Sunday, 17 November 2019

A Physical Presence

For a blog that is meant to be about my iPod I do seem to spend a lot of time talking about physical media. As everything physical ends up on the iPod at one time or another I make no apology for this.

I follow Cloudland Blue Quartet on Twitter, and listen to his podcast, which you should also do. He ran a poll recently and out of 98 votes 58% went to CD 41% to vinyl. The interesting part though was the comments. The main vinyl supporters' arguments were based around sampling rates and kilohertz. That or have a valve preamp etc etc. The CD advocates talked about convenience.

Back in the mists of time, 1983, I worked with my Dad selling 78 records, valve radios and wind up gramophones. Every so often some high quality vintage hi fi kit would come along which would get snapped up by collectors. They would spend a lot of time telling me that it was far batter than anything you could buy new. Then the 78 collectors would come along and tell me that an HMV model 194 was the gramophone to have. In fairness a decent condition disc played on one of these things did sound ok. They weighed about the same as a small car however.

What this all says to me is that the hobbyist will always find a way of adding complication to the simple matter of sitting down and listening to the music. Their choice of music seems to be usually dictated by the "quality" of the recording rather than their connection to the music or words. I love The Nightfly (one of the audiophile gold standard albums) but it doesn't have the incendiary quality of the first Clash album with its cardboard box drums and
patchy (at best) mixing. Oh and my vinyl copy of Donald Fagen's album had pops and clicks and muffled sound. My CD has lasted since about 1990 and still plays perfectly.

I know 'each to their own', and 'live and let live' may be unfashionable views these days but let's embrace them. You play your vinyl, and I will carry on with CDs. Just please don't try and convince me that something that reproduces music by dragging a piece of diamond across a bit of plastic has some mystical "better sound".

The other thing that makes CDs the way to go is that they are cheap. There are some great second hand shops spread around the country, some of which I've mentioned here before, but also charity shops. I love charity shops, the thrill of the chase as you can never tell what you are going to find, and the chance that you will happen upon a collection having been deposited there by someone's ex spouse or whatever. I could tell you about some finds, jazz, prog rock, obscurities of all sorts. The only disappointment is when a shop, usually a books and media outlet has been rooting around on Ebay and massively overpriced something otherwise desirable. Yes I'm talking about you, Oxfam record shop Byres Road Glasgow.

So until the world notices I will carry on picking up CD bargains, and experimenting with new music, including after a bit more study of Mr Quartet's twitter, the undiscovered country... Classical Music.

Monday, 4 November 2019

It wasn't like this in my day...

My daughter came home from working in Scotland last week and we were talking on the way about some of the music she is listening to. She seems to be more aware of music and to have more decided opinions than many of her generation. She consumes it via Apple Music and You Tube and Instagram in about equal measure. For the record she is 20.

Comment 1 - There aren't many distinctive singers.

She isn't a fan of singers powered by AutoTune. Having had singing lessons herself and sung in choirs and all sorts of social settings she seems to have some disdain for those singers whose careers she feels are built on image more than actual vocal talent. Cheryl (Cole or whatever) comes up for question here. Score one for good old fashioned talent.

Comment 2 - Rappers are more important than singers as conveyors of messages

This I suppose is a matter of the particular flavour of "pop" music that you consume. Where to earlier generations, Dylan, Rotten, Weller, Sly Stone, Gil Scott Heron or whoever would have been the social commentators of choice, now it is Drake, Stormzy and Kanye who are the influencing factor, although seldom about politics.

Comment 3 - DJs are the taste makers and main influencing factor

She uses the term "DJ" interchangeably with "record producer", assuming that anyone who makes records will also present them in a "live" environment as a mix set.

So, who does she like? 

Current favourites are singer/songwriters Mabel and Billie Eilish. Both of these come from entertainment industry backgrounds, Mabel is the daughter of Neneh Cherry and producer Cameron McVey for instance.They are both seen as having distinctive voices in a sea of bland. Dua Lipa gets an honourable mention in this category. Another thumbs up here, as I think she is broadly right about the bland thing, and I could listen to any of these three on the radio.

Producer/DJs that are on the radar include David Guetta, Tiesto and Martin Garrix. These do have "signature" sounds making them more producer than DJ in my book. Calvin Harris was OK but a bit mainstream.

