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BAMM In-Depth: Live To Video

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Here’s the latest in our occasional series of in-depth articles about the music industry from BAMM correspondent Zakia Uddin. This time around, we look at the present (and future) state of live video performances …

LIVE TO VIDEO

1, 2, 3 … action!

The filmed live music performance has a history stretching back almost as long as film itself. Blues legend Bessie Smith was filmed singing ‘St Louis Blues’ in 1929 (above), essentially creating the first ever music video. Similarly, the history of live music on television is almost as long as that of television’s mass consumption. The ability to play well live on television remains the marker of a genuine musician. Every reality show worth its salt builds up to a live showdown between its contestants. So what do audiences look for in a live performance? And are the people behind the camera the ones who really decide whether a performance will go down in history or not?

Just hangin’ out in the studio

Live music has always been about ‘authenticity’. When you see an artist play, you think you know whether they’re really feeling the music or not. Do they mean what they’re saying or is it obvious they drew the short straw with the songwriter? A live performance has always been counterposed to the glitter and glamour of an expensive video, where you can’t see the sweat coming from the singer’s pores.

Even the ‘in the studio’ music video beloved of pop music stars emulates the ‘realness’ of the live performance. For example, J-Lo becomes Jenny from the block when she’s in her jammies, getting her pitch right with a pair of headphones. Singing live has been all about been demonstrating how much the artist or singer is above the trappings of celebrity fame. When it comes down to it, all they need is a guitar and a mike (and some expensive recording equipment, and a diplomatic producer-type to nod at them appreciatively behind some glass).

Performance is filtering over to other fields, such as dance music. The huge light shows and spectacle of the 1980s sparked off an opposing trend which saw DJs opt for the anonymity afforded by the darkness of a club. But the arrival of the ‘big beat’ DJ playing to crowds on beaches (such as Fatboy Slim on Brighton Beach, above) changed the DJ culture from something faceless to near-inescapable in the mainstream charts. More recent developments such as live-streamed show The Boiler Room have tried to reverse that emphasis on appearance by having the DJ play with their back to the audience – but it still taps into an old trend from live recorded music from television. Audiences love watching audiences no matter how disinterested and cool they act.

Recorded live performances have been most closely associated with guitar music, though. One of the fears expressed by musicians in the early 1980s was that MTV would stop people going to gigs. If you can hear the singles from the comfort of your living room, why would you pay to go to a venue without even the guarantee that the performer will play the hits? Would it be possible for the guitar playing singer to be as exciting as the pop star? However, MTV’s Unplugged series became an integral part of the tradition that made ‘going acoustic’ an index of a musician or band’s real capabilities.

One of the most notable Unplugged sessions was by Nirvana in 1993 (above). The watershed performance marked a moment in which both the audience come to maturity. Cobain wore his influences on his sleeve, using the opportunity to showcase unexpected personal influences, as well as the craftsmanship behind the band’s own songs. Nirvana emerged as a more rounded band, whose music was informed by old greats like Leadbelly as much as it was by its contemporaries Meat Puppets and more recent predecessors The Vaselines. The record of the session has become a critical part of the band’s discography and evaluation as a ‘serious band’ long after other bands associated with grunge disappeared.

Visuals for rock, pop and dance have all been shaped by how live music has been recorded so far. It’s also worth looking at the role of live music in culture, and why bands have seen some performances enter into the annals of rock history. The most famous live performances often mark high points – or pivotal points – in a band or a musician’s career. Oasis’ Knebworth show was recorded because the band were at their career peak in 1996, with an estimated one in 20 people in the UK trying to buy tickets for the two consecutive shows at the legendary venue. Bob Dylan famously ‘went electric’ at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 (below). In one legendary show, included in Don’t Look Now, the audience starts calling him a ‘Judas’ for betraying his folk roots.

Live music videos have also captured venues at their peak – showing how much synergy there is between a venue and the artists who play in it. Some venues really sum up and define an era – whether it’s CBGBs or London’s Albert Hall in the 1960s, equally famous then for tripped out psychedelic sleep-ins as it is now for the Proms. The stadium shot was requisite for live filming in the 1980s, wiping out some of the intimacy of the connection between performer and audience. Not surprisingly, there are few standout live music films made of stadium gigs.

The live recorded performance has often been seen as a complement to a band’s official recording career, despite hardcore fans’ obsessions with bootlegs. However, some live songs have outlived their recorded counterparts – for example, Cheap Trick’s minimalistic ‘I want you to want me’ off their famous Live at the Budokan album, and Pulp’s Glastonbury version of ‘This is Hardcore’, which perfectly distilled the essence of the post-party song (both below). An atmospheric venue and a receptive audience can elevate the live version of a song well above the recorded cut on the album.

Of course, live streaming has made recording any event anywhere under the most casual conditions easy. Death Cab for Cutie recorded the video for their first single ‘You are a tourist’ (below) off their seventh album in a single take, which was live streamed simultaneously to audiences. Band member Chris Walla said: “Most of the time when you have an idea, somebody’s already done it, and it really didn’t seem like that was the case for this. So we needed to move on it if we wanted to do it.” Will we see more experiments like this in the future? And will the predictions of anxiety-ridden musicians in the 1980s start to come true, in the way they least expected? Rather than losing interest in going to gigs, we’re just watching them in our living room.

In our experientially-minded culture, bands are more likely to do reunion gigs than new albums after years apart. Some of the biggest cultural highlights in recent years have been heavily publicised reunion gigs for bands including the Stone Roses, Blur and Pulp. Instead of waiting for the definitive document, we can just record them on our phones as we watch. The Beastie Boys, always ahead of the game, did one of the most definitive live music recordings by getting their fans to film themselves on the day of the band’s legendary Madison Gardens gig (below).

