The Juliet Letters

Elvis Costello & The Brodsky Quartet

The Amadeus Centre, London W9

1 July 1992

This is inspired by reading Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, Elvis Costello’s recently published autobiography

imageExactly a year after the Hammersmith Odeon gigs, where Elvis Costello was overweight, bearded and apparently angry, what a transformation…

The Amadeus Centre could scarcely be a more different venue.  It was originally a Welsh Presbyterian chapel, and has been converted into an arts centre (and, apparently, a wedding venue).  The main space was set out with tables and chairs (with food and drink being served), and many of the guests were Costello’s friends and relatives.  I was in the cheap seats upstairs, and for the interval we repaired to the pub across the road for refreshments.

Elvis Costello looked much happier, minus the beard and the excess weight of a year earlier, but I had no idea what to expect – would it be his songs played with a string quartet? 

1992-07-01_LondonsetlistNo.  He had written 20 or so songs with different members of the Brodsky Quartet (Michael Thomas and his sister Jacqueline, Ian Belton, and Paul Cassidy).  The idea came from a newspaper article about a Veronese professor who decided to answer all the letters addressed to Juliet Capulet. The five of them worked together to develop ideas for letters, which were then set to music.

Once we had a title and had settled on the letter as our lyrical form, the variations came to us very easily: a child’s note, a postcard from a regretful lover, the reply of an eccentric aunt to a begging letter from scheming relations.

Everything about it was astonishing.  Costello’s vocal performance, the lyrics, the musical accompaniment, the venue, the atmosphere.  Costello was clearly reinvigorated by working in a totally different medium (and having to learn to write four-part musical scores).  Fortunately this was just one of many collaborations over the coming years.

Apparently the “classical” critics were rather unenthusiastic at the time, but subsequently it has been performed and recorded by other string quartets, and adapted for other mediums including a jazz quartet and a dance performance.

For me, of course, it will always be about that first performance in London nearly 25 years ago.

Spotify not “scary good”

Spotify continues to get itself into trouble, this time by requesting “data about the speed of your movements, such as whether you are running, walking, or in transit”.  They say it’s for a new feature called Spotify Running.

Me, I’d be happy if their Windows application would just work.  At least now it doesn’t crash (thanks, Spotify techies), but it does take several minutes to start.  What is it doing?

And then I found this: 

Spotify's chief executive apologises after user backlash over new privacy policy

Spotify’s Discover Weekly service was introduced in late July as an attempt to solve the company’s long-standing problems with music discovery. The feature offers up a two-hour playlist based on users’ listening habits, as well as those of similar fans, and is overseen by Matthew Ogle, formerly of music social network This Is My Jam.

“We wanted to make something that felt like your best friend making you a mixtape, labelled ‘music you should check out’, every single week,” Ogle told the Guardian last month. In the month since the feature was launched, it has become a hit with users, with comments on social media calling it “the most fire DJ of 2015” and “scary good”.

Really?  Maybe my musical tastes are too eclectic, but so far I haven’t found much that really interests me.  Yet it does seem that the consensus on Twitter is very favourable, so it must be me.

Things that don’t work–Spotify

It’s very kind of them to make Spotify available in Hong Kong, but their stupid software doesn’t work.  I am running Windows 7 (64 bit) and the Spotify application works for anything from 30 seconds to a few minutes before crashing – and it’s impossible to close it and restart it.

The Android app works, but is hardly usable because it drains the battery within a few hours.

Which just leaves the web version, but that only seems to work in Chrome – and requires Flash Player, which I had disabled.

Well, at least Google and Apple aren’t competing with them.  Oh, hang on, yes they are.

Spotify - in Chinese, of course

I’m obviously not paying attention, so I only found out from Spike that Spotify is now available in Hong Kong.

There’s the usual pantomime with a default page that is only in Chinese, and no obvious way to change to English.  Google Chrome makes it easier by translating it (rather badly), otherwise you would be left with having to know the Chinese characters for English.  No, me neither. 

The good news?  It’s only HK$48 per month (compared with $9.99 in the US and £9.99 in the UK).

The Beatles on iTunes, but not in Hong Kong

So the Beatles catalogue is finally available from the iTunes music store. Which is all very exciting. Or maybe not…

OK, there might be a few people with iPods who haven't worked out how to place their Beatles CDs into the CD drive of their computer and then import them into ITunes. It's really not that hard, but maybe some people can't manage it.

There might even be a few Beatles fans who haven't got round to buying the albums 30+ years after they came out, but who would like to have them on their iPods. Or who just want to buy "Hey Jude".

But it's certainly not big news for people in Hong Kong, because we still don't have access to the iTunes music store.

