The music industry has got itself into a tizzy of excitement about figures showing that global sales rose last year for the first time since 1999. To be specific, they went up 0.3 per cent. Excuse me if I don’t break out the bunting.
Let’s get real, here. We are not talking about an actual increase on 1999’s figures. Recorded music sales have shrunk by 40 per cent since the turn of the millennium, from $27.8bn in 1999 to $16.5 billion in 2012. And that is before you adjust for inflation, which tends to make everything look even worse.
Sales revenues are up a tiny bit on the year before, boosted (according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, whose figures these are) by downloads, subscription and other digital services. Indeed, we are almost, but not quite, back to 2010 levels (when sales reached $16.8 billion). So when the chief executive of Sony Music Entertainment tries to spin this incremental increase into a line about how “Digital is saving music”, what he really means is, it’s bottomed out folks, and maybe the worst is over.
I think that might be a little optimistic. Last year, the music industry was still benefiting from the Adele factor. She sold 8.3 million copies of an album that actually came out in 2011 (and had already shifted 15.3 million). You cannot count on that kind of superstar bounce every year.
Nonetheless, the music industry has always been pretty good at the mass marketing of star brands. Out in the margins, things still feel really, really tough. Record companies are signing fewer acts, and employing fewer staff to promote them on shrinking budgets. Everything feels squeezed and pinched.
The impact of HMV’s bankruptcy in the UK has not really been felt yet but it is worth noting that, following last week’s Brits show, with 6.4 million television viewers, the UK album market actually experienced a sales drop of 15 per cent. And judging by her Oscar acceptance speech, Adele’s not going to be swooping back to the rescue any time soon.
It is strange to think that Reg Presley’s legendary status in owes itself as much to a comically inarticulate, bad tempered, foul-mouthed argument about recording as it does to his band’s prototype Sixties garage rock hits.
When I was a young punk, deliriously delving into rock’s rich and strange back catalogue, The Troggs Tapes held a near mythic status. A bootleg of out-takes from a 1968 recording session in which the four musicians argue with increasing vehemence in thick rural Hampshire arguments about how to produce a hit, it contains the now legendary Presley catchphrase “You gotta put a little bit of fucking fairy dust over the bastard, you know.”
Before the internet, The Troggs Tapes were hard to find, yet everyone seemed to know about them, an elusiveness that only added to their allure. I remember getting my hands on a copy in a Dublin flea market, then sitting around late at night with friends laughing ourselves silly at the inanity and palpable sense of frustration as the musicians fail to find a way to articulate and capture some sound idea, beyond the reach of either their language or their technical abilities. “Don’t just keep saying, ‘Ah, yeah, well that ain’t right’. I know that ain’t fucking right. I can fucking hear it ain’t right, you cunt.” Ironically, the song they were trying to record was called Tranquility, of which Reg pronounced “that is a number-fucking one, and if that bastard don’t go, then I’ll fucking retire!”
In truth, it is the kind of conversation you can hear every day in recording studios all around the world, but there was something liberating and myth-busting about the experience of eavesdropping on these unguarded musicians at work.
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11:27AM GMT 04 Feb 2013
Beyoncé promised that she would sing live at the Super Bowl. And she did, sort of, belting out an aggressive, loudly mixed lead-vocal over layers of backing vocals, which may or may not have been pre-recorded. Meanwhile, her husband Jay Z watched proudly from the stands while his voice boomed out of the speakers in an act of virtual ventriloquism, rapping the opening to Crazy In Love. It is the modern way. With a band of on stage musicians adding parts to pre-recorded backing tracks, who can really tell what’s live or not anymore? And does anyone really cares? After all, the controversy over Beyoncé’s miming at the presidential inauguration, she was greeted with rapture at the New Orleans’ Mercedes Benz Super Dome, where her brand of flashy, sassy, pyrotechnical, over-the-top r’n’b perfectly chimed with an event that (to the untutored eye, anyway) appears to be more about advertising American power than an actual sporting occasion.
It is hard to imagine this kind of thing happening at, say, the FA Cup final. If Wembley Stadium were temporarily taken over by what appeared to be a troupe of souped-up Burlesque dancers, flashing cleavage and thighs, while a pop star treated the occasion as a kind of homage to herself, the response of the UK’s gleefully irreverent football crowd would be enough to terrify any live television broadcaster. Beyoncé wasn’t leaving anything to chance, let alone the reaction of a sporting crowd. She appeared not to have only brought her own hi-tech stage, but her own audience, performing to front rows of young, screaming, dancing fans who looked a lot less like football fans than the kind of kids who used to fill up the Top Of The Pops studio. They were the uncritical conduit for viewers back home. Beyoncé’s performance, balancing energetically exuberant movements and vocals with a charming, smiling intimacy was, really, all for the cameras.
