2010: year of a thousand RATM-style campaigns?

I have two predictions for 2010.

Prediction one is that we will see lots of online campaigns around songs, inspired by Rage Against The Machines’s chart success in 2009. It will be easy to be dismissive and call these “copycat” campaigns but the idea of mobilising large groups of fans via social media is a seductive one. And I think it’s more interesting than just letting the established industry and media dictate the sum total of who’ll be successful.

The first example I’ve seen is a Facebook group called “Cael band Cymraeg fewn ir TOP 40/Get a Welsh Language act into the UK TOP40” for a band called Masters In France.

Taking some cues from the RATM campaign, I think this is certainly achievable if the tune can be played on radio and the campaign can be blogged about and covered in some mainstream media. It would help if it were a band with some kind of following and a core band of independent, active supporters to act as campaigners in their own spaces, as was the case with RATM. As you’ll recall, the band got involved as a result of a “grassroots” campaign, which was well organised and had its own Twitter hashtag #ratm4xmas too. It wasn’t merely a Facebook group, but a campaign which existed in other places too.

See also: 1000 True Fans and the case against.

While comparing RATM to two other online campaigns, Simon Dickson identifies these factors:

  • they were negative campaigns – in the sense that they were based around someone or something that people didn’t like: religious advertising, Simon Cowell, Kerry McCarthy; and
  • there was a specific, measurable outcome: the sight of a bus with a poster on it, the announcement of the Christmas chart, the result from Bristol East on election night. If enough of you support me, we will get ‘X’ – and we will know if/when we have won.

Despite being “food for thought” rather than an exhaustive study, it’s worth reading Dickson’s whole post, especially if you’re interested in activism in the broader and sometimes non-frivolous aspect of the term.

So what’s my second prediction?

As we become more networked, aware of trends in society, more inclined to pass comment on it all and more capable of publishing those comments, I predict… more predictions and armchair futurology than any previous year.
🙂

Gabriel

The tune Gabriel by cosmic disco band Kindness is probably among the more intriguing musical releases from 2009. (You should be able to play the whole track above. If not, try Kindness on Myspace or the Pitchfork blog post where I found it.)

Although lyrically apt, it’s not a Christmas song as such. But this is the year we were reminded that seemingly any tune has the potential to be picked up, redefined and – without touching the contents – “remixed” into a Christmas tune, purely by presenting it in a different context.

So there goes. It sounds wintery and ultimately it’s a Christmas song to me because I’m listening to it and posting it here.

The festival of Christmas itself is a remix anyway – of older winter festivals… Enjoy it and make sure your version is a righteous one.

Back to the music. If the song sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a cover version of the original Gabriel, the classic 2-step garage tune by Roy Davis Jnr and Peven Everett (Spotify / YouTube). The original’s gospel roots are a lot more obvious. Like a lot of good gospel music it sounds like it’s caught between Saturday night, in the club, and Sunday morning – in church.

Nadolig Llawen! Merry Christmas!

Underpass makes tunes

Underpass is a Cardiff-based musician and DJ. Above is a video for a new tune from his new album. It reminds me of home.

He and I have a long history as colleagues and friends, including running a club night called Machine Meadow. It was 2004 and we wanted to DJ and book people we wanted to see, like Werk label, Adverse Camber collective and Kode9 (first dubstep night in Cardiff?). Among other things, I also promoted Multistorey EP and plugged it to radio – with some degree of success!

Ability as an electronic musician is partly about songwriting and partly about the art and science of studio production, both of which Lee has been carefully honing for a long time. So here’s to him and his new tunes! The early mixes I’ve been hearing have been splendid indeed, including a tune with multi-instrumentalist and former Placid Casual artist Rhodri Viney (alias Broken Leaf).

Read the Underpass biography or follow him.

Thoughts after Telstar (the film)

Telstar is a British film about 1960s record producer Joe Meek.

It’s been in some cinemas here for around a month and despite some decent press, apparently it hasn’t “grossed” much at the box office, which is a pity. Why? Influential though he is, Joe Meek was a producer not a performer and hence not an enduring household name. And arguably, the strand of music – early British rock’n’roll – is not among those currently being revisited or re-appraised. But neither of these is a good reason to avoid seeing a film! (Or distributing one, if that’s the situation.)

