Mike Morton, chief jacket wearer of the band The Gift, said on twitbook the other day that he gets loads of reaction when he talks about politics online, but relatively little when he posts about music. This led to a discussion about politics in music, how political people like their music, the sense some have that political music seems to have gone the way of the dodo. A lively discussion was had.
More than one person made the well known argument that everything is political and if you try not to be you’re simply saying the status quo is fine.
My initial reaction to that was to disagree. I write songs that tell silly, horrific, or horrifically silly sci-fi stories. There’s nothing political in them, I’m not writing them to make any kind of point.
Which isn’t to say I’m not political, I am very interested in politics. I’m on holiday this week and one of the things I did was visit the houses of parliament for a guided tour. I listen to relatively nerdy political podcasts, read an awful lot of non fiction and am pretty much addicted to my list of political journalists on twitter. Politics is fascinating and I really, sincerely wish our politicians could be persuaded to get involved in it.
There are two things I don’t do. I don’t talk about politics on twitbook (doing so is pointless and just feeds the online rage farm that they sell to advertisers) and I don’t write about politics in my songs. Politics is complicated and hard to communicate and I am not certain about my opinions on any of it. An eight minute monologue of my political ideas wouldn’t entertain anyone (though Akala’s would).
But if everything is political, then there must be politics in my music, right?
Happy People, my last album, could definitely be said to be political. It’s about a near future dystopia in which individuality is destroyed by the state, where love is regulated and where the population are kept in the dark through propaganda. My intention when writing it was just to tell a story and sketch out that world, but it would be totally reasonable to interpret it as a comment on today’s politics, or see my political views reflected in it. Certainly my attitude to issues of the individual versus the state are similar (I’m not a fan of the state getting in the way of the individual – but please don’t interpret that as a right wing ‘libertarian’ viewpoint).
What about the older steampunk stuff? Any politics there? My Seven Bells John songs are about a criminal who redeems himself after being freed from a prison cell by a policeman. You could definitely find similar anti-establishment sentiments in there, and probably shoe-horn it into a lefty critique of the role of the police if you wanted to.
As I’ve said many a time, meaning in pop music isn’t communicated primarily through the lyrics. So what else is being said with my music?
It’s influences are those you’d expect of a lower-middle class white Londoner born in the 80s: lots of rock, hints of folk, ideas nicked from classical. The business model is decidedly indie and the musical choices speak to that as well. You don’t write twenty minute songs if you’re hoping for commercial success. The steampunk thing elsewhere tends towards nostalgia for an era that was decidedly unpleasant for anyone bar the rich (but then, that’s most eras) but I think I’ve mostly gone for the horrific or weird end rather than the flag waving nostalgia. All of those things could be analysed through a political lens, regardless of whether I had political intentions.
Does intention matter? No. Stuff can be political, even if the person making it doesn’t mean it to be.
In short there are lots of ways you could interpret my music. Even the very fact that I’m suggesting my music exists within a political culture would be considered extreme left wing nonsense by some with a certain kind of right wing view that sees only individuals and discounts the notion of cultural analysis.
I don’t try to write political songs, I’m not going to try to communicate what I think about politics online – ask me in person if you want. But yeah, I guess my songs are political.
As Spotify has been making the news of late, I thought I’d have a look at streaming revenue and my music revenue in general.
Music is not the way I make a living. At present my music pretty much covers costs, which is great. However, that’s with lots of favours being pulled in and mates helping out. I’d rather be able to pay those lovely people who help out, and maybe be able to afford to put more time in than I can at the moment.
Most of the money I have made from music has been via Bandcamp. Bandcamp allows streaming, as well as the sale of downloads and physical merch. The streaming is free – it’s the shop window that gets people in and encourages them to buy – but the paid stuff is right there next to it.
I also have some of my music on Spotify which is just about streaming and nothing else.
How do Bandcamp and Spotify compare?
Spotify pays 0.004 dollars per play.
If I divide the amount of streaming plays I’ve had on bandcamp by the amount of money I’ve made from it, what is the equivalent per stream rate?
