Category Archives: Branding

A few words on image, style, band-as-brand, and so on…

I was at a conference the other week all about marketing in HE, and one of the last plenaries started with someone playing “Anarchy in the UK”. They asked us if we knew why they were playing it (their stated reason was because UK HE is basically anarchy at the moment because of govt policy) and I was the only person to pipe up and say “because Johnny Rotten and Malcolm McLaren are outstanding marketers”, and explain that everything I knew about branding and image and loyalty and emotional investment I knew from being into music and following bands.

So let’s tear up Embrace’s image and brand, for a moment.

Embrace’s (really) early image was pointedly of the ‘non-image’ school of thought – long-sleeve v-neck jumpers from Top Man, skatewear shoes, tatty jeans, long, greasy hair, massive corduroy coats – basically they looked like Ride, the complete antithesis of Britpop. (Actually, their ‘really’ early image, way before then, was that they were a bunch of post-Bunnymen goths. Well, they are from near Leeds.) What the semiotician derives from this early image is the message that “we know we look shit but we don’t care; we’re about the music and nothing else matters”, but it’s a little more complex than that; they were mocked for looking rubbish in some areas, and Danny has said, with more than a hint of hurt, that they literally couldn’t afford to dress any better. (Danny clearly got an expensive shirt at one point that he then wore all the time.) I actually really liked this phase of how they looked; it was pretty much how I dressed, it made them feel like a gang, and it made them seem as if they were outside fashion and trends. All of these things appealed.

In comparison at the time you had Jason Pierce wearing a spacesuit; Paul Weller dressed like a 60s Carnaby Street dandy; Noel Gallagher looking like a man from Stockport who owned a race horse and a pub (all signet rings and suede jackets); Blur in their Adidas and Fred Perry and bead necklaces; Elastica in all-black skinny jeans; Richard Ashcroft wearing a pair of Wallabies and a leather jacket over a denim jacket; Keith from Prodigy with his chaotic clown make-up. Embrace, by contrast, dressed like one of the ‘faceless techno duos’ I was so enamoured with back then.

Then there were the EP covers; stock photography of American youths in the 70s, gangs of street kids hanging out, climbing fences, the band not appearing on the cover of one of their own records until the album, which, of course, was shot in New York, and clearly went for that same kind of vibe, but just missed it ever so slightly.

Obviously there’s more to branding than just the band’s image, clothes, and record sleeves, though; there are musical signifiers which represent what a band is (and/or isn’t too, obviously). For Embrace these early musical signifiers, to me, included big choruses, brass (far more so than strings), loud guitars, ba-ba-ba backing vocals, middle eights that took the tune to somewhere new, a disorienting juxtaposition between loud, fast rock numbers and incredibly delicate, slow, sad numbers, and a post-acid-house sense of communality. Oh, and very long song titles.

Embrace’s early brand was also a lot to do with the music they talked about, which functioned as aspirational pointers; wannabe ‘strategic partners’ almost. I’ve always loved mining interviews for ‘influences’ (yes, I know it’s a problematic word), and Embrace’s early name checks were awesome; Sly & The Family Stone, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Beastie Boys, My Bloody Valentine, Elvis, Prodigy; they gave me a huge amount of background listening that helped build expectations, like a manifesto or, you guessed it, brand handbook.

Emotionally there was, to quote Danny, “a ‘Made It Through The Rain’ vibe”, a sense that bad things had hit you but that you’d overcome them. We know now that this was post-traumatic stress disorder, in Danny’s case, and that, emerging on the other side of it, writing the debut album, he was “hearing orchestras everywhere” and trying to squeeze this massiveness and colour into their music. This all amounted to a sense of forward momentum, of leaving the past behind; which is why “Come Back To What You Know”, i.e. a song exhorting some kind of retrogressive safety, felt off-brand to me. When it became their biggest radio hit, it altered the brand perception massively in the eyes and ears of the public. And how people perceive you is as much your brand as how you perceive yourself. Probably more so.

By the second album it was all dreadlocks, organ solos, bright t-shirts, kazoos, and unconscionably baggy trousers; the whole thing, image and music, was attempting to go dayglo and psychedelic, and almost getting there (if it failed it’s because, bar Steve’s acid flashbacks, Embrace have never had any truck with [illegal] pharmaceuticals; beta-blockers are a whole other story, though). Just look at the album and single covers – they documented a literal journey from black & white into technicolour, and while the band are still on the cover, it’s a drawing of them; figurative, expressionistic. At the time it felt exciting, like a prolonged party, a discovery, an epiphany, a realisation that you can be whoever you want to be, do whatever you want to do, and it’s OK, because life is about change. A rebranding exercise, if you like.

