didn’t do so, to piss from a height on the money-grubbing mores of the chattering classes. Don’t give me the ‘democratisation of music’ argument. If it were something we could do ourselves, what would be the value in that?! If you want free music, go and get free music from the many, many fame-scrabbling halfwits with guitars and laptops out there who are willing to give it away. That’s how much free music is WORTH.

Bitter? Moi? Yes. Exceedingly so actually. Because long before (and who can say, possibly long after) BlancoMusic existed, I was a music lover. And even if there comes a point where music no longer provides me with an income, I will still hate this period in music’s lifespan – when even the types of people who buy eggs from farmers’ markets and FairTrade coffee are somehow too eager to blame the decline of music on the malpractice of the music industry and spout fatuous self-serving nonsense about how filesharing is ‘free pr for the artists’. I can make a living without music, that’s not an issue. The issue is that the internet is making music shit. There, I’ve said it. It’s putting the actual making of music secondary to the complicated business of trying to find a way of sustaining a living from doing so. Genius, forced to figure out ways to tour without having to incur excess baggage costs. Virtuosos, giving up music because they refuse to take the whore’s option of product placement or naked dancers in their videos. Music lovers have CD collections, not hard-drives full of shit they never listen to. This all happened before, we call it the dark ages. Yep, the internet is over, it’s killed my first love.

Don’t tell me you can’t afford to buy CDs. My entire collection is worth less than your phone and laptop.

The reason why you’re pissed off about what Prince said is because you know what it really means is that Prince does not give a shit about you. He doesn’t want you to have his record. Not unless you’re willing to get off your arse and pay for it. Nothing Compares 2 U. You remember the track? Baldy Irish girl took it to number one for about a hundred weeks? Prince wrote that, it was on the Black album. The Black Album was never released because Prince wasn’t happy with it. It became an underground hit, just having heard the recordings was a mark of credibility throughout the era. Word-of-mouth buzz, in an age before textmessages or social networks; when teenagers went Inter-Railing for a whole month WITHOUT MOBILE PHONES OR E-MAIL!!!, and civil protest was a rite of passage involving tear-gas and baton-charges (as opposed to Facebook groups and twibbons). Back when ‘the kids’ weren’t actually better behaved than their parents. There’s the insult, because what Prince is really saying, and what’s really pissing everyone off, is that being ‘on it’, musically, in an era where everyone’s desperately pleading for your attention, ain’t exactly the same as when you had to work a bit for your record collection. He knows damned well that there are DubStep clubs in Bow that were hip two years ago, where nothing of the setlist got heard on anything but vinyl and that by the time the webmob got to hear of it, were over. His biggest-selling hit came off a record that only ever got released on bootleg! What does this man want with a social network buzz! Get real, that’s for desperate little girls with stage-school mockney accents and rich dads.

And why shouldn’t he ask for an advance from iTunes? Right now, the iTunes service is this:

YOU put in the energy and time and money to make a record.
WE will host that on our clunky-as-shite server/shop.
YOU will have only three pricing options per track.
WE will take 30% of the retail price.
YOU will pay all recording, promo, pr, touring and living costs.
WE will take no significant financial risk in digitally distributing your product, but will still ask for a comparable commission to the bricks-and-mortar shops, manufacturers and distributors who actually always lost money if your physical record bombed.
YOU might, by your reputation and PR efforts, bring a great deal of filthy lucre to our operation, however YOU can FUCK OFF if you think we’re ever likely to risk advancing you some MONEY, recoupable against sales, on the likelihood that you DO.
WE, after the traditional major label business-model has been well and truly fucked by piracy and the iPhone: ‘whaddaya mean I have to PAY for music!’ generation, reserve the right (seeing as we already control the majority of digital music content AND the devices used to listen to it) to team up with another entity (let’s say Sony or Google Music, for example) to completely dominate the music content and delivery market.
YOU, being to all intents and purposes, bereft of any other way to significantly distribute your music, will be obliged to conform to our directives regarding royalties, content, style etc.
WE, at that point, might actually get involved in the filesharing issue, which WE have the resources, connections and legal gravity to hammer into atoms with high-profile lawsuits and political lobbying, were WE to have a financial interest in doing so.

UNLESS you happen to be Prince, or anyone else who actually has the BALLS to stand up to a music distribution and sales model that does nothing whatsoever for the continuation and propagation of great music other than to say something along the lines of ‘yeah baby, you can make all the movies you like, but I own all the movie halls and I ain’t gonna show ’em unless you bend over, darlin”

Look, I’m aware that I’ve ranted a bit in this post.  I’m also aware that I’m not going to change anything. I just want you to know that, no matter how evil or corrupt you think the major labels have acted over the past five decades, they always offered the musician something of value up front. Most of the whining about major labels comes from acts who would never have been signed, even in the 80s/90s heyday of music. Majors exploited bands, sure. Bands exploited them back. There were ways and means, and a lot of people got to make a living out of making music, and a lot of us got to hear music that made out lives fuller and better because of that system. Prince hates the majors too. They really screwed him over. No system is perfect, but the argument that digital distribution benefits the artist, and that it therefore has moral superiority over the major label system rests on a misconception. It assumes that the transition of recorded music from being a privilege based on merit to a democratically available option will somehow advance the artistic value of our society. If anything it does the opposite. It does for music what replacing pub bands with karaoke machines did.

The responsibility of the future of quality music does not lie with the artists or the industry. It lies with you. The patron. The BUYER.

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Another ‘video’

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.

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SubMachena

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:

SubMachena

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.’

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Strategies and tactics

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.

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Sometimes you just have to bend.

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

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