Digital music sales soar in 2011. BPI sees glass as half empty.

According to a press release from the BPI, sales of digital music rocketed in 2011:

  • Adele’s 21 reaches 3.8m sales – the biggest-ever selling album in a single year.
  • Fourth successive year of record singles sales, up 10.0% to 177.9m
  • CD still accounts for a strong three-quarter share of UK album sales.
  • Digital album sales grow 26.6% to 26.6m, while CD sales drop 12.6% to 86.2m.
  • Album sales decline 5.6% in volume to 113.2m in 2011.

This trend is, of course, entirely consistent with figures for the previous year, something which I’ve already commented on in response to a report from PRS. CD sales are dropping steadily while digital sales are increasing dramatically, but the latter still hasn’t reached the point where it compensates fully for the former.

To any neutral observer, this doesn’t give any impression of an industry in crisis. Rather, it’s simply part of the normal cycle that any business goes through as the economy and technology make their effects felt. We are, after all, still in one of the most economically challenging periods in recent history and it probably isn’t going to get that much better in the immediate future. In that context, a 5.6% decline in album sales shows reasonable resilience. I can’t find any figures for the whole of 2011 anywhere, but there were plenty of reports throughout the year which told of falling retail sales. And according to industry insiders, most of the drop in album sales has been compilations – artist albums have performed much more strongly.

So, reasonably good news, then, under the circumstances? Well, yes. As Gordon Taylor, BPI Chief Executive, is quoted by the press release as saying:

It has been another record year for digital singles, but the most encouraging news of the year is the strong backing consumers are giving to the digital album format. British music fans understand that the album remains the richest way to connect with an artist’s work.

He’s right, of course, and it’s good news that predictions of a “pick and mix” approach to music purchasing have, largely, failed to come true. People still buy albums, because they recognise that albums are the best way to interact with an artist’s work.

Adele
Adele

However, for the BPI, the glass is still half empty. Even though there’s no indication that filesharing is a significant contributor to the cause of the decline, the BPI can’t let facts get in the way of a self-serving whinge:

But while other countries take positive steps to protect their creative sector, our Government is taking too long to act on piracy, while weakening copyright to the benefit of US tech giants. The UK has already fallen behind Germany as a music market. Unless decisive action is taken in 2012, investment in music could fall again – a creative crunch that will destroy jobs and mean the next Adele may not get her chance to shine on the world stage.

Apart from the simple factual inaccuracy there – the UK hasn’t done anything at all which weakens copyright, all that’s happened so far is a report and consultation on changes to copyright law – this is just a recycled quote from, well pretty much every annual report by the BPI since home taping failed to kill music. For “the next Adele”, read “the next Coldplay”, “the next Cliff Richard” or even “the next Beatles”. It’s as if the BPI somehow believes that creativity can only flourish when guided by BPI members and protected by legislation. Or, as Tony Wadsworth, BPI Chairman, puts it:

But the challenge of sustaining this performance against a backdrop of chronic piracy means that Government action remains absolutely crucial for British artists and their labels.

What that means, in translation, is “We’ve done better than our pessimistic predictions, but don’t be fooled – we’re still too incompetent to sustain that success in the face of technological change, so we want the government to guarantee our future for us”. As for “Chronic piracy”, it really doesn’t seem to be happening at all. A 2.5% drop in artist albums (if we take Chris Carey’s Twitter comment at face value) is piffling, in the context of the challenges faced by the retail and entertainment industries as a whole. And the bigger drop in sales compilation albums is just as likely to be the result of entirely legal streaming – who needs the latest Now That’s What I Call A Rip-Off album when you can just click on a playlist in Spotify?

So, let’s recast those bullet points from the BPI press release into something more realistic:

  • Digital sales see massive rise
  • CD sales continue steady decline as customers switch to digital
  • Sales of singles show continued strong growth
  • Artist album sales remain resilient in the face of adverse economic conditions
  • Compilation album sales drop as consumers switch to streamed playlists
  • Unauthorised filesharing not a significant factor in sales figures

Now, there are certainly challenges there for the music industry. But they aren’t challenges that can, or should, be solved for them by the government. So let’s carry on with changes to copyright law that are designed to suit consumers and innovators, not the backward-looking music company executives.

Disco 2012

I went shopping today. Decided to hit the sales, and came back with a new suit and a deep fat fryer. Exciting, eh? No? Oh well. I’d taken Ellie with me, mainly because I’d promised her a day out and she’s not old enough yet to realise that when I promise a day out and actually take her shopping, she’s been had. On the way back, I had a CD playing in the car – some compilation CD that I’d bought from the “reduced to clear” rack back in the days when I still went into record shops. One of the songs was Disco 2000 by Pulp.

