SOSN Post 2 – How it started vs. how it’s going

While this meme has been flying around (see Ellie Goulding’s cool muso related effort at this link) – it has me thinking about the nature of popular music today. How exactly did we get here? How does the current state of pop compare to where we came from? A big topic no doubt. But let’s try to express this story succinctly shall we?

How it started

The music business was perfect for a long time. Radio was engineered to channel and market songs into the homes of teenagers, record chains were the outlets for owning your own copy of your favourite song at a massive premium – a copy which would no doubt need replacing soon enough (LPs scratch easily!). Rolling Stone magazine decided who would be the next big hit, and there was limited access to recording studios and marketing of content across the world. It all added up to a business that seemed perfect, one that could run for ever and ever.

How it’s going

The digital revolution destroyed this perfect business while enabling something extraordinary: easy access to the market by new musicians, and a quick and easy way to find every song ever recorded.

There is no returning to the perfect days of the LP (despite what the audiophiles and the small revivals would have us believe) – and in the last 20 years the artists have no doubt suffered as revenue streams dried up and touring became the most lucrative avenue. We have been force fed old music on tour for a long time. Just look at the highest grossing tours of the last 20 years.

So pop music is going much differently than before. But it is again (recently, finally) making money. Streaming of music is profitable and there is hope for future talent to feel as though they can get into the industry and have a future.

An imperfect industry then. But perhaps a more honest and fair industry allowing access to those who had none in days gone by.

Happy Wednesday, Chimps.

SOSN Post 1 – A remake

Something Old.

Cat Stevens’ ‘Tea for the Tillerman’ was the fourth studio album from the songwriter, released in November 1970. This was the album that gained Stevens a global audience and mega-hits. When I decided to write this piece, I listened through the old album (something old….see what I did there?) and I felt like I knew the songs well. This was a little disconcerting because I have never been a huge fan of Stevens’ music. Even when you factor in the radio play of the old hit singles (everyone knows ‘Father and Son’) I couldn’t figure out why I recognised all the songs, the tunes the lyrics – so well. And then it hit me.

When I was at university 13 years ago, I shared a house with a guy who did two things all day – he played tennis and listened to Cat Stevens. This album was seared into my unconscious memory thanks to Room-Mate-Rowan. This is for you Rowan – where ever you are I hope the racket strings are holding up well. And I hope your musical taste has diversified!…..but i digress.

Listening back on the album today, its simplicity of tune and depth of message is as clear as ever. With sensitivity and poignant songs on pressing issues of the time – diverse topics such as spirituality, family, gender – it is easy to see the linkages and the lineage of Stevens to more modern artists such as Coldplay, James Blunt, or Luka Bloom.

On the downside – Stevens had a less soothing vocal tone than someone like James Taylor. Listening through the album all the way is sometimes a little laboured and slow. The production on ‘Tea For the Tillerman’ is also a little flat and monotonous. Stevens was at his best when roused to stretch his voice and give us some volume – Some dynamism to his singing. See ‘Miles From Nowhere’ for example.

The hits remain truly great songs though. Fine structure, melody and a searching for spiritual clarity resulted in such radio friendly songs as ‘Father and Son’, ‘I Might Die Tonight’ and ‘On The Way To Find Out’.

Once he found his devotion to Islam, Stevens changed his name and quit the music business – the newly named Yusuf Islam stopped making music for a long time. Until now.

Something New.

Flash forward to September 2020 and Yusuf Islam is back making music. Yusuf has reimagined the album as ‘Tea For The Tillerman2‘.

The old songs are given new life through the singer’s more weary voice and the new production. The reimagined songs highlight a love of the blues and North African influences. Some of the bluesy modifications are simply inspired – for example see the lead guitar on ‘Hard Headed Woman’ and the slide on ‘Miles From Nowhere’. ‘Wild World’ swings delightfully and on ‘Father And Son’ Yusuf sings with his younger recorded self to dramatic effect.