Arguably, MTV-ready popstars might be doing more than anyone else to make sure the live music experience remains sacrosanct. In a media dominated by the reality music contest, being able to sing live is still the final measure of talent. The format translates well because we can all appreciate a contestant’s singing abilities, regardless of their marketability – hence the breakout success of ordinary individuals such as Susan Boyle or Paul Potts.

HOW ABOUT SOME LIVE CLASSICS FROM THE BAMM ARCHIVES?

HOTTUB – ‘1, 2, 3, Go!’

Where to look? This band shocked audiences at SXSW with their sweaty onstage antics and willingness to hump stage floors. Here they are performing their synthy ‘1-2-3-Go’ against some suitably eye-watering graphics.

Afro Q Ben – ‘Futuristic Electro’

This sunny outdoor performance perfectly conveys the festival vibe combined with genuine musicianship. Futuristic Electro’s influences span far and wide. Despite being fun, it never feels flimsy. It also reminds me of an age-old tradition that’s got wiped out in the era of spiralling touring costs for bands: the dancer guy. It’s always a guy, and you’re not sure what else he does when he’s not on stage, but it just wouldn’t be the same without him.

Religious Girls – ‘OG’

It might not surprise you to learn that Religious Girls have a background of noise music. Their music has suitably ethereal vocals counterpointed to more electronic sounds and off-kilter drumming. This performance at the Phono del Sol festival in San Francisco captures the intensity and intricacy of their music.

Great Lake Swimmers – ‘Still’

GLS have already ratcheted up much praise from the likes of Bill Callahan and this BAMM performance shows them at their best, performing at SXSW to an adoring crowd. If Hot Tub are like a tequila slammer, then Great Lake Swimmers are the orange juice for the hangover.

Geographer ‘Paris’

A stripped down version of a deeply felt emotive song, deconstructed and performed in San Francisco’s Engine Works. The band experimented with the parts of the song to make it work within the grand yet warm venue – a great example of how much our experience of music is informed by place.

AND WHAT ABOUT THE BEST LIVE FILMS EVER MADE …?


Woodstock

Thelma Schoonmaker won an Academy Award in 1970 for her remarkable editing of the film which in itself changed how live performance was documented. Schoonmaker adopted a combination of stills, and dissolves to capture the energy of performers as diverse as Richie Havens and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Woodstock wasn’t intended to be free but has come to symbolise the 1960s. Most cultural commentators have put this down to the film’s brilliance. There are a few performances here which perfectly sum up why we see the era as we do: Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

Oasis at Knebworth 1996

The band’s performance at this legendary site coincided with their lager-swilling, tabloid-terrorising peak. Certainly, the Gallagher brothers’ collective egos were big enough to elbow out the audience. At one point, Liam tells the reverential audience: “We’re not arrogant, we just believe we’re the best band in the world.” Class, as they would have it.

Monterey Pop (1967)

Made two years before Woodstock, but somewhat less acknowledged is this video documentary of the festival where Jimi Hendrix famously burnt his guitar and flung its flaming carcass into the crowd. D.A.Pennebaker’s film excited some of its viewers so much that it directly inspired the more famous Woodstock festival – as well as dozens of others across the country. The documentary shows how live footage can be as exciting and motivating as the real thing. Above is the trailer to the miniature masterpiece of musical history. Let’s all say: “It’s groovy, man.”

1991: The Year That Punk Broke

This fun documentary cobbled out of Super 8 footage captures some stand-out definitive performances from the soon-to-be-massive Nirvana and their contemporaries Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. What’s most astonishing is that these bands were already playing to huge crowds at Britain’s Reading festival, despite seeing themselves as punk rock. Like the best music documentaries, it captures a change in the history of music itself.

Instrument

This documents some of hardcore band Fugazi’s best-known moments on stage, bringing together style and content to convey the band’s unique take on society. The sonic assault is paired with a visual assault and performances that make you wish you’d been there (maybe standing at the back, not so close to the front).

ATP Tomorrow’s Parties

This festival on a chalet site has had some ups and downs in the past ten years but its delivered more than a handful of legendary performances. One of these is by Lightning Bolt, the two man band prone to setting up in chalets or outside the venue or whereever you least expect them to. The trailer shoves our face into their sweaty pits – breathe it in.

Gimme Shelter (1970)

This is the nightmarish counterpart of the dreamy Woodstock vibe. The filmmakers followed the band on their 1969 tour of the US, which ended with the infamous free concert at Altamont. Footage of the ensuing bloodbath was incorporated into the film, which has come to represent the zenith of the hippy era.

Stop Making Sense (1984)

This Talking Heads documentary was shot by Hollywood director Jonathan Demme just when MTV had arrived on our screens. It showed how live footage doesn’t have to be cliched – the camera stays firmly focused on Byrne’s face throughout rather than straggling to the money shots of the audiences. Rather than presenting a loosened up version of the band, we see them at their most stylised and creative – with Demme using chiaroscuro and dramatic close-ups fofor that definitive art school feel.

BAMM In-Depth: Back To The 80s

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Here’s a welcome return to our occasional series of in-depth articles on issues within the music industry from our London correspondent Zakia Uddin. This time, Zakia takes a look at the ever-present phenomenon of eighties revivalism …

If the 1970s is the decade that ‘style forgot’, the 1980s more than compensated by never quite going away. It’s been vilified, mythologized and dismissed at turns for its power chords and bombast. Whatever you think about that era – and you don’t have to grown up then to have an opinion – it continues informing music, fashion and film. What is it about the decade that keeps artists coming back for more – and when will they stop plundering it?

