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Last updated: June 4, 2011 9:41 am

What makes music special?

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A collage of musicians

Jimi Hendrix, John Squire in the Stone Roses, Liam Gallagher, Damon Albarn, Ricky Wilson of Kaiser Chiefs, Lady Gaga, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke

It was after several pints and a fish and chip supper that Ricky Wilson had his big idea. As lead singer with British indie rock band Kaiser Chiefs, Wilson has spent much of the past seven years writing, recording and touring. During this time the Leeds band, famous for hit singles such as “I Predict a Riot”, have sold more than 6m albums. Their 2005 debut album Employment won three Brit awards, was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize and won an Ivor Novello Award in 2006; their chart-topping second outing Yours Truly, Angry Mob (2007) featured the number 1 single “Ruby”; and in 2008 Off With Their Heads went to number 2.

That third album was less well-received than the first two and the band decided to take some time out. But last year, as he began to turn his attention to a fourth album, Wilson felt unenthused about climbing back on to the relentless music industry conveyor belt and nervous about how the band could embrace the digital age. As MP3s take over from CDs, it has become easy for anyone vaguely internet-savvy to download the latest albums for free; it has been more difficult to convince them that they should pay to do so.

Then, during a drunken evening while on holiday in Cornwall last year with his friend Oli Beale, an advertising copywriter, Wilson found an answer. His idea was simple: if you can’t beat them, join them. And so on Friday the band published on the website www.kaiserchiefs.com, 20 new songs that fans are invited to compile into a 10-track version of the band’s new album The Future is Medieval, each purchaser free to decide on their own running order and even to design their own cover before downloading it for £7.50.

They are also actively encouraged to share the music online. If they post a link to their version of the album on Facebook or Twitter (using downloadable posters and adverts featuring their unique cover design to promote it), they can sell further downloads for £7.50, making £1 for every sale through a PayPal account. “If you sell an album, you make more than the band,” jokes Wilson, 32, who looks every bit the lead singer in skinny white jeans, dark blue military-style jacket and shades when we meet for a pint in a north London pub ahead of the launch.

The idea of paying people will, it is hoped, discourage those looking to share it for free. Band manager James Sandom, 36, explains: “Obviously there’s a whole mechanism for selling a record where the label [in this case Universal] gets paid and the artist gets the royalties, and all that still happens. There’s still a transaction at the heart of it, but essentially every single person who downloads The Future is Medieval has the potential to become their own mini-retailer, which not only benefits the artist and the label but also embraces the way people communicate in 2011, which is increasingly via social networks and Twitter.”

This may appal those with a more traditional definition of an album as a carefully sequenced work. How, they might argue, can all these trillions of track-listing permutations (the 20 tracks can be arranged in more than 650bn combinations) reflect the band’s intentions? Such objections, however, ignore the fact that since the release of the Kaiser Chiefs’ previous album in 2008, the way we consume music has shifted decisively from physical to digital formats.

According to Robert Ashcroft, chief executive of PRS for Music, a not-for-profit body that collects and distributes royalties for composers, songwriters and music publishers: “Royalties from digital music services have grown 173 per cent since 2007, reaching £26.5m in 2010. In comparison, royalty collections from the sale of CDs declined 27 per cent in the same period from £118.9m to £87.3m, and have been on a downward trend for some years.”

It is against this backdrop that some of the definitions of what it is that makes music special – to those who listen to it and consume it – are changing. Rock music has always involved grabbing attention, and the way recorded music is packaged and presented has long been part of this – and part of what makes it special to those who buy it. “The first fetish-object record I was really aware of was Public Image Ltd’s Metal Box in 1979,” says music writer Simon Reynolds, author of the just-published Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past. “It would have been a conventional double album in length but was initially released as three 45rpm 12-inch singles encased in a grey metal canister. The idea was that PiL were deconstructing the album – instead of playing it all the way through, you could play the six sides in any sequence.”

