Thursday, June 30, 2011

One step behind: the consumer-critic

Do you always keep au courant with the music or does the weekly slew of new material prove too much? Do you give up, resign yourself to tips from mates or retreat into the endless commuter catalogue of your oedipod? And if you do keep up, do you feel obliged to use your social media to publish your take on your hot d/ls? If it’s enough for you to have the new sounds and refrain from reviewing them back out into web infinity, you could be in the minority. The tendency now is for us all to be sophisticated and frequent music consumer-critics, enabled as we are by social media.

Not quite at the position yet of Can’t Keep Up so Wont Keep Up, nevertheless I am beginning to say No a lot more. The constant stream of genres, styles and producers is more amusing than baffling and not something to put me off; ostensibly I like a lot of the new sounds. And I can afford to buy stuff every week (especially if I decide I want it on d/l). But I find I often let my initial enthusiasm slip away to the point when the urge to click Buy is far less pressing. Could I really trust my own evaluation of the new release after a few streams? Anyway, I’m not really going to have the time to appreciate it. If valuing the listening experience is still what it’s about. So I fail to take my copy of the Hot New Release from the ether, leaving the reggae reissue, that exotic orientalist retro or that prized jungle or grime mix on the counter too.

I’m also bemoaning the lack of definitive critical authority out there, perhaps nostalgic for an NME-like issuing of a Judgment on a big release (even when you know they might have thrown a curveball by giving it to an avowed critic of the band under review). Early underground blogworld could deliver this too: some delving deep into the musicology of an act; others looking at the wider picture of what they represent, the former a click away via a link from the latter. But the intensity of this medium has dissipated after all the good bloggers got siphoned off by online magazines and social media diverted energies/priorities.

Don’t get me wrong, good, unsullied-by-commerce criticism is out there (as well as average album rating sites for the time-poor) but granulated and dispersed to a million little corners of the web. Sure your personalised aggregators can pull it in but it’s not the same as the push-to verdict delivered by one or two voices.

Download technology just means ‘free’ to too many. It now seems that due to music’s relative financial and cultural impoverishment in the web piracy era that there is also much more obligation to big up everything, to represent rather than criticise, in order to keep it alive. Fact is a good example – of course it’s a brilliant portal for new music but you won’t find much criticism in their reviews. (It’s possible worthy and longer-form criticism may be more suited to the old culture of the landmark rock or indie release than the new microcosmic output, where it seems buying an old-skool tape with a download code for a digital version of the same tracks can give us as much pleasure than the actual music therein. But I think it’s the processes alienating us from criticism rather than anything inherent in the music itself; I’m certain that despite all the hip noise obstacles the producer still wants his output to be lauded and applauded).

But the democratising effect of our loving machines means that in various ways we have all become stakeholders in this Keeping Music Alive (please calm down with the upper-casing!). The growth of social media is muddying the waters again of music criticism. I do my bit here and there with 140-character overenthusiasm like everyone else, syndicating mixes, tweeting fave releases, adding to the noise [for me this is almost a proxy to the fast declining experience of sharing the music itself in a physical space with someone, anyone...]. All of this strains criticism, but ironically can serve the act better than the glowing review – publicity of the hyperbolic kind (spreading the message as everybody can get to get hear it one way or another) goes further (in the near term) than the big judgment. Again the democratising mirage makes us more like to distrust the top-down judgment (which are now generally to be found in weekend broadsheets anyway).

All this is making me realise there’s actually much more exploring to be done of the relationships between producers, consumers, publishers and critics in the modern web-dominated music business. Are these perfect feedback loops ending up in music too consciously geared to listener expectations? And how much of it is trying to buck insidious pigeonholing and appeal not only to the youngers but also to the ageing commentariat?

Too much doesn’t necessarily too meaningless, but in the network age more than ever it’s up to us to find the right steers to make sense of it all. It’s not the case that I’m drifting into the cloud, owning nothing and developing/consolidating my tastes via LastFm and Spotify (still of course a trackable record of our likes though tellingly they have little to convey about our dislikes). I still want to be on the big tune or the hot producers/bands, have that in my hand or on my desktop ready to blare out. But the glut and its infinite syndication seems to be inducing perverse responses. Or call them tactical withdrawals.

