Sunday, 31 December 2017

Shame and scandal - a game of reputations

2017: the year of risk-averse defenestration

A while back, I was at a local station, in the meeting room. There were Gold and Silver discs, snaps of celebs with DJs, major station events, directors
           Who, me? I deny everything
and dignitaries; the usual. And 
a large framed photo of Rolf Harris, with local schoolkids and a couple of jocks, all grinning for the camera, behind a panel with the station logo. This was well after Harris' public fall from grace: awkward. I gently pointed this out; they didn't thank me.

This year, mainstream media have been lightning-fast in dropping disgraced notables with less than perfect personal lives. Radio has long had a ripe history of bad behaviour and downright nasty control freakery. There's a well-established routine to make it all go away: 

1: Drop the accused, instantly.
2: Never mention him (it's always a him) again; he never existed.
3: Watch the waters close over his head. 
And breathe.

It's not just radio, of course. 

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Royalties! What's mine is mine, what's yours is yours - most of the time

The joys of music publishing

                                  Pennies and pounds?
If you can, and you're West Midlands based, catch a John Mostyn music biz session. Last week's, in south Brum, was a belter. There's another in January, this time in north(ish) Birmingham; details are below. John told amazing music publishing tales. Some were jaw-dropping; some hilarious. And some were very sad.

I'm not retelling the stories. If you want to hear them, go to the next session; check his Facebook page. I'll be there for more info, anecdotes, and tales of scurrilousness and nobility.

I left thinking about one little corner of the royalty distribution world: how local musos can get local airplay, but miss out on payments. It's absolutely not right. But no matter how fair distributors PRS (the Performing Rights Society) sets out to be, the system fails these musicians. It's not perfect, not by a long chalk. 

Sunday, 3 December 2017

It's only taken me 50 years to work this one out

Onstage chemistry. Powerful stuff.

This time last week, I made very heavy weather of the day. Physically, I was completely shattered; my head, on the other hand, was spinning furiously. I really wasn't up to much.

And what was this about? Simple. I'd sung in a bloody brilliant choral concert at Birmingham Town Hall, the previous day. Now, singing in a choir is really no big deal; people do this all the time. I've been singing for maybe five years with the same group of very nice people; it's thoroughly enjoyable. 

But because I participated in last week's shindig – a proper, pomp and circumstance, full-on, full scale Classical affair, with loads of voices and an orchestra - I now have a much better idea of the things that make live musicians, or for that matter any live performer, tick. It's taken me this long to work it out; odd, considering I've been going to gigs for over fifty years.  

Sunday, 19 November 2017

A Fairport alumnus in trouble; time to rally round...

A life of great guitar: Jerry Donahue

The peerless Tony Kelsey messaged me the other day. Tony's been in more bands that you can shake a stick at in his forty or so years on stage. He messaged to tell me of a sweet local initiative to benefit fellow guitar player Jerry Donahue

You may know the story; you may not. The bad news came in 2016. Jerry suffered a catastrophic stroke. He will almost certainly never play again. Strokes can do that: bang! and there's a whole new and horrible raw deal.

Jerry is from the States, based on the West Coast. He worked over here with great distinction in the 80s and 90s. He hasn't had much of a UK profile for, ooh, maybe twenty years. So, unsurprisingly and sadly, his news didn't make too much of a ripple: I missed it last year. And I was thunder struck when Tony got in touch with the news. 

Sunday, 12 November 2017

BBC DG Tony Hall detonates a small but positive earthquake at Local Radio. Good man!

At last, a solid and sensible move at Local Radio level!

                         Are the clouds about to lift? Very possibly...                Photo Ariane Hackbert

Last Wednesday, I was with some terrifyingly excellent Institute of Professional Sound peeps. They handle all forms of audio: film, TV, recording, live, and radio. A pet peeve was sloppy audio standards at TV (David Attenborough's Blue Planet 2 voice track got a mention...). 

