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Archive for April, 2017

Record Store Day – clue is in the name

Edinburgh Evening News Thursday 13th April 2017

As a founder member of Record Store Day I remember well the initial hopes we all had for what it might achieve. It is important to remember exactly what the circumstances were ten years ago. Internet sales were really starting to kick in and it wasn’t just a case of dealing with the likes of Amazon who weren’t paying VAT but others had set up, some shops that had closed, and were selling from their living rooms, garages and for the bigger enterprises industrial units.

At that time artists and labels selling directly was not much of an issue and vinyl for many independent shops was still selling if not in the numbers it had done previously. Indie shops down south were not so keen on vinyl albums but there was still a market for limited edition 7”s.

In the US shops had come together in 2007 to try to highlight the great work independent record shops did on the high street, especially when it came to new artists. In the UK’s first year in 2008 there was no product but a few indie’s pulled together to put on in-stores and promotions. In the US there were 10 special releases!

By 2009 the UK finally had physical releases and a nice touch for Avalanche was a Tom Waits 7” whih included a performance  of “Bottom of the World” recorded at his Edinburgh Playhouse gig the previous year.

HMV and Amazon were all powerful and would tolerate indie shops being given limited vinyl, a format they no longer cared for or supported, but at the same time many indie shops wanted limited CDs and the more specialist dance and folk shops wanted releases more in keeping with their regular stock. With every shop entitled to at least one of every release it quickly ended up with specialist dance shops having a very limited Blur 7”. Not ideal!

At this point the emphasis was still on promoting indie shops on the high street selling mostly “indie” music. There was a criteria for shops being involved and they had to sell music as the majority of their business. Online businesses were not allowed and indeed it was an unhappy compromise that Record Store Day stock was sold at all online but very early on shops had complained that post Record Store Day stock they were left with was slow to sell in their shops.

Second hand shops which had often sold some new CDs, especially as reissues, showed no interest in participating as they rarely dealt with most of the record companies. To this day, while you will see many shops involved who are essentially second hand shops who sell some reissued vinyl and the odd “indies only” new release, Edinburgh’s long established shops Vinyl Villains, Record Shak, Hog’s Head, Backbeat, Elvis Shakespeare and Unknown Pleasures all leave the day to the shops it was intended for which is to their credit.

From now on though sadly the message would start to be lost. With more and more releases and a gullible public prepared to pay the prices involved, dictated I should say by labels and record companies not the shops, others started to jump on the bandwagon. Possibly even worse the core message that this was a day to celebrate independent high street record shops was lost to the “vinyl revival” and suporting vinyl.

At the same time the big independent labels became less and less supportive and in fact this year with a couple of exceptions twenty of the biggest indie labels contribute only a dozen releases between them.

So now Record Store Day is what it is. Around 500 releases of mostly old reissues, many at eye watering prices, and sold in industrial estates, coffee shops and in one case somebody’s garden shed! A week later online mayhem ensues as people who have not bothered to visit a nearby shop buy online when these days virtually everybody has a store not too far away.

Two things that really sum up where Record Store Day is pitched now are the announcement that Elton John is the first Record Store Day legend and the Star Wars Crosley record player. Elton may be a legend but that didn’t stop his reissued vinyl being sold on PledgeMusic which doesn’t do shops any favours. That the albums in question can be bought in any used store at a fraction of the new reissued vinyl price also raises the old argument about albums being needlessly reissued and clogging up the manfacturing cycle.

As for the Crosley record player I’ve never seen a good review from any serious publication and if it was just poor sound that would be one thing but it seems to be generally agreed that the player actually damages your records because of the weighting. Like so much vinyl these days the new  Star Wars version may never be used and simply kept on display but it really feels out of place when looking back at what Record Store Day was meant to be about.

Clearly it would be unrealistic to not have expected things to have gradually changed over the last ten years but truth is what was a very well intentioned idea has become commercialised and distorted to a point where it is unrecognisable fron those early years.

It is not about the major record companies taking over as some say. Universal Music, the biggest of them all, were suportive from the start and have always done their best to provide a selection of releases. Meanwhile some of the small indie labels just see it now as a chance to sell stuff they could not shift any other time. The shops too are a mixed bunch of the truly heroic battling against overwhelming odds and those who are just chancers happy to ride the bandwagon.

Support high street record shops, support new music and if possible support new music in high street record shops. So many of Avalanche’s old customers recall great memories of having been in the shop, sometimes decades later. I seriously doubt anybody will have fond memories of their internet buys.