I recommend it, even if you think you’re totally unfamiliar with the life and work of Joe Meek. Saying that, you might know Johnny Remember Me (from that curious mini-subgenre of teen death ditties which flared up in the early 60s) or Telstar (otherwise known as Margaret Thatcher’s favourite Desert Island Disc).

The weaknesses are the typical ones you get in this sort of film. In particular, they can’t resist some heavy nods to the future significance of certain events, for the audience’s benefit, like when Meek casts a demo tape by a then-unknown Beatles into the bin, that sort of thing. I guess that was deemed more important than showing any of the other performers he actually did work with that were left out. Admittedly, there are bound to be details glossed over in a career as prolific as Meek’s. Despite these minor flaws it’s well worth a look.

This isn’t a proper film review by the way, so here’s a piece of space age skiffle called I Hear A New World, from Meek’s formerly long lost album of the same name.

For me, Joe Meek’s tunes are a more recent part of a musical adventure starting with latter-day electronica and going via 1970s dub reggae. In other words, I suppose my discoveries have gone backwards chronologically. Meek, in my head, belongs in a kind of loose collection of 1960s pioneers of sound experimentation, like Delia Derbyshire, John Baker and Brian Wilson.

(In terms of electronic pioneers, I have some Kraftwerk albums but they’re not my favourite band or anything. I continue to listen to stacks of other stuff especially dub and reggae, which never ages.)

All this reminded me of the book Ocean Of Sound by David Toop (from 1995), especially this bit:

Ask musicians of a certain age a question: Who revolutionised the recording studio? Invariably, the response will include the following names: Phil Spector, Joe Meek, Brian Wilson, Lee Perry. At critical moments of their lives, one common link between all these studio innovators was a state of mind known, for the sake of society’s convenience, as madness.

Whether this is a link of causation or correlation, I don’t know. Could it be unhealthy, in itself, to be so obsessive about creating a perfect sound? Or is this a more general burden those with artistic genius are commonly said to struggle with?

Toop’s book goes further but the film doesn’t deal with these kinds of questions directly. We see Meek suffer from paranoia, depression and mental illness. But he also begins to believe his own hype and reject nearly everyone who’d helped him find success. That and the drug abuse, money worries, obsession with the occult, blackmail attempts and social maladjustment (in relation to Meek’s sexuality) and legal challenges probably form, you might think, some basis of an explanation.

As with Phil Spector now, it’s an odd juxtaposition to celebrate the genius and listen to such fantastic music yet be reminded how dark things ultimately became.

Delia Derbyshire on Ada Lovelace Day

It’s Ada Lovelace Day today and the brief was very open – just write a blog post about a woman in technology who you revere.

So here’s mine. The above video shows Delia Derbyshire demonstrating reel-to-reel music recording and production.

Derbyshire was known for her creative sound engineering work at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (which was itself the subject of some 50th anniversary retrospectives last year). Among those working long-term there in the early days there were three women in total, all of whom deserve credit. But I’m going to focus on Derbyshire.

Although many might know her as the warped genius behind the original – and best – Doctor Who theme, Derbyshire was very prolific. There are countless more fascinating themes, incidentals and effects on her CV, including a big batch of recordings which have only recently been found and reported.

While DJing, I’ve been known to play the spooky, beguiling and downright peculiar tune Love Without Sound by The White Noise, a band in which Derbyshire was a key member. The track is 40 years old but sits quite comfortably (but in a funny way, uncomfortably) with latter day tunes.

The fact that it’s now difficult to find the original vinyl LP, entitled Electric Storm, is some sort of indictment on either the record buying public or the marketing people at the record label. Either way, in 1969 that lack of attention would have been disappointing. But not for me in 2009 because I own and cherish one. W00t!

If you’re curious, the album was reissued last year by the famous (but somewhat oxymoronically-named) Universal Island label. You can hear it on CD, download or on Spotify where such services exist.

Delia Derbyshire was by many first-hand accounts a shy person. Dedication, focus and extremely high levels of patience were almost requirements for the job at the Workshop. These character traits, along with the BBC’s low esteem at the time for this mere “service department for drama“, may explain in part why appropriate recognition for her talents has been late in coming.

But among other luminaries who have been hybrids of performer, composer and producer, she really holds a place. Joe Meek, who was working on similar techniques in the 1960s but in the more mainstream world of pop, can be considered a peer. More widely, the name Delia Derbyshire should really be listed next to visionary producers like Phil Spector, Lee “Scratch” Perry and Brian Wilson (for adventurousness of musical output, it should be said, rather than behaviour).