Falling standards was a big topic. The web came in for a pasting. Realistically, clickbait-driven web practice is bad news for old-school craft skills, in radio as elsewhere. Ten years of web audio shout-outs have drowned out a century of good practice, and twenty years of broadcast networking has shrunk learning opportunities.

So it was an absolute joy to learn, that same night, that the Director General of the BBC, Tony Hall, has announced he is putting a stop to the ghastly decades-long policy of cuts at BBC Local RadioIt is hugely promising on many levels. 

Sunday, 5 November 2017

It was twenty years ago today; Notorious are coming out to play

Hooked on Classics, look what you started... 

Eh? What? Read on...
I don't write an awful lot about Classical music here. Recently, I haven't written an awful lot at all; that's about to change.

I've just finished up a show for Brum Radio, one of those shows where we talk and my guest picks the music. This time, I sneaked a few other clips in; couldn't resist it. I've posted a link at the bottom of this post. Do listen: I'm proud of this one, noisy though it is at times - we recorded in my car.

There's a solid but unexpected Birmingham connection. Who would have thought that Brummie Louis Clark, who handled most of the early arrangements for the Electric Light Orchestra, would have inadvertently inspired a girl who went on to be one of the most influential women in Birmingham music? This happened though his successful (but excruciating) Hooked On Classics series. Go figure.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

A West Midlands YouTube chart - August 2017

New players? Yup. And Leshurr crushes it again.

This post covers a Radio to Go fixture: The Summer 2017 Chart for local acts' YouTube views. 

Up until last year I did this every six months. Workload and illness put a stop to that in February, but I'm back now.

House compilation rules are:
  • The chart displays acts that are local to, or who have come the West Midlands
  • Videos must be three years old or less
  • The two most viewed videos go into the reckoning
  • The numbers can change. One in particular is going up by tens of thousands a day right now, because it's so new: Lotto Boyz' Birmingham (Anthem). By the time you read this the numbers will probably need revising afresh. But by definition all totals will be out of date by the time I publish this. 
  • Official videos preferred where possible: no wobbly smartphone live stuff.
  • I do make mistakes. I miss things; please so sing out if you spot something amiss and I will it fix.
  • Totals were checked early this past week.
So here's the chart, and I have a lengthy commentary afterwards. There's a LOT to digest.

Artists Vid 1 Vid 2 Total
Lady Leshurr Queens Speech 5 Queens Speech 4 67213030
Jacob Banks Worthy Love Me (with Wide Awake) 11810818
Jorja Smith Where Did I go? Blue Lights 5608426
Laura Mvula Overcome Phenomenal Woman 3262702
Lotto Boyz Birmingham (Anthem) ft JayKae Bad Gyal 3010731
Editors Life Is A Fear Ocean Of Night 2722388
Oceans Ate Alaska Vultures and Sharks Escapist 1842741
Mahalia We The Generation (With Rudimental) I Remember 1558944
Robert Plant Rainbow Turn It Up 985199
Tom Aspaul Better By Your Side (with Aeble) Do It Well (with Xyconstant) 833986

Claire Maguire Elizabeth Taylor Don't Mess Me Around 742472
Napalm Death How The Years Condemn Smash A Single Digit 647834
Tempa Gimme Respect Road rage 582753
Peace Gen Strange World Pleasure 576992
Tantskii Storyteller Storyteller pt 3 555374
Broken Witt Rebels Guns Georgia Pine 526214
Anaal Nakraath Idol We Will Fucking Kill You 348293
Call Me Unique Time To Love
Superfood Mood Bomb You Can Believe 274546
Ekkah Last Chance To Dance Small Talk 259050

Electric Swing Circus Mamacita Empires 220919
Swim Deep Namaste One Great Song And I Could Change The World 217659
Goldie I Adore You Prism 215673
Dapz On The Map Oh My Days Shinobi Pt1 209955
Dexys Both Sides Now Carrickfergus 194183
Stone Foundation Your Balloon Is Rising Beverley 159233
The Enemy It's Automatic Don't Let Nothing get in the way 125871
Beverley Knight Middle Of Love Marvellous Party 123927
Slick Don BRAP Feds 112523
Scott Matthews Elusive Let's Get You Home 104890

