Mobile phones and pop music

Most of us now have a portable music player sat in our pockets that has the ability to access pretty much any song that has ever been recorded, which feels like it will have pretty seismic implications on the way that we consume music. Will it plunge all of us into an endless quest of musical discovery, a desperate quest to hear every note that has ever been recorded? Will we ever be set free from our headphones?

The internet allows us to explore all of our weird passions, hobbies and interests to whichever degree we feel like. While of course it’s not quite truly infinite in its scope, it might as well be. This means that we all have a potentially unique pattern of on-line behaviour. So while my interest in music and the sites I visit might be similar to another music fan, what I do within them will be different and that doesn’t take into account my keen interest in the protocols, plans and processes in place for the release of nuclear weapons during the cold war. It’s certainly possible that every single person in the UK has a completely unique on-line footprint.

I have heard it said at Google, that mobile is like a surrogate brain. It’s certainly the closest technological representation of what we are really like. It’s an immediate medium, so it catches all of our impulses and passions. It’s how we communicate to our friends and family and how we connect to social media to tell the world how we see ourselves.

It’s private and one to one so it reveals our true selves – that’s why people got so annoyed when Facebook started telling people what they were really listening to on Spotify. The word ‘guilty pleasures’ is an irksome one but if there is a home for that kind of thing it’s mobile. And not just in music – I might use my mobile to check spellings or the definition of long words that I want to use that I’m not sure are in the right context. We skip around YouTube, clicking on onto the next video when we get bored and when another whim takes us, rather than diligently watching the whole thing. We skip the Arcade Fire album tracks that we’re supposed to like but actually don’t and hammer the Carly Rae Jepsen one instead. We might have a look at what the Kardashians are up to on Mail Online rather than George Monbiot in the Guardian.

Mobile might give us the truest snapshot of how someone interacts with popular culture.

Actually, over the last year or so, the number of people accessing music on mobile hasn’t changed. It’s the way in which they’re doing that is changing. Fewer of us are transferring music on CD onto mobile through a PC which makes perfect sense. Why would you when you can just download or stream it directly? But that’s not really a behavioural change – people still want to carry their music around with them, they’re just cutting out the middle man. As Eddie Izzard once said about landlines – ‘you used to phone a building and hope that the person you wanted to speak to was in the building rather than just ringing the person’. This time next year, downloading will overtake transfer from CDs and that might prove to be a watershed moment for the world of physical product. Enders predicts a huge increase in downloads and streaming that will both overtake physical by 2017.

There are plenty of new developments that are likely to make streaming even more popular. Both iTunes and Google Play are offering streaming services and with the advent of 4G, streaming could start to become a very important source of revenue for them. 26% of Apple users are on 4G vs. 10% of Android users so Apple users are more likely to stream on the go.

Vodafone are offering Spotify premium as a lure for their 4G service, and if streaming starts to become part of the bundle – effectively ‘free’, or at least less visible, suddenly a huge percentage of mobile users are streaming for free. It won’t be long before other networks follow. Could this mark the point at which people stop consciously paying for a music service, where it just becomes part of the deal?

Is this the point where mobile changes our behaviour towards purchasing music?

There is an on-going philosophical debate about social constructivism and technological determinism. Social constructivism is the idea that technology does not determine human action, human action shapes technology. Technological determinism argues the opposite, that technology drives behaviours, values and social structure. Usually this debate is about video games, or films causing people to behave in a violent fashion, but it’s increasingly the case that is being applied to think about how our media behaviours are changing.

In this example we could say that mobile phones are a cause of changing media habits, but the other side of the debate states that technology doesn’t change people – it enables them to do something they wanted to do anyway. So if people always really wanted to buy songs rather than albums (the existence of the word ‘filler’ and the number of people who have moaned to me about buying an album and only liking three or four songs, suggests that this might well be the case), then the arrival of iTunes just made that possible, or at least easier. Streaming services have made it possible to have all the music ever recorded, but it’s just possible that the majority of people might not want actually want that – it might be a case of too much choice. Too much music.

