Song, by Toad

Archive for the Rambling category

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Oh Dear God, Bryan Adams

Yeah, sorry to disappoint you, but I am afraid that this post is heading exactly where you feared it might from the headline.

I think most of the truly embarrassing skeletons are out of the closet by now when it comes to my youthful music taste. I’ve been writing this damn blog for over ten years now, and most stuff has ended up spilling out and one time or another: Hootie and the Blowfish, Erasure, Never Gonna Give You Up by Rick Astley (and sadly not ironically), The fucking Dave fucking Matthews fucking Band, the first couple of Meat Loaf albums, hell I think I’ve even mentioned an shameful partiality to a bit of Phil Collins from time to time.

But until now I haven’t quite had the flaps to mention Bryan Adams*.

And no, don’t be ridiculous, of course not that Robin Hood abomination song, fuck me, I’m not a monster.

It’s pretty much impossible to overstate quite how bad every single thing about this video is. There’s not even a fabulously malevolent Alan Rickman to save the day.

Anyhow, my local coffee shop has, by way of music provision, a ghetto blaster (and what a gloriously eighties term that is!) and a pile of tapes about as old as you would imagine, given when mainstream artists finally stopped releasing things on cassette. I was in this morning and Bryan Adams was playing, and of course my mind went right back to when I was twelve or thirteen living in Singapore and only just starting to develop a music collection of my own, but generally spending most of my time listening to my parents’ records. And Reckless, Cuts Like a Knife and Into the Fire by Bryan Adams were amongst them.

I’ve said before that I don’t really care about whether it’s nostalgia or indoctrination which casts such a warm glow over music you might otherwise consider toe-curlingly awful if you hadn’t listened to it an awful lot when young. It doesn’t really matter, does it. Embarrassing as some of it is, for whatever reason you like it, and that’s about all that needs to be said.

Maybe we’d like more utterly embarrassing shit if we didn’t have our ideas of what is good, bad, indifferent or apocalyptically horrendous so strongly shaped by our peer groups. Who knows. Given what we’ll dance to in a club when shit-faced, I reckon our tastes would be broader than we think if we didn’t use music as such an important tribal identifier.

And there we go: I’ve fallen into the trap of using long words in a Bryan Adams post, probably just to give the impression that this is some sort of serious, scholarly piece, when in actual fact it’s really just ‘holy shit, I forgot how much I used to like Bryan Adams as a kid! Thank fuck no-one on the internet know about that, or they’d have a fucking field day.’

*Or the balls, if you prefer, you big old sexist you.

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Off on Rust 2 Rome 2014

2014-06-28 13.51.07

Yep, it’s that time of year again, where Mrs. Toad and I clamber into our ludicrous Volvo 940 (above) and venture off with a load of other cars in a quest to drag a car we bought for £350 off eBay all the way from Edinburgh to Rome, via some of the most challenging roads Europe has to offer.

Bette is named after Bette Davis (so it’s pronounced Betty, not Bett) because she is a temperamental, unpredictable fucker, but we did Rust2Rome in her last year and she’s been to and from the South of France and up and down to London plenty of times since, so hopefully she’ll manage the trip again with minimal fuss.

As you can imagine, this means the blog will suffer a bit for the next couple of weeks, but I will be keeping my Tumblr site updated with photos and songs.

The car has a tape player, so I’ve spent the last couple of days making mixtapes for the drive. It’s mostly daytime driving, and some of it is pretty intense going too, so it’s mostly upbeat stuff, but nevertheless when you’ve got a limited supply of music you still find yourself listening to the same thing quite a lot, so I’ll be posting songs from the tapes as well as photos from the driving.

See you in a couple of weeks, for the Split 12″ launch shows.

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England: Not Great at Football, but That’s Fine

fb So, after two narrow defeats to Italy and Uruguay, England are probably out of the World Cup. Not absolutely definitively out, but in all probability that’s it for this year. Ah well.

Honestly though, as an England fan, I don’t really mind going out like that. We played two very good sides, had a real go at them, caused Uruguay in particular a lot of problems, but ultimately went out because of defensive failings – just a couple of important lapses, really. I think the before the tournament most people would have looked at the inexperience of Baines, the limitations of Jagielka and the defensive unpredictability of Johnson and said that this was where we lacked real quality.

Hopefully John Stones or Phil Jones or someone can come on strong in the next couple of years and offer something better at the back but for now, whatever you think of that back four, they were pretty unquestionably the best we had – with possible questions to be asked about Ashley Cole. But I doubt any seriously world class strikeforce would look at them and worry about how they were going to score – in fact that applies to most teams at this World Cup, actually.

I think Rooney could have been withdrawn against Italy, and Sturridge should have come off yesterday so we could have seen more of Lallana and Barkley (or The Ox if he was fit), but then Rooney and Sturridge were by far the most consistent English Premier League goal-scorers this year, so it’s not cut and dried.

