Thursday, 30 January 2014

Vinyl: A History of 2013

Vinyl records keep on keeping on. In 2013 sales of vinyl in the UK rose by 101.2%. Around 780,000 LPs and EPs were sold, the highest tally for 16 years. In America the sales increase was less (32%) but the sales volume was greater (6 million LPs were sold). And while sales of vinyl albums went up, sales of other formats went down. In the UK total album sales fell by 6.4%. In the US the decline was 8.4%. Vinyl also made a stand against corporate hegemony. In the UK, independent record labels made up nearly 60% of the vinyl market, and in both countries indie acts on indie labels accounted for seven of the top ten selling vinyl LPs.
            There are different ways that you can cut the figures, however. Vinyl’s stature looks less impressive when it comes to overall album sales. In America the format was responsible for just 2% of albums sold. In Britain, despite the doubling of vinyl’s sales figures, the format’s share of the retail market was 0.8%. It is also important to note that last year not all records were sold. 2013 was the year in which digital streaming truly came of age in the UK. As with vinyl, streaming figures doubled. Unlike vinyl, streaming figures could be counted in the billions. The volume of tracks streamed from ad-funded and subscription services in the UK rose to 7.4 billion.
And vinyl only made a small dent in the major record labels’ armour. In Britain, the three remaining majors - Universal, Sony and Warner - had 73% of the overall albums market and 77% of the singles market. America, perhaps surprisingly, was less centralized. The big three record companies nevertheless still accounted for 65.4% of sales. The major labels’ compilation albums also did well. There were three Now That’s What I Call Music! hits collections released in the UK in 2013, each of which beat vinyl’s total sales on its own. Now! 86 was the highest achiever, with 1,111,701 sales. In comparison, Britain’s best-selling vinyl LP, AM by the Arctic Monkeys, sold 14,490 copies.
Vinyl, then, still remained a niche product. But the media didn’t treat it this way. In the news reports about industry figures for 2013, vinyl gained at least as much attention as streaming. It also retained strong support from those working in the industry: throughout the year artists, label owners, retailers and industry trade bodies were all outspoken in their support for the product. There might be more to this than nostalgia, though. The figures above all relate to items sold. When it comes to income generated, we can gain a truer sense of vinyl’s worth. Although Britain streamed 7.4 billion tracks last year, this vast activity generated only £103m in revenue. Vinyl records casually managed to generate £12m, despite racking up just over three-quarters of a million items sold. Maybe this is one of the reasons why the industry wants it to keep on keeping on. 

Thursday, 23 January 2014

From Cover to Cover

When the Beatles destroyed rock ‘n’ roll in the early 1960s, one of the main victims was the cover version. Artists who didn’t write their own material were castigated. Worse still, white artists who covered material by black artists and had better success in the charts than them, were deemed to be racial oppressors. Pat Boone is usually regarded as the main villain of the piece. Simon Frith has stated that his cover of Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ is ‘probably the nearest thing to a consensual bad record in popular music history, a track that is both exploitative and feeble’.
            But cover versions are making a comeback. As stated in my previous post, they are one of elements of the current pop world that hark back to the pre-Beatles era. Some of these new cover versions can be labelled feeble and exploitative. Talent show winners are causing outrage by recording cherished pop songs (‘Hallelujah’, ‘When We Collide’); white artists are causing upset by performing black artists’ material (Fall Out Boy’s version of ‘Beat It’); and opportunists are trying to cash in by hoping we will mistakenly download or stream their ‘tribute’ versions of hits (the multitude of cover tracks that populate iTunes and Spotify).
            Cover versions are also performing a completely different feat: they are becoming the last refuge of the pop snob. In my previous post I wrote of the way that party DJs are becoming more altruistic; they are playing the hit songs that partygoers know. Some have found a way to do this and still eat their elitist cake, however. Rather than playing the original version of the song that everyone has heard before, they opt for obscure, cultish cover versions. At one and the same time they can show off their knowledge of pop’s long tail as well as its short head.
            This is productive consumption in action. In refusing to endorse the hegemonic version of a hit song, these party DJs are indulging in guerrilla tactics. They are ‘poaching’ popular culture in a way that theorists such as John Fiske and Michel De Certeau would admire. Fiske has argued that resistance to the cultural industries is ‘characterized by the creativity of the weak in using the resources provided by a disempowering system while refusing finally to submit that power’. For him, it is not art works that constitute popular culture, but instead what the people do with them. The truly ‘popular’ cultural moments occur when the people react against the ‘forces of domination’.
            By this measure, the most radical (and camp!) act that could now be performed within the world of cover versions would be to re-appropriate Pat Boone and stand him against the cultural power bloc that has made Little Richard dominant. This isn’t happening, however. The party DJs who are playing cover versions might well be snobs, but they also believe in an aesthetics of the popular. They want to put forward the best popular culture and for them it is to be found within the works created by the cultural industries. They maintain a faith in this art that critics such as Fiske, for all his supposed populism, would deny. 