 

 

Scotland’s thriving pop-punk scene

After previous pop-punk recommendations I again stumbled across another band simply because I saw they liked a tweet about Avalanche favourites Withered Hand. Paper Rifles “It Always Rains in Scotland” is a great song and by no means their only one.

You can listen to more on their bandcamp page https://paper-rifles.bandcamp.com/  and all proceeds go to the Scottish Association for Mental Health. A much wiser investment than a dodgy Record Store Day single !

Throughout the arts the obsession is with funding

Edinburgh Evening News Thursday 6th April 2017

Much as I have recently banged the drum for popular music being taken seriously as part of the arts and receiving funding that acknowledges that I’ve had a couple of conversations of late with folk older and far wise than myself who made a very good case as to why allocating funds in all walks of life has to be completely revamped.

These were people old enough to remember when there was no lottery funding and yet the arts still flourished and in fact some would say things were a lot healthier.

Even I’m old enough to remember when it cost £6,000 to make an album. A band had to go into a recording studio and that wasn’t cheap. There was no viable home recording equipment then. If lucky a friend might be a graphic designer but I can remember from the Avalanche label in the 80s and 90s the perils of not getting the artwork quite right.

Then with CDs you had to make a thousand and at very best would break even on your overall outlay. Four guys in a band would do part time bar jobs and work in restaurants on top of their day jobs just to raise that £1,500 each to go into the recording studio. Now of course things are so much easier and though it is no doubt harder to get people interested in new music despite the wonders of the internet there is still a real lack of urgency these days in most bands promotion of their music.

As I’ve discovered throughout the arts the obsession is with funding and the one thing funding is not based on is whether something is a good idea or whether “the art” is any good. Obviously there will always be a problem with subjectivity but now so many other factors come into play from what region you are in to whether you are considered to be from a minority group that should be supported.

What is not allowed for now is how rapidly information and education has become available to just about everybody via the internet. If some clever sod quotes from John Fowles and I don’t know who he is it takes me seconds to look him up on Wikipedia and find out he was “an English novelist of international stature, critically positioned between modernism and postmodernism.” You will need that later!

Now when I was a kid in the sixties I would have looked that up in the twelve volume Encyclopaedia Britannica we had and if not there it would be a trip to the library. We didn’t even have a phone so there was no “phone a friend option” either.

There are many quotes about how important culture is to society and they are not wrong. The thing is that knowledge to a large extent is now available to anybody who searches it out for free while for instance our National Health Service can only need more money as we all live longer and the costs associated with that escalate.    

What these wise older folk were saying is that society needs to completely overhaul the way it looks at allocating  funding of all types and from all sources be that to health, education, housing, the arts or all the other areas that receive monies in one way or another. The reasoning behind this reallocation would be based on the very sensible premise that the internet and technology in general have made our lives a lot easier in some areas and has put a strain on other areas. Reallocating funds to match this can only make sense.

In conversation with a staunch supporter of the old Royal High School and all the associated buildings and views I put it to him that never mind a hotel being built either side if for some reason the demolition of the school facilitated  a state of the art cancer ward the bulldozers would be on Calton Hill tomorrow and nobody would object. He agreed.

So maybe the argument is not popular music versus the visual arts but whether all that arts funding is really the best use of the limited resources we have. That is not to diminish the importance of the arts but to accept they have benefited in a way other areas haven’t from these technological times we live in.

So much money is ring fenced as having to be spent in one way or another and maybe it is time to question that. Places like libraries can reinvent themselves and that is to be commended but there are too many areas still where people are simply protecting their own interests, and to be fair their jobs, when all common sense says the money they are receiving would be used better elsewhere.

 

 

 

No matter how hard I try to make serious points on twitter I have to face the fact that what people want are funny cartoons preferably about vinyl with the odd video thrown in for good measure.

This week’s cartoons based on a collector’s obsession with a slightly darker orange on the label of his record and a young boy in hospital being given vinyl by his nurse were popular but nothing matched a wonderful video created by Gabriel Magallon two years ago that resurfaced after Dave’s Records in Chicago posted it one morning in my timeline.

“The Addams Family dancing Blitzgrieg Bop by the Ramones” is all you need to know and it is well worth a couple of minutes of your time. https://vimeo.com/131936997

 

 

Great to see Saint Jude’s Infirmary are back with a new song “Towards The Great Tomorrow”. Introduced on social media with the John Fowles line “Sometimes to return is a vulgarity” the band’s return after a long hiatus is welcome indeed.

With an album finished and currently being mastered hopefully it won’t be too long before it sees the light of day. I might be wrong but being true to their old indie roots I’m guessing they won’t be selling signed test pressings at ridiculous prices or offering a bundle of a t-shirt, vinyl and cassette.

