Monday, 23 December 2013

Santa's Little Helper

There are 15 Christmas songs in the UK top 100 this week (16 if you count AC/DC's 'Highway to Hell'). Chris Rea's 'Driving Home for Christmas' has gone up eight places to number 53.

Friday, 20 December 2013

In theory, Vinyl is an academic book

Writing in the Guardian this week, Bob Stanley has included Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record in his 10 best music historiesIt’s brilliant to be listed alongside classics such as Revolt into Style, England’s Dreaming and Revolution in the Head. What makes it all the more gratifying is that Stanley’s own book Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is being hailed as a masterpiece.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013


Every Christmas seems to bring with it a story of rogue operators setting up festive theme parks and ripping off customers with flea-bitten huskies and grotty grottos. There was one in yesterday’s Metro, with visitors complaining about the skinniness of the Santas. One of the customers lambasted the operators for running ‘a Mickey Mouse operation’.
Erm … isn’t Disney supposed to provide the benchmark by which all other theme parks are judged? There’s also something postmodern about this statement. Jean Baudrillard famously suggested that ‘Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America, which is Disneyland’. I can’t work out yet with whether the customer is proving him right or wrong.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Friggin' in the Riggin' of the Charts

We can usually only see ideology when we look at a political regime that is different to our own. North Korea is back in the news again with the execution of the leader’s uncle Chang Song-thaek. Although the news is shocking and troubling, there is also always condescension in the way that North Korea is reported: look at those crazy people, blindly in thrall to their crazy leader. But we’re blind, too. The thing is, we can’t see that we’re blind. As Stuart Hall says, when we are living amongst it, ideology is ‘rendered invisible’. Nowhere is this more true than in the democratic west. We can’t see the full ideological remit of democracy because it is made to look like ‘normal common sense’.
            What is true of politics is also true of the pop charts. The Top 40 used to look like the most obvious thing on earth: the record that sold the most was number one; the record that sold the second most was number two; and so on. But now that there has been a regime change of recording formats we can see the charts have never been straightforward or fair. At present, Britain does not allow streaming figures to form part of its tally. This seems wrong. YouTube, in particular, is the most popular means for accessing music. To not tabulate its returns is to ignore what people are actually doing. In contrast, the Billboard charts in America do include YouTube figures. But this also seems wrong. Are people using YouTube because they actually like the music, or are they catching up with gossip about salacious material? Billboard first incorporated streaming figures in February 2013. The direct result, some have argued, is videos such as ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Wrecking Ball’.
            Just as the particularities of video streaming are being used to gain advantage today, so were the particularities of physical formats exploited in the past. We can see this more clearly now. In Britain there were for many years only a limited number of record shops from whom chart returns were compiled. As a result chart pluggers targeted these retailers with free goods and promotional materials. They also sent customers in to buy numerous copies of each release. Once the sample of shops widened, the record companies adopted new tactics. They would release multiple formats to encourage fans to buy more than one copy of each single. Then there were the tactics of release dates. Records were issued to radio long before they were available in shops. They would also be discounted in the first few weeks of release. The effect of both of these measures was to ensure that new releases would go into the charts as high as possible. Singles would also be deleted after a number of weeks, thus ensuring sales within a strict timeframe.
            With the move to digital formats these policies have disappeared or have been reduced. The multi-format release is a thing of the past; singles aren’t usually discounted when they first come out; and they aren’t issued to radio as far in advance of release as they used to be. Perhaps most importantly, they aren’t deleted any more. Any recording can reach the charts at any time of its life.
            Where this has had most effect is in the lower reaches of the UK chart. Although the top thirty is still largely the preserve of the records that have been the most hyped, the numbers below that are more of a free-for-all. One effect of the permanent availability of ‘singles’ is that, more than ever, the charts are reflective of what is going on in the world. Last week ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ was part of Britain’s Top 100. A few weeks before that, the ghost of Lou Reed was back in the charts with ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ and ‘Perfect Day’. On some occasions the higher reaches of the charts are being affected as well. On 14 April 2013 ‘Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead’ made it to number two. This was the week after Margaret Thatcher’s death. (Thatcher, in fact, is the great exception to the ‘ideology is invisible’ thesis: she had no qualms about openly parading her philosophy and this is one of things that made her so terrifying.)
            At the moment the chart is full of old Christmas songs. There are 14 in this week’s Top 100, only one and a half of which are new records (Elvis Presley has returned from the grave to duet with Susan Boyle). There’s something hugely pleasant about this. It’s great to see Brenda Lee and Andy Williams fighting it out alongside Avicii and Rizzle Kicks. It’s particularly gratifying that it is the right Christmas songs that are doing well. Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’ is now correctly identified as a classic. ‘Fairytale of New York’ is also flying high: quarter of a century after its release it has achieved one million sales. For reasons that I can’t explain, seeing Chris Rea’s ‘Driving Home for Christmas’ back in the charts has made me feel that all is right in the world.
Gareth Stedman Jones has described this sort of repertoire as offering a ‘culture of consolation’. It’s clear, too, that the festive season underpins capitalist ideology. A mixture of sentimentality, morality and drunkenness are sent our way, along with a whole load of shopping. What does it say about me that I enjoy it more with every passing year?

