The days where artists could make a decent living in the second division are probably gone.
Big tech companies, of course, are evil. So it’s unfashionable, if obvious, to point out that, in some ways, they’ve made life better. Anyone who remembers AltaVista has cause to be grateful to Google for the accuracy of their searches. And YouTube can find many interesting videos in seconds.
Amazon may be a horrible place to work, but the experience for customers is superb. You can either spend two hours trawling what’s left of the high street for a Black Labrador calendar, or buy one from Amazon in two minutes. (And when they fully automate their warehouses, those horrible jobs might give way to no jobs.)
Apple make obscene profits, but users are still delighted with the functionality and feel of their iPhones. And social media have undoubtedly helped lies to travel further and faster, and contributed to the increasing polarisation and toxicity of political discourse, but hey, people Like my holiday pics.
Spotify cannot, of course, claim to be in the same league as these giants. Within the music streaming market, it faces serious competition from those same tech giants in the guises of YouTube Music, Amazon Prime and Apple Music. Spotify is my music source of choice: I subscribe to their Premium service. At £9.99 per month (ad-free) to access just about all the music I care about, old and new, this seems extraordinarily good value for customers.
It ain’t perfect, though. Their curated playlists seem designed to avoid strongly flavoured songs which might turn listeners away. This is only an impression, but their algorithm seems tilted towards the inoffensive (Ed Sheeran) at the expense of the passionate (Adele). The result, I fear, might be to push music in the direction of muzak. It may be harder for musicians to get a hearing for songs that some love and some hate.
And it isn’t great for artists trying to break through. (I have taken an interest in this since my daughter has been in a band, The People Versus). Every 1,000 streams get about £3. For a four piece band to each earn just £10,000 annually from streaming – even ignoring their expenses and shares due to their record label, songwriters and music publishers – they need about 13 million streams. Small beer for Lady Gaga or Ed Sheeran, but a huge stretch for up-and-coming artists.
To illustrate, I was recently charmed at a gig by a band called Oi Va Voi singing Through the Maze. Twenty years ago, I would have bought a CD to own the track for about £10, of which perhaps £1 might have found its way to the artist. But now it’s right there on Spotify or YouTube at no extra cost, or if you listen to a few adverts, free. I would need to play the song 300 times on Spotify for the band to get that £1.
The good news for new artists, though, is that they can now keep most of the proceeds of their music. If they can finance their own recordings and videos, then the other main previous functions of record labels – organising the manufacturing and distribution – are largely redundant. The only area left to them is promotion, and the cynic in me suspects that this mostly consists of knowing who and how much to bribe to get your song on to popular playlists, radio shows, TV shows or films, or to get the artist a prestigious award or a key support slot on a big tour.
With the earnings from music now relatively transparent, it is tougher for record labels to get a decent return from their investment in new artists. These changes are reshaping the music industry, perhaps favouring big established artists over new music and middle-ranking acts. I suspect it has raised the stakes, making it harder to break through, but increasing the potential rewards. The days where artists could make a decent living in the second division are probably gone.
But from the customer’s perspective, Spotify is excellent: just about whatever you want to hear, wherever, whenever, however you want it. But the unexpected bonus for me has come from its algorithm. At the end of of a playlist – or even after a single song request – it will keep playing more songs, based on the music other users have played alongside your choices. I thought I knew a lot of music, but over the last few months the algorithm has introduced me to some great records I’d never heard before, as I rattle the pots and pans, clearing up after dinner.
It’s not infallible, of course. Quite often it plays me something over-familiar: I don’t need to hear All Right Now again, thanks. Or something I hate. (No more ELO, please). Or something I remember quite fondly, but don’t really need to hear again (Back Off Boogaloo). Or something I’ve never heard before, which is just awful, or just meh.
But sometimes it finds me a beloved record which I haven’t heard – or even thought of – for years, and I am joyfully reunited with a forgotten classic. Even better, a song I’ve never heard before comes on, and…oh…oh. I stop what I’m doing, and listen. Then I play it again, and maybe three more times: suddenly I’m like a kid again, getting my 45 out of its sleeve, playing it to death. I flatter myself that I know a lot of music, and discoveries are harder to make as I get older and feel more sceptical: how refreshing, then to feel that thrill again. It can make my day.
Here are some of the discoveries Spotify has brought to me over the last few months. Of course, these reflect my own taste. But do try letting Spotify run on once in a while when your playlist is over. Somewhere in there you may find a gem that you will treasure for life. I’ve written about Spotify but the links are to YouTube. Ain’t that the way.
Saunders’ Ferry Lane – Sammi Smith
When this was released in 1970 as the opening track on Smith’s album Help Me Make It Through The Night, I wouldn’t have given it a hearing: I couldn’t have got past that hair, that vocal twang. Country music just wasn’t cool – although Sammi Smith did later join the so-called “outlaw” movement with the likes of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, rebelling against the Nashville and Grand Ole Opry establishment.