So don’t feel the music depends on you, don’t feel the Conversation depends on you. Don’t attempt to keep up. Let the guidance back in (from people who have time to really assess the music because it’s their jobs) and be selective, and maybe keep some of it just to yourself. You wont be missing out, either from the hot new stuff or from the conversation about it, as much as you think.
[next post will be more fanboy-than-critic impressions of stuff brought over the last few months, not hasty reviews of stuff out in the last few minutes]
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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

My Areas: Shepherds Bush (text)

Images here

My Areas series slowly growing here

(not our actual flat shown)

After another period getting my tummy rubbed by Mummy back in the home counties, in the penultimate year before they joined the south coast blue rinsers, Steve, Andy and I after struggling to find a place in Brixton got sorted in Askew Road, W12. Used once or twice in Jonny Vaughan’s truly ’Orrible comedy, Askew Road is a self-contained area of its own, and indeed some haughty Bushrangers would have it that it’s more Acton than Bush because of its location on the western extreme of W12.

But I never went west of Askew Road the whole time and, as on the comeback tour, ‘my’ Shepherd’s Bush joined dots between the area’s many stations, west up Goldhawk Road from the tube as far as Ravenscourt Park (nice green and another, District Line, tube option), north up Askew Road, as far as our flat, east down Askew Gardens and Uxbridge Road to the two Bush tubes separated by the polluted green. In between Uxbridge and Goldhawk roads there’s a whole island of reheeled Victorian streets mostly free of frightful commerce and often populated by BBC managers and aspiring executives (though that will change with the sale of Television Centre). I also often used Olympia station as a (freebie) route to Clapham Junction and Surrey.

In and out the area a lot, I was highly mobile and often high on skunkweed, in my first few months of a first meaningful relationship but with an increased disposable income having moved to a job at a fast-growing financial publisher (cue the slow-breeding resentment at the pitiful double standards of representing a world I loathed). Despite the Askew extremity, what I liked about the area was the speed and ease with which I could get out and back in; whether it was via the central line and walk/bus, the 94 or caning it down Holland Park on a bike (not always mine) I felt easily connected to central London.

It was also a good base for trips further afield – to Manchester or awaydays to places like Barnsley or Swindon, mostly still attempted by bunking the trains, to the home counties for the mindless crack with the lads there. At the start of our Bush tenure, January 1999, City were wallowing in the mid-table of the old third division but by the end, April 2000, we’d had via a miraculous play-off victory at Wembley, gone up a division and were looking good to go up again. We’d swapped Bury, Lincoln and York for QPR, Bolton and Ipswich and soon would be ready for United, Leeds and Liverpool again. And if I wasn’t at the match it was no problem as this was the only time I’ve shared in a Sky subscription.

Inevitably this would be another area whose facilities were not used enough: Uxbridge Road’s Arabic restos (but not the Maghrebi one on Askew); the many pubs; Ravenscourt Park. Chief cultural highlight would have been a deranged adaptation of Welsh’s Filth at the Bush theatre. What time was spent there was spent in the hermetic environment of the converted lounge in the top floor of the flat, working the combination of comedy, music and skunk, plus console games for the other two. The flat itself – I think Croatians owned it, we only saw them once – was the two top floors at the right end of a small, seen-better-days Victorian terrace; bathroom eked out of the middle floor; the top floor a kitchen-lounge hybrid with my room next door, the ensemble perhaps able to look bigger with its gaudy 80s mirrored walls. Steve’s decks took over one of the main work surfaces, meaning mine did not need putting together or even keeping, eventually being sold for more beer and weed money.

I started joining Steve at his ‘deep’ house dos, mostly at the Space midweek residency run by Luke Solomon and Kenny Hawkes (RIP), meeting the likes of DJs Matt Styles, Jonny Rock, Rob Mello and Classic label manager Leon Oakey on the way. I kept my hand in with the d&b scene and had a bit a rapport with Nicky Blackmarket in the basement of the shop as he spotted my enamel City badge once so started talking QPR. Music biz nights with Amanda abounded. And another outlet in Sarah, an ungirlfriend (back in Battersea I had unwisely allowed the issue of whether I wanted a relationship to run and run); there was also regular visits from Ian’s Academy of Contemporary Music crowd, as well as gigs from bands like the Essenes who met at that Guildford college. Tie all that with the MCFC and booze cruising and you had a hectic and costly social life. And many a Monday off, as that new job gave me much more chief-subbing responsibility I did not initially get my head round (and, er, more mates up a beer).

