Writing about music is like singing about grammar. Rarely done well, but sometimes someone manages it.
Let’s start with Kendrick. An artist who has gone beyond the traditional confines of genre to create something bold and distinctive. Mr Morale and the Big Steppers is not a perfect record—there are a couple of stumbles, like the eminently skippable ‘We Cry Together’—but it certainly comes close, and bristles with artistry. For me, the standout is ‘Mother I Sober’ featuring Beth Gibbons from Portishead, whose presence underlines the fragility shown across the rest of the track. His performance at Glastonbury was, too, a standout. It seems wild to think that it wasn’t that long ago that the thought of hip-hop on the main stage caused an uproar when Jay Z headlined in 2008. Fast forward to 2022 and Kendrick is head and shoulders above.
Staying with live music, a personal highlight was catching one of LCD Soundsystem’s residency shows in Brooklyn. They still know how to make people dance. They also managed to release a very good standalone song—attached to the new Noah Baumbach film White Noise—in ‘New Body Rumba’, which hardly breaks new ground...Read more ➔
My three-year-old has trouble with pronouns. The cat gets the worst of it. He will chase her around the house, picking her up whenever he has her outmanoeuvred, which is surprisingly often. She is very patient. A disgruntled meow is generally the worst he will get, whereas if the rest of us were to do the same blood would, no doubt, be shed.
“Could you put her down, please? I don’t think she likes it.”
“He does like it daddy.”
“I don’t think she does and also, she’s a she not a he.”
“No daddy, he’s a he.”
There’s a glint in his eye and a cheek in his grin that tells me that he is aware of his mistake, but is going to double down regardless. Everyone at the moment is a he. People, cats, dinosaurs, elephants; he is at least consistent. The reading I’ve done recently indicates that generation alpha is supposed to be more aware of gender identity, but I guess you can’t believe everything on the internet.
He is also workshopping a rather fluid understanding of the passage of time. Everything before today is yesterday. His birthday in January: Yesterday. The last time we saw Grandpa, which was about two weeks ago:...Read more ➔
I have, like most vaguely sane people, a love/hate relationship with the idea of giving a talk. The “love” bit typically consists of everything after I come off stage without completely screwing it up. The “hate” makes up the rest of proceedings.
There’s a certain mist that descends about five minutes before hand that fogs the mind, dismantles your thought processes and dismembers your vocabulary. Preparation – extensive, or nonexistent – seems to bear no relation to this process. It is as if your brain is trying to distance itself from your mouth and body, lest they do anything too embarrassing.
For me, this mist reaches its peak “can’t even see the front of the car, we’re going to have to pull over” intensity exactly 10 seconds after I’ve started speaking. It’s at that point where, having managed to actually say something, I start thinking about the fact that I’ve actually managed to say something and then completely forget what I was going to say next.
Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I gave a talk.
The brief was good – 10 minutes on “What I Learned From…” a specific campaign I’d worked on recently, so I – foolishly, see above – said yes....Read more ➔
I remember having a conversation with a manager a few years back. It wasn’t an easy meeting. Throughout he was leaning forward in his seat, rocking slightly back and forth, his dissatisfaction with the situation physically manifesting with every sentence.
We’d already talked about the problem at length, tried several different ways to try and change it, but still it remained and here we were. By this point he was not the only person in the room on edge.
“So explain this again,” his voice was raised, but not yet shouting “how we can be getting so many plays on SoundCloud, but we can only sell a handful of records?”
It was a fair question.
One of the internet’s core strengths is its ability to create communities on a scale that were never possible before. People from around the world can loosely group together around a topic remarkably easily. What used to be a niche interest can suddenly be shared with millions of other people.
This has obviously had something of an impact on the music industry.
You could make a strong argument that Napster was the first music social network. Disparate music fans around the world connected together and shared what they loved. And...Read more ➔
When I started my career in music I worked in what was then known as the New Media department. “This new internet malarkey” we collectively thought “is probably something we should pay attention to. Let’s separate out the people that seem to understand what it is hope they don’t cause too much fuss.”
This was a while ago now. The iTunes Store was but a year old in the UK. YouTube didn’t exist yet. If you wanted to watch a music video your best bet was to wait for it to come on MTV. Your other option was to watch a postage-stamp-sized, sub-VHS quality Windows Media or Real Player streaming link.
All of the talk then – at least in the New Media Department – was of the digital transition. At this point this referred to the transition to legal digital downloads from CDs and Napster. It was a format shift. Vinyl to cassettes to CDs to downloads. The concept was the same as it ever had been – buying music. And the overriding thought was that if the industry can make digital download sales work, and litigate like crazy, then the Napster problem would go away.
