Young Takes A Stand (or Why We Got It Right In The 80’s)

Neil Young

Neil Young has taken a stand against Streaming services such as Spotify and Apple. But he says it’s not over money, and the continually shrinking residuals from streaming services. No, his argument is that the quality of the service is total rubbish, and he doesn’t want his music traduced by crushing it into what he feels is a terrible medium.

BRAVO!!

But unfortunately, he has somewhat missed the point. Demand for this service hasn’t been driven by the companies that provide it as much as it has been created by the truly awful technology we now use to reproduce music in our everyday lives.

I mean, if you listen to music through your computer speakers, or your iPod, well to be honest it really doesn’t matter where you obtain your music. Chances are, it sounds like total rubbish. Very few people have a good music reproduction setup.

Back in the 70’s, when I first got into music, there was a phenomenon called the 8 track cassette. It was battered out of existence by the compact cassette, but both were an answer to a simple problem – I love my record collection but it doesn’t work in my car – because the bloody needle skips. (Did you ever see one of these?  That certainly wasn’t the answer). And we were all starting to spend more time in cars (and had been since the 50’s as car ownership grew).

8 track had one great advantage over the compact cassette – it ran much faster – 3.5″ per Second compared to the compact cassette’s meagre 1 7/8″.  So it was dynamically a stronger solution. But it was bigger, and you couldn’t rewind them due to the fact it had only a single reel rather than 2. However, you rarely had them wind up in the capstan because they were always under tension and were lubed with graphite.

So what killed the 8 track? The Original boom boxes, to reduce size, went for cassette. Then in 1978, the final death of the format was triggered by Sony, with the then revolutionary Walkman. So it was simply killed by size – that was the whole bag. Of course it helped the cassette that it could be formatted in the same way as the vinyl record, two sides of music of largely the same length. And they were dirt cheap to manufacture.

Sony-Walkman

Unfortunately, what seems to have been forgotten was that tapes were RUBBISH!! They sounded lifeless, noisy and  weak compared to vinyl (and the 8 track), and they deteriorated quickly, but that was not the point. Suddenly your record collection was totally portable, it didn’t matter that the headphones were shocking and the tapes didn’t last. Kids loved them. Freedom of travel (even on your roller skates).

Even Cliff Richard got in on the act – Sony must have been ecstatic! But Phillips were there, developing what soon became the ultimate format for music – the Compact Disc. In 1981, the Bee Gees had their new single on a BBC’s Tomorrow’s World with Kieran Prendiville. What really made the CD work commercially was that the whole industry decided on one digital format, with the manufacturers. and it’s never changed to this day.

And that’s where the story should have ended. It took a little while for the record industry to make the medium ‘musical’  – the vinyl record and it’s beautiful packaging and feel was lost, but by the time Brothers in Arms came along it was clear the CD was by far the superior platform for music. Now I love my Vinyl, but there’s no argument. In a play off between Vinyl and a well mastered CD, the CD is streets ahead. It’s out of sight to be honest. For a start, it doesn’t get quieter towards the end of one side (didn’t you always wonder why the ballad was always last on the album…?)

But that’s not the end of the story, because the audiophile traditions of the 70’s and 80’s were still on the wane. Teenagers grew up not used to high fidelity sound. Then of course the record industry also changed with the introduction of electronically created music. At every step, the things that made the CD fantastic, were being thrown away. The transparency of the sound, the frequency response, the ability to capture the room in the recording – all lost to an ever increasing use of digital creation mediums with drum machines, synths and DI boxes. By the time we got to ‘Autotune’ vocals (yeah I’m talkin’ to you Cher!) – pretty much everything in the charts was created without a single note being ‘played’ in a room by a ‘live’ band or musician. Fidelity didn’t matter because the subtlety of musicians in a room was largely a thing of the past.

Then there’s the Loudness wars. CD had the potential for fantastic dynamics. But radio, which didn’t, ruled the day. MTV was the same, all that video left little room for audio on the bandwidth. If the public were listening with their eyes… Record producers formatted for the lowest common output – and so everything became compressed to death so it stuck out like a bad TV commercial.

Once you have taken all the dynamic out, then how much information do you really need? And that’s how you eventually got to MP3, if it needed to be small for the internet then in the pop industry, well that no longer mattered too much. The big sellers were producing music without dynamics, so what did it matter if the medium didn’t have any? If the Kids accept rubbish, then how cheap can we provide it?

So back to Neil Young. I can’t tell you if his publicised motive is truly behind this move or whether it’s really about money. But I salute it. MP3 is crap, WMA little better, streaming is trash and don’t get me started on the iPod! Fashion, not sound, has sold that particular item (and the styling was borrowed from the 60’s).  It all has its uses sure, but don’t you want to own a physical copy of the music you buy? Read the sleeve notes? Know that you got some real value, and of course the best sound technically possible?

