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 clich├ęd 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.