The best and worst things that happened in advertising and popular culture this year

2015 has been many things to many people. Kanye-less, Frank Ocean sophomore-lacking, ‘disruptor brands,’ gentrification, #Blacklivesmatter, Jeremy Corbyn, The Weeknd as off-beat popstar, Pig-gate, terrorism, refugees, Kendrick Lamar, Caitlin Jenner, John Lewis Christmas ads, Ed Sheeran, Hotline Bling, Adele returns- I’ll stop before this becomes a Sgt. Pepper’s cover. If there was a sentiment to encapsulate the spirit of the year it would be that people seem to generally give a fuck about stuff and high and low culture has merged into one- just ‘culture.’ The access that the Internet allows us to all forms of culture for free which has been facilitated and broadcast by popular news and ‘content’ outlets on social media has created a general public who are both more culturally rounded and aware and simultaneously more clueless than ever thanks to the overload of information which is neither fully verifiable nor fully disprovable.  It’s BLM activists who listen to Taylor Swift, English lit students you thought were cool sharing thinkpieces about the Hunger Games gender body politics, Starbucks cups being held by anti-capitalists at anti austerity marches, Where are U now?House Every Weekend, fashionistas in Reebok Classics- it’s confusing and inconsistent, maybe even hypocritical- but it’s now.:

THE BEST

Creativity fights back

The discourse around advertising in 2014 was dominated by crap pieces in The Drum about the advent of data, ‘Big Data’ and ‘Math Men.’ It was interesting for about five minutes before becoming, like Oasis’ output since Be There Now , repetitive, uninteresting and culpable for inspiring many talentless dickheads.

2015 saw creativity become cool again. It turned out that the medium of TV in fact wasn’t dead and that you couldn’t just throw a few numbers at a Creative team and expect them to paint something pretty over them. There was a resurgence of first class creative work that didn’t look like it had been graphed, charted and infographic’d to death. Nils Leonard crashed into Adland’s collective consciousness as the Kanye of advertising with Grey London returning to the fore as a culturally switched-on, innovative and iconoclastic creative power house. Adam & Eve DDB continued to produce the kind of distinctive work that could take its place alongside actual entertainment content such as TV shows, films and music videos. Danny Brooke Taylor’s creative stewardship ensured that Lucky Generals went from the plucky youngster to an irreverent yet maturing agency really hitting its stride with excellent work produced for Pot Noodle, Paddy Power and Hostelworld whilst Caroline Pay and Nick Gill can be proud of the stunning work they have done for Audi.

With the strategic and cultural midwifery of high calibrate planners such as Saatchi & Saatchi’s Richard Huntington, Grey’s Leo Rayman and Craig Mawdsley & Bridget Angear at AMV BBDO and top level suits such as Wieden & Kennedy’s highly cultured Neil Christie, the brilliant provocateur Magnus Djaba of Saatchi & Saatchi Fallon fame, James Murphy of A&E with his stellar levels of commitment to his slippery Volkswagen client and Sarah Golding leading a resurgent CHI & Partners, we can also be thankful for the business leadership, strong analytical practice and talent fostering that drives agencies t do their best work. The ‘Math Men‘ were largely pushed to the side this year despite some loud posturing by David Jones with his new ‘Brand Tech’ group You & Mr Jones and the odd creativity vs data think piece in Campaign, and were largely drawn into the debate alongside media agencies about Ad Blocking.

Oh and it’s also won mentioning Ian Leslie’s fantastic piece about creativity and the centrality of brilliant TV ads to the marketing mix in the FT called How the Mad Men Lost the Plot.

Rap gets weird/Pop gets cool/Dance gets broader

2015 has been a fascinating year in music. The Weeeknd now plays shows where fans will be hearing Siouxsie and the Banshees samples one minute and be singing get along to an Ed Sheeran collaboration the next, Justin Bieber is now more likely to be played at a gathering of twenty something grime and house aficionados as they roll zoots and bosh MDMA than at a 12 year old’s birthday part, feminist veterans debate Taylor Swift, Young Thug has been donning tutus one minute and apparently plotting to assassinate Lil Wayne the next, Kendrick Lamar dominated critical discourse with his alt-jazz infused social commentary on To Pimp a Butterfly and Drake captured everyone’s attention by dancing like someone’s uncle in what became one of the biggest music videos of the year.

One of the most exciting things was Grime’s resurgence which saw Skepta rub shoulders with everyone from Drake and Kanye to Earl Sweatshirt, Jamie XX and ASAP Mob, Stormzy began to look like the next up for crossover success, JME’s Integrity album was a solid effort with the excellent ‘Man Don’t Care’ as Giggs- assisted lead single, Novelist kept it Avant Garde with the Mumdance produced bangers ‘Take Time’ and ‘One Sec’, Wiley was honoured at his old school in Bow with a commemorative plaque and Chip reminded us why he’s worth taking seriously with his Fire in the Booth, Believe and Achieve EP and strong responses to Tinie Tempah and Bugzy Malone.

Dance music also saw some interesting developments as PC Music continued to confuse, excite, irritate and amaze whilst entering in to partnership with Colombia Records. SOPHIE released the high octane Product EP which mixed hyper-pop and experimental in a novel way whilst Danny L Harle’s Broken Flowers received a luxury refix on the new EP of the same name. Whilst some view Dance music as one of the last remaining bastions of music snobbery there were some important figures in the scene who have been subverting  the purist status quo and challenging perceptions of taste . Hudson Mohawke’s Lantern was a roaring success in allowing the artist to reconnect with his roots whilst simultaneously exploring new territory. The explosive ‘Very First Breath’ makes whiny power-pop sound triumphant and melancholy at the same time whilst ‘Scud Books’ digs into the artist’s signature stadium-trap aesthetic but adds in a kitsch pop-friendly synth riff. Rustie, another Scottish power-trap auter managed to repurpose his Trance and Happy Hardcore influences into something very relevant with his EVENIFUDONTBELIEVE album. Jamie XX had a brilliant year seeing his long-awaited solo project In Colour which repackaged 20 years of UK club culture for the Instagram generation and scored a summer hit with the Young Thug and Popcaan assisted Good Times. Diplo continued to act as the bridge between club music’s innovative underground and the pop mainstream dabbling in everything from the seminal Bieber-assisted Where are U now? to the summer smash Lean on with Major Lazer and MØ whilst working alongside outliers such as SOPHIE and A.G. Cook. Elsewhere we saw electronic experimentalist and Kanye-collaborator Evian Christ take Trance to the ICA with his much lauded Trance War exhibition and Skrillex finally managed to gain some critical acclaim for his work with Justin Bieber and spectacular live events.

