Song, by Toad

Archive for the Rambling category

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Thicke, Gaye, Apple, Darwin… I Don’t Think Many People Understand How Creativity Actually Works

copy After the Robin Thicke and Marvin Gaye court case was settled this week it reminded me of something which has niggled away at me since my days as a design engineer, and that is that I don’t think the general public seem to really understand how innovation and creativity actually work.

Thicke and Pharrell lost the case, effectively having to cough up half the profits generated by their adorable rape song, for the crime of ripping off Marvin Gaye. It didn’t directly copy, apparently, but it had ‘the same feel’, and that was enough for them to be adjudged as having exploited Gaye’s creativity unfairly. And as I understand it Pharrell and Thicke were the ones who pre-emptively sued the Gaye family too, so it’s hard to have a shred of sympathy for them, but the verdict still doesn’t sit well with me.

Put as simply and briefly as possible, innovation is copying. The two are pretty much the same thing.

Not only are copying and innovation the same thing, but they are a crucial part of what makes humans humans. The ability to imitate the success of others and to pass that on to other people is the foundation of our entire culture and every advance in technology or knowledge in our history. The tiny incremental changes some people make in passing things on are ‘innovation’, and they are important, but inseparable from the importance of copying and imitation.

In fact, the definition of innovation used, until very recently, to be more along the lines of ‘making a small change to an existing idea’, instead of now, where it seems to be almost synonymous with invention.

I remember this very clearly from my product design career. In the field of technological innovation the myth of The Lone Inventor has a powerful hold, and I think the same myth distorts people’s understanding of the arts too. There was also this weird inability to see past the almost entirely fictitious Eureka Moment, generally achieved by a solitary person whilst in the bath thinking of something totally different, where they would solve the whole problem in a moment of clarity and change the world forever.

That image is total and utter bollocks. It’s like we’ve all collectively forgotten the cliché about genius being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Sometimes clichés exist for a reason.

You look at the greatest creative minds of our time, like Charles Darwin or Mozart. Even Mozart borrowed (or indeed just plain stole) elements of melody for The Magic Flute and presumably all sorts of other stuff, and the discovery of evolution with natural selection was made so inevitable by the progress of global scientific thought which preceded it that it was actually discovered by at least two people at the same time. Probably more, if we’re being honest.

The Lone Inventor pretty much doesn’t exist. The Eureka Moment pretty much doesn’t exist. All of human creativity, innovation and progress is overwhelmingly down to people copying from one another, making tiny changes, and those changes which are most beneficial surviving to be copied by the next bunch of copiers. Had Mozart never existed we would still have had incredible symphonies. Had Einstein never existed we would still have discovered relativity – it’s the very banality of the creative process which makes it so robust. A log becomes a wheel, which becomes a wheelbarrow, becomes a cart, becomes a carriage, becomes a car, becomes a flying Delorean.

“Although the impact of creative ideas and products can sometimes be profound, the mechanisms through which an innovation comes about can be very ordinary.” – Robert Weisberg, a psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia. The quote is taken from this really interesting essay on the nature of creativity.

The technology industry is totally obsessed with capturing patents, to the extent that they celebrate and reward the patenting of pretty much anything no matter how pointless or whether or not it results in a useful device or product, to the extent that they will trumpet the number of patents they hold above any mention of actually creating something useful.

In fact, far from signifying any kind of creativity, patents are generally just used as a commercial tool to hobble the competition and as such are basically there to hinder creativity and progress rather than encourage it. And to make matters worse, patents are frequently awarded for things which are complete and utter bollocks. Things which are way too obvious, way too broad or vague, or are just plain common sense or common knowledge are awarded patents all the time.

It was a fucking minefield, honestly, and when I think about the amount of time I have personally wasted trying to think of needlessly circuitous ways to circumvent stupid patents, or just to be absolutely certain that something was miles away from a particular patent, well beyond the realms of common sense, out of fear of lawsuits, it makes me want to smash my head against my desk. It was anti-innovation, and the creative industries are in danger of being sucked into this particular quicksand too, if we aren’t careful.

Art is based upon imitation. Pretty much everyone learns by imitating their heroes, and if they don’t directly learn that way then they’ll get round to it at some point. We have established forms of poetry to which people choose to conform, Western music uses all the same basic building blocks, and some of our most respected artistic output and beloved cultural achievements are in the sphere of folk culture, which is pretty much defined by liberal copying, plus mistakes and fucking about. That’s what makes it good, what makes it fun, and that is where its richness comes from.

Some of our most respected musicians’ creative contributions were pretty minimal, if you look at it. Billie Holiday is a legend, but all she did was take the voice she was born with, hone it, and use it incredibly well singing other people’s songs again and again – existing material. And she is revered. And I can’t think of anyone who would argue with her right to be so.

John Louis from Debt Records and Louis Barabbas and the Bedlam Six has written a really nice post about how impossible it is to disentangle your influences from what you yourself create, as well as the near-impossibility of creating anything genuinely new within the relatively narrow confines of Western pop music, which is incredibly rigidly defined in scope and structure.

We’ve been here before of course, with the hand-wringing over mash-ups and samples, and there is a very real problem behind the idea of unfettered freedom of copying, imitating and repurposing. If some unknown musician writes a great riff or a great chorus which a commercial juggernaut like, say, Beyoncé or Chris Martin happens to hear in a pub and they then steal that riff, they could make millions off it without ever having to acknowledge the contribution of the person they are nicking it from.

