When I was about thirteen, I was madly into the Kaiser Chiefs. Writing that makes me feel like I’m introducing myself at an Arseholes Anonymous meeting, especially now the Chiefs’ lead singer Ricky Wilson is one of the panellists on The Voice. All the same, I loved them once, and as we look at our exes, we look at our past favourite bands – with disdain, and perhaps a little shame. Nevertheless, Kaiser Chiefs were my gateway into (better) rock music.
The way I fell in love with Kaiser Chiefs was through the internet. I don’t know what band forums are like today, but back when I was thirteen, they were really great fan communities full of people sharing articles, pictures, facts and gig stories relating to their favourite artists, and giving each other recommendations. Through the Kaiser Chiefs forum, I found bands like Maxïmo Park and The Cribs. Then, at some point, someone linked me to last.fm, a website which tracks your music listening and offers you personalised recommendations based on your taste, and through that I found some of my favourite bands.
Though we may be losing the wave-based culture of music fandom, I don’t think that musical communities have died out – they’ve just moved onto the web, and now co-exist instead of competing. Internet musical communities can be even better than real-life ones – they unite even the smallest fan groups, creating global social networks. Modern communications mean that friendships can be kept alive across huge distances, and musical taste is the perfect social glue. In real life, it’s all fine as long as you’re fashionable, enjoying the same thing as the people in your locale. On the internet, someone will undoubtedly share your taste, no matter how niche it is.
The internet is big. You won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. Over two billion people have access to it, and a lot of those like music. A smaller amount of those make music and a smaller amount of them actually put it on the internet. That’s still a lot of music on the internet – it’s practically saturated. Sites like Bandcamp and Kickstarter are great, but it’s so hard to actually get noticed. What’s more, so much is free, with Youtube and Spotify and other various sites, not counting the ease of straight-up piracy. So people get used to not having to pay for their music.
What this means is that, while there it’s very easy to get your music out there, and it’s entirely possible for someone in Zagreb to listen to that neo-folk EP that you recorded in your bedroom, there is a lot of competition between little-known bands, and people expect to be able to listen to your music for free. Getting out there is not necessarily any easier with the internet than without it, and the live music scene has waned now that so much is available for free wherever and whenever you want it.
The internet has massively affected the logistics of musicianship, and has really just raised the base amount of exposure that everybody gets. It’s still just as hard as before to get past that level, especially with all the additional competition. It’s important not to view the internet through rose-tinted glasses – in many ways, it’s made life harder for new artists
The monumental shift to internet music consumption has changed the way we all think about music. For some artists, it has proven to be a huge aid in their musical careers.
Go-to no-bullshit record engineer Steve Albini (below) is an outspoken advocate of the internet in terms of its potential for exposure. Whilst he has helped major label groups, like Nirvana, to make records, Albini has always been a firm supporter of independent music. He has talked in interviews about how the shift in the industry, while scaring the major labels, has allowed independent bands to find an audience and to become autonomous sustainable units. He used the example of his own band Shellac, who, because of the fanbase the internet has allowed them to reach, have been able to finance and manage their own tours without having to spend money on management and PR companies. This means that they have been able to tour places as far-flung as eastern Europe, something which just wouldn’t have been possible before the internet.
Sites like SoundCloud allow unknown artists and bands to upload their own material for free for the whole world to listen to and share. Dylan Baldi used MySpace to create numerous fake band accounts to share his original music. It just happened that the one picked up by promoters was Cloud Nothings, whose awesome 2012 album Attack On Memory was engineered by Steve Albini.
The internet gives bands the opportunity to act completely outside of the music industry. Bands can even become their own producers, using powerful software, such as Ableton and Logic, downloaded from the internet. Whilst the internet acts as a platform for mediocrity, it has also given artists the tools to be noticed and to build a career on their own merit.
The title of London grungers Whales in Cubicles’ debut, Death in the Evening, would seem off-puttingly bleak to some. And, although it’s true that, lyrically and sonically, the album’s ten tracks lean towards the darker end of the spectrum (see the video for ‘All the Pretty Flowers’ for further verification), it’s not a purely black canvas; amongst the lo-fi laments lurk more poppy sensibilities. However, what’s tragic is that the album is a mixed bag, not only in the types of songs on offer, but even the quality and originality of the songs.
