Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 in music

by Emmanuel Legrand

2010 was a good year for music. No major trend dominated, leaving more space to diversity and variety. Here’s a personal A-Z review of the year in music. Feel free to disagree!

A for Alternative
Arcade Fire's 'Suburbs' (Merge)
If mainstream pop music was the toast of the year (and not always for the better), the most interesting music came from the fringes, especially “indie rock”. Arcade Fire (Merge), The Black Keys (V2/Co-Operative), Local Natives (Infectious), Tame Impala (Modular), Deerhunter (4AD), Harlem (Matador), The National (4AD), Sufjan Stevens (Asthmatic Kitty), Midlake (Bella Union), Vampire Weekend (XL), Two Door Cinema Club (Kitsuné) to name but a few, provided the soundtrack for the year with energetic, intriguing and sometimes amazing new music.

B for Bella Union
In the last decade, the label set up by Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde (now sole master on board) has established itself as one of the most creative new labels in the UK. This year’s must-have albums from Bella Union are John Grant’s ‘Queen Of Denmark’, Midlake’s ‘The Courage of Others’ and Beach House’s ‘Teen Dream’.

C for Canada
What a year for Canadian acts, with stunning albums from Arcade Fire ('Suburbs' is both a creative and a sales success), Black Mountain (Jagjaguwar), The New Pornographers (Matador), The Besnard Lakes (Jagjaguwar), Broken Social Scene (Arts & Craft), Owen Pallett (Domino) and Holy Fuck (Young Turks/XL), among others. What makes them so creative?

D for Dylan
Not Bob, but LeBlanc, who has shown with ‘Paupers Field’ (Rough Trade) that there is in him a brilliant singer/songwriter. And speaking of Dylan (Bob), The Bootleg Series Vol. 9 – The Witmark Demos: 1962–1964’ (Legacy) documents the fascinating evolution of Dylan, the folk bard doing covers of Jesse Fuller, Bukka White and Woody Guthrie, into Dylan, the songwriting genius.

E for Electronica
Thanks to Daft Punk and their soundtrack to ‘Tron’, there was a reminder that not too long ago, electronic music could be cool and mainstream. Unfortunately, few of today’s act in the genre manage to cross-over, despite good offerings this year from Bonobo (Ninja Tune), Darkstar (Hyperdub), Underworld (Cooking Vinyl), LCD Soundsystem (DFA), Lindstrom and Christabelle (Feedelity), Villeneuve (see below) and the very challenging, but brilliant Zola Jesus (Sacred Bones). And on top of that, Brian Eno offered in 2010 one of his best recordings in a long time (‘Small Craft on a Milk Sea’ on Warp).

F for Failure
Christina ‘Bionic’ Aguilera – Kings of Leon – Michael Jackson – Miley Cyrus – Jonas Brothers – Santana – Rod Stewart – Love (Courtney)… They all tried, and did not convince.

G for GaGa
The Lady, of course. And this year’s sole global megastar. Some predict that her lifespan will be as long as that of the outfit she wore at the VMAs… I beg to differ. As irritating as she can be, she provides the goods in the form of perfectly packaged dance-pop tracks and she does the hard selling quite well. On top, she has a clear vision of where she wants to go, a very good management and a label working with her to stay at the top (Interscope). So hats off to her, and let’s wait for the next album before writing her off.

I for Idols
SuBo may now be “as popular as the Beatles” (according to British media), but it seems that the lifespan of these so-called Idols is shorter than ever, and the selection process more odious than ever. No wonder Simon Cowell moved on. Now there’s ‘Glee’, another karaoke show, but at least, there’s life in it. And what could we say about this “genius” (according to his manager) named Justin Bieber?

Robert Plant's 'Band Of Joy' (Decca)
J for Joy
Robert Plant’s ‘Band of Joy’ (Decca) did exactly what it said it would. Who needs Led Zep, eh?

K for Katrine
Largely unknown outside French borders, Gallic iconoclast Philippe Katrine (Barclay) deserves a wider audience. With his unconventional style (check the video for ‘La Banane’…) and his melodic sense, he comes across as one of heirs to the great Gainsbourg.

