Recently in Music Category

I find the story of Ministry of Sound taking legal action against Spotify absolutely fascinating, and potentially troubling, as it potentially opens up many cans of worms.

As I understand it, it goes something like this. Ministry of Sound has a very profitable business releasing compilation albums. They licence tracks from various labels which they compile into a compilation album - usually following some kind of theme. Often, these tracks are also mixed using beat and key matching to produce a continuous piece of music.

Spotify represents a threat to this business because users can make and share playlists on the service. In particular, Ministry of Sound is upset that users have been replicating their compilation albums (which as I understand it, are not available on Spotify) by building playlists that contain the Ministry of Sound compilations' tracks in the same order. It would seem likely that users are naming these playlists after their respective Ministry of Sound albums.

Ministry of Sound is arguing that it has copyright on the track selection and order, and that therefore users/Spotify are in breach of its copyright.

To be clear - the tracks are legitimately available on Spotify. It's the order that they're being collated or curated in that's being questioned.

Ministry of Sound claims that it takes a lot of work curating their compilations as well as the skill of their producers in determining the order.

So is this copyrightable?

Media Guardian draws an analogy with football fixtures, which are deemed to be copyright. If I wanted to put Arsenal's fixture list on this website, I legally need to pay a fee to do so. I don't believe that's the case in retrospect. I can report on all the fixtures that have taken place this season to date. But I wonder how useful an analogy this is? Only a very select number of bodies determine the fixture list (The Premier League, the Football League, the FA, Police etc.), whereas anyone can sequence some pre-existing songs.

And this could conceivably extend to radio. Is the order that your station plays songs copyrightable? Because if Ministry of Sound wins its case, then that would seem to be the corollary. Indeed I know that not all stations were completely happy when One Golden Square launched its Compare My Radio website. In that instance, the site replicates what other commercial products do, which is to report what songs have been played after they have aired.

But think about this. Station X plays sequences of three songs between ad breaks. They're a hit music station, so they have a relatively small playlist. So in one break, they play songs A, B and C in that order. Station Y, owned by a rival group, in another part of the country, is also a hit music station. It too plays those same three songs in the same order. Does Station X own the copyright? Can it sue station Y? Is three songs too little? Maybe it should be four? Even then it'd still be possible to run into cases where one station replicates another's playlist order.

And let's return to Spotify for a moment. What if Ministry of Sound inadvertently copied a Spotify user's playlist? I mean there are a lot of users of Spotify, and it's entirely conceivable that a fan of "Dubstep Classics" has already created a playlist with some of the same tracks in order.

Indeed, a really malicious user might seek to circumvent Ministry of Sound by selecting a series of likely tracks that could appear on a future album, and then creating every possible combination of those tracks. While 10! (ten factorial) for ten tracks is a large number - 3,628,000 - computers do let us get through these things quite quickly. Would the copyright of every combination of those tracks be owned by our smart user, thus preventing a record company playing those tracks in any of those orders? If so, then this would prevent anyone else using those particular tracks in any order at all!

I would argue that while the skill of the mixer (or the engineer who's using the software that actually does the mixing in many cases) is perhaps copyrightable, the order of the songs in an unmixed Spotify playlist is neither here nor there. And perhaps a user should be prevented from using copyrightable album titles for their playlsits. But if a sequence of songs is copyrightable, then how long does that sequence need to be? Is just playing Blurred Lines followed by We Can't Stop It copyrightable?

I'd argue that the case needs to be thrown out. But then I'm not a copyright lawyer...

RIP: My Local HMV

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Super Trouper

Today came the sad news that another batch of 37 HMVs are to close within the next few weeks. Included amongst them is my local HMV - a shop where, on and off, I've been shopping since 1980.

Indeed, the first ever record I bought came from that branch of HMV. Yes, at some point in late 1980 I bought Super Trouper by Abba for about 99p (which puts into perspective the fact that a single today on iTunes is likely to cost 79p. By this calculator's measure 99p in 1980 would be £3.95 today).

The assistant turned around and picked it off the shelves behind them where all the singles were kept in chart order. I remember being disappointed that the single came with just a generic pale blue Epic sleeve, and not something with a picture.

I excitedly returned home to play it on my mum's old record player, which dated from some years previously. It had almost certainly never had a new stylus, and the speaker was built into the record player which still had a 78rpm option. I was devastated when I discovered that it had a scratch! The following day - was it half-term? - I got a replacement.