Jaws Right in Front Of Me What We Haven't Got Yet 90458
Magnum Crazy Old Mothers
Laurence Jones Got No Place To Go Touch Your Moonlight 74527
Jump The Shark Robot Song There's Always One 64292
God Damn Dead To Me Shoe Prints In The Dust 57479
The Twang New Love On The 24th 51672
Answer Back She's into Rock'n'Roll You've Got Me 49660
Rebecca Downes Believe Messed Up 49637
Harry and The Howlers Hell In High Heels
Truemendous OTYL L.I.S.P. 39314

The Wonder Stuff For The Broken Hearted Don't You Ever 33789
Lion Art and Friendly Fire  Run Away
The Assist Love Tell Her How You Feel 29738
Ed Geater Steady Strides (Enigma Dubz mix) Don't Think 26854
Dissident Prophet Human 2.0 Writing on the wall 24254
Tayla Call Me Danger Coming Back Around 24146
Johnny Foreigner If you can't be honest be awesome Le Schwing 23880
Cantaloop Dig It
Kioko Tired of Lying Deadly Roots 23103
Victories At Sea Bloom Up 21857

Some conclusions? Just a few

This chart raises almost as many questions as it answers. There are big changes. New tech has barged in and upset the applecart - again. It also shows how videos are consumed, with massive impacts on this chart.

We're looking at two universes. I'm really not sure if the same measurement criteria apply: one sector racks up numbers far, far in excess of other genres, and in many cases these do not chime with Spotify numbers or sales patterns.

So it's a different game, again. We've always had record company 'assisted' numbers - that's just an extension of chart-fiddling practises from last century, and I'm pretty sure that's always affected this chart at the top end. But there's more going on. As usual, the new stuff comes out of left-field.

Brum Grime - the BIG new factor

First it was underground. Now it's in the open, with truly startling numbers. Brum Grime is huge. Interestingly, Walsall's favourite son Goldie, now doing different things, places below the current hot male acts (JayKae, Dapz, etc), who have racked up sensational viewing figures.

Towering above everyone is Lady Leshurr, whose two most-viewed videos do better than the rest of the chart put together. Interestingly, her recent Queens Speech videos are made in bright sunshine or with well-lit backgrounds, and they use lots of cute post-production. They do better than her newer, darker, but still successful Unleshed series.

Leshurr hasn't stopped growing her numbers, unlike some of the mega acts that have preceded her at the top of the chart. Her already vast totals show a 40% leap up from last year. I strongly suspect that the vast majority of her viewers are female, in sharp contrast to her less successful male counterparts. There's a couple of reasons for this.

So who is looking at what? And where?

I do think the numbers need to be taken with some caution - Grime videos, especially from blokes (the overwhelming majority of videos, if not by viewing numbers), might just be made for smartphone consumption. It's certainly statement music. The only time I hear Grime, unless I tune in to 1Xtra or something more specialised still, is on smartphones played by spotty white boys on the bus or the train. I also hear it from amped up sound systems in muscle cars. So, yes, it's on the radio and online, but essentially it's underground... just with massive numbers.

There may be, too, a different consumption pattern to that of conventional music videos. The density of Grime lyrics makes for repeated visits; that's generally not the case with 'straight' music videos. A Grime video is an end in itself; a straight music video is normally a sales tool, made to sell a record.

Boys are still boys (sigh)

Interestingly, Grime shares values with old school Metal: Leshurr apart, it's largely young men with attitude protesting an unfair world. Sometimes those protests are entirely justified. But often our boy is just bragging, or even lecturing, with his heavy mates, all blokes, all on the bad side of town, or looming from a muscle car with blackout windows. Where women are present, they tend to be adoring girlie types wiggling in the background. Oh dear.

Fine, if that's what you want, and a lot of people do. Me, I've seen all that just a few too many times, in Grime and elsewhere. Hard Rock used to be a particularly fertile ground. 

