Twisted City by Chris Singleton - album sleeve

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Entries in Music (4)


On rock critics

For musicians, facing the rock critics is always one of the most daunting and perplexing aspects of putting out an album. Daunting because of the fear of rejection; perplexing because of the multiple responses from critics to the same music.

It was a particularly baffling experience encountering the reaction to my current album, Lady Gasoline. A critic from The Irish Times thought the album was rubbish, focusing as much on my hearing problem (or as she put it, ‘angle’), hyperacusis, as the music; two days later the Sunday Business Post critic remarked that my hearing condition was completely irrelevant and the album was a complete triumph. Q Magazine applauded the record's stylistic diversity at the same time that Gaydar Nation bemoaned its wearing of copious influences on its sleeve; industry bible Music Week approved of the album's production values while some at BBC Radio 2 found fault with them. Dubliner Magazine loved the ELO references that pop up on the record; certain hip music bloggers definitely didn't, being far too cool (or perhaps young) to appreciate anything to do with Mr Jeff Lynne. And some of the lazier critics or bloggers just printed my press release verbatim (in which case the album was naturally the greatest thing since sliced bread – result!).

Whilst I obviously cut out all the positive reviews – to show our soon-to-arrive baby how fantastic a musician his/her father was when he still had time to do that sort of thing – and consigned the poor ones to the dustbin of rock history, I couldn't really ascertain from either set of reviews how good or bad the album was. I was left with the sense that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, one man's meat is another man's poison, it’s a very postmodern world we live in and so on.

Reading all the reviews got me thinking about rock criticism though, and the relationship between those who produce music and those who write about it. This relationship is a fascinating, symbiotic, love-hate affair.

It’s symbiotic because both groups currently rely heavily on each other for their jobs. A simple take on the situation is this: with no music produced, the critics have nothing to review (and no music magazine/supplement sales); with no reviews, the artists have no exposure (and no album sales). It’s a love-hate affair because critics love or hate the output of musicians, and musicians love or hate the reaction of the critics.

It gets more fun than this though, because another layer of criticism can also kick in – when the musicians start to become critics of the critics. From my scouring of the rock press for reviews of Twisted City and Lady Gasoline, I’ve noticed that some music critics can simply write better prose than others; some have a greater knowledge of rock history than others; some are more familiar with how recording works than others; some only like stuff that sounds like Radiohead’s Kid A; some are clearly straight out of college. You can spot the more informed critics from the charlatans a mile off, and you start to judge their output accordingly. In the circle of musicians I move in, conversations about the quality of the various rock critics’ output crop up time and again. It sounds daft, doesn’t it: musicians hanging around rehearsal studios, engaging in metacritcism.

The other thing I’ve noticed about rock critics is that just like the musicians they review, they jostle and compete with each other for attention. At best, this leads to some hilarious crimes against the English language being committed; at worst, it leads to some critics being cruelly dismissive of albums just to make a name for themselves. There is a constant – albeit understandable – struggle going on amongst rock critics to establish themselves as the most acerbic / wittiest / able-to-use-flowery-words scribe on the block; but we musicians are sometimes the unwitting casualty of this. The battle for rock critic supremacy and reputation means that music is often not judged on its own terms but on the basis of how cool the critic will look if s/he gives it a thumbs up or not.

For me, the best rock critics are the ones who invest energy in understanding how music is made and explaining this to readers. The late Ian MacDonald – who penned the authoritative Revolution in the Head tome about the Beatles – was particularly good at this. He was meticulous in explaining how melody structures, chord selections, key changes and close or open harmonies affect emotional responses to music; he also brought explanations of production techniques into his reviews, showing how compression or equalisation bring tracks to life – or not.  Most critics can impart opinions, and some do so very clearly and wittily, but very few seem to want to go near the actual nuts and bolts of how the music is actually made and operates on listeners – possibly because they simply don’t understand this area. A shame, since it’s the combination of all these nuts and bolts which ultimately make a listener fall in love with music.

Whatever about musicians’ views on critics and critics’ views on music, the relationship that I’ve described above between both groups is going to change massively; and predictably, this is down to the internet. On one level, thanks to digital technology, there is now far more content to review (recording and distributing music is now easier than ever) and far more people to review it (in the form of online journalists, bloggers and armchair critics). However, due to the web’s decimation of both newspaper and album sales, we may in time see the end of both professional recording musicians and reviewers – or at the very least, a massive decline in their numbers. This will mean that the relationship between both groups becomes less symbiotic, as recorded music and reviews of it cease to be mutually essential for income generation.

