Saturday, November 05, 2011

He's got a lot of Eminence Front

Ever since Dylan went electric, pop music has been riven by a supposed rift between, well, not many people, actually, and those who have a passionate belief that music's life and soul rests not at the top of the charts but deep in the weeds. As much as I personally think that X-Factor and its excremental clan have all the artistic merit of toothpaste, there are those who believe with equal advocacy that music can be only regarded as valid if it is racked in the converted milk crates of an independent record shop or squeezed into the corner of a pub by a progressively-minded landlord pursuing his belief in promoting live music.

Taking at least one foot out of the stirrups of my own high horse, if there is one good thing to both the TV "talent" shows and the continuing existence of independent music outlets, it's that they are both still, in their own way, promoting the idea that becoming a musician is a sound aspiration that you can actually make a living out of.

The fate of the independent record shop comes into sharp focus this week in the UK with the opening of Sound It Out, a documentary by film maker Jeanie Finlay about Sound It Out Records, the very last record shop open in her native Stockton-on-Tees in north-east England.

Premiered earlier this year at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, this "accidental" film, as Finlay calls it, has been acclaimed, both for its depiction of smalltown English life, but also for its championing of the independent vinyl retailer - and the genuine eccentrics you're likely to meet there.

It is, says Finlay, "A distinctive, funny and intimate film about men, obsession and the irreplaceable role music plays in our lives. High Fidelity with a Northern accent." Shops like Sound It Out Records are dying at an alarming rate of 30 a year. This is partly due to the general decline in ownership of music in physical formats, but partly because a loophole in VAT has allowed the big online music retailers to operate offshore, VAT-free and offering cheaper retail prices (and without the overheads of a bricks-and-mortar operation).

"I’ve confirmed what I always suspected," she adds, "it’s so much more than just music and records. Vinyl holds memories and maps the soundtrack of people’s lives. You probably can’t remember when you downloaded an MP3 but I bet you can remember where and when you bought your first single, or the LP you fell in love to. People gravitate to the shop for a number of reasons, for [manager] Tom’s expertise, for the music he stocks and to just simply hang out in a place where they fit in."

Earlier this week, Pete Townshend - The Who's principal songwriter, windmilling guitarist and perennial Mod - delivered the inaugural John Peel Lecture, in itself a tribute to the legendary DJ who was as much a curator of the sort of music you'll find in Sound It Out Reords as radio personality playing it.

Peel, Townshend argued, represented a behaviour under-served today by mainstream radio's reluctance to abandon formula and go off range in the way the late DJ did. Peel played what either intrigued him, amused him, moved him or provided the perverted satisfaction of baffling and challenging the listening audience in equal measure.

"Peel was not a musician," Townshend said. "He was a listener, a patron of the arts, a broadcaster with almost no censorial mandate or agenda. He only played what he thought deserved to be played. I don't think it always mattered that he himself liked it. In China in Chairman Mao's day he might have been sent to prison if only for being the first to play Jesus and Mary Chain, the Undertones or the Proclaimers – all of them were a little bit political, but also radical and outspoken."

The lecture wasn't however, meant to eulogise Peel but to raise the flag - hoisted so often in recent years - about the new digital music culture and its impact on musical income, creativity and the somewhat hippyish ideals of what he called "John Peelism" - i.e. the free love of any form of music without condition. Sounding dangerously Luddite for a musician who has always been fascinated by new technology (the arpeggiated and synthesised organ on The Who's Won't Get Fooled Again was well ahead of its time), Townshend hypothesised that in the iTunes era online music services were simply providing a distribution and royalty collection model which was denying artists essential services.

"Music publishing has always been a form of banking," Townshend argued, "but – in cooperation with record labels – active artists have always received from the music industry banking system more than banking." He said that by essentially acting as nothing more than a brokerage for music, services like iTunes were denying artists the ecosystem that they would have traditionally been a part of, with labels and publishers providing editorial guidance, financial support, creative nurturing, manufacturing, publishing, marketing, distribution and royalty payments.

