ProgBlog

By ProgBlog, Mar 27 2020 05:40PM

Everyday normal service has been increasingly abnormal since at least 2016 and probably since 2008. The UK’s EU referendum result might have seemed like a bolt from the blue but the shockwaves from the global financial meltdown, especially the austerity measures introduced by the new government in 2010 where the wrong demographic was punished for the shortcomings of capitalism, presaged the conditions necessary for the descent into irrationality and self-harm. The decline really began long before the 21st century when the influence of large corporations, becoming multinationals during a period of rapid globalisation that showed no signs of aversion to the exploitation of the mineral wealth or workforce of developing countries, embarked on schemes to protect their own value at the expense of the general population, democracy and the natural environment.

The power and behaviour of vested interests has eroded the mechanisms of world governments to the extent that we’re unable to respond appropriately to the current coronavirus crisis. Poor animal husbandry and unregulated exotic live meat markets facilitated the rise of a novel zoonosis; early reports of a new viral respiratory disease in China were suppressed and medical staff branded enemies of the State; the near-universal use of smartphones, implicated in a pandemic for the first time, acted as an ideal vector for spreading Covid-19; the connectivity of people, a benefit of globalisation, allowed the virus to spread as tourism and business continued as normal; vehicle and industrial pollutants responsible for inflammation of the respiratory tract exacerbated the severity of the disease; and in the UK, where 10 years of deliberate underfunding and deconstruction of the NHS has left staff shortages in every department, we are saddled with a Prime Minister unwilling to restrict the freedom of movement of its citizens, a PM whose initial policy acknowledged that Covid-19 would kill off the elderly as the rest of the population gained herd-immunity. However, it’s important to point out that no single country is to blame for the rise and spread of Covid-19, it’s a failure of regulation and standards.


BBC News coronavirus update 26/3/20
BBC News coronavirus update 26/3/20

I have to admit that when the disease first appeared in China, I was sceptical of its severity and perhaps foolhardily, I was skiing in Sauze d’Oulx, an hour away from Torino, while a number of provinces in neighbouring Lombardy were under lockdown. Coronavirus is common and anyone with only mild symptoms caused by Covid-19 will have a degree of immunity to the new strain because they’ve been previously exposed to other coronavirus. The rapid global spread and the mounting death toll in Italy, the epicentre outside of Wuhan, exposed a worldwide lack of preparation for a new pandemic, and that’s what changed my mind.

Though banning concerts, viewings at the cinema, spectator sports and other forms of human congregation will save some lives the cost, quite justifiably, is a restriction on our normal behaviour. What’s unacceptable is that any shutdown should result in a loss of income for workers and while some countries have agreed packages that will ensure no individual suffers from hardship during the crisis, the UK government has only just begun to address the very real concerns of millions of self-employed, those on zero hour contracts, anyone that doesn’t fall under the key worker banner, and those in rented accommodation but there’s no money available until June and it’s impossible to access the site for the derisory Universal Credit. Many musicians fall into this category, as do others working in the industry such as road crew and studio technicians.


Musicians' Union appeal
Musicians' Union appeal

Within the first ten days of a coronavirus impact survey of its 32000 members by the Musicians’ Union, it was estimated that musicians in the UK have already lost over £20m in earnings. Over 4000 responded to the survey with 90% saying their income had already been affected by social distancing rules, the closure of live venues and school closures, because many musicians make at least part of their income through teaching. The union announced that a new hardship fund would be set up to pay grants of £200 to out-of-work musicians to provide a small amount of relief to its members, adding that the government needed to provide urgent clarity on what wider support would be available, and called on the record industry to also play its part.