My friend from next door also bought a copy. I think it was his first record too. And he too had to get his replaced. Perhaps there was a problem with the batch. I think Super Trouper may have already been at number one when I bought it, because I remember being disappointed when it started to drop out of the charts fairly soon afterwards. I'd bought it, so it should still be at number one!

HMV was one of a number of places I could buy records locally. There was an independent record shop across the road from the HMV, where I spent about the same amount of time as part of my Saturday tour through the town centre, doing more browsing than buying. Record buying locally would also include WH Smith, Woolworth's, the local department store Pearson's in the early years, and for a while there was an Our Price too once the shopping centre had opened.

But HMV was there longest. It's still in the same site on Church Street that it's always been - I think it may have expanded from one unit and into two at some point because it used to be a lot narrower as many record shops were.

I can't say I know or ever knew the staff in there. And I realise that this probably just comes across as a man in his forties wallowing in nostalgia in a very sub-Nick Hornby style.

It's not even as though music has ever been the be-all and end-all of my life. I read Smash Hits and Number One magazines a little, and we watched Top of the Pops in my family, but not religiously. But I probably saw as much music on things like Noel Edmond's Multi-Coloured Swap Shop as anywhere. I didn't even listen to a great deal of Radio 1 at the time (I certainly wasn't listening to Capital). Remember you're talking about someone who didn't even realise until well after he was quite famous, that the boy he sat next to in secondary school was in one of the most popular bands of the early nineties.

But back to the records.

Flash

Sometime during the Christmas 1980 school holidays, we all trooped off to the local ABC to see Flash Gordon. Yes - that one, with Brian Blessed (although perhaps more excitingly for us, Peter Duncan from Blue Peter was in it). The Empire Strikes Back had came out in the year, and Superman II was coming soon - we'd see anything with a science fiction theme. None of us were particularly big Queen fans, but coming out of that I remember humming the music and wanting to get it. We'd been to an afternoon screening, and there was still enough time before the shops shut to get to HMV and buy a copy of the single. That record got played to death in our house. My friend next door got the whole album at some time around then, but I was still a singles man. And yes, I did, at some point, put some transfers on the cover.

Stand and Deliver

I do remember heading down to HMV on the Monday that Stand and Deliver came out. The previous Saturday, the video of the Adam and the Ants classic had been shown on Swap Shop (or possibly a Saturday evening show, but Late Late Breakfast had yet to start), and that was enough for me. It was amazing! In that first week, to help shift copies, the single came with a poster carefully folded around it. That obviously went up in my bedroom. He was called Adam after all!

And the following Sunday it had gone straight to number one. Don't forget, this was 1981 and singles did not routinely debut at number one. This was very unusual.

Added to all this excitement, I remember dad telling me he'd met someone in a park who'd been in the video. He thought it'd been shot in Trent Park which was quite close by, but in fact it was shot at Hatfield House (not itself all that far off either). Either way, that didn't worry me though.
An interesting aside, though - I now learn that Amanda Donohoe was in the video! I knew her from some of those late eighties Ken Russell films that are so hard to get hold of now, and of course LA Law, of which I was a big fan! But I digress.

I still find myself drawn into HMV whenever I'm passing it. I was in my local soon-to-closed branch just this weekend.

Of course it's symptomatic of the way we "consume" music and video today, that a specialist high street retailer isn't relevant to many people any more. Never mind iTunes, it seems as though we're as happy renting music and video now. And it's interesting that only this week, I read that Spotify is trying to negotiate cheaper and broader licencing deals with the record labels.

Maybe it's generational. But owning rather than renting is how I like my music.


Note: I seem to have glossed over the fact that my second single was A Little in Love by Cliff Richard. I think I was desperate to buy something at the time, and I didn't know what. So I came home with that. That's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it.

Bellowhead at the Roundhouse

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Bellowhead - Roundhouse Nov 2012-9

I think Bellowhead is probably my favourite live band. They've just started a new tour, and last night it reached the wonderful Roundhouse in Camden.

Cue lots of dancing, jigging, and a bit of polka on the floor of the Roundhouse.

Watching Bellowhead makes you think that them going on tour is probably like throwing a large party each night. I'm certain I'd find it exhausting. And there are so many instruments on stage from fiddles to a full range of brass, but they all add to a wonderful sound that is superb of CD, but utterly brilliant live. I know they've played a few festivals recently, but seeing them at indoor venues where the music doesn't drift away is definitely the way forward. Go and see them.

I should add that I really enjoyed the support band - Mama Rosin from Switzerland. I shall be checking out their music.

(I'd heartily concur with this Guardian review of last night's show).

Bellowhead - Roundhouse Nov 2012-7


Bellowhead - Roundhouse Nov 2012-10

A few more pictures here.

