Saturday, 18 December 2010

2010 Closes Out – Mojo Working Again

I recently wrote about a spell of boredom with music. What was I thinking? Whatever it was that cursed my ears is long gone now, thankfully. The salve as such, was multi-faceted.

I did try the usual digital digging. As an indie fan – especially of a US tinge – these are heady days for music obsessives. I flit around Daytrotter, the Amoeba records site, Pitchfork, The Sixty One et al. I even recently signed up for the track-a-day services (great idea) from RCRD Label and Track-in-a-box.

But it wasn’t these that really cracked it (even though the Foal’s session on Daytrotter finally inspired me to possess a copy of the excellent ‘Total Life Forever’). In the end a combo of live experience and lateral thinking is what did it really. I recommend these solutions if you ever find yourself uninspired by your no doubt huge music library:

Find a New Favourite Band: it’s The Walkmen for me, taking the mantle from oh I dunno, Spoon probably. Their ‘Lisbon’ album is superb. A rich listening experience that grows and grows.

Find a new favourite instrument: for me it’s a horn section. Have you noticed how horn arrangements have crept into rock and pop this year? The National’s ‘High Violet’ and the above ‘Lisbon’ are great examples. Also, hear The Tindersticks ‘Falling Down A Mountain’.

Try something different: Working my way the Believer’s 2010 Music Issue sampler (curated by Chuck Lightning) was a delight. I never knew I liked R&B so much. Then again I enjoyed Janelle Monae’s ‘Arch Android’ and Erika Badu’s ‘New Amerika Part II’ as much as most things I heard through this year. Don’t forget the alternatives to your anchor genres: seeing Curios perform at the Take Five Jazz Festival (supported by none other than the PRS Foundation!) reminded me of the fact that I’ve neglected my once beloved Piano Trio jazz – have I got time to look back at what I’ve missed on ECM this year? Probably not!

Go see live music: Ah – the highlight of the year – Spoon! At last – here in the UK at the o2 Empire in Shepherds Bush. Punchiest, most muscular gig opening of the year. How to make a statement. Actually, gig openings fascinate me, but that’s another subject for another blog. Wilco’s ‘cartoon style’ opening at the RFH took the biscuit – best ever. But The National walking out to a track from Neil Young’s ‘On The Beach’ was just laid-back, ultra-cool class.

Old favourites: I don’t mind admitting going back to the catalogue when I need to. And I didn’t regret for a minute buying expensive tickets to take my wife to see Aha at Wembley. It made me realise a) how good they really are and b) great pop connects with you more deeply during ‘your decade’ than it ever will again – and I’m a child of the eighties and proud of it. Also, Aha just sounded fantastic. It’s all over now finally, but considering their two biggest hits were their first two singles, 25 years of hanging on in there, if barely sometimes – isn’t too shabby.

Re-discover your inner muso-nerd: Spoon’s bassist. The National’s drummer (or Porcupine Tree’s drummer!). The Walkmen’s guitar sound. Or David Hidalgo’s (of Los Lobos) virtuoso playing on their recent record. I love picking out instrumental performances – it’s nerdy but part of what being a music fan is all about.

So there you go. Six ways to re-discover your mojo should you lose it – and not a Facebook Like, iTunes Ping or even a Google search among ‘em! Maybe I’m a traditional music fan at heart.

As for 2010 I couldn’t possibly rank a list, it’s been a richer vintage than I can remember for a long time. I loved the Gorillaz ‘Plastic Beach’ and the musical moment of the year might have been my 3-year old daughter singing along to ‘Broken’. She’s graduated from nursery rhymes in style. Mind you, as a Yo Gabba Gabba fan – my toddler has introduced me to more music than vice versa this year. It’s alternative music television at its best.

I was thrilled ‘Dark Night of The Soul’ got a proper release and I loved I Am Kloot’s ‘The Sky At Night’ and have introduced that album to more than a few friends. It goes without saying I loved Spoon’s Transference - another high water mark for the world’s most critically revered rock band (it’s a fact – right there on The Local Native’s ‘Gorilla Manor’ gets better as it beds in and my year got off to a great start thanks to Vampire Weekend’s ‘Contra’ - which it was in name and nature – summery music that warmed up my ears in the cold snap of winter.

But bands wise, the year’s best for me has to be ‘High Violet’. It grows and grows with each and every listen. Superb songs, poetic lyrics, fantastic playing and brilliant arrangements. It’s the best indie rock album I’ve heard in years and the one I’ve played the most in 2010.

Individual performers made some great song-centred records. I really liked Ed Harcourt’s ‘Lustre’, Laura Marling’s ‘I Speak Because I Can’ and although I came late to it, Sufjan Steven’s ‘The Age of Adz’ – though the latter made me pine somewhat for the return of Merz. And why didn’t any ‘best of’ lists feature Laura Viers? Was it because ‘July Flame’ came out so early in the year? It would certainly make my top ten if I had one.

I hope Merz will find a way to release his new stuff in 2011 – and with new records by Elbow, The Strokes, PJ Harvey and Bjork – I will have a lot to look forward to next year along with whatever serendipity brings.

Right now it’s all Christmas music in our house and car – I’m something of a specialist in seasonal music entertainment. But it looks like you’ll have to wait until next year to get my analysis of the best Christmas music you might hope to find. For the meantime may I recommend Pink Martini’s Joy To The World’ which just came out and contains truly brilliant arrangements of traditional ‘holiday’ tunes from around the world. The kids and oldies will love it and will be very impressed if you put it on during the Christmas dinner.

I haven’t worked my way through half the stuff on the various critical ‘best of lists’ though. I’m dying to try These New Puritans and I want to hear Steve Mason’s album. There’s still time, but the clock is ticking faster. Indeed, I’m of age where it’s dawned on me I can’t listen to all I want to, it comes down to having a system of quality over quantity.

But I’m thankful for the abundance and quality of what’s being created in an otherwise turbulent time in the ‘music business’.

Have a great Christmas and start to 2011.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Innovation Papers #2: When will we learn to enjoy our music again?

When I recently pitched up to a publishing meeting in London – hosted by the MPA - to talk about ‘the future of music formats’, I had made a few notes about what music is and what it means to us. I was looking for those deeper insights if you will – an inspiration.

