The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011

Sound Waves

06

So I thought, what a minute, why don't I just stick my albums of the year up on the blog when I do them? So that is what I am going to do. Once I get a minute to myself in the next couple of weeks.Oh, an another thing they will be in order of merit. The basic criteria will be that they were released in the last year and I have played them in the car on surf trips, other than that, eh, they are music.


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01

Phoebe, the fictional chantuese from hit sitcom 'Friends', famously performed her unique brand of music in the plush environment of the Manhattan coffee house 'Central Perk'. Now it appears that she may have been ahead of the curve as Starbucks announce that through their new record label, Hear Music, they will be releasing the debut album of 21 year old singer-songwriter Hilary McRae. According to Variety.com, "Hilary has a great soulful sound and we are excited to play a significant role in the launch of what will be a long and successful career," Ken Lombard, president of Starbucks Entertainment, said Tuesday in a statement. "Hear Music has a strong belief in fostering the talent of quality musicians and we believe we've found a gem in this artist."

How long before Irish based coffee retailers such as Insomnia and West Coast Coffee follow suit ? It's a pity that Bewleys didn't last to see this development. It would have been great to see a version of David Bowie's 'The Bewley Brothers' released under the Bewleys name.

 


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17

Variety reported on 16/10/2007 that Apple in the United States was cutting the price of songs it sold via i-tunes that did not have copy protection software (DRM) from $1.29 to $0.99 per song. Although Apple said this was not in response to Amazon's entry into the market in September 2007 with an offering where songs without DRM sell for $0.89 to $0.99 it does appear to the casual observer that the consumer is regaining some of their traditional fair use rights in relation to copyright material as a result of Amazon's entry and this is more significant than the just announced price drop which puts songs without DRM at the same price as those with DRM.


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09

If there is one story that Cluas.com has been on top of it's the news that Radiohead intend to launch their new album direct to the internet. So it was with great interest that Sound Waves read an article by Gordon Masson in Variety that EMI's new boss Guy Hands has circulated a memo to staff stating that the Radiohead launch was a 'wake-up call' and that, "Rather than embracing digitalization and the opportunities it brings for promotion of product and distribution through multiple channels, the industry has stuck its head in the sand."

One thing is for sure, in the wake of the 360 contract, labels are going to watch this launch very carefully to see if it can make an artist more money going independent than the old faithful method of signing away your life, and in the case of 360 contracts, pretty much everything else to a record label who may then dump you if you don't deliver from dollar one. If Radiohead fail then chances are future contracts will be even more weighted in the labels' favour, if they succeed, well, who needs a contract to start with?

 


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07

A number of years ago I met a prominent member of a then up and coming Irish band at a social engagement and had an interesting, if brief discussion with him about the then state of the industry he found himself in. Or, to put it more bluntly, as I drank my beer at a media launch I listened to this guy moan about how his manager, his booking agent, his record company, his PR agent, the radio stations, the other members of the band and a whole host of industry figures were trying to boss him around, tell him what to do and how to do it. Before he paused to take a swig of his beer, which is a man’s way of signalling for someone else to start talking, he asked me what I thought, and without giving it much consideration I said, “Hmm, I see where you are coming from but it seems to me that your ultimate boss is a teenage girl with twenty quid in the pocket of her jeans”. At this, said rocker turned pale, nodded to himself a bit and then went in search of another beer. When said rocker and his band were subsequently dropped from their label and broke up after taking their music into an ill-advised trip into the foothills of intellectualism, following a healthy period of plugging their songs on the kind of shows that were popular with that generation of teenage girls I formulated this off the cuff opinion of mine into the “Twenty Quid Chick Rule” and gave as its most perfect, successful operational example the single ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’ by the Police.

It's amazing how many bands lionise The Beatles and talk about wanting to make an album to rival ‘Sgt. Peppers’ and how few of them pick up on what you mean when you say, “Ah yes, but first you have to learn how to get hordes of screaming girls to faint at your concerts”. It’s also a funny little coincidence that the music industry is usually in rude health when there are a fair few bands out there making the girls in the audience pass out and hit the deck mid song. And yet, when there is a slump, industry heads seem to ignore all that screaming oestrogen and blame their woes on a variety of issues but most commonly on technology like home taping or as it is now known, MP3 file sharing. In an article on the future of the music industry by Stephen J Dubner which was published on his NYT blog, the following (extracts of the) expert views were given, mostly focusing on those pesky little MP3 files which flit around the internet like bats in Castle Dracula:

 “There is surprisingly little evidence to support the claim that file sharing has significantly hurt record sales”. Koleman Strumpf, professor of business economics at the University of Kansas Business School.

“My epiphany, if you want to call it that, was simply this: consumers of recorded music will always embrace the format that provides the greatest convenience.” Frederic Dannen, author of ‘Hitmen’.

