Sunday, 4 March 2012

12 Guilty Secrets About "Soundscapes"

Nothing in this world is truly original. Any composer will admit, if they are forced to, that everything they produce has been inspired by or borrowed from, even in a very small way, something else. Sometimes it is completely unconscious, but usually you can trace it back at some point, even though the end result usually bears very little resemblance to its inspirational source.

This is true of my last album, "Soundscapes". Each track has something in it that is borrowed or at least inspired from elsewhere. Now before I am accused of plagiarism, I must point out that we are talking about very small things - maybe a sound, or a rhythm or just an overall idea that sparked the creative juices into composing a brand new track.

So I thought I would share some of these with you for your amusement, and to prove my point. These may alter your perception of the music for ever, but I hope not....

1. "Prayers"

The African drum rhythm was a response to hearing the backing track to a nature documentary I was watching! By the way, the prayer recited at the beginning of the track is actually a recording of a pink, fluffy child's toy in the form of a rabbit, known as "The Prayer Bunny". Now I bet you won't listen to that in the same way again.

2. "Queen of the Nile"

The riff was blatantly stolen from a song called "The Chasm" that we used to play in my old band, Arora - back more years ago than I care to remember. But I wrote it, so that's OK. The riff actually came about as the only decent sounding thing you could do with one of the patches on my old K1 synth.

3. "After the Storm"

The choral break was written first, inspired by Vangelis' "Conquest of Paradise" - the rest of the track was written around it.

4. "Orpheus"

The background choral voice chords leading up to the guitar solo (and used more often in the remix) were directly inspired by the end of "Neptune the Mystic" from The Planets Suite by Holst. Check it out - its more mind expanding than anything produced in the 60s.

5. "Ile de la Cite"

Unashamedly inspired by Shostakovich's Waltz no. 2, but I wanted to turn it into something specifically Parisienne, so chose the instrumentation accordingly and focused on a more French oriented melody.

6. "The Return of Jack Tar"

I was messing around with drum sounds whilst the TV was on and an old sea shanty started playing in the film I was half watching. For fun I started tapping out the drum beat in time with it and the rest is history. By the way, the creaky ship sounds were recorded using my studio door. Must get those hinges oiled.

7. "Iceman"

The ragga section vocal samples are lifted (legitimately, I must point out) from a song about a guy trying to get a signal on his mobile phone. "Don't understand, still in the zone...."

8. "Caledonia"

The drum pattern was inspired by a song heard at a very loud Joe Bonamassa (he da man!) concert in Bristol, I can't remember the name of the song unfortunately (what kind of fan am I?), but the rhythm stuck in my head!

9. "Sunset Highway"

The whole backing beat was put together directly after listening to "Not Fair" by Lilly Allen. I guess I had to get it out of my system somehow.

10. "Rat Race"

The drum rhythm was originally written by me to support the song "Sur le Pont D'Avingon" in a college play and then left on a cassette tape unused for many years.

11. "Somme"

Recorded after I had spent an evening listening to Thomas Tallis' "Spem in Allium" over and over again on headphones. I just HAD to do something in that vein! 

12. "A Farewell"

Would you believe that this was started after hearing "Sweet Disposition" by The Temper Trap? No, didn't think so.

So there you go, a few secrets about how these tracks came to be - I hope it doesn't spoil your enjoyment of them, but one thing I can say for sure; every piece of music you have ever listened to has something like these behind them.

If the composer claims otherwise, he's lying. Or very forgetful.

Friday, 24 February 2012

The Game of Fame

I've been following the usual post Brit Award naval gazing exercise in the media with some wry amusement. As ever, TV and newspaper editors use the opportunity to fill their empty slots with endless waffle about how it does or does not reflect the state of the modern music industry - like that really matters or even interests most of us.

This year, of course, it's turned into an Adele vs Blur shouting match and I must say I have rarely seen such strong sentiments expressed on both sides in the forums! Depending on your point of view (or more probably your age, if we're honest about it) either Adele is an undeserving flash in the pan and Blur are true musicians, or Adele is a hard working and shining talent of the modern age and Blur are a bunch of ageing has-beens.

Well far be it for me to comment. In fact I really don't care. Blur have done a few numbers in the past that I really like, and Adele undoubtedly is a remarkable singing talent. But equally I could easily be very disparaging about both as well. Because we all have our own preferences. What they have in common, and what we all have to acknowledge, is that they have both managed to achieve sufficient fame to be mentioned in a blog post by an aspiring artist such as my good self, who has not managed that level of recognition. YET, of course.

But how did they get that recognition, fame, celebrity, whatever you want to call it? Is Adele more deserving of that award than, say, a friend of mine who has, I would argue, a superior singing voice (gasp! sacrilege!). Are she and all the other winners really more talented than every one of the the thousands of unknown musicians, bands and singers out there? One tends to assume that they must be. But the truth is, they are not. In pure talent terms, every "star" has a large number of equals/betters out there who are not stars.

