Vinyl on the brain

In planning to write a blog on vinyl records, I was responding to recent personal experiences and insights on this topic. Then events somewhat overtook me, as I learned of the death this past weekend of Philip Jeck (more on him later). So this post has taken on a slightly different tone.

Image sourced from Vintage Everyday

The initial trigger for this blog came from the realisation that I’ve been spending more time on Twitter engaging with fellow vinyl enthusiasts – and of course, this interest has been amplified by social media algorithms and their “preferences” and “recommendations”. In my experience, most people who post content about music in general (and vinyl in particular) tend to be much nicer than those who indulge in the didactic venom and unfiltered hate speech that passes for “social commentary” these days. But this just goes to prove that you find your audience (and your confirmation bias?) where you choose to seek them.

Part of this on-line engagement is prompted by a passion for collecting, and a love of sharing. Yes, it could merely relate to showing off one’s vinyl stash, and may reveal fetishistic tendencies – but frankly, there are far worse vices. A lot of the commentary details successful crate-digging, charity shop bargains, and re-discovered hidden gems. In fact, the prospect of finding an over-looked classic, unearthing a valuable rarity, or simply completing a gap in your collection often drives this obsession. So much so, that recently I found myself dreaming of records which I know don’t exist, but in so much detail that part of me thinks these artefacts must be out there somewhere!

Like many music enthusiasts, I was first exposed to vinyl records via my parents’ and then my sisters’ collections. For a time in the late ’60s, my dad used to visit EMI on business, and would sometimes come home on a Friday having picked up a new release or two, most memorably the first few singles on the Beatles’ Apple label. I probably got the collecting bug more than my siblings, and still recall the key albums I bought with my own money: “Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield, “Autobahn” by Kraftwerk, and “A Clockwork Orange” by Wendy Carlos – which probably confirms my personal bias for instrumental, electronic and soundtrack music.

Then, I started playing in bands with mates from school, an interest that was further fueled by the arrival of punk rock, and the realisation that there was more to music than the Top 40 and old hippies singing into their patchouli-drenched afghan overcoats. One group I was in, Greenfield Leisure, received an airing on John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 programme (the Holy Grail for aspiring musicians at the time), but mostly these bands existed on home-made demo tapes, and were only ever heard (and rarely appreciated…) by our long-suffering families. Later, I worked in a chain of infamous second-hand record stores in London, which, if nothing else, revealed some of the weirder ends of the vinyl-collecting public. It also helped expand my musical knowledge, but at the cost of a fair chunk of my paltry shop wages.

Vinyl is not necessarily the most convenient format of music – it’s not as portable as digital, and not as robust as CD. Records get scratched, they warp, the grooves fill up with dust, and the sleeves get battered and torn. So, despite advances in technology, and the huge market for digital music and streaming services, why have vinyl records endured?

The continued and renewed interest in music on vinyl cannot be explained by a single factor – this phenomenon is as multi-faceted as the genres of music people listen to.

First, whether or not driven by events like Record Store Day, limited edition releases, box set retrospectives or physical copies being shipped with download coupons, vinyl sales are steadily on the up. But as a proportion of how people listen to music each week, purchased music (physical and download formats) comprises less than 10%, while streaming formats account for two-thirds of our listening.

Second, the tactile nature of vinyl records, plus the opportunity they present for creativity in their use of artwork, design and packaging, can generate a more engaging and long-lasting experience. As someone said recently on Twitter, you probably don’t remember the first music you downloaded or streamed, but it’s very likely you remember the first record you bought.

Third, quite apart from the vast amount of artist and label back catalogue being reissued on vinyl, more and more new and contemporary music is being released on vinyl as well as digital – sometimes, there’s not even a CD edition.

Fourth, swathes of back-catalogue can only be accessed via original vinyl editions, having never been re-issued during the hey-day of CDs in the 1990s and early 2000s. In fact, even where current and past releases have been released for streaming and/or download, the vagaries of geo-blocking can mean that this digital content is not available in all territories.

Finally, the economics of streaming (and to a lesser extent, downloads) have revealed that artists receive just a tiny proportion of the subscription revenue generated by Spotify, Apple and others, which can make vinyl purchases more attractive to music fans. This dynamic has also made direct-to-buyer platforms like Bandcamp more appealing to artists and fans alike.