Eamonn Forde's 9 ways you can help your favourite band
Eamonn Forde's 9 ways you can help your favourite band

The first response I saw to the disruption to the livelihoods of musicians was an online article by Eamonn Forde (from Classic Rock) on the Louder website, 9 ways you can help your favourite band which neatly sets out the rationale behind some very supportive actions you can take to help secure the future of music. I attended 46 gigs between 2018 and 2019, some of which featured bands from prog’s premier league but many more were smaller or less successful acts. I tend to buy a tour programme when I go to see one of the really big groups but I’m more inclined to visit the merchandise stand for music, on vinyl if possible (recent purchases include The Lighthouse by Iamthemorning, and No Fear of Looking Down by Jadis, for instance) but I’m not unhappy to indulge in a CD or DVD (The Lifesigns debut album and Live in London - Under the Bridge, More Than Meets the Eye by Jadis, Cellar Noise’s second album Nautilus, the first three Hats Off Gentlemen it’s Adequate releases Invisible, When the Kill Code Fails, and Broken but Still Standing, Metamorphosis by Hamnesia.) I prefer to buy music direct from the artists and if it’s not available at gigs or there are no upcoming shows, the band’s own website invariably includes merchandise or redirects you an appropriate site like CD Baby. I got my (vinyl) copy of Exegi Monumentum Aere Perennius by The Rome Pro(g)ject direct from Vicenzo Ricca’s The Rome Pro(g)ject site, and got The Water Road on CD and an LP version of The Clockwork Universe by Thieves’ Kitchen from The Merch Desk via the band’s homepage. If you like a band, it’s sensible to sign up to their notifications. You’ll get advanced notice of upcoming performances (when they eventually resume) and of forthcoming releases. While there is often no problem obtaining tickets for some of the gigs I attend – I’ve been in an audience of about 10, the other nine being musician friends of the band for one concert in the rather splendid Teatro Altrove in Genova where I thought it was such a culturally significant event I’d have to pre-book my ticket to ensure my place


Event 16, Teatro Altrove, Genova
Event 16, Teatro Altrove, Genova

If you sign up to a band's mailing list you’re less likely to miss out on a special edition or limited release. A 2019 Facebook post, shortly after I’d discovered the Norwegian proggers, alerted me to the impending release of Jordsjø’s Nattfiolen; my red vinyl copy is from a limited run of 200; the first LP pressing of Sky Over Giza by La Morte Viene dallo Spazio which I’d seen advertised on their Facebook page (they caught my attention because they were on the same bill as Melting Clock at a gig in Genova which I was unable to attend) was a run of 500 copies divided into ten different colours representing different planets, selling for €17 plus p+p. I chose ‘Earth’.


Sky Over Giza on vinyl
Sky Over Giza on vinyl

Links from a group’s own website frequently redirect you to their Bandcamp store. I’ve been banging the drum for Bandcamp for some time now, but it has taken on greater significance since cities have come under lockdown and record stores, not considered to be an essential service by governments, are currently closed. It’s the artists themselves who post your album when you buy something via Bandcamp, and the price quoted is a minimum suggested price, leaving you free to decide whether you’re willing to pay more. There’s also the opportunity to leave a message for the artist – a nice bit of connectivity that fits in with the prog ethos – that is often acknowledged by the musicians by including a hand-written ’thank you’; it’s like having a 24/7 merchandise desk at your fingertips (T-shirts and bundles of items are available.) It’s probably lazy, but I give Bandcamp gift vouchers at Christmas to encourage the recipients to seek out new music and support artists. It’s possible to listen to a full album without buying it, but I don’t think trying something out is abusing the system. I’ll always buy a copy on a physical medium if I like the material and there’s one available but I do buy downloads if there’s not.


Thank You note from Raphael Weinroth Browne
Thank You note from Raphael Weinroth Browne

I was please that I ticked most of the boxes from the article but was quite surprised by one suggestion – Get political: campaign for better deals for acts, something that really appeals to me. I’m well-versed in fighting against seemingly insurmountable odds through my former union work and the music business doesn’t have such a great history when it comes to looking after artists. Forde’s piece goes on to suggest that those who use streaming services should buy physical copies of the music they like because streaming revenues are tiny, providing a stark example of the iniquitous behaviour of faceless and bland record companies. You should also remember that Spotify or whichever other service you’re using is charging you to harvest your personal preferences for its data-crunching algorithms, nudging your choices.

