Originally published on April 4, 2007
One of the joys of being an independent record label in the vinyl era was the opportunity to add a personal twist to the world of mass production by "writing on the land."
Land is that flat piece of vinyl between the run off groove and the label. It's where the cutting engineer would scratch the matrix number - how else would the pressing plant know which bleeding record it was - and you could always ask the engineer to add a message of your own. (If it was Porky of Porky's Prime Cuts, Portland Place London, he would insist; and PPC, just for your info, the great indie cutting room at the end of the '70's, was owned by Chas Chandler of the Animals and Jimi fame now I think of it).
We used to say, 'Reality is a Royalty statement.' Forget that, reality is your merchandising deal.
My favourite message was on Joy Division's double album Still. The idea of Still was to round up all the spare tracks and add a live performance from Birmingham, to draw a line under the JD phenomenon and stop all those bloody bootlegs (that worked well then). If your grandfather has a copy up in the attic, check out the land. Around the first three sides you get chicken's feet. Then, on side 4, "The Chicken stops here".
If you haven't seen Werner Herzog's great movie, Stroszek it doesn't matter, but you should probably read more.
I'm reminded of these halcyon days by thinking on the plight of record shops in the digital age and remembering something we wrote on the land of an earlier Joy Division release, "Transmission" or "LWTUA." Anyway, what it said was "Oh, Lord, please leave me record shops." This had been the strangled cry of drummer Stephen Morris a few weeks earlier after I had explained to his group one night how chart hyping worked. Back in the day, chart shops were complicit in falsifying the UK chart. Retail strike force foot soldiers would slip the shop a box of "Police" albums in exchange for half a dozen ticks on chart return form for some dodgy piece of shit (I'm not saying that the Police weren't a dodgy piece of shit but at least some idiot would buy them whereas no-one was going to buy the hyped single - until it hit the chart). It was a harrowing story of minor corruption, hence Steve's outburst. For Steve, like so many of us, the record shop was the shining beacon in the high street, the provider of art and inspiration, the cathedral of our hopes. In a grey and uncaring world, the record shop was the entrance point to our dreams. How could they be cheats? Oh, Lord, Leave me record shops.
And now it's the digital age and the record shops are leaving us. HMV, the historic UK chain just issued profit warnings and forecast a reduction in CD sales of around than 25% over the next 12 months.
What happened; simple; shops are for physical product and the industry has happily downgraded the role of the physical product in its relentless quest for excess profits to keep its senior execs in the Porsches to which they have become accustomed.
Let me tell you a story about Bob Dylan; everybody's got a BD story, this is mine.
Two years ago Greil Marcus, the greatest rock writer of them all (pace Paul Morley) sent me a home cut, not for repro, CD. It was a collection of wonderful songs. (About six months later I realized that it was the soundtrack to his book on the anniversary of "Like a Rolling Stone.") A few days into listening to the CDs in my car I get to track 9 on disc two. Suddenly, "Whoa, what the fuck is this? Genius. Epic, where the fuck is this from; why haven't I heard this before." It was a live version of something called "Highlands." There's a five minute section where Dylan turns a desultory conversation with a waitress in a Boston diner into an epic of Proustian proportions. I discovered that Dylan had made his first great album since Blood on The Tracks back in 1997 and no bastard had told me. "Time out of Mind" is dazzling from start to finish and I went straight out to a record shop to buy it.
And the CD was great. But the packaging. Oh, the packaging. Where one might have expected at least a little illegible booklet which got buckled when you managed to drag it past the annoying little plastic lip thing, instead you got a single piece of thin paper with the cover image on the front and an advert for four back catalogue Bob items on the reverse. Fuck you CBS. Fuck you. Maybe Bob deserved his work to be screwed - for doing over David Geffen who'd revived his career with the Rolling Thunder tour and then, while Geffen was lying on a beach in Hawaii, re-signed to CBS, jilting Geffen's Asylum records - "It's only money, David." - so maybe Dylan deserved the cheapening of his product.