Friday, 17 January 2014

Party Streamers

One of the things that interests me most about the digital streaming of music is the way that it has affected party DJing. Two weeks ago I was at a house party in Athens throughout which the whole supply of music came from YouTube. People didn’t have to rely on their own record collections; they could draw on virtually the whole history of record music.
            And what was the result? They played hits. The same thing has happened at parties I’ve been to in the past few years in London, Berlin, Paris and Evesham. Now that obscurity is freely available to all, party DJs no longer feel the need to show off their knowledge of b-sides and bootlegs. It is instead more important to have an insight into the music that people actually want to hear. Gone are the obscure dance instrumentals of yesteryear; DJ’s are now playing sing-a-long songs.
Two further things struck me about the music that was being played. First, despite the fact that most people knew most of the songs, my guess is that very few of them would have owned these tracks if they would have had to buy them as records. The night began with classic rock ‘n’ roll tracks and ‘Let’s Twist Again’ before moving on to disco and synth-pop. We were hearing tracks that, although widely loved, would bestow little cultural capital upon any owner. They were also records of such common currency that no one would have to buy them to be able to hear them, even in the days before digital piracy and streaming. (There were some interesting national variations when it came to the hits, however; in Greece, ‘Jeopardy’ by the Sound, ‘Mr Roboto’ by Styx and ‘Electricity’ by OMD all appear to have been massive.)
            The other thing that struck me was that many of the records would have previously been termed ‘camp’. At one point, one of Athens’s many heavy rockers took over the computer, but after playing a couple of metal tracks he quickly turned to ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’, ‘YMCA’ and ‘It’s Raining Men’. Greece can be quite a macho society at times, but the playing of these songs caused outbreaks of dancing rather than cries of alarm. Even the rock tracks that he played fell into the ‘camp’ category. We heard Van Halen’s ‘Jump’ and Twisted Sister’s ‘We’re Not Going to Take It’.
            But is ‘camp’ still the appropriate word for this music? In fact, was it ever? Looking at Susan Sontag’s ‘Notes on “Camp”’, I find little in her jottings that fit. She states that the ultimate camp statement is ‘it’s good because its awful’, but there’s very little that’s bad about any of these tracks. ‘It’s Raining Men’, in particular, is one of the most important artworks of the 1980s. It is musically and lyrically brilliant. It’s provocative and liberating. It’s video is pretty fantastic too. ‘We’re Not Going to Take It’ attempts a similar feat and almost pulls it off. For Sontag, the essential element of camp is ‘a seriousness that fails’. Each of these tracks, however, was designed to give pleasure and has succeeded in doing so in spades. Perhaps most importantly, none of us were appreciating this music ironically; we weren’t seeing ‘everything in quotation marks’ and we weren’t claiming to have a ‘good taste of bad taste’. It was a party at which people were having the good sense to have good taste in good music.
            It’s not an exaggeration to claim that digital streaming has set people free. Musical tastes are more diverse than they have ever been and are less hidebound by conventions of cool. We need to push further, however. It’s time to stop excusing the pleasures of the popular by referring to them as camp. When did anyone ever go to a disco in an ironic frame of mind?

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

The Eve of the War (1913, 1963, 201?)

2014 is an unusual new year. It is dominated not by looking forwards but by looking back. Our retrospective culture is relishing its biggest opportunity yet. 2014 marks the first year of the centenary anniversaries of the First World War: we are set to have four years of analysis, mourning, re-enactments, school trips and political positioning. In Britain, the Tory education secretary Michal Gove has been quick off the mark, saying that it is time to overturn left-wing criticisms of the War. He accuses leftist historians and artists of misinterpreting it as ‘a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite’. Gove wants us to instead praise ‘patriotic leaders’ who were fighting a ‘just war’. He has also claimed that ‘the past has never had a better future’.
            I hope that amongst all the retrospection, re-evaluation and squabbling, there is time to look at the eve of the war. What is often most interesting about great conflicts is the world that they leave behind. Britain didn’t just lose a generation of men in the First World War, it said goodbye to a whole way of life. Some of the best art about war has depicted societies that are on the verge of eclipse: Cabaret, Oh! What a Lovely War, An Inspector Calls, even the first series of Downton Abbey.
            2014 is the anniversary of another cataclysmic event. It marks 50 years since the first British pop invasion of America. On 1 February 1964, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ by the Beatles reached number one in the Billboard Hot 100. On 9 February, the Beatles made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, attracting an estimated 73 million viewers. Although by no means as tragic as the First World War, Beatlemania wrought havoc upon a previous way of being. In his appropriately titled book, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elijah Ward outlines the effects of the group’s success. They ‘transformed teenage dance music into a mature art form’; they recast black music ‘as the roots of rock’n’roll rather than as part of its evolving present’; they promoted the recording studio at the expense of live music; they introduced the idea of the self-contained group; they introduced the idea that artists should write their own songs.
            I’m sure that this year will see commemorative analyses of the British invasion. As with the First World War, however, I hope some attention is paid to the world that existed before this cataclysm. I love the pre-Beatles musical era: rock ‘n’ roll, the Brill Building, American Bandstand, Alan Freed. If we look closely at it, though, something curious materializes. The modern pop landscape looks a lot like the world the Beatles were supposed to have destroyed. We have manufactured teen idols and girl groups. Black music of all kinds is dominant. Hit songs are just as likely to be written by teams of songwriters as they are by the recording artists. Cover versions are rife. Live music is apparently generating more money than recordings. Dance crazes are breaking out all over again - last new year I was dancing Gangnam Style, this new year I was doing the Twist.
            And maybe the state of pop music should make us think again about the eve of the First World War. The British Prime Minister at the time was Herbert Asquith. Like the current Prime Minister, David Cameron, he was educated at an independent school and Oxford University. The early Edwardian era in Britain was the last period without the semblance of a welfare state (the Liberal government introduced pensions in 1908, National Insurance in 1911, and Health Insurance in 1911). The future has never had a more appropriate past. 