L for Live
Bon Jovi have scored the most successful tour of the year. At 67, Roger Waters is taking ‘The Wall’ to sold-out venues. Muse are now one of the world’s biggest draw. And seven out of the top 10 best-selling tours of the year were by artists in their late 40s to late 60s (according to Pollstar…). Depressing.

M for Monae
Janelle Monáe's debut ‘The Archandroid’ (Wondaland Arts Society/Bad Boy) is probably the most exciting R&B release of the year. It is diverse and inspired, with that little ounce of controlled madness that makes you want for more. The future is hers!

N for Ninja Tune
At 20, British label Ninja Tune created by DJs Matt Black and Jonathan More, better known as Coldcut, has lost none of its edge, as this year’s output proved: the aforementioned Bonobo with ‘Black Sand’, R&B rising star Andreya Triana with her debut ‘Lost Where I Belong’, and Los Angeles-based producer Teebs with ‘Ardour’. Check them out.

O for Outstanding track
Has to be Cee-Lo Green’s ‘F*** You’ and the way it crawled organically into public’s consciousness.

P for Pop
What is pop today? If judged by what is “popular” then hip hop (Kanye West), R&B (Usher, Rihana, Kesha) and dance (David Guetta, Lady GaGa) are today’s pop. Overall, it is usually upbeat and bland, with an embryonic melody and top production values.

Q for Quote of the Year
Has to go to good ol’ ‘Keef’ for spilling it out in ‘Life’, one of the most openly honest autobiography ever written by a rock star. The whole book could be quoted. We’ll stick to this one: “I've never had a problem with drugs. I've had problems with the police.” Errr, really?

R for Re-issues
Re-cycling old stuff has been a growing business in recent years, with “Deluxe” editions, re-mastered albums, final cuts, and so on. The Beatles’ Apple and EMI are experts at that… But how many times can you buy a Beatles album? And we have probably seen already five if not six incarnations of The Who’s ‘Live At Leeds’: single vinyl album, then its transfer on CD, then a CD with of all the tracks minus ‘Tommy’, then all the tracks including ‘Tommy’, and in 2010, the whole package above mentioned plus the concert in Hull… Luckily, sometimes the material is worth the purchase. This year’s outstanding re-releases include David Bowie’s ‘Station To Station’ (EMI), Bruce Springsteen’ ‘The Promise – Darkness On The Edge Of Town’ (Columbia), The Rolling Stones’ ‘Exile On Main Street’ (Rolling Stones Records), and Miles Davis’ ‘Bitches Brew’ (Legacy), as groundbreaking now as it was when initially released in 1970.

S for Second Album
Several bands succeeded to by-pass the traditional “Second Album Syndrome” and delivered masterful albums: MGMT (Columbia), Vampire Weekend (XL), Yeasayer (Secretly Canadian), These New Puritans (see below), to name but a few.

T for These New Puritans
These New Puritans's 'Hidden'
‘Hidden’ (Angular/Domino) was voted best album of the year by the NME, and it is easy to see why – it fulfils all the “indie rock” credentials advocated by the British weekly magazine. And the end result matches the hype. Just listen to ‘We Want War’ and you’ll be converted.

U for Urban
It could have been a poor year for Urban music but a few tracks/projects/personalities saved the year: Big Boi, K’naan, Kanye West, Tinie Tempah, Plan B, Drake, Janelle Monáe, Gonjasufi, Ben L’Oncle Soul, Eminem, Cee-Lo Green, Aloe Blacc…

V for Villeneuve
Not the Canadian F1 car driver but the French producer/songwriter, who worked with the likes of Agoria and M83. He delivered in 2010 his sophomore album ‘Dry Marks Of Memory’ (PIAS)  and his wide range of influences set him somewhere between krautrock and Mazzy Star, with a touch of Air. Strongly recommended.

