With Wings' live album, 'Wings Over America', getting the 'deluxe' re-release treatment soon, and BBC 4 screening the accompanying 'Wings Over The World' film recently, I thought it was only right that I stick my oar in and write about drummers with beards and the difference between pre- and post-Beatles breakup McCartney...
BBC 4 was made for people like me. It’s the only channel I can turn to whenever I desperately need to see a medallion-sporting man from the 1970s – complete with a well-thought out, flowing 1970s beard – bash the living daylights out of a drum kit, while another equally hairy dude coaxes excellent noises from a twin-neck guitar.
You get a lot of that sort of thing – plus Linda – in Wings over the World, a film which BBC 4 aired recently. It’s basically a film of Wings doing their live thing in America, Australia and Europe in 1975/76, featuring between-song clips of the band horsing around backstage, the McCartneys displaying what a happy farmyard-animal-loving family they were and so on.
Now, Wings were an odd sort of a band (and so deeply uncool that I risk exile from whatever’s left of the music industry by even mentioning them in a blog post). But even the most cynical of rock journalists would find it hard to argue with the quality of songwriting that is evident on tracks such as Band on The Run, Live and Let Die, Jet and Let Me Roll It. None of these would have been that out of place on a Beatles album (granted, Lennon might have helped give them a bit more more balls and heart, but even so, they are fine examples of songwriting). On the other hand, there is something more than a little off-putting about the relentless, homespun cheerfulness displayed by Paul and Linda in the mid-seventies (and tracks like Single Pigeon didn’t really do McCartney’s reputation as a songwriting genius many favours). As much as I don't remotely buy 'cool' as being a pre-requisite to rock greatness, there was just something too happy about Wings sometimes.
However, if you can put all thoughts of McCartney’s cheerfulness, thumbs, vegetarian sausages and Single Pigeon lyrics aside, there is much to enjoy in Wings over America. For a start, the performances – particularly those of guitarist Jimmy McCulloch – are outstanding. The tour was a big one, involving 66 gigs – this effectively meant 66 nights of band practice and a lot of takes for the film editors to choose from; all meaning that the performances shown in the film are generally ones where the group is on fire. The band for this tour was a nine-piece (nearly twice the size of McCartney’s current touring band) and the splendidly-sideburned horn players involved make everything sound huge. (Watching the film I couldn’t help thinking that it’s a shame McCartney doesn’t bring a brass section on tour with him these days.) Nobody who has ever played in a band could, in their heart of hearts, fail to be impressed by some of the musicianship on display throughout this film – yes, Linda’s too.
Music aside, what also makes this film enjoyable – as with many of the 1970s music films that BBC 4 spoil us with – is the ‘time capsule’ nature of it. I was born in the late 70s (admitting I am this old also means immediate exile from the music industry, incidentally) and I am always fascinated by the glimpses that films like this show of the world I arrived into – a planet where telephones were static objects; dodgy wallpaper wasn’t employed for strictly ironic purposes; people drank coffee, not flat whites; and nobody tweeted pictures of their food. The cars, sounds, flares, microphones, haircuts and TV sets are wondrous to behold; all part of a vintage, disappearing world that is at once foreign and familiar (quite possibly because it is now endlessly recycled by 20 year old hipsters).
So, other than getting even more nostaglic for a decade that I didn't see much of, did I come away from watching Wings Over America a die-hard Wings fan? No. I find that what’s generally missing from a lot of Wings tracks is emotion: the hooks are often there, as they were in McCartney’s Beatles songs; but there is no hint of pain. For example, Hey Jude or Blackbird have some killer hooks, and they are deeply moving songs; Live and Let Die or Band on the Run are laden with equally hummable melodies – but they (and countless other catchy Wings tracks) just don’t seem to speak to the heart. The musicianship and production values are actually technically better on most Wings records than on Beatles ones; but again, there’s something missing from everything that you can’t quite put your finger on. In some of McCartney’s early solo albums, there is admittedly more ‘heart’ to be detected – there is clearly unchecked emotion, for example, to be heard in songs like Maybe I’m Amazed and Too Many People from McCartney and Ram respectively. But for me so much of McCartney’s output with Wings – as well-written and as well-produced as a lot of it is – just lacks depth. The soul, if you’ll pardon the terrible Beatles pun, is often of the rubber variety.
