Time for another of our great in-depth features from our BAMM.tv London correspondent Zakia Uddin. This time around, Zakia looks at the state of modern radio …
Musicians have been singing about the death of commercial radio for over thirty years, but it’s only now that the rest of the entertainment industry is in agreement. Todd Pringle of the online curation app Stitcher can think of few advantages that terrestrial radio has over online radio: “There aren’t too many – from a user perspective, terrestrial radio is pretty poor. You’re beholden to a particular schedule which may or may not fit with yours, often have to stop listening at inopportune times (i.e. arrive at work), and can’t go back and pick up where you left off.”
The projected future of online radio has long been curation. Has curation been displaced by the driving force of personalisation, at a time when we trust algorithms more than DJs? Some of the BAMM.tv team were way ahead of the curve back in the days of Open Thread Radio. One of BAMM.tv’s predictions for 2013 was the rapid growth of online radio and streaming services. The picture online is even more dynamic now, and threatens to change radio as we know it. Has radio failed to stay relevant? And if that is the case, what did manager and business mogul Troy Carter mean earlier this year when he said that radio is ripe for “disruption”?
Here’s another of our in-depth articles from our London-based correspondent Zakia Uddin. This time, she looks at the increasingly prevalent modern phenomenon of the comeback artist …
Justin Timberlake announced his comeback this year – yes, JT. Put it this way, the 32-year-old’s first release was back when Dubya had been in power for less than a year and the first dot com bubble had just exploded (‘Like I Love You’, below).
The comeback has always occupied a special place in the world of music. Unlike political comebacks, musical ones rarely the same renewed vigor. You don’t humour a politician (or at least we don’t think we do) but the force of nostalgia is enough to get people excited about a singer or band’s return. We’re never quite sure whether to take it seriously – arguably, we’re even more cynical about musicians’ abilities than we are about those of politicians. Will they be as passionate as they used to be? What if they aren’t as good as we remember? What does that say about us? Worst of all, they remind of us how old we’re getting.
There was a more (or less) cynical time – depending on your point of view – when making a comeback was like doing an encore. Or comebacks were only for the kind of musicians who did encores, who couldn’t get enough, and were willing to spin out the old hits for an unimaginative audience. So what’s changed? It’s a real truism that touring is the only way to generate money – correspondingly many bands have sucked it up and gone touring together, including legendary fall-outs like the Stone Roses (below).
Generally, rock music comebacks have always seemed more dignified. It involves a different kind of struggle, as though they just didn’t want to come back until they were truly inspired. Click on ‘more’ to continue!
There are major shifts waiting to happen this year in how we consume music. 2013 is likely to see the expansion of trends from last year – the shift towards streaming, the rise of social television, and increasing use of video content online.
But the impact of all of these factors means the shape of the digital music landscape will dramatically change before the year is out. Will personal music collections be entirely displaced by portable libraries? Will crowd-funding become a standard procedure for tours? We consider these possibilities and more in a roundup of this year’s expected trends.
Ownership versus accessibility
This year sees big developments in the streaming subscription market with the arrival of Google, Microsoft and Apple’s new loan services. They are all keen to take on the growing might of Spotify, which has so far managed to take the largest share of the market via its partnership with Facebook. Owning music could become secondary to portability and accessibility across multiple devices. Arguably, ownership might even be seen as a burden given syncing and copyright issues.
What does this mean for musicians, given the negligible rates given by streaming services? Last year, Damon Krukowski of Galaxie 500 highlighted how 680,462 plays of his record ‘Tugboat’ (above) garnered only a soul-destroying $9.99. It’s unlikely the margins will grow – though some might argue a bigger market with more competitors will create more revenue for everyone. However, it could also make it harder for musicians to claim fees as companies compete to keep subscription charges low. Pandora is currently contesting the fee paid out to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for digital radio plays of artists. It is likely only the biggest artists will benefit from keeping their music away from streaming services – as shown by the high sales enjoyed by Adele and Coldplay.
It’ll be interesting to see how many major musicians make their music available and the correlation between sales and their music’s availability on the streaming services. Either way, the year will mark the decisive break with the ownership culture as the biggest technology creators become effectively lending libraries of content.
