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Is there rivaly between progressive rock bands or is the genre like an extended happy family?

ProgBlog investigates...

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, Jan 17 2016 07:56PM

I’ve barely touched upon the fourth music playback format, cassette tape (and I’m not going to mention the short-lived 8 track!) but guest blogger Richard Page hinted at this, a time before CDs when the domination of vinyl was slipping. The compact cassette was immensely portable, sparking the invention of the Sony Walkman and hundreds of imitations and allowing drivers to choose their own music rather than being subjected to a limited range of radio stations with their playlists of narrow choice. During the period, the mid 80s, I was attempting to get enough money together to get a mortgage so I did extra work for the Anthony Nolan laboratories, then based at St Mary Abbots Hospital in Kensington, and took my wife’s genuine Sony Walkman to listen to music of my choice while I sat at a microscope and read HLA typing plates.

Driving off to Crystal Palace National Sports Centre to play squash last weekend with a CD I’d burned of the Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii soundtrack, I realised my current car has a radio and a USB port but no CD player. Since learning to drive relatively late in life at the age of 26, my wife and I have got through a number of automobiles, buying new or with delivery mileage and simply budgeting to keep each for an average of three years before selling them on. Our first car bought together was a 1986 Ford Fiesta that only had a radio. The husband of a work colleague who worked in a car audio shop fitted a (high end) removable radio cassette player that lasted into the next car, a new shaped Fiesta with a joystick device that allowed you to pan around the speakers embedded in the upholstery. I normally took public transport to get to work but used the car for on call and later, to drive to Brunel University every couple of weeks when I was doing my part time MSc in Applied Immunology. I’d got hold of Mainstream (1975) by Quiet Sun, the eponymous GTR album (1986) and Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987), all on vinyl and taped them specifically for the journeys between Croydon and Uxbridge. Mainstream is an incredible album that seems to have missed out on the big time; mainstream it is not and for further discussions see my blog post http://progblog.co.uk/the-blogs/4583484660/Mainstream-(originally-posted-3-3-14)/7811326.The sound on GTR has dated but I still like the songs, even though this isn't really prog whereas Momentary Lapse is prog, cinematic, daring and true to the spirit of early-mid 70s Floyd.

The final days of my relationship with cassette tape unravelled on an out of hours car journey to work, just outside Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park football ground when I was playing Trey Gunn’s The Third Star (1996). I’d bought the CD for my brother Tony and he repaid the favour by sending me a tape which decided to fade away to silence in the player even though it had been recorded on what was considered to be a decent quality Maxell C90. At this stage I had sold off my original Technics deck that had served me for the last year at university, through the damp of a sequence of basement flats and the rigours of an on-stage appearance as the sound source for three gigs I played in 1984. It’s strange how cyclical fashion can be. That silver-finished piece of hi-fi, originally chosen for its beautifully damped ejection mechanism and the ability to cope with ‘metal’ tapes, was replaced by a Technics RS B106 cassette deck, finished in black, in the late 80s; my new system is largely silver. I also bought myself a high-end Aiwa walkman-like player and two hefty miniature HD speakers from a mall in Saudi Arabia when I was seconded to Jeddah for six weeks in 1992 so that I didn’t get prog-withdrawal. I bought the double cassette Yes anthology Yes Story (1992) from the same store and picked up some locally compiled tapes from elsewhere in the souk, including a best of early Marillion that was frequently aired in the hire-car (christened ‘the mobile lecture theatre’ for its outrageous size) that had been made available to my colleague, Consultant transplant surgeon Geoff Koffman.



Technics RS B106 cassette deck
Technics RS B106 cassette deck

I never owned many pre-recorded cassettes though the bargain bin of the Tooting branch of Woolworth allowed me to expand my music collection with some more obscure prog and jazz: TONTOs Expanding Headband’s Zero Time (1971) and Neil Ardley’s Kaleidoscope of Rainbows (1976) plus some of the more usual fare (McDonald and Giles, Steve Hackett, Caravan, Colosseum II, Greenslade) for knock down prices. There was even a stage where I owned more Gentle Giant on cassette than I did on any other format. To a greater extent my tape collection comprised albums recorded from vinyl lent to me by friends and family. Preferred manufacturers were TDK, BASF and Maxell and I tried to buy a quality above the basic, like the TDK AD. I was also happy to put together what would later be called ‘mix tapes’ for others, including recordings for a couple of women students at Goldsmiths’, Sue Aspinall who was into classic prog and Jo Dziuba who was more interested in Afterglow type Genesis.