But all that said, sometimes you just have to take your hat off to a supremely well-oiled, pop/rock machine that belts out hooky song after hooky song. And by the end of their 75/76 tour, that’s what Wings had become, and that’s what this film captures. Watch it on a decent telly hooked up to some big speakers, put your inner cynic away, and enjoy a moment of pleasurable guilt.
There's something rather sneaky going on in Britain at the moment: an attempt to cod the population into believing that its most controversial, divisive prime minister ever was a unifying figure that everybody supported (or should have supported) and whose policies “saved the nation.”
An array of tactics are being employed to convince us that Thatcher was essentially a Churchill Mark II: the state-funeral-on-the-sly; the recall of parliament; a torrent of newspaper headlines pronouncing her Britain's greatest ever PM; vast numbers of Thatcherite talking heads queuing up to commend her legacy to pliant TV news anchors; and, of course, a royal presence at her funeral. It’s nearly as bad as when we had to endure months of catching buses sporting huge pictures of Maggie’s hairdo photoshopped onto Meryl Streep’s head.
However slickly presented, however, the messages about Thatcher being put about by her cheerleaders are at odds with reality.
She was not unifying; I doubt that more vitriol has been directed at any other post-war British prime minister (even Bush-loving, Iraq-bombing Blair), dead or alive.
She was not universally popular: she won her elections with a smaller share of the vote than all previous post-war Tory prime ministers, and at every general election she contested, around 60% of the country was consistently voting for other, mainly left-liberal, parties (her electoral success had much to do with a split left and the UK's questionable voting system).
As for her policies – both the ones she implemented in office and the ones she influenced afterwards – you will find many who will line up to question the merits of privatising such basic utilities as water, transport and energy, and plenty of economists see her 1986 'big bang' financial market deregulation (and the subsequent adoption of Thatchernomics by New Labour) as laying the foundations for the financial crisis that is doing all our heads, wallets and spare bedrooms in today.
Despite all this, it is unlikely that from listening to politicians, watching TV or reading your preferred daily rag you will get any real sense of the fact that in truth, a huge tranche (majority?) of the UK population disapproved of what Maggie did to her country, and that she was not just disliked but hated by millions.
You also won’t find many journalists lingering that long on her support for murdering despots like Pinochet; or her backing of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Yet in our supposed age of austerity, no expense is being spared by an otherwise penny-pinching state to ensure that this woman goes down in history as a secular, unifying saint; and no effort is being spared by the, ahem, impartial media we enjoy in the UK in ramming this sainthood down our throats.
Against this backdrop of enforced-Thatcher-respecting, the rise of Judy Garland's Ding Dong! the Witch is Dead up the charts may seem trite or tasteless, but it is actually very significant.
Yes, it is rather rude – and, perhaps, a touch sexist – to compare the UK’s first ever female prime minister to a witch. Yes, it disrespects the dead (and, some would argue, witches). But however crude this musical protest might appear, as the track has approached the top of the charts, it has become a pointed countermelody to an overplayed tune which insists that Margaret Thatcher was the saviour of the nation. It sticks two fingers up, in a nicely British (and, appropriately, collective) way, to the notion that Thatcher was a unifying figure and a force for good.
The many British people who view Thatcher in a negative light do not have £10m handy to organise elaborate ceremonial events designed to make a political point. They can't recall parliament at public expense to reminisce on their experience of Maggie. They don’t control the airwaves. They don’t happen to run newspapers. They can’t rely on a royal showing up at an anti-Thatcher party (not even a Z-list one, like Princess Michael of Kent). But delightfully, they’ve still managed to find a way to forcefully question the Thatcher myth being sold to them.
