How Do I Avoid Becoming Uncle Rico?


Christmas has ruined me, and I’m struggling. Many people suffer similar or related problems in January: it’s that time of year.

It was Blue Monday on the 18th January, the statistically-proven lowest point of a dark, cold month that represents a boom time for the diet and fitness industries. It’s a boom time also for DeAgostino, the publishers of those weekly magazines that provide people with the parts needed to build a scale-model of a ship, or a racing car. You only ever see their adverts on television in the early weeks of a new year; they promise a new hobby for a new start, and the hope of combatting the same old ennui. There are already adverts on television for summer holidays, and the Easter bunnies will shortly go on sale in Tesco.

Unlike some, however, I’m not struggling due to Christmas excess, or an excess of Christmas. I’m struggling due to Christmas indolence. Three weeks of sitting on the sofa, slowing depleting the Roses tin, has turned my brain to jelly. Concentration is elusive. My sentences are very short. The ability to sit down and read or write for any decent length of time has deserted me. I somehow lost an hour this morning listening to the 3-second Windows 98 start-up chime slowed down 4000%, which had turned it into a 4-minute ambient masterpiece.

I remembered that the chime was created by Brian Eno, and I wondered if perhaps he made it this way, and then sped it up 4000 times. And then it was 10am, and I had nothing to show for the day.

Things were much clearer in the past, in those dim and distant days of 2015. I was motoring along, fighting on two fronts. I was making progress with some self-directed learning around data, and I was sticking (mostly) to a regime of daily writing that was producing over 5,000 words each week. Some of those words were even quite useful.

I lost another 30 minutes last week, repeatedly watching a 27-second clip of the film Napoleon Dynamite, in which Uncle Rico expertly lobs a minute steak into the face of Napoleon, a moving target on a bicycle. Uncle Rico spends much of the film wishing he could get back to 1982. I feel much the same way about late 2015.

Just like Uncle Rico, though, I’m possibly looking backwards with rose-tinted glasses. His assertion that things would be different now had the coach only thrown him into the 1982 game doesn’t help his situation in the present day. His claim that, “Back in ’82, I used to be able to throw a pigskin a quarter mile”, is similar in part to my own assessment of my productivity and progress in late 2015. I was working, and putting the hours in, but it’s questionable whether I had successfully honed in on my target in the same way Rico eventually, but pointlessly, did with the steak. How do I avoid becoming Uncle Rico?

Things just don’t add up.

“Things throw themselves together but it’s not because of the sameness of elements, or the presence of a convincing totality. It’s because a composition encompasses not only what has been actualised but also the possibilities of plenitude and the threat of depletion. Matter in an unfinished world is itself indefinite – a not yet that fringes every determinate context or normativity with a margin of something deferred or something that failed to arrive, or has been lost, or is waiting in the wings, nascent, perhaps pressing” (Stewart, 2008)

Is this a convincing argument for the fragility of a robust theory? And surely that question contains something of a paradox. Things just don’t add up.

Along with the Write Club prompt piece, quoted above, and in an effort to kick-start my 2016 writing, I recently read a 1997 article by Will Straw on record shops (Straw, 1997), picked at random from a digital pile of papers in my ‘To Read’ folder. The paper considers the emergence of music Megastores in the early to mid 1990s, stores that capitalised on the CD boom and pop music’s rich and varied catalogue. It ponders the potentially dangerous possibilities of a production, distribution and consumption chain (of events) that is highly rationalised, and increasingly reliant on data. It felt like looking in the mirror, seeing my own project reflect back at me, but somehow distorted by another time, another place, another unique collection of events. It is a paper trapped in a fascinating mid-1990s singularity, one where the CD boom appears to have perpetual momentum; it is a boom in cruise control. It has no idea that a steak is flying through the air on an inescapable collision course with its face.

Straw has no way of knowing this, trapped in time on the page (trapped in time like the stalled version of Uncle Rico, the one who did get thrown into the game, back in ’82). From the vantage point of unfrozen time, I want to tell Straw that he was right, but also that he was wrong, but also that it’s ok, because so was everyone else.

Or were they? The events of the digital revolution were ‘waiting in the wings, nascent‘ and certainly pressing. And pressing with a certainty that neither Straw, nor the people behind the counters of the Enormostores, could possibly have foreseen.

The singularity of January 2016, when a man – me – types words into a laptop – these words – also affords the benefit and luxury of suggesting that perhaps they should have known. But they couldn’t, and they didn’t. We now know that the steak met the face sometime between 1998 and 2000, the watershed period of the ‘Napster moment’, according to Bhattacharjee et al (2007), and a new configuration of possible singularities were set in motion.

Straw’s is a singularity that contains a listener experience fragmented to hitherto unseen levels, where each listener experience is ‘an innumerable collection of singularities’ (De Certeau, 1984) arrived at through things that had happened by 1997, and also things that hadn’t happened. I’m trapped in a similar singularity, in the here and now. I have no way of knowing how the ‘book’ I could (or threaten) to write about this will be read (…or if it will be read…) and can not possibly know how it will stand up in the year 2037. We could be listening through chips installed in our inner ears by then. Or we could be doing something else entirely. All Year 2037 singularities are possible, and the version of 2016 seen from each of them may well beg questions about how on earth we didn’t see it all coming. We can never see it coming.


I never liked Bruce Springsteen, and I never quite got David Bowie, either. Then, one day, without me seeing it coming, the penny dropped for me with Bruce Springsteen. The penny is yet to drop for me with David Bowie (and, yes, I realise I’m almost certainly at fault here). There are innumerable singularities implied by this. If I hadn’t listened to Nebraska on that particular day in 1997 and had listened instead to Aladdin Sane….(I can’t be sure it was 199R-354906-1412775755-40127, by the way, I just know that it was around that time. For the purposes of cosmic neatness, though, let’s conspire in the fiction that it was the very day Straw put pen to paper). Bowie or Springsteen, separated by a fraction of a second of a day almost 20 years ago, when the stars aligned and wind blew in the right direction and my mood was receptive. A freakish event constructed of infinite variables, past and present. How do you theorise something like that? And how do you theorise something like that when it’s a situation extrapolated out to encompass the musical experiences of millions of people, as I am trying to do with my PhD? Don’t get me started…I’m trying to write a thesis.

So let’s get back theory instead, weak or otherwise.

There is an argument implied by much of the rhetoric of what I’ll refer to here as ‘the data lobby’, and it’s been put forward explicitly by Anderson (2008) in the form of ‘The End of Theory’. It suggests that theory has had it’s day. Academics disagree, but their actions imply they perhaps see a flying steak out of the corner of their eye (Savage and Burrows, 2007). The line of reasoning behind these developments, on either side of the Dead Theory fence, has it that the depth and accuracy of knowledge that (Big D) data can produce, or predict, means there is no longer any need for theoretical models for understanding the world. Instead we’ll simply know, or (more worryingly) won’t need to ask. And we’re back once again to Straw: we can’t possibly know if this is true but we can retreat instead, in the meantime, into a theory of data. We can construct, for instance, a method of holding the algorithms to account (Ananny, 2015). Each position here (dead theory, or theory that alive and kicking) is a singularity, lurking inside the potential of a larger one.