Now before their lawyers start charging the famous great chunks of their royalties for writing threatening letters to me, let me point out that I do not in any way resent their awards nor, (in most cases) deny their talents. I pat them collectively on the pack and say "Well Done!". You cannot win awards without some sort of ability, that is for sure. You can get the fame easily enough (just hang around with footballers in bars and pay Max Clifford your life savings) but in general the Brit awards and other similar events do fortunately maintain some degree of integrity with respect to talent.

But these people did not get there without some serious corporate assistance. In fact, that is a point spat at the whole event with vitriol from a number of quarters. Um, yes. Of course that's the case. If you don't like it, don't watch it then, and don't buy the records. As I have discussed in a previous post, if that was not the case, there would be no "stars", and no-one would be trying to become one. I also suspect that the corporate bashing is often the politics of envy rather than idealism. The bottom line is that there is no other way of having a top tier of artists for the rest of us to aspire to.

So why are these people singled out over the rest of us for promotion? Good question. Assuming you have some reasonable talent and you are not a clone of an existing established star, its as much about who you know and being in the right place at the right time. It seems to be that what happens is that there is some kind of covert agreement between top record companies, broadcasters and promoters that a particular act is the "next big thing". The resulting overwhelming exposure that we all get to that act results in us believing the same, and buying the product. Pretty much all of the famous acts that have emerged from nowhere in the last few years have achieved their status this way - I shall not name names for fear of reprisals but I am sure you can identify a few with a minimum of effort.

The proof of this phenomenon is the existence of what I call the "doomed middle layer" of fame. These are the musicians that have a long history, many albums, a loyal "cult" fan base, and that the average music fan may have just about heard of but probably can't name or bring to mind any of their music. These poor guys will never be "discovered" by the corporate music industry, but if they are lucky, may be "discovered" every now and then by a new fan who then buys up everything they've ever produced. But they will probably never be accepting awards on national TV. Occasionally there's an exception to the rule (I am thinking specifically of the recent award for P.J.Harvey's latest album - nice one, Polly) but otherwise this is the top layer to which most of us can realistically aspire. Because when you get to this point, the corporate machine does not want you because you are probably too old and set in your ways to be of any use to them.

To be honest, that is all fine by me, because in this day and age of web networking and relatively cheap music production technology, there are far too many people out there for them all to "make it" in the traditional sense. This "middle ground" status give us all the space we need to do what we love doing, and we are far more likely to still be doing it in a few years time than. But that's not to say I, like all others in my position, don't secretly fantasise about accepting awards on national TV for my music. It's an ego thing. So if anyone knows who it is that maintains that secret list of "next big things" and how to get on to it, let me know and I'll make them an offer they can't refuse.

They can cut my acceptance speech short if they like, I don't mind, in my case it'll probably be a good thing. As you'll probably agree if you've managed to read this far.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Three Out of Four Ain't So Bad

I should warn you that this post delves into musical theory a bit, but I'll do my best to explain it to the non-musicians. And not to be so patronising again.

Whilst I was putting together my last single, "Dance of the May", I was reminded of something well known to most musicians but, to my mind, not adequately explained.

The single is in triple time, 3/4 to be precise. This is not something you come across very often in modern music. Old English folk music, by which "Dance of the May" was inspired, is almost entirely in triple time, and it is far more prevalent in many other folk genres, and of course many classical works - the great Strauss waltzes being the best known examples. But scour the vast array of modern, or should I say, "popular" compositions and examples are few and far between. Now before you shower me with examples, yes I know there are many and I shall be quoting a few, but it has to be said that they are the exceptions to the overwhelming use of 4/4 across the board.

The science bit, for those of you who do not know what I am talking about: most modern music breaks down easily into groups of four beats with emphasis on the first, I always quote the Bee Gees here as an example: "ha | ha | ha | ha |" (there's four beats) "stayin'a | live | stayin'a | live |" and there's another four. Triple time is where it breaks down into groups of three. By definition, a popular example if hard to pin down, but maybe the best known would be the verse section of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" -"pic |ture | your |" (three) "self| on | a|" (three) and so on.

So why this seeming prejudice against triple time? Well there are many theories on that, one of the more popular being that to dance to music in 3/4 time actually requires some degree of practice since the beat is not divisible by the number of feet that most of us have. I think there probably is something in that. But anyone can sway, and what is more, and this is my personal opinion, a well executed 3/4 waltz is possibly the most beautiful and intoxicating form of dance that there is.

My argument is positive, however. I think that triple time, be it 3/4, 6/8 or any of the other esoteric variations that exist can and should be used to produce more modern music alongside the more usual "common" time. (The practical difference between 3/4 and 6/8 is still subject to debate by many - check out this video by a rather impressive young musician attempting to explain it, with limited success. I've done a music theory diploma and I still don't quite get it.) A triple time piece has a feel all of its own and opens up a universe of new possibilities of melody and rhythm. It undoubtedly is better suited to ballads or slower numbers (although check out Hendrix's "Manic Depression" for an extreme exception to this rule) and on the rare occasions where you do hear it in music from the modern era you probably don't even realise it. But you know there is something very special about the feel of the piece. Check out David Gray's sublime "This Year's Love" as an excellent example, where the triple time adds a wistful swaying element that would simply not be there in 4/4. Another famous one is "Nights in White Satin" by The Moody Blues. Supposedly in 12/8 time, but get real guys, it is as 3/4 as the Blue Danube. But it sounds somehow "different" to most other music of the day. That's the triple time.

