Monthly Archives: October 2010

More on releasing music online

Further to my earlier piece on the internet’s effect on how we engage with artists and discover new music, I’ve been thinking about whether there’s a new model (or models) for music distribution in the offing, and if so, who’s driving it.

Listening and buying to music via the Internet has never been easier. As well as iTunes and other online music stores, there are streaming sites and music blogs that offer first tastes of much-anticipated tracks from famous artists and promotion for up-and-coming acts.

And Twitter, as well as the usual stuff about engaging with fans, etc etc, has become an actual distribution channel for artists willing to make that leap, as well as a venue for spontaneous collaborations (Kanye! Raekwon! …Bieber?). While a quick and convenient option for less well-known acts trying to build buzz, it’s also been used by bigger artists. The most famous example is Kanye West, who has committed to releasing a track a week as a free download. And UK grime artist Wiley spontaneously gave away over 200 tracks via Twitter back in July.

These artists are the exception rather than the rule (Wiley in particular is a fasciating individual who clearly sees the business of labels, publicity and promotion as an active obstacle to what he really loves; making music), but there’s definitely a change in the air here.

While new methods of online distribution are impacting every genre of music, most of the really inventive tactics in this area seem to be coming from “urban” music (hip-hop, grime), and electronic music, with the remixes that have been part of dance music since it began, as well as the recent surge in mashups.

A reason for this could be that the first-single-album-second single model is much less locked in place in hip-hop than it is in rock. In its infancy, hip-hop was like rock in the 60s; singles reigned supreme, in large because most people heard individual tracks being mixed together by DJs.

While hip-hop artists nowadays release albums by traditional routes, mixtapes given away for free online are an essential part of the discourse around a given artist, helping to build their profile before they take a step into traditional releases. (To give just one example, Wale’s free mixtapes outclass his debut album by a long, long way.)

This isn’t to say that non-hip-hop artists are completely hidebound. Radiohead garnered plenty of publicity with the online, pay-what-you-want release of In Rainbows, due in large part to their high profile. More recently, Sufjan Stevens released an 8-track EP online with next to no publicity, letting the word spread through music blogs and social media. This, to me, is a very canny move; Stevens isn’t exactly a superstar, but has a devoted and vocal fanbase, a lot of whom are connected to each other through following the same blogs or Twitter feeds.

Anyway, the “drop a track when you feel like it” approach doesn’t seem to have filtered out to rock or indie artists (I could be generalising here; let me know if a well-known artist does do that on a regular basis). Maybe it’s an effect of the longstanding rock belief in the album as a discrete unit, with a playing order that has to be honoured. (There’s a school of thought that iTunes, digital music players and the shuffle function are bringing an end to this; I personally hope that’s not true. The best albums are the ones with a clearly defined structure, where listening to the songs out of order is as bizarre as skipping back and forth between chapters in a novel.)

My overall point is that the Internet is still changing the music business in ways that won’t even be apparent from our current perspective. But as every genre adapts, they all carry something of their original DNA into the future. This isn’t a revolution; this is evolution.


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CFF 2010 – Enter The Void

Enter The Void (2009)
Dir. Gaspar Noe (France, Germany, Italy)
137 minutes
Screened: Friday 17th September 2010

Before watching Enter The Void, I only knew the work of professional provocateur Gaspar Noe by reputation – I didn’t particularly want to subject myself to Seul Contre Tous or Irreversible, and I’m still not sure I’d be able to stomach them if I did. But his latest film garnered high praise that piqued my curiousity.

The film begins (after a sensory assault of an opening credits sequence) by showing events through the eyes of Oscar, a young drug dealer living in Tokyo with his sister. Taking the first-person POV technique to an unsettling extreme, the cinematography even includes Oscar’s blinking, and a spell of abstract images as a result of a hallucinogenic drug trip. Oscar goes to meet a potential customer at a bar, and is shot by police during a raid. From there, the constantly-roving camera takes the POV of his spirit as it drifts out of his body, across Tokyo, and back and forth in his life.

If this sounds like heady stuff, it is. The disorienting effect is heightened by Noe’s use of unconventional spinning and whirling camera movements and an ambient soundtrack from Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter. While the characters are unappealing and Noe relentlessly grim view of human nature begins to drag after a while, the visuals are never less than stunning. There is something incredible to be seen in just about any sequence, from the neon lights of a toytown Tokyo, seen from Oscar’s spirit’s perspective as he drifts, to the replication of that neon topography in a seedy strip club or an artist’s model, to a car crash filmed from inside the POV. Noe has described his film-making as “like constructing a roller-coaster”, and there’s definitely a sense as the camera hurtles headlong through space and time that the audience is strapped in for a ride that aims to thrill and shock.

Enter The Void is a far more visceral than intellectual or emotional experience. (The brief references to the Tibetan Book Of The Dead serve to explain the film’s structure, but I found them to be a little on-the-nose.) However, it’s a true cinematic experience; one that aims to create images and sensations that have rarely ever been experienced via the medium. It may be sleazy, perverted and self-indulgent, but it’s also wildly inventive and ambitious.


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CFF 2010 – Winter’s Bone

Winter’s Bone (2010)
Dir. Debra Granik (US)
100 minutes
Screened: Thursday 16th September 2010
Having gained numerous plaudits on the festival circuits, Debra Granik’s backwoods crime drama arrived at the Cambridge Film Festival with a certain weight of expectation. Fortunately, I wasn’t let down in the slightest. With terrific economy, Granik weaves the gripping, terrifying and ultimately moving tale of 17-year-old Rhee Dolly’s quest to find her fugitive father before the family house is forfeited for his bail money.

Her journey takes her deep into a desolate landscape, and a community that is as divided as it is close-knit, ravaged by poverty and crystal meth. With its long-running blood feuds, suspicion of outsiders and codes of silence, the territory bears more resemblance to 19th Century Sicily or the tribal areas of the North-West Frontier than to 21st Century America.

Throughout the film, Jennifer Lawrence anchors the audience’s attention and sympathies; as Rhee, she is tough, resourceful, and also heartbreakingly vulnerable. As a girl forced to accept a woman’s role in her household, she spends as much time caring for her younger siblings as she does sleuthing. These scenes add depth and subvert the model of the old-school Western hero by foregrounding her femininity with out sacrificing the values of bravery and stoicism.

Lawrence’s extraordinary performance is aided by some excellent support from, among others, John Hawkes as her menacing uncle Teardrop. Ravaged and eaten up from the inside by drugs and guilt, his mixture of savagery and tenderness towards Rhee is terrifying and mesmerising. Garrett Dillahunt is similarly engaging as an awkward local sheriff, and Dale Dickey commands the screen as a grizzled, frightening mountain woman.

Winter’s Bone makes the most of its locations, giving the desolate Missouri woods a stark beauty; the cinematography, using the RED digital camera system, is wonderful and near-indistinguishable from film. For all the darkness and horror contained within, it’s an ultimately uplifting film, about an indomitable spirit withstanding the trials that her location and background bring to bear on her. And while a twisted and malevolent conception of “family” stalks the film, Rhee and her siblings provide a shining counterexample.

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