Tuesday, January 15, 2013 

This is the end.

This is the end.  So begins Adele's Skyfall dirge, which on Sunday won the Golden Globe for best song.  Not too much should be read into that, as last year Madonna's "Masterpiece" won, a song so forgettable that it will only ever be recalled for the fact it soundtracked W.E., one of the worst films the inestimable Mark Kermode has ever seen.  Skyfall's opening line and victory is none the less all too apposite, coming just a day before HMV announced that it was calling in the administrators, and with it all but bringing to a close the record shop on the high street.  Amongst all the reasons for HMV's eventual failure, the triumph and reverential praise given to mediocre artists, whose albums were piled high and sold cheap by the supermarkets forcing the record stores to try to compete only to fail is the most infuriating.  As the film critic Pauline Kael bitterly observed, she didn't realise when she championed trash culture it would end up becoming the only culture.  The exact same thing has happened with music.

Obviously, that's something of an exaggeration.  There's still great music out there; you just have to work ever harder to find it.  HMV's demise will make this even more difficult.  I hold no affection whatsoever for the brand, I should make clear; if there was an independent record shop where I live then I would have gone there instead.  There isn't though, and for millions of other people around the country this is also the case.  I also realise that certain branches of HMV were/are better than others: my local one still has three quarters of its top floor dedicated to music, and so almost always had the new releases and obscurities in stock on day of release.  If they didn't, they were invariably in the next time I went in.  HMV did build up a deserved reputation for charging over the odds, but in recent years they've become far more competitive, and in any case, I'll always pay more for a CD than I will for a digital download.

The clear fact is that I'm increasingly in the minority.  All the same, it simply isn't true that there's no longer any place in town centres for record shops or DVD outlets: it might well become true in a few years' time, but for now physical albums still outsell digital ones.  HMV still has a significant market share, which suggests a buyer will be found, and I really hope one is.  After all, if Game can continue to trade when video gaming is going all digital at a remarkable rate, surely HMV can keep the doors open for a while yet.

This said, the warning signs have been there for an awfully long time, as others have pointed out, and the management was incredibly slow to react to changes.  The ones they have made were foolhardy in the extreme: it's one thing trying to specialise in headphones, something that no one else does, but don't then give over floor space to tablets and all the other electronic gumpf that's sold by everyone and their dog.  You also only need one or possibly two pairs of decent headphones, and if you take good care of them they should last you at least 5 years.  Customers spending over £100 (if that) with you every 5 years doesn't make for a grand business model.

It's not simply a case of HMV being responsible for their own downfall though.  Take a look at the other major retailing story of last week, that Play.com will be essentially shutting down and only continue to operate as a portal for other sellers.  The Channel Islands VAT tax dodge that gave Play.com and other online retailers such an unfair advantage over bricks and mortar stores was closed far too late (yes, HMV.com was based in Jersey too, but it was never enough to make a difference).  Then there's Amazon, and its only recently publicised corporation tax avoidance scheme, something else HMV couldn't compete on.  Add in the often exorbitant rents demanded by landlords, especially in the main shopping centres, and all the other costs, and it's turned into a struggle where the opposition hold all the trump cards.

Then there's the impact of piracy.  Some will doubtless vehemently disagree with me on this, and I've been just as guilty of it in the past as everyone else, but it really is now the case that 16-year-olds expect to get almost everything they consume online for free.  Sure, they might spend 79p on the odd song from iTunes or wherever, but pay £8 or £10 for a CD?  They wouldn't dream of it.  Having everything instantly available via a search on Google won't kill the music industry as a whole, or any other industry for the matter.  What it will eventually do is kill some of the things you love, whether it be the Guardian or Independent, the indie band that made a great debut album that simply didn't sell and so won't get a chance to record another on the same scale, the DJ/producer who gives up on pressing vinyl or even releasing tracks as he can't make money out of it, or any number of other things.  The same thing that's happening on the high street will happen on the internet, the big names squeezing out everyone else, the odd one occasionally being replaced by something new that improves on an old format.  Those of us who did illegally download music and had our tastes expanded as a result, leading to us buying albums we never would have discovered previously are now sadly in the extreme minority.