The first ever fully-sponsored album?
Here on BAMM we’ve previously discussed the increasingly close relationship between brands and bands. Even the most credible of musicians have lent themselves to one-off projects by companies. One of the weirdest collaborations this year has been ‘Gatwick: The Departure Lounge Sessions’, which featured a 30-minute track by Benga which corresponded to the 30-minute journey between Gatwick and London Victoria.
Could we see an extension of that trend so that musicians end up writing whole entire albums themed or inspired by brands? What’s certain is that it’s not just the obvious suspects who would be up for doing product placement. At the moment, it may be musicians who are getting the best end of the deal. Working with brands guarantees a payout at a time when sales are so low. Brands are also stepping in to nurture and develop musicians from the outset, creating long-term relationships in order to tap into younger audiences. Conversely, consumers may take to personalising brands in ways that make image control near-obsolete. Given the power of social media and Facebook, even the coolest brands may have to roll with the punches.
The return of MySpace
MySpace’s acknowledged strengths were always its music sharing and DIY aspects. For many bands, trying to cut out the noise of Facebook activity to get a few ‘likes’ is too difficult. New MySpace has had mixed reviews but its music functionality is better than ever. The new site (as trailed below) is clearly aimed at a younger ‘creative’ demographic – which is ideal for bands who want to take a hands-on approach to their promotion.
Focusing on sound
The rise of the visual is unquestionable – we have ever bigger screens on all our devices to accommodate more video content and visual information. But sound-only platforms have a role to play. Soundcloud has enjoyed its biggest year yet with more exclusives and streaming from performers like Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent. One of the major appeals for musicians is the convenience of uploading a track, without the faff of a big launch or shoot. Given low marketing budgets, more musicians could start using sound-only platforms to reach out directly to fans and reward them with special cuts and additional work.
More ethical models
The fightback has begun already. BAMM leads on the way on this trend, giving artists a fair rate for their tracks. Some sites such as Bandcamp are giving bands the chance to sell their music and merchandise directly to fans, taking a much smaller cut of the proceeds than sites such as iTunes.
Digital radio and personalised radio
BAMM was in on this early with its Open Thread radio. The internet has breathed new life into the radio medium. The trend will explode in 2013 with the development of multiple streams, podcasts, and local digital radio stations redefining the relationship between the global and the local. Radio is also relatively low-tech, opening it up to more DIY producers and labels. Personalised radio will continue to grow, but there should be platforms designed entirely for sharing carefully compiled and curated tracks with friends.
While platforms like Pandora and Last FM are dominated by more hardcore fans of music, sites such as Turntable FM (above) which combine gaming and social networking could bring together new audiences. In short, personalised radio platforms could appeal to the entire music-buying community, by offering the chance to discover and customise in easy ways.
More sophisticated music discovery and curation
Music discovery apps, including BAMMs, will become ever more complex and vital to get through the sheer volume of material online. The FOMO (fear of missing out) syndrome is the web’s newest disease, and the best way to tackle it is to call in the curators. Music discovery apps will not only select the best material, they will also order it for you, so that you don’t have to wade through numerous disorganised links.
Apps will have to be able to configure music in different ways – for example, adopting mood-based curation as well as genre and decade. They could also take the place of traditional tastemakers such as magazine websites. Expect a lot of morphing between the two formats.
The rise and rise of video
Despite Youtube’s success, few media outlets have really gone for exclusive video. This could change massively in 2013 with predictions from Cisco that video will grow to drive 80 per cent of traffic across the internet. Music will play a major part of this, given that most songs neatly fit the three to four minute limit for a standard online video. Services like XBox Music (below) have also made playing music, watching video and gaming on one device manageable for even the biggest technophobe.
No barriers cosmopolitan music trends
Gangnam Style (below) has become the most popular Youtube video ever uploaded (please let’s not talk about Ai Wei Wei and the Anish Kapoor versions). While Psy has been dismissed as unrepresentative of Korean music or a novelty act, the music has actually seen a wave of interest in non-Western pop.