The third album continued the dress sense pretty much (of course; it followed so quickly on) but with the colours muted, the mood toned down. Vaguely moody, atmospheric photography of the band in rural landscapes replaced the drawings and lurid colours on the covers. What did it mean? It felt less fun, but it didn’t seem like a conscious, deliberate move, more an evolution born of necessity and lack of space (or perceived need?) for reinvention. Musically it felt like a muted version of the second album, too; plenty of richness in terms of instrumentation, but the eccentricity knocked out, and the big choruses, when they appeared, felt half-hearted.

The fourth album, after years away and signing to a new label, very clearly saw the band’s image worked over by a stylist; these didn’t look quite like the clothes they would have chosen themselves; haircuts, while still long for some of the band (but never the drummer) looked more expensive, as if ‘product’ was involved (in my day we used to call it ‘gel’). Leather jackets, designer labels, stylised and pointedly professionally lit photography inside the sleeve, an abstract-ish cover photo that is of the band, but not at first glance (and, ahem, they’re ‘embracing’).

Musically, though, they felt galvanised, as if they’d codified their brand-book, as it were; Rik said as much to me during an interview; “songs; guitar; stuff” he explained, as a sliding-scale of significance in their sound. So the big choruses were back, with a vengeance, as were the crashing riffs and chords. That juxtaposition between fast numbers and slow numbers wasn’t though, and tempos instead edged closer together, resulting in a morass of mid-pacedness. (Still faster than the third album though.)

(An aside. The b-sides compilation, which I love and had the pleasure of writing the sleevenotes for, irritates me slightly because the font is wrong for the title and the band’s name; instead of being Arial Bold it’s Arial in bold, or vice versa, or something. Either way it’s not quite right. This is an example of disconnected record companies – it was released by EMI following their merger with Virgin / Hut, rather than Independiente, making for a gap between artist and label – not understanding how important a band’s visual branding and legacy is; because it’s ever so slightly wrong, it feels ever so slightly like a bootleg or an unofficial release, even though the photography and layout works hard to stay on-brand. Such simple little inconsistencies. I bet most people never consciously notice, though.)

The fifth album, like the third, followed on so quickly that little changed; the wardrobe got refreshed, but stylistically things were very similar. Given the timescales (and comments from Rik about tax years) it seems as though they were driven and marched by Independiente far harder and more stringently than they ever when they were signed to a major label; I get the idea they were seen as something of a cash cow by Andy MacDonald. (Notably Independiente have released no music by anyone since 2009, and, now Embrace have signed to Cooking Vinyl, they have no one currently on their roster.)

Fast-forward to now, and Steve wearing a Cardiacs t-shirt, Danny a streak of piss in skinny jeans, Rik in Dr Martens, and the rest of the band looking sombre, and, yes, a little goth; the aesthetic is somewhere between those very early days and the stylist-era. The graffiti’d front cover of “Refugees” is radically different from anything else they’ve released, whilst the back cover is almost Hieronymus Bosch or Chapman Brothers-esque; a mass of writhing, scribbled, gothic bodies. And then the eponymous album cover; a scrawled white tally on a black background that looks more like something from the Ian MacKaye Embrace; what does it mean? Does it represent, figuratively, the band again, the five of them still together, more than 20 years since they formed? I don’t know. Time may tell. But it certainly looks a bit goth. And musically? Well, that’s still to come, almost.

So Embrace, like all bands, are (or have) a ‘brand’; ‘brand’ is an unpleasant, late-capitalist term to use for it. You could say ‘identity’ or ‘self’ or ‘character’; ‘brand’ is just the term i have in my professional toolkit from my day-job. It’s something existential; the interface between how a band projects themselves and how fans perceive them.

The problem with brands, of course, is that we look to them for stability, to an extent, in an inherently unstable world (someone somewhere has probably written a PhD thesis on brands as manifestation of the desire for immortality in the face of death). But the things that make up brands – that’s people, in case you didn’t realise (which is the same thing that makes up bands, of course) – are inherently volatile and given to change. And bands are even more volatile than that. And don’t tend to have brand handbooks or manifestos (well, some of them have manifestos) providing guiding principles and keeping them on the straight and narrow, and preventing the kinds of off-brand activity (kazoo solos; songs written by the guy from Coldplay; dub remixes; football songs) that can and do cause fans cognitive dissonance.

Inspiration for this post comes from BB’s brilliant “Image bands” thread over at ILM.

On the long demise of HMV

On Sunday I went in HMV Exeter desperate to spend £20 (that I don’t really have, because it’s January) on season 4 of Breaking Bad on DVD. I vaguely hoped it might be in the fire blue cross sale. It wasn’t, because, they didn’t have any copies of it. I asked at the counter. They didn’t offer to order it in or tell me if they were expecting restock of it. For what are now obvious reasons. (They were pretty obvious then, too.)