And yes, I hate the big 4 as much as everyone else, and I can't stand successful artists pretending to care about upcoming bands having the same opportunities as they did when in reality all they want is their own royalties to keep rolling in, yet the fact is this can't carry on for much longer.  This cartoon from The Oatmeal went around as though it was the gospel truth of what needs to happen next, when it's anything but: musicians cannot get by on a few people personally paying them $5 or the equivalent for an album without drastically increasing the price of tickets to concerts or club nights, just as the $10 monthly Spotify fee isn't going to amount to anything other than fractions of a penny to individual artists.  

Streaming is something I personally don't understand (unless it's actual radio): it's fine when you're out somewhere and where quality doesn't matter so much, it's true.  Back home I want to be able to listen to music in the quality I want, preferably in a lossless format I've ripped from a CD or vinyl I can do whatever the hell I like with as I actually own it.  Failing that, a lossless download is fine.  320 mp3 for the odd track not available anywhere else is pushing it.  For a whole album, regardless of the price, forget it.  And if I want to try something first, it'll almost certainly be up on YouTube, or the artist's soundcloud or wherever else.  It feels really strange to have almost overnight become weird (or weirder) for wanting to have a physical product, rather than something that is never really yours, or which can be lost if it isn't in the "cloud" when things go wrong.

Without the likes of HMV, fewer albums will almost certainly be pressed to CD in the first place, except for the ultra limited editions we'll have to get ever more accustomed to.  Moreover, it will damage high streets as a whole: if my local branch closes, I'll have no reason to go anywhere near the town centre unless there's something at the cinema I really want to see, a far rarer occurrence than my regular trips to HMV to pick up the new releases and anything else that tickles my fancy, which will in turn harm the market traders as well as the other shops I might have popped in to.  On this at least I'm far from alone, and a major impact is bound to be felt.

Ultimately, it does come back to the music industry and all its hangers-on.  Another of the reasons HMV didn't have a good Christmas is that last year was one of the worst for mainstream music in recent memory.  When mediocrities such as Adele and Florence Welch are celebrated and praised as though they were the saviours of music itself, when every other song sounds almost exactly the same, when the perfunctory results in the biggest reward (Emeli Sande's album was the biggest selling of last year), you can't be surprised when consumers start turning their noses up.  Let the sky fall?  Hasn't it already?

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Thursday, May 17, 2012 

Even the Mona Lisa is falling apart.

Well did you hear, there’s a natural order.
Those most deserving will end up with the most.
That the cream cannot help but always rise up to the top,
Well I say: Shit floats.

Today, Donna Summer died. Meanwhile, in London, the Ivor Novellos were taking place. The writers, that's the writers, not the public or record company executives, gave awards to Ed Sheeran, Adele and Take That. Oh, and PJ Harvey for her album, but they pretty much had to do that if they weren't to lose all credibility. Two years ago Lily Allen won three, including one for the lyrics to The Fear.

There's always been terrible music. That even the writers are now giving awards to mediocrities, when 35 years ago Summer, Moroder and Belotte were ripping it up and starting again (alongside their punk contemporaries it should be noted) really ought to bring home that, for the second time this week, this has to stop. Please.

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Friday, September 23, 2011 

What did you say your name was again?

Another old link for a Friday, but who cares? Here's Aidan Moffatt, formerly of Arab Strap, tearing into Adele's ubiquitous Someone Like You.

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Wednesday, August 31, 2011 

The state of music in 2011 and the Mercury.

Music it seems goes in cycles. Back in the late 90s, with Britpop (a term which now conjures up only sniggers) dying out and indie in general flat-lining, it was claimed that decks were selling in higher numbers than guitars. How accurate that story was is difficult to ascertain now, but for a time it did seem as though dance music had taken over: clubs like Gatecrasher and Cream had become brands in their own right, a purpose built superclub called Home was about to open, superstar DJs could demand fees raising from the high tens of thousands up to the hundreds for New Year's Eve appearances, and trance and UK garage were dominating the charts and the airwaves.

Predictably, the bubble collapsed. Gatecrasher just about reinvented itself, while Cream now only holds occasional events and the yearly branded festival; Home was shut down almost as soon as it opened; trance became stale and cheesy very quickly indeed, while UK garage, which became associated in the mainstream media both rightly and wrongly with the excesses of certain members of the So Solid Crew and others, collapsed under its own contradictions and diversified. From the ashes of garage grime and dubstep have emerged, the latter of which is now experiencing its own, most likely fleeting commercial success and (fairly) mass popularity, while grime, once prompting articles asking why it was that certain MCs were failing to receive cross-over success has spawned a whole host of stars, even if the music they're making now has very little in common with that played by the genre's specialists either on Kiss or Rinse FM.