Well we were born within an hour of each other.
Our mothers said we could be sister and brother.
Your name is Deborah, Deborah.
It never suited you.

“Turn it up, daddy” said Ellie, “I like this song.” At least she has taste. And then, in her precocious five-year old music critic self, added “This song is about a girl called Deborah, isn’t it?”

“Yes”, I nodded. “At least, sort of. It’s more about regret, loss of innocence and the crushing sadness of unrequited love.”

“Don’t be silly, daddy” said Ellie. “It’s just a song about a girl called Deborah”. Life is simple when you’re only five, and so is music. Although her ability to pick up on the lyrics of songs reminds me to purge anything by Eminem from my in-car playlist, and make sure that it is the radio edit of American Idiot.

I said let’s all meet up in the year 2000.
Won’t it be strange when we’re all fully grown.
Be there at 2 o’clock by the fountain down the road.
I never knew that you’d get married.
I would be living down here on my own
On that damp and lonely Thursday years ago.

“Daddy, when is the year 2000?”

“It was before you were born. A long time before you were born, in fact”.

A long time. I meant that for Ellie’s benefit, since in her terms it is a long time. But it got me thinking. 2000 is a long time ago, even by my standards – eleven years is a significant fraction of my lifespan. 1995, when Pulp released the song, is even longer ago. In 1995, I’d only just discovered the Internet, and was still some time from earning a living from it. I still lived in a flat above a shop (echoes there of Common People), and had very little money (ditto). But the song doesn’t just remind me of 2000, or 1995, but when I first started to think the thoughts expressed by Jarvis Cocker. “What will it be like in the year 2000?” “Won’t it be strange when we’re all fully grown?” I can’t put a precise date on it, but my guess is that I was probably around 11 or 12 when I first gave it some serious thought.

Deborah do you recall?
Your house was very small,
with woodchip on the wall.
When I came around to call,
you didn’t notice me at all.

Jarvis Cocker is pretty much the same age as me – we were, so to speak, born within a year of each other – so this verse always makes me smile. I, too, can remember the fashion for woodchip wallpaper when I was a child. When, for that matter, I was wondering what life would be like when we were all fully grown.

I can remember how big a thing the millennium seemed before it happened. Of course, it’s just numbers on a calendar, with no intrinsic meaning – millennium or not, nothing changes on New Year’s Day, although any New year is a good excuse for a hug – but, still, the novelty of the year beginning with a 2 rather than a 1 somehow makes it feel different (which, of course, is why the pedants were always going to lose the argument that the new millennium started in 2001 rather than 2000).

I’ve taken it for granted, of course, that Ellie doesn’t remember the 20th century since she was born several years after it ended (by either the pedantic or popular measurement!). But she doesn’t yet have much of a concept of history at all. Unlike me, and unlike the narrative singer of Disco 2000.

Oh what are you doing Sunday baby,
Would you like to come and meet me maybe?
You can even bring your baby.
What are you doing Sunday baby,
Would you like to come and meet me maybe?
You can even bring your baby.

We don’t get introduced to Deborah’s baby until the last verse of the song, and, assuming that the song is, indeed set in the year 2000 (i.e, five years into the future when it was released) then that makes this baby either one of the first children of the new millennium or the last of the old (yes, I know, OK, I’ve adopted the populist definition here. So sue me). Either way, he or she will grow up with no memory of the 20th century. And so, in real life, will all the other babies born around the turn of the millennium. Some of them will be reaching their teens in 2012.

It doesn’t bother me that Ellie can’t remember the 20th century, because she’s still a small child. But, for some reason, the thought that there are – or soon will be – teenagers who don’t remember it, and never lived in it, does bother me. Because it won’t be long before there are adults who have no connection to the 20th century. And that makes me feel old. Happy New Year, everyone.

Fairytale of New York

This is, quite simply, the best Christmas song ever recorded. I’ll explain why further down, but for now, just enjoy it.

