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Tag: music

My Life Has a Soundtrack

A Quick Starting Note…

I plan to link to a whole bunch of music to go with this post. It’ll probably all go at the end as a massive lump until I rejig my content management system to let me conveniently link to music in a more sensible way… which may or may not ever happen. It’s not the focus of this blog, after all. If there’s not a small bunch of music links at the end, bear with me and they’ll be along eventually. There’ll probably be links in the body too…

In the meantime, here we go…

My Relationship With Musical Talent

Conspicuous by it’s absence

I’ve never had quite the relationship I’d like with music. I like to think of myself as a put-upon musician, in that I’ve never yet found a musical instrument that doesn’t hate me.

As it stands, I’ve attempted to get somewhere with a violin, a piano or keyboard, electric or accoustic guitars, bass guitar and drums. No luck. I seem to have the musical talent of a whelk. On top of that, please never,ever ask me to sing. The geneva convention probably prevents me from doing so, and if it didn’t, I’m sure they’d rectify the oversight shortly afterwards. Of course, I still attempt some form of music every once in a while.

I’ve come close to being able to make vaguely decent noises come out of guitar, bass and keyboard… but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to play them in any reasonable capacity. Guitarists are usually expected to be able to play more than the first few bars of the intro to “wish you were here”, or to be able to make the guitar do what they want without causing pain to all in the vicinity. I had a slightly better go with a keyboard, and actually managed to work out the start of Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” by ear alone… which a) I’m unduly proud of, considering it’s not exactly complicated and b) absolutely certain that I’ve since forgotten.

I finally understood what the hell was going on with a guitar (and similar stringed instruments) after an awesome presentation on the physics and technology of the guitar at BarCampLondon a while back (which I mentioned in another blog post nearer the time – If I remember, I might come back and link to my writeup about it). I still can’t play a guitar, but I understand them a lot more about how they work than I did. With time and patience, I reckon I could probably play some form of stringed instrument for a particular style of music. Not a style I reckon many folks would listen to, admittedly, but I reckon I could.

Likewise, it was experimenting with a keyboard after knowing a bit of physics and maths that made me finally get how they behave. It was also messing about with chords on a keyboard that made chords on a guitar start making more sense to me. Not because of how you play them, but because it’s easier to pick up on the relationships between the strings and how the waveforms interact.

As for rhythym, it was messing about with a cheap electric drumkit that made me finally get how some of that stuff worked. I couldn’t quite make my limbs behave enough to give it a proper go, but I got a much better idea of how drums work and what’s involved in playing them. it’s something I may eventually go back to when I have more space and more free time. I could carry a very, very basic rhythym, but I couldn’t do anything more complex than that.

But, even with all of that, I don’t think I’ll ever be a musician.

Can’t create, but can appreciate

I may not be able to play music in any meaningful way, but I can sure as hell appreciate it. My continued attempts to learn to make instruments make noises other than “cat put through badly oiled shredder”, “drums dropped down liftshaft” or “monkey trapped beneath piano lid” also give me more and more respect for the talent I do hear.

When I find something I like, I want there to be more of it. Which means more people need to support those artists right now, before they go away. I’ve always tried to build enthusiasm around the music that I like and spread it around. It’s a way of ensuring that a band gets a bit of reputation and survives.

How things used to be…

Airplay

Very little music I like gets airplay. This has always been the case. In the past, there used to be a rock show every friday on the radio… which would play rock & metal for four hours, from eight until twelve. That was it. There were a couple of other shows, and a couple of other stations, but they mixed to good stuff in with so much utter arse that they weren’t worth bothering with. There were also a couple of TV Shows that did me some favours, for the brief time they were around, and when I got the chance to watch them… shows like snub-TV or, on certain weeks, when they had the indie or rock charts, The Chart Show.

