Saturday, April 19, 2014

Record Store Day: The downside

It's Record Store Day. Hoooooorah!

Or maybe not hooooorah. Maybe it's only half a cheer. Phil Hebblethwaite at The Quietus has done a great investigation which suggests that what was once a great way of helping out the independent music retailer has started to become a bit of an albatross:

Suspicions that Record Store Day 2014 was causing havoc behind the scenes were confirmed when on March 14 distribution company Kudos published a blog detailing their frustrations. "Kudos' physical release schedule will be pretty quiet for the next few weeks," it began. "This isn't a seasonal issue… The cause of this new release drought might surprise you: Record Store Day."
"It feels like it has been appropriated by major labels and larger indies to the extent that smaller labels who push vinyl sales for the other 364 days of the year are effectively penalised."
The problem isn't that One Direction are releasing a 7" single for Record Store Day so much as they're releasing a single on Record Store Day. If the major labels really wanted to help the indie retail sector by releasing something nice and exclusive to them, they could do it any day of the year - imagine if, say, July 23rd saw a One Direction 7" arriving in physical shops. Imagine if that sort of leverage to bring in extra custom wasn't being deployed on a day when there's already a whole bunch of activity trying to bring in extra custom. And without destroying the ecosystem which the day is supposed to be supporting.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Young people "buying so many cassettes they're evolving fingers shaped like pencils to tighten the spools', BBC believe

Hey, you know what? Kids today! They're buying cassettes like they're coming back into fashion.

That's what the BBC say, anyway:

One in 10 young people has bought a music cassette tape in the last month, a new survey done to coincide with Record Store Day suggests.

The research suggests that physical formats are still more popular than digital downloads.

In the last year, 57% of the people surveyed had bought a CD, while 39% had purchased an MP3 download.
In the last month.

There's just over four million 20-24 year olds in the UK, so that would imply 400,000 cassettes sold each month just to that proportion of the 18-24 year old age group. Let's be generous and assume 18 & 19 year olds bought no cassettes at all, and that for the other 11 months of the year, none of this age group bought any cassettes.

How does this figure fit with cassette sales?

Well, we know that in 2013, album sales on media other than CD, vinyl or digital download accounted for just 73,000 sales. That's cassettes, but also box sets of vinyl, DVD Audio and other strange beasts. But let's pretend that it's all tape, shall we?

Ah, but for singles, the figure for 'others' is six million or so. Could that be where all these cassette purchases are hidden?

Probably not - the other figure for 2012 was nearly four and a half million, and we know just 604 of those were cassingles. Even if we - again generously - assume a 100-fold increase in cassette single sales between 2012 and 2013, that's 60,400 sales.

So, even on the most generous and lax granting of licence, and over-estimating like we're Nigel Farage putting in his office running costs, we make that 133,000 cassettes sold in 2013.

So, for the Record Store Day figures to hold up, we're going to have to believe that a thin sliver of the national demographic suddenly bought four times as many tapes in March 2014 as the entire population in the whole of 2013 on the loosest possible reading of the figures.

In other words: this is absolute tock-widdle, and the BBC should be ashamed of running it as fact. But not as ashamed as Record Store Day should be of putting out such ramtwaddle.

After all...

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Vinyl isn't all that

Who doesn't have a vinyl fetish? It's so shiny, isn't it? And handily wipe-clean, too.

But there's another a kind of vinyl fetishist, which is the one who insists that music is "better" when it's reproduced by bouncing a needle on a groove in a circular disc. Because it sounds better. Because it's more authentic.

That's actually not true, though, says Marc Edwards, who knows a thing or two about audio fidelity:

[W]e’d send every single release off to be mastered for vinyl, and receive an acetate (a one off copy), a test pressing (initial pressings using the vinyl master), or the final release pressing and be able to compare it to not only a 16bit/44.1khz master of the exact same recording, but we were also often able to compare directly to a 24bit/44.1khz master and 24bit/44.1khz pre-mastered version of the exact same song. And all typically on studio nearfield masters and really nice headphones.
His verdict? Vinyl isn't superior. Here's a sample:
Not only does vinyl have a narrower frequency response, but that response curve changes based on side length and how close to the center of the record the needle is. It makes sense when you think about it — the record player spins at a constant rate, but the distance the needle travels and the amount of data is lowered as you get closer to the center. This is why most releases put the important tracks early in the playing sequence. This is really, really obvious if you have a record handy. Focus on high hats or cymbals, and move the needle to different positions to hear how drastic the effect is.