I know they’ve been away a while but Grant was even talking of releasing a single from the album. It doesn’t get any more old skool than that!

History of Scottish Music Centre @ Fruitmarket Gallery

 

Very pleased to announce the History of Scottish Music Centre will have its own room at the Fruitmarket Gallery 16th -18th June as part of an exciting week they have planned. Very grateful to the gallery for the chance to show what can be done and there will be lots of events all during the week to coincide.

Lots more news soon both about the HoSMC exhibition and all the other events planned for the week.

Damage and joy divide shops, artists and labels

When downloads first became a factor the worry was not that album sales would be reduced just that physical sales would drop dramatically. Downloads were a great boon for record companies as they had no physical cost, there was no need to guess manufacturing numbers and there were no delivery costs. Soon the worry became illegal downloads and for a while they were considered a serious issue but now it has to be faced that youngsters simply don’t listen to albums like folk used to but even that doesn’t explain just how far album sales have fallen.

No doubt there are older customers who would buy an album but allow them to stream for free and they no longer feel the need to physically own an album enough to fork out hard cash. So where are we now ? At the very top the figures are still massive. Ed Sheeran’s new album is already well over the million and showing no sign of stopping. This week it sold another 100K. To put that in perspective new releases this week from Jamiroquai sold 22K and Goldfrapp sold just under 12K. An even closer comparison is the figures for the new James Blunt album which sold 24K on release two weeks ago and then another 7K this week, the sort of figures Ed manages on a busy day in the supermarkets.

And there is part of the answer to how these huge figures are achieved. Obviously James Blunt is available in supermarkets too but artists like Ed Sheeran and Adele rack up massive sales in supermarkets and continue to do so week after week another factor as even artists who achieve decent sales in the first week to their dedicated fans often see sales drop off dramatically.

So how are things lower down the food chain ? Well in the 80s and 90s when a big indie band signed to a major the expectation was that their album would sell at least 20K to 30K, might easily reach 50K and on occasion would become a big hit and do far better. Now of course older “big” bands don’t need a major label and will on most occasions have a two pronged plan. First of all they will target their hardcore fan base or the superfans as PledeMusic call them and then they will hope that casual fans will buy from HMV and Amazon. They may indeed use Pledge or do it themselves via a platform that specialises in pre-sells.

A decade or so it became a commercial fact that it was easier to help a successful band on the wane target their fans than to break a new band. Email lists and the internet were a godsend to these bands. From then on the writing was on the wall for new artists trying to break through to an audience beyond their hometown.

Given all that it is stil hard to explain why bands who can easily sell out big venues on an extensive UK tour wil regularly only sell around 5K of a new album and sometimes leas than a thousand. Yes people are going to the gigs for all the old hits but even so ….

A typical example is the new Jesus and Mary Chain album. They sold their album directly to fans including the usual bundles. These bundles matter because it means that the registered sales are inflated as one custoner buying a t-shirt/vinyl/cassette package will count twice and maybe they’ll splash out and buy a signed white label and count three times. There were 286 Mary Chain cassettes sold but you can guarantee most were sold as part of a bundle. Similarly those very limited signed white labels at £60 each were not that limited with 85 sold just in the UK never mind worldwide.

The majority of the limited “indies only” orange vinyl were unsurprisingly also sold by the band with shops running out almost immediately. The total sales were just over 6K with a further 1.2K sold the next week. It is impossible to say how well it sold in indie shops because the band’s figures are included but these days it is standard for bands and their labels to sell more than all the 300+ indie shops together. For a label like Domino this applies from the Arctic Monkeys down to an artist like Julia Holter. While her recent album sold 554 on release the indies only coloured vinyl from Domino came with 2 x Polaroid studio session photographs and an exclusive facsimile of Julia’s handwritten liner notes and sold 89 copies in the UK. Indie shops sold 81 of their colured vinyl version.

These are of course UK sales and again labels and bands often sell more abroad of limited editions than they do in the UK depending on the artist’s internatinal profile. This regularly leaves indie shops with a limited edition that yes you can’t get in HMV or from Amazon but one that they have to hope fans don’t realise comes with further extras from the artist or label. Sometimes the indies don’t even get a chance as happened with the recent British Sea Rower 4xCD box set which was only available from the band.

Lesser known bands on big indie labels are selling 200 to 300 so you can imagine where that leaves small bands. There are other factors that also distort sales figures the most obvious being that artists may well achieve reasonable sales in London by doing an in-store but that makes regional sales even lower. All the figures given out are massively distorted by a few artists selling vast quantities and mostly in supermarkets. Most established artists be it James Blunt or the Mary Chain can rely on touring and associated merchandise but how new bands can be promoted to a largely indiferent public is something the music industry doesn’t seem to want to address. 