I’ve written about my family affection for and recent frustration with HMV before, of course, because this has been a long time coming. If HMV goes, there will literally be nowhere in Exeter to buy a DVD on the high street, apart from Sainsbury’s.

I’m pretty sure I ordered a copy of Ege Bamyasi in my Local HMV, at age 16 or 17, and picked it up from the shop the next week. That’s how things worked then. Not long after that they got a copy of Tago Mago in, possibly inspired by the fact that some enthusiastic kid had ordered in another CAN album, and I bought that, too. I bought the remasters from that bloody rainforest though.

I had a little Twitter spat last September when Grizzly Bear’s album was released and Exeter HMV didn’t have a copy for me to buy until the afternoon, because stock hadn’t come in yet. I’ve been into HMV with a vague wishlist of things I’d like to buy; acclaimed (if sometimes esoteric) new releases, back catalogue stuff. They never had anything. We spend somewhere in the region of £750 a year on new music, on average (at a quick calculation for the last three years or so); my tastes aren’t that weird or leftfield.

I gather HMV moved to central stock ordering sometime in the late 90s, which would have thrown local knowledge and product specialism out of the window as far as staff go, and turn them into little more than cash-register operators and shelf-stackers. Ludicrous. For the last two, three, five years, HMV Exeter piled Kings of Leon albums and Lord of the Rings DVD sets higher than you could reach to pick up the top copy. Doesn’t everyone who could possibly ever want to own Lord of the Rings on DVD already own it? Do people who go into HMV really want JLS badges and One Direction mugs and jelly sweets?

Phil Beeching had HMV’s advertising account for 25 years, and wrote an eye-opening piece last August about how clearly he’d pointed out to them, 11 years ago, what the threats to their business were (online retailers, downloading, and supermarkets, of course), only to be angrily dismissed by the then MD, told that downloading was “a fad”. Three quarters of UK music and movie sales are still physical media, but come on. Consider that HMV decided to try and sell consumer electronics at the same time as the high street retail of consumer electronics collapsed.

We’ve been quietly boycotting Amazon for a few months now, partly because of them remotely deleting customers’ Kindles, partly because of distaste with general e-book DRM and proprietary format issues, partly because their ‘next-day’ service is nothing of the sort, partly because of their massive tax-avoidance, and partly because, these days, they seem like a baddie, and boycotting baddies seems like what responsible people ought to do. I fear that, increasingly, we can justify anything in this country, this culture, by either making or saving money. Tax avoidance? But CDs are a couple of quid cheaper, so who cares. Abusing kids in a hospice? He raises lots of money for us by running marathons, so who cares. Yes, I just compared Amazon to this country’s most evil serial child molester. Like I said, they seem like a baddie.

Before Christmas, on the Monday after ATP weekend, we went to Bristol to see Patrick Wolf, and I nipped into Rise Records and happily, quickly, spent £40 on Fugazi, The National, Liars, and Local Natives records that I’d been vaguely hoping of coming across in our local HMV (or Fopp in Bristol, which I’d checked futilely a few weeks before) for ages, but never seen. The week before Christmas we went to Totnes’ The Drift and spent another £30 on Perfume Genius, Fiona Apple, and Julia Holter albums. HMV Exeter doesn’t have a marker for Fugazi anymore. They didn’t even have the new Fiona Apple album in. Acclaimed, loyal-fanbase, major-label Fiona Apple, appearing high in end-of-year lists all over the shop, and I couldn’t buy her CD in Exeter in December. (To be fair, I could, and did, buy the Deerhoof album.)

We’ve decided that we’re going to make monthly music-buying pilgrimages this year, alternately to Rise in Bristol and The Drift in Totnes; keep a wishlist of what we’re after, and buy a bunch of albums all at once. Chat to the staff. Have a browse. Make an impulse purchase. We might also buy some stuff direct form record label websites, where they’re transactional and I haven’t seen stuff in either Rise or The Drift; we’ll try and support the shops first and foremost. Because they seem like goodies. I’d like to be able to walk into Exeter and buy the records I want, but I can’t.

Because these independent shops have embraced online retailing, have taken to social media, are run by and staffed with people who care about music, who can describe the Perfume Genius album cover to the new girl at the drop of a hat so she can see if she can see if it’s behind the counter because they’ve not put the new stock out yet. They understand that music can (should?) be about community and communication just as much as it can be about anonymous online transactions and listening in commuter silence via headphones. The Drift send a monthly newsletter to email subscribers recommending their favourite records of the past four weeks. Before Christmas they published a list of their favourite 100 records of 2012 online and in printed, fanzine-esque form that you could pick up in the shop. They sell turntables. Their stock is curated like a gallery rather than lumped together like a warehouse or piled high and cheap like a supermarket. They run a listening club (possibly inspired by ours!). They recommend music to you in any number of ways. As NickB asked on ILX, “Can you even listen to sound samples on the HMV website?” No, you can’t. They’d rather sell you some coasters than some records, or so it feels. Has felt for too long.

