Thursday, 31 October 2013

Increased Vinyl Sales are not a 'Blip Built on Sand'

I was catching up with recent copies of Music Week today. There are of plenty of vinyl stories in October. It is in an editorial titled ‘Vinyl’s Revival Defies “Medical Science”’ that Paul Williams claims the comeback is not a blip built on sand. He reports that in the third quarter of the year vinyl album sales rose year-on-year by 115.8% (‘Yes, that’s right 115.8%’), and points out that this sort of increase would normally only be associated with a new product, not something as venerable as the LP.
            The journal also reports that HMV is now stocking vinyl in each of its stores. The shop is claiming some responsibility for the overall boost in sales. Previously, it would appear that they chose to fleece vinyl buyers, deliberately selling albums with a high profit margin because they knew that ‘people are going to buy it whatever the price category’. Now they say that they are pricing LPs closer to CDs and as a result have seen increased turnover.
            Finally, Music Week reports that vinyl album sales for this year are already over half a million. This is the first time that this figure has been reached for more than ten years, and there are still two months of the year left. Although this still only represents only 0.8% of all album sales it is remarked that this year vinyl albums are ‘potentially generating £12 million at retail’.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Somali Spears

Another story from the Metro. On Monday they reported that Britney Spears recordings are being used as a weapon to scare off Somali pirates. Merchant navy officer Rachel Owens, who works on supertankers operating off the east coast of Africa, is reported as saying, ‘these guys can’t stand Western culture or music . . . as soon as the pirates get a blast of Britney, they move on as quickly as they can’.
            I’m intrigued by these tales of musical counter-terrorism: elsewhere it has been reported that Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’ has been used as a form of torture in Gauntanamo Bay, while Transport for London regularly uses classical music to ward of loitering kids at its more ‘urban’ underground stations. Whose taste is really being exposed here: the terrorists or those who are trying to combat them? Owens appears to be as anti-Britney as she is anti-Somali pirate, and elsewhere in the Metro article Steven Jones of the Security Association for the Maritime Industry is quoted as saying ‘I’d imagine using Justin Bieber would be against the Geneva Convention’. Surely it is the relentlessness and loudness of the musical exposure, as much as it is the artist in question, that is the cause of annoyance to the victim. And so are the DJs of these tracks just having some harmless fun, or are we witnessing the terror of cultural capital in action?

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Lou Reed's Death Song

On the day before Lou Reed died I had been talking with a friend about how mainstream the Velvet Underground have become. This was occasioned by the fact that the band was the subject of questions on two TV quizzes in the previous week. On Pointless contestants were asked to estimate how many members of the general public would know what is depicted on the cover of the group’s first LP (the result was surprisingly high). On Only Connect the contestants quickly identified the names of band members in a cryptic grid, finding this one of the easiest answers.
            On the day of Lou Reed’s death he made the headlines of BBC news and was placed on the front page of most British newspaper websites. On the day after, he made the front page of the Metro. I read this free newspaper on the way to the British Library, where I was researching the music of 1978-1980 by looking at old copies of Melody Maker, Sounds and NME. The coverage of Reed’s death provided a contrast with the rock deaths of this era. Keith Moon, Bon Scott and John Bonham all passed with barely a mention; Ian Curtis’s death did make the front page of the NME but was not given the blanket coverage that would be expected of this indie icon; it was only John Lennon’s death for which all the front pages were held, but even this event only caused a short pause in the music papers’ quest for newness.
            And so we really do live in different times. Popular music is now firmly part of the establishment and the passing of its grand masters is time for national reflection. The media is now more obsessed with the music’s past than it is with its present. We also appear to be more ghoulish: is the 21st century witnessing a return to Victorian levels of death obsession? It’s certainly not hard to imagine Velvet Underground fans wearing black. 

Friday, 25 October 2013

Song to the Siren: Pop Culture & the Warning Klaxon

A great article by Robert Barry has appeared in The Quietus, titled ‘Song to the Siren: Pop Culture & the Warning Klaxon’. It concerns the use of alarms in popular and classical music, a subject that I’ve long been interested in, hence Barry references my essay ‘Alarms on Record’, which appeared in the journal Static back in 2007.
            Barry’s article is at its most interesting when contemplating the appropriation and re-appropriation of police alarms. Did ravers co-opt and disarm this sonic symbol of oppression by turning it into a joyous rush in their tracks? Or is it the case that ‘our physiologies never habituate. No matter how thoroughly our conscious minds might know that a loud siren is rushing by is not coming for us, our blood pressure still spikes, our pupils still dilate, and our hair sells still flatten and twist’, particularly as the alarms of authority are getting louder and more pin-pointed.
            I once played a whole set of records with alarms in, DJing at the Tate Gallery in London of all places, and the effect of these sirens was certainly one of increasing menace. At the start of the evening people were barely noticing the fact that there were alarms in each track, but by the end there was the ‘creeping ambiance of low-level panic’ that Barry describes. It was ‘Dominator’ by Human Resource that proved to be the turning point. Security moved in and told me that the pictures were being damaged by its maddening clangour.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