It would also have been nice to see Wilshere coming on for Gerrard late on to provide a little extra thrust and inventiveness in midfield, but again, these are small quibbles, because you never know when Gerrard might stick one in the top corner from a stupid distance so I can see why he stayed on the pitch.

We had a really difficult group, and had we been luckier with the draw it might have been a different story, as it also might if Diego Godin had rightfully received his marching orders in the first half last night, but hey ho, no team ever went out of the World Cup without a handful of ‘maybes’ following them home.

It sort of highlights our ingratitude during the Svennis years, looking at recent performances. Sure, we ‘could’ have got to the semi-finals in that era, and not entirely implausibly the final. But then again, so ‘could’ Germany, Argentina, Brazil, Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Holland and a few other teams. ‘Amongst the best eight teams in the world’ was a pretty fair reflection of England’s ability back then, just as going out in the group stages is more or less where we’re at now. Sure, there will be worse teams in the second round than us, but then do Australia really deserve to be going home after the two performances they’ve delivered so far?

Overall though, I don’t mind not being as good as other teams, but having a go and still losing is infinitely better than scraping through after constipated draws and generally playing like we were suffering from some sort of collective paralysis. Watching England over the last, erm, maybe six years or so, has been an exercise in eye-gouging hopelessness. It was kind of like being paralysed by spider venom – no matter how awful things got you just couldn’t tear yourself away until it was finally over and you were put out of your misery once and for all.

This time around we’ve had a go. There’s one game left and it would be nice to put in a good performance against a Costa Rican side who themselves looked really good in their first game. It would be nice to score a couple of decent goals too, and maybe play with a little attacking verve, if just to encourage what looks like a pretty promising batch of young players.

As an England fan, I’ve come to expect failure in recent years, and I can live with that. But going out with some sense of self-respect and our heads held relatively high for a change feels like progress in itself.

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Ten Years of Song, by Toad – Why Do I Fucking Bother?

media-image-346120-article-ajust_930 First things first: the answer to the above question is that I have absolutely no fucking idea why I bother.

Secondly: I have absolutely no idea if I’ve been doing this for exactly ten years, but I know it’s roughly there or thereabouts. It may not have a date stamp, but the first review I ever wrote was of Modest Mouse’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News, and that was released in April 2004, so I guess ten years is a reasonable guess.

It’s not strictly ten years of Song, by Toad either, because when I first started writing about music on the internet I didn’t call it Song, by Toad and it wasn’t a blog, initially. I just fired up reviews on a static site which nobody read.

I only discovered blogs a couple of years later, and realised that I was actually writing one already, so I moved everything over to Blogger and suddenly there I was, writing a blog like so many others. And the rest, of course, is history – if you know about the site you probably know it all already, and if you don’t then you probably don’t care.

I suppose I have to mark a (vague) ten-year anniversary one way or another though, and I suppose I’ve lived through the full cycle of blogging as it emerged, peaked and now seems to be petering out somewhat.

I say that, but people who talk about the death of blogging annoy me now as much as journalists who, back when it first emerged, would say that blogging was killing journalism. Blogging is simply a form of writing, and any good writer should be able to write a compelling blog. Blogging itself has simply been incorporated into mainstream journalism, and there are also more and more ways for amateur enthusiasts to get involved these days, so it would be daft to say that blogging is in decline.

What is in decline, though, is the sense that blogs are the drivers of the broader music conversation*. Back in about 2007 or 2008 they – or we, I suppose – seemed to be where an increasing number of fans went to read about new music. But that audience seems to have wandered off recently and blogging has diffused into dozens of different variations, from online magazines like Drowned in Sound, which publishes plenty of bloggy pieces but is still basically a magazine in digital form, to Twitter, which is published fan participation at its most minimal.

If you think about it, back when they first began to rise to prominence, blogs were the embodiment of the promise of the internet. Interactivity, amateur involvement, instant reactions… all the things we still talk about now. But back then there was no social media, for example, so all the silly conversations we see on Facebook and Twitter now actually used to take place in forums and in the comments sections on blogs.  The informal nature of the writing was a welcome change to the rather stuffy world of real music journalism as well, but they learned their lesson pretty fast, and now professional journalists (being talented writers, generally) write some of the best blogs out there.

Most prominent bloggers with ambition either parlayed their status into jobs in the music industry itself or turned their blogs into online magazines, and the emergence of these has filled a large amount of the space between the amateur and the professional music press which bloggers had briefly threatened to overrun on their own.

 

Random chatter has now moved to social media as well, and as a consequence not only have blogs’ readerships declined, but that argumentative bickering in the comments section has moved elsewhere as well, and with it the obvious evidence of an engaged audience which made blogs so enticing to a music industry which, in 2009, had pretty much no idea where its audience had gone.

Nowadays, we know. Music fans are all over social media, they supply all their listening stats on Spotify, and with Soundcloud and YouTube embeds it is pretty easy to gauge exactly how much traction a newly released song has gained. Blogs somehow seem so old fashioned these days.

