You may have missed the reports this week of another nail in the coffin of the music industry as we know it. It was announced by the fledgling record label that grew into a multi-armed hydra encompassing airlines, trains, cola, perfume, finance and condoms. Of course, I'm talking about Fierce Panda. Just kidding. No, Virgin (for it is they) announced they were selling off their retail division, the Virgin Megastores.
Now that's not the news that makes me fear for the sanity of the music biz. By 2007, Virgin were barely in the music biz anyway, despite the record label's terrific heritage that took in Mike Oldfield, Faust, Henry Cow, Gong, The Sex Pistols, Magazine, Japan, The Human League, Rip Rig and Panic, Culture Club and..er..Phil Collins. Branson took his eye off the ball musically sometime around the early 80s, handing over the running of the label to people like Simon Draper. Sales of CDs are tanking, so in many ways this was a (financially) smart move by the Virgin group.
The stores have been bought out by a management consortium, but it's not this that makes me fear for their future either. In theory, a team of managers could turn the stores' fortunes around and make them relevant to today's reluctant consumers, assuming, that is, that they had some degree of aptitude.
No, the news that told me everything I needed to know about the sorry state of the music industry and the people who run it was buried at the bottom of the press release. In a bid to ditch 35 years of brand heritage (Mike Oldfield, Faust, etc..), the new owners of Virgin have decided to rebrand the stores and name them Zavvi. That's Zavvi. Zavvi. What. The. Fuck?
According to the management team's spokesperson, this new name was a "modern and independent take on the word savvy". Modern. Independent. Hmmmm. If by modern and independent he means "bearing no relation to the written word as we know it, and implying no values whatsoever" then I'll go along with that. Or perhaps "condescending and doomed-to-fail attempt to appeal to txt msg-crazed and wordblind kids" is closer to the mark. Whatever the explanation for this spectacularly awful rebranding, you just know it came out of a focus group, the same sort that (probably) brought about Consignia. And it tells you all you need to know about the fiasco that is today's music business. That it's more concerned with marketing a lame-duck product than with improving the product itself.
Just in case you think I have some sort of great affection for the mechanics of the music industry, I don't. Music predates the invention of the phonograph and will continue to exist for a long time after the last record shop closes its doors. But it absolutely beggars belief that people who don't seem to actually like or care about the artform are in charge of marketing and selling it, and therefore helping to provide a living for the artists themselves. I know none of this is news. But it depresses me every time I see concrete evidence of folly, as I did this week at the unveiling of Zavvi.
The one piece of good news for the biz that I read this week was from the New York Times' profile of Rick Rubin, now joint head of Columbia Records. His radical idea is that the music itself is the most important part of the marketing chain. Or, as he puts it, "We're in the art business." Whoulda thunk it?
In particular, check out the Ryuichi Sakamoto album, Beauty, posted recently (featuring Paisley Park chanteuse Jill Jones, Arto Lindsay, Sly Dunbar, Robert Wyatt and a cast of thousands). It's a bit naughty posting entire albums, but as this seems to be a Japanese release, I'll let it slide.
Also, the April 28th posting about the Compass Point All Stars is all killer; the Barry Reynolds track is especially brilliant. Is it true that I Scare Myself by Barry Reynolds is now out of print? And that my vinyl copy is worth upwards of sixty quid? Sheesh...
After disappearing from view for large parts of the 90s (seems he was in Jamaica for much of the decade shooting Dancehall Queen), Don Lett is currently everywhere you look, from a recently-published autobiog, to hisregular slot on BBC 6 Music. Which is entirely right and proper; since the man has been at the centre of the action for over 30 years, it's good to see him at last getting his due out front rather than behind the scenes.
Known initially as the man who provided punks with tunes at The Roxy, Letts found early notoriety as a video and documentary director. His Punk Rock Movie, shot on Super 8 in 1977, is possibly the most authentic document of the period; it features must-see footage of The Slits at their most raw, and and a pre-signing performance by The Banshees. However, it also captures much of the crassness and stupidity of punk from mid-77 onwards, and this is why it's such a valuable film. It wasn't all as Julien Temple would have us believe. In Letts' film you can see Genesis P. Orridge, for example, acting like a berk and waving a flick-knife around in Boy, and a young Shane McGowan jumping around like an imbecile. You can even see Eater attacking a pig's head for no apparent reason other than to pander to expectations.
So he was there, and like Dziga Vertov, Letts was the man with the movie camera. Videos for The Clash and others followed, as did a stint in Big Audio Dynamite alongside his old mucker Mick Jones, before bailing out to join electro-dub outfit Screaming Target. Things went a bit quiet until the release of Dancehall Queen in the late 90s, but since then Letts has been making documentaries at a rate of knots, with recent features on The Clash ( Westway To The World) and mid-7os U.S. punk (Punk: Attitude) particularly recommended. He's also found a niche compiling CDs of reggae and hip hop for labels like Trojan and Heavenly.
The man has lived quite a life, and must be one of the few people on earth to count Bob Marley, Joe Strummer andFederico Fellini as acquaintances. Fellini apparently said Letts "had the vision of a terrorist", and more churlish critics have pointed out that he misspells the name of his admirer as Frederico throughout his autobiography, which slightly spoils the effect. I can overlook this, though, as the man has a nice line in self-deprecation, pointing out in the book that the famous shot of him seemingly fronting out the cops at the Notting Hill Carnival (a shot that later became the cover of Black Market Clash, left) was no such thing. He was, it turns out, simply crossing the road.
This self-deprecation, and refusal to lose a sense of perspective, was presumably one of the impulses behind the recording of Haile Unlikely, Letts' sole collaboration with Jah Wobble and Keith Levene from 1979. Released under the confusing title of the Steel Leg vs. The Electric Dread EP, the Rasta-baiting title tells you all you need to know about the Don Letts worldview: equally at home in Jamaica or London; respectful of reggae traditions but not in thrall to voodoo mysticism; engaged but aloof, the consummate observer. Above all, this is a man that refuses to be pigeonholed. As such, Mr. Don Letts has earned a special place in the Irk The Purists hall of fame.
Download Haile Unlikely by Stratetime Keith, Jah Wobble and the Electric Dread (deleted May 2008)
From Shakatak to Shostakovich, Ronnie Hazelhurst to Roni Size, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to NoMeansNo, Candi Statton to Candi Payne, Aphex Twin to the Andrews Sisters. MP3s, unsupported assertions and contentious drivel.
Please note, all music on the site is for evaluation purposes only. Play once and then delete! If you like it, go out and buy the CD or the download. Oh, and if you're the copyright holder and don't like free publicity, let me know in the comments and I'll remove it.