Monday, 9 December 2013

The Birth of the Readers

Who are the authors of a hit record? Legally, there are the two. The songwriting copyright is automatically owned by the songwriter(s); the sound recording copyright is usually owned by the record company.
            But what about Roland Barthes? He tells us that ‘a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation’. He’s writing about writing, but his post-structuralist theory can also be applied to music. Rosemary Coombe suggests that ‘no area of human creativity relies more heavily upon appropriation and allusion, borrowing and imitation, sampling and intertextual commentary’. These ideas automatically call copyright laws into question: if writing and music draw on such a diverse array sources, how can anyone claim ownership of them?
Barthes’ interest lies elsewhere, though. His response to sampling is tell us that there is only ‘one place’ where the multiple strands of a text can be focused: this is in ‘the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author’. There is no single meaning to any given work; there are many meanings. We shouldn’t look at the intentions of the writers; we should look at the responses of the readers instead.
            Fine. But popular music is received both individually and collectively. It is consumed in the privacy of headphones and in the commune of the gig. Its meanings are forged individually and collectively too. While listeners can have their own private associations with particular songs, audiences can adopt songs en masse and transform them or amplify their meanings. This is most apparent with YouTube phenomena such as ‘Harlem Shake’, but there is a sense in which all hit songs are taken over by their fans.
            Artists acknowledge this too. Those who are lucky enough to have had hits often talk of the fact that the songs don’t feel like their own any more. They have turned them over to their public to do with what they will. The irony here is that the more that the public starts to ‘author’ a song, the more the copyright owners profit from it.
And so, should the copyright laws be changed so that hits are fast-tracked towards the public domain? Despite Barthes’ advice, our attachment to authorship is strong. The attachment of the law is stronger still. Nevertheless, there is evidence that people feel that certain well-known songs should be theirs. A case in point is ‘Happy Birthday’, which can prompt outrage when people find out that it is still in copyright. What’s more, one area of legal policy acknowledges the public’s authorial role. When it comes to privacy laws the famous have to abide by different criteria to the rest of us. This is on the grounds that ‘if you choose to go into an arena where you get fame and maybe fortune, then your name and reputation is a matter of public interest and public property’. If we can have a share of someone’s reputation, then why not have a share of their hits?

Thursday, 5 December 2013

And Failure is no Success at all

Amanda Palmer is one of the artists to have suffered from record company equations (see my previous post on sound recording copyright). In her famous TED talk she spoke of her previous record company ‘walking off’ because her album only sold 25,000 copies, a figure that was inadequate to cover its costs. She went on to prove that you don’t need to have a vast audience in order to be profitable. A later project was financed by the donations of fans: they were requested to provide funds for a recording and in return they would get a copy of the album when it was complete. Palmer managed to raise $1,192,793 using this method, constituting ‘the biggest music crowd-funding project to date’. The money came from just 24,883 fans, roughly the same number that had led to her being dropped.
Palmer learnt from the record industry: she profited from failure. This is not only because she managed to raise over $1m. If we return to sound recording copyright laws, you will remember that ownership is given to those who paid for the recording. In Palmer’s case this should mean that her 24,883 fans don’t just own physical or digital copies of her album, they should have a share of its sound recording copyright too. That’s not the case, however. It belongs to 8ft Records, a company that Amanda Palmer owns. Is she beating the record companies at their own game, or has she been beaten by that game? It’s certainly the case that as well as promoting a new business model she has perpetuated an old one. The walls come tumbling up.

Monday, 2 December 2013

There's No Success Like Failure

Some adolescents go through a quotations phase. They want to show off their wisdom by memorising a few neat aphorisms. I was one of those kids and I supported my interest by buying a small book of quotations. This had pages of quotes from Shakespeare and the bible, and a good dozen or so from Oscar Wilde. There was only one, however, from a popular musician. This was Bob Dylan’s lyric from ‘Love Minus Zero, No Limit’, in which he claimed that ‘there’s no success like failure’.
            I know that it’s become a clichéd term, but it’s pertinent to popular music because it is the code by which it lives. The whole economic structure of the record industry is premised on failure. In fact, it ignores Dylan’s rejoinder that ‘failure’s no success at all’. The main reason why record companies have power and income is because they own sound recording copyrights, and they only own these copyrights because they are bad at their job. Hardly any of their acts succeed: it has been argued that as many as 95% fail to achieve profitability. This failure rate helps to keep the struggling artists in hock and the successful ones in check.
The ownership of sound recording copyright is perhaps the most dubious of all record company practices. Copyright is usually awarded to the ‘creator’ of a work. When it comes to songwriting copyright this is fairly straightforward: the creators are the writers, therefore copyright is automatically awarded to them. Sound recording copyright is different. In the UK, according to the 1988 Copyright Designs and Patents Act, the creator of a sound recording is the party ‘who made the arrangements for the recording to be made’. In practice, this is usually translated as being the party who paid for the recording. But record companies don’t pay for recordings, artists do. Or at least they attempt to. The costs of production are advanced to artists and are then ‘recouped’ from their royalties.
It is only when artists have made a clear profit against both their personal and recording advances that they start to see income from their record sales. IFPI’s recent Investing in Music report suggests that the recording costs for a ‘significant project’ can vary between $200,000 and $300,000. If we estimate that the average dealer price of an album is $8 and that an artist's royalty is 18% of this amount, this would mean that an they would have to sell between 139,000 and 208,000 copies in order to clear their recording advances alone. Some artists can achieve this and thus could argue that they have paid for their recordings. And yet even if they do so, it is almost unheard of for them to be awarded the sound recording copyright.
The artists who don’t reach the break-even point, for either their personal or recording advances, don’t have to pay back the deficit on their accounts. However, rather than this being an act of generosity on the part of the record companies, it is a situation from which they profit. It is on the basis of these failures that they justify their ownership of the copyrights of the artists who succeed. Moreover, artists are caught in a vicious circle. It has been argued that one of the main reasons why they have to ask for large advances is because they don't make any money out of sound recording copyright, but the reason why they don't make any money out of sound recording copyright is because they can't pay off their large advances. Record companies claim that as many as 95% of all artists fail to achieve profitability. And it is on this overall failure rate that they justify their ownership of all sound recording copyrights. Ann Harrison has quoted the record companies’ claim that, ‘If they had to return the copyrights of successful artists, they say they wouldn’t be able to invest as much in new artists in the future and that the culture of the nation would suffer as a result’. Once again, this presents them in a potentially generous light. It needs to be remembered, however, that it is the record companies who are responsible for such a high rate of failure: they crowd the market with music knowing that most of it will not succeed. And their 95% failure rate adds up: it becomes part of the expense of launching a new act. Failure contributes to the punitive nature of recording contracts and to the inflation of sales targets. These targets are set so high that few artists can achieve them; thus they live in fear that they will be the next ones to be dropped.
One of the other quotes in my little book was ‘knowledge is power’, a term that has been loosely attributed to Francis Bacon. In the past, the major labels claimed that it was impossible to have knowledge about what would sell and that this is what led to them spread their bets. Whether this is true or not, they have used their inabilities wisely. It has long been an industry in which failure is power. 