With its lyrics referencing lullaby leagues, lollipop guilds and munchkins, the chart success of Ding Dong! may feel like a somewhat childish, minor victory, but it’s actually hugely important, because it forces a largely Thatcher-supporting media to report on a widespread and deeply-felt unhappiness with Thatcherism; and crucially, the success of the song can’t simply be dismissed as being the work of just a few troublesome crusties from North London (despite my own best efforts in cajoling my friends to buy my music, there just aren’t enough of these types to propel you into the charts).
As a young whippersnapper I was, like a lot of other young whippersnappers, obsessed by the music of The Beatles (and indeed the band themselves). They were a terribly bad influence on me though: they inspired me to pick up a guitar and write music. Possibly not the most sensible thing for a young chap to be doing really, and certainly an activity that would make the chance of getting rich quick much less likely, but there you go.
The other thing that the band did was inspire me to pick up lots of books - namely, books about The Beatles. From the age of ten up until my early twenties I devoured any Beatley tome I could get my mits on. Ian McDonald's Revolution in the Head; Albert Goldman's The Lives of John Lennon; the Anthology book; Mark Lewisohn's various diary-style accounts of their career...and many, many more.
This voracious reading of Fab Four-related books resulted in a few interesting things happening.
First, as a ten-year-old I encountered lots of detailed accounts in Beatles biographies of 'knee-tremblers' and other sexual antics during the band's stint in Hamburg that required explanations from a clearly embarrassed and obfuscating father who wasn't expecting the sex-ed chat for another couple of years. Then, I became much in demand at pub quizzes during the music round. And finally the elders in the village heard of my wonderous knowledge of all things Beatley and would call me up any time there was a Beatles-related clue that had them stumped in a crossword.
As I got older and more into recording equipment (yes, an interest in girls developed along the way somewhere too, but that's another and possibly less exciting blog post) my Beatle nerdiness turned to studio nerdiness. The Beatles books gathered dust on the shelf as I started reading Sound on Sound magazine and very technical books by its editor, Paul White, on how to put grey foam on the walls of a home studio. Precious few references to knee-tremblers in there but I must say I learned to love a bit of grey foam.
But recently, I came across a book which seemed to appeal to both the Beatles and studio technology anoraks in me: Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles by Geoff Emerick (co-written with music journalist Howard Massey).
Now, as any proper Beatles fan will tell you, Emerick is the guy that engineered a truckload of their music, including the Revolver, Sgt Pepper's and Abbey Road albums; he was present at the first ever Beatles recording session and was involved in some way or other with nearly all of their output. And I have to say that this is probably the most interesting book about the band I've read.
Whereas most other people writing about the band have had to rely on conjecture or second-hand accounts to paint a picture of what went on the studio, Emerick's account of their recording sessions is a completely first-hand, fly-on-the wall affair. Emerick spent much of the sixties holed up in the same room as the world's most influential rock band as they recorded their most important work, and as such he is able to provide a unique, intimate warts-and-all portrayal of the group - a portrayal that almost leaves you feeling like you were 'there at the time'.
As you read the book you get an incredibly vivid sense of The Beatles' personalities; and what's interesting about this is that rather than warming to the band members, you start to dislike them.
Many other authors of Beatles history indulge in hero-worship, to the point where the band are god-like individuals that can do no wrong, musically or otherwise; however, Emerick is not afraid to point out that The Beatles were assholes a lot of the time.
According to Emerick, they were frequently stand-offish; they wouldn't share their food (particularly digestive biscuits); they had huge egos; they were selfish; and they were snobbish towards the Abbey Road staff. And occasionally, Emerick is pretty critical of their musical skills: for example, George Harrison is portrayed throughout much of the book as a very average guitarist who took ages to get any solos right. Ringo is depicted as a fairly disinterested sort of individual who didn't have that much musical input into anything.
Emerick has interesting things to say about George Martin too; namely, that he wasn't half as important to proceedings as he is generally considered today. In the book Emerick describes him as more of a string arranger than a producer, who was reluctant to give any of his engineering team any credit for their work; he also states that from 1966 onwards he was viewed by the band as a bit superfluous to the recording process.