There was much discussion at the meeting about new models – with analysis and comment nicely covering the spectrum we’ve become familiar with – from ad-funded unlimited models to various cloud subscriptions – and talk of apps being the new album, etc.
As ever with these things my view is to look at it from the consumer’s point of view. In recent work on industry innovation (the previously mentioned Innovation Panel) we established the idea of a ‘digital music journey’ – which each and every digital music fan experiences. The journey begins with Discovery – how you find out about a band. It continues with Access – how you first get to hear the track or album. Further – it becomes about Acquisition needs – how you chose to keep or not to keep, pay or not to pay – etc.
So far, so simple. Then it gets much more interesting though. The next part of the journey is Management – how you manage your digital music library. For most consumers this is now the pressing issue – it’s not easy is it? Is all your music digitised? Where? In what file format and to what level of quality? Do you even know? In recent survey work, the industry is finding library management issues are increasingly important to consumers – including storing, arranging, moving, sharing, finding etc. It’s easy to think this is all solved by ‘the cloud’ – to some extent it is. But music fans still like ownership, still like permanence and still like to buy one at a time rather than subscribe.
The Management segment of the journey is really quite critical to all experienced digital music fans, but for me, the final segment of the journey is the most interesting. Enjoyment.
When I added this to the journey diagrams and graphics – everyone – without exception asked “what do you mean by Enjoyment”. I can quip here – that these days by the time we – the digital music fans – have spent endless hours Googling music, browsing on, reading tweets about this or that new artist – snacking on tracks on Spotify and We7 – downloading free music from a million and one sources legal, illegal or ambiguous (there is such a thing – blogs for example) – how much are we really, honestly enjoying listening to our music?
I really mean it. For me this is bound up in the perception of music’s actual monetary value.
Music is in many ways the ideal content for digital – but it has one really big problem. For music to be at its most enjoyable it makes its own journey in each of us – from the new to the familiar. In some ways digital has enabled the journey, but in others it is getting in the way.
By way of example, think about your favourite records – your absolute Desert Island Discs – be they albums or songs. You’ve undoubtedly listened to these records countless times. You may actually have disliked some of them when you first heard them. In my own view, in what’s been a vintage year for music this year – the records I’ve enjoyed the most are the ones I’ve become the most familiar with. That, for me, takes at least three plays. If a record gets beyond three it can become endless from there – hence The National’s ‘High Violet’ has easily become my most played album this year – and my favourite.
I have found that digital discovery can make this process – of growing into a record – quite tricky. I’ll use Spotify to ‘preview’ a record (or I might stream it on a blog or download it from a legal free source, which seem to be abundant now). If I’m in ‘hunting’ mode this is less a preview and more a ‘gutting’ session in the way I often do with business books – just rip into it and hope to get a thin slice insight into whether I will eventually like it. This works, up to a point. But it could well be denying me the surprises, the revelations and the growers. I’ll sometimes choose to buy based on this initial instinct – an investment of sorts. But I find I pass on so much of what I sample.
I originally passed on Animal Collective's 'Merriweather' on this basis until I belatedly bought the album just recently. Really, the previewing of records doesn’t work in favour of any of those records that are in any way challenging or require some effort on the part of me, the listener.
I don’t think I would have gotten into The National's ‘High Violet’ through streaming. So ironically, despite the incredible value streaming represents as a music fan – in Access terms – it may have denied me the Enjoyment of a record I can now hardly put a monetary value on – ‘High Violet’ is virtually priceless to me – it’s the gift that keeps giving.
If this is too abstract a concept, let me put a bit more hard flesh on it. There’s a more direct way to improving the Enjoyment part of the journey for digital music fans and we are only just at the beginning in market development terms. If we put aside payment models and formats and think instead about the various ‘layers’ by which music is delivered to fans – there is obvious room for improvement in each and every layer. If we think about digital music in layers – then I suggest for music those layers are as follows:
Layer 1: The Music
Layer 2: The Data (as in metadata)
Layer 3: The User Interface (the presentation of the music to the user, including the recommendation engine)
Layer 4: The Social Layer (user-to-user)
On each and every layer, there is huge room for improvement in the current ways we get music to fans. Just a few suggestions for example:
Layer 1: More complete libraries, higher quality audio files, more live recordings etc.
Layer 2: Amazing metadata: song composer, the ‘story of the song’, track commentaries & liner notes, more simply: song visual data
Layer 3: Personalised home pages, shareable or switchable ‘music channels’, alternative ways to navigate music menus and libraries
Layer 4: Let’s leave this to Facebook, Twitter et al. But shareable playlists and social programming have plenty of room to develop beyond the current open API frameworks
There are new developments in every layer that are worth watching. In Layer 1 – high-end audio equipment makers like Linn now offer lossless 24-bit, FLAC or WAV downloads. I personally was never too convinced of the argument that song quality no longer matters in the age of MP3 files. I think more & more fans are realising it does matter, especially as we want to shift the music to household devices and in-car, where quality matters more than on headphones.
In Layer 2, new players like Decibel are working towards the ‘amazing metadata’ goal, where the marrying of content with context will make a notable difference the user experience – in terms of both library management and arrangement and they way we access information as & when we listen.
In Layer 3, we have brilliant new examples of music presentation, like Awedetorium – the iPad app developed by the team at the Sixty One – an indie brand yes – but with universal functionality in presenting quality over quantity, helping us to manage serendipity and avoid the blinding of choice that comes with searching from a menu of 11m+ songs. In music discovery terms, German research project GlobalMusic2One looks fascinating too and I hope it will bear fruit commercially at some point.
In Layer 4 you can bet that the social network geeks are working on the next mind-blowingly compelling way we can connect to music, through each other, using music. I’ll leave that in their capable hands and remain here to be convinced – I’ll use it if it works for me and helps me with Enjoyment more than with discovery or access.
So for me – in thinking about the future possibilities for music services, we need to begin to think beyond ‘models’ and ‘formats’ and get to the real drivers of why people love their music and what they want from it. Thinking in layers aids this process.

Juggernaut will be back for an essential end of 2010 music review and then for anyone travelling to MIDEM in the New Year I’ll see you there – especially anyone attending my Academy sessions on Tuesday 25th January 2011.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Innovation Papers #1 - BPI's Innovation Panel

This is last week's opinion piece on the Innovation Panel as published RotD Friday 29/10/10 and the first of a series of posts on innovation in the music and rights-based media sectors:

The BPI’s Innovation Panel - long term digital success can begin with a brainstorm

