Futuremusic – How We Listen – Part 2

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A recent trip to York enabled me to visit a charming little record shop called Rebound. Thirty  thoroughly splendid minutes were spent flicking through racks and racks of CDs before progressing into the vinyl enclave at the back of the shop. As I made my purchasreboundes I gleaned that business was reasonably decent, particularly in light of the one remaining high-street music chain, HMV, looking to shunt as CDs as into as small a space as possible these days. The shop itself is fairly new and opened up just as all of the other independent stores in the city folded. Where it differs from the dog with a gramophone (soon to be updated to show the dog pissing on the gramophone whilst watching a portable DVD player) is that all of the stock is second hand. Now, this is hardly a revolutionary new concept, but it’s a market that has grown rapidly in light of eBay and Amazon Marketplace. While you may not often get a chance to buy much second hand music on the high street, there are numerous online options.

Second hand music options have been further extended by the increasing space being given over to old vinyl and CDs by most of this fair nation’s charity shops. While these supplies remain largely Val Doonican and knackered old classical compilations, the number of people opting to ditch their record collections in favour of the beloved mp3 player ensures that there’s a pretty decent turnover of stock. Everyone’s favourite young northerners with odd hair, Arctic Monkeys, rammed home this point by putting the 7″ of their new single, ‘Crying Lightning’, into all of the UK’s Oxfam shops this week, while imploring fans to drop off some unwanted old records when popping in to purchase a copy. In theory, this should mean some decent stuff in your local Oxfam in the next couple of weeks, but we shall see.

As CD prices continue to drop and people continue to lose interest in the old fashioned concept of paying for music, prices paid for second hand CDs have fallen through the floor and, as you might thus deduct, the prices for the customer have dropped also. A quick perusal of Amazon Marketplace will allow you to pick up most back catalogue material for a few quid delivered, in not entirely unsatisfactory condition, and most recently released stuff without much trouble too. As someone clever, but not clever enough for me to remember their name, once said, people are keeping their new music costs low by buying albums they want in supermarkets, ripping them to mp3 and then selling the CDs on the internet, which, once costs are recouped, means the mp3s cost a couple of quid. This means, of course, that plenty of remarkably new titles are turning up second hand pretty sharpish.

While this may not become a long term way of listening in the future, for the short term it’s a quick, cheap and easy way to pick up cheap music. Whether you only use Amazon Marketplace or merrily bid on 1p CDs on eBay, it’s never been easier to pick up second hand music and, while important cultural commentators would have you believe that physical formats are buggered and barely able to limp along for another year or two, for those of us who still like the idea of a record collection – and there are far more than the media would have you believe – it’s a great time to get as much as possible for as little as it’s ever cost.

That said, and in order to bring things to a close, I should warn you about some of the phenomenally cheeky attempts from some companies to cash in on those struggling as a result of the recession and looking for some quick income. MusicMagpie.co.uk is a new site offering to buy your used CDs, DVDs and games. Quick, it might be, but fair, I’m not so sure. Although run of the mill stuff will get you £1.20 here of £2.60 there, all CD boxsets appear to be valued at £3. Included below is screengrab showing what happened when I inputted a few barcodes from what was around me. Pay particular attention to the price they’d give me for The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 11a – £45 new, bloody rare and not an awful lot less second hand. Unbelievable!

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Futuremusic – How We Listen – Part 1

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I’ve just spent 79p buying the iTunes-only, bonus track for Malcolm Middleton‘s recent album, ‘Waxing Gibbous’. I’ve now retagged it and incorporated it with the rest of the album in my library. I have no problem paying 79p here or there to pick up bonus material by my favourite acts, I might even go so far as to say it’s a bargain. The recent Magnolia Electric Co album, ‘Josephine‘, had four iTunes-only bonus tracks but there I was, happily offering up my £3.16 for extra music and I didn’t mind. It’s a brilliant record, by the way, and you can read a remarkably eloquent review of it here. My attitude towards downloads has slowly shifted over the years and I’m now happy to accept them as part of the commercial climate of purchasing music. I still prefer a piece of vinyl or even a well-produced CD, but I’m now quite happy to shell out for download-only releases whereas this would previously leave a sour taste. Why couldn’t this be released on a proper format? Why is it only available from one source? But, with an increasing number of download-only releases attempting to combat the colossal drop in singles sales, I’ve become almost grateful that this material is actually being released at all.

