From Reviews, Words
posted on December 10th, 2012

In 2012 I got really into the world of speaking and discussions: always loved Radio 4 but now I owe a big debt to Franz Nicolay, who introduced me to American podcasts on tour last autumn, which made a huge impact. So I listened to less music and more words, though it was a decent year for albums. Also, I enjoyed more films and art galleries than the past few years, so this year’s lists feel better balanced than previous.

By the way, I’ve given up trying to filter out people I know personally from my end-of-year lists. Full disclosure: three albums in my top 10 are on Xtra Mile Recordings and a lot of these top 10s include folks I know a bit. But fuck it, it’s just my favourites, not some be-all-and-end-all about what’s ‘best’.

Anyway, you’re very welcome to add your reaction, or your top 10s in the comments section if you feel like it. Here we go…

ALBUMS

1. Future Of The Left – The Plot Against Common Sense
2. Taylor Swift – Red
3. Jack White – Blunderbuss
4. Lau – Race The Loser
5. Bellowhead – Broadside
6. Ian Vine – Held/Always/Immer/Gehalten
7. The Pure Conjecture – Courgettes
8. Jim Lockey & The Solemn Sun – Death
9. Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball
10. Retrospective Soundtrack Players – The Catcher In The Rye

Honorary mentions: how did Tom Williams & The Boat or the gay orange dude from Odd Future not make it on here? I don’t know but they didn’t. Nor did Neil Young’s Psychedelic Pill, though it’s bloody great. Jess Morgan’s beautiful Aye Me only just got edged out. Singing Adams might’ve smashed it but their LP is only out this week and they didn’t send me one or anything, so I’ve not heard it yet. Ditto, Martin White & The Fax Machine Orchestra’s bonkers Master Flea.

GIGS WATCHED

1. Sinead O’Connor at St George’s Church, Brighton
2. Pearl & The Beard at The Green Door Store, Brighton
3. Jim Bob, Driving Jarvis Ham tour, various venues
4. Midwinter Picnic 4, Brighton
5. Future Of The Left / Fever Fever / Clowns at The Haunt, Brighton
6. Jess Morgan at Villa Marina Arcade, Douglas, Isle Of Man
7. Elliott Brood at The Palmeira, Hove
8. Thor Magnusson (live music coding) at Brighton Digital Festival closing party
9. Jim Lockey & The Solemn Sun at Great Escape, Brighton
10. Pip Mountjoy at Stereo, York

I missed several gigs (after getting tickets/guestlist) that might have made it into this top 10, through cock-ups at my end – just last month both Robyn and Carter USM shows, at Brixton Academy, could’ve likely made the top 5.

Honorary mentions: Gill Sandell, Paul Kingsnorth and Ingrid Plum at Dark Mountain book launch, Eliza Shaddad in Ipswich, She Makes War at various venues on tour, Luke Sital Singh at Great Escape, Keith Top Of The Pops’ cacophony at Brixton Windmill, Oxygen Thief somewhere or other, Franz Nicolay’s end-of-tour show in Brighton, 45 minutes of Turner at Wembley, Jim Lockey (again) opening for Turner at Brighton Dome and the Rock Academy Isle Of Man end-of-week concert.

GIGS PLAYED

In 2012 I played 71 shows (versus 112 in 2011 and 120+ in 2010), with only one Hoodrats show (sans Johny). I didn’t perform at all outside the UK, despite killer opportunities to do so, which was a big downer. So, not a classic gigging year – but still some unforgettable moments. And funnily enough the two things I did this year that probably made the biggest impact were non-musical (TEDx talk and Not Just Shit But Dangerous article).

Anyway, as usual, I’ve listed these gigs solely based on how much I enjoyed being onstage, not how well I performed (though that affects it obviously), or how cool or big the show was…

1. Greenbelt Festival, Cheltenham (biblical thunderstorm)
2. QEH, South Bank Centre, London, with Spiers & Boden (A.A. Milne show)
3. Hebden Bridge Festival (eccentric night, lush crowd, longest ever set)
4. Three Legs Festival IOM, songwriters circle with Matt Creer, Jess Morgan & Christy D
5. The Lamb, Devizes
6. piano jam in Gypo & Jo’s living room, Port St Mary, IOM
7. St Martin-In-The-Fields Church, London, SMK Awards (just ‘M1 Song’)
8. Brighton Corn Exchange (doing the TEDx talk)
9. New Zealand House, London
10. Battitude 2012 at Brixton Windmill (Jon & Jen as rhythm section)

btw I’ve now played 1,996 shows in my adult life, so fairly early in 2013 I’ll hit my 2,000th. Needs something special, I reckon.

