Sunday, 15 November 2020

Vinyl in the Time of Covid-19

 

On Thursday I was interviewed on the fruity American television programme LIT Entertainment News about a turnaround: in America vinyl records are outperforming compact discs. Trade figures for the first half 2020 demonstrate that vinyl sales constituted 62 per cent of the revenues for physical formats. It was the first time since the 1980s that vinyl had generated more money than CDs.

            This is something that had been predicted. Sales revenues for vinyl records have increased every year since 2006. Sales revenues for compact discs, in contrast, have declined annually since the millennium. When 2019's trading figures were announced it was predicted that, if trading patterns continued, vinyl would be on course to surpass CDs. Some people called this a long time ago. In my book Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record, I quote the music journalist Adam Woods, who stated in 2004, ‘it is easy to believe that the format could thrive even as the CD begins to lose ground to the Internet’. I also have a 2011 quote from Lyor Cohen, who was then the CEO of the Warner Music Group, stating that ‘vinyl will definitely outlast CDs’.

It should be noted that vinyl is outperforming compact discs in terms of revenues but not in terms of units sold. One of the reasons why vinyl is generating more money is because each album typically costs two and a half times more than a CD. It is also the case that, in our time of lockdowns, it is more likely that consumers will purchase vinyl than CDs. The former format appeals to collectors and remains accessible via mail order. The latter format is more casually purchased and will be neglected in times of shop closures. Trade figures also indicate that the overall market for physical records is paltry. Vinyl accounts for four per cent of the American market. Streaming, on the other hand, accounts for 85 per cent.

Yet the figures are still remarkable. Vinyl looked on course for obliteration twenty years ago; it is now firmly established as a recording format that both consumers and the recording industry will invest in. Pressing plants have struggled to keep up with demand. Equally impressive is the fact that vinyl sales have continued to increase despite the strictures of Covid-19. In the United States they are up four per cent year-on-year. In the UK the trade magazine Music Week has reported that vinyl has defied ‘coronavirus chaos to post big rises’. Sales for the third quarter were up 41.4 per cent on 2019. This is largely due to the rescheduling of Record Store Day, but is demonstrative of the public’s commitment to this format.

After fifteen years of sales increases and a resolute performance in the face of coronavirus we should probably stop talking of vinyl’s revival. Instead, our focus should be elsewhere. The compact disc has been defeated. Will it now become an object of fetishism for collectors?

 

 

Sunday, 25 October 2020

Radiohead’s Kid A and the Anti-Globalization Movement

 

This month has witnessed the twentieth anniversary of the release of Kid A by Radiohead. The occasion has been marked with numerous press articles and broadcasts, which have served to remind me what a fantastic album it is. I’ve also revisited an essay I wrote about it shortly after it was released, which I’ve now posted on academia.edu.

The essay was written for an MA in Popular Culture that I was then studying at the Open University. The brief was to analyse a piece of music drawing upon various strands of theory explored in the course. Hence it has references to Theodore Adorno, Antonio Gramsci and my personal favourite, Raymond Williams. It’s real theme, however, is the links between Radiohead’s work and the anti-globalization movement. I saw the album as an attempt to capture the spirit of Naomi Klein’s No Logo in sound.

            I still hold with much of what I wrote back then, but what has interested me on revisiting the essay is how it reflects a moment in time. The anti-globalization movement was at its zenith at this point. It really did feel as though it could ‘construct new alternatives to globalisation from the bottom up’.

            Then something happened. On 9 September 2001, the Twin Towers in New York were attacked. This diverted attention from the campaign. On the one hand, western allies were rallying together, with foreign nations choosing to declare ‘we are all Americans now’. On the other hand, some of the amorphous energy of the anti-globalization movement was channelled into opposition to the war in Iraq. Radiohead were swept up in this tide. Their next album, Hail to the Thief, was released in 2003. It swapped the drift of Kid A for targeted attacks on George Bush, and was overall a far less impressive work.

            I argue in the essay that Kid A was never a difficult or obscure album. You just had to be in tune with the emergent ‘structure of feeling’ of that time. It says much, then, that Kid A still resonates. 9-11 might have brought the most intense period of anti-globalization protests to an end, but the impetus behind that movement has not gone away. If anything, the need to disappear completely is felt more keenly now than it was twenty years ago.