Mad Men’s swansong

Although it definitely did not satiate everyone, I found that the Mad Men ending was everything that I could have asked for. It was neither crowd-pleasingly conclusive nor ironic and cold; it was open-ended but you got some idea of where the narrative was headed once the characters ceased to exist on our screens. True to form Matt Weiner and his excellent team of writers made sure to produce something that didn’t exist in a historical vacuum. Don Draper’s closing hilltop meditation scene which may or may not have led him to go on to create the subsequently shown iconic I’d like to teach the world to sing Coca Cola ad- arguably the creative genesis of brand-based advertising- signals the beginning of the cultural shift from a more collectivist and ordered understanding of society to the dawn of individualist neo-liberalism where brands and products begin to exist as components of the individual’s unique identity and self-expression. As noted in a previous piece, Adam Curtis does a great job in identifying the hippy and New Age movements as an expression of individualism that birthed the small-government, supply side and self-sufficient economic culture promoted by Reagan and Thatcher that still predominates today in his documentary The Century of the self. Wiener’s use of a spiritual retreat as the narrative endpoint for the protagonist seems like a nod to this understanding of the late 20th and early 21st century.

 

The reason why these discourses seem so relevant has been seen across pop culture and (more downstream) society, politics, conflict and economics all year. Identity and self definition has seemingly been at the centre of everything; one can cite phenomena as diverse as Caitlin Jenner, Rachel Dolezal, Donald Trump’s jingoistic understanding of what it is to be American, the Black Lives Matter movement, the continued rise of the far-right in Europe and the Islamic State in the Levant, the conspicuous presence of selfies facilitated by ever-growing social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, changing attitudes to gender and sexuality- the list could be an essay in itself. These are a wide array of positive, negative and necessary happenings but what they all have in common is their rooting in today’s existential grey areas- the desire to craft one’s own unique identity whilst wanting to be a part of something in a world that is more connected than ever whilst paradoxically increasingly isolated. In placing Don Draper, the brilliant manipulator of human anxiety, on top of a cliff edge with a bunch of mentally conflicted and exasperated ‘modern’ individuals before cutting to that infamous Coca Cola ad, Weiner gave us an ending which emphasized the cultural vitalness of the whole Mad Men series.

Craig David and Kurupt FM

I’m usually weary of anything resembling starry-eyed nostalgia but Craig David’s return this year seemed like the righting of a cultural wrong. Like many black and asian artists in the UK Craig’s career was subjected to immature ridicule, miscategorization and ill-informed interference by record companies. When the brilliant Kurupt FM crew from the BBC Three/iPlayer cult hit People Just Do Nothing brought him into their Mistajam #Sixtyminuteslive session to perform his early noughties smash ‘Fill Me In’ over Jack U’s Where are U Now it began to seem like the stage was set for his return. Following the critical re-appraisal of R&B over the last few years and the resurgence of Garage, UK Funky, Deep House and Jungle into UK club culture, it appears that as this piece in Noisey suggests is the perfect time for the R n’ G veteran to reclaim his place in the UK’s homegrown dance music scene.

THE WORST

Adland’s diversity lack

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Despite some positive noises being made about the need for women to be better represented at all levels in the advertising industry, mostly thanks to the tireless work of top female ad people like Cindy Gallop with the 3% Conference and the WACL (Women in Advertising and Communications in London), there has been little improvement in making the Ad industry more diverse as a whole. Barely anyone is talking about the obvious domination of the industry by white middle class types both male and female- ethnicity and socioeconomic background features very little in any discussion that does take place.

It would be easy to pick out events and scrutinize happenings such as the incredibly classist ‘Benefits’ flyer that circulated at Iris Worldwide in London (above), this hilariously misjudged Robert Dyas spot or the Advertising Week panel called ‘Here are all the black people in advertising’ which was seemingly chaired by a bunch of white people (although as the link points out it’s more complicated than appears) but the real root of the problem is the lack of interest amongst the majority of the decision makers in the industry in reaching out to communities outside of their own. Our ‘creative industries’ which some might assume are very liberal and open to people of all backgrounds are in fact closed off to most people outside of the ABC1 bubble. One only has to look at the lack of outreach programmes aimed at youngsters from less privileged backgrounds, the extortionate subscription fees for industry publications and events and the way in which most agencies hide their job postings from any commonly accessible outlets. The whole things stinks of elitism and for all of the talk of attracting great young talent the system appears to be built to keep a certain types of people out. The whole ad industry is a lot poorer for it as powerful, evocative and effective campaigns that connect to a wider audience require a range of different inputs be they White, Black, Asian, Male, Female, Gay or Straight.

