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Still reflecting on the latest venture to the Italian Riviera, ProgBlog looks at the legacy of the port city of Savona: Delirium and Il Cerchio d'Oro who released the rather good Il Fuoco Sotto la Cenere in the autumn

By ProgBlog, Aug 20 2017 11:24AM

I’ve recently introduced a ‘playlist’ feature to the ProgBlog homepage and rather than a straightforward list I’ve produced a GIF, made up from photos taken of the albums as I’ve been playing them. I used to tweet pictures of whatever I was ‘now playing’, influenced by the posts of some of those that I follow, including 140 characters (or less) describing what I think about the music on that record; for a couple of months in 2015 I did post a list of my weekly indulgences, because I’d seen playlists on websites including Steven Wilson’s official site where there’s also an archive of what he’s been listening to, referred to as ‘Headphone Dust’ http://stevenwilsonhq.com/sw/playlist-archive/ . My GIF is intended as a way of presenting my listening habits in a manner more interesting than a simple list and still illustrating the width of the progressive rock genre.


ProgBlog playlists from 2015
ProgBlog playlists from 2015

I’m vaguely wary of the idea of a playlist because I see it as a device to prop-up the music business, linked to streaming services. The release of the mp3 codec by the Fraunhofer Institute in 1993 was to facilitate rapid transmission and immediate access of audio files between different points on the planet and, inadvertently or otherwise, it proved very easy to copy and share. From the ‘home taping is killing music’ panic which began in 1981, when the industry really wasn’t that large (but which was about to gear up and become truly global) and the uproar over the introduction of Napster in 1999, music corporations have consistently stifled creativity and creamed off massive profits from their artists. At the beginning of this decade, recession, falling CD sales and piracy all seemed to spell doom and gloom for the record labels but last year saw a reversal of fortune, driven by streaming services exemplified by Spotify, Deezer, Apple and Amazon. It’s been reported that around 30% of Warner’s £2.66bn revenue for 2016 came from streaming. I’ve just finished reading Robert Barry’s excellent The Music of the Future (Repeater Books, 2017) who points out that the idea of a ‘celestial jukebox’ (in essence, a remote server sending music to everyone with a suitable hand-held device for accessing the service) first aired by Stanford law professor Paul Goldstein in his 1994 article Copyright’s Highway, allowed the ‘record oligopoly’ to convert from supplying goods to on-line services and creating a landlord – renter relationship. The one-off Napster payment has given way to subscription which, it has been predicted, could double or triple the size of the music industry; the tech firms also seem to be doing fairly well from this model - there are 90 million people signed up to streaming services worldwide.


The Music of the Future by Robert Barry
The Music of the Future by Robert Barry

A couple of fairly recent articles in The Guardian, one in July and one earlier this week, highlight some worrying issues with streaming. Industry insiders such as Paul Smernicki, former head of digital at Universal Records, speak in terms of business models and commodity rather than music as an art form, proposing that the numbers of people streaming indicates that music has never been more popular, where the value of reliability, convenience and accessibility to an enormous catalogue of songs for a small cost now make illegal downloading almost redundant, encouraging people to invest in the service. He doesn’t go on to say that while a paid-for download or a physical copy of some music only generates revenue once, streaming rewards the music company over and over again and it’s only a tiny amount, between $0.006 and $0.0084 which goes to the artist for each play of a song; it’s being sold to us as ‘choice’ and in our inimitable consumerist manner we believe the glossy images and accept what the industry says. Unfortunately, a shift to streaming has the effect of discouraging experimental music while enriching already big stars, with the pursuit of Adele by Sony creating a parallel with the other-world Premier League transfer market. Both the majors and indie labels are incorporating streaming playlists as the thrust of their marketing strategy, tying in music to consumption and lifestyle habits.


It’s a successful strategy. There’s a huge market for streaming playlists because the public is increasingly engaging with the service to find their music, so that the streaming companies themselves have invested in the creation of their own playlists which theoretically, might help less well-known artists if part of their remit is identify new music to champion. This part of the tech company – music business relationship appears roughly symbiotic, where the business now uses streaming pluggers pushing for songs, and the range of artists on offer can define the streaming service and help it to attract more subscribers. In reality, the record labels are favouring music that is known to provide the greatest revenue and the tech companies are getting the greater benefit. Barry explains that Spotify (for example) is doing what tech companies do, gathering data, in much the same way as Facebook and Google and Amazon do. The playlists are created with the help of sophisticated collaborative filtering systems where your preferences are matched with the preferences of everyone else on a database and you're constantly badgered into 'liking' and responding to posts, so you get specific recommendations. This doesn’t work very well for me because I hold a deep disdain for advertising and anyway, a very large proportion of people who like the same music as me also like Rush...