BOOKS

1. Oliver Sachs – Hallucinations
2. Jonathan Rose – The Intellectual Life Of The British Working Classes
3. Jim Bob – Driving Jarvis Ham
4. various contributors – Dark Mountain Issue 3
5. Hilary Mantel – Bring Up The Bodies
6. Ben Murray – Reading Proust (not published yet)
7. Maajid Nawaz – Radical
8. Robert & Edward Sidelsky – How Much Is Enough? The Love Of Money
9. Thomas Heatherwick – Making (this is a picture book really)
10. Haruki Murakami – IQ84 1-3

ART EXHIBITIONS

1. Thomas Hetherwick at the V&A
2. Shardcore’s Great Escape auto-generated fanzine scam
3. James Kendall’s photos at The Hope for BPB
4. Miro at Yorkshire Sculpture Park
5. The Rain Room at The Barbican
6. Carne Griffiths ink and tea work at Ink_d Gallery
7. Shardcore’s portrait of Jeremy Clarkson
8. British Design at the V&A
9. Mishfit’s Lakshmi graffiti on our back wall
10. Trevor Paglen at the Lighthouse for BPB

FILM

1. The Kid With A Bike
2. The Muppets
3. Beasts Of The Southern Wild
4. Bloody Cuts series of British horror shorts
5. Moonrise Kingdom
6. Avengers
7. Chronicle
8. Cabin In The Woods
9. Looper
10. The Dark Knight Rises

Honorary mention: Princess Mononoke screened on film (not digital) at the Duke of Yorks. Ironically, for Brighton Digital Festival.

TV

1. Louie
2. Adventure Time
3. Olympics and Paralympics Opening Ceremonies
4. Forbrydelsen (The Killing) III
5. The Walking Dead
6. The Thick Of It
7. Game Of Thrones
8. Felix Baumgartner’s jump from space live-stream
9. Nina Conti: A Ventriloquist’s Story
10. The Tube documentary series

ps. I know Breaking Bad was probably the best TV of the year but I’m saving the final couple seasons for later.

Honourable mentions: regained access to Daily Show and Colbert, also Veep, Smash! (loved the first few, gave up by episode 6), Wallander season 3, The Newsroom (yes!), Homeland series 1 (season 2 has gone bonkers, though performances are still excellent), Jon Stewart vs Bill O’Reilly: The TV Debate, Have You Heard From Johannesburg? documentary series. US Presidential election (watched simultanously on three channels + twitter), and that whales and dolphins TV series narrated by Stephen Fry

Also honourable mention for James Burke’s Connections, made in 1979 and the original TV series of Edge Of Darkness. Both of these would be in my top 3, if they’d been made this year.

LIVE TALKS & STAND-UP

1. James Burke talk at dConstruct
2. Bruce Springsteen’s keynote speech at SXSW
3. Tig Notaro’s live stand-up set, days after finding out about breast cancer
4. Storytellers Club: Mark Thomas’ story of activist betrayal, with Jim Bob and Isy Suttie
5. Hannah Lewis reads from ‘On This Site of Loss’ at Dark Mountain book launch
6. Meaning 2012: especially Indy Johar, Vinay Gupta and Caroline Lucas
7. Stewart Lee – Carpet Remnant World
8. tour guide’s bullshit ‘transvestite seduction’ story during the Blue John Cavern tour
9. Tom Armitage on Toymaking at dConstruct
10. Brian Aldiss, Jeff Noon and Lauren Beukes at Brighton SF

If I was to merge the categories, judge all culture as one, James Burke’s dConstruct talk would be my #1 of 2012. My mind was utterly frazzled and my heart opened. Listen to it here but only if you’ve the space to concentrate for an hour; it’s exceptionally rich food.

