Music Opinion Blog

Opinions and occasional rants about the state of the music scene. The views expressed are entirely my own, and do not represent those of any artists or publications with whom I may be connected.

Ritchie Blackmore – 10 of the best

The Guardian have just published my piece on Ritchie Blackmore for their “10 of the best” series.

Like some of my previous entries in this series, reducing the essence of a major artist’s career down to just ten songs is never easy. As on my earlier Black Sabbath piece I wanted to avoid a list containing ten obvious standards and nothing else, so I missed out very well-known songs such as “Smoke on the Water” to make room for a couple of lesser known and often overlooked gems.

There were a few songs that picked themselves. “Eyes of the World” was one of those songs that changed my life, so it had to be there. Likewise, the towering “Stargazer” could not be omitted. I did consider including representatives from his 1960s session work, and from the more recent Blackmores Night so as to cover his entire career. But in the end I decided to focus entirely on his prime years from 1970 to 1984.

Quite a few of the alternative suggestions in the comments did actually appear in earlier drafts of my list, including “Child in Time” which I eventually left out in place of “Speed King”, and the live version of “Catch the Rainbow” which one commenter described as the nearest thing rock guitar ever came to Coltraine.

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Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be

A comment left against this Guardian review suggested that late 1960s was an unrepeatable golden age of music. Some conversations I’ve had with people a few years older or younger than me in the bar before gigs makes me question such thoughts. I came of age at the end of the 1970s, missing the likes of Gabriel-era Genesis, or Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple in their prime. People old enough to see those acts the first time around talk of the bands they themselves missed, like Jimi Hendrix or Cream. And people just a little younger than me regret not having been around for Pink Floyd performing The Wall, the heyday of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, Thin Lizzy with Phil Lynott, Rory Gallagher, or Iron Maiden fronted by Paul Di’Anno.

Just like it’s often said that the golden age of science-fiction is 12, the golden age of popular music is the era for which you were born five years too late.

We mythologise the past too much. It’s true that some genres rose and fell, peaking at particular times, and if you’re a big fan of that genre it’s going to colour things. And it’s probably true the early 70s were a good time for coherent albums, while the singles charts were far more interesting in the early 80s than they had been a few years earlier. But the “year when rock died” always seems to whatever time the writer married, had kids and got boring. It’s easy to paint any era of popular music as a golden age by cherry-picking the best stuff, ignoring the fact that much of it was way off the mainstream radar at the time, while ignoring all the popular but ephemeral dross which was so forgettable nobody can actually remember any of it.

There is so much great music around today that’s just a mouse click away, in every genre you can possibly imagine, that you can make a strong argument that we’re living in golden age today. So what if a lot of the mainstream is formulaic sausage-factory stuff that won’t pass the test of time? It was just the same in 1967, 1973, 1977 or 1985.

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The Legality of Ripping CDs

So the High Court has jusr overturned the previous government decision that it was legal to copy your own CDs for personal use, such as ripping them onto your iPod or phone. Musician Ben Bell, for one, is not impressed

As a consumer I feel this is far from fair, but as a musician I am absolutely livid.

If, as a consumer, I have bought music I feel I have paid my dues and should be allowed to listen to it how I please. It is clear what my expectation is: I am buying the music in order to listen to it. I am not buying it in order to listen to it on a specific device, I am paying for the right to listen to your music. Any claim that I should be required to pay again if I wish to listen to the same music digitally, or to have the convenience of not carrying it back and forth between my house and car, is purely a cynical attempt to over-complicate things with the sole purpose of wringing extra money out of what is in reality a very simple transaction.

But presumably as a musician, I see the other side of this? Well actually no, not at all. It’s as a musician that this particularly angers me.

This is petty, wrong-headed and self-defeating stuff by the music industry and the Musicians’ Union should be ashamed of themselves for being part of it.

He’s right, of course. The idea that people copying music from legally-purchased CDs on to other devices represents lost sales of paid downloads is coming from the same place as the claims we used to hear that illegal downloading represented lost revenue greater than the entire GDP of the nation. Which is clearly utter nonsense.

The whole thing is a cynical exercise in corporate rent-seeking, seeking levies on hard disks and music players to recover this “lost” 58 million pounds that doesn’t actually exist outside the imaginations of record company bean-counters.

It’s difficult to believe that anyone in their right mind would attempt to enforce this. Not even Lars Ulrich would be stupid enough to piss off their own paying customrs in that way. Any musician with the remotest of clues ought to understand that their ability to earn revenue from music is totally dependent on the continued goodwill of their audience.

Of course, given the way people listen to music nowadays, if everyone was really prevented from copying the contents of CDs to other formats, what would actually happen would be the complete collapse of the CD market as anyone still paying for music would just buy downloads.

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A Model For Streaming?