Partly, they have destroyed themselves, I must say. Posting and re-posting all the same old shit, regurgitating press releases, needless click-baiting, it all seems a bit passionless and craven.  Some people made a real name for themselves with their blogs and it seems a lot of people are entering into the field with that as the goal from the start, rather than just for the joy of writing.

Back then, people blogged for loads of reasons. Some of those reasons are better served by social media these days, and others by other forms of participating in the music industry. Not all that many people wrote blogs for the particular joy of writing, or even because they thought of themselves as writers. They weren’t, they were music fans, blogging was just a way of enjoying music.

But I think that’s why I am still going some ten years later, when most people have a two or three-year trajectory from starting off to petering out. As well as music, I actually love writing and I always have. Song, by Toad isn’t just about reviews or finding the most acest new music ever, I just enjoy sitting down at the keyboard and wondering what nonsense is going to emerge this time.

It’s a pretty standard artistic cop-out to say that I don’t really expect people to read this blog, but I don’t. I’d like people to read it of course, but it’s not something I expect. There are more informed and analytical writers out there, and god knows what most people make of my music taste.

I’ve no idea where I’m going from here, either. There’s no real sense that I want to stop, although I would imagine that it’s pretty obvious that the label is taking more and more of my time these days. But two things come together here at Song, by Toad – my love of music, which writing the blog has enabled me to explore to levels I never really imagined, and my enjoyment of the act of writing.

I rarely know what I am going to write about, and although I think about albums a lot before I write about them, I never really plan the actual thrust of a write-up or think about phraseology or anything like that, I just sit down and write. And it’s fun. And I guess that’s probably why I’m still going after ten years when so many people who started at the same time has quit.

*Awful expression, I know. Sorry.

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The BBC Radio 1 Playlist Fake Controversy

cunts I assume many of you have seen this article in The Guardian which purports to finding Radio 1′s playlisting process shocking and has been bandied around Twitter as a sad example of how corporate and cynical music has become, and boo fucking hoo why is not just about the music, man?

Personally, I am shocked. Shocked and disappointed. Dreadful, isn’t it. Britain’s going to the dogs, and it’s probably the fault of all these immigrants. Oh wait, sorry, wrong internet outrage talking point of the week.

But if you’re being honest with yourself, there is nothing in that whole, needlessly long article which should be any kind of surprise to anyone. The writer ends with this rather limp lament: “with all the reliance on data and algorithms and “brands” (and this is a pattern repeated across the industry as a whole), it all feels so soulless.” and then compares the current state of affairs to the glorious days of John St. Peel.

Essentially, the piece ‘exclusively reveals’ that Radio 1 researches bands’ traction on YouTube and Twitter before they consider playlisting them, and discusses their commercial potential, whether or not they’re making good live headway, and the health of the ‘brand’. Then the bands get playlisted or they don’t.

Now I can see the allure of the conclusion, halfway through the article, that this kind of research leads to the station “playing people the kind of music that they’re already listening to”.  And that’s a fair accusation, and one which applies to far too many new music discovery mechanisms at the moment, but I think it rather misses the point of what Radio 1 is for, and what it is expected to do.

As far as I see it Radio 1 is not only supposed to be aimed at young people, but it is also supposed, to a large degree, to represent them as well. It’s state-supported radio, paid for by us, to be made for us. Being force-fed weird shit may appeal to you or I, but it would wear out most people pretty damn fast. That’s why even 6Music has a really rigid, predictable daytime playlist, and only really gets interesting when the specialist shows come on.

I am not saying that it needs to be nothing but populist rubbish, but the BBC has a weird remit which leads to it rather being caught between a rock and a hard place. If they do nothing but push the boundaries of art and culture and consistently support things because of editorial support for their high quality, then they get accused of being elitist, out of touch, and a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Alternatively, if they try and justify themselves too much in terms of audience and populism they get accused of needlessly competing with the commercial sector, and therefore being redundant… aaand a total waste of taxpayers’ money.

The article then goes on to present, without challenge, Radio 1′s head honchos’ assertion that for all they try and play what people want, they still have way, way more diversity than commercial radio. I don’t know if this is true, but the writer seemed to feel no need to disagree, which leads me to… well, wonder what the fuck all the fuss is about, honestly.

Basically, a picture is painted of a radio station trying to reflect what young folk are into, as well as examples of bands who people weren’t into yet, but they supported and promoted them and the subsequently went on to mainstream success. They do seem, from the article, to make an effort to take risks and they do seem, from the article, to try and balance researched populism with finger-in-the-air judgement calls. That’s pretty much what the biggest state-financed radio station in the UK should be doing, isn’t it?

As far as I can see there is nothing controversial in the article at all, to the point that I find myself vaguely wondering why it needed to be written in the first place. Alright, I fucking hate Radio 1, but then I am 38 and I work in what can only be described as a fairly narrow niche, musically speaking. Radio 1 isn’t aimed at me, and it probably isn’t aimed at you either, frankly, so why would we expect to like it?