Don’t let Glasgow get a piece of Cake Shop

Edinburgh Evening News Thursday 30th March 2017

Edinburgh venues were certainly in the news last week as it was announced that cult New York venue Cake Shop was actively looking to open in Edinburgh in the same week Electric Circus was to close.

I had, of course, mentioned in a previous column that with ties to Scotland I had heard of interest from the bar/café/venue Cake Shop now they had finally been priced out of their home of 11 years in the Lower East Side, but it was still a surprise when Nick Bodor, who ran Cake Shop with his wife Judy and brother Andy, got in touch to ask if I could help them look for somewhere in Edinburgh.

One thing that is obvious, but I had never really given great consideration to, was that for a venue to simply put on gigs and do nothing else it needs not just people willing to come out on a rainy Tuesday night but a supply of bands to play that simply isn’t there anymore.

Clubs are at least regular but then they often eat into the time available for gigs, with many gigs particularly at weekends having a 10pm finish.

Places like Cab Vol and La Belle Angele have filled up their day time with everything from dance classes to life drawing but venues are sometimes a victim of their own fame and people tend to think of them only as a place to go to at night.

Even a well known venue just being open as a bar serving food during the day can not necessarily transfer the busy nights into equally busy days. Even on my rare trips to London I’m always amazed at how quiet cool pubs that are also well known venues can be during the day.

In this regard Cake Shop would come to Edinburgh with a distinct advantage. Those who know its reputation would consider it a place they would be as likely to visit during the day as at night and those that are unaware of its worldwide reputation will not have that expectation that it is just a place to go to at night and also give it a chance.

That isn’t to say it wouldn’t face all the problems others face these days of getting people out at night and away from their TV screens and once out actually spending enough money to pay the many overheads. Folk are so obsessed with their phones and being online now that whether they are making a coffee last for hours during the day or nursing a drink at night it seems to be forgotten that providing people with a place to eat, drink, meet friends and maybe see a band does not come cheap.

With an international reputation it would certainly be a destination for tourists though they have always prided themselves on being a neighbourhood bar for locals so hopefully they would get a good mix of folk. Luckily they have even more strings to their bow. Comedy nights also became very popular at Cake Shop NYC and artists were encouraged to get involved too.

Most of all what I think gives them such a good chance of making things work over here is that they are very hands-on and incredibly enthusiastic. They have no expectation that things will be easy but they are confident that with all they have to offer they will compliment what Edinburgh has already and let’s face it that is getting less and less on almost a monthly basis.

They always said they would never get rich doing Cake Shop but it was something Nick, Judy and Andy all loved as did so many of those who visited the place. Such is their reputation that they have not been short of offers from those wanting them to get involved in other projects and it really would certainly help if they received some encouragement to come to Edinburgh.

What worries me most is summed up in an enquiry I had yesterday. “Would they consider coming to Glasgow”. Don’t let that happen Edinburgh!

 

Money’s too tight to mention for music backer

I hear Edinburgh may be getting its own Music Champion, which, approached correctly, could be a very good idea indeed. My biggest concern is that even when Edinburgh council do embrace an issue they move at a pace that is so slow that events are almost guaranteed to overtake it.

A couple of times recently when dealing with the council they have genuinely considered two years to be nothing in “council time”, which is odd given a council’s own lifespan. Edinburgh needs to meet all the issues being faced by venues and the wider music industry head on and we can only hope that after the May elections these issues are given some priority given that there are of course more serious matters to be dealt with too.

Speaking of music champions, it is obvious that both classical music and the visual arts have their sponsors and benefactors and by coincidence, recently a couple of people have asked the question “where are the financial champions” for popular music, given how much money big pop stars make. Now I’m not exactly sure who they were thinking of and really should have thought to ask, but though I can see their point, while there is a history of wealthy families supporting the arts, there is little evidence of those artists that have made their fortunes directly putting their money back into helping others get started.

Don’t get me wrong, many do a lot of charitable work and of course there is a mountain of lottery funding aimed at young people already, but the simple stuff like a big band keeping their local record shop or venue going is not something I can ever remember coming across.

Maybe this is something that could be a UK thing. Bands could apply to the Radiohead Foundation for help or God help us, maybe one day there will be an Ed Sheeran school for buskers. Still not sure who they were thinking of for Scotland. Maybe they were counting Rod Stewart!