Which begs another question: since it is now ridiculously easy to download any music you might want without paying for it, all this announcement really means is that people now have a way to pay. And pay rather a lot, with individual tracks priced at $1.29 and albums at $12.99.

I really don't understand this pricing. If I buy a physical CD (or a book) it has to be manufactured, it has to be shipped to the retailer (who has to pay rent and salaries), etc., etc. But the marginal cost of an MP3 (or the proprietary Apple format) is effectively zero. Likewise the cost of a Kindle "book".

In a world where items that cost nothing to produce are available free, what is the logic of having a high price for those who choose to pay, and why make it so difficult to buy?

Yes, I know there are ways to buy music from the iTunes store, and I'm sure that it's possible to get around the restrictions that make some titles for the Kindle unavailable in Asia Pacific, but why should I bother? If they don't want my money, then that's their problem and not mine.

See also this earlier post on a similar subject

The new Disney

High School Musical 3 opened in Hong Kong on Friday.  Sadly, I wasn't able to get to the cinema myself, but I am told that it's doing good business.

Sunday's SCMP re-printed a Guardian article (Shake your money maker) about the phenomenon that is Disney Channel.  What's interesting about the channel is that rather than just endlessly re-running classic Disney movies (which they also do), they also have their own roster of artists and a corresponding array of original material, including Hannah Montana, Camp Rock and, of course, High School Musical.  Most of it seems like rubbish to me but your average 11 year old thinks differently:

While the rest of the industry gave up on the under-14 market to target less challenging, less volatile areas, Disney seized its opportunity. "Clearly, the paradigm has changed. What has really accelerated in the last three or four years is that the Disney Channel has become an incredible content creation machine for the rest of the Walt Disney company. It is a fundamental shift in how business is done and how television is perceived within the company," says Marsh.

[..] Television has become the new radio. Our audience, the six- to 12-year-old demographic, is acutely attuned to the music world. By and large, the record companies dismissed them as too poor, too uninterested, too parochial. We figured out a model that feels like music just for them, that somebody thought through and delivered to the place that is most natural for them to consume it."

Turn on Disney Channel any time of the day or night and you're never more than a few minutes away from High School Musical (Sing-along, Dance-along, Hoop-along), Hannah Montana, Camp Rock, or the Jonas Brothers.  And it's paying-off:

Months before Camp Rock hit town, Disney began bombarding journalists with figures about High School Musical's global dominance. To take just one, the High School Musical 2 soundtrack was the biggest-selling album in the world last year, shifting more than 6m copies. And the biggest seller the year before? The first High School Musical soundtrack.

These guys know exactly what they are doing.

Really free

Yesterday's Post Magazine reprinted an article from The Guardian (Listen now, pay never) about "free" music:

From the newspaper on the train to the magazine thrust in your hand as you leave the station, from the targeted ads that accompany your browsing to the ad breaks that punctuate your TV viewing, advertising-supported content is nothing new. Ever since ITV's launch in September 1955, viewers have broadly accepted that in return for watching advertisements, they can view the programmes that follow for nothing.

Now enabled by technology that allows advertisers to target consumers more precisely and efficiently than ever, the concept is spreading. From free, legal music to free mobile phone calls and texts, from online games featuring targeted ads to free movie downloads, a glut of startup companies aim to apply the same principle that led to the ITV of old becoming a "licence to print money".

Except that the references to ITV became "commercial TV" in the SCMP, but I'll come back to the changes made by the SCMP later.

Steve Purdham, chief executive of the Peter Gabriel-backed ad-funded music service We7, is troubled by the word free. "People will either pay for something with money or they will pay for something with their time. Music should never be free. There is too much value in its ability to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck," he said.

Ah, but that's the problem, isn't it?  Music is free now - if you want to download it you can do so very easily without paying.  So what's the advantage of a website that offers free downloads but generates revenue from advertising?  If I want to pay for music I'd rather have the opportunity to give money directly to the artist - something that bands such as Radiohead, the Crimea and the Raconteurs (Indie band bypasses critics by releasing album direct to fans) have started to explore.

Artists have to find new ways of generating revenue (see Free doesn't mean worthless), and ad-supported websites probably aren't the answer.

Continue reading "Really free" »

MusicXS - what's the point of that, then?

There's a full page ad for MusicXS in the SCMP today, so I thought I would check it out.

It's a music download service, but you can only listen to the music for as long as you maintain your subscription.  For HK$56 per month you can listen on your PC.  For HK$96 you can also listen on your mobile phone (but only if you subscribe to Smartone 3G). 

That's right - you're out of luck if you wanted to listen on your iPod or any other MP3 player.

Well, thanks very much, Smartone-Vodafone.