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Well Done to Wide Days

olaf

At The Great Escape this year, Edinburgh’s Wide Days won an award for Best Networking Event (or something like that – I’m not sure of the precise title), and I want to take a moment to congratulate Olaf and the team and to explain a couple of reasons why I think the award is entirely justified.

First off, though, I should point out that there are plenty of bigger and more well-known events in the UK which do broadly similar things. We have another Scottish alternative in GoNorth, and there’s also The Great Escape itself and Sound City in Liverpool, just to name a couple.  Of these Wide Days is by far the smallest, but not one of the others made the list, leaving the Edinburgh event as the sole British representative, which is pretty impressive.

When it comes to networking events that is a huge drawback, at least on the face of it. The point of these things is to meet people and if you happen to run a label which, say, struggles to book decent gigs for its artists like we do, then going to an event like SXSW with dozens of great booking agents at it would seem to be the best way to do it. At Wide Days you’re more likely to get one single booking agent if you get one at all, and if they a/ happen to mostly book for punk bands and b/ have a full roster anyway then that meeting is not going to be all that productive, now is it.

Somehow it just doesn’t work like that, though. Because the event is so small instead of getting dozens of record labels attending you may only get one or two, but because the events are small, friendly and relaxed you get two huge advantages.

Firstly, it means you will almost certainly have the chance to talk to someone if you want to, unlike The Great Escape or SXSW, where even if you can get through the deluge of people wanting to speak to any given person and actually make contact, you may well still end up playing endless Twitter or Text Tag with them in which they’re at one venue and then heading to something else, while you’re at another venue and on your way to something totally different. This can go on for days on end and is incredibly fucking annoying, and as well as feeling completely unprofessional (to me, anyway), it means that even if someone is interested enough in speaking to you it may still never happen. Or it may end up being rushed and uncomfortable while you’re both trying not to miss some other vague appointment, or the convoluted series of messages and missed messages it can take to get you both to the same place at the same time ends up making the whole thing too embarrassing and annoying to be productive anyway.

Secondly, the size of the event also means that anyone you want to talk to will not be deluged with other people wanting something from them, so they themselves will be way more relaxed and more inclined to have a chatter. Assuming you obey the cardinal rules of networking (Don’t foist yourself on someone unless you know that what you want to discuss is genuinely relevant to them, make sure you’re genuinely interested in what they do instead of just wading in with the hard sell, remember that you’re starting a relationship not approaching someone to make a series of thinly-veiled demands, and don’t outstay your welcome if they are looking bored and fidgety) then most folk will give you the time of day.

This lack of inundation is really important in setting the visiting industry folk at their ease, but there is another, and that is the Wide Days team itself. Olaf personally takes all then delegates on a tour of Edinburgh, there’s an opening party where travelling delegates and Edinburgh music people get to relax and have a drink before any real work commences, and everyone goes to the same showcases. It means you may see a higher proportion of music you don’t like than if you were picking and choosing from a large lineup of multiple events, but because you’ve all seen the same stuff, everyone’s in the same boat. Olaf introduces all the bands too, so even if you disagree with him, you know there are specific reasons they are there above and beyond the hipster buzz nonsense or just having an influential booking agent.

All of this makes it feel like a friendly event that people actually care about. You aren’t just there to make up the numbers, you’re at the same events and same panels as all the rest of the delegates, and there is a genuine sense of all being in it together. You feel like you are someone’s guest, that they have taken a lot of time for you, and that makes people a lot happier to give some time back.

And in terms of making actually useful professional contacts, well actually, it works pretty well. Sure, you do suffer a bit from having such a small cross-section of the industry there, so you rarely end up meeting the one precise person you most wanted to meet in the whole world, but because the whole event is more laid back you actually get a lot more out of meeting the people who are there.

For the record, I’ve met a lovely guy who has (for free) advised me on a couple of licensing deals when people wanted to use songs we’d released, I’ve met kindred DIY spirits from a few different places in the UK, saw Paws for the first time (who we ended up doing a release with), and with a bit of luck the people who can now offer us US distribution for upcoming releases. That might not sound like much, but it’s at bare minimum on a par with the relationships I have forged at The Great Escape, GoNorth or SXSW, only done in a much less frantic way.

Most of the good relationships we’ve had in the music industry haven’t come from aggressively pitching to people, they’ve come come from slowly getting to know people and coming to trust and respect what one another does, and for that the unique atmosphere at Wide Days is far more conducive than the permanently-pished, phone-running-out-of-battery, oh-wait-I’ve-got-to-be-somewhere-else-in-ten-minutes conversations, held with people permanently looking over your shoulder to see if there isn’t someone more interesting to talk to. And I’ve had far too many of those at bigger and more famous industry events.

So well done Olaf and team. Richly deserved and I’m genuinely delighted for you.

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Hello Internet, I’m Back, and I Have Been Listening to Eels

ftsotools Phew, the internet can breathe a massive sigh of relief, because after over a week of being entirely off the radar and disconnected during our house move, I am now back. You must all be so relieved.