Rappers, she has always been a fan of Eminem, despite  some parental disapproval of his language in earlier years (help, I've turned into my Dad!). Current fav is Cardi B. This is where I turn middle aged and say I cannot understand Ms B or her peers. the music which seems to mostly comprise high speed drum machine beats, that I imagine are meant to sound like automatic gunfire, and nursery rhyme tunes in between raps that spend most of their time explaining that she can afford two pairs of expensive trainers at a time. Allegedly "Cardi B identifies as a feminist" in which case my definition of that term needs some updating. Cardi (if I can be that familar) seems to spend her life in a social media driven whirl which seems to drive everything from her clothes to her relationship choices, up to and including her child who may well want to change her name from Kulture Kiari Cephus at the earliest opportunity.

Back to my daughter's music choices. She does also like Queen, Green Day, Abba (the Mamma Mia films helped here), and has also had a moment with of the music from the film Rock of Ages. at that point I had a nano second of coolness, but don't worry it didn't last.

What does this mean in terms of my life on the iPod? To paraphrase Nick Hornby's book 33 Songs, nothing I like is "pop music" anymore. I'm quite comfortable with this and didn't honestly think it was, but the fact is that when said daughter read this blog a few minutes ago her reaction to my comments about Cardi B was to tell me about her wealth and her 5 cars that she can't drive. And that is the real difference between then and now, it's all about the celebrity, not the music.  

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Recent recordings and ramblings

I've suddenly come across a rash of new music that I want to get. Or in a couple of cases I did until I listened to them...

Renaissance - Novella A reissue with 2 added discs of a Royal Albert Hall concert from 1977. Their best album, slowly drifting towards actual songs and away from the excessive noodling and "poetic" lyrics. The live cd sounds like it should be good as well. They are even less improvisational than Yes, if that is possible so live CDs are about song selection. I got the download as it avoided an interminable bass solo version Ashes Are Burning of which I already have about three. No idea why this is missing from the download version.

Miles Davis - Rubberband Stitched together from Miles' pop sessions in 1985 that Warners binned in favour of him working with Marcus Miller on Tutu. There is a rather self serving documentary by the "producers", which just screams "fast buck" at me. There are a couple of moments. Mike Stern's solo on This Is It, but by and large I'm glad he was steered away from this. The vocal songs would have been better with Chaka Khan and Al Jarreau rather than the second string people here. If you think you have heard Give It Up before you have, it was used to complete a track on Doo Bop. Politely this could be called inessential. Watch the documentary here.

Sons Of Apollo - Live With The Plovdiv Psychotic Symphony The man in Action Records scoffed at the title, perhaps he should look at some of the rest of his stock.. Anyway a super group that actually lives up to the title. Good heavy/progressive rock with an interesting choice of covers. The showing off solo spots are as duff as everyone else's though.

Bat For Lashes - Lost Girls Heard in Action Records Preston on Saturday and bought shortly afterwards. Very eighties, a trick tried before by others, notably Ladyhawke. This has better songs though and in a world where music still mattered would be a huge hit.

Gene Clark - No Other: Not out until November, so ask Santa for the super extra box set or (my choice) the 2cd version. It's a shame that to get all the cd material you have to shell out for vinyl that I for one don't care about. This is one of the great albums and is where the Byrds could have gone. Psychedelic rock, folk, country and soul. Gene Clark is an interesting character and his biography is well worth a read. With the vogue for rock biopics someone should do a Byrds movie, although to do all the stories justice it would need to be a Netflix series probably.

 One of my favourite record shops, Missing in Glasgow has moved to a bigger shop round the corner from it's previous compact and bijou home. The atmosphere that made the shop something great is not there yet. Some artwork on the walls and a way of stopping the music echoing round the space will help. I doubt some of the more colourful characters who used to find their way in from Argyll Street will appear anymore. But more records to browse!

You will notice that I'm starting to link to places other than Amazon wherever I can. Support your independent retailer/record company.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Taylor Swift and her rights.

Now there's a name you never expected to see here. But the issue of rights has been brought into focus by a name as big as hers having the masters of her first 6 albums sold as part of a deal to acquire her previous label by impresario Scooter Braun (Justin Beiber and a million smaller names). As Swift's albums were reportedly 80% of the revenue of the Big Machine Group labels these were the obvious target of the acquisition. There is more on Swift's personal situation on Pitchfork.

