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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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From The Guardian’s ‘Behind the Music’ blog

As always, I recommend Helliene Lindvall’s blog on The Guardian as a place to get the inside scoop on how the music industry actually works. The comments section is always a firepit – a true congregation of twisted souls clothing their rabidly-held, self-serving personal opinions in the jargon of the pseudo-intellectual, ‘academic’. I’m not being unfair here – my own replies do the exact same thing. You know the sort of approach: nobody ever actually calls you a cunt, but they might say ‘your argument shows that you have marked tendency to the vaginal’. Nevertheless, it’s a good gauge of how trends move, how the pro- and anti-filesharing arguments are developing. If you think that the comments section of the BlancoMusic blog gets heated on occasion, you ain’t seen nuthin’ til you’ve seen Helienne’s blog. Anyway, not that I want to drive traffic away from my little corner of the internet particularly, but I do recommend it. Here’s my comment for the day, in response to the side-them in the comments of whether filesharing can ever be curtailed:

Thanks for writing this piece, I’ve been looking forward to it.

With regard to whether filesharing can be stopped, and whether western governments will apply the draconian measures it would necessitate to do so, I believe we’re all guilty of the sin that the filesharers accuse the record labels of committing – backward thinking. Google will almost certainly enter the music market as either a streaming or untethered download retailer before Christmas (or so hums the grapevine). I do not for a moment believe that Google will tolerate unlimited access to the same product they are selling, via PirateBay or Rapidshare etc. Techie and legal types will butt in at this point and say: ‘they only control a search function, not the internet; darknet and swapped hard-drives will continue; they don’t have the legal means to stamp out providers’. To which I would say – you’re dealing with multi-billionaires who have proved (with their attitude to copyrighted literary works) that the legal and technical restrictions which apply to the rest of us, have no bearing whatsoever on their actions. If it suits Google to stop filesharing, Google will doubtless stop it. At the very least, they will make music-filesharing the province of only the very IT-savvy elite, or those passing physical material from hand to hand. If that’s what they choose to do at this point. They may well wish to see their competition further weakened before they act.

As I wrote in a previous blog (to which you linked, thank you) – Google entering the music industry is somewhat scary. Maybe I’m paranoid, but I think it should be looked upon as a hostile takeover, and that their timing on the move will be chosen to coincide with the point at which they consider the industry to be at its weakest. Their previous dealings with the concept of copyright-protected product doesn’t speak well for them, and I don’t believe they will be content to pay any publishing society’s mandatory minimum royalty rates. Expect to see some serious shafting done in the next few months.

The speculation is my own, nothing more than a (jaded and jaundiced) reaction to a piece of news I have been expecting for some time. As a mere piece of speculation it is not robust enough to withstand the kind of aggressive peer-review that comments on your blog often receive, and I’m not going to bother defending it if that happens. Apologies for that in advance – I’m a bit busy right now. It’s just an interpretation of a rumour, make of it what you will.

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A career in live music, possible?

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.


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What do labels do now, exactly?

Just a quick one today. We get a fair it of music coming through the letterbox at BlancoMusic, although to be thoroughly accurate, that letterbox tends to quite often be the electronic kind. Most of it somes to us from acts who either want to ‘sign’ to BlancoMusic, or who merely want to be signed to anyone. The tenacity and energy of acts who send out thousands of e-mails and presspacks is really something to be admired. I really mean that, possibly because we’re fairly new ourselves, and can still remember how demoralising and exhausting it is to send out those hundreds and thousands of letters, hoping that some small number of them will hit their mark and lead to that deal we were hoping for. For a label, that can mean anything from convincing an established act to collaborate with one of our own acts on a record, for example. It can also mean trying to organise reviews, or get an act on the lineup at a festival, or getting one of the better publishing companies to represent our work. Whatever level you are at in the music business, there’s always someone whose attention and goodwill you want to cultivate, more so now than ever. For an act, it can mean that instead of in the ‘old days’ when your music had to impress the a&r representative of an established record label, you now have to jump that particular hurdle a number of times. Traditional big labels arranged everything for their signees – publicity, promotion, distribution, publishing, retail, live shows and legal issues. Dealing with thousands of acts gave them an organisation that was self-contained and all-encompassing. A band could go from having a good demo tape, right through recording their albums, playing them live, having them used on movie soundtracks, splitting up, going solo, getting back together again twenty years later and doing a farewell tour without ever having to bring in an outside entity. From studio engineers to legal representation, it was all done in house, by organisations that had thousands of acts on their roster. Obviously, there were downsides. The downsides of major labels are pretty famous now, and it would take another post to detail them. Mainly though, it was that they were so large, so dedicated to the business of making money for the investors and shareholders who funded them, that music and musicians were forgotten, or turned into faceless product. That’s for another day.