This is a new take on a classic which is well worth visiting. Even if you didn’t have Room-Mate-Rowan as a Cat Stevens drill sergeant in your impressionable university years, you’ll likely relate to both of the album versions well. The original album was so solid that Yusuf is able to use it as a fine launching pad to express himself today. I’m a fan of the new version over the older one. Listening to the two in close succession is fascinating and well worth the effort, as is looking up the new eco-themed music videos (simply beautiful animation) and album cover modification.

Investment options in music

My friend has improved at playing the guitar. Particularly during lockdown this year he has spent time learning, recording and sharing songs online. His repertoire has grown. An investment in his own musical skills which will pay off many times over.

His efforts got me thinking about investment in music. The result is a scattering of options in the form of a blog post. Here are a few random thoughts and discoveries from looking at investment options in music.

There’s a company called Hipgnosis which recently listed on the London Stock Exchange. It buys up music catalogues from artists or other owners with the view that the IP will retain its value and pay back the investment over time as the songs continue to sell. You can buy their shares on the LSE today.

In March 2008, Anchorage Capital Partners announced The Guitar Fund, a $100M fund investing in the rare and vintage guitar market, citing an average annual return of over 31%, according the ’42 Guitars’ tracking index. I would find these sorts of guitars impossible to let go of, and very stressful to keep with toddlers running around my house wielding weapons and generally destroying everything in their wake.

Music Memorabilia can also be a source of alternative investment income or growth if you have the time and the inclination. There is a market for almost anything touched by a rock star. Proof of the rock n roll connection is often the hard part. I have some signed pics of Clapton, Beach Boys, BB King and Aerosmith. Hopefully the signatures are all real. How would I ever find out?

How do you invest in music?

Music plus tech

As a teenager I used to think I would listen to my walkman for the rest of my life. It was so essential to me – the cassette tapes I had painstakingly curated, the stock of fresh AA-size batteries, the headphones I found in an airport in England. The ritual of plugging it all in and pushing play. It just didn’t get any better.

One day in my early 20s I found my dad’s LP collection and an old hifi setup. I heard classics like Otis Redding and Springsteen in such clarity and power. Besides the fidelity, there was the long beautiful process of choosing the record, cleaning it, playing one side through and flipping it over, reading the liner notes, poring over the album covers, adjusting the needle and the audio settings. A new ritual was born. My life changed.

Now in my 30s I have my iPhone and an Apple watch. New tech, new ritual. I can call up any song I want no matter where I am. The digital liner notes are getting better every day and the sheer convenience of Bluetooth and music on the go is changing my life again. Don’t even get me started on Spotify’s daily mix and discover weekly playlists. That revolution in curation is a topic for another post.

Older forms of technology can all still be used of course. And often they retain their original power even though the convenience factor is low. Vinyl has made a come back. Audiophiles also tout the benefits of CDs and cassettes. For me this means I now have an arsenal of ways to access the Music drug. The music is the constant, Platonic form while the tech revolves and morphs around it in a clumsy, circular dance.

Perhaps one day the headphones will be nothing more than chips in our brains. A neuralink device Elon Musk sells for a fee. What might a music listening ritual look like for this scenario?

I get comfort from the fact that the music never changes. Taste and quality may vary, but a song is a song no matter what. The catalogue keeps on growing, but the essential form and function of a song is set. It is information in the form of a sound wave being received by the brain. Only the tech for delivery varies.

Covering songs – Struggling vs Story-telling

Good singing is about story-telling. It’s pretty easy to hear when a singer is struggling with a tune. The voice doesn’t quite convince the listener. Perhaps the timing is slightly off. Most importantly, it doesn’t sound authentic. There is no sense of a story being told.

There’s this thing that happens once you know a song really well. Once you have played and played and played the song, the technical stuff moves out the way and you can focus on telling the story – imbuing the song with emotional labour and making a connection with the listener. This applies to much more than music, of course.