Michael Hann wrote in The Guardian today about visiting the Oxford Street branch today, and reminisced that he had probably realised the game was up for them a few years ago when Fleetwood Mac were touring and he popped in to pick up Tusk. “The biggest record shop in Britain did not have a copy of a legendary album by one of the world’s biggest bands even as they were on tour in the UK.” I’ve repeated his experience dozens of times in microcosm, the last time being the Fiona Apple failure.

(As an aside, I completely empathise with Michael’s fondness for the big chain in the face of sometimes snooty and elitist indies – it echoes some of my teenage experiences.)

Bob Stanley wrote brilliantly a year ago, and republished today, a piece about the things HMV could have done to stave off what many are talking about as being inevitable. None of these things are outrageous – they’re happening under HMV’s nose, practically next door.

I won’t miss HMV, because I’ve barely bought anything in there for years. But I will miss the act of going in a record shop every Saturday in the hope that something would catch my attention and fire my imagination and make me fall in love. Because that used to happen; didn’t it?

(I know, of course, that the entertainment industry wont let HMV just die, that branches, that the brand, will live on somehow, but allow me this moment of drama and mourning. Even as I write, Canada might be coming to the rescue. Whatever the salvation, though, things will have to change.)

(I ended up buying season 4 of Breaking Bad from eBay. I literally didn’t know where else to get it from.)

(When I say ‘records’, obviously I mean CDs, because they’re just better than vinyl, aren’t they? But there you go. The fact that vinyl sales have been on the up for years, and HMV in Exeter, as well as other branches I gather, failed to stock any vinyl at all, is yet another reason we’re nailing their coffin shut, metaphorically. Let’s hope we bury them with a claw hammer so they can fight their way out.)


So the My Bloody Valentine remasters are finally in shops and CD players, after years of me doubting they’d ever exist.

Except that Sony, brilliant company that they are, have royally screwed it up by mislabelling the two CDs in the new Loveless package. If you don’t know and can’t be bothered to read the article behind that link, CD1 is meant to be pretty much the same as the original CD release from 1991, but louder (and therefore better – the increased loudness is achieved sans digital limiting, apparently), whilst CD2 is a new master from the original ½ inch analogue tapes, and meant to be more ‘physical’. You can read Kevin Shields himself talk to Pitchfork about the difference between the two, and why they took so long.

So far I’ve not really “listened” to the new versions of Loveless. I put the one labelled as CD2 on as soon as I got it, but I’d not played the original in ages, and I was distracted by various other things at the time. Which is to say that I have no idea if the discs are mislabelled, or if there is a “weird digital glitch” 2:46 into What You Want on the disc labelled as CD1 (i.e. the mislabelled ½ inch analogue master tape version).

So this morning I took five minutes before work and listened for the tell-tale signs that distinguish the two CDs (complete silence rather than a second of hiss before the drums start on Only Shallow, and a longer, more complete fade-out on Soon distinguish the ½ inch analogue tape master).

Sure enough, if that’s the best way to tell, then the CDs are mislabelled; which is incompetent and bad proofing / product management, but not disasterous – spread the word, correct the error on the next print-run, and you’re sorted.

The glitch 2:46 into What You Want is more of an issue though, and it’s definitely there (on the disc labelled as CD1, which is probably the ½ inch analogue tape master – are you keeping up?). It’s weird, though, not like regular clipping on a really ‘hot’ master, but more like a fault in the tape that’s just on Bilinda’s vocal track or something. In the P4K interview linked above, Shields mentions sacrificing one instant of one track to digital limiting for the sake of the whole album, but it seems that he’s talking about the straight remaster there, rather than the ½ inch analogue tape version. The glitch does sound digital, but then again this is Loveless; one person I convinced to buy it many years ago emailed me after listening to it for the first time to ask if it was likely the CD could be warped.

If Shields is as much of a perfectionist as he’s meant to be, as he talks about being in that P4k article, then it’s hard to fathom that this glitch could be an avoidable mistake, unless it is some monstrous cock-up by Sony. Which is entirely possible, and there’s a huge amount of “Emperor’s New Clothes”isms possible with subjective listening to minutely different masters of the same mixes of songs (I’m sure the very same master could be on both discs and some people would swear blind they can hear a difference), and Sony is a major record label and major record labels are as psychotic and sociopathic as any big business, but they’re not as dumb and incompetent as EMI. Are they?

Actually, thinking about it, there’s an errant and incorrect apostrophe on the EPs 1988-1991 sleeve spine. This whole project is in tatters.