You could argue, and I think it’s a dodgy argument but not entirely without merit, that if that unknown artist can ride the coat-tails of the success of the people nicking their riff or their melody then they might be adequately recompensed by an entirely free market – after all, without the marketing machine and resources of the Coldploncé machine that riff itself didn’t have nearly as much commercial value anyway. I appreciate that argument, but I don’t buy it entirely.

But we have to remember that protection is supposed to encourage creativity and innovation to flourish. And if it is to do this we need to understand how this stuff works. We need to copy and we need to imitate, not because sometimes it’s okay or sometimes it’s unavoidable, but because it is at the absolute core of the concept of creativity. Copying and sharing are the mechanisms by which innovation works, and participation is the engine which drives them.

We may well need legal protection for original thought in order to keep people participating, in order to keep the engine of creativity running, but if we try to do it by destroying the mechanisms which that engine is powering then our efforts will be entirely self-defeating.

I dread to think of musicians deliberately hobbling their own work out of fear it might sound a bit too much like this, that or the other and that they might therefore get sued. And then getting sued anyway because someone they’d never heard of wrote something similar back in 1964, died ten years ago, and now Universal own the rights. It works like that in technology development and it is a complete waste of time, energy, resources and ideas. And we all know who would dominate in that kind of landscape, don’t we: the fucks with the meanest lawyers and the deepest pockets.

If we don’t step back from this completely misguided fairytale of artists creating entirely original work in a complete fucking vacuum then we run the very real risk of severely paralysing the creative process across our entire musical culture.

Still, it was nice to see that smug prick Robin Thicke finally getting telt, wasn’t it.

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Fucking Hell, Elvis Perkins is Back

Elvis Perkins‘ last album Elvis Perkins in Dearland was released back in something like 2009. That, in case you were wondering, is fucking ages ago. The last I heard, in fact, he had retired from music to write books.

This new album snuck out so completely under the radar (it came out a couple of weeks ago) that I had no idea it even existed, and I absolutely fucking love his first two records. Stepping down from XL Records, which was a slightly incongruous partnership in the first place, he’s actually self-released this one which perhaps explains why whichever PR company they used didn’t check the internet for people who were already fans and would probably cover the album.

And never mind PR, I am pretty shocked about how little chatter it seemed to generate on social media. The Guardian were all over Dearland, but I just haven’t seen anyone mention this. And that’s odd because, despite apparently being a rather more stripped-down collection of songs recorded on the fly over the course of a few years, this still sounds like pretty classic Elvis Perkins territory. It’s weirder, perhaps. Maybe more in the wonky end of the spectrum, occupying territory a little closer to Timber Timbre than the big band stuff on Dearland or the pacier honky-tonk of Ash Wednesday, but nevertheless, something which existing fans seem very likely to love.

The two teaser tracks have plenty of odd noises on them, and the discordant mini-cacophony at the end of Hogus Pogus bodes very well for the album itself, but I can’t really tell you much more than that until I’ve heard the whole thing. And even tracking that down took me bloody ages. To save yourself a Google nightmare, click here if you want to buy a copy.

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The Holy Modal Rounders – Skydivers

Even now, after all this time, I can forget that my parents used to listen to some absolutely mental shit in their day. It’s a thing most of us learn at some point, but still something I seem to manage to forget on a regular basis – probably because when I make compilations for them I have a think about some of the stuff I am into these days, stuff which is far weirder than I myself used to listen to, and decide on their behalf that it’s probably a bit much for the old fuckers.

My folks have just returned from a round-the-world trip on a container ship because, erm, apparently that’s what you do if you’re nearly seventy and finding retirement a bit boring, and we just had a bit of a chat about the trip and various other bits and bobs because we haven’t really spoken for weeks now. Apparently the mobile reception is shit in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Anyhow, they signed off with the somewhat throwaway comment that I should listen to Skydivers by the Holy Modal Rounders, because it’s brilliant.

Cool, I thought. I like the Holy Modal Rounders. Apparently during the height of the super-elaborate and boorishly pretentious wave of proggy rock-operas in the sixties Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber reacted by stripping music back to absolutely minimal basics again and going a bit crazy with it. I actually have Holy Modal Rounders 1 & 2 on vinyl. The lyrics are weird as fuck and the nasal vocals take a little getting used to, but it’s pretty straight-up and basic, albeit brilliant, psychedelic folk. And that’s about as much as I’m familiar with.

Skydivers, on the other hand, is little bit more in the, erm, batshit crazy camp. It’s from their third album Indian War Whoop, and it adds a lot of delirious organ to their signature sound, but more importantly, it throws every last mental idea spinning around their crazy heads into a blender and smears the result all over the resulting record like pizza base. I’ve heard my dad sing versions of these songs my whole life and never known that that they came from this record, or that what I was hearing was such a… well, such a palatable interpretation of such intense and weird music.

You can hear most of the album at this YouTube link. Have a listen. Skydivers is by far the most beautiful moment on the album (apart from the missing songs of course, which I haven’t heard yet), and some of the violin in particularly is just hauntingly lovely. But it’s still tense and wandering and has a definite sense of simmering menace lurking amongst its lovelier moments. And, y’know, it still contains lyrics like “…looking for all the world like an umbrella that has seen too much, and forgotten nothing.”

Even at nearly forty years of age myself, and even after the two mad old bastards have just returned from indulging their retirement by riding a container ship through the Panama Canal, I still seem to manage to forget that my folks are way weirder and way cooler than I tend to give them credit for.

