I’m from Hicksville too

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I read Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville last night. It’s a comic book about a comic book author from a town of comic book enthusiasts. It’s been described as “a love letter to the medium” – but it felt to me more complex than that.

It’s about someone exploring their culture, their heritage and their inheritance – the thing that has both provided both the context and connecting thread for their whole lives, but with which they have an uncomfortable and uncertain relationship.

It’s a homecoming after some time in the wilderness – but with a sense of inevitability and resignation about it. Your community is not the people you choose, the people who like you – or even the people who are like you. They are the people you have ended up with.

I haven’t read a comic book (or graphic novel, if you prefer) for a long time, but I’m a fan of the medium and its rich possibilities for narratives using image as well as text. I have enough of a passing understanding of them to recognise a few of the references. I also know about some of the exploitation in the industry, as well as the mythologising and hero creation (of the artists themselves – not just of their flying crime fighters) that goes on.

It reminded me of the music industry – and my own uncomfortable relationship with it. It’s different in many ways, of course – but everything is similarly complex, fraught and mythological. The love for music and the conditions of its production, the dedication that people have for it despite its challenges as a way of life, and the idea of a canon of work that transcends time – and from which people draw inspiration, meaning and worth.

In Hicksville, there’s a troubled artist. There’s a naive enthusiast. There’s a person who ran away. There’s a keeper of the archives. There’s an entire nation literally adrift. There’s a cartoon manifestation of a subconscious torn between enthusiasm and fatalism… and there are love affairs that are lost and broken – as well as an unbreakable connection with the people and places who go to make up a life.

Hicksville made me feel a couple of things quite strongly: we do this (whatever ‘this’ might happen to be) because it helps express who we are and how we are. And that the important bit is the people, whoever they might happen to be.

Oh – and one third thing: that I’d love to write something that caused someone to feel, rather than just to think.

I already own an original Dylan Horrocks sketch. I knew that Hicksville would be good. It was better than I anticipated. I’ll be going back to it again to get more from it – and I’ll be buying his new one, Sam Zabel and The Magic Pen next…

Questions I haven’t asked Dave Allen

I’m going to be speaking with Dave Allen on Tuesday this week. Dave is Director of Artist and Music Industry Advocacy for streaming music service Beats Music. He also happens to have been the bass player for one of my favourite post-punk / new wave bands of the 80s. No, not Gang of Four – I’m talking about Shriekback.*

Dave is going to give a presentation about Why Musicians Should Embrace Streaming – and then he and I are going to sit down and have a chat.

I’ve been preparing for the conversation, which will be live in front of an audience at Birmingham City University (it’s free, and there are still some seats left – but you’ll need to book now) – and I thought I’d share with you the questions I’m going to be asking Dave to continue the conversation.

Of course, that means he can read these questions ahead of time should he wish. That’s absolutely fine – I’m not trying to trip anyone up. I’m asking these questions to try and find out the answers, as well as to open up the dialogue a little further and take it in some interesting directions.

That said, I may play devil’s advocate from time to time. So here’s what I have in mind…

Continue…

Lessons from Trondheim and elsewhere

I spent my birthday in Trondheim this year. I managed a little record shopping in Copenhagen on the way there too, which was a lovely bonus. In exchange for a little work preparing a keynote presentation for the Europe Jazz Network’s General Assembly at a rather nice hotel, I managed to have a lovely birthday in one of my favourite places on the planet.

As someone who travels a lot, it’s nice to be able to say that there are some places that feel like home to me. Scandinavia is certainly one of those places. I love Norway. I spend a great deal of time in Denmark whenever I can. In fact, I’ve been called an ‘honorary Dane’ on occasion.

Scandinavia just strikes me as incredibly civilised. The food. The cycling. The attitudes. The service. The fact that everything just works. And sure, prices are incredibly expensive there – but I suspect that’s only because I get a salary in a completely different economy.

Mostly I love the music. In many ways, for me, Norway and Denmark in particular have some of the most wonderful music in the world.

Continue…

Deleting Music revisited

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Peter Jesperson inspects the tape vaults at New West Records

A few years ago, I was obsessed with an idea. This is nothing unusual. It happens a lot. It had to do with music, copyright and technology – so no surprises there.

It was going to be a book, but I wasn’t ready to write it. It was going to be a campaign, but I wasn’t ready to lead it. It was going to be a major project, but I wasn’t ready to undertake it.

Starting to think that I might be now. Or at least – I’m increasingly surrounded by people whose set of parameters about what is and isn’t possible in the world is much grander than I’ve been used to, and it’s starting to rub off.

The obsession was something I called Deleting Music. The basic premise is this:

There are millions of songs on iTunes, Spotify, Deezer, Pandora, and so on. Tens of millions. But as impressive as that seems, this is just the tip of the iceberg of our musical heritage.

Most recorded music is not available for sale, is completely unavailable to listen to and does not generate income for anyone. It sits in vaults, unreleased. We’re talking decades of back catalogue master tapes. The history of both popular music culture and unpopular music culture.

