Passive Bias – My Twitter, Kindle, and Music Collection

In May Jessica Valenti  wrote an interesting piece on the Guardian’s Comment is Free section entitled: You might not think you’re a sexist until you take a look at your bookshelf.  It wasn’t having a go at people but more pointed out how our own passive bias may shape our tastes.

“So if the only culture you pay attention to is created by men, or created by white people, you are making an explicit statement about who and what is important.”

It’s an interesting point, and one I hadn’t considered in any great detail ,although I am aware of passive bias. Also, as a recent parent, I am more attune to attempts the pigeon hole girls and boys at an early age, as such the quote from American  author Shannon Hale, who visited a school and the audience was all girls, as the school administration only allowed the female students out of class for her event, rang especially true:

“I talk about books and writing, reading, rejections and moving through them, how to come up with story ideas. But because I’m a woman, because some of my books have pictures of girls on the cover, because some of my books have ‘princess’ in the title, I’m stamped as ‘for girls only.’ However, the male writers who have boys on their covers speak to the entire school.”

I’ll admit this kind of thing makes my blood boil.  This idea feeds into campaigns like the Let Toys be Toys campaign which targets toys that are labelled as being for ‘Boys’ or ‘Girls’.

So anyway, I decided to look at my Twitter feed, my book (well, kindle) collection, and my music collection. How did women fair.

I follow 800 accounts in Twitter as of time of writing. Of those 269 are men, 351 are women and the rest (380) are bands, organisations, or groups of some sort.

I glance at my purchases on my Kindle shows that of 260 books, the break down is 146 written by men and 114 written by women.

Over to my music collection. Just keeping it to my CD/Digital collection [which I can see via my blasted iTunes library]  I have 1253 distinct artists, and the break down is: 667 Bands (197 of them all female or fronted by women); 253 men, and 333 women

Over all I think I come out of this quite well, at least as far as men and women go.

Now, there are some explanations to some of my figures. On Twitter for example. I’m a Librarian/Information professional and this is sector where there are typically more women than men, so it would make sense that if I were keeping in contact with others in my profession that the majority would be female (they are) .

With books, most of my favourite books have been written by women. I’ve never really bought into the idea that books have a gender. As a young child Enid Blyton and Susan Cooper were central in my world. As an adult, Jane Austen, Anne Tyler, and Marilynne Robinson took their place.

Musically, those who know me well would tell you I have always been a sucker for a girl with a guitar – my gigging record of the last 20 years would also back this up.

I didn’t do a proper break down on race, but my Twitter feed and my recent book collection (if not my collection taken as a whole) are predominantly white. My music collection, perhaps less surprisingly, fares better on racial diversity.

This was an interesting exercise. Fun too. How about you?

Bono sticks up for Spotify

In a week where Taylor Swift’s record company yanked all her albums off Spotify, and her new album 1989 shifted 1.287million copies in the first week of release (the biggest first week sales of any album in 12 years) a couple of people have come out in defence of Spotify. This week saw both Adele’s manager Jonathan Dickins, and Bono come out in support of streaming and of Spotify in particular.

Jonathan Dickins talking at an industry panel said: “Personally, I think streaming’s the future, whether people like it or not, but I don’t believe one size necessarily fits all with streaming,” He went on to point out the disparity between the industry’s attitude to YouTube and Spotify, “On the one hand, labels are trumpeting YouTube as a marketing tool: 10 million views on YouTube and it’s a marketing stroke of genius. But on the other hand they’re looking at 10 million streams on Spotify and saying that’s x amount of lost sales.”

Bono too has spoken out, and made a point I have made a number of times when artists have started moaning: “When people pick on Spotify: Spotify are giving up 70% of all their revenues to rights owners. It’s just that people don’t know where the money is because the record labels haven’t been transparent,” The money is there, if the artist is not getting it, the culprit is the same one it has always been the record company and the terms of the contract they signed.

Bono is also right when he rejects the ‘no one will go into the business if they can’t make money’ argument often put forward by established moaners with fake worries about up and coming talent. “I would be as excited as I was when we formed U2 when we were 17 / 18 years old. Though it is clear that there are some traumas as we move from physical to digital and 20th century to 21st century, and the people paying the highest price for those traumas are songwriters rather than performers, I still think forming a band is so exciting.” Who said tax dodging pop stars can’t make sense some of the time.