“The decline in record sales over the past year was entirely predictable. The technology that has wreaked havoc on the industry was developed 8 or 9 years ago, and, while certain features of it have improved, the individual elements that comprise it — an institutionalized standard for non-protected music files like MP3s, music search and swapping protocols, and rip/burn hardware — are not new”. Steve Gottlieb, president of TVT Records

“The short answer is that the Internet happened” Peter Rojas, founder of Engadget and co-founder of RCRD LBL, a free, online-only music label launched by Downtown Records.

Of these experts only one attempted to suggest that it was the consumer, not technology who had caused the prima faciae change in the fortunes of the music industry and he wasn’t an economist or a music label boss, he was a music maker.

Without stating the obvious, the future is really in the hands of the consumer…while we’re still in agreement as a society that people want music, I’d say music is not as important now as it once was. Instant gratification has removed some of the demand. Music feels like it has become more disposable and cheap, with less staying power. As a result, it becomes a lot harder to commit to newer acts knowing they may not be around a year from now.” George Drakoulias, music producer

The consumer, that much put upon figure in the music business mix, the person who is expected to buy albums with one decent track on them, overpriced identikit merchandise and tickets to concerts where they are treated little better than barnyard animals by the promoter has awoken it seems and said, “Nope, I am not going to fund some coked up pop stars alimony payments anymore without so much as a word of thanks, respect or recognition. If they want me to buy their next release or go watch them on tour they are going to have to work as hard at making the music they are playing as I do to earn the money to pay for that music. Oh, and by the way, suing me for downloading a couple of tracks, that’s not on either.”

Eoghan O’Neill’s learned article on what is likely to happen when Radiohead launch their new download-only album on October 10th spent a great deal of space examining and explaining the technological aspects of the imminent launch but, at its heart, it made the point that everything had better go without a blip on the day of release otherwise there will be a lot of disgruntled consumers out there and this would not be good for Radiohead.

As far as I am concerned, the single most important thing that happened this year in music was MCD being taken to task by the National Consumer Agency over the farce that was the Barbara Streisand Concert, just a year after MCD were on the legal warpath against bloggers who had dared to suggest on internet discussion boards that Oxegen 2006 had not exactly been a glowing success from the consumer’s point of view. It was a clear sign that the teenage girl with twenty quid in her pocket had matured, she may now be married with kids and probably has a lot more in her purse than she used to, but her primacy in the business of music is, if anything, more high profile than ever these days and music industry types ignore her at their peril.


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04

Phantom FMFor the last few months, I have eschewed my eclectic dial twiddling to concentrate on listening to the output of Phantom FM on the basis that, I am in the market for new music, by which I mean music that sounds new and has not just been released lately. On my MP3 player at present sits, to give a few examples, music by Emma Kirkby, Regina Spektor, Alison Krauss, John Tavener, Miles Davis, AC/DC, Modest Mouse, Clive Barnes, Nursat Fateh Ali Kahn, Jan Garbarek, Joan Osbourne, John Spillane, Brad Mehldau, Prince, Ray LaMontagne, Solomon Burke, Metallica and Laura Veirs. A pretty wide range of music I would think, much of it recent, and all of it individualistic. My taste has always moved between genres; in the same year that I bought albums by Steve Earle and The Police, I also bought records by Ted Hawkins, Tom Waits and Tommy Makem & The Clancy Brothers. Much of the above is not often heard, if at all, on Irish commercial radio stations.

So, you would think that I would be the ideal target audience for Phantom FM. Well, think again because I have found the choice of music I have listened to on Phantom FM to be monochromatic and, well, rather samey. A bit like eating nothing else but chicken curry for two months. Far from offering choice and new music, the station is offering up a diet of shows where the playlists are interchangeable. Ok, its only been on air a few months I know but its still hard to talk about single show having a unique personality and I certainly could not imagine the station ever offering a home to individualistic broadcasters such as John Kelly, Andy Kershaw or the great BP 'The Beep' Fallon.

However, the format of Phantom is very familiar and after a while I twigged why. Phantom FM is essentially a single genre US style radio station in disguise. Far from offering a wider choice of new music, if thats what you want to call Artic Monkeys, it is actually offering a narrower choice. I always felt that 'indie kids' had a very narrow and not very exciting taste in music. Now, I have the proof. Think I'll stick to roaming the dial for another while. 


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13

Sound Waves has learned that Channel 6 are seeking sponsorship for their new surf lifestyle show 'Cois Fharraige' which is to be presented by blonde lovely, and trained thespian, Jenny Buckley. Billed as appealing to a target audience of 15-34 year olds, the show promises to feature music and musicians of the moment. But why take our word for it when you can read the sponsorship document yourself.

http://www.channel6.ie/index_files/CoisFarraigesponsor.pdf

 

 


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11

Last Sunday, The Culture section of the Times published a perceptive and timely article by Mick Heaney that catalogued the many high profile failures of late suffered by previously successful Irish musicians and asked whether Paddy Casey’s new album can revive the fortunes of the industry. Personally, I don’t think so but not because Paddy Casey is not a talented musician, rather I think that the idea of a long term career in music, if such a thing ever truly existed, is now a thing of the past and that record companies, rather than being a reason for this decline, are instead a victim of it.