Back to Philip Jeck, a sound artist who transformed piles of dusty old records into a musical experience. Using techniques he gleaned from watching hip-hop DJs and post-modern turntablists, he curated (rather than composed) sound collages built up from layers of seemingly forgotten and anonymous recordings, turning them into live art. I was fortunate enough to see him perform twice. The first was in 1993, when he presented his magnum opus “Vinyl Requiem” at the Union Chapel in North London. The second was in 2008, for a much more intimate solo performance at The Toff in Town, Melbourne. In both cases, the use of streaming could not have resulted in such a strong creative process or delivered such immersive listening.

Next week: Music with literary leanings

The Current State of Popular Music

Over the holidays, during a family get-together, two younger relatives mentioned what their favourite pop song was. I did not know the song by title or artist, and until very recently I actually I thought it was an advertising jingle. I now understand that the combination of the song’s novelty factor and its ubiquitous appearance had helped to make it very popular. I can see why it may appeal to kids – but I doubt it will become an evergreen classic….

The song they mentioned incorporates a number of musical tropes very prevalent in many current pop songs, especially as regards the vocal styling and lyrical phrasing. But like much of the music being produced these days, it will likely be forgotten within a couple of years at most. The inherent “novelty” of the vocal could render the song a one-hit wonder, and the artist a one-trick pony.

I have nothing wrong with pop music per se, but if “we are what we eat”, surely we can become what we listen to. An unending and unvarying diet of mainstream pop music (as defined by commercial radio playlists, as measured by self-serving charts compiled by streaming services, and as financed by major record label marketing budgets and promotional tie-ins) is the equivalent of eating nothing but fast food and processed snacks.

So, at the risk of being labelled a grumpy old man, here is a list of things that are mostly wrong with contemporary pop music:

1. Vocals that feature one (or more) of the following:

  • the sound of cutesy chipmunks on helium
  • forced falsettos, cracked breathlessness and over-emoting warbling
  • singing from the back of the throat (as if constipated)
  • singing through the nose (as if congested)
  • whining, strained upper registers  (as made infamous by a certain tantric pop star)
  • auto-tune effects (especially those in search of a melody…)
  • shouting in place of projection
  • turning vowels into consonants, and consonants into vowels
  • adding syllables that don’t exist, and leaving out ones that do
  • over-stressed sibilants

2. Lyrical phrasing, scansion and rhyming schemes courtesy of Dr. Seuss,

3. Slogans, nursery rhymes and shouty phrases in place of lyrics

4. Drum and percussion tracks either programmed by ADHD, or inflicted with St. Vitus’s Dance

5. Boring, boxy and plodding 4/4 rhythms, with no syncopation or variation

6. Same set of production techniques and sound effects as used by every other producer or DJ

7. Samples based on the nastiest ringtones available (or programmed on the cheapest synths around)

8. Never mind a lack of key changes, or an absence of chord progressions, songs that revel in one-note vocal lines

9. An absence of interesting melodic or harmonic structures

10. Sound compressed into the smallest available bandwidth so it is easier to stream, but which ends up sounding flat and claustrophobic, and with exactly the same sound dynamics as every other song

11. No space to let the music breathe – every available beat and bar has to be filled up, especially with vocalese stylings

12. Too many cooks – songs by “X feat. Y with Z” are usually contrived concoctions dreamed up by the record company (“hey, we can flog this song to fans of all three of them!”) that end up as filler tracks on their respective solo albums

13. Kitchen sink productions (as in everything BUT the…) – you can almost imagine the producer in the studio shouting, “cue flamenco guitar, cue rapping, cue 80’s sample, cue metronomic rimshot, cue call and response vocals, cue detuned kick drum….!”

Part of the problem is that with the cheaper costs of recording, and the wider access to the means of production, anyone can make music, and release it direct to the public online. Meaning there is just so much more new music to listen to. However, the major record labels and their media partners still control most of the marketing budgets and distribution costs, that largely decide the songs we tend to hear, and that ultimately determine which songs become “hits”. By default, this process prescribes much of what is deemed “popular taste”. With the increased use of algorithms and other techniques, artists, producers, labels and media platforms can increasingly predict what songs will be successful, in a self-fulfilling prophesy of what will “sell”. it’s like punk never happened….