Guitar Music

The famously regressive online community in the UK was most upset about Kanye West performing at Glastonbury this year. How dare this uppity Black bloke be the Saturday night headliner at Glastonbury, proclaiming himself to be the ‘Greatest Living Rockstar’ without there being a guitar in sight!? Someone started a petition, Brian McFadden and Louise Thompson got involved, your smelly 15 year old cousin from Dudley posted a video of Dave Grohl performing with a broken leg along or a meme of him laughing or something, you know how these things tend to go…

The real issue and inconvenient truth here however is the simple fact that England and the world as a whole seriously lacks in any compelling guitar bands. I’m not yet ready to deem guitar music/rock n’ roll as completely redundant but it’s hard to see who else could have convincingly filled the headline slot or in fact be deemed as a ‘rockstar’ in this day and age. I mean who really is Dave Grohl? the former drummer in a seminal band whose importance hinged on the songwriting and general character of the now deceased frontman? A cuddly mascot for a bygone era of music? What about Matt Bellamy? Well even die-hard Muse fans couldn’t stomach their latest release. Do we really have to dig up another leather clad metal outfit from the eighties or some poorly aged wig-rocker? The Libertines can provide a cheery fifty minutes of throwback singalong fun but it’s hard to claim that Pete and Carl’s druggy Edwardian/Victorian lit-expired poncing-about would be an ideal show of rock n’ roll’s relevance today.Foals had some approving nods from critics and old indie heads this year but like the more interesting Everything Everything who emerged this year with the impressive Get to Heaven, they don’t quite hold enough weight for the number one slot.  You also shouldn’t listen to those ex-NME types who seem like they’ve managed to TUPE (Google it!) over to Noisey when they tell you that Sleaford Mods are worth your time.

Tyler, the Creator banned from UK

There are plenty of reasoned debates to be had about how we should receive and interpret Tyler, the Creator’s lyrics. Concerns that some of the lyrics in his earlier material might be harmful to women in the long term by normalizing and trivializing rape seem perfectly reasonable and should be discussed at length. There do however seem to be other forces at play in this case of kneejerk censorship exercised by Home Secretary Theresa May as Joe Muggs stated in his piece for The Guardian on the subject.

Whether the move to bar Tyler, the Creator was meant as a subtle nod to Middle England or a concession to our active feminist movement (which has done great work this year- see the newly formed Women’s Equality Party) is unclear but there’s a nasty racial undercurrent that we can see when we hold these judgments up to the light. Artists such as Tyler, Chris Brown and Snoop ‘Kick this evil bastard out’ Dogg/Lion have faced a much higher bar when touring across venues in countries like the UK, Australia and Canada than artists such as Ozzy Osbourne, Cannibal Corpse and even The Decemberists all of whom have participated in either lyrical of real life misogyny and abuse of women.

There is also a point to be made about the context of Tyler, the Creator’s lyrical content. The lyrics in question which mainly feature in his early releases Bastard and Goblin are often uttered by a conflicted and disturbed alter-ego and are clearly not a reflection of the artist’s own views. Whilst these incidents of censorship are often presented as being a progressive must by responsible authorities more often than not they are at best a flimsy band-aid for the problem of systematic injustice and at worst a manifestation of a more sinister agenda.

Airbnb ‘is mankind?’

Oh man this one was bad! Despite simultaneously pricking people’s conscience and making their lives easier- a very lucrative brand position to occupy in the information age- the folks at Air B n’ B apparently see themselves as the champions of human connectivity, empathy and social justice. TBWA are a great agency with a strong legacy but they certainly misfired here in an overblown and highly pretentious campaign which wasn’t helped by a smarmy poster campaign in San Francisco addressing the recent ruling that the company had to pay hotel tax. For some reason they assumed that residents of America’s most left-leaning city would want to join in with their libertarian circle-jerk. Whilst I have no way of knowing how the company’s communications fuck ups have affected sales and growth this year- I do know that the health of the brand is vital to a startup that is starting to move into maturity.

 

 

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Cool Shit Round Up 28.08.2015

The Ad

C’est shook by Grey London for Orangina

The Art

Back to Bed. A surrealist video game based on the work of Dali, Magritte and Escher.

The Song/Video

The Weeknd x Kanye West (on production)

The Article

The Internet’s Newest Plague: The Cult of Negative Viral Content by Clive Martin at Vice.

Misc

The Making of Jack Ü and Justin Bieber’s ‘Where are Ü Now’

Cool Shit Round Up 03.07.2015

The Ad

1000 years of less ordinary by W+K for Finlandia

The Art

Eggs Benedict by Niki Johnson (the last pope made out of condoms)

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The Songs

H.O.M.E. by Trinidad James (yeah he’s still about) featuring ILOVEMAKONNEN

Back Then Skepta x Plastician

The Interview

Shane Smith, CEO of Vice interviewed by Johnny Hornby, founder of CHI&Partners and The&Partnership at Cannes Lions festival.

No Sir Martin, Alex Da Kid is not a good choice for your music venture. Here are some alternatives…

Despite what you may think of him Sir Martin Sorrell is a very clever man, he wouldn’t be the global emperor of Adland if he wasn’t. It is for this reason that I am surprised at his choice of partner for WPP’s new music venture KidinaKorner. If you don’t know who Alex ‘Da Kid’ Grant is, he’s the pop mastermind behind providing the production to compliment the former provocateur and enfant terrible of pop-culture Eminem’s transformation into ex-junkie motivational speaker and MOR purveyor (i.e. ‘Love you the way you lie’ and ‘I need a Doctor’). He’s also produced some low impact chart-filler for high tier popstars such as Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, B.O.B. and Imagine Dragons (yeah those guys who Kendrick Lamar shat all over his current credibility in collaborating with).

Speaking about the venture Da Kid has stated “Music is extremely powerful and plays a very important role in people’s lives, connecting them to a moment that is uniquely personal. Unfortunately, it can often be the last thing to get attention when programs are being planned. KidinaKORNERCreate offers a new model, bringing music to the forefront of every level of the creative process; planning, strategy and execution. This approach will create more substantial and meaningful engagement with the audience.” This in itself is a fantastic, profound observation which some parts of the industry have started to pick up on.The question is whether Alex Da Kid is the right person to do this. SMS has called the producer ‘ a genuine innovator’ which, in the age of Kanyes, FKAs, James Murphys, Beyonces, Jamie XXs, James Blakes, Diplos, Tylers, ASAPs, Skeptas, Arcas, Bjorks is pretty laughable. Creative Directors, Planners and Account Handlers shouldn’t be rushing to soundtrack beautiful ads with crossover tunes which sound like they’ve been thrown together from existing loops at the last minute. I am not arguing that an established producer should be sidelined for some obscure soundcloud based minimal tech producer or ‘proper’ indie band. I am arguing that more thought should be given to selecting a partner with a real in-depth understanding  of popular music, culture and trends- and most importantly what constitutes ‘cool.’ Far be it from me to shit all over an idea without suggesting an alternative so here are my pics for a better partner in this venture:

A.G. Cook

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Kicking things off with the wild-card here, AG Cook- PC Music’s benevolent leader has a history of working with brands such as Illamasqua form whom he provided Art Direction for the company website and complied a tailored playlist and the Red Bull Music Academy who have been heavily involved in the label’s live shows. Despite making his name as a pop and dance producer, Cook’s tastes (past and present) have been wide-ranging citing Hudson Mohawke, David Guetta, Scritti Politti, Captain Beefheart, UK Garage, Girls Aloud, K-Pop, Frank Zappa and Cassie. Cook is also a good fit due to the nature of his music, unlike the broader consensus among artist, he seems open to working with brands and engaging more with the capitalist music machine. With a production style that apes commercial pop and a growing portfolio of high-level collaborations including Charlie XCX, Cook interrogates our commercial reality and is fascinated by the concept of artifice.

Pros: A history of working with brands, embraces commercial realities of music industry and has a seemingly wide understanding of popular music and culture.

Cons: Resides over sometimes controversial and divisive roster of artists and might lack music and advertising industry leverage being somewhat marginal at this stage.

Dev Hynes

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As the darling of the now R&B-friendly blogosphere and indie critic circle, the eclectic Dev Hynes has been through several musical incarnations. Starting as an indie and folk artist under the name Lightspeed Champion before moving on to post-hardcore and Dance Punk with the short-lived Test Icicles, Dev Hynes has since plateaued with his creative re-imagining of 80s New Wave and alternative R&B as Blood Orange. Despite these varied alt credentials Hynes remains a go-to songwriter and producer for everyone from Britney Spears, Diane Vickers and The Sugababes to more critically acclaimed artists such as Theophilus London, FKA Twigs, Solange and Heems. Hynes clearly has a broad knowledge of various types of music posting videos or everyone from Michael Jackson to Ice Cube to Oasis to Talking Heads to John Cage on his Facebook page. He is also something of a style icon with his interpretation of 80s normcore style making him something of an icon.

Pros: Connected to a wide range of artists across genres, proven and varied track record of creativity and deep knowledge of different types of music.

Cons: No significant experience of working with brands aside from appearing in a GAP Advert alongside Evian Christ and Kelela.

Emily Haynie

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New York’s Emile Haynie cut his teeth on the obscure Hip Hop releases of C-Rayz Walz, Cormega and Obie Trice before falling in with bigger names such as Raekwon, Ghsotface Killah, The Roots and Kid Cudi. Since then he has expanded his production credits across genres to work with Lana Del Rey, Fun, Linkin Park, Rufus Wainwright, and Lykke Li with many of the aforementioned appearing on his solo debut We Fall. This eclectic mix of collaborators from Brian Wilson to FKA Twigs to ASAP Rocky plus the fact that he has a history of brand ownership after launching the now defunct label DreamOn with Kid Cudi and Plain Pat makes Haynie and ideal candidate.

Pros: Well connected and with a proven track record of producing records across genres.

Cons: Probably working on various projects as we speak, likely to be unavailable for the foreseeable future.

Cool Shit Round Up 19.06.2015

The Ad 

Germs on Holiday by DKLW Lowe for Domestos

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The Art

Low Poly Game of Thrones by Mordi Levi

 

The Tune

Leaders by Rome Fortune x Fourtet

The idea

James Murphy, veteran New Yorker and the man behind the excellent LCD Soundsystem is making a symphony from NY Subway bleeps


The Article
‘photographing strip club culture in the south’ by Felicity Kinsella at i-D

Lantern, Hudson Mohawke reclaims his brand


When news of Hudson Mohawke’s Lantern tracklist first broke, many of us were surprised that there appeared to be no rappers featuring. Existing for the last couple of years as a sought-after beat-smith for A-list rappers such as Kanye, Drake, Pusha T and Rick Ross, it seemed logical that he would put out a release affirming his position as chief purveyor of Trap. Fresh from these huge Hip Hop releases and the short lived TNGHT project with Canadian fellow Trap avant-gardist Lunice, the Scottish wonder-kid has turned his back on Hip Hop-based releases in favour of electronic Power-R&B.
Throughout the record Mohawke riffs on popular EDM, pop, Hip Hop and R&B to create a kind of kitsch interpretation of contemporary dance music. The big drums from his Trap releases such as last year’s Chimes EP remain but they are matched with stadium synths and pop riffs. Mohawke makes it clear that this is the music that he wants to be associated with for now and seems keenly aware of  the potential for his brand to pigeon-holed into Trap producer to the stars and takes a radical left turn. This is not to say that he has a foolhardy approach to brand consistency, his trademark electronic sonic maximalism remains but the absence of the expected rap gods in favour of the subdued Jhene Aiko, Antony of Anthony and the Johnsons and Irfane tells us that he is more interested in building his own sound.

‘Scud Books’ and ‘Kettles’ both nod towards his signature maximalist approach whilst embracing epic stadium-level triumphantism, with ‘Very First Breath’ we get an RnB-tinged electro-pop effort with powerful evocative synth work and HudMo’s signature experimentalism is indulged on ‘Little Djembe.’ The Hudson Mohawke brand is demonstrated to be as fluid as Kanye West’s or David Bowie’s and like the aforementioned he retains his core creative values of immaculate execution, disregard of genre confinement and unabridged risk-taking.

The album isn’t perfect, I’d score it a strong 7/10 in terms of the final product, some of the clunky songwriting on ‘Warriorz’ and the underwhelming Jhene Aiko assisted ‘Resistance’ falls a little flat. From a ‘brand’ point of view however, the record proves to be a clever move by the producer to create something that clearly belongs to his own artistic ambitions, defies pigeon-holing and lays the foundations of a varied and exciting career.