Elsewhere? Not good news

Meantime, over in video-as-promotional-tool territory, things are rough. You can knock up a video on an iPhone, and many people do - it works great where the groove or the rhymes are the heart of the project.

But that doesn't quite work for rock, folk, jazz, dance or indie. The past five years or so have seen less new videos being produced by acts at the lower end of the chart. Those videos cost, and times are tighter than ever. And there seems to be a slackening off of viewing figures for Indie and Rock; some big names are sliding down, or have even slid off this chart. Take a look at last year's chart for a comparison. And on the more current front, some of our hottest and mo
st tipped new Indie outfits, who didn't make the chart, are scoring numbers that are, frankly, embarrassing.

Winners? Look at the astonishing Male/Female splits. 

Take a bow, Lady Leshurr, Jacob Banks, Jorja Smith, Mahalia, Lotto Boyz, Tempa and a few others... Lower down, I'm delighted to see some pals like Harry and the Howlers, Ed Geater and the (big-time) return of Electric Swing Circus making inroads. 

But take a bow, women artists: it's not just Leshurr's contribution that makes the views by gender split so interesting.

In this list we have 14 female or female-fronted acts, 36 male or male-fronted. 
Now look at these totals:

Views for Female acts 79,517,768
Views for Male acts  25,983,582

Average for Female  5,678,941
Without Leshurr 946,518

Average for Male 72,766

So, while the field is still dominated by blokes numerically, the reactions to their work is dwarfed by reactions to Female or Female-fronted videos. Even when you strip out Leshurr's extraordinary numbers, which you really should not. Lessons to be learned, maybe? 

The improvers

You want more? Big improvers on last year are shown in these two breakout charts, sorted by percentage and numerical increases respectively.

Artists % difference
Artists Difference
Electric Swing Circus 1294.07
Lady Leshurr 20,012,294
Jorja Smith 605.24
Jacob Banks 7,205,217
Laurence Jones 183.34
Jorja Smith 4,813,180
Jacob Banks 156.44
Lotto Boyz 3,010,731
Claire Maguire 113.93
Laura Mvula 1,465,363
Dexys 101.48
Mahalia 663,679
Beverley Knight 90.03
Tempa 582,753
Stone Foundation 81.65
Claire Maguire 395,405
Laura Mvula 81.53
Goldie 215,673
Mahalia 74.13
Dapz on the Map 209,955

So that's it. Lots to glean from a chart, which, while imperfect, still has trends to digest. I wrote over a year ago about the rise of female artists in the region. It's still going on. 

And if I missed you out, holler. 

More music business posts on Radio To Go


I still do stuff on Brum Radio, a volunteer-run internet station. It's online heredownload the Brum Radio app here. My Brum Radio page is here; scroll down for all the shows. 


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Sunday, 30 July 2017

Have we lost much? Oh, yes we have.

Ugly thinking; changing tech

Missing you already....
Things change. Last month, United, successors to Continental airlines, cancelled daily New York flights from Birmingham as of October. It’s a Brexit thing; also a consolidation thing. We're promised a new airline on the route from May 2018; it's looking pretty expensive for a low-fares operation. 

I used that flight a lot in the noughties - four hops yearly to the New York hq of RCS, the radio software people. I went over, two weeks at a time, to work with the RCS development teams on several projects. 

Looking back, now that United are closing my old route to New York, it was clearly a decade when things really changed at radio. Big forces bore down on the sector, kicking the industry into the 21st century. 

Did we lose anything? Oh, I think we did. 

The Noughties, Radio and an unforgiving business climate

At the turn of the century, RCS was at the top of its game. It had a powerful, exciting mix of radio veterans and brilliant developers, hand-picked by the extraordinary Andrew Economos. It was Andrew who first thought up software to schedule music at radio. For those who rage about Robot Radio, I would say that wasn't what drove Andrew’s concept. His idea was simple: get the best out of your music library. To do that takes knowledge, skill, humility, and a willingness to engage in dialogue and take different views on board.