Dickins also puts forward an argument that could help bridge the gap between some artists – like Swift and Adele- and Spotify: allowing some albums to be initially to be restricted to its paying customers only. “The premium tier to me are real active record buyers, paying their $9.99 or €9.99 or £9.99 a month. My feeling would be to get around the situation with someone like Taylor Swift – but Spotify won’t do it – is a window between making something available on the premium service, earlier than it’s made available on the free service.”

Spotify isn’t interested (and unless other streaming services follow suite you could perhaps understand why) but I think it is a sound idea. Whether for a couple of weeks or a month, it would allow an artist to maximise the initial ‘sales’ of a record and still give ‘fans’ access if they valued music enough to be paying a sub. It might even encourage a few to subscribe, which would benefit everyone in the food chain.

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.

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.

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


Departure from planet Soundcloud imminent ?

When Soundcloud appeared a couple of years ago, it was great. A laid back bedroom musical haven where you could sign up and upload your latest opus to the masses. It was easy to use, was easy to find similar artists to yourself and just to browse through the latest uploads in particular self tagged genres from people like yourself. It felt like a community. I loved it.

Now? I still have an account and I post occasionally, but I no longer love Soundcloud.

These days trying to find anything that is not by an already established artist when browsing or searching is more and more difficult. It is a home of the endless remix. I can no longer find that 15yr girl from the mid west with her first guitar and Garageband, or the 56yr guy from Bedford whose been playing for year to family and friends and now has an outlet for his songs. They are lost in the mix. And, for me, that is a shame, because those people – people like me – are who I want to connect with and whose music (good and bad) I want to hear. I have plenty of outlets to hear people who already have a big record deal or who are already mainstream artists. I don’t have many to hear people who may one day become big, or at least get to release a record. Being there to offer encouragement and to help that dream along is a wonderful feeling. I could not be more overjoyed that people who I followed, gave feedback and comments too, and in one instance collaborated with, have released music: Ellie Makes Music ; Anju and The Sandman’s Orchestra off the back of being on Soundcloud. But I struggle to even find the new Ellie or Anju to follow on the site these days. Not because they’re not there but because Soundcloud doen’t help me to find them anymore.

And I’m not arguing that you should abandon the site if you release a record. But I do think you should need the site less if you do/have.

Maybe my issue is just with the search side of the site? Maybe I just need a way to find people that don’t have a record deal or self release as a means to block out the mainstream take-over?

According the their latest companies house filings Soundcloud posted turnover of €11.2 million ($14.1 million) in 2013, but its operating loss in the period was €23.1 million ($29.2 million). Turnover had grown around 40% but the losses had more than doubled. Soundcloud is trying to counter this with a deal with the major record labels to make Soudcloud just another online streaming service. So far the majors are not biting at the chance.

I can understand looking at their figures why Soundcloud want to get the majors on board, but should they succeed it will be another of the reasons that leads me to abandon the platform altogether unless they can offer me a better way to recapture what has been lost. I can see how even with the majors on board the site could still work, and work for the bedroom artists. A similar artists type thing when playing a major artist that suggested unsigned bedroom artists could be great for bringing them to the attention of a wider listening audience. Indeed a policy where suggested ‘you might also like’ links on major artists recordings were only made up of non signed artists would be great.

For me however that might still come too late. I already have my coat on ready to leave, I just haven’t quite left yet.

Music review podcast

So me and a friend do a album review podcast – you should listen and if you like subscribe

So in the latest podcast we discuss the following albums:

Meat maybe murder, but is listening to the new Morrissey album tasty or tasteless?

Morrissey – World Peace is None of your Business

5 Seconds of Summer – 5 Seconds of Summer

Yes – Heaven & Earth

La Roux – Trouble in Paradise

Cut/Copy – Free Your Mind

Jenny Lewis – The Voyager 

Check out this episode!

Swift Music Analysis

It’s always nice to read someone who is passionate about music, the ‘album’, and about the future of the music ‘industry’ – becoming a bit of a dying breed, but Taylor Swift has written an engaging opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) where she sees a bright future for all of these things.

It is appropriate that one of her best songs is called Love Story, because as she says that is often what music is about – connecting with a song and/or an artist. As she says:
“The way I see it, fans view music the way they view their relationships. Some music is just for fun, a passing fling … Some songs and albums represent seasons of our lives, like relationships that we hold dear in our memories but had their time and place in the past. However, some artists will be like finding “the one.” We will cherish every album they put out until they retire and we will play their music for our children and grandchildren.”

I have to say I agree.