From Brussels With Love (Revisited)

40 years ago this month, an obscure record label in Belgium released a cassette-only compilation album, which became a reference point for many post-punk projects. “From Brussels With Love”, originally put out by Les Disques du Crepuscule, has just been re-issued, so during the recent lock-down, I thought I would exhume my original copy and remind myself of why this was such a landmark album, and why its influence continues to this day.

To add some context, Sony had launched the Walkman cassette player in 1979, the first truly portable device for pre-recorded music. This led to a renewed interest in the cassette format among independent artists and labels, as it was also a cheaper means of manufacture and distribution than vinyl records (and long before CDs, mp3 and streaming services). And in the wake of the DIY aesthetic promoted by punk, some new music was being released on cassette only, such as Bow Wow Wow’s “Your Cassette Pet” and BEF’s “Music for Stowaways” (the title referencing an early model of the Sony Walkman). Some of these cassette-only releases (especially by independent, lo-fi, DIY electronic artists such as Inertia) are now highly collectable.

What made “From Brussels With Love” so significant was not just the format. It was not even alone in combining music with interviews and fully illustrated booklets. Fast Forward in Melbourne also launched their first audio-magazine in November 1980, and other similar projects followed such as Edinburgh’s “Irrationale”, Manchester’s “Northern Lights”, and London’s “Touch” label which began life releasing a series of curated audio gazettes, including both spoken-word and musical contributions.

The importance of “From Brussels With Love” was the cross-section of artists it managed to bring together: mercurial musicians such as Bill Nelson, John Foxx and Vini Reilly; side projects from members of established post-punk bands from the UK (Wire, Joy Division/New Order, the Skids and Spizzenergi); a cluster of emerging European bands (Der Plan, The Names and Radio Romance); and several leading names in modern classical and ambient music (Harold Budd, Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, Phil Niblock, Brian Eno and Wim Mertens). Oh, and an interview with actor Jeanne Moreau.

This eclectic mix of contemporary artists (and this deliberate approach to curation) was no doubt highly influential on subsequent projects such as the NME/Rough Trade “C81” or Rorschach Testing’s “Discreet Campaigns” – these were not compilations reflecting a single musical style or even the usual label sampler, nor were they simply collections of what was new or current. Instead, they reveal an aesthetic attitude (curiosity combined with open-mindedness mixed with a high level of quality control and a hint of audience challenge) that is harder to find today. Now we have “recommender engines” and narrow-casting streaming services that would struggle to compile similarly diverse outcomes. And more’s the pity.

I know there are a number of on-line platforms and print publications that try to bring a similar approach to their curation, but for various reasons, and despite their best intentions, they generally suffer from being cliquey, self-referencing/self-identifying, and all driven by a need to capture eyeballs to attract advertising, so they quickly lose any claim to independence or even originality. Which is a shame because there is so much great music out there that we don’t get to hear, simply because it is not mainstream, or it doesn’t conform to a particular style, or it doesn’t meet “playlist criteria”, or it doesn’t have enough marketing dollars behind it.

Next week: Is the Party over?

Steam Radio in the Digital Age

A few years ago, I wrote a blog on how radio had come of age in the era of social media. And despite podcasts and streaming services making significant inroads into our listening behaviour, radio is still with us. Plus it now gets distributed via additional media: digital radio (DAB), internet streaming, mobile apps and digital TV.

Image sourced from flickr

Most mornings I get my first information hit from the radio. Likewise, the midnight radio news bulletin is usually the last update of the day. When I’m on my way to or from the office I’m either catching up on a podcast or streaming radio, via TuneIn or dedicated station apps.

I particularly enjoy the BBC’s catalogue of on-demand content – both contemporary material, and archive programmes. There’s something inexplicable about the appeal of listening to 50-60 year old recordings, themselves being dramatisations of books and plays first published 100 years or more earlier.

The main reason I turn to these relics of steam radio is because I can curate what I want to listen to, when I want to listen. These programmes are also an antidote to much of what gets broadcast on commercial radio stations, which I find is mostly noise and no substance. (Blame it on my age, combined with being a self-confessed music snob.)

Most of these archive radio recordings still work because of two things: the calibre of the material; and the high production values. The former benefits from tight script editing and strict programme lengths. The latter is evident from both the engineering standards and the sound design.