Actually, never mind not having an internet connection installed, my mobile phone signal is so poor here I couldn’t really check my emails, post nonsense on Facebook, or even send the odd tweet, so those of you who follow me on other social media may also have noticed a fairly sustained period of total radio silence. I don’t know about you, but I quite liked it actually. I am not so sure about the constant, relentless painting which replaced it, but at least there was a tangible sense of achievement there.

By the end of the week I was so in need of a good sleep I didn’t get out of bed all day Sunday. Of course I didn’t sleep either. Because I am an idiot I watched stupid television instead, but hey, at least it wasn’t painting.

Anyhow, while we were painting there was a pretty limited playlist on offer, because I didn’t remember to fill up my phone with all that much music, beyond a hurried, drunken quickie on the night before we left our old house for the last time, so we had a pretty limited diet when we first moved in. Still, that can be a nice thing, because it means you spend some time with the music you’re listening to instead of flicking constantly from one thing to the next and there are a couple of tunes which stood out and which I would quite like to mention.

Eels – The Stars Shine in the Sky Tonight

The turn of the milennium seemed to hammer the final nail into the coffin of ‘indie’, if you ask me. Guitar music descended into weak, lifeless pish like Starsailor and David Gray, and bands like Coldplay and Snow Patrol went from being briefly interesting to stadium-filling porridge almost overnight.  The Libertines, The White Stripes and The Strokes looked briefly like they might kickstart a snarling reaction to this, but then all we really ended up with once the dust had settled was a bunch of painfully imitative acolytes, and a pile of cringe-worthily dismal tripe like the Pigeon Detectives, Hard Fi and the fucking Wombats.

This stuff was so very bad that for the last years of the noughties and the first few years of this decade it seemed obligatory for every fucking publication on the internet to write about ‘the death of guitar music’. And they seemed to do this pretty much once a month until every last, specious drop of desperate click-bait had been wrung out of that clearly stupid premise.

Neverthless, for a good long while ‘indie’ or ‘indie-rock’ seemed to be little more than a fringe enthusiasm, and even now the awesome new bands who are championing it again seem to be harking back to a pretty defined period which tailed off in the middle of the nineties. Very late nineties and early noughties guitar music is still pretty considerably tainted by the slew of dreadful pish I mentioned above and it can perhaps cause people to overlook certain bands who I don’t think really deserve it.

Whilst the world was listening to The Ordinary Boys and the Kooks, Eels snuck out what I think I might probably call their last great album. After the Dinosaur Jr/Sebadoh/Pavement golden era of American indie there were a few bands who ploughed vaguely similar furrows, but who to my mind still feel a little like they are part of the same movement. Perhaps the last of that movement as it tailed off to give way to Matchbox 20 and the Goo Goo Dolls, who seemed to be to American indie what overblown post-Britpop nonsense was to its British counterpart.

In terms of great American guitar bands who were a little overlooked during the final death-spasms of the commercial juggernaut which launched from the success of indie music, Grandaddy are perhaps the most obvious and currently one of the most retrospectively lauded – amongst my peers at least. Looking back at their last album, Goodbye to the Fambly Cat, it was released around the time that The Delays and the Zutons were making people hate music – just about the time that indie in the classic sense finally coughed and spluttered its last.

Sparklehorse and Clem Snide are probably two other bands I would put in a similar bracket to Grandaddy around this time: distinctively American guitar bands who had the feeling of being outsiders, were lyrically captivating, caustic, idiosyncratic, and yet still melodic and mainstream enough to be considered pop bands. And another one would be Eels.

Eels are perhaps the least obvious inclusion, I think, as despite some truly brilliant stuff, they have also produced a lot of fairly schmalzy, sentimentalist radio pop. Their last three or four albums, frankly, haven’t really set my world alight, but that can mask the fact that they have produced some absolutely gorgeous, heart-breaking music.

Blinking Lights and Other Revelations was a massive double album, released a full twenty years after Mark Everett’s 1985 debut and almost ten years after Eels’ breakthrough with Beautiful Freak, and given the history of artists producing such releases, it really should have been sloppy, self-indulgent crap with too few good songs and plenty of pale imitation of past glories. But it was brilliant. Granted, there were weaker songs on there, and granted, it didn’t exactly reinvent the Eels sound, but there are so many glorious moments on this album that I was genuinely shocked to see so much good material emerging at once, when most bands struggle to put out much more than one decent album every two or three years.

And Everett can be sentimental to the point of being schmalzy, I would accept that, but when he captures pathos just right or nails a sad song there are few better lyricists out there anywhere. His life has been so unfortunately full of depression and death that when he sings this stuff you don’t for a second doubt that he knows what he’s talking about.  When he writes lines like “It’s not where you’re coming from, it’s where you’re going to. And I just want to go with you” it’s all too easy to make a connection with some of the loss he has suffered in his past.

