Let’s Show The Kids How To Do It: X&HT listened to Collapse Into Now

Music week continues on X&HT as I look at the new record by my favourite band, R.E.M. Mentioning this has led to responses as varied as “Oh, are they still going?” through to “…pukies”. I can see I’ve got my work cut out with this one.

 

Continue reading Let’s Show The Kids How To Do It: X&HT listened to Collapse Into Now

Angels And Drunks – X&HT Listened To Build A Rocket Boys!

Three of my favourite bands have released new albums in the last couple of weeks, and it would be remiss of me not to comment. It’s Music Week on X&HT, and I want to start with Elbow’s latest, Build A Rocket Boys.

 

Warning: contains fanboi gush.

Continue reading Angels And Drunks – X&HT Listened To Build A Rocket Boys!

A flag of convenience: turning pirates into customers

I’m thinking out loud here, so please do indulge me.

 

Adrian Faulkner tells a story on his excellent blog about a work colleague with a newly acquired e-reader, and his attitude to the cost of content for the device. In short, he thinks e-books are overpriced, and has taken to torrenting. Adrian recoils at this, and I agree. But at the same time…

I’m in the same position as his workmate John. I received a Kindle as a birthday gift, and love it to bits. But I was immediately struck by the disparity of pricing on the online store. Like most people with a new Kindle, I zealously hit the free or dirt cheap options, grabbing the complete works of Dostoyevsky and Dickens for less than I’d pay the lovelies at AMT Coffee for my morning cup of joe. But there were also Penguin editions of the same works that cost exactly the same as the paperback editions. There will, granted, be differences in translation, and of course e-books are liable to VAT, but apart from that I can’t see how that justifies a 700% difference in price point.

Modern authors also exhibit this disparity. Stephen King’s Under The Dome is a whopping £16.99 in the Kindle Store. You’ll pay half that for the paperback. I love Stephen King, but I’m caught in a bad place here. I don’t want to lug a breezeblock sized brick of paper around with me. That was a prime factor in buying an e-reader in the first place. At the same time, I’m buggered if I’m paying the thick end of £20 for it. Thus the dilemma that John has easily solved by merrily downloading his books for free. I don’t agree with what he’s doing, but I can kind of see his point. (In my case, I shall get the book out of the library, assuaging my conscience and supporting an essential public resource at the same time).

Part of the problem is the perception of worth. John thinks e-books are worth less than a hardback book. He sees craft and manufacturing cost in the heft and weight of a fat wodge of paper. He seems unaware of the fact that the paper is simply a carrier for the important stuff, the words on the page. But it’s not surprising he’s confused. There’s no consistency of pricing. A best selling CD, book, or DVD will cost you different amounts depending on where you buy it. And frequently when you buy it. Wait a few months after release, and a lot of titles suddenly have a huge discount applied, or turn up in twofer deals. Or sometimes free on the covers of newspapers.

Here’s a challenge. Given the choice between a vanilla DVD title in a cardboard sleeve with no extras for nothing, and a “normally” priced copy of the same thing with all the extras, I will lay money that the majority of people will plump for the freebie. I’m not talking your film buff or cineaste here. I’m talking about the man in the street. The sort of person that doesn’t want a director talking over the top of their Saturday night movie. The sort of person who doesn’t care about deleted scenes because if they were any good, they’d be in the film, wouldn’t they?

Of course, these films aren’t free. They’re promotional items, and you pay for the newspaper to get them. But they have the word FREE all over them. In the same way, musicians are now expected to put tracks online for free, again as promotion for full works. And here’s the problem. There’s already confusion over an object’s perceived worth. The idea of not paying anything for your entertainment has become an encouraged, acceptable option, regardless of the intention behind giving it away.

Neil Gaiman has extolled the virtues of this approach, citing the uptick in sales after doing just that for an audiobook of American Gods. Thriller writer Stephen Leather has done the same thing, putting his early work on the Kindle store for under a quid a shot. Again, this has been highly successful. But these are established artists, able to control the pricing structure of their material. If you’re a struggling author or film-maker, the appearance of your work on a torrent or Rapidshare feed chews up your revenue stream in a moment. If the film or book is all there is, if there’s no back catalogue for which you can use that free item as a loss leader, then the strategy seems to have failed.