I love triple time and use it far more often than is probably healthy for a "modern" composer. So far there are three tracks from my limited catalogue that use it, namely "Dance of the May", "Île de la Cité" (from Soundscapes) and "Reprieve" (from Finest Hour) and there will probably be many more to come. I didn't plan this, I just came up with what I thought was a great melody and then realised I had strayed into the world of three.

So this is my call for composers in all genres to stop ignoring triple time and embrace its possibilities. I know this call will fall on deaf ears in the more dance oriented genres, which is fair enough, but otherwise there is no reason not to try it once in a while. You never know, you might like it. And so may your listeners.

But they probably won't know why.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Curse of the New Age

Every time I try to engage in conversation with someone new about my music, the first question that inevitably crops up is "What type of music do you make then?" and I'm always at a loss as to how to sum it up in one word or phrase. The usual answer I stammer out is something like "Well, it's mainly instrumental." But this doesn't really help much and so I give them my website details and hope they can figure it out for themselves.

This basically sums up my problem. There are a number of defined musical categories in this world and I find it hard to fit exactly into any one of them. To use established labels, I do a bit of "rock", "electronic", "folk", "world", "ambient", "soundtrack", "classical" and probably a few more.  It is an issue I share with my all time musical hero, Mike Oldfield, who like myself has always produced music that he felt like doing and to hell with the genre. Hasn't stopped him having a huge and intensely loyal army of fans, however.

So when navigating the menus of music stores and review sites, I tend to share with him that most unfortunate of categories, "New Age". This epithet was invented, as far as I can make out, to describe the otherwise indescribable and as a result does not do the musicians concerned much justice. It also has connotations of appealing to people who like to hang out at Stonehenge on midsummers day, worry about their energy lines  and use the word "karma" a lot. Now I have absolutely nothing against such individuals, I admire their selfless philosophy, but that is not me, nor Mike. I suspect that even the great all powerful god of "New Age" music, Yanni, would make some attempt to avoid being stuffed into that pigeon-hole as well. You are more likely to find this particular "New Age" artist at the pub downing some real ale and engaged in bawdy conversation on midsummers day, and the only energy lines I worry about are powering this computer and need to be paid for somehow. I am a pretty average guy in most respects.

I make the kind of music that I do, not because I wish to promote a lifestyle or any political ideas, but because I love the way it sounds. It pleases my ear, and I hope it does yours as well. There are many other kinds of music that please my ear as well. I am a massive fan of AC/DC and Claude Debussy amongst many others. Go figure.

I really love making music that evokes images and atmospheres. That is why so many of my pieces are unashamedly themed, and indeed why I called my last album "Soundscapes". But unlike the more restrained traditional "New Age" artists, I am not afraid to throw in a raucous guitar solo or a thumping dance beat either. But that is the beauty of making music, there really are no boundaries, unless you choose to create them.

Therefore I am calling for a new category to be internationally recognised, and I have absolutely no idea what to call it, and I can't promise I shall be able to fit into it either. But it may help me in my conversations.

Suggestions on a postcard, please....

Sunday, 22 January 2012

SOPA On A Rope - But We Need The Big Companies

Well I guess I have to take the trouble to post my thoughts on the whole SOPA debate. They may be a little academic now given that the bill appears to have stalled as a result of public outcry but it has raised an important general point.

Let me state my position, which is that, in common with most of the more sensible and well thought out objections (as opposed to the anarchic element), I agree very much with the principle of trying to curb piracy (why would I not?) but the actual proposals were potentially disastrous to the modern music scene. They were obviously geared towards the few remaining corporate dinosaurs of this industry trying to protect their own interests in the face of the loss of control they have been facing for many years now - what with the advent of affordable recording technology and the perfect accessible distribution medium in the form of the internet. But the ability to arbitrarily shut down internet providers on a suspicion threatens the very lifeblood on which those same corporations depend.

Now I believe passionately that every person or entity in this world, big or small, has the right to defend their own interests. I also believe that we artists deserve a fair recompense for our popularity, as indeed do the enabling organisations. But in this case, the few remaining large entertainment giants are fighting a losing battle. Unlike many of my peers, I have no wish to see these conglomerates go out of business - because we need them. I shall explain why shortly. But they are making the same noises that they made years ago with the advent of the compact cassette and the video recorder.

When these technologies first appeared in the late 70s there was uproar from the record companies and film studios. They actually tried to get them banned, for fear that they could not control the resulting piracy that would erode or even slash their revenues, now that the man in the street had the ability to copy music and films. But eventually they came to their senses. Sure, there was piracy, but the corporates more than made up for it (and them some) by creating whole new markets in selling us pre-recorded cassettes and video tapes.

