Wednesday, 17 April 2013

I've moved!

I haven't been posted very much to this blog recently, and I decided a few weeks ago to try something new, so for the moment I've moved on from the The Music News and am posting at a new blog called Artistic License (

This is partly because I wanted to feel free to post about things other than music and partly to learn a new tool (i.e. WordPress), which I've since realised has a lot of potential for creating a simple but effective website alongside a blog (for instance, I can embed my CV into a page via Scribd). That plus the ability upgrade and invest in features like premium themes and customised designs means that WordPress is a bit more suited to what I might want to do in the next few months.

Please take a short hop over to my new blog and start following my updates there! I'm also still on Twitter and LinkedIn, and now have an page featuring my info and contact details, so please get in touch with any comments about my new site.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Mozart and crime

It seems that our obsession with Mozart and the supernatural powers of his music are never-ending. Classic FM reports that in New Zealand '"The Mozart Effect" is hoped to deter criminal activity and antisocial behaviour in the area.' Mozart's music - it's not reported exactly what - will be played by speakers in specific areas of town to try and deter anti-social behaviour and criminal activity where increased police patrols have worked.

This may work - I certainly have no idea whether it will or not - but doesn't it seem strange that rather than try and solve the problem directly they are resorting to the potential 'humanizing' effect of music that is nearly 250 years old? This idea - that great art, particularly music, can civilize and educate us - still holds a surprising amount of weight, especially given the ideologies musical propaganda was enlisted to support in the twentieth century. The theory that listening to what some of us consider to be high art can improve the actions of our fellow humans is attractive, but I am not sure that the reality of art is quite so simple.

Even if this scheme does work (although I do wonder if that might just be because the culprits aren't big fans of Don Giovanni) shouldn't we stop and think for a moment about how music affects our behaviour, and consider the lessons of history, rather than simply leading another cheer for Wolfgang?

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

In Praise of Hyperion (and Indie Record Labels)

In December I attended a Hyperion recording session and had the chance to sit down with Steven Isserlis, Robert Levin, and Simon Perry (the director of Hyperion), among others, for lunch on the first day. Since then I've thought about that session and what we talked about over the five days of the session a lot, but some of my reading over the past few days made me consider it again, and I thought I'd put some of my thoughts down onto (digital) paper.

In his excellent book A Century of Recorded Music: Listening to Musical History (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), Timothy Day writes that 'nearly all independent labels issued a wide miscellaneous repertory ... The small independent labels could not afford the greatest artists, so they exercised their skill and cunning and identified markets for other repertories, for unknown music,' (p.136). Reading this made me think of Hyperion, which 'became renowned for recording lesser-known works' (Wikipedia), as well as unusual or new versions and interpretations of pieces. After a brief look at their website, amongst several pages of offers and deals I found this fantastic page: 'Please, someone, buy me ...', which features 'our "top ten" albums which no one - at all, worldwide - has bought from us for the longest period of time.' I promptly paid £2.80(!) to download an album of English Clarinet Concertos, with Dame Thea King, but could have bought the album by post for the same price. I confess that I haven't had a chance to listen to the album yet, but I can't possibly see how buying around 60 minutes of music for less than a large cup of coffee could be a mistake. I also suspect that I am going to be returning to this page again and again. Hyperion's 'Please, someone, buy me ...' page is the best example I've seen of the Long Tail effect in action in classical recording, and it really is something to be admired. I had never heard of Frederic Lamond, or his Symphony in A Major, which is also currently discounted by Hyperion on the same webpage, but I also want to explore music other than that which occurs over and over again even in the music course at Oxford, and I am glad that someone has recorded it so that I can.

This brings me back to what Simon Perry was saying in December. As someone with an intimate knowledge of the recording industry, he argued that services such as Spotify, alongside widespread piracy encouraged by use of YouTube and file sharing sites, are doing real damage to the recording industry, and labels such as Hyperion. He has made a clear decision not to place any of their music on Spotify, as it simply does not pay them enough for the privilege of having Hyperion's catalogue as part of the service, and is not the only one questioning the validity of the streaming model. Is that really such a surprise when the most anyone pays for it is £10 a month - for which one gains unlimited access to what is effectively limitless amounts of music? He was also aggravated, unsurprisingly, byt the idea that people who had purchased music from Hyperion were posting it online for others to listen to free of charge: while he respected the fact that many were simply trying to share music they loved, he also made it clear that they do not own the right to distribute it to others for free. Whatever the philosophical problems we have with the 'work concept', or the practical issues with have with wanting to share our tastes with others, surely we can agree that if people take the time to record music that we listen to, we should be willing to pay them for their services?