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Singers who lip-sync during concerts insult their audience and undermine their peers
8:01PM GMT 23 Jan 2013
The pop superstar Beyoncé’s appearance at President Obama’s second inauguration was immediately declared a rip-roaring success, an outstanding, nuanced, soulful and contemporary delivery of America’s hard-to-sing, two-octave-spanning national anthem. Such a bravura performance from a modern R&B icon certainly reflected well on the hippest president in history, as well as helping to return Beyoncé to the public eye on her post-maternity comeback. Only one little detail may come to haunt them both: the accusation from members of her Marine Corps backing band that she was miming.
Frankly, it is hard to tell from the footage. Beyoncé performs with a great big furry microphone obscuring her mouth, but her body language is that of a singer in full flow, down to the flamboyant discarding of her in-ear monitor as she goes for the big notes. The silence from Beyoncé’s camp regarding the accusations is, at the time of writing, deafening.
Maybe she doesn’t feel she needs to justify her use of pre-recorded vocals in a live setting. After all, everybody else does it. Or at least that is sometimes how it seems. It is an increasingly common experience at so-called live gigs to find almost every element has been recorded in advance, from the backing track to the lead vocal. Indeed, in the dance pop arena, little is done any more to disguise this. Stars such as Madonna and Rihanna routinely lip-sync to pre-recorded vocals, the excuse being that otherwise they would be too out of breath to perform the extravagantly choreographed routines at the heart of their shows. The notoriously vocally challenged Britney Spears doesn’t even bother taking musicians on tour, preferring to blow her budget on dancers. The reason she prefers miming becomes obvious during the one spot where she sits down, takes a deep breath and attempts to sing, warbling weakly through a ballad, voice veering from flat to sharp with little control.
Britney is a star of the Auto-Tune generation …
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Trevor Horn and Steve Lipson are amongst the most successful British producers of the past 30 years, having overseen records by Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart, Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Here they share some top tips from the recording studio.
1. Don’t play too loud
Trevor Horn: “You can’t listen to big speakers all day, you’d go deaf. My ears are in pretty good shape. I’m over 60 and I’ve spent every day in the recording studio, but I don’t listen to it loud too often. And I don’t get in front of the speakers because it can hurt you. We listen on small speakers and we listen quietly. And when I’m mixing something I still put it into mono.”
2. Listen to the singer.
TH: “My dad was in a dance band, and he used to tell me you listen for the singer, and if you can’t hear them, play quieter. It’s good advice. Listen for the singer. Really listen to him. Don’t bang away.”
Steve Lipson: “There is one thing you have to acknowledge for radio, which is dynamics. Radio stations employ sound designers who compress and EQ records so that they sound right for the station, and they even out all the dynamic range. If you have a very quiet bit followed by a very loud bit, what happens on the radio is the quiet bit will get very loud, and then the loud bit will go quiet.”
TH: “It’s one of the reasons why classical music doesn’t work very well on the radio, because classical has maybe 50 decibels of actual dynamic range. So what you do with pop music is make the quiet stuff loud and loud stuff quiet. A perfect example would be Robbie Williams’s Angels. In the verse you can hear him as clear as day, he’s right there, “I see an angel”, and then it hits the “and through it all” part and the orchestra and band comes in. Robbie is mixed right back and you are listening to the whole band. Imagine a camera on a football ground pulling back 200 hundred yards to show the whole team. And then the verse comes back in like a zoom, it’s just Robbie again. That is the dynamic range of pop records: loud stuff quiet and quiet stuff loud.”
4. Record companies ruin artists
SL: “I’ve seen it so many times. Record companies sign someone talented. They say, ‘you’re fantastic, you’re just missing a single, so we’re going to put you in with the latest hotshot writer and see what comes out’. They do it and then go, ‘It’s not the single but it’s a really good direction. We’re going to try it with a few more’. And on and on they go, and during this process the artist gets lost. Half the time they drop them, and the other half they release what they ended up with, which wasn’t what they signed in the first place.”
5. The only limit is imagination
TH: “The production process changes often and quickly, because it’s driven by technology. Records are pretty cheaply made these days. They don’t use big orchestras or big horn sections anymore, because records come and go quickly and not many people can afford to spend much money. In a way, the new sound is like the records I made in the early eighties, quite rudimentary drum machine records. People think digital recording technology is limitless, but really, it was always thus. The limit is always your imagination.”