The other personal omission from Forde’s list was that I haven’t yet subscribed to a crowd-funding campaign, but that’s because I have not yet come across an appropriate project to subscribe to. I really like the idea – I’ve put money into Crystal Palace FC to ensure the club’s continued existence during their periods in administration, because I believe the club provides an important community role – and would willingly help out an artist that I liked if they ticked all the appropriate social and political buttons.


Listening to and writing about music forms a major part of my life and though it’s not what puts bread on my table, I’m concerned about the people who provide me with this pleasure and who, like many of the self-employed, have only been left with promises. Investing in the music that we love now, through Bandcamp or otherwise directly with the artists, not only provides a revenue stream but also sends the message that once we’re through these unprecedented times, we’ll support them in the future.


Covid-19 should be taken seriously - for its effects on health and the way it turns everyday life upside down.


By ProgBlog, Aug 20 2017 11:24AM

I’ve recently introduced a ‘playlist’ feature to the ProgBlog homepage and rather than a straightforward list I’ve produced a GIF, made up from photos taken of the albums as I’ve been playing them. I used to tweet pictures of whatever I was ‘now playing’, influenced by the posts of some of those that I follow, including 140 characters (or less) describing what I think about the music on that record; for a couple of months in 2015 I did post a list of my weekly indulgences, because I’d seen playlists on websites including Steven Wilson’s official site where there’s also an archive of what he’s been listening to, referred to as ‘Headphone Dust’ http://stevenwilsonhq.com/sw/playlist-archive/ . My GIF is intended as a way of presenting my listening habits in a manner more interesting than a simple list and still illustrating the width of the progressive rock genre.


ProgBlog playlists from 2015
ProgBlog playlists from 2015

I’m vaguely wary of the idea of a playlist because I see it as a device to prop-up the music business, linked to streaming services. The release of the mp3 codec by the Fraunhofer Institute in 1993 was to facilitate rapid transmission and immediate access of audio files between different points on the planet and, inadvertently or otherwise, it proved very easy to copy and share. From the ‘home taping is killing music’ panic which began in 1981, when the industry really wasn’t that large (but which was about to gear up and become truly global) and the uproar over the introduction of Napster in 1999, music corporations have consistently stifled creativity and creamed off massive profits from their artists. At the beginning of this decade, recession, falling CD sales and piracy all seemed to spell doom and gloom for the record labels but last year saw a reversal of fortune, driven by streaming services exemplified by Spotify, Deezer, Apple and Amazon. It’s been reported that around 30% of Warner’s £2.66bn revenue for 2016 came from streaming. I’ve just finished reading Robert Barry’s excellent The Music of the Future (Repeater Books, 2017) who points out that the idea of a ‘celestial jukebox’ (in essence, a remote server sending music to everyone with a suitable hand-held device for accessing the service) first aired by Stanford law professor Paul Goldstein in his 1994 article Copyright’s Highway, allowed the ‘record oligopoly’ to convert from supplying goods to on-line services and creating a landlord – renter relationship. The one-off Napster payment has given way to subscription which, it has been predicted, could double or triple the size of the music industry; the tech firms also seem to be doing fairly well from this model - there are 90 million people signed up to streaming services worldwide.


The Music of the Future by Robert Barry
The Music of the Future by Robert Barry

A couple of fairly recent articles in The Guardian, one in July and one earlier this week, highlight some worrying issues with streaming. Industry insiders such as Paul Smernicki, former head of digital at Universal Records, speak in terms of business models and commodity rather than music as an art form, proposing that the numbers of people streaming indicates that music has never been more popular, where the value of reliability, convenience and accessibility to an enormous catalogue of songs for a small cost now make illegal downloading almost redundant, encouraging people to invest in the service. He doesn’t go on to say that while a paid-for download or a physical copy of some music only generates revenue once, streaming rewards the music company over and over again and it’s only a tiny amount, between $0.006 and $0.0084 which goes to the artist for each play of a song; it’s being sold to us as ‘choice’ and in our inimitable consumerist manner we believe the glossy images and accept what the industry says. Unfortunately, a shift to streaming has the effect of discouraging experimental music while enriching already big stars, with the pursuit of Adele by Sony creating a parallel with the other-world Premier League transfer market. Both the majors and indie labels are incorporating streaming playlists as the thrust of their marketing strategy, tying in music to consumption and lifestyle habits.