More specialised crowdfunding
There are already dedicated music crowdfunding platforms, but none which specialise in concert funding yet. Touring is still a tried and trusted way to build up a fanbase. The ideal platform could enable networks of fans to chip in together to bring musicians over, making more bands perform off the traditional tour route.
Outlier trends: The hologram trend
The biggest comeback of 2012 was also the least expected. Tupac appeared at last year’s Coachella, giving rap a genuinely hair-raising edge. The most astonishing thing was that the company Digital Domain Media Group animated the entire performance, rather than pulling it from an archive. Could this be the beginnings of a niche industry, devoted to reanimating and choreographing holograms for old fans and newcomers? You can’t buy charisma but you sure as hell can try to project it.
Tupac (above) was an obvious candidate for revival – in fact, the hologram (when first spoken about) appeared to be a smart joke about the fact that the late rapper sold more after his death than he did before it. The music industry is pretty unconscionable when it comes to making money off the back of its deceased stars, so who knows how far the trend will go?
The deluxe album
The trend for artisan goods shows no sign of abating. Like the similar trend for slow food and slow living, the deluxe album signals leisure time. The box set used to be something to buy the fangirl or fanboy in your life for Christmas. Now almost every physical release aims to be special, limited and good enough to put on your minimalist bookshelves. The physical album has almost become a statement. Beck released his album ‘Song Reader’ as sheet-music only (above) , reminding us that the format is only a vessel for the real work.
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.
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 …?
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
A welcome return to our monthly series of in-depth articles from Zakia Uddin, all of which explore contemporary issues within the fields of digital, music and media culture. This time around, we take a look at London’s ‘Silicon Roundabout’ – a new development in the ultra-trendy area of Shoreditch which is hyped as a counterpart to America’s Silicon Valley. What’s the deal?
1. Shoreditch grows up
If Nathan Barley – the often-cited comedy about Shoreditch life – was made now, it would undoubtedly be set in a dot.com business. That the show was already dated by the time of its release (Nathan Barley, main character and emblem of vacuous Shoreditch life, had existed on the web for a good five years previously) was testament to the fast-changing nature of the area.
Five or six years on, the part of East London that was a cool in-joke has become the centre of a government growth strategy. In November, David Cameron launched the Tech City map of the Silicon Roundabout – a name coined by the head of Dopplr, one of the first start-ups resident in the area. The roundabout is at the junction between the City and Old Street, at which there is a high concentration of digital start-ups.
The map has been swelled by over 400 businesses, since its unveiling. Currently, 1073 companies of different sizes operate in the area. The launch was timed with several announcements of government collaborations with big business to support growth and technical innovation, which is intended to impact on digital start-ups stretching from the Roundabout to Stratford. These include Google setting up a development centre that gives office space to new companies, as well as Intel’s introduction of optic fibre internet to the area.
The socio-cultural sway of the EC1 postcode seemed to have peaked in 2001. Any club-goer stumbling out of a club at 4am would have been given a copy of ‘Shoreditch Twat’, an old-fashioned zine with hand-drawn cartoons depicting the lives of the city’s hipster nightlife, ironic mullets and all.
Though the area has lost its intimidating fashionable image, the continuing availability of cheap unused warehouse space made it an attractive location for start-ups. Unsurprisingly, a left-field influence is still evident in the kind of start-ups the roundabout has attracted, though this has also diversified in recent years.
While the days of the Shoreditch Twat are over (the ‘twats’ have moved to nearby Dalston now, if Vice is to be believed), artists and designers still congregate to Brick Lane, and the area has several important music venues including the Macbeth, the Vice-owned Old Blue Last and CAMP, a relatively new venture on the City side of the roundabout. Though many locals would be loath to spend a weekend night in Shoreditch now, creativity still abounds whether it be in fashion, visual art, media – or computer coding.
The collaborative spirit of the arts scene has extended to the ways in which businesses have nurtured each other since their early days. At the map launch David Cameron told attendees: “One year ago we made a major commitment to helping the tech cluster in east London grow. The successful growth we see today is thanks to the talented, creative entrepreneurs who have decided to set up there.”