The puncturing of indie is reflected in this year's nominations for the Mercury music prize. It was already apparent late last year that a crash was in evidence, with labels being unprepared to sign up bands or artists whose chances of success were anything other than relatively certain, yet in last year's list you could point to a definite four with such pretensions, possibly even six if you were being slightly looser in your definition. This year there's Elbow, PJ Harvey and Everything Everything alongside King Creosote and Jon Hopkins if you're being charitable. Looking through the albums I've bought over the past year, it seems the only debut record I've bought from a UK indie band is Hunger by Frankie and the Heartstrings, which is decent rather than outstanding. It could be as much a sign of my changing taste as it is a dearth of decent up and comers, as well as the sad decline of the album as a format, and it's worth noting that Arctic Monkeys' fourth album went straight to number one, something certainly not assured, yet the lull is still worrying.

Like with last year then, this year's Mercury line-up is fairly weak. Then there were three nominees who would have been worthy winners; this year there are two, although to be fair the others on the list are of a higher overall quality than last year's bunch. PJ Harvey's album is deserving of all the plaudits its received; it's one of those rare works that genuinely sounds like nothing else out at the same time, a little like These New Puritans' Hidden from last year which was mystifyingly overlooked. Having predicted last year that the XX wouldn't win as they were the favourites and the obvious choice, I'm not going to make the same mistake this year and so am going to assume Harvey already has it sown up. James Blake's self-titled debut would though also be a fine choice, and describing it as coffee-table dubstep as the Guardian derisively does is both patronising and deeply unfair, not least because the vast majority of the album is as far removed from most of the genre and Blake's earlier work as it's possible to imagine. The manipulation of his voice is there, as is the often cavernous sub-bass, yet it's the subtlety and minimalism of the beats combined with the space he leaves between the vocals and the music which marks this out as something truly special: at times it resembles post-rock just as much as it does "post-dubstep".

The rest of the field is a decidedly mixed bag. Elbow seem to have made the list again purely on the basis that everyone now loves them, as Build a Rocket Boys! is merely a decent album rather than in the top 10 of the year. Tinie Tempah seems to have been similarly included on the basis that there has to be one out and out pop record on the list, or at least one hopes, while Gwilym Simcock also takes his place as the token jazz entry, something which must be a curse as much as a blessing. Anna Calvi I pledge to investigate further, as all the critics seem to agree on how good she is, while King Creosote and Jon Hopkins definitely deserve recognition if nothing else for their past work. Ghostpoet hopefully won't be the next Speeche Debelle, despite his album being far better than hers was: he only seems likely to improve. Also an odd choice is Metronomy, whose first two albums were far superior to their nominated The English Riveria; more accessible is not synonymous with better.

Which leaves us with Everything Everything, Adele and Katy B. Adele's seeming stranglehold over the radio, the charts and everything else is easy to explain: her music is dull as dishwater, and in a country which prizes the bland as being just as good as brilliance it fills a hole. Someone Like You is a classic of the form: just a piano and her voice, similar in execution to Ellie Goulding's ubiquitous cover of Your Song last Christmas, just with her earnestness in place of Taupin's subtlety. If 21 wins then there really doesn't seem to be any point whatsoever to the Mercury. Everything Everything are not quite that bad, but seem to have missed the boat somewhat on the spiky indie front, nor are they a patch on their far superior competitors, whether they be the Futureheads or Young Knives. Having tore into Katy B somewhat in the most disappointing music of last year, it's heartening to report that her debut album is a vast improvement over the vocals she supplied for the two Magnetic Man tracks, mainly down to how most of the production for On a Mission was supplied by Rinse's Geeneus, with Zinc helping out. Her voice still isn't the strongest, although that's arguably an asset when everyone else is currently belting it out, and her lyrics could use more than a little work (Easy Please Me is at times cringe-inducing) but she's by far the most credible crossover pop success from dubstep/current bass music, down to how Geeneus and Zinc's production looks back to the 90s as much as it does to now.

Doubtless in a couple of years' time when the likes of Skrillex and Nero have thankfully disappeared and we're back to suffering from an overload of indie bands who all sound the same and all have the same attitude we'll be reporting on the demise of the DJ yet again. For now though we're stuck with it; the least the judges on the Mercury could do is recognise James Blake's album as a summation of the year's best music.

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