Recent music videos that Adland can learn from

It’s a well known fact that the use of music is a central component of successful advertising campaigns as Marketers continue to stress the importance of leveraging culture in order to give brands a relevant voice. BETC Paris have launched their music-focussed micro-agency BETC Pop this week, Droga5 are known for their highly successful Jay Z/Bing collaboration, Grey London harnessed the power of the then-relevant genre Dubstep by helping DJ Fresh get a UK #1 with ‘Louder’ as part of their campaign for Lucozade and BBH has its Black Sheep Music/The Most Radica-list outlet. However, sometimes it seems that agency creatives and planners as well as client-side Brand managers don’t fully consider how they can take inspiration from music videos, which essentially are tools used by artists and record labels to communicate the message of the song and character of the artist. Below are some examples of current music videos which advertising industry creatives could learn a thing or two from.
Caribou– Can’t do without you

Dan Snaith’s 2014 melancholic House/RnB/Pop ballad Can’t do without you expresses tenderness, desperation and joy simultaneously. It is, in essence, a pure love song. The music video takes a clever approach to the song’s subject matter by eschewing the expected couple narrative to that of a young boy’s brief infatuation with Chinese dragon/kite- style floating object before he falls and loses control of it. It works because the director has taken an unexpected approach without losing the message of the song. 

 

Earl Sweathsirt- Grief

Earl Sweatshirt’s sludge-core beat and dexterious yet somber lyricism is matched perfectly by Japanese director Hiro Murai who uses a thermal imaging camera in grayscale to depict the artist in the midst of a seemingly common social situation whilst feeling isolated and claustraphobic. Activities which would be considered typical of a rapper in his early 20s such as smoking, playing video games and being around attractive women are given a more sinister and unsettling edge as warm and cold surfaces reflect contrasted areas of light and darkness.

Skepta- Shutdown

Skepta has had something of a rebirth in the past 18 months and has emerged as the current figurehead of the rebooted Grime scene. His track ‘Shutdown’ references his recent high points such his MOBO Award-winning That’s Not Me, his link-up with A$AP Mob and his fashion-week appearance and confidently asserts the irreverent spirit of the scens that he leads. The video combines the common Grime tropes of the mandem on the estate with signifiers of the new chic image of the genre such as his kind of roadman normcore clothing and shots of models clad in higher-end sportswear- a nod to the trendiness that he has acquired perhaps. Like Wiley’s On a Level video it’s a bold statement of Grime’s powerful return to prominence.

U.S. Girls- Damn that Valley

I’ve only just got to know about U.S. Girls and apparently she has been around for a while. Now signed to dance/electronic label 4AD with whom she will be releasing her next album her brand of DIY Pop with traces of Indie, Punk, Ska and Americana is set to make a much bigger splash. Her video for Damn that Valley shows her referencing the song’s socio-political undertones which are slightly obscured by the stylistics of its production and subtle lyricism with imagery that includes the singer gesturing aggressively at the White House, seemingly crying out to the Washington Monument and being superimposed singing in a self-consciously retro shot across rows of American flags. The video perfectly complements the song’s DIY aesthetics and retro styling whilst reflecting the subtle overlap of the political and the personal.

Ranking the ‘Icons’: How well do Tidal’s celebrity owners fit the market? 

I’m still on the fence about Jay Z’s newly re-launched artist-owned streaming service Tidal. On the one hand it is refreshing to see artists discuss what rightful compensation for their product entails, yet there seems to be an air of Luddism (however justified) involved as creatives rebel against the ‘tech’ elite and ignore the realities of the market. My feeling at this juncture is that this is going to be a costly, but perhaps necessary learning curve for Jay Z, his business associates and the artists who have come forward as owners. One of the main concerns for onlookers is the fact that main rival Spotify prices it’s premium service at £9.99 per month which is significantly less than Tidal’s £19.99 price point. To address the disparity and present added value, subscribers to the top rate version are allowed exclusive early access to releases by participating artists as well as extra content such as podcast-like mini-docs and interviews. Also included in the higher tier is the promise of ‘lossless’ sound quality, something which I think respective  individuals care about to varying degrees.  I’m slightly apprehensive about the assumption that consumers care enough to fork out an extra ten or so quid but what I’m really concerned about is the target market or apparent lack there-of. In lieu of doing any more boring research I’m going to guess that there are (or should be) two main audiences who Carter and co. are trying to reach.

The first audience I think are 25-30 year olds, most-likely employed  (therefore not too hesitant about paying for streaming) , culturally engaged and socially well-orientated. This crowd is increasingly upwardly-mobile, accustomed to a reasonable work/life balance and non-resistant to the idea of organised fun. They enjoy discovering new artists through websites and blogs that they follow such as Noisey and Pigeons and Planes and will support artists through buying their records and attending their concerts at least more than they did 5-10 years ago.

The secondary audience, I would venture to guess, are predominantly male music fans who are past the 45 year mark. These guys spend a lot on Vinyl records and decent Hi-Fi equipment, they probably will care more about the interviews and mini-docs offered at the higher tier rate and they have no really idea about downloading music illegally unless they can convince their teenage son to do it for them. For this crowd Tidal will be like a version of the BBC’s 6Music platform where they get to pick the songs (neatly filtering out that grating Lana Del Rey tune that the morning guys insist on playing) and can dip into the odd Paul Weller interview.

It is with these two audiences in mind that I present you my list of the launch event declaration signees next to a ranking of how they fit the market ….

Alicia Keys- 7.5 

Alicia Keys seems to have an air credibility that hasn’t really shifted in the past 14 years that she’s been about. Sure she’s got a ton of best-selling pop hits under her belt but she also wins points for being largely inoffensive, seemingly humble and actually really good at the piano. Do I think that her audience are going to part with their £19.99 to hear ‘Girl on Fire’ in ‘lossless’ sound? Probably not. What about interviews, early releases, documentaries and any other more intimate artist experiences? I wouldn’t count on it, as talented and accomplished as she is you’re probably bit going to get a Yeezy-esque stream-of-consciousness or a piece-by-piece dissection of her processes. She does however lend the image of the respectable pop artist to the event and all of the sensible seriousness that age naturally conveys.