So, record companies - you know from history that your best bet is to embrace the new world, not to try and cripple it. The internet is bigger than all of you put together and will not go away. Whatever you do to try and control what happens it will always be one step ahead. Live with it. Now take advantage of it! Find new ways to persuade people to part with their hard earned cash that work in harmony with the world we now live in. You've done it before, you can do it again.

I don't have all the answers, but there are already some pioneers out there. Take Spotify. As I have said in a previous blog post, I do not currently fully support that particular initiative. But my problem is not with the principle, it is more with the fact that they do not charge nearly enough money to make it work for the artists although it is valuable for music discovery. But the "pay per listen" or subscription principle is a valid one. The consumer is still, at present, rather wedded to the idea of "owning" an album, but that can and will change. And the big record companies are the ones to make that happen. If we can dispense with the sense of consumer level music ownership then the whole notion of piracy vanishes. We just have to find new ways of monitoring usage. Perhaps we should worry less about what individual people are listening to and focus more on public performance and media usage, which is far easier to police. These are just thoughts and far be it from me to come up with the solution in my humble blog post, but there will be one.

Which brings me on to why I want the big corporates to thrive. As an independent musician, I love the way that I am able to compose, record, publish and distribute my own material without them. A few years ago that would simply not have been possible. It is generally accepted in musician circles that this is a great thing for creativity, and it is. But there is a downside. Now, everyone is a published artist. Just take a look at the Twitter followers list of any well known artist, film production company or music journalist. Every fourth follower has the words "Singer/Songwriter" or "Film/TV Composer" in their profile. There are literally millions of them. And every one harbours dreams of being the "next big thing", if only someone would discover them and make it happen.

So who is going to do this "discovering"? Sure, if they are smart, work hard and not to mention prepared to spend a bit of money on it, and of course actually have some modicum of appreciable talent (and that last point immediately cuts the millions down to hundreds, believe me) they can establish a reasonable following, get some nice feedback and with any luck sell some music. But they are almost definitely not making a living out of it, let alone the level of success required to achieve the recognition that they dream about. But as I know from my own experience, this dream is the ONLY thing that keeps them churning out the music.

Basic socio-economics dictates that there is only room for a limited number of "names" in the music business at any given time. The only way to become one of them is to throw more money and palm pressing at promotion than is available to all but a very few artists, by many orders of magnitude. And who has this kind of money and the right contacts to make it happen? I think you can see where this is going.

I have no wish to dissuade all those independent artists since they are the lifeblood of this industry. All I am saying, is that to achieve the level of success that you are working towards you have to face the fact that sooner or later, someone else with a lot of clout will have to get involved. Not necessarily in the sense of a traditional "record deal" but definitely a marketing arrangement. There is no reason why it should not be you that they sign up with, but it will have to happen.

So please - to those of you delighting in hacking the websites of these large record companies as some kind of cathartic vengeance, you may be getting your 15 minutes of fame but you are not doing anything to support the long term prospects of the whole music industry. SOPA is now dead, or at least dormant, thanks to reasoned and legitimate public outcry, largely disseminated through the very medium the companies were seeking to curb. So we've proven the point. These companies may be short sighted and reactionary, but without them new talent will have nothing to aspire to, and so we will probably go back to our day jobs. And that means endless X-Factor singles. You have been warned.


Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Goodbye, Old Friend.

Recently I've been starting to plan album number three. Despite all of the inevitable creative thoughts and debates, one question keeps coming back and slapping me in the face.

Should I release it on CD?

This may seem a strange question to be concerned about at this stage, but is is a critical one for someone in my position. Download sales of my previous albums on iTunes alone have far outstripped CD sales since release. Manufacturing CDs is an extremely expensive business and there is no guarantee that I will be able to sell the vast quantities that the manufacturers demand as a minimum order. The other option is to go CD-R, but these are frowned upon by some listeners and also cost a lot more per unit to produce so there is no margin in them when you do sell them.

But there is a strong emotional attachment to CDs for people of a certain age. In the 30 or so years since they first appeared, they have become part of our culture. I am just about old enough to remember their appearance on the music scene in the early 80s, when it became quite the party game amongst my circle of young pals to see how hard it was to render them unplayable. We were used to chewed up cassette tapes and scratched vinyl, and this magical shiny disc that claimed to be indestructible (not strictly true) and to provide the ultimate in sonic quality was the sexiest thing to appear on the market for a very long time. It also used a "laser" to read it, and this was an unbearable amount of excitement for a generation that had only just got back from the cinema having watched Star Wars on its original release. The future had undoubtedly arrived!

I often wonder whether Jean-Michel Jarre would have enjoyed quite the iconic status he does if his "Oxygene" album had not somehow become the pin up girl for the new format. Those subtle electronic breezes somehow came truly alive when freed of interference from the crackle and hum of vinyl or the hiss of cassette tapes. The record companies never had it so good either, as they fell over themselves to release their entire back catalogue on CD to persuade us to buy albums we already had just for the quality. It worked, too.