Having just listened to Kenney Jones (Small Faces, Faces, The Who) autobiography on audiobook, the story of his contract issues with Don Arden in the 1960s sounds very similar. Robert Fripp's tales of his battles with E.G. Records and plenty of other artists, all of whom signed contracts they didn't understand early in their careers with stars in their eyes.

In other areas of employment the law protects the employee rigorously, often at the employer's expense. So, why are artistic rights not subject to some sort of protection. If Swift signed her contract in 2005 as reported then she was 16. So presumably her parents were involved in the deal, but from what I can find out are not lawyers or music industry people. Should there not be some sort of oversight when a contract involves someone young, perhaps under 21, making long term deals. Master recordings are of course for ever. I remember Swift's first album showing up on EMusic and thinking it was a perfectly good piece of modern mainstream country, not my thing, but I doubt she has missed my spending. I can sympathise with her as these recordings will now get hawked about for compilation albums and get repackaged as new product. Assuming she still holds the publishing rights (Sony/ATV from a look at one of my daughter's Taylor albums) then she will do alright, but everytime she sings one of the songs on these albums in concert she will be propping up the Scooter Braun empire, which will grate I'm sure.

Only a Northern Song

As an aside The Beatles' early catalogue was published by Northern Songs only to have music publisher Dick James sell the company on Brian Epstein's death. The full story is here, fairly accurately. Suffice to say the catalogue is now on it's sixth owner. Songwriting publishing is more lucrative than selling product so tends to get fought over by bands, rights holders, and business generally more aggressively. The fate of Northern Songs probably explains why the super deluxe editions of Beatles albums started with Sgt Peppers where McCartney, Starr, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison have a stake in the publishing.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

What a pile of old tosh!

I like Asia, and while fully accepting the corporate rock accusation that gets leveled at them, they do know a good tune when they write one. Their studio albums, all through their career, have been well produced and generally sound great. So why can't they make a decent live album?

And it's not just them. I love a live album although I'm aware not everybody does. They can, however, be an excuse for profiteering and what we might politely term sharp practice (aka stealing). The Asia box set Quadra is a case in point. When I saw it for a fair price at Missing Records I bought it on the theory that not all 4 discs could be terrible. Wrong. Lightly burnished audience tapes, the worst of which was probably recorded some miles from the venue, and the best standing next to one of "those" concert goers. You know the one who recognises every song with a sigh or a whoop.
Overall a 3 out of 10 at best.

The money for old rope trick seems to be getting performed ever more regularly when it comes to live albums. The internet is full of places to download rubbish radio shows, bootlegs in fact, but you can pay for the self same shows on Amazon. Steely Dan, who frankly have only themselves to blame for the market in substandard shows, currently have about 20 albums usually of the same couple of broadcast concerts from 1974 and 1993. The most blatant is an audio rip of their PBS concert from 2000 available officially on DVD.

Of course the artists and their representatives see no benefit from these releases by and large. Although they do on occasion promote them as if they do. There are two well known shows by Renaissance that have been bootlegged for years. They were released by a proper record label (Cleopatra) in 2015, but this one at least has had no work to improve it at all as far as I can tell. The first few minutes have badly phasing which is still present on the paid for version. These were pushed by the official band outlets as new quality product.

As a fan I'm interested in hearing anything worthwhile by the artists I follow, hwoever I can honestly say that I have only ever come across a couple of bootlegs, or ROIO (Records Of Illegitimate/Indeterminate Origins) that I think are worth the attention*. They are:

Steely Dan: Mannassas 1996.
Procol Harum: Aalborg 2003
Yes: Union Tour London 1991
Phish: Chula Vista 1997

Probably a couple more but I can't think of them at present. The above all available on Amazon and
for free in some of the murkier corners of the web. Somehow I have avoided the part of the collecting bug that involves owning every note ever played by a given band or artist, preferring to stick to what they think is worth passing onto the public. Asia seem particularly prone to foisting substandard live product on us. Leaving aside a few of their more recent releases which have had the full DVD/CD treatment they are mostly ROIO in all but name.

*For the record I was indoctrinated by Robert Fripp's maxim about recording of live shows being like taking notes of a private conversation early on - so radio shows tend to be as far into this murky world as I get.