Similarly, when the same song moves on to say “The stars shine in the sky tonight, like a path beyond the grave. When you wish upon that star, there’s two of us you need to save” that line sounds very different coming from someone who you know means it in the most heart-rending sense imaginable. I don’t know how I’d feel about any of these lyrics without knowing any back-story. You can’t unlearn this kind of thing of course. But the lines are simple and delivered without forced emoting, and I think that gives them impact whether you know of their provenance or not.

So yes, as indie died a slow, painful death brought on by massive overground success, balloon like over-inflation and subsequent implosion, there were still some great bands and great writers working in what was broadly an increasingly moribund field. And they shouldn’t be ignored just because of fucking Keane.

The Eels website has this to say about this album. There’s more too, and you can read it here.

“Everett’s father, famed quantum physicist Hugh Everett III, author of the Many Worlds Theory, died in 1982. His sister, Elizabeth committed suicide in 1996 and his mother, Nancy, who appears in a childhood photo on the cover of BLINKING LIGHTS, succumbed to cancer in 1998. “I would have ended up like my sister a long time ago except for one thing — music,” says Everett, “I’ve been very lucky to have that to hold onto. I take it very seriously. Maybe too seriously. It’s everything to me.”

“”The family I grew up with was completely gone by 1998. I dealt with it at the time by making ELECTRO-SHOCK BLUES. But it’s something that is never going to change for me and its implications are far-reaching in my life,” he says. And the “curse” didn’t let up after 1998, either: Everett’s cousin Jennifer was a flight attendant on the plane that hit the Pentagon September 11, 2001. “There’s kind of a ghostly sound to a lot of BLINKING LIGHTS,” says Everett, “maybe because I’m living with a bunch of ghosts.”

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Record Store Day 2014 and the Vinyl Revival

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Record Store Day 2014 is next Saturday, as you probably know, and although we don’t have a formal RSD release the new Virgin of the Birds album is out pretty much now and if you want to buy something Toadly then that’s the one.

It’s understated, and Virgin of the Birds stuff often takes a while to settle in, so I don’t expect it to be an immediate hit but nevertheless this is an absolutely excellent album – one which on first listen immediately had me going back to the start to listen again, which is a rather fantastic thing to feel when you release records for a living.

As well as the first single Every Revelry (see video below) there are exclusive plays of two album tracks Nine Sisters (which contains the best saxophone solo of all time) and The Serpent Plume on this excellent interview Jon did with Dani Charlton from Amazing Radio.

You can buy the album from Monorail or LoveMusic in Glasgow, or from Vox Box Music or Coda here in Edinburgh, or if you are more electronically inclined, from our website here.

It’s only out on 12″ vinyl (or digitally of course), not CD, and I suppose it looks a lot like we’re becoming a vinyl-only label these days, which in a sense we are, but it’s not a deliberate or strategic decision actually, just circumstances.

We can really only afford to release most album in one format, either CD or vinyl, not both, as we simply can’t afford the extra manufacturing costs. With albums like this one and Adam Stafford’s which are both co-released with North American labels, we pretty much have to press vinyl as apparently North American customers have all but given up on CD. Or at least that’s what I am told by my US-based hipster spies.

Now, I love vinyl, don’t get me wrong, and I was at the recording of Vic Galloway‘s vinyl special for BBC Radio Scotland earlier this week where they talked about many of the things I love about the format: the tactility, the artwork, the ritual of playing records, the physical embodiment of your love of music, and all the other stuff.

What didn’t come up, though, were any of my reservations about either the format itself or the much-vaunted revival it has experienced of late.

Revived it may be, but vinyl still only accounts for a tiny number of album sales. A huge percentage increase in sales is easy to achieve when the numbers are low, even if the absolute number of sales is still small.

For larger labels I strongly suspect the future is still in the effective monetisation of streaming and on-demand services, rather than vinyl sales, and for smaller ones vinyl is expensive to press and simply doesn’t generate very much profit on short runs. I love the stuff, as I said, but I am not sure it’s quite the industry saviour which the press paints it as.

Headlines need to be written simplistically and sensationally of course, so they are mostly bollocks when it comes to sensitive issues like this, but the whole ‘vinyl revival’ line reminds me of the mindless and utterly wrong statement that ‘all the money is in touring, nowadays’, which was repeated so often that it became common knowledge, despite being complete balls.

The relatively recent revival of interest in building vinyl collections is a good thing, of course, but perhaps more because it points towards an admittedly small but nevertheless important group of people for whom a strong relationship with music is still a core part of their personality, rather than implying any specific importance of vinyl itself. Some people collect plants, some buy every cooking implement going and create incredible meals, and others want to build a large, beautiful collection of the music that they love, and to surround themselves with that collection. It’s nice.

Is vinyl particularly central to that, as a format, though? I don’t know. It’s bolder and more visual than other formats, so I guess it’s the most obvious candidate. But (whisper it) a good CD gives you better audio fidelity, and I have seen some truly lovely CD and cassette releases too.

There is a definite possibility that a significant aspect of the vinyl revival is simply a passing fashion, no more significant than the retro-fetishism of Super 8 film, Instagram, drinking from Mason Jars, and an awful lot of hipster clothing fashions. It could easily, in other words, go away as fast as it has seemed to appear.

