The End Of Recorded Music: Bill Drummond And The17

Let’s begin with a few words from artist musician and cultural rabble-rouser Bill Drummond.

Drummond has always been about flipping the switch on baked-in ideas about art and music, but this is something else. Performance for the sake of performance, completely dissolving the boundaries between musician and audience, to the point where they become one and the same entity.

In his explanation of the concept found here Bill mentions influences as disparate as Yoko Ono and Steve Reich. I’d add the experiments David Byrne carried out in Brooklyn, turning an old warehouse into a musical instrument. I’m also thinking about Jem Finer’s Longplayer, a software instrument designed to play by itself for a thousand years without ever repeating. Or his Score For A Hole In The Ground, a tuned series of metal bowls that play a random melody when water is dripped onto them from above, hidden in a forest in Kent.

I find conceptual music deeply fascinating and satisfying, and the idea of a piece of music mutating and evolving beyond the reach of it’s composer is an amazing idea. The17 aren’t quite there yet – they are still organised by Drummond, and sing libretti that he has written. But this will change, I’m certain. And Drummond has stated his intention to set it free on his 60th birthday in 2013.

There is something so freeing and fresh in these ideas. I find it more and more difficult to connect with modern chart music, which has become shamelessly blatant in the way it cribs older songs, or have the sound and lyrical content of skipping rhymes. Yes, yes, I know, old git thinks music ain’t worrit used to be. Which is a rubbish argument, because there’s a lot of great new music out there. And let’s not lose the image of me bouncing up and down on the sofa cackling at Eurovision a couple of weeks back. I’m still not convinced about Drummond’s argument that all music has been heard to death, either. But a radical stance is the first move towards new way of thinking, and Bill has always been an innovator.

You could argue that performance by and for a small group is as ancient as gatherings around campfires. But then sometimes we need to see where we’ve been to understand where we’re going. I love the Spotify model of complete access to a vast range of music. I love discovering new and old music alike. (an example: this absolutely gorgeous version of Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne by… well, you’ll be surprised. Pleasantly.) The17 ties into that process of discovery and distills it down to a very pure, clear extract. A perfect circle, welcoming and enclosed all at once. Music for the initiated, performed in an open church.

The next The17 performance will be in Portugal on June 17th. For more details, or if you’re interested in participating, check the website.

On a slight deviation, Bill Drummond is the unheard voice in our conversations about the M25 Spin, following chats with Gimpo and Iain Sinclair. Dom is in contact with him, and it’s a dear wish of mine to be able to chat to Bill about the Spin, The17 and his other projects. We remain hopeful, and will update you as news becomes available.

Boom Bang A Bang: How Twitter Saved Eurovision (for me, anyway)

So, here we are again. The day after Eurovision. We’re all feeling a little grainy, a little dull around the edges, perhaps a trifle embarrassed at how much time we spent on Twitter last night.

Twitter has transformed Eurovision for me. It turns the show into a community pastime. I wouldn’t be caught dead at a Eurovision party, but I’m more than happy to sit at home, drink copiously and rant on the webs about the silly minutiae of Moldovan headwear or the relationship status of the Azerbaijani pair. And I know full well that there are hundreds, thousands of people out there all doing the same. I’ve bitched about the show in the past, but I simply couldn’t resist, despite fair warning from Twitterpal Selcaby:

(I missed out a couple. I was cooking dinner at the time.)

It can seem that the whole thing devolves into a scrum where everyone is shouting at the telly at once, and you do sometimes wonder whether the songs are getting the fair judgement that they deserve. But then there were some genuine clunkers and deranged decisions at the Dusseldorf Arena that needed commentary. And more and more celebs seemed to be joining in this year. Charlie Brooker, Chris Addison and Caitlin Moran all added a welcome dose of acid to the event.

Eurovision has become, despite (or perhaps because of) the obviously partisan voting a genuinely exciting and unpredictable contest. I was certain, to the point of nearly putting money down, that the Hungarian entry would romp away with the prize. She never got out of the bottom eight.

Ireland’s blatant attempt to make sure that they didn’t winning by fielding sugared-up quiffbots Jedward looked as if it could backfire, and at one point midway through voting they were looking dangerous. Well, as dangerous as a pair of ADHD-twitchy bubbleheads in red leather can look, anyway. Which just goes to show that Eurovision is as much about the performance as the song, and a dose of surrealism can actually catch you some mileage.

As for the UK, well, at least we’d moved away from the talent-show method of picking an act, and for that managed the best result we’ve had in years. Untouched by partisan voting (six points? THANKS, Ireland) we stayed resolutely mid-table, but with none of the embarrassment of the nul points years. The song was a bit of a clunker, but the back-to-business approach worked. It’s something to build on for Azerbaijan. A proper, honest-to-goodness pop band doing a proper, honest-to-goodness pop song, with none of the amateurism that’s marred our recent entries.

In short, this was the year when I learned to relax and enjoy Eurovision. Saturday night saw TLC and I both curled on the sofa, hammering away on laptops and cackling like loons. It was my FA Cup final, with an end result that had a certain poetry and ironic charm. Especially when the winners couldn’t stay in tune for their second performance.