“For me” says Stewart “the point of theory now is not to judge the value of analytical objects or to somehow get their representation ‘right’, but to wonder where they might go and what potential modes of knowing, relating and attending to things are already somehow present in them as a potential or resonance” (Stewart, ibid). A data scientist training a predictive model may make a similar statement. No-one knows if either, or both, are correct. We can never know, we can only arrive at the future singularity and look back over our shoulder.

For me, looking at popular music consumption in 2016, is it the ‘singularity’ of the violent explosion of the Napster moment (the digital big bang) that is my analytical object? Or is it the slow re-intermediation brought about by the emergence of the likes of iTunes and Spotify (..and lo, the earth cooled)? Or is my analytical object the innumerable, unique, but still strikingly familiar ‘Vermonts’ (Stewart, ibid) that throw themselves together for an instant when someone puts the needle on the record and listens to a song (and in that instant becomes a David Bowie/Bruce Springsteen fan)?

(If we want to consider a conspiracy theory singularity for a second, it has just occurred to me that Nebraska was released in 1982, the year in which it all went south for poor old Uncle Rico. This is probably just a coincidence, though)

Using the phrase ‘putting the needle on the record’ is itself an example of a moment in time having what Stewart calls a resonance, or a residue. Despite what you read in the papers about the rampant resurgence of vinyl as a musical artefact, or in the fact that DeAgostini have now added vinyl reissues of classic jazz albums to their suite of products, the (Big D) data would suggest that – in the grand scheme of things – very few people do put the needle on the record these days. Somewhere amidst that dichotomy, there is a singularity where the elusive truth of this present moment may potentially reside.

I think that’s what I’d like my singularity to be.

So, I’d better get started on this book. There is no time like the present.


ABOUT THIS POST: As of my PhD studies at BCU, I’m involved with a Pop Music Writing Group. We meet once a fortnight and respond to an academic paper, or a book chapter, or some other provocation, with a few words of our own. The purpose is to get us all writing regularly, flexing the muscles so that the task of coming up with 80,000 words isn’t quite so daunting. This time around we were responding to Kathleen Stewart’s 2008 article, ‘Weak Theory in an Unfinished World’, and specifically we were to relate a line from it to our own projects and working process. The line was: “Don’t get me started – I could write a book”.

We each post our writing to a private Pop Music Writing Club blog, but sometimes I post mine here (normally when I remember – I’m very bad at maintaining this blog). I should do it more often, though, as I quite like the element of risk, the sense of ‘growing up in public’, that is involved with putting works-in-progress such as this out there.

If you would like to know more about my research project, or just tell me how wrong I am about David Bowie (even though I already know I am), then please feel free to drop me a line – – or say hello on Twitter (@craigfots).


Ananny, M., 2015. Toward an Ethics of Algorithms Convening, Observation, Probability, and Timeliness. Sci. Technol. Hum. Values 0162243915606523.
Anderson, C., 2008. The end of theory: The data deluge makes the scientific method obsolete. Wired.
Bhattacharjee, S., Gopal, R.D., Lertwachara, K., Marsden, J.R., Telang, R., 2007. The effect of digital sharing technologies on music markets: A survival analysis of albums on ranking charts. Manag. Sci. 53, 1359–1374.
De Certeau, M., 1984. Walking in the City.
Dynamite, N., (Unpublished). Hunting Wolverines in Alaska
Savage, M., Burrows, R., 2007. The coming crisis of empirical sociology. Sociology 41, 885–899.
Stewart, K., 2008. Weak theory in an unfinished world. J. Folk. Res. 45, 71–82.
Straw, W., 1997. “Organized Disorder”: The Changing Space of the Record Shop. Clubcultures Read. 57–65.


How I Might Be Learning To Love Nothing


I’ve recently become involved with a Pop Music Writing Group as part of my PhD studies at BCU. We meet once a fortnight and respond to an academic paper, or a book chapter, or some other provocation, with a few words of our own. The purpose is to get us all writing regularly, flexing the muscles so that the task of coming up with 80,000 words isn’t quite so daunting. This time around we were responding to Mark Steel’s 2003 article ‘How I Finally Learnt To Love Country Music’. Here is what I came up with…


How I Might Be Learning To Love Nothing

He who binds himself to a joy

Does the winged life destroy;

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sun rise

William Blake.


A Japanese word meaning buying books and never reading them

I should begin by clarifying something: By saying that I might be learning to love nothing, I don’t mean that I’m moving to a point where I don’t love anything. The opposite is true in fact, and increasingly so as time goes by. By nothing, what I mean is the opposite of something, and specifically I am talking about music in tangible formats.

To begin again at the very beginning: I have been crackers about music for as long as I can remember, and that love affair has until recently been largely centred around ‘things’.

I wrote a piece for the Popfessions website a few years ago about a 7-year-old me playing an Eddy Grant 7” single, over and over again, in order to hand-transcribe the lyrics. In my teens I carried vinyl records to and from school, in plastic bags bearing independent record shop logos, for no other reason than to show off how cool I thought I was. In my twenties I sat behind the counters of record shops in Birmingham and London and played the role of the surly, judgemental sales assistant. I’ve spent a lot of time and money since then amassing thousands of records, and just last Sunday was on my hands and knees in a freezing cold junk shop attic, pulling out records by Tangerine Dream, Little Feat, Galaxie 500, and several others. I spent £12 on 15 more records that I don’t have the time to play. I drive my wife mad. Two days ago I bought a gramophone, which now means that I’ll start buying 78s. And so it goes on.

Like most vinyl freaks of my vintage, I have a sniffy disdain for the present ‘vinyl revival’ that, if I’m being completely honest, is based almost entirely on an annoyance that others are now encroaching on my turf. When it comes to records, and to pop music in general, I’m still that 7-year-old, that teenager, and that young man.

Much of what drives this has very little to do with music. It’d probably make an interesting case study for a psychologist. As a friend once said, “I wouldn’t want to get inside your head. I’d need wellies”. But, that aside, I can also confidently and honestly state that I am hopelessly in love with pop music. The common denominator between the love affair and the odd behaviour is ‘things’: LPs; 45s; 12”s; gatefold sleeves; limited edition poster-packs….The physical, the actual. Things.

At some point in the mid-late 1990s, however, whilst my obsessions with music and things were developing, there was the beginning of a change in the world around me. New records became increasingly hard to find on vinyl, or were never pressed on that format in the first place, and soon after came the explosion of internet connectivity and of MP3 culture that turned everything on its head. During this time I was still in love with music, but I never liked CDs, and I liked MP3s even less. This had nothing to do with audio quality, or notions of authenticity, which are common complaints and debates around these newer formats. No, the fact is that I just didn’t like or value them as ‘things’.

Despite years working in record shops during the height of the CD boom, I have less than 200 of them, and they are all in the loft. As for MP3s, I didn’t even bother stealing them when the rest of the world was busy filling their boots. My attitude didn’t change even when I started working for a digital distributor, in 2004, and the idea that MP3s were things worth owning pretty much came with the job. To this day great records with 50p price tags on CD format never tempt me, and my iTunes library remains almost empty. But I’m still in love with music.

