Thursday, 31 July 2014

What is the contemporary relevance of the album?

I keep reading about musicians questioning the validity of the long-player album format, but then releasing albums. What's going on there?

Let's look at a few case studies.

Radiohead are notable for long criticising the format, but then releasing The King of Limbs as an album a few years ago (even if it was on the shorter side). Subsequently releasing a more songs digitally from TKOL sessions including the sublime 'The Daily Mail', I can't help but feel that this was their compromise and that alongside the remix album which followed (and the revelation of the hidden tracklising of blending OK Computer and In Rainbows together) that fans were to create their own tracklistings from the 13 songs released from this era - I know I did. Twice.

Smashing Pumpkins, as mentioned elsewhere on this blog, are systematically releasing individual songs to be packaged as 11 4-track ep's as part of a mammoth 44-track 'album'. The idea is to focus on the songs themselves and allow fans to be a part of the process of the project as well, seeing how it all develops over time. Subsequently releasing 2012's well-received Oceania album as a conventional full-length release billed as 'an album within an album' and one cannot help but think that this project has been abandoned. 

Pixies released three 4-track ep's of new material ahead of collating them into their first new 'album' in over 20 years. The critical response centred on the content not being a new 'album' at all, but merely a collection of songs from their ep's, calling into question what a 'collection of songs' even is anymore.

Are we stuck between a rock and a hard place where musicians no longer desire to release songs in the conventional way, but not quite prepared to take the plunge? It appears so.

Consider the new single-download culture which hit the headlines last year with astronomically high downloads of hit songs from Daft Punk and Robin what's-his-face. It's big. I have also read convincing arguments that more revenue can be made from releasing singles and not albums (more money for less work?) which is suggestive of this trend continuing, if bands bothered to release singles anymore - many don't bother at all. It's all changing. Again.

As David Byrne explains in his excellent book 'How Music Works', technology has always dictated how long music releases are. From old shellac records through to CD, the length of a particular work was only as long as the format would allow. That is, until now. We are still stuck with the notion that an 'album' ought to be around 50 minutes, plus or minus 10/20%. Digital mediums mean music can be infinitely long (and indeed a song designed to run for 1000 continuous years is now in it's 14th year).

Complaint's that Radiohead's The King of Limbs was 'too short' highlights the fixed notions about what an album is and how long it should be (it was in fact only about 5 minutes shorter than the previous album In Rainbows; this is about the length of one Radiohead song).

I like short albums, long albums, and everything in between. Though I make my own collections of songs in the form of personalised playlists, I still consider albums as the authoritative compilation of songs as constructed by artists themselves and the order in which they wish the songs to be heard. My own compilations act as companions to albums, not replacements.

Am I alone here?

Tweets @musicpiracyblog

Friday, 25 July 2014

Anatomy of a research article #1

In the first in this occasional series, I discuss an article of mine from a few years ago titled 'Artist autonomy in a digital era: The case of Nine Inch Nails'. Published in the journal Empirical Musicology Review, it can be accessed here.

The article adopts a case study approach, reviewing the self-distribution successes of Nine Inch Nails, and reasons that the risk-taking strategies employed are perhaps not feasible for other musicians. So, what's going on then?

Nine Inch Nails amassed a loyal fanbase throughout the 90's thanks to the backing of record label Interscope (the 'old model') and so had a sure audience who would be interested in new releases in the 00's when releasing music using more innovative means (the 'new model'). From flat out giving away albums for free to offering super deluxe packages, the control Nine Inch Nails (or rather Trent Reznor) had by shunning record labels really led to an exciting time for Nine Inch Nails fans.

In the article, a model (which was proposed by Mike Masnick in 2009) to account for Reznor's success is reviewed by making reference to academic research. Though the article finds that the model is overly simplified, it does agree with the points raised and sets out a list of suggestions for other bands to follow.

The thrust behind these new in-depth blog entries on my articles is to bypass the difficulty some of you are having in accessing my articles. However, as this one is published in an open-access journal and is free for all to download, I will say no more but rather direct you to the article itself to read on.