One of the paradoxes of modern technology is that as the costs of equipment, bandwidth and data come down (along with the barriers to access), so the amount of content increases (because the means of production is much cheaper) – yet the quality inevitably declines. And since in the internet era, consumers increasingly think that all online content should be “free”, there is less and less money to invest in the production.

The importance of having a high level of quality control is inextricably linked to the continued support and funding for public broadcasting. With it, hopefully, comes impartiality, objectivity, diversity and risk-taking – much of which is missing in commercial radio. Not that I listen very often to the latter these days, but it feels that this format is destined to increased narrowcasting (by demographic), and parochialism.

In this era of fake news and misinformation (much of it perpetrated and perpetuated by media outlets that are controlled or manipulated by malign vested interests), and at a time of increased nationalism, divisive sectarianism and social segregation, it’s worth remembering the motto of the BBC:

“Nation shall speak peace unto nation”

Notwithstanding some of the self-inflicted damage that the BBC has endured in recent years, and the trend for nationalistic propaganda from many state-owned news media and broadcasters, the need for robust and objective public broadcasting services seems more relevant than ever.

Next week: Craft vs Creativity

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All that jazz!

I’d be the first to admit I’m a music snob. Not that I think my tastes are better than anyone else, just that they are very particular. I like to think I have an informed opinion about the listening choices I make.

When I went to university, I was asked if I had any preferences about whom I shared student accommodation with. “No heavy metal freaks or jazz buffs”. I’ve still not changed my opinion of heavy metal, but my attitude towards jazz, like my appreciation for red wine, has only improved with age.

Not all, jazz, mind. Two words that strike dread in me are “gypsy jazz” – along with trad, dixieland and rag time, I find it most of it too fiddly, over-ornate, bordering on cheesiness. Similarly, for me, listening to “smooth” artists like Kenny G is akin to wading through treacle. There are certain instruments that I find very difficult to stomach in a jazz context – trombone, soprano saxophone, violin and acoustic guitar. And the big band sound is something I can only endure very selectively. Much of what is labelled fusion also leaves me cold, although I do make an exception for Soft Machine.

I suppose my point of entry is post bop, along with modal and free jazz. And while cool jazz can take itself far too seriously, at least it generally doesn’t fall into the trap of virtuosity for its own sake. (I’m always reminded of the criticism of Mozart attributed to Emperor Joseph II – “too many notes!” – when it comes to the noodly end of the jazz spectrum.)

Like many people, one of my first real engagements with jazz was Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue”. As a self-contained statement on “modern” jazz, it still astonishes with each listen. Despite its ubiquity, I never tire of hearing it. (In point of fact, the first Davis album I sought out was “In A Silent Way”, after it was used as a reference point in a review of A Certain Ratio’s debut album. Strange but true.) I’ve since come to appreciate the full canon of Davis’s work, although I have never warmed to his final records, recorded for the Warner Brothers label. His albums are often grouped into specific periods, rather like Picasso’s art, which only adds to his status and legacy.

At various times, my personal journey (and at specific stages in their careers) has encompassed Thelonious Monk, Modern Jazz Quartet, John Coltrane, Oscar Peterson, Ornette Coleman, Herbie Hancock, Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Nina Simone, Stan Getz, Keith Jarrett, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Ahmad Jamal, Mulatu Astatke, Sun Ra, Chet Baker, Antonio Carlos Jobim, McCoy Tyner, Eric Dolphy, Hank Mobley, Joe Henderson, Cecil Taylor, Marion Brown and Albert Ayler.

In terms of newer and contemporary artists, the only one who has managed to sustain my interest is Brad Mehldau, in particular his live solo performances – where he seems to have picked up from where Keith Jarrett left off in the 1990s.

And as I get older, I find that the only music radio station I can listen to is ABC Jazz….

Next week: Wholesale Investor’s Crypto Convention 

Will streaming kill the music industry?

