Thursday, 25 June 2009

The new way to listen to music – self-imposed scarcity

This week I finally received my copy of Spoon’s GaGaGaGaGa (snappy title guys) from Amazon. It was one of those where Amazon undertakes to get it for you not from its own warehouse, but from some tiny shop in a small mid-west American town what has one of the two last remaining copies on the planet (why is this album so unavailable?). Subsequently it’s taken about eight weeks to arrive.

In fact, I ordered it shortly after writing the ‘Music Discovery, Spoon Fed’ post back in mid-April. Have I minded? Yes I have, a bit. Of course I wanted to hear it, was dying to. But I’m a patient guy. I dipped into Spotify of course, as one does. Not there. Spotify has ‘Gimme Fiction’ by Spoon and I streamed that. (Quick aside: Spotify has got approximately one in every three albums I search for – are my tastes becoming so obscure?). didn’t have GaGa either (let’s use the short version). At this point I can’t get to hear it, basically, and I’m thinking, that’s a savvy move by Spoon. Maybe they know I’m a fan since I connected with them on More chance of me becoming a lifelong fan if I buy rather than stream GaGa. If I’d streamed it, like I did with Gimme Fiction, maybe I’d still be considering buying it, in a somewhat non-committal fashion, like I am with Gimme Fiction. Yes I realize I could easily get it from Bit Torrent etc. but I’m not that kind of music fan.

As it is, not only have I bought it, but patiently waited for two whole months to finally hear it. Now here’s the punchline though (no it’s not that the record was released in 2007, though that’s true). It was well worth the wait. It’s sooooo gogogogogood. This album is the best thing I’ve heard in about three weeks – only because I’ve been listening to a very high standard recently – stay with me.

Having been denied GaGa during the overlong Amazon source-pick-pack-ship process, I subjected the album to the 'New Way I Listen to Albums' treatment. This is basically what music journalists used to call ‘heavy rotation’. I first gave it an initial late-night spin on the CD player, through headphones. I was immediately impressed. Next morning I ripped it into iTunes and played it back over & over for at least 2-3 days. I was commuting into town and so I got through the record from start to finish at least 6-7 times in this initial period, becoming familiar with the sequencing, certain lyrical couplets starting to connect with me in a very relevant sort of way.

Then as the week progressed I had the chance to get it on the stereo through the speakers (B&W 686’s, I love ‘em). It sounded ACE. The opening track blew me away, just the sound of it. Spoon can play, no question, but it was more the production that blew my mind. Whoever produced this record knew exactly what they were about. The second track is 'The Ghost Of You Lingers' and you might already know how I feel about that track from the earlier post. This was the first time I’d heard the studio version, properly. It is one of the best things I’ve ever heard. I will keep coming back to this track forever.

But here’s the thing – the album just gets better and better from there. After ‘Ghost’ which is a really heavy, almost disorientating listen, the mood lightens wonderfully with ‘Cherry Bomb’ which is just a great, great pop song. Pop, pure & simple, with a nice brass ensemble – lovely touch. Very uplifting. I can’t exactly go on like this track for track, so to cut a long story short, it dawned on me that the album format will never die, ever, thanks to records like this. Because what takes a great album is much more than a collection of songs.

The songs have to be good of course. There isn’t a single filler track on GaGa, it simply ebbs & flows brilliance throughout. So songs, tick. Production, tick. The playing is phenomenal – great musicianship. The rhythm section especially. Tick. The track sequencing is just great, so you don’t skip tracks or shuffle or even want to turn it off until it ends. Each song amplifies the next and when you become familiar with it, you simply look forward to hearing the next song. Even the album sleeve is intriguing – some artist at work on a major ‘installation’ and a collage of burlesque-like ladies on the back. Good shot of the band on the inside (I still don’t like it when you don’t get a band portrait, which is common on indie releases for some reason). It’s all just a fabulous ‘in the zone’ thing. And it’s not even a concept album! (I’m partial to concept albums, future post coming).

Now on the business side, who knows? I know I couldn’t get hold of it here, but my understanding is that in the US, Spoon have slow-burned their way to a reasonably successful commercial career. All their previous records have got very decent reviews and Spoon's Wikipedia entry seems to describe a nicely escalating commercial success with each successive release. Damn right too.

So how come it’s only the best album I’ve heard in three weeks. Well, it’s because I’ve had a really good run lately. This is down to good taste (sorry to be modest), good choices and luck I guess. But I recently bought John Vanderslice latest album Romanian Names. Don’t get me started with this one. Also brilliant. Why did this record get ignored by the UK music press? I didn’t see one single review. It’s awesome, ticking every box like the Spoon record, and with Vanderslice’s talent for evoking mysterious little stories within his songs.

The track ‘Too Much Time’ has become my theme tune. The lyrics are the best I’ve heard in ages ("freedom is overrated" etc.). Again, I subjected it to the new listening method, finding that I didn’t want to listen to anything else that week I was enjoying Romanian Names so much, just wasn’t interested in anything else. And the production on that record is amazing. The acoustic guitar ‘solo’ on ‘Fetal Horses’ says it all.

Finally, the exact same thing happened with another recent catalogue purchase (part of 2 for £10 in HMV this time) – Death Cab For Cutie’s ‘Plans’. The most recent record was in my top ten last year anyhow, but Plans is better. Again, it’s a completely successful album, creatively speaking. Songs (those fabulous Ben Gibbard lyrics), musicianship (bassline & drum combo on 'Summer Skin'), production, sound, sequence. Once again, it’s all there, meticulously and beautifully executed, for our listening pleasure.