We have to ask the question – what behaviour is streaming replacing? If it is a solution to the problem of having to carry your entire music collection around instead of having another MP3 device because your phone can’t carry enough songs, then it has an appeal to people like me. But, for a casual music fan who only buys a handful of albums a year, is it really replacing the role of radio? I think that neglects the important appeal of a narrative within music – where music is part of the framework rather than the sole factor. There’s also a question about passive choice vs active choice. A whole lot of people don’t want to spend time choosing music and creating playlists, they just want some music to listen to, from a source that they trust to do the job.

It’s actually difficult to pull apart the effects of technology and the people using it. For example, it’s clear that iPhone owners are “more likely” to be heavy users of mobile internet and buy more apps and so on. The challenge comes in finding out why.

Is it because people who value mobile connectivity are more likely to spend money on a premium smartphone?  Is it because people who buy an iPhone then go on to become heavier users of mobile internet services?  Or is it simply because people who can afford to pay a premium for a phone will also pay a premium for other goods/ services?

A greater percentage of iPhone users – 50.57% – regularly listen to music on their phone compared to around 30% Android, Windows, Blackberry or Nokia users. However, it doesn’t appear that they are more passionate about music than people who use other devices – they are no more likely to agree with the statement ‘music is an important part of my life’ than Windows or BlackBerry users. They buy just as many CDs as anyone who has a different device. It might just be that the iPhone has an easier relationship with music consumption – people are used to iTunes and it has the heritage in music that other devices do not have.

But it doesn’t look like phones are making us listen to more music or less music.

Actually, what might be going on here is that smartphones provoke a greater diversity of interests. Whereas when you used to carry a Walkman, or an iPod around, you were nailing your colours firmly to the music mast. Now, you can play games, watch video, read the news, books and magazines, use social networks. Music is just competing with everything else that the user might want to do. It might mean that we do more but less. More different things but for less time. Our fingers are permanently hovering above the shuffle button, as it were.

Which brings me back to my first point – it might not be that mobile is changing what people want to do, or their habits in selecting entertainment, but rather what they are able to do. Suddenly, all options are available and that opens up the unique nature of everyone’s interests. It means that all entertainment options are open.

The impact that mobile has had on popular culture might be that it is enabling us to be ourselves and to follow our own real interests, whatever they might be. This is about allowing access rather than changing behaviour. So, maybe we haven’t changed all that much, but we are able to act on more of our impulses, the world has become more open and that means we all have a more rich and varied diet of culture and entertainment.


Getting the band back together

All across the country there must be thousands of middle aged people (blokes, mainly) who look back with increasing fondness on the failed bands they put together in their youth, in the 90s and early 00s. In their hearts, they remember the scorn with which they regarded bands that were older than twenty five and attempt to justify to themselves why thirty five might not be beyond the pale after all. Maybe it’s time for one more go?

On Saturday, I joined their number, having never really stopped, (although I haven’t actually played in public since 2004 and not properly since 2000), pitching up in Kings Cross with a car full of dusty old equipment and a bunch of new songs. Being in possession of a car was in itself a significant difference. Last time we did this, we were practically destitute, living in a flat teeming with cockroaches and an alcoholic sub-letting landlord. The idea of driving anywhere was laughable – we would pitch up to rehearsals at 11am with a bottle of Aldi vodka each and would go out afterwards until 4am. The sessions took place in a basement in East Acton under a burnt out chip shop, with an outside toilet (without a seat) that looked as if a nuclear test had been conducted within the bowl.

The Joint in Kings Cross is a rather more plush facility. It is clean, bright and airy, although lacking a certain something from the old days – the experience of being in a rehearsal studio post-smoking ban is an odd one. Thirteen years ago it was rather like inhabiting a giant ashtray, with yellowing walls, the fug of a cheaply bought teenth of soap bar occupying the area around the ceiling and the smell of stale cider emanating from the saturated carpets (Barnstormer – a 8% brew with a label featuring a charging, snorting bull). In those days we would race each other to the end of the song, the first to finish being the winner, with a free run at the vodka. In those days, we insisted on only playing a twenty minute set, reasoning – correctly – that no-one in their right mind would want to hear any more, so we just ran through it endlessly, over and over again until we could play it with the lights turned off, in the pitch black. When we’d play, the stage would be littered with broken glass and on occasion, the odd spot of blood.