One of the major artists of this year has been Jessie Ware, whose Devotion album cover picture consciously echoes 1980s singer Sade’s distinctive look. Ware’s hair is slicked back in the same tight bun and we see her in profile, like her predecessor. The MOBO-nominated singer wears her influences on her sleeve, saying that she asked video director Kate Morross to consider Sade’s previous artwork. Ware herself was born in 1984 – the same year Sade released her hugely successful debut album Diamond Life.


Above: hits from Jessie Ware and Sade

The revival continues in the form of comebacks from epoch-defining bands – the most recent memorial celebration was that of the Stone Roses, who released their first album Fool’s Gold in 1989. The band’s return even inspired comment from politicians willing to own up to their Madchester years. This month Dexy’s Midnight Runners released their humbly titled One Day I’m Going to Soar after 27 years of musical ignominy (largely based on this terrible terrible album cover). At the other end of the scale, the hair-rock musical Rock of Ages celebrates all the Elnett cans and power chords which were quietly put into the dressing up box with the advent of grunge.

Is the stultifying effect of the 1980s revival worth fretting over, when artists such as Ware stand up on their own and the reformation of the Stone Roses is considered more exciting than a new Madonna tour? In 2010, critic Simon Reynolds asked in The Guardian whether it’s when ostensibly cool bands start imitating Then Jerico and Robert Palmer that the 1980s revival would end, as though our cultural obsession would fade when we’d found all the good records in the bargain bin.


Above: is ‘Rock Of Ages’ as far as a revival can go?

If the revival goes on, that might be because the decade offers endless musical riches. Synthesisers, samples and Simmons’ electric drums ushered in a recognisably ‘pop’ sound, distinct from the saccharine melodies and the tinnily produced songs of the 1970s and 1960s. And like science fiction tropes cemented in the 1960s, 1980s synths still feel ‘futuristic’. The rise of MTV also gave birth to a more visual culture, making the decade a rich source of pop graphics and iconic imagery. There’s nothing that sums up the initial perceived impact of MTV on music than this panel exchange in 1984 between the future queen of pop Madonna and grizzled old John Oates. Oates angrily states that MTV is forcing musicians to become actors, while Madonna points out the obvious – isn’t a live show all about acting?

Many current commentators think the fascination with the period is deeply unhealthy. How much is that to do it with its flashiness and celebratory disposable aesthetic? Reynolds’ book Retromania argues that the obsession with the past bodes badly for the future of music. In an interview with Salon, he lamented: “No one can quite picture a future that seems positive or exciting. At one time the future seemed to suggest grand projects.” This mindset is even more evident with music, given the huge popularity of bands such as Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes whose music he describes as “bewildering” with its lack of engagement with any music of the past thirty years.

Above: Mumford and Foxes – ignoring the 80s?

The internet has been blamed for this cultural scavenging. What’s fashionable is no longer about scarcity – there’s so much material on the internet. There’s no point of any music or trend being so obscure you can’t read about it or find it online. Critics of Reynolds’ generation have fetishised waiting around for records to release and having to hunt out all the good bands. But was it really fair for everyone? For the suburban teenager it would have been a case of filling in a mail order catalogue and waiting near the letterbox for a few weeks, for a record they were buying mostly on faith. If you couldn’t get to a gig, you’d have to hope for a performance on either MTV or on a music show with a graveyard slot.

Critics miss the old tribalism of music fans forced to gather around ‘hubs’ such as the NME and the defunct Melody Maker. Outlets for talking and discovering music have proliferated. The internet has now democratised the process of music discovery, so that if you want to know what’s cool, you can instantly listen to it and decide whether it’s worth the hype. There’s no waiting around for your cool friend to validate or veto a record. Youtube, and blogs offer the opportunity of discovering music in a haphazard fashion where everything is made equivalent by simply being online at the same time. It also means anyone can be fashionable, technically making no-one fashionable – unless they ‘discover’ the coolest thing ahead of everyone else.


Above: the internet of the 1980s …

In a Guardian interview with Dorian Lynsky, Mojo editor Andrew Male commented on the endless obsession with the past: “There’s a sense that this stuff has kind of lain dormant. You can rediscover it in a way that you can’t rediscover the stuff that was always considered cool. With CD reissues, you’ve got the freedom to indulge yourself in areas that would have previously been seen as off-limits.” The only jarring note here is mention of the CD reissues. Male perfectly understands the cache of ‘finding’ and re-discovering great music at a time when there’s such an avalanche of material, good and bad, available on blogs, Youtube and music sites.

One of the most popular critical exercises is to identify cultural influences and designate a revival of sorts. The 1980s has so far given birth to several micro-trends including witch house, electroclash, and what’s been termed ‘maximilism’ – music that layers on sound and effects and is impossible to categorise in any genre. But should we suspend the need to label and instead ask why it matters if a musician or band’s musical influences split and did reissues before they were even born? Will the next generation of artists even distinguish between their musically formative decade and that of their parents?

Above: witchhouse, electroclash and maximalism in action

The BBC recently went to a London school to test whether teenagers would recognise the Beatles ‘Love Me Do’ on the 50th anniversary of the single release. Only a few did, causing rock music journalists on Twitter to be mildly flustered about the priorities of young people today. On Drowned in Sound, a blogger spoke of his irritation with Radio 1’s commissioner for complaining about ‘festival dads’ skewing the station’s demographics. It’s easy to accuse young people of listening unimaginatively to old music and buying new music that sounds like old music, but maybe phenomena like Mumford and Sons can be explained by the increased age of the music-buying and festival-going music audience.

