25 March 2009

Papercuts – You Can Have What You Want

Originally featured in NME

Bunkering down with a box set of ‘The Twilight Zone’ might not seem the most obvious way to craft an album of hazy summer dreams, but Papercuts’ (aka Jason Quever) third record hugs the emotionally mysterious in a swathe of somnambulant romance embracing bumbling lo-fi guitar trills. All crackling shimmer and Mercury Rev syrupiness, it’s as much summer as the smell of Hawaiian Tropic, and therein lies the problem; ‘You Can Have…’ is, on occasion, a beautiful, densely crafted album in respectful debt to the ‘60s (aided by the guys from Beach House) - at times Van Dyke Parks meets Grizzly Bear (‘Once We Walked in the Sunlight’), at others, so nonchalantly français you half expect Serge Gainsbourg to appear – but the slow, dusky familiarity and sobering lack of dynamics (disappointing when Quever shows what he is capable of on ‘Future Primitive’) make for more of a groundhog day than transcendence into any fifth dimension.


14 March 2009

Review: Bat For Lashes - Two Suns

Originally featured in Epigram

“It seems to come from the world of Grimm’s fairytales,” said Thom Yorke of Natasha Khan’s enchanting music when he chose Bat For Lashes to support Radiohead, and on ‘Two Suns’, the fantastical elements that danced through her debut remain, but with a poetic maturity and strength that rather more resemble the complex stories of Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ than childlike naivety - bewitching the listener with her haunting, almost lonely exploration the duality of self, gender, and psychogeography. 

Lead single ‘Daniel’ arrives on a cinematic sunrise fanfare, building tentatively with Khan’s sultry English diction and the dark glamour of a 1980s music matriarch. Moments of macabre formality surface on ‘Sleep Alone’ as a looping sitar courts a proud bass note, and again on final track, ‘The Big Sleep’, an eerie coda where Scott Walker moans the ghostly lament of a drag queen’s last hurrah. Yeasayer appear on beat duties throughout, firing booming tribal canons across the sparkling dual landscapes that Khan so vividly conjures – she celebrates the “thousand crystal towers” of her former home, New York, on the piercing ‘Glass’, and orchestrates a dusty spiritual ‘60s ritual on ‘Peace of Mind’, guitars rattling with ramshackle familiarity. There’s a newfound strength in her vocals too, which glower lupine and sensual through the forests of ‘Moon and Moon’, accompanied by a chorus of haunting sylphs. 

“I got fed up of everyone thinking I was this mystical creature that drinks unicorns’ tears for breakfast!” she said of her debut, and as she smoulders, “I’m evil” at the end of the arresting ‘Siren Song’, it’s clear that on ‘Two Suns’, Natasha Khan is the wolf in grandmother’s clothing not to be underestimated.


Is music consumption as we know it imploding?

As The Pirate Bay founders await a court verdict and YouTube removes premium music videos from UK viewers, is Spotify the life raft the music industry’s been waiting for?

Originally featured in Epigram

When asked whether each MP3 file shared online represents a lost sale for the record industry, John Kennedy of the International Federation of Phonographic Industries answered, “yes”, much to the amusement of the founders of Sweden-based The Pirate Bay. The two sides are currently awaiting the verdict (due on April 17th) of a much-publicized trial that has seen the Swedish authorities file charges against the torrent sharing website for “promoting other people’s infringements of copyright laws”. 

While Kennedy’s position on the download to sales ratio is laughably ill thought out, given the amount of reasonable file sharers who download for sampling purposes prior to committing to a purchase, the case itself has reached a cliffhanger which will resonate with profound consequences across the world whatever its outcome. The Pirate Bay representatives were in the dock for over two weeks, proving that the line between legal and illegal downloading is not as defined as the authorities might like to think. If the prosecution wins, it’s a step towards realizing the dreams of the ‘Big Four’ record labels (Sony BMG, Warner Music, EMI, Universal) and international governments, where illegal P2P networks are forced to compensate those whose copyrights have been breached. However, if The Pirate Bay’s arguments about being merely a search engine rather than the source of copyrighted material hold up, then the authorities face further obstacles in their fight to reduce illegal downloading, an activity that the UK government aims to cut by 80% come 2011.

On 29th January 2009, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport published an interim report entitled ‘Digital Britain’, detailing government proposals to mirror France’s three step plan for tackling repeat downloading offenders. By teaming up with major Internet Service Providers (ISPs), offenders would first receive an ‘educational letter’ informing them of the illegality of their actions; followed by suspension of services until you sign a contract agreeing to cease such activity, and the potential to lose your internet connection for a year if you persist. It is estimated that as many as 7million people in the UK share files illegally, and in December 2008, the Entertainment Retailers Association found that piracy of music and film accounts for up to £1.5bn in lost revenue each year. The government has pledged £8million to cut intellectual property theft, and hopes to implement public awareness campaigns and education in schools about the value of intellectual property.