When I read Music Week’s leader piece on the BPI’s Innovation Panel ‘brainstorm it made me think back to music industry investors conference in 2001, hosted by Morgan Stanley. It was the first of this type of event I had attended, new as I was to the music industry – but it has stuck fast in the memory.
The event lined up the various facets of the industry – labels, publishers, management, artists (Jean Michel Jarre did the honours) and retailers - and an analyst from Morgan Stanley said his piece as well. All the various sector representatives spoke articulately and entertainingly (particularly memorable was a quip by ex-Manager Ed Bicknell about the music industry move to digital being a difficult process akin to a “dolphin swimming with a hard on”).
They spoke with passion, expertise and confidence. And they all said completely different, contrary things. I don’t know what investors in the audience were texting back to their colleagues but it can’t have been too encouraging. Putting it mildly, it looked like working with the industry across the piece might prove challenging.
However, it certainly didn’t do any harm to the tide of investment and innovation that swept across the music industry during the remainder of the decade. At the Morgan Stanley do, management guru John Rose – then a recent addition to the EMI Board – claimed EMI had licensed over 60 digital partners already – and this pre-dated iTunes!
Digital innovators will complain about the music licensing process until the cows come home – but the number of services that have secured licenses and launched in the marketplace globally is huge. The IFPI kept a ‘log’ of all new digital music launches worldwide and by the time I left there at the end of 2006 there were well over 500 services on that log. More recently, for the past three years MusicAlly has produced an annual report of the ‘top 200’ digital music start-ups each year – just the top 200, mind (though not all these services require anything like comprehensive on demand licenses).
So, on such fertile ground – how come there is such a debate raging right now, as we approach the end of the decade (particularly in the US but over here too) about the state of innovation in the music industry? Recent pieces featuring music services iMeem (closed), MOG (building) and Rhapsody (‘maturing’) have all made their case and the take-away is that the industry’s record of innovation is, at best, patchy.
While the digital market is still growing it has become clear that there aren’t enough thriving services to continue the current pace of growth and perhaps of more concern are the number of services that have recently shut down or gone quiet. In the UK, where the digital market is showing greater health than the US (as is the music scene as a whole) there are still too few successful digital music services given the huge amount of industry resources that have shifted focus to digital during the decade. Something has to change.
UK consumers are served fairly well at present. We have major download stores iTunes and Amazon and the recently re-launched HMV Digital as well as digital. We also have the genuinely successful music start-up story of the decade in Spotify, but others too have set up first in the UK, including We7 and Mflow. And we now have the first wave of ‘cloud’ services arriving, beginning with Carphone Warehouse and Catch Media.
The first thing to acknowledge is the level of innovation at work here. Though not easy, the digital music market is there – functioning and growing. There has been a huge effort to get here on the part of all members of the commercial value chain and not least, the work of the industries trade groups in their collective efforts to create and sustain the fertile ground for commercial innovation.
But more can be done and must be done. The BPI’s Innovation Panel is a positive first step in taking what’s ‘good’ in the market and attempting to make it better – from merely ‘functioning’ to thriving would be both desirable and admirable objective. Our work as an Innovation Panel has thrown up many areas for improvement with the major ones as follows:
  • Clear unmet gaps in music consumers’ needs  (and therefore market opportunities
  • A generally poor appreciation (or communication) of the potential of these opportunities (as well as a unified understanding of potential impact on the existing marketplace)
  • A lack of structured process in the development of new music propositions (with services having to ‘hawk’ their models around the various industry sector organisations one by one)
  • No alignment of view on major business model variants (streaming, cloud services, payment models for example) with opinions allowed to vary widely due to a lack of factual research and insight
There are many other issues and challenges of course. We know that music services and innovators would like a smoother licensing process (or failing that a complete overhaul) and ‘cheaper’ licenses / greater margins. However as a trade body the BPI’s boundaries are clear in that it is prevented by competition law to enter in to dialogue on commercial issues. So far I can see only advantages in this limitation.
The current go-to-market process for music services needs a clear pre-cursor to the rounds of commercial negotiations, beginning with a shared vision of the opportunity itself. The BPI aims to create a first stage ‘Proposition Development’ process whereby a multi-disciplinary team drawn from the majors and indies sit, down with music service innovators and use a range of resources – research & insights, shared data and experience – and a tight agenda – to drill through some key questions:
  • Who is the service for? (consumer segment)
  • What is the nature of the opportunity? (unmet consumer need)
  • What are the key features that meet the need? (service design)
  • What is the potential of the opportunity? (market size)
  • What is the potential impact of the opportunity? (market impact)
With the aim of establishing clarity from this collaborative and structured approach to proposition development, we can hopefully provide clearer context to the commercial rounds that follow. There’s much further to go and no guarantee of commercial success, but the chances can be improved at the outset. It begins where most innovations begin – with a brainstorm.
Keith Jopling has been Chairing the Innovation Panel

Friday, 15 October 2010

Something's not right - "A'm affet"

The Scots have a saying “Am aff et” – pertaining to their current drinking habits (we’re talking booze, naturally). As in, imagine yourself in a bar in Glasgow hearing a guy ask his pal “right whatya havin”) only for the pal to reply “nah thanks pal, A'm affet”. Being set in Glasgow, our teetotaller will then of course be subjected to a torrent of abuse such we have never heard the like - in a language we don't in any case fully understand. 

I love the Glasgow patter – and have studied it off & on, over the years (there’s always something new to discover). What I love about this saying is it makes the assumption that the default setting for all humans north of the border is normally, to be very much “on it” – which is fair enough when you take into account the weather they put up with. Certainly, being “affet” is accepted only as a very rare state of being.

So it is though with me and music – currently. Something’s wrong – A'm affet. I’ve struggled to connect with anything on my iPod for the past two weeks. Yesterday in the gym I couldn’t find anything sufficiently motivational – not even from the usual suspects Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Feeder, Judas Priest, Van Halen et al. (It has to be metal in the gym don’t it? Please don’t tell me you listen to dance or 80s mixes?). I had to make do with some old Third Eye Blind which barely got me through it. During the warm-down I sought inspiration with a blast of the new Afrocubism album but despite the obvious genius on offer, again I just couldn’t connect with it.

Now this has occurred from time to time before. I can at rare times find that I am bored with my entire music collection – seven thousand odd tracks on the iPod, the ever present CD shelves (classics, current and those thrown in to the cupboard below which then hang on desperately forever in CD purgatory) – nothing can seem to offer a breakthrough (we can skip radio safely I think).

I don’t know what the root cause is. I know I had a recent episode of ‘the lurch’ over a Superchunk album I downloaded from Amazon. The lurch is another music-fan phenomenon these days very rarely encountered – namely when you buy (before you try!) a much anticipated or recommended record before actually playing back and feeling slightly sick at the fact that you know you don’t like it – and never will. The lurch is a hangover from the days when we paid £13.99 for a CD only to get it home and realise it really was a duffer.

These days Spotify, We7 and blogs have meant to have solved the lurch. Except they haven’t in some cases for me, because there’s stuff I don’t want to stream first, or I know won’t turn up on these services (the catalogue of American indie and alt country on UK streaming services is paltry). Besides, Amazon allowed me to download the Superchunk album on the Saturday before its Monday release date (can Amazon really do that?). So it all made sense until I played it back – too many unsubtle guitars and every track beginning or ending in guitar feedback and the guy can’t sing – urgghh.

That left me disappointed. Perhaps missing the I Am Kloot gig at Union Chapel was untimely, since that was the last record I really played to the point of pure enjoyment. No gig is on the cards now until Spoon on November 16th!

Given the age we are living in, this shouldn’t happen of course. So, I’ve made it my mission for this week to go out and discover something new. I’ll be trying out the Chompin mobile app for blog streams and sticking with too. I’ll get back on to Mflow for a bit and check out We7 and Spotify’s recently upgraded playlisting features. I might even re-subscribe to emusic or something similar. I’ll stick with my usual scan of the music papers and magazines of course and have a blast on Metacritic (though I’m not greatly impressed by the 83/100 score for Superchunk!).

I’ll report back on the efficacy of these various prescriptions when I’m cured. Or maybe I’ll just get back off the wagon with some classic Beatles or something...advice welcome.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

What will Radiohead do next?

It’s just over a year ago since I wrote the post ‘thoughts from a beach’ – in which I referred to an Interview with Thom Yorke in ‘The Believer’ music issue (still waiting for the2010 issue from Amazon – McSweeney’s publishing is pure gold), and wondered a bit about what Radiohead would do next. It’s something I again came to be thinking about – on the very same beach – just week before last.

This week, viewing the band’s fan-sourced Prague concert video (thoughtfully sound-tracked by the band hence worthwhile streaming quality if you can get it through decent speakers), I went beyond wondering. I am in fact, now quite eager to get my fix of the world’s most talented band once again. It’s been over a year since Radiohead began new studio sessions with long-time producer Nigel Godrich so something must be due fairly soon, but when? However, it’s not so much when as what that interests me most.

Since In Rainbows, there is a massive distraction around Radiohead now – about the way they deliver music. Echoing the music scene itself all too often, there’s a fascination with how the band will release its new music – by what method – possibly more than an interest in the music itself.

But in terms of release strategy, what is there left for the band to do, having made their big statement with “In Rainbows”? Free agents as they are – and now self-appointed business model mavericks – the sky’s no limit – but is there anything that hasn’t already been done?

We’ve had free songs, free albums, track-by-track ‘episodic releases’ – dispensing with the album format – and the release of song-stems for fans to mix themselves. We’ve had crowd-sourced albums, pay-what-you-feel albums and a song-a-day for a year. It’s been done to death. It’s almost boring. Besides, the pay-what-you-like strategy with In Rainbows clearly underwhelmed. It was in fact the made to order box-sets that really ‘performed’.

