Card? Collection? – Birth v Adoption

I saw a blog post today on The Adoption Social that touched a nerve and made me want to write a shirt post on something I was not going to comment on. The post, one about friends occasionally getting caught up and not realising what they are saying re babies, but I was particularly taken by this bit

“I didn’t send her flowers when baby was born but then she didn’t send me anything when my child came home. In fact nobody did apart from one acquaintance, not even a friend, just a business acquaintance. Petty on my behalf? Maybe.”

First off, loads of people sent us cards and gifts when we brought our daughter home. But the above comment did demonstrate that it is not universal and it can be funny how this seems to work.

Take my situation at work. To quote The Hold Steady, I’m stuck between stations at work in that I work for one group of people, but I’m also part of a wider group too. When it came time to welcome my child into our family one group had a collection and gave me a card, the other did not. There was lots of genuine joy and excitement for me within the group that did not, but a whip around and a card seemed not to have occurred to anyone. I’ll admit I was mildly upset at this. Weeks before we had had a card circulated for someone’s birthday, and before that a card and collection for someone going off and maternity leave. Since then we’ve had another one for maternity and a card and collection for someone getting married. I’ve been happy to contribute to all, but like the person above it does annoy me that my situation didn’t seem to warrant the same treatment. I didn’t give a monkey’s about a gift, but the lack of a card was one of those things that made me reassess how I am thought of within that group of people.

To be fair, I’m sure some of those people would be horrified that I thought that, but by the same token none seemed to think a card might be nice idea for someone adopting, whereas it is second nature for anyone having a ‘natural birth’. Conversely, I was very touched by the totally unexpected card for the other group of people, whose already high estimation rose further.

We had a massive night – The Hold Steady @ Koko

The return of The Hold Steady to a London stage is always something to look forward to, and thankfully Craig Finn and the boys didn’t disappoint on their latest visit to the Capital at Koko last night. They delivered at tight 90 minute set (including encore) that perfectly encapsulated everything that makes them such a great band. Their ability to blend indie rock, pub rock, and straight out stadium sing-a-long rock to an equally good standard means they have few equals currently performing. Kicking off with two songs from their second album ‘Separation Sunday’ – Little Hoodrat Friend and Banging Camp, the set drew material from all their six studio albums, though the biggest showing came from the ‘Boys and Girls in America’ record (six tracks), and hardly left any time to draw a breath before with Killer Parties and a cover of Violent Femmes’ classic American Music (performed with support act The So So Glos ) it was all over.

It was really great gig. The great thing about the current line-up of the band is that the addition of Steve Selvidge as second guitar has freed up Finn to be more of a straight out front man, and allows his wound/unwound spring persona to shine through like some warped preacher guiding his flock.

Highlights? It may sound an obvious choice but Stuck between Stations. It’s been hard to shake the piano of Franz Nicolay from this song, but last night was as perfect a version of the track as I’ve heard and the first time I didn’t miss the piano. Elsewhere, You Can Make Him Like You, Sequestered in Memphis and Spinners also ticked the boxes. But, in truth, there wasn’t a bad song in the set.

It’s been a pretty poor year for records, but if you don’t already own it, Teeth Dreams, The Hold Steady’s latest is one of the better ones, and if you get a chance to see them live, take it.

Random Musical Thoughts

My recent open letter to Rosanne Cash has made me think more about the current musical landscape, so here are two brief observations, and an afterthought.

The Death of the Album

The Guardian reports [Via Death and Taxes and Forbes] that 2014 may be the first year that no artist the US sells over 1 million copies of an album [with the exception of the Frozen Soundtrack] It goes along with the general sentiment in the industry that a combination of things, starting with Napster and free file-sharing, iTunes concentration on selling ‘tracks’ and the current rise of streaming, has called time on ‘the album’, or at least ‘the album’ as we know it. In the words of George Ergatoudis, head of music at BBC Radio 1 and Radio 1Xtra.“With very few exceptions, albums are edging closer to extinction.”

The sales figures from the US would seem to reflect this. I expect Taylor Swift’s – 19 due out in a week’s time to quickly exceed 1 million in sales in the US, but it may well be the only album outside of the Frozen Soundtrack to shift that amount in 2014.

Is this really the end? I don’t think so, at least not just yet. I think some artists – including young ones – still value the album and that idea of producing a collection of songs, arranging them in an a specific order, creating a vision. Most of these are easy to spot as the credits for the albums will list one producer. This person will be responsible for helping to create an overarching sound to the record. The majority of albums I buy still conform to this ‘old fashioned’ approach.