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Young Conservatives Disco

David Cameron has been at it again. After it was announced that Kingston upon Hull will be the UK’s next City of Culture, he used Prime Minister’s Questions to remind us that ‘of course in terms of popular music Hull has a fantastic record, I remember some years ago that great Housemartins’ album which was London 0 Hull 4’.
            The Housemartins were committed socialists: the sleeve for this album contains the message ‘Take Marx – Take Hope’. Not surprisingly, Cameron’s endorsement has annoyed the band’s lead singer. Paul Heaton has stated, ‘apparently David Cameron likes London 0 Hull 4. Which part of the attack on his policies and rich friends did he like best?’ Heaton is a landlord and has warned the Tories: ‘when I took over my pub in Salford, the first people I barred were Cameron and Osborne. That ban still stands.’
            Our Tory prime minister has a history of upsetting left wing bands. It began with him selecting ‘This Charming Man’ by the Smiths as one of his Desert Island Discs in 2006. Johnny Marr, the band’s guitarist, was horrified. He tweeted, ‘Stop saying that you like The Smiths, no you don’t. I forbid you to like it’. His old partner Morrissey added, ‘I would like to, if I may, offer support to Johnny Marr. David Cameron hunts and shoots and kills stags – apparently for pleasure. It was not for such people that either “Meat is Murder” or “The Queen is Dead” were recorded; in fact, they were made as a reaction against such violence’. It should not be forgotten, though, that Morrissey sometimes endorsed violence. In the late 1980s he recorded the song ‘Margaret on the Guillotine’.
In 2008, Cameron was interviewed for the radio documentary The Jam Generation, which featured people who were young in the 1970s reminiscing about Paul Weller’s band. Cameron spoke about ‘The Eton Rifles’, his favourite song by the group: ‘I was one, in the corps. It meant a lot, some of those early Jam albums we used to listen to’. Weller wrote the song after seeing right-to-work marchers jeered at by Eton schoolboys. His response to Cameron’s patronage was much the same as Heaton’s: ‘Which part of it didn’t he get? It wasn’t intended as a fucking jolly drinking song for the cadet corps’.
The difficulty for all of these bands is that Cameron is not being an idiot. In the first instance, he does seem to have a genuine appreciation for the music. He avoids the pitfalls of name-dropping bands that he knows nothing about. The Labour leader Gordon Brown, in contrast, was clearly bidding for popular acceptance when he professed his love for the Arctic Monkeys. His successor, Ed Milliband, has avoided this trap, but only at the expense of revealing that he is one of the few living souls who is unmoved by music. He recently appeared on Desert Island Discs himself, coming up with a list that Norman Lebrecht described as ‘shocking not for its bad taste but for its numbing banality’ (the Housemartins were amongst his prescribed choices).
Cameron is also being deliberately provocative. He’s now promoted left wing bands too often for it to be a coincidence: he’s taunting these groups. I hate to admit it, but there’s something grudgingly likeable about this, not least because, again, it reveals that he does know this repertoire.
Far more insidious, though, is the fact that he is trying to reclaim it for the right. Cameron has displayed his knowledge of the indie bands of his university years. It appears that he knows the cultural theory of this time as well. London 0 Hull 4 was released in 1986, the same year that Stuart Hall was expounding his theories about articulation. Hall argued that, ‘An articulation is the form of connection that can make a unity of two different elements, under certain conditions’, pointing out that, ‘the so-called “unity’”of a discourse is really the articulation of different, distinct elements which can be re-articulated in different ways because they have no necessary “belongingness”’. What Hall is saying, basically, is that meanings can be overturned.
Despite the complaints of Heaton, Marr, Morrissey and Weller, there is no way that their music permanently belongs to the left. It can be re-articulated for right wing causes. Cameron knows this, too. He has stated, ‘I don’t see why the left should be the only ones allowed to listen to protest songs’. There is a horrible smugness in the Tory cabinet. These old Eton Boys relish their ability to make the poor swallow austerity measures and the rich dance to socialist pop. Let’s hope they remember the title of the second Housemartins’ album: The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death