At this point, a nod of respect and gratitude to Brighton UX agency Clearleft. Not only were three of these talks under their wing (a hat tip to developer Jeremy Keith (@adactio) for curating and hosting both dConstruct and Brighton SF on one intense long weekend, the madman) but the company also invited me to tag along on their office outing, trawling London art exhibitions, two of which ended up in my art exhibitions top 10, above. That was a kick-arse day out.

RADIO / PODCASTS

1. This American Life: Our Friend David Rakoff (memorial edition)
2. Slate Gabfest during US Presidential primaries and election
3. In Our Time – Radio 4
4. David Sedaris reads his 2004 essay ‘Possession’ on Radio 4
5. WTF with Marc Maron, especially Wayne Coyne (Flaming Lips) interview
6. Slate Culture Gabfest – Stephen Metcalf’s consistent insight into culture is extraordinary
7. Kermode and Mayo
8. Planet Money podcast
9. Mike Daisey’s episode of This American Life and and subsequent redaction
10. This American Life: Little War On The Prairie

And that’s my lot. Comments / disagreements / things I’ve missed out, all very welcome. If you want to compare it to last year’s top 10s, they’re here. Roll on 2013.

From News
posted on November 2nd, 2012

I hope you’re a sparkler, not a squib. Here’s news of a Brighton Christmas show, a ticket warning for Emily Barker’s London show, home-made December music and I’m curating a festival stage in 2013. read more

From News, Words
posted on October 23rd, 2012

I hope you’re doing OK, got your winter woollies out and your pumpkins bought, ready for the smell of sulphur and icy winds. My favourite time of year by far. read more

This article was originally published in Louder Than War magazine.

A great number of UK music artists I admire now use crowd-funding platforms like PledgeMusic or Indiegogo to raise cash from fans, to fund albums, videos, or touring. It’s very quickly been normalised in the music industry, to the point that you’ll almost never hear a bad word spoken about these platforms. Unusually, they’re popular with mainstream upcoming artists, the companies around them and also fully independent, self-described DIY or underground artists.

But something in me finds them disconcerting. I admit I’ve not once contributed money to an artist’s Pledge campaign. Each time I hear about one, even when I adore the artist, my heart sinks. Yet people clearly feel it works and there are a pile of happy (on the surface at least) customers. It’s a perfectly legitimate way to fund music in the new online paradigm.

So, what’s my beef?

As hugely successful US crowd-funding company Kickstarter launches in the UK; for the first time offering a serious competitor to PledgeMusic, it’s worth considering the case against, if only to enable a debate when the narrative is so blandly positive. Full disclosure: I’ve never tried it myself. Xtra Mile Recordings did run a successful Pledge campaign to replace stock (including my albums) destroyed in the depot fire (after the London riots) but I have no personal experience of running one. Trying to figure out why I’m not into them, here’s what I’ve come up with:

The emperor’s new clothes. Wasn’t half the point of going online to get rid of third parties? Instead it’s a messy battle. We binned major labels but got trapped in the price-controlled, tax dodging chaos of Amazon and iTunes, even when Bandcamp gave us a cleaner alternative. Then along came this whole new generation of third parties, jumping in ahead of the distributors to get their share, before the music’s even made. And because the process is automated, artists and punters alike seem blind to an obvious truth; at a basic fundamental level, web-based platforms are the same old villains wearing a hipper jacket. Yet again they find a thing that artists (wrongly) believe they can’t do alone, then slide in between artist and audience by offering that thing as a service, in order to cream off profit.

I’m convinced almost any artist with a moderate fan-base can crowd-fund just as easily, with less commitment, more control and a greater overall ROI (return on investment), just by having conversations with the right people. What is it about these formal frameworks that let the artist off the hook of asking personally for support, when it’s usually the exact same people who end up contributing anyway? You want someone’s money, fucking go and ask them. Write a letter. It feels as if everyone’s playing at grown-ups by using a third party website as a dressing-up box.

