ProgBlog

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.







By ProgBlog, May 29 2017 08:47AM

I began listening to Pink Floyd bootlegs, loaned by a school friend, in 1973. It was probably John Bull who also lent me his copy of The Dark Side of the Moon before I went out to buy it, shared with my brother Tony for the princely sum of £1 each, and then I began to probe the Floyd back catalogue starting with the 1971 retrospective Relics and the compilation A Nice Pair. That I loved and was influenced by Dark Side, to the extent that I copied the lyrical motifs when asked to write some poetry for a piece of English Language at school, is undeniable. At the time I wasn’t aware that Dark Side was going to be a massive, record-breaking hit album or that it was the almost perfect realisation of all the Floydian experimentation that had gone before. It may have been one of the closest records to straightforward rock that I owned for many years but it oozed exquisitely tasteful guitar and keyboard work and superlative production values; the between-track segues that render it a nightmare to convert to mp3 bestow a grand concept feel and, last but not least, the package is completed by a simple sleeve design that has become an icon in its own right, enhanced by the posters and stickers that came with the album that graced my walls for many years. The exotic and mysterious pyramids captured my imagination as a 14 year old schoolboy and the prism motif tapped into my love of physics, even appearing as a mandala in the centre of the vinyl, the first time I’d seen a thematic device used in this way.


Record Store Day 2017 release of Interstellar Overdrive
Record Store Day 2017 release of Interstellar Overdrive

But I also liked the Barrett-era Floyd; the psychedelic whimsy tinged with a darker edge and the sonic exploration best exemplified by Interstellar Overdrive. This was unconventional rock territory, setting the Floyd in the vanguard of bands wishing to move away from the formulaic constraints of the three minute single, not simply by extended jamming but incorporating ideas such as musique concrète. Unfortunately, the diametrically opposed wishes of Barrett and record label EMI (and the other band members who at the time wanted more hit singles), resulting in the recruitment of David Gilmour as guitarist while Barrett was expected to continue to write but not perform was a short-lived idea and Barrett was dropped, though their second album A Saucerful of Secrets was something of a hybrid album between the Barrett- and Gilmour eras. The space-rock Floyd, best preserved on the live half of Ummagumma and the film Live in Pompeii, displays an evolution from the track A Saucerful of Secrets through the Atom Heart Mother suite and Echoes (from Meddle) to Dark Side, where their vision was fully realised. I’m rather dismissive of the soundtrack work for More and Obscured by Clouds and I’m not particularly a fan of the short tracks on the second side of Atom Heart Mother or the first side Meddle (apart from One of These Days.) I think Wish You Were Here is an admirable follow-up to Dark Side, but even as early as 1975 I can detect the seeds of the descent from progressive visionaries to mainstream rock that in my opinion, and I may be a solitary voice here, is of lesser artistic merit. The instrument of change was the strummed acoustic guitar and from a solitary track on Wish You Were Here, it took more of a central role on Animals, bookending the three main tracks as Pigs on the Wing parts 1 and 2 but also appearing in Dogs; simplistic acoustic guitar riffs formed an integral part of The Wall, The Final Cut and, inevitably, the first Roger Waters solo album The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking.



Ticket stubs, 1980, 1988 and 1994
Ticket stubs, 1980, 1988 and 1994

I was exceptionally pleased with the reformation of the band in 1987 and the Momentary Lapse of Reason album, believing it to be worthy of the Pink Floyd canon. Even if, as some critics argue, it was initially conceived as a David Gilmour solo project and however brief the input from Mason and Wright, the vision was far removed from any other material released under Gilmour’s own name such that the assembled cast, with progressive credentials bolstered by Tony Levin on bass and Chapman Stick, created a well balanced album that returned the group to the prog fold. I’d seen the Floyd perform The Wall during its first outing at Earls Court in 1980 and though it was an incredible piece of musical theatre, I was never overwhelmed with the music itself. On a hot summer’s day within 24 hours of being exactly eight years later, I saw Pink Floyd on the Delicate Sound of Thunder tour at Wembley Stadium and was totally blown away because both the staging and the set were brilliant. 1994’s The Division Bell crept up on me because at that time I wasn’t closely watching the music press, relying more on a nascent internet but particularly concentrating on all things Crimson. Back as a member of the band, Rick Wright’s input was more evident though apart from Cluster One which harked back to the soundscapes of Wish You Were Here, the instrumental Marooned, the Stephen Hawking-voiced Keep Talking and the epic, grandiose High Hopes, I don’t think it reached the heights of its studio predecessor. However, the Earls Court gig in October that year was another excellent show.

As far as Gilmour and Mason were concerned, the Pink Floyd story didn’t end with the death of Rick Wright in 2008 so The Endless River, largely comprised of sessions recorded with the keyboard player was constructed and released in 2014, an album as eagerly anticipated as Wish You Were Here in 1975. This owed as much to early-Gilmour era Floyd as it did to rehearsals for Lapse and Division Bell, including a portion of Wright playing the Royal Albert Hall organ, some Shine on you Crazy Diamond-like synthesizer noodling and a near reprise of Mason’s solo track from Ummagumma, The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party.