Perhaps this lack of reliance on critics for (non-existent) album sales will lead to more outspoken attacks by musicians on their reviews – such as the hilarious (but in some respects, arguably justified) reaction by Chris de Burgh to a dismissive Irish Times write-up. And maybe rock critics will become even more honest about musicians’ output, not having to worry about keeping (non-existent) record labels and advertisers sweet.

Either way, we musicians will no doubt continue to dismiss rock critics as irrelevant and say it’s the audience's views that matters. Unless, of course, it’s a good review we’re talking about, in which case we’ll slap a nice juicy quote from you on the next press release, thank you very much.

More Chris Singleton content


Music by numbers

A while ago, I wrote a blog post about the increasing importance of data to musicians. The gist of it was that in the burgeoning 'free music' era, bands and musicians should aim to capture the details of people who are downloading their songs for free. The idea being that even if artists are not making money directly from recorded songs, they can generate income in other ways by marketing merchandise, tours and so on to fans whose email addresses they have obtained.

There's another type of data which is of increasing significance to musicians, and it doesn't necessarily involve email addresses. It's statistical data.

With the rise of social networks like Facebook, Myspace, iLike and Last FM, musicians now have a plethora of ways to measure how many people are listening to their music. For example, any band with a Myspace page will be able to see how many plays of their songs they are getting; which tracks tend to be more popular; and how many songs are downloaded (as opposed to just listened to). On iLike, there are similar statistics, which again let musicians see how many plays their tracks are getting, and other interesting counts, like how many people are adding a band's songs to Facebook pages and how many people are sharing particular songs with friends.

These statistics tend to focus on two things: popularity of songs, and listeners' behaviour. Both are of enormous interest to musicians.

The popularity measurement is fairly straightforward. Thanks to Myspace and Facebook a band can put up, say, five tracks on a profile and run an unofficial focus group on which of their songs would make the best singles (depending on how commercial-minded the band is, the tracks that get the most plays).

Looking at listeners' behaviour is more complicated, but extremely interesting. Thanks to social networks (and other sites) you can examine what listeners are doing with music. With a bit of investigation, you can find out who is

  • adding your song to their social networking page
  • dedicating your songs to friends
  • listing themselves as being a fan of your music
  • recommending you as an artist to online communities
  • feeding back on your music
  • talking about you behind your back
The list goes on, depending on which websites a you are using, but essentially, when you look at the data, pictures of behaviour emerge that can influence how bands and artists communicate and build relationships with fans.

All sites are not equal when it comes to music statistics though. Of all the social networks that I've used to promote my music, the one I trust the most for music statistics is Last FM. This is because it doesn't just measure online plays of music - it goes far beyond that. Every time a registered Last FM user plugs their iPod or MP3 player into their computer, it looks at what they've been listening to and uses it to compile statistics; the same happens when a user plays a cd on their PC. The statistics are extremely comprehensive too, with charts being compiled on a band's most popular songs overall, by week or over a 6 month period. And you can see exactly who's been playing your music, and how much.

Crucially, Last FM distinguishes between listeners and plays. This is not the case with Myspace, where you can only look at the number of plays of songs - there is no listener data. This is pretty useless really; generally, once a Myspace page is visited by either a human or a search engine webbot, the play tally goes up, regardless of whether the song has been listened to by the human or, er, webbot in question. And unlike Last FM, none of the data is stored; once you've removed a song from your page, the data goes with it.

In essence though there is a lot to be gleaned from the musical information that the web provides - by looking at who is playing your music, and what they're doing with it, I think it is possible to grow fanbases and understand what makes people tick musically. But it's hard work, and you have to be able to work out the good stats from the bad.

If you want to check out some of my statistics, my Last FM profile is at



The future of rock and roll

I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to put out a physical cd in the UK and Ireland recently. Happily, it picked up good reviews, some national airplay and I got on the telly doing quirky gigs on London public transport. But the lack of a marketing budget, big-budget video, TV plugger, print advertising etc. meant that it was going to be very hard to compete with records from established acts. Whilst it's safe to say that the critical reaction to the album was very positive (this was much to my relief), with my resources -- and even with the PR help of a major in Ireland -- I simply couldn't reach enough listeners to sell the cd in big quantities. I hate admitting that, but there you go. I still fly on budget airlines, in other words.

Now that all the singles have been released from the album, I reckon I've sold as many copies of 'Twisted City' as I'm likely to, in the UK and Ireland at least. But I'd still like the distribution of the album to continue in some shape or form, and I'd like to keep introducing the music to new ears.

This is why I've embraced what may become known as "the Radiohead model" of distribution: offering a download of the album to listeners at no financial cost.