Alison Krauss & Union Station

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Alison Krauss & Union Station 2

I do love hearing Alison Krauss. Last time I saw her, she was touring with Robert Plant and was playing in Wembley Arena. The Royal Festival Hall is a much nicer venue, and she was accompanied by Union Station, her band of some twenty years featuring Dan Tyminski who shares vocal duties.

This concert was billed as being part of the London Jazz Festival - something I found curious, as it's clearly bluegrass/country. Still, if it gets them here, then I'm not bothered.

The musicianship on display is fantastic, never more so than during a solo performance from Jerry Douglas who played a truly wonderful medley on his dobro.

I especially enjoyed her cover, from early in Krauss's career, of Baby, Now That I've Found You, as well as a reminder that When You Say Nothing At All is a country classic, even if British audiences now think of it as a Ronan Keating song.

For an encore, the band played largely around a single microphone, attenuating the volume by moving nearer or further away. An exceptional evening.

Alison Krauss & Union Station

Elbow at St Paul's Cathedral

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Elbow-29

Last night Elbow played an exclusive set for Absolute Radio in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral - the first time that a rock band has ever performed there. It looked and sounded stunning.

Watch an interview here and listen to the set on-air on 5 June.

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Looking down through the grate in the main cathedral's floor. You can just about see Guy Garvey in the top left hand corner. Click on the picture to get to a larger Flickr version.

Elbow-24

Elbow-21

Elbow-13

More photos from the set here.

And I also got to take some photos inside the main cathedral when ordinarily they don't allow it. What I really should have done is brought a tripod and used HDR. However, I didn't.

St Paul's Cathedral-1

St Paul's Cathedral-3

More from inside St Paul's Cathedral here.

What Do I Do With My Music?

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I'm facing a dilemma. I'm wondering whether I should ditch Apple for my music needs...

Here's where I am, as Duncan Bannatyne might say:

  • I use iTunes to manage my music and audio. I have over 160GB of music/audio. Partly because I have a "reasonable" amount of music; partly because I rip that music at high quality from CD; partly because I save a lot of radio; and partly because I listen to audiobooks (again at high quality).
  • I have an iPod Classic, and it's full. To get around this, I ensure that only the audiobooks that I need at any time are uploaded to it. And not every podcast makes the cut (Even then, I only have the most recent three on the device, but whole series of things like In Our Time exist in my library). But when all is said and done, my iPod is teetering - close to full.
  • I have four large boxes of CDs I have yet to rip. I won't pretend that this is my most listened to music. It's sitting in boxes after all. There are partworks that I once collected (Jazz Greats anyone?), or BBC Music Magazine cover CDs that I've collected. But at the very least I want to digitise them.

So what should I do?

Well carry on digitising for starters. But I have some issues with my current Apple solution:

Pros

  • iTunes is all-encompassing. It handles podcasts satisfactorily. I like Genius and its playlist functionality.
  • I use an Airport Express to play iTunes audio through my main stereo. It works well. I could use an Apple TV if I wanted to spend £99.
  • I use an old iPod Touch (2nd generation?) as a remote control. It all hooks together beautifully.
  • It works with Audible.
  • Third party NAS drives - like the one I have - offer iTunes Server.

Cons

  • iTunes is awful. It's long overdue a root and branch rewrite from the ground up. It's clunky. It's unintuitive unless you know it intimately and are prepared to Google for hours. It's sluggish on moderately powered PCs (yes - I'm using the PC version). But I will concede that you can get what you want done on it, even if it's often unnecessarily complicated.
  • I'm concerned about the future of the iPod Classic. I'm not interested in an iPhone, or upgrading my iPod Touch. In any case the price of flash memory means that getting upwards of 160GB on one of these devices is still impossible, and would be frighteningly expensive even if Apple sold one. At time of writing, 64GB is the largest capacity iPod Touch available, but it costs 45% more than the much larger capacity Classic. And the Classic has not been updated in the last 18 months. It was not mentioned at all last September, and because it's not touchy-shiny, you worry that it's an unloved product at Apple. All you can really do with it is listen to music (even video watching isn't much fun on that size screen).

The cloud locker services are coming. Amazon has launched in the US, and Google is rumoured to be launching any day now with its version. They're both effectively hard-disks in the sky. Because record companies have yet to play ball (or at least agree on the "ball" rules), Google and Amazon are having to maintain multiple versions of the same tracks for each user. In the longer term, offering 50GB space really only works if the Lady Gaga track I've uploaded to my service is identical to the one being "uploaded" by thousands of other users. We can all share the same file.