Next week: Sola.io – changing the way renewable energy is financed

Box Set Culture

I was first introduced to the box set phenomenon in 1974, when I received a collection of novels by J G Ballard for my birthday. This led to an on-off interest in sci-fi (Asimov, Aldis, Bradbury, Dick, Spinrad, Crichton et al). It also made me aware that curators (like librarians) have an enormous influence on the cultural content we consume, and the way we consume it. Even more so nowadays with streaming and on-demand services. Welcome to the binge society.

Welcome to box set culture (Image sourced from Unsubscriber)

With network TV being so rubbish (who needs more “reality” shows, formulaic sit-coms or re-hashed police procedurals?) I am slowly being drawn back into the Siren-like charms of Netflix. More on that in a  moment.

Box set culture has been especially prevalent in the music industry, despite or even because of downloading and streaming services. It’s possible to buy the complete works of particular artists, or curated compilations of entire record labels, music genres or defining eras of music. It’s a niche, but growing, business. In recent times, I have been lured into buying extensive box set retrospectives of major artists (notably Bowie, Pink Floyd, The Fall, Kraftwerk), as well as extended editions of classic albums (Beatles, Beach Boys), and first time releases of exhumed and near-mythical “lost” albums (Big Star, Brian Eno, Beach Boys again). I like to justify these acquisitions on the basis that they are significant works in the canon of contemporary music. But only die-hard fans would attempt to embrace the monumental box set put out recently by King Crimson – comprising a 27-disc compilation of just TWO(!) years in the band’s history.

Death (and/or lapsed copyright) has become a fertile ground for box set curators and re-issue compilers, whether in literature, film or TV, as well as music. I’m sure there are publishers and editors maintaining lists of their dream compilations, waiting for the right moment to release them (a bit like the TV stations and newspapers who keep their updated obituaries of the Queen on standby). Sadly, in the case of Mark E Smith of The Fall, his death was immediately preceded by a significant box set release (tempting fate?). And as for Bowie, he had no doubt planned his legacy (and now posthumous) retrospectives prior to his own demise.

On the other hand, streaming services create the false impression we are in control of what we listen to or watch. Unless we meticulously search, select and curate our own individual playlists, we are at the mercy of algorithms that are based on crowd-sourced behaviours that are imposed upon our own personal preferences. These algorithms are based on what is merely popular, or what the service providers are being paid to promote. And while it is possible to be pleasantly surprised by these semi-autonomous choices, too often they result in the lowest common denominator of what constitutes popular taste.

And so to Netflix, and the recent resurgence in pay TV drama. Binge watching (and box set culture in general) has apparently heralded a golden age of television (warning: plug for Sky TV). But depending on your viewpoint, binge watching is either a boon to shared culture (the normally stoical New Statesman) or results in half-baked content(the usually culturally progressive Guardian). Typically, the Independent is on the fence, acknowledging that binge viewing has changed the way TV is made (and watched) but at what price? Not to be left out, even Readers Digest has published some handy health tips for binge-TV addicts. Meanwhile, Netflix itself has released some research on how binge-watching informs our viewing habits (and presumably, our related consumer behaviours). And not everyone thinks this obsession with binge watching is healthy, or even good for business – presumably because it is not sustainable, as consumers will continue to expect/demand more and more at lower and lower subscription fees.

Meanwhile, for a totally different pace of binge-watching, SBS recently tested audience interest in “slow TV”. The free-to-air network screened a 3 hour, non-stop and ad-free documentary (with neither a voice-over narrative nor a musical soundtrack) featuring a journey on Australia’s Ghan railway. So successful was the experiment, not only did the train company’s website crash as viewers tried to find out about tickets, but SBS broadcast a 17 hour version just days later.

Next week: Infrastructure – too precious to be left to the pollies…

Music Streaming Comes Of Age

Last Saturday was the 10th International Record Store Day, an annual event to celebrate independent music shops. A key feature is the list of exclusive and limited edition vinyl releases, most of which can only be bought in selected participating stores – in person and on the day. But there are also loads of other promotions and live events, designed to get people browsing the racks in their local retail outlet. In an age when streaming services now account for the bulk of US music industry revenues, what is the future of the neighbourhood record shop (those that are still left, that is)? Will streaming services kill off digital downloads, as well as sales of physical product like CDs and records?

Despite the sense of doom that has permeated the record industry in recent years (if not decades!), there is also a feeling that, just as the internet has not yet managed to kill off the publishing industry, digital has not yet killed the radio star. The independent music industry in particular has found a way to survive, and retail stores are still an important part of the business.

So, what are the recent trends in music industry sales and business models?