There aren’t many albums that I home-recorded that I haven’t subsequently bought on another format. One that didn’t make it into my collection was Ian Anderson’s Walk into Light (1983) lent to me by my friend Jim – we were big Tull fans at the time – but I thought the material rather sub-standard and my recording was discarded years ago. Other albums took a considerable time for me to own, sometimes through lack of availability: I eventually got Bruford’s One of a Kind (1979) when Winterfold Records started up in 2005, having only had access to a taped copy for 25 years and bought The Third Star from Red Eye Records in Sydney in 2012, the first time I’d seen it in a shop since buying it for Tony. One of the very few albums that I taped but never bought myself is psychedelic masterpiece Mass in F Minor by The Electric Prunes (1968). The original disc belonged to Tony and my cassette recording dated from the late 70s. Like with most of my tapes, in an exercise to preserve the music, I burned this to CD when home-burning software became standard on PCs. I now have the album transferred to my mp3 player.

Warning notices that ‘home taping is killing music’ appeared on the inner sleeves of LPs in the mid 80s to be ignored by everyone. I’ve thought about this and, though I understand that it reduces royalty payments to artists, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a deep irony in record companies putting out a statement like that when it’s unscrupulous managers and the labels themselves that have controlled the income of musicians. What is really killing music is the trend towards conformity, the predictability of manufactured product and insidious influence. This may make merged global entertainment businesses attractive to shareholders but it makes for a less diverse musical scene; the requirement for financial control stifles creativity. In the end the message boils down to ‘home taping is reducing shareholder dividend.’




Home taping is killing music. I don't think so
Home taping is killing music. I don't think so

A more recent example would be the issues over illegal downloads where control over output was ceded to the consumer and the cry from the labels was the same. Then Apple plonks a largely unwanted U2 album onto the devices of everyone with their iTunes software...

Home taping didn’t harm progressive rock and prog itself has prospered in recent years through the adaptation of alternative business models where the artists retain the copyright to their material and funding for new ventures is independent of the majors. The pound, euro and dollar of the fan go to the artists through crowdsourcing and album sales, with multiple platforms available to promote and provide examples of music. Let’s hope that home taping went some way to help kill off the old way of doing music business.




By ProgBlog, Jan 3 2016 08:02PM

I was indoctrinated into prog rock at an early age. I can remember hearing music drifting out of the dining room when my brothers Tony and Gareth played records with their friends, so at a subliminal level the die was probably cast. I started going to piano lessons when I was junior school age, and while I can’t say I always enjoyed practicing and it certainly wasn’t cool with some of my school mates to play the piano, as I got a bit older and started playing more interesting pieces I did get more interested in music and this probably drew me further towards prog. After all, prog is probably “musicians’ music” to a certain extent. Funnily enough, my first album purchase, from WH Smiths in Lancaster, turned out to be in the (sort of) prog vein by accident. I bought Asia’s eponymous record not because of anything I really knew about the music, but because of the cover – the Roger Dean dragon really struck me. As I moved on to Parkview Comprehensive, I continued to go for piano lessons but also started to take an interest in the guitar. My sister had a classical guitar, and I started to learn from some of her tuition books – I can remember being very pleased when I was able to play Greensleeves. From that point (mid 1980s) Gareth started to make suggestions for my listening. This coincided with Barrow library starting to offer music to borrow – you could take out up to 4 vinyl albums a week in a sturdy cardboard case for a small fee – this allowed more than enough time to listen to the music and record them onto TDK C90 cassettes (I ignored the skull and cross-bones logo on the back of many LPs pronouncing “home taping is killing music”). As this was the early 80s there were still plenty of prog records in their collection. Allied to this listening I started to get interested in jazz. Dad was a keen jazz lover, with a decent size collection of Parker, Davis, MJQ, Stan Kenton, etc. records. As a consequence there was often some jazz playing around the house – or he was singing it!