Many ‘pop’ albums don’t. There are, for example, over 20 producers involved in just 12 tracks on the latest Arianna Grande album. [ Why so many? Well, when asked about her choice of album cover photo she said: "each song is so strongly themed that I just wanted to have a very simple overall cover. So that within each song we could create more visual themes." Did those multiple hands produce multiple visual themes or just help to create a collection of songs that may work individually – depending on your taste, but that don't hang together as an album? ]

There is a view that the modern day (young) listener only lives in the world of playlists, not albums. Whilst clearly some truth in this statement it is a bit simplistic. Playlists are just digital mix-tapes. I was making those when I was ten and in various guises ever since. You don’t have to abandon a love of an artist’s vision for their songs for the ability to also ‘mix your own’.

There is, of course. always that ‘but I only really like 3 tracks on this album’ argument for just owning or playlisting those tracks. I’m there. I’m with you. BUT … time is a funny thing. With just those three tracks you’ve potentially closed off those other tracks off that album for good, tracks that over time you may have come to love, whilst at the same time falling out of love with those three original tracks that sounded so ‘now’ or had a certain immediacy.

Albums are going to ‘sell’ less. Clearly. But die? Not for a while yet.

Maximise you support for artists you love

In this modern music eco-system – how can you best help the artists you love?

Well, let’s start by putting on our rose-tinted spectacles, and image that the cut your favourite artists gets from sales (Vinyl, CD, Download) radio airplay (Uk) and streaming is ‘fair’ (you could write 1000’s of words on this one).

  1. Buy a physical copy – Vinyl/CD. This is for your enjoyment. This is for those times when you are going to sit down, kick back and immerse yourself in the music of your favourite artist(s). You’re not going to burn it to your computer, or use a free code to download the MP3 to your computer. It is going to exist purely to be played on a turntable or CD player (in-car also allowed). This is for times when you really want to listen to the record. It’s not just acting as background music.
  2. Listen to the album via a streaming service. When you’re on the go – stream, when you’re in the house and want some background music – stream. It doesn’t matter how many time you play that album you’ve bought once you bought it. The artist is never getting any more money from you from those plays. However, if you make all your subsequent listens – apart from special ones in point 1 – streaming ones, you are going to help provide ongoing additional income, and not just over weeks, but potentially years.
  3. See them live – as often as time and money will allow. It’s a well worn out line, but you really cannot beat the experience of live music. Support it.
  4. Buy some Merchandise. If you like the artist, buy a badge/pin, a T-shirt, a Hoodie, a Bag, a Hat – whatever. Most artists get a decent slice of this cash (even some of those on 360 deals)


Into Music

And finally, I loved this take on modern music from the New York Times, and felt myself nodding at the comment:
“Years later, when my friends and I discussed the powerful and surely arbitrary forces that had kept us single, we toyed with the idea that “into music” was a deal-breaker quality in a mate.”
Oh, yes. Dating someone who didn’t like music was a big no-no for me too.

Palo Alto

Palo Alto
Director: Gia Coppola
UK Release: 17 October 2014

The word Coppola jumps out at you when you first see the poster for this film. This one is Gia, the latest member of the dynasty to dip her toe into the family film directing business. For the record she is granddaughter to Francis, niece to Sofia, and a cousin to both of Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzman. For her debut she has chosen to adapt several linked stories from actor James Franco’s 2010 short story collection Palo Alto.

It’s task she takes to well. In her hands Palo Alto is a thoughtful, low key, coming-of-age teen drama. It revolves around the school and post school party lives of a group of small town teens. Class virgin, April (Emma Roberts) is part of the school soccer team. She babysits for her coach Mr B (James Franco), who she and several of the other girls are attracted too. He, however, is not her only potential love interest, she also has a crush on fellow class mate and wannabe artist Teddy (Jack Kilmer). Teddy meanwhile wants to reciprocate this attraction but often finds himself caught up getting stoned and being best friend to Fred (Nat Wolff), whose general level of boredom with small town life is edging him ever closer to the edge of disaster. The two boys meanwhile have their eyes on the promiscuous Emily (Zoe Levin) whose insecurity and need to be loved results in her sleeping with just about any boy who asks.

Coppola said she took some inspiration for how her film would look and feel from films such as The Outsiders and The Last Picture Show, in particular in the manner in which they treated their teen characters and their lives. It shows. She brilliantly captures that small town boredom, and the associated mid-teen monotony of school – home – school and with it that need to break out of that ‘safety’ by any means possible: be it partying, drink and drugs, sex, vandalism. Anything to numb the pain of the boredom. As a result, not a whole lot actually happens plot-wise during the film, as we ride along on car rides with Teddy and Fred, and go to school parties. But that’s fine, because when we’re doing this our focus is totally on the kids – and this is where the film is at its best. Coppola has drawn great performances out of her young cast. Roberts plays vulnerable and ‘normal’ beautifully; Wolff handles the most showy of the central roles well, channeling hinted at inner demons and thrill seeking detachment with aplomb; in his first film role Kilmer shows that the Kilmer/Whalley acting genes have been passed on; and Levin, comes close to stealing the whole film with her well judged performance of insecure Emily.