It's also remarkable to discover that the place where this recording took place - Abbey Road Studio 2, so revered by Beatles fans all over the globe - was actually intensely disliked by the band and many of the EMI staff who worked there (who considered it a dank, dark sort of a place).
And then of course, there's the accounts of the technical side of the recordings. The danger with this aspect of the book was that the passages on the actual sound engineering would be a turn-off to the reader who is not really interested in familiarising themselves with the ins and outs of valve compression and microphone placement, but somehow Emerick, with his co-writer's help, manages to make this sort of thing entertaining for the non-technically minded reader. His description of how he engineered Tomorrow Never Knows , which involved a giant tape loop going all around Abbey Road (via white-coated staff members holding up pencils for the tape to spin upon) is particularly fascinating, not to mention very humorous.
Now, as authors of these sorts of books tend to do, Emerick is writing history to suit himself and doesn't hold back from portraying his own contribution to the Beatles' recordings in a very positive light. Sometimes this feels a little too self-congratulatory, and an engineer who worked alongside him, Ken Scott (who later went on to be a famous producer, best-known for his work with Bowie), completely disputes Emerick's version of events and largely dismisses the book as fantasy. It's an interesting spat, which you can read about here.
There do certainly seem to be some factual errors here and there (Scott would argue here, there and everywhere), and it does seem a bit suspect that Emerick is magically able to recall exactly what the Beatles said in specific recording sessions well enough to quote them verbatim, i.e.,
"We can't hear ourselves onstage anymore for all the screaming," Paul interjected earnestly, "so what's the point? We did try performing song songs off the last album, but there are so many complicated overdubs we can't do them justice. All we want is to raise the bar a notch, to make our best album ever."
Well, Sir Paul might have said something to that effect, and I suppose creating a sentence and putting it in quotations does help drive a narrative - however, it's a bit silly to present stuff like this as sentences that were actually uttered by the band (or interjected earnestly).
But despite these gripes - Ken Scott's or my own - I feel that Emerick's contribution towards the Beatles' recordings was so significant (his groundbreaking work on Revolver and Pepper was arguably more production than engineering), and his vantage point so unique within their history, that his take on thing deserves a fair hearing.
Maybe the passage of time, along with his lack of a diary / detailed notes of the Beatles recording sessions has led to some inaccuracies creeping into proceedings, but I don't get the sense that Emerick is making stuff up for the sake of it. Besides which, his accounts of what went on in the studio chime fairly consistently with the stories of other important Beatley witnesses.
Regardless of how accurate Emerick is on the technical side of things though, or on the exact dates on which various events occurred, what's really captivating is the basic insights you get into the personnel involved in the sessions; it's very refreshing to see people routinely described throughout rock history as geniuses who can do no wrong come in for fairly robust criticism. The Beatles become real people rather than rock gods, and as such, you can identify with them more.
So all in all, this is book is seriously worth a read, even for the most jaded of Beatles nerds. Emerick is a huge player in and important observer of Beatles history and this book takes you right inside this history, so much so that when you've finished reading the book, you feel like you've just spent the 60s in a recording studio with a grumpy, chaotic, egotistical but extraordinary talented rock band.
A quick note about a couple of upcoming gigs - I'm playing a shows in London, UK and in Rzeszów, Poland soon. As ever it would be wonderful to have your support - gig details below (I'll be following this post up with a note about who the special guests are too).
17 October 2012 - London, The Wilmington Arms
A full-band show at London's Wilmington Arms venue on Rosebery Avenue. Tickets are limited so please buy in advance here. Tickets are £9 when bought in advance online or £10 on the door.
- The show starts at 8pm.
- The venue address is 69 Rosebery Avenue Clerkenwell, City of London EC1R 4RL.
- The nearest tube is Angel (a ten minute walk away) or alternatively catch a 19, 38 or 341 bus.
20 October 2012, Rzeszów, University of Rzeszów
A full-band show in Poland at the University of Rzeszów - Sala Koncertowa Instytutu Muzyki Uniwersytetu Rzeszowskiego, ul. Dąbrowskiego 83.