I was impressed with the value-added packages The Arcade Fire released (through Topspin) – but not as impressed as the record itself, you will have gathered. I want the same from Radiohead. With all my interest in music business models and product innovation, what I need most of all, as a life-long fan, is an unceremonious release of a classic Radiohead album. But is that what they have planned I wonder?

Checking out the competition
Most musicians, especially popular ones who’ve achieved big success and have a reputation to live up to, can be fiercely competitive. Creatively that is. They wouldn’t be as crude as to be commercially competitive of course!

At Wilco’s show on Tuesday night at the Royal Albert Hall I was wondering what was going on through Ed O’Brien’s head as he nodded along throughout the duration of a wonderfully consistent evening’s music.

In recent times – like Radiohead – Wilco has delved deep into sonic experimentation and have gone way out there creatively – notably with records ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ and ‘A Ghost Is Born’ – but never at the expense of writing truly great songs – consistently.

It would be nice to think Ed took inspiration from the evening and that between their extraordinary creative individual and collective genius – Radiohead’s prime strategy next time out is to make a major statement first and foremost through the music.

It’s good to be back
A brief thanks to all for sticking with me through a busy summer in which writing JB posts has had to take a back seat. Hopefully I’ll post more often towards the end of this year – a vintage one music wise in my view and well worth more reflection.

Meantime – for fresh discovery I recommend the new blog streaming service. Currently in free beta, it is a wonderful way to discover all kinds of stuff you couldn’t even hope to find in most music service catalogues – what a great idea. Anything that scales blogs is most clever. I’ll need to consider its commercial potential for a later post.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

A Now Familiar Arcade

As you will know if you read JB regularly (as regular as a once-a-month post gets, with apologies) you’ll know I’m fascinated by the fact that ‘all the music, all the time, anywhere’ has somehow become the de-facto solution to commercial music - because it isn’t. 
As the industry hurtles towards cloud-based solutions – it’s about to find out that consumers are about as ready for the cloud as they were for 1st generation subscription services when Napster advertised during the super-bowl in 2005.
I could go on, but this post isn’t about business models but consumption models. Specifically, a mode of listening that I have found increasingly works for me – that of putting an album of heavy rotation – repeated listening – sometimes for days at a time.
It worked recently with the National. It also worked with Gorillaz – The Plastic Beach album I revisited and only listened to properly after being inspired by the band’s Glastonbury performance (who cares if the Glasto crown was unforgiving, it looked and sounded brilliant on telly). The Janelle Monae album has had a similarly dedicated airing.
Most recently though, it’s been Arcade Fire’s latest, ‘The Suburbs’. As is my want, I skipped their first two records partly due to the indie hype around them and partly due to what I had heard not arresting me (I found them just too noisy). This time the reviews about them ‘lightening up’ along with a £5 price tag on 7 Digital, was enough to swing it.
Last week I played ‘Suburbs’ on the headphones during 3-4 commutes to London & back – roughly as many times I played the album (16 tracks, 1 hour). I liked it but that was all. It sounded a little bit too evenly-paced if anything.
Then something extraordinary happened. I left it a day or so, then put the album on in the evening – headphones on – and chilled. Eureka. Every track separated and revealed its own character – which was one thing – but then each song also began to make sense in its place in the sequence – with the album subsequently becoming much more than the sum of its parts. In short, it’s an absolute classic.
The album takes you on a journey – a jaunty uplifting start, then a coming down in tone but a serious raising of the quality bar with 4th track ‘Rococo’. The second quarter is then a gradual development of depth – and then come the centrepiece – ‘Surburban War’ – which is the kind of track we could expect from Radiohead or U2 when at the absolute peak of their creative powers – and that’s saying something. Quite expertly, a punkish rock-out track ‘Month Of May’ follows that, and then the album takes you on a cool-down with a bunch of more reflective songs. There’s a lift right before then end and then a kind of genius in closing the album back where it started, but with a stripped down finish. It doesn't so much end as resign.
The whole experience is superb. Now I do like themed records and this one does have a theme – of returning to the landscapes in which you grew up – with the weird, existential tingling that can create. And this is at a time when I’m also reading Michael Chabon’s ‘Manhood for Amateurs’ – in which he places the role of being a father (of 4!) in the context of his own childhood, including this same idea of revisiting both mental and physical landscapes that look or feel like fragments of alien places by the time we’ve grown up. If ever books needed accompanying soundtracks, and presumably soon they wil...
And to think I almost skipped 'Suburds', since I’ve got a backlog of music I’ve been trying to get to for several weeks, months even. It’s why I don’t currently subscribe to a music service and I don’t know if I will again in the short-term. I’ve a feeling if I’d streamed ‘Suburbs’ – in part or fully, it would never have reached that part of my subconscious that brought me back for a proper listen – the one that changed my relationship with the record for good.
I’ve now over-played the album of course, so I’m laying-off for a while and searching for the next life-affirming feed. But I’m not looking at streaming any candidates for now because I just don’t want to jeopardise this process that is really working for me in terms of enjoyment. I know the sweet shop is there on the corner and is stocked to the hilt with new stuff, but I’m willing to keep walking by until I’m really in need of a sugar rush. For now the slow-release recipe is working just fine. 

Monday, 12 July 2010

Submitting to Digital

I’ve finally gone and done it. On Friday, I bought my last CD (arrived today, I am Kloot new album “Sky at Night” – along with the new Janelle Monae and Dark Night Of The Soul albums). And I picked up my final ever PAPER Guardian, with the ever brilliant and to me (previously) essential, “Film and Music” supplement.

This has been a long time coming of course, especially since, in theory anyway – I have been living & breathing digital music since the turn of the century. It’s my job to know about these things, so why haven’t I fully bought in yet as a consumer? Mostly during that time I have been horribly hedged between the two mediums – the physical and the digital.

I’ve become fed up with the physical side of physical – the constant rattling around in the cupboard or shed looking for that old gem I need to hear again, or even finger-searching down the spines of the ‘current play list’ only to open the jewel box (yuk) and find the CD is of course, in the car or somewhere or just plain gone. Plus it’s taking up too much space. As for my 'newspaper', too much of it goes unread and straight-to-recycling, which just seems ridiculous.

Mostly though, it all just seems so out-of-step with the times, technologically and environmentally.
So that’s me. I’ve officially ‘Gone Digital’.

I do however, harbour several anxieties about this decision. As I pour over the cover of Sky At Night, (fascinated to find Guy Garvey and Craig Potter of Elbow are co-producers) I’m already missing the tactile experience of having ‘record cover’ in hand while the music’s on. I’m doubtful that the digital metadata industry can deliver anything like the simple pleasures of this experience.

Also – since physical media plays a big part in my music discovery process (particularly aforementioned Guardian ‘Film & Music’) – I’m concerned I’ll actually start to miss some key album reviews. I love the Guardian iPhone App, but I’m not sure if the App has the complete content that the paper supplement has. Somewhat ironically, since digital has a reputation as a great discovery platform, I’ve never experienced it as such – not as a passionate and active music obsessive.

I’m also concerned about the system of managing my music digitally. My CD shelves are not particularly well ordered, but like a mechanic with his tools, I have a photographic memory of where I left each CD. I know which pile my previous I Am Kloot albums sit in. My CDs are taking up too much space for sure, but at least I know they are there, because I can see them. By quickly scanning any one of the ‘most recent’ piles I can easily remind myself I still need to listen to Paul Weller or Joanna Newsome. But I recently realised just how many downloaded albums I’ve yet to listen to – some from last year. I’d literally forgotten about these, buried as they are into my iTunes library.