Arcade Fire- 8/10

From glancing at the desktop screens of the 40-45 year old white male contingent at work (the ones who buy a vinyl a week, still love guitar music, hate Dance Music and think Jimi Hendrix was the last Black musician worth listening to) , it’s abundantly clear that Arcade Fire is one of the few bands that have emerged in the last 10 years that they believe are worth listening to. They also appeal to the 25-30 market as the band that reminds them of their teenage/early-twenties obsession with authenticity.

Beyoncé- 8/10

Beyoncé has managed to expand her audience year-on-year, indie and alternative crowds have largely stopped turning their nose up at her since guitar music starting having its very drawn-out identity crisis/death and it became cool to suddenly find an intense love of 90s RnB, her loyal fans have followed her from good Southern Christian girl through to sexually-liberated pop-feminism icon and the Buzzfeed-reading masses continue to annoy me by regurgitating Queen Be(y?)-related memes and ‘listcicles.’ Essentially, there are few people with any kind of strong opposition to Beyoncé (my iPad keyboard is even adding the accent to the ‘e’ automatically) and her legions of loyal fans will likely follow her wherever she goes. Plus she’s Jay’s wife so yeah.

Calvin Harris- 4/10

Does the average person who listens to EDM-superstar DJ and producer Calvin Harris care enough about sound quality to spend £19.99 a month or have any sincere desire to hear his album a week prior to it’s release? Nope, they will hear it at Oceana (that still around?), on the radio in the car or via Facebook when one of their friends shares the video and proclaims it to be the ‘tune of the summer’ or whatever.

Chris Martin of Coldplay- 6/10

It’s too easy to poke fun at ‘plain white bread with a glass of water on the side for dipping’ musical-equivalent Coldplay. Jay Z thinks they’re amazing and they make more money that you and I because the general population also loves them. No they’re not particularly inspiring and they seem to be even less so when they try to be but they do appeal to a lot of people with their faux-sincerity and traditional line up and general sound. It’s not too hard to visualise someone wanting to hear their album early or in an enhanced-quality format but they do lose points for doing so darned boring at an event about innovation and risk-taking.

Daft Punk 8.5/10

The interesting thing about Daft Punk is their ability to maintain a strong foothold in both commercial and mainstream markets. You’d have to have been deaf not to have heard ‘Get Lucky’ at least 123 times a couple of summers ago yet they still have the ear of more committed dance music heads. Their credentials are well established and it’s not much of a stretch to imagine consumers shelling out extra dough to hear their music in higher quality, enjoy an extensive interview and be amongst the first to hear their new album.

Deadmau5 4/10

C’mon son! Really? Is any Deadmau5 fan really that concerned about sound quality? Yes they might buy noise-cancelling headphones but £19.99 can go towards club night entry, MDMA ( Do EDM bros do MD?), drinks etc. Plus they’re not gonna be too bummed about waiting an extra week for the latest release if they’re likely to hear all the worthy hits at the Euro-dance festival they’re headed to in Croatia are they?

Jack White 8.5/10

Attracting the same kind of ‘real music’ crowd as the Arcade Fire listeners (probably more so), Jack White is a strong fit. These Dad-lads love a bit of Blues rock and will probably enjoy hearing Jack’s revivalism in high quality.

Jason Aldean ?

Idk who that is

J Cole 7.5/10

Ok probably. His fans are more interested in lyrics than his Kanye circa-College Dropout production but they’ll likely want the exclusive release and will be interested in hearing him break down his thought processes at length.

Jay Z- 9/10

Widely respected and  hella revered in most circles (barring the uber-crusties from Oasis), Jay Z fits the market very well. Granted a lot of people managed to illegally download Magna Carta Holy Grail when it was ‘exclusively released’ to Samsung early but I’m confident that loyal fans and general well-wishers will get a kick out of early releases and documentaries. This is sure to resonate with the 25-30 market who don’t generally have time to pursue illegal downloading as much anymore and who have relinquished previous music-snobbery in favour of mainstream glasto-headliners and cautious poptimism.

Kanye West- 8/10

There are certain risks with Yeezy due to his divisive nature as both an artist and an individual. However, his association with the mighty Kardashian dynasty has allowed him to become a household name even as his music becomes more and more left-field and irreverent. I don’t doubt for a second that people will be excited to hear his new material prior to official release and his interviews have become infamous for descending into rants or visionary proclamations depending on your stance (definitely the latter for me). Fans should also be eager to hear new releases in the ‘lossless’ format considering the fact that production is Mr West’s strong suite and he is likely to also call-in the services of a range of exciting supporting producers to assist.

Madonna 6/10

Bit of guesswork here, I don’t actually know anyone who listens to Madonna (not necessarily denigrating old Madge- just not my circles). All I can think of is people who know her early work from generally being a young adult in the 80s and I don’t think they’ll be too fussed about sound quality or exclusives. Nevertheless she remains a big name by virtue of having been the ‘Queen of Pop’ and adjusting to each generation’s cultural whims enough to remain vaguely relevant and that should count for something I imagine.

Nicki Minaj 6.5

It’s quite possible that this could interest 25-30 year olds and she has shed some of the pop-centric attributes in her latest release. You also get the feeling that she means business, so whilst I’m not sure that people will flock to the service for the £19.99 package in order to hear her mystic and anything else on offer, she does seem to have fit the tone of the event.

Rihanna 6.5

Another beneficiary of the growing respectability of pop music, Rihanna’s audience seems to be widening. With loyal fans and loyal detractors (fine lines people!) seemingly eager to discuss her music when and where possible  it’s certainly plausible that consumers might be tempted by early releases but I’m skeptical about them caring about the sound quality enough to invest.

Usher- 6

This one really depends on which direction he takes on his next release. If it’s something more innovative and relatively different like ‘Climax’ or something vibesy and incredibly well-produced like the ‘Confessions’ album then this could go up to a 7. If however we get something that panders to popular EDM-type dance floors then it seems that there’s little argument to be had in favour of including Usher in an event promoting high-quality streaming  through an artist-friendly platform that also throws in stuff like in-depth interviews and ‘making-of’ content.