The transition to download in the last ten years has not had anything like the launch party the was enjoyed by CD for a number of reasons. It's not about the quality any more, in fact MP3 quality is usually noticeably worse than a CD thanks to the compression used to get the size of the file down to something manageable. Instead its about the convenience of instantly accessible libraries of music and total portability. When CDs first appeared, music enthusiasts now started to concentrate on the quality of their sound reproduction hardware since the source material was already as good as it was ever going to get. I still remember when a man was measured by the size of his sub woofer. Other than a few die hard elements who have now transitioned this approach to their cars, this is not really the done thing any more. Now it seems to be about miniaturisation. You can get an iPod that is literally the size of a postage stamp that will hold more music than you can get through in a lifetime, and it's all very impressive technically but I do think its a bit of shame that we've lost the focus on sound quality. I'm as guilty as the next, having an attic full of CDs that have long since been ripped to my iPod.

Music producers such as myself as a rule go out of our way to produce the highest quality sound recordings that our equipment will allow, but much of this effort is now wasted at the receiving end. We are also engaged in this crazy "loudness war" which for the non-technical amongst you is about making your music sound louder than the next guys (usually by compressing the life out of it) in the belief that this somehow makes it sound better. We all do it, but I'm really not sure why....

To get back to the point, poor quality audio MP3s are the future and high quality audio CDs are on the way out as far as the consumer is concerned. To be fair, the quality of MP3s will generally improve as available disk space and internet bandwidth increases but at the moment, that is where we are. So the poor old CD is inevitably going the way of vinyl and will soon be relegated to the dusty shelves of specialist record stores populated by men in beards waving their sub woofers at each other. I shall mourn its passing with my heart, but not my head. The download world is actually a fantastic thing for musicians, diminishing reliance on the record companies and enabling musicians everywhere to distribute their music.

So I am tempted to get with the times, not to mention save a lot of hassle, and release album number 3 on download only. Services such as Amazon On-Demand now exist whereby the beards can still buy a shiny disc with 50Mb per song instead of 5 if they wish, and I suspect that this kind of service will multiply rapidly in the way it has for physical books. So if you want a CD, you would still be able to get one. But I'll let someone else make it.

I shall await the howls of protest, and have a sneaking suspicion that I shall probably be pretending that I never wrote these words in due course, but we shall see.


Sunday, 8 January 2012

A Little Self Indulgence

Please forgive me this little self indulgence, but I am really pleased with this 5 out of 5 star review of my album "Soundscapes" by renowned musicologist Matthew Forss, that I felt compelled to reproduce it here! It means so much to any musician when their work is appreciated in this way.

The review follows below:

Artist:  Steve Bowe
Album: Soundscapes
Review by Matthew Forss

A UK-based computer programmer and MIDI expert, Steve Bowe, is trained on piano, but leaves most of that behind, as he traverses out into the global sound world of dance, new age, world fusion, instrumental, and contemporary music.  Steve’s use of melody, rhythm, and sound is top-notch, as Soundscapes represents an aural journey stemming from ancient Egypt to the rural highways of California.  Frankly, nothing stands in the way of Steve’s creative ear. 

"Prayers" opens the album with a low drone and ethereal vocals representing a Native American chant and the voice of a boy speaking a Christian prayer before bedtime.  The jaunty percussion kicks in and swishy noises with a steady, drum beat accompany keyboard washes in a cascading manner.  The drone gives way to muezzin-like call-to-prayers or Yiddish chants, before a little electric guitar livens things up, amidst a drowned-out and indiscernible voice that repeats throughout. The symphonic keyboard washes and electric guitar additions create a lively musical mix that is progressive and well structured.

"Queen of the Nile" begins with reverberating female voices and an upbeat, progressive beat with guitars, drum-kit, and keyboard.  The rhythm contains angelic vocals in the background, but the keyboard technologies and drum-kit leads the song into a frenzied, solo-vocal segment with fine operatic appeal.  The laser-like synthesizer intro appears throughout, but the real winner here is the energetic beat that is not quite rock, but an amped-up Ronan Hardiman. 

"After The Storm" opens with a symphonic, atmospheric wash, and jingly percussion with a sweeping piano melody.  The lilting percussion and sparkling embellishments provide a perfect accompaniment to the darker, brooding undertones of an indiscernible voice.  The angelic vocal accompaniment and keyboard washes signal the end of the song.  Overall, the song acutely represents the feeling one gets after surviving a severe weather event. 

"Orpheus" contains laser-like dance beats and keyboard accompaniment that is equally home at the dance club or a recording studio.  The electronic accoutrements and layered, male vocals possess a spiritual quality.  The metallic squawks and screeches signify a complex, heady, and electric-guitar focused composition—especially near the end of the song.  The song is more rock and dance focused than other songs, but that does not make it any less enjoyable.  Dance fans will love this one. 

"Sunset Highway" is another dance track, but its inspiration is drawn from California.  The opening TV or radio sounds and traffic noises head right into a lively dance rhythm with keyboard accompaniment and operatic vocals that add a touch of European presence, while remaining relatively nondescript.  The twinkling piano playing mid-song breaks up the pace a bit, which can be likened to the work of Ronan Hardiman yet again.  