On selling out and privilege in music

Nearly 8 years ago I wrote a column for Stylus about the concept of selling out and how it was, by and large, a dangerous, damaging idea in the weird little milieu we call indie or indierock or alternative rock or alternative music or whatever. For the most part, I still stand by what I wrote back then – that the idea of ‘selling out’ as a pejorative concept seems to me like yet another ideological state apparatus designed to keep the people in their place and maintain the status quo. That module of Marxist cultural theory in my first term at university still rings in my ears.

Two brothers, by the name of Abner and Harper Willis, who are a band and go by the name of Two Lights, have written an article themselves about how much money they (or their parents, more accurately) have spent in order to try and become successful musicians. Their outgoings include $25,000 on gear, $18,000 on “living in New York City” (because they couldn’t possibly live in their hometown in Maine and be rock stars there), $1,000 on “a guy to send email blasts to databases of hip music blogs”, and $25,000 on “lost earnings” (Harper turns down writing assignments worth $400 per week because he spends 20 hours a week on ‘band-related work’; I’ve thought about this, and I can only assume he’s writing rich college kids’ essays for them at a rate of about $400 per 2,000 words, rather than pitching features, reviews, or stories at actual newspapers or magazines).

Oh, and there was $30,000 on piano, guitar, and voice lessons, too. Their estimated grand total is $109,000 dollars, and they’re still not famous despite all this hardship.

On one hand, you could see their “treat it all as a business” ethos as not a million miles away from Black Flag or Fugazi’s DIY approach to their careers. In fact, let me just remind you of something Steve Albini wrote ages ago about the evils of major record labels and the deals they offer new bands.

On the other hand, you could be wishing these whinging, privileged, burdened-by-entitlement arseholes would DIE IN A FIRE and take their shitty music with them, because it’s disgusting to moan at how much money you’ve had to spend trying to be famous in the middle of an interminable economic downturn that is losing hundreds of thousands of people their jobs and obliterating the economies of countries all around the world. Not getting to hang out with models as often as you’d imagined, or being given riders as flash as the ones in your dreams, is not a complaint that should be tolerated in any civilized society.

I don’t recall Ian Brown moaning about how he had to apply for a loan (to buy a cooker for his flat) so he could spend the money travelling around Europe on tour, or Orbital whining about how they had to record Chime into their dad’s tape recorder rather than get Pater to pay for it to be done properly at Abbey Road.

As a friend of mine said, “these people have always existed, especially in NYC. I used to make good $$$ playing session bass in their shitty bands.” Occasionally one of them lucks out, and we end up with Beastie Boys or The Strokes or Vampire Weekend, and they squeeze a great album or two or five out. Some kids, whether they’re rich or not, will always see minor hindrances in a relativist way and assume them to be enormous, insurmountable and unfair obstacles placed directly and deliberately in front of their dreams, whether it’s not being as famous as Maroon 5 yet or a lift not working properly so you have to take the library stairs with an armful of books.

If I’ve got no objection to people “selling out” (musicians have to pay mortgages just as much as marketing people or stock brokers or nurses or civil servants, and everyone deserves fair pay for making art for the rest of us), why do I object so viscerally to Two Lights and their ilk’s expenditure? Is it the crassness of their sense of entitlement? The fact that their music is such generic, mediocre piffle? Perhaps if you don’t have everything paid for already you have to work that much harder in order to pay your rent and make a success of it, and as a result of working harder you simply become better at your art.

If there’s anything good about Abner and Harper’s navel-gazing about their own pseudo-plight, it’s that it goes a little way towards explaining to people how musicians like The Beta Band can get into so much debt that they see no alternative but to split up. I know of bands who’ve had strings of hit singles and albums, sold hundreds of thousands of records, and still the backstage areas of the venues they play are hollow, exhaustion-filled wastelands after gigs; still after each album they need to make another as soon as possible because they couldn’t afford not to. I know of yet more musicians who work dayjobs alongside making music all the time, even many records down the line; if they’re lucky it’s music related work, and they can produce other peoples’ records, or arrange music for films or TV. If they’re not, it’s carpet-laying or telesales or teaching or any other job that normal human beings do.

Because musicians aren’t Extraordinary Golden Gods. They’re just human beings who make music.

RIP Steve Jobs

Emma’s mum doesn’t like computers. She’s never used one. She’s never shown any interest, whatsoever, in the internet. None at all. She does like playing games though, and has played several Gameboys that have been in the house over the years; a couple of years ago we bought her a DS of her own, which she loved.

At Christmas Emma’s dad bought her mum an iPhone. We thought it might be a white elephant, that she would play games on it and make calls but pretty much nothing else. After all, she’s never shown any interest in computers, or the internet, or emails.