 


 

Sunday, 30 August 2020

Kyle Devine 'Decomposed'

 

My review of Kyle Devine’s book Decomposed has appeared in the latest edition of the Popular Music journal. As I state in the review this is a brilliant book which addresses a subject with which we should all engage. Devine looks at the environmental damage that is caused by our consumption of recorded music. He deals with this issue by dividing his analysis into three periods: the shellac era (1900-1950), which witnessed the industrialization of music; the plastic era (1950-2000) in which the production of vinyl, cassettes and CDs implicated the recording industry with the petrochemical industry; and the era of data (2000 to now) in which the consumption of music has moved online. Importantly, Devine disabuses us of thinking that our consumption has consequently been dematerialised. He calculates, in fact, that the environmental costs are ‘higher than ever before’. Decomposed draws upon a wealth of materials in its analysis, including my own book Vinyl, which he has used to create a thesis beyond anything I had imagined. As I note in my review, some of Devine’s calculations can be questioned, but the importance of his argument cannot be gainsaid. My review can be accessed via this link. Devine’s book is available from MIT Press.


 

Saturday, 18 July 2020

Mute Records: Artists, History, Business, Paperback




Last month, Bloomsbury Academic published Mute Records in paperback. I co-edited this book with my colleagues Zuleika Beaven and Marcus O’Dair. It was compiled in honour of Mute Records fortieth anniversary and as a tribute to Daniel Miller, the head and founder of the label, who acts as a visiting professor at our university. He is a great person. The new edition currently retails at £26.09, which, while still expensive for a paperback book, makes it more readily affordable than the hardback edition, which costs £86.40. According to the blub:
This edited collection addresses Mute's wide-ranging impact. Drawing from disciplines such as popular music studies, musicology, and fan studies, it takes a distinctive, artist-led approach, outlining the history of the label by focusing each chapter on one of its acts. The book covers key moments in the company's evolution, from the first releases by The Normal and Fad Gadget to recent work by Arca and Dirty Electronics. It shines new light on the most successful Mute artists, including Depeche Mode, Nick Cave, Erasure, Moby, and Goldfrapp, while also exploring the label's avant-garde innovators, such as Throbbing Gristle, Mark Stewart, Labaich, Ut, and Swans. Mute Records examines the business and aesthetics of independence through the lens of the label's artists.
I co-authored the introduction and contributed the chapter on Moby, which addresses his album Play and has received some notice in reviews. Writing for Punk and Post-Punk, Paul Hollins has described it as a ‘fascinating and important chapter’ that raises ‘disturbing questions of “truth”  and “illusion” though Moby’s “borrowing” and extensive re-use and re-purpose, without artistic credit, of sampled black voices of the deep South in the United States’. In her review for Popular Music, Veronica Skrimsjö states that this chapter is a ‘particular highlight’ and notes how I compare Moby’s use of samples to the tradition of blackface minstrelsy. For  Skrimsjö, This notion appears quite unique, but Osborne provides a very robust and convincing argument that, should one accept it (which this reviewer does), changes the discourse surrounding ownership and sampling considerably’.
           This chapter has a long history. Although it is now looking back on Play from a distance of twenty years, I began work on it when Moby’s album was still in the charts. The first version was completed in July 2000, as an essay for an MA in Popular Culture that I was taking at the Open University. I reworked it four years later for a course on metamorphosis at the London Consortium. It was at this point that I introduced the minstrelsy theme. One of the tutors, Colin MacCabe, liked it so much that he suggested I submit it to Critical Quarterly, the journal he edits. I reworked it again and it became my first published article. Finally (for now), it seemed apt to revisit it when my colleagues suggested compiling a book about Mute Records.
           Something remains missing, nonetheless. What none of the iterations capture is that, despite questioning Moby’s practice, I do like some of the album. There is a particular song on it that has always has stopped me in my tracks. I was going through a hard time when the record was released. Moby’s ‘Why Does My Heart Feel so Bad?’ captured my mood and helped to alleviate my pain. It still gives me the chills. This is one of the recordings that samples black voices, however, and it is indicative of the complexities and emotional power of popular music. While it might be necessary and even important to highlight instances of cultural theft, we are nevertheless all complicit in appropriation. The very act of listening draws us into other worlds and, at the same time, encourages us to situate those worlds within ourselves. There can be a fine line, however, between exploitation and empathy. And that’s what Moby sets in play. 
           