95% or more of everything ever released by record labels is utterly inaccessible to the public, and makes no money whatsoever for the music industries or, for that matter, musicians. That number again: 95%. And that’s a conservative estimate.

But what’s worse is that most of this stuff exists in a form that decays over time. Magnetic tape does not last forever, and no matter how well looked after this stuff is, it is becoming irretrievably damaged. All of it. And we’re letting that happen.

We have the capacity and the technology to stop that from happening. Tapes can be digitised. It’s not a trivial problem and there are hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of person hours involved in the task of retrieving, indexing, cataloguing and digitising those tapes. But we can do it.

We can do it with the whole history of books. We can do it with cinema. I’m interested in doing it with music.

But here’s the big problem: even though this music is not commercially valuable to the record labels – or rather, because of that – there is no reason for them to actively preserve this music.

Some companies are more proactive than others – major labels are more of a serious problem than independents simply because of catalogue depth and the primacy of corporate profit motive over all other considerations.

They own the recordings as assets of the business, which means that nobody else can have access. But they do not see a commercial upside to investing in preserving or making available recordings that nobody has been interested in for 30, 40 or 50 years, so they simply do not bother. Why would they?

Other than the fact that the tapes fall apart…

For want of a dividend to investors, the vast majority of our recorded music heritage is being systematically deleted through neglect.

Like I say – I don’t think this is a trivial problem to solve. It’s a complex one. There’s a tangle of legal rights to deal with. There’s a technological and workflow solution to devise. There is a case to be made at a policy level as well as an entire industry to get on board.

But I think that there’s a way to begin to address this problem. To save much of what hasn’t already been lost. I believe a case can be made at a policy level. I think that a solution can be devised that intervenes and arrests that deterioration process. Most importantly – and this is the thing that has changed for me – I’m beginning to think that a profit incentive can be developed through innovation, which will start to remove the blocks that currently prevent this from happening.

It is not up to us what is of interest to the cultural archaeologists of the future. We can’t select to preserve only music recordings on the grounds of their popularity or commercial viability, because we don’t know that this will continue to be the criteria by which our culture’s musical history will be measured.

Museums will tell you they are as interested in the artefacts that ancient cultures discarded as they are in those that were treasured.

Our responsibility is to make sure that as much of our culture is preserved as is possible. We can learn from it. We can build on it. It can inspire new works. It can be studied and used to illuminate understandings of who we are and what we value.

Because even though we don’t necessarily have an obvious commercial incentive to save everything, and nor do we currently have the technological and legal means by which we might achieve this aim, we sure as hell have the storage capacity and the moral imperative.

Music is not just entertainment commodity. It speaks to who we are as a society and a culture. It’s time to stop sitting on our hands while we watch the vast majority of our musical history simply crumble to dust.

Let’s solve this problem.


Thanks to Craig Hamilton of Harkive, Jez Collins of the Birmingham Music Archive and Simon Grigg of Audio Culture for reminding me just how strongly I felt about this. Time to get to work. I’ll let you know as soon as I know just exactly what that work might entail…

The Digital Music Grand Canyon

Let’s rewind…

In September 1995, the first consumer mp3 encoding software was released, allowing computer users to store digital music on their hard drives. At this time, typical hard drive sizes ranged between 500 and 1000 MB in size, so data compression was essential.

While it took time and persistence (because of dialup speeds), it became possible to transmit these compressed files to other computer users around the world over networks such as IRC and USENET.

In June 1999, Shawn Fanning, John Fanning and Sean Parker launched Napster, which allowed peer-to-peer sharing of music over the internet through a user-friendly interface. Just six months later, after the service had accumulated 80 million users, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) sued.

Throughout the 1990s, record and cassette collections were gradually, and finally, replaced by compact discs. Back catalogue sales, which had formed such a massive part of the music industry revenue stream for nearly fifteen years, dwindled – and in the year 2000, CD sales had hit their all-time peak.

There was a downturn in the music industry – and so, inevitably – rightly – budgets were slashed.

At the same time, the cost of music production dropped in all sorts of ways, and the potential to make and release music was, for want of a better word, democratised (insert massive disclaimers here about the problematic nature of that word).

Hold down the pause button

For a while, everyone held their breath. The ‘music piracy’ can of worms had been opened. The record industry faced an inevitable downturn – for many reasons, most entirely unrelated to unauthorised downloading, though you might not think so to read anything written about the topic in the press over the ensuing decade.

People made music. People released music. People went to gigs. Things continued, but they were not the same. Something had changed… but it hadn’t finished changing yet.

2000… 2001… 2002…

And then something happened. In fact, quite a few things happened. They happened pretty quickly and they made an incredible impact.

Fast forward

In April 2003, the iTunes Music Store was launched. In August 2003, MySpace was launched. In February 2004, Mark Zuckerberg made what was soon to become Facebook. In February 2005, three former PayPal employees started YouTube. In July 2006, Twitter was launched.

A lot happened that became central to what we now think of as essential to the digital music ecology. But it had come just a little too late for some people.

Between about 1999 and 2004, there was a lot of exceptional music made by a lot of talented artists – many of whom might not have been given the opportunity to record prior to that time. It was an incredibly rich period for music production. Some utterly fantastic records were released.