The thing that is interesting is that this authenticity (or lack of it) doesn’t really reflect technique, ability or skill. Even great technical singers can make a song sound empty. Instead, it’s about how well you know the song from every different angle. How convinced you are as the singer that the story needs to be told. By classical opera standards, Bob Dylan has a technically terrible voice but he is utterly compelling.

Rambling post – but I am convinced that the old adage that ‘practice makes perfect’ means that practice opens up a singer to perfectly tell a story the way they want to in order to connect to the audience.

Happy Thursday chimps.

Remote drumming

Today was a first. I laid down a drum track using the iPad, and sent it overseas to my dad in Kenya for him to overlay guitar and vocals.

I know musicians have been doing this for ages, but Covid19 is forcing us to use the tools at our disposal and pushing us out of our comfort zones. For me that means sticking to a blogging commitment and producing music with family overseas.

I just love the internet.

Happy Sunday chimps.

Boyhood and Classical

When I was a boy, my mother used to sing in a choir. She would go to evening practices and perform classical pieces such as Handel’s ‘Messiah’. At the time it was not so obvious what the appeal was. I could see how the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones had an effect, but the slower and more formal music seemed all too stuffy, dull and boring. My friend and I were once dragged to a concert which we filmed, adding a tagline to the video which read “Party Time” sarcastically. We were bored boys.

Nowadays I am just beginning to understand the appeal of classical music. It can be magnificient. Uplifting. Lush.

One thing it requires is patience. If you can turn on a piece of classical music and just sit still and listen, before you know it you are loving the feelings, emotions, harmonies. Like a painting laid out infront of you it becomes the only thing that you have in your head. Sometimes it takes away the rest of the world. These moments are just lovely and unique to the genre for me.

I have just found Spotify’s Classical section and highly recommend the following playlist:

Who’s number 1? Plus an infographic

I just spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out who is the number 1 streaming artist on Spotify. (FYI it’s Justin Bieber). Spotify doesn’t make it very easy to find this out – I ended up getting the figure from Wikipedia. This search led me to the below chart showing how the music industry is making money again through streaming. (link)

What these figures point to is a very complex formula for ever declaring an album as “Number 1”. Gone are the straightforward days of measuring LPs sold. It is a weighted calculation, subject to bias and change over time.

Spotify itself is not making much money. For now the Company is beholden to the record companies (link) for their back catalogues (and to a lesser extent, their A&R and recording infrastructure). But one day perhaps it will break free from this like Netflix has from Hollywood.

Waste, tension, and music

The garden waste piles up each week in the corner of the property. Each time the gardener cuts the grass, sweeps up the leaves, or cuts down a branch he puts the waste into bags, and these bags pile up until a truck is organized to cart it off for composting. As the owner of the property this system can stress me out. Watching the relentless growing piles of waste sometimes feels like one of those awkward “white lie” situations – you know the one – you’ve told a little lie or made a transgression which is never confessed. The lie gets bigger and bigger, worse and worse until there is inevitably a release. Either you and your lie are found out, or you tell the truth. The pickup truck taking the waste away feels like eventually telling the truth.

Great music is just like my home’s waste management system. When a song is well written, a tension builds for the listener. The verse builds up to the chorus. The verse places bags of musical notes and dead ends in the corner of the listener’s head. Repeated phrases and hooks. A story in need of some resolution. Eventually the tension is too great and a switch to the chorus is like a clearing out of all the accumulated rubbish. The verse is the lie and the chorus is the truth.

This is most obvious for me in blues music. Think of Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man”. The verse is simple and repetitive to the point of ridicule. The harmonica’s five notes over and over moaning and groaning that Something huge is coming. Trust me he’s coming. Gypsy woman told my momma. Muddy is coming. Just now……Wait for it. It’s almost unbearable until Muddy grants us sweet relief with “But you know I’m here!” The chorus plays and all the rubbish in our mind is cleared away. Then the cycle starts again with verse 2. What a song.