I love how smoothly Amazon downloads now embed straight to that library, but almost preferred the old way, when I could at least check my Amazon (or 7 Digital) folders to look at recent or not so recent, purchases. I’d like iTunes to make the ‘recently added’ list both more accessible and more present either online or on the device.

Nevertheless, I’m still going digital. It has to be one way or the other. I will just have to get over my digital discovery issues (with the great help of Spotify, MFlow, the Genius bar and of course, my beloved US indie goldmine ‘Daytrotter’.com).

I’ll do my best to get over my physical needs too, since I’m literally running out of shelf & cupboard space. I’ll undertake to make an effort to improve my digital file management.  I’m still nervous that my digital music collection will evaporate somewhere, but perhaps I’ll put my faith in the cloud (if I can get over my ‘ownership’ issues) or a digital locker service, as it looks like I’ll have a good choice of those next year.

However, this all leaves me with one overriding issue and that’s listening. Actually taking the time to enjoy what I’ve worked hard to discover, access, acquire and manage. I just love playing music back through my (pride and joy) Bowers & Wilkins 806’s. They sound great.

Also, the recently acquired new family Renault came with an integral Bose sound system which rocks. Both have iPod docks, but both have CD trays too. Somehow – the CD – once I’ve got it to hand – goes into the tray with – well – with a more satisfying feeling – than plugging the iPod into the dock. It also encourages me to become more familiar with that particular record, not snack like a junkie on the 6000 tracks in my device. 

Mmm, perhaps I’m not quite through the hedge yet, but still on the fence.

Apologies for not posting much lately. I've been busy, working on some great music industry projects, looking after my kids, and sitting in the sun for five-minute spells of peace & quiet (when I could probably be twittering). The JB blog will be out for the rest of the summer, but you might want to read my post on Google & music on the midemnet blog and also look out for some pieces in the various trusted Music Industry publications over the coming months...all exciting stuff. JB will resume as & when...

Saturday, 5 June 2010

A funny thing happened on the way to The National

Mflow’s tagline ‘Discovery is the best thing in music’ may or may not true, but I’ve just made a discovery myself – that the best sort of music discovery can be discovering the music that you already know. That’s a lot of discoveries in one sentence, so let me explain.

I was all set to skip the new National album. I was just going to let it pass, on account of having too much currently stacked up in the ‘recently acquired’ CD pile-up - and the download equivalent (a queue?).

Then I succumbed, having read too many glowing reviews, and put it on order from Amazon, but with self-calibrated expectations. I say this because, though I am a fan of The National (having first discovered them via their wonderful track “About Today” on an Uncut magazine cover-mount) I’ve found them to be a band of great promise if not quite the accomplished article on delivery.

I bought their previous two records “Alligator” and “Boxer” and found them both to contain great moments (notably on Boxer – “Guest Room”, “Fake Empire” and “Mistaken For Strangers”) but overall, patchy (but, aggrieved National fans, read on). I also once bought three tickets to one of the band’s shows at The Astoria on the “Boxer” tour and coaxed two friends along, eulogising about this great new band I’d discovered.

When they opened that gig with “Guest Room” I felt vindicated and all like the great “A&R” man (it sounded absolutely splendid), but the rest of the gig was somewhat marred by singer Matt Berninger’s apparent discomfort on stage. You can actually hear more about his stage-fright issues via a Guardian podcast here (small aside – what do you do when an artist on the cusp of mainstream success and potentially huge live shows – suffers from lack of stage presence? - I can’t see many artists taking much to a suggestion of stagecraft ‘coaching’).

So, I thought I’d skip ‘High Violet’. Thank god I didn’t. I only really got to play it properly because I was travelling (back from the South West) and was in a bit ‘phased out’ (after a disappointing business meeting). For those reasons, I set the album to play on repeat – and just let it run & run (four-five times over maybe) until it kind of got inside my head.

Three weeks later and it’s still there, rattling around. In fact I only really came up for air by re-visiting their previous two albums – both of which now suddenly connect with me much more than they did originally. Alligator especially, is a real treat, as it turns out.

Somehow I now ‘get’ The National. I’ve got beyond the moody baritone ‘miserabilists’ stage and moved on to appreciate the tightly-wound core of fine drumming, bass and guitar, the finely detailed, layered, textured sounds (including wonderfully understated use of piano, strings and brass), the oddly-affecting, existential lyrics and at last, the strained emotional delivery of Matt Berninger’s vocals. And more than that, his superb phrasing.

It all makes sense – and on High Violet manages to exceed the sum of all these wonderful parts – through having better tunes, with better songs – Berninger’s lyrics now more effective in connecting real-life stories with the weird inner-dialogues – effectively making him a fully-paid up member of the Genuine Pop Music Poets Society.

“Someone send a runner for the weather that I’m under for the feeling that I lost today”, for example, from ‘England’ (for me the album’s pinnacle track, and my self-adopted national world cup theme. Was that really ‘England’ playing in background on some recent world cup BBC coverage? I think it was). Or perhaps take this one, from single Bloodbuzz Ohio: “I still owe money, to the money, to the money I owe” – that’s a clever commentary on the recent financial crisis if you want my opinion. My favourite though is from Lemonworld, where that songs protagonist declares he “left my heart to the army, the only sentimental thing I could think of”. It rouses.

But why am I telling you this on Juggernaut, without due consideration for the industry? Well it actually did get me pondering on both the demand side and the supply side of things actually.

On the demand side, as with Mflow for example – we’ve become somewhat absorbed, perhaps even obsessed with, ‘discovering’ new music, with gaining ‘access’ to it, and with the ‘acquisition’ of it. It strikes me these experiences all pale with actually listening, and forming a deeper relationship with the music than you thought might be possible initially. It’s like discovering a new author and then revisiting all his or her other books, with a renewed, re-ignited pleasure. You can find yourself thanking your lucky stars, just for the serendipity of it all. Besides, the album would never have entered my consciousness in the way that it has, without that first bought of repeated listening.

On the supply side, The National’s story amounts to the way it should be for music artists and their development, does it not? ‘High Violet’ is the Band’s fifth album and represents a sure, steady growth creatively and now commercially as well. It’s refreshing, re-assuring even, that we can still witness artists in a steady ascendancy like this. Isn’t this how it used to be? I would wish the same on The Local Natives, or The Temper Trap – or any other type of band with the apparent talent and capability to arrive where The National has.

Has it got something to do with being on an indie label rather than a major labels? Perhaps, except there are plenty of indie bands on majors with what seems like longevity and ascendancy too. Most notably Elbow (though a partial 'rescue' job was done there), Kings of Leon (now so big it's hard to think of them as 'indie' but they are essentially) and others.

But The National's success seems partly down to the fact that the band didn’t get too popular too soon - that they had time to become this good. With ‘High Violet’, The National has indeed been allowed to bloom.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Will more Great Catalogue now come back from Exile?

Have you listened to Exile of Main Street lately? If not, then you will surely have at least been curious to do so. It’s been nothing if not omnipresent for the past six weeks or so, leading up to the re-release last week.

This is how to do catalogue marketing. Take a classic record – one with plentiful versions of plentiful stories – and some good music – and re-embed it into the culture. So, for the past six weeks we’ve been ‘treated’ (whether we like it or not, and I for one have quite liked it) to extensive write-ups in all the broadsheets – with cover stories in their supplements, BBC documentaries on the TV and the radio – all seemingly with full participation from esquires Jagger & Richards. I'm sure there's probably been a social media strategy as well but I was less receptive to that if so.

Result for us: Exile On Main Street basically unavoidable. We are forced to submit, basically.
Result for them: Catalogue record from 1972 re-enters 2010 album chart and actually goes to number 1.