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Having said all of the above, you won’t catch me loitering on iTunes on a Sunday morning, looking for the new release albums so that I can spend £8 for some digital files. And, when I think about it, I can’t understand why anyone else would be either. If iTunes offered a button whereby you could click and pay £1 more to receive a fully packaged, shop copy of the album along with your download, I’m sure most people would go for it. And yet that offer is already available and being increasingly ignored. Pretty much all new release albums can be found for £9 or less without much hunting around. Rip yourself a set of mp3s for portable use and pop the CD on the shelf. If new albums were £4 to download, effectively less than 50% of the price for a ‘proper’ product, you might have my attention, but when it costs almost the same amount for the digital files and the CD, I can’t fathom why the download is a deal I should be interested in. I realise, of course, that I am increasingly in the minority with this point of view and download sales continue to grow at a fair old rate. While the longevity of the CD, both as a format and in terms of the playback quality of the discs themselves, is always up for debate, aren’t the download generation only one computer crash away from wiping out their entire music collection?

It would seem not, as it happens. Sites like 7Digital and Play.com have always allowed you to log in to your download account and retrieve any purchased files you may have since found yourself without, but the one temple of doom has always been iTunes. While you could always find your purchase history in with your account details, once you’d downloaded a track there didn’t seem to be an option to ever do so again. In recent times, they’ve even charged ludicrous amounts to allow you to upgrade their poxy old 128kbps files to the 256kbps ‘plus’ format. On your side, they seemed not. However, it would seem that all is not as terrible as it seems. Firstly, iTunes does regularly remind you to backup all of your purchased music, even if most of us choose to ignore that advice. Secondly, and perhaps crucially, a bit of a pootle around the interweb reveals that in pretty much all cases where somebody has lost their music library due to their computer throwing a wobbler, a polite email to iTunes Customer Service has resulted in all of the purchased tracks being returned to said customer’s download queue at no extra cost. It is, perhaps, not so surprising that Apple don’t feel the need to make a big song and dance about this, but it would seem that the big, faceless music giant is perfectly happy to ensure that downloads are not as ephemeral as they seem. All rather reassuring really.

Technicalities, format concerns and cost aside, the download remains a remarkable tool in the advance of modern music. In last week’s Futuremusic features, a couple of acts were perfectly happy for the articles to be accompanied by an mp3 download, enabling you to sample their music for free. Air, desperately trying to remind the public that they still exist, offered a free download (via the iTunes store) of their new single to anyone on their mailing list. Anyone purchasing the new Arctic Monkeys single, ‘Crying Lightning’, in Oxfam this week can then go online and use the enclosed card to get digital files of the songs from the vinyl, thus broadening the potential audience for this particular release. And, while for many it has truly fucked up the experience of listening to albums in full, it does allow you to simply pick up the odd decent track by an artist you wouldn’t otherwise touch for fear of being lumbered with an album full of ponderous ear abuse. A recent example from my perspective was the Freemasons single with Sophie Ellis-Bextor. I’m not sure I could last for more than a few songs of a Freemasons album and the former Miss theaudience (with groovy lower case letters and all-one-word chic) is hardly known for her consistent, hard-hitting contributions to the world of long-players, but that one little track appeals to the same part of my musical world that thoroughly enjoys Girls Aloud and has been known to tap its metaphorical foot to the odd tune by The Saturdays. Plus, the way she says ‘darn-cer’ is quite amusing. 79p? Ta very much but £2.99 for the CD single for even £8.99 for the album? Piss right off. This is a new development in my consumption of music. While I still spend the vast majority of my musical budget on physical formats, I’m now quite happy to purchase the odd individual track that actually is available in the last seven (approximately) record shops open in Britain that I wouldn’t otherwise have touched. That surely has to be healthy for the music industry and I do get the impression from general conversation that that is how a lot of people use iTunes. The odd song here and there catches their attention, so they nip on iTunes and spend a couple of quid picking up those tracks. I haven’t yet experienced many people who actually buy their albums via iTunes, but those people clearly exist also. Mind you, you do get a digital booklet with a lot of releases, you lucky, lucky people.