The problem was that I didn’t have my own TV – just the one in the front room, so when I wanted to watch music shows, my folks were usually sat right there with me. I had a tape deck of my own, but that required me to have found and bought music. Which I couldn’t easily do if I couldn’t listen to it first to find it.

Discoverability

The problem I always used to have was that it was really difficult to discover bands, or to evangelise about a band or a song. You could hear it at random, and you could tell people about it, but you couldn’t just point at it and say “listen to this, right now!”. You had to wait for the radio to play it, usually with two fingers at the ready on the tape deck so you could record it, give the tape to your friends and tell thim “this is the one I meant” – because the chances were that the local record shop wouldn’t have it unless it was already popular. Considering a lot of the stuff I liked was never really going to get as far as popular (or had long since ceased to be so) I was unlikely to get very far. I knew there was an underground scene, but living away from cities made it largely inaccessible to me. You also couldn’t really try tapes before you bought them, and they weren’t cheap. If I saved for two or three weeks, I could afford a tape.

The problem comes a little from my rarified tastes. There’s not much “popular” music out there that I like very much. There never really has been. The closest I got was in the 80s with some of the hard-rock, metal and goth stuff, and the 90s with a bit of the shoegaze and indie stuff and, on a different tack, some of the ambient or celtic stuff.

Tastes & Clubs

I can appreciate a fair amount of music that does get airplay for what it is, but I don’t necessarily like it. I won’t say it’s bad… art is subjective, after all. I will, however, say very firmly that most of it’s just not to my taste. It’s not meant to be. Overweight ex-goth-metaller-indiekid-prog-rocker guys in their mid-thirties aren’t usually the target audience for pop music… especially if they’re ardent two-left-feet-that-don’t-even-work-right non-dancers like me, so aren’t interested in dancing to stuff at clubs. Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate some club music in the right circumstances – which are generally when I’m rocking the lighting controls for the club and getting caught up in the vibe of the room. I did a fair bit of that to fund myself through university, and grew to appreciate a lot of different music for different reasons. I wouldn’t listen to all of it, but I can appreciate the atmosphere it can create in a club. Even as a non dancer, I can, in the right circumstances, get caught up in a good club night if the DJ is good at their job and I’m running the light show to follow the music. I can pick up on the vibe of the room and find myself getting lost in it. It doesn’t even have to be music I like – it just needs the right atmosphere in the room.

But my music – the music I li
ke – isn’t really club music. Not all of it anyway – some of it is, but usually for a different kind of club.

Music Archaeology

I’ve spent a long time finding my music via recommendations from friends, which have usually had around a one-in-three success rate if the friends know me and my tastes pretty well. Some friends have a better hit rate than others, of course, but that’s to be expected. I have tastes that have traditionally been a little outside the mainstream. On top of that, bands I like have a long habit of breaking up due to label shenanigans (or just plain falling out with each other) and scattering into a selection of new bands, with no breadcrumb trail to let you follow them. They also have a habit of doing it just after I’ve found them. I am become death, destroyer of bands!

The bands that don’t follow the “explode as soon as discovered by Eggwhite” pattern do tend to hang around, but don’t usually release music on a particularly punishing schedule. An album every few years, if I’m lucky.

This often left me starved of new music. This wasn’t too bad, as I often dug back into the past to find music that was new to me. Whilst finding this was great, and I still do dig into the past to find music on a fairly regular basis, it doesn’t help me find new, current music to share or introduce people to. It’s music archaeology, rather than music discovery.

Ticking along with the same few bands

This situation left me, for a great many years, with a small number of bands that I really liked, and who’s back catalogues I’d buy up fervently until I ran out. Then, because they were established bands, I’d get maybe a new album every year or two. Eight to Twelve new songs every year or two, from three or four different bands. Because I live in the UK, pandora wasn’t a viable option for me (it might be now, but I’m not that fussed) and because my tastes are a bit far from the beaten track, spotify just didn’t handle me very well. Last.fm? Love the site, but it just didn’t have content for my kind of music. I still use it, and try to make sure that all my music players scrobble to it. I found a couple of bands that way, but mostly it just liked recommending bands I already knew or that weren’t to my taste.

