Linkened In

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We constantly hear about how innovative musicians have become. The labels are wankers, dinosaurs, out of touch, unable to adapt their business model: their days are numbered.

Well now it seems that the artists are wankers too. In this article from HBR, we find that the very darlings of the MySpace revolution, Linkin Park – a band which launched its own innovation business in 1999 and managed to build direct relationships with millions of fans etc etc – are once again turning the innovation knob (up to 11).

But this time it’s all in management doublespeak. in 2014, we learn, the band decided they needed a ‘paradigm shift’. Its executive vice president decided that there was plenty of “blue ocean” for them to explore.

Let’s hear from the band themselves:

As co-lead vocalist and founder Mike Shinoda puts it, “Our goal was to build an internal team of diverse talent to support the non-traditional endeavors the band plans to pursue in the coming years.” The move allowed us to venture freely into diversified revenue models to complement our music sales. Our business now operates like a tech startup, with less hierarchy and far more agility.

I don’t know about you but when I was a kid I really wanted to be in a rock group… With a diversified revenue model – so cool!

As the article goes on, I personally had to cough back a little vomit as I found out about the need to build a ‘differentiated brand ecosystem’ and, even better, to ‘dissected the Linkin Park ecosystem and architecte a framework to execute our new long-term vision’.

Possibly the best bit of innovation non-sense is when it is decided that the band should use ‘creative content to communicate our brand’s point-of-view.’ Perhaps they could play some songs and dance?

As you read on, you occasionally check to see that the URL hasn’t switched to The Onion. Rock musicians talking like management consultants is not on the list of things that makes the world a better place. But don’t worry,

To be clear, we are still in the music business, but creating and selling music now plays more of a supporting role in our overall business mix.

Eulogies

Most people got to know the inimitable Anthony H Wilson, who died two years ago, by seeing him on Granada TV, or one of the Granada shows that was broadcast outside the Manchester region, like “Other Side of Midnight” or “After Hours”. And, a whole generation got know him from the Hacienda or other Factory experiments.

I first became aware of him because we shared my favourite band. I bought their records. He released them.

Wilson’s relationship with the Durutti Column has been described as tumultuous. They were the first Factory band, unpredictable because their main member, Vini Reilly was often ill, and if not temperamental. They were never going to be stars like New Order or Happy Mondays. But Factory kept them on board until the record label itself fell to pieces. Not least because Wilson himself was a huge fan.

From the first album (‘The Return of the Durutti Column”) in 1980 (that’s Fact 14 for the Factory geeks), it was obvious that Vini Reilly could express more with his guitar (and, in that case, synths and production from the great Martin Hannett) than most bands ever would with vocals added on top. Listening to the incredibly evocative “Requiem for a Father”, or the complex “Sketch for Summer”, you are presented with whole textures and emotions that seem much deeper than the tracks themselves.

But then from the second album, LC (Fact 44, 1981), Reilly started adding vocal tracks. More and more came on successive albums, with the exception of Without Mercy (Fact 84, 1984) – a quasi-classical album Wilson had twisted Vini’s arm to make. Wilson, you see, didn’t like Vini’s singing. And they used to row about it. Throughout the years the singing waxed and waned, almost entirely absent on some albums, replaced by extensive (and at the time, novel) use of samples, on others such as (eponymous) “Vini Reilly” (Fact 242, 1989) and numerous guest vocalists. Perhaps this was Wilson’s influence, perhaps just part of Vini’s evident desire to keep on experimenting.

Although some of the best Durutti Column tracks have vocals (“Missing Boy” – a tribute to Ian Curtis, “Requiem for Mother” on the Mercury Nominated “Someone Else’s Party”), it is easy to understand Wilson’s viewpoint. Often Vini’s singing is not great (he’s said himself in interviews, “I can’t sing for toffee”), often vocal tracks become a bit of a dirge. But more to the point, when you can make music like he can, why not leave it as it is.

Well now Wilson has his wish, and much much more.