No wonder The Stones decided to take their catalogue over from EMI to Universal. Guy Hands probably didn’t paint quite this picture in his lunches with Jagger – the idea that for weeks on end, the likes of ‘Exile’ would literally become the biggest thing in British culture!

Universal is the number one on the block for ‘muscle’ and seems to have true carpet bomb capabilities in the way the other majors don’t (or maybe they can’t afford to or just don’t want to). Mind you having said that, EMI did a pretty good job with the Beatles re-issues didn’t they? When I wrote about that last year I predicted tens of millions in potential sales and I’m confidently assured that the Beatles re-issues have gone beyond 13 million and still rising.

It’s quite a phenomenon this ‘cultural marketing’, give the state we’re in generally and when you consider the fact that so much music catalogue has been commoditised too easily by being made available on streaming services. I think it justifies recent moves by Bob Dylan and other to question the move to be on those types of services. And the campaign around Dylan a few years back, when he released the book, the film and new music – was similarly the cultural phenomenon – and no doubt a fillip for his most recent new releases too.

It seems like the industry is beginning to take its catalogue ‘jewels’ very, very seriously – and that’s a good thing. Perhaps its because new music doesn't connect with mass culture in quite this way these days. Or maybe it's simply a mortality realisation thing, since there is a generation of these greats that may well literally expire on us before the next decade is out. McCartney has announced his farewell tour and you have to question how many more we’ll see – along with new records – by the likes of Springsteen, The Who and indeed The Stones.

What’s next on the catalogue cultural calendar? Personally I would like to see some proper re-appraisal of Queen’s catalogue – perhaps with a movie if that can be pulled together. Or Kate Bush – though I’m pining more for something new from ‘Our Kate’ having recently been playing the Nada Surf cover of “Love and Anger” and recognising just how uniquely Kate Bush it sounds. Stevie Wonder perhaps, with his forthcoming Glastonbury slot as marketing glue? Where was the Bowie ‘Berlin’ series tie in with the recent book by Thomas Seabrook? I’ve been enjoying that and would probably have been persuaded to part ways with money for some specially packaged versions of the Berlin triage of albums – perhaps.

I love the idea that great music can be culturally resurrected in this way – even if it is a bit in our faces via the usual big media gatekeepers – and will always be about records made a long, long time ago.

With ‘Exile’ it all seemed genuine enough and beautifully executed. But did the music itself warrant all this re-appraisal and attention? My CD (come on, after all this campaigning you could hardly be satisfied with downloading Exile now could you? – though I just bought the remix not the fancy packaged double) sat on the shelf for a week until this morning.

Last night I went out for reunion beers with for friends – two of which I had not seen for almost 15 years. This morning’s cotton headed, jelly-legged, bacon-sandwich-assisted slow recovery back to life seemed like the perfect morning to stick it on and given it a spin.

Yes, it’s quite good isn’t it? I guess a lot of people do know that now.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Never Mind The Box Set - Case Studies

Last week I made my ‘return’ to the music business (after a spell contracting in FMCG or ‘real business’ – a contrast to be blogged about in future no doubt) with a keynote at Music Tank’s ‘Never Mind The Box Set’ discussion – the topic being the state of the current ‘physical’ music business. Full details you will find on the superb Music Tank site.

In my talk I presented four brief case studies of physical products that had come ‘back from the brink’ to find cult, niche and perhaps even mainstream, success. These were:

• Moleskin
• Lego
• Filofax
• Marvel

I thought it might useful to post these here as part of a series of posts this week to mark the ‘return’ of the JB blog, as it were. These case studies were the brands that came from top of mind in discussion with Music Tank – so they are not precise analogues for music – but I don’t think it matters for providing us with some imagination, innovation – a bit more belief, perhaps.

These are specific businesses rather than industry formats like the CD, but these brands are in many ways, symbolic of the industries in which they operate.

We’ll also see how these businesses have smartly embraced digital innovation but even more smartly, kept the physical product alive and well – protecting where the real, tactile value is. Real products remain at the core of these businesses.

Case Study 1: Moleskin

How did writing make such a comeback from the brink of extinction? What’s more anachronistic to us now, the notebook or that funny gadget with a dodgy pen all the early adopters were brandishing in the mid 90s? Writing recognition, the touch screen keyboard and voice recognition tools still occasionally ‘threaten’ the business of handwriting, yet it’s hardly enough to get the stationary business quaking.

The origin of Moleskin’s recent success might surprise. The rights to the famous designs were acquired by Italian company Modo & Modo as recently as the mid 90s and the big global marketing push didn’t happen until 2002 – now every second person working in the global creative industries seems to use one.

Success Factors for Moleskin

o Design, design, design – it’s just a notebook! But the look & feel means everything to its dedicated users

o Heritage – the ‘story’ – Hemingway, Bruce Chatwin writing beautiful prose in them – these stories are now part of the folklore of the brand

o Variety – size, colour, features – I’m using the ‘Woodstock’ red one just now

o All this comes with Premium – people pay 6-7 $’s more for a Moleskin versus a standard notepad – it’s all in the branding

The Root of Moleskin’s success though – the Insight if you will – is the art of writing – that’s what people really value. Can we work an equivalent for music with the art of listening?

Finally – Moleskin notebooks are addictive! Could you really switch back to using just a notebook? Can digital be addictive in the way a physical collection is? Can CD packaging be improved enough to raise such questions about digital music?

Case Study 2: Lego

Another business brand literally brought back from the corporate equivalent of life support, Lego was dead as a dodo at the turn of the millennium, with losses spiralling to €242m by 2004.

Fast forward to August 2009 and a buoyant Lego announced a robust increase in turnover and pre-tax profits of €124m for the first six months of 2009, up 61% over the same period of 2008.

Much was attributed to Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, a young dynamic CEO, who according to himself “changed everything but the brand”.

But really the success was down to a combination of licensing (Star Wars, Harry Potter etc.) and product innovation (bricks literally come in all shapes, sizes, colours – enabling you to build anything). Those innovations however came hand-in-hand with brave and painful operational changes.

For the last few years Lego has quietly expanded into video and online games. In 2010, it will roll out Lego Universe, a multiplayer online virtual reality game. It is also investing in real bricks too, with 15 new retail stores due to open before Christmas 2010 to add to its existing 47. Moving direct-to-consumer seems to have worked.

Success Factors for Lego

o Innovation in digital and physical – working symbiosis between these

o Heritage – converting parental approval and children’s creative instincts into sales

o Variety – size, colour, features

o Niche strategy – Lego’s sales are said to be concentrated on a relatively small market of loyal household customers (around just 2 million households according to one report)

As with any turnaround story, there’s always an insight that proves key to the Knudstorp’s own words: "We take the virtues of Lego and the virtues of Star Wars and create something more optimal out of it. A great example is the Lego Star Wars game which has been immensely popular. Here you have a category where many parents perceive it as not really creative and not very good for their children, but when it becomes Lego the parent says 'OK, now I feel comfortable, since it's Lego plus Star Wars.' It has the benefits of both worlds. Two plus two suddenly becomes five."

Case study 3: Filofax

That great symbol of the eighties – one many of us would perhaps rather forget - is back! And if Filofax can forge a comeback, anything can.

With a St Luke’s advertising campaign in 2006 to re-launch the brand – Filofax shifted its marketing to a younger (more colours), more female (more personal) customer base, with modest success. Pre-tax profits almost doubled from £2.8m to £5.5m for the year to January 2009, while sales nudged up to £61.4m from £59.7m a year earlier.