And most of all, don’t you want to hear what the artist originally intended for you to hear? What the artist heard sat behind the mixing console for hours with a top producer to create?

If you have to think twice about the answers to those questions, I suggest you go along to your local Hi Fi store with a proper CD (not one burned from an MP3) of something recently remastered for the medium. Say for example ‘Harvest’ by Neil Young, or ‘A Night At the Opera’ by Queen. Or maybe ‘Giant Steps’ by John Coltrane. Get them to put it on a good system and turn it up a bit.

If you do, you might never go back to MP3 again.

The Refund (or How Much Is Your Name Worth?)

Well folks, that was shambolic wasn’t it. A clearly ‘tired and emotional’ Finley Quaye ambles around the stage playing a badly out of tune guitar with a band that clearly doesn’t know where either he or it is going. If you haven’t actually seen it, take a look. It’s a particularly unedifying experience.

But we have been exhorted on social media to praise the actions of the promoter. And to a point I can go with that. Let’s face it, he really couldn’t let that go on any longer. Preserving his reputation, he took the only route open to him at that point, and refunded the tickets.

But I’m afraid I’m going to dissent from the popular opinion on his actions. It was a disaster purely of his own making, and as a promoter he got what he was asking for.

I did a quick search around the web – no more than a few minutes I promise you. Of course, I had to go a little further now because the web is full of recycled headlines about the Convent gig. And there was one thing that I just couldn’t find.

I couldn’t find one positive story relating to Finley Quaye. Not one.

Go on the web and search for any artist currently gigging, you are bound to find fan reviews and articles from local press. But apart from ticket sales sites, nothing appeared.

But of course I found this review. Now in the promoter’s defence I should add that this is from an early show on the current tour, so the above gig would have already been booked. But I also found this article which suggests that there was more than one incident to add to the  assault conviction of 2012.

Quaye was interviewed for a gig at the East Wintergarden at Canary wharf in 2014. However, the Wharf then didn’t review the gig.  Then I looked at some of the ticket booking sites, and found this from York, a very late cancellation. Of course this was from this tour, so it wouldn’t have been available to the promoter at the time of booking.

Quaye

So this is the rather less than pleasant biography that starts to present itself with only 5 minutes of research. The artist has a chequered past, isn’t known for his reliability, hasn’t released anything in years and has no evidence of even a decent profile online.

And then I start to think of the things a promoter or venue usually asked me when I looked to place a gig with them. What’s your profile? What reviews do you have? Show me some press? Do you have a local following? I was generally looking at support gigs you must bear in mind, not headline shows. We were a first album act.

But with all that in mind I still have to ask myself why promoters thought that booking Quaye was a good idea.

PS. Had you ever heard of the venue or know that it has a live stream for gigs? Well you do now.

The Wild Wild East (or why we should stop bitchin’ and forget the record industry)

stock-footage-close-up-hd-movie-of-a-record-player-playing-a-vinyl-black-record

An interesting debate has sprung up over the last few days, prompted by a couple of acquaintances in the music industry over the nature of payment for work they have done (or actually rather work that others have done, and the principle of the thing itself).

It’s all about illegal downloading, and how that eats into the revenues of musicians. Both had stuck to a principle that music has a value, and that there must be some enforcement of copyright regulations internationally, I think that in many ways that ship has sailed. The East is wild, and the world is small. Trying to beat down sharing sites in Russia and China is a pointless game of whack a mole, and just not worth the effort.

However, the result of this is that the music industry is slowly returning to it’s normal state (historically speaking). And that may be no bad thing.

When we look at the history of the musician over hundreds of years, we can see that there is a 50 year blip in which recorded and broadcast music became extraordinarily important, giving Radio, TV, but most importantly the record companies, huge power over musicians.

But recent change in the industry has begun to shift the balance back to where it once was. Now, recorded music is regarded as largely a commodity, most of it is rubbish churned out by record labels and TV companies for a specific audience that listens with its eyes. Sex sells, and the idiots will always buy.

But for us, those who don’t play (and have never played) ‘POP’ music, this should be our time. The old industry is throwing itself under the bus with crap impersonal electrobabble, but the real music fans are returning to the old way of consuming music.

They go out and watch a band. LIVE!

And that’s exactly what the music industry was before the record companies had a medium to exploit. People went out and saw musicians, and bands got paid for the work they did that night. No residuals I grant you, but does a coal miner get residuals? We should never have taken that for granted in perpetuity.

Then there’s the thorny subject of ‘Theft’. Is illegal downloading or Streaming ‘Theft’? Well I suppose it is, but it’s largely victimless. If you think that the person stealing your music would have bought it if they couldn’t rip it off, then you’re probably deluding yourself. They wouldn’t. It’s a crime of opportunity. It’s there and they can have it, so they do. But they wouldn’t have gone out of their way. They would never have paid, whatever the price.