Steve Bowe’s Soundscapes is a musical journey with luscious dance-scapes, choral voices, lavish keyboard adornments, and powerful rhythms from a futuristic source.  The use of dance rhythms and ethnic voices conjures up comparisons to Hooverphonic, Enigma, and Ronan Hardiman. However, Steve manages to make Soundscapes his own.  The music is diverse and does not included boring repetitive choruses or lines.  Though not inherently obvious, there are hints of Scandinavian, European, and Middle Eastern elements that run throughout many of the songs. Nevertheless, the dance rhythms and beats with enrapturing keyboard wizardry should entertain all who listen.  A variety of sounds and instruments keeps the entire production engaging and fresh.  Importantly, fans of dance music, world fusion, electronic, progressive, and computer music with a passion for filmic soundtracks should find Soundscapes aurally enjoyable and addictive without any negative side effects.        

Review by Matthew Forss
Rating:  5 stars  (out of 5)

Thursday, 5 January 2012

And a Happy New Year to All....Hopefully

Welcome to 2012, everybody. I hope its a great year for you all.

This is despite our beloved politicians appearing to take a sadistic delight in repeatedly telling us what an awful time we are going to have. This seems to me to be a strange way to initiate the optimism that is needed to battle our way out of economic gloom, but hey ho, what do I know? I'm just a lowly musician desperately trying to persuade people to buy my music. In general, people need to be in a good mood to buy music, so please, dear leaders, start being a bit more upbeat. We're all going to blame you for whatever happens anyway, so you might as well be cheerful about it.

Anyway, I've been putting my new year's resolutions together and apart from the usual, soon to be broken lifestyle changes which I've attempted and failed on for every year as long as I can remember, there are couple of more interesting ones I would like to tell you about.

The big one is that this year will be the one in which I finally get my act together (literally) and form a proper band to perform my music. This is no small undertaking since as you know the stuff I churn out doesn't really lend itself to the traditional guitar/bass/drums set-up (although that might be an interesting experiment!). So I am now working on line up requirements and will be in the market for musicians in the near future.

My other resolution is to get a third album out by the summer. Loads of musical ideas are bouncing around in my head at the moment that need to be laid down on disk. Still can't get used to not saying "on tape". Must be getting old.

In the meantime, I intend to keep pumping out the singles and some videos as well to keep you all entertained in these dark, turbulent times and hopefully lift your spirits a little, thus doing my bit for economic recovery.

So as you can see, I intend to make my tiny contribution to improving our collective lot this year. I am no economist, but I do understand that economies are entirely at the mercy of the collective mood of the business and consumers within them. So do your bit, go out and buy something you don't need. If we all do that, then we will solve the problem together.

Of course, you don't "need" my music.....

Happy New Year!!!


Wednesday, 4 January 2012

You Can't Beat the Real Thing

(from previous blog - 21 December 2011)

Just stumbled on a news item about the discovery of a lost David Bowie performance from 1973. Link is below, but please don't go just yet!

Despite being performed long(ish) before my formative years, I was blown away by the quality of the performance, sung and played completely live and in one take. I'm not a particularly fanatical Bowie fan (despite the similarity in our names), but it brought home to me what live music is all about and the sheer excitement that can be generated by a good performance. The rawness and power can transcend anything that is pre-recorded.

Now I know that is pretty rich coming from me - a musician who currently does not currently perform his music live, although I shall remedy that very soon. My hypocrisy only intensifies when I admit to using all the capabilities of modern recording technology to make my music sound as inch perfect as possible. But I have always played live music my whole life whether as a spotty teenager playing loud guitar rock with delusions of imminent stardom, or as a more mature adult playing ABBA and Motown hits at parties just for fun (and beer!). I have played in some really good (and some not so good) acts in my time but you know what, whether playing in the corner of a pub or playing to an audience of thousands the massive high one gets from it is just the same. And that makes you play better.

It's the same for the audience. Watching a good live act playing completely unassisted cannot be beaten by any other listening medium. It's a cliché, I know, but the best cliché's are usually true. I could now descend into a vicious diatribe about the X-Factor generation, auto tuning, miming and corporate marketing. But I won't. It just shows up my age. But you probably know what I mean.

So take a look/listen to the Bowie link below. Whether or not you are a fan or even remotely appreciate the music, I defy you to not be impressed by the performance considering its provenance. No auto tuning, no miming, no backing track, just straight to tape. That is what music is all about. So I'd better get back to putting a band this space!

Here is the link! - Lost Bowie Video.

Let us Remember, Not Judge

(from previous blog - 11 November 2011)

Welcome to a special remembrance day, 11-11-11. I have been saddened by many recent attempts to politicise this occasion and its associated symbols. From the extremist "poppy burners" for whom I have nothing but contempt, to the dilemma that now seems to face anyone who appears on television as to whether to wear a poppy. It seems that if they don't, they are accused of not caring, and if they do, they are accused of giving in to political correctness.