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Black Lives Matter


The music busines is responding to the death of George Floyd and its reignition of the Black Lives Matter movement. On 2 June it held ‘Blackout Tuesday’ in which many companies and organizations ceased business activity for one day in order to ‘disconnect from work and reconnect with our community’ and seek ‘an urgent step of action to provoke accountability and change’. Affirmative action has followed.
            In the first instance, there has been a funding pledge from entertainment companies and artists. The major labels, Universal, Sony and Warner have between them committed $225m, which will be used in support of black charities and to address ‘internal’ and ‘institutional’ change. YouTube has announced a £100m fund dedicated to ‘amplifying and developing the voices of Black creators and artists’. Stormzy had donated £10m to black British causes.
Secondly, there has been a semantic rethink. The One Little Indian label has changed its name because of ‘the violent history of the terminology’, the US Recording Academy has dropped the term ‘urban’ from two of its awards, and more broadly there are a number of labels who are rebranding their urban divisions. ‘Urban’ is being resisted because it is ‘rooted in the historical evolution of terms that sought to define black music’ and has ‘developed into a generalisation of black people in many sectors of the music industry, including employees and music by black artists’. Ultimately, its abandonment might result in structural as well as semantic change. The hope is that its departure will bring an end to the ghettoization of black employees and artists. The move is not universally welcomed, however. There are black music bosses who argue that this ‘we are all the same attitude’ will not work in a society in which some are more equal than others. They fear that the removal of barriers will result in white executives taking charge of black repertoire because they feel they know ‘better than anyone else’.
There is a manoeuvre that has received less attention but which could result in unquestioned good. One of the ways that racism has been ingrained in the music industries is through black artists receiving exploitative contractual terms. As such, it is not surprising that artists such as Kelis and Erykah Badu have retweeted a statement by the American professor, Josh Kun: ‘If the music industry wants to support black lives, labels and platforms can start with amending contracts, distributing royalties, diversifying boardrooms, and retroactively paying back all the black artists, and their families, they have built their empires on’. This has already had some effect. On Tuesday 9 June, BMG’s CEO Hartwig Masuch declared that    
Mindful of the music industry’s record of shameful treatment of black artists, we have begun a review of all historic record contracts. While BMG only began operations in 2008, we have acquired many older catalogues. If there are any inequities or anomalies, we will create a plan to address them. Within 30 days.
It is not only statues that are falling.

 

Saturday, 13 June 2020

Pleasurable Guilt?


Sometimes writing should be withheld. In 2002, Gary Mulholland produced one of the finest list books about popular music, The 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk and Disco. As well as covering many fantastic records, the entries are shot through with insights. They also glow with a righteous passion about the injustices of race, class, gender and snobbery. This book was followed in 2006 by The 261 Greatest Albums Since Punk and Disco. It is a far inferior work. Aside from the fact that albums are frequently incoherent and therefore hard to sum up, Mulholland’s pronouncements have a tendency to jar.
            The worst instance comes with his analysis of Misty in Roots' Live at the Counter Eurovision 79. Despite including the album in his book, he describes it as ‘kinda silly’ and ‘pretty camp’. This stopped me in my tracks when I first read it. Had I been listening to a different record? Was I wrong to take this album’s earnest pronouncements on race and class seriously, when really I should have taken them with a pinch of salt? Mulholland thinks so. For him this record was aimed at a ‘white middle-class audience’ who sought ‘damning judgements upon their entire existence’. These judgements include the famous spoken word introduction to this album, which states that:
When we trod this land, we walk for one reason. The reason is to try to help another man think for himself. The music of our hearts is roots music: music which recalls history, because without the knowledge of your history, you cannot determine your destiny; the music about the present, because if you are not conscious about the present, you're like a cabbage in this society; music which tells about the future and the judgement which is to come.
The Radio 1 DJ John Peel, who was responsible for introducing this record to many people, was so taken with these words that they were included in the order of service at his funeral. Mulholland argues that, while they are supposed to sound ‘simultaneously spiritual, authoritative and stoned’, the speaker ‘just sounds gay’. He is similarly snide about ‘How Long Jah’, the track on the album that says most about racism. It is introduced with a cry of ‘how long must we feel the pain?’. For Mulholland this complaint sounds like a ‘granny with a backache’.
            This writing represents a hollow game of one-upmanship. Mulholland wishes to come across as being more insightful than other listeners while also attempting to best them in terms of liberal credentials. He wants to say that, not only is racism wrong, but it is perpetuated by the fact that white listeners take roots reggae so seriously. For Mulholland, a greater move towards equality would be for white people to take the piss out of these musicians in the same way they take the piss out of everyone else. This involves calling someone ‘gay’. Aside from this peculiar attitude, what I find most unforgiveable about this writing is that it did affect my listening and presumably the listening of other readers as well. I questioned whether in listening to this album I was just indulging in some form of pleasurable guilt.
            The music speaks more loudly, though. Misty in Roots certainly condemned whiteness - ‘Satan said I’m free, but I’m not free’ – and by extension could be said to be admonishing their white audience. This wasn’t a game of assuaging guilt, however. The group always preached togetherness. They were a fulcrum of the Rock Against Racism movement. They pointedly named their record label, ‘People Unite’, and launched the career of the white punk band, the Ruts. ‘How Long Jah’ asks how long must we feel the pain. It couches the problem in monetary terms: we are ‘economical slaves’ who cannot escape ‘money the controller’. Live at the Counter Eurovision is not preaching at a white audience, it is instead enfolding this audience in shared injustices and is suggesting ways to move forwards as one.
            And it definitely is not camp. In fact, what is most astonishing about Misty in Roots is that they sought unity and spoke of shared experience despite being the victims of institutionalized racism. In the same month that the album was recorded, Britain's far right party, the National Front, had planned to hold an election meeting in Southall, the multi-cultural district from which Misty in Roots hailed. The group helped to organize the anti-fascist response. In the resulting ‘Southall riots’ the teacher Blair Peach was killed by the police. The police’s Special Patrol Group also beat Misty in Roots’ manager Clarence Baker into a coma. He was then charged with assault despite the fact he was unarmed. Tragically, ‘How Long Jah?’ was not only speaking the truth at the time it was released, but it remains true today. Another generation has been born in slavery. Black lives matter.