Last night we were round at Emma’s parent’s house for dinner, and Emma’s mum mentioned that she’d read the word “contusion” in some medical text, and not known what it meant. (I only know what it means because of an At The Drive-In lyric.) “I looked it up on the internet and it means ‘bruise’; why not just use the word ‘bruise’?” she said.

Emma’s mum has been sending photographs by email. Photographs that she took on her iPhone. It’s pretty mind-blowing that she’d be doing this. She’s still, as far as I know, never sat down at a computer. She’s bought herself apps on her phone. I imagine it’s only a matter of time before she starts buying real items from real shops via her phone. 10 months ago this was beyond unimaginable. Steve Jobs made it happen.

I’m writing this on a MacBook Air. Emma and I each have an iPhone. We also have an iMac and an iPad, which we bought in New York before they were even available in the UK. We’ve owned a couple of other iMacs, a Mac Mini, and another MacBook. Neither of us like computers. Neither of us want to have to build them, program them, struggle to make them do what we want them to do. We just want to use them. When I first got an Apple iMac in 2006, I suddenly felt like I didn’t have to struggle with a computer anymore, like I could actually do things with it, like it was built for a regular person and not for someone with a certificate from Microsoft.

I, like millions of other people, found out Steve Jobs had died via my phone, which his company conceived, designed, and made, at about 6am, in bed. I find out a lot of news this way now. I work this way, play this way, plan bike rides this way, shop this way, am reminded of my family’s birthdays this way, and a million other things. Steve Jobs, like him or not, has changed the way that we live our lives. I didn’t expect to feel a twinge of sadness at the death of a billionaire CEO of a huge multinational corporation, but I did. RIP, Steve.

Writing on Twitter

(I’m helping someone with their PhD research by keeping a writing diary for them about this blog and other writing I do; this post was written for there originally but got so long and seemed like it might be interesting enough that I thought I might as well put it here.)

At the time of writing (7-8am on Sunday morning) I have made 11,418 tweets. Before the day is out I imagine I will have made many more. At an average of 13 words per tweet (which I calculated by counting the words in about a dozen recent ‘average’ tweets) this amounts to 148,434 words. At 300 words per page, a 300-page novel would comprise of 90,000 words. So, since the start of 2009, which is approximately when I started using Twitter, I have written enough words to make a 500-page novel, give or take. Clearly this is a pretty substantial amount of writing, and it should probably be considered with as much rigour, perhaps, as my long-form writing, be that blogging, reviewing, or anything else. Whether or not it’s possible to analyse my tweeting in quite that depth, I’m unsure.

Some quick facts about my tweeting habits. My Twitter account uses the same online identity or ‘brand’ as my blog ( I currently follow 533 people and I have 736 followers. I tweet from wherever I am using whatever tools are to hand; often this is my iPhone when out-and-about, my work computer or our home iMac when sitting at a desk, but most commonly it is probably the iPad while sitting in the house on the sofa or an easy chair. On the iPhone, iPad, and iMac, I use the official Twitter app to tweet; from work I use the Twitter website via the Firefox browser for my own account, and software called Hootsuite via the Chrome browser for the work account I run (685 Tweets, probably 600+ made by me, 623 following, 503 followers). I have tried several different Tweeting applications over the last two and a bit years and now settled into a comfortable routine for the time being.

My tweets have essentially four different types: conversations, observations, participations, and repetitions. Conversations are replies to and comments at people I know about subjects I’m interested in – most commonly music, but also film, football, cycling, television, cooking, and anything else you might talk about in person or online. I suspect this makes up the bulk of my tweeting, and most of these tweets are between myself and people I know ‘outside’ of twitter – my wife, two key work colleagues / friends, my brother-in-law, a handful of fellow music geeks / writers / fans who I have met online and in person over the last decade or so, many of whom I consider to be friends, plus a few other friends who use the platform.

Observations are (hopefully) pithy, witty, insightful, or clever remarks made at no one in particular, in the hope that people will find them interesting and/or that they will spark conversations. A recent example is the sentence “I am helping Adele to pay less tax by not buying her records” which I adapted from something someone said on a music forum that I agreed with, in relation to the singer Adele’s recent reaction of displeasure to having a big tax bill due to having sold millions of albums.

Participations can be both conversations and/or observations, but they are related to specific cultural events, usually occurring at the time they are being tweeted about. Essentially they are the Twitter ‘buzz’ that gets talked about in media channels, the ‘flurries’ of comments on and discussions about current affairs, be that superinjunctions, the Arab Spring, X Factor, the European Cup Final, or anything else that happens in the world. If enough people talk about these things, marking their tweets with a hashtag to mak them more easily findable and associable with the given topic, they can become trends, locally or even globally. Trends are exactly what you might imagine; lots of people talking about one issue for a time. Trends, and therefore participations, may not be about current affairs, and may just be random memes that have caught favour and inspired amusement amongst people; I don’t tend to participate in these as much as more current affairs based participations. Emma and I both agree that live TV occurrences, such as X Factor, become almost exponentially more enjoyable if you participate via Twitter, chatting with friends, watching the comments of celebrities, and generally being ‘swept up’ in the moment, in the event. While BBC iPlayer, personal digital TV recorders like Sky+, SkyAnytime, and other internet streaming TV solutions make it possible to watch what you want, when you want, where you want, many programmes totally lose their sense of occurrence and enjoyability if you watch them after the Twitter buzz has subsided.