It’s a successful strategy. There’s a huge market for streaming playlists because the public is increasingly engaging with the service to find their music, so that the streaming companies themselves have invested in the creation of their own playlists which theoretically, might help less well-known artists if part of their remit is identify new music to champion. This part of the tech company – music business relationship appears roughly symbiotic, where the business now uses streaming pluggers pushing for songs, and the range of artists on offer can define the streaming service and help it to attract more subscribers. In reality, the record labels are favouring music that is known to provide the greatest revenue and the tech companies are getting the greater benefit. Barry explains that Spotify (for example) is doing what tech companies do, gathering data, in much the same way as Facebook and Google and Amazon do. The playlists are created with the help of sophisticated collaborative filtering systems where your preferences are matched with the preferences of everyone else on a database and you're constantly badgered into 'liking' and responding to posts, so you get specific recommendations. This doesn’t work very well for me because I hold a deep disdain for advertising and anyway, a very large proportion of people who like the same music as me also like Rush...


While the latest Guardian article suggested that the album could be under threat from streamed playlists, as artists are tempted to ignore the format and concentrate on rolling playlists instead, the Alexis Petridis piece from July concerned reports of ‘fake’ artists used to pad out popular playlists, paying producers a flat fee to create tracks within specific musical guidelines, mostly unchallenging instrumental music for relaxation, avoiding royalty payments. Spotify denied the charge, which would have far-reaching implications for genuine artists, but the stories continued, citing theories relating to quality control, and a tussle for power between service and industry.


I don’t use a streaming service and have no desire to do so but the music business couldn’t care less as the development of voice-activated speakers means we can ask Apple, Google and Amazon avatars to choose some music for a specific mood at a specific time. The playlists I put together in 2015 differ slightly from those now appearing as video on my Twitter and Facebook pages and on the ProgBlog website; in 2015 I was commuting from East Croydon to London Bridge, a nominal journey of 17 minutes, during which I would read my Guardian and, like many other commuters/consumers, listen to my portable mp3 player to shut out incessant high frequency beats, predominantly hi-hat, emanating from the earbud headphones of my fellow travellers. For the past four years or so, the railway lines south of the capital have been increasingly congested as major redevelopment has been carried out at London Bridge, making it impossible to predict the duration of any single journey (industrial action by two rail unions didn’t help but they get my sympathy as they stood up to management pressure to relax safety regulations, opposing the introduction of driver-only trains) and therefore making playlist selection difficult; an unwritten rule was that you couldn’t leave the train mid-track.


The recent playlists have been compiled from listening to albums, mostly LPs but some CDs and, on one occasion a download of demo tracks by new Italian prog band Melting Clock. The commonality between the two sets of playlists is that I listen to the album in full, in running order. That’s obviously essential for something like The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway where there’s a linear narrative but it’s not strictly necessary for every single concept album. It might be irritating to mix the tracks around on Dark Side of the Moon because the album is designed with specific segues but would the world end if we played the different sides of Tales from Topographic Oceans out of order? It would certainly wind me up! I’m not a fan of the shuffle function on music players and as much as I admire Sid Smith’s eclectic podcast Postcards from the Yellow Room http://sidsmith.blogspot.co.uk which has genuine breadth, it’s essentially a sampler for the now generation, whereas I prefer to make time to submerge myself in the entire album.


playtime
playtime

It’s quite clear why the record oligopoly likes streaming and I find it hard to envisage what future developments might come along, if there’s ever to be another threat to the industry. I don’t believe that there’s any immediate risk to the album from streaming as long as genres like prog retain a degree of popularity, simply because the grand themes of progressive rock were developed across the LP format, continued during the CD era and as yet there’s no sign of that historic link being broken. The current fad for all things vinyl may not last but while it does, there’s no better feeling than holding the edges of a new release on heavyweight vinyl between your palms, placing it carefully on the turntable and getting ready to devote your time, in 20 minute chunks, to uninterrupted listening.







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