Nostalgia seems to be the theme for my blog this week. The other day I was reminiscing about my time at York University; the release of Safari 3.0 reminded me of my old Mac and of browsing the web using Mosaic. Later that day I had another unexpected reminder of those good old days, whilst listening to XFM, the alternative radio station which is steadily spreading from London to other parts of the world. My ears pricked up when the DJ started talking about Northern Ireland indie-rock band Ash. You see, back in the mid-90’s, if you wanted to discover good new bands, you had to do one of the following:
- listen to the radio a lot and hope to get lucky once in a while;
- go see bands randomly at live gigs and festivals and hope for the best; or
- get mates to play their records and/or do little compilation cassettes for you.
So back then there was none of this new-fangled nonsense with Lily Allen and co boasting of how many “friends” they have on MySpace because some kids sit at home alone whilst browsing free music. [Message to the kids: Lily Allen’s not your friend, she is just a corporate whore who wants to make money from you and outdo her annoying dad, Keith, in being really famous without being good at anything]. No, back then you really had to suffer to find out about new music. And the onus was on you to tell everybody about good new stuff. So when a very early ditty by Ash called Petrol got played by some freak accident on the radio, I had no choice but to immediately rush out to a record shop and purchase a great big slab of vinyl. From then on I would spend a lot of time pestering people to come over and listen to their mini-album Trailer. When a group of us when to Glastonbury Festival that year, it was up to me to shepherd everyone to see Ash play live. You had to actually go in person because that was before they televised the event and long before you could see most of the festival via the BBC’s live streams. When they released their next single, Kung Fu, I was the one telling people about the cheeky cover showing the infamous incident where footballer Eric Cantona drop-kicked a Crystal Palace fan. And when they broke into the Top 20 with their next single Girl From Mars it was time for me to remind everyone that I liked Ash first ;) So when some bloke on the radio starts talking about them, and what they have been doing, I still have that urge to tell people how I was there at Leeds Poly the night the bassist jumped from the speaker stack and accidentally broke his instrument in half.
But the wheel keeps on turning. Doubtless some Lily Allen fans have checked out Ash’s page on MySpace only to rapidly conclude they are sad old losers without giving them a chance. There is nothing like a bit of a struggle to teach people to be patient when trying new things. Some really sad news in the last fortnight was that the vinyl pusher of choice back when I was at York Uni, Track Records has just gone out of business. Their story is that they are unable to compete with download sales, on-line retailers and supermarkets, and doubtless they are not the only ones. Other strangely disturbing news (according to the Glasto website) is that Lily Allen has an audience scheduled with Gordon Brown. Taking over as prime minister is not enough to keep Gordon busy, then. Ash have also had their fair share of strange and dark days over the years, but for now they are still going strong. Which comes as something of a personal relief, as they were the first band I liked where the members were all younger than me. Despite well over a decade of service to electric guitar music, they still retain the capacity to set trends. Ash have announced that they will be the first established band to release all new material as individual songs, abandoning the traditional album format. Read here for the Reuters version of the story. Ash’s logic seems pretty compelling. Why wait a year or more to compile, record and package an album when you could get an idea for a song, go to the studio, capture it, then beam it out over the internet the very next day? The format of albums reflected the fact that you originally had a chunk of physical material with a certain amount of storage capacity where songs played sequentially. It made sense to use the physical material efficiently and think about things like the order of songs and how they complemented each other. After all, only a mug like me would be happy to pay for a mini-album like Trailer, the same size and price as a full album but with only 7 songs ;) As the physical medium is replaced by a digital mechanism to distribute music, making albums does not save costs or enhance value, it only adds delay. If people can buy songs individually on iTunes, it just makes good business sense to offer them for sale as soon as you can. And the fan does not really lose out. The consumer can chose to buy songs sooner, or they can wait for the songs to be sold as a discounted bundle of a dozen or so later on, like a traditional album but without the traditional marketing. The chat on Ash’s website suggests an even split of fans for and against the idea. The idea may take some getting used to. My guess is that in 10 years people will find batching songs into albums as strange as going to their friend’s house to listen to music.
Some things have not changed, though. I was down the front for Ash’s set at the Isle of Wight festival, and will be seeing them again in Camden in July. And they still rock. So to keep up my own track record for promoting Ash, here is a little widget that plays samples of their songs.
It is just so much easier these days ;)