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?

Stereolab at Melbourne Zoo

There was a recent newspaper article about the number of older rock stars having to cancel tour dates due to ill health, injury and just plain old age. The irony is that when most of those performers started out as professional musicians, no-one really expected their careers to last 10 or 15 years, let alone 40 or even 50 years. Now that artists increasingly rely on income from ticket sales (rather than royalties from streaming services), there could be lean times ahead for ageing rockers – and that’s before we take the effects of COVID-19 into account. Thankfully, Stereolab were able to play at Melbourne Zoo last week, before cancelling the rest of their Asia Pacific concerts due to the virus. Of course, by comparison to much of rock’s gnarly royalty, they are mere babes, having “only” formed in 1990. And although they have not released any new material for 10 years, during which time the band has been on hiatus, Stereolab have an extensive back catalogue to draw upon now they have started touring again.

Alongside contemporaries Saint Etienne, Stereolab were part of a reaction against late-80s grunge and acid house, and between them they ushered in a return to more interesting melodic and harmonic structures, vintage/retro sounds and complex textures, all informed by an aesthetic that embraces electronica, exotica, soundtracks, bossa nova and dub effects. In fact, both bands have collaborated with similar post-rock artists on each side of the Atlantic such as Jim O’Rourke, Tortoise, Mouse on Mars and To Rococo Rot, not to mention The High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan. (Both bands also have extensive back catalogues, with frequent non-album, one-off, limited and rare 7″ singles scattered throughout their discographies.)

By going back on the road after such a long break (and with no new material to promote), there was a risk that Stereolab might simply be going through the motions – even coming across as their own tribute act at best, a self-parody at worst. Thankfully, despite the familiarity of the songs, the band managed to keep everything sounding fresh, energetic and full of enthusiasm. And despite maintaining that original aesthetic, Stereolab have enough variety to remain interesting and avoid sounding samey – which has no doubt helped with their own longevity, unlike many contemporary artists who will likely be forgotten quicker than a Crazy Frog ringtone.

Next week: Margaret Tan and Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep

 

 

 

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

Copyright – Use It Or Lose It?

I was browsing in one of the last remaining record stores in Melbourne’s CBD last week, flipping through the secondhand racks for independent vinyl releases of the 70s and 80s. (I was in search of some sounds of the Paisley Underground, if anyone is interested.) The shop owner, who also runs a record label, lamented that there are a whole bunch of out-of-print recordings of that era that he wants to license for reissue in physical format – but in many cases, the rights have since been acquired by major record companies that have no interest in re-releasing this material themselves. Yet, when approached for permission, oftentimes they ask for prohibitive licensing fees, making the venture uneconomic.

The sound of the Paisley Underground (on vinyl, of course) – Image sourced from Discogs.com

The irony is, most times the major labels have no idea what they have in their back catalogues, because the content they own has been scooped up through corporate mergers or is still managed via a series of archaic territorial licensing and distribution deals based on antiquated geo-blocking practices. Plus, understandably, they are usually more interested in flogging their latest product than curating their past.

There’s nothing wrong with content owners wanting to charge licensing fees, but surely they need to be commensurate with the likely rate of return for the licensee (we’re usually talking about a small circulation among enthusiasts, after all). Plus, the original production costs have either been written off, or amortized on the books – so, given there is little to no new cost to the content owner, ANY additional revenue stream would surely be welcome, however modest?

But what about streaming and downloads? Surely all this back catalogue content is available from your nearest digital music platform of choice? Well, actually no. In many cases, “out-of-print” also means “out-of-circulation”. And even if back content is available to stream or download, the aforementioned geo-blocking can mean that rights owners in certain markets may choose not to make the content available in specific countries. (I’ve even had the experience where content I have purchased and downloaded from iTunes Australia is no longer available – probably because the rights have subsequently been acquired by a local distributor who has elected to withdraw it from circulation.)

Of course, copyrights eventually expire or lapse, and unless renewed or otherwise maintained, usually fall into the public domain (but not for many years…..). Again, nothing wrong with affording copyright owners the commercial and financial benefits of their IP. But, should content owners be allowed to sit on their assets, and do nothing with their IP, despite the willingness of potential licensees to generate additional income for them?

In a previous blog, I ventured the idea of a “use it or lose it” concept. This would enable prospective licensees to re-issue content, in return for an appropriate royalty fee or share of revenues, where the copyright owners (and/or their labels, publishers and distributors) no longer make it available – either in certain markets and territories, or in specific formats. To mitigate potential copyright exploitation, copyright owners would be given the opportunity to explain why they have chosen to withhold or withdraw material that had previously been commercially available. There could also be an independent adjudicator to assess these explanations, and to help set an appropriate level of licensing fees and/or royalties.

Meanwhile, on-line sites like Discogs.com provide a welcome marketplace for out-of-print back catalogue!

Next week: Big Data – Panacea or Pandemic?