For my 16th birthday I asked for an electric guitar. There was a small add in the North Western Evening Mail for a Stratocaster copy that I can remember Mum going with me to pick up for about £30. I can’t remember how long I kept this guitar, but it did give me the opportunity to try and emulate some of the guitarists I had been listening to. There are four records that influenced me most in my early excursions into electric guitar - the Camel live album Pressure Points, Greatest Hits of Focus, Horslips’ The Tain and Barney Kessel’s Swinging Party at Contemporary. I can’t remember if I bought the Camel album or if it was a present, but Andy Latimer’s melodic playing became a huge influence on me and remains so – I played that record over and over again, and though I could only play a fraction of the guitar lines at first, gradually my proficiency increased so I could play most of the album start to finish. The Greatest Hits of Focus record was one of the Fame compilations that were popular at the time and was a present from Gareth. Similar to the Camel record, I played this almost to extinction and did my best to emulate Jan Akkerman – no easy task and something I will never achieve! A less obvious choice, the Horslips record belonged to my sister Linda and somewhere along the line I “acquired” it – I’m not sure if she ever noticed it had gone as I still have it in my collection now. The adapted Irish jigs and reels and fast repetitive phrases that made up a lot of the record were good practice material. The Barney Kessel LP belonged to Dad and was my first introduction to jazz guitar. Though I didn’t really understand the jazz forms or how to improvise in a jazz context at this stage, I loved his tone and phrasing and I tried to work out some of the bluesy licks that were Kessel’s trademark.


Selection of early LPs
Selection of early LPs

By the time I went to Leeds University in 1988 I had passed on the Strat copy through another Evening Mail small add, and upgraded to a Marlin Sidewinder, purchased from R&T Music in Abbey Road. At the time (c.1987-8) the Marlin was a popular first ‘proper’ electric guitar. I remember owner Terry Turner had several in the shop, in various colours, including one in a not very appealing metallic purple that he couldn’t sell. I therefore managed to acquire it for about £100 – a £20 or £30 discount. I think it’s fair to say that the image of this guitar tended towards the metal player – it had a rudimentary locking nut, bridge tuners and floating trem – not the usual prog or jazz axe, especially in that colour!

I think the accommodation officer had put all the musicians together in my hall of residence, as the group of five that I shared with in my first year at Leeds ncluded a bass player and acoustic guitarist. I was introduced by them to some more modern Miles Davis, including Star People, which is a less well known Davis record, but one which opened my ears to the playing of Mike Stern and John Schofield. I started to work more on my jazz playing and attended the University Jazz and Blues Club, which gave me my first opportunity to play live.


Marlin Sidewinder in metallic purple - not a prog guitar
Marlin Sidewinder in metallic purple - not a prog guitar

During two summer breaks from University I worked at Glaxochem in Ulverston as a fitter’s mate and this allowed me to save up to buy a better instrument. The Marlin was again sold in a small-ad, and in 1990 I bought a Japanese Fender Stratocaster in candy-apple red. From new this was a great playing guitar and I still own it now, though I don’t think the electrics are particularly good quality – it has had three selector switches to date and the current one is broken.


PSR2 - forerunner to Ravenwing, live at the King's Arms Ulverston 10/6/15
PSR2 - forerunner to Ravenwing, live at the King's Arms Ulverston 10/6/15

Since then my musical ventures have covered various musical genres and my collection of guitars has grown, but progressive rock remains central. I currently have a band called Ravenwing that plays classic instrumental prog, mainly from the early 70s, by bands such as Camel and Focus (naturally), but also Yes, Rush, Steve Hackett, etc, and also some original material. After a short hiatus at the latter half of 2015, we hope to be out gigging soon in 2016 – come along and see us if you can!


Current guitars:

1995 Gibson ES-335

1990 Fender Stratocaster (Japan)

2003 Gibson Les Paul Studio

Takamine G-Series acoustic

Ibanez Artcore AS73

Peavey Milestone III bass



Guitars 2016
Guitars 2016
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