PiL were not the only ones to create eye-catching records. “I discovered a lot of music by virtue of the sleeve,” says former Stone Roses guitarist John Squire. “I used to buy things sometimes on the strength of the packaging or the clothes the band were wearing. I discovered artists like Love and Hendrix in that way. There are some sleeves that stuck with me: Jamie Reid’s God Save the Queen [for the Sex Pistols] – I did a huge version on my bedroom wall – and the Paul Simonon cover for the Clash’s ‘(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais’.”

Now a full-time painter, with an exhibition titled Celebrity opening in London this week, Squire created many of the Stone Roses’ most famous covers, including the Jackson Pollock-inspired sleeve for their 1989 debut album The Stone Roses. “In my mind I can’t separate the music from the image,” he says. “That must be something that’s lacking in the contemporary listeners’ experience.”

It is from this perspective, Ricky Wilson argues, that Kaiser Chiefs are approaching The Future is Medieval: not just as a sort of digital version of PiL’s analogue shuffle album but as an attempt to force a re­engagement with music that has been lost in the rush to digital.

“When I was at art college I used to buy a CD at most every two weeks,” Wilson says. “They were £15 in the late 1990s; for a kid that’s a lot of money.” Pleasure came not only from the music but from the anticipation of it. From reading the inlay cards in the record store and weighing up which purchase to make. This limited access also enhanced the tribal nature of music. Mod or rocker? Punk or raver? You had to choose. He recalls the Blur versus Oasis “battle of Britpop” in 1995 that was built up by the bands’ lead singers and their record labels to boost sales. “Then it was a case of one or the other because that was all you could afford,” he says. “Now you’d download both – for free.”

James Sandom agrees: “The culture we’re in now, with music being shared freely and everyone posting different tracks on blogs, has really encouraged the disposability of music.” Certainly cheap and freely accessible music has encouraged an omnivorous, promiscuous tendency among consumers. You’re not giving up precious pocket-money or shelf space, so why not just download that single, even if you never listen to it again? It’s only music. Wilson hopes the idea behind the The Future is Medieval will persuade people to reconsider the way they think about music. It’s a strategy with echoes of how experimental rock band Radiohead released their 2007 album In Rainbows; it was initially made available on the internet only, its price whatever consumers felt it was worth.

“It’s not just that you get your own artwork and your own track-listing,” Sandom says. “It’s the experience. You’ve got to embrace being digital, but the problem with digital is that it’s not very tactile, there’s no sense of ownership. Going on our website and having the experience of making the album does make the intangible tangible. You have ownership of the album not because we’re pretending you do but because you actually own a percentage of it and when someone else buys it you get paid. Even when I say that out loud I still get goosebumps!”

But for all this talk of ownership and reengagement, is there a danger of consumers losing sight of what makes an album great? The shaping of an album, says John Squire, was “the cherry on the icing” for the Stone Roses. “The moment we realised we had all the songs we wanted ready and mixed and we started working on the running order – that was a very special time, and there were some fierce arguments about that.”

For some, it may be difficult to imagine The Beatle’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Lou Reed’s Transformer, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, The Black Album by Metallica or Nirvana’s Nevermind as mere collections of tracks. But the shuffle culture of the iPod and the ease with which playlists can be shared via social media and online players such as Spotify and Last.fm seems to have moved listeners’ focus from albums to songs. iTunes, the dominant force in download sales, offers albums too, but what it chiefly sells is tracks.

This doesn’t sit comfortably with everyone. In November 2010, Pink Floyd, purveyors of classic “concept” albums such as The Wall, went to court to prevent their record label EMI from selling “unbundled” versions of their albums – although most tracks from their best-known albums are available individually on iTunes. And earlier this year Elbow, the Mercury Prize-winning indie band, tried to lock their latest album Build a Rocket Boys! on iTunes so that songs could not be cherry-picked – but with little success. “The fact that iTunes refuses to lock an album is a tough one,” says Jim Chancellor, head of Elbow’s label Fiction Records, which is working with the Kaiser Chiefs’ B-Unique label on the release of The Future is Medieval. “I think it’s a failing on their part.”