0.166 dollars per play.
0.004 dollars compared to 0.166 dollars.
Bandcamp is better financially, by a long, long way.
Bandcamp doesn’t actually pay per stream. The figures are a comparison. What it shows is that the bandcamp model of allowing streams for free right next to the downloads and physical merch is a better bet for an artist like me than Spotify’s micro-payments per stream.
Is this what every musician should do?
I don’t know! I’m not an expert. The musicians I’ve read about doing well out of Spotify are either those with mass appeal or those writing what seems essentially to be library music designed to get on to soundtrack playlists.
If that’s your thing and you think you’re likely to get the sort of figures that make it worthwhile go for it.
But Spotify isn’t for music fans is it? Spotify is the radio. It’s the soundtrack, the background. Spotify is the sound equivalent of wallpaper. You can’t pore over the album art, see the pictures, read the credits, buy the merch, make a donation, show your support for your favourite artist.
If you have a Spotify subscription, no matter what you listen to some of your money is going to Ed Sheeran.
My music doesn’t really work that way. You have to pay attention if you want to get the most out of it. And I’d much rather cater to a smaller band of nutters who are properly into it than try and build an audience of hundreds of thousands. I don’t think that’s realistic for me, but Bandcamp has made it so that I don’t need to worry.
Sticking with bandcamp then?
Yes. In fact I’ll be experimenting with their subscription model soon to see if there are some nutters out there who want to support in that way.
It makes me ponder the wider issues though. I’ve heard some say that people don’t value music as much as they used to. I think the people who say that have mistaken having to pay a certain price for wanting to pay it. As soon as music could be acquired cheaper and more conveniently lots of listeners took advantage of that.
In previous eras people had no choice. They had to buy. They couldn’t choose what value to give your music. As soon as they had the choice they switched.
Musicians haven’t done a good enough job of communicating the costs involved and making listeners feel like patrons. I firmly believe it is our job to do that. People who listen to our music are our allies, the recording industry – as exemplified by Spotify – is at best indifferent to music, and at worst actively hostile.
So for the time being I’ll be sticking to Bandcamp. There isn’t an audience of hundreds of thousands for my music, but there probably are a couple of thousand people out there who might like it, and it looks like Bandcamp is still the best way to share it with the world.
Recently there’s been a little ruckus in the steampunk music community. The lead singer of the band ‘Abney Park’ made the claim that some acts calling themselves steampunk should not be. He then suggested that he was making this claim because there is a genre of music called ‘steampunk’ that includes his band, a few others such as Rapskallion, Tankus the Henge and others. These bands, he claimed, use ‘the same elements musically speaking’ and could be called a genre.
Others took exception to either what he said or how he said it and internet arguments ensued. That’s all very boring, I’m not going to address it.
But I wrote a dissertation on genre distinctions in heavy metal at uni, so I feel like I can address his premise. He’s claiming that those bands represent a genre. Do they share musical elements that are unique to their genre? Is the Abney Park frontman correct?
Let’s define terms
What is a musical genre? Let’s take punk. It has an aesthetic of course, a way of dressing that we all recognise but that’s not enough to make a band punk. Dressing Abba in punk outfits wouldn’t make them punk if they didn’t also change the harmonic language, melodies, instrumentation, lyrics and performance style.
The term ‘steampunk’ is only tangentially connected to the punk style of music, coming as it does from the cyberpunk genre of science fiction. We can be reasonably sure about the sort of things a steampunk aesthetic or narrative might contain, and I think it’s unquestionably the case that all these acts look the part and have lyrical content that fits with a steampunk aesthetic. It’s that neo-victorian, retro-futuristic, alternative history, cogs-and-brown kinda vibe and it’s there in spades.
Of course it’s there in spades for both those acts that Mr Brown has said are steampunk and those that are not. So our only choice is to discount the visuals and the lyrical subject matter and look at the music in isolation.
