Archive for the Music Category

The future of sound

Posted in Music with tags , on February 1, 2009 by James Osborn

The future of sound

The last five years has seen such a colossal transformation in the way music is purchased and listened to that the traditional record industry model has been left all broken and sad – a bit like France gets every hundred years or so.  The greatest moment in the revolution was, no doubt, when the Arctic Monkeys became one of the most talked about bands in Britain without any record company involvement whatsoever.  But no sector of the industry has been left more shell-shocked than the retail outlets, which have struggled – and are struggling still – to adjust to a world in which people can browse through a warehouse-sized record shop at the click of a button whilst snuggled up in bed.

Various and, in retrospect, slightly inane ideas have been tried and tested by the traditional record shops in order stem the flow of customers out their doors and on to the internet.  Most of them reveal just how apprUtterly uselessehensive the industry is when it comes to tackling its massive problem.  Like the brief phase of installing in-store music download portals (no point – still have to leave bed), or putting Apple Macs in the shop in order to provide potential customers with free internet usage (might get them in the store – but still won’t buy a CD if more expensive than Amazon.)  These failed initiatives have been embraced almost exclusively by the large chain stores, whilst the once ubiquitous independent record shop – typically owned by a sole trader and operating one or two shops – has become almost extinct, having neither the floor space or the capital to stray far from what it has always known to be profitable.


However, in the last few months, two distinct patterns have emerged; the first being exclusively related to the major chains, and the second being led by the independents.


HMV’s decision to expand into music venues is long overdue, and the company’s rich music heritage makes the idea easier to swallow than corporate sponsorship in the vein of Carling’s pillage of almost every small venue in the country (although even that was preferable to the unstoppable town planners’ bulldozing of the London Astoria.)  His Master's VoiceThe venture will allow it to tap directly into the UK’s live music market, which in total is worth a staggering £1bn annually.  Not only will it encourage people to visit the existing stores to buy gig tickets, it will allow the company to promote the shop via merchandise stall-style units in venues; basically, taking the shop to the potential customers, rather than the other way round. 


Music fans like the ‘feel’ of being at gigs – a sensation that will eventually be paralleled in atmosphere by visiting a once-standard HMV store; a branding trick that is likely to rejuvenate the music chain and its original stores.  DSPAdditionally, and perhaps most importantly, direct association with HMV and popular venues at which the nation’s pocket money-wielding teens hang out will have a positive effect on the historic music store’s reputation: Cool HMV gig = HMV cool place to buy a record.


But what of the independents?  Sponsorship at anything more than a local level is beyond the realms of possibility, and it’s now firmly established that there is no use in creating downloading zones on the high street.  Instead, they are staying true to the idea of the physical shop.  The original concept alone offers something that online stores cannot touch, but, when expanded and realised in the form of a gorgeous environment in which to browse, all of a sudden record buying becomes an ‘experience’ that can widen its customer base (only the hardcore music fan had a positive experience trying to find rarities in the junkshop style record shop.)


Imagine the scent of the chiselled oak, still present on your purchase when you get it home; a reminder of quality and individuality – everything that the brutal efficiency of cannot touch.  A recommendation from friendly shop staff, or words on the screen from a stranger?  Sipping complimentary Earl Grey in a comfy armchair whilst listening to a potential purchase, or gasping from the glass of stale water on your bedside cabinet?  All of sudden, a couple of pounds mark up in price begins to seem worth it.  Okay, you have to leave your bed, but, once converted, it’s difficult to go back the ‘new way’.  And this isn’t about the gentrification of music buying; simply a more enjoyable, satisfying version of what we already have.


A lovely cup of Earl


This change is being compounded by the resurgence of vinyl and a shift to listening to records, instead of CDs, at home and converting them to MP3s for listening when out and about.  Music was very heavy in the olden daysThe CD won’t necessarily go the way of the cassette tape, but its role as the dominant format is already waning – people like to see the music ‘being made’ on the turntable, but love the convenience of carrying their whole collection in their pocket.  But the emphasis is on that initial purchase: Give me delicious hard copy, selected by my own hands in an actual, physical shop.


The only catch is that there are still very few of these glorious stores in existence, although one  starting to come close is Resident in Brighton.  Let’s hope the idea is replicated and the physical, independent record shop, this time better than ever, becomes as an unshakable an institution as the music venue which – thankfully – will continue to survive always, with or without big business sponsorship.  Unless, of course, the government starts taxing airwaves to pay for banks.  Then we’ll all have to stay in bed anyway. 



Also published at Choon Online



To the Future!

Posted in Music with tags , on December 1, 2008 by James Osborn

The Futureheads, London Astoria, 29 November 2008

The Futureheads, London Astoria, 29 November 2008

Effectively back from the dead following the misery of their second album poor sales/record label drop, the Futureheads have spent 2008 reclaiming their spot as one of the Britain’s finest alt-punk-pop outfits. Third album This Is Not The World, released earlier this year, was an absolute return to form for the band and demonstrated to anyone who cared to listen (including Radio 1’s controller, for the first couple of singles) that the Sunderland four-piece had decided to play very good songs very fast again.