I don’t like to think like this, because I love my record collection, and I love making albums as well. But I do sometimes think the vinyl revival needs to be approached a little more critically than it is, rather than people pointing at 200% rises in sales from tiny to very small numbers, and endlessly parroting the dubious claim to superior audio fidelity.

I still welcome it, of course, and I will inevitably spend far more money than I can actually afford on RSD, but I still think a healthy degree of scepticism is needed, because these simplistic narratives are almost never right, and in the music industry at the moment we need to keep open minds about the future rather than relying on jumping from one version of ‘The Answer!’ to the next.

You should totally still buy the Virgin of the Birds album though. Seriously.

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2000 Miles Worth of Fannying About

2014-03-09 09.31.59

Kaboom, fuck yeah music, etc etc etc… No, sorry. No music today. Alright, maybe some, but not much.

As you’ve probably guessed, this blog is going to be an erratic place to be for the next few weeks, until I have finished driving first myself, then Meursault and then myself and Mrs. Toad around America.

In theory, I was supposed to fly to Phoenix last Friday with half of Meursault to collect an RV to use as a tour van for SXSW and their subsequent US tour. In theory. One long series of utterly avoidable fuckups later, and I am here by myself while they are back in Edinburgh cancelling early shows and hoping they can get out in time for Thursday’s Aster Foundation day party, which it fortunately looks like they now can.

All of which leaves me in America with and RV and four days to kill.

(This is going to be long. Really long. If you’re of the TL;DR persuasion then it’s best avoided, I think. But then if you’ve ever actually used ‘TL;DR’, then seriously, fucking grow up you fucking imbecile. Seriously though, this is too long. Don’t read.) Read the rest of this entry »

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So What Have We Learned From Kickstarter, Then?

kickstarter-funded-badge It’s been an interesting few weeks, this. Apart from the visa panics and the whirlwind of trying to get an album learned, recorded and made in three weeks, this has been my first use of Kickstarter (or indeed any such crowd-funding model beyond, y’know, just selling stuff to people) for funding a record release, and it has been fascinating and educational. Although I will admit I am still trying to figure out what all of the lessons are.

For those who don’t follow the blog or the label, we put together a Kickstarter project for Meursault, to help fund their trip to the US to play the SXSW festival followed by an East Coast tour. The idea was that people would chip in to support the project, and vote for five songs – Meursault songs or covers – that we would then record for an album and then play at a series of shows around Edinburgh. There were the usual extra bonus bits and pieces, but that was the basic premise of it.

The reason for this post is that in three weeks we ended up with an album which was already four grand in the black (we raised about £5k and the whole record was manufactured for about £1k), when most of our records take a year to chug through the release process, cost way more, and are still a few hundred in the red even a year or two after release. I found myself looking at the project again and again thinking ‘what the fuck are we doing wrong the rest of the time?’

The hard part is figuring which elements of this project are comparable to a regular release and which are not. There’s a part of me that would quite like to build a whole label around Kickstarter actually. You could basically release a couple of free singles, and then put the album project up as a Kickstarter, and that way you’d only really be putting stuff out if your audience liked it. The problem would be that, for all I assume the blog and the sessions would keep the audience in the region of ‘people I mostly agree with about music’, it still sounds just a little like an indie X-Factor and leaves little room for me insisting that you all like a band because goddammit I said so!

There are obvious reasons, though, why this project isn’t really comparable to a regular album release. A first US tour is a unique and landmark event for bands who have to do something as expensive as cross an ocean to get there. Europe we have managed by ourselves, more or less, but the huge extra costs for flights and equipment make this significantly more challenging. I am assuming this makes committed fans of the band more likely to feel generous, be they Americans wanting their first chance to see them or long-time local fans who want to see them spread the word abroad.

Also, because we were asking for extra commitment and generosity from our fans we tried to get them more involved, which we achieved by inviting them to vote on the songs. Personally I think this was a fantastic touch for an album like this, but obviously wouldn’t work with a normal record. ‘Hey, which of these ten songs you’ve never heard before and two you might half-remember from when you were drunk at that gig the other night would like to chose for the record?’

Nevertheless, I think we need to take a bit of a look at how we work and try and learn some stuff from this, because it went really well and was a world away from how we normally work.

1. Speed of recording. Considering most of the band didn’t even know most of these songs before we started, the recording process was amazingly quick. We spent five days at it, recording pretty much everything live. I am a huge fan of live recording, and that is only partially because it’s the only kind of recording I have the technical knowledge, equipment or experience to do with any real confidence. Obviously different projects suit different approaches, but I can’t help but feel that by far the best way to get an awesome-sounding record is by coaxing the best performances out of the band. I’m not sure any amount of crisp capture or post-production will make up for stilted, lacklustre playing.