What is genre not? Genre is not a box. You don’t define a genre then force bands into that category and argue about whether band x is neo-danceatronnica or face-pulse-nerdcore. Well, clearly lots of people do, particularly on the internet, but that doesn’t tell you anything.
Instead think of genre like an archetype or template. There’s an imaginary punk band that is totally punk in every way and you use that to compare to real world bands (none of whom will be perfectly punk to everyone) as an analytical tool. Yeah, I guess The Clash are pretty punk, you say, but then they have elements of reggae in some songs so what does that tell us…. and so on.
Some examples of what might be steampunk
Abney Park – Circus at the end of the World
This song has a simple minor key chord progression that doesn’t change throughout the song. After a brief intro we get two verses interspersed with a string refrain. After that that we have a sing-along ‘la’la’la refrain, which is presented on its own then with the violin hook.
The instrumentation combines modern goth rock forces with some older folky ideas, as can be heard in the fiddle parts.
Rapskallion – Never turn your back on the sea
Once again we have simple minor key harmony, albeit with a little more variation.
The instrumentation is more typically folk: acoustic guitar, drums, bass, accordion, woodwind and fiddle. Oh and what appears to be a panpipe solo. I like this track, it has a nice hook though for my taste there’s only enough variety to justify half the length.
Tankus the Henge – Recurring Dream
I hadn’t intended to express personal preferences, but I really like this track by Tankus the Henge who I hadn’t heard prior to starting this blog post. But opinions aside, what do we have here?
Well there is a bit of a violin melody but this has both got more going on harmonically and, unsuprisingly for what sounds like a British act, a bit of a music hall vibe going on in places.
I really enjoyed this track. Thank’s Tankus!
And it kinda reminded me of Mothertongue, a band on the same label as me who also have a British vibe, some nice trumpet melodies and a a similar energy and vocal style. Someone on the Music for Steampunks facebook page recently mentioned Cardiacs, a band whose attitude to groove, chord choices and song structure can be heard in a great many British bands.
Oh and Rapskallion reminded me of a few acts, including Sanjuro, the band of a guy I did my teacher training with.
And that’s a problem for the premise we’re testing. If you discount the
visuals and lyrical content, which we have to do to even get started, what are you left with? Is it possible to define an imaginary steampunk band that would represent the ideal?
Well, you could say they’d fit into western pop music, would be likely to play in a minor key and make use of elements from early 20th century popular music, possible music hall, possibly folk. You might up date that with more modern grooves, eg rock beats. But Rapskallion don’t do that. Little violin refrains seem to be common too, and male lead vocals.
Is that enough? The Beatles fit into most of that list, Nick Cave fits into some, Mothertongue, Sanjuro, Cardiacs all share some elements.
It’s not enough
Is it enough to set them apart from BB Blackdog who the Abney Park singer explicitly said were not steampunk?
What You Need by BB Blackdog is a classic rock song, and it is fair to say it doesn’t share musical characteristics with the songs above.
But I also think you’re pushing it to claim either that the first three acts are similar enough to belong in the same genre or that they are unique. If they are steampunk, why aren’t all the other acts that sound like that but not wearing top hats and goggles not still called steampunk.
I think it’s reasonable to say that the premise that the Abney Park frontman put forward isn’t sustainable. It’s not total nonsense, there is a bit of a crossover, but to go so far as to say it’s something unique and that musical acts slightly further away shouldn’t also be called ‘steampunk’ is to be frank a bit silly.
This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Steampunk is a genre of fiction and an aesthetic that has developed a whole host of cultural practices around it. One of those is music, and people in different parts of the world have approached that with the tools – musical and extra-musical – they have.
Some of my own music is steampunk in two ways. It has lyrics about steampunk stories, and there are hints of blues scale and Gershwin style harmony in places, albeit well hidden.
Would I claim to belong to a musical genre called steampunk? No, and I don’t think anyone can claim that. And I also don’t think anyone should make that claim, or get worked up about it. Genre isn’t there as a tool to put things in boxes.