I don’t think I can take all the blame though. I mean, my Mum bought a fucking Lighthouse Family album for fuck’s sake. She bought one on purpose. She may have bought several. But then they lulled me to sleep as a child by singing me this absolutely crazy stuff. No wonder kids grow up confused.

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James Blunt is Funny, but He is Also Totally Wrong

tim Alright, we all know about this already, right? Labour MP Chris Bryant said something about not wanting an art world dominated by the (very posh) likes of Eddie Redmayne and James Blunt, and then in characteristic fashion James Blunt wrote an open letter (those fucking things seem to make up about 40% of the fucking internet these days, don’t they) calling him a “classist gimp” and accusing of fostering an atmosphere where success breeds only envy, and all the usual rich-person tropes about how people who resent their success and their wealth are, in the end, just jealous.

The problem is that Bryant was basically right about the huge problem of class privilege and diversity in the arts, Blunt pretty much entirely missed his point, and because of the way internet arguing works I fear that the good message will be lost in the witty slap-down, despite the argument Blunt thinks he is countering being a man made almost entirely of straw.

Blunt made some reasonable points about how he achieved his success and how little most of those breaks had to do with his upbringing or his class. Fair enough, but it is pretty much impossible to succeed in life without trying, or without working hard – particularly in the arts. That’s not really how privilege tends to work. Money can buy you exposure, but not talent, and whatever you want to say about James Blunt’s music, he clearly has talent in the sense that absolutely fucking millions of people want to listen to his music. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Music Industry Isn’t Fake, It Just Isn’t What You Think It Is

I watched the above ‘exposé’ and I can imagine it is intended to be shocking. And I can imagine, I suppose, that for some people it might be pretty shocking, although I doubt very many of them read this blog.

In short, every – and I mean every – record in mainstream pop is auto-tuned to hell. It’s just an assumption these days. And every live performance is auto-tuned to fuck as well, in the odd occasion it isn’t just lip-synched. Live shows, the last leg the music industry apparently has to stand upon, are a sham. The product is a lie. None of these people can sing. None of them are who they are presented to us as being.

Imagine that.

The issue I have with the whole premise of the above video is that it misunderstands the nature of the thing it is describing. That’s fair enough, because the name it is given is almost entirely false, but the ‘music industry’ isn’t a music product so the way the music is put together is pretty much secondary.

The music industry is an entertainment product, not an art product, and so we seem to consistently misunderstand how it is supposed to work, what it is trying to achieve and how things are actually done.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some very talented musicians working in the music industry, and some amazing music being made, but that is a secondary aim. There are some talented artists working in the graphic design industry as well, but that doesn’t mean that its primary goal is to produce great art.

Modern musicians gain far, far more from celebrity than they do from music. Their money is made in appearance fees (and not always to perform either), in branded products and image licensing. Selling music is the means to this end, but it is really not the end itself.

I despise the X-Factor with its legitimised bullying and ridiculous karaoke circus, but I don’t hate it because it is Bad Music. It isn’t about music at all. It’s an interactive soap opera, so really, we shouldn’t care what it ‘says’ about the modern music industry.

Except for the fact that it makes explicit what should have been obvious to everyone for years: that the people we think are the stars are not really the stars. In the X-Factor the show itself is the star, and the contestants, even the winners, are disposable tokens whose individuality is more or less irrelevant.

The above video complains about lip-synched or auto-tuned live shows cheating the consumer out of what they came to see, but they think that musical excellence is what they came to see, and it just isn’t. It’s entertainment. They came to see a show – a spectacle.

And you can criticise Madonna or Beyoncé for miming their live shows, but look at all the dancing around they are doing. If they were performing those feats of athletics at the same time as having to really, properly sing, then all you’d hear would be their heavy breathing as they tried to gasp their way through their songs. They have to lip-synch. The performance and the spectacle are hundreds of times more important than some misplaced sense of musical integrity.

And if every song is auto-tuned and every performance lip-synched, then effectively you are looking at someone whose acting and dancing are far more important than their musical abilities. There are people who cross over of course, and have some influence over the nature of the product they are the face of, but who is more important to the Katy Perry machine – the people they buy the song-writing from, the army of image consultants, or whoever they hire to play the Katy Perry character.

And I am not being an indie-snob here. I have heard too many tales of stadium-filling guitar bands with teams of ghost-writers writing hits in the style of the band because the band themselves can’t do it anymore to dismiss those stories as bollocks. Anything that big is a product.

Of course this isn’t a neat division. There can be a lot of great art in even the most commercially successful music products, but that doesn’t mean that’s what the industry does, or what it is there for.

And I think it’s this messy overlap which confuses people. Underground DIY bands can ascend to this level of celebrity too, but it’s extremely rare. How many Hollywood superstars are actually decent actors, as opposed to hugely charismatic celebrities. Some of them can act, but at that level of the industry it becomes pretty much secondary.

The crossover can be weird. I remember Drowned in Sound going to the Mercury Prize this year and seeing this disconnect first hand. Young Fathers won the prize and instead of being interviewed about anything of substance were simply expected by the assembled press throng to rattle through a series of rote answers about how it was the music that mattered but how honoured they were, and the atmosphere when they didn’t play the anticipated game was highly uncomfortable.

I can’t speak for them, but it seems to me simply that Young Fathers weren’t prepared to step from the musicians’ ladder, which they have doggedly and successfully been climbing for some years now, onto the celebrity ladder.

I was a little taken aback by DiS’s surprise, I have to be honest, given their awareness of how celebrity drives traffic which in turn drives ad revenue on music websites and the effect that has on what actually gets written about. They should know that the fundamental basis of how you make your decisions changes based on whether you are an artistic product or a commercial one, and how early you have to make that decision.