I really liked the onscreen chemistry between the leads. There is a believable awkwardness between Roberts and Kilmer (the pair were purposely kept apart as much as possible pre filming). Likewise, there is a real camaraderie between Kilmer and Wolff (last seen in The Fault in Our Stars).

Less good are the parts of the film dealing with April and Mr B’s illicit relationship. These are less engaging, more clichéd and totally predictable, although Franco is, at least, believably creepy. Also, if you were being overly critical you could say the film could lose 10-15 minutes of its 100 minute running time.

But overall, I liked this take on the coming-of-age film, and look forward to seeing more from its young stars and its writer/director in the future.

It’s very easy to ‘Just Get Lost’ in this album from Anju

A Few years ago I heard a song on Soundcloud that I immediately adored. It was a jazzy little number played on acoustic guitar and the accompanying vocal just hit that sweet spot – you know, that spot where you just stop everything you doing and listen. Here was a woman destined to sing jazz and lounge songs.

Many Soundcloud songs later, most of which repeated that initial connection I felt between style and songstress, there is a full debut album. [ Ok, so strictly speaking it's the second album as there was an acoustic album in 2012 called The Attic Sessions - four songs from which get the full band treatment on this new record]

And a delightful record it is too. A collection of twelve self penned songs that take in both American and European jazz influences, and sprinkles on soupcon of latin, bossa nova, and cool blues to add additional colour.

There isn’t really a dud track on the whole record, and most of it is simply a delight. Whether it be the laid back and atmospheric piano driven English Afternoon or Like the Sea, or the foot tapping melodies of A Slow Night for Crime and When the Sun Comes up I’m Gone, or even the smokey Jazz club MMH MMH, MMH MMH, this is a great collection of self penned songs.

When I listen to the album I hear the influences of Kurt Weill, Sting, and New Orleans Jazz (and more). But it’s not all that you’d expect, What would I Give for example actually has a has a touch of the Terry Jack’s ‘Season’s in Sun’ melody about it, but in a good way.

The album was recorded at Jambona Lab in Cascina, Italy. Anju produced it herself and it was well engineered by Antonio Castiello. She’s brought together a great set of Tuscan musicians including: Silvia Bolognesi (double bass), Andrea Melani (drums), Piergiorgo Pirro (piano), and Tony Cattano (trombone) to help add colour and depth to her songs. They sound a great bunch of guys to play with.

Perhaps the only thing I have not mentioned about that first exposure to Anju was that I also sat there thinking how much I’d love to here her sing one of my songs . The only problem with that was that I didn’t really have any material that was in either jazz or lounge that might tempt her. So I wrote one, purely in the hope she’d say yes. Luckily for me she did.

I don’t mention this because it is on this album, it’s not, but because the resultant song remains one of my proudest songwriting moments, and Anju was a delight to collaborate with. [Although my rather ham-fisted attempts to 'play' the instruments via synth - the bass, piano and brass elements - leave a lot to be desired, and only offer a sense of what the song is about]

You can buy the album on iTunes , or via her Bandcamp site [It's also available via Spotify]

Our track, Blue Lamp is embedded below.

Hello, Airplane!

Hello, Airplane!
Bill Cotter
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Pub Date: Oct 1 2014

Hello, Airplane! is a simple picture book that takes us on a journey – quite literally in fact. We follows a plane’s (long haul) journey from liftoff to landing.

We fly with the plane over the town, trees, mountains, above the clouds, birds and people and through clouds and the night.

I liked how as we move from take off through day into night and onto the landing we switch our point of view: being on the plane, looking down from altitude, and then being on the ground looking up into the sky and seeing the plane overhead. It’s simple, but nicely done.

I probably didn’t get the full potential of the book as I read it digitally, which makes it hard to have ‘double pages’ displayed, an area where this – as do many picture books – excel. Despite this my four year old – who can’t wait to go on a plane for the first time – still enjoyed it and asked for it to be re-read. Seems an ideal primer for  children in that situation. I expect we’ll be reading this one again soon.

Dear Rosanne

‘Download’ and ‘stream’ are different animals. If you download and pay, it’s the same as buying a record. If you stream, it’s just dressed- up piracy.
Bring on the haters- I don’t care. I’m IN this business and I see young musicians give up their missions and dreams all the time because they can’t make a living. Someone has to speak up for them. – Rosanne Cash, 28 Sept, Facebook Status Update
Dear Rosanne,

Apparently a couple of weeks ago you wrote that you think music streaming is “just dressed-up piracy”. You’re not alone in this view. ‘Bring on the haters – I don’t care’, you added.

I don’t hate you Rosanne, you’re a great artist and a terrific songwriter, why would I hate you?