Fair StreamingAnil Prasad of Innerviews has written a follow-up to his earlier “Self-Destruct Button” piece and concludes that A Fair Music Streaming Model is Possible.

He makes the point that the 10-quid-a-month streaming model is only viable for those who can take advantage of scale. It can work for the Taylor Swifts, Kanye Wests and Muses of the world because of their vast audiences. It can work for the major record labels because of the vast back catalogues of music they’re sitting on, music that has long since earned back its production and promotion costs, much of it from pre-internet years. In both cases, all those tiny fractions of pence per stream add up.

But for new music in niche genres it doesn’t work and cannot replace paid downloads or physical product as a source of revenue. But there is another way, and involves artists and labels outside the major label system opting out of Big Music’s streaming and setting up their own alternative.

Mendelson has come up with the following model for a fair streaming service, involving 90% of all revenue going to either the artist or indie label:

The first listen to all tracks is always free of charge. The second listen, and any listen thereafter, is paid for in one of the following ways, with the listener choosing to:

Rent the track for one play for 10 cents, much like putting a dime in a jukebox.

Buy the track for $1, which then makes it possible to both download it, as well as stream it forever at no additional cost.

Stream the entire service’s catalog for a subscription fee, but at a much higher price point than Big Music — potentially $40–60 a month. Remember, the goal is to ensure the artists and labels get adequately paid. The $10 per-month charged by Apple Music and Spotify will never, ever lead to meaningful compensation for musicians.

I’m sceptical that there are that many hardcore music fans willing to pay fifty quid a month for streaming alone, especially if things become balkanised with multiple competing services each offtering overlapping but incomplete catalogues. But I’m willing to be proved wrong on this. There also might be space for intermediate teirs; how much per month might people be willing to pay to be able to stream the entire catalogue of a specific label, for example?

As for the number of free streams, the price per stream thereafter or the price per download, perhaps that’s something for the artists or labels to decide rather than a one-size-fits-all model defined by the streaming service? Different genres of music appeal to different age groups with different amounts of spare case and different levels of artist loyalty.

Another issue concerns independent artists who were once signed to major labels. There are bands like Marillion who once saw major success (“And now you’re touring stadium, you let it go too far“), then reinvented themselves once they’d fallen off the mainstream radar and been dropped by the major label. Others released one or two major label albums that flopped my major label standards, but still gathered a big enough fanbase to sustain themselves as independent artists.  Fans of those acts would expect to find their entire works in one place rather than have to go back to Spotiplay for their early albums. But would the majors want to play ball, or would they consider a streaming service geared towards the needs of independent artists a threat to their own business models?

But in the end, something along the lines of Anil Prasad’s proposal needs to happen if we want to continue having a vibrant and diverse music scene.

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When Only 30 People Turn Up

Got to love this story.

I’m not in the habit of seeing has-beens whose fifteen minutes of fame are long past, but I’ve been to a fair few gigs that have been as poorly attended. I’ll spare the names of the bands to save them embarrassment.

What I do know from speaking to bands is, apart from them not wanting it widely known that a particular gig only attracted a handful of people, is that they hate it when everyone hangs at the back rather than coming forward.

If there’s any kind of stage lighting, the band can’t see much beyond the first couple of rows, so if there’s nobody within ten feet of the stage it looks to them as if they’re playing to an empty room. In contrast, if all thirty people present come down the front, it looks as if it’s a full house for the same reason.

It also helps if those thirty make enough noise that it seems like two hundred. I have been to gigs like that too….

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The Economics of Streaming

Matt Stevens with The Fierce and the Dead

This very perceptive piece on the economics of music streaming by Anil Prasad, The Finger’s on the Self-Destruct Button includes this very illuminating quote from Matt Stevens.

“Streaming makes it very difficult for cult bands who sell 1,000 copies of each release,” the noted British guitarist and composer Matt Stevens told me. “If 1,000 people stream an album 10 times, we probably make a few pennies versus 1,000 download sales which create a model that will pay for modest recording expenses. At present, with downloads, it’s roughly sustainable, but not profitable. If we move to streaming and that income disappears completely, we’re in serious trouble.”

That’s a potentially very bleak prospect for much of the music that features heavily on this blog. Anil Prasad also believes the current streaming model of Spotify et al is unsustainable and will eventually collapse. What will that collapse leave in it’s wake?

It’s easy to be pessimistic, though it’s also important to remember the the old pre-internet music industry wasn’t perfect either; the vast majority of bands never got signed and never got to make a record, and most of those that did had to sign away the rights to their own music in order to be able to record and release it.

In many ways it’s a shame that hybrid streaming and download sites like mFlow failed, and that last.fm was forced to shut down their streaming radio stations. Both sites had great value for music discovery, and both drove actual music purchases. But both ended as internet roadkill under the wheels of Spotify.