But I didn't. Dylan's fans didn't. We deserved an object to treasure; like that 12" double sleeve whose depth of colour and image went some way to mirror the depths of the beloved "Blonde on Blonde." While the rest of the world understands the merchandising imperative in all our souls, the deep desire to purchase a physical connection to our heroes/idols, the record industry forgot it, and come the download age, it is paying the price; in its own life-blood.
I'm English and a supporter of a football team called Manchester United. We became the biggest team in the world back in 1980's by understanding human beings and learning to sell shitloads of replica shirts. (Wait till Beckham gets to LA.) Even in our industry, don't look at CD sales to see how important Panic or Fall Out Boy are. Check the t-shirt sales. We used to say, "Reality is a Royalty statement." Forget that, reality is your merchandising deal. It's why I don't hate ring tones; what is rock and roll at its best other than a way for a kid to say, "This is me." You used to show your mates these plastic things you had back at home; now every time your cell rings, it is a statement.
Fuck you CBS. Fuck you. Maybe Bob deserved his work to be screwed - for doing over David Geffen who'd revived his career with the Rolling Thunder tour
(I used to have "Stan" on my phone till it rang in front of a thousand people while I was interviewing Lyor Cohen, then of Island Def Jam, and the audience began screaming, "Fuck me, Wilson's got Dido on his phone - I now have "Chop Suey.")
And my last question; how do we bring back physical objects, and bring back record shops for that matter?
I was thinking about the best band in the world the other night. They're these young kids from St Albans just north of London and they are quite simply the best band in the world today. (By a fucking mile; and the last time I was wrong was when I gave Harvest a bad review in my university newspaper, which I regretted two weeks later and have agonised over ever since). I have not got an art judgement wrong since so you can believe me. I saw Enter Shikari live last October, before I got ill with cancer, and the sight of these boys on stage with 200 fifteen year old kids with glow-sticks and glow rings going fucking berserk was the most exciting thing I've seen since the early Sex Pistols gigs back in '76/7.
And as with any band who capture a new generational spirit, God has given them the gift of melody. I never understand how that comes about, but that's a different essay. This is about the return of the object, the creation of something that gives you your little bit of the group, "to have and to hold, from this day forth."
Someone in the UK has released a single on a USB and I was thinking about it. OK so you'll put a nice graphic on the USB, but can you go further?
I texted Ian, Enter Shikari' s manager, and suggested a release of the album on USB, but having the USB as a glow stick. I'd buy that for a dollar. I felt pleased with the idea and Ian said he's going to look into it.
In the meantime, for anyone from Manhattan reading this, we're going to provide the ultimate souvenir of Enter Shikari: the band playing live. The most exciting phenomenon in modern music is scheduled to play the Nokia Theatre as part of In The City of New York on either June 13 or 14. And after Malcolm only took the Pistols to minor markets, you're just fucking lucky we like New York so much.
Thank you for listening.
Tony Wilson is best known for being the co-founder of the legendary Factory Records and the influential Manchester club Hacienda (not to mention the host of So It Goes, and presenter on Granada Reports). Since 1992, Wilson and his partner Yvette Livesey have founded the yearly In The City festival and music industry conference and also F4 Records, the fourth imprint of Factory Records.
In The City has become the date in the music industry calendar. By day, Manchester, UK, becomes home to the brightest and best in the business, as industry leaders debate the present and plot the future. And by night Manchester hosts the biggest city-based music festival in Europe, In The City Live, as 3,000 industry delegates and 100,000 music fans take to the streets.
Rightly regarded by the global music community as the premier new music event in the world, In The City has helped launch the careers of Oasis, Radiohead, Suede, Elastica, Coldplay, The Darkness, Doves, Foo Fighters, Elbow, the Stereophonics, Muse, the Raveonettes, Funeral For A Friend, Daft Punk, Kings Of Convenience, Placebo, Arctic Monkeys, and many, many more. In The City Unsigned has the highest signing ratio of any new talent event in the world.
In The City Of New York will take place from June 13-14, 2007 and will bring the same high-level music industry panels and bands to American shores. During the day 500 industry insiders will get together at the W Hotel in Union Square for panels, seminars and master classes. At night the conference switches over to Times Square's Nokia Theater for two evenings of shows featuring the best of emerging British talent including a newly signed, unsigned and established British artist.
In The City Of New York