Commentators made much of the fact that Radiohead allowed people to pay as much or as little as they liked for the download of 'In Rainbows'; I think they missed the point. Radiohead were after email addresses as much as the donations. Think about it: as a result of their experiment, Radiohead probably now have the means to communicate, entirely free, with their ENTIRE fanbase. And sell future products, tours and merchandise to them direct (which is the most effective way of selling). There are companies who would absolutely kill to have their entire customer base on a database, and spend vast quantities of time and money trying to achieve this; in a matter of weeks, Radiohead compiled a massive mailing list and, incredibly, made money in the process of doing so (through the 'honesty box' aspect of the exercise). Very clever stuff.

With the advent of 'free album' distribution, I can't see paid-for music continuing for much longer. It's so ridiculously easy to copy and share music that paying for it seems arcane. Once somebody has an album, everybody has it. When an album is just a set of files, there becomes no effective difference between a paid-for set of files and a free set of files. I hate thinking of music in these terms, and I always pay for albums, but the reality of the situation is that most people are looking at music in this clinical way.

It means that the income which pays for new music (and salaries...) is going to have to come from other sources. I see two main ways in which artists and labels are going to make money in the future:

1) By selling band merchandise / gig tickets direct using the email addresses gathered during 'free album' releases. Only stuff which can't be 'copied' electronically will be worth selling.

2) By making albums available for free on sites on which paid-for adverts are displayed.

The second scenario worries me somewhat, as we may end up in a situation where, like commercial radio, advertisers dictate what is and isn't "acceptable" (this is why there is so much Celine Dion on the radio).

The bottom line is that musicians are going to have to get a lot smarter about how they get their music out there. In the future, it may be the case that instead of musicians fighting for the attention of majors, we'll fight to get the biggest database, or to get more of our 'free albums' out to people than the other guy. It's going to be as cut-throat as ever, regardless of the internet revolution. That's why I want to get in early with the whole free download experiments.

As for the free Radiohead album, with the exception of one song, 'Body Snatchers', I don't like it. I paid for The Bends and OK Computer; they were much better. Or maybe I just think that because I parted with cash?

You can download Chris Singleton's 'Twisted City' album free at


A World Turned Up

It was when going to the toilet became difficult that I knew I really had to do something about it. The sound of a flush was, for me, as loud as standing beside somebody drilling a hole in concrete, and extremely painful. Other pain-inducing noises included showers, telephone ringtones, espresso machines, badly-oiled car brakes, the beeps before tube doors shut, and a certain friend of mine who has a rather high-pitched voice. These sounds might irritate most people; for me they hurt. This was my world turned up: for nearly two years, I heard everyday sounds at incredibly loud volumes. And, being a musician and songwriter, this nearly put an end to all hopes of career in music.

The problems all started when I started to feel a strange 'fullness' in my left ear. It felt a bit like when you get water in your ear in a swimming pool. At first I didn't think much of it, attributing to an infection, but then I started to notice that the fullness seemed to get worse every time I heard a 'loud' noise. In my case, the loud noise was usually the sound of my own voice, coming out of a pair of speakers in a studio. Most musicians love the sound of their own voices; mine was starting to cause me distress.

The first port of call was my local GP. He had a look at my left ear and said I had a small hole in my eardrum, and gave me some antibiotics to treat it. A couple of weeks later I returned, and apparently it had healed. But by now something else was happening: I was starting to find certain noises, particularly high-pitched ones, painful – and not just in my left ear; my right ear was behaving strangely too.

This started to have a subtle effect on my behaviour. When getting on a train, I would always look for the loudspeakers which announced the station names, and find a seat as far from them as possible; when going to a café I would distance myself from the coffee machines. Needless to say, social situations started to become really difficult. Bars and clubs became a no-go area without the aid of earplugs, and wearing them drew unwanted attention, one friend even going so far to ask if my earplugs were a fashion accessory. Obviously, I frowned at him. Gradually I became more and more dependent on earplugs, and wore them not only in bars and clubs, but in just about every situation.

And of all the noises that caused me difficulties, music was the worst. I was in the middle of recording "Twisted City" and was spending a lot of time in the studio, trying to mix it, a lot of the time in considerable pain. This problem was having a disastrous effect on the album. I would turn the volume down and try to mix at daftly low levels, or I would mix with foam earplugs in. Both approaches to mixing the album had predictable results: it sounded rotten. With repeated trips to my GP (each at 50 Euros – £30 – we don't have free GP visits in Ireland) came reassurances that nothing was wrong with my ears, and that my hearing was fine. Eventually, I was referred to a specialist – the first of several.

I walked out of the consultant's office 150 Euros (£100) worse off, and no wiser. The rather stern chap, who wore a dickie bow (this was the only redeeming feature of the appointment), gave me a hearing test and told me I was fine. He referred me to another clinic where I could get a more in-depth one 'just to put my mind at ease,' which like an idiot, I did. Another 60 Euros.