The resurgence in vinyl sales is certainly not enough to save the music business. But will streaming finally cook the goose that once laid Gold Discs?

statistic_id273308_music-album-sales-in-the-us-2007-2014

US album sales (in all formats) are in decline. (Source:  Statista)

What can we learn from the music industry based on the apparent rebound of vinyl sales in recent years? Is streaming doing enough to halt the decline in total music revenue? Will CD’s soon disappear altogether? What future for LPs in a world of “Album Equivalent Sales”, “Track Equivalent Albums” and “Streaming Equivalent Albums”?

Are there parallels here with other content, publishing or entertainment sectors?

Back to Black

Last month the 8th annual Record Store Day was launched with a fanfare of upbeat data for vinyl sales. It was a good news story in an otherwise depressing saga of declining album sales, stagnating revenues, and mixed messages about the impact of digital downloads and streaming services on the music industry.

Coming off a very low base (like, near-extinction levels), the extraordinary sales growth of vinyl (especially in Australia) can be attributed to a combination of factors, although it is difficult to see how any single trend is responsible for this growth:

  • The growing popularity of Record Store Day itself (although it’s not without its problems – see below)
  • Baby boomers buying their record collections all over again
  • Hipster interest in analogue technology
  • Record labels mining their back catalogues
  • Niche market interest among audiophiles, collectors and the cool kids
  • New approaches to packaging vinyl with downloads and other bonus content
  • DJ culture
  • Secondary markets via E-bay and Discogs
  • Retailing switching from megastores to specialist shops

Infographic: Vinyl Comes Back From Near-Extinction (Source: Statista)

Where Is The Money Coming From?

Latest industry data suggests that digital sales (downloads and streaming) are now on a par with physical sales (CD, vinyl and the rest). Overall revenue has stabilised, having fallen from a peak in 1999. And streaming services are enjoying huge growth.

But the true picture is harder to establish:

First, while the IFPI provides global aggregated data, each local industry body (RIAA, BPI, ARIA etc.) likes to tell a different story from its national perspective. So it’s difficult to compare like with like. (For example, while Taylor Swift is supposed to be a worldwide phenomenon, she does not figure at all in the BPI data for 2014…..) One brave soul has tried to compile data for the past 20 years.

Second, because of the changes in distribution and consumption, music sales have to be counted in different ways:

  • Wholesale revenue vs retail sales
  • Physical sales vs digital sales
  • Per unit download sales vs streaming equivalents
  • Product revenues (e.g., album sales) vs licensing revenues (e.g., soundtracks)
  • Subscription fees (e.g., Spotify) vs per download revenue (e.g., iTunes)
  • Advertising income from video streaming vs royalties from broadcasting and soundtracks

Third, when more and more music is accessed via video platforms like YouTube, Vimeo, and Vevo, streaming platforms like Spotify, Pandora and Omny, or apps such as Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Mixcloud and Shazam, “sales” data starts to become less and less relevant. (And some people are still hanging on to the ailing MySpace platform….).

The bottom line is that despite the growth in streaming services, digital sales (in whatever format or media) are not yet enough to compensate for the continued decline in album sales in particular, and music overall:

The peak era of CD sales is over. (Source: Talking New Media)

Record Store Day Woes

The success of Record Store Day has divided opinion as to whether it is actually a “good thing” for the industry. It started as a campaign by independent record labels, distributors and retailers to revive the habit of buying records in-store. Labels produce limited edition and often highly collectible items for the occasion, and there are rules as to how, when and where these releases can be made available to the public.

At first, it really was driven by the independent labels, many of whom brought out interesting product that otherwise wasn’t available, such as label samplers, unreleased material and one-off artist collaborations.

Now, the major labels have jumped on board, meaning the market is flooded with unnecessary re-releases (do we really need Bruce Springsteen‘s ’70s and ’80s albums reissued on vinyl?) drawn from their extensive back catalogues (no need to pay for recording costs or new artwork!).

This means that smaller labels who release new vinyl records on a regular basis (not just once a year) get bumped from the production line, as the major labels exert their purchasing power over the pressing plants.

In addition, some Record Store Day releases are so badly distributed that stores are unlikely to take delivery of the items in time for the event. Or bad decisions lead to over-supply of certain items, which end up in the bargain bins (major labels again especially guilty of this offence).

Some store owners appear reluctant to participate because they feel embarrassed about the prices they may have to charge for many of the limited releases, which get bought by speculative customers, rather than collectors, fans and enthusiasts – a fact borne out by the immediate listings and inflated prices on E-Bay and Discogs….