That sounds incredibly negative, I know, and there’s no easy answer. Once people get used to the idea of free, then it’s really tough to change their minds. It’s easier than ever to get your work out to an audience, and much more difficult to get them to pay for it. It’s completely doable, of course – look at the success Amanda Palmer has had. She completely gets the vital role in keeping her audience sweet. She works incredibly hard at connecting and communicating with her fans.

There are ways of turning negatives into positives, too. Steve Lieber’s “Die Hard in a cave” comic Underground was merrily pirated by fans on 4Chan. Instead of complaining or issuing lawsuits, Leiber went on the site, and began chatting with the fans of his work, pointing out that the book was available as a print edition. Net result: a massive spike in sales. Similarly, fantasy author J.S. Chancellor asked people who had downloaded her work to leave reviews of it on Facebook and Amazon. It worked, and again, an uptick in sales was the result.

Self-pub and self-distribution is a tricky business to get right. It takes imagination, guile and a lot of effort to make a buck in this new marketplace, and the strategies that work for one artist are more than likely not going to work for another. Persuading your public that your work has value is more than half the battle, but if you can win that battle then good times approacheth. The Johns of this world can be talked into paying for their books and movies, if you talk to them in the right way.

(EDIT: to correct the schoolboy error JS Chancellor pointed out in the comments.)

The Best Song The Beatles Never Wrote

There’s an ongoing discussion at work as to whether it’s possible to write a genuinely convincing Beatles song if you’re not a Fab. The Rutles have been considered and rejected, as Neil Innes was generally just swapping a couple of chords around and adding new lyrics to existing tunes.

There are plenty of bands that have made forays into the Cavern sound, and of course Merseybeat is an established pop genre. Crowded House get pretty close sometimes, as do sixties revivalists like The La’s. Noel Gallagher’s obsession with all things beat is pretty well known.

But I have a crush on Robert Pollard and the mighty Guided By Voices, and I don’t think it gets much better than this. Readership, to wake you up, shake your stuff and start your weekend right, X&HT gives you – Glad Girls!

+++UPDATE+++

On our Facebook page, Timothy P. Jones pointed out this little gem from Robyn Hitchcock. It’s not very Beatley, but it’s very solo Lennon.

Something of a playlist

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I thought I’d hash together a few of my favourite tracks of the year in a Spotify playlist for you, Dear Readership. This is in no means a comprehensive list of what I’ve been listening to. I’m not even sure it’s entirely representative. My listening habits have wildly randomised. I’ve been known to generate playlists based on a word or a jumble of letters. This then is a selection of the stuff that’s made it through to a second play, or up from that.

Careful observers may notice that there’s little in the way of rap, dance, R&B, soul, grime, dubstep, pop or disco. I listen to all of these, but this is a list of what struck me as notable in 2010, and there wasn’t much last year in those genres that hit me and stuck. No, not even Janelle Monae. No, not even Kanye West. Mind you, I’m still playing catch up quite a bit, and it’s possible I’ve just been pointing my ears in the wrong direction.

Eyebrows may also be up into hairlines at my inclusion of a song featured in an advert. But Motorhead’s slow version of Ace Of Spades was delivered with grace and buckets of cool, and with none of the gurning and grandstanding that made Iggy Pop and John Lydon’s paid gigs quite so objectionable. Plus, if you’ll excuse the pun, it’s ace.

Here you go then. Enjoy, or don’t. And tell me where I’ve gone wrong or right.

Clicky here for The X&HTreats of 2010.

+++UPDATE+++

I suppose I should put a tracklisting up for those of you without Spotify but have a vague interest in what I’m about. And if you don’t have Spotify and would like to see what the fuss is about, I have invites. A click on the R icon in the Welcome sidebar will let you send me a message.