…and then, from the mid-2000s onwards, with the advent of streaming, all-you-can-eat music services, and cloud-based libraries of song pumped directly to hand-held devices, ideas of ‘real’ and ‘ownership’ and ‘things’ started to erode, and are perhaps becoming redundant. I really, really like this development. I listen to more music, dig deeper into (digital) crates, disappear down more rabbit holes, and fall in love with more music, more frequently, and in more ways than I have ever done previously. It now transpires that I simply missed a couple of turns in the long-term format game. I sat out the CD round, missed the meeting on MP3s, and have now rejoined, fully refreshed and ready to press play, just at the point when there are no things anymore. In spite of myself, I think that I might come to like that very much indeed. Perhaps I might even come to love it.

For the first time since the scribal age and the invention of musical notation, today a musical work can be conceived, recorded, distributed and consumed without once leaving a physical, tangible trace. The entire process exists in memory, both as it relates to the physical storage of data, and to memory in the human sense. Both versions of memory are extremely fragile: human memory can fail for any number of reasons before death finally sticks the boot in. Meanwhile, the jury is still out on the longevity of computerised data. This raises questions about the future, and of the preservation of culture, and of what music means to us….and it’s probably why I’m so interested in popular music in the digital age.

It’s also why (along with the madness….the compulsive hoarding madness) that I can’t quite let go of ‘things’ just yet.

February 2015

Here’s my month of Pop Music-related stuff for February 2015, starting with a monthly playlist of songs that came my way. After that you’ll find links to interesting things I saw online about Pop, followed by a few words about records I bought and things I did.

Monthly Playlist

Lots of interesting stuff this month. The return of Blur, new stuff from Courtney Barnett and Matthew E White, lots of new discoveries (Nev Cottee, Kenny Rankin, Levon Vincent, Ibeyi). For best results play on shuffle…


Interesting Stuff I Came Across Online

A history of 1990s UK music told through the covers of Select magazine

My pal Jon Bounds listened to every single Beatles song in chronological order, and then wrote about it here. Talking of The Beatles, this article about their 1960s US TV cartoon series contains links to all episodes.

Bobbie Gentry is my favourite pop star ever. This article in The Quietus about her in the forthcoming book from the 33RPM series is great. Also in The Quietus, This interview with Hank Shocklee sheds some light on the processes involved with the making of a number of classic Public Enemy tunes.

Talking of Hip Hop, the Straight Outta Compton trailer did the rounds and looks great provided an overview of the top 10 most sampled Reggae tunes.

On the subject of samples, The Amen Break was everywhere this month. Someone made a wooden representation of the wave form, the BBC made a radio documentary about it, and this campaign was launched to raise cash for surviving Winstons.

The Periodic Table of Synthpop

The Periodic Table of Synthpop

Stuart Maconie had a go at the posh in pop. On a similar tip, this oral history of Shoegazing talks about perceptions of class in the early 1990s Indie scene. And talking of Shoegazing, this video of My Bloody Valentine from 2008 contains the infamous ‘holocaust’ section of You Made Me Realise in all it’s glory

Luca Sticagnoli’s solo acoustic version of AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck was quite something

The days of the Cover Version in Pop might be numbered. New records will now be released on Fridays, apparently. And streams now count towards the album charts. Here is some ‘deep analysis’ on that from Popjustice. Meanwhile, Data will save music, it says here.

Peter from Popjustice wrote this great piece about One Direction fans and pop music fandom.

Which leads nicely on to Duran Duran vs Spandau Ballet in the battle of the New Romantics on BBCs 1980s ‘Pop Quiz’

This film of Neil Young in 1971, dicking around on his ranch, was very nice. This film of Keith Richards dicking around with a synthesiser was less bucolic.

ISIS declared war on Pop Music.

ISIS declared war on Pop Music.

 The British Library is creating a directory of sound collections. And the UK Charts launched a lovely online interface for their archive which will have serious implications for the Corinthian spirit in Pub Quizzes.

Charles Manson called off his wedding just before Valentines Day day when it was revealed that his bride-to-bed had some less than romantic ideas.
Nice old US newspaper ad for copyright ambulance chasing.

Nice old US newspaper ad for copyright ambulance chasing.

Writer Pete Paphides posted a great, 80-minute mix of tunes from the Ace Records catalogue. And talking of Ace, their new compilation of 1960s Italian Girl Pop looks great (a few of these made their way on to my monthly list)
Australia will take part in the next Eurovision Song Contest. They will only compete the following year if they win. This means Australia are going to win the Eurovision Song Contest. (It’s like FIFA were in charge, but with shitter pop songs)
The story of Mingering Mike was equally weird and lovely.
The Mixtape heralded social media sharing, it says here, and this infographic showed how vinyl records are made.
Mark E Smith from The Fall is a massive softy.

Mark E Smith from The Fall is a massive softy.

This project takes the discarded elements of the MP3 encoding process and uses them to make music. (This link started a massive row on social media about the efficacy of MP3 technology, which I don’t think is the point of the project, but well done everyone, just the same.)
The marvellous Clickhole launched a fake music app. Since comedy is just just tragedy + time, expect this in the app store soon.
The original, 10-minute test versions of This is Spinal Tap were uncovered on You Tube. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here.
The 1985 US local TV news report about ‘Cocteau Twins Fever’ is quite something.
How Kraftwerk travelled

How Kraftwerk travelled

Buying Records 

I didn’t have a great deal of time this month, but still managed to pick up one of two things. 13 records in total, and with hopes for more next month. That I’m more excited by the Sarah Brightman 12″ than The Monkees LP perhaps sums up the month in crate-digging.






…and finally

Writing & PhD

I posted two lengthy written pieces to the blog that were created as part of my PhD. I’m now in a Pop Music Writing Group with some other researchers. The idea is we each right 2000 words a fortnight on a given topic. Both of mine are posted to this blog, so have a look if you’re interested. The first (The ZZ Top Paradox) is about Pop Music and Time. The second (Walking Through The City With Headphones On) is about Music and Data.

In other PhD news, I went to a meeting with the Audience Research Team at the BBC in fancy London and also to a 24-hour Data Hackathon. Both were very interesting and have given me the necessary push to get as busy with the data side of things as I have previously been with the literature in the field. I’m still struggling to get my head around the fact that people are prepared to pay me to do this. I’m very fortunate.

More next month…

‘Walking in the city with headphones on’: some thoughts about Music, Big Data & The Harkive Project


I’ve recently become involved with a Pop Music Writing Group as part of my PhD studies at BCU. We meet once a fortnight and respond to an academic paper, or a book chapter, with 2000 words of our own. The purpose is to get us all writing regularly, flexing the muscles so that the task of coming up with 80,000 words isn’t quite so daunting. This is the 2nd piece of work I have produced for the group. It’s a response to a chapter from Michel De Certeau’s 1984 book, ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’, entitled, ‘Walking in the City’, in which I begin to explore some ideas around music and ‘big data’ as they relate my own PhD and The Harkive Project.


Walking in the city with headphones on

Following a recent conversation with friends about general health and fitness, I worked out, using Google Maps, that during the course of my normal, daily life, I regularly walk over 25 miles each week. This total did not include the steps I take around my home or office, or any sporadic forays into the world of sport, but consisted solely of my daily commute to work, which includes a half-mile walk at either end of a bus journey, twice a day, and a daily walk of over 2 miles with my dogs. That I walk the equivalent of a marathon each week during two activities I take entirely for granted was a surprise.