There just wasn’t much out there for finding me new music. There were a couple of podcasts that I listened to, such as a few from The Dividing Line Broadcast Network, but they were usually quite hit and miss for me. The better shows were pretty awesome, and probably still are, but there was so much in there that just didn’t quite grab me… and long podcasts where you don’t like 50% of the music, whilst they’re better than my luck with radio, are a lot of effort to go to for not much benefit. Too many shows themed around one band, and too much effort to work out what a song was whilst listening. Good for listening, but not so good for music discovery.

Then came Classic Rock Presents: Prog – a print magazine, with cover CDs. The magazines were good (probably still are – I think my subscription’s lapsed and I can’t remember my credentials to renew it) and I’ve picked word up a lot of good bands that way. One of which was a solo artist called Matt Stevens. More on him later. But, as had always been apparent, I’m not just a prog fan, and I don’t like all prog. That said, the cover CDs always had at least one track on them that I really liked – usually more. I’ve only had one cover cd from them that I thought was “a bit of a duffer”, and even that one still had some good stuff on it.

Then, Out of the Blue, Bandcamp!

How BandCamp got on my radar

It was actually one of the cover CDs that made me notice Bandcamp, via a guy called Matt Stevens. His song Lake Man had been on one of the cover CDs. I’d also heard his name a couple of times around the place, but hadn’t gone much further than that. But having heard a bit, I did a search, found a link, and there he was… on bandcamp. Where I could listen to a bunch of stuff for free… and where I could also buy stuff if I wanted to. I liked this model. I listened free for a while, and then decided that, at the prices he was asking, and with the amount I kept playing it over and over, he thoroughly deserved my money. So I bought both albums – physical CD and download.

Here’s another place where Bandcamp is a bit different. The amount I paid? I got to set it. There was a minimum, bit it was ludicrously low, but if I wanted to pay more, I could. I could also listen to the whole lot online before I did so – so I knew exactly what I was getting. I was impressed, so I paid over the minimum. They were easily worth twice what he was asking. So I paid twice what he was asking. I don’t regret it.

Now, I’ve not found Bandcamp to be a site that I ever intend to use, particularly. But it is one that I found myself ending up at again and again. I ended up there by following hints of interesting music from other sources – particularly from twitter (the other half of this equation). I end up there by accident so often that I’ve become familiar with the place, and have decided that they’re getting something really, really right… and that they’re worth looking at a fair bit more. I’ll be looking into them further to see how they tick, I can tell you that!

If you go to their homepage, it’s not hugely geared towards consumers. Sure, consumers can go there, and it has some browsing tools, but they’re not given priority on the homepage. The homepage is for artists. Bandcamp isn’t selling itself to consumers, really. The main purpose of the homepage is to sell the site to artists and explain their approach. The approach is also clearly geared to help artists sell their work to fans. It sells itself to the artists, and gives those artists a platform on which they can sell their stuff with some pretty simple charges – to me as a layman in music and finance, the setup seems remarkably fair.

Where does twitter come in?

That’s the next trick. I followed him on Twitter at the same time I bought the CDs. I also gushed a bit about how awesome they were on twitter (and rightly so – they’re awesome – buy them!).

But here’s the first kicker. He replied and followed me right back. A proper reply.

Even better, he doesn’t spam me about his music all the time – he posts like a real human being instead! If I happen to tweet about another band that he likes or works with, even without referencing him or music at all… he’ll quite often reply or chip in. Now that’s community engagement. That’s how to get and grow a fan base around your product, and how bands can help each other out right there. It’s not all about him or his music. Okay, so I think he has some fingers in other pies as well, and may benefit from pushing some other artists a bit… but if the way he pushes them my way is to engage with me personally? I think I’m fine with that. Better than fine, actually, I think it’s bloody awesome. It’s online community and social media done right.

