Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Reflections on 2008 #2: The Music: Is it just me or are albums getting better?

They're out. Music lists. The 'Top 50' album & song lists are everywhere. And the more discerning, self-controlled list-makers are at least coming up with their top 10s. I must confess I do love this time of year as I'm a sucker for a good list. And so I have to do my own for this blog of course!

It's an opportunity to reflect on the year, have some fun and take a break from the seriousness of the previous posts on this blog. I know it can be heavy going at times, but that's what comes from studying and working in a business you love for eight years long. And of course this is an opportunity to thank you all for reading Juggernaut Brew and to wish you a very musical Christmas & New Year. Some thanks come in the form of these recommendations on music in 2008.

What I love most about music is passing recommendations on to others. However, it’s a tricky business, recommendation (ask Pandora, The Filter, Mufin et al.). What I really love to do is make my musical recommendations personal – aimed at the individual and their needs at any particular time. However, if you read this blog regularly I'm confident by now that we have a lot in common – a little community if you will. Please do try at least some of the music in these lists if you haven't already, as they come with my personal, passionate quality guarantee!

Albums – has the renaissance begun? It would seem so...

Now this is interesting. Judging by 2008, I sense that the album – never a perfect universal format – is undergoing a renaissance – improving itself under duress of the various digital forces impacting on it. I hope so, because I predicted this would happen, so I can claim a small forecast victory. However, it's statistically almost impossible to prove (Music PhD's might want to give this one a try).

Certainly, digital album sales are increasing more rapidly than digital songs, although that isn't really a strong indicator of the point I'm trying to make. Perhaps better, is the fact that, on total music subscriptions such as that operated by TDC in Denmark (Play) – where consumers have access to everything – it seems that album consumption is more common than single songs, with 85% of tracks downloaded as whole albums. It seems that despite the imperfections and exposure de-bundling, the album has a future, even if that is at ever reducing prices.

I love albums personally – they are still very much my musical currency of choice. Here is my ranked best 10, followed by the next best bunch, unranked. Finally, in a world where there is just too much music to listen to, I list a few as a kind of note to self, that I'm intrigued to check out, but haven't yet had the time.
  1. Merz: Moi Et Mon Camion. I wonder without looking how many 2008 round-up lists have missed this gem. All artists are musical, but some are more musical than others. If you like your pop mellow and multi-faceted, do yourself a huge favour – don't let this one pass you by.

  2. Mercury Rev: Snowflake Midnight. Music discovery is nothing if not serendipitous, but you have to be open to it and actively willing to set aside previous conceptions and dive in. I have know about them for years and never been convinced by what I've heard. Then I bought this on the strength of the reviews I read and was blown away. Ethereal and wonderful.

  3. Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago. No doubt this is high up on many a list and deservedly so. Very few artists can claim to have made something as original, coherent and consistently good as this. Be interesting to see where he can go from here.

  4. Elbow: The Seldom Seen Kid. Anyone who read my post on Elbow knows how much I love this band. I actually prefer their last two albums to this but whatever, this is clearly pop music (and album making) of the highest standards. Proof of what can come of sticking at it and practising your art.

  5. Death Cab For Cutie: Narrow Stairs. Since I love Americana and I love Wilco and Sparklehorse it only makes sense to take the closest thing to those I could find in 2008 and it's this. Unexpectedly great.

  6. Eryka Badu: Amerykan Promise. I love ambitious, audacious albums and am a bit partial to a concept album. This is a breathtakingly ambitious, genre-busting album that absolutely stands for everything the album format is and should be: a statement from start to finish.

  7. Ladyhawke: Ladyhawke. What a fabulous debut this is! For anyone who is, musically speaking, a child of the eighties, this is that rare thing – a brazenly unashamed nostalgia trip that works through sheer force of will. It's great for the gym as well. I put it just above the other great energetic debut of 2008 Santogold's Santogold!

  8. Marcin Wasilewski Trio: January. I did think about an alternative best of list for non pop stuff, but then it's all music and uses up the same senses and time available to us. I no longer treat it differently and find that I can listen to this stuff more and more. This is a Polish piano trio on the iconic ECM label. It's lovely stuff, well worth letting your world come to a stop for. Jazz post warning: I feel the need to write a Jazz post in 2009.

  9. Vampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend. As with Bon Iver, you will find this one high up on all the best of lists. For me, this album is testament to one of music's most unique qualities – it grows on you like nothing else. When I first heard this it didn't do much for me at all. I thought it sounded contrived. But the more I played it, the better and better it sounded and in the end totally won me over.

  10. Paul Weller: 22 Dreams. Well well well(er). I never thought he had this in him. I have always found his post Jam stuff clich├ęd and a bit dull, but this is something special. Like the best music experiences, it sometimes helps to put your preconceptions to one side. 21 tracks long, it improves as it goes and by the end it doesn't feel like a bloated listen. A remarkable achievement.

