Friday, 4 September 2009

Thoughts from a beach: Michelle, Mandy, reading not listening and Radiohead. Not in that order.

I’m just back from ‘annual vacation’. As an independent, that basically means the summer off. Since you can’t get a rise out of clients or colleagues in the music business during any day in August, the only thing for it is to down tools and enjoy it.

Some quality time on my favourite beach in Cornwall helped (weather: acceptable). For most music nuts, extended beach time equates with long iPod listening sessions but alas, not for me. The need for vigilance in policing the whereabouts of three small children means I have to be satisfied with the sounds of the beach. Which is okay, because I love the sounds of the beach.

Reading not listening

However, my music consumption never stops. Rather than listening I found myself reading music. The usual sources came into play: The Guardian’s Film & Music on Fridays (beach reading doesn’t come much better), the latest Word, Uncut and Mojo (best of the three – the Word’s interview with Robert Wyatt – whataguy). I did head out on August’s middle Sunday to buy The Observer Music Monthly, but sadly, there was no sign of it. Worrying.

However, more unusually, I took along issue number one of Loops, the new ‘journal’ of music writing from indie label Domino and Faber & Faber – arty, even a little pretentious perhaps, but diverting enough for more cerebral, abstract moments. Similar was the music special edition of The Believer, which came with the best covermount compilation CD I’ve heard yet, plus an interesting (but not fascinating) interview with Thom Yorke.

Thom’s one of the few artists I’ll always make the time read (along with Nick Cave, Mark Linkous and the Gallaghers (the latter purely for laughs)). His most interesting insight on music from this piece was the new emphasis on ‘natural selection’. Something I’ve blogged about recently is too much music and the inefficiency of current distribution systems in getting the right music to consumers. On the artist side, with so much ‘competition’ and noise – and hype – one thing that will be on your side is just how good you really are – the natural selection point.

It’s a view many artists hold now and I think is a healthy one for both artists and businesses alike these days. Quality of content and innovation in the way you release it, will prevail.
Also, his recommended music site Boomkat is well worth a look. It’s another new content brand featuring a filtered approach to independent music along with many of the others I have featured on this blog including Think Indie, Mondomix, Lost Tunes, Daytrotter et al.

Finally, his (rather secretive) comments about the new Radiohead project whetted the appetite nicely – though it looks like Radiohead will be releasing a series of singles or ep’s rather than an album. I hope they don’t disappoint. Seeing the footage from Reading reminded me of just how great Radiohead is. They are the only current band I can think of that can captivate and mesmerize a large audience live in the same way the old greats can (which seems at odds with the booming live industry). We need more of them and more from them.

Talking of greats, I also read a shed load of reviews for The Arctic Monkeys new album (it’s out, but I’m currently restraining myself) and The Fabs. Decidedly mixed reviews, which is interesting, but the bands current ‘career position’ fascinates me and I’m looking forward to hearing it for that as well as the music itself. Oh - and catching up with their Reading headline slot too.

Post-holiday with The Beatles

More pertinent to me is finally hearing what I’ve been reading about a lot recently – The Beatles re-releases. With reviews ranging from those insisting on the catalogue and especially certain songs such as Michelle, being ‘transformed’ (read Mojo’s review for example) to more sanguine analysis (The Independent today), playback has to be one of those rapidly disappearing ‘appointments to listen’ where you put the CD on and actually play it back from start-to-finish and listen to it, not just hear it.

I’m also interested of course, in the commercial impact of the re-issues. A few years back, EMI had pinned great hopes on the release of the ‘Love’ album, only to be disappointed by consumers’ reaction to it. I don’t have any such fears for the remasters. Not only will sales be a massive boon to EMI and Apple Corps, but will probably even have a suturing effect on the entire CD business in Q4 and Q1 2010. I wouldn’t be surprised by sales in the order of tens of millions across all the titles.

What’s more, this is hardly the end of the commercial story for The Beatles recordings. The decision not to release the catalogue digitally starts to make sense in the context of the new remasters releases on CD. Digital will come, but I wouldn’t discount vinyl either – surely with the rise in high-end vinyl box sets a-la In Rainbows, The Beatles catalogue would reap lucrative results. A Beatles vintage turntable anyone?

(bizarre but true aside: I find reading anything about The Beatles painful after an experience a few years ago related to a children’s birthday party in my neighbourhood, a rotten hangover and Sir Paul McCartney – yes the real life Macca, not an impersonator. It was all too much).

Fly Mandy, Fly

Finally, I found myself catching a whole bunch of music related business articles, thanks to Lord Mandelson. 'Mandy' has instigated a new push within UK Government to help enforce against file-sharing, upping the pressure on UK ISP’s to monitor file-sharing and step-in if necessary. He even wrote a comment piece in The Times clarifying his motives. It’s all a bit vague of course and given the lack of progress along these lines in other markets (and not a dickie bird about such an approach in the US) we’ll have to see if the UK Government’s strategy gets anywhere beyond rhetoric.

One thing struck me though is that if Mandelson’s title includes innovation – which it does – where is the emphasis on innovation with this approach? Yes, a crackdown on P2P (which I wholly support) creates breathing space for the industry to offer innovative approaches. But the complexities within the music industry and its inflexible structure means that’s precisely where it needs the help – in brokering truly innovative solutions between all parties. Come on Mandy get to that.

Amongst all this exhausting reading I did manage to squeeze in the briefest musical interludes, with some help from the iPod’s random function. In amongst it all some highly connected listening involving Alice in Chains, Peter Gabriel and some vintage Aha. My resulting vaguely beach-related playlist:

Merz, Silver Moon Ladders
Queen, In Only Seven Days
Neil Young, On The Beach
Peter Gabriel, Sky Blue
Alice in Chains, Nutshell
Sparklehorse, Please Don’t Take My Sunshine Away
Wilco, Sky Blue Sky
Turin Brakes, Fishing For A Dream
XTC, You And The Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful
Aha, Memorial Beach
Blondie, Follow Me

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