Repetitions are just that; ‘retweets’ of what other people have said that I agree with, or would like the people who follow me to see; these tweets are therefore not actively written by me. I’m not sure what proportion of my overall tweets this makes-up, but it’s not much – I do considerably more of it for the work account I run.

Why do I tweet? Because I like talking to people, I like expressing my opinions, I have a compulsion to write on the internet in various forms, and I like the microscopic sense of affirmation that comes from people replying to you, retweeting something you’ve posted, or deigning to follow you.

How do I compose tweets? I’ve got pretty good at this, meaning that I seldom have to think about truncating things I want to tweet or even use internet shorthand symbols etcetera; I seem to be able to compose thoughts into 140-character chunks without much effort. I guess I’ve had plenty of practice… I rarely if ever compose a tweet and then fail to publish / send it, which is probably why I have posted so many. It would seem like wasted time to me; and I’m not particularly precious about my writing – once it’s written, it might as well be read. Twitter encourages a definite sense of ephemerality in writing.

Replies in conversations come very organically; standalone observations sometimes occur to me in advance and get mulled around a little before being typed, but not by much – I’ve generally got a device I can tweet from to hand. I don’t think I’ve ever emailed my self a reminder of something I’d like to tweet (except for my work account) or ever made a plan of a series of tweets or tweet subjects I’d like to engage in (again, except for my work account, which is approached more ‘strategically’ than my personal account – although, clearly, the fact that I consider it to be part of my personal ‘online brand’ suggests an amount of strategic thinking!).

I think that’s about it…

Why does everybody hate Patrick Wolf?

In the interest of disclosure, I don’t hate Patrick Wolf. I love Patrick Wolf. Back in the days of Stylus, I reviewed his debut album, his third album, and I interviewed him too. I covered his second album for eMusic as well, which I’d completely forgotten about until just now when google reminded me.

Two years ago he provided three of my favourite songs of the year, and my favourite gig-experience, too. In fact he’s provided several memorable gig-going moments over the years, even when he’s been rubbish. I have, after vague moments of trepidation upon first contact, loved both of his recent singles too, and I’m looking forward to Lupercalia, his fifth album, immensely.

But I know a lot of people hate him. Friends of mine, serious music fans, have said pretty foul things about him and his music, things that I don’t understand at all, things that seem as if they’re talking about someone else, some other music. His latest single, The City, is a rollicking, tip-toppermost pop tune, laden with hooks and melody and a barrelling tempo, and it failed to hit the top 100. We regrettably can’t attend his gig in Manchester in a week and are trying to pass off our tickets to friends who can make it, but seemingly no one wants them. I do not understand.

I played his second album a few weeks ago at Devon Record Club, and both Tom and Rob were unsure when I revealed what I’d brought along; both of them found they enjoyed the record despite those misgivings, discovering something much less dramatic and gaudy than they expected. Certainly his debut is shoutier, more priapic, more adolescent, and his later albums are more flamboyant, grander, his stage-show these days a definite show, with costume-changes and mirrorballs and special guests (Florence Welch, Alex Empire), but…

Throughout all the music Patrick Wolf has released so far in his career (four albums with one due soon, and he’s not yet 28), there’s a musicality, a fluidity, a grace, and a melodicism to his songwriting that, for me, would transcend all the electronic splurges, the flamboyant showboating, the love of drama and poetry and passionate commitment to his art that might seem to others to be narcissism, if all those seeming pejoratives weren’t actually just as much a part of the attraction.

Because who wants boring popstars? Wolf, to my eyes and ears, is a far more compelling character than Lady Gaga, more boundary-pushing musically (and just as boundary-pushing personally), more tuneful, just as easily identifiable, as brandable, if perhaps not as consistently dancefloor-friendly.

Maybe it’s that people are still scared of homosexuality, especially when it’s not manifested within strictly delineated and accepted paths. Homosexuality manifested as flamboyant camp is perhaps acceptable when it’s delivered with an undertone of impotence (and thus safety), but it petrifies when the voice is deep and the stride long. Patrick Wolf isn’t gay, but a (thus far) vacillating figure; he’s been involved in long-term relationships with both sexes, and only came-out as being with a man just before his last album (when I’d seen people insist he must be gay because of his music, his lyrics, his dress, from the start of his career, even when he was part of a heterosexual couple).