Doors at 6pm. For ticket reservations, please call +48 17 8721214 (9am - 12pm)
You can purchase tickets in advance at the booking office located at Uniwersytet Rzeszowski, Instytut Filologii Angielskiej, al. Rejtana 16b (building A3), room 112 (9am-12pm)
Tickets are 30zl each.
So Two Door Cinema Club’s album has leaked. The band’s singer Alex Trimble has written fans a message about this, and, like David Lowery’s recent rant at an intern regarding the topic of illegal downloading, it’s been doing the rounds online. I much prefer Trimble’s more gentle, thoughtful (and pleaful) take on the situation than Lowery’s; but regardless of tone, both pieces add to the sense of a music industry in deep crisis and a bunch of suffering musicians getting ripped off by their listeners.
However I’ve got a hunch that the music industry’s probably doing fine…and, in a sense, probably generating as much, if not more, dosh than ever before.
“What is that mad Irishman talking about?” I hear you cry. Well, I think of the music industry as something different to the record industry. The record industry – individuals and companies manufacturing and selling records – is generally screwed, because the digital revolution has led to a situation where recorded music has been reduced to a set of ridiculously-easy-to-copy files. However, the same digital revolution has also led to an enormous explosion in the number of bands that are actually in a position to record, distribute and promote music; this means that the music industry – which I think of as all the people, products and services generating revenue as a result of music-making, not just CDs and MP3s – has a much bigger customer base than ever before. This customer base is not the music-purchasing public though – it’s the musicians who, in most cases, are no longer the people generating income from music, but the people financing this industry.
There have always been thousands of bands all over the world that have wanted to make records. However, until about a decade ago, when advances in technology started to put ridiculously good recording equipment in the hands of musicians, release-quality recorded music was expensive to produce and very difficult to distribute, meaning that only bands with a significant budget (those who were signed or had investors) generally got to put out records. However, these days, every Tom, Dick and Harry has an album up their sleeve, because they a) simply bought a laptop and an audio interface and recorded it on that, or b) availed of studio time that is now much cheaper than it used to be (due to studios having to compete with the aforementioned laptop and audio interface). As for distribution, getting an album into the ears of a (theoretically) global audience is now incredibly cheap and easy thanks to the likes of iTunes, Spotify and so on.
What does this mean? A huge increase in the number of bands releasing albums. However, most bands – understandably – are reluctant to pour their hearts and souls into recording an opus only for it to only ever be played by their mums. So they start to buy services that might give the album a chance to reach the great unwashed. Graphic design. Manufacture. Photography. Web design. Web hosting. E-newsletter design. Public relations. Radio pluggers. Printing of posters. Distribution of posters. Online advertising. Digital distribution. Venue hire. Smoke machine. Hairy sound guy…the list goes on. Generally speaking, all the above services come with a price tag, and thanks to the explosion in the number of bands releasing music independently, a big “DIY-release” market has developed as a result, packed full of companies, consultants and freelancers catering to the 'needs' of the DIY musician (not to mention a whole load of pro-audio equipment vendors selling gear that promises to make your record sound like it was recorded at Abbey Road).
And here is where the opportunity for musicians to get ripped off really lies. For the vast majority of self-releasing musicians, the whole ‘some bastard downloaded my album for free’ argument is a bit of a sideshow. (In fact, independent musicians are generally delighted when somebody downloads their album illegally, because it hints at the fact that somebody somewhere actually likes their music). No, the opportunity to get properly robbed arrives when bands start to purchase the ‘DIY-release’ style services I mentioned earlier.
The problem is – and I speak from personal experience here – that bands are not like normal customers of goods and services. For most musicians – certainly those without children – their music is their baby. They don’t think rationally about it. They love it so much that they are prepared to spend whatever it takes (or whatever they have) to help it succeed in that big bad music-filled world out there. They ignore the fact that people are not buying music in the droves that they used to, and that there are probably more artists flogging music than ever before. The idea of a return on an investment doesn’t figure in their thinking at all, and many artists releasing albums now don’t have any management, meaning there is nobody in the background to say ‘whoa, don’t spend all that cash on putting together a triple disc limited edition vinyl press of your concept album about beans’.