But, on Saturday, the grime, the fighting and the filth seemed to have been consigned to history and there began to emerge what John Peel once referred to as “dangerous hints of melody”. We might even have been ‘better’ than before, whatever that means. I’m not even sure what we are trying to achieve, but it might be nice to have something more solid to look back on than a sum total of 90mins worth of gigs (we split up after five gigs in a huff because we hadn’t been signed). But the big immovable questions remain. What’s the point in a band reforming when no-one gave a tinker’s cuss in the first place? Even in an age where people are growing up less and less and grown men tool about on skateboards, is it really acceptable for a bunch of people in their mid-thirties to do this?

Mind you, on the way home when I stopped off to get some cider at Sainsburys – sadly they were all out of Barnstormer – I did actually get ID’d.

Maybe it’s a sign.

Half Man Half Biscuit – Northampton Roadmender, 29th November

“Anyone know what DNA stands for? It’s the National Association of Dyslexics”.

It appears that it has been decreed that today is ‘Black Friday’. Despite it being a term that I have never heard anyone else use before today, it has arrived on these shores as if by stealth – unbidden by all except the readers of Retail Week. The implication in the media is quietly sinister “Today is Black Friday. Today has always been Black Friday. Remember?”.

At 8.30pm on this day, HMHB emerge diffidently onto the stage at Northampton Roadmender, with Britain’s true poet laureate, Nigel Blackwell, carrying a guitar in one hand and a ‘Caution: Wet Floor’ sign in the other, which he deposits by his amplifier. Then, suddenly, he is gone, disappearing back behind the curtain, leaving his bandmates exchanging shrugs and nervous glances as the intro music continues to blare out of the PA. A minute or so passes, until he re-emerges clutching a crumpled piece of paper. “Forgot the set list” he explains, before putting it on his amp and returning to the microphone, and striking the first chord of the set before confusion descends again. “Now that I’ve got it, I should probably refer to it” he points out, although realises fairly quickly that he can’t read the handwriting anyway. They pile into ‘The Light At The End of the Tunnel (Is The Light Of An Oncoming Train)’ and a two hour greatest hits set – of sorts – begins to unfurl.

Nigel would no doubt cringe at the very suggestion but there is an unrivalled warmth at the heart of this band, cheerfully unpretentious but also witheringly satirical and occasionally – very occasionally – righteously angry. When he talks about spending the bands milk money on a “decadent” trip down the M6 toll road, you can’t help but admire the band’s commitment to the cause of laziness and a proud lack of professionalism. There is no interest in a ‘career’, whatever that means. A handful of gigs a year, a record every three or four years and an enormous amount of sitting around in between, seems positively heroic in an era of desperation to be famous – for whatever reason. As the man himself sings: “There is nothing better in life than writing on the sole of your slipper with a biro”.

Yet, the lack of strenuous effort is tempered with songs that rail against the casual idiocy of modern life, from a lack of pedestrian etiquette to slack jawed singers appearing on Soccer AM, taking potshots at Sainsburys security guards, Slipknot, rugby players who have just discovered Johnny Cash and, brilliantly, managing to lacerate both the stupidity of colossal expenditure on pointless national celebrations and Sting at the same time. “She died with her telly on, eighty-seven and confused with not enough hospital beds ‘cos all the money’s been used on the end of the century party preparations and they reckon that the last thing she saw in her life was
Sting, singing on the roof of the Barbican – Sting, singing on the roof of the roof of the Barbican”. The final insult.

