Sunday, 29 January 2017

Slippery People

It has been hard to escape the makers of T2: Trainspotting this week.
The director (Danny Boyle), the stars (Ewan McGregor, Ewan Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle) and the film’s composer (Rick Smith of Underworld) have been on the promotional trail. They have been discussing the original Trainspotting, which came out in 1996, as much as they have the new film. This is not surprising. As well as featuring the same cast, crew and characters as the first film, T2 constantly harks back to it. The new story touches the old one at the edges. This includes the music, which echoes the original soundtrack. Smith has included chords, textures and rhythms from ‘Born Slippy’, the Underworld song that memorably closed the original.

Much of the discussion has been about ‘Born Slippy’ itself. Speaking on the Today programme on Tuesday, Smith was asked how the song came to be in included in Trainspotting. He replied:
It was very serendipitous. Danny [Boyle] was using our album at the time, Dubnobasswithmyheadman, as what you would call the heartbeat or the tool that use to get the rhythm of the film together - without any intention of course of the whole film being about that album and the music - and took a break one day for a lunch, walked across the road, out of Soho, into HMV and saw the vinyl for ‘Born Slippy’ in the racks, bought it, as he tells me, and listened and immediately knew that that was how he wanted to finish the film.
This is a nice story, but it is not true. I know because it was one of my old friends, Neil Williams, who suggested the track for the film. He put the record straight on Friday, writing to Radio 5’s Film Review show, which was featuring Danny Boyle as a guest. Neil’s letter stated:
I was fortunate enough to be one of the assistant editors on the original Trainspotting movie. During the shoot it was my job to synchronise the picture and sound which meant I had the rare privilege of effectively being the first person to see and hear all the footage shot for the film. As these remarkable images and sensational performances came together before my eyes there was this overwhelming realisation that I was at the centre of something truly special. I remember Danny sending a music cassette from the shoot in Glasgow to our cutting rooms in London, which outlined his ideas for source music to soundtrack the film and on it were Bowie, Blondie, Björk, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop. There was also a note suggesting that we try and find dance music similar to the theme produced by Leftfield for Shallow Grave on which I was a trainee. Danny and I shared similar music tastes and we both loved the likes of Leftfield, Orbital and Andy Weatherall. I brought in a collection of CDs with track suggestions written on the cases in white chinagraph pencil, which we used to mark the edits on the film. I had a then little known follow-up single to the album Dubnoheadwithmybassman by Underworld, which was an album I knew Danny liked and I wrote on the CD ‘try track 2’. This was ‘Born Slippy’, a track which was often played at house parties I went to with my friends. There has been no greater moment in my film career than when Masahiro, the editor, told me that Danny had chosen it to be included in the film and showed me the initial edit of the astonishing end sequence. Some weeks later, after picture lock, I got a call from Andrew McDonald asking if I could come out to the sound mix and could I bring the ‘Born Slippy’ CD with me. I travelled out to the mix the same day, was asked if I could leave the CD there so that the sound technicians could transfer it as they didn’t have one. Andrew eventually returned the CD to me at the start of the next project, A Life Less Ordinary, so essentially it’s my CD that bears the now faded chinagraph note that is actually on the soundtrack of the film.
After hearing the letter, Boyle replied: ‘Ah. There you go. I remember Neil’.

Many popular music academics argue against the cult of authorship. They think that it is wrong to look up to musicians and composers and it is particularly remiss to regard them as having some sort of unique genius. These theorists view popular music as an essentially collaborative form and argue that little of it is wholly original.
Nevertheless, as these conflicting stories reveal, the cult of authorship will not go away. If anything, it is proliferating. It is extending beyond songwriting and performance to encompass the sourcing of music for films. The ‘Born Slippy’ saga also illustrates the centralising tendency of authorship. It would seem fitting if it was Boyle who initiated the use of the track. After all, as Smith’s story indicates, ‘Born Slippy’ became the pulse of the film, it was the inspiration for a visionary director. It was also the start of an important collaborative partnership. Smith worked with Boyle on the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics, in addition to working on the sequel film.
            But it was Neil who first chose it. He deserves some credit too. The use of ‘Born Slippy’ helped to make Trainspotting a landmark film, while the film made ‘Born Slippy’ a landmark song. It had been largely ignored when it first came out. There had been a buzz about Underworld, following singles such as ‘Rez’ and ‘Spikee’ and the album Dubnoheadwithmybassman. But ‘Born Slippy’ was something of a flop. I remember discussing it with Neil when it was released, telling him that I found it disappointing. He was the only person I knew who was really into it. He was also the person who said to ignore the instrumental version, which the band original promoted as the main mix of the song. For him it was the ‘Nuxx’ mix that worked. The original single made it to number 57 in the UK charts. A year and a half later, following on from the Trainspotting movie, ‘Born Slippy’ was re-released with the Nuxx mix up front. It made it to number 2. Soon half of Britain was shouting ‘lager, lager, lager, lager’.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Playlists vs Playlists