Andrew had all that; his company reflected his thinking.

But that idealistic, individual approach would not survive more rigorous commercial competition, nor the corporate thinking that emerged as computing power increased. By the time I arrived, RCS’s unique market advantage was under attack, after two astonishing decades of dominance. At radio, as scheduling spread across networks, with multiple rival systems coming in to play, elegant programming was increasingly devalued. Automation became the norm; presenter input was devalued. When research software was grafted on to the system, risk-averse programming gained the upper hand for good. 

It's one thing to work from a paper print-out - effectively that's theory. It's quite another when music is set up for the presenter on a play-out system from which there is no deviation. That's practice.

I'm not saying that structure isn't a bad thing. 20th century radio allowed an awful lot of 'creative' behaviour. But for every maverick genius radio presenter, there were at least twenty self-indulgent idiots. Both ends of that spectrum gave management headaches; both were dealt with the same way. There were, and are, of course, decent managers who could handle great talent. But they were, and are, thin on the ground. 

Changing times on the tech front too: computer networks finally grew strong enough to carry the data needed to run multiple stations from distance. So there was massive consolidation: station after station went dark, replaced by remote, centralised programming. The road to consolidation was clear and wide open. Advertising revenue stayed relatively constant; staff costs were slashed.  

The web, consolidation and a takeover 

All this was in the noughties, before the web muscled in on music distribution, undermining radio’s ground and sucking up revenue. Things couldn’t last. Towards the end of that decade, feisty, creative RCS was bought up by Clear Channel. 

Culturally, the two companies could not have been more different. One was a blue-state East Coast operation, eccentric at times, yes, but home to creative oddballs and blue sky thinkers. The other operated out of San Antonio, Texas, deep in the heart of red-state Trump territory, where the art of the deal is: I’m right, and your opinions don’t matter anyway. Of course the incoming company brought their own, highly developed business systems in. RCS became a managed division of a large media empire.  

Interestingly, Clear Channel’s parent company, after gutting maybe a thousand stations and throwing the bitty remains back, is now struggling with an awful lot of debt. That's a change they didn’t see coming.

Much of this is ancient history: consolidation first, followed by the power of the web, has left radio much altered, for better and for worse; there's no going back. There is still a place for great radio if you want it. Podcasts and web radio prove it. It’s cheap to get on air; powerful tools are there at the click of a mouse. So if you believe in it, do it. Nobody's going to stop you. But there's an awfully big distance to cover from wanting to do something different... to actually making a mark.  

Newer, uglier, thinking

So what else has the web given us? Well... distraction and trivia for a start. Cheap and easy thinking. The web magnifies and distorts. Complex concepts are drowned in shouting, trivia and click bait. That brutish business stance of Clear Channel I mentioned above - by no means unique to that company, of course - has been ramped up to damaging levels.

That's the huge 21st century change: who shouts loudest wins. You don't like it? Well, here's a basket of adorable puppies on Facebook.  

Taking stock...

So let’s look at those noughties United flights. They carried, overwhelmingly, Brits. Maybe 80% on each flight. All on shopping sprees with the dollar at 2 for a pound. 

Now you get $1.10 for your post-referendum pound. Aviation fuel is paid for in dollars. The US is costly to reach, and bloody expensive once you land. We’re heading elsewhere for our holidays. That's one main reason for the end of those daily BHX-EWR hops. 

Thanks, Brexit. 
Thanks, ugly thinking. 
Thanks, 'I'm right and your opinions don't matter'...

Things are different now, all over. I'm not sorry I got the chance to bounce around New York for a decade. It's, however, somewhat arresting to look back and see what was going on after a few years. 

Yup, we've gained a lot. But I think we've lost a lot more. 

See more radio and broadcasting posts on Radio To Go


I still do stuff on Brum Radio, a volunteer-run internet station. It's online heredownload the Brum Radio app here. My Brum Radio page is here; scroll down for all the shows. 


I'd love it if you signed up!

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