At the moment, there's nothing to really replace Apple that's satisfactory. The cloud lockers are appealing, but not really fit for purpose right now (although we've yet to see details of Google's offering). And uploading 200GB+ to one of the services is not appealing over ADSL.

So I'll continue to use Apple for the forseeable future.

But if a new, larger iPod Classic is not forthcoming, I might have to fundamentally rethink my music future. There are other ways to get audio from my NAS to my hi-fi. My BluRay has an Android app to control it, so my aging iPod Touch could yet be consigned to dust.

We live in interesting times, to quote someone...

The Unthanks

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You can only hope that the current Unthanks' tour must surely be coming to an end very soon. Their website suggest a few days time.

The reason I say that is that Rachel Unthank is currently very heavily pregnant!

She and her sister Becky shared the singing duties last week at The Junction in Cambridge in a set that was built to a certain extent around their recently released album, Last.

The Unthanks are from the North East and make the most of their heritage in their music, seeking out old songs from the area as well as writing new ones.

The last time I saw them, they were playing at Latitude last year early on during the day on the main stage. I must admit that their music was fairly lost in the surroundings (this year, Bellowhead are playing the festival circuit and I wonder if they'll work better).

But in the intimate confines of The Junction with a seated audience it worked a lot better. And their support band, The Trembling Bells, were pretty decent too.

Piccard in Space

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A couple of weeks ago, saw the premiere of Will Gregory's Piccard in Space at the Southbank.

Before you think anything else: no this is not about Jean-Luc Picard, the fictional Star Trek character, but August Piccard (although if Wikipedia is to be believed, there is a link).

In 1931, Piccard and Paul Kipfer attempted to reach the upper atmosphere in a specially constructed balloon. In that respect, they became very early space pioneers. In that first flight they went up nearly 16km in a flight that lasted a large part of the day.

Will Gregory - one half of Goldfrapp - has written an opera based on this story and it was pretty entertaining. As well as the two explorers in the capsule, Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein play characters, with a scientific subplot explaining the fundamental changes in understanding coming from Einstein that meant that Newton had been wrong.

I must admit that the opera wasn't the best thing I've heard, although I was relatively satisfied with it. I watched the recent Anna Nicole opera on BBC Four recently, and it shares a certain number of stylistic devices (a large chorus permamently on hand). But I'd have liked it to be more electronic and the music closer to the kind of things that Goldfrapp ordinarily do.

The staging was good with a number of projections be well used - for example the dials of the capsule as it ascends. But the music just needed to be a little more - out there.

Anyway, you can hear the opera on Wednesday on Radio 3.

The Most Incredible Thing

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There seems to be a lot of ballet around at the moment. We've just had the awesome Black Swan, and on BBC Four at the moment, we're two thirds of the way into a great behind the scenes documentary about English National Ballet ("Unprecedented access" and all).

Sky Arts has been showing a series of ballets from the Royal Ballet, and BBC Two put its annual Christmas ballet on, Birmingham Royal Ballet's Cinderella.

Then at the weekend, BBC Two showed The Red Shoes as part of a Powell and Pressburger double bill. Whenever that film's on, I can't fail to watch a large chunk of it, even though I have it on DVD.

That all brings us to the Pet Shop Boys' new ballet - The Most Incredible Thing. It's based on a Hans Christian Anderson tale that I only very vaguely recall. Helpfully the programme reprints the story in full, but it's a simple story about a contest to win half a king's kingdom and the hand of his daughter in marriage.

The Pet Shop Boys, of whom I'm a fan, have written this ballet's music and Javier De Frutos has choreographed it. I went to last night's preview - with the opening night being tonight. Overall it was a good evening, although I do have a few reservations. The music is very much what you'd expect from the Pet Shop Boys. I couldn't see into the orchestra pit from my position in the stalls, but although there were live musicians, much of the music sounded like a typical Pet Shop Boys' concert, and therefore could have been driven by Chris Lowe's keyboards.

The lighting and staging was superb. This has always been an area in which the Pet Shop Boys have excelled, and the production makes good use of a circular LED screen which acts as the Act 2 clock.

Because the story revolves around a competition, it's natural that in 2011, this should be realised as a television talent show. There are also plenty of filmed inserts and interludes which are very eye-catching. And I did like the odd nod to PSB hits of the past. In when it looks as though the princess is about to married, we hear thunder reminiscent of the beginning of It's A Sin, and the minister who is to conduct the procedings looks as though he's stepped straight out of that song's video.