In an age where it seems that the only way of valuing people’s contribution to the world is how much money they generate for the economy, where social mobility is all about desperately grasping upwards for status and possessions, where we are encouraged to sneer at people who don’t fall into these weird neat boxes, whether they are ‘benefit scroungers’, immigrants, the disabled or gypsies, Half Man Half Biscuit strike a blow for the value of humanity, humour, wit, laziness and warmth.

Black Friday? It must be National Shite Day.

Bob Dylan – Albert Hall 27/11

“Don’t go to see Bob Dylan, you’ll regret it”, warned a friend, sternly.

Strong words, but ones that are fairly easily ignored when an entirely different friend produces a ticket bearing the words ‘Bob Dylan at the Albert Hall’.

I have lived a life strewn with more regrets than the average hedgerow is littered with McDonalds wrappers, but I felt pretty sure that Bob Dylan at the Albert Hall would not be among them. It’s a phrase that is in itself iconic – conjuring up images of the Pennebaker film of the man in his pomp when he was unquestionably the coolest human on the entire planet. Shades and sunglasses. “Give the anarchist a cigarette”. The misattribution of the ‘Judas’ chant. “Play fucking loud”. And, my personal favourite: “Bob Dylan was a bastard in the second half”.

A less iconic soundbite echoed through the maroon and gold corridors as we arrived – ‘Please take your seats, Bob Dylan will be taking the stage in three minutes’. The last time I heard this type of announcement, back in the summer at the Royal Festival Hall, it was applied to Iggy and the Stooges and preceded what sounded like a forty megaton nuclear explosion being detonated in the main hall.

Tonight, we politely take our seats and within seconds, the lights have dropped, someone walks onto the stage strumming an acoustic guitar and then – bang – there he is, twitching at the microphone, legs straddled, a scarecrow’s silhouette. Singing….. something off ‘Tempest’ (I think).

The first thing that hits you is, of course, the growl. You don’t hear it so much as feel it. It occupies frequencies so nefarious that it feels as if it is emanating from your own stomach – the last time I felt like that was when My Bloody Valentine permanently damaged my hearing five years ago. Its a sound that seems to sink into your bones, and the bass player cannot hope to compete.

The problem is, of course, that you can barely make out a word of it. Of course no-one but a fool expects to go to a Dylan concert and hear renditions of songs that resemble the originals, but recent laboratory tests have revealed that 42.6% of the appeal of his songs (at least in the 60s and 70s) is rooted in his dazzling lyrical artistry. Remove this, and the rest of the show has a lot of heavy lifting to do. Luckily, the band are superb. With everything woven together, no instrument rising too far above its station, they are fluid, warm and vibrant. They bring liquid delicacy to ‘She Belongs To Me’ (I think) and creaking, drama to ‘Lovesick’ (I think) – the latter being unquestionably the highlight of the night, with the band giving space for that growl to inhabit the entire hall to the point where it sounds like the ancient soul of the building itself.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for ‘Spirit on the Water’ (I think), one of the highlights of ‘Modern Times’, pointlessly tossed away in the second half, slightly too fast but not in a way that succeeds in raising the pulse, just in ruining the gorgeous melody. ‘Dusquesne Whistle’ (I think) on the other hand rattles along beautifully, gloriously ramshackle, busting and shaking.

While the audience lap it all up, rising to their feet to applaud every song, raising the roof, I’m not sure if it’s a bit like when you go to see Shakespeare and people laugh a little too hard at each joke to show everyone around them how clever they are, or whether I am genuinely missing something (it wouldn’t be the first time). There are many moments when you lose yourself in the brilliance of the band, but there are also too many moments when you start thinking about getting up in the morning. After debating the issue for two or three songs, we eventually left after ‘All Along the Watchtower’ (I think), under a polite hailstorm of ‘how could you’ glares and tuts.

Flashes of brilliance, a remarkable voice and a wonderful band. Not the stuff of regrets, then, but not The Greatest Night in Human History either. Just a tick on the list, which isn’t really what a Bob Dylan should or could be.