Friday, 29 November 2013

The Revolution will be Solarized

The subject of one of Robert Elms’ radio programmes on BBC London this week was Top of the Pops, occasioned by the fact that next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the first edition of the show. Listeners were asked to phone in with their memories of the programme. Many of them chimed with a point I raised in my previous blog entry. It was family viewing that made Top of the Pops exciting: parents disapproving of performers that their kids liked; kids hating the easy listening of which their parents approved; the kids not getting the point of the dancing girls; the dads getting the point.
            We do need to be careful that these recollections are genuine, though. Listeners memories seemed to have been clouded by their easy access to Top of the Pops repeats and clips. They also appeared to have been affected by analyses of the show’s most important moments. At times it was as though they were being forced to self-reflect on the impact of David Bowie’s ‘Starman’ appearance. Another listener’s comments made me pause for thought. He recalled with fondness the Rolling Stones’ 1971 appearance for ‘Brown Sugar’, singling out the beauty of Mick Jagger’s pink satin suit.
            But did he actually see it like this? Although Top of the Pops had been filmed and broadcast in colour since 1969, during the early 1970s most British households watched it on black and white TVs. By 1972 only 17% of households had colour receivers. It would be 1976 before colour sets outnumbered black-and-white ones.
            These figures should also make us think again about glam rock and Top of the Pops. Looked at today, colour television appears to chime perfectly with this spectacular music. On YouTube we can see performances by Bolan, Bowie, Slade and the Sweet in all their technicolour glory. When these shows were broadcast, however, my family was among the majority who saw them in black and white. For me, what is being lost amongst the digital archive is how good these performances looked on monochrome TVs. In particular, the frequent employment of solarization processes had an intensity that is lost in the colour versions. In fact, the effects were so effective on black and white television that I’d like to know more about the priorities of the producers: was the glam Top of the Pops made with the monochrome audience in mind?