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The seedy side of downloading remains the most popular, however. The exciting and enigmatically titled UK Music organisation last week announced the results of a survey which reveal that 61% of young people questioned still prefer to download music illegally. Weirdly, 78% also expressed little interest in a premium, paid-for streaming service such as Spotify, with 89% stating that ownership of mp3s, or similar files, is important to them. 85% expressed interest in an unlimited download service, but that is probably still some way off. What is perhaps the most curious finding out of all of this is that while almost two-thirds of the over 1800 14 to 24 year olds interviewed still happily download illegally, almost 90% of the interviewees value the possession of those files. It seems that Spotify is actually more popular with next age bracket up, largely for dipping into things before buying or simply reliving past joys for a brief period of time without having to spend any money. The kids do not think it’s alright. I suspect most music loving internet-goers have, at one time or another, downloaded a file or two in a less than legal fashion but it holds little pleasure for me. Whole message boards are dedicated to people banging on about how many gigabytes of music they have on their external hard drive, what their ratio is on file-sharing sites and starting threads like ‘What’s the most exciting band you discovered this week?’ working from the assumption that you will have downloaded such a brain-shreddingly gargantuan amount of folder filler in seven days that your musical perspective may well have shifted entirely. I’m not quite sure when these people actually have time to enjoy the music that they’re almost incessantly acquiring and I wonder if that is part of the allure of illegal file sharing. The acquisition. The ability to say, “I’ve got all of this. Look at me.” For some people now, they don’t define themselves by what music they listen to so much as what music they’ve heard. Which, let’s be clear about this, is a very different thing. Playing an album once or even twice before consigning it to the vast swamp of the iTunes library isn’t really listening. It beggars belief when a hugely anticipated album leaks and there are people posting reviews of it within an hour. Sometimes even sooner. I suspect that the increasing power of legal download sites and the improving formats offered may go some way to rendering illegal downloading a little bit grubby and uneventful, but it still seems that access to phenomenal amounts of music doesn’t always mean that people take the time to invest (emotionally, rather than financially) in it.

Ultimately, the download is the format upon which the music industry appears to have settled. The new consumers of music all seem keen on this approach and so it’s now time for the record labels to fully embrace it and go to town on making sure that it’s an engaging and satisfying experience for the consumer. Even so, with so many digital files out there for the taking, who curates all of this stuff? Where will we now get our recommendations from? Where will we hear new songs in the first place? All that, and more, will be under consideration in the next instalment of the Futuremusic series tomorrow.

Futuremusic – Day Three

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Do you long for a time when Ben Folds wasn’t shit? Do you find yourself wondering why nobody writes proper songs anymore? Were you pissed off when the last Duke Special album sounded like it was made entirely of sugar, dipped in more sugar and then encased in that sugary stuff they put around sugared almonds? Fear not, help is at hand.

Today’s Futuremusic focus is the really rather lovely music of Charles Ramsey. For a start he has a good singer-songwriter name; it trips off the tongue like Randy Newman, Paul Simon, Teddy Thompson. Luckily, he also delivers when it comes to the music. I’ve always been a sucker for what I would call ‘beautiful’ songs. My brain gets diverted, my thought processes unravel and I zone out of all conversation whenever a ‘beautiful’ songs loom into earshot. Recently, I found myself dashing to iTunes as a result of Peter Gabriel‘s stunning cover of The Magnetic Fields‘The Book Of Love’ being used over the final scenes of the eighth season of Scrubs. Not someone whose musical antics I would normally hoover up, but there I was, desperate to get hold of this track which, as it happened, isn’t available via download stores and thus Amazon gained £3 in order for me to relieve them of a copy of the otherwise shite soundtrack to ‘Shall We Dance’. But it’s happened many times before and I truly hope it will happen many times again the future. The latest ‘beautiful’ song moment came courtesy of Charles Ramsey. ‘She Changes You’, from his current album, ‘Good Morning and Good Night’, is a perfect pop song. A gentle drum beat and a stirring string refrain lure you in before Ramsey’s distinctive but utterly soothing vocals take over. It’s not great surprise to see that he counts The Beatles, Burt Bacharach and The Divine Comedy amongst his influences. The presence of both a harpsichord and an English Horn on this track ensure that it is sonically beguiling. And, yes, you’re reading the words of a fan of The Divine Comedy here, but I defy you to listen to that song and not think, “Mmmmm, I’d like to here more of his stuff.” So, why don’t you give yourself a four minute break from whatever your doing and do just that. Clicky for said song.

