Music Saying Nothing

No bands have anything to say right now 
- Adam Ficek, Babyshambles

This evenings' London Lite carries a quote from the Babyshambles' drummer. I'm sure he is probably reflecting on what he perceives to be lacking in inspiration in the current indie music scene. But he has a point - artists don't seem to have much to say for themselves. Unless you are Bono - of course.

Which is odd considering the level of interaction and airtime that any artist can have thanks to the Internet. They no longer need to call a press conference or stage a bed-in to get attention. But rather than use this brilliant tool to discuss the merits of their music, most mainstream performers tend to rant about their media profile (see Lilly Allen or Calvin Harris for Twittertips).

When it comes to social issues, the silence is almost deafening. At a time when companies are under increasing pressure to be more transparent on their stance on the environment, and are even using the challenge to improve their offering, artists seem to have nothing to say. In the last issue of the PRS members magazine, the spokesperson for Julies Bicycle (the industry body on climate change) revealed her frustration on finding a UK artist to publicly comment on the issue. Perhaps they are afraid to make a statement because they are realising the impact they have. Or maybe they just don't realise they have a responsibility - or the opportunity - to affect change?

It seems like music with comment is as taboo as an artist with conscience. 

Image by kozumel on Flickr.


Twisted Words of Free

Radiohead have made some recent revelations: a "leak" of their new track (and subsequent official free release on their website), and the possibility they might not do "albums" anymore.

The intentional distribution of the "These Are My Twisted Words" isn't a big surprise. Why not follow up the pay-what-you-want concept of In Rainbows by trying out free? The hype of the "leak" made little difference - a bolder initial statement would have had more impact than a transparent gimmick. The band have set the bar for innovative distribution - we now expect them to continue the trend.

Turning their back on the album format is more shocking. Radiohead have always been an album band - that is to say, the body of a period of work aligns comfortably into a collection. The single isn't really their format. Thom Yorke alludes to a series of EPs - which could be an interesting strategy for the group.

Albums are like books. Sometimes a chapter works on it's own, and sometimes they feel more like a collection of short stories. But for great artists they provide the listener with an amazing experience. Despite the industry struggling to find a model to move quantities, the album remains a valid way of packaging music for those that want more than just a three minute fix.

Incidentally I recall reading that Calvin Harris wanted to shun the album in favour of a string of singles. "I'm Not Alone" was to be a stop gap track to keep fans happy in the meantime. Clearly too much of a risk for Sony - the single appears on the new album in traditional style along with his collaboration with Dizzee Rascal. No doubt the cost/benefit analysis by the men in suits of trying something new was simply too daunting (though apparently pressing to double vinyl was warranted ... )


The Icons

The National Portrait Gallery is exhibiting a Gay Icons series - ten prominent gay "selectors" are asked to each name six individuals whom they regard as inspirational. The icons are not required to be gay, but rather the show provides insight into who - and what characteristics of an icon - influence the lives of todays prominent gay figures. The portraits themselves are secondary to the stories behind the inspiration.

You couldn't see the exhibition without questioning who has been instrumental in your own life. Here are a few of my own ...


Neil Tennant
Stylish, ground breaking, and with seemingly endless stamina. Neil Tennant has always provided musical inspiration via the Pet Shop Boys - but beyond that obvious link he has been a pop culture icon on every front. Where he stands above so many of his contemporaries is through his inimitable dignity. He is a trusted and respected voice of British culture and the world is a better place because of the joy he has brought through his career.


James Dean
Those who leave the world prematurely often have iconic status thrust upon them. James Dean was a pop star in his own right. His skill as an actor was evident despite appearing in only three films. What would he achieved if his time had not been cut so short? Though we must decipher his true life story from the legend it appears he was an outlier in every aspect - it is no surprise that he continues to inspire new generations.


David Bowie
Bowie is a true genius. His songwriting skill is unparalleled, as is his talent for invention of all aspects of his world. He takes risks and in doing so has been an influence on probably anyone making music today.


John Cage
For some reason I have been fascinated by Cage from the moment I became aware of him. Odd considering my love for pop music and melody! He was a many of layers of complexity - philosopher, composer, artist, activist, Buddhist. Yet everything he did was with consistency and conviction. He gave me silence and for that I will be forever grateful.


Barrack Obama
Because very few individuals actually give hope to the world. It's a gift that we should never take for granted. Obama has only been with us for a short while but already he has achieved so much - the simple act of his rise to the top is overwhelming. He is the only politician I have ever believed in - he can actually change the world.


You Have No Right To Someone's Attention

Marketing used to be about shouting at the masses. In a music context, this was a blitzkrieg involving above the line advertising and buying oneself to the top of the charts. This is no longer effective - nor is it acceptable. In fact it can be a complete waste of time.

The best communication now involves an invitation to join into a dialogue (with a gentle nudge now and then). Permission is key. Most important of all, to get an audience for your message you need to have one that compells them to listen in the first place.

What we're seeing lately, however, is that just asking for permission to grab someone's attention isn't enough. This is evident in what has happened with MySpace. By sending someone a friend request, bands thought they then had permission to engage them as often as necessary. They also assumed that the "friend" would take some responsibility for keeping the relationship going.

Once MySpace started to take off, a deluge of bands masquerading as wanna-be friends started to bombard music fans. The result was a population of people who just stopped listening. The MySpace principle of quantity of fans over quality seems to still be in place. I wonder now how many "friends" of bands are actually still active users of MySpace - or indeed, have any interaction with the artist once the initial contact has been made?

Three things are required for permission now:

1. What's the glue?
Why should the audience care? What do you have in common? This is the glue that connects you. I personally don't give a toss about Cambodian gabba folk - which is pretty obvious if you took the time to find out a bit about me. Also - I don't live in Texas so I'm probably not interested in your gig. You've just wasted your time and I'm not listening.

2. What's in it for them?
This is crucial - the basic principle of reciprocity. All relationships have give and take. If you want to take up some of their time and attention, what do they get out of it? If you are letting them into your world, make sure you are giving something back. And make those actions visible so new audiences can see that you will respect their attention. I'm not suggesting you give your back catalogue away for free - for starters, a simple thank-you will suffice.

3. What do you want them to do?
What is the ask, and how can they get involved. Passive relationships are pretty dull - how does their attention make a contribution? Facebook groups are great for this, allowing a high level of "fan" interaction. But avoid tokenism - keep it genuine, and respect the time that the fans give you.

We are all bombarded with thousands of brand messages daily. To make an impact you have to do more than just stand out - you have to give the audience a reason to listen in the first place. And if you don't respect the time they are giving you, you might find that they stop listening altogether.