Success Factors for Filofax

o Niche strategy – what had become ‘naff’ is now a mould breaking statement for mavericks

o Heritage – Filofax built on the retro trend – but did so with deeper, practical benefits too

o Innovation: One innovation introduced in the run-up to Christmas 2010 was a service allowing customers to order personalised diaries from the website. Filofax users can now buy a printed calendar that incorporates all the birthdays, anniversaries and important dates they would otherwise have to annotate laboriously every year

Finally, once again here comes the insight – what’s become valuable today versus the 80’s when everything was about making money – is making time. Filofax responded by being less about business diary management and more about general lifestyle management – allowing people to manage all of their available time.


I’ve written extensively about Marvel In editorials and blog posts so I will re-cap very briefly.

Once again Marvel is a riches-to-rags-to-riches story. In 1997, Marvel Entertainment escaped bankruptcy by a thread thinner than one of Spiderman’s. The company had failed to diversify its publishing business and flooded the market with comic book lines, effectively commoditizing its core business and leaving the company with a stock value of under $1.

Yet Marvel was transformed to a business with a market value of $4 billion, the price paid by Disney when it acquired the company in 2009.

Again, format wise, Marvel is becoming a seamless world of the digital and the physical. While digital content thrives (motion comics being a superb, natural innovation), physical product is hardly the Cinderella business, with the Graphic Novel industry in rude health, now threatening to break out of its geeky niche status and into the mainstream. See also the post on Marvel on this blog last year.

Recurring themes

In summary, a number of success factors associated with these case studies recur as learning or inspiration for music in a physical form.

1. Heritage - building on original strengths.

2. Branding - generating attractive stories.

3. Variety - product in all shapes & sizes - even personalised.

4. Insight - building on key actionable insights - eureka moments.

5. Innovation – clever interplay of the digital and physical worlds.

All these products could so easily have died, but belief, smart, brave decisions and real demand – allowed them to survive, re-build and thrive in today’s over-stimulated, ultra-competitive, digital world.

Versions of this post may appear on Music Tank and in MusicAlly's fortnightly circular.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Are we living too fast for slow pop?

Couple of years back I was at a music conference featuring a panel of ‘new millennial’s (young people to you and me) discussing their music listening habits. One explained in all seriousness, that he had “tried putting a CD and just listening, but it didn’t really work for me”. Older members of the audience, including me, sighed out an involuntary laugh.

I intended then, to write something about some of the albums that I grew up with when I was a young adult, reflecting on just how different the experience was then – as a child of the 80’s, musically speaking. Putting on a CD and ‘just listening’ was exactly what we all did. Habitually, frequently, repetitively.

It’s rapidly becoming a lost art in itself though – and this fascinates me. It does so partly because I’m convinced the industry is missing a trick commercially by not promoting more pure enjoyment from music – instead becoming obsessed with access, discovery and acquisition. The most recent example of course is latest ‘buzz’ music service mflow, which has the tagline ‘Discovery it’s the greatest thrill in music’. Nothing wrong with it I suppose, yet there really is something wrong. However, that’s something for another post.

The other fascination for me with modern music consumption is not commercial, but cultural. I think the millennial guy who couldn’t get through full album session is missing out on one of life’s simple, exceptional pleasures. And it worries me that it’s going this way for the majority. When Observer Music Monthly surveyed the UK’s listening habits back in 2005 it found one third of music fans claimed they did still play albums from start to finish ‘occasionally’. I wonder what the proportion is now.

What brought this subject back to me was reading La Roux’s ‘Soundtrack of my life’ in this Sunday’s Observer (sadly, now sans its Music Monthly supplement). Elly Jackson observes – on the subject of one of my favourite and prime examples of slow-pop – Tear For Fears’ ‘Songs From The Big Chair’ that:

“The way it’s recorded and produced is incredible. People don’t take that much time over music any more. And if you did, all your fans would fuck off somewhere else, ‘cause they’re so fickle nowadays”.

I like this quote because it captures both the cultural and commercial trends in music production and consumption. We simply lack the attention spans, as well as the time, and the market responds to that by not supplying such demanding product.

That said, I for one am still trying to create the time and clear the headspace to listen to Joanna Newsome’s latest 3-disc magnum opus. What was she thinking?

For me, the classic slow-pop albums of my formative years are a unique thing, largely of the past. They are unique in that these records tended to contain a mixture of both massive hits, but more experimental, almost sub-classical tracks, either in-between – or sometimes given their own ‘side’ (Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds of Love’ being perhaps the most complete example, with its ‘The Ninth Wave’ second half). These records were made by artists at their commercial peak, coinciding with their creative urge to experiment and move forward.

Sequencing was massively important in creating an impression of vast depth for these records, which sucked the listener in – making a more immersive experience than any 3D film or website I can think of. Both ‘Big Chair’ and ‘Hounds’ are superlative examples. Another would be OMD’s ‘Architecture and Morality’ (the latter two albums curiously and perhaps rightly, not featured on Spotify et al.).

Other examples? Perhaps the masters of this whole process were Talk Talk. Perhaps the best example of such a work is Dark Side Of The Moon.

There are probably endless examples from days past. But where are the modern slow-pop masterpieces? They hardly exist – partly because the culture we live in leaves them little space in which to thrive. We are no longer connected by this type of cultural experience – too busy discovering, accessing or sharing what we haven’t really listened to that much!

I’ve previously argued that Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ might well be the last example of this particular ‘genre’ – a popular but experimental album. Since Radiohead have ‘moved on’ from albums, they may not supply any more of the same. U2’s experimental side and commercial peak seems long since past. Can we look to Elbow, or even Coldplay to do something a bit old-fashioned – namely connect massive popularity with a risky but ultimately successful creative formula? Or even La Roux per chance.

I hope they do and I hope it sparks a renaissance for slow-pop, for the sake of the new millennials.

My top five slow-pop records then, which I would not dream of mflow-ing you, but would advise you to get on to Amazon now...

1. Kate Bush: Hounds of Love.

2. Tears For Fears: Songs From The Big Chair.

3. OMD: Architecture and Morality.

4. Talk Talk: The Colour of Spring.

5. U2: Zooropa.

Ps. For the record, I like mflow – both its current execution and its possibilities, but for me it still isn’t quite the answer to the faltering music industry model.

I’m on mflow as ‘keithj’ if you can find some slow pop for me!

Thursday, 22 April 2010


Apologies that this isn't exactly a music related post, but it is at least, lyrical.

As some readers know I'm an official casualty of the 'Icelandic Ash Cloud' (why haven't they given it a snappier name?). I'm en famile, on day 20 of a 15-day vacation! We're in Singapore (worse places to be stuck I suppose) and if you wanted a flavour of the experience, it's here in a short poem I'ved called 'Stranded'. I've had another dozen thoughts on music topics but once again, no time to seriously consider writing up, yet...please be patient with me for a while longer...K


Without a flight
Stuck in 'Sing'
The "Asia-lite"
- Now one place we'd love to Sling...

Our hook?
3 young children
And a very sick mother
But Singapore Airlines
Is ducking for cover

But we won't give up
Without a fight
Though our over-rested bodies
Are more than slight

Everyone back home says
We should "make the most"
So we tuck into another breakfast
Of dougnuts and toast

No more noodles for us
We're noodled-out
We just want to look up
To the skies and shout...

"We're Stranded"!
Over-rested, over-fed
Thanks to Enforced R&R
So 3 more 'Shirley Temple' mocktails
For my girls
- at the Bintan Pool Bar!