Give it a try. Put the temptation to stream every new over-hyped record-of-the-day on Spotify to one side for a week or so and try my new method. Make one album the soundtrack to your life for at least one week and see what happens. It’s addictive actually.

I’ve spent my whole listening career basically searching for the next breakthrough record for me – the next life-affirming set of songs that you can call on and rely on as a resource – come rain or shine. But I reckon they’re harder to find these days, what with the sheer number of releases (of pretty good sounding records, mind). You just have to pick them out, buy them (even if you have to wait a while for them to arrive) and then ignore everything else for a while. Create your own scarcity, basically. It works.

Footnote: Now it’s obvious I’m a fan of a certain genre here - American Indie I suppose, though I prefer to call it ‘sophisticated pop’. In a discussion with Conrad Lambert last week (just about my favourite European artist, aka Merz) we talked about why this sophisticated pop genre is so dominated by American bands. For example I also love Wilco, Laura Viers and Sparklehorse. I like Nada Surf, Silversun Pickups and The National. And there are really strong new bands like The Local Natives et al. – this music in abundant in America. Basically, it’s the size of the country I guess. There doesn’t seem to be a UK equivalent scene, unless I’m missing something. The best UK record I’ve heard this year so far has been Madness’s Liberty Of Norton Folgate! Blur is back though, and of course, our National Treasures The Arctic Monkeys. Make do I suppose.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Digital State of the Nation # 2: partnerships - when will it all go right?

[As promised, the second part of my assessment of the current digital space. This is a slightly longer version of what became an opinion piece in Music Week a couple of weeks ago. In the two weeks since, it’s been interesting to see the PRS change its license rates for streaming music and the commentary about Warner and other majors bleeding the horse for some ad-funded streaming services including iMeem. It was also interesting to read Hilary Rosen’s retrospective in Billboard - Clearly things continue to move at a dazzling pace in the digital music business even if we’re no closer to figuring out which models will last it out. This piece is a call for a more strategic perspective on licensing and partnership, until we do].

Following recent developments in the relationships between music producers and their evolving digital partners, a fairly messy picture of the digital music landscape emerges. On the one hand, we have had the recent failures of new music start-ups including Muxtape, Mixwit and FabChannel – all of which have pointed the finger firmly at the record labels’ (and music publishers) collective lack of a flexible licensing policy. Seeqpod seems to be rapidly going the same way.

Perhaps most significantly given the overall direction of the business (towards music streaming) are recent grumblings by digital juggernauts like YouTube, iMeem, iLike and that licensing costs are, erm, making life difficult. On the other hand, we have the buzz of Spotify and the tenacity of iTunes, continuing to make the best of its market leader position and loyal audience, if lately pushing it a little with price changes.

Such is the uncertainty of the digital music business however, that no one can say, hand-on-heart, which services will still be around in say, five years time. Spotify could be the new improved with all the same commercial problems in the end. As for iTunes, it could either go the way of the streaming models or simply tough it out as the last man standing in downloads.

In each & every case the central issue is the same – that of the commercial value of music. In recent weeks I have had discussions with a number of young digital businesses all with a stake in music. Not one of them holds a belief anything other than music (at least, digital music) will be free within five years. I’m not going to argue with that notion here, as much as I’d like to - there isn’t enough room to do so.

My point here is to argue that the digital music business – suppliers and partners – have a choice in whether digital music is to be free in five years or not. Music doesn’t have to be free if the business cannot find a way to deliver it for free. I don’t care what Mike Masnick or Chris Andersen or whoever super-geek thinks about it. Are the movie or games businesses considering a free model? I don’t think they are. The music industry might not look too smart in five years if music’s free but digital films & games are commanding good prices.

It seems clear to my mind that an unambiguous licensing policy might help to start with. I don’t mean stubborn, or prohibitively expensive, just clear. For an innovative new music model that is non-threatening (one that for example passes my test of ‘natural friction’- not DRM or price friction, but repertoire based when set by users themselves – such as playlists, which don’t replace albums even when shared), licensing should be nice and flexible. It should represent good value, thereby incentivising innovation.

I hope the recent deals between ProjectPlaylist and at least two of the major labels fall under that category. Music providers can even support such services in other ways, through direct investment or content development, such as exclusives. It would mean label digital departments doing much more than deal-making and accepting cheques. It would mean Content Services and Account Management teams really working to support & sustain service partners in innovative ways. And both parties need to share and use collective consumer data better to iterate service development in line with users needs.

For a major ground-shifting service that potentially speeds up cannibalisation, licensing is much trickier and therefore by necessity of managing risk, more expensive. This challenges the service provider to find a workable model at the point of usage. If that model doesn’t exist or cannot be created, it can’t afford the license. Buying up content in advance distorts this picture longer term, adding to ambiguity in defining what is successful and leading to more market uncertainty.

If a clearer, more strategic licensing means a potentially smaller short-term digital business I think that is a fair trade-off for one of potential longer-term value. I don’t know if this is what the UK Government was driving at with its recent recommendation for a Licensing Agency – maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t quite sure itself. Maybe we'll see later this month when the full Digital Britain Report comes out.

It doesn’t take a government initiative, but it does mean music providers need some more collective clarity. With a clearer set of criteria for digital licensing, the music industry can meanwhile develop its other products and revenues more confidently, including improvements in physical product, merchandise et al.