Monday, 25 November 2013

The Media was our Helper and our Lover

The New Statesman has kindly re-posted my blog entry on ‘Retromania, Newness and Nowness’, giving it the new title ‘Pop has Substituted “Newness” for Innovation’. Published on this wider forum it has provoked some unrest. The criticisms of my work can be grouped into three mains areas. First, I’m told that if I want to find innovative music I’m looking in the wrong place. Second, it is pointed out to me that Retromania is not a new phenomenon. Third, I’m informed that as a Lecturer in Popular Music I have no right to be talking about popular music. I’ll deal with the second two complaints in later blog entries, but here I’ll address the search for innovative music.
            My first response is that I never claimed to be looking for it myself. The article is instead about the proud boasts of major record labels and radio broadcasters that they are uncovering ‘new’ music. As such it is focused on these institutions as well as on the media companies who underpin their operations, hence the use of quotes from Q and the NME. My claim is that each of these players concentrates on the music of now, rather than on the music of the future; as such the article it is much against Simon Reynolds’ idea that retromania is all pervasive as it is against record companies’ and radio broadcasters’ claims to originality. The title that the New Statesman has given to the piece doesn’t help to make this clear, but I must admit that I’m also guilty of confusing the issue: my suggestion that that the last 20 years has seen a dearth of innovative music could be seen as provocative and distracting.
            But what about the point that has been made: that I would find original music if I would only look in the right places. I’m sure there is some innovative music out there, but my own lazy belief is that we shouldn’t have to look too hard for it. It is the duty of radical music to enter the public consciousness. In my earlier piece I made the mistake of concentrating solely on aesthetics, however I would argue that any truly innovative work should be provoking change at a social level, as well as musically. I would go further and say that the two factors cannot be divorced: if a work is not prompting social change it cannot be regarded as aesthetically new. With formulations such as this it is always tempting to reverse the wording, thus adding that if music does not have a radical aesthetic it will not be effective at prompting social change. It is the case, however, that a song can be aesthetically conservative and yet still be the cause of social transformations. This can be because of factors in the music (lyrics inspire action, realism invokes idealism) and because of factors beyond the music (songs have radical videos, records can be attached to causes, artists make political statements in interviews). Nevertheless, it can be argued that popular music’s greatest moments of rupture, such as rock ‘n’ roll, psychedelia, punk, hip-hop and rave, have each promoted both aesthetic and social change. Conversely, a common criticism levelled at artists such as Madonna and Lady Gaga is that their art is not equal to their desire to provoke. The objective correlative does not add up.
            In order to enter the public consciousness a new musical movement has to move beyond its own confines. It has to draw both converts and enemies, and it can only do this by encountering media organisations: it has to move beyond what Sarah Thornton has termed ‘micro media’, and deal with ‘niche’ and ‘mass’ media as well. Niche media would include music journalism and specialist radio programmes. Mass media is aimed at the general public, and would include TV programmes and the daily papers. Some of popular music’s greatest moments of frisson have occurred when artists have moved from the micro to the mass: the Sex Pistols with Bill Grundy; the Sun promoting and then denigrating acid house; Nirvana on Top of the Pops. These are the occasions when parents find out what there kids have been up to.
But this is to write of the world that I grew up in. It is also to write about a peculiarly British situation. The UK has for decades had a niche music press, but this press used to have a mass national readership: in the 1970s both the NME and Melody Maker achieved weekly sales of 300,000 copies, figures similar to the daily circulation of Britain’s broadsheets today. In this era the predominant specialist radio programmes (notably John Peel’s show) were also being broadcast nationally to large audiences: the BBC was retaining its hegemony. This set-up provided the means by which musical movements could be transmitted across regions even before they were picked up by mass media. It could also be argued that the mass media reached a wider audience than it does today. In the 1970s Top of the Pops could attract up to 15 million viewers (over 25% of the population). Once a song reached this programme it was truly a part of daily life.
The internet is different. Musicians can now, in theory, communicate directly with their fans – they should no longer need traditional forms of media. Alternatively, it is argued that the internet is a medium that has the potential to be more massive than anything we’ve seen before. Nevertheless, the dormancy of the majority of the long tail would indicate that links between the internet, niche media and mass media are needed, but they are not working properly for all. It is mostly songs backed by effective promotional campaigns that have received attention across the board. Consequently, the musical world is being skewed towards the major labels and their priority signings. It is not the long tail that should be the focus of studies, but instead the short head.
The most popular legal platform for music is YouTube, whose slogan ‘broadcast yourself’ proclaims it to be a mass media forum. But YouTube operates in both a narrowcast and broadcast manner: viewings for its videos can range from none to nearly two billion. It is a medium that has the ability to transmit videos to both niche and mainstream audiences, but only certain types of music are reaching a wider circle of people. What is more, they are only doing so after they have been reported on in other media outlets. At the moment these are primarily novelty songs (‘Gangnam Style’, ‘What Does the Fox Say?’) and sexuality-exploitative songs (‘Blurred Lines’, ‘Wrecking Ball’). On their own, massive viewing figures are no guarantee that a song has moved beyond its confines. YouTube is also watched individually or with peers, rather than with the family, thus I would argue that even a song such as Justin Bieber’s ‘Baby’ (which is the second most popular video on YouTube, with nearly one billion views) has not entered the general public consciousness. It has drawn neither converts nor enemies; it is for Beliebers only.
If this is the case for the most popular of songs, what does it mean for the radical new music that I’m told is hiding away in the corners of the internet? How will it provoke the social change that for me marks the triumph of aesthetic innovation? My main hope is that I am out of date. I hope there is a mass underground movement that I don’t know about yet because I don’t understand new technology. And then I want Top of the Pops to come back again so I can watch as this music goes overground and sit there tut-tutting at my kids.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy

Much of the academic writing about Jews and popular music (of which there is nowhere near enough) places Jews as intermediaries between black and white cultures. Jewish songwriters have taken black musical forms and re-written them for white audiences (Carole King, Leiber and Stoller); Jewish producers have taken black artists and sold them to white audiences (Phil Spector, the Chess brothers); Jewish artists have repackaged black musical styles for white audiences (the Beastie Boys, Amy Winehouse). In an earlier post, I followed this line when talking about hair and popular music, claiming that the Jewfro provides a link between black and white styles. I wheeled into service a quote from Jon Stratton, who states that ‘being positioned between the ideologically driven binary of black and white, Jews have mediated between African-American culture and the hegemonic white American culture’.
            Stratton’s work is focused on post-World War II popular music and like many popular music historians he gives precedence to black musical styles. However, if we trace history back further, Jewish musicians and writers cannot be cast as go-betweens, their input is central to the popular music form.
            Michael Kantor’s film Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy redresses the balance. It begins with Eric Idle’s song ‘You Won’t Succeed on Broadway (If You Don’t Have Any Jews)’ and then provides evidence of the Jewish dominance of American musical theatre. Even Cole Porter, the one notable non-Jew amongst early Broadway writers, stated that he could only achieve success by composing ‘Jewish tunes’.
The film acknowledges the fit between black and Jewish musical forms, demonstrating an over-lapping use of minor scales. It also notes the influence of jazz on Broadway songwriters, while at the same time insisting that the Jewish influence shines through. For example, as well as examining the jazz inflections in Rhapsody in Blue, the film points out that Gershwin employed a klezmer clarinet for its famous opening. Elsewhere, there is illustration of the extent to which Broadway songwriters wove Jewish religious motifs into their tunes, most interestingly in the case of ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’, which uses a melody from a Jewish prayer to help explode the myths of the bible. It transpires that the Great American Songbook is also the Great Yiddish Hymnbook.
            The film has an incisive take on the themes of Broadway musicals. Some writers focused on African-Americans (Show Boat, Porgy and Bess), while others explored inter-racial subjects (South Pacific). It is suggested, however, that these musicals were really about Jews. Josh Kun states that:
One of the ways that Jewish songwriters on Broadway wrote about the experience of being Jewish is by writing about other outsiders: ‘I’m not going to tell you the story of Jews in America, but I am going to tell you the story of an African-American on a riverboat, I’m going to use somebody’s else’s story to tell you mine’. The more the Jews are not writing about Jews, I think you could argue is when they are actually writing the most about Jews.
If he’s right we should perhaps revisit Jon Stratton’s statement. In the history of American popular music the hegemonic whites are still observers, but what they are watching is Jews and African-American artists speaking amongst themselves. 

Monday, 18 November 2013

Romanticism vs. Versus

Why does the NME present a ‘godlike genius award’? Because of Romanticism, that’s why. Romanticism promoted ‘the ideal of self-expression’ and ‘the idea of genius’. It also identified ‘the hostility of modern society to talent and sensitivity’. It was anti-capitalist in nature. The last three winners of NME’s award were Johnny Marr, Noel Gallagher and Dave Grohl, each of them an old man. Why? Because the Romantic ideal is dying.
            Romanticism used to serve the record industry well. During the 1960s and 1970s it helped to sell records. In America, income from record sales rose from $700m in 1963 to over $1bn in 1967. In the UK, album sales rose from 22m units in 1963 to over 80m ten years later. Many of the best selling artists were anti-corporate in nature: the Beatles (‘love is all you need’); Jimi Hendrix (‘mister businessman, you can’t dress like me’); Jefferson Airplane (‘all your private property, is target for your enemy, and your enemy is we’).
While there was a large market for commercial music, there was an even larger one for hippie ideals: a market that liked to think it was not prey to market forces. This audience felt that the major labels’ investments in military weapons, car parks, funeral parlours and brain scanners might perhaps be inimical to art. This was the era of the physical record and this audience was suspicious of its manufacture, making the connection that the standardization of the duplication process would lead to the standardization of the creative process. They thought that the major labels would want music to be neatly packaged and alike.
            But the majors wanted a slice of this audience. Consequently, they turned to Romantic ideals. They promoted some of their artists as genius outsiders; rebels who were opposed to the system. Jon Stratton has argued that this ‘served to distract the consumer from the commodification which had taken place’. It also ‘allowed cultural products to be viewed as something other than simply more commodities’. Music was made to feel special and unique once again. As such, capitalists used the anti-capitalism of Romanticism to sell more products to anti-capitalist consumers than they might otherwise have bought.
            The major companies downplayed their involvement in the creation of the music. Their aim was to promote the artist star rather than the corporation. Albums replaced singles and consequently the cover sleeve (focussed on the musicians) replaced the single bag (focussed on the record label). Jon Stratton, despite exposing Romantic ideology, was blinded by this process. He constructed a flow chart in which the artist ‘creates the music’ and the record company merely ‘buys music and places it on vinyl and tape’. But weren’t record companies involved in the artistic process too? (They certainly claimed authorship of the finished recordings, as can be witnessed by their ownership of sound recording copyrights.)
            Things have changed. The download has taken over from the physical record and consequently duplication is becoming a thing of the past. Popular music might still be ‘samey’, but its standardization can no longer be linked with factory processes and procedures. In fact, some Romantic idealists argue that artists and consumers no longer need record companies at all: musicians now have the ability to transmit their recordings directly to their fans.
            This has got the music industry worried. In response, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) has produced a promotional report: Investing in Music (2012). This document outlines the reasons why artists should still think of industry: without the music business they will not have the financial clout to conquer new territories; they will not have the know-how to market their music; they will not have the ability to collect the money they are owed.
Investing in Music overturns the Romantic ideal. If godlike geniuses can now go directly to the consumer (hello Radiohead), the industry wants to promote a different type of artist. These days the labels are as likely to talk about collaboration as they are about self-expression. One of these collaborators is the label itself. Going against earlier industry practice, IFPI proudly proclaims the record company to be a creative partner in the birthing of new songs. They state that ‘behind the highly visible world of artists and performers […] is a less visible industry of enormous diversity, creativity and economic value’. They also depict the industry as the match-maker between artist and artist: record labels ‘can help developing artists by opening the door for them to work with the best talent in the music business’; labels have ‘the ability to allow artists to go in with fantastic songwriters and producers’.
            These collaborations can be intimidating. New artists have always been wary of gatekeepers; the people who will permit or deny them access to success. But whereas in the days of mass reproduction it was mainly industry personnel, media institutions and retail outlets that were standing sentinel, today established artists have joined them on their watch. Andrew Nosnitsky has depicted the scene in hip-hop, where newer artists can only get a foot on the ladder by guesting on older artists’ tracks: ‘it’s become almost impossible for a middle-tier rap artist to ascend to [hip hop’s] upper tier without the explicit cosignature of existing upper-tier rap artists’. This works all the way down: middle-tier artists invite those below them to rap for eight bars on their tracks, and those on a lower tier also have someone who needs a leg-up from them. Similar scenarios are taking place beyond the world of hip-hop. Collaboration is a way that new R&B and EDM artists can first reach the charts.
            In the end, though, it is the record companies who permit these collaborations: they are the final gatekeepers of every hit that has a ‘featuring’ or ‘versus’ credit. The IFPI report hammers this point home. And so, if you have ever wondered why so many chart hits are collaborative, just think which type of artist the industry now needs.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Vinyl reviewed by Carey Fleiner in Rock Music Studies