Here’s to crazy electronica from the 1960s. And here’s to Delia Derbyshire!

Truckers Of Husk – Person For The Person

Here’s a music video for scene stealers Truckers Of Husk. I’m sure you will agree it is mighty fine – a carnival of craziness, much like their genre-mashing music.

For this we can thank Casey Raymond and Ewan Jones Morris, the co-directors. They were the ones who made the recent Future Of The Left video (filmed in The Vulcan pub) which also had its web premiere this week. There’s no rule that says you can’t release two such works in the same week. Just hit everyone with both and make it feel like Video Christmas.

The above Truckers Of Husk video is also notable for a brief cameo role by yours faithfully. (This is, after all, my blog). Unless you include Ewan’s How To Sleeveface video, it’s been a long time since I last did any acting.

In particular, my role here makes a long-sought change from school productions, where I was always picked to be cast as the elderly man.

The Point RIP

I was DJing there only last Friday, now it’s finished.
🙁

Full statement from The Point.

The Point has been a terrific place for the music scene in Cardiff. I have witnessed and participated in so many awesome gigs and events there. Just off the top of my head, who remembers Polar Bear, Johnny Clarke, Candi Staton, Euros Childs and Threatmantics, Roy Ayers, Mary Anne Hobbs and Virus Syndicate, Richard James, Devendra Banhart, Oxjam, Super Furry Animals, Faust, Horace Andy, Bounceathon (twice), Secret Garden (several), Beirut and David Holmes, Swn Festival (twice), Soft Hearted Scientists, Josephine Foster, Battles and Truckers Of Husk, Lightning Bolt and DJ Scotch Egg, Iron and Wine, The Fall…? That’s just a few.

It’s such a shame to see that they now have to close, brought on by extremely short-sighted planning of nearby apartments – which led to noise complaints and unexpected costs in already tight economic conditions. This kind of situation is not unique for a gig venue in the UK either.

A Look at Spotify – With My Music Industry Hat On

Spotify on a Snowy Day in Wales

Have you tried Spotify yet?

Tucked away in today’s post on Spotify’s own blog is a file listing newly included recordings by some of my favourite labels and artists.

Labels represented on the list today include: Rough Trade, Poker Flat, XL, Rhino/Elektra, ECM, Universal, Pressure Sounds and more…

Artists on the list from today include: Stereolab, Antony & The Johnsons, Evan Parker, Basement Jaxx, Ray Charles, Si Begg, Elvis Presley, Henry Mancini, Ozzy Osbourne and loads more…

While I write this, I’m listening to a very timely collaborative playlist of snow-related songs. Thanks to @radioedit for that tip-off. I just added “Winter Sadness” by Kool and the Gang for anyone else who’s listening to it.

OK, so what’s Spotify? Rather than rehash what stacks of articles and blog posts are saying, I can recommend Chris Salmon’s introduction to the music streaming service from the Guardian and Rhodri Marsden’s early peek last year from the Independent.

My angle on Spotify? I used to run a label fulltime. It was my business to find revenue streams for recordings and artists. Spotify should be tremendously exciting for anyone in that position now. I still have good ties with the music industry. (I help people with blogging, social media and how to promote on the web without being annoying or spammy.)

The music business is very often criticised – sometimes fairly and sometimes unfairly – for being slow to take advantage of new distribution methods. Of course, when people say “music business” here they really mean the “record business”, which is a subset of it. Now, let it not be said that any of these labels has been backward in signing up for Spotify. It feels like we’re reaching a zone of mutual agreement where everyone’s happy – not only the people running the service and the fans, but the artists and labels as well. Merlin (which represents digital rights for many, many independent labels, often slightly overlooked by online music services) were happy to sign their deal with Spotify in September 2008.

If you are a band, record label or otherwise involved in the record business or music business in any way, make sure you try it. It’s all legal, licensed and legitimate. If you’re in the USA or one of the territories not currently covered by Spotify, you have the right to feel left out.

You should be able to create a free account here. (It doesn’t appear that you need an invitation at the moment. As far as I can see, that was clever marketing – creating an impression of scarcity and bestowing users with a limited number to pass on to their friends.)