. . .

But are “bundled” albums anything more than misplaced rock nostalgia? “The originators’ intent is still out there if you want to find it and I think that’s enough,” says John Squire. “I’ve been guilty, way before the digital age, of dissecting other people’s music and making mixtapes and compilation tapes,” he points out. “I don’t see that as a debasement of the form. You have to let go of the things you’ve created.”

Wilson, too, is sanguine: “If people don’t want to buy the album you’ve put together but just buy the tracks they like, all right.”

He rejects suggestions that Kaiser Chiefs have surrendered artistic control. Instead, he argues, the project was more invigorating than making a conventional album. “We’ve always been fans of our B-sides,” he says, “so, creatively, it was brilliant to be able to say, ‘Let’s make this song the best song it can be.’ There was no ‘Is this the album closer?’ or ‘Where does this fit?’ There are 20 of the buggers so you can’t worry about having a moment of madness. As five individuals, we’ve got wildly different opinions on our favourite tracks. Now we can all have our own album.”

Sandom adds: “We have instinctive opinions about which tracks might be more commercially viable than others, but the real answer is that by June 6 or June 7 we will be able to see what the second single is because the public will influence it.” This may not tally with the image of the tortured artist delivering his work regardless of audience reaction, but from a business point of view it makes plenty of sense.

It is also an indicator of how the music industry has changed: once monolithic record labels ran the show but today musicians, labels, record shops, brands, advertisers and consumers have to form new partnerships to achieve the same goals.

In 2008, for example, Groove Armada split with their record label and signed a deal with the drinks brand Bacardi. Similarly, Wilson’s conversation with his advertising friend Oli Beale led to a partnership between Universal Music and Beale’s advertising agency Wieden & Kennedy. The agency’s ability to turn around marketing ideas rapidly was key: the last song was finished about only 10 days ago. “We didn’t want to finish a record and then sit and wait for it to come out,” says Wilson. “There are bands sitting on records now that aren’t coming out until September.”

Do these innovations mark a watershed moment for the music industry? Ian McCann, editor of Record Collector magazine, sees an increasing divide between “those for whom music is everything, who want to gather up all available formats” and “those for whom it is just one of many lifestyle options. I think the serious fan will continue to buy physical formats as a kind of badge of honour, but this will probably be seen as a sign of obsession by the casual punter.”

Whatever happens, there’s no going back. “A couple of weeks ago in India they manufactured the last typewriter,” says Ricky Wilson, draining his pint. “It won’t be long before that happens to CD players.”

www.kaiserchiefs.com

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Making the album

Kaiser Chiefs

What exactly is an album? Just ten or twelve songs wrapped in an arresting cover, or something more? Creating my own version of Kaiser Chiefs’ new album The Future is Medieval was a lot trickier than it seemed. The Leeds five-piece has produced 20 new songs that range from moody low-fi numbers to stadium-filling shout-alongs (albeit none as immediately and infectiously catchy as “Ruby” and “I Predict a Riot”). How to shape a coherent album?

First the technicalities: you have to log on to kaiserchiefs.com and register a username before you’re presented with an image of two shelves bearing funny images – an abacus, a post box, a two-headed stuffed bear, a children’s toy horse with mounted soldier and so on. The aesthetic is overwhelmingly Victorian, albeit with a steampunk sensibility, and each icon corresponds with one of the 20 tracks. By clicking on the icons you can hear 60-second snippets of each song (that’s twice the length of previews on iTunes).

I found the whole process incredibly simple, if time consuming. Downloading a digital album takes seconds; I poured over “my” album for the best part of an hour, listening to all 20 songs, then drawing up a playlist. Some songs jumped out on first listen: the first single “Little Shocks” (produced by Toni Visconti no less) was a must, as was “Problem Solved”, a big album opener in my book. But what next? The tender “If You Will Have Me” with acoustic guitar and strings seemed a natural album closer so I decided to front-load my album with big numbers then move into slightly more esoteric fare in the second half.