Vinyl often has issues with sibilance as well (“s” and “t” sounds in vocals). The solution is to run an aggressive de-esser as part of the vinyl mastering.
Now, the cussedness and fragility of vinyl adds something - crackles, pops, a scratch from that time you accidentally dragged the zip of your vinyl catsuit over the turntable while Screamdelica was on it - and that is character you don't get with digital. But the things that make vinyl special are actually the same things that reduce its audio fidelity.

The artwork, though? That's always better on a twelve inch square space.

Jermain Jackman isn't even the new David Sneddon

To think we used to enjoy a good snurkle at how quickly Fame Academy winners would fade from view - although they might never have turned their win into household name status, at least David Sneddon managed a few top ten singles as he headed for the exit. Alex Parkes even got a double platinum album out of it.

Not so the winners of The Voice.

Leanne Mitchell set the pace, winning in 2012 and following up with a number 45 single, an album which peaked at 134 and a rapid dropping from her label.

Andrea Begley did better. Winning in 2013, her debut album made it into the top 10 and, although her singles tend to peter out of steam before they make it above three digits, she did have a number 30.

But so far, no Girls Aloud. Indeed, the chart performance of Voice winners starts to make Steve Brookstein look like Elvis Presley.

But what of this year's lucky contestant, Jermain Jackman. Can he restore the honour of the programme?

Jermain Jackman, only managed to reach number 75 in the charts with his debut single, ‘And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going’, a heartfelt ballad about his refusal to break into even the Top 40.
Not only did he only manage 73, he was beaten by one of the non-winners. Sally Barker got to 46 with an Olly Murs cover. It's not great, but that makes a giant amongst the Voice alum.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Paolo Nutini doesn't understand mental health issues

There's something interesting about the way Paolo Nutini seems annoyed that people who pay money to hear him play his songs get upset when he doesn't play them that well:

Tracks from his earlier albums, such as Jenny Don't Be Hasty and New Shoes are almost unrecognisable - verging on an all out metal assault.

"We're trying to get people into our atmosphere for this new album. I don't want to be like, 'We, owe people hits and we can't do too many new songs in the set, the idea is to draw them into our headspace which is more challenging.

"In the UK people are coming to shows with more of an expectation, they want to jump around to the old brass lines. In Bournemouth, some bloke shouted out, 'Play the songs properly,' 'cause we've reworked the old tracks. but I've got no desire to go over old ground.

"It feels like starting out again, it's a challenge trying to win people over again."
Given that being a Nutini fan makes you already more likely to be fairly conservative in your tastes, it's both impressive and cruel to suddenly dump Metal Machine Music on their heads, in the gap between Pizza Express and calling the baby sitter to warn them you'll be home an hour early.

But that isn't the reason Nutini has caught our eye this morning. It's this:
Acoustic tracks jostle for space with short sampled musical interludes in the vein of artists like DJ Format, David Holmes or 2ManyDJs.

"It's interesting because I've heard this a few times," he says. "But for me the last album that we made was far more schizophrenic in that sense, we were moving from ska... ish tracks to an accordion and fiddle song to a Dixieland theme."
No, Paolo. Your last album wasn't schizophrenic in any sense at all. You could have called it eclectic, which would merely have been making it sound more exciting than it was; instead, you've managed to add insult to misery.

Here's a hint, from the Guardian style guide:
schizophrenia, schizophrenic
should be used only in a medical context, never to mean in two minds, contradictory, or erratic, which is wrong, as well as offensive to people diagnosed with this illness.
It's 2014, Paolo. Why are people still misusing this word?

NME caught in debt-fuelled deal

As part of the splitting up of Time Warner into two smaller media companies, the question of who gets to keep IPC Media (and, thus, the NME) has been settled: Time will generate a massive ballon of debt with which to purchase the UK magazine publisher:

Time Warner officially announced that it's spinning Time Inc. off with $1.4 billion in debt, adding that the financing will be used to purchase Time Inc.'s U.K. operation, IPC Media.

The debt will be raised through an offering of unsecured senior notes and Time Inc. will enter into a secured loan facility, according to a statement.

Whatever remains of the debt facility after buying IPC will be used to pay a cash dividend back to Time Warner.
The suggestion that IPC is worth at the very most $1.4bn will be a bit of a blow to the Blue Fin Building; they were bought for $1.7bn in 2001.

And being bought with a slew of debt isn't a great start for an organisation with a few wobbly titles in its portfolio.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

What the pop papers said: Bernard Butler

We find ourselves at the end of a slightly underwhelming BBC-mandated 20th Anniversary of Britpop (marking the point when Johnny from Menswear first said the words '... and if we bung a picture of, I dunno, a Mini or Ena Sharples on the sleeve, I reckon it's money in the bank').

