Thursday, 15 September 2016

Icarus or Lazarus

Last night I saw The Man Who Fell to Earth for the first time in years. It is a bonkers, brilliant and flawed film and is well worth seeing again. Fans of David Bowie can marvel at the fact that he looks amazing. Fans of Iron Maiden can hail the typeface that was used for the film’s poster: it is where they got their logo.
I hadn’t noticed it before, but the entire film is something of a pun. Bowie, as Jerome Newton, is the ‘man’ who fell to earth: he is an alien who has decided to descend to our planet. He is also the man who fell to earth in that he is brought down with a bump. Bowie becomes more human and he gets humdrum. His ideals and inventions come to nothing. He instead succumbs to alcohol and inadequacy.
            This is the underlying message of the film. Don’t fly too high – your wings will get burnt. It is underlined by a scene in which the character Dr Nathan Bryce looks at an art book, which contains the W.H. Auden poem ‘Musee des Beaux Art’, as well as the brilliant Breughel painting that it references:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

What an odd message this is, though, for a film about an alien. Jerome Newton shouldn’t be cast as an Icarus; he’s not hubristic. Perhaps this is why Bowie decided to revisit the same character, but in the guise of Lazarus. This time he will rise like a bluebird; this time he will be free.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Creative Accounting

On Saturday, I spoke about songwriting splits at the bi-annual IASPM conference. I’ve written about the subject in this blog, but this was the first time that I’ve discussed it publicly. A copy of my paper can be accessed here.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Come Play With Me

On Wednesday, Music Business Worldwide reported that Spotify is gaining extra income by making its own recordings and inserting them into its playlists. These playlists are a modern form of Muzak: wishy-washy instrumentals, curated according to genre. By these means Spotify brings you ‘jazz, chill and peaceful piano playing’. These playlists are also extremely popular. The article reports that five of these Spotify-owned tracks have each racked up more 500,000 streams, while one has been played over a million times.
            Spotify is playing an old game here. When physical formats were dominant, businesses and artists would play tricks with formats in order to rake in extra copyright income. When a customer bought a 7-inch single, for example, the b-side would earn as much in songwriting royalties as the a-side. As a result, some business moguls would deliberately force artists to include works that they controlled as b-side material. Artists too would take advantage of b-side credits. The Rolling Stones balanced their early a-sides, which were cover versions, with group-composed b-sides. And similar games were played with albums. When a physical album was sold, the copyright income would be spread equally, regardless of the popularity of each track. As such, some groups deliberately chose to divide the publishing spoils (witness the Who’s album, A Quick One, which includes compositions by Roger Daltry and Keith Moon, in addition to Pete Townshend’s and John Entwistle’s more popular songs), while others had members who usurped the credits (Roger Waters of Pink Floyd went from the egalitarian splits of Dark Side of the Moon, which includes a false compositional credit for Nick Mason for ‘Speak to Me’, to the complete control of The Final Cut).
Ironically, it had been thought that streaming was bringing such games to an end. Streaming income, such that it is, is based on plays rather than sales. As such, the copyright worth of b-sides and album tracks has been reduced, while the bias towards hit singles has been increased. Spotify does have a successful longer format, however: it is the playlist rather than the LP. And as we have learned, they have now found a way to monetize it to their advantage: by creating their own works and inserting them in a sequence alongside better-known recordings.
There is one difference from previous practice, however. The tricks with b-sides and album tracks were centred on songwriting income. Spotify is making its money through sound recording copyright. Music Business Worldwide reports that the company isn’t necessarily interested in the publishing money, it is the ‘master rights’ in the recordings that they are most keen to own. This is reflective of the income split that has been somewhat forced upon them by the record companies and which has had the publishers up in arms. The record companies generally see 55-60% of the revenue from streaming services, the service providers retain 30%, which leaves the publishers with just 10-15%. Is this evidence that the money is no longer in the publishing?