Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Who Ate All the Pies?

We’re all researchers. At this time of year there is competitive desire to locate the season’s best mince pies. We read up on the best brands and we go into the field to test the results. As a family, we have done well. We’ve been enjoying Iceland’s ‘luxury’ brand. They came in at number two in a poll of pies conducted by Which? but are only three-quarters the price of the winner from M&S. And they are delicious.
            It has struck me that supermarket mince pies are always better than those that are homemade. This is one of those instances where the factory system does know best. The formula of balancing pie with filling is deceptively complex. It takes precision tooling and multiple repetition to get it right.
Quite naturally this revelation has led me to think, in turn, about Jimi Hendrix. In Charles Shaar’s Murray’s Crosstown Traffic there is an explanation of why the left-handed guitarist preferred right-handed guitars:
he seldom bothered with special left-hand models, both because right-handed guitars were more plentiful and easier to obtain, and because – with a touchingly American faith in mass-production – he believed that they were likely to be manufactured to a higher standard.
Hendrix knew a thing or two about guitars, so who is to say that he was wrong in this belief? If only he were with us now to help us choose our mince pies.

Saturday, 30 November 2019

Rocket Fuel

I have a confession to make. I wrote about the Elton John film Rocket Man before having seen it. Back in August I was stating, ‘if you want to see a movie that conveys the musical impact of Elton John, you would be better off watching the bus scene in Almost Famous than digesting Rocket Man’.
            I’ve now seen Rocket Man. For me it is a game of two halves. I like the coverage of the pre-fame years, particularly the scenes of Elton John as a boy in suburban Pinner. When he becomes famous, though, the film becomes dull. It’s not that stardom or drug addiction are inherently boring, it’s more that this film doesn’t really capture their highs, lows and weirdnesses. Interviewed by Graham Norton this week, Elton John had far more engaging things to say about the megalomania and depravity of rock stars, as well as about the oddities of fame. In particular, I enjoyed the story about introducing his partner, David Furnish, to his mother for the first time, only to have Michael Jackson turn up and come along to the dinner date as well.
            And what of the music? I think my hunch was right. Almost Famous is the more effective film when it comes to illustrating Elton John’s brilliance. There is one scene in Rocket Man that cuts through musically, however. It depicts the composition of ‘Your Song’. What I liked about this scene is its relationship with ‘truth’. It could be considered false in relation to music making, but true in terms of illustrating what it feels like to write a break-through hit. You capture lightning in a bottle.
            It takes place at Elton John’s childhood home, where he has returned to live with his mother and stepfather, bringing his lyricist partner, Bernie Taupin, along with him. Taupin hands John the lyrics to ‘Your Song’. John goes to the piano and writes the tune in real time. This brought to my mind Oliver Stone’s film, The Doors, in which the band similarly create their breakthrough hit, ‘Light My Fire’, in a spontaneous jam session.
Looking at the scene in The Doors again, the guitarist Robbie Krieger has scribbled down the chords and lyrics to ‘Light My Fire’ beforehand, and there is some tinkering around by the keyboard player, Ray Manzarek, before he stumbles across the Bach-inspired introduction to the song. The fully realized version that follows takes place in a different context: it soundtracks a montage sequence in which we witness the band’s escalating fame. In contrast, in the film Rocket Man, Elton John finds the tune to ‘Your Song’ immediately.
Why then does the naturalistic setting in The Doors feel corny, while the theatrical scene in Rocket Man rings true? Part of it comes down to this staging: naturalism can sabotage itself if the detail is not perfect. Melodrama, on the other hand, can capture a truth to feeling without having to concern itself with historical accuracy.
            Another reason is that The Doors scene surely is false. ‘Light My Fire’ may well have emerged from the scribbled notes, been worked up in rehearsal, and had a quickly realised intro because, in  Manzarek’s words, ‘It just came out of, you know, fifteen or twenty years of music practice’. Yet there is still the feeling that the whole process would have taken longer than this.
            Elton John, on the other hand, really does take the words of Taupin and create fully-realized songs off the bat. ‘I put my hands on the keyboard and away we go’, as John stated to Norton this week. As one example, he composed the music for the double album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, in three days. Lest we forget, this is an album that includes ‘Candle in the Wind’, ‘Bennie and the Jets’, ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ as well as the title track. ‘Your Song’ was written just as quickly. John talked with Norton about its staging in Rocket Man. For him, the film gives ‘a pretty accurate description of how it was done’.
            Even though it is ‘true’, this remains a remarkable means of creating successful music. Other composers, in contrast, can toil for months. I’m not sure how widely known it is that John writes in this way. Yet my guess is, even amongst viewers who do not know about this process, the ‘Your Song’ sequence would still appear honest. Could it be that there something in the music that is letting us know?