If, however, your music interested a big label enough for them to sign your act, that was, as long as your contract was still live, about the only people you had to impress. Other than your fans.

The new music industry has all the same opportunities for acts to take advantage of. I rant on here quite often about the shortcomings of Music 2.0, mainly out of frustration with a business model that depends upon selling a product that is identical to its free competition. If there was a significant difference between a legal download and an illegal one, it would be a far less frustrating business. However, apart from the complication of illegal downloading, there are a lot of opportunities for artists, if they are incredibly intelligent and driven, to construct a more lucrative career out of their music than they would have managed in the traditional music industry. The old business did a lot of the administration and non-musical side of the business for an act, but they charged the act for those services. Now, those services are available on the open market, and an act can pick and choose which of them they need, and which are best suited to them. Need legal representation in a plagiarism case? Contract a lawyer yourself. Need physical distribution, studio time, a producer, album mastering, gigs? There are a thousand companies out there only too willing to do so for a fee. Everything that major labels ever offered is out there to be bought. Mainly from companies formed by ex-employees of major labels who have been made redundant in the last couple of years.

One of the issues is that a lot of these new companies charge quite a lot for services that they haven’t quite established yet. I know of a music licensing company who claim that they will try to place your music in advertisements or television/movie soundtracks, for which you will be paid a fee. This is a well-established part of the music business. Usually a licensing agency has to be quite convinced of the saleability of your music, and well-acquainted with your sound, so that they can place it more easily with a client. The agency I mentioned earlier doesn’t have such discernment – it will list your tracks in its database without even hearing them. Did I mention that they charge £4 each track? And that they get that money whether they place your music with a client or not? And that they really have no incentive to do anything with your music once they get the £4 per track? The sharks in the Music 2.0 pool may be smaller, but they can still bite. The same goes for PR companies, distributors, producers and just about every entity along the way to fame and artistic contentment. It can all be hired, but to get the job done properly, you really need to make the situation arise that your collaborator becomes just that. You need to find someone who has a vested interest in your music doing as well as it can possibly do. The big labels made more money the more records you sold. So did you. That, at least in most cases, made your success their success. It still exists in Music 2.0. For example, good PR agencies exist and will work on a commission basis. As will most of the rest of the service providers in the chain. Only now, the really annoying part, you have to impress each one of them with your music. Your distributor will need to be convinced that your music will sell, otherwise he’s left with a warehouse full of CDs. Your producer might take a percentage instead of an upfront fee, but he’ll need to be sure your music will sell too. The same goes for your lawyer, gig promoter, roadies and manager. That means sending out a lot of demos, and impressing a lot of people.

I’m going to stop here, because I’d like to spend a couple of the next posts on defining what exactly are the opportunities of Music 2.0 (don’t worry, there are lots), but mostly, what does a label do these days, and why are they still necessary?

Any comments, experiences or questions on this would be much appreciated, because it’s all a learning experience for us too.

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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:


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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Keeping music (a)live

Who’s the better musician – Kylie Minogue or Miles Davis?

It looks like a particularly stupid question, but it’s one I’d like to ask anyway. It’s not a trick question, or not in the way that you might think. I’ll come clean and say that I think Kylie makes perfectly innocuous and pleasant pop, and that she is very good at what she does, but that in terms of musical ability, Miles is superior. No great surprises there then.

So why the disingenuous questioning? Last week’s post got a number of replies, most of them healthy and informed. I was encouraged by all of them, even when they took a position contrary to my own. That said, I noticed one of the comments came with a coda attached that I’ve seen quite often in the music 2.0 debate – that the only really legitimate music is live. I’ve got a couple of issues with that, and this gives me the opportunity to get a couple of them off my chest.

Well, the first one is that Miles Davis is, unfortunately, dead. Kylie is alive, so if only live music, or the ability to play well live is of value, Kylie’s got a bit of an edge on poor old Miles.

What brought us to this belief that live music is of such value? A good gig is a great experience, but usually it is just that – an experience. Quite often the quality of the music: how well it is played and reproduced, becomes secondary to the surrounding aspects of the experience. Was the booze cheap? Were there attractive people to look at in the audience? Could you hear every word the vocalist sang, or did you hear more of the drunk squawking girl to your left? Did you get close enough to the band that you could feel you had some sort of interaction with them, or were you wedgded behind a huge rugby player with his girlfriend on his shoulders? Were the band note-perfect on every song, or was there an endearing croak to the vocalist’s voice when he went for the high notes? Did the songs sound exactly like they did on the album, or was there some digression from the recorded material that made you feel that you were witness to something magical and unique to that moment, that place?