Maybe your point is that the implication of your comment is that anyone – your fans included – listening to your music on streaming sites (we’ll come back to this point) is akin to them being a music pirate/copyright infringer. I still don’t hate you, but as a fan being told that an artist I admire and like actually thinks of me in those terms is not exactly complementary.
There are legitimate arguments to be had over the way streaming works – payment rates and other things – although often these are more around the deals artists have with their record label as opposed to any particular streaming site. As Billy Bragg said last year ” If the rates were really so bad, the rights holders – the major record companies – would be complaining. The fact that they’re continuing to sign up means they must be making good money.”

The streaming world is not perfect. But, that horse has bolted, the stable door was left wide open and that horse trotted out and isn’t going back in – ever.

Of course, you can still take a stand. For starters, if you personally feel so passionately about this, take your music off streaming services. I listened to your last album on Spotify. If you’d rather I didn’t take it down. I May not agree with artists who take a stand and keep their records off streaming services but if it is through a personal firm standpoint against streaming, fine.

I’m interested, as an artist would you prefer I bought your album, but never played it after a first listen? or would you prefer I streamed it multiple times and potentially kept coming back and doing so over a period of years? I only ask, because if it is the former then I think it is you not I that is not valuing your music.

As it happens I still buy a lot of albums – digitally and physically – but I also have a Spotify account. I’ve listen to albums I would never have heard otherwise. Some I’ve liked, and liked enough to want to ‘own’ on Vinyl. Some others have lead to me going to see the artists live. These are our purchases that almost certainly would not have occurred had I not encountered the albums and artists on a streaming service.

You do, like other artists who object to streaming, think not of yourselves – heaven forbid – but of the poor upcoming artists who ‘give up’ their ‘dreams’ because they can’t make a living out of music. There is little as pious as a successful established musician talking on behalf of the ‘poor artist’, however well meaning it’s intended. I’m sorry Rosanne, I don’t ‘owe’ upcoming artists a right to make a ‘living’ out of music, in the same way they don’t owe me the right to make a living in my profession. If an artist is good I’ll support them to the hilt, getting out to see them live, buying merch, the works. If not, I’ll usually still try and be positive, but we all have dreams, not just wannabe musicians, and most of us never accomplish them. That is a fact of life.

As Todd Rundgren said ten year ago ” First, artists should re-emphasize performance and de-emphasize recording. You always make more money if you have a healthy performing life than you will if you have even a moderately healthy recording life. Don’t make recording the most important thing you do. Make performing the most important thing you do, and then you can make recordings and sell them at your shows, because record labels aren’t going to be around to help you get on the radio stations, and the radio stations probably aren’t going to play you anyway.”

Think of all that great classical music we like – how many of those artists ‘made a living’ out of it? They had a fire burning inside them that made them want to create, anyone who likes to write or perform has that within them, it’s not dependent on being financially rewarded for it – however nice that might be. In the words of Iggy Pop (John Peel Lecture 2014) “Traditional music was never a for profit enterprise.”

There does seem to be a number of artists quick to blame technology for all that they see with what is wrong with the music industry [hint right there - 'industry/business']

Over to you Dave Allen from Gang of Four: Spotify and the internet more generally “are not to blame for musicians’ problems… It is hard for me to understand why intelligent people like David Byrne and Thom Yorke [a couple of your fellow streaming is evil argument proponents] do not appear to understand that we are in the midst of new markets being formed.”

I now note, Rosanne, that a few days after your above post you seemed to modify your stance somewhat by saying “Streaming IS the way of the future– we aren’t blind about that– but musicians shouldn’t be the only ones not getting paid.” I would again refer you to the Billy Bragg comment above. Pretending the problem lies entirely with streaming sites is, at best stupid, and at worst undermines attempts to make a valid point about where the money goes/flows. Back to Mr Rundgren, in 2003 : “If I were in the record business, I would start getting out of the brick-and-mortar side of it and stop thinking of music as a commodity, and start thinking of it as a service, and develop models that more resemble cable television, where you pay a monthly fee and listen to as much as you can consume. If they can manage to do that, hey, if you get a million people paying 20 bucks a month, that’s $20 million a month. That’s $240 million a year, just off of a million people. So I think by that model, there’s plenty of money to be made, but we’ve got to stop worrying about bootlegging and the economies around it. Make music a service that’s easy to consume, and there’ll be plenty of money for everyone.”

Todd saw the future ten years ago, and even then – like Bragg – realised that even in this changed environment there would be plenty of money sloshing around. As always the question is where that money goes.

So Rosanne, whilst I admire your no doubt genuine desire to see more equitable distribution of the financial fruits of the work of new and established artists, firing off badly worded barbs at easy targets ,and technologies, that are actually providing a means to get your music to fans makes you look a bit like a spoilt brat. The deal you or others signed with their record label is not Spotify’s or Deezer’s fault, so stop trying to scapegoat them.

Yours, a fan