For the average musician or recording artist, (not the big boys),  the customer is the person he sees at the gig. Look in their eyes – do they want to steal from you? No, they are there because they want to support you and they want you to carry on doing what you do. Which means they are waiting for your next record, and they want to own it. Not download it, they want to physically have a copy, and they would be thrilled if you signed it! Your audience is emotionally invested in you, the product is the live gig.

When did the record industry eat itself? Probably in 1996 when Warners paid $80 million for REM’s next five albums. That’s why albums cost £15 a go in the 80’s & 90’s (even for 20 year old reissues on a 50p plastic disc). So of course the legacy industry are bleating, because they were ripping off the customer for years, and now the customer is getting his revenge, in spades. And if it were any other industry it would be the same.  EMI went just about broke, and judging by their reported bill for hospitality (i.e. cocaine), I’m not surprised.  Progress shakes out the bad models. And the record industry, despite the great but rather short ‘golden age of the Long Player’, was always a soul devouring piece of crap. Its death is long overdue.

So the real music industry is slowly returning to what it once was. Local. Personal. Live. And that’s where the little guy, with time for his audience and a personal bond with them, comes good. Your audience doesn’t see you on a screen from a quarter mile away, you’re a real person, like them.

Maybe the final bell tolled just recently, when Prince released his record through that great music journal, the ‘Mail on Sunday’. Or when U2 tried to give their album away with iPhones, and got a massive collective raspberry from the audience, who didn’t even want it For Nothing! Now I can’t ever remember giving away an album at a gig and being told to ‘shove it up my ass!’ Poor Bono…How it must have hurt his poor feelings. (Still he has his money to count, that should keep him busy……. for the rest of his life).

That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for the recorded album. But the days of bands rocking up to a studio to record an album they haven’t written yet on someone else’s dime, well that’s pretty much gone. And good riddance to it. We will have to be more and more frugal. More music will have to be recorded ‘live’ and raw (like it once was). Less time, fewer overdubs, less fancy technology. The smaller and less expensive studios will always be busy. And the barriers to getting into the trade will fall with the price. But if you can’t cut it when the red light goes on, then you’ll be out. Just as it’s always been on the live circuit. ‘Talent will out my dears’ as the great Freddie Mercury once said.

And that’s how it should be. Anyone with the talent or the drive should be able to get a band together, save up a bit of gigging money (if they are good enough to get a gig), and go in and cut a record. If they can sell it fine. If they choose to give it away to create interest, that’s cool too. It’s a free country, it’s a free market. The record companies operated a cartel to keep out competition for decades, controlling the record distributors, the studios, pushing up the recording prices, signing bands just to ‘shut them down’. Technology caught up with them and the consumer took his opportunity, and beat them to a pulp with it.

There probably won’t be the huge supergroups in the future. Maybe it means that there won’t be another Queen, Beatles or Foo Fighters. But there will always be working musicians, turning out great music, and fans who will go out of their way to listen and become involved in the gigs.

I love Steve Lukather. He’s a great musician. But like the little guy in the real world whose company has just cut the overtime he’d enjoyed for years, he’d be better to stop bitchin’ and realise that he had a damn good run while it lasted, and he’s still got the tools to go out and do a good day’s work like the rest of us. There was never any guarantee it would last for ever.

And if like me you’re a musician, and like me you’re finding it hard to make a living, I sympathise. But the truth is, if you’re a good musician you’re probably a highly skilled and intelligent person who could go and get a fairly well paid job in a more stable industry.

But you don’t.

And you don’t for exactly the same reason I don’t. You love it too much.

Why the Soviets lost the Cold War – (or “How I learned to stop worrying and love the Jolana”)

leonid-brezhnev_1-t

“There is nothing more practical than a good theory”

Leonid Brezhnev.

Leonid Brezhnev was the leader of the Soviet Union between 1964 and 1982 – the Supreme Soviet. You’ll remember him as the ‘One with the Eyebrows’ if you’re old enough.

By some fluke of coincidence, that’s almost exactly the time period that the Jolana Tornado, later to become the Special, was produced in Soviet Controlled Czechoslovakia.

Jolana

A rather odd looking beast, this was however, the best guitar Roubles could buy. In Moscow, this was the most sought after of instruments. And not long ago, one came into the workshop for restoration. And that’s how I know, there’s no way that the Soviets could ever have won the cold war!

With it’s three pickups, four knobs and four switches, it’s definitely a child of the sixties. However, this one wasn’t actually produced (I think) until 1982. The first of the specials came out of the Hradec Kralove factory in 1970, by which stage they were probably already a bit behind the times. There was no literature, and internally it was in a bit of a state.