Here’s the next kicker. He didn’t just reply to my tweets when I mentioned him or bands he has ties to. He replied to some other stuff too… if I mentioned other bands, quite often he’d reply to enthuse about them too. How often do you find a recording artist who’s prepared to froth about other recording artists with some random dude on the internet? In this case, I think the band / recording artist I frothed about and got some froth back from him about was The Echelon Effect. Where might you find their stuff? Guess. As a brief aside, just the title of one of their songs is so awesome it br
ings me out in goosebumps. I’m not exactly a floaty romantic type, but the title “Defying Gravity to Meet You” just works for me. I’m a rustic, practical, stocky country type… but as song titles go, that one’s just a winner. It hits me right where it needs to, and it helps that it’s a masterful piece of music, too. The whole album’s awesome. Go listen. I can’t listen to it enough – you have to do some listening for me!

Every now and then, I’ll see Mr. Stevens frothing about some other band, which immediately gets my attention. I’ve found quite a few that way. Initially from him as a seed, but also by following the other he mentions too. When he mentions another band, I notice. I’ve found a whole bunch of other bands from that initial seed. Some were his other projects, like Yonks or The Fierce and the Dead. Others have been more diverse, and have lead me to other bands entirely, sometimes by direct connections, sometimes by compilations.

The combination of a social network like Twitter and a platform like Bandcamp is, for me, the “killer app” for music. I get engagement with bands, and a quick and easy way to give them my money in exchange for their music.

Compilation albums – didn’t they die in the 90s?

Sometimes a bunch of the artists I’ve been discovering pull together for something incredible.

After the Tsunami in Japan, there was a charity compilation put together extremely quickly, called Hope For Japan. For an album to channel funds to disaster relief, it was the fastest I’ve seen – it was out less than a month after the quake, with all money made from it going straight to charity. I think it was put together within days of the disaster – although I don’t recall exactly how many days. I threw money at the album and don’t regret it in the slightest. You can still buy it, and I advise you to do so. The cause is a good one, and it’s 36 tracks of incredibly high quality music to boot. In fact, mentioning it has reminded me how awesome it is, and I’m listening to it now as I type.

Several of the artists I’ve mentioned above are on there. So are a whole bunch more that I’d not found yet. I still have to catch up with them, but I’ll do so in the near future. A bunch of them are going to be on bandcamp.

On top of the good cause, there’s not a duff track on there. I’ve found a bunch more artists thanks to that album as well, and have many more still to follow up on. I’m actually listening to the album now, because writing this post reminded me how high the quality is.

I threw links to it around on twitter at the time, but I really, really can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s always atmosperic, sometimes brooding, sometimes uplifting, sometimes melancholy, sometimes hopeful. It’s a damned fine album.

The platform for this compilation? The way it was released? Bandcamp. The way it was marketed? Twitter and other social networks. A community of recording artists engaged with each other to pull it together, and then engaged with the public via social networks to get the word out.

A New Musical Landscape

This is probably the richest time in my life when it comes to being able to find new music that suits my taste and buy it. The barriers between me and trying new music are low for the first time I can remember. I can discover one artist, and then using Twitter and Bandcamp, that single artist blossoms out to a whole forest of them. I can engage with artists over twitter and pick up on the music they themselves like. I don’t need mainstream media to connect me to the music I want anymore (which is handy, because it never really managed it) – I can now connect directly with the artists, and give them money for their work. I can find new artists and support them. When I combine it with services like kickstater (which is a whole different conversation), where I’ve been able to help fund a couple of artists recording their first albums… and you’ve got a winning combo.

The costs of buying the music are low, and I know that a sensible amount of the money ends up with the artists themselves, not lost along the way to a host of overheads. I get to engage with the artists in a way I never could before, and for the last year or so, I’ve felt engaged with the music scene in a way I’ve never felt before.