Listeners have generally been suspicious of radio playlists. They represent the most obvious and perhaps the most extreme example of gatekeeping within the music industries. Although they now pool diverse sources of data, the general practice has remained the same: a small committee of radio employees is responsible for choosing the entire output of the station. Music is prioritised and sorted. In many cases it is consigned to oblivion. And this is not necessarily due to its quality. The committee is susceptible to gimmicks and bribes.
            We now have streaming playlists too. These rely on even more data than the radio playlists. They are also more numerous. A radio station might only have a limited number of records on rotation. The streaming playlists cover a wider of amount of music by genre and by mood. Some of these playlists are based primarily on algorithms. Spotify’s ‘discover’ playlists, for example, are determined by music you have previously listened to. These streaming playlists do still have much in common with radio playlists, however. Ultimately, it is down to a committee, or even an individual, to make decisions about inclusion.
            And yet many people look upon streaming playlists more favourably. It feels as though they cater for personal needs. Radio station playlists, in contrast, often feel as though they are designed for an idealised and stupefied consumer. This consumer, as with all idealised individuals, bears no resemblance to anyone who actually exists.
            I prefer radio playlists, however. And this is because they engender suspicion. The listener knows that their taste is being prescribed. This process works in much the same way as canonisation. The radio listener is subjected to a body of works, which is presented as the dominant culture in the field. When it comes to the canon, it is good to have knowledge of what a self-appointed elite has determined as the best that has been thought and said. And if you are a popular music fan, it is good to know the records that have been picked and promoted to be the most commercially successful. At the same time, however, this prescription gives you something to kick against. It encourages you to search for alternatives. It also encourages people to produce alternatives.
            Streaming playlists work differently. They are an example of the internet’s tendency to produce echo chambers. These playlists are designed for a ‘you liked this, now try this’ culture. The digital realm has been criticized on this basis precisely because it streams. People only encounter media that chimes with their own views. They only come across art that reflects their pre-established tastes. These listeners don’t get to hear a central canon of works and nor do they get to hear anything that challenges their algorithmic self.
            Streaming playlists are hugely popular. They are driving the successes of Spotify and they have provided stiff competition for pop radio. This is changing the musical landscape. The consequences are not necessarily good for either the mainstream or the underground. As streaming has risen to prominence the singles charts have become moribund. They are moving very slowly and there is little public awareness of what they contain. Although there is undoubtedly a lot of commercial music being made, there is no dominant pop culture. As such, there is no rallying point for musical rebels to gather around. They don’t know what to be alternative about because they don’t know what they are alternative to.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Song City: Two Writers for Every Performer

How many performers and songwriters does it take to create a recording? For those who grew up in era dominated by bands, there are two common answers to this question. The first is that a band will contain more performers than writers. The Beatles, the Clash and the Smiths are examples of four-piece bands that had songwriting duos at their core. The Who, the Kinks and Oasis are bands who had solitary writers. The other answer is that the performers and the writers are coterminous. The Doors, the Stooges, the Sex Pistols, U2, REM and Elbow are examples of bands that split songwriting credits equally between their performer members.
            Neither of these methods is currently in vogue. This is, in part, because bands are a dying breed, at least when it comes to mainstream success. Instead, it is solo performers who dominate the singles charts. These artists sometimes come together in collaboration or for battles, as signalled by the terms ‘ft.’ and ‘vs.’ that litter performer credits. The charts also feature duos, trios and some girl groups. There are, however, very few ‘traditional’ groups who play recognisable instruments. The other phenomenon is that there are now very few artists who write their songs on their own. They instead work in conjunction with producers and with professional songwriting teams.
We can witness both trends by looking at the Top 40 selling recordings in Britain in 2016. 12 of the songs were by solo singers acting alone. 11 more were by singers working in conjunction with producers/DJs/EDM acts, and one of these acts worked with a three-piece funk band. One was by two singers collaborating. Four were by singers working in conjunction with rappers. One was by a rapper working alone. One was by a four-piece girl group, another by a five-piece girl group working with a rapper. Five were by producers/DJs/EDM acts working without guest vocalists. One was by a four-piece dance-rock band, another by a four-piece pop-soul band. Finally, there was one song by an old-fashioned guitar, bass and drums indie/rock band: Coldplay’s ‘Hymn for the Weekend’.  Overall, the average number of credited artists on a hit record was 2.4. If you takeaway all the ft. and vs. artists this drops to 1.75.
In contrast, the average number of writers per recording was 4.6. Only three of the songs were written entirely by outsiders. This appears to be an old idea, as two of these three songs were cover versions. Shawn Mendes ‘Stitches’ was the only recently composed song in the Top 40 for which the artist did not receive a songwriters’ share. Conversely, only four of the songs were self-contained, i.e. the artists received no help from outside writers. Mike Posner wrote his hit ‘I Took a Pill in Ibiza’ alone; Gnash and Olivia O’Brien co-wrote ‘I Hate U, I Love U’; and Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots wrote their two big hits. Notably, the four members of Coldplay did not write their song on their own; they required help from five other songwriters. The reason why they are the only ‘old-fashioned’ band in these charts is because they move with the times.
Overall, six of the songs featured the artist(s) composing in conjunction with one extra writer; seven songs featured the artist(s) plus two writers; four songs featured the artist(s) plus three writers; seven songs featured the artist(s) plus four writers; two songs featured the artist(s) plus five writers; five songs featured the artist(s) plus six writers; one song featured the artists plus seven writers; and one song - ‘Let Me Love You’ by DJ Snake and Justin Bieber – was composed by the artists plus nine other songwriters. What is more, this plethora of credits cannot be put down to sampling. Only two of the songs have obvious composer credits for sampled works, and there are two more that might feature sampled writers.
            What does this all mean? Well, as my previous blog entry indicated, the money continues to be in the publishing. This economic bias accounts for the massed ranks of writers and for the growing number of solo performers. It also means that to achieve a top-selling song you have to move amongst the elite. You need to find professional songwriters to write with and you need to find successful artists to collaborate with. The digital age was supposed to bring with it a new wave of independence. Within popular music we have instead witnessed the growth of an internet jet set.