With almost an excess of breakneck new tunes, this collection of shows in fact marks the release – already – of a brand new single. And when they launched into it, mid-set, it was clear why it warranted a tour all of its own. I wouldn’t be like this if you were here it a 2.5 minute kidney punch from the band, basically to say, If you haven’t already noticed, we’re back and we fucking mean it.The Futureheads

But the ‘problem’ faced by the Futureheads became immediately clear upon arrival at the Astoria: At least fifty percent of the crowd was made up of fans in their mid-to-late twenties, and this was confirmed the next day, when a quick visit to the band’s Myspace revealed only one fan comment about the show.

In this new bottom-up music industry model, a band requires a hardcore of 15-18 year old fans in order to start selling out shows, start playing bigger ones, and start surviving. They need people who don’t have to get up for work the next morning to jump on Myspace/Facebook/Twitter/Etc, sweaty and excited, the moment they get home from the gig, to tell their friends and the world about how great the band they’ve just seen actually are.

This is less of an issue for bands of a strictly alternative genre, who are competing for airtime/music press column inches with other bands that will, like them, never be played on the Chris Moyles show. But a band like the Futureheads perform music that should be appealing to this age group and who, when it comes to a play on Zane Lowe’s show, or a slot at Reading Festival, are competing directly with outfits like You Me At Six – a band who spend as much time trying to look pretty to their burgeoning (predominantly female) audience as they do writing songs.

Yet if the Futureheads can keep going like this – keep releasing killer records and building continual momentum on the strength of the songs alone – then it will be a victory for every band in the country that puts substance over style. As they returned to the stage for a four-song encore, which included the irrepressible Area and an even-faster-than-usual rendition of Broke Up The Time, it became obvious: Great music, passionately performed, will always trump haircuts.

Truck, the finest of all the festivals

Posted in Music with tags , on July 22, 2008 by James Osborn

We are now in the middle of the music festival season and, having just returned from Truck festival for the first time without receiving an unapologetic drenching, I only wish that all this summer’s events could be so fulfilling.

The rise in popularity of the music festival in the UK during the last few years has been a remarkable business phenomenon.  Judging by Glastonbury ticket sales, this popularity probably peaked last year, when many people’s first festival experience was one of eating raw, overpriced burgers and sleeping in freezing, mud-clad knickers for the best part of a week before journeying home and vowing never again to return.  This year, it seems, many decided to revert to the usual trip to Newquay, or wherever they used to go before the middle of this decade.  (Which is a shame, because most of the girls were pretty and served well to dilute the traditional hippy demographic.) 

Nonetheless, the top commercial festivals – V Festival and Reading & Leeds (or the Carling Weekend, as it’s been branded) – are still experiencing huge popularity with revellers who, ten years ago, would never have even heard of the concept.  But, depending on your motivation, the ‘concept’ is malleable; with 180,000 Reading & Leeds tickets sold out for £130 a go (you do the maths), for some festival organisers the fact that the key attraction is live music instead of, say, naked women or cars, is inconsequential.  It is the absence of this cut throat attitude that makes Truck festival so gloriously refreshing. 

There is no denying, of course, that the music ‘industry’ is a business and it is too convenient to adopt a mundane left-wing argument constructed solely around the absence of corporate sponsorship at music events because it goes no way to truly explain why a festival experience at this Oxfordshire farm is so much more worthwhile.  Perhaps it’s simply down to the £4-a-pint wine but, I think, it has more to do with the absolute spirit of community that is created by the organisers and which filters down to the bands and festival-goers.   

With the food catered by the local Rotary club and the local reverend running the ice cream stand, the festival creates a sense of belonging – of being a part of something – that is almost impossible to come across in London or even a small town in the UK in 2008, let alone at a corporate music festival which, in my experience, encourages no sense of community whatsoever.  There are no barriers at Truck; you’re just as likely to find the singer of your favourite band slurping a pint of local ale in the toilet queue as you’re sure to see a photo in the Daily Mail of Kate Moss sipping champagne in the VIP enclosure at Glastonbury. 

This weekend, the camaraderie between performers added another rare element to the experience and came to a head when Frank Turner responded to Fighting With Wire’s playful ribbing, only to be pelted with cans of lager by the band’s lead singer and bassist – all good jest between friends and fellow musicians, of course.  A similar, down-to-earth ethos was exuded by Eamon Hamilton.  The Brakes’ frontman arrived for his solo set just five minutes before he was due to start, introduced himself to the soundmen with handshakes all round and launched into his half hour set on a battered acoustic guitar.  He was hardly audible over the crowd singing along to every word and was not permitted to leave the stage permanently until he had completed two encores and made a promise to return next year. 

However, with the exception of very few performers at this festival, the bands are, more so than their bigger festival brothers, at the whim of the record industry beast.  It is sobering to look back at 2005’s lineup and consider how many of the bands, three years on, no longer exist.  Some split up for internal reasons but others, like Reuben (and despite the intervention of a handful of key champions within the industry – in this case, the impassioned, live-on-air speech of Radio 1’s Zane Lowe during which he spin-tinglingly declared that Reuben should be the biggest band in the country), had no option but to give up because they could not indefinitely go on working ad hoc shifts in chip shops and supermarkets to support their meagre band income.  It came down to their own lifestyle choice, but it is a sad state of affairs when the musical creativity of some of the country’s most promising bands is snuffed out by the necessity to make a living outside of what they do best.

So the community spirit of Truck is not world changing, but for one weekend a year – when the rain stays away – it certainly feels like it could be.