This generally results in musicians making four big mistakes:
- They don't set a strict-enough budget or consider the fact that they need to actually sell X number of records to make their money back
- They don’t shop around for the best deals on the things they do need (if they actually know, of course, what these things are)
- They invest in things they absolutely don’t need (over-the-top packaging; posters; narcotics for the A&Rs who are unlikely to attend the launch party anyway)
- They hire unscrupulous, snake-oil-salesmen who operate out of a glorified shed in a field north of London promising fame and fortune to artists in the form of a £1,500 per month ‘reputation management’ arrangement
I’ve made all of these mistakes in my time; but in hindsight I don’t think I would have made them had I grasped the importance of the ‘record industry’ / ‘music industry’ distinction I discussed earlier. If musicians understand that the record industry is dying on its arse, and that the notion of people paying for recordings is becoming increasingly quaint (whatever we feel about the moral implications of that), it forces them to think more creatively about how to monetise their music rather than simply hoping millions of people will buy their next album. And if artists understand that the ‘music industry’ is increasingly about servicing a market of DIY-musicians with products and services that may or may not result in album sales, it might encourage them to think in a more business-like way, decide what actually might generate a return on an investment, work with the right people or agencies and crucially, avoid the snake-oil salesmen – or at the very least, ask some probing questions about the snake oil.
I've gone all 'Behind The Music' and put together a little video about the making of Twisted City. This is maybe a little self-indulgent, as I can't say Q or Mojo regularly include it in their top 100 albums of all time, but I know that there is a little band of Twisted-City lovers out there, and this video is for them. It's got commentary about the recording of the album, tracks, and photos that I haven't put online before. Plus a truckload of bad haircuts.
The video can be watched at http://www.youtube.com/embed/1l8n9RLLcdg
A quick note to let you know that I'm starting to put together some little video clips from the recording sessions for my new album. They let you see what we're getting up to and give you a sneak preview of the new record. You can view the first of these below.
If internet rumours are to be believed, June 6 2011 may possibly be the music industry’s equivalent of “The Rapture” (for those of you who haven’t been on Facebook recently, or have been living in a hole in the New Forest, "The Rapture" was beginning of the end of the world, and was supposed to happen on May 21. Nothing of the sort happened, unless you are reading this on a cloud with Jesus or you are feeling rather hot and can’t concentrate on this article because a devilish imp is poking your bottom with a pitchfork). Of course “The Rapture” turned out to be a damp squib, but June 6 is more likely to live up to its reputation as being a day on which the music industry will change forever.
So what’s happening on June 6? Well, according to a multitude of newspaper articles and blog posts, it’s the date that Apple may unveil their ‘cloud service’ – a system that lets listeners stream music from the web. Now, as the cloud service in question hasn’t been unveiled yet, it’s not clear what form this is initially going to take. It could be that Apple are simply going to offer something similar to Amazon and Google’s new cloud systems, which allow you to upload and stream your music collection on the web, wherever you are.
But frankly, that’s a pretty boring approach, and unlikely to be what Apple’s “cloud offer” will be. If rumours are to believed, Apple have been working hard to secure licensing agreements with the “big four” record companies – Warner Music Group, Sony Music Group, EMI Group and Universal Music Group – which means all this is heading in one direction: a streaming service similar to Spotify’s, where listeners will eventually be able to stream whatever music they like (for a fee, of course).
If Apple does go down this route, it means that an en-masse switch from paid-for downloads to on-demand music streaming is now just around the corner – the rise of 3G web connections, increasing use of smartphones and Apple’s 75%-85% share of the download market would more or less guarantee that streaming becomes the de facto way that music is consumed. If Apple release a software update for iTunes containing streaming functionality, millions of iPod, iPhone and computer users in general all around the world would suddenly be able to stream music instead of paying to download files. The choice of tracks would be vast – significantly bigger than Spotify’s library, due to full music industry buy-in – and the reach of the service would be enormous too, thanks to Apple’s strong global position in both the download and mobile device markets. All this would arguably result in death of the download, and pretty quickly too.