Time will tell how well Tidal fares in this competitive yet also sinking market. I can’t seem to shake the sense that this is best understood as an experiment rather than an enterprise that is certain to reap significant rewards although part of me is glad that the surrounding debate has manifested itself in some form of positive action. Also  why no Kendrick Lamar? I reckon he would have fit perfectly.

That’s Not Me: The future of Grime as a brand

If you were to ask me 2-3 years ago I would have certainly told you that Grime is dead. UK Hip Hop continued plodding along in no particular direction, political rappers bent our ears with unexciting didactic tirades and ‘road rap’ was filling the gap left by the 140bpm crowd with sluggishly delivered tales of drug wars and police raids over G-Unit replica beats. The only real visibility anyone from BBK, Nasty Crew, Roll Deep, Slewdem, Ruff Squad, Newham Generals or The Movement could get was via the ‘crossover’ route where lukewarm pop and dance records got a smattering of rap tossed over the top. This exciting scene which fused Hip Hop with elements of UK electronic scenes such as Garage, Jungle, Bashment and Drum n’ Bass and channeled them through an energy and irreverence that can only be compared to punk, never cashed the mighty check that it wrote. Not every crossover record was terrible but for every ‘Rolex Sweep’ (or ‘Wearing My Rolex’) and ‘Traktor’ there was a ‘Don’t Go’ and ‘Oopsy Daisy. It seems clueless A&Rs were looking to steer artists towards the Sheeran-dominated middle-aged mums market and the over-zealous Metropolitan Police were (and still are) pushing their 696 forms that led to countless events being cancelled which helped to create a climate where creative options were severely limited for artists trying to make a living from the genre.

This steady decline has been dramatically reversed in the past 18 months with hits such as ‘German Whip’ by Meridian Dan, Skepta’s spectacular return-to-form ‘That’s Not Me’ and Wiley’s ‘On A Level’ showing artists in the process of rediscovering their creative roots and making music true unto themselves. The Gucci and Louis Vuitton is in the bin, the track suit bottoms and Nike caps are back and the Vivienne Westwood spiked loafers have been replaced with the old standard-issue creps (crepes? crepz? Idk!). We are also seeing a reversal of the international siloing of so-called ‘urban music’ with the genre being watched with curiosity by Hip Hop artists across the pond such as Kanye West, who brought out half of the scene for his Brit Awards performance of ‘All Day’ as well as at Koko, Drake who is constantly s/o-ing Wiley and Skepta on Instagram, Danny Brown who cites Dizzee and Mike Skinner as major influences and featured Scrufizzer on his studio debut, Ratking, the post-internet Art Hop practitioners who have been involved in the US Remix of ‘That’s Not Me’, Earl Sweatshirt who recently kicked-off his show with the track, A$AP Mob who’s back-bencher Bari leant a hook to Skepta’s ‘It Ain’t Safe’ and Flatbush Zombies who have also worked with Skepta recently on ‘Redeye to Paris. This period of revival continues to thrill and will hopefully see the scene continue to grow whilst learning from past mistakes. Below I have listed three points of action which I believe will allow the Grime ‘brand’ to expand commercially whilst keeping its creative edge:

1. Now that the roots of the culture have been re-established, let’s see where it can be taken next

‘On A Level’ from Wiley’s recent (and apparently last?) solo effort ‘Snakes and Ladders’ did an excellent job of communicating the frustration of artists who have been mismanaged and forced to play by other people’s rules. Wiley preaches fiscal responsibility ‘live within your means init’ and the importance of creative integrity ‘I don’t want my career to end up a joke’ over a Skepta-produced Eskimo beat that you’d be more likely to hear at a Sidewinder set back in ’07 than on a Balearic Island hotspot being played off the iPod of a Dapper Laugh’s lookalike from some dreary midlands suburb. Similarly there is an urban myth that Skepta’s ‘That’s Not Me’ featuring his brother and often partner-in-grime JME, was born after he revisited his old lock-up and liberated his Trition (some kind of beat-making device I dunno :/) with which he made most of his 04/05 tunes. The track which delivers a strong statement about self-knowledge and integrity as a means to empowerment is both retro in a highly necessary way and incredibly zeitgeisty. The issue of self-perception could not be more prescient for the Instagram generation where hours are spent collecting the right photos, tagging ourselves at the right places and being seen to like the right things and the concept of defining who one is an isn’t strikes right to the heart of this consensus. Both of these tracks along with Meridian Dan’s ‘German Whip’, Stormzy’s ‘Know Me From’, The Square’s ‘Lewisham McDeez‘ etc. strongly assert Grime’s unique identity.

So where do we go from here? The answer is that we don’t know yet, and that’s fine for now. You can’t have Kid A without Tutti Frutti and Rock around the clock, you can’t have Paul’s Boutique, Stankonia or The Money Store without Paid in Full . However, there needs to be a point once audiences are fully on board and Grime is firmly established as its own genre that it needs to start looking to explore and experiment with different sonic and lyrical approaches or, as Wiley would say Evolve or Be Extinct. Grime now has a wider audience, Pitchfork and Noisey readers attend raves alongside guys and gals who normally frequent low-budget club nights around the A10, road guys in sportswear and curious middle-class white kids in their late teens who still wear snapbacks. This time around the audience has come to the scene and they will be bringing their own expectations into the mix, just as grime was originally a hybrid, it may well become a catalyst for entirely new genre somewhere down the line. The different cultural influences which will inevitably penetrate the boundaries of the genre should yield some exciting results especially now that links are being established with US Hip Hop artists- more of which in the next post…

2. Cultivate the links being established with artists from the U.S. and around the world 

As noted in the intro, US Artist ranging from both mainstream circles such as Kanye and Drake and alternative mainstays such as A$AP Mob, Ratking, Flatbush Zombies and Earl Sweatshirt, are showing a strong interest in Grime acts. This can bring exciting things to the table such as the A$AP Bari feature on Skepta’s ‘It Ain’t Safe’, Cam’ron’s verse on Wiley’s ‘Lonely’ and acts such as Prince Rapid and Riko Dan featuring on Future Brown’s internationalist Trap-infused first LP alongside Tink, Shawna and Johnny May Cash. US Hip Hop is currently in a relatively free and expressive state with post-Lil B/OFWGKTA/A$AP weirdo-ism existing alongside Rick Ross’s fictional Mafiosi act, Drake’s post-Heartbreak & 808s croon-raps, Future’s Pluto-Trap, Young Thug’s compelling yelp-rap, Kanye at his Yeezusest, Azaelia Banks’s ballsy House-Hop, Childish Gambino’s pop culture high-concept schtick and Chance the Rapper’s goofy Psychedelia all existing simultaneously.