See? The music of Charles Ramsey is so clearly borne of a great musical heritage, absorbed over years of intensive listening to some of the true greats, and yet it avoids being simply derivative and inessential. His debut album, ‘Something New’, was the sound of an artist finding his feet and didn’t quite scale the heights of ‘Good Morning & Good Night’ but nevertheless demonstrated a skill for what you might term ‘classic songwriting’. ‘So Much Better Off’, the debut’s highlight, can be heard on Ramsey’s Myspace player and it’s a nifty little piano-pop beast that, were it released by a faddish troupe of pop tarts such as The Hoosiers, could be a huge hit. It bounces along, piano thudding along in a fashion that Foldy Benjamin would be thrilled with, horns gradually building to a glorious flourish and all of it sounding like a record made by someone who loves a bit of ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’. It’s great.

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Recent recordings build on Ramsey’s pop nous and thus ‘Good Morning & Good Night’ is an album that deserves an audience. As any good scientist will tell you, it’s been clinically proven that if you end up whistling a song involuntarily, it must be pretty decent and so I have found myself offering my own, fairly out of tune, renderings of three of four songs from this album in recent days. As with the two acts already featured this week, Charles Ramsey has seized the initiative and put his music out there for you to go and get and both albums are available from iTunes (and other download stores) should you wish to get an immediate fix.

iTunes link for ‘Good Morning & Good Night’

iTunes link for ‘Something New’

But, for those of who’d rather have the physical product (and which right-minded individual wouldn’t) you can avoid cutting Apple in on the deal and give your money direct to the man himself via Paypal options on his website. Clicky.

Whether it’s ‘So Much Better Off’ or ‘She Changes You’, just wait till the next time you find yourself absent mindedly whistling to yourself and take a moment to check which song it was. Charles Ramsey is never going to be trumpeted by the NME as the new sound of anything because, frankly, he’s not but I’d say a bit of space can be made in the hearts of anyone who likes smart pop music, be it Ben Folds, Teenage Fanclub or the aforementioned Paul Simon. No agenda. No fad. Plenty of decent tunes.

 

Futuremusic Continues

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Recently lauded by the beardy monthlies and yet another astute signing for the Bella Union label, The Low Anthem have the capacity to become your new favourite band. ‘Oh My God, Charlie Darwin’, their most recent album, is the most diverse collection of songs they’ve committed to wax and combines some of the most beautifully delicate folk music with tracks that emulate that constipated-seal-at-a-barn-dance sound that Tom Waits had nailed a few years back. Mix in a bit of late Sixties/early Seventies Dylan and you’re getting somewhere close. Hailing from Rhode Island, Ben Knox Miller, Jeff Prystowsky and Jocie Adams haven’t quite sprung up as quickly as it seems.

Their debut album, ‘The Low Anthem’, was released in 2006 and is long out of print and, sadly, very much out of my grasp. All the more of a pity because, were it still available, I would have been giving my money direct to the band. In a not dissimilar fashion to the first act covered as part of Futuremusic, Tom Williams & The Boat, The Low Anthem took to releasing and selling their material themselves. Knowing this, I got in touch with them and enquired about the debut, only to receive this polite and rather humorous response, “that record is sadly not available, but we will let it know you called.”

This charming and oh-so-very-splendid approach to customer service and fan interaction are yet more reasons for their inclusion in the Futuremusic feature. Their second album, ‘What The Crow Brings’, has thus far received very little attention, despite it being arguably better than ‘OMGCD‘. Less varied than the recent album (which is to say no later period Tom Waits influence) but no less beautifully made, ‘What The Crow Brings’ is currently the best album I’ve heard this year. Quite apart from buggering up my end of year lists, it is a subtle, understated performance for anyone who likes keening vocals, layered acoustic intensity and melodies that slowly hijack your everyday thought processes. You can hear this whole album on Spotify right now. ‘Oh My God Charlie Darwin’ is also on there in its 2009, Bella Union reissue with bonus track guise.