As I trudge through these miles I’m almost always accompanied by music. I listen using my iPhone, with headphones, and normally via my Spotify subscription, which gives me unlimited, mobile access to a large catalogue of songs and to my library of playlists. The only time I’m not listening to music is usually on Saturdays, when the walk I take coincides with a live football broadcast on the radio, which I listen to using the mobile BBC Radio app, also via headphones and using my iPhone.

The interesting thing to consider for the purposes of this essay is that data related to a lot of this activity is either logged, or is capable of being logged, by third parties who can find a use or value for it. My iPhone can report my geographic position and movement, and the songs and/or radio programmes I listen to are logged by the respective media outlets that deliver them. My mobile service provider, 02, as well as Spotify and the BBC, already know a certain amount of personal information about me, including my age, sex, postal address, and bank details, and from there it isn’t too great a leap to understand that it would be possible to cross-reference my listening and geographic activity with other consumer activities I engage in. My data can also be cross-referenced with other information, such as the local weather conditions, or the consumption patterns of others. Further to that, and like many others, I have an online identity that exists in numerous dispersed places, including social networks and in the logs of search engines, which could enable further cross-referential analysis. In short, from just a small element of my normal, everyday life – the activity of walking around the city with headphones on – I am generating a good deal of potentially useful data from which it is possible for organisations to glean valuable information about not just my music consumption, but also about my other habits, opinions and preferences. I am, of course, not alone here; millions of others generate similar data about themselves on a daily basis, and often without any effort to do so on their part.

There are a number of ways one can react to this as an individual: indifference; annoyance; ambivalence; fear; and acceptance, are all possible emotional responses. Whether, at the one extreme end, you view this data capture as symptomatic of a culture of surveillance and control consistent with the practices of 21st century Western capitalism, or, at the other, as a harmless and entirely non-intrusive means of media companies improving the quality of the services they offer, it is nevertheless a state of affairs that almost everyone who engages with media (and other) services in a hyper-connected modern world finds themselves implicated in. Extrapolating out from the tiny example of my walks around the city, and viewing the generation, collection and analysis of data on a global scale, we are collectively facilitating and assisting in the creation of millions of bits of data on a daily basis at a rate hitherto unseen in human history.

Due to the scale and voracity of such activity, issues and questions related to data protection, use, monetisation, ownership, access, surveillance, storage and archives are of growing interest to academics in a number of fields (see Housley et al (2014) for an overview). The realm of data is of particular interest to scholars of Popular Music because of its growing influence on matters related to the production, distribution and consumption of music, and it is here that my own area of research intersects with the wider debates.

In very broad terms, my PhD research project provides a mechanism and motivation for music listeners to share with me details of their music consumption, which I then intend to analyse. Clearly, then, by creating, promoting and operating The Harkive Project, I am engaging in very much the same activity I have described above, and in particular it is similar to the activities media companies and rights holders involved in the music industries are currently focussing a large amount of attention and resources on1. On a positive note, this has the benefit of making my project timely. On another, more problematic level, it raises a question: If my project is to make an original contribution to knowledge, how do I ensure that it is steered towards something new, something different, and is not in danger of simply replicating, or contributing to, the work and conclusions of those involved with industrial data analysis, both in and outside of the music industries? In other words: How is Harkive different?

In order to begin to explore this problem I’m going to attempt to map the work of Michel De Certeau, and in particular his discussion of walking in the city as a practice of everyday life (De Certeau, 1984, pp. 91–110), on to a discussion of some ideas around music and data, using my own experience of listening to music as I walk as a reference point. For the purpose of this we must first substitute De Certeau’s New York City for the landscape of popular music consumption. Imagine, if you will, not a city built of a network of roads, buildings and people, with laws and regulations governing activity, trade and movement, but one comprised instead of an ecosystem of media businesses, music listeners and connections, both on and offline, that has regulatory frameworks of its own, including copyright legislation, pricing models, and so on.

By adapting Jeremy Silver’s (2013) idea of digital city-states, we can understand the larger players in the marketplace (Amazon, iTunes, Facebook, major labels and broadcasters, and so on) as the skyscrapers that dominate the skyline of the city and to which the main routes and thoroughfares carry and direct traffic. The smaller, side-streets lead to the mid-sized buildings (Bandcamp, Soundcloud, independent retailers, media outlets and labels), and the less-trodden paths to the unregulated, or niche areas of the landscape (band sites, messageboards, torrent sites, and so on). With this image in mind, we can then swap De Certeau’s view from the top of the World Trade Centre for the view afforded by the collected and collated data about music consumption (sales, streams, searches, social media metrics, and so on), which ‘makes the complexity of the city readable, and immobilizes its opaque mobility in a transparent text’, and for the people walking in the streets of New York, far below, we can instead see the music listeners navigating their way from song to song, service to service, within ‘the city’.

In this context, the data generated and collected by my music listening whilst walking can be understood as an infinitesimally small element of the texturological picture of music consumption practices that are created by music listeners daily. Along with millions of others, I am the co-writer of a ‘poem‘ I cannot read; I am (we are) ‘the individual in the mass that is read by the all-seeing eye as representational of the individual’. As individuals we could perhaps find this problematic – it depersonalises us; it is an affront to our idea of self. But is there also a problem with applying such a logic to the arena of music consumption, where the idiosyncrasies of taste and other drivers so heavily influence our choices in listening to the music we do? I shall return to this question later in the essay.

We can also understand the design and development of the present landscape of consumption in terms of De Certeau’s idea of the city, which produces it’s own space by repressing that which could compromise it, creates systems to suppress tactics of opportunities, and creates universal and anonymous subjects; ‘a finite number of stable, isolatable, and interconnected properties’. If we consider, for example, the service I use on my daily walks, Spotify, as something which grew out of a response to disruptive digital technologies (piracy, in other words), then De Certeau’s model could easily be deployed here: the ecosystem of music consumption reorganised by the establishment of new ‘loci of exchange’ (Burkart and McCourt, 2006) in response to citizens not sticking to the designated pedestrian zones of the city, for instance.

According to De Certeau’s model, the concept of the city must always attempt to make the fact of the city fit its model. Even if ‘linking the city to the concept never makes them [nevertheless] plays on their progressive symbiosis‘. The data gold-rush and the continued drive for and investment in the creation of music discovery platforms2 is a case in point here. We can track and ‘predict’ consumption with data, therefore listeners must consume according to this data via music discovery platform recommendations, which completes the circle. As Simon Frith observed, long before the advent of the age of Big Data, ‘the culture industry is the central agency in contemporary capitalism for the production and satisfaction of false needs(Frith, 1981, pp. 44–45), and in that sense, data can be seen as merely the latest logical step in the process of standardisation and rationalisation in popular music that was so heavily criticised by Adorno (Adorno and Simpson, 1942).

Yet, in spite of this, and just as the work of sub-cultural theorists (Hebdige, 1979) and sociologists examining music in everyday life (Bull, 2000; DeNora, 2000) who built upon Adorno et al attempted to show, there is hope to be found also in De Certeau’s model: ‘beneath the discourses that ideologise the city, the ruses and combinations of powers that have no readable identity proliferate’.

