CMU Weekly Editor's Letter

Editor’s Letter: Don’t moan about lists, there are so many other things to complain about

By | Published on Friday 9 December 2011

Andy Malt

So, this is the music industry’s second biggest complaining week of the year, after Mercury Nominations Week in July. Though this one makes up for just falling short of the top spot in the complaining stakes by being a double-header, with not only the announcement of the BBC Sound Of longlist, but also the nominations for the BRITs Critics’ Choice award.

I’m sure everyone realises the utter pointlessness of complaining about a list of names, but still they do it. Possibly because it sometimes feels like these particular lists originate with some shadowy group of self-important media types who get together and decide who deserves to be popular in secret, without the need to justify their viewpoints. Though the BBC does actually list all the people on its voting panel (hello!).

And, in reality, everyone votes in isolation, everyone would happily justify their opinions if asked, and most voters probably throw in a few surprises and outsiders into the pot. It’s just that once you start taking votes from just tens of people the more well known, and therefore more widely tipped, stuff naturally bubbles to the top. That applies to any sort of list selected in this way. The same would happen if you asked people for a group decision on whether they wanted to eat cake or sushi, even if the cake turned out to then be a bit stale.

The hate for these polls is disproportionate to what they actually represent. Especially given you’d get the same list of bands if you asked journalists “whose albums do you really hope won’t be as disappointing as you fear they might be?” Don’t get me wrong, I can see how the apparent announcement that a bunch of critics have decided what will be popular next year before anyone else has had a chance to decide whether they actually like that music or not rubs so many up the wrong way. But it is just a list though, chill out.

In fact, why not use these lists as a springboard to complain about something else instead? That’s way more fun. And that’s what I’m going to do now. Because Michael Kiwanuka, who appears on both the BBC Sound Of 2012 and BRITs Critics’ Choice lists, as well as MTV’s Brand New For 2012 shortlist, represents something that has been increasingly bugging me of late – the painstaking recreation of old production sounds in contemporary music.

It’s not that I don’t think people shouldn’t reference the past in their new work, every artist does in some way. But it’s becoming more and more popular these days for artists to make their music actually sound like it comes from an exact point in the past. I always thought the point of looking back during the music-making process was to take inspiration from your influences and then make it your own, but a number of artists now seem to be doing it the other way round, taking their own thing and then trying to insert their influences into what they’ve made, after the fact.

Mostly it seems to be early 80s soft rock sounds that are re-emerging in this way (yeah, I’m looking at you Bon Iver, with your Phil Collins clone ‘Beth/Rest’). However, in the case of Kiwanuka, everything about him is designed to look and sound like he’s a long lost soul musician from the 70s somehow transported forward to now. His artwork, his videos and, most importantly, his production all create this illusion. Take ‘Tell Me A Tale’, for example:

That’s a good song, a really good song. But it sounds like countless recordings that were made back in the 70s. Exactly like them. I don’t need any more of them thank you very much. There was a time when that sound was cutting edge and pushed studios to their limits. Now it’s a relic, a marker for a point in time. The only reason I can think of for creating the same sound identically now is in some attempt to become more informed and skilled as a producer, to learn how to more creatively use the technology on offer today. In fact, I used to know a producer who did exactly that. But he didn’t then go around releasing those recordings, they were just for practice.

People often describe new artists to me by saying things like: “He sounds like a 70s soul singer”. That’s fine. But I don’t expect those artists to then sound so much like a 70s soul singer that you have to double take. At the very least I expect them to be a pale imitation of Sly Stone. And I’d hope they were doing something new with that sound, or at least trying to. Even just a little bit.

Maybe I’m way off the zeitgeist here. Maybe we really have run out of new sounds, and will now have to regurgitate the past wholesale ad nauseum. But I’m pretty sure there are better ways to direct creativity. And to use creative energy. In fact, I don’t think this trend would annoy me as much if so much work hadn’t clearly gone into it.

Outside the world of polls, it was all about Warner Music this week. Chairman and former CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr stepped down, as expected really, once it became clear that his long held wish to merge the company with EMI was not going to come off. He will still hold a place on WMG’s board of directors. Meanwhile, current Warner Music CEO Stephen Cooper was being upbeat amid speculation that new owner Access Industries was experiencing disappointment with its purchase, and news that the company had made a loss in the fourth quarter of their last financial year.

Elsewhere, a scandal blew up surrounding Dutch collection agency BUMA/STEMRA, Metallica’s manager revealed that the financial crisis in the Eurozone had caused the band to bring forward their plans to tour Europe by a year in case there was no money left by the time 2013 came around, and there was much hilarity as Deezer announced plans to launch in considerably more countries than actually exist.

We continued to announce our ten Artists Of The Year this week (more lists, yay!), this week covering rnb enigma The Weeknd, rock experimentalist EMA, and controversial hip hop collective Odd Future. Plus, Vigsy had another suggestion of where you might like to spend New Year’s Eve, this time selecting the Lost techno night at Plastic People.

And just because we’re getting towards the end of the year doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of new music to entertain yourself with. Amongst the fresh tacks and videos that appeared on this week we had a new song from Lana Del Rey, a six track sampler of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross‘ soundtrack for ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the trailer for The Chemical Brothers‘ concert film, a collaboration between Air and Beach House singer Victoria Legrand, a teaser trailer for Sleigh Bells‘ second album, a new track from Of Montreal, a video and remix from techno duo Blondes, a new video from indie trio Tennis as they announced their signing to ATP Recordings, and a mix from electronic troupe Breton.

As well as that, we saw Justin Bieber informing worried fathers that they’d do much better to buy their teenage daughters his perfume than risk them having sex with the boy next door, and the amazing unveiling of Bon Iver’s fitness regime.

After claiming that it was pointless to get all worked up about lists, we devoted quite a lot of time on this week’s podcast to the BBC Sound Of 2012 poll, and I did do a little bit of moaning about some of the artists on it. Not because they were on it, mind. Just because I don’t like them. I’m quite prepared for people to like stuff I don’t. It happens. We also discussed Warner Music and Deezer, and got all sporty with Underworld’s Olympic plans and Bon Iver’s exercise tips. Not only that, but I ate some fish. Chris was not impressed. It will all be going online here later today.

Andy Malt
Editor, CMU