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Delayed for a few days due to IT issues at my hotel in Genova, it seems that a fairly important anniversary has been overlooked. Without Days of Future Passed, it's unlikely that the progressive rock genre would have developed just as it did...

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, Nov 1 2015 10:16PM

I went to a The Guardian Masterclass event a couple of weeks ago, How to self release your own music, hosted by Ian Ramage and Ann Harrison, to get some information and inspiration for putting out my own CDs. These events, mostly held in The Guardian offices in Kings Place, part of the regenerated King’s Cross area, are well organised and well attended by individuals with a range of interests relating to the topic, and sensibly priced. The first Masterclass I attended, in an attempt to broaden the reach of this blog, was How to write a successful blog. There were 100 delegates with a spectrum of abilities from those with little understanding of blogging to those who were interested in more efficiently monetising their efforts, with me somewhere in the middle; I learned enough to start a Twitter account and since then ProgBlog appears to have gone from strength to strength. Though not as popular, the audience for How to self release your own music was comprised mostly of musicians but there was at least one person who ran a recording studio; the presenters seemed a little surprised that there was no one from the music industry. Apart from being a music fan, Ramage’s encyclopaedic knowledge of music had been built up from rising through the ranks and working at a number of companies including Polydor, Warners, EMI, and Sony. Harrison was there to cover the legal aspects; a qualified lawyer, she has worked with household names and has her own legal consultancy, Harrisons Entertainment Law Limited and is the author of Music, The Business (Virgin Books) that was plugged on a number of occasions. The two speakers had a good rapport and overall, I was very pleased I’d attended. After discussing performing rights it became very clear why the Yes Union tour was such a nightmare for the musicians – I recall it wasn’t too bad for those of us the audience and I enjoyed most of the music played by the two versions of Yes although some band politics were still evident.

Another topic that was touched upon was the role of the producer who could be someone who booked the studio or had some degree of creative input. This came to mind when my last Walkman ceased to function, playing Tormato. Wakeman’s keyboards have no substance, lacking both bass and sparkle and White’s snare drum tone has no snap, as though the final production stages were rushed or the band was not given any control over the final sound, even though Yes are credited as producers – Brian Lane has a credit for ‘executive producer’ and I find it hard to believe, after the excellent sound and mix on their previous albums, that they can have been happy with the dull, compressed finished product. The sleeve design by Hipgnosis was certainly contentious; originally intended to be called Yes Tor, fitting in with some of the material on the record, the title was changed following dissatisfaction with the artwork which prompted someone, either Wakeman or Aubrey Powell, to throw a tomato at the cover. Steve Howe, who came up with the Yes Tor idea has been described as unhappy by this turn of events and I side with him. There’s something cosmic about divining (even though I think it’s nonsense) and Yes ideas were indisputably cosmic; linking the second highest point in Devon to a possible beacon for UFOs seemed a reasonable concept (even if it too was unscientific and beyond reason), not fully realised. My least favourite track is Release Release which features some double tracking on the drums to give them a fuller sound and the noise of a crowd. No. Bad idea.

Eddy Offord had worked with the band on some of the original ideas for Tormato but is not credited. Having been the recording engineer for Time and a Word (1970), an album produced by Tony Colton, Offord and the group co-produced the sequence of albums from The Yes Album (1971) to Relayer (1974), a sequence that many consider to epitomise not only the best of Yes but a considerable proportion of the golden era of progressive rock. The clarity of instrumentation on Fragile (1971) and Close to the Edge (1972) are testament to an incredible working relationship. Offord was also hired as a recording engineer for the early Emerson, Lake and Palmer albums, their eponymous debut from 1970, Tarkus (1971), the live Pictures at an Exhibition (1971) and Trilogy (1972), where production duties were in the hands of Greg Lake. Offord did not help out on Brain Salad Surgery (1973) where are I find the sound clear but biased towards the treble. Chris Kimsey (who was famous for his work with the Rolling Stones) and Geoff Young shared engineering duties on Brain Salad; Offord was immortalised in the song Are You Ready Eddy? which appears on Tarkus, a track I tend to skip..; Yes put Offord's photo on the back cover of Close to the Edge. A quick check through my albums reveals that Offord changed from 'Eddie' to 'Eddy' some time in 1971, between Tarkus and Pictures at an Exhibition and between The Yes Album and Fragile.

If the classic Yes sound is partly due to input from Offord, what about other bands from that period? King Crimson were self-produced because they weren’t happy with Moody Blues collaborator Tony Clarke, (Giles Giles and Fripp released The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp on Decca’s Deram label in 1968, the Moody’s pre-Threshold stable), one of the reasons why Lake went on to produce ELP. In the early years Charisma Records label mates Genesis and Van der Graaf Generator (and Rare Bird and Lindisfarne) were produced by John Anthony. This wasn’t an act of control by the label, which generally ceded all creative control to the bands themselves, it was a collaborative approach where the ideals of producer Anthony fitted in with both Stratton-Smith’s sensibilities and the ideology of the groups. The compositions of both Van der Graaf and Genesis matured rapidly under this guidance, until VdGG split in 1972 and self-produced when they reformed with a trilogy of sonically well balanced albums, Godbluff (1975), Still Life (1976) and World Record (1976.) Foxtrot (1972) was produced by David Hitchcock and demonstrated a harder edge than Nursery Cryme (1971.) Hitchcock had worked extensively with Caravan and would go on to produce Camel’s Mirage (1974) and Music Inspired by The Snow Goose (1975.) Genesis would utilise the experience of John Burns for subsequent releases Selling England by the Pound (1973) and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) and then form a creative relationship with David Hentschel for post-Gabriel albums A Trick of the Tail (1976) to Duke (1980.) The jazzy Camel albums Moonmadness (1976) and Rain Dances (1977) were co-produced with Rhett Davies.

I’m a big fan of Mike Vernon’s work with Focus, another producer who demonstrates that collaborative working gives the best results. Like Yes in the Eddy Offord years, there’s a particular quality that demonstrates the care taken over the music but also reveals a distinct sonic signature. When Yes changed their sound and image for 90125 (1983), it was to fit in with a more commercial music industry; the business had changed and self-production was frowned upon because it represented a loss of control by the record label. I think that the forced abandonment of cooperative principles, shared ideas and ideals was part of the grand design of the industry; record deals were harder to come by and relinquishing control of at least part of the process was a price that almost all bands had to pay. Pink Floyd were one exception; having self produced since More (1969), albeit with executive production by Norman Smith until Meddle (1971), they had enough clout to continue to call the shots. I believe the leverage applied by the record label was in most cases a destructive force, stifling creativity and narrowing the types of music that were available to listen to. Thankfully, the new wave of prog has managed to break free of the rule of the majors and though new acts aren’t likely to get rich without compromising their principles, there’s a strong relationship between the musicians and producers that mimics the ethos of 70s prog.



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