Twisted City by Chris Singleton - album sleeve

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The continuing rise of the blog

My girlfriend has described my new-found love of blogging as me loving the sound of my own voice. She may have a point: not content with recording vocals incessantly I now seem to be intent on regularly giving voice to opinions on the internet.

My new blogging fad has got me thinking about the differences between voicing opinions online and voicing opinions in print. Armchair journalism versus professional journalism, basically.

I'm well aware from talking to real, talented journalists like my good mate John Downes, that far more thought and effort usually goes into print journalism than blogging. There are things that you seem to get away with in blogs -- unsubstantiated claims, lack of sources, lack of notes -- that you could never even contemplate doing in print (Andrew Gilligan excepted). There generally isn't an editorial process either. However, unless you're one of the more popular bloggers out there, you are fairly unlikely to have a large number of readers to lap up those unsubstantiated claims and lack of notes.

But according to a very interesting article in the Observer last Sunday comparing the work of blogging critics to the traditional print types, it appears that bloggers are starting to make a significant impact in the area of opinion forming. Some bloggers are becoming 'tastemakers', setting trends amongst a growing readership that turns to internet writers rather than their print counterparts for an authoritative opinion on fashion, politics, music, food (and pretty much anything else). This seems to have led, in the US at least, to a lot of professional journalists -- particularly critics -- losing their jobs. It's also led to some PR firms sending press releases to bloggers before they approach journalists (I heard that one from the horse's mouth: a head honcho of a big UK PR firm).

On reason put forward for this shift away from critics to bloggers concerns trust: there is a theory that bloggers are gaining influence precisely because they are not print journalists, and can therefore be trusted not to toe a paper's line in their articles. In the UK, where practically all the big newspapers are run by a small number of rich, powerful, white, male and right-wing individuals, there may be some grounds for thinking that readers might view bloggers as being more independently minded than journalists working for titles that at times resemble little more than propaganda. (If you don't believe me on that, try a diet of tabloids for a week. You will come out of your diet hating immigrants, thinking all welfare-recipients are scroungers and knowing a disturbingly large amount of trivia about Prince Harry).

I'm not sure that I buy into the notion that bloggers are to be trusted more than journalists though. For a start, just like any political journalist or rock critic, they have agendas: they like certain things and they don't like others. I think that's fairly obvious from my blogging efforts so far: I've been rude about Mrs Thatcher, James Blunt, Scouting For Girls, Boris Johnson or anybody else who generally isn't to my political or musical taste. Think Hitler was in there too, and probably in the same sentence as James Blunt.

In the Observer article, an attempt was made by one commentator to differentiate between opinions and informed opinions. The implication being that bloggers had the opinions and the journalists had the informed opinions. I'd go along with that -- to a degree. On the whole journalists do have to research a topic more than (most) bloggers before their copy sees the light of day. They probably do know more about their subject before they bang on about it. But the problem is that when you talk about an informed opinion, you're opening a can of very subjective worms. One man's informed opinion is another man's ignorant attitude. And what about 'badly informed' opinions?

For me, the interesting -- and possibly alarming -- thing about blogging doesn't come down to the opinions expressed. It's about who is getting to express them, and how. The internet is good at occasionally putting people who would otherwise not have the power (or perhaps the interest) to influence opinions in a position where their opinions are avidly and widely read and consumed. In many cases, it seems to happen not by design but by accident, when an individual becomes well-known for something other than writing, and then starts blogging.

I'm thinking of stars like Lily Allen here. Whilst I'm actually a bit of a (closet) fan of her music, I'm not particularly impressed by her as an individual, and I'm certainly not a fan of her writing. Yet when she got famous, thousands upon thousands of people subscribed to her blog, and she acquired, in a short period of time, a readership (and debatably, influence) that it can a journalist takes years to accrue. Not only that, but information she posts in her blog frequently ends up in print, as newspapers look to her blog for celebrity scoops. In days gone by, stars like Lily, although famous, would not have had the means to directly communicate with thousands of people by writing - they would have to had secured a book deal or been commissioned to write newspaper articles. Which, even when famous, is a much trickier proposition than signing up for a free Blogger account and hitting the 'publish' button on a blog.

If the thought of certain pop stars gaining large readerships from blogging is unappealing, a more positive aspect of blogging concerns how people with specialist interests are now able to communicate and share knowledge about them very easily. Readers benefit too, because they are now able to access writing on topics that the mainstream press routinely ignores. You can find blog posts on just about anything now, from model trains to the kind of guitars that Hank Marvin played. The quality of writing varies, but if you are interested in getting an opinion on or a review of something a bit obtuse, chances are you'll find a blog that will meet your needs.

And blogs get big. When the content of a blog is compelling enough (and particularly if it involves 'niche' topics), the blog in question can experience a sort of 'organic' growth. A well-written blog on an interesting topic can start out with one or two readers but develop, as people search for content, into a popular online column. You could mutter something here about blogs 'democratising' journalism but I'd be hesitant to describe the phenomenon in those terms: perhaps it's more a case of the man down the pub who has an opinion becoming the man on the web who has one.

Whatever about the popularity of blogs, and the impact of this on print journalism, I think most bloggers would much prefer to be writing in newspapers -- as a blogger interviewed in the Observer article concludes. But maybe that, in time, will change; as papers move their content online, journalists are slowly turning into bloggers anyway. But I'm not sure that bloggers will turn into journalists: there is a very distinct set of skills and practices that journalism still requires (all that note-taking stuff) that distinguishes journalism from blogging.

In any event, the one overwhelmingly good thing about blogs is this: they provide yet another opportunity for me to pontificate.