Just as it is in the city, so it is in music…

…and it is perhaps here where a glimmer of hope appears. The driving premise of Harkive from its very inception was the idea (my assumption) that, ‘No two people listen to music in precisely the same way’. If that is indeed the case, and De Certeau’s model would suggest that it is more than mere possibility, even in spite of growing and efficient rationalisation through data, then it follows that a reliance and focus on data alone is a flawed approach. Indeed, this idea is explored by Lazer et al (2014) in their caution against any creeping ‘Big Data Hubris’ in academic enquiry. I would argue that similar caution should be paid by those operating at an industrial level.

Can data, for instance, ever fully account for what De Certeau refers to as ‘practices of space‘ – the illusive movements of walkers in a city (for which we can read, music listeners)? A possible hypothetical aim, function or argument of Harkive, then, would be to argue that it cannot. This is not to say that data is without merit, of course, and, indeed, to test out such a hypothesis would require a methodology that mapped Harkive’s data against industrial data in order to challenge or disprove the conclusions drawn. It would also be one that simultaneously built on and challenged existing scholarly ideas around music consumption. However, whilst challenging existing ideas within the academy is the function of a good academic, a potential danger in identifying flaws and under-attended areas of industrial practice in the music industries would be that I provide a means for their reification. As I hint at below, however, neither the academic nor industrial process can ever be complete. The only guaranteed outcome in both cases would be more questions.

There is a great deal more to be made of this reading of De Certeau’s work, I feel: the idea that footsteps (listens, plays) are ‘an innumerable collection of singularities‘; that walking (listening) is a speech act; that it has a grammar and a rhetoric of its own, and so on, lend themselves as ideal models for exploring music consumption in the context of data. Unfortunately, space does not permit me to explore them here, and in any case this line of thought would require a considerable amount of further development before anything concrete might emerge. However from this explorative start there are perhaps the beginnings of a position of my own, the kernel of an argument. In closing, I will attempt to sketch out some related areas that might be included in such a development.

As hinted at above, the ideas considered provide numerous routes back to themes explored by popular music scholars over the years, and thus to possible areas of new knowledge in the context of modern developments:

  • If big data can be seen, for example, as representative of the latest logical step in the march of ‘reason’, and if the actuality of listening that reason can never sufficiently explain is ‘material reality’, then the presence of Adorno looms large;
  • Just as Sterne (2012) and Milner (2010) have pointed out in their explorations of the development of recording and audio technologies, the idea that a recording, however advanced, can capture a true representation of reality, is fundamentally flawed – for Sterne (2006), the gaps between the zeros and ones in digital recording, it’s flaws, in other words, are where the interesting questions lie;
  • The affordances of zeros and ones are exactly what the service offered by Shazam uses to do its work. It now accounts for 10% of all digital music sales3 and is heavily influencing music production and distribution through the monetisation of its data. It represents a further rationalisation of process in the music industries, yet a similar service, HitPredictor, armed with granular data and an algorithm which analyses the ‘hit potential’ of a song, entirely failed to predict the success of All About That Bass, one of the biggest hits of 2014. Building on Sterne’s observation above, is it possible that the failures and blind spots of Big Data are more interesting than its successes?;
  • I’m aware that I have completed a 2,500 word essay entitled ‘Walking in the city with headphones on’ based on a theory of everyday life, and only briefly mentioned a number of key studies in the field of popular music and everyday life, notably Micheal Bull’s ‘Sounding Out The City’ (2000) and Tia DeNora’s ‘Music In EveryDay Life’ (2000). Both studies pre-date the current developments in Big Data (although Michael Bull did update his study in 2006 to include a consideration of the rise of the iPod). The opportunity to build on both pieces of work to include digitally delivered music, big data and social media (and the idea – another assumption of mine – that the relationship between the acts of ‘listening to music’ and ‘communicating about music’ is evolving) would be another potentially fruitful route that my project could incorporate.


Adorno, T.W., Simpson, G., 1942. On popular music. Institute of Social Research.

Bull, M., 2000. Sounding out the city: Personal stereos and the management of everyday life. Berg Publishers.

Burkart, P., McCourt, T., 2006. Digital music wars: ownership and control of the celestial jukebox. Rowman & Littlefield, Oxford.

DeNora, T., 2000. Music in everyday life. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Frith, S., 1981. Sound effects; youth, leisure, and the politics of rock’n’roll. Sound Eff. Youth Leis. Polit. Rocknroll.

Hebdige, D., 1979. Subculture: the meaning of style. Methuen, London (etc.).

Housley, W., Procter, R., Edwards, A., Burnap, P., Williams, M., Sloan, L., Rana, O., Morgan, J., Voss, A., Greenhill, A., 2014. Big and broad social data and the sociological imagination: A collaborative response. Big Data Soc. 1, 2053951714545135.

Lazer, D.M., Kennedy, R., King, G., Vespignani, A., 2014. The parable of Google Flu: Traps in big data analysis.

Michel, D.C., 1984. The practice of everyday life. Berkeley U Calif. P.

Milner, G., 2010. Perfecting sound forever: the story of recorded music. Granta, London.

Silver, J. 2013. Digital Medieval, Xtorical Publications Media.

Sterne, J., 2006. The mp3 as cultural artifact. New Media Soc. 8, 825–842.

Sterne, J., 2012. MP3: The meaning of a format. Duke University Press.

1The most high-profile recent example of this is the acquisition of MusicMetric, a firm specialising in music data collection and analysis, by Apple in a deal reported to be worth $50M. Whilst the reasons for the purchase have not been made public by either party, industry experts have speculated that MusicMetric will be incorporated into the relaunch of the Beats Music service, which Apple acquired in 2014.

2For an overview of the manner in which data is having a growing influence on industrial practice in the music industries, see

3The figure was reported by the BBC in January 2015, but it should be noted that Shazam itself was the original source of the figures


The ZZ Top Paradox


I’ve recently become involved with a Pop Music Writing Group as part of my PhD studies at BCU. We meet once a fortnight and respond to an academic paper, or a book chapter, with 2000 words of our own. The purpose is to get us all writing regularly, flexing the muscles so that the task of coming up with 80,000 words isn’t quite so daunting. The group produced its first pieces of work last week, and I thought I’d start posting mine here since they are all going to be about Pop, and some of you might enjoy reading my ramblings. This one is not directly related to my PhD project, although I’m hoping subsequent pieces will be.  


The ZZ Top Paradox: Searching for Secret Narratives in Popular Song


On February 2nd 2015 the Australian singer, Courtney Barnett, made a song from her forthcoming debut album available online across a variety of music services. This news was reported in articles online by several music media outlets, links to which were soon shared extensively on social media, including by a number of people in my own networks. As such, I quickly became aware of the existence of the song as I read my Twitter feed during my morning commute.

I’d previously enjoyed an EP Barnett had released in late 2013 so I was excited to listen to her new material, and I immediately fired up the song, Pedestrian at Best, on Spotify whilst on the bus (using headphones, I hasten to add). I listened to the song several times throughout the course of that morning.

Without going into a lengthy discussion of what the song sounds like, my initial description of it would have been that is was lyrically and musically ‘dense’, and that it was organised around a slightly odd arrangement. In short, and on those early listens, it felt slightly complex for a pop song, and particularly one that was intended to showcase a debut album. That was just my initial opinion, of course, and I nevertheless remained a fan. It’s a great song.