W for World
Asmara All Stars's 'Eritrea Got Soul'
(Out Here)
Outside Anglo-American music, there’s a world of music. And some of this year’s best albums come from odd places such as Eritrea, with Asmara All Stars’s ‘Eritrea's Got Soul’ (Out Here) and its infectious blend of trad music from the African highlands with reggae and dub. Equally arresting is Tamikrest’s ‘Adagh’ (Glitterhouse), from a group of young Touareg musicians from North Mali/South Algeria, voted best World Music album of the year by French magazine Les Inrockuptibles. If you liked Tinariwen, you’ll like them. And it is hard not to mention ‘Ali & Toumani’ (World Circuit), the final installment of the collaboration between the late Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré and kora player Toumani Diabaté. 

X for The XX
Yes, their eponymous debut was released in 2009, but it was equally as good in 2010, and probably better than most releases of this year. And they also managed to win the Mercury Prize. Looking forward to their second album.

Y for Yes
OK, I have to confess: I downloaded (from Amazon at £3.49) Yes’s magnum opus ‘Tales From Topographic Ocean’ (Atlantic). Initially a double LP when released in 1973, with four tracks ranging from 18 to 22 minutes, it now comes with two additional 20 minutes-plus tracks. ‘Tales…’ is often the source of sarcastic (if not hostile) comments and reviews, but I have to say I quite enjoyed the journey. It is not as pompous as I expected, and it almost has a pop feel to it, even if 22 minutes is not the average length of pop songs. A guilty pleasure, which will certainly destroy any musical cred I may have garnered over the years… E la nave va!

Z for Gorillaz
Had problem finding an entry for Z, in the absence of new material from ZZ Top and Zappa (whose works need to be re-appraised). So GorillaZ will do. In the competition Oasis v. Blur, the winner is without contest Damon Albarn. Whereas the old Mancunians are content with rehashing ancient recipes, Albarn manages to constantly surprise and remain fresh, getting his cue from African music to Chinese opera. Give Damon Albarn an OBE, he deserves it.

A for Album of the Year
Angus & Julia Stone's 'Down The Way'
(EMI Music Australia)
If there has to be one, if only based on the amount of times it was played on my iTunes, it has to be Angus & Julia Stone’s “Down The Way” (EMI Music Australia). It is hard not to fall for the subtle tunes composed by Angus, who has found in his sister Julia the right voice for his sometimes traumatic visions. The album went to No.1 in their native Australia, and they are huge in France, but virtually unknown elsewhere. As one BBC reviewer pointed out, “roll with them” and you won’t be disappointed.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Billboard shrinks