Should you like what you hear, you can order the albums direct from the band themselves and you’ll receive an immediate download of the music as part of the deal. The hand-painted copies of ‘What The Crow Brings’ are really rather lovely and, despite saying they’re currently out of stock, the service is pretty darn quick. I wouldn’t hang around though, as the hand-painted copies of ‘OMGCD’ seem to have already run out and the momentum behind this lot does seem to be gathering.

Futuremusic Begins

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Futuremusic will run for the next few weeks here on Just Played, looking at how our access to music is changing, how people spend their money on music and some of the artists attempting to do things their way. To begin, the really rather wonderful, Tom Williams & The Boat.

I blame Steve Lamacq for this one. During a not especially sunny week spent in Northumberland almost exactly a year ago, I found myself tuning in to Lammo’s 6music afternoon show rather a lot. This was partly down to me reading his excellent autobiography at the time and partly because it was pretty good at drowning out the sound of incessant rain. One afternoon, his guests were Tom Williams & The Boat. Thinking back now, I can’t be absolutely certain what about them caused them to click so perfectly with me, but they were only half way through their first song as I reached for my phone to store the name of this curious new band. Since then, I’ve immersed myself in the world of their leader and ridiculously keen publicist, Tom Williams.

The music is what you’d broadly term ‘indie’ but each EP they’ve thus far put out meanders backwards and forwards across that rather vague terrain, at times sounding rather folksy, with some very well utilised violin on certain tracks. They fit into the finest indie tradition of ridiculously catchy, storytelling jingle jangle which has kept the NME staff in beer money for decades. At times they gather momentum like Arcade Fire in a power cut, while the love of late sixties folk is hard to deny. The slightly rough around the edges sound also brings to mind recent records by Malcolm Middleton, only less Scottish. Tracks like ‘Got Fuel’, ‘Half Mast’, ‘Train Station Car Park’, ‘Concentrate’ and marvellous new single, ’90mph’ (particularly for fans of Middleton’s recent single, ‘Red Travellin’ Socks’) all deserve the opportunity to caress your ears.

But, I hear you cry, why are Tom Williams & The Boat getting a mention in the rather brilliantly-titled new feature, ‘Futuremusic‘? Well, dear reader, this band are putting in extraordinary levels of effort in their hunt for popularity. Tom has embraced the idea of giving away bits and bobs via the internet and building your online support with aplomb and, having already furnished fans with numerous demos, live tracks and advance songs in recent months, he’s just undertaken a month of extreme generosity, giving away four volumes of ‘Home Recordings’ via his website. You simply need to fill out a request form and the lovely chap will email you a download link for the recordings. Naturally, these are of variable quality – both in terms of songwriting and audio recording – but they give you a pretty good idea of what makes him really rather special.

In addition to the free music, Tom appears to spend most of the time that he’s not using for recording or playing live online, sending endless updates on Myspace and Facebook and taking the time to respond to each and every email that comes his way. Just see what happens if you take him up on his offer of free ‘Home Recordings’ downloads. Finally, Tom Williams & The Boat have thus far released their records themselves in beautiful, handmade packages featuring lyrics sheets, random inserts and even the chance to get a cut price T-shirt. Wireboat Recordings as the label is known, still have stock of some of the earlier EPs and I would suggest you treat yourself right now. If you want to go for one in particular, I’d recommend the ‘Got Fuel EP’.

Regular readers may remember me banging on about Tom’s track ‘Half Mast’ last summer, with its marvellous line, “I don’t have a hoodie set at half mast, sitting on my fringe like  balaclava on my chin”. For a short while, here’s a chance to hear that track. Clicky. Naturally, if anyone involved with Tom Williams & The Boat objects to this being here for a little while, I’ll take it down. But I doubt they will. And that’s kind of the point. They want you to hear them, they want you to enjoy their tunes and I suspect you will.