Why Be Free When You Can Be Cheap? Music And A Book For Less Than A Latte

A couple of things that you might want to do with your digital pocket change today.

New imprint H&H Books have released their first anthology, Voices From The Past. Twenty-six stories under a common theme, none more than 1500 words, from acclaimed authors like Alastair Reynolds, Paul Cornell and Maura McHugh. There’s some great spookiness on offer, and the quality of stories is a notch above top. Recommended. You can pick it up from the website in ePub or Kindle formats for 99p.

Meanwhile, the creative whirlwind centred around Amanda Palmer continues to spit out some amazing songs. She, along with Ben Folds, Damian Kulash of OK GO  and her husband, Neil Gaiman (how much are we looking forward to Gaiman doing Doctor Who this Saturday? Thiiiiiiiiis much) gathered in Mad Oak Studios in Allston, Mass, to record an eight track album in eight hours. From scratch. They managed six tracks in twelve hours, which is still a remarkable achievement. The fruits of that endeavour are now available for you to download here. They are uniformly great songs – and who knew Neil Gaiman could sing? Nighty Night will cost you a buck.

At current exchange rates, then, that’s an album and a book for £1.60, and I think you’d struggle to find a latte that cheaply. Well, not one that you’d care to drink, anyway. Proceeds for both are going to charity. Get them both, make yourself a coffee, and be certain that you’ve done something good with your day.

Free Fallin’ – Spotify And The End Of The Free Era

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Spotify changed my life. I listen to more music now, from a wider range of artists than at any other point in my life. Everything from brand new releases to obscure back catalogue jazz and spookytronica, Norwegian death metal to Arvo Part. I even use it to play my iTunes library – the clean, simple interface is quicker to load and easier to use than Apple’s own bloated monster. I’m not alone. Over a million people across Europe use the service. It’s a serious alternative to piracy, and one that puts a pay-to-play model in place that is of direct (if, as some would have it, limited) benefit to the artists.

But clearly, Spotify need to expand. America is the place to be for this expansion, and in order to do that Spotify needs to play nice with the big American labels. This is always a bad move. The big American labels think nice is a type of biscuit. Compromises have had to be made, and Spotify have ended up honking off a significant chunk of their core audience – the listeners that use Spotify Free, the ad-supported service.

Continue reading Free Fallin’ – Spotify And The End Of The Free Era

Springtime Sounds

I am a busy bunny today, so this is just a quick one. Comedian and all around good egg Chris Addison is putting together a Springtime playlist on Spotify that’s quickly turning into warm, sunshiny, essential listening. It’s collaborative, so any of us can contribute tracks that suit the mood. I’ve just added “Glad Girls”, my favourite Guided By Voices track. What would YOU put on to the list?

Find the playlist here.

X&HT MUSIC WEEK: The Bandcamp Option

Sorry, couldn't resist.
Sorry, couldn't resist.

Yesterday I touched on how Radiohead had developed their own distribution and marketing after parting ways with their record company. You no longer need to be a big famous rock band to do that. These days, it’s as easy as signing up for Bandcamp.

Bandcamp is a bit of a paradigm shifter. It’s a quick and easy way for musicians to get their work out to an audience, with a good-looking home page featuring your own custom artwork and full previews. For a user like me, browsability and preview options are key, and Bandcamp has all this covered. Most interestingly, the pricing is set so that the minimum the artist is prepared to charge is always the default, but you can pay more if you think the music’s worth it. File options run the gamut from MP3 to massive lossless formats. It’s a great way of discovering new music at a pleasingly affordable price point, and compensating the artists appropriately.

My latest Bandcamp download is from Stepdad, who specialise in sunny, quirky synth-pop. They have the bounce and charm of early Depeche Mode before they discovered rubber leisureware. There’s nothing particularly original or innovative at play, but it’ll make you smile and jig about, and most days that’s all that you need. You can pick up the Ordinaire EP for under a quid. That has to be worth a punt, surely.

It’s not just the little guys that use Bandcamp. Longtime X&HT Crush Amanda Palmer has released her latest album on the platform after leaving her old label Roadrunner in 2008 – a process that she extensively documented on her blog and on stage, pleading to be released from her contract after it became clear that they were simply not interested in promoting her. Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under, a mix of live and studio recordings based around her regular trips to Oz and New Zealand, shows off her punk cabaret stylings beautifully. It contains odes on a mix of subjects, including one on the horror of Vegemite, and the joy and wonder of intimate female hairstyling in the hilarious Map Of Tasmania.

You can pick up the album for 69c, but there are a ton of other options, including vinyl, artwork packages and, for $5000, An Evening With Amanda Palmer where she will come to your gaff and perform. I’m not sure if anyone’s taken her up on the option yet, but I’m sure we’ll hear all about it when it happens.

Readership, I urge you to visit Bandcamp and have a sniff around. There’s a huge range of music to explore. The preview options make it a no-risk endeavour. Who knows, your new favourite band could be waiting there for you.

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.)