The TechHub is one such project that began with an investment made into Moo, one of the bigger companies in the area. While Google and Financial Times owner Pearson gave the investment, the project itself is the kind that could only be initiated by a company that knows the unique needs of the Shoreditch working environment. The TechHub has served as home to several start-ups, offering both a communal space and an ideas network which arguably would have been harder to develop organically.
Other developments begun by companies in the area include digital music firm Songkick‘s Silicon Milkroundabout which aims to pair investors together with start-ups for funding. So … with this much initiative, what has been the impact of the government’s announcements?
Charles Armstrong of social analytics firm Trampoline Systems, the designers of the interactive Tech City map, told Bamm.tv that there is a new “self-consciousness” about the unique mix of technological and creative talent in the area, which has been crucial to the growth rate. The company created the map in order to monitor the growth and interactions of the businesses in the area now designated ‘Tech City’, using its unique SONAR technology.
Armstrong cites the statistic from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that even naming a cluster can result in a 25 per cent growth in business creation. He commented: “It might seem an unimportant thing, but a name being attached to it and official recognition and policies have definitely changed the mentality.” Another tangible change he notes has been the introduction of big businesses in what Armstrong describes as the “eco-system”.
There is still a great deal to come, including a regional growth fund of £95 million for small and medium-sized firms struggling to get access to commercial funding. In addition, the government is planning to get a branch of Silicon Valley Bank (with its extensive experience of working with the digital economy) to open up in the City. Google’s new office, which will open in September 2012, will give space to new businesses, all of whom will get the opportunity to interact with world-class developers. In February, Cisco pledged that it would invest hundreds of millions of dollars into businesses in the area.
Many see this intermingling of big and small firms as an opportunity to expand skill-sets – on both sides of the equation. Speaking at November’s Internet Week Europe, Rebecca Quinn of the social media software company Wildfire Interactive said: “I think both components – big and small companies – are essential. Bringing big companies into East London means you’re introducing a certain level of expertise in development, product management and such like.” A similar debate at London’s Hospital Club saw a general agreement among the panellists that the entrance of big businesses would benefit all parties.
Innovation was cited as the biggest benefit for larger companies, which can be often be less flexible when it comes to taking risks with new ideas. Investor Sherry Couto said at Internet Week Europe: “On the innovation side, there is a lot more ambition from the smaller companies.” She described a recent gathering where nine companies that had less than 20 employees each managed to demonstrate that they can save £10 million in contrast to larger companies.
It is not just about savings – investors also recognise that it is important to be hands-off in their approach and nurture the qualities that attracted them to the growing business in the first place. Carlos Espinal of accelerator Seed Camp, who was also present on the panel, commented in response that investors are likely to have little impact on the creativity of smaller organisations – other than encouraging a greater flow of ideas. “The bigger the networks,” he said, “the bigger collisions of ideas you can have. With the larger players coming in, with their APIs being the backbone of the internet, it provides the way for the communities that develop to have closer access to the engineers that are actually making stuff.
“It creates for more social events where ideas can be shared, closer and faster exchange of ideas. From a creative point of view, it will be a more supplemental thing.” The best evidence of this? The digital music start-ups that can be counted as some of the biggest successes of the Silicon Roundabout.
2. Success stories
Last FM, Songkick, Music Metric and Rjdj are just four of the most notable names in the area. Arguably, these businesses have shown traditional music companies that there are alternative revenue streams, while bolstering existing ones for the struggling industry.
While Songkick has benefited from the rise in gig-going, its web and mobile applications have also worked to increase the awareness of live events. According to the company, its users go to 70 per cent more gigs at the end of a year using the site than they did at the start. The company is also used as an example of how start-ups and small London businesses have successfully managed reverse poaching – or rather luring US developers from behemoths such as Google and Apple.
In February, Dan Crow, a former developer at both companies, became head of technology at Songkick, and told TechCrunch that the live music site had “immediately stood out” from the many “exciting new start-ups” he had noticed on his return to London in 2008.
The emphasis on enabling people to find out about new music and events has also motivated other digital music companies. Music recommendation site Last FM began with founder Matt Stiksel asking how it was that people discovered new music that they don’t yet know about.