I have previously been a strong critic of the recording industry's business model, and I still firmly believe that things need to change, but listening made me realise that I have been rather too blasé about the impact of these developments on music. I had argued that piracy, and streaming or distributing music for free, or nearly free, was now part of the fabric of musical culture, and that the industry needed to accept it and move on, rather than struggling against the inevitable. Whilst I still don't think we can suddenly turn back the clocks and stop piracy, I have also realised that it is important to keep stating, as I have already said, that musicians and labels deserve to be paid for their work - and that unless they are, we are quickly going to end up in a very different musical landscape. If people aren't willing to pay for music, then labels like Hyperion aren't going to be able to produce it, especially music in less demand (at least in the short term), or with greater difficulties attached to it.

Of course, part of the difficulty is that there is a divide between popular and 'art' or 'classical' music in the effects piracy and streaming have had, and the possible methods to counteract them. Pop music can, by its very nature, make money more easily than music with a smaller audience, and artists have realised this and begun concentrating on tours and live music as their major source of income, rather than records. Because of this and other revenue streams (such as merchandise), pop musicians can actually gain from giving away their records for free, by profiting from the attention it gets them.

However, less mainstream music does not have the same options open to it and in the 'classical' music world the problems are exacerbated by the divisions between areas of musical life. Record labels cannot make money from the tours artists undertake with the same repertoire, and recording groups are less unified - conductors, orchestras, and soloists often come together for a single concert within a season, or a single album. That is not to say nothing can be done - recording and releasing an album before, rather than after, touring internationally with the music, for mutual benefit, is still an option in a large number of cases - but it is more complicated. Furthermore, the huge extent of the 'classical' repertoire, its inherent division between composer and performer, and greater time and resources much of it demands compared to pop music means that recordings are still very valuable in giving the opportunity to hear rarely performed music, but also more expensive to produce. It is for precisely that reason that small, innovative labels such as Hyperion, which allow us to explore more unusual areas of music than the big labels or broadcasters (such as Classic FM and their hall of fame - it has some great music, but I'd like to spend my life listening to more than just 100 thanks), must be supported by continuing to fight piracy and working to create sustainable business models. For their part Hyperion should be praised, as I suggested in the title of this post, for seeking out new business ideas, and fighting a blind acceptance of popular opinion and taste that would make Adorno turn in his grave, and which sadly seems to be growing more common.

When we take a step back it does not take much to realise that £10 per month represents a ludicrously low valuation of what Spotify offers - i.e., access to as much music as it is possible to consume. Of course, it is priced that low to compete with 'free', which has come to be many people's expectations of the cost of listening to recordings, but if we disallow that currently unsustainable option, then surely it becomes reasonable to expect people to pay a higher, more realistically valued, price for what they are getting? I would be very willing to pay more than £10 per month to have access to a high quality, fully indexed, comprehensive catalogue of 'classical' and popular music that was available on demand, both on and offline, and I hope that other people would be too. Ultimately, if the money can't be found somewhere then we may find our choices disappearing along with record labels. In the meantime, thank you Hyperion, for recording music beyond the obvious choices, and for you ideas that led me to such a bargain.

Postscript: I may edit this post in the next few days, but just wanted to post something as it had been so long since I last did so.

Friday, 4 January 2013

The Arts: a Moral Issue?

Everyone knows that not all is well with the UK and world economy at the moment. Unemployment is high, we're in a double dip recession, and the government is cutting budgets across the board. As a music student about to leave university the situation can seem particularly bleak at times, especially as the arts have been hit hard by the cuts over the last few years. Central funding for both performance and education has been cut, the government's plan to replace it with philanthropy doesn't seem to be working, institutions and artists have lost confidence in subsequent culture secretaries, and organisations, especially small regional ones, are struggling.

I firmly believe that culture is an essential part of our society. The arts are part of our humanity, helping us to communicate, further debate, and express our emotions, whilst also providing entertainment and an escape from our everyday lives. Furthermore, participation in activities like drama and group music-making can encourage teamwork and leadership skills. There is no doubt in my mind that the arts (and not just in their western forms) make the world a more interesting and vibrant place.

On the other hand, the arts are far from being the only part of society that has been affected by the cuts. Government spending has been slashed across the board, including welfare and benefits, defence, and the NHS, while public sector pay has been frozen, and both tuition fees and the retirement age have been raised. These changes are clearly having an effect on many people's basic living standards, and it is that which, for me, raises a moral issue regarding arts funding. While the arts are valuable, I am not sure they have the same widespread, direct impact on quality of life as these other spending decisions do for many people. Arts funding does have an impact on people's livelihoods, and we shouldn't forget that, but does it really have the same impact on so many people's basic standard of living as something like disability benefits, or the same potential rewards as spending the money on poverty relief programmes would?

I am not suggesting that we should abandon the arts - they are part of our culture, and we should continue to push for them to be supported, while if we ceased to fund the arts entirely then many more people would be without work. However, if as artists and arts organisations we want our arguments for funding and attention to be respected it is important to recognise that there are other issues at stake. In an ideal world the arts, benefits, and schemes to tackle poverty and inequality would all be fully funded, but sadly that is not the case at the moment. Personally, I sometimes struggle to reconcile requests for expenditure on art with the knowledge that many people around the UK are struggling to make ends meet.