With the 50th anniversary of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn looming and a successful David Bowie exhibition under their belt, the Victoria & Albert museum planned a Pink Floyd exhibition which opened earlier this month. I went along in the first week with long-time friend Jim Knipe and came away very impressed. Towards the end of last year I’d persuaded my family to visit the V&A You Say You Want A Revolution, Records and Rebels 1966 – 1970 which featured the Floyd and indicated how well-thought out their special exhibitions were, so I was looking forward to the event. The recent trawl through the archives that allowed the band to put out the 27 disc The Early Years 1965 – 72 box set unearthed some previously unseen footage and unreleased music, some of which was premiered in an hour-long BBC TV documentary Pink Floyd Beginnings 1967 – 1972, must have coincided with the gestation of Their Mortal Remains. A must for any Floyd fan, the exhibition whose title is adapted from a line in Nobody Home (from The Wall): “Got a grand piano to prop up my mortal remains” follows the Floydian timeline from their student days in London (when they called themselves The Tea Set and Sigma Six) to The Endless River, with each album presented in association with video footage, commentary, personal memorabilia, instruments and effects and props.


Visitors are bathed in an early Pink Floyd light show
Visitors are bathed in an early Pink Floyd light show

The timeline is indicated by socially relevant books, magazines and words set inside red telephone boxes; the red telephone box was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the architect of Battersea Power Station which is associated with Animals. We tend to think of Pink Floyd as being fairly anonymous; they graced the cover of Piper in 1967, appeared on the cover of Ummagumma in 1969 and again on the inner gatefold of Meddle in 1971, one of my favourite photos of the band, then there wasn’t another picture until David Bailey’s portrait of Gilmour and Mason, looking very much of the zeitgeist, on Lapse in 1987; some might find it strange for a major London museum to put on a special exhibition dedicated to the output of a core of five attention-avoiding musicians but actually, Pink Floyd have now shaken off their relative reserve and are now a cultural touchstone with 50 years of creativity under their belt. There’s even a commemorative set of Royal Mail postage stamps celebrating their albums. This sonic legacy is almost unparalleled so it’s neither unexpected nor unreasonable that their mark on the musical landscape has acquired an establishment-like acceptance and the Johnny Rotten ‘I hate Pink Floyd’ T-shirt simply a curated memento from the 70s.


The Delicate Sound of Thunder room
The Delicate Sound of Thunder room

My youth was spent poring over musical instrument catalogues and instrumentation listings on album sleeves so I was delighted by the array of original equipment on display. If Rick Wright’s Minimoog is for sale after the exhibition closes, I’d be interested in putting in a bid! I’d always associated the Floyd echo effect with the WEM Copycat but the Barratt-era band used the almost industrial Binson Echorec, a number of which were present along with an array of VCS3 synthesizers; there is a neat hands-on exhibit in the Dark Side section where you can pretend to be Alan Parsons and mix your own version of Money. It wasn’t only the hardware that grabbed my attention; early on was a technical drawing by Roger Waters of Cambridge railway station from the time he was an Architecture student (along with Mason and Wright) at Regent Street Poly and though there were a few references to architecture, I thought there may have been more or better-argued links. I think that the structural element to some of their early post-Barrett compositions demonstrate a form of architectural thinking and one of my son’s friends from university submitted his degree project on Pink Floyd stage shows.


The Division Bell room
The Division Bell room

The lack of a tour of The Final Cut may explain the relative paucity of material relating to the album on display though the suddenness of the split in the band may itself be reason enough. The law suits and differences between the two camps was largely ignored, Waters seemingly being abruptly cut out of the exhibition from that point, forgotten in the rooms dedicated to Lapse, Division Bell and Endless River however, the final room was a large space dedicated to a presentation of the 2005 Live 8 reunion footage, a nice touch showing an end to the internecine feuding, though not pronouncing on any warming of relations.



The experience is well organised and presented where the strong bond between the band and Hipgnosis, Storm Thorgerson, Aubrey Powell and Peter Curzon is key to the sucess of the concept. The headsets delivering the audio feed are hands free so that when you walk from exhibit to exhibit or room to room, the equipment automatically picks up either ambient feed (Floyd music) or a piece of commentary. I had feared that there would be queues at some of the installations but it was easy to shuffle around without being held up or waiting too long or having to miss something. The whole of Dark Side was played in one room, featuring a rotating 360o view of a beam of light being diffracted through a prism, making it easy to spend three hours at the show. And I plan to return.











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I was lucky enough to get to see two gigs in Italy last summer while the UK live music industry was halted and unsupported by the government, and the subsequent year-long gap between going to see bands play live has been frustrating - but necessary.

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