Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Karl Marx and the Hot 100

America has done it, Norway has done it, Sweden has done it, Germany has done it. The UK is still making its mind up.
            The big decision is whether to include streaming data when compiling the singles charts. This is tougher for the UK than the US. The principal American chart – the Hot 100 – was founded by Billboard in 1958. It has always been more than a sales chart. From its outset it has been made up of airplay statistics alongside sales data. Since 2012 it has also included audio streaming figures, and since February last year it has included statistics from YouTube, the world’s biggest music distributor.
            The UK’s music chart was first complied by NME in 1952 and has changed ownership several times since then. One thing has remained constant, however. In the UK it is the sales of recording formats that are counted, whether these have been shellac records, vinyl, CDs, cassettes or downloads. If the current governing body, the Official Charts Company, were to incorporate streaming figures, they would be making a fundamental change. As well as mixing up sales and streams, they would be collating exchange-value and use-value.
            What’s the difference? For Karl Marx, use-value is the ‘utility of a thing’, but when items are commodfied and sold, ‘their exchange-value manifests itself as something totally independent of their use value’. In the past, the UK charts have quantified exchange-value only. They have counted the number of times an item is sold rather than how often it is used. And when it comes to downloads or physical formats they will continue to do so. Streaming is different. The Official Charts Company isn’t going to examine Spotify or YouTube’s monetary transactions. If they are to include streaming figures they will do so in the same manner as America, Norway, Sweden and Germany: they will count the number of times a song is played.
            Why does any of this matter? Well, Marx is right: exchange-value is independent of use value. In the past, the British charts have been distorted by the games that can be played with physical formats. The commodification of music has enabled record companies to build up artificial demand. Records have gained high chart positions because of their special features (coloured vinyl! picture discs! posters!), because they are available for a limited time (buy now while stocks last!), or because they have been discounted (£1.99 for one week only!). These records might sell in large amounts for a short period of time, but their general utility is not known.
            Some people have nevertheless maintained that the exchange-value of physical formats intensifies their use-value. Bob Stanley concludes Yeah Yeah Yeah, his excellent history of popular music, with the demise of the physical single format in the early 2000s, as he believes that downloads diminished the pop experience. He argues, ‘Instant downloads require no effort, and so demand less of an emotional connection – it’s less likely that you will devote time and effort to getting inside a new record, trying to understand it, if you haven’t made a physical journey to track it down the first place’ (for more on this, see my previous blog entry). 
            And yet it’s becoming apparent that downloads are more like physical records than they first appeared. People do make a concerted effort to track them down. This effort becomes clear when we look at the British singles charts. Despite their almost total reliance on download sales, these charts provide evidence of pent-up demand, the sort that can only be built up through commodification and exchange-value. Many new releases go straight into the top 10, rather than rising up the charts. Last year there were 31 chart-topping singles, most of which debuted at number one.
            It is streaming figures that have made the similarity between downloads and physical formats apparent. In countries that have incorporated streaming data in their charts, there is a much slower turnover of chart singles and fewer songs debut in high positions. The British trade journal Music Week has found that the same would be true of the UK. Comparing sales figures with streaming figures for 2013, they discovered that in the separate streaming charts 50% fewer titles reached the top 10, while only nine separate songs reached number one.
But what about the point raised by Bob Stanley – is the use-value of streaming less than the use-value of physically-purchased goods? Here, I think there’s a great deal to be positive about. Streaming figures provide ample of evidence of time being spent on music. The single at the top of the exchange-value charts is Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’, which according to Guinness World Records has sold over 50 million copies. The single at the top of the use-value charts is Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’. In statistical terms it dwarfs ‘White Christmas’ - it has attained nearly 2 billion views on YouTube. I could be accused here of failing to compare like with like, but that’s exactly the dilemma that the Official Charts Company is facing. 

