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.