So, what’s so good about this song? It stands some deconstruction, so let’s pull it apart a bit. Unusually for a (near) chart topper, it’s a narrative song – a form which is common in folk music, which is where Shane MacGowan’s songwriting is rooted, but less so in pop. Like all good poetry, there are multiple layers of meaning and several different ways of interpreting the song, but at it’s most basic it’s a simple tale of a relationship gone sour. In fact, it’s not really a Christmas song at all – it could just as easily have been set at any other festival (given the Irish American context, St Patrick’s Day would have worked) – but locating it at Christmas adds to the piquancy of the interaction between the two characters. It’s a romance in five acts that takes us through all the stages of a relationship: Despair, hope, celebration, conflict, disillusion and, at the end, just a hint of possible reconciliation.

The story takes place over a Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the titular New York, and begins with MacGowan in “the drunk tank”. In the video, the policeman manhandling him there is a young Matt Dillon. The video, incidentally, is all part of the act, so to speak – although it follows a common pop video form of intercutting between an acted interpretation of the song and the band playing it on stage or in the studio, the band segment is just as fictional as the parts filmed on the streets of New York. In their smoky, featureless room, MacGowan is playing the piano as his opposite number, and love interest in the film, Kirsty MacColl, leans over it to address him in song. But, in reality, MacGowan doesn’t play the piano – the close-ups of “his” hands on the keys were actually those of the band’s real pianist, who wore MacGowan’s jacket and rings for that shot. So the band are part of the story, not merely telling it, and the couple singing to each other over the piano are the same couple embracing and fighting in the filmed section which acts as a kind of flashback narrative.

Back in the drunk tank, MacGowan is feeling sorry for himself:

It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me, “won’t see another one”
And then he sang a song
The Rare Old Mountain Dew
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you

(The Rare Old Mountain Dew is a real song, and one that the Pogues have recorded themselves)

In verse two, though, things take a turn for the better – his luck changes, literally:

Got on a lucky one
Came in eighteen to one
I’ve got a feeling
This year’s for me and you
So happy Christmas
I love you baby
I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true

The lyrics here are almost mawkishly cliched, with MacGowan declaring his love for MacColl and talking of dreams coming true. The segment leads into a change of tempo in the song; the rest of the band kicks in and, for the first time, MacColl has something to say. The video shifts focus to the streets of New York and the next two stanzas celebrate a couple in love.

They’ve got cars big as bars
They’ve got rivers of gold
But the wind goes right through you
It’s no place for the old
When you first took my hand
On a cold Christmas Eve
You promised me
Broadway was waiting for me

You were handsome
You were pretty
Queen of New York City
When the band finished playing
They howled out for more
Sinatra was swinging,
All the drunks they were singing
We kissed on a corner
Then danced through the night

And then on into the first rendition of the chorus followed by one of the song’s signature penny whistle riffs:

The boys of the NYPD choir
Were singing “Galway Bay”
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas day

The song would still have been a great song even if it had continued in this joyful, up-tempo vein until the end. But it doesn’t. Without any warning at all, the happy couple of the previous verse are at each other’s throats:

You’re a bum
You’re a punk
You’re an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last

All through this verse, the music stays in its up-tempo, happy mode that’s now completely at odds with the lyrics. As listeners, we’re still reeling from the cognitive dissonance when the song crashes back into the chorus and then changes mood yet again. The music takes on a more melancholic feel, and we listen to the couple, now tired of fighting, voicing their regret. MacGowan starts off by taking a turn into self-pity

I could have been someone

but MacColl is having none of it. The “Happy Christmas your arse” line is her most famous from this song, but in the next couple she first skewers MacGowan’s pomposity and then blames him for her own plight:

Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you

You feel that, had she said this a verse ago, MacGowan would probably have slapped her for it. But the anger has drained from him now, and all he’s got left is regret. Whatever might have gone before, he knows – and has to admit that he knows – that he’s too reliant on MacColl to let her go:

I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can’t make it all alone
I’ve built my dreams around you

The sheer pathos of the last verse is – deliberately – almost heartbreaking. The comparison with the saccharine sweetness of the second verse, and the joyful third and fourth, reflect a relationship that is simultaneously beyond repair and beyond any further damage – a co-dependent, can’t live with you, can’t live without you existence that has lost the capacity to hate just as much as the capacity to love.

After a final chorus, the extended playout is accompanied on the video by alternating scenes of the band and a Christmas-themed New York, and ends with MacGowan and MacColl dancing alone in the room. Is that supposed to suggest that they get back together at the end? Maybe.

But the last word on this has to go to MacGowan himself – the real, songwriting MacGowan of the real-life Pogues, not the fictional, piano-playing MacGowan of the band on the video. Interviewed for yet another of the interminable “best Christmas songs ever” programmes that fill gaps in the TV schedules around this time of year, he was asked that very question – Can we assume from the song that the couple get back together?