Another review of Vinyl has appeared. Writing in the journal Rock Music Studies, Carey Fleiner likes my book. She calls it ‘a fine introduction to both the history of recorded sound and the cultural impact of the physical object that is the vinyl’. She also praises it for explaining ‘clearly and in compelling arguments the dichotomy between the mass production of records and our personal relationship with them’.
            She does have her reservations, stating that that ‘Osborne’s wide-reaching scope is hampered, however, by the concise nature of the book’. In particular, she feels that my work on Eldridge Johnson, the original head of Victor Records, and on record collecting and gender could have been developed further.
            She’s right. These subjects are worthy of books of their own. And there are other topics in Vinyl that could have generated separate works, including record shops, jukeboxes and the charts. What makes the difference with her choices is that they fail to fit in with the style of the book.
            To have spent more time on Eldridge Johnson would have been to introduce a biographical element that is missing elsewhere. I am nevertheless in agreement that he is a figure who should be more widely known. Only Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner are of comparable importance in the history of the analogue disc. Amongst many other things, Johnson was responsible for the development of shellac records and the record label (in relation to both meanings of the term). He was also the first record company head to see the full potential of recorded music.
            Record collecting is a different matter. To have developed an exploration of collecting and gender would have been to draw upon skills in psychology that I do not possess. That’s not to say that I don’t have my own pet theories, and perhaps here is the place to sketch one of them out.
            A strand of thinking amongst academics is that a love of music (and of the arts more generally) is associated with qualities that society considers to be more female than male. As a consequence men have developed coping mechanisms to render their enthusiasm more masculine. One method is to fiddle with hi-fi equipment. Susan J. Douglas argues that ‘For men who loved music but were eager to avoid [effete] associations, technical tinkering was one way to resolve the contradictions’. Another is to systematize their appreciation. Will Straw argues that record collecting ‘reflects a masculine need to order the world’.
            While there’s something in this, I think there is another reason for the great male cover-up. Men can have an excessive reaction to music. The broadcaster and journalist Robert Elms has frequently argued that men are more romantic than women. It is men who are more likely to make grand gestures, whether in love or war. This can also be witnessed in the male reaction to ailments: it is men, after all, who get man flu.
            Oscar Wilde captured this aspect of maleness in ‘The Critic as Artist’. The following passage could be regarded as condescending: it looks down on a ‘commonplace’ man who should not be worthy of grand emotion. On the other hand, it could be regarded as inclusive: Wilde has keyed into the romantic longing that resides in all men. He writes that:
After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own. Music always seems to me to produce that effect. It creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant, and fills one with a sense of sorrows that have been hidden from one’s tears. I can fancy a man who has led a perfectly commonplace life, hearing by chance some curious piece of music, and suddenly discovering that his soul, without his being conscious of it, had passed through terrible experiences, and known fearful joys, or wild romantic loves, or great renunciations.
Men don’t necessarily collect records to hide their femininity, this ordering also prevents them from unleashing something terribly male. I’m not alone in needing to keep my great renunciations in check!

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Easy Come, Easy Go, Little High, Little Low