The next bunch of albums I really liked in 2008, in no particular order: Aimee Mann - 'Smilers'; Amadou & Mariam - Welcome to Mali; The Black Keys - Attack & Release; Esbjorn Svensson Trio – Leucocyte; Bobo Stensson – Cantado; Ry Cooder – I Flathead; James – Hey Ma; Tindersticks – The Hungry Saw; White Denim - Workout Holiday; TV On The Radio – Dear Science; Santogold – L.E.S Artistes; Martina Topley-Bird – The Blue God; M83 – Saturdays = Youth; Emmy Lou Harris – All I Intended To Be; Midnight Juggernauts – Dystopia; Teddy Thompson – A Piece Of What You Need; Laura Marling – Alas, I Cannot Swim; Natacha Atlas – Ana Hina; ACDC – Black Ice.

The albums I'm curious about this year but didn't get to hear yet are: Kanye West, Fall Out Boy; Jun Miyake; British Sea Power; The Stills & probably many more I've let wander off the radar! Help me Spotify, We7!

The albums I'm looking forward to most in 2009: Arctic Monkeys; Laura Viers; The Hours.

Finally on albums, it was great to see the return of upscale, special product. It started with the Radiohead In Rainbows Box Set from last year, but this year I thought the Laura Marling ‘Songbox’ was fab, and the Lost Campesinos! packaging for We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed looked good too.

It seems the best way to go is to stream or download what we want to sample for a while, but then to buy the special editions of what we really love enough to want to keep. That cuts down on all of the wasted plastic as well.

Songs – too many to choose from – solutions still required

How many new songs were released in 2008? A zillion perhaps? How on earth does one filter these? Playlists, compilations, recommendation engines, streaming services, editorial lists, or picks from albums. Combinations of all of the above, probably.

One interesting insight I heard recently was from Entertainment & Media Research – that people only love three songs a month (that many!). Personally, I am totally overwhelmed by song volume and so picks from albums is the only one I can work with. So here are my song picks from my favourite albums, in album order. This is my playlist for 2008. I'd do a Muxtape for you to download, except Muxtape got taken down (hence my last post).

  1. Merz: Silver Moon Ladders. I picture nothing but the St. Ives coast at dawn when I hear this, and what could possibly be better than that.

  2. Mercury Rev: People Are So Unpredictable. Maybe it's the line 'there's no bliss like home' – I mean, has this guy ever worked from home!

  3. Bon Iver: Re: Stacks. Come on now, stop your life for four minutes, lie on the sofa, put this on. How to disappear completely.

  4. Elbow: The Bones Of You. The single biggest inspiration behind this blog. 'Nuff said.

  5. Death Cab For Cutie: Cath. Lovely tune, unsettling lyrics. Nothing quite like it since Pearl Jam's Daughter for a combination quite like this.

  6. Eryka Badu: Master Teacher. Do you miss Stevie Wonder's best epic moments from the likes of Songs From The Key Of Life. No worries, try this.

  7. Ladyhawke: Magic. It is. It really is! Is this the best opening track on an album in 2008? One for a radio feature.

  8. Marcin Wasilewski: Diamonds And Pearls. When Jazz groups cover pop songs, the results are usually mixed at best. Prince by a Polish jazz piano trio? This nails it.

  9. Vampire Weekend: Where do you stop with this. The album is nothing if not wholly consistent throughout, but the track I like best is probably Oxford Comma, just for the witty English references.

  10. Paul Weller: Cold Moments. It sounds warm to me.

Other songs I loved: Teddy Thompson – Where To Go From Here; MGMT – Electric Feel; The Last Shadow Puppets – The Chamber; Santogold – Lights Out; Nick Cave & The Badseeds – Hold On To Yourself; Midnight Juggernauts – Road To Recovery; Adele – Hometown Glory; Aimee Mann – Stranger Into Starman; Amadou & Miriam – Sabali; Gutter Twins – The Stations; James – White Boy; Jaymay – Blue Skies; James Youill – No Surprises.

Gigs - Someone turn out the lights on the way out

I'll admit, I don't get out to as many as I once did and I can't handle festivals. But I do make every effort if I can see something special might happen – which was why I went to see Elbow three times! The Meltdown show at the Royal Festival Hall, with the 40 piece all male Voice Lab choir, was amazing – one of the top five shows I've seen in my lifetime and definitely the high point of the year. Will Elbow sell out Wembley Arena though? I don't know, because of the times we are in and because I think it’s a big step. I wish them the best of luck.

The low point was probably The Hours just a few weeks ago. Not because the band weren't good – they were very good – but because The Hours should be playing bigger and better venues than Proud Galleries Camden Lock. Maybe in 2009.

I also learned a lesson to follow ones instincts better when it comes to live shows. I regret I didn’t queue to see Bon Iver play in a tiny Brighton Venue of 200 people (doh!). But I’m glad I made the effort for Vampire Weekend later that same evening, in a venue of no more than 500 – they tore the roof off!