Late last year I lamented how hard it was becoming for me to get our bands any coverage in the bigger online music magazines – ones, funnily enough, like Drowned in Sound. Irrespective of the reasons why this is the case, a friend of mine made the suggestion that I have a look for some bands being covered already, with some traction of their own, and sign them.

It’s an eminently sensible suggestion of course, but my reaction was really hostile: I’m not being told who to fucking sign by a straw poll of random volunteer music writers who will rattle out some stuff for these sites for free for as long as it takes them to get bored of not getting paid and fuck off to get a job in PR instead. I am putting in the work, I am spending the money, I am making the fucking decisions.

And of course therein lies the difference. What I was essentially saying was ‘I am not signing someone just because I think they’re going to do well’. Or, even more starkly: ‘I’m not signing someone for business reasons’. And if as a label you’re not willing to base who you sign on business reasons, then you can’t really claim to be a business can you?

And we’re not a business – well, not primarily at least. Like the ‘music’ industry, which uses art as a tool to enhance its business, we use business as a tool to generate revenue which enhances our art.

So I am neither surprised nor at all outraged that modern pop stars either can’t or don’t sing – mostly because that’s not really what they’re selling. Even Beyoncé. Even Madonna. Even Taylor Swift. And I am not judging or claiming some sort of moral high ground or smug level of integrity. They are just totally different things, done in totally different ways, for totally different reasons.

And if you don’t think so then ask me or thousands of small labels like me how willing we would be to compromise our art for business reasons. Then wonder how much someone like the One Direction would be allowed to fuck up their business in the name of art.

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2015: Let’s Get on With This Shit

fuck_yeah Ah man, one more alcoholic mini-apocalypse until 2015 starts in earnest and I dunno, 2014 was probably our best year yet at Song, by Toad, but I am cautiously looking forward to 2015 and hoping it might be better. We have most of the year’s releases planned out and ready to go already – or thereabouts, anyway – and I can imagine writing something very similar to the previous sentence in almost exactly twelve months as I look back on yet another year of releasing my own favourite records, wondering how the fuck I am still getting away with all this.

Hopefully the world’s fascination with tepid, dreamy and completely fucking lifeless wishy-washy electronic duos will have fucked right the fuck off by the end of 2015 too. There is so much of it, and it is so formless, lifeless, passionless and dilute that I can barely muster the strength to close the fucking tab whenever I accidentally click through to one of their videos. The names aren’t always the obvious signposts they are with many other bands, so you can be fooled, and then it’s upon you like Kryptonite. Or like spider venom, leaving you immobilised by its tedium and unable to lift a finger to save yourself from the life-sapping joylessness.

I know that shit it is a favourite of labels because you can stuff a couple of Shoreditch hipsters in the back of a fucking Vauxhall Corsa and send them on tour at minimal expense, but is that the defining characteristic of whether a band is considered signable these days? Fuck off. It’s the same with all these bearded, top-knotted folk-soul singer songwriters out there. Jesus Christ that shit makes the genitals of everyone in the fucking room shrivel up and drop off within the first impassioned ten seconds. Middle class boys with no real problems cannot evince emotion by faking heartfelt delivery, no matter how much they wobble their heads and scrunch up their eyes with sincerity. If you see one in the street or a pub please do everyone a favour and smash up their fucking guitar and cut off their fucking stupid top-knot.

Folk music should be fucking dead anyway by now, given how it was utterly overwhelmed by the upper middle classes almost the second it went overground. Sure, they can listen to and make whatever fucking music they like, but let’s not call it art please. It’s no more a fucking calling than repeated holidays in Tuscany make them connoisseurs of Italian culture – another ornament in a life lived by fucking design and not fucking spark.

Guitar music used to have that – that inner rage – and that was what made it so vital. Fortunately 2014 finally seems to have brought us to the end of the constant articles about whether or not guitar music was absolutely dead, or thrillingly revitalised. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds and Royal Blood seemed to be proof that both conclusions were indisputably true. Personally, mainstream guitar music has been fucking OVER for fucking years – since that post-post-Britpop turdpocalypse era which spat abortions like The Feeling, The Hoosiers, Hard Fi and the fucking Pigeon Detectives into the world – but there has always been truly awesome stuff being made in the underground. Fierce, snarling and spiteful.

Pop music is supposed to be the opposite of that mythical guitar-wielding howler of truth: as crafted, designed, assembled, polished and delivered as perfect gaudy Japanese confectionery. And yet it seems that this year liking Taylor Swift has been the most ‘real’ thing people can fucking do. Real enough to unabashedly love pop music is this year’s musical badge of honour – a year of post-snob snobs for whom anyone who suggests that their brand of fun is just vacuous shit is just trying too hard to be earnest and meaningful to allow themselves to have fun. Just relax. Just enjoy yourself. Then you will like this. No. No I fucking won’t. It’s garbage.

We get into a simple clash of views here. Taylor Swift is just shitty, pointless bubble-gum pop and I do not understand why she is the hipsters’ candy-floss of choice this year. Maybe because she’s white, middle-class, tame, self-consciously content-free and utterly, utterly unthreatening. I would say ‘she’s no different to the fucking Spice Girls and fucking Katy fucking Perry’ and whilst I intend that as a dismissive criticism, a lot of folk would just say ‘exactly – that’s exactly what she is’ and see it is as a compliment. I just don’t fucking like pop music I suppose.