Launched in the fading light of the dot com boom, the company’s early years were especially difficult. Being bought by CBS changed the scope of what was possible by the company. Founder Martin Stiksel told Net Magazine: “Before the acquisition, we had to run everything at arm’s length. The focus was on making sure the money was there at the end of the month to pay everybody. We had about 45 employees and there was quite a bit of responsibility. Now we can go back, look at the bigger picture, and dust off some off our whiteboards full of ideas that we had collected over the last couple of years and thought we’d never get around to doing.”
While RJDJ comes from a slightly different angle, it is also about personalising the music experience and allowing people to experience it in new and novel ways, rather than seeing it as a holy experience only accessible to those listening by themselves.
The company, which has just relocated to an office that it calls The Mission, specialises in augmented reality and smart music, which enable interactivity. A beneficiary of iPod culture, it takes the idea of sound-tracking one’s every moment a step further. In addition, it allows music lovers to experiment with tracks themselves, and most importantly share the results almost instantaneously with friends. One of its most successful apps allows fans to remix parts of “controllerist” Moldover’s track Toast and then share their unique version with friends.
Its neighbour Music Metric is a company that tracks all the activity by artists across the web. For example, it recently produced a playlist showing which artists were being played the most in a single hour. WhoSampled also supplies another service which is responsive to the wider availability of music on the web. It specialises in identifying samples used in music, and has compiled a ranking of the artists who use the most samples (Dr Dre, for your information, with over 1000). There is also a comprehensive database of covers, built from user knowledge.
While some of the sites seem to serve niche functions, all of them are faced with the same challenges in the digital environment. Digital start-ups working with music are among those that have called for overhauls on intellectual property laws. As well as promising funding, the government has pledged that it will support the digital economy in other ways to become more competitive.
Minister Ed Vaizey said at the Tech City talks held at Imperial College that it was the role of the government to implement the recommendations of the Hargreaves review. The findings of the review, published this year, highlighted the economic benefits of relaxing IP laws and how investors were deterred by the UK’s outmoded framework on copyright.
3. London as a hub of ideation?
So - at this early stage of government involvement – how far does the analogy between Silicon Valley and the Silicon Roundabout really stretch? Silicon Valley has developed over four decades, while the oldest companies in the Old Street area are barely in their teens. In addition, there are fewer hard-tech companies in the area, in comparison to its Californian counterpart.
The firms in Old Street work within a broader range of industries, including the service sector and the transport industry. While there are the big names like Last FM and the design agency Poke, there are also companies such as the hotel recommendation site Sletoh.com and the gift shop Firebox.
It is much more diverse than other tech centers, which adds to the unique feel of the area. Many of the companies have also turned to traditional media to capitalize on digital success. Mind Candy is responsible for Moshi Monsters, which is a “virtual world and online” game which allows children to look after their pet – Tamagotchis for the 21st century. An estimated 34 million children use the site globally, with one in two British children adopting one of the virtual pets. It also spawned a magazine in February 2011, with Mind Candy CEO Michael Acton Smith saying on its publication: “It’s an unusual step launching a print-based magazine to support an established online community, but we think our audience is going to love it. Much of the content and ideas for the magazine was generated by our players, so it should feel very different to other kids’ magazines. Print definitely isn’t dead!”
The diversity of businesses is just one of the things that make the Silicon Roundabout different from Silicon Valley. Many feel that the recent announcements could paradoxically give the East London area the chance to shed misleading comparisons to Silicon Valley.
Among them is Charles Armstrong who comments that “one of the things that has been quite positive” has been hearing the comparison between the two places being used less often in recent months, indicating that East London is being understood as its own “living” and “creative” community. In particular, he cited the unique business and residential patterns which make up the Shoreditch area.
There are other parts of the country where arguably the analogy is far more sustainable. For example, there is Cambridge, which has been home to hard-tech companies for more than a decade now. The point of making London the hub has been because of its unique global connections – the city’s diversity and its ability to attract people from every part of the globe, despite the considerable expense of living here.