While the latest Guardian article suggested that the album could be under threat from streamed playlists, as artists are tempted to ignore the format and concentrate on rolling playlists instead, the Alexis Petridis piece from July concerned reports of ‘fake’ artists used to pad out popular playlists, paying producers a flat fee to create tracks within specific musical guidelines, mostly unchallenging instrumental music for relaxation, avoiding royalty payments. Spotify denied the charge, which would have far-reaching implications for genuine artists, but the stories continued, citing theories relating to quality control, and a tussle for power between service and industry.


I don’t use a streaming service and have no desire to do so but the music business couldn’t care less as the development of voice-activated speakers means we can ask Apple, Google and Amazon avatars to choose some music for a specific mood at a specific time. The playlists I put together in 2015 differ slightly from those now appearing as video on my Twitter and Facebook pages and on the ProgBlog website; in 2015 I was commuting from East Croydon to London Bridge, a nominal journey of 17 minutes, during which I would read my Guardian and, like many other commuters/consumers, listen to my portable mp3 player to shut out incessant high frequency beats, predominantly hi-hat, emanating from the earbud headphones of my fellow travellers. For the past four years or so, the railway lines south of the capital have been increasingly congested as major redevelopment has been carried out at London Bridge, making it impossible to predict the duration of any single journey (industrial action by two rail unions didn’t help but they get my sympathy as they stood up to management pressure to relax safety regulations, opposing the introduction of driver-only trains) and therefore making playlist selection difficult; an unwritten rule was that you couldn’t leave the train mid-track.


The recent playlists have been compiled from listening to albums, mostly LPs but some CDs and, on one occasion a download of demo tracks by new Italian prog band Melting Clock. The commonality between the two sets of playlists is that I listen to the album in full, in running order. That’s obviously essential for something like The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway where there’s a linear narrative but it’s not strictly necessary for every single concept album. It might be irritating to mix the tracks around on Dark Side of the Moon because the album is designed with specific segues but would the world end if we played the different sides of Tales from Topographic Oceans out of order? It would certainly wind me up! I’m not a fan of the shuffle function on music players and as much as I admire Sid Smith’s eclectic podcast Postcards from the Yellow Room http://sidsmith.blogspot.co.uk which has genuine breadth, it’s essentially a sampler for the now generation, whereas I prefer to make time to submerge myself in the entire album.


playtime
playtime

It’s quite clear why the record oligopoly likes streaming and I find it hard to envisage what future developments might come along, if there’s ever to be another threat to the industry. I don’t believe that there’s any immediate risk to the album from streaming as long as genres like prog retain a degree of popularity, simply because the grand themes of progressive rock were developed across the LP format, continued during the CD era and as yet there’s no sign of that historic link being broken. The current fad for all things vinyl may not last but while it does, there’s no better feeling than holding the edges of a new release on heavyweight vinyl between your palms, placing it carefully on the turntable and getting ready to devote your time, in 20 minute chunks, to uninterrupted listening.







By ProgBlog, Jul 24 2016 05:20PM

Last week was the hottest of the year so far and it started very badly. Sometime during the middle part of Monday a sinkhole appeared underneath the railway tracks at Forest Hill, rendering this route and my back-up route, the London Bridge to East Croydon line, unavailable for my journey home.


The staff at Whitechapel Station could have been a bit more helpful, by telling the commuters that the service between New Cross Gate and both Crystal Palace and West Croydon was suspended, for instance; instead, they suggested that passengers should “board this train for West Croydon and Crystal Palace” even though the service was going to Clapham Junction. I asked a woman who had just been making arrangements for someone else to pick up children if there was a problem and she told me about the subsidence. I guessed that London Bridge services might also be affected, though I had no idea how badly until I eventually got home and, having already missed two opportunities to go to Clapham Junction, decided to adopt Plan C.


Unable to concentrate on the Mellotron-drenched Epsilon in Malaysian Pale (Edgar Froese, 1975) because of the requirement to listen to station announcements, I made my way on a relatively empty train to New Cross, but decanted onto a thronging platform to wait for one of the three South Eastern train services per hour to Hayes; the first of which was cancelled because of ‘signal problems’ at London Cannon Street. Since I began commuting by train through South London 38 years ago, there has been woefully inadequate investment in the railways, which despite privatisation continues to suck in taxpayer money through government subsidies to the tune of £3.8bn in 2015. The private train operators then pay out millions of pounds to shareholders while the travelling public have to put up with a fractured and fragmented service dogged by delays, infrastructure failings, cancellations and increasing ticket prices. Needless to say, the state of overcrowding on the train that eventually appeared, late, carrying twice as many commuters as normal, made the scheduled 20 minute journey to Elmers End in 30oC heat deeply unpleasant; it was further delayed by signalling problems at Lewisham and I had to repeat the journey, when it was even hotter, the next day. There’s a simple solution: Renationalise the railways; use public money (or through a re-jigged Green Investment Bank that doesn’t rely on commercial rates) to invest in staff, infrastructure and rolling stock that is fit for purpose; support British engineering. Failure to do so will result in an economy which, like the trains on Monday and Tuesday, is going nowhere.