As one store owner I talked to commented: “Every day should be record store day…”

What Else Does The Data Reveal?

For all the new young pop stars that the industry keeps churning out, there’s nothing like longevity and back catalogue to prop up the sales numbers. For example, Barbara Streisand was in the Top 10 for US album sales (and with new material!), and the likes of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Miles Davis, Bob Marley and Oasis feature in the top-selling vinyl records. Will Record Store Day 2025 herald the vinyl release of Justin Bieber’s pre-pubescent “demos”?

The decline of album sales has been particularly steep in the genres of Hip-Hop and R&B, while rock and pop continue to dominate the market. Some industry commentators have suggested that music sales are merely “in transition” as consumers switch from buying CD’s and downloading music to subscribing to streaming services. Meanwhile, in the US, country music’s #4 position by overall consumption reflects substantial album sales, as streaming is still a small component for the genre.

And those vinyl sales numbers? They’re simply a blip on the chart and largely driven by avid fans willing to shell out for deluxe editions….

The future is streaming?

Apple and others certainly believe (or hope) that streaming will save the music industry. Having demolished the market for CDs, iTunes is in a battle for its own survival among competing streaming services, where Apple itself is about to lead the charge having acquired the Beats platform.

But others are not so sure, predicting that streaming is already in decline, along with download sales:

First, the streaming platforms are yet to make a profit. Part of this is due to the cost of content that has to be licensed from the record labels and artists. Part is also due to the cost of acquiring customers, even if this can be done via social media, because the decline in music buying has been so abrupt, so the industry may be permanently damaged that streaming cannot bring back paying customers.

Second, even though streaming may overtake downloads by next year, there’s still nothing certain that teen pop fans (the target audience) will pay $7.99 – $9.99 per month to listen to music via so-called “freemium” services. Evidence suggests that consumers are happy with the free services, even if they have to put up with ads.

Third, while I agree that the freemium model is a fixture in the digital economy, the problem with Spotify et al is that they are not growing the market for music, but simply cannibalising it by displacing existing platforms (commercial radio, digital downloads, physical sales), while being tied to third-party distribution channels (the internet) and devices (smart phones, tablets and computers).

Anyway, subscription-based music streaming is nothing new, and was first launched over 100 years ago (and thanks to Mark Brend’s “The Sound of Tomorrow”, I learned that Mark Twain was the first subscriber).

If the “old” record companies are charging streaming services too much to license their content, then the streaming services should just find other sources – there’s plenty out there – but then, just like the major record labels, they are not really interested in music, only in shifting product and promoting “artists” (even if they are still figuring out how to make digital pay). The record labels don’t help themselves with their reliance on back catalogue, and their archaic territorial licensing practices either – forcing customers to circumvent geo-blocking barriers (legally or otherwise…).

Unfortunately, file sharing, illegal downloads and “free” streaming have meant customers don’t feel compelled to pay for digital music content. Personally, I prefer to curate my own listening, and not let someone else dictate what I hear, even if the service “knows” my preferences…

And the moral of the story is…?

More distribution platforms, more formats and more content may not be enough to save ailing industries, whether it’s music or television, newspapers or movies. These businesses will have to learn to live with lower margins and/or smaller market shares. The quality of a home-made movie uploaded onto YouTube may not be anywhere near that of a Hollywood blockbuster, but if cat videos are what grab punters’ attention (and by default, pull in the advertisers), the studios may have to find alternative strategies. And if music fans prefer to use free streaming services, the industry has to do a better job of producing content that consumers may be willing to pay for.

Ironically, in publishing, one sector that has been written off ever since the arrival of CD-ROM’s and the internet, teen consumers are still happily buying and reading print editions, alongside e-books. More so than other content industries, publishing has rapidly adapted to the new user-defined model: aspiring authors find it easier to self-publish (e.g., via Tablo and dedicated crowdfunding platforms such as Pubslush and Unbound); they can easily connect with an audience (especially in the realm of fan fiction); and a platform like Wattpad allows writers to test material before they commit to formal publication, and lets readers vote for what they’d like to read more of.

Next week: Making connections between founders and investors