Monday, 24 March 2014

Yeah Yeah Noh

I recently finished reading Bob Stanley’s Yeah Yeah Yeah. As hoped, it is an excellent book, in particular when he gets to phases of music that he lived through. And it’s great to have a music history that is told through the prism of pop rather than rock.
            The book finishes with the demise of the physical single format in the early 2000s. For Stanley, this marked the end of an era. He believes that it led to a less intense relationship with pop. On the final page he remarks ‘Instant downloads require no effort, and so demand less of an emotional connection – it’s less likely that you will devote time and effort to getting inside a new record, trying to understand it, if you haven’t made a physical journey to track it down the first place.’
            I’m in broad agreement with him and I’m as guilty as anyone of spending less time on new music now that it is freely available. I used to work at any album I bought, even if I didn’t particularly like it when I first got it home. I was so obsessed with recording formats that I used to dream about records that I wanted to own. Nevertheless, I think that Stanley’s thesis holds more water when it comes to rock, indie and dance records than it does for pop, which is ironic given the overall focus of his book.
            My record collection features numerous punk and house records, as well as old rock and soul albums. I needed to buy these – if I didn’t have them I would rarely come across them in my everyday life. In contrast, there are many pop records that I love, but I don’t own them. In fact, I never felt the need to, as I knew they would crop up on radio, TV and jukeboxes and in shopping arcades and clubs whether I wanted them to or not. It was by this means that I got to know them inside out. As such, my record collection isn’t always a true reflection of the music with which I’m most emotionally connected. It is my digital fingerprint that points unwaveringly towards my pop heart.  

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

If at first you don't Succeed, should you Try, Try, Try Again?