It was a hot summer forty years ago, too. I had finished my ‘O’ Levels and took part in what can only be described as an epic mountaineering holiday with brother Tony and friends Steve Dickinson, John Ullock and Guy Wimble, camping on mountainsides between Bridge of Orchy and Fort William, bagging Munros. The planning for this event rivalled a Chris Bonnington Everest expedition though our chosen food supplies, Ryvita crackers and Vesta freeze dried meals had to be supplemented by free mountain fare, blueberries, which were accompanied by an attempt to concoct cream from dried milk powder, margarine and water from mountain streams, and a stop for takeaway haggis and chips in Kinlochleven. I was somewhat leaner and fitter at the end of the trip...

1976 was also rock’s ‘Year Zero’, the foundation of Punk in the UK which I first noticed when I started in the Sixth Form in the autumn. School friends were now showing interest in bands spearheading the scene around CBGB in New York and whereas school mates’ bands had only a few months before been plying covers of Focus, Jethro Tull, Wishbone Ash and even Fruupp, a trip to the RAF Club would result in having to listen to attempts at Ramones songs and scrawled in my ‘rough book’, the school exercise book used for making notes, was a picture of a penis with the words ‘Sex Pistols’ along its length; thanks, John Bull. The Sex Pistols had begun to gig in late 1975 (as support to Bazooka Joe at St Martin’s College) but only played cover songs. Even this early on the Pistols’ influence was spreading and by early 1976, a core group of fans that included Siouxsie Sioux, Steven Severin and Billy Idol had coalesced into the so-called Bromley Contingent, brought together by an accident of south London geography, music and fashion, the latter supplied by the Malcolm McLaren – Vivienne Westwood shop SEX. I may not have heard much punk when it first appeared but it was the fashion, specifically the appropriation of Nazi symbolism which really inflamed my dislike of the genre, rather than a musical form that was the antithesis of prog: short; simple; simplistic.

So what was prog doing at the time? The premier league of prog bands were on hiatus, effectively exiled by what their accountants would have told them was a punitive tax regime. Yes and ELP were huge acts, though even less commercially successful bands like Gentle Giant set up recording sessions outside of the UK to minimise how much of their cash went to the exchequer. The highest rate of income tax throughout the 50s and 60s was 90% but this was reduced by the Conservative administration to 75% in 1971. When the Labour government took over in 1974, the top rate of income tax was increased to 83% but the surcharge on investment tax took the top rate on investment income up to 98% and these rates applied to incomes over £20000 per year, affecting 750000 people, including some major prog bands. The absence from home turf for prolonged periods (there was an allowance for so many days residence without triggering the tax) deprived the music journals of prog-related copy and coverage of new bands, who wished to be seen to eschew the perceived overblown and self-indulgent nature of progressive rock, was fed by a new generation of journalists armed with sociology degrees who regarded prog as elitist. The Stranglers were already gigging in spring 1976 and The Damned were formed sometime around the middle of the year, famous for being the first UK punk band to release a single. Captain Sensible, born Raymond Burns, lived in Edith Road SE25, the location of my first flat as an owner-occupier. There’s a rumour that if it wasn’t the same property, it was next door to the Burns’ home.


It’s often been commented on that many original punks were into prog. The Damned had evolved from jazz improvisation; Johnny Rotten is often cited for his appreciation of Van der Graaf Generator after being invited to play his own records on a Tommy Vance show on Capital Radio in July 1977; He played some Can, The Blimp by Captain Beefheart, Fleance from the Polanski film soundtrack The Tragedy of Macbeth by Third Ear Band and The Institute of Mental Health (Burning) plus Nobody’s Business from Peter Hammill’s 1975 solo album Nadir’s Big Chance. Rotten also accused David Bowie (he played Bowie’s Rebel Rebel) of copying Hammill’s moves!

Punk didn’t really last very long and, apart from the legacy of bands like The Clash, the punk ethos became swiftly diluted, revealing itself to be nothing but an expression of fashion in the broadest sense. The snarling bands like the Sex Pistols, put together to generate outrage, burned with a very brief flame. Bromley Contingent leader Siouxse quickly branched into proto-Goth; Billy Idol dabbled in proto-Goth, too, and appeared to be obsessed with his own image. Were The Stranglers really punk in the first place? I’m disappointed to have missed them when they played Maxim’s in Barrow in March 1977 but I have a confession: I’ve seen The Undertones twice. Once at a free concert in Brussels in August 1980 and in 1983, supporting Peter Gabriel at Selhurst Park. Manchester-based Buzzcocks were always just a clever pop band and are now reaping in cash from What do I Get? being used in an advert for McDonalds. This is hardly punk-principle. It appears that every musician has to continue to make a living somehow...






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