With live recording everything is more informal and friendly, which relaxes people.  Also, there may be plenty of mistakes on this record, but because it was done as a band the musicians didn’t question them, they questioned whether or not it was a good take by the whole band. Put someone in a booth with a pair of headphones, however, and a mistake is no longer a minor whoops in an otherwise awesome take, it becomes a MISTAKE which must be fixed.  And of course when people are too focussed on what they themselves are doing rather than playing as a band, which is how most pop musicians are most comfortable, then mistakes are far more frequent anyway. And seriously, sitting in a studio by yourself, adding violin bits to something recorded three months ago… well that just doesn’t sound like much fun to me. And I don’t want to listen to ‘not much fun’, thanks.

2. Packaging. CDs are cheap, and we released this in card sleeves which we hand-printed in our living room, pretty much how we recorded the album. The unit cost ended up being pretty much the same as getting them mass-manufactured, but with vinyl, printing your own sleeves ends up being slightly cheaper (see our box set). This is even more evident if you’re talking about smaller runs of, say, a hundred records. It also brings a really nice personal touch to the release, and gets the band involved and makes them feel more attached to their own record. On the downside, if you basically just keep screen-printing onto blank card sleeves it can leave everything looking a little samey – is that boring, or just a consistent brand image, I dunno!

3. Zero PR spend. This is one of the big ones. If your record is well in the black before it’s even released, why the fuck bother with advance PR? Or indeed any PR? PR is actually very costly, between the postage, the CDs and the sheer amount of time it takes.  It also causes huge delays to the release process – a three month lead time for the glossy magazines, for example. And yet and yet and yet… would we really have been as successful with this project without the money we’ve invested in PR in the past? I very much doubt it. And can you do a lot of PR at basically no cost, with streams, download links and a lot of emails? Yes you most certainly can.

The big problem is radio. I could happily write off physical promo if it were just print press. We get so little out of print media that we wouldn’t lose much, and a lot of the places which do take an interest in our releases are happy to operate on a digital-only basis anyway. However, we do get an awful lot of traction (comparatively) on radio, particularly the BBC, and they just don’t work with digital. One or two people I have a decent relationship with will respond to emails, but in general you can’t get through to people there with email promo. Well, I can’t anyway. So if we ditch physical promo, we lose radio, and mostly we can’t afford to do that. Still, given the cost physical PR adds to our releases, and looking at the sums for this album, I really, really think we need to re-evaluate how we promote our records.

4. Journalists can be total cunts. This went out to journalists on the day of the first release show and by the next day was on every fucking illegal download site on the fucking planet. We have a lot of pals who are journos and a lot of very good relationships with the press, but every single fucking time something leaks it is when it is sent to press. Now, if you write about music the pay is so shit that presumably you only do it because you care so much about music itself. In which case I can’t see how this would happen. Even if you’re just a hack trying to wring a living out of writing about what-the-fuck-ever-who-cares, then if you love something you hear, I can’t see how you would do this. But equally, if you hate something why would you even go to the trouble, and what are you trying to do – teach us a lesson by behaving like an absolute cunt?

Whoever the fuck it is who does this, I cannot express the amount of contempt I have for you. Honestly, it’s utterly pathetic, pointless, and makes you just seem a bit like Salacious Crumb: hanging around the more important people cackling away sadly to yourself but without any real hope of participating and without any real point to make. For those of us actually trying to make a contribution, it’s like treading in chewing gum: annoying and a little bit disgusting, but not even enough of a nuisance to really bother yourself with. You’re pathetic. Piss off.

5. Maintaining the energy. How easy will it be to re-enthuse the musicians from Bastard Mountain when it comes time to release their album in May, given it was recorded over a year and a half before that? I don’t know, but I do know this: absolutely everyone involved in this album has been hopping with excitement since day one. That means excited chatter on social media to everyone’s pals, rather than the more dutiful ‘check out the second single from my band’s last record’ stuff you tend to get. It means more energy at the gigs. The semi-improvised nature of the arrangements and playing has been a huge challenge, but the musicians involved are talented enough to find that fun rather than terrifying.  The excitement has also been constant, too – from the start of recording to release – and with a longer process that would have dissipated.

6. Audience excitement and commitment. Okay, the commitment has been helped by the voting, but the number of incredibly kind and excited messages I’ve received in the Kickstarter inbox has been really quite touching, I have to say, even for a cynical old fucker like me. I think the condensed process has had a huge impact here too, as well as the fact that we’ve consistently put out small bits and pieces from the process itself, even before we had finished audio – Matthew Swan’s amazing photos, that silly video of the recording process, and the Soundcloud stream of Tugboat, which didn’t make it onto the record in the end. I think we’ve managed to make people feel more involved in this record than almost any other, and I think that’s a really good thing.

So I don’t know. I many ways this was a one-off event which can’t really be replicated, and in all honesty maybe we shouldn’t even try. But it’s got me thinking about what we do an awful lot, and I think there must be some really important lessons to be learned from The Organ Grinder’s Monkey, if I could just tease out exactly what they are.

The Organ Grinder’s Trailer from Song, by Toad on Vimeo.