My biggest problem was that many of the controls had been bypassed, and I had no clue what they were supposed to do. So I sent out a request on the internet and got a reply from a Jolana owner in Lithuania, Linas Peciura, who took me through the basic operations of the switching unit.

And that’s when I realised what they had tried to do. They had tried to copy the Fender Jazzmaster. I don’t think they actually had one to look at, maybe someone had smuggled in the owners manual, (one without pictures I assume). But when I opened her up, all was revealed:

Jo Switching

All the switches were simply spring wire, pressing against the rocker actuators. Most were hopelessly bent out of shape from years of use, corroded and totally dysfunctional. Then there was the soldering. Some was clearly just bypassing broken components. It wasn’t pretty. But even the work that appeared to be original was hardly of a standard you could think of as acceptable, or even functional.

I cleaned the switch mechanisms, bent them back into what I thought was the correct positions, and then set about trying to recreate the tonal switching effects that Linas had described. It took several attempts, and eventually I worked out how the original must surely have been wired. I didn’t try to save too much of the original wire as you might do with an early Fender or Gibson. Most of it was rotten and the insulation falling off. It would simply have failed again sooner rather than later. Eventually I got to putting it back together.

rewired jolana

And then a thought struck me – that I was holding in my hands a perfect analogy of the Brezhnev era. It was a good guitar, in theory. It had all the same switching as the Jazz master. It was bedded into a tried and tested hollow design. It should have worked. But it lacked everything that the Jazz Master was about, the modernity and aesthetics. And on top of that, it used components that simply weren’t going to last. Yes, it would go out of the factory working (hopefully, I don’t know what happened if you complained about a fault), but like a Trabant, you’d spend more time fixing it than using it!

But this wasn’t supposed to be a Trabant – this was the Zil! The top of the range. But like so many Soviet dreams, it was a steeplechaser designed by committee. And we know what we call that folks?  A Camel!

So what does this tell us about the Soviet Union, and why the West Won the Cold War? Well for a start I imagine that they were, by the late 70’s, so scared that most of their kit would actually fail on the launch pad that they were too scared to even contemplate using it. Everything was falling apart, but no-one was brave enough to openly admit it.

But it’s more fundamental than that. A system where creativity is not encouraged and conformity enforced can rarely produce great designs. Especially a society where intellectual property rights no longer exist. Why create something for the state, when the state takes the credit and you take the risk of being castigated for stepping outside the norm? The incentive is gone. And so, creativity is strangled, it becomes  ‘subversive’ to challenge the accepted practice. (I’ve worked for a few firms like that…)

American competition created the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul. As the companies strived for a foothold in the emerging rock and roll era, the flying V and Firebirds competed with the Jaguar and Jazzmaster. Driven by the need to grow sales, both Fender and Gibson sought out innovative designers to ‘get one up’ on their competitors.

Japan suffered the a similar problem in design creativity, but for more benign reasons. Their rigidly polite social systems didn’t necessarily promote creativity, but did create a culture of extreme efficiency, hard work, humility and personal responsibility – resulting in some of the best manufacturing and quality control in the world at one time.  They took European and American designs, then engineered them to the highest possible levels, and at the same time they cut the cost of doing so. That’s why the Datsun 280Z was such a great car. Based on European Styling, cheaper than a Porsche, built with Japanese engineering. (Unlike the Alfa Romeo Arna. Clearly styled in Japan, built in Italy. And don’t start me on the Austin Allegro, the height of British collectivist design…..what a piece of crap! I’d have gone on strike if the alternative was making that.)

But the Soviet Union didn’t even have that Japanese drive and efficiency. When you don’t recognise the endeavours of the individual, the individual eventually fails to endeavour. That’s what Ayn Rand’s ‘Anthem’ novella was about, that Neil Peart transformed into the theme for the Rush album’2112′. The death of individuality under collectivism. A much misunderstood piece and much more succinct than her later rambling and poorly thought out ‘Atlas Shrugged’ or ‘The Fountainhead’.

Without the incentive to creativity, we stand still. Locked in yesteryear, we fail to progress. We fail to innovate, and the world eventually leaves us behind. As it did the Soviet Union’s collectivist ideals, when the people could finally no longer be held back and they threw open the Brandenburg Gate. Individuality cannot be suppressed forever, that is not the nature of the human spirit.

So what of the guitar? The owner loves it, and still plays it. It’s a quirky relic of a bygone era with a rather individual tone.  He doesn’t rely on it as his main instrument though, he has a very modern Line 6 guitar with all sorts of mad innovations on it. Linas still plays his Jolanas on the professional circuit, but he’s a jazz player (and a very good one too), and treats them gently. He has a real thing for them, and I can’t say I blame him. By the time I had finished restoring it, it had grown on me too. I found myself becoming rather fond of it, it’s quirky eccentricity endearing.

But I don’t think I’d like to go into bat with it three nights a week, at least not without a good (western) spare!