In hindsight, it’s pretty...Read more ➔
Last week a new band came in to play us their freshly delivered debut album. There is protocol in these situations. Everyone must sit in rapturous contemplation and laser focused attention. Heads must bob. Feet must tap. After every track you must make some gesture that indicates that, yes, that track was good; a smile, a nod, maybe even a quick, muttered “Great”.
Mid way through the second track, one of them gets up, stretches over to the stereo and turns the volume up.
“So, what did you think?”
The one universal constant shared by all the artists I have come across is the wash of nervousness that descends upon them in the split second of silence that follows that question.
Fortunately the room agrees that it is a great piece of work, and even more fortunately they’re not just saying it to avoid an awkward situation (and potential job loss). In the conversation that follows the band go into the ideas behind the record, the context, and also how much time they spent getting the track listing just so. You can hear it, as well; listening from start to finish the album ebbs and flows, building up tension and weight, only to release...Read more ➔
Let’s take stock, shall we? By all accounts, the world has gone crazy. Not as bad as when it’s been really bad, but, you know, bad. Facts are dead. It is entirely possible that some people genuinely think up is actually down, and to say anything different is unpatriotic. In an effort to prove that politics is just as cyclical as fashion, by different turns we seem to be simultaneously reviving the Nazis and the Cold War. We are metaphorically wearing a Hugo Boss suit with leg warmers, and look just as stupid.
Let’s put all that to one side though. It is, I think we can all agree, too much. But what I want to write about is how to best handle the year ahead, and to ignore the looming doom of the modern political landscape would be remiss. The elephant is there; let’s all look at it, puzzle for a second at quite what it’s done with its hair, and move on.
After all, we have records to sell.
Of course, I don’t just mean records. And of course – of course! – I don’t mean sell. Such simplicities are the luxury of a different time. I have written at length...Read more ➔
I was talking recently with someone I know who works at a music media company. I say “media company” both to be purposefully vague but also because I struggle to think of a better term that encompasses the merging worlds of distribution, retail and promotion.
Day in, day out, they get pitched music.
They told me that the latest thing that record labels are talking about is “storytelling”.
This makes a lot of sense, because labels have always been natural storytellers. The original story was that if you wanted to get your music into shops, into the hands of the public, you had to sign a record deal. It was a good story, a true story, and I think we can all agree that the labels did pretty well out of telling that tale.
Fast forward several decades, and the story started to change a little. The details adapted – like a shocking, unbelievable-because-it’s-made-up story you see flash past on Facebook every 3 years – but the underlying message is the same. Rather than “we’re the only ones that can get you in to stores”, as distribution got easier the story became “we’re the only way you can have a hit”.
When you get wined...Read more ➔
Releasing music is getting complicated, isn’t it? Once, you’d simply use huge factories dotted around the world to etch your record onto a small plastic disc, then use fleets of planes, trains and automobiles to get them into thousands of stores dotted around high streets hither and thither.
Now you just release it digitally with one retailer and go to number one in multiple markets with no traditional promotion. And it’s all just so complicated.
Now obviously, obviously, the Frank Ocean’s of this world aren’t and can’t be a blueprint for everyone else, for exactly the same reason that Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want scheme wasn’t something that any old band could make work (homework assignment: 1500 words on how In Rainbows was the first significant windowed exclusive release). And I’m not saying the release of Blonde was perfect. But I think the current crop of exclusive and windowed releases are a manifestation of some significant industry shifts.
The iTunes Store launched just over 13 years ago, and it’s taken that long for digital music to actually change how people release albums (it did the job with singles a fair while back, mind). It seems crazy to say, but while in certain markets (most certainly not...Read more ➔
I have two main ways of getting to work. One way – my normal way – involves a slightly soulless walk, slightly mediocre coffee, and a slightly less crowded tube train at the end of it. The other way features rammed carriages but significantly better flat whites.
I was in the later establishment just over a week ago. It was a Friday. One of the more characterful features of the place is that it typically plays loud, high BPM music more frequently found in places like, I don’t know, Fabric I guess? I don’t really go to clubs any more, but this is the sort of music I assume they still play.
In short, it is not the sort of accompaniment you expect with your morning coffee. Once I was in there and they were playing – at their traditional ear splitting volume – The Teaches of Peaches (by Peaches). Watching the ripple of confusion spread through the queue as people figured out that yes, they had heard that lyric correctly, was quite a beautiful sight to behold.