They may not have had anything like the promotional budget similar acts might have enjoyed just five years earlier – but they were recording and releasing like never before – and in every greater quantities. More and more great music.

But what we think of now as the core power tools for promotion and dissemination online simply did not yet exist.

This five year period between – for the sake of argument – Napster, and Chris Anderson’s identification of the phenomenon he called The Long Tail (in a Wired editorial in October 2004) represents a significant and important gap: a chasm between two entirely different music industry ecologies.

The tools for composition and production had leapt ahead. The tools for authorised and legitimate promotion, distribution and consumption were yet to be established.

And as a result, there is a five year period of popular music culture that represents an incredibly rich seam of fantastic independent music, much of which never had the opportunity to find its audience.

It’s an incredible gulf. A deep trench between the old music business and the new music business. A Grand Canyon of digital music.

Eject

I was talking to a friend of mine who was in a band ten years ago. They genuinely were – and I’m not being biased here – a fantastic band. You’d love them. They had a following. They had a record out on a really great independent record label. They were raved about on blogs at the time and were even written about in the mainstream music press.

But my friend couldn’t help but feel that they’d missed out. Their moment in the light was post-Napster, but it preceded YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Bandcamp, Spotify, Rdio, Soundcloud, Last.fm, the invention of podcasting – and all the other incredibly helpful tools that they would have gratefully seized with both hands and made the most of.

In other words they, like so many of their peers, simply disappeared in the digital music Grand Canyon.

The ‘long tail’ is not just long, it’s also deep and wide. Much of it – even the best of it – went largely unnoticed when it lacked the institutional support that a boom economy would have afforded – and we as a society lacked the tools to identify and make the most of it. We lacked the tools as a culture to seize on digital media as social objects and share them with our friends and networks.

And so the music that came out just a decade ago simply didn’t get a fair chance, and an incredible amount of great music from amazingly fertile scenes simply fell by the wayside. And this applies across genres. Post-grunge to Broken Beat. Singer-songwriters to instrumentalists.

I think it’s time we went digging.

Press play

Let’s have another period of reissues – not to replace a format and sell the same old music again to the same old people – but this time to bring to light the nuggets of gold that already exist in that digital music ‘gap’ and bring it to the attention of the audiences that would genuinely love it.

And let’s use the new tools we now have available to bring this incredible wealth of music to light and tell its stories.

New music is great. I’m a huge fan of new music. But there’s a massive amount of untapped economic value in the long tail back catalogue.

I reckon we should party like it’s 1999-2004.

Let’s all go visit the Grand Canyon and see what we find there, shall we?

Speaking at music events: The Uganda edition

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I just spent a week in Jinja, Uganda, speaking as part of the Doadoa East African Performing Arts Market. I gave a presentation about music marketing.

It was, it has to be said, a very different presentation about music marketing than the one I gave at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival the previous weekend – though I guess some of the key principles remained the same.

Chances are the vast majority of African musicians you’ve actually heard of are West African musicians. In East Africa, generally speaking, there’s very little in the way of infrastructure, not much happening in the way of performance opportunities and hardly anything you could call an independent music industry.

There are, of course, some fairly big name pop stars in Uganda, and indeed, one of them played out the back of our hotel at deafening volumes until 2am on Saturday night – which seems an odd thing for a hotel to allow. But in general, there’s not a great deal going on for most people.

If you want to start a career as a musician or you want to be a music industry worker in Uganda, then your options are fairly limited in the grand scheme of things.

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The big tip-off for me was the complete lack of record stores. This is the first place I’ve ever been where vinyl shopping was simply not an option. Nobody owns record players, and nobody sells records. Seems it’s always been this way. You can buy a CD – burned to blank disc according to your specifications from an old PC in a small roadside store. But other than this – no music retail. And not much else in the way of music business either.

However, there are, of course, musicians. Great musicians. Some good producers too. A couple of really wonderful venues.

Here’s a brief sample of some of the music we encountered or caused to happen.

There just hasn’t been any real consolidation of the pockets of activity happening around East Africa or any clear route to market. So one of the things that Un-Convention has been involved with here for the past year has been the establishment of the Bayimba Co-op, which brings musicians and other artists together to share knowledge and contacts – the idea being that collaboration provides an opportunity to build sustainable careers within the arts for local people.

To see musicians working together towards the creation of a whole new industry, built on principles of cooperation rather than competition has been fantastic to see, and it’s an amazing place to be – for all sorts of reasons.

It’s my first time in Africa – let alone Uganda – and it’s been a fantastic introduction.

Relax

I’ve been very busy the whole time, of course. I swam in the Nile, hiked alongside waterfalls, watched some of the most incredible percussionists I’ve ever seen, danced to one of the best live reggae bands I’ve heard, won hundreds of thousands of shillings at the roulette table (nearly £30), and saw some amazing animals.

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I was there with a fantastic bunch of people and have many, many stories to tell…

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I also took about 500 photos, which you’re welcome to wade through, if you feel so inclined…