Critics should also take some responsibility for the never-ending revival. Underlying assumptions about what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ music have been shone in the spotlight and seen to favour certain types of artists – those with a long back catalogue who play their own instruments. The 1980s had some of the most unashamed pop and the quickest burn-outs, as well as having pop stars with cross-generational appeal who could sell out stadiums. New York Times critic Kelefa Sanneh said in 2003 that we have to “stop pretending that serious rock songs will last forever, as if anything could, and that shiny pop songs are inherently disposable, as if that were necessarily a bad thing. Van Morrison’s “Into the Music” was released the same year as the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”; which do you hear more often?”


Above: which makes your party playlist most often?

Carly Rae Jepsen and Britney Spears are now as likely to get serious reviews in Rolling Stone as Radiohead. Soundtracks of hipster films such as 100 Days of Summer bring together The Smiths and Hall & Oates, two bands whose fans were unlikely to be in the same place, let alone sharing a dance-floor. It’s okay to like what you like and own up to it. That’s not a bad legacy for any decade, let alone one which gave us synths and studio-shot music videos.

The most disturbing fact is that we’ll all end up listening to the same music, unable to place it. As in a dystopian scenario we’ll vaguely remember hearing it before but not know whether we were around for it the first time…

BAMM BANDS INSPIRED BY THE 1980s

Here’s a taste of some of our BAMM.tv acts who have taken an 80s aesthetic and made it their own. Remember – you can find all these acts and more on our amazing new iPad app!

Birds and Batteries – ‘Out in the Woods’

This Bay Area trio wear their influences on their t-shirt sleeves. Leader singer and musical director Mike Sempert describes the band to BAMM: ‘Randy Newman meets Gary Numan. Funky and dancy, but also really focused around songcraft and arrangement.Future music.” You can also hear some early INXS and Talking Heads in the sounds of Jill Heinke’s synths. There’s something so distinctively 1980s in their brand of warm upbeat and musically intricate pop which isn’t afraid to make people move onto the dancefloor.

Crafts Spells – ‘Party Talk’

Craft Spells specialise in that gorgeous echoing pop sensibility that underlay so many of the greatest British indie bands of the 1980s. But singer Justin Paul Vallesteros and his fellow band members Andy Lum, Jack Doyle Smith and Javier Suarez are West Coast natives, who continue to live in California. You can hear strains of Morrissey, and a distinct melancholy imported from the drizzly northern city of Manchester whose musical influence far exceeds that of London. Vallesteros is really just following in the footsteps of his 1980s jangle pop-loving counterparts who were influenced by the thriving UK indie scene.

Crashfaster – ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’

Morgan Tucker a.k.a. Crashfaster’s melds the old and the new in this cover of The Smiths’ (them again!) classic ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’. He strips away the guitar and replaces it with a sparse electropop synth backing. Definitively a child of the 1980s, the Monobomb signed chiptune artist’s music is as much informed by the futuristic bleeps and crashes of old console games as it is by the electro beats of the decade.

The Frail – ‘Count on This’

This San Francisco band do a more soulful take on 1980s indie pop. Daniel Lannon’s intensely emotional vocals contrast with a slightly heat-dazed spaced out summery backing from guitarist Rob Pera and bassist Izzy Chavarin. This intimate performance was recorded at SXSW. While their influences are firmly from the noughties – they cite TV on the Radio, the Flaming Lips and The Postal Service as influences – their spectral dreaminess recalls the bands of the jangle pop counter-movement in the 1980s.

Trash80 – ‘Icarus’

If it was a 1980s movie, Timothy Lamb would be the popular brash older brother to Crashfaster’s sensitive soul. Trash80, as he’s known, creates huge bombastic structures that remind you of late night journeys, motorways, light shows and all the things that visually evoke huge complicated synth structures of the 1980s. He’s like a Jean Michel Jarre of the computer console. ‘Icarus’ is about as close to make-out music (and making-out) that chiptune is ever likely to get.

AND NOW … SOME 1980s TRENDS THAT KEEP ON GIVING …

QUIET STORM

One of the best-named trends of the 1980s. Named after Smokey Robinson’s mid-1970s album, it ushered in the slow jam. Characterised by deceptively low-key verses and ‘stormy’ choruses, it’s music for adults. R&B ballads may be a single and album staple for the serious pop star now, but the form really developed in the 1980s. The influence of Teena Marie, Sade and other soul stars can be seen in musicians as diverse as Jessie Ware, Miguel and indie R&B influenced star How to Dress Well. The Quiet Storm never been away, but arguably it’s at its healthiest yet.

SYNTH POP

The 1980s made pop what it recognisably is – and for such a disposable pop form, its major figures had careers that outstripped some of their ‘serious’ technically accomplished counterparts. The best example of pitch perfect pop recently is Carly Rae Jepsen with her huge, guilty and catchy as an STD pop classic ‘Call Me Maybe’. Pop and soul really merged in the 1980s, with the success of Madonna and Michael Jackson. It’s now impossible to imagine a time before synth-based R&B, which is as much informed by 1980s pop as it is by disco.