But why her? Why is she the fluff that the earnest cognoscenti have decided it is okay to embrace? It’s like they’ve realised that if they all agree on one thing they can pretend is ‘smarter’ or better than the other hollow prancing then they can give themselves a collective free pass for liking it, and then carry on intellectualising the gritty and real tomorrow as if nothing had ever happened.

But let’s face it, the alternative press really is no longer the alternative press anyway. Since when were underground music sites honestly and with a straight face reviewing albums by Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. Even a lot of the ‘alternative’ stuff getting coverage has a ton of major label or management money behind it. All these Hot Tips for 2015 and Radio 1 hot new artists are all well-researched and market tested on social media before they are ever considered for overnight success.

It’s the nature of the hipster and hipster-hatred, I suppose. You create an underground, it gains momentum and then bursts into the overground, hollows itself out and eventually bursts, releasing nothing but hot air and flimsy pretence into the world, and lo we have to start all over again.

Unsurprisingly, as a middle-class (sort of) hipster myself I don’t hold much truck with hipster hatred. The last person to admit to being a hipster is generally the hipster themselves, but I don’t mind it. I am not cutting edge and I don’t mind that. I dress how I like, and I know how much that’s influenced by fashion. I am a foodie to an extent, and I like that. I am not going to cultivate my own heritage strains of kale in the back garden, but you know, small-batch gin and salads of bitter leaves are nice things.

I know there are some utterly detestable things happening in the world of hipsters at the moment, but it’s just underground fashion being co-opted by the wealthy mainstream, pre-middle aged and very much middle class, just like absolutely every single fucking fashion movement in the history of fashion. And far, far more annoying than the ‘guitar music is dead/rejuvenated’ and the (thankfully over, I think) ‘blogs are/aren’t dead’ pontificating has been the proliferation of pseudo-intellectual lamenting of the dire truths the hipster reveals about our society.

Just fucking stop it. When fashions go overground they lose their potency, their meaning and become simple avatars of people’s self-image, as meaningless and quickly changed as their Facebook profile pic. Although if you wrote one of those articles it probably contained a line about you quitting Facebook for ever and ever next week anyway. That’s always the way it has been and hipsterism is no more important than any other fashion trend which has peaked and is ripe for being undercut by something new and more interesting, brewed in the underground where they are already utterly fucking sick of organic, knit-your-own heritage juniper-infused artisan home-reared poussin dans son jus.

So rejoice. That imbecilic fucking cereal bar in Shoreditch (or wherever it was) and the stupid fucking cat café here in Edinburgh and all the idiots infusing their own this or that with something their grandparents used to make before the war aren’t the signs of the end of society, they are the squeaky sounds of a bubble so bloated and stretched so thin that it can’t do anything other than burst and make way for the next thing, which will be stewing away somewhere already.

I probably won’t notice it for years, because as I said, I am not exactly cutting edge. But as the alternative music press goes mainstream there will already be new forms being hatched somewhere; and as top-knotted soul-folkies ruin the acoustic guitar for anyone with the faintest flickerings of an actual soul, there will be someone doing something nasty somewhere which we can embrace instead, and as the focus-grouped stars of the new underground emerge from their clickbait, What Happened Next Just Broke My Heart cocoons into the foetid reality of the pop world, there will always be some stubborn, pig-headed fuckwit out there incapable of doing what the people want, because they just don’t have it in their personality to bend that way.

So as much as it permanently enrages me and vigorously stokes the fires of indignation which keep me pointlessly tilting at windmills as chimerical as they are immovable, 2015 should perhaps be the year to acknowledge that if you laud the underground, the DIY, the contrarian and the stubborn, determined visionary, no matter how small the vision, then you have to accept that setting yourself against the mainstream means that mainstream acknowledgement will not and possibly even should not come your way.

Because that would, in some way, make you just like them. And you can’t have it both ways.

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Song, by Toad Records’ Year in Review

8 ambitious futility

Phew, fucking hell, nearly there! Another year comes careering to an end, with little in the sense of control, planning or even semi-coherence to sellotape it all together.

One thing, though, it’s been a fucking great year. Not a single other label out there has come close to matching the kind of stuff we’ve put out in 2014 as far as I am concerned. And alright, that statement might sound delusional or just plain arrogant to you, but music is all about personal taste and I am supposed to think that, am I not? There’s no point starting a label if you aren’t going to release your own favourite music, and if you thought that was already being done then you wouldn’t have the motivation to start in the first place, would you.

There’s a Soundcloud playlist at the bottom of the page if you want to check for yourselves.

People say that time flies, and it does, I suppose, but January 2014 seems like a very long way away indeed. There were normal records to be planned of course, but before we could get into that we had to record and release what turned out to be Meursault’s last album: The Organ Grinder’s Monkey.

That was my first real brush with crowd-funding, and I think it went really well. Getting people to vote on the songs worked nicely, and we ended up with a record which had broken even before it was even released. It made me wonder rather seriously about why we can’t manage this the rest of the time, but I suppose the project itself had a few uniquely suitable aspects which can’t really be reproduced.

It was financially successful of course, but oddly enough we couldn’t get anyone to fucking review the thing, despite Meursault being one of our most widely-covered bands for every one of their other releases. Maybe it was because it was mostly covers, maybe because it was crowd-funded, or maybe because it was released (and hence old news) almost before we even knew ourselves what kind of album it was going to be, but honestly it made the music press look particularly stupid in my eyes.