I have something in common with many other Popular Music lecturers: I failed in my ambitions to become a pop star. There’s no particular shame in this. Most pop dreams end in failure. It has been estimated that the UK has one group of musicians for every 1,000 members of the population. This would mean that at any point in time there are nearly 64,000 bands in existence. Of these, only a small percentage will gain record contracts, and of those who gain record contracts only a fraction will make a profit for their record companies. From the 1960s until the present day a statistic has been frequently repeated: only one-in-ten signed acts will succeed.
            I have something else in common with other failed pop stars turned lecturers: I want to explore the reasons for failure. The most thorough analysis of failure from the perspective of musicians comes from Michael Jones, a lecturer at the University of Liverpool and a former member of Latin Quarter, a group who were dropped by Arista Records because they couldn’t follow up their hit ‘Radio Africa’. Jones has outlined the numerous and contradictory attributes that a newly signed group needs to be successfully ‘commodified’. They are ‘small businesses striving to become huge businesses almost over-night’, and ‘yet they have no business experience, qualifications or, often, even raw acumen to help them’. They have to ‘convince record companies at all stages that what they are likely to produce is likely to sell in order that they retain the company's best efforts with regard to them’; if they don’t the record company will switch its attention to another of its signed acts. They need to have an understanding of the record company’s commitment, and yet they ‘can never truly gain this knowledge because they never truly engage with “the record company” as an entity but only with the few staff assigned to work with them’. In summary, Jones argues that most bands ‘are the victims of their own naivety in an environment that punishes the na├»ve’.
            Keith Negus, professor of musicology at Goldsmiths and a member of various unsuccessful bands, has produced the most thorough analysis of failure from the perspective of music industry personnel. He has argued that failure can be the result of ‘conflict’ amongst record industry departments, in particular the A&R and marketing teams, who might have different visions for an act. He has also suggested that industry staff can become demotivated due to the attitudes of acts. Some artists ‘simply refuse to cooperate’, while others denigrate the work that has been put in on their behalf. Ultimately, the will of industry staff can be affected by ‘whether they actually like the music being produced’.
            There can be a fast turnover of staff in record companies. Therefore, the people who are working with an act may have had nothing to do with signing them. This leads us to another crucial factor when determining success: timing. Jones and Negus have stressed just how much has to come together at the right time, with the right people involved, for an act to succeed. Negus has suggested that the most common scenario is ‘different staff assessing the potential of artists in different ways and developing their own agenda and goals rather than working towards a shared overall vision’. Jones has come up with an elaborate flight scheduling metaphor to explain the complexities involved:
Record-making, release and promotion can be likened to take-off and landing schedules at international airports. A time-slot is identified for departure, the necessary maintenance and boarding procedures are initiated and, once completed, the air-craft is cleared for take-off. If, for whatever reason, there are delays which prevent take-off then the aircraft must wait until another 'window' arises – and departure delays can sour the mood of passengers and crew alike as well as make for disruptions in schedules at the 'other end'.
He then points out the difference between airports and pop careers. Regarding the former, ‘complete cancellation is almost unheard of’. Regarding the latter, ‘careers of pop acts may not only be subject to delay, they can be cancelled with no redress’. Negus deepens this gloom. He argues that, although artists whose contracts have been cancelled ‘are – in theory – free to find another record company, in practice it is often very difficult’. He has two main reasons for this. Firstly, the act is now tainted and will be viewed as a ‘financial risk’ by other record companies. Secondly, the act’s music and image will probably have to be re-thought. This repackaging rarely convinces ‘sceptical’ industry gatekeepers.
            The importance of timing is reinforced by rock mythology. Would the Beatles have become famous if Raymond Jones hadn’t ordered a copy of their single ‘My Bonnie’ from Brian Epstein’s record shop? Would the Sex Pistols have coalesced if Johnny Rotten hadn’t been spotted wearing an ‘I hate Pink Floyd’ t-shirt? There is ample evidence of acts being dropped if they miss their one golden chance (see, for example, the film The Great Hip Hop Hoax).
            Nevertheless, I think that both Jones and Negus go too far. It is notable that they start their analyses of failure from their experience of being members of groups. Their scenario of ‘one chance and one chance only’ holds much truth in this respect: it is not only hard for bands to be re-signed, it is hard to keep a band dynamic intact in order to be re-signed. However, music industry practice can be less terminal (in both its medical and aviation senses) when it comes to solo acts or individual members of bands. David Bowie and Marc Bolan were both signed by a number of different record companies before they achieved major success. In a similar manner, Aretha Franklin and Jimi Hendrix were industry veterans by the time they achieved fame. More recently, artists such as Lana Del Rey and Robin Thicke have recorded for different labels before having hits.
On a personal level, most of the people I know who have succeeded in the music business have been signed and dropped by record labels, and they have been members of several different bands. In fact, it was only through failing at their first attempts that they gained the necessary experience and acumen to negotiate the commodification process. I performed in bands in Gloucestershire in the late 1980s. One of the most popular local groups was Apple Mosaic, who were signed and quickly dropped by Virgin Records. Their guitarist, Ian Dench, went on to form EMF, who recorded for Parlophone and had a number one hit in the US with ‘Unbelievable’. The singer of Apple Mosaic, Laurence Carrington-Windo, was also re-signed. His band Bedazzled released a number of singles on Columbia Records. In his case, however, he came no closer to being a one-in-ten. If at second you don’t succeed . . .

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Culture vs. Commerce

The British Tory government has some specific focuses. One is immigration. Any party that wants to gain power in the next election has to take the British public’s xenophobia into account. Another focus is economics. The Conservatives judge everything according to its economic impact. The only culture that they understand is the type that is derived from the old English meaning of the word, which relates to the agricultural labour involved in cultivating crops or animals. They have little time for culture as ‘the best that has been thought or said’ or for culture as ‘a whole way of life’.
            The Tory’s problem is that their two objectives don’t always add up. The government has suppressed the publication of a report which reveals that immigration has not had a significant effect on the job prospects of British workers. The party had claimed that for every 100 immigrants, 23 workers would not be employed, but there is no evidence to back this up.
            This story was uncovered by Newsnight. The programme’s policy editor Chris Cook has argued that ‘culture is really the thing that drives most positions on immigration’. The Tory government would not dare to admit this because it would indicate that culture is of prime importance in people’s lives. Many members of the British public would not dare to admit this for fear of revealing who they really are.