Streaming in its present for isn’t going to provide a worthwhile income stream for anything other than the most mass-market and commercial end of the market that can benefit from scale. It’s easy to imagine a world divided into a small nunber of heavily hyped stars and everyone else relying on crowdfunding for much of their revenue.

Quite what the music landscape of a decade’s time might look like is anyone’s guess. All that can be said is that we live in interesting times.

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Farewell, NME

plugholeWith news that the NME’s circulation has sunk to a pitiful 15,000, and it’s going to turn into a freesheet, a lot of people are giving eulogies for how it was a vital part of their teenage years, featuring such great writing from the likes of Tony Parsons, Julie Birchill and Paul Morley.

I am not one of those people; back in the NME’s 1980s heyday I was a loyal reader of Sounds, which was always far more catholic in its music coverage, and didn’t sneer at rock and metal. If your music world revolved around punk and indie, the NME at the time was your bible. But if you didn’t, the NME really wasn’t for you; it was the paper than hated what you loved.

As Classic Rock’s editor Scott Rowley famously said, had one of the other “inkies” survived instead of the NME, we might have a better mainstream music scene today. But in the end it wasn’t really the the NME’s fault; much like the excessive sanctification of John Peel, it was the laziness of the rest of the media that allowed the NME to punch well above its weight as a gatekeeper, and whatever the NME didn’t like (which was a lot of things) tended to get marginalised. It was pointed out on Twitter than in the years 2005 to 2015 the NME faves the Gallagher brothers appeared on more front pages than all female artists put together. And Pete Doherty wasn’t far behind.

With a combination of the internet and a whole load of more specialist publications on the market meaning there’s no longer one powerful gatekeeper, the British music scene will probably benefit from the NME’s continued slide into irrelevance.

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Muse: Why The Hate

The comments in The Guardian’s Muse: 10 of the best have predictably filled up with drive-by trolls dismissing them as “shite”.

What is it about Muse that attracts the haters? Is it just that the self-appointed elitists hate anything that’s successful and popular? Or is there more to it than that?

There are of course many, many bands who are far better than Muse when it comes to pressing all the right buttons for specific niche audiences. But when it comes to bands who have reached the level when they can play stadiums and headline major festivals, there is a strong argument that Muse are the best band of their generation.

My theory is that the division of Britain’s music scene into separate indie/alternative and rock/metal tribes that seldom mix is a major factor. Muse are one major-league act who stand defiantly with one foot in both camps. They’re a band at ease with headining both Glastonbury and Download. They combine Jeff Buckley-style vocals with flamboyant guitar solos. And that offends the tribal purists in both camps.

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RIP Chris Squire

The progressive rock genre is in shock with the news of the death of bassist Chris Squire, founder and only constant member of Yes. Tributes have been pouring in from across the progressive rock world and beyond. At The Robin 2 last night Magenta opened their set with a cover of “Cinema”, the instrumental from “90125″ as a tribute, which was a lovely touch.

Chris Squire was one of a handful of true giants in rock. The Rickenbacker that was his instrument of choice always has a distinctive and instantly recognisable sound, but Chris Squire’s playing was unique. He expanded the boundaries of what a rock bassist could be, making the bass guitar into a lead instrument while still driving the rhythm. Many of Yes’ best songs had his propulsive riffs at their heart. Listen to “Roundabout”, “Parallels” or that incredible opening of “Heart of the Sunrise”. He’s known as a virtuoso bassist, but he was also a good singer, evidenced by some of his harmonies with Jon Anderson.

My introduction to Yes was a secondhand copy of “Fragile” acquired during my first year as a student, probably discarded by someone who’d rejected progressive rock in favour of punk and new wave. It was their loss. For a while it took me a while to get my head round what they were doing; the complex music that was forever taking off in different directions was a world away from anything I’d heard before in the rock world. But I persevered and eventually it all made sense, and it still sounds vital 35 years later.

I only ever got to see them live the once, back in 2004 on what turned out to be the last tour of the classic Yes lineup with both Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman; even decades after their musical peak it was still an incredible and spectacular show. More recently, the music editor of The Guardian asked me to write a piece about Yes; my first ever paid piece of music writing.

Yes are still dismissed in some quarters as “that band who made Tales from Topographic Oceans, which was awful and punk had to come and save us”. Which is a shame. When a band like Muse are currently one of the biggest bands in Britain, anyone who loves Muse really ought to be able to find something to love about Yes. That Guardian article of mine highlighting ten of their best songs is a good place to start.

So farewell, Chris Squire, and thank you for all the life-changing music you made.

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One Can Only Hope

I find it impossible to read this poster for the Bospop festival in The Netherlands and not think “If only Jools Holland was to invite a few of the bands he’s sharing a bill with on Sunday to appear on Later“.

One can only hope.

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