“Well, they definitely won’t be sharing the turkey that year”, he said. “But after that? Who knows. The song doesn’t say. It deliberately doesn’t say.”

A lesser songwriter would have wanted to say. A lesser song would have said. To take us on the rollercoaster ride through the emotions of A Fairytale of New York and then leave them unresolved at the end is a hallmark of sheer genius. And that’s why this is the best Christmas song ever recorded.

Happy Xmas (War Is Over)

Of all the people you might least expect to come up with a classic Christmas song, John Lennon is probably pretty high up in the list. Like Jona Lewie’s song from a couple of days ago, this was ostensibly a protest song – in this case, about the Vietnam war – but it’s taken on a life of its own as a seasonal standard. In 1980, re-released after Lennon’s murder earlier in the year, it was famously beaten to the Christmas Number One spot by St Winifred’s School Choir.

The original release of the song didn’t come with a video, what with it being the 70s and all that. But this is probably the closest there is to an official version. This is John and Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band (to give them their full title), with Happy Xmas (War Is Over).

Last Christmas

OK, time for a bit of cheese. Not a lot to say about this one, really, other than the fact that it’s probably the best song Wham! ever did. Which isn’t necessarily saying much. But here it is anyway. Last Christmas.

Walking in the Air

This song is more often associated with Aled Jones, who sang on the most commercially successful single version and became a star on the back it it. But the singer on the original animation was Peter Auty, then a choirboy at St Paul’s Cathedral, and that’s the version here. From The Snowman, this is Walking in the Air.

Although he didn’t become as famous as Aled Jones, Peter Auty did go on to have a career as a professional singer. As well as appearing in opera and stage musicals, he was also the singing voice of the “Age of the Train” adverts fronted by Jimmy Savile. Bet you never knew that.

Stop the Cavalry

This wasn’t originally intended as a Christmas song, according to its composer – it was supposed to be a protest song – but the line “Wish I was at home for Christmas” and the brass band backing gave it a Christmas feel so, after a few more tweaks, it was released for the Christmas chart. Jona Lewie, Stop the Cavalry.

2000 Miles

Back to the music again. This is a classic Christmas song, but the video was clearly made on a budget! But never mind the cheesiness, the sight of Chrissie Hynde dressed up as a Salvation Army singer (complete with tambourine) is enough to turn anyone to religion. Here are The Pretenders, with 2000 Miles.

Mary’s Boy Child

After the almost anti-Christmas offering from Greg Lake, and Thomas Hardy’s wearied agnosticism, here’s a Christmas hit which unashamedly affirms the gospel story. Today’s song for advent is Mary’s Boy Child, by Boney M.

Incidentally, if it looks like their miming it rather badly on the video, that’s because they hadn’t even sung it in the studio either. Like their later counterparts Milli Vanilli, the visible side of Boney M was different to the recording side.

I Believe in Father Christmas

Another classic Christmas song from my childhood. Here’s Greg Lake, with I Believe in Father Christmas.

They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on earth
But instead it just kept on raining
A veil of tears for the virgin’s birth
I remember one Christmas morning
A winter’s light and a distant choir
And the peal of a bell and that Christmas tree smell
And their eyes full of tinsel and fire

They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a silent night
And they told me a fairy story
’till I believed in the Israelite
And I believed in Father Christmas
And I looked at the sky with excited eyes
’till I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him through his disguise

I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave new year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear
They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on earth
Hallelujah Noel be it heaven or hell
The Christmas you get you deserve

Like yesterday’s poem by Thomas Hardy, Greg Lake’s song is a critique of Christmas rather than a celebration of it. Like Hardy, Lake starts by telling the tale of a childhood Christmas, in this case with “the peal of a bell and that Christmas tree smell”, but then turns his back on that in the second verse where he laments the “fairy story” he was told about the “Israelite” and Father Christmas. The darkness of the lyrics contrasts with the the use of a motif taken from Prokofiev’s Troika, itself a quintessential Christmas melody. In the final verse, Lake recites a list of typical Christmas card sentiments – “I wish you a hopeful Christmas” – and then metaphorically shrugs his shoulders and tells his listeners “be it heaven or hell, the Christmas you get you deserve”. It’s probably the bleakest song ever to reach the Christmas charts.

Just in case you feel that Lake’s lyrics are too depressing, here’s the original source of his melodic riff. This is Troika, from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with a selection of seasonal photos from my own collection.