What would be the impact of this on musicians? Well, for bands who are signed to a label and getting a significant marketing push, it would be fairly good news – it makes their music even easier to access. For musicians without a budget however, it would represent more of a headache. This is because streaming removes the attractiveness of a key tool used by musicians to entice people to sign up to email updates: the free download. For several years now, indie musicians with any clue whatsoever have been giving away downloads in exchange for the ability to communicate with fans online – with individual tracks, EPs or even albums being swapped for email addresses or Facebook ‘likes’. However, there is not much of an incentive for a potential fan to grab a free download from a band if a) they don’t really download music anymore and b) the track can be streamed anyway on iTunes.
The free-download-for-email-address scenario that we’ve seen over the past few years has led to a situation where clued-up independent musicians have, to a certain extent, been able to bypass traditional gatekeepers – labels, journalists, distributors, promoters and radio stations – yet still make quite respectable amounts of money from music via direct-to-fan sales. Perhaps it’s a negative way of looking at things, but with downloads diminished as an incentive for joining a mailing list, indie musicians will be able to communicate directly with fewer and fewer listeners online; so ironically, technological advancement may lead us back full circle to a situation whereby only those with serious budgets can introduce consumers to new music - and create any demand for it.
But if you are an indie musician who has built a business model on free downloads, and all this does sound like the end of the world, don’t despair yet. Pretty much every technological development in the music industry has shut one door only to open another; and with all these developments, the trick is to stay ahead of the curve. The musicians who twigged that free downloads helped build databases first built the biggest databases (and sold the most music and merchandise); and it will be the musicians who twig how best to use streaming cleverly who will monetise the new landscape. The trick is to think fast. But the end of the download is nigh – get ready.
This year my holiday reading list wasn't very long - I was too busy on the beach trying to follow the UK election on my phone (a sign of the times, eh). Nonetheless I did get to read one book: 'The Long Tail' by Chris Anderson.
In this fascinating tome, Anderson highlights how in this new-fangled age of e-commerce, online retailers are actually making more money out of selling lots of individual niche products than they are from selling hits. The classic example given in the book is Amazon: in a given week they may sell thousands of copies of a particular Coldplay album, but during the same time they will sell far more albums by a variety of less-well known artists.
This creates the 'long tail effect', which is illustrated in the diagram below. On the left hand side of the graph you see the million-selling acts, seemingly way more popular than everybody else. On the right hand side you see the 'long tail' of all the other less popular niche artists that don’t sell as many copies of their albums. But because digital distribution has allowed literally anybody to sell albums online, there are now so many niche products available for sale that the tail goes on and on and on…until all the products that sell one or two copies a year actually generate more profit, when considered together, than the hits that might sell millions in a year. The little guys actually pack more of a sales punch.
This is great, obviously, for Amazon and other online retailers - all they have to do is stock as much stuff as possible. But what are the implications for all the niche artists - like yours truly? Well, to be honest, I don’t think the long tail effect helps niche artists that much in strict retailing terms. The best application of 'the tail' for generating music sales is probably to make as much of your music as possible available to buy – somebody’s going to want to buy that alternative nu-metal-emo-dance remix you did of some crappy B-side, so why not let them (the downside though is that putting ropey content out there may not be great for your artistic integrity or image).
However, what may help musicians a bit more is another long tail effect: the long tail of media. If you look again at the chart above, and this time think of the left-hand side of the graph as containing the big publications – national newspapers and magazines – and the right hand side of the chart as containing the bloggers (or online content creators), it becomes clear that the bloggers actually have a bigger readership than the traditional media. A country may have 10 national broadsheets, which will be read by millions of people a day, but millions of people in that country will be creating content on blogs or social networks every day which is read by 10 or more people a day.