A narrative context for music

When I was twelve or thirteen, my mate Steve once expressed mild astonishment that I liked to sit and listen to music without doing something else at the same time, like playing Golden Axe on the Megadrive that our lives revolved around at the time. For him, music was a pleasant background to the main event. In fact, most people are like that – music tends to appeal to most people when it is part of a narrative, which is one of the reasons why X Factor gets considerably more viewers than Jools Holland. That doesn’t mean their relationship with music is less deep than the bloke who sits around listening to an album on headphones in the dark with his eyes closed. Narrative has always been important to music – right from Robert Johnson’s deal at the crossroads. Music is full of goodies, baddies, myths and folklore, much of which has a significant impact on how you listen.

The recent-ish Blur film ‘No Distance Left To Run’ was an affecting document of four men recovering their friendship, which gave the performances an uniquely emotional charge that captivated audiences, particularly at Glastonbury 2009 (which is still the best show I have ever been to, apart from maybe the Stooges at Hammersmith Apollo in 2005). The story added something to the experience and to the film which made it more affecting.

Quite often, our enjoyment of music is significantly enhanced by narrative. Back when Steve and I were arguing about whether to mute the Megadrive so we could hear the stereo, it was primarily hip hop that was being played – Public Enemy, NWA, Ice Cube, De La Soul, Eric B and Rakim or EPMD. As you might expect, being two kids from a small town in Devon, we had little understanding of what was really being said in those songs. To quote Britain’s real poet laureat Nigel Blackwell, the closest we came to that world was a “drive by shouting”. We just liked the swearing.

Over the years, my love for those albums and the genre as a whole got more intense, particularly during the astonishing run of Wu Tang albums from 1993-1996. I became more wordly wise and began to understand more and more of the world that those records reflected, but a big part of that was in watching the films that surrounded them. Boyz n Tha Hood, Trespass, New Jack City. All of those films enhanced my understanding of the music I was listening to and enabled me to get a lot more from them.

A few years later, The Wire enriched my love of hip hop by painting that world in lavish detail. When I heard references to stick up kids in those songs, the trials and tribulations of Omar Little sprung readily to mind. A throwaway line now had an incredibly compelling, deep and emotionally rich background. It gave all my records another lease of life – especially songs like Ice Cube’s ‘Summer Vacation’, a tale of gangs fighting over a corner and GZA’s ‘Gold’, the story at the other end of the scale – the bosses playing with their pawns.

It worked the other way too, having a knowledge of the culture, music and slang arguably made watching The Wire a more rewarding experience – I heard a lot of people at the time saying they needed subtitles and access to Urban Dictionary to find out what ‘re-up’ meant. I suspect that, like me, fans of New Orleans music get more from Treme than a more casual viewer.

But it works at the other end of the spectrum too – someone will get more pleasure from James Arthur’s performance of ‘Make You Feel My Love’ on X Factor than someone who doesn’t know the backstory – who might just dismiss it as karaoke.

All of this makes me wonder whether this might form part of the future for the music industry – to create narrative context that gives the music even deeper meaning. That’s something it’s always been doing of course, but maybe by giving more focus to the hours of obligatory ‘content’ that are created and giving more of a reason for that to exist than filming the artist as they are transported to their next show or eating a Nandos, they can captivate a bigger audience. What about telling a story that’s linked to the music that everyone can relate to but doesn’t necessarily feature the artist? It felt like a missed opportunity with Lana Del Rey – the whole ‘gangsta Nancy Sinatra’ angle sounded like a story which could have been explored in a way a lot more people would have found a whole lot more interesting.

For me, the music is always going to be enough, I like the suggestion that comes with a tightly crafted lyric that allows a whole world to build in your imagination but I wouldn’t deny that a narrative context has enhanced that greatly at times. There’s a lot of music in the world and a hell of a lot of ‘content’ – people only have time for things that make an emotional connection with them. Sometimes music does this on its own perfectly well and at massive scale – ‘Someone Like You’ – but sometimes it needs a little help.

Flawed is beautiful

A year or so ago, I got into downloading music podcasts to listen to while running. This was of course primarily a way to distract myself from the grinding drudgery of physical exercise, but also a way to reignite the inexhaustible passion for discovering new music that I had as a teenager (and perhaps even regain the physique).