Later that day I shared a link to the song on my own social network accounts, this time using the YouTube video link, rather than the Spotify one I had been using all day. Upon posting the link and seeing the video appear in my feed I realised, for the first time, that the song was 3 minutes and 51 seconds long, and this struck me as slightly odd.

How could a song that I had initially perceived as being ‘dense’, as having an ‘odd’ and ‘slightly complex’ arrangement, also be so short? The song seemed to be much longer than it was, and I was struck be a familiar feeling. It’s one that I would describe, without too much seriousness, as The ZZ Top Paradox.

The ZZ Top Paradox

The American band ZZ Top are a blues rock trio from Texas and have been active since the early 1970s. They are known for a number of things, but it is primarily their visual image that sticks most prominently in the public imagination, with two of the band sporting very long, luxurious beards. This visual cue is given a further ironic twist by the commonly-known fact that the name of their clean-shaven drummer is Mike Beard. Another common characteristic of ZZ Top is their use of long guitar solos in songs, and what I describe as the ZZ Top paradox relates to the fact that they appear to be able to pull off a seemingly impossible temporal illusion; they seem to be able to fit a 4-minute guitar solo into the 3-minute popular song format.

Just like the experience of listening to the Courtney Barnett song described above, where the actual length of the song seemed at odds with the experience of listening to it, the length and prominence of the guitar solos deployed by ZZ Top can appear to stretch the perception of time against all logic.

Common senses dictates, of course, that in reality this clearly isn’t the case. But just to be absolutely sure, I decided to perform some basic analysis on the structures of Barnett’s song and of ZZ Top’s 1983 hit single, Gimme All Your Lovin’. I wanted to see how the facts stacked up against my perception of Barnett’s song being, as I described above, ‘slightly complex’, ‘dense’ and as having an ‘odd arrangement’, and – according to the ZZ Top paradox – if it is in fact possible to magically sneak long guitar solos past the laws of time.

Beginning with ZZ Top, Gimme All Your Lovin’ is exactly 4 minutes in length1, or 240 seconds. It contains 120 bars in a standard 4/4 time signature. Structurally it is organised as follows:

4 bars of solo drums; 8 bars of guitar-solo intro; 8 bars of Verse 1; 8 bars of Chorus; 8 bars of Verse 2; 8 bars of Chorus; 2 bar drum break; 24 bars of guitar solo; 8 bars of Verse 3; 8 bars of chorus; 4 bar drum/guitar break; 24 bars of guitar solo followed by a further 6 bars of fade out during the which solo continues.

Combining these elements, the song is made up of 24 bars of verses, another 24 bars of choruses, 10 bars of drums breaks and other dynamic/linking elements, and 62 bars of guitar solo.

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 09.54.57

Fig 1: Structural analysis of Gimme All Your Lovin’

From this basic analysis we can see that just under 52% of the entire song is devoted to guitar solos. Not only that, but the verses and choruses, arranged in a pattern that is similar to many popular songs, are also liberally peppered with guitar riffs and power chords. That solos feature so prominently goes some way to explain the illogical feeling that the solos are actually much longer than the song itself. It could be argued that for ZZ Top, verses and choruses are merely a functional and structural necessity that facilitate their lengthy solos.

Turning now to Barnett’s Pedestrian at Best, it is 3 minutes and 52 seconds long and contains 128 bars, also in 4/4 time. Structurally, this song is organised as follows:

4 bars of intro, 16 bars of Verse 1, 16 bars of Chorus, 4 bars of repeated intro, 16 bars of Verse 2, 16 bars of Chorus, 4 bars of repeated intro, 16 bars of Verse 3, 32 bars of a double chorus, 4 bars of repeated intro.

Combining these together, the song is comprised of 16 bars of intro/linking or dynamic elements, 48 bars of verses, and 64 bars of chorus.

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 09.51.17

Fig. 2: Structural analysis of Pedestrian At Best



As the above shows, the song itself is in fact incredibly simple, with the three elements of intro, verse and chorus simply repeated in an identical pattern 3 times, followed by a further chorus and final use of the intro. There is nothing ‘slightly complex’ about this structure, and it can’t be described as an ‘odd arrangement’. These are illusory, just like the length of ZZ Top’s solos.

In Barnett’s case, it is the vocal delivery and lyrical content that deliver this illusion, with Barnett singing her idiosyncratic, stream-of-consciousness words, delivered in a laconic style, over 112 of the songs 128 bars; she is singing for 87.5% of the song. This would perhaps explain both my initial use of the word ‘dense’ and also the perception that a lot more appears to be going on in this song than is actually the case.

What these two examples show, as would be reasonably suspected, is that there appears to be no factual basis for the ZZ Top Paradox.

Clearly, however, the huge majority of popular music listening practice, including my own, does not include a process of structural and temporal analysis described above, perfunctory though that may be in this case. Instead we experience popular music in much more relaxed, mundane or even distracted circumstances – we often listen as we do other things – and what is interesting about that is that by listening in these ways we are (perhaps willingly) fooled into hearing things, or extracting meanings and narratives, that can be revealed to be either entirely absent, flawed or false, when the song concerned is subjected to a more detailed analysis. As much as I might like to believe that they can, ZZ Top cannot bend time to their will.

So why does it seem that they can? In order to being exploring this question I’m going to attempt to expand on the work of Keith Negus’ ‘Narrative Time and the Popular Song’.

Fantastical Narratives

Drawing extensively on the work of Paul Ricoeur, Negus argues that we make sense of the chaos of time through fictional and factual narratives, and that phenomenological time – the lived experience – cannot be separated from either infinite cosmic time or the more grounded ‘connectors’ (such as clocks, calendars) of historical time. As such we exist in a paradox of the triple present, simultaneously aware of the here and now, but also of both the past and of the future. Using the example of Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks, which contains circular and repetitive narrative and musical devices, where the factual narrative of Ray Davies exists alongside the fictional narrative of ‘Terry and Julie’, Negus demonstrates how “the paradox of the triple present is harmonised in the recurrent qualities of this repeating moment of redemptive paradise – a merging of the lived with the cosmic; an acceptance yet transcendence of the repetitiveness of calendar days”.

I would like to suggest that there potentially exists an additional layer or dimension to this line of thought, that as well as the cosmic, lived and historical notions of time, there is also fourth. This fourth level of perception occurs when time in popular songs not only stops, as Simon Frith observes, but also appears to be stretched – as it does in The ZZ Top Paradox – or else is physically stretched – as I will show below – and that through these alterations we are able to see and experience new layers of meaning that enable us to harmonise and humanise time in additional ways. To put it another way, as well as there being cyclical narratives in popular song, as Negus suggests, there are also fantastical narratives.

The two examples I will draw on next are actual instances of historical time being altered, rather than (incorrectly) perceived instances, as show before. These instances reveal that within both the confined historical space of a popular song – in other words, the 3-4 minute timeframe that a song normally occurs within – and within the confined narrative structure, as defined by the chord progression, time signatures, and so forth, and whether these are circular or otherwise, there are hidden, secret, unexplored narratives that we can tease out. The examples below merely indicate these secret narratives more clearly, but I would argue that they exist within all of popular music.