By Emmanuel Legrand

There was a time when Billboard represented the ultimate reference in the music business.
It wasn’t a hit until it was in Billboard’s charts. It wasn’t a worthy story until it got the Billboard treatment.
If there was one trade publication that did merit to be called ‘the Bible’ it was Billboard. You read the magazine religiously. You needed you weekly doses of gospel. You became part of a cult. You were devoted to the colours in the logo.
And you weren’t part of the business if you weren’t in Billboard.
If you wrote for Billboard, you had made it. You were at the uppermost end of the trade. People in the biz at the highest level would take your calls at any time of the day and the night. PRs would stalk you for a story about the acts or the executives they were representing. You got invited to the best gigs and after-parties. You were part of the music biz establishment.
Some happy ones in our journalistic profession did have a stint – yours truly included – at Billboard and for many of us it remains the best gig in the world.
Of course, it sometimes meant you had to work under crazy deadlines for people based in New York who would call you to check facts in the middle of the night.
Of course it meant to sometimes work for some not-so benevolent tyrants who wanted things their way or the highway.
But the rewards were high, and the gratification to work for such a biblical institution meant the world to those in the cathedral. You knew you were read by the most influential people in the biz – and you had influence.
But that was then.
That was when there weren’t many other sources of information to figure out what was going on in the music biz.
That was when a weekly printed magazine, even reaching the other side of the world two weeks after print, was still relevant to read.
That was when the business had some form of coherence, pre-digital disruption.
In today’s world, Billboard’s reach and influence has suffered the same fate as the industry it covers. The brand is still strong, but its reach (in print, at least) has shrunk, by the effects of the simple mathematical formula that each time companies merge or close down, subscriptions go through the window.
Even online, despite the creation of two platforms, .com (consumer) and .biz (B2B), its impact is fading in the loud white noise of the internet. There are so many more sources to get your information from, especially when it comes to music.
And its charts, that for years ruled the world, have lost some significance and are challenged by new entrants, such as BigChampagne’s ‘Ultimate Charts’.
For the past few years, Billboard has been very much A&R driven (at least in its print version), in some sort of a obsessive drive to compete and catch up with all the glossy music magazines by putting artists on the cover, preferably good looking. Let’s call it the Rolling Stone syndrome (its current editor comes from there, and its new publisher has a background in consumer, not trade press).
As a result, the business side seems to almost be an afterthought and is getting less and less thoroughly covered, and since many of the magazine’s “veteran” writers have left, the publication has lost a sense of history and is capable of putting news in its context.
It has to be noted that in the 1990s, when the magazine was edited by the late Timothy White, who himself came from RS and who had had serious issues with the magazine’s founder and publisher Jann Wenner, Billboard held on to its mission to be the business paper of reference for the industry. Of course, we all remember some of Tim White’s over-long and over-written “White Papers” often focusing on irritating artists (Don Henley, Alanis Morrissette, to name but a few).
But he was a man of passion who understood the business and he would challenge his troupes to provide the best stories before anyone did. (Yes, he did also edict a memo instructing his journalists NOT to attend press conferences and report from them or face the sack on the grounds that Billboard reporters had to get the stories first… As a result Billboard ended up missing out on a few important stories. Another Tim White rule was that you could only publish in the magazine pics of people that had been interviewed directly by a Billboard reporter. Needles to say these rules were dropped after his untimely death.)
During White’s tenure, Billboard status as a global publication grew, not only in its reach but in its coverage, with a network of about 40 correspondents around the world, coordinated out of London, the magazine’s biggest outpost. Under the guidance of Adam White in the 1990s, and with the support of Tim White and then-publisher Howard Lander, Billboard had a mission to really reflect the world of music in its global diversity.
I had the privilege to follow Adam in the job, and it very soon became evident, in the wake of multiple changes in editorial leadership at the magazine, that “global” was more and more and more of an afterthought (even though the head of the London office was bestowed with the pompous title of ‘Global editor’ for Global probably meant the world outside of the US…), almost a nuisance, taking widely treasured real estate in the magazine away from US-driven stories. It created a lot of frustration among non-US writers and editors.
Last week, Billboard has gone one step further in its global = USA vision by simply scrapping altogether its London operations, letting go by January 1 all its UK staff.
It is sad, firstly because some good people will lose their jobs in the process. But also because it says so much about the state of the business, as labels who used to provide Billboard with the bulk of its ad dollars have almost completely stopped advertising in the mag. As I had to close down not one but two magazines in the past decade (Billboard’s sister publication in Europe Music & Media, and music publishing quarterly Impact) due to the rarefaction of ad revenues, I know how difficult the business is.
The idea that Billboard will no longer be represented in the world’s second largest music market (not in size but in creative terms) and will significantly reduce its international coverage is painful to those who think the music business deserves a global publication.
But is it surprising? Not really.
There is only one reason for that – cutting costs. Since it was acquired a year ago from Nielsen by a private equity group, the magazine, and other publications like The Hollywood Reporter, have been re-tooled (editorially for the best in the case of THR). But mostly the job of the new owners has been to get rid of fat wherever they could, outsourcing many of the admin operations, but also cutting into editorial resources, where little fat was left.
How far will the trimming go? Billboard’s editorial team in Los Angeles has been reduced to a minimum, and more people in New York are said to be under threat (unrelated to the fact that editor Craig Marks is leaving to join a start-up company after just a year in the job).
How long will it take before the print edition will be confined to the history of trade press? At this stage of the evolution of the music market, it is an option that cannot be ruled out. And if this happens, it will definitely mark the end of an era. But let's hope we won't get there.
As Woody Allen once said, "More than any time in history mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly."
That could quite nicely sum up Billboard's future...