HARDCORE

The 1980s DC punk revival could just be an excuse for skinny jeans and body contoured t-shirts, but it’s become a staple of late night clubs and bars in places like Dalston. Record labels like Dischord (above) and Touch & Go were seminal in creating and establishing a thriving DIY music culture, whose legacy can be seen in club promotion and blogs online now. The thriving US hardcore scene of the 1980s gave way to the commercially popular grunge era, which changed the mainstream viability of punk forever. But recent acts like Times New Viking and the late Jay Reatard heralded a noise revival in the mid-noughties.

GOTH

Witch house – the genre where bands were so ostensibly cool that they had unpronounceable names printed in the Wingdings font. Bands like Mater Suspiria and Salem harked back to goth, taking on the Germanic aesthetic of heavy doomy bass, and reverb associated with bands like Bauhaus (above) and Sisters of Mercy. Witch house by way of goth also made death metal mainstream. Hipsters started wearing Wolves in the Throne Room t-shirts and pretending to love Black Sabbath.

HYPNAGOGIC POP

Where to begin? Like the waking dream-state it’s named after, hypnagogic pop is ambiguous, and layered and mashed-up so its impossible to place any of its influences. James Ferraro’s records sound like he’s been watching John Hughes movies, and listening non-stop to the intros of 1980s high school dramas before they were soundtracked by the Shins. LA artist Ariel Pink (above) has only just found mainstream pop success but his recent championing and collaboration with R.Stevie Moore suggests his aesthetic springs from the 1980s DIY pop scene. Pink also creates all the fragments which sound like samples in his music. Instagrammed pop, anyone?

… AND FINALLY SOME TRENDS THAT SHOULD NEVER BE LIVED THROUGH AGAIN

1980s HAIR ROCK

This is a difficult one. The melodies and the wailing still choke us up but it’s hard to empathise with the unreconstructed sexual politics and the wistful paeans to wife-beating. Saying that, it’s one of the seminal eras in rock for badass women musicians – even if Vixen, and mid-1980s Heart (above) are as dated as pixie boots and puffy shouldered cocktail dresses.

THE 1980S MEGAMIX

Jive Bunny (above). Ironically, the 1980s itself saw a huge trend for 1950s pastiche pop inspired by the Beach Boys and Elvis. The megamix jammed all of these different cultural obsessions together, uniting sound samples and 1950s style production together into three minutes of ADD-styled hell.

THE SOAP OPERA STAR SINGLE

This might have been only been a UK and Australian phenomenon, thankfully. For a short period of time, the British pop charts were dominated by the enthusiastic pop efforts of Aussie soap opera stars. The most famous is Kylie Minogue (above), who managed to turn kitsch into gold. British soap stars opted for cod-reggae instead of high-NRG Stock, Aitken and Waterman-produced numbers. It might be over now (mostly because the charts are over), but one of last year’s surprise covers was Kindness’s electro-pop take on ‘Anyone Can Fall in Love’. And yes, that is the famous song by Anita Dobson, Brian May’s wife, who sang it over the Eastenders theme tune (Eastenders is a grim British national institution, like Dallas with milky tea and market stalls instead of champagne and oil companies).

What do you think of the 80s revival that just won’t go away? Share your thoughts in the comment box below …

BAMM In-Depth: Brand Aid

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Here’s another one of our occasional in-depth articles by Zakia Uddin, looking at various elements of the music industry. This time around, Zakia analyses the phenomenon of brands taking over the duties of record labels. What does this mean for independent music?

“I just want to make music that people want to dance to in their Converse”. It seems like the perfect strapline – even more so for being uttered by musician Beth Corsetino in an interview in 2010 about her collaboration with the shoemaker. The lead singer of former buzzband Best Coast was almost disarming in her honesty and her directness. Its hard to imagine any of her musical precursors such as Sleator-Kinney, or All Girl Summer Fun Band even having sponsors, let alone name-checking them of their free will. However, the music industry has radically changed in the past three years. Record sales are at an all-time low, more acts are dependent on touring, and audiences’ attentions are seriously fragmented. Music labels have been slow to push their acts in innovative ways. With increasingly low margins for marketing, and promotion, bands are having to rethink the classic slow-burn indie trajectory. Arguably, the future of indie music could be dependent on getting rid of the notion of “selling out” and embracing “opting in”.

When Kurt Cobain sang ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’, large corporate record companies were perceived as the enemy (though the band was acknowledging their own signing to a major). Comparatively, brands are coming off well, despite having been a taboo prospect for anyone but the biggest artists. Even Annie Lennox once said: “There are artists that promote Pepsi and there are artists that simply won’t.” This was at a time when there were God-like musicians such as Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, who conferred their success onto their carefully chosen sponsor, rather than the other way around. The power relations have now reversed between brands and bands, with much recent talk about brands being the new “patrons”. The benign use of the word “patron” may not be completely disingenuous. It’s even possible to ask in some instances: what’s in it for the brand?

More brands are offering services to bands and challenging the roles of record companies in identifying new acts, and nurturing, developing and publicizing bands. Established names such as Converse and Red Bull are becoming involved right from the start, by trying to find new talent. This arguably gives the corporation an edge, while simultaneously breaking down the idea of corporations as primarily self-interested. Two good examples of innovative sponsorship in the form of “services” have been Motel 6’s Rock Yourself to Sleep and Taco Bell’s Feed the Beat. US budget chain Motel 6 provides beds to bands taking part in its nationwide tour, while Taco Bell presents selected bands with $500 worth of Taco Bell Bucks for the road.

