New mini-documentary about Twisted City

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

The Long Tail

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

Pink Floyd put their foot down

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.