Friday, 1 November 2019

Stream Weavers

In last September’s blog entry, ‘Stream a Lie’, I pointed out how the recording industry is disingenuous when it comes to its revenue figures:
Streaming income is not calculated in the same manner as physical sales income, yet the record industry presents it as such. In its market reporting, the industry lumps together the wholesale revenue from CD and vinyl sales with the money it receives from streaming and downloading companies to present an overall picture of industry wellbeing. This is misleading, as the revenue from physical sales income includes costs that are absent from streams. The former is provided as a gross revenue figure and the latter details net revenue. 
The result, in the UK, is that the trade figures provided by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) look like this:

While I still stand by my analysis, there are some amendments to be made. In the first instance, while the money from physical sales is represented as a gross revenue figure, it was wrong of me to represent the money from streaming and downloading as net revenue. Some, but not all, of the expenses are taken out.
The percentage splits that make up the wholesale price of a physical release can be broken down as follows:

            Record company 45.5%
            Artist 20%
            Manufacturer 14%
            Distributor 12%
            Songwriting copyright 8.5%

The first key difference between the reporting of physical sales and the reporting of downloads and streaming is that the costs of songwriting copyright are only included in the former category. This not because the record companies are masking this expenditure in respect of downloads and streams, but instead because it is not them who bear it. They pay the songwriting royalties for physical sales; it is the digital service providers who pay them for downloads and streams. A more equal tabulation would nevertheless have these payments removed from all formats. It would then look like this:

This does make a difference. Whereas the record industry depicts their overall trade in 2018 as bringing in only 75% of the revenue that it had in 2000, once songwriting copyright is factored out it is instead worth 80% of the business at the turn of the century.
The next thing to eliminate are the costs of manufacture and distribution. As with songwriting royalties these form part of the record companies’ expenditure when it comes to physical sales but they are not spending in these areas for downloads and streams. On the one hand, there are no (significant) costs of manufacture. Each digital download of stream costs little to create. On the other hand, it is the service providers, rather than the record companies, who bear the costs of distribution. If we additionally remove these costs from the physical sales figures, we end up with the following chart:

Viewed from this perspective, the record companies were more prosperous in 2018 than they were in 2000.
            One reason why it is important to remove these costs is because it gives us a clearer idea of record company profits. Following on from this, we can gain a clearer perspective of what share of royalties it is fair for recording artists to receive. Record companies could perhaps justify their claim for 80% of the revenue for physical sales on the grounds that they had significant costs to bear. That 80% looks more questionable once the expenditure on songwriting royalties, manufacture and distribution are removed. Together they represent 34.5% of the wholesale price of a physical product. The record companies have nevertheless paid their artists the same royalty rates for downloads as for CDs. They have accounted for this parsimony by pointing to their figures. Their representation of revenue has painted a picture of an industry in decline, while at the same masking the reduction in their costs.
            Streaming has been treated differently. Whichever way the figures are represented, the position of the recording industry has improved. BPI’s own figures demonstrate an increase in revenue of 29% since trade bottomed out in 2015. My adjusted figures demonstrate an increase of 30%. Against this background, recording artists have been in a stronger position to demand higher royalties. They can also highlight the diminished role of record companies in the digital age. Some of them are being successful too. At the top end, there are artists who are now receiving 50% royalty rates for streaming.
            This also has an effect on the figures. If our next move is to remove the costs of royalties from each of the formats, bearing in mind that the record companies are now paying out higher percentages for streaming, the overall trend is reversed once more. We arrive once more at a downturn in the overall figures from 2008 to 2018. The trade in 2018 worth 83% as much as it was in 2000:

It should be pointed out that, even when we reach this stage, the figures do not detail net revenue. There are still the costs of artist advances, recording advances, video production, tour support, and marketing and promotion to take into account. IFPI have given their own representation of these figures, breaking down the US$500,000-US$2,000,000 that represents their ‘typical investment in a new signing’ into expenditure that looks like this:

There is some sleight of hand here. Much of the expenditure on advances, recording costs, video production and tour support is borne by the recording artists out of their share. The record companies advance this money to the artists, but it is ‘recouped’ from their royalties. Amongst the expenditure outlined by IFPI, it is only the costs of marketing and promotion – tellingly portrayed as the major expense – that the record companies pay for outright. They do, however, also have staff, legal and facilities costs to account for.
And there is one further twist. The BPI do not adjust their figures for inflation. If we update my final ‘net’ figure according to the Bank of England’s inflation figures, we end up with this chart:

The result is an industry that is worth only 50% as much in 2018 as it was at the millennium.
What can we gather from all of this? On the one hand, the BPI has inflated a story of decline. On the other hand, it has under-reported it. When it comes to the over-representation of decline, the most important tactic to bear in mind is not the overall totals, but instead the manner in which BPI’s representation of revenue masks the differences between physical sales and downloads/streams. Not only has this enabled them to downplay disputes about artists’ royalties, it has also aided them in their negotiations with the service providers. They have obscured the fact that the turn to downloads and streaming has reduced their costs.
The under-reporting is harder to account for. The recording industry has tactically employed its decline as a means to strengthen copyright laws in their favour and as a means to defend punitive recording contracts. Why then, has it not factored in inflation to illustrate an even more precipitous decline? Maybe, this too is about their negotiating position. They want to tell the world they are suffering. They don’t want to place themselves as beggars, however, by demonstrating that theirs is an industry that has been on its knees.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Dividing up the Pies

Take a look at this:

Now take a look at this:

These vastly contrasting pie charts tell a history of the music industries. On the one hand, we have the division of income for physical products, such as cylinders, shellac records, vinyl, cassettes and CDs. It is skewed towards the creators and owners of sound recordings and away from the writers and publishers of the songs that those recordings contain: 91.5% of the revenue goes to the recording and 8.5% to the song. This weighting has been roughly the same for as long as there have been copyrights in recordings. In the UK, the ‘mechanical’ right, which provided royalties for the deployment of compositions, and the ‘master’ right, which gave a copyright to recordings themselves, were both established in 1911.
            There are reasons for this division. In the first instance, the record companies would only accept the imposition of the mechanical right on certain conditions. One of these was that it must be subject to compulsory licensing. It was stipulated that once one record company had recorded a song all other companies were then entitled to record it as long they paid a pre-determined fee (it is compulsory licensing that gave birth to the cover version). Another condition was that these fees be fairly small. Despite complaints from music publishers, the mechanical royalty was originally set at 2 ½ % of the retail price of a record, with a stipulation that this rise to 5% by 1913. It is currently set at either 6.5% of the retail price or 8.5% of the ‘dealer’ price (the cost of the recording to retailers).
            The record companies also argued that they were taking the most significant risks and that they bore the major costs. They were paying for the manufacture and distribution of recordings, as well as for their promotion and marketing. These costs also account for the division of physical sales revenue between record companies and recording artists. Record companies argue that they can only afford to pay recording artists 15%-20% royalties because they have so many overheads. In contrast, the compositional royalties are split in the writers’ favour. One of the reasons why they are receiving a 75% share is because publishers do not have significant costs. They are not manufacturing or distributing the recordings, and since the mid-20th century their promotional role has declined.
            Why does the division for radio play look so different? The answer lies in the trade off between compensation and promotion. The songwriters and music publishers gain substantial revenue from radio because they deserved compensation. Radio usurped other forms of income. The publishing trade used to be centred on the sales of sheet music. Radio brought this to an end. Domestic music making (which required sales of sheet music to the public) was replaced with transmissions of the work of professional performers (which did not). The songwriting industry sought and gained compensation. In the UK, their broadcast revenue from the Performing Right Society (PRS) soon became primary.
            In contrast, the recording industry has gained promotional benefits from radio play. The broadcast of a recording boosts its sales. And it was these sales on which the industry was traditionally centred. The record companies still felt that they deserved some payment from the broadcasters for the use of their work, however. In Britain they managed to secure a performing right of their own in 1934, and they immediately set up the collection society PPL to administer it (the US, in contrast, has never had a performing right for recordings in respect of analogue radio. Consequently, if the second pie chart were to represent American FM or AM radio, there would be no share whatsoever for the record companies, featured artists, session musicians or for the collection societies that look after their interests).
            Recording artists are in a slightly different position to their record companies. While their record sales gain promotional benefits from radio play, the broadcast of their music can also put them in competition with themselves. Why pay to see a performer in the flesh when you can hear their music on the radio instead? It is the technological unemployment that radio occasioned for musicians that accounts for their substantial share of broadcast income. Where they might be on a 15%-20% royalty for physical sales, they are assured 50% of the sound recording income for radio play.
            It would be wrong to suggest that the establishment of these splits has been easy. Songwriters have fought for an increased share of publishing income, while featured artists, session musicians and musicians’ unions have all lobbied for performers’ shares vis-à-vis the record companies. I should also note that the 50/50 division of radio revenue between songwriting and sound recording is an estimate. The licensing income gained from broadcasters is not readily available. What has not been contested by any of the interested parties, however, is that the revenue from physical sales and radio play should have these vastly different splits.
            This difference is now rearing its head in respect of the revenue for streaming. What is a stream? The position of this format is vague within copyright law. There are those who argue that it is more akin to a physical sale (and hence should fall under the reproduction right) and there are those who argue that it is more like radio play (and therefore should be established as a performing/communication to the public right). The solution of the music publishers, in the UK at least, has been to divide the revenue 50/50. Half of it is treated as sale. Half of it as a broadcast.
            But how is the overall income from streaming being divided? Take a look at this:

When it comes to streaming, the division between songwriting and sound recording looks roughly the same as for physical sales. Songwriting has increased its share fractionally from 8.5% to 13%, that is all. Where there is a difference between streaming and traditional retail is in the the division between record company and recording artist. Some featured artists have increased their royalties from the 15%-20% they might get for physical sales to as much as 50% for streaming. There is a good reason for this: the record companies are doing and paying less. They do not have to manufacture or distribute streams; these overheads have gone.
            If record companies are doing less, why then shouldn’t the share for the songwriting copyright also increase? Writers and publishers are making this case. Session musicians are missing out too. They receive royalties for radio play, but they do not receive them for streaming. As a result, an argument has been mounted that the overall revenue for streaming (rather than just the revenue for the songwriting copyright) should be split 50/50 along reproduction right/communication to the public lines. If this were implemented, it was result in the split of payments looking more like this:

The record companies are resisting. When it comes to determining the splits between themselves, the featured artists and the session musicians they have legislation on their side. Streaming falls under the ‘making available’ right. This is a sub-set of the communication to the public right, but it has particular characteristics. Most importantly, it is not subject to the ‘equitable remuneration’ rule that is applied to broadcast revenue, meaning that rather than automatically dividing the revenue 50/50, it is instead subject to negotiation between the record companies and the featured artists (and the session musicians are squeezed out). The net result is that, in this one instance, the communication to the public right operates in the same manner as the reproduction right.
            The record companies have different arguments regarding the overall split between sound recording and songwriting. Although their costs of manufacture and distribution have been removed, other areas of expenditure remain. In particular, they are now emphasizing their spend on marketing and promotion. Publishers do not spend a great deal on advertising their wares. In contrast, the record companies’ international trade body, IFPI, stresses that marketing is now the major expenditure that record companies encounter. They posit a deliberately intimating figure of US$500,000-US$2,000,000 to launch a new act. Marketing and promotion accounts for around a third of this figure. IFPI’s estimate is that it amounts to US$200,000-US$700,000.
            There is something else that we can look at too. Compensation has always played large part in determining royalties. When a new music technology comes along, the licensing rates and the division of revenue tend to be established on the basis of the deprivation that is being caused. Therefore, we could ask, who is streaming affecting the most: is it replacing radio play or is it affecting record sales? Thus far, the figures would appear to play out in the record companies’ favour. Since streaming first rose to prominence in 2011, the revenue for physical sales and downloads in the UK has more than halved. In contrast, the UK’s collection societies for songs and sound recordings have increased their revenue for radio:

This increase in radio revenue is not vast, however. And how should the streaming splits be calibrated if it goes into decline? We have a pie fight on our hands.

Monday, 30 September 2019

India on Film

In December 2018 I was interviewed for a television series about Indian documentary film of the pre-independence era. The reason why a popular music scholar was posing as a film historian was because my first academic job was as a researcher on the AHRC-funded project Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire, which involved me viewing, cataloguing and analysing film collections held by the BFI and the Imperial War Museum.
            The resultant two-part television series, India on Film, was recently broadcast by Channel News Asia, who have made the programmes available via this link. They do an excellent job of bringing the early documentaries to life, and I am rightfully outshone by scholars who have spent their working lives studying India and/or film.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

From Bohemian Rhapsody to the Buddy Holly Story

I was recently interviewed for an article about the factual accuracy of musical biopics, written by Tom Fordy for the Telegraph. Following on from last year’s Queen film, Bohemian Rhapsody, which was criticised for manufacturing and being loose with the truth (notably in relation to Freddie Mercury’s diagnosis and disclosure that he had AIDs), there was a rash of articles that explored the printing of musical legends. With the recent release of the Rocket Man about Elton John, similar thought pieces have made a return.
            Fordy asked me to talk about the ‘truth’ of the Sex Pistols-related film Sid and Nancy and the Joy Division films Control and 24 Hour Party People. One thing that I wanted to get across, which is in the piece, is that music films rarely do a good job of dealing accurately with bands. They are oriented towards star turns by individuals, including the ability of an actor to assume the persona of a lead singer or musician. What they do not manage to capture is intra-band politics. Hence, Gary Oldham delivers an astonishing performance in Sid and Nancy, where he embodies the spirit of Sid Vicious. Andrew Schofield’s limp turn as Johnny Rotten could hardly be called nuanced, however. Similarly, the various Joy Division films have worked hard at capturing the tics of lead singer Ian Curtis, but have spent far less time on the other members of the band (this seems particularly unjust, as Joy Division are one of the rare bands in which each member’s contribution is equally vital). Bohemian Rhapsody offers a partial exception to this rule, with its attention to detail spreading beyond the lead singer. The fact that Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor acted as consultants to the film presumably helped here, as did the fact that the group had already developed ways of portraying themselves on screen, notably in the video for ‘The Miracle’, in which four young children do a great job of being Queen.
            Another thing that I talked about with Fordy, but which did not make it into the article, is that this analysis of historical accuracy should be extended to documentaries. It is presumed that they get closer to the reality of singers and musicians than acted portrayals, but I’m not sure this is always the case. On the one hand, musical biopics such as 24 Hour Party People or the Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan film I’m Not There have done a better job of capturing musicians and scenes than most parades of talking heads could ever do. On the other hand, a documentary can be just as partial as a biopic. They will be oriented towards one version of the truth or one member of a band. Take, for example, the three attempts that director Julien Temple has made to tell the Sex Pistols’ story. He has spoken of the Rotten-oriented The Filth and the Fury (2000) as being a ‘corrective’ to his earlier film, the Malcolm McLaren-instigated Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980). This did not stop him from having another crack at the Pistols, however, providing a more London-based setting in The Knowledge (2008). Each film has its moments, but they are also indicative of the fact that the Sex Pistols’ story is too rich and diverse to be contained. A further point about documentaries is that their tendency to place social context around music can be just as falsifying and mythologizing as the manufacture of narrative events in biopics. About ten years ago I heard a great talk by Richard Witts, in which he took apart the documentary Factory: Manchester from Joy Division to Happy Mondays, indicating that its scene-setting footage of Salford, which was supposed to visualise the milieu in which the members of Joy Division emerged, was in fact taken from an era prior to their births. It had originally been employed to illustrate ‘before’ and ‘after’ images of slum clearance, but the film implied that those slums were still there.
And there’s a final thing that I didn’t mention to Fordy at all. When analysing the ‘reality’ of music films, the focus tends to be on truth to history, truth to personality or truth to sociology. There is less discussion about truth to music. But which films best manage to capture the spirit of a song? Musical biopics are not the place to look. With their orientation towards narrative and character they lose the ability to deliver a good tune. Documentaries can edge closer to the marvels of music. As I have written elsewhere, there is something exciting about hearing music talked about. It sets up a thrill of anticipation for the moment that the song in question finally arrives. Ultimately, however, the films that best communicate what music feels like for us – the fans - are not the ones that concentrate on its makers. It is the reception of music that comes across most effectively. Therefore, if you want to see a movie that conveys the musical impact of Elton John, you would be better off watching the bus scene in Almost Famous than digesting Rocket Man.