What makes a performance authentic? Is it important for the performer to connect with the audience? Is that even possible? Is there something more honest about the authentic, jeans and t-shirt -just-playing-my-songs performer compared to the costumes and theatrics of your Gabriels and Bowies?
I’ve seen some performances recently that are apparently far less considered and theatrical. Mannheim, beautifully noisy instrumental rock with a saxophone, Matt Stevens, half improvised, beer fuelled looping guitar nonsense, and the Barts Chamber choir.
Hang on, what are a classical choir doing on that list?
The rock acts, being the composers as well as performers are perhaps closer to the idea of heart-on-sleeve expression. With the composers mostly dead, there is an extra layer of ‘distance’ with the choir. I saw them sing a mixture of secular and sacred music, unaccompanied in a church. A different style of music, but similarly devoid of theatre. Just the music, none of your nonsense.
I could compare these to my own performances. My songs are narrative, lyrically I don’t claim to be expressing my own feelings and there is perhaps a bit of an arch, knowing attitude to them. It’s just comic-book stories, perhaps it doesn’t matter so much.
The same criticism could be levelled at more theatrical acts. David Bowie and Peter Gabriel’s performances with Genesis spring to mind. All those costumes and characters disguise the true performer. It’s all artifice, and therefore less honest, less real, less true.
The problem with that analysis of course is that it’s nonsense.
The classical performance would have seemed a little stagey to anyone not used to the conventions. You clap for the performers coming out – okay we get that. But then you wait and clap again for the conductor? And you don’t clap in between movements of the longer works? Why?
But those audience conventions are no weirder than what you get at rock concerts. Clapping and cheering after solos? Dancing, swaying, doing what the lead singer tells you? Any performance has a level of artifice. The simple notion of having a separation between musicians and audience, or of having music as a separate art form in it’s own right that you stand and listen to is artificial.
And those rock performers who were apparently heart-on-sleeve ‘authentic’ performers do all sorts of stagey things. Mannheim had a song where the front line walked down into the audience – it was great, but clearly preplanned. Matt does all sorts of movements that have nothing to do with creating the sound and are all to do with creating a visual excitement – including downing a pint of beer at the end of his performance. Get him talking and he’ll happily tell you about the thought processes behind what he’s doing. Stewart Lee and Derek Bailey will be mentioned.
So what about my own stuff? Should I worry that the narrative songs might get in the way of the audience engaging with the music?
I don’t think so. For a start, I’m making this kind of music because I love it. It moves me and given the success of other narrative musical endeavours I can safely assume that there’s a section of the music-loving population who also like this kind of thing. Otherwise how have all those musicals, bands like Coheed and Cambria or albums like Operation Mindcrime been a success?
A useful tool might be the ‘authenticity spectrum’. Imagine a spectrum that ranges from ‘heart-on-sleeve-and-totally-spontaneous’ at one end to ‘contrived-theatrical-and-not-about-the-performer-in-a-directly-personal-sense’ (There may by a more succinct way of expressing that). Different acts might exist at different points on that spectrum, but always this will be a choice. Authentic or not, it’s all artifice.
Because music is not communication, it is evocation. You might like to feel as if you are connected directly to the performer. You might prefer connecting with the protagonist of a story told through song or you might like music that exists in the abstract, the composer long dead, the words a standard religious text that has been set to music a thousand times. Either way, the job of the musician is not to take their emotion and communicate it to you. Their job is to take the music and use it to evoke an emotion in you.
In which case, surely there’s nothing more dishonest than the musician in his jeans and t-shirt claiming to be communicating authentic emotion? No artifice, no theatre? Yeah right. Live performance is all theatre.
It might be heresy, it might be a dangerous thing to admit, but I am not much of a music fan.
There are acts I like. I’m always going to want to hear the new King Crimson, or Iron Maiden, or whoever. If concert tickets for acts like that were still sensibly priced I’d go see them as well, but I don’t regret missing them.
I also don’t feel the need to own every CD, or DVD. I don’t own any band t-shirts.The CDs I do have are poorly treated, the vast majority still in boxes since I moved house more than a year ago.