A number of those questions are not even anything to do with music. The random factors which go into the individual’s perception of whether an act is ‘good live’ are so numerous that they can never be taken as anything other than the wooliest of value-judgements. We can certainly define whether a guitarist was playing an instrument which needed its strings changed; we can discern when a bassplayer is not quite in time with the drummer. Either example should lead an audience to decide that the gig was a bad one, that the band were ‘not good live’, but it’s not even that simple. If the energy and style of a live act is sufficient, an audience will often forgive and forget any such paltry technical details. Punk acts have revelled in musical incompetence for decades, often to the point that they have to disguise the fact that, by virtue of playing live regularly, they have reached a level of musical ability that their audience would reject if they were to play as well as they are able. Joe Strummer was famous for breaking guitar strings onstage with the Clash, and for continuing to perform with the damaged instrument. It used to irritate his guitar technician, because there were always spare guitars tuned and ready in the wings for such an eventuality. The Clash’s gigs are legendary amongst those who were there, and those who say they were, for their energy and atmosphere. Again, that’s so often said of the Clash that it’s clearly true, but the question remains, is that good music, or is it a good ‘performance’?

I’m writing on this subject today because it happens that tonight one of BlancoMusic.com’s acts – Piano Segundo – plays its debut gig. Piano Segundo is a keyboard-centered dance act, featuring Robin Taylor-Firth. Robin’s my business partner here at BlancoMusic, he’s been in the music business for twenty-odd years and has piano skills that genuinely set him apart from most musicians in the non-classical music world. By that I mean he’s good. He’s the keyboardist with Nightmares on Wax, he wrote the music on Olive’s 90s dance anthem ‘You’re Not Alone’. Apologies to my regular readers, who know this already – I’m just bringing the noobs up to speed ;). Anyway, Piano Segundo is something of an indulgence of Robin’s – an act in which he can let his keyboard mayhem take centrestage. Over the last couple of months I’ve sat working in the same room as his keyboard setup, and have pottered away doing my BlancoMusic things whilst he’s been practising his keyboard skills. I’ve heard the Piano Segundo tunes take shape, get honed into songs, get polished and buffed into something that I genuinely believe will fill dancefloors with heaving bodies whilst simultaneously feeding souls and spirits with the full-on nourishment that quality music gives. People will be astounded, honestly. For all the camraderie and air-punching of stadium indie; for all the chin-stroking righteousness of acoustic nu-folk; for all the vacuous abandon of pop, this is something entrely different: it’s virtuosity, dexterity, lucidity. People will leave that club tonight clutching their heads and trying desperately to keep hold of the little snatches of melody that they can still remember. I have every confidence in this, but there are still issues to look at.

One issue is that if the future of music is to be restricted to live-only, the price per gig that an artist needs to demand will become exorbitant. In a world where the tools to make music, promote music and distribute music are available to everyone, the competition for gigs makes things difficult on all sides. Promotors need to be sure the band they book will bring in a crowd. For the act – proving that they will do so is doubly difficult when the music 2.0 hype machine makes and destroys stars in a cyclical churn that becomes faster every year. If an artist is to make a living from live-only, and is to do so in a way that guarantees an income that allows them the simple benefits of even the most basic of careers (sick pay, maternity benefits, holiday entitlement, health insurance, pension contributions, etc), what kind of fee per gig is necessary? Let’s take this to the extreme that has been suggested by the people out there who believe that recorded music is worthless as a revenue stream, and is only of value as a promotional tool for the real thing (by which they mean live performance). For a simple four-piece band to make 25,000 euros a year, each, with two week’s holiday over the course of the year, we’re looking at a round 100k. Twenty-five thousand euros per year is a pretty grim existence, but let’s be romantic and imagine that they love playing gigs, a lot. Let’s say they’re really good at getting gigs and don’t need a promoter, they’ve got connections. Two gigs a week at a thousand euros each, they’re sorted! Well, we haven’t paid for transport or broken equipment or roadies yet, but let’s forget about that – they’re strong but delicate types, they’ll be fine. What we’re starting to see here is that, to make a living from live music, that and need to be playing two gigs a week, to more than 500 people per gig, fifty weeks a year. It’s not impossible, not by any means is it impossible, but what does it do to the creative output of the very band those people have paid to see? Where does the new material come from?