Mrs Thatcher and the state funeral

So Thatcher is getting a state funeral.

I'll have more to say about that another time, but what I'll say now is this: Thatcher always fought intensively for a smaller state and low public spending. It's deeply ironic that there is going to be a big state-organised event when she dies, which will cost taxpayers millions.

I wouldn't mind so much if it were a party celebrating her departure, but the event is actually going to be in her honour.

Perhaps some of the people who got rather rich when she sold off our public services might be better placed to organise and finance the funeral.



New track: "Bad Ambitions"

Hello all,

If you go to my Facebook page, you can stream one of the tracks I'm working on for my new album:

Scroll down a bit and click 'Bad Ambitions' - it's one of the tracks in the music player. You can also hear it on Myspace but it sounds pants on there (Myspace MP3 compression is rubbish!). Listen to it on headphones, not tinny cheap computer speakers, and play it loud please.

The song features the fantastic drumming of Ben Woollacott, who is kindly helping me out with some tracks at the moment. He's doing some fab overdubs and I'm really pleased to be working with him. We recorded some of this song down in Hackney's Exostudios, and the rest in my own setup.

Assuming you like David Bowie mixed with Blondie, it should hopefully appeal. We still need to tidy a few things up on it, add some more strings and maybe some soulful John Gibbons backing vocals, but it's getting there. Enjoy it while you can 'cos I'm taking it down in a couple of days!


Knives out for the economy

There are two things which seem to be dominating the UK news at the moment: the state of the economy, and knife crime. Both serious topics.

But I can't help feeling that the more the media tell us that the economy is deteriorating, and that knife crime is spiralling, the worse the economy gets (because people are scared to spend their money) and the more kids carry knives (because they're scared of being knifed).

I may be wrong, but it feels to me that we're all talking ourselves into bad situations, or reading ourselves into them.

English newspapers being (broadly) the muck that they are, they are clearly using both stories to sell papers, but I reckon it's time for a bit of calm-headedness. Or else more kids could die - and the economy will get so bad that we'll cut back on buying papers.

Obviously Murdoch will worry more about the latter.




Been talking to some mates about songwriting lately, and reading some blogs about it. Several musicians I know have recently done courses on the subject, facilitated by people who are presumably qualified to instruct others in the art of songwriting. It got me wondering whether you can actually teach somebody how to write a song.

The way these songwriting courses seem to work is that there are various workshops where an 'expert' in songwriting imparts words of wisdom on how it's done to an audience of (presumably) aspiring songwriters. Then everybody pairs off and writes songs together, and there's a bit of a love-in where everybody's efforts get discussed en masse at the end of the day.

Thinking back to how I learnt how to write songs, I suppose that in a roundabout way, somebody did show me how to do it: Lennon or McCartney, but (sadly) not in person. From listening to their songs, I worked out how to structure my own, write a Beatle-esque melody, harmonise and so on. As a precocious songwriting teenager, I copied the poor band shamelessly (some would say that I still do -- and that I'm still precocious). I listened to them non-stop and tried to soak up as many of their ideas as I could; and in their day, the Beatles did exactly the same, with Elvis and Chuck Berry. This 'soaking up' forms the building blocks of every songwriter's music (there's no such thing as an original idea after all).

This makes me think that a) songwriting is, initially at least, all about copying stuff and b) other musicians influence songwriting immensely. Which leads to this: how good a songwriter you are will depend in no small way on your ability to copy things (think of it as similar to being a good draughtsman) and on the quality of the musicians you are copying.

In other words, if you're into James Blunt, you're fucked.

Of course, the thing about these songwriting workshops is that it's highly unlikely that the great songwriters are going to turn up at them to do a spot of teaching (you're probably going to get somebody who had a bit of a hit in the 80s or knew a man down the pub who did). And if you were lucky enough to have a great artist show up, would they really be able to teach you anything?

If McCartney decided to give a masterclass in songwriting, I'd love to attend it: he is universally acclaimed as one of the best writers the world has known, and he is a massive inspiration to me. However, I still doubt there is anything he could verbally articulate that that could teach me how to write a song. In fact, and being slightly cruel here, he hasn't written a good one himself in quite a while -- so if he can't teach himself how to do it again, how on earth would he instruct me? I'd say he'd be more interested in suing me for occasional attempts at plagiarism.

The other thing about songwriting which makes me think that it is difficult to teach is the personal dimension. The great songs are all inspired by personal traumas or joys. I could not imagine anybody at a songwriting course being able to supply either of those on tap (well, unless a certain Mr Blunt I referred to earlier was doing the teaching -- there would be plenty of trauma in that instance). The great songwriters do not overtly teach; we listen to their music and absorb their ideas over time.

Maybe I'm being a bit too harsh on the notion of songwriting classes. There are very basic elements which I suppose can be taught: structures (intro/verse/bridge/chorus -- you know it all now), and maybe some history around the topic. But not much more.

However, I'm quite Cartesian at heart, and in the spirit of trying to teach people how to write a song, I'm going to give it a bash. In a mathematical way. Here's an equation which I think will predict how well you will be able to write a song:

Ability to rip an artist off + quality of artist being ripped off + own personal experience/inspiration = Quality of song

Sadly the word 'quality' crops up too many times in my little equation. Quality is an impossibly subjective notion: one man's meat will inevitably be another man's poison. So even if somebody thinks they know how to teach somebody else how to write a fantastic song...somebody else will think that the song that ends up being written is, quite frankly, shit.

My conclusion: songwriting can be learnt, but it sure can't be taught.