Monday, 23 November 2009

Media in the online age; Music Industry; Portico Quartet

I went to see a band called Portico Quartet this week; you may not have heard of them, but they are gathering quite a following for their music which is variously described as ‘post-Jazz’ or ‘World’. The sellout tenth date of their UK tour, at the Junction in Cambridge, was a homecoming for two of the band, Nick and Duncan, who both did their A levels at the college where I teach. Just before the interval, Nick suggested to the 200 audience members that they might like to visit the merchandise stall and sign up on the mailing list. In the spirit of solidarity, I shelled out 12 quid for their new CD, Isla; the person in front of me asked whether it was available in the shops and the polite guy running the stall helpfully pointed out that it is also downloadable via iTunes, but that he couldn’t take card payments because he didn’t have a card reader.

I started wondering whether it should be cheaper to buy the album at the gig in cash, as I had done, or in a shop or online, or via digital download. You can even get a vinyl version, which I noticed a few people buying at £15 a pop. There is an app for the iPhone called Red Laser which can help you with this; it’s quite clever, as once you have it, you can scan any item using the camera on your phone and it will instantly search the web for the cheapest price. It tells me that had I gone to I’d have saved over £3 as it’s £8.95 there, or at amazon £8.98. I used my phone to go to iTunes to see how much the album is there; once I’d got past the front page packed with christmas greatest hits and TV spin-offs and done my search, I found I could get it for £7.99. Although I could download the album artwork (all done by the drummer, Duncan Bellamy), it wouldn’t be the same as actually having the artefact in my hand.

But why pay for it at all? Surely we can get our music for free these days? A hunt around the web for the album on torrent or rapidshare did turn it up; Spotify, my favourite music program, has their first album but not this one. The advantage of Spotify is that the artist does get a royalty payment every time the music is played, but the disadvantage is that you don’t actually ‘possess’ the album. In the end, buying it at the gig fulfilled two needs- to have the physical artefact and to have it now! It also meant my son could stay behind and get it autographed- you can’t do that with a digital download.

This choice between old media (buying a physical artefact) and the online choice (having it digitally) goes well beyond the choice I made here; interestingly, recent research shows that the people who download the most illegally tend to be the same people who spend the most on CDs and go to the most gigs. Increasingly, there is evidence that going to see the live act is closely linked to purchasing the music in a more tangible form- the loyalty of the fan wanting to possess the CD or the vinyl as an artefact. These are all points to consider for the A2 exam topic of media in the online age where music and its audience would be a really interesting case study.

So back to the band; why are they interesting? Their music features the sound of an instrument which sounds like a steel pan but looks like a wok or barbecue called a hang, but the overall sound is not really dominated by the hang- there’s a double bass, a sax and a full drumkit as well. Their new album was produced at Abbey Road studios by John Leckie (who has previously worked with the Stone Roses and Radiohead) . They are on the independent label ‘RealWorld’, they were nominated for the Mercury prize in 2008 for their first album and have a number of videos on youtube featuring them busking near popular tourist spots in both London and Paris. They have also been chosen to record their version of The Simpsons theme tune for a new film by Supersize Me director Morgan Spurlock which celebrates the 20th anniversary of the programme. Check out their music- it’s different and you may well like it!

The band in the studio

Busking in Paris 2006

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