That’s too much money. For running a largely passive, artist-driven web-based platform (nothing more complex than Flickr, Instagram, Facebook or a hundred other free sites) with a simple financial processing structure bolted on, these companies charge 15% of revenue – and are less than transparent to funders, who are often only vaguely aware that there’s a percentage taken at all. And that’s a lot. That’s what a music manager or booking agent took in the old days, for doing a massive load of work to bring in income. Artists have spent 100 years deeply resenting – and regularly sacking or suing – managers and agents on the same percentage they now happily give to strangers for letting them sit on their web servers for a bit.

Treats for funders are embarrassing and a total arsehole to get done. Money is teased out of devoted fans with offers of rewards, exclusive content, private attention, all sorts. But these bring the wrong kind of closeness; too big a sense of a personal debt owed; often placing artists in uncomfortable situations. Trying to record music with 25 funders sitting in the control room as part of a treat day is a joke. A cause of this over-reach is also malevolent: the ever-increasing sense of urgency (becoming terror later) as the deadline looms, because ‘success’ is so important it erodes any objective sense of what is realistic or achievable. Which brings me to:

Something not even made yet is already a failure. On Kickstarter 56% of projects fail to make target and get zero. Unpack that stat and it’s pretty concerning: these creative people didn’t undertake Kickstarter lightly in the first place, they made a plan, shot a video, offered their fanbase all the bonuses in the world and still failed to hit target. That’s a whole lot of effort and commitment gone to define themselves as a big fat loser, for financial reasons rather than artistic judgement. I wonder what the damage done is, in real terms.

This is innately biased (of course) against inarticulate, disorganised and working class artists (whose wider communities and support bases tend to have fewer financial resources). I also reckon, although this is tenuous, that the system leans in favour of technically innovative, science-based, gimmicky, design or technical projects over pure art, because the former can be more easily explained, ahead of actually doing it.

New album releases go on forever. First the artist talks up the new album before even starting to make it. Then they endlessly document the process. Then it’s done and first they release it exclusively to funders. Then they do other posh formats separately, in order to send them out to other funders. Finally they release the album to everyone else. It’s been weeks since those first people got hold of it and someone immediately file-shared it. We’re bored now.

Finally, my biggest, most esoteric dissent speaks to broader issues about fundraising campaigns in general. These platforms rely on everyone turning a blind eye to a truth: that a very few devoted followers will fund almost everything. When artists draw resource from their audience, a very select core number of individual funders (relatively wealthy and truly devoted) will underwrite the whole ballgame. This is already true of the wider music industry: If we started analyzing the tiny contingency of people propping up our entire business, we’d be aghast. In crowd-funding, success or failure depends on whether the artist has those particular followers. I say this without specific data to back me up – however it is based on first hand experience not in the music world, nor business, but in the third sector (charity industry). In language and structure, arts crowd-funding campaigns far more closely resemble charity appeals than other kinds of business fundraising, right down to the ideas around ‘donating’ in return for special rewards. A charity industry ‘universal truth’ is that at least 80% of money comes from fewer than 20% of donors. Successful crowd-funding campaigns will always have exclusive, very high value rewards for much larger amounts, where ‘selling’ only a handful of them underwrites a massive proportion of the campaign. It’s an identical approach.

Honestly, so many artists I know who’ve crowd-funded would back me up here: because of this principle, the success or failure of a project is less down to the size of audience, or how hard the artist works the campaign across the breadth of their fan-base; it’s more down to whether they’re lucky enough to have a small core of very devoted and relatively wealthy fans, and/or some rewards of high value to offer those fans.

I believe, far too often, the artist becomes slave to the campaign, rather than the other way around. You would be astonished the number of artists out there who, even after publicly successful target-smashing campaigns, will later quietly express a range of regrets that they wouldn’t want their generous audience to know about. They look back and regret what they offered; regret the time wasted honoring those offers; regret how panicky they got about a ludicrous arbitrary definition of ‘success’; regret how the balance in their relationship with supporters shifted; regret not finding the funds elsewhere, so they could be more flexible about what it was they were making.

And these are the ones who won.