Obviously, to expect every song to be a ground-breaking masterpiece would be utterly unreasonable, and, for the most part, the band manage to craft an identity without tumbling head over heels into cliche. The opening track, ‘Yesterday’s News’, is a prime example of a band wearing their influences on their sleeves, and yet managing to live up to the standards set by these heroes. Instantly, Gish-era Smashing Pumpkins leap to mind; producer Simon Barnicott’s rough-yet-polished touch yields raw-sounding drums juxtaposed with a sweeping guitar swell. Furthermore, the band has a formidable weapon in frontman Stef Bernardi’s voice; imagine if Billy Corgan had grown up in South London, losing none of the understated intensity from his slacker drone, but hopefully forgetting to cultivate his all-conquering ego. Bernardi’s voice complements the band’s rapid loud/quiet shuffling perfectly, before it culminates in a squalling guitar solo reminiscent of the likes of ‘Geek USA’. For further evidence of his talent, look later in the album, particularly to later track, ‘I Knew It’; it’s here that his versatility most shines as he alternates between a lethargic groan in a hauntingly sparse verse and stratospheric, otherwordly cries in the chorus, showing an impressive vocal range. This impressive opening salvo is followed up by the band’s debut single, ‘We Never Win’, instantly, any misgivings we may have had about the band’s inability to move out of their heroes’ shadows are dispelled; the musicianship of the drums’ odd-time workout provides the backbone of a simmering build-up culminating in a blistering outpouring of lyrical rage. It is here, more than anywhere (although the cavernous depth of closer Find Your Way comes a close second) that the individual sound of Whales in Cubicles shines through. What’s more, as a harrowing lament of the loss of innocence, ‘All the Pretty Flowers’ blows the likes of the Offspring’s ‘The Kids Aren’t Alright’ into well-deserved obsolescence.
However, this is not to say that the album’s majority of hits aren’t accompanied by a minority of total misses. It is particularly in the album’s troubled midsection that Bernardi allows his pop sensibilities to overcome him, skidding somewhat into the pitfall of sugary radio fodder. The two songs particularly guilty of being disappointingly predictable are ‘Across America’, which features a self-consciously ‘hooky’ chorus you see could coming a mile off, and current single ‘Disappear’, which, frankly, in the hands of a different producer, would sound like New Found Glory at their most wince-inducing. However, it would be colossally unfair to dismiss this album purely on the back of these; just listen to the likes of ‘Nowhere Flag’ to witness the band’s potential for marrying their darker tendencies with simply being catchy; the vocal refrain is nothing short of an earworm, while maintain a distinct desolation. Therefore, the album is definitely recommended, and it will be interesting to see which direction they take in the future; hopefully one which shakes off any perception of ‘what makes a pop song’.
It is perhaps our fear of irrelevance that leads music students to the kind of self-deprecating humour usually focussed on how ‘out of touch’ the Oxford music course is. I used to think so but now I’m not sure this is the problem it is made out to be. If by relevance we mean that the course should reflect the statistical music preferences of the country than the course is far from relevant, being based around ‘classical’ music. But isn’t the assumption that the course should be doing this rather presumptuous? Pop, rock, dance, hip-hop, all of these are doing just fine without the intervention of Oxford music graduates to tell them how they should be doing it. In fact, the Oxford syllabus is not all that different from the music departments of most English universities, most of which have a similar preference. Stressing the out-of-touchness of the Oxford course can feel like a thinly disguised assertion of an Oxfordian superiority that ignores our similarity to other faculties and our dependence on these external influences. We’re in touch with them, you might say.
I would further add that we are all ‘out of touch’ in some way when it comes to music – a heavy metal fan is unlikely to be knowledgeable about K-pop, and a listener of Radio 3 is unlikely to pay much regard to Algerian Rai singers. The assumption that music can be reduced to what is relevant and what is not does it a disservice, because being out of touch is really a demonstration of diversity. To claim to cover what is ‘relevant’ is to make a dangerous and restrictive value judgement; instead we should accept our partial perspectives rather than claiming some kind of superiority or dominance (something universities are often in danger of doing). No, the Oxford course is not relevant to everyone but neither is any music, and this is exactly how it should be.