Long live Bandcamp and long live Twitter, and long live other services in the same vein. Long live every band that I’ve mentioned here, and the many I’ve failed to mention. Between the lot of you, you’ve connected me to music in a way that every other medium or service in my entire life had so far failed to achieve.

It’s rare that I get to say that about what are, when it comes down to it, some pretty simple online services. It’s rare that I get to say that about anything, really.

It counts for a lot.

Punk killed prog, don’t you know?

Go out there and watch a documentary on Prog-Rock. Doesn’t matter which – any of them will do. You’ll notice one thing in common in all of them – the point at which they end, which is usually by saying that Punk came along and killed it. This really annoys me for a whole host of reasons, but mostly because it’s just lazy. What I intend to do in this post is to talk a bit about what happened after that – how the landscape changed through the 80s, 90s and up to the current day.

Having said that, it’s important to bear in mind that I am not a musician – not by a long stretch. I’d love to be, but I’ve never been able to find the time and means to learn to make intruments make the sounds I want them to make. I can play a few guitar chords, understand how piano chords work and have a rudimentary understanding of how rock drumbeats are put togther… but when it comes to putting any of that lot into any kind of structure or performance I just haven’t gained the necessary skills. What I can say, though, is that I’m passionate about listening to music and appreciating it. I’ll even go so far as to occasionally listen to music I don’t like, so that I can come to understand why other people do like it.

Definitions and Ethos

I don’t think anybody will ever truly pin down boundaries between musical genres, but for this post I’m going to have to explain my definitions upfront so that we can get onto the same page.

First up, lets think about what defines progressive rock, and the ethos behind it. There are plenty of variations on this around but here’s what I’m using.

  • Prog sets to break out of the restrictions of the 3 minute pop song – When prog began, rock was dominated by short 3-4 minute songs, as only singles would get radio airplay, and that was all you could fit on a 7-inch 45rpm single. Some bands even set out to create long-form rock music, intended to have durations comparable with symphonies rather than folk songs.
  • Prog sets out to have progression within a single piece of music – Rather than being in the standard “verse, chorus, bridge” format that everything fit into at the time, the idea was to have variation and progression within a piece, much like different movements in a classical piece.
  • Prog sets out to explore beyond the prevalent norms of rhythym, melody and harmony – When prog began, rock was dominated by simple chord progressions and 4/4 time. There’s nothing wrong with those (there’s a reason they’re popular), but they’re not all there is.

For contrast, let’s think about punk:

  • Punk set out to strip music back to the bare essentials – When punk began, prog had become very self indulgent and the music was often extremely complex to perform and wasn’t always easy to listen to!
  • Punk set out to remove the distance between performer and audience – When punk began, prog musicians had set themselves apart from their audiences either by technical virtuosity, complexity of stage setup at concerts or just by sheer ego. It was also firmly rooted in the here and now, so you could relate to both it and the performers much more easily.
  • Punk set out to make making music easily accessible – Punk set out with the idea that anybody could make music, regardless of talent, training or background.

There’s probably a lot more in both cases, but this is pretty much what I’ll be working with.

The first thing that this calls to mind is that both genres, at least initially, were about transgression – albeit in slightly different ways:

  • Prog was about technological transgression first, and social transgression second – breaking technical limits on what could be performed and recorded, and pushing beyond what was popular at the time.
  • Punk was about social transgression first – breaking social limits on who should be able to make, perform and record music, and (as with prog) pushing beyond what was popular at the time.

So they’re the same?

Only in that they were both about changing things away from what they had been before. Musically, you’d probably notice the odd difference here and there.

So Punk did kill prog?

No, but it did change it and change the way it was percieved. Not all prog bands survived, and as a genre it certainly had a rocky period for a while as it fell out of favour, but it continued. But it didn’t die out. Instead, it evolved and adapted to a new environment. The ideas didn’t die or go away, but instead branched out in different directions.

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