+++FURTHER UPDATE+++ Dom has let me know that the link went to an inactive playlist. That should now have been fixed. If you’re still having problems, let me know. END OF LINE+++

treats tracklist.jpg

2011: Calling time on The Hootenanny

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Hang on, lads, I know just what that 4'33" needs...

I realise that Jools Holland’s annual dose of comforting musical cheese has dropped below the radar of a lot of so-called serious music critics, but I still find it worthwhile of a little attention. TLC and I don’t do The New Year Thing, choosing instead to stay in, cook (fish pie), watch a movie (Hot Tub Time Machine, beer-spittingly hilarious) and doze out in front of that good ole boogie woogie pianna.

This year, something went wrong, and I switched off at half past twelve. The exact point? Halfway through Roger Daltrey’s painful version of Mannish Boy, backed by the Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. This was the moment where I got heartily sick of every other bloody song being a bad cover version from the band with a “special guest” who more often than not turned out to be … another member of the band.

Now, they’ve been pulling this trick for years. It’s fine, especially as the quality of musicianship in the Orchestra is so good, and includes some genuine legends. But the balance was so fatally skewed towards them that you have to ask the question: where was everyone else? Bellowhead and Vampire Weekend were fine when they could get a word in edgeways. Plan B was fine. He was smart enough to stick to the singles, and delivered them with energy and verve. And that was it. Everything else just blurred into an endless, major-key exercise in ho-hum.

In times past, the Hootenanny has grabbed my attention by the star power of the guests they could bring up, or by the sense of discovery and surprise they could bring to an essentialy mainstream music show. Later… is still the best place on telly to catch the greats along with exciting new voices, and I still think the Hootenanny should reflect that. This New Year’s Eve, it didn’t. It felt, smug, outdated, and fatally caught up in a net of nostalgia. Alongside the endless tranche of old soul and R&B, the new acts were for the most part looking backwards rather than forwards. The Secret Sisters, two sweet Nashville gals, were doing nothing that the Carters hadn’t done fifty years previously. Rumer was another one of those chantooses that Joolsy seems so enamoured with, spooling out smoky Dustyisms in a creamy contralto. It just all seems so… lazy.

Look, the Hootenanny has given me a lot of pleasure over the years, introduced me to a ton of new music and been the soundtrack to innumerable New Year’s Eves. I’m disappointed, and I hope the “will this do?” exercise I was subjected to this year doesn’t happen again. It’s the first time in a long time that I haven’t watched it to the end, and I’ll be wary of doing so again. It’s a low down dirty shame.

(Pic courtesy The Telegraph)

2011: New Day Rising

When I was young and foolish, I used to believe it was the height of cool sophistication to start New Year’s Day by putting the U2 song of the same name on at high volume. A totemic beginning to the New Year, I thought.

I know better now, and wouldn’t assume to sully the intelligence or patience of my dear Readership by forcing Bono on them while they’re still in a delicate place.

Instead, please to enjoy Leatherface rocking out to Hüsker Dü’s “New Day Rising.”

Aah. BRACING.

Kindle, Spotify and the view outside the box

TLC bought me a Kindle for my birthday. It was bound to happen. She swears by the Sony e-reader I got her last year, and both Leading Man Clive and Wetdarkandwild are advocates of Amazon’s sexy new toy.

I have to say, I love it. It’s as skinny as an overweight fashion model, perches in the hand like an attentive bird, and is almost Mac-like in it’s simplicity of use. It’s funny how many people I’ve shown it to that have begun prodding at the e-ink screen as if it’s an iPad. In a lot of ways the dedicated controls are even easier to use than the swipe-to-turn gesture that the iPhone uses on it’s Kindle app.

My one concern was that it would not be able to read the electronic library I’ve accrued over the last couple of years. This was unfounded. It’ll happily read PDFs, .rtf and even .txt files with aplomb, keeping the formatting impeccably. I have a chunk of cash to spend, which will granted mostly be going to the Kindle store, but I am still downloading and reading other formats – most notably Cory Doctorow’s new collection With A Little Help, available in all kinds of free and paid versions. I hadn’t realised just how much I had to read in electronic form. As publishing models begin to inexorably change, and readers begin to embrace new formats as a complement to the existing ones (I, for example, have no interest in reading comics and graphic novels in an e-format. I really don’t like reading things panel-to-panel, and Comixology’s Guided Technology is just infuriating) it’s going to be very interesting to see how things open up. Certainly, as a writer with a vested interest in new markets and opportunities for my work, it feels like exciting times.