The Great Hip Hop Hoax

I have just watched the fascinating documentary The Great Hip Hop Hoax, which concerns two rappers from Dundee, who found that they couldn’t get signed when A&R people heard their Scottish accents, and so they pretended to be American instead. This ruse worked. Posing as Silbil and Brains, skateboarding rappers from Huntington Beach, California, the duo were quickly signed to Sony Records and appeared to be poised for stardom. Throughout their incubation period they maintained their conceit, fooling everyone around them.
            The film raises all sorts of questions about that classic popular music concept of ‘authenticity’, but there are many layers to it here. On the one hand, there is the fact that the British industry figures would only deem their act marketable if they were from hip hop’s homeland. On the other hand, it is made clear throughout the film that they were signed because they were genuinely good and also because they were genuinely immersed in hip hop culture. Chris Rock, from Island Records, who approached them after their first ‘American’ showcase, states:
If you meet someone who’s into hip hop you know straight away. I have a massive collection of trainers. I buy vinyl records. I listen to music all the time. I wear these crazy glasses that everyone thinks ‘my god, what are they?’ And that’s the hip hop culture. Authenticity within hip hop is pretty much that. You’ve got to live and breathe it. Silibil n’ brains were hip hop. It was hilarious. They had clever enough lyrics and flow to actually impress people like me.
The film also made me think that authenticity in hip hop culture is more complicated than first appears. While it’s perhaps the ultimate genre for wanting to keep things ‘real’, it’s also the case that hip hop artists are shape-shifters. This is most obvious when it comes to nomenclature. There are very few hip hop artists who haven’t changed their names: Tracy Marrow becomes Ice-T, Curtis Jackson becomes 50 Cent, Thebe Kgositsile becomes Earl Sweatshirt, and so on. This can be related to older black music practice – McGinley Morganfield became Muddy Waters and Chester Burnett became Howlin’ Wolf. There is even a tradition whereby artists take on more than one persona. James Brown had a roll call of titles (Mr Dynamite, Soul Brother Number One, the Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk, etc.) and George Clinton has numerous alter egos (Dr Funkenstein, Star Child, Sir Nose D’VoidofFunk, etc.). This can also be witnessed in hip hop: Marshall Mathers is Eminem is Slim Shady; Robert Diggs is RZA is Prince Rakeem is Bobby Digital is the Scientist. And so why not be Scottish and Californian?
            Sadly, the public never got to experience Silibill and Brains’ duality. Their act was dropped and it appears that they failed for two main reasons. One, is that it was psychologically dangerous for them to perpetuate their lie (this process reminded me of the episode of Colditz in which Wing Commander Marsh feigned madness in order to be released, but got so deep into his act that he became insane). The second reason is that they missed their window.
            I have never seen this aspect of popular music success and failure captured so effectively before. Things move fast and there is only a buzz around an act for a certain period of time: the public cools off; record company personal move on to other projects. Crucially, Brains delayed the release of their first single. His sister is convinced that he did so because he was scared of the consequences of their cover being blown. Whatever the reason, the timing was terrible. Shortly after delaying the release, Sony merged with BMG and the person who signed them got laid off in the process. Jonathan Shalit states that ‘there’s always a moment when you’re developing creative people, if you don’t have success before that moment passes, they often don’t have success’, and their co-manager Del Conboy talks about industry practice: ‘once someone at the top has told all the foot soldiers that that band is probably on the way out the phone stops ringing, you can’t get hold of people, and I remember thinking at the time, because I’d gone through it before, "this feels like that time again". No one will really say "this isn’t working, it’s over"'. Their new A&R man was part of this process. He apparently told them, ‘we’re not going to get rid of you, but we’re not really sure about this either’, before adding the killer line, ‘I don’t think you guys are believable’.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Academic Reviews of Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record

So far the academic reviews of Vinyl have been reassuringly positive. The first came from Les Gofton in THE in Feburary 2013. He states that ‘The book’s aim is beautifully realised’. He’s also kind enough to say ‘Hats off, then, to the excellent Richard Osborne for producing a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable romp through the musical history of polyvinyl chloride’ and to conclude ‘I delight in this book’.
            Next up was a review by Claude Chastagner in InMedia, which came out in April. He states that Richard Osborne has just released the most perfect book: a history of vinyl that does not neglect aesthetic or interpretative considerations, but focuses also on hard facts, and pays attention to technology, and economics’.
            More recently there has been a review by Sam Popowich in CAML Review. He’s slightly more critical, arguing that there should have been more Adorno and Benjamin, but is ultimately in favour of the book, calling it ‘a concise, readable, and well-researched historical study of the vinyl record’ and stating that it will be ‘an excellent addition to large public libraries as well as academic institutions that teach popular music and the history of recorded music’.

Monday, 21 October 2013

The Kids are Untied

I’m reading Simon Frith’s The Sociology of Rock at the moment, in part as preparation for the conference that takes place in his honour at Edinburgh University in April at which I’ll be speaking.
            Some of the statistics from this 1970’s book are fascinating. For example, in the UK in 1976 more than 75% of popular music records were sold to those in the 12- to 20-year-old age bracket. Compare this to the BPI Statistical Handbook 2013, which states that last year only 13.8% of records and downloads sales last were to 13- to 19-year-olds (the largest band of purchasers were 35- to 44-year olds with 19.7%). Here you have a potential answer to all sorts of questions: why popular music is no longer so associated with youth; why our current times are so difficult to identify musically (what would a ‘teenies’ package tour sound like?); why adults are acting like kids; why there is so much retromania; why Adele is so successful.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Vinyl reviewed by Wolfgang Doebeling in the German edition of Rolling Stone

Here's what he has to say:

„Available on vinyl and download“, so heißt es immer öfter in Anzeigen von Neuerscheinungen, „CD is losing out“, meldet das Branchenblatt „Music Week“, und Richard Osborne, Dozent an der Middlesex University, hielt den Zeitpunkt für günstig, ein wissenschaftlich fundiertes Handbuch über die Schallplatte zu schreiben, entlang der Formate und ihrer Funktion für Epochen und Stile. Alle Aspekte werden behandelt: das Material, die Fertigung, das Label, die Single und deren B-Seite, schließlich das Sleeve: nicht nur für Novizen faszinierend, indes recht teuer.

He also gives it four stars (hopefully out of five).