Now, I’m not really bothered; from all angles it’s just people making choices. I guess I just feel a bit sorry for them all, that they couldn’t try other ways first. And phew, I didn’t even mention Amanda Palmer.

ps. thanks to music fan and Words With Friends opponent Matt Rhodes for emailing me a question about recorded music pricing, which triggered this article – sorry I haven’t actually answered your questions at all, Matt, I’ll get to them.

From Comment, Words
posted on September 17th, 2012

When we were six, aunts and uncles and friends of our parents would say to us “How you’ve grown.” This happened to so many of us, right? It’s such a timeless, universally repeated phrase, it becomes a linguistic trope that passes into culture. It can be spoken by an archetype rather than a real person.

“My, how you’ve grown.”

Yesterday, several lovely friends who now have young families came to my London performance of Disobedience. For the first time, I was aware of the other meaning of “My, how you’ve grown,” which is a far more bittersweet realisation of an awareness that transpires between adults; that we no longer see each-other often enough. That noticeable growth of a child is a slipping away of time.

I don’t know why but it was so transparent, for the first time. It happened over again, three or four times in the space of an hour, with different people who I adore but don’t see; both family and friends. Reasons, not excuses. We live in the wrong town. We’re all couples and they have kids and we’re all busy. Tacked onto the corkboard of the post-Milne melancholia, this became a bit overwhelming. By which I mean it’s a fucking daft thing to do for your birthday. Don’t feel bad for me though: I drank it away in grand company, with wine and Talisker, once the remains of us was small enough to manage.

It also reminded me (yet again – though I repeatedly forget) that my own gigs are precisely the worst places to catch up with close friends. I don’t know how many times I have mantra’d this to myself, trying to drill it in that I need to separate my live music shows from my social calendar. If I was a plumber, I wouldn’t get someone to come and see me fixing a sink as a method of hanging out with them, yet still I use a gig to hook you to a north London pub crawl.

Which reminds me, I must do another London walk before it gets too cold.

From Comment, Words
posted on September 2nd, 2012

The other day I heard an eye-opening piece of thinking and wanted to share it with you. So badly in fact, I spent an intense, frustrating hour yesterday on the train looping this three-minute bit of audio over and over, trying to transcribe it. Daft, because you could just go listen: it’s on a recent episode of Slate magazine’s Culture Gabfest. They were just finishing a discussion on comedian Mike Birbiglia’s new movie Sleepwalk With Me. But the subject matter isn’t important. Here’s Stephen Metcalf:

“Isn’t it amazing that the struggling lonely artist who sacrifices everything to his own vision, a romantic trope now in western culture for 300 years; [only] one person is permitted to embody it now, in contemporary culture, without being laughed at: which is the comedian. He’s the only person who can get away with it anymore. Let me tell you, if you pull that shit as a poet or novelist, you are laughed out of the room. It’s interesting that the one person who’s allowed now still to be a tortured artist is the comedian.

I really believe, starting in the 90s, probably starting a little bit in the 80s but gathering steam in the 90s, it became a social type that people were deeply uncomfortable with. It was huge in the 50s and 60s when existentialism was huge and on into the rock’n’roll era where flaming out early and the beat poets would be an example, Lenny Bruce very early on was a comic version of that.”

And his (for me extraordinary) conclusion:

“But it’s something about the cultural authority assumed by the person who presumes to suffer for all of us, attain a higher wisdom and then lay it on the rest of us? That became a form of cultural extortion that people were really uncomfortable with. The reasons have to be deep and I can’t, off the top of my head, think of exactly what they were. But the idea that someone had gone off, sat on their own in a garrett, burned the candle til late at night, explored the darkness of their own soul and come back with The Truth that the rest of us were going to have to sit and patiently listen to; that paradigm went way out the window.”

This feels on-the-button to me – and also of real concern; surely that is an exceptionally important (and broad) segment of our cultural conversation to lose, just because we’re all trying so hard to walk and talk like winners. Particularly in terms of its real usefulness to the lives of the audience – inspiring a stepping away from mundanity, or from mental slavery, or from traditional oppressive value systems of winning and losing. It’s a core pillar.

I’d say (Metcalf doesn’t imply this at all) that it will inevitably turn out to be the top-down establishment that has – consciously or not – whittled away at its coolness. Bloody Cowell, yet again, in other words.

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