Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Rebirth of the Single ?

Gnarls Barkley's ‘Crazy’ topped the single charts on the strength of download only sales. The physical formats of the single only hit the shelves once the track has hit the top spot. It has been argued in some quarters that this signals the end of the single. This is plainly idiot speak. The reality is surely the other way round; this is the start of a new golden era for the single.
The growing success of downloads makes access to the charts much easier for unsigned bands. Who needs a record company to package and market your product when you can do it all yourself. It strips away the costs of mastering and pressing up CD's, the hassle of finding a distributor.
The means of production are now firmly in the hands of those making the music. It’s the punk ideal in reality. For all its DIY rhetoric the two standard bearers of punk, The Sex Pistols and The Clash both signed to major labels. They were co-opted into the machine and became marketed rebellion. Now bands can really control the whole process. Karl Marx inside Windows XP. Bands subverting the capitalist system, using technological progress to seize control.
We could be harking back to a period of time pre-Beatles when the single was king. The art of the perfect single reborn; no longer relegated to a subservient role of an advert to promote the money spinning LP. Now the single can become a beautifully executed piece of work in its own right again. The new DIY ascetic could shatter the stifling Dad Rock/Cheesy Pop orthodoxy that currently seems to dominate both the charts and mainstream media. Six Music with its tag line of 'Closer to the music that matters.' Is a prime example of why Gnarls Barkley's success is so welcome.
The 'that matters' bit that pisses me off. Matters to whom? The sanctified tastemakers of 6 Music? Their listeners? It confers certain smugness, an elitist musical snobbery that’s sad. Oh get your head out of your arse please. We’re not still in school are we? Where the ‘cool’ kids listen to music that the chavs don't get. Now that attitude can be excused in the heady flush of youth. When you are still groping around in the dark for your sense of identity, music can be a powerful tool to define your self-image. Surely that mentality, like drinking snake bite and religious buying of the NME its something you grow out of.
Don’t get me wrong, I do listen to 6 Music and even enjoy it sometimes. It’s a guilty pleasure though and leaves the same sort of awkward feeling you get from laughing at fat people or seeing someone fall over in the street. Why? Well because it peddles soft focus indie nostalgia. I love the Pixies and hearing them blare out of the radio as I have my morning coffee can be a thrill but the reality is that this is 2006 and maybe something new wouldn’t go a miss.
The daytime play list at 6 Music conforms to a very straight and uniform idea of kind of music ‘matters’. This is just a random section copied and pasted from Vic McGlynn’s daytime show last week:

Richard Ashcroft - Music Is Power (14:44)
The Auteurs - Lenny Valentino (14:48)
Ron Sexsmith - Former Glory (14:52)
Belle & Sebastian - The Blues Are Still Blue (14:59)
Jonathan Richman / Modern Lovers - Roadrunner (Once) (15:05)
Coldcut / Roots Manuva - True Skool (15:09)
The Icicle Works - Evangeline. (15:12)
The Cure - Catch (15:17)
The Avalanches - Frontier Psychiatrist (15:33)
Jose Gonzalez - Crosses (15:37)
The Knife - We Share Our Mother's Health (15:42)
Franz Ferdinand - The Fallen (15:48)
The Manic Street Preachers - Slash And Burn (15:50)

In over an hours worth of music only the harsh blue electronics of Knife and the cut and copy magpie instincts of Coldcut deviate from what is basically a guitar led, indie circa 80-90 view of music. There is nothing there to jolt or inspire, nothing to incite or annoy. It plays safer than Chelsea with a 1-0 lead.
Those selections imply that for music to ‘matter’ it needs to have guitars, a male vocalist and ‘mean it man’. Guitars = depth. Oh really.
So The Cure's ‘Catch’ has a deeper message than Eminem’s ‘Mosh’? Richard Ashcroft's hollow blustering music has more worth than American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson? I don’t hear it. It’s such a reductive and luddite way to program a music station. I’ve always been amazed by old school Goth’s disdain of heavy metal. Goth is just metal with pretensions as art. Christ, it’s the same music, Goth is metal for posh kids in the A stream. All you need to do is Swap metal themes of goblins, girls and denim for Goethe, Dracula and eyeliner. The problem is these kids have grown up to run radio stations, work in A&R and edit the monthly music magazines. It's a shame then that their attitude to music hasn’t evolved beyond the school gates.
The preaching to the converted allows everyone to coast, it stifles progress. The mythical £50 man can spend his dosh on re-issues of CD’s that he already owns and on new artists that sit comfortable within the boundaries of what he already knows and likes. Franz Ferdinand are simply a Showaddywaddy or Shakin Steven’s for the post punk generation. They are peddling a facsimile of the past as some kind of modernism. For pink zoot suits and brothel creepers read stripy t-shirts and skinny fit jackets. The same cocktail just mixed in new way.
The new Massive Attack collection is a tragic example of believing that guitars bestow gravitas. They once produced music full of soul, blended reggae with hip-hop and a blistering sense of time and place. As the core of the group fragmented and 3D gained creative control the guitars arrived and magic departed along with the beats. They became a below average guitar band when they had once been forging a whole new future for British music.
With the rise of Myspace and digital downloads the revolution could be just the beginning. The smug elitist tastemakers in radio stations, A&R departments and those glossy monthly magazines should wake up. This really could be the start of something.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Decline of Record Shops in The UK

I was saddened to see that Replay Records in Bath has finally succumbed to the inevitable and is set to close its door's for the last time. It will leave Bath without a decent independent record shop. Reply just seems to be the latest in a long line of indie record shops that are disappearing up and down the country faster than Posh's career options. I will miss Reply for a myriad of reasons. I swear when the shop staff left of a night the 12"vinyl got down and dirty with the hip-hop imports. The racks of vinyl seemed to create new sub-genres of dance music all the time. Cross breeding and birthing, glitchhouse, dark-core, slow core, dark hard step gabba….