While he was dying in hospital, Reilly visited Wilson often and created instrumental snippets to take to him in hospital, responding, I guess to Wilson’s long held request to take the music in a certain direction.

The result has now been turned into a fully fledged album, A Paean to Wilson (review and details) which will be released early next year and which has been previewed already at a number of concerts in Manchester and London.

The album is an extended reflection on Reilly’s loss of a long-time friend and manager; the guy that gave him his career; his number 1 fan, perhaps. The friendship of these two – one a man often portrayed as an egotist and cad, the other a reclusive musician seems strange. But it is celebrated throughout this incredible album, which is also Reilly’s best for years.

The album starts with a loop of Wilson asking ‘Are you an artist or just a technician?’ before the intense opening beats of ‘Chant’ which drives from a broody and insistent bass line, through an aria-like melancholy to the almost club-style repetition of one sampled phrase modulating up and down, with Reilly’s guitar filling the gaps delicately. The song is like an exercise in how much space can be left in the piece of music as it drifts seemlessly between moods.

Throughout the album, Vini plays alongside long-time (and more recent) collaborators such as John Metcalf, Tim Kellet (“Without Mercy”) Poppy Morgan, and – of course – Bruce Mitchell, generating new tracks, and reprises of old tunes which jump from classical through to hypermodern; from almost over-polished form to deeply discordant and suprising.

The final track ‘How Unbelievable’, captures the outrage that Wilson felt about the inability of the (current) Labour Government to narrow the poverty gap (a sample of Wilson is used towards the end of the song). The track powers through with trade mark guitar riffs and looping vocal track repeating over an over ‘most of all, we miss you’.

As with so many Durutti Column tracks (and again, without lyrics aside from the odd sample and loop), Reilly somehow summons powerful emotion from the tracks. And this isn’t maudlin funeral music. What comes across is a deep respect for Wilson and a deep feeling of loss.

The Independent rolled their review into a broader look at albums and tracks which carry the theme of loss and bereavement. So much of the Durutti Column catalogue has been about relating feelings of loss, of sadness, and, at other times, of exquisite happiness and awakening. It is not, perhaps a surprise then that Reilly’s response to such a major loss would be so powerful.

Wilson has got so many of his wishes. Another great Durutti Column album, Reilly back on top form, and not a vocal insight. Perhaps he’ll get his other wish too, a little more recognition for the other Factory legend.

Thinking inside the box

I don’t very often get to start blog posts with ‘when I was a lad’. Merciful perhaps. But something caught my eye in the flat today that got me thinking just that.

Between the age of maybe 15 and 17, I spent an absolutely indecent amount of time in places like this:

Vinyl Exchange

(fantastic Vinyl Exchange pic courtesy of  tootdood)

Manchester was going through the whole Stone Roses thing, which was great, but what I was searching for were the hidden gems of another couple of Manchester bands: The Smiths, of course and one of the first Factory bands The Durutti Column. The Smiths may well have been the best British group of a generation, but Durutti Column had other things going for them. First off, amazing music, of course. But they were also prolific, relatively unheard of, and you stood a reasonably good chance of actually bumping in to them (or rather him, the group’s driving force, Vini Reilly) in a record shop, or Dry bar – a particularly stylish Hacienda spin off-, or even, bizarrely, in the lumpen every-town mall of the Arnedale centre (as I once did).

But bumping into the band was by no means the main thing. The obsession was searching through thousands and thousands of albums in places like Vinyl Exchange, hoping to chance on an obscure rarity or dodgy bootleg. You would then take this hidden gem to the counter, full of thoroughly unjustified fear that the staff would spot that it was, in fact, a hugely undervalued collectible.

I vividly remember finding an old, and heavily scratched ‘Amigos in Portugal’, once of the quasi-lost recordings Vini had done with another label; and an original of Factory Quartet, both in the store above. Both fantastic recordings. Both great proof of my devotion to this somewhat esoteric musician. The quest was without end, as no one really seemed to have ever worked out what was in the Durutti Column back catalogue. And even then, there was the next group, that weird dance record Johnny Marr had produced.