Some of the alumni of the Taco Bell deal may surprise followers of indie music. Hyped artists and bands Andrew WK, The Drums, Waaves, and Kreayshawn have all been sponsored by the eatery. Music publishing and talent management company Primary Wave collaborated with Motel 6 to select bands for the annual Rock Yourself to Sleep tour, which was designed to promote emerging talent and reduce the costs of doing the all-important cross-country promotion. Commenting on what brands have to offer bands, Gareth Newman of the Hospital Club said at Internet Week Europe last year: “There are so many services that you can aggregate, and you can offer much better returns, even from content retail. If brands are in it for the long term, they can develop those sorts of relationships and have meaningful growth with those bands as they develop.” In non-marketing talk, meaningful growth means more credibility and an emotional connection with a broader range of potential customers than before. Converse’s Rubber Tracks venture aims to give specially selected acts the chance to record for free in its studio. Most bands – new and hyped – would be foolhardy to resist free food, accommodation and free recording time in a studio which has been patronized by established stars.

Novelist and music critic Nick Hornby wrote in 31 Songs that the younger generation will never know what it is like to hunt out new music or to wait for a specific time in the day to listen to a record. Instead, we can listen to any music any time we want on Spotify or download a new album just before our daily commute, or search out free mixtapes online. Music becomes background, rather than a discrete experience. Some might perceive ubiquity to be death of music as a spiritual experience, but brands may actually be the key to arresting the rot.

One of the biggest changes brought about the increasing presence of corporate names is the change to the musical year. Rather than continuing with the traditional three singles and build-up to the big album schedule, brands are helping push the idea of “a little, more often” by popular artists. Blogging on Universal’s site about singer Ellie Goulding’s “collaboration” with Nike, Polydor’s senior digital campaign manager Aaron Bogucki said that the partnership had given fans a new way of connecting with the rising star. He added that it was “still about the music” as they had remixed an EP by her and made the songs into a running soundtrack. Project-derived releases give artists the chance of repeated exposure outside of the usual press cycle. Also, material on the web remains there indefinitely – meaning that it can always be rediscovered by new sets of fans. Anyone who has looked up a video out of nostalgia on YouTube has had the experience of being startled by comments underneath dating from the same day or hour. The more material, the better for the artist.

Creative marketing campaigns might again bring back the sense of occasion lost by the rock and pop industry when it releases new material by popular artists. Those averse to hearing music described as a “loss-leader” to sell iPods or other bits of technology may be appalled by the idea of it being a “passion-point” (according to one speaker at the Internet Week Europe conference) to sell any kind of product, ranging from running shoes to soft drinks. However, the use of music in collaborations and promotions gives artists the opportunity to find new audiences and more attention in a crowded marketplace, through capitalizing on the relationships already built up by the brand.

Brands may also present a kind of salvation to musicians faced with more oppressive deals from record companies desperate to recoup cash lost from dwindling record sales. The infamous “360 deal” is intended to cover profits from every use of an artist’s music or image, which means companies can claim profits from lucrative ringtone profits and merchandise sales, amongst other ventures. If music is seen primarily as a loss-leader by brands, then bands may paradoxically have more to gain. Artist management agencies are increasingly offering the flexibility and skills artists need to navigate the fragmented and tricky market – especially when it comes to sponsorship.

OK Go, who were mostly known as “the band who did the video on the running machines”, formed their own imprint Paracadute after being dropped from EMI, in order to negotiate sponsorship deals which will allow them to realise some of their creative ambitions. Rather than disappearing from the music scene altogether, the band have found their niche as a partner in creative projects with big brands such as Range Rover. Manager Mike Rosenthal told the Guardian’s Behind the Music last year: “[Ok Go] had a lot of marketing campaigns and support from Capitol Records that helped people focus on them, but now they can pursue whatever projects come into their heads instead of having to think about how you drive it back to the sale of recorded media. I don’t think the band would consider ever signing another record deal – or if that would even be an option. They’re just too interested in other things. Especially now that it doesn’t all have to culminate in the release of a piece of plastic that has their music on it. That model is dead for good.”

Chromeo, who came to prominence as a blog favourite, released their dancefloor filler ‘Night by Night’ on Mountain Dew’s Green Label Sound, but opted for Atlantic to release their debut album. Bands may choose a mix and match approach, utilising the strength of labels, and taking advantage of the willingness of brands to supply money for videos and other publicity tools. Realistically, signing to a brand may give an artist more creative control than signing to a label. Phil Holiday, head of sport and entertainment at OMD’s branded content division, told Marketing Week: “Music acts have effectively become media owners and as a result can offer brands direct access to their audience, particularly through social media and experiential executions.”

So what are the downsides for bands? When will companies start expecting more direct involvement in the creative process and demanding name-checks in songs? Will the diversity in independent guitar-based music drop off as more bands aim for sponsorship in place of record deals? Labels can be assured – a survey by Digital Music and Reverb Nation last year found that 75 per cent of artists and bands still see a deal with a major as their main goal.

A broader criticism of artists that collaborate with brands has been the willingness to ignore dodgy work ethics by the company in question. Chris Kaskie of Pitchfork raised the objection when speaking to the New York Times, only to clarify afterwards that he was not using Nike as an example because of the controversy behind their production. However, it is unlikely that artists will stop making political statements, especially in these troubled times. Last year, even Disney scion Miley Cyrus was moved to sing in support of the Wall Street Occupation.