Reply was more than a record shop. It was an informal space for all things musical in the local area. All the available space in the shop seemed to be splattered in Day-Glo posters, flyers, hand stapled fanzines, appeals for bass players into 'Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul & Mary' and in recent years a set of DJ decks for sale.

The staff where always willing to pop upstairs and then like a cross between Harry Potter and Shaggy from Scooby Do produce a copy of the new LP from Warp or Matador a week in advance of its official release. That's not the type of service you receive in the hollow acres of Fopp where emphasis is on price slashing and shifting units. Fopp strike me as an soundclash of Tesco and Starbucks. A ruthless business dressed up in bondage trousers and a Coldplay t-shirt.

For all my wistful nostalgia about Reply's decline I am as complicit in it's downfall as hubris has been in Tony Blair's. Why? Well, I am in love with the downloaded MP3 and FLAC file. The ease in which you can gain access to the music you have just heard or read about, the portability of the tracks, the ease of the whole process. When you need to buy a Wedding Present b-side from 1988 at 10.00pm for that mix cd you’re compiling for your mate, not a problem. Log on, punch in the details, sit back and in a matter of seconds it's all done.

Gaining access to tracks is never going to be an issue in the age of iTunes and Napster. The information about gigs, up and coming bands, DJ sets has been streamlined and delivered into your inbox via mailing lists. Myspace is a wonderful tool for searching out new bands. I just wish you could build in some kind of influence filter. For god’s sake, if you can't play in time at least be honest in your stumbling and shambolic performance. If you sound like you have just met please don't claim to sound like Beatles.

The one thing I will really miss about Reply is the way that the staff were so well informed and loved their job. They could guide you towards something they knew you'd love because they remembered what you bought and were able to recommend stuff to you. It something I thought I'd lost forever until someone pointed towards www.pandora.com.

Pandora is an online radio station with a clever twist. You control the play list. The simple interface prompts you to enter an artist or song you like and then attempts to build up a roster of other tracks it thinks you will admire. I must admit before I tried the site out I was stuck by the kind of weary cynicism that must flow through Nancy Dell'Olio on a Sunday morning. Surely it's just a thinly disguised marketing tool. That bit on Amazon where they suggest CD you might like with if not knobs then buttons on.
Niche marketing dressed up as innovation.

So it was with a sense of detachment that I typed my first entry into Pandora. I was tempted to play the indie snob and type in some obscure 80's band that only ever issue one 7" single on Sarah Records. I decided this was pointless so went for a big fish and started with REM.

Impressed? Me. Pandora starts by selecting a track by the artist you entered. Amazingly it didn't pull up Everyone Hurts or heaven forbid Shinny Happy People, no the REM track it started with was Beat A Drum (Dalkey Demo). It's the b-side of Imitation of Life. (I had to look it up, I am not that sad). REM were followed by some Morrissey and Golden Smog.

Okay a fair reflection of an REM fans taste but not rocket science and it hasn't help me find any new music. All straight lines, no interesting detours. Then Pandora pulled up two bands I've never heard of Honey Dogs and Cardinal Trait both jangled and emoted in way that would win the hearts of those in thrall of Mr Stipe and co.

Time then I thought for something a little more extreme. I tried Big Black, uber producer Steve Albini’s first hardcore band. After the pluming Big Black track ‘Jordan, Minnesota’ Pandora treated us to some Fugazi, Bloodstains and Germs. All suitably post punk trashy and dense. It seemed as if Pandora really worked, acting as a well-informed conduit for music knowledge. I then noticed the guide us tab on the screen.

The 'Guide Us' function allows you to add in a variety of other bands or tracks to your selection in an attempt to really gauge your musical taste. Lovely, the chance to recreate the John Peel shows from the mid 1980's. I quickly added in The Swans, The Fall, The Smiths, Lee Perry, New Order and The Wedding Present. A pretty fair selection of Peel's favourites from the time I thought.

Now Pandora did seem to struggle, it was fine with Lee Perry and played a great selection of some dub, no issue with The Fall or even The Wedding Present. It pulled Hefner, Fairweather, Pavement, British Sea Power and Chikinki from its record box (well database) but it then started to go rather giddy. It seemed to be New Order and A Certain Ratio that confused it. New Orders disco melancholy was followed by Wang Chung, Steven 'Tin Tin' Duffy and Ric Ocasek. It had the makings of a soundtrack to some brat pack film starting Rob Lowe and Demi Moore. A Certain Ratio detoured down to Southend sea front for an 80's soul weekender. All funk-lite in the form of The Tubes and Modern English, it was hellish. I am sure Satan plays slap bass. I then discovered that you can only fast forward through so many tracks an hour due to licensing restrictions. The trick was to add in another band so I chucked The Field Mice into the mix. This seemed to bring things back onto an even Peel (sorry I couldn't resist that.)

So I went looking for something to replace the bespoke service I used to receive in Reply and found the cyber ghost of John Peel. Now if only it would play tracks at the wrong speed and talk with compassion and humour about Liverpool FC and then we may really be onto something.

The radio station I 'created' is here:

Tony Heywood (C)2006

(In order to unlock Pandora you will need an American zip code. These are not difficult to find on goggle.)