Is postmodernism postmodern? It has a difficult trick to pull off. According to Georgina Born and David Hesmondhalgh, postmodernism centres on the idea that ‘the old divisions between high and low, art and popular culture, the “autonomous” and the commercial in culture, are now redundant and superseded’’. But postmodernism can surely only achieve this by bearing in mind concepts of ‘high’ and ‘low’, ‘art’ and ‘popular’, the ‘autonomous’ and the ‘commercial’. It is a philosophy that is too self-conscious to achieve its own ends.
            On top of that, it is a philosophy that begins with the ‘high’ looking down on the ‘low’, and with the art world choosing to incorporate the commercial. It is also one that regards popular music as being one of the forms grazing somewhere near the bottom.
            Popular music has nevertheless been used as evidence that there is a postmodern condition. In the 1970s and 1980s theorists witnessed the music’s growing eclecticism and its rampant inter-textuality. It was mixing things up just as postmodernism should.
            Those theorists got carried away. As Andrew Goodwin has pointed out, many of the popular music artists who mixed high and low were aiming upwards, rather than trying to make cultural divisions redundant. Here he cites both the prog rock acts of the early 1970s and the post-punk artists who succeeded them, arguing that they ‘marked themselves out from the field of “pop” in rejection of the structural form of the pop song, their use of complex, dissonant forms of tonality, and in the absence of lyrical themes centred on romance, escape or “the street”’.  He points out that many of these acts were either unpopular or held the rest of popular music in contempt. Thus their outlook could more rightly be viewed as being modernist, rather than its post.
            Goodwin was writing in 1988. In 2013 there is another factor to consider. Although there continues to be much distinction within popular music, the music is now more regularly viewed as being of cultural worth: it is endorsed by ‘higher’ authorities (much to its discredit, some would say). This can be witnessed in the fact that politicians are compelled to have a knowledge of the latest pop music trends (Gordon Brown on the Arctic Monkeys; Tom Watson on Drenge). It was also in evidence at the London Olympics. The opening and closing ceremonies paid homage to British popular music, while saving their moments of pastiche for longer-established artistic forms. In addition, there has been a coming together of the popular and the classical: pop has learnt from classical music’s funding models; classical has borrowed from pop’s marketing techniques. More broadly, there is evidence of pop sitting comfortably at the cultural table. In 2009 The Times obituary of J.G. Ballard contextualised the author by means of his influence on Joy Division and Radiohead; in 1989 Kate Bush was denied permission to use text from James Joyce’s Ulysses in ‘The Sensual World’, in 2011 permission was granted; Lady Gaga’s wrist tattoo is a quotation from Rainer Maria Rilke, and she is now working with the artists Marina Abramovic, Robert Wilson and Jeff Koons.
            All of this barely makes an eyelid flutter, let alone a butterfly flap its wings. Many divisions have been superseded. But does this mean we’re all postmodern now or that postmodernism is passé?

Saturday, 9 November 2013

In Modernism I Trusted

One of the most shameful records that I own is ‘Fuck a Mod’ by the Exploited. ‘Kick him in the head/Beat him in the balls/Jump up on his head/How much fun it is to fuck a mod until he’s dead’. That’s how it goes, sung to the tune of ‘Jingle Bells’.
            Why bring this up? Well, mostly to grab attention about pop modernism. That’s modernism as in the high art theory: the belief that art should progress; that it should experiment with form; that new technologies should be embraced. As such, the mod revival that the Exploited are singing about is about as far from modernism as it’s possible to be. What pop modernists have in common with mod revivalists, though, is a sense that they are being fucked over.
            At least that’s what Simon Reynolds thinks. The real reason for his pessimism in Retromania is that he feels pop’s modernist spirit has died. How can this be? There are those who argue that there’s no such thing as modernism in popular music. In the first instance, the term modernism should be applied to a period of artistic endeavour that took place prior to the second world war; popular music, in contrast, didn’t really get going until the rock ‘n’ roll revolution of the mid-1950s. Secondly, modernism is elitist in nature, it shunned the opinions of the general public; popular music, in contrast, is popular.
            And yet I think Simon Reynolds is right. A modernist tendency has been at large within popular music. The Beatles have much to answer for here. Despite their overwhelming popularity, the second half of their career was essentially modernist in nature: they turned their backs on the public, choosing studio work over live performance; they were pioneers of new technology; they explored the parameters of the pop form. Those who lived through the punk era, which was as much about ‘no past’ as it was about ‘no future’, or the house music movement, which provided the ultimate example of stretching pop’s form to match its function, will also have been touched by the modernist spirit.
            Reynolds goes further. He argues that, out of all art forms, ‘pop music could be said to have held out against the onset of postmodernism the longest’. As evidence he cites ‘vanguards like hip hop and rave’ and ‘isolated modernist hero figures within rock or pop itself’. I think there’s something in this too. Postmodernism’s lack of affect hasn’t sat well with pop’s libidinous drive. Conversely, the music’s canonisation is distinctly modernist in tone. Think of those ‘best albums of all time’ lists: Sgt. Pepper; Dark Side of the Moon; Innervisions; Computer World.
            For me, Reynolds is on less sure ground when identifying the modernist audience. He claims that ‘chavs are Britain’s last bastion of futurist taste’, largely on the grounds that Britain's white underclass has a preference for black music, including ‘R&B and lumpen post-techno styles like donk’. I’d be reluctant to say that anyone from any class or ethnic background has a monopoly on forward-looking taste. What I would suggest, though, is that it is more likely to be those from middle-class and/or art-educated backgrounds who would filter that taste through a belief in modernism. This would include critics such as Simon Reynolds and, if I’m honest, myself. You would be able to see this in our taste for black musicians (James Brown rather than Bobby Bland; Stevie Wonder rather than Al Green; Public Enemy rather than 2Pac; Missy Elliot rather than Beyonce), as well as for middle-class artists influenced by black pioneers (Pink Floyd’s cosmic take on the blues; Radiohead’s dystopian jazz; James Blake’s austere dubstep).
            There is a reason why this matters: pop modernism has wielded power. It is has been an agenda-setting taste, not just in constructing popular music’s canons, but also in encouraging certain types of artists to be signed and promoted by the media. It can be witnessed in the demand that new artists be innovative and original, and maybe even difficult. There are residual bastions of modernism amongst journalists, documentary commissioners and prize-giving panelists (hence James Blake was a shoo-in to win this year’s Mercury Music Prize). Their viewpoint is being overtaken, however, and as a consequence we have Reynolds’ worried fretting. Many new acts favour the past over the future, or rather than searching for ‘newness’ they are focused on ‘nowness’ (see my previous post). Should we mourn modernism’s passing; or should we kick it in the head, beat it in the balls and jump up on its head?