Tweets @musicpiracyblog


Brown, S.C. (2011). Artist autonomy in a digital era: The case of Nine Inch Nails. Empirical Musicology Review, 6(4), 198-213.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Is piracy 'good' or 'bad'? Guest blog entry on Music Business Research website

Hop on over to the Music Business Research website where you will find a new guest blog entry from myself posing the rather ridiculous question: "Is piracy 'good' or 'bad'?".

Rather than aiming to address that question literally (that would certainly require an economist), I approach the question from the point of view of a psychologist by explaining how different parties can make converging claims, even when drawing from the same information - it's all about beliefs.

In doing so, the short article introduces a few key concepts and ultimately exposes how challenging it is for different stakeholders to agree on anything. 

A key point raised which I would like to reiterate here is that it is only the controversial research articles which claim that piracy has no negative impact on the creative industries which reach popular media. Why? Because news that confirms something obvious is not news, it's just 'facts', and no-one cares about them, do they? And, more importantly, because newspapers like to feed their readers what they want to hear so they remain loyal to them (for obvious financial gain).

Once more, it's all about beliefs. As psychologist Shermer (2011) succinctly explains: "Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow" (p. 5)

There's nothing wrong with being wrong, the last time I checked. It's time we were more open minded about things like this and developed better critical skills for evaluating who reports on what, and how they report it. Everyone can't be right, can they?

Tweets between meats @musicpiracyblog


Brown, S.C. (2014, July). Is piracy 'good' or 'bad'? - guest post by Steven Brown. Guest appearance on Music Business Research website. 

Shermer, M. (2011). The Believing Brain. Times Books: New York.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Streaming services to count towards UK chart rankings (and some points raised)

So it looks like the UK have finally caught up with the rest of the world and will now be incorporating streams from music subscription services like Deezer and Spotify into their official chart rundown.

As The Guardian reports, from July onwards, audio streams will count towards chart rankings, where 100 streams will be considered the same as a single download. Who came up with this and how, escapes me. I don't disagree with it, but I am curious as to how such a metric was calculated. Likewise, there are precautionary measures in place to try and minimise abuse from obsessed fans or record labels from endlessly streaming songs from particular artists.

I find this idea compelling, as it assumes hardcore 'fans' would make an effort to stream songs from their favourite artists on a loop to help them reach higher levels on the official chart. Two points come to mind when pondering this likelihood: 1) Who are such people? Have we not been hardwired to believe buying albums is the best way of supporting artists? and 2) What is the relevance of the chart today?

I will briefly explore the second question.

Secondly, I myself have no idea who is on the chart at any moment, or indeed where; it stopped being of importance to me about ten years ago. A contributing factor is that most of my favourite bands don't release singles nor do they care about chart performances. Why then would I pay attention to them? Reflecting on my own indifference is unscientific and does not further this discussion. Rather, it highlights the fragmented being that is 'the music consumer' - I know I'm not alone here. My suspicion is that chart performance meets some psychologically satisfying milestones for various stakeholders and ultimately informs people about new music via radio (still indeed a big think here in UK) and this is a good thing.

It will take a while before we really understand music streaming, but for now it looks like it is here to stay and the inclusion of streams into the chart rundown does indeed reflect music listening trends and provides a better measure of who is listening to what - this is the essence of 'the chart'. Controversial research has suggested however that streaming services are not being used as designed to be 'music discovery platforms' but rather have replaced music purchasing; this is the essence of ongoing disputes over royalties.

Tweets @musicpiracyblog

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music [book review - updated]

As noted in a previous blog entry, I have my first book review on Reed's 2013 text 'Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music' out in the journal Rock Music Studies. Whereas before the review was only ahead of print, it is now out in in it's proper home amongst other articles in a recent issue and you can find it here.

It's a hard book to swallow, much like industrial music itself, given the huge scope of the book. Going into detail on different 'scenes' including in Sheffield and Berlin, Reed exploits rich qualitative interviews from key players to provide an authoritative overview of industrial music to date. Notably, the book includes a series of lists with key industrial songs; perhaps in the future books will include QR codes or something similar to take readers straight to them?

Tweezus built my hotrod @musicpiracyblog


Brown, S.C. (2014). Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music [Review of the book Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music, by Reed, S.A.]. Rock Music Studies, 1(2), 193-195.
Reed, S.A. (2013). Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music. Oxford University Press: Oxford.