I suppose the area I was left a little wanting was the actual dancing. Where ballet and modern dance converge is a tricky area, and I wouldn't like to determine one from the other. I certainly don't expect ballet to just be women in tutus. But while it was proficient, I'm just not sure it was exceptional. The staging certainly seemed to overpower the dance element.

Still, I good evening out, and you come away humming some of the musical numbers. But for dance, I'm more inclined to put my Red Shoes DVD on.

Serendipity Redux

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No, not a very poor film in John Cusack's ouevre.


noun
the occurance and development of events by chance in a happy and beneficial way

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. This is something that sadly the internet is not able to deal with effectively in certain areas. I'm going to talk about music and books, because two experiences just drove this home in case I'd forgotten over the last couple of weeks.

Last week, I visited HMV's flagship branch on Oxford Street. This is somewhere I've been visiting as long as I can remember. While the other "big two" stores - Tower Records on Piccadilly Circus, and the Virgin Megastore at Tottenham Court Road tube station, have long gone, HMV is just about still standing. Who knows for how long?

I wanted to buy the soundtrack to Norwegian Wood. I've not seen the film yet, but I did hear elements of the music played live this time last year when Jonny Greenwood premiered it (and actually seemed to be the key source for the news that Greenwood was composing for the film!). Anyway, the soundtrack album came out last week, and I'm "old" in that music that I care most about, I still buy on CD. I do do download plenty of music too - including being in possession of a long standing eMusic subscription. But you can't beat a CD. Aside from anything else, it's the ultimate back-up device.

While I was downstairs in HMV, I took the opportunity to wander around beyond the soundtrack section. And at the end of a World Music aisle I spotted C'est Chic: French Girl Singers of the 1960s. Now I have something of a soft spot for the music of the Yé-yé girls of the 1960s. But aside from downloading Ne Me Laisse Pas L'Aimer by Brigitte Bardot after hearing it on a lager commercial, I only actually own one other record of music of that type - another compilation. What's more, I didn't buy that album on Amazon, where I do still buy plenty of music. Amazon has no idea that I quite like 1960s French pop. It'd never suggest that I look at it.

But someone at HMV had put the album out on display. I spotted it. And I bought it. I also picked up a Gustavo Dudamel album in the classical music section that had been newly released and was on the shelves. So a trip to HMV for one album resulted in a sale of three albums. Could I have got them cheaper on Amazon? Well the Greenwood album was £1 cheaper, and I didn't check the others. But I'll happily pay a small premium for instant gratification, as well as the knowledge that my opportunities to discover music like this could be going away.

Amazon is great, but there isn't yet an algorithm that reads my mind and determines that I might like something unless I've previously looked at it (Indeed, Amazon currently believe that I want a Panasonic camcorder simply because I used the store to find recommendations for a friend who is in the market for a camcorder).

Then last night I was at the second installment of the Nordic Noir Book Club. If you hadn't noticed, there's been an explosion of crime fiction coming from the north. Mankell's Wallander led the way, and then Larsson's Elizabeth Salander jumped out onto the scene. Now Swedish, Norwegian and Icelandic translators are being kept very busy by a steady stream of other authors, many of who are excellent.

Last night it was the turn of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir who until recently I hadn't read (I'm about halfway through one of her Thóra Gudmundsdóttir novels, having not managed to finish it before last night's event. It's very good though!

During the interval, I decided to buy the other two books she has in English translation currently. A nice chap from the Newham Bookshop was on hand to sell copies - pretty normal at an event like this. Some bookshop or other will always supply staff and books (with the help of the publisher) - especially if the author has travelled from Iceland especially.

The lady in the queue in front of me had thumbed through a copy and then she asked the chap manning the stand if he knew whether the books were available as eBooks. You see, she had recently been given an eBook reader and wanted to use it with Yrsa's books. He very politely said that he didn't know, but since hers is a major publisher it was likely. She walked away.

I felt desperately sorry for her, and wonder how much other bookshop assistants are getting similar queries. eBook sales completely cut out bookshops. You deal directly either with the publisher, or more likely with an enormous middle-man like Amazon or Apple, both of whom have their own devices and ebook technologies to sell.

Waterstones (part of the HMV group) has struggled, and small independent bookshops are constantly fighting for their lives. It's quite likely that in the not-too-distant future bookshops as we know them will have gone. So will the record shops, and CD or DVD retailers. We'll all have to purchase everything online.

You won't be able to get a copy of your Kindle edition signed by the author. You won't chance across a copy of French 1960s pop compilation. And we'll be a lesser society for that.

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