New ideas are currently being allowed in and Grime should get in line for a Green Card. Of course Grime doesn’t need to go cap-in-hand to its wealthier and more established cousin across the Atlantic but with music industry power-brokers in the UK having previously demonstrated that they have no idea how to market the genre to the public, it should be in the commercial and creative interest of Grime artists to look across the pond.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=MKt-JoShYwU
3. Keep it as DIY as possible

Following on from the previous point, Grime has previously been tragically mishandled by the British contingent of the music industry. The GZA’s line ‘who’s your A&R?/ a mountain climber who plays the electric guitar?’ from Wu Tang’s ‘Protect Ya Neck’ comes to mind when analysing the failure of execs who have had no idea how to market a Grime MC.

I have not run the numbers but I’m certain that this woeful misbranding of Grime which saw endless collaboration with Ed Sheeran as the natural equivalent of Jay Z’s work with high flying middle-browers Coldplay and stuck artists in the continuous loop of working with label-approved producers such as Naughty Boy and Labrinth, can not be making any of the artists more than a quick buck. Now I’m not someone who rallies against major labels or screams ‘sell-out’ at anyone who records a song with a melody and doesn’t want to starve but I do believe that Grime has vast untapped commercial potential in its own right. Grime raves pull huge crowds on their own but we’re now seeing an intriguing crossover culture in live music events exemplified by last night’s mammoth Deviation set hosted by Benji B which saw Skepta and Novelist share a bill with infamous electronic genre-disregarder Bok Bok, Mos Def, A$AP Rocky and Kaytranada. Events such as these demonstrate how there is a hungry market that is watching and waiting as Grime’s ascent continues which should allow the scene to become more and more commercially viable without having to pander to the tastes of mainstream audiences.

Much like Sway Calloway, I don’t have the answers- well at least not all of them! However I do love Grime and I do want people who make it to be able to keep making it. I would love for it to take the next step from trendy UK subculture to global creative and commercial powerhouse. Of course all of this is redundant if the police continue to pressurise venues to cancel Grime events.

 

What your brand can learn from PC Music

The first song from the PC Music music roster that I heard was Hannah Diamonds ‘Attachement.’ My initial reaction was something along the lines of ‘well this is certainly different and interesting but I do feel a bit weird listening to it,’ but I wasn’t entirely drawn-in yet. At some point in the following weeks I started to follow the label/collective on Soundcloud and gradually came to explore the range of unique artists under the PC music umbrella such as head-honcho AG Cook, Danny L Harle, GFOTY, associate and sometime-collaborator SOPHIE, Lil Data and the intriguing artist/project QT.

For those who don’t know, PC Music is a collective of artists whose aesthetic is reminiscent of nineties/early-noughties chart-pop, K and J- Pop, Happy Hardcore, UK Garage and Hudson Mohawke-esque Bass Music. Seemingly in contrast to both ultra-trendy ‘alt’ UK Dance music heads and stadium DJs such as Aviici and David Guetta whilst borrowing sonic elements from both scenes, PC Music reflects the culture of hyper-capitalism and consumerism back onto us in an almost Warholian or Koons-esque manner while leaving us wondering whether this is a sincere tribute to the oft-maligned mainstream sphere of culture or an in-joke amongst pranksters with a working knowledge of Art History and critical theory. Essentially the tongue is always only halfway in the cheek and the lines between sincerity and irony are very much blurred (there’s an excellent thinkpiece evaluating the relevance of PC Music through comparison to the ideas of David Foster Wallace over at Noisey) with the shifting paradigm for authenticity within a globalized post-industrial and constantly-connected  world not only being highlighted but being embraced. One only has to listen to tracks such as SOPHIE’S ‘Lemonade’, Danny L Harle’s ‘ In My Dreams’ or the infamous ‘Hey QT‘ to notice that catchy melodies and sugary lyrics and dopamine-inducing production is often juxtaposed with slightly off-key melodies, subtly bleak lyrics expressing fear, melancholy and uncertainty and intentionally jarring manic production.

The last point is the one which I would like to invite Advertising creatives, marketers, brand managers and anyone involved in creating a narrative around their product to consider. Whilst I love irreverence, edginess and risk-taking in advertising and broader marketing activities, I would argue that the new challenge for our culture as a whole is to figure out how to respond to the changing parameters of taste, authenticity and identity in a fully connected world. The great postmodern satirist Martin Amis once characterised writing (in this context we can broaden this to the full scope of creative endeavour) as a ‘The War Against Cliché‘ but it seems that this no longer rings true or relevant Music’s embrace and engagement with cliché is beginning to show us another way in which we can connect brands to the desired audience. In a previous post I mentioned how advertising works best when it capitalises on things that are already entrenched in our collective consciousness, things that we can recall almost instinctively, and this is why I’m interested in the role of clichés in marketing. However it is not cliches alone which create a resonance with the consumer, one also has to consider that the elements of irreverence, edge and boldness are essential for emerging brands. These are key components which brands require in order to be noticed as markets rapidly fill up with competitors who will also be looking to earn a place on the cultural radar of consumers. It is with this in mind that I am proposing that young creative marketers who embody the often contradictory worlds of art and commerce to have a listen to some of the artists associated with PC Music and just have a think about what I’ve written here.

I might have wasted five minutes of your time with pretentious references and meaningless speculation but at least you got to listen to some catchy pop tunes under the guise of learning something new.