It’s one thing when magazines decide to only review this or that kind of release, but the internet was supposed to free us from that kind of pointless nonsense, and yet all the big online magazines seem to be drifting into mimicking the established press, and I really don’t think that is either a good thing, or in any way necessary, really.

Anyhow, as badly as we’ve fared with the press this year you do find yourself developing a rather acute appreciated of the people who have actually supported you.  As well as some of the online and print publications who have continued to be so supportive, we’ve had amazing results with the radio this year too.

Farewell, Bastard Mountain was the first sign that things might not be so predictable in terms of what appealed to radio shows. 6Music put five minute instrumental drone track Drone Armatrading on heavy rotation, and Palisade (a gorgeous track, but downbeat as fuck and loooong) did really well too.

These radio results finally cemented in my head the idea what we really have to stop second-guessing what radio will actually want and just send them our favourite stuff. Received wisdom is that you’re supposed to only really send them three-minute pop songs with hummable riffs and an obvious chorus, but this year has pretty much shown that to be utter bollocks so from now on that approach is going out the window. We’ll put out the songs we think best represent why we love an album, and balls if they’re the sensible choice or not.

Considering our struggles with press recently, I have to confess I was a little nervous about releasing the Virgin of the Birds album Winter Seeds in May. Given Jon lives in Seattle, which makes it impossible to try and build grassroots support never mind persuade the jittery hipsters of the internet to write about the album, I thought it could be really heavy going but actually the response was fantastic. We got some great reviews, and Charlie Ashcroft and Dani Charlton at Amazing Radio got right behind the record too, so the whole thing felt like it went really well.

Here at Song, by Toad Records we have something of a knack for releasing albums by bands who subsequently either cease to exist or just go so quiet that they might as well have ceased to exist, which is a surefire way to complete financial ruin. We have such a nose for that kind of project that it even works with festivals too. Our third Split 12″ was released in June, at a time designed to coincide with the Insider Festival, where the record itself was actually recorded the previous year. Except there was no Insider Festival this year.

Still, despite it ending up looking slightly orphaned, it is still a gorgeous record with some wonderfully odd moments, and actually served as a perfect precursor to to the David Thomas Broughton and Jonnie Common albums we released later in the year. That wasn’t particularly the plan when we set out our release schedule, but it did work out rather nicely in the end.

There was a brief interruption to the planned schedule with the second Pale Imitation Festival in August. It went fantastically again, although I have to question my wisdom in starting the damn thing. The idea was to fight back at the fact that the Edinburgh Festival more or less forces us to cease operations during August because we have no chance of being heard over the din, but the Pale Imitation Festival is such hard work that it actually ends up being more disruptive than just having to take a month off so, er… yes, I am a fool. What of it?

And far from having August off, actually during all the Pale Imitation stuff I ended having to work in all the press for Sliding the Same Way, the collaborative album by David Thomas Broughton and the Juice Vocal Ensemble. A bit like Bastard Mountain, this is another semi-improvised record which is primarily in the ‘alt-folk’ bracket I suppose but which is so tinged with oddness that the genre becomes irrelevant, it’s the personality of the album which dominates.

Jonnie Common’s Trapped in Amber is similar, in that sense. Nominally it is experimental electronic pop, I suppose, but his personality is so stamped all over the album that it is this which becomes its defining characteristic.

It’s part of the frustration of being a small label with pretty limited resources I suppose, but with both of these last two records I felt that I didn’t really do a good enough job with the PR.  I contacted all the right people of course, and I did it in plenty of time, but given the coverage both artists have had in the past and the quality of the records in question I feel like I should have got them way more coverage than I did.

In both cases the reception was great, and the radio play more than compensated for a lack of written press – and radio listeners actually buy records too, whereas I have never seen any link between sales and written reviews – but I can’t help but feel this is something I seriously need to look at next year because I don’t think the label is really cutting the mustard in that sense at the moment. Of course it doesn’t help when all the supposedly alternative publications are wasting both their and our time covering mainstream pop acts, but we still need to improve, I think.

And so finally, here we are, more or less at the end of the year, with just time for one last release: the Couch King EP by the erratic, prolific, unpredictable and occasionally inspired Passion Pusher. He may be all over the place at times, but there is some great stuff in amongst the madness and I really hope he can harness it in the future, because I love some of the stuff he does.

Couch King was also our first tape release, which I am hoping will be significant. Mrs. Toad and I moved in May, to a house with a small warehouse on the grounds, and in the New Year we are going to turn it into an informal recording studio. That will hopefully allow us to do more Split 12″s and Toad Sessions, and to encourage more projects like Farewell, Bastard Mountain and The Organ Grinder’s Monkey – loose, creative projects which are nevertheless quite intense, but hugely exciting and rewarding to be involved with.

I’m already working on a number of really exciting releases for next year, and you’ll all be getting a Christmas present on the 25th which will introduce you to some of our new projects, but for now I think I am going to take it a bit easy and relax for a few days.  I’ll do my end of year album list, and put my feet up with Mrs. Toad, who quite bafflingly continues to encourage all this.

It’s been an incredible year, and I am both really proud of what our existing comrades have achieved, and proud of the people who liked what we were doing enough to want to join us. Song, by Toad Records represents an amazing group of really interesting, creative people and I think next year I want to do more to emphasise that, just amongst ourselves as much as anything else. I might not be all that great at actually running the label all the time, but in being a part of it you are associating yourself with some properly amazing people.

And when we move back into our now-refurbished living room later this week I might just put on our records from this year one after another, drink too much gin, and reflect that yes, the world really is wrong about music.