But cool be damned. Saunders’ Ferry Lane is an exquisite song with a beautiful vocal. It describes, with an aching sense of loss, a visit in winter to the place where she had been with her lover in summer. We fear she might take drastic action at the waterside, but the lyric of the final verse reassures us, as she drives away. Inexplicably the song fades before the narrative is complete – perhaps the producer judged anything over 3 minutes and 3 seconds too long for radio play.
The desolate location is painted in vivid, atmospheric detail. Sentimental, yes, but hear the pain and emptiness in her voice when she drops away on the line “in the way we loved each other”, and the heartbreaking silence after “quietly as the dawn”. Listen only when you’re feeling strong.
Fu Manchu – Desmond Dekker
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, reggae was also not cool – the only white kids in Britain who listened to it were skinheads, whose enthusiasm for black Caribbean music was no barrier to racist attacks on Indian and Pakistani kids. Paul McCartney had made a nod to reggae in Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da in the White Album from 1968, and Led Zeppelin had mystified their fans with D’yer Mak’er in 1973. But it wasn’t until Eric Clapton hit with his version of Bob Marley’s I Shot The Sheriff in 1974, followed by triumphant London gigs by Bob Marley and the Wailers in 1975 that reggae found a mass white audience. By then, we had missed so much.
I listened with fresh ears to hits I had ignored, like Desmond Dekker’s Israelites, It Mek and 007 (Shanty Town). When punk arrived in 1977, it had a strong affinity with reggae, and – with the guidance of my cousin Jon Brockbank, who worked as a reviewer for Echoes magazine – I discovered many more reggae favourites, including Identity by The Mighty Diamonds, Conscious Man by the Jolly Brothers, and Police and Thieves by Junior Murvin.
It was after listening to the likes of these that Spotify proffered Desmond Dekker’s Fu Manchu from 1968. Dekker’s light, fluid vocal and the infectious beat had me hooked from the opening. The lyric may not be quite worthy of the soulfulness with which he sings, but the song is nevertheless irresistible. There is the bonus of some playful scat towards the end.
I Never Dreamed – The Cookies
The Cookies 1962 hit Chains had been covered by the Beatles on their Please Please Me album. But it was the Beatles who caused the Cookies’ I Never Dreamed – the most perfect and lovely of girl group records – to flop.
Gerry Goffin, the longtime collaborator and husband of Carole King, co-wrote this song with producer Russ Titelman. Unfortunately the record was released in 1964, a few months after the Beatles had turned the US music scene upside down. With the exception of Motown’s Supremes, girl groups were finished: no-one was interested in this charming, ecstatic teenage love song.
The Bargain Store – Dolly Parton
Dolly! I have loved Dolly Parton ever since I heard Jolene on the radio in 1973. The song did nothing in England until it reached the top ten in 1976. Despite her status as a global giant of and beloved icon of country music, few people would know more than three songs she has written – Jolene, of course, 9 to 5 and I Will Always Love You, more famous from Whitney Houston’s version.
I had heard The Bargain Store before, but had dismissed it as a lightweight song. On hearing it again a few years later it struck me as a sweet little song. It describes a woman damaged by a relationship, open to new love. When issued it was dropped from a number of country stations’ playlists because programmers thought the line “you can easily afford the price” was a reference to prostitution, when Dolly makes it clear that “Love is all you need to purchase all the merchandise”. Not too bright, those country stations.
Dolly tells the story in her 2020 book Songteller. “When I wrote The Bargain Store, I swear on my life that I was never thinking about love in any vulgar way, I was using the ‘bargain’ as it related to a broken relationship. But every man I know thinks it’s dirty. Somehow, this lyric is a dirty thing to a man. But I never saw it that way.”
The Fool – Sanford Clark
This song wasn’t new to me, but despite loving it when I discovered rockabilly in the 1970s, it had dropped off my radar until Spotify reminded me. It’s a very simple song, with a hypnotic guitar riff – co-written by Lee Hazelwood, who went on to success with Duane Eddy and Nancy Sinatra.
You Don’t Know – Bob Andy
Another reggae gem I’ve only recently discovered. Bob Andy was half of Bob and Marcia, who scored a UK no. 5 in 1970 with Young Gifted and Black. The lyric of You Don’t Know isn’t perfect:
They say you're looking slim Are you sure to sweat out in a gym? You even need a trim
but Andy carries it beautifully with his warm expressive voice. Jon Brockbank recalls meeting him at Reggae Sunsplash: “I remember him as a tall friendly dread, very different from his Bob and Marcia afro days.”
Alone again Or – Love
Love were a racially diverse band based in LA: band member Bryan MacLean wrote the song as Alone Again in 1965, inspired by his memory of waiting for a girlfriend. But it was not completed until 1967, when Love frontman Arthur Lee remixed the track to make his own vocals more prominent, and changed the title to Alone Again Or to add a little mystery. Arranger David Angel then added a string section, and a horn part, played by a mariachi band which had recently featured on a Tijuana Brass album.
The lyric treads the line between positivity and desperation:
You know that I could be in love with almost everyone
I think that people are
The greatest fun
And I will be alone again tonight my dear
The song made little impression in the US, and barely scraped into the UK top 30. But over the years it has quietly acquired classic status. An elusive melody, but a haunting song.