Of course, where this new way of buying an album comes into its own is in creating personalised “Best ofs” from the back catalogues of giants of rock and pop. If you could build the perfect Stones or Beatles album, what would it contain? And what would the cover look like?

Once I’d selected my ten tracks, it was on to the cover. Again, I was forced to reevaluate what makes a good cover and how best to sum up the contents of an album I’d only heard in part. Thankfully you’re not given a completely blank canvas. The background colour can be altered and then painterly versions of the icons that represented each song dragged, dropped, resized and rotated. After playing with different arrangements, I opted for a slightly surreal image of tentacles creeping in from the edges of the frame, and I was quite proud it – until I saw that, by coincidence, the band’s lead singer Ricky Wilson had almost entirely replicated my cover and much of my track-listing. Does this mean I’ve produced a commercial album? Or inadvertently selected Wilson’s pet favourites that in the past would have been buried as B-sides?

The only thing that remained, after I’d paid (through PayPal), downloaded the album and dragged it to iTunes, was to take The Future is Medieval on a trial run. I loaded it onto my iPod and hit the tube. I was very aware of the structure of the album – had I got it right? And I have to admit to feeling a thrill each time I checked what song was playing only to spot the album cover I had created.

But I also couldn’t shake the nagging doubt that there was a better version of my album out there. Perhaps that’s the masterstroke of the Kaiser Chiefs’ idea: As I only had half the songs available, I now feel compelled to make a second album with the other ten tracks just to make sure I haven’t missed a gem.

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Classic tracklistings: Sequences and consequences, by Paul Morley

If you’ve got the time, it is always best to listen to a great album from beginning to end, preferably with a break in the middle where you turn the record over – creating four very specific moments of drama, the beginning and ends of sides one and two, with moments of surprise and intrigue carefully distributed in between to make separate songs work as a whole.

Bringing It All Back Home, Bob Dylan’s 1965 album, is my choice from the 1960s for the perfect album sequence, as compressed as a poem, as epic as an Old Testament chapter – seven tracks on side one (electric guitar), beginning out loud with “Subterranean Homesick Blues”; four tracks on side two (acoustic), beginning just like that with “Mr Tambourine Man” and moving through “Gates of Eden”, “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, and ending for sure with “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”.

This shattering run of songs – in exactly the order they are in, taking about 46 minutes, with not a wasted second, inventing their own context and universe as songs, characters and memories move among themselves – helped make the album format a potential work of art.

In the 1980s, the single-sided compact disc coldly replaced vinyl, but serious musicians still thought of their albums as containing two sides. Even now that music is streamed like infinite liquid fun and listeners casually shuffle playlists and running orders, artists crave the definitive vinyl age shape for their work in the tradition of Dylan, The Beatles, The Who, the Stones, Velvets, Roxy Music, Bowie, Iggy, Can, Joy Division, Clash, Prince, Smiths, Public Enemy and stubbornly make sequences based on an imaginary side one and side two.

Arcade Fire’s 2004 debut Funeral conveys, from a opening organ hum the flamboyantly structured intensity of a group whose belief system is based around the spiralling glory of vinyl and how songs fastidiously placed in a theatrical, inevitable order can accumulate tremendous meaning.

Bowie, for example, made his 1970s albums run like cracking dreams, writing his own legend into songs that were episodes, scenes, flashbacks and premonitions in an ongoing drama, and 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is as self-contained as a classic film.

In 1989, The Stone Roses’ self-titled debut freely flowed from beginning of side one’s “I Wanna Be Adored” to end of side two’s “I am the Resurrection”, keeping the album flame psychedelically flickering in the darkest, meanest CD days.

In 1996, hip-hop sage DJ Shadow presented an elegiac, kaleidoscopic history of the vinyl age on the entirely sampled Endtroducing, which lamented, in perfectly (dis)assembled form, the death of long-playing records, and celebrated the ghosts of side one and side two that would live on, beyond MP3 and beyond shuffling.

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