Nevertheless, as the millennial NYE (remember the IT grunts exploiting the Y2K bug fear?) approached, aged 26, it had felt like I’d made a fairly significant turn by opting not to go with the boozers (who were probably off to the Swan or other godforsaken meatmarket where I’d still never pull anyway) and go clubbing instead (Steve and I had hired out a basement in Old Street for our birthdays and it was such a success they wanted us to do NYE; I didn’t fancy it but Matt, Jonny and Rob did).

Yet this excess of still faintly desperate and vacuous socialising tied into a permanent fugue state only fuelled a generalised anomie, and in turn a restless desire to start creating product for myself. Geopolitics was creating an Islamic fundamentalist monster, the consumer consumption we’d all tied ourselves into to varying degrees needed discussion, growing knowledge of the wiles of the music biz needed reflecting too. A group of us had an idea of writing comic sketches but this was quietly shelved as likely to be insubstantial and stoner in-joke sub-Morris fayre; nevertheless any creations were likely to be comic in tone (a refuge and reflection of the growing powerlessness of protest, perhaps).

The downtime of monthly production schedules gave me space to write at work (as it didn’t tend to happen at home), email offered a further space to sound off yet riff on characters and ideas and the developing internet provided coverage of news and current affairs in a way I found more easily digestible, as well as the platforms to go Do It Yourself. It would be a move east and a while yet before I’d made enough non-school/college connections, assimilated ideas and developed a framework for presentation but the first moves were being made here.

By the turn of the millennium Steve and I wanted to move out because the place was grotty and we didn’t much welcome Andy’s approach round the house making it grottier. Fittingly, when we stoners announced our intention we didn’t splurge the real reason but masked it by saying we wanted to change area (he was a BBC man at the time so wouldn’t want to move east with us). We’d got more of the life we’d wanted now but wanted a bit more space and a bit more comfort for our several hundred pounds a month. From a Victorian terrace we headed for Docklands regen in the yuppie dwellings of Limehouse.
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Sunday, June 05, 2011

Trip pix

We went to Cornwall for a half-term break, sharing a house with other local twin-rearers about 10 miles inland from Padstow and Newquay. The chat wasn't racey and never overstepped the mark, the fellow residents on the site generally Rags (though colours were much less evident after Barca's victory) and i could only rely on a sparse smartphone connection for people willing to talk about issues. As you would expect with four four-year olds chasing stimulation, nothing much cultural was done but still we enjoyed ourselves as the week got hotter, and the beaches nicer.

The 'Henge looking moody as we drove west on the A303 last Friday night.

After a twatty, highly-avoidable scrape of the car while trying to find our overnighter stop in Wookey Hole (clue: the only hotel in the village looks as if it's a hotel), part deux of our arguably much needed spiritual realignment involved dragging the kids up Glstnbry Tor on Saturday morning, which to be fair they achieved with a commendable lack of moan.

There were a couple of great ruins on the B3274 to St Austell, which we used to get to the Eden Project. I speculated whether they were related to the local tin mining industry, traces of which could be seen in closed off sites and hills all around this area.

At the end of that road and a few more was the Eden Project, where I bottled the canopy walk atop the tropical biome but enjoyed the WEEE mutant creation of old electrical and electronic goods and the Dionysian sculptures of the Med biome. The last pic signals when the children 'became' the lifecycle of their shit as it heads down the toilet and through the sewerage system. That was some educational activity centre they would experience, after a 20-minute queue.

But it was the coast that coaxed us here, and left the greatest impression. Favourites included Crantock's huge bay and caves (though our family pleaded fatigue as our counterparts battled on round the tricky coastal walk), Constantine Bay and the Castle Beach nook round the back of Falmouth. Here you'll see the Bedruthan Steps, Crantock's facilities failing to fend off the impact of the cuts and Polly Joker beach.

The 'Henge again. We stopped off on our way back and peeked at it behind the line, beyond the paying tourists trudging round with the guided tour pumped in through headsets.
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