With that in mind,  can I point out that this looks great on a Kindle right now?

Meanwhile, my love affair with Spotify continues, getting sloppier and ickier by the second. I have an Unlimited account, which for a fiver a month gives me all the music I can eat with none of the ads. There are some obvious omissions and holdouts on the service, of course. Most annoyingly for me, The Arcade Fire aren’t there. But then I bought The Suburbs on the day it came out so it’s no biggy.

But the point is that The Arcade Fire was one of about five albums I’ve bought this year, down from a figure that was getting up to ten times that five years ago. I have not downloaded anything from a link that does not have the creators stamp of approval, and does not put money into their pockets. I’m using sites like Bandcamp (where I discovered and bought Zoe Keating’s astonishing album Into The Trees) a lot more. Everything else has been streamed. I’ll probably treat myself to the new/old Springsteen. Apart from that, the subscription has me covered. On those rare occasions when the service does go down, I still have a hundred gigs or so of tunes in the drives. Granted, if the service is ever bought or merged (witness the reports earlier in the year that Google wanted it) it could change in ways that would make it a lot less attractive. But for me, for now, streaming this playlist to our surround amp through Airport Express and Airport, the world seems like a very big, very musical place.

For the most part I use Spotify in conjunction with music blogs like The Quietus and No Rock And Roll Fun, which broaden and open up my horizons without having to budge off the sofa. At this time of year, when all the best-of-the-year playlists come up, Spotify comes into it’s own as a way of catching up and finding new things to love.

Looks like 2011 is the year when I don’t just start thinking outside the box, but living outside it too.

Music Should Be Free (or at least cheap!)

I’m not big on torrenting music. With a SpotifyUnlimited account I can listen to pretty much anything that tickles my fancy, and MySpace or Last.FM are still worthy tools for checking out any recommendations that come my way. And of course, if I come across any mixtapes on my wanderings, I’ll snaffle them up too. The process of discovery is part of the fun.

Here are some of my favourite finds from the past couple of weeks.

The new Nine Inch Nails side project How To Destroy Angels has posted an EP on their site. If you like the idea of NIN with sweet female vocals, you’ll like this, s’all I’m saying.

http://www.howtodestroyangels.com/

90’s singer/songwriter Jane Siberry has decided to go the free/pay-it-forward route with her entire back catalogue. Her earlier albums are especially worth a listen, and it’s fascinating to track the changes she’s gone through over the years. Still touring, still writing, still got it.

http://www.janesiberry.com/janesiberry/music.html

As a taster for the new album out next week, Big Boi has dropped a mixtape of goodies that includes some Outkast classics. So fresh and so clean.

http://bigboi.com/2010/07/01/download-the-big-boi-mixtape-for-dummies/

I’m not the biggest fan of La Roux. I find her work derivative, and her voice scrapes my nerve endings like cheese wire on glass. But her Jamacian vacation with remixers Major Lazer takes the material into strange, dubby new territory and has me bouncing around like the dancers in the ‘Pon The Floor video.

http://sub.maddecent.com/lazerproof/

Omar Rodruiguez Lopez of The Mars Volta is constantly spraying out interesting psych-proggy weirdness, and has begun collaborating with John Frusciante. The last two albums documenting this collaboration are available for free, or donation to arts charities. The earlier of the two albums is especially good for zoning out to on a long train ride.

http://omardigital.rodriguezlopezproductions.com/

Finally, I’d like to recommend Zoe Keating’s new album, Into The Trees. Her cello-driven, darkly cinematic soundscapes are a must, and will come into their own this autumn. On downloads alone the album is already top 20 in the Billboard classical charts, and deserves to break big everywhere. The download will set you back $8, which is hardly a piggy-bank shatterer. Give it a go.

http://www.zoekeating.com/