My worry is that some think the music course isn’t relevant because its object of study, classical music, appears to be reaching a lower proportion of younger people in Britain today than in previous generations. I would be the last person to invoke the moralistic argument that art has lost its way, or any other such nonsense. On the other hand, I would like to recognise that though the Oxford music course concerns itself with the same repertoire that can be found in the haughty practices of concert hall music-making, this repertoire is still valuable to a substantial audience, and continues to present us with interesting problems.
In fact, this is where the Oxford music course excels. Students are expected to learn more about the Western musical canon, but its academic centrality is also appropriately challenged. This is achieved by studying anti-canonical subject matter, including medieval music, women composers and hip-hop. The ‘Musical Thought and Scholarship’ module, colloquially known as MTS, is equally helpful in this regard, which involves critiquing classical music’s public institutions, such as the concert hall and the opera house.
I would make changes to my course if I could, no question. But I defend its core focus of the ‘art tradition’, since as music students we are presented with numerous opportunities to critically re-examine what such a term might once have meant, or what it might mean today. Though somewhat behind literary studies, modern musicology has developed a rich critical theory, and it seems to have been proven that the field is capable of acquiring a progressive bent. Ultimately, the course is relevant because it has preserved an exciting musical repertoire, tempered by generous amounts of self-scrutiny. What fun!
Towards the tail end of a decade that had been defined to a large extent by individualism and materialism, something wonderful happened. In 1988-89 the phenomenon of acid house swept the UK. The hills were alive with the sound of dance music, as the importation of an exciting new wave of American electronic music twinned with the wide availability of ecstasy for the first time on British shores caused a youth explosion. The scorching summer of 1989 saw dance music move beyond the club, with parties held in abandoned warehouses and thousands of people flocking to the countryside to participate in mass open-air raves. The era will forever be associated with tie-dye T-shirts and smiley faces – but more than that, with a sense of hedonism and, ultimately, togetherness. For these reasons, the summer of 1989 was subsequently branded as the Second Summer of Love.
The internet has changed the way we consume all music, and certainly dance music. Whereas in 1989 the dance music fan may have trawled record shops for vinyl discs and mix-tapes, now your average fan does most of their listening (and discovering of new records) via SoundCloud or YouTube channels such as Majestic Casual and Subsoul. Indeed, YouTube, whilst giving us the questionable pleasure of reading mind-numbing debates about genre classification and Skrillex, has also delivered (through its ‘suggestions’ sidebar) a truly revolutionary tool in discovering new music – not just individual tracks, but entire albums, EPs, DJ sets and essential mixes. I’ll admit there’s a certain romantic quality to shopping around for new records, and vinyl has an enduring appeal, but overall, the internet has been overwhelmingly positive in the development of dance music and the broadening of its appeal – in that it is now easier than ever to access new music.
Dance music has remained a staple feature of the UK chart since 1989, but 2013 was encouraging insofar as it wasn’t just the usual suspects (though Avicii and Calvin Harris in particular had a very successful year). We saw dance number ones that came from outside the mainstream too, with Duke Dumont’s ‘Need U (100%)’ topping the chart back in April and MK’s remix of Storm Queen’s ‘Look Right Through’ reaching number one in November.
Such a breakthrough can perhaps be attributed at least partly to the rise of what has been branded, much to the annoyance of Mixmag contributors and people who comment under VICE articles, deep house. There is a parallel in how acid house was for years (incorrectly) used as an umbrella term for the various forms of early electronic dance music. Whatever people want to call it, the emergence of young UK talent clearly influenced by childhoods growing up on garage and bass music, has energized the whole UK dance scene. Artists such as Disclosure, Gorgon City and George Fitzgerald are all over Radio 1, filling venues up and down the country and warranting progressively bigger font on festival line-ups.
Festivals are 2014’s version of those outdoor acid house raves. Granted, the fun nowadays may be of a more organized and commercialized variety, but the appeal of being one of thousands of people going nuts to Carl Cox in a field has not disappeared. Dance music at festivals has come a long way since 1989. Glastonbury didn’t even have a dance arena until 1997, but these days you’d be hard-pressed to find a large, non-genre-specific music festival without a dance tent or a significant dance presence.