The Osmonds – Crazy Horses at 33rpm

Crazy Horses was a 1973 hit single by the American group, The Osmonds. Due to it’s glam rock/psychedelic style it was viewed as something of a radical departure for the group, which was made up of several members of the same deeply religious family, and who had previously been known for a more gentler brand of pop. Crazy Horses, with its heavy guitar riffs, prominent horn section and screaming vocals, is a genuinely fantastic record in its own right, but it took on an additional layer of meaning when a different version appeared on YouTube in January 2012.

This version, accompanied by atavistic images apparently culled from B-Movies, was the original, 45rpm version of the song played instead at 33rpm. In other words, it was a slower version. The result is rather astonishing, turning the song into something altogether different.

Justin Bieber – U Smile

Justin Bieber is a Canadian singer who first emerged in 2009 as a teenager and who quickly became a popular singer with young, particularly female, music fans. His 2010 hit single, ‘U Smile’, a piano-led, mid-tempo pop song, was given an unofficial ‘remix’ by production outfit Shamantis which took the logic of the 33rpm Crazy Horses to an almost ludicrous degree. In the new version, Bieber’s single was heard 800 times slower than the original. As with Crazy Horses, the result was something quite extraordinary

You can hear the original Bieber single here:

You can hear an extract from the 800x slower version here:

These slowed songs are admittedly extreme cases, but taken together with the examples of ZZ Top and Courtney Barnett discussed above, they begin to hint at the ways in which popular songs contain, and can occasionally reveal, otherwise hidden elements and narratives. Crazy Horses moves from the wholesome, bubblegum pop of the 1970s Top 40 and into the realm of 1990s Stoner Rock, where it becomes a sinister, drug-induced sludge. Meanwhile, Justin Bieber’s saccharine R&B soars into the ethereal, becoming symphonic and ambient in nature.

As such these songs shift not only in historical time, from 45rpm to 33rpm, or from 3 minutes of song to several hours of harmonic waves, they also shift in cosmic time, transplanted to a different plane of popular music history. The Osmonds are taken from the timeline of wholesome, family-orientated popular music, contemporaries of The Partridge Family and The Carpenters that exist on a timeline bookended by the likes of The Carter Family and The Beverley Sisters at one end, and modern, inoffensive pop acts such as Take That and Michael Buble at the other, to an alternate timeline along which Black Sabbath emerged from the dust and soot of late 1960s Birmingham to spawn a genre of music that occasionally sees Norwegian churches burned to the ground. Meanwhile, the lamentable Justin Beiber as he exists on an alternate cosmic plane, would find a home with more avant-garde record labels and audiences. What is interesting to consider here is that these alternative narratives are somehow contained within the DNA of their original songs, waiting to be accessed.

As listeners, and even at our most distracted, it could be suggested that we don’t merely pass the time with pop music, using it to make the mundane requirements of historical time more bearable, or to create narratives, as Negus suggests, that humanise and harmonise time, but that also we somehow understand that pop contains the secret potential to enhance our experience of lived time by tricking us into feeling that we are cheating it. We cheat it by extracting extra seconds and moments, additional experiences and perceptions, which together occur simultaneously across the multiple cosmic times of musical genres, personal narratives, and histories, and we use these stolen moments in order to soften the blow that time will forever elude us, and that our allocation of it is depressingly finite. Maybe it is this inarticulate part of us, the one that is forever looking for the eternal in the 3 minute hit, that truly understands the magic of pop.

January 2015

This is the first post under the ‘new regime’ for this site, all of which is explained here, if you’re interested.

The very short version is that I’ll be writing a monthly blog post to pull together all of the music-related things I come across. It will include the interesting things I’ve read and seen, the things that I’ve been listening to, the records I’ve bought, and the music-related things I’ve done. This is the first one, for January 2015.

I’ll start with a round-up of links and a monthly Spotify playlist. That way you don’t have to trawl through the whole, detailed post to find something that might interest you.

The whole post will be peppered with images I’ve seen online, like the disco quote below. These images are what you might call ‘digital music ephemera’, if you were trying a bit too hard, and they are part of the things and experiences I hoover up over the course of each month. They will normally be things that I’ve seen online, usually on places like Twitter and Facebook, and I’ll do my best to provide original sources. That won’t always be possible, so on the remote off-chance that you stumble across this site, see an image that belongs to you and would like me to remove it, just let me know.

 Found by @LondonLee on Twitter, a snippet from a 1978 New York Times article

Found by @LondonLee on Twitter, a snippet from a 1978 New York Times article

That’s enough blether. Let’s get on with it….

I use Spotify for most of my mobile listening, or for listening at work, and over the last few years I’ve been in the habit of creating monthly playlists. When I read a review, or hear a song on the radio, or see a recommendation from someone online, or want to listen to a new release from an artist I like, I add tracks to the monthly list. I then spend most of the month listening to it as it grows, weeding out the ones I don’t care for, or delving deeper with the ones I like.

Here’s the list for January 2015. There are 48 tunes here, and it’s in no particular order, so for best results you should play on shuffle. The reason for the inclusion of 4 or 5 ‘Bro-Country’ songs will become apparent in a while. You can skip over those if you like. They are pretty turgid, in fairness.

Bro-Country aside, there’s some great stuff in the mix. New releases by two of my favourite artists, Matthew E White and The Phantom Band, new soundtrack stuff from Olafur Arnalds and John Carpenter, and – perhaps most unexpectedly of all – following a recommendation from Geoff Dolman of Static Caravan Recordings, I became quite smitten with Larry Norman, who was the ‘Bad Boy of Christian Rock’, apparently.


Odds and Sods from January 2015

Here are some interesting things I came across this month…

 1970s advert for in-car stereo system, starring Ol' Big 'Ead and Ol' Blue Eyes, found by @LondonLee on Twitter

1970s advert for in-car stereo system, starring Ol’ Big ‘Ead and Ol’ Blue Eyes, found by @LondonLee on Twitter

  • Mark Ronson’s hit single, Uptown Funk, is remarkably similar to the theme tune from a 1990s kids TV show, The Really Wild Show
  • This remix of Big Love by Fleetwood Mac is pretty special. It was briefly available on a limited 12″, but those are long gone, unfortunately.


Red Bull's #Givesyouwings hashtag didn't garner entirely positive contributions

Red Bull’s #Givesyouwings hashtag didn’t garner entirely positive contributions

  • Amongst the hundreds of videos of people lip-syncing to ‘Love is an Open Door’ from the movie Frozen, this one made me laugh. For some reason.
  • Some of these 10 oddball funk rarities from the last 20 years found their way on to my monthly playlist.
  • Tom Petty and Sam Smith reached an amicable settlement about the similarity of Smith’s ‘Stay With Me’ to Petty (and Jeff Lynne’s) ‘I Won’t Back Down’. The two songs were meshed together to illustrate their similarity. The result was pretty great. As SentricMusic pointed out, ‘Stick a DONK on that and it’s poppers o’clock”. Indeed.



  • This 10-CD box set from Philadelphia International Records appeared on sale for £20, which was basically a steal. I ordered one, but it hasn’t shown up yet. Maybe it was too good to be true.
  • In other news that will break a few bank balances, Moog relaunched some of their classic synths
  • The BBC’s ‘Sound of Song’ series of documentaries are well worth a look if you’re interested in the processes of songwriting and recording.
  • Talking of songwriting, this demonstration that 6 modern ‘Bro-Country’ songs follow the exact same formula is very interesting. The songwriter who made this plans to write a song of his own that follows this formula, and then take it to publishers. Incidentally, this is where those turgid Bro-Country songs on the monthly list came from. Morbid curiosity.