It was (like Chirky’s concept of an cognitive heat sink) a thoroughly pointless way to explore Manchester and fill up adolescent afternoons.

And now I work in a company where a big part of what we do, is make this aimless collecting impossible. Go to  a modern music download site, type in the name of your favourite band and you will immediately be able to access every last piece of their history and have it delivered, brand new (or ‘mint’ as we sad geeks used to say) to your door the next day. Or, fuck it, don’t worry about all the carefully crafted packaging, just download it to your iPod and stick on random with everything else.

Or perhaps not.

I predicted a while back that artists and labels might try and re-invent packaging. I’d actually thought this would be more radical: Boyzone teddy bears with three free tracks or Girls Aloud Smirnoff Ice with a b-side stapled to the bottom of the bottle. Apple is clearly thinking very hard about electronic packaging alternatives for it’s new tablet and iTunes.

And below are the three amazing box sets that started off this reverie.

If I’d known about all this when I was 16, I could have saved myself an enormous amount of time and legwork. One is from today – a fantastic recording of Elbow playing the entirety of Seldom Seen Kid live at Abbey Road. The other two are a remastered set of  the first four Durutti Column albums, with extra notes, postcards, interviews and some very nice packaging (re-released because the original tapes were found after Antony Wilson’s death); and all of those Smiths singles I spent my adolescence trying to track down.

Box sets

Yes, I know, what would Morrissey say? ‘Reissue, Repackage, Reevaluate…’ But this stuff is great. It’s so much nicer to actually get something beautifully crafted along with the music itself. Even if it goes in a drawer, and the tracks go on the iPod, there is a real pleasure to the tactile elements and content of these packages. The only thing that would have made them better is if I’d found them languishing at the bottom of a bargain bin at Woolworths.

Indecent pricing

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Inspired again this morning by a Clay Shirky twitter (this microblogging might have legs you know) 

Dear AAPL, re offer to upgrade to iTunes+ at $0.30 a song: Go fuck yourselves. I took yr stupid DRM off myself, too late to bill me now

This reminds me (a) of a great gaping void cartoon:

Hugh MacLeod cartoon about DRM

And (b) of a reductionist version of the plot of the Robert Redford and Demi Moore blockbuster. Redford says to Moore ‘Will you sleep with me for a million dollars’. Moore and that bloke from Cheers talk about it for a few days. They can use the money, it’s just the once etc etc and they decide to do it. Moore goes back to Redford and say’s ‘OK you’re on’. (This is where we diverge from the plot they actually showed in the film). Redford then says, ‘Well in that case, let’s make it $50’. Moore is shocked. ‘Well’, he say, ‘we’ve already agreed that you’re for hire (or  a less nice phrase), so now we’re just arguing about price’.

I think Shirky’s ire is slightly misdirected at Apple, who are only the middlemen in this one but the point remains the same. In this last stand in the DRM ‘debate’, the record companies admit defeat and still try and charge us more money for music we’ve often bought two or three times from them already. I still believe most users are willing to pay a reasonable price for music, but the record business will have to face up to the fact that they are not a monopoly. They are competing with a free market for identical (if illegal) products.

Let’s not go crazy

There’s an interesting story being reported about a Pennsylvania mother called Stephanie Lenz who received a letter from Universal Music because a clip she uploaded to YouTube had a prince song in the background (‘Let’s go crazy’).

The clip is 29 seconds long, of very poor quality, and the song in the background is barely audible. However the letter demanded the clip be removed because of copyright infringement.

Lenz has decided to take a stand against the decision and has backing from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The point she makes is that organisations should think twice before accusing huge numbers of people (the recipients of these ‘take down letters’) of having commited federal crimes.

For Universal, it’s another spectacular own goal likely to lead to clear legal presedence against their current methods of protecting copyright.

Obviously particularly ironic considering Prince now routinely gives his music away for free, it is of course a great little illustration of the deep need for us to reconsider (and relax) copyright laws and to rethink the meaning of ‘fair use’ of purchased or public material.

via George Parker.