I mentioned Kylie for a reason. I saw her play live last week. It was clinical and perfect and impersonal. It was also fun and silly and exhilirating in a way, but it was a show, the music meant nothing. Yet she was note-perfect and on-time. Her live act was flawless.  By the definition of the commentators who wrote here last week, this ability to perform live is the only true way of evaluating whether a musician is of worth or not. Funny that, because I’ve never managed to see Bach play live, or Miles Davis, or Django Reinhardt or Jimi Hendrix. I have no idea of their merit as live performers whatsoever. But I value their music. See, I am suspicious that this whole argument about how musicians need to turn their back on recorded music and concentrate on their live act is another one of those seductive little voices in the heads of people who are doing something (filesharing) that they know is morally wrong and is killing the creativity and freedom of musicians, but which offers them a little soundbyte to cling to and repeat in the face of the ugly truth that they are actually destroying the music they claim to love. ‘Look’, they say, ‘recorded music isn’t really music, it’s live music that counts, I’ve been to loads of gigs this year, I support music that way’. Well, recorded music is music, and it’s often a more pure musical experience than any gig you’re likely to attend. Let me illustrate this with a couple of live performances I’ve been to which were musically brilliant:

Paul Lewis, playing piano concertos by Mozart, Beethoven and Ligeti. Auditorio Nacional de Espana.
Salisbury Cathedral Choir, various works for choir. Salisbury Cathedral.
Mil i Maria, Nadie es Nadie, The Covent Garden Cafe.

The first two ‘gigs’ took place in venues where acoustics were a priority, where the audience was motionless and silent, and without any kind of amplification. The Mil i Maria gig was also unamplified, although there was more crowd noise. Musically, each event was sublime and soul-moving.

Here’s some gigs I went to which were great experiences:
Kylie Minogue, Plaza de Espana, Madrid.
Iggy Pop, Queima das Fitas, Coimbra.
Foo Fighters, Slane Castle, Ireland.

In all these gigs I got my feet trampled and had to endure the stinky breath of stumbling drunks; at Iggy Pop’s I got kicked in the face by a stagediver and lost some eyelashes; at the Foos I got splattered by a bottle full of piss; at Kylie’s I was too far back to hear anything much but speaker reverb. However, they were all great experiences. Am I making this clear enough yet? The experience, good or bad, of most live performances by musicians, has very, very little to do with the musical quality of the act in question. As a model for the continued existence of the music industry it has serious, serious flaws. We can’t all just sit here and allow the opportunity to compose and make music to belong, in the future, to only those musicians who have the ability to move us in a live performance. Even Queen, considered by many to have been an incredible live band, could not play Bohemian Rhapsody live. The ‘operatic’ section had to be truncated or skipped entirely. But live music as the mainstay of the music economy? Apart from anything else, have you thought about how restrictive that would be? You might be twenty years old and financially irresponsible, and if you are, I am happy for you. However, a lot of the world have night-jobs, kids, commitments, or don’t live close to where any bands play. A live-only music industry model deprives them the chance to hear new music. I realise that no-one actually suggested that recorded music be discontinued entirely, or radio play. However, markets have a tendency to react to what is lucrative, and if we all push musicians into accepting the live circuit as their only viable route to a steady income, and force them to look upon recorded music as nothing but a revenue-free way of destroying the exclusivity of their product (the songs they play live), then this could happen whether we want it to or not.

And as to the idea of live performance being the only way to prove that an act has any musical value or not, I started this post with Miles Davis for a reason. Davis’s Kind of Blue is accepted as being one of the greatest pieces of jazz/blues ever put onto vinyl/cassette/cd/mp3. That’s incontrovertible. Unfortunately, when the album was recorded there was a technical mishap in the studio, and the recording tapes ran at the wrong speed. The consequence was that the pitch at which the music is reproduced is beyond the range of the actual instruments. Physically, it could not be played live, not the way it sounded on the record. So, if Miles Davis could not play a live version of the record that sounded the same as on disc, did that mean he was a less competent musician than Kylie, who could?

Apologies to anyone who was expecting this post to be of a similar level to the one about Prince. I’ve been doing a lot of travelling and logistics this week and BlancoMusic’s online presence has had to take a bit less priority than usual. Despite what I’ve written above, we’re committed to live music as a massive part of our operation, and summer’s when most of the gigs take place. That means a lot of organisation, and not much time for thinking or writing provocative thoughts about the future of music.
Oh, and if you’re interested…. BlancoMusic’s recorded music is available to BUY at http://blancomusic.com

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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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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.’

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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.

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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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