Saturday, 15 December 2012

The Write Job Might Not Be Performing

I had to write an essay at music college on the changes to the music industry. At the time, I dealt mainly with the market for recorded music: how record shops were going to the wall because of format changes, how seeing their distribution medium for music change from atoms to bits had enabled piracy on an industrial scale and how the only future for actual records would be for obsessive audiophiles that either thought the warmth of vinyl was better than the convenience of MP3s or for those who wanted music so obscure it had never been digitised. Maybe there's a version of Basin Street Blues by The Blind Presidents where Sweet Huey Desmond does this wild clarinet solo or something, but it was on an independent label in New Orleans and there were only a few copies. There will always be completists. I've met Dylan fans over the years who have literally thousands of his live recordings, because His Bobness has a habit of rewriting his songs while performing them and it's never the same thing twice.

But even since I was at college (and that was only about five years ago), the industry has changed. I saw an interesting graph recently. It showed that in the 70s, the typical working band would make 90% of its income from sales and 10% from touring. The gigs were basically an advert for the album. Now, those figures are reversed. Bands like The Rolling Stones make far more from ticket sales, T-shirts, etc, than they do from selling CDs. If it's sold as bits, if it can be digitised, it will be on Pirate Bay the day it's released. The main function of the recordings is now to encourage people to come to the gigs, and while there, buy some tat. Perhaps a patch of a mouth with a tongue sticking out that can be sewn onto a backpack or something. A baseball cap. A belt buckle, with some bands. I saw a Family Guy recently where Chris said 'belt buckles are a great way to express opinions'. He may be right.

But I don't think it's right that bands can only be successful if they play live. The Beatles gave it up in 1966 and did all their best work afterwards. Many great albums used studio tricks that could not have been replicated live at the time, and that even now, would usually require a very formalised timing that allows little in the way of improvisation or rediscovery. I've seen Floyd live a dozen times but they are always stadium rock gigs with a cast of thousands and everyone is keeping time to a click track. I've always had a great time, but it would have been nice to see them at Middle Earth in the 60s where everything was made up on the spot and they could just work off of each other. I don't want to see them recreating the album when I see them live: I want to see great artists in the act of creating something. I want to see improvised sections, something new, something other than what I could get from the album. I could have stayed at home and got that. I could have avoided the crowds, the larcenous prices, the rail replacement buses and the frantic rush from Wembley to Paddington late at night, wishing they hadn't left Comfortably Numb for the encore because you couldn't possibly leave without hearing that and now you might have to spend the night on the pavement. To be fair, it would have been worth it too. Great song and awesome live. But I digress.

Having a situation where the role of the album is to advertise the tour is bad for music, because it encourages bands to just do live what they did on the album, which means they will only do on the album what they can do live. And there are many musicians (like me) who hate the performing side but love the writing and recording. What are we to do? There are two types of bands: they do covers or they do originals. If they do covers, they are not going to want to do my songs. And if they do originals, it will be because they want to do their own songs, and mine will just be covers they've not heard of.

And if we're in a situation where writers have to be performers before their work can get out there, what of the people that are sensitive enough to be a great writer but too sensitive to be performer of any kind? There have been enough casualties in the past. Don McLean's 'this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you' could have been written about any number of people in music, people like Syd Barrett and Peter Green, people who were artists in an industry that processed artists. It is hard to deal with for some. I worry about some of the clearly unwell people I have seen on Britain's Got Talent and the like. If they did win, it would kill them. Susan Boyle seems to have come close.

I guess my central point is this: writer and performer are different jobs, and it would be surprising if the best performer was necessarily the best writer. It may well be that the best performers can't write for shit and the best writers sit at home telling nobody about it because they're not the going outdoors and talking to people type. The sort of personality that makes someone a good frontman could limit the sort of songs they are capable of writing. If you want a song about feeling ignored and unloved, say, ask the bassist to write it. :)

Like many things, we can get better results if we play to our strengths. If one country grows shit wheat but good cattle, and another nation the opposite, they can both have shit pies or they can share and both have good pies. But for as long as we have good writers who are bad singers (Bob Dylan, Roger Waters, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, etc) and good singers who are bad writers (way too many to name and I don't listen to the bad writers anyway), music is going to be less than it could be.

I have a theory on songwriting. It's called the Scooby Doo theory. Imagine a line with Daphne at one end and Velma at the other. So it goes from pretty but shallow to plain but interesting, in effect. I think most artists can be plotted along here somewhere. Dylan is all Velma. He's got a voice like sand and glue, as Bowie said, and yet he's an amazing poet and if you've heard decent lyrics since the mid 60s, it was probably because Dylan let people see it was possible. At the other end, say, is Mariah Carey. Lovely clear voice but she is dull as ditchwater and apparently said that when she sees pictures of starving African children she wants to cry, because she could never get that thin.

There are always exceptions of course. John Lennon bends the graph. Paul Simon too, because he can write some amazing lyrics and he has the same sort of choirboy voice as Paul McCartney, although I don't want to hit Paul Simon around the back of the head with a shovel.

Not sure why I'm so pissed off with Paul McCartney at the moment. It's probably just because it's Christmas. That would mean I was simply having a wonderful Christmas time, though. And then maybe I could drown Cliff Richard in an enormous vat of mistletoe and wine. With a couple of dead reindeer floating in it. One has a red nose because I punched it in the face. Noddy Holder would be well advised to steer clear of me too...

And as for Shakin' Bloody Stevens...

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