Another question is whether labels will only support buzzbands in the future. There have always been bands that have fluked their way to success despite not being obviously “cool”, but the spirit of innovation in music and style may dissipate as bands become tactical in gaining sponsorship. However, bands might be able to wield more control over their image than ever before if they use the powerful social media tools already at their disposal. Speaking at Internet Week Europe, Joey Swarbric of Alley Cat Music told the audience about his discovery of the teen duo Rizzle Kicks. He said: “When I started managing them at 17, when I discovered them, they didn’t have very much music. They had a backing tape, where they rapped over Christina Aguilera, the Strokes etc, they had a MySpace. What stood out for me was that they were so savvy online, they started it themselves, they didn’t wait for management or label. That’s what attracted me to them. We didn’t go to a manager, but the visuals and the music were in sync already.”

Swarbric also suggested at the same talk that there are bigger changes in the nature of music itself which brands might be able to handle better than monolithic record labels. He pointed out the music dominating the charts was mainly hip-hop and dance – and it was “no coincidence” that these genres were at the top. Indie artists have a much slower turnaround than dance and hip-hop artists, such as Chris Brown, Lil’Wayne and David Guetta. During that time, fans are likely to lose interest. Artists that willingly collaborate with brands can provide more “points of interest” and keep fans hooked. Rap, which exults in brand names, has not suffered in terms of musical credibility – is the notion of “selling out” holding back indie music and making it less appealing to younger people looking for music that really reflects the pace of their own life?

Arguably, there will always be artists who refuse to be sponsored by Pepsi or any brand, and they will find it increasingly harder to get their music to stand out on social networks. But there is always room for new exciting music and brands and platforms are still in the palm of followers and fans (in the Facebook sense), whose tastes aren’t entirely predictable. What has definitely changed is the way we listen to music and brands may be in the best position to make listening feel special again. People are listening to more music than ever, but on their own terms, as a way of measuring out their day and engaging with their friends and networks. Why not use music as a starting-point to sell them goods that reflect their other passions and aspirations?

When bands and brands get together…

Here are some examples of what’s worked and what has failed dismally.

1. Groove Armanda signed with Bacardi in 2008.

The band already had form with the use of their hit song ‘I see you baby’ by carmaker Renault Megane. Their decision to pair with the drinks brand was prompted by Bacardi’s new focus on live music and sponsored tours, organised through the company’s entertainment arm B-Live. Groove Armanda are also contracted to write songs for promos and adverts, while their singles could be distributed for free by the brand’s music venture ‘B-Live Share’. The video called ‘The Good Virus’, brings together the idea of sharing music online for free, and acknowledging the importance of social networks for disseminating new music. Unlike some of the other acts listed here, Groove Armada have always had songs that sounded like commercial anthems. Are some bands simply more suited to working with brands than others? In the future, will bands tailor themselves to certain brands, in the same way that artists before aspired to be on certain record labels?

2.Ok Go/Paracadute -Range Rover

Ok Go made their mark with the treadmills video, scoring to date ten million hits on YouTube. Subsequent efforts sunk with the band eventually being dropped from EMI. However, Ok Go decided to take a sideways move and form their own imprint focusing primarily on one-off projects and creative brand collaborations. One of its biggest projects so far has been working with Range Rover as one of their ‘City Shapers’ – the band organised a musical parade through Los Angeles which was estimated to be eight miles long. While Ok Go never had much artistic credibility, they may have found their place through doing feelgood quirky commercials.

3. Fiat and Faithless – ‘Feelin’ Good’

This unusual collaboration saw Fiat funding a three minute pop music video called ‘Feelin’ Good’ by Faithless, in which the Punto made a brief appearance. In the video, the interior of the car is shown by reflections in the front mirror, under which hang puppets of Sister Bliss and Maxi Jazz. This does not at all reflect Faithless’s subconscious feelings about collaborating with Fiat, we are informed. The project gave birth to what Fiat called a “prommercial” with the video being aired during a commercial break, potentially baffling viewers with its lack of obvious product placement or branding. Following the premiere-like showing of the prommercial, the song was integrated into a conventional advert form which featured a 30 second snatch of the song. Commenting on the venture and the band’s distribution through Tesco’s music arm, Bliss told The Independent: “You do what you can to get your music out there. People who get up in arms about these things obviously have no idea about how desperately difficult it is to put records out now and make any sort of living out of it, especially in this period of excessive [free] downloading.”

4. Nelly ‘Air Force Ones’

The best example of what can go wrong when brands appear to have some direct involvement in the song-writing process. Amazingly, Nelly’s ‘Air Force Ones’ even features a reference to Foot Locker, as well as verses outlining his opinion on each variant on the trainer. The song is in the lineage of music about favourite footwear. The Pack’s ‘Vans’ was a heartfelt tribute to feeling confident when wearing your sneakers. Run DMC enthusiastically celebrated wearing Adidas in the imaginatively-titled ‘My Adidas’ back in 1985, inspiring fans to lift their trainers in the air like they just don’t care. However, ‘Air Force’ Ones may have not have done the artist and brand any favours. Sample lyrics include: “I’m just a sneaker pro/I love pumas and shell toes/(Big boy) but cant nothing compare to a fresh crispy white pair (big boy)”.

5. Jack White ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’

Made in 2006, one of the earliest collaborations on the list and possibly one of the most surprising. Jack White wrote ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’ for the Nagi Noda-directed Coke ad, commissioned by ad agency Mother. At the time White Stripes were taken as the resurgence of a kind of home-grown DIY rock, with the duo bringing together mystique and style in one neat package. At the time, Noel Gallagher of Oasis accused White of selling out for penning the song. However, White claimed that he had always been a fan of the brand, and had previously written 100-second songs intended to be used for Coca-Cola adverts, even as a teenager. In concord, the brand made use of White’s trademark red outfits to insist that the singer and guitarist’s love of Coca-Cola stretches to wearing its colours. The ad also became an event in its own right. Coca-Cola aired the 100-second long promotional video in an ad break for Channel 4’s The Chart Show.