I have no desire to collect artefacts related to my favourite acts. I don’t care about their biographies or whether I’ve got everything they ever released.
(The exception is those independent musicians who I follow. I have the latest Matt Stevens, Simon Godfrey, Mike Kershaw albums, to name a few, but that’s me supporting an indie artist and it feels different to being a ‘fan’ – though I’m not sure why or how)
So do I not listen to music? I listen to it all the time, and I try to make it music I don’t know as often as it is work I’m familiar with. But I listen like a musician. What works and why? How can I take these ideas and incorporate them into my own work?
When I see a live act, it makes me itch to get on stage myself, and so can be a frustrating experience at the same time as entertaining.
There’s no such thing as background music – if I can hear music it becomes the foreground. There’s always a tune in my head,and it’s usually a tune I’m halfway through composing. Music isn’t something you collect, or listen to, or watch, or write about, or discuss.
Music isn’t something I listen to. Music is something I do.
On Monday I arrived home to find a broken kitchen window, a missing laptop and a bedroom that had clearly been briefly ransacked.
Now I’ve always been relatively liberal on issues of crime and punishment. The right-wing ‘lock-em up’ approach is clearly the soft, less effective option.
However, it is also the emotionally satisfying one, so finding myself the victim of crime, my first reaction was the desire to meet whoever broke into my home and hurt them with a large mallet. The next day, speaking to neighbours, I found myself agreeing with the empty statement ‘they’re evil’, which isn’t actually a helpful attitude.
Funny how your emotions don’t listen to reason.
So that evening was ruined, which was particularly annoying as Joe had come round to work on guitar parts for September’s gigs. We didn’t make much progress with that. Instead the police arrived and I briefly lived in the world’s most boring episode of CSI. The highlight of this was the momentary suspicion that we had found blood. This turned out to be paint.
This was followed by a long day waiting for glaziers, buying and fitting various locks and so on.
Also, I now own a large mallet.
I don’t get record store day.
First there are the words in the title. To my English ears the word ‘shop’ is more appropriate than ‘store’, and I have no love of vinyl and no desire to own a record when good quality audio files are an option.
What? You think those are shallow points, hardly worth making? Well it’s my blog and I shall say what I want.
I am all for supporting independent artists. I’m currently getting ready to move house, and in doing so I’ve got rid of a lot of CDs. The ones I’ve kept are, by and large, independent albums. I’ve kept these not because I ever listen to the physical CD – they were all ripped to hard drive once I bought them – but because I value the transaction and the opportunity to support an artist I like.
But shops? Bricks and mortar shops? I can’t stand the things. I have no desire to go out to a special place just to buy things, I have no desire to have to queue up with others, to take the risk that what I want isn’t in stock, to be inconvenienced by those who take up space ‘browsing’ rather than having a definite idea of what they’re going to purchase so they can get in and out very quickly. In short, shops bemuse and annoy me, and just because some of them sell music doesn’t suddenly make them worthwhile.
If you like them, go ahead, no problem, I’m not suggesting we get rid of shops, but I don’t want to bother with them.
Don’t you think that’s needlessly negative? Lots of people do value the chance to browse in a physical space. Lots of people want to support their friendly independent record shop and browse its shelves for interesting and obscure vinyl releases…
Fine, lovely, let them do it, I’m not interested, it seems needlessly out of date and a waste of time to me. Also this obsession with physical things seems a little weird, and there’s just a self-satisfied, pretentious feel to a lot of it. Like people who go to farmers’ markets or buy organic food because they think they’re making an ethical choice rather than trying to say something about their status and class.