As ever, though, the heart of dance music is in the clubs, and generally speaking there is more on offer these days for the dance music fan. Back in the late 1980s, unless you were one of the lucky few raving at Shoom or The Hacienda, the movement largely took place outside the clubs – it simply took a while for DJs across the UK to adjust to the new house sound. These days almost every major city in the UK has something of a dance music scene. Even Oxford can attract a decent array of DJs to Switch nights at the O2 Academy, and provides regular dance events at The Art Bar.
It will be interesting to see if the deep house bubble will burst in 2014, having now found itself the subject of satire on websites such as the refreshingly ironic Wunderground. But as events post-1989 illustrate, when in the early 1990s the original house formula was tweaked and adapted to formulate new UK genres such as hardcore and drum and bass, with dance music, there is always something new around the corner.
Performance poetry – poetry read or performed in front of a live audience – has seen a remarkable rise in popularity over recent years. Although many cynics believe that poetry has become a dying art form, the spoken-word scene has spread rapidly throughout the English speaking world. Thanks to the growing phenomenon of “Poetry Slam” competitions, large scale events such as the “Woodstock Poetry Festival” and a range of venues hosting public performances, the performance poetry scene has the potential to dominate the arts sphere. In order to acquire a better understanding of this developing form of entertainment, I decided to talk a student poet about his work and experience of the poetry scene here in Oxford.
Nick Hampson, a student at New College, began his artistic career as a poetic songwriter after being greatly influenced by North American musicians like Leonard Cohen and Conor Oberst. He soon became interested in writing poetry and the way this ties in with performance: “I was in Edinburgh this summer for the fringe festival and Patti Smith, iconic rock legend, and Philip Glass, American minimalism/film composer, were doing a homage to Ginsberg, such that Smith would read his poems and Glass would accompany her. It was one of the most moving and profound artistic displays I had ever seen and it instantly got me thinking of ways in which I could include spoken word poetry into the work that I do as a songwriter”.
When composing poetry for performance, he tells me that one of the most difficult things is “finding a voice which is your own, distinctive and unique is the most difficult thing about any art form.” Nick explains, “You have to take the voice of others and adapt it to what you do. No one is born with a voice which is totally unique and fully appropriate to one’s desired artistic output.”
Due to his role as a musician, I was interested to see how music had influenced his poetry and whether he felt there was a strong connection between the two. “There is an undeniable force which the combination of music and poetry can create, and it is something which, when left to themselves, the individual art forms find hard to consistently replicate.”
Nevertheless, he believes the best feature about spoken-word is that “every performance is different”. This has been true with many famous performance poets; the Beat generation would regularly alter lines from their poems or their style of delivery in order to suit the crowd or atmosphere. This is one of the reasons that Nick believes it’s better than traditional literature: “Written poetry is structured by the author in such a way that the form and style suggests the way in which it ought to be read. Spoken word deliberately avoids any such suggestion.”
The content of performance poetry is varied but often poets who feel comfortable enough to share their work publicly are very opinionated. Yet despite the strong political stance taken by many poets, Nick tends to avoid such subjects in his work: “As soon as politics invades your work you become ‘one of those political protest writers’” He gets around this problem by making his work “politically charged” but in a way which “avoids specific blame or controversy.”
It’s surprising how little the spoken-word scene has been noticed by academics or literary critics – but then maybe that’s the point; it’s a way of escaping mainstream print poetry and finding a voice that is new and independent. Reading has always been a strange mixture of the private and public experience, and in the modern world of electronic and self-publishing maybe performance is the best way to liberate poetry.
It was announced this week that Cowley Road music store Professional Music Technology (PMT) will be allowed to remain in business.
The shop was facing the axe after hotel chain Travelodge were given planning permission to open up a branch on the floor above.
In accordance with the company’s business model, Travelodge would only open in this location if it was allowed a restaurant on the ground floor, which would have meant the closure of PMT.
However, after a sustained online campaign and a unanimous vote by the City Council, the planning application has now been refused.
The shop boasts a distinguished history – since they opened, Radiohead, Foals and Supergrass have all bought instruments from the establishment.
Mr Fellerdale, the manager of PMT, commented before the verdict of the Council was announced: “With so many music venues in Cowley, we are bang in the middle of the Oxford music scene.