Most people would be surprised at the little amount of money that most musicians earn from selling records. SClub7 famously worked for a comparative pittance, based on a blanket wage agreement they signed with their label at the start of their career. New York experimentalists Gang Gang Dance were recently forced to cancel a tour they couldn’t afford to continue when all their equipment was lost in a fire in Amsterdam, and guitar goddess Marnie Stern resorted to a kisses for cash scheme to pay off a parking fine that threatened to cripple her recent tour. This surprising and kinda saddening news makes it all the more laudable that governments across the world are taking pains to educate young people about intellectual property (despite the capitalist structures at play behind the scenes), but the moot point is, what other methods (apart from traditional purchasing) will be put in place to sate the musical needs of culturally voracious downloaders?

When MySpace launched its assault on the web five years ago, the New York Times called it “a marvelously efficient, remarkably cheap and not terribly invasive means of spreading buzz.” Shortly after, in November 2005, YouTube exploded into homes across the world, and together, these sites seemed to pave the golden path for on-demand music consumption; to provide an exciting remedy for an ailing record industry. However, the musical content of both sites is now under threat in the UK from YouTube’s dispute with the Performing Rights Society (PRS) (which could extend to Myspace), a non-profit collection agency which distributes royalties to its members. The existing license between YouTube and the PRS is up for renewal, and the PRS wants more money for its members than YouTube’s parent company Google claims it is able to give. This has led to YouTube removing a number of ‘premium videos’ from UK access. YouTube profits from the adverts that appear by videos, the monetary gain of which they are not obliged (thus do not) share with the artists. Although Patrick Walker, YouTube’s director of video partnerships, told the Guardian that, “if the next Arctic Monkeys is going to surface, we need to get this [relationship] to work”, his shtick about nurturing talent is pretty transparent, and as this mercenary debate continues and online music licensing becomes more complicated and expensive, fans searching for music to enjoy legally are being driven elsewhere.

It would then seem that we should be thanking the heavens for the advent of Spotify, free software with an instant streaming library of music so exponentially vast that one blogger nicknamed it “God’s iTunes”. Just like The Pirate Bay, Spotify was launched by a group of Swedes (one of whom ironically created uTorrent, a client for downloading largely illegal torrents), in October 2008, and so far has been almost whole-heartedly supported by all corners of the record industry. The UK government loves it so much that their Central Office of Information is one of the main clients of its advertising service, whereby every 15 minutes or so, a short ad interjects your stream of choice. Its low demand on bandwith also marries tidily with a proposal from the ‘Digital Britain’ report, whereby the government wants to ensure a minimum 2mb broadband connection to every home across Britain by 2012.

It’s supported by the ‘Big Four’, and Merlin, an umbrella company established to give independent labels the representative force of their conglomerate rivals, thus Spotify claim that up to 10,000 new tracks are added to their library each day. The back catalogues of labels Domino, Fat Cat, Warp, the Leaf Label amongst others appear almost in full, as does Radiohead’s oeuvre, and U2, Morrissey and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs gave Spotify users exclusive dibs on their album prior to release. With its clean interface, purely genuine content, reassuring images of handsome Swedes reclining on concept Ikea furnishings, and promise that they “respect creativity and believe in fairly compensating artists for their work,” it’s not hard to see why over a million users have signed up since October; surprising even, given that it was invite only until February. It even accounts for the community aspect of downloading – you can share your personalized playlists with your friends, and it’s still only in Beta (trial) form.

The biggest downside to Spotify is that you can’t download music from it. At present, songs can only be streamed from your computer; you can’t add them to your iPod or similar. However, they’re currently hiring a developer to enable the application for iPhones, and contemplating a portable future. From a romantic perspective, it might neatly do away with the idea of owning a record collection. Heck, it’s so damned cutting edge that it pretty much renders owning MP3s obsolete – why fill up your hard drive when you can stream from an endless library to your heart’s delight?

However, it still doesn’t quite have the answer for making up those lost sales that John Kennedy’s so worried about. Although Spotify defeats the point of illegal downloading with its extensive back catalogue and sparkly pre-release exclusives, why bother buying a record when you can access it for free? What Spotify doesn’t do is address the issue of getting something for nothing, summed up eloquently by a pro-downloading musician (who wished to remain anonymous):

“There are hardly any bands confident enough to just put their album on the shelves without giving it a preview somewhere. Seeing as most bands have something out there for free, to an extent I think that we do have a right to free music, but it depends on the intention the listener has – whether they’re going to invest in the band in the future somehow. There are a lot of people who don’t spend a dime on music, and that’s completely immoral.”

Whether The Pirate Bay’s actions are judged thus remains to be seen, but the future of music consumption is indubitably on the cusp of profound change.