6. Kid Cudi, Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino and Rostam of Vampire Weekend ‘All Summer’

One of the most notable releases to come out of Converse’s Rubber Tracks studio. The shoemaker brought together three very different and much blogged artists voices to create this strange track, which sounds like when you accidentally layer YouTube tracks by opening several browsers at once. This song got a lot of blogging attention because of its off-kilter feel. ‘All Summer’ utilises Cosentino’s sweet hook against Cudi’s rhymes. Bethany Cosentino told the New York Times that there was no brief from Converse, other than to create a summery vibe with the track. Could there be more collaborations such as this in the future? Rather than the organic relationships we see develop between bands, brands could be instrumental in bringing together buzzbands and artists. Who is to argue that it doesn’t yield creative work? Artists could also find that collaborating is a way of raising their own stock and reaching the ears of music lovers that would be otherwise closed off to different genres. Feeding into audience’s tastes for new material and up-dates, Converse also documented the recording process with some behind-the-scenes footage. The brand’s music projects are a way of capitalising more strategically on their long presence in the history of indie and alternative music.

7. Taco Bell’s Feed the Beat and New Found Glory

New Found Glory rant about the trials of touring in ‘Truck Stop Blues’ – but they don’t have to worry about food with their Taco Bell Bucks. Singer Jordan Pundik gurns into the camera complaining about being in a different state every night, where each truck stop providing the same bland food opportunities. Midway, the Taco Bell Truck appears like manna from heaven, only witnessed by one of the band members, who runs to eat his meal secretly in the bathroom. A giant Taco Bell logo is evident only for a few seconds on the very left of the screen, but it registers. For a second it feels like an advert, but even then the line is drawn by the fact that New Found Glory would probably be too abrasive for regular television audiences (even though the YouTube comments are peppered with debates on the relative authenticity of Blink 182 and Bowling for Soup). It’s not known whether the song was inspired by the Taco Bell Truck or whether the its title provided a handy opportunity for synthesis. Pop-punkers New Found Glory are signed to the legendary independent label Epitaph, and no doubt the label could do with some Taco Bell Bucks. It’s a long way since label founder Brett Gurewitz set up Epitaph as a P.O.Box and a logo in order to distribute his band Bad Religion’s records.

The Return Of The ‘Hit Factory’ …

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Nostalgia can be a curious beast. While some things are certainly worthy of the rose-tinted-specs treatment – your first love, your wedding day, the time you totally beat those noobs with the rocket launcher on ‘Battlefield 3′ and then ranted excitedly to your girlfriend, who just shook her head in regretful disdain – sometimes the past should stay buried in the past. It may have seemed like a good idea to buy that Spin Doctors album back in 1993, but look at the scenario objectively. Was it? Well? Was it? Where are your ‘Two Princes’ now, huh? Huh?

Ahem. We’re only broaching the subject because today saw an interesting announcement: that 1980s UK hitmakers Stock, Aitken and Waterman are getting ‘the gang’ back together for a special reunion gig which will see their roster of stars hitting the stage once more. Who does this roster of stars include? Well … Jason Donovan, Bananarama, Sinitta, Dead Or Alive, Steps and Rick Astley. Not exactly The Who reforming for Live Aid, is it?

Oh, look – we know it’s very easy to be snobby. We’re in no way decrying lightweight pop music as an art form. Not everything the ‘Hit Factory’ (the label applied to themselves by producers Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman) did was terrible. Everyone has gleefully danced to ‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’ at some point in their lives. The career of Kylie Minogue has seen some genuinely decent moments, such as ‘Confide In Me’.

And then there’s this:

Yep, that’s right – Stock, Aitken and Waterman were indirectly responsible for the ‘Rick-rolling’ phenomenon, which means that we should at least give them some credit for all the internet lulz they gave us back in 2007. Still: would anyone really want to attend a revival gig featuring such acts?

Kylie aside, the pop-culture impact of The Hit Factory’s line-up has been negligible at best – so this reunion event lacks the kitsch factor of watching now-unfashionable pop acts who defined an era. Despite their bluster and bravado, Stock, Aitken and Waterman were seen as a joke even at the height of their fame. What would be the possible benefit of seeing their acts in 2012?

There’s nothing wrong with the nostalgia rush of chatting about awful 80s pop with your friends over a few beers. But actively reviving it? Paying money (that could go to new, exciting artists) to watch artists you know for a fact are, well, utter garbage? That’s irony hyperdrive; sneering post-modernism gone too far. Remember – The Hit Factory once described the people who bought their records as “ordinary people with Woolworth ears”. It doesn’t matter if you’re giving them cash ‘ironically’ or not – you’re still giving them cash.

So: what do you guys think? Can nostalgia sometimes be exploited for dubious reasons? Or is this all a bit of harmless fun?

Check Out Episode Seven Of BAMM Global Scene: London

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It’s Friday, Friday, Friii-daay which means a) it’s almost time for the weekend, and b) you can treat yourself to another great episode of BAMM’s Global Scene. Two reasons to celebrate, we’re sure you’ll agree.

Continuing our in-depth look at various facets of the London music scene, Episode 7 concentrates on the fans: the people whose support and loyalty keeps every element of the scene alive. How does this fan network interact with artists? How has fan support evolved alongside the fantastic opportunities afforded by modern technology? All these topics and more, discussed by a roster of London’s best up-and-coming artists – all in the video above.

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