Back to that Friday. There was no music playing, and a glum look across the faces of all the staff. You can probably guess...Read more ➔
My first MP3 player was this terrible, brick-like contraption made by Nokia. I couldn’t afford a regular player, so to take part in the nascent digital music revolution I was forced to get something on a phone contract that also happened to play MP3s. I paid a big price, not just in terms of the student-loan depleting monthly payments, as the phone I got was designed at the peak of Nokia’s “creative” phase, where they rigorously tested all the different possible permutations of what a phone should look like. For better and, far more frequently, for worse.
I can picture the design meeting. It is somewhere deep in the frozen north of Finland. A gaggle of designers, sipping strong, black coffee to keep them alert from the never ending snowy darkness outside, assemble in a pristine conference room.
“I have got it!” one of them says – he is excited, although you could never tell from the monotone of his voice.
“The kids that we want to buy the new MP3 player phone,” he continues “they like to send the text messages.”
“So, how about we give this phone a full keyboard, so they can send them even quicker?”
“But,” another of the designers interjects,...Read more ➔
You’ve watched Making A Murderer, haven’t you? And of course when I say watched I really mean binged, episode after episode flickering past in a haze of instant entertainment addiction. If you haven’t watched that show, you will almost certainly be familiar with the experience.
Making A Murderer – and its widespread reception – indicates we have hit a tipping point where streaming, subscription-based video is truly mainstream. Not that it hasn’t been popular previously – the likes of House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Orange is the New Black all attest to that – but it is now accepted – the fact that a series like this appeared, Beyoncé-esq, on Netflix with little or no fanfare and his hit mass acclaim is not news. It’s normal. And that’s interesting.
Not only was the distribution channel through a per-month-based app, but they made – or at least financed – it as well. That’s pretty interesting as well. In fact, it’s all far too interesting for the music industry just to sit and watch happen without thinking “maybe we should do that”, as it is wont to do whenever a similar industry is doing well. I mean, if you squint enough TV is pretty...Read more ➔
Flying cars, hoverboards, and self-drying jackets — predicting the future is hard.
However, if we’re just to focus on music right now, it’s a fascinating time. Certain things are falling into place, which means that the path is maybe—just maybe—becoming clearer for the minute. At least, that is, in terms of how technology is influencing the way people listen to music.
We are obviously at a point now where legal, on-demand access to almost all music is a reality—whether through streaming services like Spotify or Apple Music, or YouTube (which we might want to count as a streaming service as well, though I don’t think anyone actually uses it in quite the same fashion). In some ways, streaming is still a comparatively niche business, but from where I’m sitting—as someone working in the music industry—at some point in the last 12 months it went from an underground niche to an overground one.
It is now inevitable that streaming music will become the most popular way to listen. It won’t be the only way, of course, but it will certainly account for the majority—in the same way the CD once did.
But what effect will that have? To get an idea, we should...Read more ➔
It’s about 7pm on a dark November Friday. The weather has turned from unseasonably warm to appropriately bitter. That hasn’t stopped the shoppers flocking to one of the capitals premiere shopping destinations, however. They mill around, bags in tow, flicking Christmas signs lighting up their work-weary faces.
In HMV there is a queue at the checkout. I am one of five; the three people ahead are all clutching CDs marked 25. So is the man behind me. So am I.
So much has already been written about the new Adele record, and far more will be because it is fascinating. It’s fascinating because the story of her, and the story of her success, runs counter to so many different narrative strands that we are all deeply accustomed and attuned to.
The recorded music industry is dying
Well, we’re all used to hearing this one, right? Even now, if you tell a new acquaintance down the pub that you work for a record label you get roughly the same response I did when I took my old car to webuyanycar.com – a slow exhale of breath through pierced lips, and a slight shake of the head (”…and how long did you say the...Read more ➔
If you work in the UK music industry, 2015 is probably proving to be quite a confusing year. Several elements that have been brewing for a while have now all snapped into relevance, turning everything upside down in the process.
For example, exactly how should you release a single now?
(No, go on – I’d like an actual answer if you’ve got one.)
Now, streams being added to the single chart happened last year, but it took a good 6 months for everyone to start paying attention, and then another 6 months for the majors to stick their flag firmly in the ground marked “on air on sale” and make it properly mean something. Or should that be “on air on stream”? Or maybe not? And just how long is a cycle at radio now? It seems to be simultaneously getting both shorter (in terms of on-the-playlist time before your impact date) and longer (if you have a track that beds in regionally).
Questions, questions, questions.
Let’s not even get started on the impact streams are having to the albums chart, and whether that makes any sense at all, because the charts are a weird place anyway ever since we all decided to up sticks...Read more ➔