And which moment of film best captures the essence of Queen? It’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in Wayne’s World of course. 

Friday, 26 July 2019

Dance to the Video

Earlier in the month I attended Orchestral Joy Division at the Royal Albert Hall, an event that was organized by the band’s old bass player, Peter Hook, in conjunction with Tim Crooks, conductor with the Manchester Camerata. There were three guest vocalists, one of whom, Bastien Marshal, became an Ian Curtis impersonator for the night. He had Curtis’s look and idiosyncratic dancing moves spot on. Is struck me, though, that Marshal is young and has grown up in a world in which he been able to access footage of Joy Division at the same time as he been able to access their sound recordings. This was not the case for me growing up. I first heard Unknown Pleasures not long after it came out. I heard Closer when it was released. Throughout this time I had not seen the band perform, though. I was too young to see them live and I had missed their three appearances on television. Two of these took place on the Granada network, so (I think) they were restricted to the north of England only (I was in the midlands). The third was on BBC2’s Something Else. This was a programme that I did see occasionally, but I missed this particular episode. In fact, I can’t remember when I did first see the Joy Division clips. It probably wasn’t until the end of the 1980s, when the first documentaries on the band began to appear. Three things follow on from this. The first is that what has become an ‘iconic’ dancing style, simply wasn’t so at the time. Most of the people buying and listening to Joy Division records didn’t get to see Curtis’s moves. The second is that the ‘iconic’ sleeves of the records took on even more weight. The sleeve to Unknown Pleasures in many ways was Joy Division. There were also key photographic images, but in contrast to Curtis’s manic dancing, these were stills. Conversely, the third thing is that is that if you did manage to see television clips in the pre-MTV and YouTube age, they did tend to stay with you. You had to register them whole. Johnny Marr suggests in his autobiography Set the Boy Free that Curtis cribbed his dance moves from David Bowie, via a one-off television appearance on the Dinah Shore Show in 1975. The evidence does appear to be telling. The question, though, is how did Curtis get to see this American programme?

Another thing that struck me about Orchestral Joy Division, and which also struck me when I saw Peter Hook and the Light at the Round House in 2017, is what a towering song ‘Ceremony’ is. If anything, it is even more powerful musically (but not culturally) than ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. It’s an unusual late twentieth century song, however, as it doesn’t have a definitive recording. The surviving members of Joy Division issued it as New Order’s debut single. This almost felt like a cover of Ian Curtis’s intended version. Then, when the studio recording by Joy Division was released on the Heart and Soul box set in 1997, this didn’t seem like it was the ultimate version either. Maybe, it is this situation makes the song so redolent live. It can only be completed by Joy Division fans.