The other side of In Rainbows

If Radiohead’s intention in letting customers choose the price they pay for the band’s new album, In Rainbows, was to light up the blogosphere, then it’s certainly worked: here, here, here and of course, right here.

They were actually beaten to the punch by the Charlatans, who’re not messing around with making customers pay 1p for their content – the next single and album from them will be totally free.

Good, blunt quote from Charlatans manager Alan McGee, “I thought: well nobody buys CDs anyway….[so] I came to the conclusion – ‘why don’t we just give it away for nothing'”.

The funniest write up is Andrew Orlowski’s opinion piece:

Labelless, but hardly penniless, Radiohead are letting their fans set the price for digital downloads of the band’s new CD.

… The new release will also be available in physical form – £40 for a box-set – easily affordable to the well-heeled bourgeois bedwetters who make up the band’s core following.

Then again, this is such a guilt-ridden corpus of record-buyers they may well feel obliged to make more than the minimum donation.”

He also makes the obvious point this sort of thing might be OK for Radiohead, Prince and the Charlatans, but where does it leave the bands at the bottom of label’s rosters, the ones that aren’t millionaires with tens of thousand of rabid fans? Top bands will likely come out with more than the 10% of sales the labels would have given them anyway but the younger groups need more support. 

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Possible captions

  • “Radiohead delighted with record sales”.
  • “Which of you fuckers put our album on the internet for 1p, I needed to buy a new sweater”.
  • “Lads, the good news is that we sold a 100 copies. The bad news is everyone paid 1p”

Starbucks in their Ipods

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Yesterday’s keynote from Steve Jobs was, as usual, a great show, full of amazing new products and product innovation. The Nano got even smaller and got video, the shuffle got more memory, the standard iPod got a new name (“classic”) and more storage, the iPhone became a lot cheaper, and he launched the new iPod Touch, an iPhone without the phone bit.

Fascinating to watch and I wouldn’t like to be working at a competitor today, as Apple proves it is relentless in staying ahead of the game.

However, the bit at the end of the presentation was equally intriguing.  Steve Jobs gives up the stage to Starbucks’ founder and chairman Howard Shultz to explain in detail the companies’ new partnership.

Walk into a Starbucks (some time in 2008) with your iPhone or wifi-enabled iPod Touch and new button will turn up on the screen, a Starbucks button! This is so close to one of those Google April Fool’s jokes that it takes a second to realize that a) they’re serious b) what they’re talking has potentially huge impact.

Click (or rather tap, of course) on your new Starbucks button  and via free connection to the Starbucks network you can see what the currently playing song in the restaurant is (and the last ten tracks), and buy that track (from iTunes of course).

Both Apple and Starbucks have always understood the importance of experience design, and this points the way to a whole new generation of experiences that merge the boundaries between physical and electronic.

Shultz describes Starbucks as “a place to discover music”. So while HMV, Virgin et al are licking their wounds and shutting their stores, Starbucks and Apple marches in and takes what’s left of their market. How?, by making something of the experience.

How long before iTunes is the number one music store in the world (currently number 3 in the US)?

In case anyone missed it, Shultz punches home the point:

To build a great enduring company, you can’t embrace the status quo, you have to keep pushing for re-invention and self renewal, and no one has done that better than Apple.

Shutting the label door

Prince

I’ve talked quite a lot here about the future of music and of record labels’ role in it. Well last night I saw that future in action, and it was in the shape of an iconic Minneapolis superstar jumping around like a mad man on stage at the dome.

Prince has sold out 21 nights at the O2’s 20,000 capacity venue, managing to get a half a million Londoners to see this frankly knock-out show, without needing to resort to the ridiculous prices of the Madonna tours. As you go into the concert, you also get a free copy of his latest album. Before the uber-cool one comes on stage, we see promo videos for all the merchandise which is on sale outside, and then there’s the after show (where he played another 12 songs last night), for those that want to keep on going (and keep on spending).