By now two things were happening: first, I was moving to London to pursue a rock career and a relationship – and second, my ear condition was getting worse. What had started out as weird was really starting to affect me; I became very depressed about how this allergy to sound was affecting my attempts to 'make it' as a musician. It's hard enough plugging your musical wares around London without having the additional worry of your music causing you physical distress. I also became extremely irritable, and a complete nightmare to live with; my relationship with my girlfriend suffered considerably as a result of me being on constant edge around any everyday sound. It got so bad that she started worrying about sounds herself, and was reduced to tiptoeing around the house whenever I was around. It lead to a series of rows where both of us had to whisper at each other – shouting was entirely out of the question. Neither the music career or the relationship seemed to be working out.

Hitherto the health profession hadn't explained what on earth was going on – so, reluctantly, I turned to the internet. I finally found a description of a condition which, based on the symptoms I had, seemed to be what I was suffering from: hyperacusis, "an increased sensitivity to the sounds that most people are able to tolerate".

The problem was that all these websites on which I'd found references to hyperacusis seemed to differ in their approach to what it was, how it was treated, and whether it was something permanent. It was time to reapproach the health professionals; this time I thought, with a diagnosis of sorts, maybe I can get some treatment. I went to an NHS doctor and asked if he could put me on a four-month waiting list to see a consultant.

By this point, and faced with a long wait, I was really panicking, and I decided (against my pinko-liberal instincts) and for the sake of my career, to see a private consultant.

£250 later I walked out of the consultant's room. He had spent five unfriendly minutes with me, told me I had got the diagnosis right, and had given me a prescription. I was elated about the prospect of taking a pill to remove the pain, until I googled the name of the drug prescribed, Clonazepam. It was an anti-anxietal drug, with strong side effects, some of which could actually cause hyperacusis. More googling led me to the Tinnitus and Hyperacusis Centre in London; I rang them up and they informed me that you couldn't cure hyperacusis with a tablet, and that in fact they had told that very consultant in a recent seminar that prescribing Clonazepam was a bad idea! The centre offered treatment by desensitisation (where hyperacusis sufferers are played white/pink noise at gradually increasing volumes to readjust their ears to everyday volumes), but it was very expensive and, not having health insurance (or even a job), at this point I couldn't really afford any more private treatment. I gradually got more and more stressed about it all, and the more I got stressed, the worse the hyperacusis got, and the more I wore my earplugs to block out the sounds around me. Which, unbeknownst to me, was part of the problem.

The last resort was the NHS appointment. I waited the four months before it came round, and to be honest I wasn't expecting much from it, as at this point nobody seemed to have been able to help. But I was surprised. Instead of giving me hearing tests, prescribing dodgy drugs, or charging me thousands of pounds to go through a desensitisation programme, they gave me "hearing therapy". I was skeptical at first, because I didn't equate an ear problem with a need for a hearing shrink. Fortunately though I wasn't subjected to hearing psychobabble, but practical and sound advice.

First, I had to stop using earplugs in everyday scenarios. This is one of the worst things a hyperacusis sufferer can do, as when the earplugs are taken out, the brain perceives everyday noises as far louder than they actually are. It reinforces the hypersensitivity to sound. Earplugs – but special, expensive ones (they cost about £170) – were still to be used in loud, musical contexts, but they were to be taken out at regular intervals. Secondly, I was told I had to stop worrying about sound, and to stop being 'afraid' of it. The more I worried about sound, the more I had been focussing on it, and the more I tried to avoid it. A reassurance from the hearing therapist that I had not permanently damaged my ears really helped in this regard, as did some simple suggestions on how to relax. Eventually, I learnt to go out and about without earplugs, and experience noise the way everybody else did again. And crucially, I was able to remix "Twisted City" at a reasonable level.

By the time I felt my hearing was back to normal I had spent approximately £760, and seen three GPs, three consultants, three nurses, two trainee hearing therapists and a hearing therapist. The emotional cost had been huge too: I had nearly given up on my music and my girlfriend. Eventually I got very good help from the medical profession, but if there was more knowledge within it about hyperacusis I am sure I could have finished my album far quicker, and avoided those whispered fights with my girlfriend. But ultimately I think the whole thing was good for me; I'm extremely careful these days when it comes to mixing music at high volumes – the cause of the problem, I'm sure – and I don't do things which are effectively bad for my ears, like wear earplugs in restaurants. Except of course, when I'm in need of a fashion accessory. I'd recommend the big yellow ones.

For more information about hyperacusis, you can refer to the Action on Hearing Loss fact sheet (PDF download) on the condition, which provides very useful advice and suggestions for treatment.

After all that, here's how the album eventually turned out...
For a limited time, you can download my 'Twisted City' album entirely for free at