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Ferguson

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I can get a little twitchy when I hear the term ‘white supremacist’ being used to describe the in-built prejudices and biases in favour of white people within Western society. Then you see something like the verdict in Ferguson and it feels like my discomfort with the term is irrelevant and possibly just plain wrong. This isn’t inbuilt prejudice or racial bias, this is active White Supremacy at work.

There are a couple of reasons I don’t like the term, generally, and one is rational and the other just plain emotional. Emotional reactions of straight, middle class white men don’t and really shouldn’t count for shit when the language of equality is concerned of course, and I accept that, so let’s forget that one. Maybe it’s just like men and ‘misogyny’ – a knee-jerk reaction that’s barely worth bothering with.

The other reason hopefully has a little more merit. As far as I have always understood it White Supremacy is a very specific movement, based on the idea that that the white race is superior and that all others should be subservient. It is deliberate and violent, sometimes genocidal, and is an active and specific socio-political dogma.

Racism, even the endemic, systematic inbuilt racism within our society is not the same. Some of it is, and some of the people perpetuating it are, but a lot of it is passive, casual and accidental. It is a hangover from the economic dominance of colonial Europe, and a lot of the people perpetuating it – white and people of colour alike – do so out of ignorance, habit, upbringing, or simple lack of vision as to how and make a whole, ingrained system full of awful biases go away.

I am not saying that this makes it feel any better when you are on the receiving end, but it is still different.  

I know I am racist in some ways, some I understand and some I don’t yet. I don’t want to be. I will happily learn, and I will try my best to change. Lots of people are like that. It is hugely different to White Supremacy, which is a political movement deliberately targeted at the subjugation and sometimes extermination of entire races of people, and it doesn’t seem right or helpful to conflate the two. I know I still have in-built sexism, for example, but I would balk a little at suggestions that I am a misogynist.

But when you look at something like Ferguson, and at what happened to Trayvon Martin and the dozens of other similar cases. Even I, in my mealy-mouthed, privileged way, with my hurt fucking feelings and my ‘not all men’ excuses for this shit look at what is happening and see only one thing: White Supremacy.

Black lives worth so much less than white lives. Black (and white) people vilified and attacked for daring to suggest otherwise. Deliberate, systematic repression and violent subjugation based upon skin colour. That’s what White Supremacy is. It is visceral, real, hate-filled, horrifying and utterly undeniable.

And as a white man I am as disgusted and ashamed as I am angry.

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Edinburgh Council Completely Embarrassed by Queen’s Hall Fiasco

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Wonderful. Edinburgh Council spent Monday evening persuading people working in music here in Edinburgh that they are sincerely looking to find ways to encourage live music to flourish in the city, and not let it be dragged down by single complainants intent on damaging the cultural life of the city because they didn’t realise that moving in next to a music venue might involve hearing said venue going about its business from time to time.

And then today the Queen’s Hall was forced to remove all its external advertising because of a single complainant who objected. And instead of laughing at that complainant and telling them to grow up and piss off the council capitulated, and in doing so basically make themselves look a bit stupid at best, and craven, cynical and dishonest at worst.

Or, in slightly more familiar language for readers of this site: Jesus fucking Christ, this really is unbe-fucking-lievable, for fuck’s sake.

Neil Cooper – a journalist and formidable campaigner for the arts here in the city – pointed out the almost comically stupid double-standard here. When the Picture House was sold to Wetherspoons to be made into a megapub the likes of which Edinburgh very clearly does not have even the slightest need for, 13000 people signed a petition to protect it as a music venue. This in a city where they are closing all the time and we need as many as we can possibly preserve. So one complainant gets to prevent the Queen’s Hall advertising their own business, one crucial to the cultural life of the city. But 13,000 complainants asking the council to stand up to the big breweries are all ignored.

The imbalance is so utterly ridiculous it basically makes them either look stupid or corrupt. I have no idea which.

Now, the council seemed entirely sincere when they attended the meeting on Monday, and it seemed like a really productive conversation with genuine intent to tackle the problem, so this news today just seems embarrassing, but it highlights the problem very, very clearly. Simply put, one person complaining should never be able to have such a massively negative impact on one of the cornerstones and genuine work-horses of the city’s cultural life. It’s fucking ludicrous.

The Queen’s Hall may not seem like they support the local music scene all that much. You don’t see Edinburgh bands playing there all that often, let’s face it, but that’s because they’re a big venue and very few local bands can actually fill it. Having said that, as soon as anyone gets to that level, the support they give is fantastic. Withered Hand, Broken Records, Stanley Odd and Meursault have all graduated from the circuit of smaller venues to play the Queen’s Hall in recent years, and Plastic Animals, eagleowl and Rob St. John have all played support slots there. And that’s just Edinburgh bands. R.M. Hubbert, Rachel Sermanni, King Creosote, Randolph’s Leap… all these bands have come from the Scottish underground to play headline slots at the Queen’s Hall.

In fact, even if they can’t necessarily get away with it the rest of the year, the Queen’s Hall specifically take advantage of the extra footfall during the Edinburgh Festival to take a chance on other local bands who might not be able to fill the place otherwise. In other words, they know exactly what is going on and they give as much support to the local scene as they can, whenever they get the opportunity.

And that’s not even mentioning more adventurous stuff like Whatever Gets You Through the Night, Bastard Mountain and #Unravel – all risky, artistically ambitious projects related to music, but with much broader scope, which they have supported in recent years.