Barring any mishaps, this is a future of music distribution. Notice I said “a future” – it may not be the sole future, but if you’re a label you need to consider it and put as much time and energy into researching it as you would into being stocked on iTunes and other services. You’ll reach people who wouldn’t normally listen to your music. You’ll get money from Spotify as a direct result, as well as drawing attention to your other music activities, like your gigs and merchandise. Ask your digital distributor or aggregator about it.

People are comparing it with other music streaming services like Pandora and Last.FM. While Pandora was groundbreaking in popularising the track play rather than the track purchase, it had licensing problems leading it to withdraw from the UK. So that’s clearly no good. Last.FM has been well adopted by music aficionados and the tech savvy, but in my opinion needs to work to grow its user base beyond the “heads” and keep all the labels happy, not just the major labels. Its distinctives are music discovery and tagging. (In fact you can scrobble your Spotify listening to Last.FM.)

Even YouTube is a fairly good celestial jukebox for many. Whether YouTube are actually paying rights owners or not is another question. My strawpoll of independent labels says ‘no’. YouTube are busy enough trying to get revenue for themselves.

That’s three examples of music streaming. On a technical level, to casual observers I’ve spoken with, Spotify doesn’t appear to be doing anything dramatically new. But I disagree. The streaming is flawless and uninterrupted. It’s as good as iTunes for sound quality. Importantly for me, the bass is rich and heavy. Hardcore audiophiles may grumble about the bitrate, but they always do – and they still have their cherished music formats.

The main technical reason why Spotify will explode is its SIMPLICITY. People thought iTunes or eMusic was instant gratification, but now you don’t even need a credit card. You just start streaming. The barriers to enjoyment are just non-existent. It’s actually easier to play your favourite album than to grab the CD from your shelf and load it into a drive! It feels somewhat indulgent. That simplicity is why it will win. That’s why it can compete with unlicensed peer-to-peer filesharing services. Take music on tap and make it even easier.

Later, you can delve into collaborative playlists and the like when you feel the need. You can deep link to a chosen lyric or favourite guitar solo, which will change music criticism and other writing for the better. In a music education or academic research context, your citation can include a hyperlink to the moment in the recording to which you’re referring. In turn this availability will continue to open up influences on people creating music. (Although this process did begin with the first version of Napster.)

For now people will continue to acquire music files by other means, often unlicensed and illegal. The Spotify catalogue is huge with many surprising inclusions from the majors, like U2, Madonna, Prince and Coldplay all represented. But there are gaps because of various rights issues relating to other artists. After a recent cull, The Beatles are only represented in cover versions. The same goes for Metallica and others. The precise catalogue listings vary depending on which country you are in, again due to contractual rights.

For their iPods and other portable players, fans will acquire music files because you also need internet access to stream music on Spotify.

But if Spotify can succeed in expanding the catalogue and porting the application to smaller devices, in tandem with public expansion of free wifi access, it will render the arguments about filesharer penalties totally irrelevant. Why would fans expose themselves to the malware risks and badly named or encoded files? Even the time-rich, money poor kids will agree with that.

The advertising seems very infrequent which is good for the user experience. I would say it’s roughly every 20 to 30 minutes. It feels odd to hear the advert transition into a track, which is an association I have with commercial radio – yet I’m listening to genres I like that are almost never played on commercial radio e.g. proper ambient, Welsh language music and dub.

A recurring advert which amuses me is the Energy Saving Trust because it’s a campaign part-funded by the UK government. This is surely the best use of public money for fun and culture since the Soviet Union’s nationalised record label Melodiya.

That said, there is a very small pool of ads so they’re not very targetted at the moment. I’m getting UK ads (which is relevant to me) but they include an ad for Lady GaGa’s new album – when I haven’t been listening to anything resembling that kind of music. That can be improved when more advertisers are on board. Besides, I can imagine music fans in their hordes falling in love with Spotify and opting to escape the advertising completely by signing up to the paid service. It’s a very reasonable 99p for one day or £9.99 for a month.

Last Friday I was invited to talk on a discussion panel in Cardiff hosted by Welsh Music Foundation. (Incidentally, thanks to them and to the other panel members, Dai Lloyd, Simon Rugg (Indie Mobile) and Mark Mitchell (King Harvest)). We had a very insightful discussion with a diverse audience of smaller and newer labels and bands. Not too many of them had heard of Spotify, which leads me to think it hasn’t quite tipped yet. But that will change.