Needless to say it’s fantastic for bands if they can get into conventional print publications – as this is brilliant for profile and will no doubt also influence what bloggers are writing about – but it’s bloody hard. In the absence of success in that area, the long tail of media points to an alternative strategy for musicians who need exposure. This is to convince a critical mass of bloggers and other content creators to advocate their music. This is not by any means an easy process – it requires a lot of targeted approaches, and a lot of email-writing, but if done properly, at least it offers some exposure instead of none. The digital revolution has created a situation whereby decent bands who had no hope of getting national press can now at least get their music written about and crucially, heard by a potentially large audience.
Of course, this probably fuels the creation of demand for niche music - and helps Amazon sell more of it. So perhaps the biggest lesson of all this is that if you're in a band you should probably give up now and go work for Amazon!
More Chris Singleton content
I love Pink Floyd. My favourite album of all time is their masterpiece, Dark Side of the Moon. It is a stunning piece of work. And now, thanks to a legal victory by the band over their record company, EMI, I’m not going to be able to download individual tracks from it (or indeed any other Pink Floyd album).
Pink Floyd started this legal fight in order to “preserve the artistic integrity of the albums”. In their view, this artistic integrity would have been fundamentally undermined had listeners been able to listen to tracks out of context from the original albums by downloading them individually.
Now, I sort of understand this reasoning. The album format is a wonderful thing, and Pink Floyd have some wonderful albums, where each track is a component part of a whole; tells part of a story; segues ingeniously into another song; and so on. When it works, it works beautifully, and it makes for a great listening experience where the album, in its entirety, really is the piece of art and the songs are the component parts. So to a degree, I buy the argument that by allowing users to pick and choose tracks to download, the album gets lost or forgotten about. Which, when this happens, is of course a great shame.
However, I still think this is a bad move by the band, mainly because it will serve to significantly reduce the reach of their music – and the likelihood of people hearing their albums (and enjoying the aforementioned artistic integrity) in the first place. My bet is that a 16-year-old who is curious about and new to Pink Floyd might take a punt on a track or two if they were downloadable from iTunes – but is far less likely to take the plunge and buy a whole album without sampling their music first. Thinking back to the way I got into Pink Floyd as a youngster, it was entirely the result of hearing individual tracks out of context from the albums: I’d go round to mates’ houses where I’d hear mix tapes featuring Pink Floyd songs that were plonked alongside an eclectic mix of other stuff. I would never have bought a copy of Dark Side of the Moon at all had it not been for those random encounters with Money or Time sitting uneasily next to Kinky Afro on an old cassette.
But regardless of whether the band’s legal win reduces the reach of their music, it leaves Pink Floyd in a position where they are odds with reality: legally they can control how people listen to their music, but in a practical sense, they can’t. This isn’t just about the MP3 era: since the cassette came along and home-taping took off in the 70s, listeners have had lot of control over how to listen to songs – in context, out of context, legally, illegally, whatever. Then the CD player arrived, and with it the ability to program song sequences or just hit ‘skip’ to rush past fillers on albums or hear good songs again. And if we’re honest about it, even the good old vinyl LP let you do that anyway, if you were prepared to physically look for the gaps in the grooves and slap the needle down on the song you wanted to hear. I certainly remember doing that when it came to some of the less-interesting Pink Floyd albums.
The download age has only reinforced this level of control: people may be forced to download Pink Floyd albums in their entirety now, but they will be downloading them onto technology which actively encourages out-of-context listening. Shuffle modes and playlist creation in my view, render the whole idea of artists prescribing how people should hear their music completely redundant. As an artist myself I’m not entirely comfortable with that, but it is a fact, and no amount of litigation can prevent this new-found listener control.
For me, however, the most persuasive argument against the ‘you-must-listen-to-our-albums-in-their-entirety stance’ comes from Pink Floyd themselves: if they are so insistent that every song must be heard in context, then why did they release no fewer than six compilation albums containing a mix of tracks taken from a whole bunch of different albums (some, like Money, even re-recorded especially for one compilation)?
If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have your pudding.