So, Edinburgh Council, the appropriate response when one dude objects to the Queen’s Hall relatively discreetly advertising their own business, a business which is a massive boost to the cultural life in Edinburgh, on the front of their own building, is this:

“Fuck off, you tedious, self-important idiot and stop wasting absolutely everyone’s fucking time with this bollocks.”

I won’t even trademark the response, so feel free to copy and paste it from this site for future correspondence.  The meeting should not have taken any more than about five minutes. “This guy’s a fucking tool right?” “Right” “Shall I just tell him to fuck off.” “Yeah I think so. We’ve wasted too much time thinking about it already.” “Cool.”  And that’s it. It deserved no more of your time than that. And no other response.

Because, let’s be clear about this Edinburgh Council, you should be absolutely embarrassed that this outcome was even suggested, never mind ratified. THIS is why you are such a big problem. It’s laughable. It’s pathetic. It makes you look like complete fools to absolutely everyone, and like enemies of the very community you are employed to administer. You are here to make our city work for us, remember.

Given the state of Nicholson Street in general, the very idea that you actually entertained this complaint for longer than it actually took you to read it all beggars belief. If the advertising was too cluttered and contravened planning regulations you may feel your hands are tied, but all you have to do is enter into a plan with the Queen’s Hall to tidy it up. This response is as needless as it is stupid.

13000 people can’t prevent an giant factory pub opening on Lothian Road, but one imbecile can interfere this seriously in a crucial creative enterprise.  I dearly, dearly hope Monday’s meeting is the first step down a road which ensures this sort of embarrassing nonsense never happens again. It genuinely seemed like there was a will to change within the council and I hope that is true.

Just commit to memory the fact that next time this happens all you really have to say is ‘ha ha, piss off’. That’s all.

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Don’t Make a Scene

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A couple of years ago I wrote a surprisingly popular post called ‘A Few Reasons Promoters and Bands Don’t Get Along’. I’d just got into regular gig promotion and was only just starting to get my head around the difficulties of doing it right. I’d spent a lot of time around bands at that point, and had heard complaint after complaint about promoters, whether they be amateurish, dishonest, spiteful, or just disorganised and I was absolutely adamant that I wasn’t going to become one of those promoters.

It’s tough though. As I started to get my head around it I started to realise, for example, just how hard it is to pay a band a decent fee. Never mind all the other stuff about decent food, a nice place to stay, actually turning up at the gig and being friendly – it’s actually tough as fuck to even do the bare minimum and pay a band even a cursory fee. So I wrote about it – about all the pressures on a promoter and all the pitfalls they face, and about what I myself understood about the difficulties of touring and what makes a gig feel worthwhile or otherwise for a band.

Basically I was trying to show how hard it is to make the requirements and obligations of both actually meet in the middle. I’d heard so much about dreadful promoters, but I also thought a lot of bands didn’t really appreciate how tough the job was and I thought some explanation of the mismatch of expectations or the simple impossibility of some of the economics would be helpful in making things a bit less attritional.

Rob St. John and Bart from eagleowl are two people who have both toured extensively in bands, both their own and other people’s, and who have also spent significant periods of time doing regular DIY gig promotion. They’ve both experienced the frustrations of both sides of this particular fence, so some time earlier this year they decided to compile a collection of anecdotes and advice from people involved in DIY gig promotion, to try and give people a bit of help navigating this particularly tricky terrain. They kindly asked me to contribute, and so I sort of re-visited the article I told you about above.

The resulting zine is called Don’t Make a Scene, and you can pre-order one here (they’ll be posted out in late November).  There are loads of other contributors too, along with illustrators and photographers, and I haven’t seen the final product yet, but I am really looking forward to getting my grubby hands on one.

Contributors include Chris Tipton (Upset the Rhythm, London: ‘Curate your event with imagination, honour and taste’), Sofia Hagberg (End of the Road / Sam and Sofia, Sheffield: ‘Advancing a show’), Emily Tracer Trails (Edinburgh and Glasgow: ‘A guide to not losing money on gigs’), Fielding Hope (Cry Parrot / Cafe Oto, Glasgow / London: ‘Applying for funding’), Andy Inglis (5000 / former manager of the Luminaire, London: ‘We’re good at taking things for free’), Matthew Young (Song, by Toad, Edinburgh: ‘Bridging the promoter-musician gap’), Johnny Lynch (Lost Map, Isle of Eigg: ‘Some things I’ve learnt about putting on gigs’) and Andy Abbott (That Fucking Tank, Leeds: ‘DIY bother? Reasons to keep doing it’) and many more.

Don’t Make a Scene contains new visual art, illustration and photography by Lizzy Stewart, Tommy Perman, Sarah Tanat-Jones (Synaesthete / Kit Records), Craig Coulthard, Neil Cammock, Matt Pattinson and Cammy Watt (Enfant Bastard).  

The zine features an interview with Marie Tippex (from booking agent Julie Tippex), and articles on DIY sound engineering by Tim Matthew (regular engineer for Lau); all-ages gigs by eagleowl’s Clarissa Cheong, setting up DJs and club nights by Malcolm Benzie (Papi Falso) and Lisa Brook (founder of Cafe Kino in Bristol and DJ Cupcake); and advice for prospective promoters from experienced touring musicians David Thomas Broughton, Mark Andrew Hamilton (Woodpigeon) and Dan Willson (Withered Hand).

The first edition of 300 copies will be released on 24th November 2014, reasonably priced at £4, and will be available for pre-order through dontmakeascene.co.uk.  Don’t Make a Scene was riso printed by Footprint Workers Co-op in Leeds using soy inks on recycled paper.