What can I say about the live business in 2008 that hasn't been said already? The year the bubble burst, the buffers got hit, the end of the road etc. As with albums, the 'format' of the live show is changing and will change further in 2009 – I think with the reduced quantity, we'll see a marked increase in quality. Lesser live bands will struggle to sell anything like the ticket numbers, at the prices, we have seen in the boom years.

My one sure prediction is that live, bands will need to work much harder. I thought it was interesting that Counting Crows played a series of shows in which the set list was entirely different each night. I think we'll see more of that. We'll also see more of like-minded artists get together for 'community tours'. I'd like to see James Yuill, Maps and Merz on the same bill for example.

Finally, will we see a reversing of the trend to give away free albums to promote the tour? Maybe, and I hope so. It has become increasingly commonplace for bands to give away their records in the name of building a following for their live shows. But with the bubble in demand for live bursting, it won't be so easy for artists to simply look to touring to make a living.

The Business - Solved. Next Year. Promise

I've deliberately focused on the music for this post rather than just the business. I think the music has been great and that has been the single biggest boon to the industry in 2008. The business is of course, the subject of all of the other posts on this blog and there are many more topics and angles stacked up for next year.

See you then. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year. Thanks for listening.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Reflections on 2008 #1: Music's Big Mistake: Muxtape – the best music store we never had?

What's the one thing that the digital music business needs most right now? The answer is a business model with natural friction. Stay with me...

In my view, Muxtape was the most powerful music business idea in 2008. It was also one of the most workable new concepts because it had, in its very essence as a playlist service, natural friction. The song downloads could be DRM-free because the number of tracks was limited each time (to a playlist of typically 12-20 songs) in a way meaningful - and palatable - to both industry suppliers and consumers.

Contrast this with more compromised service launches later in the year such as Datz or Nokia's Comes With Music. These appear to offer a total catalogue to consumers, but of course they don't really, due to various imposed restrictions. Datz lacks brand new releases and then presents single songs alphabetically. Nokia's CWM has the majority of song catalogue but is restricted by DRM to one mobile phone and one PC. Any attempt to communicate either the completeness or simplicity of these offers to consumers will immediately ring false – they’re neither complete nor simple. However, any attempt to explain the restrictions will either confuse potential users, or simply turn people off.

These are unnatural frictions, placed upon these services in order to protect the music labels from potential cannibalisation of existing formats. This is a perfectly legitimate concern of course. Only a ship of fools would capitulate to the file-sharing minority by opening up entire music catalogues digitally at commodity prices (like free!). However, just because these frictions are imposed on these services doesn't mean that music fans will understand or except them. The results end up mixed at best, with Nokia and Datz talking of ‘market testing’ and ‘learning’ from consumers’ response. In other words a win-win for precisely no one – not artists, labels, publishers, service providers or consumers. Just more examples of potentially good music services with their wings clipped by the constraints of the current business.

It could have been so different with Muxtape. The service embodied a universal need among all music fans – to compile and receive music as a thought/gift/experience. It captured the best of recommendation and discovery. Because of this, it was popular. When it was launched in early 2008, Muxtape attracted 8,685 registered users in the first 24 hours and 97,748 in the first month, with some 1.2 million unique visitors to the site (those stats from the current Muxtape url). It had real, organic, buzz.

Muxtape lent itself quite well to each of the current payment models – advertising, premium subs, a-la-carte – or any combination of these. Its early success was built on the strength of the idea itself. As founder Justin Ouellette puts it: “My goal with Muxtape's design was to translate some of the tactility [of cassette mixtapes] into the digital world, to build a context around the music that gave a little extra spark of life and made the holder anxious to listen”. Spot on, and his early customers got the sentiment loud and clear.

For a truly absorbing read, go to the current Muxtape site and read Justin's very articulate account of the experience he had in taking his innovation to market and the industry's (mainly the major labels) response. Fascinating but a little bit sad at the same time.

Why does this happen in the music industry time and again? A young upstart with a great idea creates an early phenomenon – followed by a complex, stifling attempt to grow it within the rules set by the business – followed by an exhausted, emotional shutdown.

My hope for 2009 is a genuine, un-compromised music service offering - one that meets real, if latent, consumer demand. Muxtape had that extra special bit of insight – something real music fans understood and wanted to engage with. Digital music services launched by big brand telcos, physical music retailers, handset manufacturers and ISP's have, so far, lacked exactly that insight (with the almost singular exception of iTunes).

Why do the big brand institutions continue to try to invent the next big music breakthrough? Why not instead, seek out the bright young things and buy them in or partner with them? Surely that’s a better alternative than trying to re-invent the wheel, when the chances of building a service based on real insight, or even that little bit of luck & serendipity, are narrow. I'm sure there will be other start-ups in 2009 that will show the same qualities that Muxtape did, despite the difficult economic times we are in. And maybe because of the times, one of the bigger players will be savvy enough to pick them up and run with them. If so they could reap the benefits and rewards, and industry kudos, of being the challengers and even successors to the mighty iTunes.