In Prince’s case, after the huge row over the use of his name in the early 90s, I’m sure he’d like nothing more than the demise of the majors. And, of course, most artists can’t sell out 140,000 seats in 20 minutes (as Prince did with the initial run). But it does go to show: if the music can be almost freely distributed (remember the actual album launch was a cover-mount on The Mail on Sunday), then the artists can make their money by playing great concerts, flogging the hell out of ancillary sales and the odd private appearance at billionaire’s birthday parties.

Making music history

Anthony H Wilson

This weekend marks two endings. One very sad and one very happy.

In this article, Andrew Orlowski sums up the love/hate relationship Manchester had with Anthony H Wilson, who died this weekend. A founder of the legendary Factory records and TV journalist, I remember vividly the first time I saw Anthony Wilson, on Other Side of Midnight, full of pomposity and unnecessary intellectualism, introducing breakthrough bands like Stone Roses in between bizarre folk acts that probably shouldn’t have seen the light of day and certainly not a TV studio. Or on Channel Four’s “After Dark” evoking a spirit of grand elitist debate replete with huge leather chairs, smoke filled rooms and gradually dwindling whisky decanters.

I remember vividly too seeing him in the flesh for the first time backstage at a concert by Durutti Column (whom he supported endlessly), gliding around like Manchester royalty.

Besides his manner and outspoken views, Anthony Wilson was famous for never really managing to make any money (although those around him often did).  In his own words ‘Some people make money, some people make history’.

Well perhaps Universal Music Group is trying to make history. On the weekend when we mourn Anthony Wilson, we hear that UMG will ‘test’ DRM free music. The word ‘test’ is UMG trying to keep their options slightly open as they follow EMI down the path of liberalization, but they’re very unlikely to be able to go back to DRM.

The move is a surprise, although not an unwelcome one. While the DRM debate was looking intractable, wholesale surrender hadn’t seemed very likely. The move signals intent from music companies to make their money elsewhere. UMG in particular has been pushing Apple for a cut of profits from iPod sales (a similar deal is in place with Microsoft for the Zune). Interestingly the DRM tracks will initially not be available on iTunes, meaning that iPod owners will need to experiment with other online shops (HMV and Virgin both operate in this area) for DRM-free tracks, that will now be importable into iTunes.

The result will be good for consumers. In breaking Apple’s monopoly on legal iPod-compatible downloads, there will be virtually no breaks on the price war that will ensue. At last we may be close to “decent product, decent price” digital downloads.

Music business

 Bill Gates with a Zune (photo Reuters)

Couple of good quotes / stories I found in a desperate attempt to do some catch-up reading of my Economist stockpile. Strangely enough both items from the same page in the July 7th issue (p. 69).

In A change of tune  (paywalled), we have Warner Music chairman, Edgar Bronfman saying “The music industry is growing, [but]… The record industry is not growing.” In these few short words, he’s surely captured an important truth.

Interest in music and music listening has probably never been more healthy, but the record companies seem unable to find a role for themselves. The economist writer moves on to suggest that artists will replace their lost (record sale) revenues with tours, merchandise and personal appearances, leaving the labels to become glorified managers. The tracks themselves become marketing material for the artists. Seem far-fetched? Look at how Prince took his latest album to market – as a ‘free’ giveaway on the Mail on Sunday.

An interesting piece, although there remains the huge hole in the rights debate about what on earth might happen to great film and TV shows, how do they get paid for? If we want Studio 60 and The Shawshank Redemption, we’re going to have to fund them.

The second piece is an article about the release of the iPhone: Where would Jesus queue? (also paywalled). Having marvelled at the hype, fervour and – perhaps most impressively – lack of disappointment once in consumers’ hands, which surrounded the launch of the “Jesus phone”, the writer recounts a story from outside the store where he was queing.

It seems a passerby who had just arrived from Mars wanted to know what the queue was for. “What are you all standing in line for?” she asked. The response from some wag in the queue was “Zunes!”. That’s a good joke and it goes to really demonstrate the extent to which Apple has captured the public’s imagination with innovation and great, user-centred design.