Blimey, attacking organic food and farmers markets as well? As if you’re not pretty middle class yourself, with your Guardian and your fluffy liberal views
Shut up. You are essentially me, and I’m buggered if I’m going to spoil another blog post with a mock argument with myself in a lame attempt to be funny. It’s bad enough I just wrote that sentence to preempt any accusations of not being funny. Let’s just get on with something worthwhile…
Right, here are some good indie records:
Let’s Build An Airport – Matt Blick
This Ep, by Matt Blick, is really rather spiffing. He writes a blog on the Beatles and you can really hear the influence here. In a good way. Highlights: [Everything is] Broken with it’s 7/4 rhythm, interesting instrumentation and fantastic chorus and Let’s Build an Airport which is a perfect little pop song.
Ghost – Matt Stevens
This has just been reprinted, so you can go buy it and own it and hold it, which I assume will assuage your weird record fetish. Oddball that you are. I recently described it thus:
‘Ghost used to be my go to album for washing up and visiting the gym, now it’s more likely to accompany me as I fall asleep on trains in the morning. It’s that good (Sorry Matt, that was supposed to sound like an endorsement. It came out kinda mildy sarcastic). Look, buy the album, it’s good. I am being serious.’
Nick Tann – The Vinyl Project
Yeah he’s into vinyl, which as we’ve established, is weird. But 3am is a bloody good song with a chorus that will not leave your head, and the rest of the songs are great too. Well worth it, even if he does like vinyl.
So there are 3 indie records you could/should buy. But don’t go to shops. Shops are full of people, and we all know people are overrated.
This is a repost of something I wrote for Comraderobot.com a while ago. I still like albums, so I thought I’d rewrite it and post it here.
Personally, I find this distressing because I listen to albums, as albums. I like them! Pearl Jam’s Ten, Mansun’s Six, Bowie’s Outside, Dream Theater’s Awake, Metallica’s Master of Puppets, King Crimson’s Red all of these are amongst my favourite albums, and I have always listened to them as a complete work.
My favourite works of popular music all fit together as roughly forty minutes to an hour’s worth of coherent music. I like them that way, and as an artistic statement, I don’t see that anything’s changed.
But I’m a fan!
What I do know is that there are plenty of us out there, the real music fans, who don’t just listen to the hits. I’ve never listened to music radio, I don’t see what it’s for at all. First you have DJs, as if the concept of someone stupider than me babbling crap between songs could be entertaining, but worst of all you only get the latest single or biggest hit from any given band, invariable with the beginning and ending cut off.
Useless. Pointless. You hear the hook, but it doesn’t hook you in, because we’ve changed to the next song.
The point of the hook is to get you interested enough to put the effort in and discover the larger work. Having a random pop hook stuck in your head, knowing forty such random hooks, is not what being a fan is about. The fan is the person who puts on their headphones, lays on their bed and listening to every note beginning to end, losing themselves in the music. The fan is the person who lets go of seconds and minutes in favour of beats and bars, so that an hour of their time isn’t an hour at all, but a space of time and emotion totally dictated by the music.
I don’t want to do that for a catchy riff and three goes round the chorus. I want the mix of pace, the build, the development of a larger work.
Something very similar happens with the live set. Any musican will tell you that playing live is less about the individual songs and more about the mixture of pace, key and emotion to create a space in time. Albums do that too. I don’t want to lose it, and I don’t see why we should.
Steven Hodson tells me ‘the majority of musicians still only produce one or two good songs per CD’. CDs have always been full of filler, with countless bands managing a decent single or two, and then hours of crap. Does that invalidate the album as an artistic concept? No more than a bad tv series invalidates the notion of a tv season as an artistic statement. Sure, there are crap albums, I own shelves of them, but I don’t see what that has to do with the artistic merits of the form.
To be fair, the first article I read on the subject only said albums might end as an organising princple, and Steven Hodson in the above article says albums will stay if ‘musicians provide enough value for fans so that they are willing to pay for an album’.
Albums were never the only organising principle. The live concert is an organising principle, as are listener generated ideas like the mixtape and the playlist. I will even grudingly admit that playlists chosen by DJs might be acceptable to some people. And yes, the internet is opening up new possibilities in terms of regular updates, more frequent smaller collections. Even singles have a place for those that like them, though I never have.
Just don’t tell me albums are dead, because I love them, and I’d rather a few more were made.