As for the parents
We've pretty much had it
Even with the Tigers
And the local 'Tea Tarik'

3 countries, 35 immigration forms
All we ask for now is
A return to the norm

"Get us home now
"We've done it all"
- Malaysia, Indonesia,
Singapore Zoo

"Don't worry"
They tell us

"Singapore Airline will contact you"

Back soon. With luck.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Going, gone & gone for good this time

Some weeks, the music industry delivers nothing but disappointment. It started this time last week hearing Mark Thomson announcing at the FT Media Conference, as part of a new BBC consultation, the proposed closure of 6 Music. The logic was nothing if not cloudy. However, it has been good to note that since, there has been a really strong & swift backlash, with a groundswell of opinion rightly raging against the machine.

Now 6 Music is not perfect, but it genuinely serves a sustainable, growing niche - exactly the role of a public service broadcaster essentially. If you, like me, don't want to lose your Guy Garvey's Finest Hour (the best two hours of a Sunday evening there is second perhaps only to when Wallander's on), Gideon Coe or Adam & Joe, then go and join up the various petitions and comment on the BBC consultation site. Help make them see some sense for goodness sakes.

So I got a call yesterday from a business correspondent at the Indy asking for a quote on Elio Leoni Sceti. I hadn't heard the news even, but it took me less than a second to realise - and to not be surprised. Didn't even miss a beat in the conversation. But it's no less disturbing when reflecting on it. The italian gent was, in my view, an inspired choice - something Guy had not exactly built a reputation for in the music business, by the point to which he hired Leoni-Sceti.

I met Elio twice last year. Both times he made a point of coming from behind his desk, not a blackberry or iPhone in sight, to sit ready for pure, effective exchange. Undivided attention. That's quite rare among music leaders in my experience. He was a good listener and asker of questions. He's calm and collected and had managed to galvanise what was left of morale within EMI. The results under his tenureship (if you can call it that) were unarguably good.

But then after just 18 months in the role, he has become yet another licensed-to-innovate leader from outside the music industry that has essentially failed to innovate from within it. Not his fault. Like a legendary football manager once said, you can only do so much up to the point when it all becomes about the players on the pitch. But with music, maybe it's not the players either, but the structure by which the whole game is put together.

Gone again
Even much worse news had come the evening before via a text from a friend (you can see how much I'm keeping up with music news of my own volition right now), who sent me a link to a Tim Jonze blog titled "Sparklehorse took the ugly and made it beautiful". I knew instantly what that meant - before reading one more word of the fittingly touching piece. Turns out Mark Linkous had shot himself in the heart.

I bought Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot when it was first released in 1995. Didn't get on with it, despite all the rave reviews it got. I left Sparklehorse well alone until I capitulated - again on the strength of the reviews - and bought It's A Wonderful Life on the way home from a New York trip. Fell in love with it on listen two - right there on the return flight. I saw them/him tour that album with a gig at Union Chapel Islington - quietly inspiring. I loved seeing a sedentary Linkous just play, calm & focused, his sometimes driving rock, but his oh so delicate fragile ballads - he even played the tracks with all the twiddly bits. He seemed to know the strength of the material and the way in which it was played was what mattered, more than any sense of performance. It was a privilege to witness that. And I liked the way he played guitar, like he'd learnt it only recently, but didn't want to play any better than he exactly needed to for the songs.

I've since played his weirdly abstract, utterly unique sounding music during times high & low. Most of all, I remember playing a compilation of Sparklehorse ballads I labeled 'lullabies' (on minidisk) to my first daughter for the weeks after she was born. I even nick-named her Homecoming Queen (later Queenie) after the song of that name. Kids actually love Sparklehorse, because the lyrics make sense to them maybe, somehow. And he mentions lots of animals. Somehow, of all Linkous's spaced out crazy lyrics (did I really forget to mention him when I blogged here about those before) the one I like best is from Spirit Ditch, which might actually frighten my kids a bit. It goes:

"woke up in, a burned out basement
sleeping with metal hands
in a spirit ditch"

Now I don't know what that means and you don't know either. Neither did Linkous probably. And none of us would want to end up there. But my word it is worth listening to every now & then. Linkous reminds us it's a sad & beautiful world, but also a wonderful life. Linkous was fully qualified - after all he once died for a full two minutes before making a recovery. But this time he really is in the Spirit Ditch.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Throwing a clanger into the search engines

I've just been reading the Guardian Film & Music (as I do every single Friday without fail). Delighted to see the leader piece about none other than JB favourites Spoon! Tom Ewing was writing about abstract but absorbing lyrics but covers (and nails) Spoon's musical raison d'etre. It's a great piece, please read it

Spoon's new album is out next week and I for one, can't wait. Although Monday's schedule of Laura Veir's July Flame and the Tindersticks new album Falling Down a Mountain is pretty enticing as well. And Laura play's Union Chapel next Wednesday 27th - see you there!

I was also reading Tom Salmon's (always interesting) Click To Download column, in F&M about 'spotiseek' - a new search engine built on both Spotify and's API's. Not another search engine! However, it does sound impressive, so I'm going to give this one a try and report back.

However, I don't know if it will satisfy my current musical curiosity, which can only be described as 'oddly reflective'. I've spent most of January playing my favourites of the decade - as reported last post. But as I've done so, it has occurred to me there are certain patterns in pop music that have always attracted me, as follows:
  1. The lyricist as poet. Guy Garvey, Nick Cave, Jeff Tweedy et al. I do like a bit more from my lyricists. I like abstract too - Britt Daniels and Thom Yorke are both masters ("Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon", "I spent, the night in the map room/I humanised a vacuum" etc.). But the poets really have my attention and respect, for putting the bloody effort in! Take the Tweedy verse from 'Jesus etc'. "Tall buildings shake/voices escape singing sad sad songs/tuned to chords strung down your cheeks/bitter melodies turning your orbit around". Poetry, no?
  2. The Gibson ES guitar. Spoon, Aimee Mann, Laura Veirs et al. The playing has everything to do with it, but so does the guitar. I love guitars. I own the most amazing Ibanez Les Paul copy from the early 70's I'd never part with it. But it's the sound of the ES, with distortion running through it - played apreggio or solo. It gets me every time I absolutely love it.
  3. The piano/keyboard as rhythm instrument. Have a listen to 'Don't Lose Yourself' by Laura Veirs or of course my classic 'The Ghost of You Lingers' by Spoon. I find the use of the keyboard in driving the main rhythm of a song wonderfully uplifting. Music's great when instruments can be made to do unexpected things.
  4. Sophisticated pop. I like pop songs with a bit of arrangement. Some orchestration. I like a pop song that could almost be classical in a sense. Hence Merz. Any number of Merz's songs features multi-instrumental, time-shifting qualities. Try 'Malcolm' for example, from Moi et Mon Camion. Bill Callahan's new album, or John Vanderslice are also good examples. Elbow are moving in this direction too. Quite wonderful.
  5. The bass as melody. The opposite of point 3 to some extent I know, but it gets me for different reasons. I love the bass. I love the way John Taylor plays bass. But my favourite bass line ever, is by Sting, of all people. In the song 'Spirits In The Material World', the strings are plucked as the rhythm and the bass drives a sophisticated, but thumping, melody. That is possibly my favourite pop song. They don't make singles like that anymore do they?
There's much more, and I wonder what other idiosyncratic themes, patterns other music lovers are attracted to. But what I'd really love to do, is chuck all this is to a search engine that works on that level. But that might never be possible, which is part of the mind-blowing mathematics that make up music, I suppose.

Just a thought, not bad for January though!