Dan Crow told TechCrunch: “The [start-ups] are driven by people who understand the value of technology and, most importantly, the value of building great products that users love.” Secondly, the university system has also been a massive draw, providing a pool of world-class graduates who are impressive to investors. Rebecca Quinn of Wildfire backed this up at Internet Week Europe: “You have so many great universities here: undergraduate and graduate programmes bring people together from all over the world. When you look at that combined with the recent focus from government on Tech City, and a decent hub of venture capitalists in the city, you get this – a hub of ideation.”
Arguably, the government is also hoping to take advantage of the credibility conferred by promoting Shoreditch as a growth area. On the City side of the roundabout, protesters have set up camp in Finsbury Square and UBS Bank in protest against the banking bail-outs and cuts imposed by the government. The Occupy movement’s support has cut across a wide swathe of the public. A recent poll in the Daily Mail found that 91 per cent of its readers believe that it would be wrong for legal action to be taken against the St Paul’s protesters, showing that support has only grown now that the occupiers have delivered their manifesto.
So – while discussing the City in a positive light is becoming harder and harder, the Silicon Roundabout is relatively untarnished and projects an image of the government as forward-thinking and engaged with the new digital economy.
4. Too much, too soon?
Some are critical of the project and believe that the terms used by the Tech City plan show that the government does not really understand the unique nature of the area. One developer, who did not want to be named, commented that the term ‘start-ups’ was being used to describe companies that were actually of very different sizes. He added that big-scale projects such as the “pop-up” mall Boxpark suggest that the local planners also want to bring high street brands to an area that has traditionally thrived on small businesses, digital and otherwise.
There are voices of dissent who believe that the arrival of money could lead to some companies acting prematurely, before they are ready to go to market with their best ideas. Tom Hume, of design firm Ideo, said at Internet Week Europe’s ‘Bootstrapping Your Start-Up’ panel: “There’s more investment cash floating around London in the past year that I’ve seen in the past four or five years. But it’s encouraging exactly the wrong kind of behaviour.
“The right kind of money to raise is the right amount that guarantees that you get to the next value inflection point. You could argue there’s actually a supply problem [in London]. If we are in a bubble, one of the impacts will be that people will be less lean.”
He added that the over-supply problem was more acute in London because digital start-ups here need less money to get going. There is little speculation about the possibility of a bubble among those resident in the Roundabout, if the recent effusive commentary from various entrepreneurs and company founders is to be believed.
The ambitions expressed by the government for the area seemed to be shared by those businesses it is targeting for growth. However, it is undeniable that the more investment will change the collaborative culture to some extent. Arguably, the government’s initiatives have inspired some recent developments such as the Silicon Milkroundabout but there is a general hunger for big-scale success in the area, after stories such as that of Mind Candy and Last FM. Is it possible for the collaborative spirit of the place to be sustained under this pressure?
One entrepreneur believes that companies should look to new models of working as coming from the starting point of competition can waste much human endeavor. Speaking on the same panel as Hume, Sarah Szalavitz of new media consultancy 7 Robot argued that the process of making multiple investments at once, only to buy the fastest-growing company, is an inefficient way of working.
Sarah Szalavitz commented: “I’m less interested in the Davids and Goaliths and considering the possibility that collaborative could be better than competitive. I think a lot of these cases, especially that we’ve seen in the US is that, there have been 50 start-ups that have been funded in the messaging space. Was that an efficient way to invest nearly a billion of dollars for one outcome? Maybe we can think of ways these companies could build on top of each other rather than compete against each other.”
Her fears are not unfounded, as Cisco and Google are known as two of the quickest buyers of potentially lucrative start-ups – raising the prospect of the best start-ups being lured to Silicon Valley. Estate agents have also jumped on the bandwagon, with property services promoting the Silicon Roundabout to companies of all types. This could mean that sectors such as law and accountancy that traditionally pride themselves on the expense and exclusivity of their rented space could move in, changing the character of the area.
However, the excitement about new developments remains palpable among entrepreneurs and developers. While some are concerned about the amount of cash available, there have already been enough recent success stories to show that these businesses are capable of generating huge amounts of cash, rather than just burning through it like their forebears in the dot.com boom.