It is certainly true that with the disappearance of legendary impresarios like Ahmet Ertegun, and the replacement of music-minded record company CEOs with lawyers, investment bankers and similar forms of besuited chinless wonder who might consider Michael Bublé cutting edge, new artists today might lack the patient tutorage their ancestors enjoyed in the pre-digital era.

Today, Townshend said, the iTunes only offered a distribution and royalty collection platform. Taking his banking analogy, you could agree that the High Street bank - where a friendly (or unfriendly) bank manager might offer you a personal approach to managing your finances  - has disappeared, and that banking today revolves around an impersonal experience of ATMs, direct debits and online banking whereby there is little human or emotional involvement.

Hiding behind the semi-fictional persona of "the inner artist", Townshend laid into Steve Jobs (annoyingly and, I suspect, quite deliberately pronouncing his name as the Biblical "Jobes"), branding  iTunes a "digital vampire", a headline-friendly provocation if ever I've seen one.

Apple - and iTunes - came up with a workable model for online content distribution. It may not be entirely equitable to the artists, but I'd vouch that there were never any record labels or music publishers who designed contracts to be philanthropically beneficial to the artist.

This is not the first time, however, that iTunes has come in for criticism from an artist: AC/DC still refuse to distribute their music via the service on the grounds that it caters for people who want to download individual tracks rather than complete albums. One American blues-rock legend I ran into last year complained to me that the process of negotiating a distribution agreement with Apple is frustrating, to the extent he felt that he was being offered one of those "it's this or nothing" deals.

But for others, more pragmatically, they consider it to be an essential distribution mechanism, "a no brainer", another artist recently told me. It's there, people use it, you get money from it. Job done. As Michael Corleone famously told his brother Sonny: "It's not personal. It's strictly business". Pop music has always had its hardball types, and Apple is no different to any record company or music distributor that has come before. You still need to promote an album, you still need to perform live, you still - for the time being - need to have the means to sell CDs via High Street retail outlets.

The worry is that today, the music industry as a whole appears to have forgotten what it was that turned music into the predominant youth culture of the late 20th century. At least Steve Jobs, the archetypal Baby Boomer with his love of The Beatles, got it and did something about it. The music industry, frankly, took too long to embrace the digital age. When labels like EMI were still farting around appointing 'Executive Vice-Presidents of Digital Development' simply to "explore" the potential for digital music distribution, illegal file-sharing services were already in their prime and the horse was so far out of the stable that the stable door hinges had rusted away.

In branding iTunes a vampire, Townshend diminished attention for the more interesting argument of his thesis, that iTunes should do more to promote new artists. In this, I couldn't agree more. If I am to reluctantly give up the Saturday afternoon pleasure of browsing the racks of my local Sound It Out Records for browsing with a mouse (actually, it's now an Apple Trackpad), then at least do something to editorially draw my attention away from the FMCG brands like Coldplay and create attention for the emergent and the interesting. To Townshend's point, iTunes needs its own John Peel, someone who's curatorial mind can see potential whereas others might only see a long haul with limited return. Peel, while he bludgeoned on with patronage of bands like The Fall - such was his whimsy - had also been unafraid of championing the likes of Pink Floyd, The Faces and Roxy Music when they were regarded as either too avant-garde or simply unfashionable in their earlier years.

Rock stars - especially wealthy ones, pontificating over the inequalities of the "Wild West frontier", as Townshend somewhat anachronistically referred to the digital domain - will always appear to be arguing a fairly thin position. Although he "doesn't give a shit about money", as The Who's principal songwriter, his well-appointed mansion in East Twickenham (in a street backing on to where I used to live, if you must know) has been paid for by the likes of me buying original Who albums and then, in moments of weakness, buying them all over again when the box sets and digital remastered versions emerge.

I admire his passion for championing the need for iTunes as another element of the music distribution landscape to do more to keep the wolf from the door of those struggling to get on or up the ladder. But in the outcome, Townshend's lecture came across as no more than another old head bemoaning the march of progress.

Oddly enough, there's a box set containing a remastered Quadrophenia heading for your local record emporium. Just in time for Christmas.

1 comment:

  1. It's always funny to see how most of the musicians, just like their industry execs, get digital and online wrong or pick the wrong battles (even if there's a lot to say against iTunes indeed!).