Before that, I’d spent a good ten years going back in time, when ‘new music’ only really meant ‘stuff I’d not heard before’. I got into blues, New Orleans soul and piano music, Northern Soul, Southern Soul, psychedelic rock, French pop and. But I wanted to find something new – I can’t bring myself to believe that it’s all been done and that nothing will ever top the music from twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years ago. I wanted to find some bands I could go to see in small venues, bands you could make a real connection with, that when you went to their shows, it didn’t feel like you were watching a video of someone else having a good time. I started to go to shows that weren’t merely about reliving my youth, or someone else’s.

Two podcasts were selected – the Guardian and Steve Lamacq’s Roundtable.  I discovered artists like Stealing Sheep, Melody’s Echo Chamber, the Amazing Snakeheads, Lucy Rose and Ty Segall.

A year later, only Steve Lamacq’s Roundtable remains, although in all honesty, the Guardian one never really got more than a couple of listens. The main reason was the arcane list of scenes and genres that Petridis and guests nonchalantly yawned into existence. Chillwave, dreampop, brostep, zombie rock, cloud rap, witch house, outsider house. It wasn’t just the try-hard terminology that was bothering me, but more the fact that I had become so cynical due to the continuing fragmentation of music, shrunk down and dissected to a point where it doesn’t really mean anything, where there are no real rallying points.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the appeal of a badly named scene as much as any extravagantly bearded yet short of trouser Shoreditch denizen. I gleefully participated in 1994’s ‘New Wave of New Wave’ scene and even dipped a snakeskin loafer clad toe into Romo a couple of years later. It’s just that it feels like the innocence of all that was annihilated by a combination of Britpop and the internet.

Before that, it was possible to will a new scene into life and for its participants to create enough hype for it to gain some kind of momentum. Punk was created by a bunch of people hanging round a shop. Like any crowd scene, if you angle the camera properly, you can’t tell how few people are actually there. You can dress it up and make it sound more exciting and dangerous than it really was. Post-Britpop, a small scene was no longer good enough – if it wasn’t shifting millions of records it would never survive. In an internet world, your scene will get rumbled pretty quickly – everyone can see exactly how few people are participating, thousands of professionally grumpy music forum contributors can declare it the ’emperor’s new clothes’ and finish it all off before its even got going. There’s no room for the charlatans (note small c) and chancers that make the whole thing so much fun.

There was something pure and innocent about the days of scenes which took the music press by storm. The couple of good bands, the crap ones gleefully jumping on the bandwagon, the hours spent trying, and failing, to replicate the look in a time where all high street clothes shops were rigidly mainstream.

In today’s world, the chances of failure are greatly magnified but it’s almost impossible to fail utterly gloriously.

And that’s a real shame.

Where are the schemers? Where are the dreamer? Where are the believers? There’s loads of great bands, but hype has become a whole lot harder and that seems a shame. In times past, the hype was in the hands of people who were really good at it, like Tony WIlson, Alan McGee, Bill Drummond, Neil Kulkarni, Simon Price or Taylor Parkes, people who could make it sound like a bomb was about to off at the bottom of your road. They could make you believe, and that’s what being a teenage music fan is all about. Print the myth, don’t let facts get in the way of a great story. There’s an exchange about Catholicism in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited – “You can’t believe in something just because it’s a nice idea”.

“Why can’t I?”.

Flawed is beautiful. 

Straight Outta Cullompton – the book

Between April 1994 and August 1996, the British music scene turned itself inside out. ‘Straight Outta Cullompton’ is my story of that time – living through it far away from the cynicism of London, falling in love with a new record every week whilst plotting my own journey to Top of The Pops.

It was a time where the right thing wasn’t always an option, so ‘nearly right’ had to do. It mixes my own memories with new interviews from some of the bands that I spent so much time and money shamelessly copying during the time – These Animal Men, S*M*A*S*H, Gene and Menswe@r.

Get it here