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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:

@Helienne
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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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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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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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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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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Arg, thieving scum!

Bit of a rough day at the office today, trying to limit the damage caused by Robin’s jacket getting nicked whilst out at a Warner records showcase event last night. The jacket wasn’t so important – most of his clothes come from photoshoots back in the Olive days anyway – but the keys, wallet, money, passport and credit cards contained therein, were a bit more difficult to replace. It’s felt a bit like this lately. It’s only been a couple of months since Robin’s house was burgled, and theft is starting to feel like the natural way of things at the moment. Funny that last night’s event was a Warner promotional do, seeing as Warner Music were the first of the notable entities in the music business to decide that, actually, streaming sites were not actually that great a deal after all. I wrote about their decision to withdraw their catalogue from on-demand streaming sites some months ago. At the time it was considered a radical act by a record label – people still believed that their subscription fees to streaming services were benefiting labels and artists in some meaningful way back then. Now we’ve all seen the Lady GaGa $167 headline, and if nothing else, a healthy doubt about whether or not streaming sites have any benefit for artists is now part of the informed consumer’s mindset. Doubt that has been made public now, as in a discussion BlancoMusic had yesterday via the Guardian comments thread on Helienne Lindvall’s ‘Behind the Music’ piece in the paper. Lindvall asked an interesting question about LAst.fm, and our continued efforts to have our music removed from their servers. Last.fm’s official line on this is that the music is placed there by the fans, as in the YouTube model. Our requests to AWAL – our digital distributor – to remove the material meets with the same answer. Lindvall asked the question – if AWAL no longer administer the material up there, who gets paid for the plays? And the truth is, I have no idea.

That was just the start of a day of feeling like the world exists just to rip us off. She also mentioned a friend of hers who found out from a third party that his music was being featured on Mog.com. She advised that we check to see whether ours was too. Unsurprisingly, everything we have ever released is there, on mog.com, free to be listened to on a fee-paying basis, on-demand, as often as the listener wishes. Why would anyone in that situation feel compelled to go and pay yet more money to buy our music direct from us? They can hear it anytime they like on mog.com. We did not give mog permission, we receive nothing from them for the privilege of distributing our music for their gain, and without a California-based lawyer, we have precious little chance of getting the music taken down.

Some thieves just steal your jacket. Others take your whole livelihood.

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