“This shop was opened 14 years ago. Since then it has become a great contributor to the cultural and musical character of Cowley Road[…]If we were forced to move off the Cowley road, it would be greatly upsetting not just for musicians, but for everyone in the area.”
He that staff had “been touched by the overwhelming support from locals saddened by the prospect of losing the shop.”
Gaz Coombes, the lead singer of Supergrass, said, “There is nothing else like it in Oxford and it’s vital for the continual nurturing of Oxford music.”
PMT only found out last Thursday that this application had been put through and so hadn’t had time to put together a petition. Instead, they set up a Facebook event inviting people to voice their concerns to members of the Oxford City Council.
The event gathered over 2,000 members, becoming a platform for an overwhelming number of people voicing their complaints.
On Facebook, Jim Woods commented: “Please, City Council, spare a thought for something beyond the fiscal bottom line for a change.”
Quoting Joni Mitchell, Camino del Flamenco wrote: “Does this council want to be the one that ‘paves paradise and put up a parking lot?’”
Nischala Jacobs said on the page: “[M]usic is what we need, a community facility – not another restaurant!”
Only a couple of days after leaking, Yeezus was already the most polarising album of 2013. Professional reviewers were handing out five-star ratings like they were worthless, but at the same time there was a counter-current of people from Twitter to the Turl Street Kitchen abusing Kanye West’s latest effort as a total crock of shite. A friend of mine, having only given the album one spin, was very happy to confidently pronounce it Kanye’s worst and launch into the sort of ad hominem rant that the producer/rapper would be proud of himself. On the flip-side, The Independent published a gushing review five days before the album’s release date which stopped at nothing in lauding it as a masterpiece, even though the writer was bizarrely unaware of the names of its songs. Apparently “things get even more experimental on ‘Track Five’.”
Yeezus clearly needs a closer examination. The broad descriptions are accurate; the album’s sounds are darker, more minimalist, and more inflected with electronica and sketchy dancehall samples than any of West’s previous efforts. On the first listen it’s an incredibly abrasive work, one that eschews all of mainstream hip hop’s guidelines in a wonderfully inventive grab for the sort of sonics that you only ever hear a mile down in the genre’s underground. ‘Black Skinhead’ samples Marilyn Manson, ‘New Slaves’ lurches from a head-nodding Cruel Summer-esque beat into a euphoric chorus from a 1970 Hungarian prog-rock song, and ‘Blood on the Leaves’ melds a haunting vocal line from Nina Simone’s version of ‘Strange Fruit’ with 2012 TNGHT banger ‘R U Ready’ to truly stunning effect. At the same time the lyricism is even darker than on Twisted Fantasy: angrier, less dense, and rifer with the sort of cringe-inducingly wrongheaded one-liners that have spread around the internet like wildfire.
So what is there to say about Yeezus that hasn’t been said already? Its defining feature is probably that the contradictions at the heart of West’s character are more magnified here than ever: political and social consciousness mixes with blinding materialism; the desire to be taken seriously as a great artist jars with lyrics that seem to aim higher and higher on the scale of banal grimness (‘I’m In It’ in particular is full of them); and the “I don’t give a fuck what you think” fights for air with the “I’m really angry about what you think”. More than ever before these conflicting elements grind against each other loudly and prominently, and ultimately seem to resist resolution. This schizophrenic tension is reflected in the beats too, which seem ever-ready to cut out and then reignite in a completely different attitude.
All this is ultimately so interesting because of West’s larger-than-life persona and – it has to be said – his celebrity status. As with each of his recent albums, it’s the development of this reflection of himself as a person that makes it all so fascinating; there’s a real sense that here is an artist who will go down as one of the most explosive and influential of this period in pop music history, and on each of his records we’re hearing him get more and more unhinged as it happens. He definitely doesn’t come off sounding at all likeable from Yeezus, but there’s a sort of voyeuristic pleasure to be had in beholding the madness from the front row, and there’s a strong sense that West is revelling in the attention throughout. It’s a happy coincidence that the accompanying music hasn’t worsened and, though it too is crazier than ever before, still bangs like nothing else in hip hop. The line dividing Kanye’s lyrics and his production, it seems, is still that thin line between insanity and genius.