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s not his character or his sexuality or his aesthetic. Maybe it’s just his music, his voice, which I find delicious and moving and beautiful, but which others find unpleasant. You tell me.

Elbow – Build A Rocket Boys!

The artwork for Elbow’s new album, Build a Rocket Boys!, left me disappointed when I first saw it. Disenfranchised, perhaps. Maybe even upset. Not because I dislike it on any kind of aesthetic level – I’ve almost been unable to consider its aesthetics – but because of what it signifies, potentially, to me, someone who’s bought every album since their debut on the day it was released (I got the debut about a month after its release).

This is because Build A Rocket Boys! (which I’ll refer to as BARB from now on) continues the design scheme established on The Seldom Seen Kid (TSSK), which we now have to refer to as “Elbow’s breakthrough album”. Not only does BARB feature another painting by Oliver East, it uses the same font, the same text arrangement, the same strike to either side of the band’s name on the cover. The colour palette, though shifted to blues from browns, is muted, watercoloured blues, the way that TSSK’s browns were muted, watercoloured browns. (Partly of course this is due to East’s style and mediums of choice.)

What this means, of course, is that BARB is recognisably another Elbow album in the visual vein of TSSK. What this means, of course, is that Elbow have, several years down the line, recognised that a consistent visual identity (fonts, colour schemes, design motifs, photography styles) is a necessary requirement for any band that understands its status as a brand.

Which is fine and dandy, and necessary. Liking a band reinforces identity. Liking a band acts as a shortcut signifier that tells people a little bit about who you are, especially in your youth. I spend increasing amounts of my time talking about brands and branding and saying things like “white space defines who we are”. I may have, in the past, got upset when a record label used Arial in bold instead of Arial Bold (or vice versa) (or something) for the font of a band’s name on a particular record sleeve. Because these things matter. Massively. That record, in a line with all the others, using the correct font consistently, suddenly looks and feels wrong, inauthentic, like a dodgy market knock-off, even if you can’t quite put your finger on why, and as a result, regardless of the music contained therein, gets pulled out and played less. These things matter. Design affects us.

So bands, or record labels, or incompetent designers, suddenly changing tack, offends me greatly, and not only me. Remember when Oasis picked a new logo for Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants and people went mental? That was a rebranding exercise, and Oasis’ fanbase didn’t respond to it very well at all. Sometimes you can manage it – Ash change their logo for every album – but if you establish something consistent and then change it, it raises doubts, asks questions, prompts uncertainty.

Doubts, questions, and uncertainty all being key constituent parts of Elbow’s music up till now. And reflected in their artwork, their font choices, their branding, by that artwork, those font choices, and that branding being inconsistent from album to album. Sometimes similar, usually recognisable as Elbow, always kept unified across the singles that surround an LP, but changing, evolving. BARB maintaining the exact same stylebook as TSSK says, in no uncertain terms, that the Elbow brand is established.

Given that Elbow are now in their late 30s, and making music that speaks to people of a similar age by and large (music of regrets, of passion shorn of aggression but imbued with affection, of location, of friendship, of missed chances and seized moments and remembered feelings), they don’t need to establish a brand in the way that a young band does. They don’t need to appeal to the reinforcement of anybody’s adolescent identity. Establishing a brand four or five albums into a career doesn’t proudly command “believe in this” but rather timidly asks “more of the same, please”.

Doesn’t it?

And the music must surely pander to that request, mustn’t it? Play it safe, give the public what they want, see what got airplay and incidental TV usage from the last one? I mean, they’ve roped in a choir, haven’t they?

This is still Elbow. Guy Garvey still has the same voice. The band, broadly speaking, still play the same instruments and make the same kind of noises. But no album that features such a minimalist, elongated opening pair of songs, that twitch and squirm and swell and swoon, is playing it all that safe. If you liked Elbow’s other albums, you’ll like this one. If you were hoping for 11 slices of anthemic rock, you’ll be disappointed. If you soak it in on its own terms, you’ll be rewarded. At a guess. I’ve had the album for 3 hours, listened to it twice. It might radically change with familiarity. But I doubt it.

Quick impressions. No stompers; no squalls of noise; no sinister scratching and no burn wounds. One big singalong chorus. Astonishingly detailed sound; huge dynamic range. Minimalism; some songs barely there at all, but still oceanic and full of detail. A choir; deployed in interesting ways rather than for bombast. Bits and pieces throughout the record that could easily be seen as redolent of other moments from across their whole career, from the crawling grooves and shattering glass of the debut to the melodic circles of the TSSK, the delicate second half of Leaders Of The Free World, the slowly defeated triumph of Cast Of Thousands. Nothing new; nothing exactly the same.