The 1970s techno pulse drives the pop that tops our charts today.
In 1977, Donna Summer’s I Feel Love blew my tiny punk mind. At the time, there was a huge cultural schism between rock and disco: one was all mirror‑balls and escapism, the other guitars and gritty realism. But then certain records would come along and sweep away all tribal distinctions.
When Brian Eno first heard Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s throbbing, hypnotic, synthetic, ecstatic groove, he came running into the studio where he was recording with David Bowie, declaring: “I have heard the sound of the future.” Listening to the techno pulse that still drives modern pop, you have to say he was right. You don’t hear electric guitars in the charts any more. Disco won.
Inevitably, Summer’s death, at the age of 63, has prompted a flood of affection for disco. Maybe we appreciate it all the more because dance music thrives in tough times.
As of today, Bono is being described by many media outlets as the world’s richest musician. Which must be nice. The flotation of Facebook has immediately established a value of $1.9 billion for the Elevation partnership, an equity investment group of which Bono is co-founder and managing director. I remember when Bono first told me about setting up an investment company, I replied, sceptically, “What, because you haven’t got enough to do already?” I thought it was a mad idea. But then, I’m the guy who told him that U2 was a stupid name for a group.
Before we get too carried away however, reports of Bono’s new earned wealth seem to overlook the salient point that there are 9 other managing directors of Elevation, plus, of course, all the actual investors. I very much doubt Bono is going to be sticking the whole $1.9 billion in his leather trouser pocket. Paul McCartney is valued at £665 million, and I think his position as the richest musician remains safe.
Yet Bono has certainly increased his already healthy bank balance, news that will surely make him even more popular, respected and indeed beloved than he is already. Which is to say, all those people who already hate him will probably hate him even more.
Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is a masterpiece, and the Prime Minister is to be commended for his taste. It is one of the indisputably great albums of British pop culture: dark, seductive, mesmerising, spacious, dynamic, weird and wonderful, composed on a vast musical canvas by a brilliant group of bold, adventurous musicians and superb lyricists operating at the height of their powers. Critics may take pot-shots at it now, because some of its power has been lost with the over-familiarity and the crust of venerability that forms around things held in high esteem for so long, but it is worth dismissing such cynicism and listening to it with open ears. Try and turn back the clock to the very first time you ever heard it, perhaps in a cloud of suspicious smoke. It is a recording that unfolds itself before you, carrying you in a seamless flow from the heartbeats of Speak To Me via the hypnotic weave of Breathe to the rapturous climax of The Great Gig In The Sky, through the cash-register-sampling, seductively satirical groove of Money, to the spectacular whimsy of Brain Damage and the mad, all-embracing descent of Eclipse. Really pay attention to what is arguably Pink Floyd’s finest accomplishment, and by the time you reach the fading heartbeat in the play-out grooves, you will have been through an emotional and aesthetic wringer. Of course, it probably helps if you have inhaled. Maybe someone could ask Dave about that?
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02 May 2012
There has been so much abuse heaped on to Duran Duran on these pages and others since the announcement of their headline slot at the opening Olympic concert, I am uncharacteristically reluctant to stick my own well-scuffed boot in. If England is to have its world beating music scene represented by a group of middle aged playboys synonymous with shoulder pads and supermodels who last had a hit in 1990 … then so be it. Some people like them. And anyway, I’m Irish.
The Olympic musical strategy (if one can call it that) is slowly becoming clear. We have an opening concert with artists representing all the nations of the United Kingdom: Duran Duran (England), Stereophonics (Wales); Snow Patrol (Northern Ireland) and Paolo Nutini (Scotland). It is a cute idea that presumably came unstuck when organisers failed to persuade any of England’s leading contemporary artists to participate. It’s a bronze medal line-up at best but, frankly, I have yet to see a convincing suggestion about a Gold winning one.
Even if Adele or Coldplay had grasped England’s poisoned chalice, do you think critics would have been assuaged by the appearance of mainstream idols?
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Women dominate the Ivor Novello award nominations for the first time in over 60 years
BST 18 Apr 2012
In the Ivor Novello award nominations announced yesterday, the Best Album category was a women’s only event. It is the first time this has happened in the award’s 68 year history. As I have suggested before, women are taking over popular music.
And what women they are. You cannot argue with these nominations: three pop generations of bold and brilliant singer-songwriters, each carving their own unique path through what has been a male dominated industry.
The extraordinary sonic adventuress Kate Bush is 53, and has been making unique, almost wilfully eccentric yet open and accessible music since 1978.