BBC Four, rather than showing the old compilation of Britpop performances at the BBC with the introduction from Damon Albarn, edited a new set of Britpop performances together, and slapped the old Damon Albarn intro on the front. Still: Pulp meeting Trev and Simon.

In the end, though, it was just a further coagulation of the Britpop narrative: John Humphrys in front of the Blur and Oasis logos, announcing a state of permanent warfare, forever.

Which is a pity, as by now you'd hope they'd be finding space to tell some of the more interesting stories of the time.

Like the acrimonious Suede split - which did get touched on, accidentally, on one of those late-night repeats from the Evening Session this week.

It's worth spending a little bit of time digging back into that awkward period. John Mulvey's interview with Bernard Butler from the NME in 1998 gives just a flavour of what went wrong:

It was around this time, probably, when Bernard starting doubting himself. Even today, you can see a potent and battling combination of confidence and shyness in his character: sure of his own gifts, but reluctant to express himself. Surrounded by people telling him he was wrong when he wanted to expand the band's musical parameters, struggling with a producer (Ed Buller) who he disagreed with over everything, alienated from a band he had nothing in common with something had to crack... Him.

"I don't necessarily think that a nice personality makes a nice record. There's a lot of bastards around that make great records, and that's the one thing that kept me going after Suede, because they trashed me so much personally, saying so much bullshit.

"It was really cowardly to do it when they knew I wouldn't answer back. They knew I'd flip and I did, I pissed off to France 'cos I couldn't hack it. I cried a lot, because it really hurt. I've got a lot of good memories of Brett and it really f--ked me up that I never said goodbye to Simon. The last time I was with Simon we were getting stoned, having a nice time, having a laugh like we always did. Next minute he's saying I should have my head chopped off or something, I should be put down like a dog."

"But I just said to myself, 'They'll get through it, just don't answer back'. You can't answer back when someone's calling you a wanker. What do you say? 'I'm not a wanker! I'm alright!'"
Bernard, bravely, rose above it all, and always carried that regret that he never got to say goodbye to Simon. Can you explain some more about how you rose above it, and - I dunno - maybe try to show Simon he was wrong to be so rude about you, Bernard?
[Were you] a control freak?

"No. I wasn't a control freak and never have been."

If you were, you wouldn't have Ed Buller produce the records?

"Right. Exactly. I tried to stop him making 'Stay Together' and then I tried to stop him making 'Dog Man Star'. No-one would let me. So, at the end of the day, that's why I left. There were lots of bad vibes between me and Brett and stuff, but they'd always been there. He was going off in one direction, shooting off as this star, and I was shooting off as this songwriter somewhere else. Unfortunately we were going totally the wrong way.

"At the end of the day, I was with the wrong people: I had the wrong manger, the wrong record company, the wrong road crew, the wrong band... I didn't think the drummer was very good, can you imagine what that was like? Simon Gilbert, the rock star drummer in Suede, I think is very average. Mat Osman: he's not a great bass player, he should've been Jeremy Paxman, he should've been reading the news. He should never have been a bass player 'cos he's just a theorist.

"Those are my biggest problems: standing there with a whole set of ideas about what I wanted the record to sound like and I wasn't allowed to say them. I'd have this great idea about what the hi-hat should do in bar four, but if I said it I'd piss off the drummer. There were times when I remember Simon taking his drums and throwing them down the stairs saying, 'I'm not being told how to play the drums'.
Oddly, Bernard would be later surprised to discover that Simon said some negative things about him.

All a long time ago, and bridges have sort-of-been rebuilt since then, of course. We were all much younger.

But the stories have got to be worth hearing, more than seeing that rack of Country House next to the rack of Roll With It in HMV for the 33,000th time?

This week just gone

The most-read things this week, from, like, whenever:

1. Aston Merrygold's merry prank backfires
2. Of course sexuality is fluid, but Jessie J has recanted bisexuality like it's rancid
3. The Observer on how to cover Kurt anniversaries
4. Gigwise asks 'where are Menswear now?'
5. RIP: Peaches Geldof
6. Scarlett Johansson insults all pop stars, ever
7. Simon Bates shown the door
8. Michael Jackson announces plans for Katrina benefit single which won't happen like his September 11th one
9. Apple worried as iTunes stalls
10. The Kings Of Leon want to see your tits

The interesting stuff from this week:

School Of Language - Old Fears

Download Old Fears

Bill Callahan - Have Fun With God

Download Have Fun With God

EMA - The Future's Void

Download The Future's Void

Slasher Flicks - Enter The Slasher House

Download Enter The Slasher House

Off - Wasted Years

Download Wasted Years

Theivery Corporation - Suadade