First, the continued rebound in vinyl sales (at least in the UK) show that there is renewed interest in this 70-year-old format, with industry data showing a 25-year high (but not yet a return to the 1980s’ peak). Record Store Day is generally credited with boosting vinyl sales. And to be fair, even music streaming services have contributed to this growth, through curated content, recommendation engines and user preferences: meaning that listeners get exposed to a wider range of music and artists than they would from traditional Top 40 radio, and they get to explore and discover new music.

Second, digital downloads, once seen as the industry growth engine, are facing a pincer attack, from streaming services as well as vinyl sales. No wonder that Apple is expected to slowly and quietly retire the iTunes download store, and shift more focus onto its own Apple Music subscription service. The music industry (especially the dwindling number of major labels) didn’t really “get” the internet. Having just competed in the CD-format wars, the major labels then competed on digital file formats, and tried to lock their digital content to proprietary players and software protocols. Some of this reticence was justified – thanks to digital piracy and illegal file sharing – but they didn’t (and still don’t) help themselves by poor CX on their retail websites (if they have an e-commerce presence at all), and adherence to arcane geo-blocking.

Third, many musicians are benefiting from increased exposure via streaming services – although with Apple Music and Spotify seemingly leaving the other platforms far behind, the downside risks from a dominant duopoly don’t need spelling out. Especially as the royalty payments from streaming are generally much smaller than they would have been from physical sales, “traditional” downloads and radio airplay. This source of friction between labels, their artists, music publishers and online content platforms surfaced again earlier this month, in a spat with YouTube over fees for video streaming.

Fourth, in a new move in the streaming wars and the battle to win mobile screen real-estate, Australian startup Unlockd has just secured a deal with MTV UK to stream free music videos in return for viewing ads. It’s also a move designed to counter ad-blockers and locked screens, while finding another way to distribute sponsored content. Elsewhere, some mobile carriers are now including music streaming services as part of customers’ un-metered data consumption, although what this may mean for artist royalties and the revenue share from ad-supported content on Spotify etc. is unclear.

Fifth, as another example of how the music industry is having to adapt, UK startup Secret Sessions is using a combination of social media, independent/unsigned artists and major brand licensing deals to find new ways to generate revenue streams for artists that can no longer count on income from traditional sales-based royalty deals, especially with the diminished licensing revenues from streaming services.

Sixth, as further evidence that all is not well in the world of music streaming, SoundCloud continues to lose its way. Once the music service of choice for user-contributed content created by independent and unsigned musicians, it got greedy and has been subject to recent speculation about its financial health and future.

Initially, SoundCloud was all about the makers and producers – helping artists connect with their audience, via a simple but effective website and mobile app. It also meant that at first, SoundCloud charged musicians and labels under a “pay to publish” model, while listeners could simply stream (and sometimes download) all this content for free. Then, it alienated many of its earliest supporters and champions, by introducing “ad-supported” streaming (with priority access going to labels and artists with big marketing budgets, who could also attract/demand the lion’s share of the advertising revenue).

SoundCloud also seriously messed with the app, making it far less useful to artists, and then introduced its own subscription-based streaming service, SoundCloud Go. Only, it wasn’t satisfied with just one subscription model, and recently announced an “upgrade” – whereby the “old” service became “SoundCloud Go+“, and a “new” SoundCloud Go was launched. Confused? You will be….

Meanwhile, Bandcamp continues to outperform the industry, in terms of annual sales growth, and has become a unique platform that offers music streaming, digital downloads and even physical product. (Frustratingly, Bandcamp is still blocked from selling digital content directly via iOS devices – even though much of this content is unavailable on either iTunes or Apple Music. Surely that’s anti-competitive?) And now there’s an amusing string of “SoundCloud vs Bandcamp” memes doing the rounds which may say a lot about the respective fortunes of these rival services.

Finally, the last word on the current state of music streaming and digital downloads should go to the artist known as L.Pierre. He has just announced the release of his latest and final (vinyl-only) album under that particular moniker, with an accompanying artist statement which could be seen as both an indictment upon and a requiem for the music industry.

NOTE: Apologies to my readers for any confusion regarding the timing and accessibility of this post. Thanks to WordPress, this article “missed” its scheduled time, and the outgoing e-mail notification had a faulty link. Normal service will hopefully be resumed next week…

Next week: Startup Vic’s E-commerce Pitch Night