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Retromania, Newness and Nowness

Retromania is easy to spot. Simon Reynolds coined the term to lambast the current state of popular music. He claims that ‘Instead of being about itself, the 2000s has been about every other previous decade happening again all at once’.
            Evidence is all around us. The NME is now promoting the ‘1990s Renaissance’, while this year’s biggest two hits have gone beyond retro and into the world of homage: Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ wears its debt to Chic in the most obvious manner, while Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ is caught up in a copyright infringement case with Marvin Gaye’s estate. One recent example that stood out to me came in the review of the latest Arctic Monkeys album AM in Q magazine. They praised Alex Turner for ‘citing relatively modern influences: Dr Dre and the processed “ex-girlfriend” R&B of Aaliyah’.
            Relatively modern? Aaliyah died in 2001 and Dr Dre blueprinted his production techniques with The Chronic, an album that was released in 1992. If sounds made 20 years ago are still considered up-to-date, this is as damning for R&B as it is for indie music. And there is evidence that the rate of progress is slowing down. The 20-year time period from 1953-1973 encompassed a whole cycle of popular music, from the rock ‘n’ roll of Sun Records to the post-modernism of Roxy Music. The period from 1973-1993 saw another turn of the wheel, encompassing punk, post-punk, hip-hop, synth-pop, house music, drum and bass, et al. The period from 1993-2013 has encompassed, well, what exactly?
            There’s certainly been much talk of newness. As a consequence, innovation and originality should also be easy to spot. Unfortunately, ‘new’ has become one of the most loosely and overused words in popular music. The term is most problematic when used to justify programming policies or the supposed altruism of the music industry. BBC Radio 1 uses the banner ‘in new music we trust’, and I’ve heard its DJs state that they are fans of ‘new music’, as though this were a genre. Meanwhile, record companies have used the fact that they are investing money in ‘new’ music as a means of justifying punitive recording contracts and (in a previous life) the high cost of CDs.
            The difficulty with all of this, as Simon Reynolds is well aware, is that just because an artist is newly signed or newly promoted on the radio, it doesn’t mean that their music is reaching beyond formulas that are already in place. In fact, it is the backward-looking nature of so many newly signed acts that makes retromania seem such a virulent strain. Although it wouldn’t necessarily win them any listeners, a more admirable slogan for Radio 1 would be ‘in modernism we trust’. Record companies, too, would be more likely to win sympathy if they were to apply modernist criteria: to search for artists who push boundaries, who play with form, who might even dare to be unpopular.
            Instead, what radio and record labels are excelling at is nowness. Like any dominant ideology this can be hard to detect when you are living in its midst. And yet every pop era has it – a way of producing records, a way of singing songs, a lyrical focus, an adoption of technology – that is absolutely its own. Although I agree with Simon Reynolds' thesis that this is an era in which retro abounds, I don’t agree with him when he says that ‘the pop present [has become] ever more crowded out by the past’. 2013 might not be bursting with radical innovation, but it certainly has a prevailing aesthetic.
Or, rather, it has a number of prevailing aesthetics. It also has something that helps us to spot these different types of nowness: market segmentation. This is an era in which different tastes are identified and catered for. In an earlier post I mentioned the changing demographics of popular music consumption: in the UK in 1976 over 75% of all records were bought by 12-20 year olds; this can be contrasted with last year when 13-19 year olds accounted for just 13.8% of the music purchased on the internet. In 2012 the largest market share belonged to 35-44 year olds, but each age bracket between 13 and 64 was fairly similar, ranging between 11% and 20% of the market. One effect of this is that to have a truly big hit you have to appeal to each of these age groups, hence the success of an album such Adele’s 21 or the pan-generational dancing that ‘Gangnam Style’ occasioned. The reverse is that each age group is segmented, targeted and marketed.
            This can be witnessed most clearly at the BBC. Back in the 1970s, when record buying was dominated by the tastes of teenagers, radio followed suit. Simon Frith has written of the oddity that, although the majority of Radio 1’s daytime listeners were older people, tuning in in 'factories and shops, on building sites and motorways', what they were listening to was chart music centred on teenage consumption. The compromise reached by the BBC was that, although their playlist was based on the charts, they would ‘select from within each genre the easiest-to-listen-to sounds: […] easy listening punk, easy listening disco, easy listening rock’.
            Things are different now. Radio 1 has a brief to alienate older listeners. In the words of the station’s music policy director, Nigel Harding, they do this by analysing ‘the age of the artist’s primary audience. We always try our best to select tracks that are truly relevant to our core demographic of 15-29 year-olds’.
            They are successful at it too. I am now safely outside Radio 1’s demographic and I find most of its broadcasting unlistenable. It’s not that I don’t like the songs; it’s the overall sound of the station that is ill-matched with my taste. To tune is to receive the shock of the now.