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Elbow Bristol Canons Marsh Amphitheatre June 29th 2019

Elbow have been touring festivals around Europe and have been playing mostly fairly short sets of fan favourites. The weather turned out kind for this outdoor show, part of the Bristol Sounds series being held on the waterfront in the city centre, probably to the relief of bands, promoters and audience.

Elbow are one of the best current mainstream live bands, the songs take on new dimensions in performance compared to their sometimes slightly antiseptic studio albums. The three songs from the Little Fictions album are good examples. The title song and ‘Kindling’ particularly have matured nicely over the last couple of years in concert, compared to their (to me) occasionally disappointing original recordings.This was a fan pleasing set with nearly all their best audience participation numbers as well as a new song that appears to be called Empires. Guy Garvey is the supreme frontman of his generation, holding the audience, not all of whom seemed to be regular concertgoers, in the songs and through a tale of a band night out involving bass player Pete Turner and copious amounts of beer. The fact that despite conspicuous success and doubtless its trappings he remains firmly connected to his audience speaks volumes for the man and his band.  

The set list is published here, and built to the three big "joining in" songs, ‘Lippy Kids’ (my personal favourite Elbow song), the inevitable ‘One Day Like This’ and ‘Grounds For Divorce’. And then they were gone, the 11pm curfew meant no encore, but we got what we came for, the songs, which are of such a consistent high quality that they can still step back fifteen years and find songs worthy of an airing.So why did the people to my right have to keep chatting through the quiet bits? My Sad Captains was particuarly affected. Surely they paid the same ticket price we did, so why not LISTEN!

Support was from Another Sky who were not helped by the usual bottom of the bill sound problems. A Google of their appearances at SXSW and on Later suggests this was not their best night. Villagers are never going to be my new favourite band, they just seem to lack bite, and frankly the Flugelhorn moments had me diving for the beer bus. Anyway we were there to see Elbow who delivered as they always do. A new song suggests a new album, and they have recorded shows on the last few tours so hopefully a nice CD/DVD live box set will appear at some point.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

The price for your cheap streaming is...

  On Saturday Anil Prasad of Innerviews, a long standing online music magazine that is always worth reading, posted a series of tweets about streaming. I have banged on about this before here but you can't overstate the problem that moving to streaming is causing for the production of new music. These are the basic figures given by Innerviews, that are easily verifiable elsewhere online.

1 Stream on YouTube = $0.00069 1 Stream on Spotify = $0.00437 1 Stream on Apple Music = $0.00735 1 Stream on Tidal = $0.01250 1 Stream on Amazon Music = $0.00402

And it is all in dollars so for those with currency transactions to worry about the net income is even lower. 

As Prasad points out this explains why the gaps between albums and tours get ever longer. They can't afford it. Elvis may very well be working down the chip shop in fact. An established artist of my acquaintance with 5 gold and platinum discs on his wall spends most of his time working in his wife's craft supplies business as he can make better money packing candles than he can playing music.

Music is more available than at any time due to the internet and mobile phones, but the drive to having a streaming app on every phone and unlimited usage for £10 a month or less will affect the ability to produce new music. You may shrug your shoulders and say so what I only listen to the old stuff, and far too many people do. But to have a sustainable model for creative growth, we need new music coming along, if nothing else to draw new listeners into the back catalogue. People will always want to make music, and the opportunity to do so is greater than ever thanks to the same technology that is restricting the ability to make a career out of it. 

Music as a business is imperiled more than at any other time. Recorded music came along and took over from sheet music as the primary source of income, sheet music replaced performance and patronage and we have now come to the point where the sale of recorded music needs to be replaced as the primary income generator. For a while it looked like patronage was back thanks to crowd funding, but the recent Pledge music debacle (if you don't know about that google Pledge Music Danny Vaughn) has made the customers wary of committing to that. Live music? venues are shutting all over the country, The Borderline in London is only the most high profile, and with ticket prices moving slowly out of reach of regular attendance who knows what will happen to that.

The much reported "end of iTunes" , which is in fact anything but, will drive more people to streaming services which helps the dominant companies of the internet age but at the expense of pretty much everyone else. So if you want to support an artist buy their physical product (CD, LP) or at least their download, but don't think that by streaming their music you are helping.