  • I found out that former Aston Villa defender, Paul McGrath – one of the best players I ever saw in claret and blue – recorded an album of covers back in 2011. If that wasn’t odd enough, it sounds a lot like Julian Cope. He also recorded a version of Handle With Care, which featured the aforementioned Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne on its original version. I’m sure that’s just a coincidence, though.
  • NASA posted a collection of Space Sounds to their Soundcloud account. According to Open Culture, these recordings were free to download and use.


  • Bournemouth University launched a portal that provides useful, basic information about copyright. If you’ve ever been baffled by the subject, this could be a useful site.
  • It has a big whiff of the staged about it, but the American policeman lip-syncing to Shake it Off was a lot of fun


  • …and also on the Taylor Swift tip.

A moment of Pop serendipity on a US road. Posted by @? on Twitter.

Buying Records….and some other things about vinyl

I bought quite a few records (and books) this month. More than normal, anyway. The reason for this was that we had a New Year clear out at home, so I also found myself visiting a fair few charity and junk shops. Whilst there, I pulled out a few nice things.

A 1910 advert for new-fangled double-sided discs, found by Eamonn Forde

A 1910 advert for new-fangled double-sided discs, retweeted by @Eamonn_Forde on Twitter

All in I picked up 33 records. I like taking pictures of the record sleeves I pick up and usually post photos of new purchases, or records I’m listening to, over on the FGTeBay Instagram account. Photos of all of the records purchased this month are in this album on Flickr, but here are a few of my favourites




The interesting thing about some of these purchases, and the Johnny Mathis and Brian Protheroe records in particular, is that songs from many of these records have featured in monthly Spotify playlists previously….and in doing so the albums they come from have automatically been added to the long, long mental list I keep of things that I’d like to pick up one day. So, it was nice to tick a couple off for £1 each.



Also on the subject of vinyl, there were a few interesting nuggets online about that this month. An article in LA Weekly did a good job of providing a counter-narrative to the sometimes very annoying rhetoric about audio quality you get from the vinyl crowd, making a case for the superior sonic quality of CDs.

Meanwhile, this article in The Guardian eventually fell into exactly that kind of annoying ‘It just sounds better’ nonsense, but before it did, it gave a really interesting overview of the state of the vinyl manufacturing landscape. By way of extra detail, this article on Modern Vinyl told of the difficulties involved with the supply chain now that vinyl is experiencing a ‘comeback’. The graphic below offered additional perspective on the scale of that comeback, as did the news that streaming revenue continues to grow. All very interesting stuff, if you like that sort of thing, which I do.



Talking of obsolete formats….

I played with a USB / Tape Doohickey

A colleague at BCU recently purchased a job lot of USB / Tape converters as he’ll be using them to teach his students about digital archiving. He asked a few people in the office to play with them to see how they worked.

I have a huge pile of old tapes at home that I’ve been meaning to digitise for a long time, so I was interested in giving it a go. I though it might be useful to provide a quick overview of my experience with it. So, here goes….

I used it on a Mac, so didn’t bother with the software that it comes bundled with, but the disc and handbook it comes with says it’ll work with Windows. It works with Audacity on a Mac (but can presumably work with other software). You plug it in to a USB port (which also powers the device) and tell Audacity that you want to use it to record. You hit record on the software, and press play on the tape machine, and away you go.

There is a volume control on the unit itself, so you’ll need a few false starts as you mess about getting a decent level, but that’s about it in terms of set up. One thing: Don’t leave your mobile next to the tape player cos if you get a call/txt/whatever, you’ll get interference on the recording. I learned this the hard way.

As you probably know, it’s easy to top and tail the finished file in Audacity, and to then export it in the file format of your choice. Sound-wise it’s ok – as good as the tape itself. Not too much hiss. No idea how durable the machine is as I’ve only done two tapes so far, but I plan to use it a lot more over the coming weeks (if I ever get around to lugging the box of tapes from the loft)

All in all, for £11 and the fact that once you’ve spent a minute or so either side setting/tidying up, you can just leave it running in the background as you work, it’s pretty good.

It’s given me a few ideas of things I’d like to do with the tapes I have, but none of those are going to happen whilst the tapes remain in the loft. Maybe I’ll have more on that next month.

Making Music

A few records I’ve been involved with are starting to near completion, which is great news. 9 songs from the 3rd Friends of the Stars record are now mixed and sounding really sweet, and the James Summerfield record I played and sang on at Highbury Studios last summer is finally ready for release. That’s coming out in April and I’m really excited by it. It’s an album of songs about Birmingham that James put together with a local poet, Darran Cannan. Here’s a promo video for the record.



I also helped out on the logistical side for a few releases on Static Caravan Recordings. The single ‘Up’ by Victories at Sea came out in January, and we worked on singles by Free School and Stick in the Wheel, which are due next month and are picking up some nice reviews and airplay.


 …and finally, the PhD

All of the above I do for fun. The day job is my PhD, which is based around The Harkive Project and is looking at music consumption practices in the digital age. You can read more about the detail of that over on the project website.

I had two reasonably large deadlines this month, with 6,000 words handed in to the University on 9th January and a further 7,000 to the funding body by the end of the month. Alongside that, I read a LOT, and spent a good deal of time trying to get to grips with Theodore Adorno – which is another reason why the ‘Bro-Country’ songs made such an impression on me.

And that’s yer lot. If you’re still with me after all of that, thanks for reading. If any of it was useful, or if you have any questions, please do say hello on Twitter.



What I’m using this site for now….

I’m a hopelessly addicted collector of records and other music-related nonsense. I’m using this blog to document the records I pick up, where, for how much, and so on. I try to post once a month with a round up of what’s gone on, and this will also include things I’ve found online. Hopefully you’ll find it interesting.

I originally started this blog, and called it Frankie Goes To eBay, back in August 2012, because of a hare-brained scheme involving records and books that I found in charity shops. It went something like this…

I bought a Frankie Goes To Hollywood tour program for 50p in a charity shop. Shortly afterwards, I sold it on eBay for £10. I then decided that I would reinvest the £9.50 I had made to buy more records, which I would then attempt to sell. With the profits from these sales I would buy yet more records, which I would then sell…..and so on.

I kept the process going for a while, and along the way people started to give me records, which was unexpected. In the end, I had over 300 records (of varying quality), sold a few on eBay and at a record fair, and came out of the process about £70 up. Not bad.

But, eventually, I ran out of steam with the idea, life got in the way, and I went back to the normal practice of just buying records for myself. I’m still doing that, so I figured this blog might be a nice way of telling that story. Meanwhile, the old story – a longer version of that described above, spread out over several posts – can be found in the previous posts on this site.

This site has an accompanying Tumblr blog, where I will be posting images of the records and books I pick up, as and when I pick them up. I think record sleeves are beautiful things, by and large, and Tumblr works well as a platform for displaying them. These photos will also appear on Instagram and Twitter.

If you want to contact me, or talk about records, the best way is to email me, or follow me on my ‘actual’ Twitter account. 

Thanks for reading,