It must be a personal choice and should never be judged by others. Personally, I have not been wearing one, but I have donated willingly to the fund and have my poppy sitting on my desk as I type, to remind me. As you know, I have a particular interest in all things military and as a result no-one takes remembrance more seriously than I do, and like most people my family has been touched by war over the years. I choose not to display it, but if others wish to, then full respect to them for it.

The significance of today is nothing to do with political causes or ideologies. Like most, I have my own opinions about what our armed services have been asked to do in recent years but today is not the day to debate them. Today is simply about remembering the millions of people from around the world who have in the past right up to the present day made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country. Whether or not you agree with what that country was or is doing at the time is totally irrelevant. These are men and women who in most cases were following orders and knew that by doing so they were risking their lives. Not being in the military myself I have little comprehension of the strength of character that it takes to do that. They deserve our respect as people, and that is what today is about.

So what we are remembering is the human angle, not the political one. And we are all human, after all. However, if anyone attempts to interfere with the dignity of those of us who choose to remember then I question whether they can be included in that category.

Sorry Pete, You've Missed The Point

(from previous blog - 01 November 2011)

So Pete Townshend has been lambasting iTunes in his John Peel lecture. See full story here.

Pete, you are a God amongst Rock'n'Rollers and I have loved your work since I was a kid (although maybe some of the solo outings were a little dodgy).

But please don't slam into iTunes because it doesn't offer growbags for musicians. At the end of the day, it's just a shop. It is not a record label and it is certainly not a charity. It takes a cut of what it sells and passes the rest back to the owner of the music. That's what all shops do and I don't hear you accusing WHSmith of the same evils.

In fact, it is one of the very few digital download sites that DOES take some care over protecting the rights of the musician by attempting to prevent unlawful copying, which is very hard to do these days. We can argue over the merits of the actual percentages but I tell you what, it pays a damn site better than the likes of Spotify! Please direct your ire in that direction if you must, I do!

I'm no particular fan of Apple per se. Whilst like many I was very saddened by the recent demise of Steve Jobs who was a true visionary, I do take exception to many of their overzealous business practices and the closed-mindedness of some of their more extreme fans. But at the end of the day they are a business, and businesses exist to make money. If they provide a service that people want, they will make that money. And that is what has happened. You get an album for about the same price you would pay for a CD, and the upstream splits are comparable to what you would get from a high street retailer. One could argue that they should reduce their cut since they don't exactly have to manage stock or a complex supply chain, but there are very few artists left now who boycott iTunes for any commercial reason.

So please tone down your talk of "bleeding artists like a digital vampire", it's simply not the case. iTunes is the best example of digital music distribution out there today, is the nearest digital equivalent there is to our beloved traditional record shops and IMHO is an example that others would do well to follow. Like so many large companies today it attracts a lot of criticism purely because if its own success. But that success comes from people actually using it, so they can't be doing everything wrong.

So, Pete, let's hear some more of that great axe work you are so deservedly famous for, and I'll go back to enjoying "The Who - The Ultimate Collection" which I bought and downloaded recently from....well I'd rather not say at the moment until you've calmed down.

To Spotify, or Not To Spotify?

(from previous blog - 31 October 2011)

I have been asked a number of times recently about Spotify. What do I think of it? Do I use it? Why are my albums not there, only singles? Well now I attempt to answer those questions.

Spotify was introduced as a laudable attempt to overcome one of the greatest issues in the age of digital music. Nowadays it is the work of but a moment, if you are so inclined, to illegally copy music and distribute it almost anywhere without any real fear of reprisal from the publishers or copyright owners. This is great for music lovers who get to hear the music they want without having to fork out for it. Some argue that it is also good for artists in the sense that more people will get to hear their work. But what good to an artist is exposure and popularity if they get nothing for it in return? As I know myself, you have to treat this game as a job the same as any other, and one expects to be paid for the job that you do. If no-one likes your music then you cannot expect them to pay for it, but they are also very unlikely to be inclined to copy it either. But if they do like it, they should expect to have to pay for the privilege of enjoying it in the same way as few pleasures in life are, with a few notable exceptions, free. If no-one pays for an artists' work, how can they expect that artist to buy new guitar strings with which to produce more?

So along comes Spotify and attempts to bridge that dilemma. By paying a modest monthly fee you have access to a huge library of online music that (depending on how much you pay them) you can listen to without limitation as if it was on your own iPod or in your own CD rack. Great, and as a user myself I love it. I can listen to pretty much any piece of music I am interested in without having to buy a CD or download. I remember thinking when I first signed up what a bargain this was. Previously the only legal way of achieving the same thing way to buy a CD or from iTunes or similar every time I wanted to hear a track. All the latest albums on tap any time you want them? - that would cost a lot more than £4.99 a month by any other means.

