Friday, 27 March 2015

The First Ear, the Second Ear and the Final Good Ear

When record producers listen to music, how do they listen to it? In Performing Rites, Simon Frith suggests that they have an ‘imputed audience’ in mind; they are obsessively worrying ‘what does the listener want?’ Frith writes about the people who do this successfully and repeatedly, broadening out his scope to include other record company personnel, such as the staff from A&R and marketing:
There is a touching faith in the industry in anyone who can claim to read the audience, to be in tune with public taste (the usual measure of which is a previous success); such people carry a special authority in in-house arguments; they have a “good ear,” and it takes many failures to offset the original success.
In America, such people used to be known as ‘record men’ (women, apparently, did not have great ears). Back in the 1970s, to have this sense and to use it well was a criterion for helming a record label. Mo Ostin at Warner Bros., Clive Davis at Columbia, Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic and David Geffen at Asylum were all record men. Ertegun explained their particular talent:
You have to develop a second ear. The first ear is your private taste, which is what moves you personally. The second ear is one that, when you listen to a piece of music and you personally think it’s terrible but it’s a hit commercially – the second ear has to say, ‘This is great!’
Is this the heart of the popular music process? Record company bosses and producers aren’t interested in art; they are instead trying to predict the debased tastes of the public. Frith suggests that this is one of the reasons why the ‘industry’ is frowned upon. Obsessed with hits, these people are seen to ‘“interfere” in the proper communication of musician and audience’. Music is meddled with as it is mediated. It loses its initial sense of contact and meaning.
            Frith doesn't buy this line of reasoning. He suggests, instead, that it is the ‘record men’ of the industry who make communication between performers and audiences possible. I would go further than this. I believe that popular music is mediated music. Music doesn’t exist in a pure state at one end of a process, waiting to go through the wringer of the record business before it reaches the audience. It is created with production processes in mind. Virtually all artists will have first experienced popular music via its mediation. They encounter it through recordings and through broadcasts of those recordings. And they will create their own music with recordings and broadcasts in mind.
            But what about audiences? They’re not blind to mediation either. In fact, it can excite them just as much as performance can. Audiences imagine themselves in a number of situations. They picture themselves in direct communication with artists. They also picture themselves as artists: the air guitar might well be the most widely-played instrument. But they also place themselves at the heart of the mediation process. They imagine what it feels like to be in a studio as a record is mixed. They also listen to music with the ears of a ‘record man’. Industry bosses aren’t the only people with second ears, and they aren’t the only ones to get excited by terrible records either. There’s a little part of each of us that thinks we can predict a hit. And this is one of the reasons why we admire one when we hear one. Not all of our popular music pleasures are centred on music that moves our hearts and our minds. We also enjoy being a part of the game.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Anticipation Is So Much Better

We live in an era of music documentaries. This year sees the release of films about Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, the Backstreet Boys, NWA, Tower Records, Wilko Johnson, Danny Fields, and the Grateful Dead. There are also more music documentaries on television than before (while other forms of music broadcasting have declined). Recently I’ve watched programmes about James Brown, Dave Clark, Culture Club and Kenny Rogers.
            I’ve fallen under the spell of these films. Documentaries are now at the centre of my musical enjoyment. They can trigger off a new phase of obsessive listening: the James Brown documentary, for example, has made me think again that he might be the single most astonishing figure in all of popular music. Documentaries also provide one of my favourite ways of experiencing music. Oddly, not all of this is related to hearing the music itself.
            It is the build up that I enjoy. I like to hear people talk about records, particularly when they are describing a song I know and love. Hearing someone rhapsodise eloquently about it brings me out in goosebumps before they even play the track. I’m also hearing the track in my head before it comes on. Recent examples of this include Pete Waterman talking about ‘The Winner Takes it All’ and ‘The Day Before You Came’ in The Joy of ABBA and various DJs talk about ‘I Feel Love’ in Electric Dreams: The Gorgio Moroder Story. In the latter, I wanted them to delay the track for as long as possible, as I knew it was going to slay me when it was finally played. Just as it has done every time I’ve heard since 1977.
            And there was another one today. This wasn’t in a documentary, but in the latest edition of Desert Island Discs. The castaway was Paul Millar, producer of Sade’s Diamond Life and Everything But the Girl’s Eden. He had this to say about ‘Gimme Shelter’ by the Rolling Stones:
‘Gimme Shelter’ has the best 45-second intro of any rock record ever made. Beautiful guitar riff with a vibrato on the guitar, giving it a sort of shiver. And then the producer, Jimmy Miller, plays a little South American fishbone with a stick: chk, chk chk chk. Then a couple of notes on the piano from Nicky Hopkins. A second guitar. Then, a little, strange, haunting harmonica from Mick Jagger. And then, Charlie Watts: BAP! BAP! BOOM! A perfectly timed riff from Keith – ba, ba, badada. And then Mick Jagger comes in – screaming his head off. And they mix it way back in the mix. And then the producer says, ‘I think we should get a woman to sing on the chorus’. And it was the end of the sixties. And it is an incredible piece of apocalyptic music. But more than anything else, if you don’t want to play air rhythm guitar and be Keith Richard when you’re playing this, there’s no hope for you.
Then they play the song. And it is, of course, one of the greatest pieces of music ever recorded. Obviously, when asked which of his selections he would take with him if he was only allowed to keep one, it was this record that Millar chose. 