Firstly, the idea of a job for life is patent nonsense in the 21st Century. Today, the average job contract is for 6 months, the average worker spends 1 to 2 years at a single firm and the average person changes their career approximately 3 times in their working life. The idea that musicians could or should enjoy longer careers within their chosen industry then their fans is patent nonsense and is not even borne out in musical history. Nirvana’s recording career as an operating entity lasted a mere 3 years, The Beatles recorded together for 6 before going their separate ways. Paradoxically, as the pace of modern life has quickened the release schedules and output of high profile artists has slowed. In the four year periods that both Paddy Casey and Damien Rice each took to write, record and release their respective second albums, The Beatles released the following albums; ‘Please, please me”, ‘With The Beatles’, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, ‘Beatles for Sale’, ‘Help!’, ‘Rubber Soul’ and ‘Revolver’. By the time we get to the equally fertile and creative muse of Prince in 1987, record company executives are telling him that he can’t release both ‘Sign of the Times’ and ‘The Black Album’ in the same year because the company’s publicity department and the market itself can’t handle two high profile releases by the same artist in the same year.

 Secondly, the music industry clings to the basic and obsolete contractual model of the multiple album deal. This is not the case in other branches of media such as book publishing, movies or television where single production contracts are now the norm. Publishers normally sign a writer for a single book with an option on a second if the first is a success. Most times it is not and so the option lapses. In television, all but the most successful programmes are commissioned one series at a time, the green light for each subsequent series being based on the success of the previous one. In Hollywood, only the most stellar producers are contracted for a slate of pictures, and even they sometimes turn down these contracts as being too restrictive or unwieldy.

 Thirdly, and I feel that this attitude is often wrongly ascribed to the A&R departments of record companies, there has been a significant shift by the listening public away from artists who have their own unique sound, to artists who are slavishly imitating the sound of a very successful act from a previous generation whether that be Queen, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, The Jam, or Bruce Springsteen. You don’t have to look any further than the divergent commercial paths of The High Llamas and The Thrills, both of whom have been very influenced by The Beach Boys, to see the development of this trend. Whereas, the Llamas never had any real commercial success with albums such as ‘Hawaii’ and ‘Cold and Bouncy’, The Thrills’ pastiche of the very same Californian surf pop group led to massive commercial success less than a decade later. You might say that The Thrills had a more commercial take on the sound of The Beach Boys, the very essence of classic commercial pop, than The Llamas did but I think it’s more accurate to say that there was a shift towards pastiche music by the public themselves. The problem with this stratagem from the point of view of long term career planning is that the very familiarity of sound which makes a pastiche act so interesting to the audience at the start also makes them very boring to that same audience within a surprisingly short space of time.

Fourthly, the rise of low-cost home recording equipment, by which an artist can literally produce an album in their bedroom as both Damien Rice and David Gray famously did, has essentially removed the need for record companies to put up large amounts of money to allow artists to book into expensive studios to work on their music. That being the case, is it not more prudent to wait for an act to show up with a completed master recording, in much the same way as a book publisher waits for an author to come to them with a completed manuscript, than to bankrupt yourself as Factory Records did, or Creation Records nearly did, by betting company cash on the vagaries of the artists you release ?

Overall, it seems to that the real core problem facing record companies is not the internet, downloads or a fracturing media market, it is that their long term planning is out of step with their short term business environment. Rather than signing acts to multiple record deals where the label’s recoupment of their investment is forecast over a number of releases, they should sign acts to single album deals, preferably where a completed master recording already exists and where profit and loss is forecast within the life cycle of the release of that same recording. If the album is a success and makes money in the short term, then the label exercises an option for another record, if not, see you around Baby. As Mick Heaney pointed out, the first and second album by The Thrills sold 1.5m copies worldwide but their third release dropped out of the charts after selling just 2,000 copies in Ireland. Any money that was to be made from this act has already been paid over, if that has gone on yet more expensive marketing and artist development rather than into the label’s coffers then it's not the artist’s fault.


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10

According to Mike Doyle, from San Diego, a leading light in a Christian surfing organisation, known as Walking on Water: "I think Jesus was a rebel, a radical. That attracts many surfers who tend to be revolutionaries and, sometimes, misfits.". Whatever the reason, the Christian surfing movement is attracting ever larger numbers of converts and Steven Morris of the Guardian has written an enlightening article on the topic.


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02

Everytime Bruce Springsteen heads off with his acoustic guitar, he comes back with an absolute class slice of electric Rock 'n' Roll and on the evidence of the lead single 'Radio Nowhere' from the forthcoming album 'Magic', it looks like it's going to be business as usual. It was never about getting your money's worth with Bruce, it has always been about getting something that money can't buy. Here it comes again.


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Nuggets from our archive

2006 - Review of Neosupervital's debut album, written by Doctor Binokular. The famously compelling review, complete with pie charts that compare the angst of Neosupervital with the angst of the reviewer. As you do.