Monday, 17 February 2020

The Critics' (Second and Third) Choice Award


Do the Brit Awards provide evidence of sexism in the record industry? This year they have been called out for a lack of female nominees. In particular, it has been noted that the candidates for the most prestigious award of the night, the one given out for Album of the year, are essentially a duplication of the names for the Male Solo Artist award.
Geoff Taylor, chief executive of the BPI and the Brit Awards has defended these shortlists, stating that the Brits are ‘a reflection of what's going on in the business. There’s been a lot of success for male acts in 2019 – and with grime and hip-hop doing very well, they are more male-dominated genres’. While this statement would appear to absolve the record industry of any responsibility for the male orientation, Taylor further excuses the Brit Awards on the grounds that there have been more female nominees and winners in previous years.
The Critic’s Choice award would appear to back up his claim. Inaugurated in 2008, its first winner was Adele. Since then, half of the winners have been female artists and each of these artists has gone on to have considerable success. This year the trophy has been renamed as the Rising Star award. It’s first winner – Celeste – is female too.
What interests me here, though, is the artists who were shortlisted for the Critic’s Choice award but didn’t win the trophy. If we look at their careers, a different picture emerges:


2008. Winner: Adele.
Runners up:
·      Duffy – had huge success with her first album Rockferry (2018) which sold over two million copies in the UK. Endlessly (2010), did not do as well. Since then there has been a hiatus in Duffy’s music career
·      Foals – have enjoyed a sustained and successful career, releasing six albums between 2008 and 2019, the last of which made it to number one in the UK
2009. Winner: Florence and the Machine
Runners up:
·      Little Boots - released three albums between 2009 and 2015, but nothing since then.
·      White Lies – have released five albums to date, with diminishing returns
2010. Winner: Ellie Goulding
Runners up:
·      Marina and the Diamonds - four moderately successful albums over the last ten years, all on Atlantic Records. The second of these, Electra Heart, topped the charts in the UK, but was the lowest selling number one album of the 21st century
·      Delphic - an all-male alternative dance band who released albums in 2010 and 2013, the latter of which reached 77 in the UK chart. They do not appear to have released anything since 2014, albeit that one of the members is now part of a songwriting collective known as ‘The Six’, which has had some chart success
2011. Winner: Jessie J
Runners up:
·      James Blake – has released four successful and internationally acclaimed albums to date
·      The Vaccines – have released four albums and are doing OK despite some line-up changes
2012: Winner: Emile Sandé
Runners up:
·      Maverick Sabre – a male English-Irish vocalist/rapper who has released three albums: Lonely Are the Brave (2012) on Mercury records, reached number 2 in the UK; Innerstanding (2015) on Mercury, reached number 41; When I Wake Up (2019) on Famm, reached number 46
·      Michael Kiwanuka – has released three albums between 2012 and 2019 and is doing fine
2013. Winner: Tom Odell
Runners up:
·      AlunaGeorge - an electronic duo featuring a female singer and male producer, who have released two albums: Body Music (2013) on Island, reached number 11; I Remember (2016), also on Island, reached number 71
·      Laura Mvula - is brilliant, but has released only two albums: Sing to the Moon (2013) and The Dreaming Room (2016), both on RCA (Sony). She was dropped by the label in 2017
2014. Winner: Sam Smith
Runners up:
·      Ella Eyre - released one studio album Feline (2015) on Virgin EMI, which went gold. She is apparently releasing a new album on Island Records
·      Chlöe Howl – a solo album was intended for 2014 but was never released. She left her label, Sony music, and is releasing singles and EPs but with no chart success
2015. Winner: James Bay
Runners up:
·      George the Poet – a spoken word artist/poet/rapper who was signed by Island, but left the label ahead of the release of his debut album. Since this time he has concentrated on poetry instead
·      Years & Years – have released two albums. The first, from 2015, went platinum in the UK, the second, from 2018, only achieved silver, but the band still garner considerable publicity
2016. Winner: Jack Garratt
Runners up:
·      Frances – a female singer/songwriter who released one album in 2018, on Capitol, which reached 43 in the UK chart. She has released nothing since 2017, but has had credits since then as a songwriter
·      Izzy Bizu – a female singer/songwriter who released an album in 2016 on Epic records, which reached number 23 in UK. Released a single in 2019 but with no chart success
2017. Winner: Rag’n’Bone Man
Runners up:
·      Anne-Marie - released a studio album in 2018, which went gold. Her singles have done well too
·      Dua Lipa – her 2018 debut album went platinum. A new album is due for release in April this year
2018. Winner: Jorja Smith
Runners up
·      Mabel – released her debut album in 2019, which went silver. Has had a decent-sized hit single with ‘Don’t Call Me Up’
·      Stefflon Don – a female rapper who has not yet released an album. She had a top ten single in 2017, but no great success with her recent releases
2019. Winner: Sam Fender
Runners up:
·      Lewis Capaldi – his debut album is a double platinum seller
·      Mahalia - released an album in 2016 that didn’t do much. Her 2019 album reached number 28 in the UK charts.

What does this tell us?
            First, that in almost all cases the winners have had greater commercial success than the runners up. The only exceptions are that last year’s winner, Sam Fender, who has been outsold by Lewis Capaldi. It is also arguable that James Blake has had a more stellar career than Jessie J. Meanwhile, Dua Lipa’s debut album sold less than the debut by Rag’n’Bone man but it looks as though she will have greater international success than him in the immediate future.
            Second, that the lack of success amongst runner’s up is alarming. Out of the twenty-four artists who were finalists but missed out on winning the Critic's Choice award only eight have had major British or international success (Foals, James Blake, Vaccines, Michael Kiwanuka, Years & Years, Anne-Marie, Dua Lipa, Lewis Capaldi). Two more acts have had moderately successful careers (White Lies, Marina and the Diamonds), while the fate of two other acts (Mabel and Mahalia) is too close to call. This leaves twelve acts who have either stopped making music, been dropped by their labels or achieved only modest returns (Duffy, Little Boots, Delphic, Maverick Sabre, AlunaGeorge, Laura Mvula, Ella Eyre, Chlöe Howl, George the Poet, Frances, Izzy Bizu, Stefflon Don). The categorization of some of these artists could be debated, but it is nevertheless the case that more of the runners up have failed than have succeeded. It could also be argued that failures always outnumber successes in the record industry, but it should be noted that here we are dealing with acts that have been prioritized by their labels. They have been signposted towards the critics. They have received considerable backing and yet this has still not paid off. The Critics’ Choice award is indicative of the fact that the chances of success have narrowed. Vast swathes of music are made available in the streaming era, but the concomitant reaction to this tyranny of choice is that the music and media industries are focussed on a mere handful of artists.
            And there is a third thing that is revealed. Prioritization is even more concentrated if you are a female artist. It is a notable achievement that nineteen of the thirty-six artists nominated for this award are female. However, it is also notable that there are only three male acts among the twelve nominees whose musical careers have ended in failure. The chances are harder if you are a woman. There is no year in which a female artist won the award and a female runner up has also achieved sustained success. It would appear that the UK music business can only wish upon one female star at a time.