Friday, 13 March 2015

Even Compact Discs Have Got Soul

When it comes to the vinyl revival, much is made of the young audience. Older analogue fanatics love the fact that there is new generation that has discovered the joys of vinyl. They also love the fact that they can condescend to them. Mention of the young audience is always coupled with the fact that many of these record buyers don’t have record players.
            But the kids do love the sound of vinyl records. Growing up in a world of MP3s, what hits them when they hear analogue records is just how good their sound quality can be. Maybe vinyl isn’t the only factor in this, though. It is possible that we now have a generation who don’t know how good a CD can sound. Their experience of digital might be restricted to hearing it in its compressed form. Perhaps worse, they might only have heard CDs from the years of the loudness wars. Vinyl is going to sound fantastic if you've known nothing but MP3s. A CD might be mind-blowing too. 

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Even Simon Cowell Has Got Soul

Simon Cowell is often cast (not least by himself) as the ultimate music industry gatekeeper. He stands sentry over popular music, determining who is allowed in and who is kept out. And yet the truth is that he’s more conspired against than conspiring. Some have argued that the digital age represents the twilight of the gatekeepers – the internet apparently provides open access for all. Nevertheless, there are people out there who are willing to stand sentry against Cowell. From one corner, we have the public, launching their Facebook campaigns in order to stop X Factor winners from having the Christmas number one. From another corner, we have the old guard of the music industry, throwing Cowell sops in order to prove who is really in command.
            Evidence of this comes via the Brit Awards. Looked at one way, they flatter Cowell. The organizers have invented award categories so that his acts don’t go home empty handed. In 2013 and 2014 they included a Global Success award. This was given to One Direction on each occasion, and rightly so. In 2012 they sold more albums globally than any other act. In 2013 their album Midnight Memories was the best-selling album in the world.
            But this record was snubbed in the British Album of the Year category in 2014. In my previous blog entry I pointed out how the winners of this trophy are commonly the purveyors of the biggest selling UK album of the previous year. This was true of Ed Sheeran in 2015, Emeli Sandé in 2013 and Adele in 2012. The exception to this rule are One Direction, who weren’t even nominated for this category in 2014, despite Midnight Memories global success. It seems that it is only when Cowell is doing well that aesthetics come into play. His acts were similarly snubbed at this year’s Brit Awards. The consolation thrown to him this time was the one award open to a public vote: British Video. One Direction claimed it for ‘You and I’.
            The BPI uses the Brit Awards tactically. On the one hand, they are a means of showing Simon Cowell how little they care about his music; they reduce his acts to their money-making attributes. On the other hand, in demarcating Cowell as a mercenary who is after global domination, they try to kid us that the regular categories are about art. In reality they are no less money-driven than One Direction’s custom-made awards. 

Monday, 2 March 2015

The Brit Awards 2015: The Big One

The big one, that’s what they called it. This was the term Ant & Dec, the presenters of this year’s Brit Awards, used for the British Album of the Year category. The whole show was structured so that it led up to this award, the final honour of the night. It has always been an important trophy. However, between 1977 and 2010 (and with a reprise in 2012) it was eclipsed by the Outstanding Contribution award, which in these years held the honour of being the concluding prize.
            Now the Brits prioritize the album. Why should the BPI, the institution behind the Awards, want them to have this focus? Surely they are rendering their ceremony out of date: albums are on the way out. Sales of physical albums in the UK declined last year from 61.4 million to 52.2 million. Sales of digital albums also went down. In 2013 32.6 million were sold; in 2014 this was down to 29.7 million. It is the streaming of individual tracks that is on the rise. Activity in this sphere doubled. There were 7.5 billion streams in 2013; there were nearly 15 billion last year. If the Brit Awards were to have a modern focus, they would be swimming in this stream. And yet this digital format isn’t even mentioned in their categories.
            The BPI has its reasons. Although sales figures are going down, it is still albums that make the most money. The combined sales of physical and digital albums brought in £713 million last year. In comparison, single sales brought in £163 million. For the first time, streaming income was larger than that of singles. However, the value stood at just £175 million, less than a quarter of the value of album sales. Moreover, hidden behind these top-line retail sales figures, there are a whole series of profit margins and royalty payments. These place the profitability of the album even further ahead. There has been plenty of discussion about artists’ poor royalty rates when it comes to streaming. Although record companies are better placed to gain income from this format, it is the CD album that is easily their most profitable medium.
            This is not the only reason for the BPI’s focus, however. This organisation looks after the interests of the British music industry. Albums are more parochial than singles. In 2014 the top 10 best selling albums in Britain were all by British artists. This is the first time that this has happened. The situation was different for streaming. The year’s top 10 streamed tracks came from a variety of sources: five from British acts, three from the US, one from Holland and one from Canada. The end of year singles top 10 was less localized still, with four tracks from British artists, one from a Dutch act and five from Americans. This is reflective of a longer historical pattern. For the past ten years the best selling album in Britain has been by an artist from the UK. In contrast, since 2009 only one British artist has had the best selling single in the country, and that was Adele with her unstoppable track ‘Someone Like You’ in 2011.
            Although the Brit Awards are supposed to be about merit, they are really about money. This has become more imperative as the fortunes of the British music industry have declined. Writing about last year’s awards, I focused on the way they predict and promote the following year’s blockbuster talent. The British Album of the Year award is all about the previous year’s blockbuster, however. More often than not, it is handed to the best selling album of the previous 12 months. This was the case with this year’s winner, X by Ed Sheeran. It was also true of Emile Sandé’s win in 2013 and Adele’s in 2012.