So that gives us our first clue that the artists may not be getting a fair deal. The problem with Spotify is that the dial is turned far too much towards the listener, not the artist. The economics simply do not add up. The artists and publisher is paid a percentage of the user's monthly subscription that roughly equates to the proportion of their listening time spent on that artists material. Its actually a lot more complex than this and of course Spotify themselves take a chunk, but you get the idea. Bottom line is that to make any kind of reasonable revenue from Spotify, thousands of users would have to listen to nothing but my material all the time. Let's face it, that's not going to happen much as I would heartily recommend it. You may have read recently some high profile stories of major artists receiving laughable royalty cheques from Spotify for songs that are at the top of the charts and have been streamed millions of times. You can imagine what it's like for those of us somewhat further down the food chain who don't get anything like the attention from users. I have calculated that based on experience so far, the cost to me of putting one song on Spotify will only be clawed back after several years at the current rates. And I am getting a healthy number of streams comparable with the sales of my music through other routes.

But that said, I certainly appreciate the exposure that Spotify can give someone like myself, even if only as a well adopted option to hear examples of my work. So I use it in the same way as most emerging artists, to make highlights of my work available in their entirety in the hope that anyone who likes it enough to want more can make an informed decision to buy the whole album from one of the more traditional routes. You may notice that even major artists and labels often delay release onto Spotify until the initial euphoria has died down and a decent album revenue has already been taken.

So in summary, I fully applaud the concept, and as a listener I love having it, it's just that the subscriptions need to be raised by an order of magnitude in order to give the music artists and owners any kind of meaningful recompense for the potential loss in revenue from other sources. The big labels and artists can afford more of a hit on it since their revenues are far less dependent on music sales than they used to be, now they are supplemented by merchandising, touring and licensing. But for us emerging artists who are doing daily battle with the paradox of wanting to be heard but also needing to make a living it can prove simply not worth it. My albums WILL be on Spotify one day, but not yet.

So I genuinely apologise to those of you who would like to see my entire catalogue available through Spotify, but I hope you will understand my reasons. And do consider this; you must have noticed how a bottle of wine tastes so much better in a nice restaurant :-)

As ever, all opinions expressed are my own and not necessarily those of my music. Please do let me know if you have another angle!

The Joy of Commitment

(from previous blog - 12 October 2011)

In a former life, I was a software developer. I'm not talking about cool games or funky graphics, but big, enterprise level database systems. It was scary. I held responsibility for the critical business decision making data of a number of blue chip organisations. The stress levels could be crippling. You get little or no thanks when you get things right, but by God do you get it in the neck when things go wrong. Every now and then you would be in a position where you would issue a software upgrade or patch that HAD to work first time, or else. If an overnight batch process failed in any way, thousands of people would not get paid. No pressure, then. I would lie awake all night going through lines of code in my mind trying to convince myself that it would going to be alright. Unpopular as I may be to admit it, I have some degree of sympathy with the people currently beavering away to get everyone's Blackberry back on line - I've been there. And I am a Blackberry user.

So I thought I had left all this behind when I jumped out of the I.T. world to pursue my music. Then I had to go through the process (twice now!) of releasing an album. All the old stresses come back. There comes a "commit" point when you have to upload to iTunes and send the audio to the CD manufacturer. You would think that after that point I could put my feet up and breathe out. Not so. I spend the next few days and weeks worrying that I had missed something technically or artistically that can no longer be corrected, despite all of the preview listeners input.

So please have a little sympathy with the plight of the self-published artist next time you listen to one of my albums. If you are one of those wonderful people who takes the trouble to come back to me and say "Love it!", you will understand that my reaction is as much relief as anything else. So thank you for putting me out of my misery in the truest sense.

It's An Art, Not a Science

(from previous blog - 26 September 2011)

One of the issues facing a modern recording musician is the immense plethora of tools and techniques available these days. Open the pages of any music technology magazine and you are instantly bombarded with all the latest "must have" software and hardware gizmos, and stern warnings from the so called "experts" about getting things wrong in your production. You are made to feel so inadequate and amateurish if you do not instantly rush out and buy these new toys and remix everything you've ever done using the latest techniques.

I've just got back from a session with the chief archivist at Sony Music (who also happens to be my brother), playing him the latest version of "Soundscapes" as part of my preview programme before release to iTunes later this week. His job involves listening to music releases all day and so I really value his opinion as to the quality of the mixing and mastering. But by the same token I was dreading what he might think and what holes he would pick in it.

But I forgot one important factor - he is also a passionate music lover. So he listened as such, as a listener rather than a technician. And he loved it. Not a single one of the little mix problems that were burning holes in my perfectionist ears was even mentioned. He complained that one of the tracks went on a bit too long (which has since been corrected) but otherwise we spent most of the time chatting about the influences, drinking a few beers and enjoying the music. That doesn't happen very often these days when most people like to keep their music to themselves funnelled directly into their ears from their iPods.

I came away from the session feeling a thousand times more confident than when I went in, because something had dawned on me. It's not about the technicalities, it's about the pleasure given to the listener. It's the same reason I have never (and never will) submit my music to the music production press for review. Although it can be a great source of publicity, they generally rip it to bits in terms of technical production and never sit back and just listen to the music. As a producer myself, I fully appreciate the need for the technology, and believe me there are some fantastic tools out there, but at the end of the day the important thing is that your listeners enjoy the experience. Do they care whether the mastering compression threshold needed a couple more decibels?

Of course not - as long as it makes a noise that they like